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A Decade In, Cadet Wine + Beer Remains the Vanguard of Downtown Napa’s Evolution

A Decade In, Cadet Wine + Beer Remains the Vanguard of Downtown Napa’s Evolution

Despite its location in the heart of America’s most prestigious wine region, the city of Napa didn’t land on many people’s radars 10 years ago. This was a sleepy community where anything open past 9 p.m. was considered a late-night spot.

But walk down First Street today and you could get whiplash from all the development taking place, from boutique hotels to downtown tasting rooms to even a Lululemon store. No one is more attuned to the changes than Aubrey Bailey and Taylor Domin, the owners of Cadet Wine and Beer. Far from being bystanders to the transformation, the duo played a major role in making the city a wine epicenter in its own right — and not just for tourists.

As it celebrates 10 years, VinePair looks at how Cadet became not just a destination wine bar, but also built a close-knit community of winemakers.

Vanguards of Change

Like most successful businesses, Cadet was created to fill a gap in the market. “My original business partner and I just wanted a place to hang out,” says Bailey. “We were in our late 20s and all of our friends were in the hospitality or wine community, working as servers and cooks, or working in tasting rooms.” There was no place open late enough to blow off steam after a shift, so they built it themselves.

Cadet opened on July 4, 2014. From the get-go, the business model was unusual for Napa. It opened later than other places (6 p.m.) and stayed open until 1 a.m. (2 a.m. on weekends), which allowed them to capture the pre- and post-dinner crowds. To this day, the menu remains intentionally skimpy — better for bites than a full-blown meal.

Instead, wine (and beer) are the foundations on which it was built. When Cadet first opened, its founders thought the bar’s “claim to fame,” as Bailey puts it, would be a list comprised of 80 percent California wine — Napa and well beyond — and a smattering of international offerings. Very quickly, the duo flipped the concept on its head. “[We realized] our community drinks our own wines all the time,” says Domin. “We’re all such nerds that we want to explore everything from all over the world.”

Wine Wednesdays

Even with the Cali-to-international ratio inverted, there are few better places to explore California wine in Napa than at Cadet, largely due to its robust event calendar. Within the first six months of opening, Bailey and Domin started Winemaker Wednesdays, where local producers shared their wines with the crowd.

And not just any bottles. Often, Cadet served as a platform for winemakers’ personal projects. Around 10 years ago, Matthew Nagy, who worked under Thomas Rivers Brown and Steve Matthiasson at the time, started Benevolent Neglect with his partners Ben Brenner and Jeff Warren. For him, Cadet offered an opportunity to get the label off the ground.

“Cadet was the only place where we could showcase and share our wine,” Nagy says. “When we were starting out, that was our only shot at exposure.”

“This is a place to feel comfortable, express yourself, and be in a safe place with all the great people you know in the community.”

Benevolent Neglect’s public debut took place on a Wine Wednesday. “We felt like rock stars,” Nagy says. “I had to go back up to the winery and get two more cases of wine because we were just rolling through it.”

Another aspect that made Wine Wednesdays so successful was the flexibility of the format. Dan Petroski, the former winemaker at Larkmead, was the first producer to host a Winemaker Wednesday with his fledgling Massican label, which he sold last year to E&J Gallo.

Since that inaugural event, he’s hosted several fêtes, each different from the last. He’s brought in food trucks, had a fondue party, and even hosted a Wine Wednesday focused on spritzes. “They were like, ‘Whatever you want to do, Dan, [do it]’,” he says. “They said, ‘We’re just a place for you to express yourself.’”

Petroski echoes these sentiments on his end. “That’s how I feel about Cadet,” he says. “This is a place to feel comfortable, express yourself, and be in a safe place with all the great people you know in the community.”

Community at Its Core

While Cadet can be seen as a launch pad for Napa’s up-and-comers, some of the most established names in the valley find a sense of place in the little nook on Franklin Street.

Cathy Corison says she loves the opportunity to share her wines with other — often younger — winemakers. Despite having a presence in 18 markets globally, most of her business is direct-to-consumer, either at the cellar door, through the wine club, or online. “But when we do an event at Cadet, we’re going straight to our own community,” Corison says. “We don’t have other channels for that.”

Petroski agrees that Cadet remains the place to taste other local winemakers’ offerings. “There are more wineries in Napa that don’t have a tasting room than do,” he says. Through Winemaker Wednesdays, along with the bar’s ever-rotating list, Cadet offers the best opportunity for Napa producers to get an eagle-eyed view of what’s taking place in the valley.

“If we’ve learned anything over the past 10 years is that the answers are there, you just have to listen. The consumer will tell you what they want and they’ll support it if you give it to them.”

As tourism in Napa ticks up, however, Bailey and Domin have worked to find an equilibrium between serving local stalwarts and first-time visitors. Increasingly, a new type of drinker is coming through the doors — one that might be discovering Napa, or wine in general, for the first time.

Domin, who worked at Cadet before coming on as a partner, says an ever-changing crowd presents opportunities that make Cadet unique in Napa. Themed flights — “Pinot Noirs From Around the World” was a recent special — introduced guests to bottles from Germany, Australia, and other far-flung places. “People were like, ‘Wow, you can get Pinot Noir in Australia? Like, who knew?’ And that’s something that brings us complete joy,” Domin says.

Ever-Evolving

What keeps Cadet relevant is the owners’ bottomless curiosity – and the ability to take those learnings and adapt. The duo says evolving alongside their customers has always been a cornerstone of their business. “When we first started, it was like somms were kings, and everyone walking around Napa was a Master Sommelier candidate,” says Bailey. “We were raging against that. We were all learning and experiencing [wine] at the same time.” Hence, the name of the bar: Cadet — a trainee.

“Let’s face it, the 30- and 40-year-olds don’t really own much here. We come [to Napa] to work and to advance our career,” says Artie Johnson of Le Artishasic and Decathlon wines, who has featured his labels at several Wine Wednesdays. “And there’s a sense of community [at Cadet] — people that understand what you have to do to navigate this old, wealthy community,”

Running a business, especially in the wine industry, isn’t without challenges. Natural disasters such as wildfires, Covid-19, and just the day-to-day of keeping a small business breathing might be enough for any business owner to simply try to maintain the status quo.

But despite obstacles, 10 years in, Bailey and Domin continue to shake up Napa’s downtown scene. Last year they opened the tequila-fueled bar and restaurant Chispa. The menu gives equal billing to food and drink, with dishes that reach far with their flavors (think: kung pao octopus, and steak with saba chimichurri sauce). As to why tequila, the duo say they see many parallels between the agave spirit and wine. “I find the conversations I’m having about tequila are almost the same [about wine] at Cadet,” Bailey says.

Speaking of liquor, changes are coming to Cadet. After obtaining a license through the ABC California Liquor License Lottery, Bailey and Domin are in the process of building out a spirits program. The selection will mirror the wine list in terms of featuring a well-rounded selection from smaller producers, including some allocated bottles. “It seemed like a cool evolution,” Bailey says.

“If we’ve learned anything over the past 10 years is that the answers are there, you just have to listen,” she adds. “The consumer will tell you what they want and they’ll support it if you give it to them.”

Perhaps that’s the secret to Cadet reaching this milestone birthday. It’s broken the wine bar concept down to the core elements that people want: music, space, and vibe. And not only has that built a loyal fan base, the approach ensures it will appeal to a new wave of fans to claim it as their own.

“They’re getting an even younger demographic now,” Johnson says. “Sometimes when I go in there, I feel a little old,” he adds with a laugh. “And that’s OK; that shows that they’ve been keeping up with the times.”

The article A Decade In, Cadet Wine + Beer Remains the Vanguard of Downtown Napa’s Evolution appeared first on VinePair.

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