The importance of restaurants to the Napa Valley cannot be overstated. Without a vibrant, dynamic and high-quality food scene, wine country could risk becoming little more than a vast outdoor wine bar — beautiful, no doubt, but devoid of the depth and humanity that quality food and wine enjoyed together bring.

And although much of the valley’s recent history is focused on seminal wine moments (the Judgment of Paris, high-scoring “cult wines” and the advent of nouveau-riche American vintners), in truth, much of Napa’s wines popularity has often been fueled by its association with fine-dining establishments that began arriving in the 1960s and early ‘70s.

The ascension of the food scene

At that time, fueled by a growing obsession with nearly all things French, the Napa Valley began pushing past larger cities such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Whereas larger cities had become enamored with “classical cuisine” that often included theatrical flourishing pyrotechnic displays of steak Diane flambé, brandy-flamed crepes Suzettes and smoldering soufflés of au Grand Marnier, the then hidden-away Napa Valley was beginning to showcase its own take on haute cuisine.

Not wanting to deviate too far from the larger cities’ lead, the initial Napa Valley culinary outposts leaned heavily on the old guard. With the opening of restaurants such as Étoile (1977) in Yountville and the nearby French Laundry (opened in 1978 and originally owned by Don and Sally Schmitt), white tablecloths, stiff waiters and large menus heavily influenced by Julia Child were all the rage.

Soon after, a group of more adventurous culinarians descended on the region. This cohort was influence by M.F.K. Fisher, who had lived in the valley from 1953 to 1970 and who had romanticized the foods of the French countryside with her evocative writing since the 1930s.

Encouraged by the expanding influence of Alice Waters from the nearby Chez Panisse (opened in 1971 in Berkeley) and by influential cookbooks such as “The Silver Palate Cookbook” by Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso in 1982, the Napa Valley was evolving into a formidable culinary destination.

By the early 1980s, there were plenty of culinary hot spots throughout the valley, most with a distinctly French bent. Restaurants such as La Belle Helene, Miramonte, LeFavour Cafe Oriental (one of the first French-Thai fusion restaurants in America), Trilogy and Auberge du Soleil were gaining national prominence. Then there was Tra Vigne, Mustards Grill, Terra and dozens of others, all of which embraced local wines paired with artisan-farmed produce served to an ever-increasing flow of discerning customers who came to expect “wine country hospitality” — a delicate mix of the highest-quality accoutrements coupled with a strict adherence to a chic-casual ethos that leaned heavily on European cultures.

Restaurants as a safety net

Eventually the Napa Valley was awash with new restaurants, a few even broadening their cultural cuisine options, each providing new venues to showcase new and different wines from small producers. Beyond this, these restaurants became the de facto safety net for those with only high school diplomas, undocumented workers and others who had limited access to professional paths.

These restaurants provided meaningful employment to those who worked hard, regardless of their backgrounds. Those who overcame the long hours and intense working environment were rewarded by becoming one of the growing class of highly trained hospitality workers — perhaps reaching the heady heights of becoming a chef or head waiter.

To round out the staffs, seasonal workers between gigs working at the growing number of wineries filled the ranks. How many future winemakers spent hours working as a prep cook or waiter to make ends meet? And how many future chefs spent time in wineries, where they undoubtedly gained a deeper appreciation for wine and expanded their palates?

But regardless of their final career destinations, working in these restaurants was a kind of rite of passage. Yes, it was hard and thankless, but in the end these people could eventually learn skills that garnered them access, more respect and possibly the means to purchase a home or apartment. But that has changed.

Wine and food

The synergy between food and wine is nothing new. And although the Napa Valley had a brief moment in the global spotlight for producing excellent wines in the late 1800s, the food and wine culture is relatively new to our valley, hitting its pinnacle probably sometime in the 1990s.

Since then, the entire planet has figured out that each geographic location has its own wonderful and different culinary identity and has little need or desire to defer to some grand-distant authority. Instead of the near culinary dictatorships of the past, today there’s a growing culinary relativism that has taken hold — everyone knows the same cooking techniques, nearly every spice-herb product from around the planet is within reach and the exploration of eclectic flavors, styles and textures is no longer taboo.

The Napa Valley is no longer just one of a handful of destinations for food or even wine. Now, every state has a winery, including Alaska, and within nearly every town in America you can find a decent hand-cooked meal ordered from a creative menu that probably includes a vegan option.

It is within this sea change that the Napa Valley has found itself for the last decade or so. The result has been a growing lack of identity for many local restaurants. The old guard is hanging on — but to what? — and the new guard is often grasping at diverse cultures to find some sort of foothold.

At the same time, the economic and cultural reality of working in the restaurant business has changed, too, worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus pandemic has brought a simmer to a boil.

The unemployment rate in Napa County in April 2020 was 15.9%, according to the Labor Market Information Division of the California Employment Development Department. Although Napa County doesn’t have the highest rate of unemployment in the state (that dubious distinction went to Imperial County, with a mind-boggling rate of 28%), however compared to other nearby Bay Area counties Napa County ranks as having one of the highest unemployment rates in the region.

The reason that the unemployment rate in Napa County is higher than most other counties is because of a workforce that skewed toward hospitality and leisure. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), of the nearly 40 million new unemployment claims over the past few months, a whopping 46.8% of them come from those in the hospitality and leisure industry, which includes restaurant workers such as cooks and waitstaff.

This category also includes hotel and tasting-room staff — two other categories that are big populations within the valley. Within Napa County itself, April 2020 found a 68.9% increase in jobless claims for those working within “food services” or at “drinking places” when compared to the same time last year, according to the most recent State of California Employment Development Department report.

Copper-clad ceiling

Becoming a chef or head waiter has changed. With years of cooking shows and the explosion of culinary degrees from top-tier universities, no longer is the restaurant workforce one based almost exclusively on the apprenticeship model, where a young person might work his or her way through the ranks.

Now the highest tiers are often relegated to those with the ability to attend prestigious programs and obtain lofty certificates and degrees. The result is that there is now a copper-clad ceiling that keeps most restaurant workers in the perpetual underclass.

According to The New York Times, today about a quarter of all U.S. restaurant workers are foreign born, and according to Eater, roughly 10% more are undocumented. Combined, this would suggest about 35% of those working in eateries are immigrants — largely from Mexico and South America. However, anyone who has ever been in a Napa Valley kitchen knows those numbers are likely higher. On average these workers make about $12.50 an hour, according to the BLS, and many of them work two or three jobs to make ends meet.

A fight for survival

Before the pandemic the Napa Valley was home to nearly 200 restaurants, scores of wineries serving food, more than 100 caterers and dozens of food trucks. Although things are loosening, most of these establishments have been shuttered for weeks or reduced their offerings to takeout.

No one knows for certain, but survey results from Bay Area restaurants reported by Eater suggest a range of about 10% to 60% of food-service operations may permanently close or remain at partial capacity for years. Because of its reliance on hospitality and leisure industries, the unemployment rate for the Napa Valley is likely to remain higher than other nearby communities.

Although it’s unclear what will eventually translate into longer-term business strategies, there appears to have been five general types of local restaurant behaviors during the shelter-in-place orders so far. These include those who have focused on taking a “community service approach” and others who have taken a more “entrepreneurial approach.”

A few operations have vacillated in an understandable “start-and-stop” behavior in which they seem to lurch from one idea to another, perhaps closing their doors for a few days before opening again with some new idea. There are also those who have shut their door until later this year and those who seem to have succumbed to utter hopelessness.

Those eateries that adhere to a community-service approach have typically kept their doors open, offered to-go orders throughout the entire ordeal and served comfort food (ubiquitous fried chicken or barbecued ribs anyone?) at a reasonable price.

The entrepreneurs opened soon after the beginning of the shelter-in-place orders and have created new paradigms adjacent to their original business models. These are often the most highly effective, with slick operations and easy-to-navigate online ordering systems, organized and efficient pick-up systems, and clear directions. Some of these have taken the “fast fancy” cuisine concept (as opposed to “fast casual”) to new heights.

In what might be one of the good outcomes of the last few months — and one that I hope remains — a few restaurants have offered limited food supplies such as specialty flour, olive oil and produce. Chefs are often the best sources of the finest ingredients, so having access to these items is nothing short of magical, transforming homemade fare into something more.

Dozens of restaurants stand out throughout the valley. If you are like me, you are deeply grateful for all of their efforts. Yet the fact is that most Napa Valley eateries remain, if not closed down outright, only open as pale comparisons to their former selves. Even those remaining bastions of culinary courage have mostly reduced, fired or furloughed many of their staffs. Even as things begin to open back up, it is unclear how fast all out-of-work restaurant professionals will be back to full-time employment.

In recent surveys conducted by the National Restaurant Association, a partnership between the James Beard Foundation and the Independent Restaurant Coalition and the Brewers Association reported that American restaurants have laid off, on average, 91% of their staff (including restaurants that completely closed); only 20% of restaurants located in mandatory restaurant closure areas predicted that delivery and takeout could sustain business until normal operation resumes; 56% of independent restaurants have at least $50,000 in new debt as a result of COVID-19; and 61% of restaurant operators don’t think existing federal relief will prevent more layoffs.

A pivotal moment

In 1954, J.R.R. Tolkien published “The Fellowship of the Ring.” In it, in a particularly difficult moment during his journey Frodo confesses to the wizard Gandalf that he might not be up to the task.

“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” Frodo said. “So do I,” Gandalf replied, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

And this is how it must feel to be a part of the restaurant industry today, not just in the Napa Valley but around the entire planet. The future holds countless uncertainties, but a few things remain clear: People require nourishment and yearn for the company of others. And another truth: open too quickly or too sloppily and risk contributing to a second wave.

What role will restaurants play in the rebuilding a reborn Napa Valley? Will the future of the Napa Valley be full of small, independently owned and operated eating establishments? Or will it be dominated by big money and corporate entities? Do we need to diversify the local economy? Can we make do with less? What strategy is best for the long-term health of our valley? Are such outcomes even within the power of individuals or small communities to decide?

These questions and others will haunt us for the foreseeable future. At the very least, those restaurants that hang on over the next six to nine months will require increased levels of support. Such support will come not only from customers but also increased economic assistance from loans, grants or bailouts. Those establishments that do receive such support, coupled with encouragement from the community, can survive, but I’m afraid those who do not will find the future a brutal and barren place.