In Wine Country, fall brings to mind the annual crush – when grapes are harvested at the vineyards – and entertaining outdoors among the scenic rolling hills and turning leaves.
But you don’t need to live in the region to throw a Napa-style soiree. We rounded up a few experts to find out how they define Wine Country entertaining. The consensus? It’s all about capturing the easy elegance of the valley – from the table settings and flowers to the food and, of course, wine.
Martha Angus www.marthaangus.com
Martha Angus enjoys the best of both worlds: The interior designer maintains an office and home in San Francisco, as well as a place in the Napa Valley. When hosting friends and family at the latter, her approach to a “sophisticated nature” table is simple and affordable.
For centerpieces, she cuts huge branches from her garden, rinses them off and artfully arranges them. “I always prefer opaque containers as opposed to clear glass,” she says.
Angus is also partial to compact floral arrangements, often presenting them in short, bright tumblers. By opting for low blooms or a grouping of branches, guests have unobscured views of each other – not to mention the organic vineyards that surround her property.
Wine factors into her entertaining agenda in a creative way. “I like doing blind bubbly flights and guests guess if it’s Californian, French or Italian,” says Angus, adding that for the menu “it’s all about being casual, not too many courses. I start with lots of hors d’oeuvres: Cowgirl Creamery cheeses, a variety of olives and fig crackers.”
She serves the spread on all-white china, forming a buffet on her blue lava stone kitchen island. Guests help themselves, which adds to the laid-back vibe. “It is also less of a hassle when you have a big group of friends coming over,” she notes, “and you don’t need to slave over serving things too formally.”
Alexis Swanson Traina www.swansonvineyards.com
The creative director of Swanson Vineyards & Winery in Rutherford, Alexis Swanson Traina has developed a reputation as a hostess extraordinaire. For Traina, August through October is the best time to entertain in Wine Country. “During the warmer months, we can be outside – in an orchard, courtyard, by a pool, in the vineyards, in a bar, under trees, under stars,” she says.
The parties she throws in the valley tend to have a more organic sensibility than those she hosts in San Francisco, where she and her family reside. “Napa is the type of place where branches, flowers, vines, ferns and berries are in abundance outside your back door,” she explains.
All of these elements are easy to come by, even for those without a garden. Such flora and foliage are commonplace at farmers’ markets and flower marts – usually for not much money. For displaying the botanicals, Traina layers in an industrial touch: She uses test tubes and beakers rather than more traditional vases. Look for the science lab staples at flea markets and vintage shops.
And, of course, Traina has a go-to wine for her parties: Whether it’s a quiet Tuesday-night gathering or a Saturday evening spent with friends, the Swanson Merlot fits the bill.
Lucille Buell www.lucillebuell.com 
“Entertaining in Napa is almost effortless because the environment is so beautiful that little decorating is necessary,” says interior designer Lucille Buell.
The St. Helena native, who recently returned to Wine Country after nine years in San Francisco, favors a subdued look – for example, reclaimed wood tables, wooden service pieces, linen tablecloths, and casual glassware and vases. For those with limited budgets and DIY skills, she suggests creating a circle of flower petals around pillar and votive candles.
Buell believes that the emphasis should be on the seasonal food, rather than the decor. “We eat outside, we decorate simply, and we put the rest of our energy and passion into the food and wine,” she says. “Make something fresh from the garden like squash blossoms or tomatoes with burrata to start, and finish off the meal with a beautiful array of cheeses, dates, almonds and clementines.”
Setting a long dinner table adds to the casual, all-inclusive vibe so popular in the area, says Buell, as does serving meals family style. “If you can create an environment that reflects a passion for food, wine and a love of community, you are in the Wine Country” – at least in spirit.
Her final words of wisdom when it comes to Napa-esque entertaining: Never serve food on dishes with a grape motif.
Baylor Chapman www.lilabdesign.com
San Francisco florist Baylor Chapman is no stranger to Napa and Sonoma affairs; her firm, Lila B. Design, handles at least a dozen events in the region every year. She describes the aesthetic there as “rustic elegance” and advocates simplicity.
For instance, line a table with just a row of bud vases. “They go a long way,” she says, citing Heath Ceramics’ design as a favorite. A lower-cost alternative: Recycle beverage bottles of the same or complementary styles. (Soak the bottles so that the labels come off.) For a recent client, Chapman and her staff repurposed Bundaberg ginger beer bottles as vases.
Her local sources for inexpensive containers include Coast (at the San Francisco Flower Mart), the Alemany flea market and Scrap. “I don’t think they have to match,” she says, “as long as there’s continuity in the flowers.” Sticking to a single palette makes it a cinch to mix a variety of blossoms.
For autumn, she relies on rich, jewel tones such as rubies and plums that are apropos of the season and locale. Dahlias and garden roses are among her floral recommendations during this time of year.
According to Chapman, Napa is synonymous with “vacations, spas, riding bicycles and sitting by the pool.” Hence, a scheme inspired by the Wine Country should embody that relaxed yet upscale vibe.
- ^ Martha Angus (www.sfgate.com)
- ^ www.marthaangus.com (www.marthaangus.com)
- ^ Alexis Swanson Traina (www.sfgate.com)
- ^ www.swansonvineyards.com (www.swansonvineyards.com)
- ^ Swanson Vineyards & Winery (www.sfgate.com)
- ^ Swanson Merlot (www.sfgate.com)
- ^ Lucille Buell (www.sfgate.com)
- ^ www.lucillebuell.com (www.lucillebuell.com)
- ^ Baylor Chapman (www.sfgate.com)
- ^ www.lilabdesign.com (www.lilabdesign.com)
- ^ Lila B. Design (www.sfgate.com)
- ^ San Francisco Flower Mart (www.sfgate.com)
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