When you receive an invitation to spend the weekend in St. Helena, you start looking for flights immediately. That’s just what Michael and I did when Julia and Chris Lake asked if we’d be interested in visiting Esser Vineyards, the beautiful mountainside retreat that was Julia’s childhood home. As an event planner extraordinaire who currently splits time between Napa and NYC, Julia Lake has planned fabulous weddings and events in locations ranging from Maine to Tulum. With her reputation for creating incredible bohemian chic receptions and dinners, an invite to Julia’s annual “Spring Mountain Weekend”has become coveted among Brooklynites and Silver Lake kids alike. We arrived early on a Thursday to meet with Napa Valley photographer, Carolyn Corley Burgess, and to get the party started early with Chris and Julia. It was my first trip to Napa, and I fell head-over-heels for the weather, the scenery, the vibe, and (of course) the wine. It seems natural that a great event planner would have grown up here – the laid back town of St. Helena seems to be in a constant state of low-key celebration. The streets are scattered with top-down convertibles, driven by stylish women in jeans and straw hats. The local burger joint is the most popular restaurant in town, with a line 20 people deep waiting to dine outdoors in the perfectly preserved 1950’s charm of Gott’s Hamburgers. And each Friday afternoon the locals swarm to the appropriately named Sunshine Foods grocery to prepare for the weekend. It’s no surprise that Julia describes herself as “a romantic who spends [her] time seeking out the charming moments in life, and in them, finding cause for celebration.”
photographed by carolyn corley burgess
What do you love about Napa?
It’s so chill here. After 7 years in NYC and 2 in Paris, I always need a few days to slow down, decompress and chill out. There’s something about the air here — you can just really breath and somehow that leads to lots of creative space. Every time I come I feel like I’m going through a creative awakening. And it’s home.
How would you describe classic Napa style in terms of entertaining?
It’s sort of organically thrown together and fabulously simple all at the same time. Like you pop over to the farmers market in St. Helena on Friday morning for supplies and forage in your garden for flowers or fruit. Run to your cellar for some wine, jump in the pool and throw it all together just before guests arrive. It’s pretty dreamy and low key. At least that’s how I roll…
What (if anything) scares you about entertaining?
Being tired or stuck in the kitchen all night. I learned the hard way and now prepare as much as possible the night before and try to spend the day relaxing so I’m not wiped out for the party. A pre-party dip in the pool or bath is key.
Your signature entertaining dish:
I make Ina’s Italian wedding soup or a roasted Meyer lemon chicken with roasted root vegetables. Always always followed by a solid cheese course.
The one entertaining rule you never break:
Upon arrival, Never make a guest wait more than 3 minutes for a drink.
Your standard hostess outfit:
Oh I don’t know… something fabulous grabbed from the closet at the last minute — probably previously owned by my mother. That, lipstick and bare feet.
Always in your refrigerator:
Champagne, Meyer lemons, whole milk and dark chocolate.
Your entertaining style in five words or less:
European, bohemian chic, curated & FUN
Your current favorite color palette for parties:
Even though I’m a wedding planner I try to stay away from color palettes because people can take them too far and everything can look too matchy matchy. So I try to pick a vibe or theme rather than a color palette. That being said, if you forced me to choose I would err on the side of classic French blue and white.
The taste you’re always craving:
Wine. Is that a flavor?
Who do you usually have over for dinner parties?
Friends and friends of friends. I love it when people invite people I don’t know. We are moving back to California from NYC and I’m very excited about throwing a “we need more friends” party. The premise is basically that we invite all the people we know and they have to invite two people that we don’t know that they think would be a good fit for being friends with us.
Who would your dream dinner party guests be?
Oh just a bunch of old friends and maybe Mimi Thorrison… or rather I’d love to be a guest of hers!
Your perfect dinner party playlist:
Any kind of 20’s french jazz followed by a dance party mix for late night.
The best meal of your life that you’ll never forget:
That’s easy. It was on our honeymoon in India at a resort called Chhatra Sagaar. It was an old hunting resort for the Maharajas of India’s past and the meals they served were consistently out of this world. Home cooked and laden with incredible new flavors that blew our minds time and again.
Your most memorable night of entertaining guests:
Does my wedding count? It was sort of my tour de force… it was here at my family’s home in the Napa valley. We hosted 50 people in the lavender garden and had all the tables set with my mothers Viennese china and antique linens.
Your must-have entertaining tool:
My husband. Seriously, having a co-host to take ownership is key. Having someone that is on the same page that you don’t have to micromanage is the key to not being stressed out or overwhelmed. After all, isn’t the point of entertaining to have fun?
We couldn’t agree more, Julia. Thank you for inviting us into your magical wine country world… we just might stay a while.
One of the best things about uncorking a bottle in the wine country is feeling incredibly close to the story behind each wine. We enjoyed:
Monticello Vineyards Rosé of Syrah, brought by the photographer from her family’s vineyard
Esser Vineyards Monterey Cabernet Sauvignon, produced by Julia’s family vineyard
Lang & Reed Two Fourteen Cabernet Franc, from a neighbor’s vineyard in St. Helena
and Mrs. Lake Rosé (a special limited edition wine created as a keepsake for Julia’s wedding to Chris Lake in 2012.)
And a very special thanks to Napa Valley photographer Carolyn Corley Burgess for capturing the day so beautifully. Also for bringing us a fantastic bottle of rosé from her family’s vineyard …only in Napa!