Alexis Traina opens the doors to the best of wine country living
Words by KELSEY McKINNON
Photography by DOUGLAS FRIEDMAN
Alexis Traina considers the vintage cars at her family’s weekend home in Napa Valley to be perfectly acceptable home offices. “One hundred percent!” she says. “They are the quietest places on the property.” There’s a ’57 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Spider under a row of royal palms, a ’67 Volkswagen Beetle next to a hedge of purple hydrangeas, a cherry-red Fiat Jolly (a wedding gift from her late father-in-law) in the garage, and a spacious nine-seater VW bus, for when she really needs to spread out.
Tooling around in old cars is something of a family tradition and acutely reflective of the kind of idyllic, nostalgic existence Alexis and her husband, Trevor, the founder and CEO of the charity site IfOnly, and their two children, Johnny and Delphina, lead in the valley. Here, time slows down, and things like cars, wine and friendships evolve and improve with age. There’s an appreciation for simple pleasures, like swimming at sunset, water-balloon fights, cookie baking and bike rides. A favorite excursion entails piling everyone into an old Woodie for burgers at Gott’s Roadside and praying the transmission doesn’t fall out on the way there. “We keep the valley’s mechanics quite busy,” Trevor admits.
Alexis’ parents, Elizabeth and W. Clarke Swanson, uprooted their family (Alexis’ sisters, Veronica, a clothing designer, and Claiborne, a photographer, are based in New York) from Naples, Fla., in 1985, when they purchased 100 acres on Oakville Cross Road and started Swanson Vineyards. “We were lucky; the point of entry was much different then than it is now,” Alexis says. They ran the winery for more than 30 years before selling it in 2016, and it’s where Alexis honed her instincts for celebrating the ceremonies and rituals of wine—first, with the introduction of a salon-style tasting room, then a modern sip shoppe. She chronicled it all in a blog, Alexis’ Napa for the Curious and Eccentric. When the winery sold, she decided to put some of her best ideas down on paper: From Napa with Love (Abrams, $25) released in September, takes readers on a whimsical armchair tour of the valley through the eyes of some of its most notable denizens (filmmaker Roman Coppola, wine proprietress Ann Colgin, artist Ira Yeager and the like) with scrapbook-style itineraries, entertaining tips and a glimpse inside Alexis’ magical life at the end of a private road off Highway 29.
Tokalon, as the house is named, was Trevor and his brother Todd’s childhood home, and, long before that, the original residence of one of Napa’s founding pioneers, H.W. Crabb. Situated in the heart of To Kalon Vineyard (which supplies grapes to Opus One, Schrader and Paul Hobbs), the area is considered sacred ground in the wine world.
In 1997, the home was destroyed by an electrical fire (thankfully, no family members were present). Trevor, Todd and their mother, philanthropist Dede Wilsey, who now has a home in the next town over, relied on their memories and photographs to rebuild the residence as it once was and took the opportunity to modernize some of the wonky layouts. The home today is spacious enough that Trevor and Todd and their families are able to share it as a weekend retreat from their primary residences in Pacific Heights.
It’s a space that was designed for good times; Trevor and Alexis, who met via a family dinner thrown by their parents at the nearby Bistro don Giovanni, were married in the backyard, where they entertain frequently. Alexis inherited her fanciful joie de vivre from her Cuban mother, Elizabeth Swanson, who is fondly referred to as the “madam of ceremonies” and the “Wizardress of Oz.”
Elizabeth’s favorite place to entertain is a 1904 utility barn on her property, which she describes as “Marie Antoinette’s poor sister’s ballroom,” complete with a “special perfume” thanks to the henhouse that’s attached to it. The silver-haired free spirit is known for amassing one of the most legendary prop closets in the valley, filled with trinkets and tchotchkes to adorn her candy-colored tablescapes—think confetti, party hats, miniature American flags and a collection of tap-dancing shoes for after-dinner amusement.
“In the book we talk a lot about the idea of collecting, whether it’s stocking a bar or a prop closet,” says Alexis. “These little collections tell the story of a person, their taste and sense of humor, but more importantly, what kind of fantasy they are creating.”
Alexis’ own style of entertaining is charmingly high-low. Consider, for example, some of her favorite pairings: Oreos and merlot, cake and Sancerre, barbecue chips and rosé, chocolate bonbons and a bottle of Modern House Wines, a project that she started at Swanson in 2000 with the help of Andy Spade (another contributor to the book and one of her “favorite partners in crime”). With cheeky wine labels like Help Is Here, Expensive and Mazel Tov, Modern House Wines epitomizes Alexis’ oenophile ambition to take away the stuffiness and formality around wine culture.
For Trevor, raising a family at his childhood home is twice as sweet. “I already know the best trees for climbing, the ultimate hide-and-seek spots and where to build a fort,” he says. “I will not be revealing where we hid beers as teenagers, though!”
The Trainas spend their days between their house and Trevor and Todd’s late father John Traina’s property across the street (which is now shared among John’s children with Danielle Steel: Samantha, Victoria, Vanessa, Max and Zara) and Alexis’ parents’ place at the intersection of Oakville Cross. Each property offers a different backdrop that suits the personality of its owner. “My parent’s house is an enchanted, imaginative and romantic world with donkeys, sheep, chickens, playhouses and banana trees along the Napa River,” says Alexis. “At Dede’s, there’s a full-scale hedge maze and an old-fashioned train that the kids ride all over the property. Trevor’s dad’s house is a 19th-century homestead with an old-fashioned water tower and a collection of carriages and gypsy wagons.”
For the family—full-time residents, weekenders and summer folk alike—Napa Valley has evolved into a place that is about much more than wine, though there happens to be a glass at most meals. “It’s the idea of multigenerational families, farmers, winemakers, artists and chefs all coming together, bound by a love of creativity and the pursuit of magic,” Alexis says. “That’s the story.”