At Saint Helena, the Napa Valley narrows, particularly near Meadowood where there's an butte of obsidian where arrowheads are sometimes found. At the box end of the valley, at the foot of Mount Saint Helen there's a broad alluvial plain where the volcanic soils are deep--a great place to grow red grape varieties. At this end of the valley encroachment of San Francisco Bay fog is rare, summer day temperatures often quite hot. Winter frosts are hard, and sometimes snow caps the mountain. In this region, Robert Pecota began as a grape grower and then later became a wine maker, and the vineyards named after his daughters provide the basis for some unique wines. In addition to the Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot--great wines sold at reasonable prices--Robert Pecota has also been a long time producer of an excellent Sauvignon Blanc, and a concentrated dessert wine, the Muscat d’ Andrea. This small family winery of considerable heritage deserves a visit, and unlike the winery tours at the larger upper valley wineries like Sterling or Clos Pegase, the visitor will have a chance to actually meet the winemaker and enjoy a vineyard tour. Visits are by appointment only, so call or e-mail. See the website for more details.
North of Calistoga, Hwy 29 turns into Hwy 128 and curves to go over a low point in the Mayacamas range to reach into Alexander Valley, one of Sonoma County's many great wine valleys. In this region, there are forests and the trappings of viticulture are out of sight off the main road. On the east side, just outside of Calistoga proprietors Jerry and Sigrid Seps have long produced small quantities of excellent Zinfandel wine. Storybook Mountain is named perhaps in part after the 19th century Grimm brothers that carved out the wine cellar caves that the Seps now use. This is one great secret for the winery tour. While the Seps have many devotees among those in the know, few tourists head for their winery and vineyards. Check the website for more details, but an appointment and visit are certainly encouraged. Visitors are likely to receive plenty of personal attention, and for red Zinfandel fans, this is a must visit winery. See the website for more details. For those planning to proceed over the mountain to Alexander Valley, find this an easy stop.
I worked the tasting room of Chateau Montelena for a summer in the mid-80's and have tasted most of the Cabernet Sauvignon's bottled back to the 1974 vintage. The historic castle like facade was purchased and restored by James Barrett, an attorney from Southern California, beginning in 1972. The initial vintages were quite good, and Chateau Montelena's Chardonnay was one of the California winners in the famed 1972 Bordeaux competition hosted by Steven Spurrier. When I was there, Bo Barrett, his son, and a host of other talented wine crush workers produced the wine. Earlier Cabernet Sauvignon wines were 100% varietal, and while age worthy, tended to have diminished fruit after 10 years in the bottle cellar. The winery has vineyards in the Oak Knoll District, just north of the city of Napa (see Napa Tips), which produce fine Chardonay grapes, while at the estate vineyards, old head pruned Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are grown. The winery's best wine in my oppinion is the Chardonnay, but the both the Napa Valley and Estate Cabernet Sauvignon are great wines during certain vintages. In addition to the tasting room, the winery grounds have a pond with a Asian style setting and a pleasant picnic area.
Sterling Vineyards has changed corporate hands many times, and today is just one of the wineries in the valley owned by the Diageo holding corporation, the second largest vineyard owner in the Napa Valley. Even so, Sterling has a heritage of accessible well built wines. The extensive vineyard holdings also allow for the production of nicely crafted vineyard designated wines, which one can taste on top the knoll with a great view of the valley below. The gondola ride to the top stops many for the price--$15 on weekdays, $20- on the weekends, but the deal is actually pretty good. Besides the Disneyland like quality of the ride up to the whitewashed monastic style winery building, the tastings are generous glasses of wine served at the table by waiters. I worked for a summer here in the 1980's, as a I did in many other wineries, and because the personnel are paid fairly well, the service is quite professional. Skip the self-guided tour though, as the history of the winery is pretty fake. But, because the winery is located near the top of the valley, and the gondola ride is pricey, the winery tasting experience is very pleasant. The gift shop sells all sorts of interesting things, but I'd take away only the reserve and vineyard designated wines. The regular bottles can be purchased cheaper at the local grocery store. I have been particulary fond of the Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. These are nicely refined wines of good character that don't have to be cellared for long. The hours are from 10:30 to 4:30, except on major holidays, and so a good strategy would be to visit, and leave in time to visit Clos Pegase across the street, which closes at 5pm. Take the gondola ride line-up into consideration though.
I was among the first crew of hospitality workers here, taking tour groups around the winery, explaining my philosophy of winemaking. What makes this winery worth the visit though is the architecture of the building designed by Michael Graves, a Post Modern architect from New York who also designed part of the Whitney Museum. Jan Shrem, the eccentric Jewish-Japanese publisher had plenty of money and lots of artwork to put into the new winery, so he arranged a design competition judged by an impressive panel of well-known artists from San Francisco. Graves put a lot of effort into his design, envisioning a neo-Grecian waterfall tumbling down the knoll that was on the property. Shrem had full intentions of doing the entire plan, but the local established heirarchy of other deep pocketed winery owners didn't like the idea of deforesting a knoll of old growth oak trees, and so put the kabash on that part of the plan. On top the knoll, the Shrems have their home which resembles the winery in having relatively high and small "picture" windows framed in Honduran mahogany that also carefully framed what would be seen outside. The Winery building has a lot bright colored stucco with massive columns that tends to rebell against the modernist simplicity, elegance, and open feel of many other winery buildings of the valley. Despite it's apparent size, the Shrem's run the winery with a love of art and mythology, and as a small business. Naturally, I didn't last long in such an environment, as Shrem was himself rather modest in his tasting ability. I have however frequently used Clos Pegas for tours and the wine in tastings with my wine appreciation classes. The wines are nicely packaged with Jan's artwork on the label, and for the most part are accessible early on with little need for bottle aging. I have in the past been quite fond of the Sauvignon Blanc, a varietal that grows well in the warm climate of the upper Napa Valley. The tasting room is open daily from 10:30 to 5pm. There's a place to picnic there as well.
The mountains between Calistoga and Santa Rosa, leading through the Anderson Valley, are full of petrified forest rocks, but the best place to appreciate this geology is at the privately owned Petrified Forest. See the link below. This place has the distinction of having been visited by Robert Lewis Stevenson and is described in his "Silverado Squatters".
The famous Old Faithful at Yellowstone National Park is NOT the only one. Calistoga has one, too. Not as powerful, but nearly as regular.
Another feature is the Fainting Goats. They appeared, due to a genetic defect, in the 19th century. Since they were susceptible to fainting when stressed, they were often put out to pasture with sheep. If a predator came along, the goat would pass out, making it easy prey. That enabled the rest of the herd to escape. A handful of these still survive here.
Robert Louis Stevenson and his new wife moved here right after getting married. The future author of Kidnapped and Treasure Island could not yet afford a nice house in town. So he built a small cabin here. It's still a wilderness, now named for him. Mt. St. Helena (not to be confused with Mt St Helens in Washington) stands over 5,000 feet above sea level. It's a long, hard hike to the top. On a clear day, the view is tremendous.
A popular road for bicycling in the wine country is Napa Valley's Silverado Trail. This is not a mountain bike trail; it is a well-traveled country highway, very scenic and relatively flat. The shoulder is decent and you will encounter only a few road rage psychopaths.
We started from Yountville in mid-Napa County, and rode to Calistoga and back -- a 40 mile round trip. The weather was perfect in September. We visited an art gallery in Calistoga and had lunch at the Wappo Bar & Bistro near the town center. On the way back to Yountville, we stopped for a taste of vino at a couple of Calistoga area wineries.
Clos Pegase Winery, just east of Calistoga, has always been a favorite of mine. The winery itself is architecturally interesting, the setting is beautiful, its art objects give you the feel of visiting a gallery, and the wines are excellent.
We bicycled here from Yountville, and stopped in for some wine tasting. We were a bit worried that we might mistake a $500,000 art object for a bicycle rack, so to play it safe we locked our bikes to a tree.
Yes, that thing in the picture that looks like a meteorite that just fell from the sky is a very valuable work of art, no doubt worth millions of dollars.
Clos Pegase, like many Napa Valley wineries charges a fee to taste. If you are a member of their wine club, they waive the fee.
Every time we visit the wine country in California, we come across new wineries that have sprung up since our last visit. August Briggs Winery is one of the new kids on the block, having just opened up in 2004 its tasting room in its present location near Calistoga on the Silverado Trail.
We enjoyed the August Briggs wines we tasted - and by the way, they do not charge a tasting fee. August Briggs produces only small lots of red and white wines. Small lots are often the best.
People have been paying to see this 'faithful' attraction for over 100 years. It is one of 3 regularly and continuously erupting geysers in the world. The frequency varies over time but about every 10-20 minutes streaming hot water and vapor comes shooting out some 60 ft in the air.
Interestingly, from two days to two weeks prior to an earthquake, the geyser gives warning by delaying its regular performance from the average thirty minutes to a longer interval.
There is also a small petting zoo, snack bar, and gift shop.
Admission price is for all day and you can bring a picnic lunch.
Children 6-12: $3
Children under 6: Free
South of Calistoga on Hwy 128 going towards St. Helena is this historic and fully operational water-powered grist mill. Built in 1846, it highlights the fact the originally this was a valley of wheat growers, not grape growers.
The tour is short and very interesting and includes a demonstration of grain milling.
It was here that I learned the origin of a very well known American saying. Since the grinding process produces heat and the miller can control the thickness of the space between the grindstones, he had to be careful not to let too much heat build up, lest a fire start up. So it was imperative he "keep his nose to the grindstone" since the burning smell could be detected before an actual flame could be produced.
These 6 ft in diameter trees fell and were covered in silica ash when Mt. St. Helena erupted ages ago. The ash that fell replaced the trees wood cells with silica and left these trees, some of which are over 100 feet long.
The first petrified tree was discovered in 1870 and people have been paying to see them ever since. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about them in one of his books.
You walk around a trail to see the dozen or so trunks. There are signs explaining the process and a small gift shop with geological specimens from other parts of the world as well.
It probably won't take more than an hour to make the whole tour.
Currently Admission prices are:
Seniors (over 62) $6.00
Juniors (12 to 17) $6.00
Children (6 to 11) $3.00
This winery has an exact replica of a Tuscan castle on the grounds where the wine is processed and stored. The grounds are beautiful and free to wander around as much as you like. We visited for the afternoon, walked through the vineyard and taking photos of the castle and grounds. They do have wine tasting as well as a tour of the castle that includes wine tasting. We were presses for time so decided to return the next day for the wine tasting.
The wine tasting alone cost $18.00 and there is a tour of the castle with wine tasting for $33.00. This tour is worth ever penny! Check out part 2 for the details.