Napa Valley winemaker Elaine St. Clair just can’t stay away from beer. For most of her career she’s migrated fluidly between the fermented beverage worlds, working as a winemaker for Domaine Chandon and Domaine Carneros as well as brewmaster and co-owner of the now-defunct Napa Ale Works. Her latest venture, St. Clair Brown Winery, lets her have it both ways, combining beer and wine production under the same roof.
St. Clair co-founded her namesake Napa winery with partner Laina Brown in 2014, intending to add beer to the operation once it got off the ground. She didn’t realize that the transition would take four long years. “The main obstacle we faced was the alcohol laws,” she says of the cumbersome permitting process. “The winery and brewery spaces have to be kept separate.”
St. Clair Brown’s “nano-brewery” launched in early 2018, making the urban winery and brewery the first of its kind in Napa. St. Clair holds the unique position of serving as both brewmaster and winemaker for the same operation.
Rather than getting crazy with sours and infusions, she favors classic beer styles that are more driven by malt than hops. “I like the range of flavors in traditional beers and I get inspiration from them,” says St. Clair, who studied both winemaking and brewing at the University of California at Davis. “Many of our beers start with a traditional base and then I layer in other components to make them unique.”
There are ten beers in the lineup, with three rotating selections on tap each week in St. Clair Brown’s Greenhouse Tasting Room, a glass-encased paradise filled with shelves lined with bottles of wine and beer rather than plans and a small bar that opens onto a garden patio. Offerings range from lighter options such as pilsner and kölsch-style ale to oatmeal stout and porter at the other end of the spectrum.
The intimate tasting room sits just across the street from St. Clair Brown’s production facility, located in an industrial district next to the train tracks and sandwiched between two auto repair shops. The owners have created a small oasis in midst of that urban environment by tucking the greenhouse into a leafy culinary garden that shields it from the surrounding businesses and busy Soscol Avenue.
The garden isn’t just attractive camouflage; it also supplies organic ingredients for a small-bites menu that includes citrus-marinated olives and chickpea-and-peanut hummus topped with local Meyer lemon olive oil. Both beer and wine are available by the flight, glass or bottle. (In a nod to the wine side of the business, beers are packaged in Champagne bottles.)
So far, the tasting space has drawn a steady, curious crowd, eager to sample small-production beer and wine in the same location. St. Clair sees it as a sign that Napa is finally embracing hops and barley along with grapes. “We have several breweries that have opened here in the last 12 months,” St. Clair says. “The beer scene in Napa is just starting.”