NAPA, ST HELENA & CALISTOGA - WINE COUNTRY
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
The seaside town of Pacifica is plain and uninteresting, with a dreary brown sand beach that looks bruised and battered from the beating it has taken from the tourists and the angry Ocean that pounds it relentlessly. Lying just south of San Francisco, it was here that we parked ourselves up for four days, well placed for our sorties into the great city, just 20 minutes away. We were completely duped and seduced by the title 'San Francisco RV Park' and were not even put off by the charge of $110 per night when booking but in fact we were actually staying in an unglorified car park, packed in so tightly like transient sardines that the sliders out of our bus collided with our neighbors'. It was ghastly. So we were pleased to leave and head north, taking with us some unforgettable memories and images of San Francisco Bay and a depleted bank balance.
To cross the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge in our RV was a hugely symbolic moment. This awe-inspiring structure is emblematic of all that is West Coast America. As you trundled across, you can feel the pride and splendor of its history and its dominant location straddling the opening to the Bay. Once the longest suspension bridge in the world with a span of 4,200 ft, it was built in the middle of the depression in just four years, under both budget and schedule. Thankfully, the Navy's request that it be painted yellow and black, to make it more visible in the famous fog, was ignored and they chose instead the rusty 'international orange' paint that is touched up throughout the year by 38 full-time painters.
Our destination was the bountiful Napa Valley, just an hour away. The pull of this place, as you can imagine, was irresistible. There are three towns in this cradle of the grape - Napa, the largest in the south, St Helena in the middle and Calistoga to the north. These are the three base camps from which tourists can venture out for the wine tours and tastings. We chose to stay in the great little town of Calistoga, a small welcoming homestead of wine bars, restaurants, mud baths, outdoor barbecues and happy people. The main street still exudes that exciting feel of a Western movie set with two rows of old- fashioned cowboy shop fronts. It is a charm.
Napa is the least attractive option and is home for all the ubiquitous and ugly superstores, Home Depots and fast food chains, scarring the environment with their ubiquitous brashness. The queen of the valley is undoubtedly St Helena, a stunning, stylish collection of upscale stores, fabulous restaurants and fine wine bars. And it knows it. It oozes superiority and expensive pretention. We must admit here that we come from a generation where our introduction to wine was the choice of 'red or white' and home consumption was Blue Nun from Germany or Mateus Rosé from Portugal. On very special occasions, the grown-ups would produce a posh round bottle of Chianti wrapped in wicker, which then had its life extended, once drained, by having a candle unceremoniously shoved into its orafice and transforming itself miraculously into a table feature.
St Helena completely believes its own publicity, but is no less fascinating or enjoyable for that. It is the self-appointed altar on the wine shrine, turning every visitor into an actor, a would-be oenophile, in this elitist play of connoisseurs and buffs. They fill the wine-tasting rooms, sipping on the minuscule splashes of each wine, challenging their olfactory senses while posing a knowledgeable expression and reaching for the ABC of words like astringent, bouquet and complex. That simple teaspoon of wine attracts adjectives that defy comprehension to the layman. It is baked, chewy, closed, connected, flabby, foxy, hollow, reticent, vegetal or even has a long throat. We philistines chug it down and say 'I like this one' or, alternatively, just grimace without comment and move on to the next one.
The truth is that the Napa Valley experience has become less about the wine industry and more about the tourist industry. When we came here years ago, the wine tastings were indeed a sample exercise in choosing which bottles you would take home. Today, it is a business in itself with the wineries charging between $20 and $45 for five small shots of their current supermarket wines. The tasting has became a drinker's Disneyland ride but for us, at those prices, it has become just too expensive to have a spin on every attraction.
But don't let that put you off visiting. The scenery is spectacular. Miles and miles of vines, each knotty old plant stretching out youthful, green tendrils to touch its neighbors. The precision of the planting is spell-binding. They are manicured to perfection. The phalanxes of stakes and wires that support and guide the vines have the precision of an historic battle line of uniformed soldiers. The only other places with such immaculate alignment are the military cemeteries with their uniform white gravestones perpetuating the rigid discipline that their fallen occupants observed in their life time. As you drive by, you are dazed by the arrow straight and diagonal lines that take your eyes into the distance. The wineries which host the tastings are like European country houses draped in blue wisteria, sitting proudly in well-stocked English gardens. It is truly, truly beautiful and you can quickly understand why so many people make Napa Valley a vacation destination in preference to the hectic inner cities or the predictable beach hotels.
Just down the road from Calistoga, we were drawn to a large sign saying 'Petrified Forest'. There is something mysterious about these two words and we paid our $10 to an enthusiastic young lady who immediately left her station at the till and offered to take us on a tour.
We were told that 3 million years ago a volcano exploded and spewed red-hot lava dust over the region, encasing the woodlands in hundreds of feet of grey powder. Some Pompeii-like metamorphosis then took place which turned the wood to rock, while retaining a true faith to every detail of the bark, roots and branches. Eons later, in 1870, an intrepid Swedish homesteader, Charles Evans (known affectionately as Petrified Charlie) struck a rock-hard hollow log and, bingo, he discovered he was sitting on a petrified forest. For the visitor, a stroll through the hilly parkland, stopping only to see a fallen trunk of stone, becomes less and less absorbing and the end of the tour is a thankful moment.
The inert excitement of a petrified tree trunk.
From there, we drove an hour east, towards the Pacific, to see California's most famous trees. from Dead Wood to Redwoods. The Armstrong Wood is a mind-bending experience of scale. These redwoods, 300ft giants of nature, are hundreds of years old and have defiantly just kept on growing, as if inspired by Jack and the Beanstalk. It is impossible not to be amazed as you are humbled on your walk on the shadowy woodland paths alongside the chattering streams being looked down on from above by these magnificent colossi. (Click on video below)
At last, after 644 days on the road, without a single trip back to our home in Key West, we have arrived at the wonderful home of our great friends Chris and Madelyn in Reno, Nevada. I met Chris when I was working at the Daily Mail Ski Show at London's Earls Court in the early 80s, the same place and time I first met Sandie. He was a world-class skier, performing incredible tricks every night on the enormous indoor slope. Sandie, meanwhile, wasn't performing tricks every night (as far as I know) but was running the fashion show three times a day. Chris and Madelyn show how special, unconditional and important true friends are and apart from feeding us, selflessly topping up our wine glasses with alarming regularity (as they don't imbibe like we seasoned-professionals do) and making us laugh, they also offered us a soft, luxurious double bed with well-appointed private bathroom. Having been on the bus, manacled to one another, since July 2017, you would think that this was an offer of Nirvana we could not refuse. But we clearly have suffered a severe bout of Stockholm Syndrome. We found we were unable to draw ourselves away from our caravan, and desert our four faithful cats, for even one night and have chosen to turn our tired backs on the salubrious generosity of our hosts and stay in our wobbly box-on-wheels.
However, the offer of the first bath for months was eagerly accepted.
Thanks Chris and Madelyn. One day we shall be domesticated once more.