We left Yosemite almost as soon as dawn broke, making for San Francisco, but intending to spend some time in the Napa Valley, now acknowledged as one of the world’s great wine growing regions.
We lived for many years in both France and Spain and used to bottle our own wine when we lived in the Loire Valley so we know a fair bit about the mysterious and complicated rigmarole involved in the cultivation of the humble grape.
Climate is paramount and surely there can be few areas in the world as well suited to wine making than sunny California. A Frenchman will tell you, and frequently does, it’s all about ‘le terroir,’ the ground in which the vines are planted, allied to skills acquired over centuries that make France supreme amongst wine producing nations and he makes some valid points. In comparatively recent times, however, excellent wines are produced in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and of course in the Napa Valley of California. More than 400 ‘wineries’ may be found in the Napa Valley making it one of the easiest wine regions in which to taste, compare and contrast.
We went first to St Helena, a ‘foodie’ centre and very upmarket it is too. We’d heard about the Sunshine Foods delicatessen and found it almost straight away. As a temple to organic produce, this place takes some beating. It’s the sort of shop one wishes were on one’s doorstep and available every morning. Price reflects quality though, here more than most.
St Helena is lovely. Trees shade Main Street, very handy when temperatures are in the mid 90s like today, and there’s an eclectic mix of boutiques and other specialist stores. We had a coffee in the Model Bakery where a fellow customer asked Marigold if she wanted to join her book society. Marigold explained we were just visiting and the woman said, ‘that’s such a shame. You’re exactly the type of person we’re looking for to join our little gathering.’ Not sure Marigold knew how to take that. I told her that was a classic gambit used by the Moonies to ensnare gullible recruits.
Outside we found a woman with a matching pair of basset hounds with their sad expressions and floppy ears. One of them noticed another dog, walking along minding its own business , on the other side of the street and started barking. His friend joined in as well. A Bassett hound has a very, very deep bark, imagine something like the Hound of the Baskervilles, and within moments mayhem broke out with, seemingly, every dog for miles adding to the chorus. We left them and their harassed owner and moved on.
The wineries are situated all along the main road through the valley, and elsewhere of course. There’s a wine train that drops wine aficionados off at various points, which we didn’t use, and almost every place advertised ‘tastings and bottle sales.’ With only a couple of days left before flying out, we didn’t see the point in buying yet more wine and we’d feel awkward about tasting but not buying a case or two.
Yountville is small, but its restaurants have earned more Michelin stars, related to population, than anywhere else in North America. We were told the place to go is The French Laundry, run by top chef Thomas Keller who also owns another restaurant in town, Bouchon Bistro. We looked at the menu at The French Laundry. Nine courses are served, sounds good, and the cost will be over three hundred dollars, per person. Ah, there had to be a catch, didn’t there? Directly across the street from The French Laundry is a small farm where ingredients used in the restaurant are grown which is a peaceful place and a wonderful resource for a restaurant.
We also passed through the charming little towns of Oakville and Rutherford where we walked around the splendidly named St. Supery Estate where they make wine from Sauvignon Blanc as well as the almost ubiquitous in this region Cabernet Sauvignon.
When we reached Calistoga we found enough distractions to take us way off our intended route through the valley. Marigold saw a sign reading ‘Old Faithful’ and said, ‘we’re a long way from Yellowstone here.’
We watched Old Faithful erupt, twice actually, in Yellowstone a couple of weeks ago, so there’s obviously no copy-write issue with the name. This one owes a debt to the early days of the National Geographic Society as Old Faithful Geyser of California was declared one of only three “faithful” geysers in the world because of its regular eruptions. It was apparently discovered by accident when a local resident, drilling for water, reopened a long dormant geyser. This geyser is also claimed to be a predictor of earthquakes. When the geyser’s eruptions are delayed or diminished, an earthquake is likely within the next couple of weeks within 500 miles of the geyser. Hmm, not too sure about the vague nature of that claim.
Old Faithful Geyser of California is claimed to be one of the most visited places in the American West. A sign outside said, ‘The rainbows that form in the predictable sprays of mist are a wonderful feature in this serene setting at the top of Napa Valley.’
There had to be a catch. There was. Did we think the chance to have seen all three ‘faithful’ geysers of the world – we saw one in New Zealand too - was worth 30 dollars? Our minds were made up after chatting to a family of four who’d just come out. The place looks like a garden centre and they looked anything but enthralled.
‘Our neighbour has a fountain in his back yard that’s better,’ the man said and they all nodded. That’s enough for us and we moved on. A road sign outside the ‘garden centre’ pointed to Robert Louis Stevenson Park. Okay, we thought, what’s the connection? It turns out what is now a State park is where the author spent his honeymoon with his new wife, Fanny Vandergrift, in a cabin on the slopes of Mount Helena. Initially, the couple honeymooned at the Calistoga Hot Springs Hotel, but after a few days moved from the hotel to an abandoned cabin at the nearby Silverado Mine on Mount Helena.
We drove up a very good road with many tight bends and found a plaque marking the site of his cabin, but no cabin. We were promised views of San Francisco Bay and, on clear days, a glimpse of Mount Shanta, 192 miles away. Again, there was a snag: a five mile trek to the top of Mount Helena. Neither of us was too keen. ‘It’s boiling hot and we’ll see the San Francisco Bay later on anyway,’ was Marigold’s succinct summary. We did get to read a notice board telling us the Upper Napa Valley was once home to an indigenous tribe known as the Wappoo. Great name, but doomed to be removed from their lands by settlers from Europe.
Samuel Brannan was the leader of a settlement expedition on the ship Brooklyn landing in Yerba Buena, now called San Francisco, in 1846. He published San Francisco's first English language newspaper, and soon became California’s first millionaire. He bought 2,000 acres of land, what is now Calistoga and the area all around it, convinced there were fortunes to be made from the natural hot springs. This scheme did bring the railway from San Francisco and opened up the Napa Valley.
More serendipitous drilling news! In 1920, Giuseppe Musante, a soda fountain and candy store owner in Calistoga, was drilling for a cold water well at the Railway Exchange when he tapped into a hot water source. In 1924 he set up a bottling line and began selling Calistoga Sparkling Mineral Water. It’s still going. We had a free tasting. Tasted like water, only not so pleasant, to me. we also made a diversion to look at Lake Berryessa which has a sinkhole looking like a full bath with the plug removed. A man sitting cross legged on the side of the lake, meditating, told us it is a bell - mouth spillway and locals call it a glory hole which has very different connotations in the UK, but I didn’t mention that.
Back in St Helena, we stopped to marvel at a garage with a vw beetle on the forecourt, containing an aero engine. The owner, Mike but I forget his surname, told me aero engines were his passion. I admired a Pratt and Whitney engine from a B-36 bomber on the forecourt. Back in the Cold War, the B-36 was the biggest plane ever built. It had 10 engines and could fly to Russia and back. They called it "The Peacemaker" because it carried 86,000 pounds of bombs on board.
For a hundred dollars, Mike would start it up. Sounds a lot, but he paid 16,000 dollars for it and ‘plenty’ of people pay to hear it running.
‘Is it very noisy?’ Marigold asked.
‘Hell, yes. Like nothing else you’ll ever hear,’ another engine admirer said, ‘but we all love to hear it running. We get told about it in advance or we’d think it was an earthquake.’
Mike has a dozen aero engines, all in full running order. One of those passions that once formed will never go away.
We called briefly in Napa itself and went to the Oxbow public market. It’s crammed full of fresh fruit and veg, cafes, restaurants and almost everything sold in here is local to Napa. One of those places we could have spent several hours wandering around, but not today.
We drove over the Golden Gate Bridge, through the mists, and back into San Francisco. Marigold had a major meltdown as we drove off the end of the world down one of those impossibly steep hills. On this, our second trip, we stayed in a hotel just off Union Square, left the car parked up and did a lot of walking around the city. We saw sea lions on the pier, some great street art and even a couple of naked men cooling down in one of the fountains. Any resemblance to Michaelangeo’s David was hard to discern. Nobody else seemed very bothered so perhaps they do this regularly. It was a hot day but I resisted the opportunity to join them. We watched the cable cars turning round, very clever but very simple system, where the most talented busker we have ever encountered was singing to the crowd. He was disabled and unable to stand upright, but what a great voice! We gave him a dollar and at least fifty others gave him money. I doubt he could afford to take a pay cut by having Simon Cowell manage him. His 'audience' changes every fifteen minutes as they get on the empty cable cars and a new queue forms up, ready to be entertained. Lovely man too. We met a lovely English couple, from Hull, just married, in the hotel lift. Just married, in San Francisco not in the hotel lift!
We're off back to sunny England now, after 30 days wandering the roads. We’ve loved this road trip, seen things that will stay long in the memory, had great weather and met so many delightful people.
‘Winter is coming,’ as they say in Game of Thrones, and we must seek out our cold weather avoidance strategy. Why be cold if there’s an alternative? Southern Spain, North Africa, Portugal, all offer blue skies and sunshine in the winter months, so that’s where we’ll be, very soon.