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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

Napans by Choice

By Craig Smith

People move to Napa for a myriad of reasons. Here is the story of three transplants:

Cliff Kielhorn

If the third time really is a charm, then this time Cliff Kielhorn is staying in Napa. He and his partner Savannah moved back on April Fool’s Day last year, and their son Liam was born in August. “This is a kid-friendly community. There are lots of parks and I don’t have to worry about Savannah being alone,” said Cliff. If this sounds at all like stability, it is, and its worlds away from the chaotic upbringing Cliff endured.


Cliff was born in Quincy, WA, but change came early and often. “I’ve moved over forty times. By the fifth grade, I’d been to twenty-two different schools.” While that experience taught Cliff to make friends quickly, it also taught him he had to look out for himself. By the time he was a teenager, Cliff knew he needed a change in his environment, and moved to St. Helena and in with this Dad. He attended high school there. After high school in 2005, he served in the Army. Upon his discharge, he moved to Ellensburg, WA. It was a rodeo town, but with Mom and Grandma there, it was the closest thing to a hometown he’d experienced. Cliff became a certified stone mason and worked at ski resorts in the winter. It was there that he met Savannah.


As stable as things looked, Cliff had gotten in with a party crowd, could see it didn’t bode well for him, and moved to Napa for the first time. He got a job at Oxbow Produce (Now Hudson Greens & Goods). Cliff stayed in touch with Savannah and she later moved in with him and his roommate, but only as a friend.


 “Turns out, we both liked each other, which came as a surprise to nobody but us.” Their first date as a couple was at Sushi Mambo, when it was still in Downtown Napa.


The new couple experienced more change over the next few years, including a winter in Mammoth Mountain. In his second stint in Napa, Cliff farmed for Kicking Bull Farms, which he might still be doing except for a back injury. He and Savannah helped to open Monday Bakery but were upended when they were evicted. “It was during COVID, and our landlord kicked us out so his son could move in.” They spent a year in Bellingham, WA, then spent eight months traveling the country in their wagon while Savannah worked remotely. After that, they moved to Sonora in 2022. It was there that Savannah got pregnant.


“Sonora was too hot, especially with her being pregnant, and it’s surprisingly expensive. We began seriously talking about where we wanted to raise our kid. Napa is also expensive, but it’s got potential and it’s a food mecca, which is important to us,” said Cliff. Moving to Napa again was a no-brainer. He immediately went to work, helping to open Deuces Market in First Street Napa.


“Napa is sort of a big, small town. It’s close to everything. I’m pleasantly surprised that you don’t have to be wealthy to live here, and it’s not snooty at all. The service industry folks are really close and are there for each other. It’s why we keep coming back. And with Liam in the picture, I think we are here to stay.” 


Denise Layten 

Sometimes, the universe intervenes and helps us make decisions. That intervention was directly responsible for Denise Layten landing in Napa. 

“I was living in Mill Valley, and was in San Francisco for Thanksgiving dinner. Noel, a guy I’d known since college, was there too,” said Denise. Her friend was getting his PhD in Psychology, and was doing an internship at Napa State Hospital. He and a friend were looking at a house to rent in Napa, and the friend backed out. Noel asked if Denise would be interested in moving in with him. “I was only half-way listening, but as soon as he said it, I felt like a got a big nudge in my side, and almost heard the words ‘Pay attention to this.’ I needed a change anyway, so I said I might be interested. I looked at the place the next day, and thought, ‘Okay, I could live here.’”

Denise was born and raised in Louisville. “My Dad died when I was eight, and Mom didn’t drive. We never went anywhere.” She attended the University of Louisville, and planned on teaching. “As soon as I graduated, I went to Europe.” Denise had the travel/adventure bug in a big way. She and a friend drove across country to San Francisco in 1977. The friend flew back, and Denise stayed a while. She returned to Louisville to finish her teaching credentials. “When I got back, I practically announced that I was moving to California as I was walking in my Mom’s front door.” As she neared completion of her credentials though, she started to think that she wasn’t as interested in teaching as she had thought. “I knew I wanted to travel some more and went to Africa and Europe for three months.” That trip gave her the chance to think things through, and she was sure teaching was out. She considered moving to New York City, but then heard about an organized New York-to-California bike ride. Her two-wheeled return to the Golden State sealed the deal. After returning to Louisville yet again, she loaded her car, and drove across country in 1983.

Her career goals became clearer, and she decided to study psychotherapy. “I’ve been interested in that my whole life and thought psychiatry was the avenue, but I didn’t want to go to medical school, so I didn’t pursue it.” But it became clear to her that she wanted to do counseling. She trained and worked as a massage therapist, work she loved, but also work that could help pay for graduate school. After a lot of research about different types of licenses, she chose to pursue her Master’s Degree at John F. Kennedy University in Orinda. It was during that time that she went to that Thanksgiving dinner. Shortly after that, she moved into the house.

A few years later, Noel moved out and Denise’s boyfriend (who is actually the author of this article) moved in. They got married shortly after that, and bought the house a few years later. Almost thirty years later, they are still there.

Denise cannot imagine leaving Napa. “My business, Brief Therapy Associates, is over twenty years old.” Her neighbors have a pond that year-round attracts ducks, geese, and the occasional river otter. Denise spends virtually every morning there, feeding whatever shows up hungry. She still travels, making at least one big trip a year, and has visited every continent.

“Napa is a beautiful place, and everything has come together for me here. I’ve had great career training opportunities, the perfect office space and this place to live. It’s like Napa chose me.”

Alston Cole

Alston Cole was actually born in Napa, but moved to Wisconsin when she was two years old. Her mom and her mom’s best friend (who was also Alston’s Godmother) loved it here. Alston remembers a picture-book about Napa Valley being on their coffee table for years. “Napa Valley is where God goes on vacation,” her Mom said. 

As a kid in Wisconsin, Alston worked in a coffee shop, earning money so she could visit family in Napa and Los Angeles. After high school graduation, she moved here, fell in love and got married. But the couple was just too young (“I was only eighteen,” said Alston.) She moved back to Wisconsin, had her third son, and lived there for the next thirty years. 

When her younger sister was diagnosed with a cancer that eventually ended her life, Alston asked her sibling if there was any place she wanted to visit, and if so, where.  Her sister said, “Yes, I want to go to the Napa Valley,” so the whole family came for a visit in 2007. Just being outdoors here lifted Alston’s spirit. While out for a walk, she heard a voice that said, “You are going to live here within five years.”

Alston returned to Wisconsin after that visit, and three and a half years later, went to massage school. Upon graduation, she put her massage table and a tent in her car and drove west, camping along the way. That was in 2012 – five years after the voice had told her that Napa was her destiny. She got a job in Calistoga, found a temporary place to live in St. Helena and later moved in with her son, who lived in Napa. Eventually she found an apartment in Napa she loved.

Alston left Napa one more time, when romance took her to Florida post-COVID. It wasn’t the right fit, and during her stay Hurricane Ian hit. That was all the prompting she needed to move back to Napa. Her welcome home was gratifying – she got her job back at Indian Springs in Calistoga. She even got her old apartment back.

“I love the beauty of the Napa Valley. I live on the edge of Downtown (Napa), and I love coming home at night, seeing the lights on the bridges, all the couples and families walking around – all of it. I live in such a cool place.” Asked if she thinks she is here to stay, Alston has a one-word answer: “Definitely.” 



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