Samuel Brannan arrived in San Francisco bay in 1846 on a settlement expedition from the east coast. After the gold rush, he printed the first english-speaking newspaper in the west. He went on to wear many hats: entrepreneur; politician; church leader, and brewmaster, among others, and was California’s first millionaire -though he later lost everything after being caught using his church’s tithes to buy his private land. He also founded our current town after seeing its potential as a natural spa and vineyard region similar to those he knew about in New York. At his big development announcement to the townspeople and press, he meant to refer to this area as the “Saratoga of California” but inadvertently twisted it out as the “Calistoga of Sarafornia.” The name stuck.

There’s something similar between Indonesia and Calistoga that we appreciate. Both places fill their landscapes with rows and rows and rows of a beautiful crop. In Bali it’s rice, here it’s grapes. They cling to the contours and curve around the hills, and spread across the valley floor as the beautiful icons of this region that they are. As in Indonesia, we love seeing the cycles of growth, from shaved lots to early seeding to full harvest. But unlike the rice fields in Asia which stay green throughout their cycle, the vineyards here will eventually end in spectacular autumn reds, yellows, oranges and magentas.

We’ve noticed different types of grapevines. Some start out horizontally along raised wires while others are staked to grow upward. Some vines have thick gnarly wooden stems while others have thin rubbery green ones. Maybe these are the differences between reds and whites? Many homes around town have vineyards in their front yards -even if just one short row. Many of the large vineyards that we bike past are organic, which we appreciate.

Big wineries dot both highways and crossroads that run up the Napa valley, and some are world famous. We like to bike around their grounds and explore their nooks and crannies. We oddly don’t see much of anyone or anything going on at these wineries -or in the vineyards. It’s strange, there are thousands of acres of vineyards in this valley,  a vast industry going on all around us, which we know takes a lot of men, machines and vehicles, but those things largely escape us somehow. Bright yellow mustard grass sprang up between the thousands of rows of vines throughout February and March, and grew to be 3-4′ tall. The next thing you know it was cut, everywhere, and the fields were prepared for their cycle to start. How could we miss that?! Can all the work occur in the wee hours?

As we’ve watched the Napa river slow to a sad trickle since April, we’ve also watched the vines grow in height and bulk. You can still see across the tops of most rows, but not for long. Many vineyards have a few tall fans that tower above the vines, used to warm or cool the grapes as needed. Some seem to be mobile, because they vanish and then appear somewhere else (but of course we never see them being moved!). There are different varieties. My favorite are rusty and old and speak to an earlier day, as do many of the homes that share the land. Original wooden farmhouses and barns are still home for many, usually tucked off in a distant corner, while closer to the roads stand the modern or fanciful wineries and tasting rooms that compete for attention. Some have long, dramatic, tree-lined entrances. Many of the buildings mimic the castles, chateaus or country estates of France, England, or Italy. Some prefer a modern design to their buildings, while others try to blend into the natural landscape. Some have long, dramatic, tree-lined entrances.

A few short decades ago, Calistoga was more of a lumber-oriented community. But as that industry slowed and whittled away, it was replaced by a burgeoning one, that of making wine. Downtown Calistoga has several wine tasting shops now, which seem to be doing well. One recently moved into the cornerstone art-deco building located at the prime spot in town; Lincoln at Washington, the former long-time domain of Wells Fargo. Back in Samuel Brannan’s day, a stage coach would transport gold and silver along the Silverado Trail to Vallejo, and then ferry it across the bay to San Francisco.

The riches of this industry come at a cost, and create a struggle between issues of growth versus the environment. As usual these concerns are tied to larger issues of money and influence and politics. Recent permits have been granted for the development of 2 controversial projects; a large luxury spa resort in the valley, and another one up in the hills -on land bought from a foreign investor. Local citizen heroes pay attention, stay informed, and use their spare time to try to inform others and stop the privatization of public lands, prevent the use of chemicals within a certain proximity to streams, and limit the angle of incline allowed for future vineyards due to the chemical runoff.

There are about 500 vineyards now in Napa Valley, and 200 more in Sonoma county next door. While the vineyard business is thriving here, we’ve heard that the optimum climate for growing grapes is changing, and has migrated north to Oregon, Washington and even Canada, where award-winning wines can already be found.




1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Mary
    Jun 29, 2016 @ 04:03:12

    Yes so beautiful the crops ( grapes )
    I love how they grow in one direction all standing to attention . They do most of the farm work here after it cools off like 11 pm till sunrise .. My friend lives on a vineyard. Life is good up here really enjoying it . We are so close we are talking Bernal dinner up here:) miss you two


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