Thursday 6 May 2010


Well, to judge from the front picture you may tend to believe it, but then again not. Whilst the sunshine points in that direction, as does the generous terrace folding out into a golden green landscape, with vineyards down below, surrounded by luscious greenery, there seem to be too many trees out there, covering the top of the hills. Furthermore, these are not olive trees, as in that benign Italian landscape, they look more like laurel, oak and pine.

You may have already guessed that we are in the famous Napa Valley, the number one outing destination for the Bay Area’s busy bees. Looking at the picture again, this reminds me suddenly of another place to cherish, the valley where I was born, far to the East of the Germanic ranges, the broad Lafnitz Valley, bordered to the East and West by low wooded hills just like here, with larger hills, almost mountains, also beckoning, but from the North, instead of the South. This is astounding, since Napa Valley is situated lower in latitude than Florence, whereas the Lafnitz Valley is found considerably more upwards on the globe. We witness once again the surprising impact of a microclimate that appears to suspend the general aspects of various latitudes.

We have already, in an earlier posting (“Flowers dancing in the rain”), been into climactic peculiarities of the region. It is useful to recall that we are located here further to the South than Rome. As we move from the coast, cooled off by a current from Alaska, towards the Great Central Valley in the centre of California, the climate gets increasingly warmer. Whereas temperatures over the year in the coast ranges are far too cool for wine, it stands to reason that there must be a certain distance from the coast, where conditions are just optimal for various types of high quality grape, who generally appreciate cool winters and sunny, but not too hot, summers.

And this is indeed the case. There exist two valleys, to the Northeast of the Bay, and at about an hour’s drive by car away, which possess the ideal conditions for wine making: the Sonoma and Napa valleys. Connoisseurs differ in opinion on which of them produces the best wine, the more westerly Sonoma, or Napa. My personal bet is on Sonoma, which is slightly cooler and more geared towards the Northern types of white wine we so highly appreciate in Austria and Germany. It was also the first to be colonised by wine makers. “Yes”, the first North Californian winery was founded in the Sonoma valley, but we leave this interesting fact to another posting.

My landlady Nobuko, last weekend, generously suggested that we pay Napa Valley a visit, together with her friends Akiko and Edward. Ever eager to experience new views, I was delighted to accept, the more so since the outing would tell me, how Bay residents, in contrast to us tourists, tend to approach this major attraction.

It turned out that my hosts travel to the valley mainly to enjoy the hot springs, located at the upper end, usually prolonging their stay over a weekend and combining it by frequenting the odd winery for sightseeing and tasting on the upward or downward leg of the trip. In line with this we ventured North on Highway 80 along the endless commercial locations at the lower East Bay, crossed the impressive estuary of the Sacramento River on Carquinez Bridge and, soon after, were propelled into the bucolic landscape of rural California. Off the freeway we went and into a calmer road that quickly brought us to the broad valley, cornered by wooden hills, that is Napa.

Travelling North in this valley for about twenty minutes, all we saw was one winery after another, rarely interspersed by communities striving to provide variety in the prevalent unity. Many vineyards had impressive habitats crowning the fields, from simple “Châteaux à la Bordeaux” to imposing castles on precipices, as distinct signs of affluence and assertion. The communities themselves, determined not to be outshined by their rural landlords, abounded with elegant public buildings and shopping streets lined by cutely preserved or replicated historic edifices.

My hosts decided to start the tour with a visit to the town of Calistoga, a famous hot springs resort town at Napa’s upper reaches. I was expecting a European style spa with a generous “Kurpark”, interspersed with fountains for degustation of the various curing waters, a pavilion with music, in general, an outline generously dispersed by park-like landscapes. Alas, I was surprised to see none of this in that famous resort. It suddenly came to me again that we were in the country of private ownership and enterprise “par excellence”. Every hot spring in town was fenced in by a private establishment, be they small hotels with diminutive hot pools, or even only rooms with bathtubs, or larger compounds with correspondingly larger bathing facilities. This is not to say that the general outlook was unpleasant, the establishments were generally laid out in aesthetically pleasing style; it was just surprising to experience that public space, allowing visitors to benefit from the hot springs, was essentially non-existing.

After this brief incursion into the Californian world of relaxation it was time, at long last, to practise the main touristic action expected from visitors: “wine tasting”. I put this between citation marks, since this is not to be confused with ordinary wine tasting arranged for connoisseurs and usually carried out in drab locations by experts in judging wine quality without actually consuming it. In the Napa Valley it consists, rather, of a combination of touring an amusement park, admiring architectural achievements, visiting an art museum, consuming a gourmet luncheon and, not to forget, consuming small quantities of wine here and there along the way.

Our tour started with the Sterling Winery, an amazing place with its château placed high up on a promontory commanding the valley, in theory accessible on foot but in practice reached through entering a swaying cable car. Once arrived, you are invited to visit the imposing premises, interspersed with wine tasting stations, where friendly hosts entertain you with stories about the wine. The title picture shows the main architectural attraction, a terrace not unlike those found in Italian palacios, permitting a sweeping overlook over upper Napa Valley.

I opened a discussion with the friendly sommelier shown in the picture, testing him on his knowledge of wine history, in particular, about the origin of the wine most commonly conceived as the genuine Californian brew, the notorious Zinfandel. To my surprise he told me that its origin was Croatia, whereupon I immediately put forward that its true beginning must have been in Austria, where we until today cherish this grape variant under its true name, the Zierfandler. We managed to agree that we both could be right and parted as friends. But the truth is out there somewhere and we may come back to this issue at a later blog posting.

You would have thought that the producers, living and working in such congenial environment, would tend towards “dolce far niente” and have a leisurely way of producing wine, like we can see in traditional wineries back home. Far from it! The American spirit of enterprise must not be denied. Behind the scenes there emerges a production facility, almost like a wine refinery, that is definitely the state of the art. Make no mistake about it, these people know how to produce ordinary table wine for the masses, as well as high quality wine in oak barrels for us connoisseurs.

Next stop was at the Clos Pegase Winery, an amazing little station quite close to the Sterling compound. Akiko and Edward count this as one of their favorites, not because of the wine, the tasting of which we already had accomplished at Sterling (you tend to ration it, considering that each winery is charging you the not so modest sum of USD 25 for sipping usually 4 variants of wine), but rather for the artistic flair of this special property. I was not disappointed. The château was built in a funky blend of post-modernism and Spanish colonial, which somehow blended in splendidly with the landscape. Interspersed with the building’s colonnades you could find hidden treasures, such as, a modern sculpture in bronze (“Gaia” by Henry Moore) and, as a special treat for our Belgian friends, a fountain once owned by the wife of King Albert II, whose impressive maiden name is Princess Donna Paola Margherita Maria Antonia Consiglia Ruffo di Calabria.

But this was far from all! When entering the wine storing facilities, in a tunnel adjacent to the wine tasting, you could glimpse, among the giant oak barrels where red wine is maturing, an intriguing exposition of paintings, with the painter actually in place and producing new artifacts, right there in the wine cellar! To me this is the quintessence of Napa Valley, a discrete convolution of art, wine and tourism.

After this cultural touring, it appeared appropriate to satisfy our palate with food worthy the experience. No McDonalds for us at this stage! In fact, I seriously doubt that fast food chains could be found at all in the Napa Valley. “No”, my hosts knew the perfect place to visit, none other than the former winery of the Christian Brothers. Theirs was another impressive edifice, actually looking like a real winery from outside, in contrast to the more elaborate buildings we had visited before. Maybe the Brothers concentrated too much on wine making, neglecting the flanking activities necessary for long-run viability. But their misfortune is our bliss. They sold out to the Culinary Institute of America, “The World’s Premier Culinary College”, to use the enterprise’s own terms.

Dining al fresco on the terrace overlooking the valley, we could not but agree on the institute’s excellence. The food, melting on our tongues, was prepared, as well as served, by humble students, but the experience outshone what I recall from culinary temples I had the privilege to worship in my days.

Fortified by this Lukullian experience, on we went to visit the next winery, this time the venerable Beringer vineyards, among the most venerable in the valley. The main building was approached by a sweeping driveway through a park and, for a moment, I got the impression to be in the Rhineland, since, from among the trees, there emerged a nice little castle, with turrets and all, resembling the edifices built by wealthy winemakers back on our home continent. And indeed, the Beringer brothers’ origin was the Rhineland and they had built their little palace as an exact copy of their parents’ house back home. They founded the winery in the 1870s, making it the oldest still existing, if not the first, winery in the Napa Valley. Of course, they were far from the first wine makers in Northern California, this honor rests with a famous person from quite another country, not far from Germany – but more about this at a later blog posting.

Before even entering the main building, a wonder of nature caught my interest. Standing just before the little castle, the most enormous oak I had ever seen craved my full attention, as well as the full power of my camera. Even with the widest angle on my zoom, I could catch only about a quarter of its size. It took me a collage of six photos to fully convey its enormity to you here, my dear readers.

Not to be bested by wonders of nature, the house itself was a delight to visit. In the true style of teutonic “Fin de siècle”, room after room, adorned with ceilings and panellings in golden oak, all kept splendidly alight with colored glass, unfolded before our admiring eyes, gracefully restored to the original splendor. Those were the days, when winemaking alone could create fortunes ample enough to finance such splendor, without having to succumb to simple tasks like entertaining tourists with spectacles and artistic accouterments.

As if that was not all, a last winery awaited us before leaving the valley, further South towards the town of Napa. This was a more modern establishment by the name of Robert Mondawi Winery, founded in the 1960s. Not to be outdone by its more venerable competitors, Robert Mondawi built, as centre for his establishment, an edifice resembling a substantial Spanish, or Mexican, monastery, pretending to be far more ancient than its recent origin and fully equipped with pieces of art, just like its older brethren.

Still, it is a well built centre for worshipping Bacchus and appears very popular among the wine tourists, also the more prominent ones, to judge from the limousine that parked at the entrance, awaiting its VIPs for the trip back to civilization. Not to forget about the opportunities it provided for photographing arches in late sunshine, which always has been a favorite motive of mine.

This ends our tour of the renowned valley, our first excursion away from the closer Bay Area. I have to say that, after this interesting and fulfilling excursion, I was still glad to be back in Berkeley, which more and more tends to become a beloved home away from home for me, just like it was way back in the ‘seventies.


Dave Abercrombie said...

Thank you for your kind words regarding my photos. I am honored that you call me an "accomplished" photographer, since I think I am such an amateur, and have so much to learn. I am inspired by the beauty that abounds, and take photos mostly to please my own eye. I take care to title and caption them, however, since others may find these data useful for searching. I knew nothing about histograms in photography until we chatted. But I started to study, and made sure that my camera could display them. I will have fun learning about them, thanks!

I have attached a map to one of my favorite hikes in Briones. It starts at the Bear Creek staging area, near the northern section of the parking lot, near the water and bathrooms. Follow the Abrigo Trail
north up the canyon. Turn right uphill at the Mott Peak Trail. Climb to the ridgeline, and turn right on the Black Oak Trail. This follows the ridge a bit, then descends down to your right turn at Old Briones Road. This is about a two-hour hike, and involves about 400 or 500 feet of climbing. If this is too much work, you might wish to simply explore the valley of the Abrigo Trail, or Old Briones Road, both fairly flat.

The hills are beginning to look a tad brown. But the grass is still soft and green underneath. The brown color comes from the seeds, which are grey and red. The hills have this "fake" brown color for just a
few weeks, until real brown appears. This process is just now starting, and is just visible in my latest "Slopes of Mott Peak" photos.

By the way, nearly all my photos were taken during bike rides. I ride my bike out to Briones, and then through Briones and back, about a 6-hour round trip, with about 4500 feet of climbing. I also ride Marin trails a lot, after taking BART to SF and riding over the Golden Gate (and back, about a 15-hour day).

Emil Ems said...

Dear Dave,

I am as pleased as you to have met you the other day at the veggie restaurant on Telegraph and was in turn educated by you in the use of histograms for focussing search procedures in databases like Oracle.

I highly appreciate your suggestions to visit Briones and, in fact, have arranged today for a car rental over the weekend. Saturday morning at 7.30 sharp, I will drive briskly over the Berkeley hills to this wonder of nature, in order to capture its beauty in the mellow morning light. Report back from the trip will be made on this blog in due course.

Lars Werin said...

You rightly praise Per for his beautiful and ingenious poem. I think pointing out that it is partly an imitation does not all detract from its qualities, it adds to them. As most readers of your blog are still quite youngish, many of them may not know that it is based on the poem written by the person played by Leslie Howard in the film “The Scarlet Pimpernel”. The film was probably made in the early 1930s (!!!), and is a minor classic.

Per Wijkman said...

Dear Emil,

How nice to be back as an interactive participant in your travelblog after my attic rumagings! Your learned participants, Lars in particular, are of course well aware that the Baroness Orczy is the originator of the poem that I have modified slightly to your needs.

They seek him here, they seek him there
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven or is he in hell?
That damned infernal Pimpernel!

The Scarlet Pimpernel was an English nobleman who rescueded - at considerable personal risk - French from the reign of terror during the French revolution(s). The Baroness' books were turned into films - probably by J. Arthur Rank - during the second world war - and Leslie Howard played magnificently the Pimpernel. The parallels with the terror then reigning in Nazi occupied Europe was obvious and I suspect that the films served as a great moral booster in the free world. Leslie Howard, that most English of Englishmen, was I recall, a Hungarian jew. He died in a plane crash during the war in circumstances that I believe still remain mysterious. If any of your readers are too young to have grown up on the books or the movies they may well enjoy viewing them in video or even reading the books to their young children.

Blog on!

Lars Werin said...

I’m terribly sorry having to play the role of superpedant, but I would like to return to the intellectual history of Per’s poem. I looked up on the film “Scarlet Pimpernel”, and found that it was in fact made already in 1934 (as I guessed). Per, you probably mix it up with another film called “Pimpernel Smith”, made during WWII, once again with Leslie Howard, now playing the role of a British professor who made the impression of being very absent-minded, but who went to Germany just before the war in order to rescue Jews and other threatened people, exactly as the Scarlet Pimpernel rescued French Nobility during the years of the French Revolutions. This film is also very good, worth seeing. For once I see the advantage of getting old, hence able to recall more things that happened long ago than you youngsters.

Per Wijkman said...

Dear Emil and Lars,
Thank you Lars for reminding me of the war film Pimpernel Smith. Now we are getting down to some serious research! I googled Leslie Howard and found a Wikipedia article on him, which I recommend for those interested in esoterica. He was born Leslie Howard Steiner, of an English mother and Hungarian Father, in Forest Hill (UK). He filmed the Scarlett Pimpernel in 1934 and Pimpernel Smith in 1941. Among his many other films we find - most appropriately for this Blog - Berkeley Square. His death no longer appears mysterious according to the sources cited. The civilian passenger plane (KLM) that flew him from Spain (where he may have been on a political mission) to London was shot down over the Bay of Biscay on orders of Propagande Minister Goebbels 1943. The article also cites a rumour that London knew of the German plan to attack the plane but did not defend it since it would have revealed that the UK had cracked the German code.
Emil, on behalf of Lars and me please raise a toast to this gallant man in a suitable watering hole near Berkeley Square!

Blog on!

kari_lantto said...

Napa valley was one of those places I did not see when in California the summer of 1981. It had been badly burnt so we were advised to see another wine-valley, the name of which escapes me. It was a great trip, but it was not the Napa valley. One of those small regrets of life.

kari_lantto said...

I meant to say: Thanks for your great pictures of the lost place!

Emil Ems said...

Dear Lars and Per,
I am glad that we now have gotten the background story to Per's poem right. As to Per's suggestion, I am at Berkeley square most every evening, frequenting the movie theaters there with abandon. My favorite watering hole there is the "Burgermeister", with excellent burgers and Blue Pabst Ribbon. Cheers!

Dear Kari,
You chose the right valley to visit. There are only two in the Bay Area, so you must have been to the SONOMA VALLEY, where it all began. I will visit this sacred place before leaving for Stockholm and you will have a chance to look at it in all its splendor at a future blog!