A Downtown Napa Original


Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant combines a cheese counter with a wine bar to create the perfect pairing.

When Master Sommelier Peter Granoff and his business partner Debbie Zachareas decided to create a cheese shop as an offshoot of their successful Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant business, the idea was to combine a wine shop with a wine bar and artisanal cheese counter using cheese from their inventory. The business turned into so much more.

Granoff and Zachareas opened Oxbow Cheese & Wine in January 2008 in downtown Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, just five years after establishing Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. They share the title of co-owner and managing partner.

Seeking to Differentiate

Oxbow Cheese & Wine occupies 1,000 square feet in a corner of the market and combines a wine retail shop next to a wine bar that is adjacent to a cheese counter.

“It doesn’t feel compartmentalized, but is rather one continuous business,” says Granoff. “And because we’re located in a larger public market, people can grab wine and wander around the market, [which includes] at least a dozen other businesses.”


The market, at 610 and 644 First St., includes restaurants, a small grocery store, a distillery, bakeries, a chocolatier, a bookstore and other retail outlets. The majority are food-related.

“In a lot of U.S. states you could not do what we do, which is combine a wine bar and wine shop on the same premises and under the same ownership,” says Granoff. “Regulations in many areas prohibit this.”

What also sets Oxbow Wine & Cheese Merchant apart is its diverse cheese counter, which includes a couple hundred cheeses at any given time. The focus of this curated selection is on artisanal and organic lines.

“We’re trying to put ‘merchant’ into the equation and use this term deliberately rather than ‘retailer,’ which denotes a supermarket,” says Granoff. “Our selection is driven by what consumers want to see, and quality comes into play when choosing our cheeses.”

Its cheese and wine are hand-selected, which is made easier due to California’s thriving artisanal cheese and wine industries. Imports are also well-represented.

During his more than four decades in the wine business, Granoff has more than paid his dues. From bussing tables to receiving the 1991 “Sommelier of the Year” award from the James Beard Foundation and launching Virtual Vineyards in 1995, the first U.S. entity to sell wine on the internet, he has traveled worldwide to immerse himself in the wine industry.

In addition to serving as an adjunct member of the faculty at the Culinary Institute of America’s Professional Wine Studies program, Granoff is internationally known as a speaker, wine educator and wine competition judge.

His partner, Zachareas, is known for developing many of San Francisco’s innovative wine programs, along with conceiving and developing one of the city’s most extensive wine programs at Bacar restaurant. She also helped develop Ashbury Market’s wine program and EOS restaurant and wine bar as well as serving as a wine competition judge.

“We come from many years on the restaurant side,” says Granoff. “I worked in Switzerland and France and spent 30 years working in restaurants, mostly on the wine side. Debbie also spent many years in the restaurant industry, and we bring that perspective both from a quality focus but also from a service perspective.”

Becoming Cheese-centric

Most of those working at Oxbow Cheese & Wine merchant have a restaurant background and an elevated sense of service.

“I have delegated the cheese aspect of our business to dedicated cheesemongers,” says Granoff. “Although cheese is a passion of mine, my expertise is more about wine.”

Rather than focus on specific producers, the shop concentrates on a mix of cheese types, such as aged hard varieties, soft-ripened, washed rind and aged goat cheeses.

“Our selection is driven by what consumers want to see, and quality comes into play when choosing our cheeses.”

Peter Granoff

“These are categories we try to cover at any given time and have those cheese types represented,” explains Granoff. “But we also try to find unique cheeses, especially from small producers who are pushing the envelope.”

In addition, Oxbow Wine & Cheese Merchant seeks to represent specific types of milk. Granoff’s favorites are those made with sheep milk, which he finds interesting and diverse. It is the pleasant pungency that is his personal preference.

“Our cheese counter is not static, but instead constantly changing,” says Granoff. “And because seasonality is an issue, many cheeses are limited in availability and only offered certain times of the year.”

A variety of cheese boards are available at the wine bar, and the staff is always ready and eager to provide pairing recommendations. In the case of wine, customers can choose from 2- and 5-ounce glasses, carafes and bottles and construct tasting flights from anything on the menu. Preconfigured flights are also available.

Although Oxbow Wine & Cheese Merchant doesn’t have the space to hold classes or events, it will occasionally conduct pairing classes for smaller groups of eight to 10 people upon request.

“In those cases, we construct cheese and wine pairing exercises to talk about basic principles,” says Granoff. “I have opinions on this from teaching master sommelier programs.”

He notes that the pairing question can be oversimplified and over-complicated at the same time.

“The idea that you should drink what wine you want with the food you’re eating is fine and liberating but doesn’t always work,” he says. “When we do classes, we sometimes deliberately include combinations that don’t work. That negative illustration is sometimes more powerful than a positive one.”

Turning Tides

Getting past the distribution and supply chain issues of the pandemic, Granoff is now seeing a growing awareness of the quality of the American artisanal cheese sector. This has mirrored Napa’s renowned wine industry, which is unique in terms of its production and availability of both local and international products.

“This did not happen overnight, but rather was gradual and happened via word of mouth,” says Granoff. “Especially in places like the Bay Area, where we have a knowledgeable and curious audience that is kind of in a bubble.”

As one of the country’s top tourist destinations, Napa is attracting visitors who are not only interested in wine but also in food.

“One of the reasons we opened a shop here is we saw a major change coming to downtown Napa,” says Granoff. “It took longer than we anticipated, but now the culinary center of gravity has shifted to downtown.”


Looking ahead, it’s about continuing to survive as well as thrive.

“The Bay Area is not an easy place to be in business right now,” notes Granoff. “We have a major hangover from the pandemic, with people spending less money; every sector except tequila and mescal is down, with declines in 2023 and lots of headwinds.”

Yet, Oxbow Wine & Cheese Merchant will soon undergo renovations, as will Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant.

“Both the Oxbow and Ferry buildings will be spruced up after 14 years, and we’ll be replacing refrigeration,” says Granoff. “It’s an opportunity for a refresh.”

He says those looking to open a cheese shop need to understand the distribution and margin structure of the business as well as understand managing perishables and minimizing spoilage and waste.

“You will never operate a cheese shop with zero waste, but it’s important to keep it to low single-digit percentages,” advises Granoff.

He adds there is no substitute for experience, so if you as the owner don’t have it, it’s important to find people to partner with who do.

“This business is based on relationships,” he says. “We have decades of experience in this sector and longstanding relationships, which makes a huge difference. This is especially true in the artisanal cheese business.”

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