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Napa Valley

Vine-Ripe In St Helena

Margaret & I found this Farmers Market in St Helena over 26 years ago and it was the beginning of a recurring rendezvous . . . we found ourselves planning our wine country trip around Farmers Market day

The sign is the same but Angie is in her 80s now (90s?). The color of her organic produce shocks. Everybody stops to say “Hi” and buy. Watching her work the crowd I wonder if Angie’s greatest joy is farming, or selling. Today I bought tomatoes, green beans, plums, and apples – the perfect antidote to the rich cuisine in Napa Valley. The same lady still covers the event for the local paper. Everyone hopes to be the story one day so they can display a copy. St Helena may have the last newspaper on Earth with currency. The same whole new generation of young farmers take their places behind tables. With the hottest and most diverse collections of Cucurbita pepo we’ve ever seen. The same gentility showed up for the Volunteer Chef pancakes and waffles under the shade trees. The same Bocce courts now lay claim to being the divine centre of bocce as well as wine & food … St Helena has a population of five thousand and boasts 122 bocce teams with 1500 players – the largest number in the Bay area and most of the players are vintage. Eat your veggies and enjoy the show.

The sweetest thing takes place right under the schooled noses of people seeking the smells, nuances, and mouth-feel of great wine as they drive past the sign pointing to heaven. Ironically, it all plays out in the finest vineyards in California. I’m lucky we found this place so long ago and that it’s still here, better than ever.

Grapes aren’t the only things vine-ripe in St Helena.

farmers market sign

Annie and Customer

young farmers


breakfast at the farmers market

bocce player man

The Dark Knight Farmers Market

St Helena, California at the Farmers Market – Friday, September 20, 2013

Living In The Past

The Past is Full of Forgotten Things

Gentle giants relic’d by an explosion on Mount St. Helena, snagged by plows 3 million years later, and reduced to a roadside attraction. Go ahead, tour The Petrified Forest near Calistoga. But if you think wine-tastings are boring, you haven’t been to a petrified forest. Wine tastings are fascinating after this. Walking out of these stoned woods I suddenly remembered a time long ago when Napa Valley wine was anything but boring.

rolling hill vineyard on Silverado Trail

My friends and I discovered wine in the 1970s the way most young adults do. It was time. We didn’t know it but we were smack in the middle of the Golden Age of Napa Valley wine. From the mid-1960s to the late 1980s the wines all had something in common – they were really interesting. We couldn’t wait to try the next one. The wines back then had something to say. And so did the people who made them.

Joe Heitz, Robert Mondavi, Donn Chappellet, Jack Cakebread were all real characters and some of the greatest farmer-winemaker-salesmen who ever lived. They had personality. They couldn’t stop talking and neither could their wines. In the mid-1990s a couple friends and I sat with them on several occasions, drank wine, and listened. We were searching for a common thread for a television show about wine we were developing. But there was no common thread except one – they were all tinkerers. They tinkered with everything. They tinkered with their tractors, their soil, their winery equipment, their grapes, barrels, everything. They were explorers – time travelers to the future discovering the awesome potential of Napa Valley wine. The winemakers in the Golden Age were compadres, mentors, and competitors on the same ship going in different directions.

What none of us knew then was at that very moment, the greatness they discovered was evaporating into the mist of Napa Valley. In fact it was already gone. The 1990s was a new era and the new winemaker was a quiet colorless technician of shocking expertise and skill. By the turn of the century the Golden Age of discovery was only a memory, the ability to replicate it lost.

vineyard on Silverado Trail

Today all Napa Valley wine is good, the vineyards perfect. Nobody makes bad wine – you can tick-off the nuances, textures, and flavors without even trying. But we defy you to tell much difference between them. Napa Valley may have the best climate in the world for growing grapes – every vintage is great. But few wines taste really interesting. Riding through Napa Valley today the only voice I hear is the stone-cold silence of perfection. There’s no conversation. The grapes have nothing to say … and neither do the wines.

prefecto silento

Standing by the bike on The Silverado Trail this morning taking-in the beauty of this place I couldn’t help wondering how this all came to silento perfecto. Maybe tinkering is the secret weapon of greatness or maybe it’s a weapon of mass destruction. Did our explorers get lost at sea? Somehow Napa Valley found itself marooned on generic shores of pretty good stuff. Excuse me, very good stuff. But no one remembers how to make the wine we all loved so much when we were young. We’re still in love with Napa Valley and its wine but we’re in love with our memories even more.

3 million years from now a farmer working Napa Valley soil will snag the mojo of Joe Heitz or Robert Mondavi or Donn Chappellet or Jack Cakebread. We hope they won’t be reduced to a roadside attraction. My guess is they’ll still have a lot to say.

Next stop, Yosemite.

The Dark Knight

On The Silverado Trail – Friday the 13th September 2013

Author Notes:
In the early 90s, I somehow hooked-up with the son of a famous vineyard owner in Calistoga and over time with another friend from the Madison Avenue advertising world we cooked-up the idea for a TV show we code-named, “Wine Country Journal” … for a couple years we traveled to the California wine country to develop the concept … we met so many winemakers, vineyard owners, and chefs … drank champagne – okay, sparkling – in the evening and great wine from the cellars of famous winemakers during the day … we frequently had the Chef’s Table at great restaurants including The French Laundry where we met the renowned Thomas Keller who cooked us a rabbit … I really did spend time with all the guys mentioned in this post and many, many more not mentioned … they were all characters, many were already old … but their stories would make a great show we thought … the people running the show today are highly-skilled in the arts of wine and food, there’s so much more money at stake now … but they’re colorless technicians in comparison with the Old Ones from the past … I hope they will never be forgotten but I fear they will … foodTV turned-down our concept and nothing ever came of it … the old treatments are around here somewhere … the past is full of forgotten things

My idea that the Old Ones were tinkerers arose from our many sit-down drinkathons with them … if there was another common thread it was the fallacious claim that they let the wine make itself with minimal interference … over time it became obvious the claim was a bald-face lie … after a few glasses of ethereal cabernet they’d let slip a myriad of tinkers they developed over a lifetime of growing grapes and making wine … in their defense, it actually was tinkering as I recall their stories … nothing like the heavy-handed treatment of today’s amazing super-technicians

Every time we went to Napa Valley, Margaret pleaded to go to the Petrified Forest near Calistoga … she loved rocks and collected them famously … the place looked cheesy so I fought the idea by diverting her attention to food and wine and we never went … I went this time to do penance for that sin … I’m glad I did … it triggered so many interesting memories … and yes, that roadside attraction is cheesy but if your wife wants to see it, you should go with her

Spring Mountain Fever and the Tao of Harley-Davidson Motorcycles

Mystic Large Wine and Time Shifts

The siren song drifts all the way down to Elmhurst Avenue in St. Helena and draws you to Spring Mountain Road where a mile can seem like forever. Spring Mountain District is a viticulture designation where micro-climates grow large wines. This area has always been my first stop in Napa Valley. But large wine isn’t the only reason to come here. The mountain roads between Napa & Sonoma are the best adventure you can have on two wheels. Today, my destination is Keenan Winery – my favorite up here. The hulking Harley is ill-suited for dark steep narrow winding roads. The ride is harrowing.

But the thought of the winery pulled me through the dark wood and bright palate of Spring Mountain. People live and work here on secluded terrain, growing grapes and making wine in the kind of quiet you find only in the mountains. A plain unmarked door around back is the entry to the tasting room. Soft wood, wine, and conversations about nothing. I’ve always loved this place. This is the first time I’ve come alone but I fell right in with total strangers. We babbled-on for an hour about the wines. There is no cure.

Ride the dark wood of the wine country on Spring Mountain. I swear you’ll feel time slowing down. When you return to the valley floor, it’ll feel like you’ve been gone forever. There’s something about this place. Napa, Sonoma, and the mountain roads that connect them are like a multi-verse in our own back yard. It’s perfect.

Spring mountain road up

Robert Keenan Winery

Spring Mountain – Robert Keenan Winery – September 8, 2013

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