Coomsville, NV’s 16th American Viticultural Area

Curious about Coombsville? Me too….right in our own neighborhood! 🙂

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‘First Course on Sustainable Tourism at Harvard University’

I am thrilled to witness as this “industry” broadens and becomes “mainstream”… =)

via ‘First Course on Sustainable Tourism at Harvard University’.

Suisun Valley in the Winter

The rains had stopped for a few hours on a Sunday in January.  I say “rains”, plural, because in a month we had four, five, or more storms roll across our skies; pouring rain, drizzling rain, steady rain.  There was a feeble suggestion of a sun break from my local weather forecast, but rain or shine on this day I was going out just to get away for awhile.  I was craving the ease of a Sunday drive, pulled out my colorful map of Suisun Valley and ventured forth with sunny memories of the summer and the farmer’s markets.

Suisun Valley is a small agricultural jewel just off Hwy 80, west of the city of Fairfield.  The farmers and vintners of the valley have worked together to welcome visitors to their rural community.  There is an excellent website, www.SuisunValley.com that offers plenty of information about the farm stands, wineries and events of the valley.  You can download a map of the area and local attractions, or pick one up at the Suisun Valley Wine Coop, on Suisun Valley Road where the journey begins. I started out on Suisun Valley Road to make my way from Rockville Corner north and loop around the valley.

My mission was to find the farm stands that stay open year round.  The website and map lists the farm stands and the days and hours

The Vegetable Patch

they are open.  From Suisun Valley Road I turned east onto Rockville Road and headed to The Vegetable Patch.  I was planning to gather winter root veggies for roasting.  Family owned and operated for over 29 years the bright indoor farm stand is well-stocked with veggies, dried fruits, jams, fresh farm eggs and local breads.  I consider it a special opportunity to get out in the blustery, winter weather and be able to pick up farm fresh produce right from this stand.  From The Vegetable Patch I doubled back toward the roundabout on Rockville Road, turning onto Abernathy Road to continue north. Satisfied with my veggie purchase, I was headed next to Cal Yee Farms for their famous dried fruits and nuts.

As I drove along Abernathy Road I experienced the remarkable environment of this valley; a bit of a step back in time.  Large wooden farmhouses surrounded by fruit trees, a classic 1953 Chevy parked in the driveway, the smell of wood smoke from a fireplace or stove in the air. In January the yellow mustard blossoms were already covering the fields between the bare gray trees and brown grapevines.  A damp drizzly mist hung low over the fields, the atmosphere brightened by the sunny mustard. The Suisun Valley is what sustainability is all about.  The residents of this small rural area are bestowed a country life just fifteen minutes from the suburban bustle of Fairfield and Vallejo. In the 20th century this area provided an abundance of fruits, nuts, vegetables and dairy products for the surrounding counties.  Some orchards have been replaced with vineyards, still important agriculture that sustains the open, pastoral environment while providing hospitality and world-class wines on into the future.  The Suisun Valley Vintners and Growers Association are working together to enhance the opportunities for locals and visitors to enjoy, literally, the fruits of their labor.  Throughout the winter months several wineries offer special events and regular weekend hours for wine tasting.  The “kickoff” in spring for exceptional wine tasting is the Suisun Valley Passport Sunday in April.  Sign up for the valley’s e-newsletter at www.SuisunValley.com to keep informed of what’s happening in the valley throughout the year.  For information on the Suisun Valley Vintners and Growers Association visit www.SVVGA.com

Along Abernathy Road I found Ledgewood Creek Winery and just had to stop in for a tasting.  I was delighted to try their first Pinot Noir, the grapes grown right in the Suisun Valley. I will return in the spring and summer to lounge around the outdoor patio with expansive views of the vineyards and hillsides.  http://www.LedgewoodCreek.com

When I arrived at my final destination of Cal Yee Farms I stocked up on a colorful assortment of dried persimmons, sulfate-free dried papaya and bags of almonds.  Cal Yee Farms is a long-standing Suisun Valley family business.  They have provided generations with their vibrant holiday and special occasion gifts and baskets of fruit confections for over 50 years.

Suisun Valley is easily accessible by car and better yet, quite easily accessible for beautiful bike rides throughout the spring, summer and fall.  From San Francisco and the East Bay you can take your bikes on BART and Amtrak and within an hour and a half arrive at the Fairfield Amtrak station.  As noted on the SVVGA blog: “The Amtrak station is in Suisun City, just a couple miles southeast of Suisun Valley.  There is a local bicycle shop on Suisun Valley Road if mechanicals arise.  This journey is also feasible from the Sacramento metro, not to mention a quick day trip down from Davis, the bicycle capital of the west coast.”

As I headed back out to Hwy 80 to return home I was so pleasantly satisfied with my Sunday drive! The rain held off for me and not only did I get a chance to get out and about, I was returning with a bounty of locally grown produce, fine wine and stocked up with healthy snacks for a couple of weeks. Never fear the doldrums of a dreary winter, Suisun Valley beckons with warm hospitality and tastes of sunshine, perfect for a weekend journey.

Cal Yee Farms

Ledgewood Creek Winery

Take a Look Up and Around Downtown Napa

Generally my main form of exercise has been walking.  Not a lot of hoopla about it, just a regular routine, two days a week with a good

Gordon Building on First St.

friend and an occasional outing with my hubby on the weekends.  With the riverfront development and promenade, one of my favorite walking destinations is downtown Napa.  Whether I start out at the Hatt Building or the Oxbow Market, I can create an interesting loop around the heart of downtown.  In this tumultuous time, some favorite dining and retail establishments have gone away and some new and exciting places have opened up; it all adds interest and intrigue to how our downtown area is shaping up.

My personal preference is to preserve what we have, sustaining the beauty of our historical architecture; polishing and refining it so that generations ahead can sense the pride of those who have worked and lived in this town. I am not an architect or engineer with the knowledge of what structures must be overhauled, and which ones will not make it much farther into the 21st century, but I have noted some beautiful pieces of construction that I thought I would point out. When you’re downtown again, you may pause and look up and around at these lovely points of architecture; artwork really, and treat yourself to a self-guided tour of the outdoor gallery of Napa’s downtown history.

As we hurry along First Street, with our shopping and dining destinations in mind, we are usually under a large awning structure that juts out over the sidewalk on most buildings. Many of the store fronts still exhibit the architecture of the 1960’s and 1970’s; aluminum framed windows and not so interesting to behold. One day, as I was walking along First Street, I happened to look up at the building across the street. It was 1130 First Street, the Gordon Building, circa 1929.  Up above the cumbersome awning is a display of intricate Spanish Colonial Revivalist architecture, with beautifully carved tile work, dramatic arched windows and blue and green accents that remind me of the ethereal paintings by Maxfield Parrish. The tile work and beauty of this building wraps around the corner into the Coombs Street Plaza, where across the plaza is a building of mixed eras and façades, commonly known as the Merrill’s drugstore building.

On the north corner of the Merrill building there remains a very Spanish colonial style of façade with terracotta tiles, faux-adobe surface and wrought iron bars on the small windows.  Although not intricate and beautiful architecture, the “jail house” look sparks my imagination.  I like to ponder what this quirky piece of architecture meant to someone, and I know that in time it will be redeveloped and erased, tucked away in distant memories. The good news is that “distant memories” and information about our history can be found at the Goodman Library, circa 1901, a native stone beauty that is home to the Napa County Historical Society at 1219 First Street.  For complete information about the library visit the website:  http://www.NapaHistory.org.

As I walk around downtown Napa I admire the work that shows our dedication to restore and revitalize our historic beauty.  The colorful Art Deco tile work at Downtown Joe’s, originally the Oberon building, circa 1934; Wells Fargo Bank, circa 1923, the Napa Valley Opera House.  Each project has that heartfelt commitment to sustain our history, recycle, re-use and showcase what we have.  Another beloved project is underway at 813 Main Street, restoring the mysterious Fagiani Bar.  This building is one of the few remaining native stone commercial buildings from 1908.  In November of 2007, Steve and Johanna Hasty bought the building and Noble House Construction and Development is painstakingly restoring it back to a lively bar and restaurant.  The vision is to maintain the stone structure, as well as the captivating 1940’s Art Moderne tiling on the entrance to the bar.  The goal is to open the new restaurant and bar in the summer of 2010.  Inquiries about the project are welcome by phoning 707-257-3482.

As we turn each corner downtown, we may come upon a sacred old space that we can’t help but overlook during our daily comings

Fagiani Bldg on Main Street

and goings.  Taking a walk in downtown Napa can become a treasure hunt eliciting mystery as well as acquainting us with our ancestors of a hundred years ago.  If interested, visit the Goodman Library, as mentioned above.  Visit www.PreservationNapaValley.org to learn how you can become involved in preserving our historic communities.  Maps and historic guides are also available from the Napa Downtown Association located at the Visitor’s Center, 1310 Napa Town Center, 707-257-0322.

Oberon Bldg/Downtown Joes, Main Street

Walking the River

Every year I am dazzled by the autumn views along the Silverado Trail.  Breathtaking, awesome, splendiferous, are words that come to mind.  The gold, scarlet and green, with the late afternoon sun glowing through the vines bring a surge of gratitude to be able to live in this valley.  In November I was on my way to Rutherford for a special opportunity to get up close and personal with the Napa River.  As I drove north on the Silverado Trail, marveling at said vines and views, I realized that many of our visitors may not even be aware that the Napa River meanders this far north through the valley.  Gazing out over the vineyards the river is hidden; one might think the land just stretches solid and flat, straight across from the Vaca Mountains in the east to the Mayacamas in the west.  But down in its well worn trench, crossed by our historic stone bridges is the artery of life as we know it in our famous Napa Valley.

In our history the river was used for its bounty of stone for buildings, dredging the rocks which left too sandy a bottom for the natural habitat of salmon and trout.  The flow of the river has been controlled by building up the banks to protect one property, only to send it flowing too high to another; and so it goes as we worked with and against our Napa River.  I believe that for centuries the people living and thriving in the Napa Valley have held the Napa River close to their hearts and fortunately, we learn from our mistakes.  People will take a stand to repair and restore what seemed like a good idea at the time.

Since 1994 the Rutherford Dust Society has stood firmly committed “to encourage and promote the highest quality standards in grape growing and winemaking in the Rutherford Viticultural Area.”  (www.RutherfordDust.org)  In 2002 a subcommittee of the Society was formed to initiate a plan to manage and restore the Napa River that is so vital to their land and community: the Rutherford Dust (Napa River) Restoration Team, RDRT, or think of it as “our dirt”!  The restoration project will manage and restore the 4.5 mile stretch of the Napa River and its watershed between the Zinfandel Lane Bridge and Oakville Cross Road.  RDRT has successfully pioneered an innovative partnership with Napa County to realize this vision.  With over five years of detailed engineering and ecological studies the project construction commenced with Phase I in July of this year.  The team is chaired by Rutherford Dust Society board member, Davie Piña of Piña Vineyard Management, LLC and includes over twenty five riverside property owners.  The project is coordinated by leadership from Napa County, the Napa County Resource Conservation District, and Napa County Water Conservation.  To review the details of the project please visit the project website at:  http://www.napawatersheds.org/Content/10027/Rutherford_Dust_Society_Project.html

For my “river walk” experience I met with Gretchen Hayes, of Tessera Watershed Partners, and facilitator of the RDRT team.  Gretchen’s professional title is “Geomorphologist”; geo = earth, morph = change, and “ology” being the study of such.  Studying the changes in the earth and bringing her expertise to monitor the flow and erosion of our Napa River.  Gretchen represents the folks I admire that get right down in the dirt of our land to figure out how to support nature and give back what we have taken away.

I wriggled into big rubber waders, cinched them up to my chest and followed Gretchen down the bank to a section of river.  Our objective was to be able to walk right into the river and be surrounded by the trees, bushes, rocks, gravel, birds and critters that make their home along the banks.  I learned that a river “pools, riffles and glides”.  Create in your mind the meandering line of the river, as the water pushes through a gravel bank (a riffle) and then rushes into an open space (a pool) then gently glides to the next riffle.  “Pool, riffle and glide” sounds like a graceful dance step doesn’t it?

The section of river that we explored exhibited how the river banks have eroded below the land surface, down 15 to 20 feet.  Great oak and willow trees, root systems exposed will inevitably break away and fall into the river.   “LWD” was pointed out to me: “large, woody debris”; tree trunks, stumps and limbs as we know them.  These logs, pushed to the side, form a new extended bank and eventually become a beneficial habitat for fish and wildlife.  If needed the restoration team will introduce logs into the river for this purpose to aid the flow of the river.

We’ll have more salmon swimming and spawning and flourishing in our river!  There are many ripples winding around the gravel banks, providing the perfect environment for spawning.  As the Rutherford Dust Napa River Restoration advances there is a plan for a salmon ladder at the Zinfandel Bridge.  Our Napa River, often chided for being sluggish, will be brought back to a thriving natural habitat for wildlife and our community.

Most areas of the river are on private property, and not accessible for the public.  Therefore, I encourage everyone with a curiosity and love of our Napa River to contact the Napa County Resource Conservation District to participate in their programs that bring people to the river throughout the year.  Visit: http://www.naparcd.org/programs.html or call the Napa County RCD at 707-252-4188 x100.

Handsome Kenya Man

In December of 2006 I traveled to East Africa with forty women from the U.S. and Canada, guided by a non-profit organization based in Northern California that works to fund humanitarian projects in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.  After the first week of visiting villages and projects, we were headed to a women’s conference in Bondo, Kenya where we would be joining 450 rural African women to listen to their issues of health and welfare and to celebrate an international gathering of women.

We were traveling in an ancient school bus, bumping and grinding towards Bondo. My favorite saying from the trip is that when old school busses die they go to Africa and live on forever. It was raining again and the dirt roads were ruts turned to rivulets of caramel-colored mud.  To us the bus drivers were heroic and crazy at the same time.  We were giddy in the paradox of our trust and fear of their driving as we held on, bouncing, teeth and bones hammering up and down.  I kept thinking if I could just sit a certain way, maybe tilt to one side or something, then on the next big bump I might get a good chiropractic adjustment.  We turned off the main road and pulled through sort of a “business district” of a rural village.  I didn’t know why the change of direction and didn’t ask.  I was sitting alone at this time, content to be a silent observer surrounded by the rows of jubilant women.  I had never been this far away from home. I had never been in so different a country and culture.  I knew on this trip that I would mostly observe, just take it all in and learn.  I have never had my eyes feel so wide open and my mouth, uncommonly shut.  I experienced being in the present all day, every day and night for fourteen days.  To make judgments, to try to fit people, places and things into my previous categories or definitions was futile and really a waste of mental and spiritual energy.  Presently, the reason for the stop seemed to be on the opposite side of where I sat on the bus.  I supposed a problem with the tire; but I think it was just to fill up with gas.  Our driver stepped out of the bus and as is customary, the villagers gathered around to help.  Unconcerned, I turned my attention to the activity outside my window.

The rural business districts are often just two or three small, wooden shacks, the first buildings just off the side of a road.  It was hard to comprehend that these were places of business; retail or maybe a service.  These buildings were dull, gray wood with sagging porches, windows without glass, doors dangling from hinges. One shack appeared to be a store selling clothing with shirts, caftans and t-shirts hung across the front on wire hangers.  Women were sitting on the porch, heads wrapped in their native, vibrant colored fabric and dressed in plain “Western” attire of skirts, blouses and broken shoes.  Out in front of the stores, young men fussed over rickety bicycles and children played with plastic containers in the mud.  When I think of the African people we met and spent time with, I remember their warmth and generosity; how they would always give us something and embrace us over and over.  There were always women, children and some young men waving and smiling as we drove along.  But, also, there were always young and older men, who kept their distance and didn’t smile or wave.  Often they seemed to size us up and held our gaze with looks of disdain or mocking us. I knew the men lacked jobs and work and mostly just hung around on porches, roadsides and in cafes.  If I flip-side and stand in their broken shoes in the mud, wouldn’t I see a lot of well-fed, visiting white women with good intentions but no real sense of what this African life is all about?  Wouldn’t it hurt their inherent, human pride to have us see them in their present fate?  Not one person that I met on this trip was dull or stupid.  No one is immune to feeling shame. And then I took notice of one young man among the others.

Usually everyone in the bus was waving, calling out to children, smiling and talking to anyone and everyone.  But it was rainy, wet and muddy, so this time we didn’t tumble out of the bus to shake hands, do some shopping or play with the kids. We had several Kenyan women on the bus this time, bound for the conference, so everyone was engaged with each other. And so, for some reason, none of the other women were taking in this scene on my side of the bus. It seemed it was just me looking at the Kenya man.

I made lots of assumptions as this young man turned and staggered a bit.  I assumed he was in his early twenties and from his beverage concealed in a crumpled, brown paper bag, I assumed it was the universal symbol of alcohol abuse.  Then he looked at me looking out my window at him and he decided to approach our bus.

He sidled up under my window, smiling in what I presumed as devilish, and spoke to me in Swahili.  I also assumed he would speak in English, at least a few words. Most children make it to some primary school and learn English from the start; English being considered the first language, with Swahili the second.  But this young man was not offering any English, and I know very few Swahili words.

He was lean and handsome, as many Kenyan men are.  They have beautiful, wide smiles and eyes.  But this man’s right eye was damaged; cloudy, milky, scarred and off center.  I mentally analyzed his fate, “He’s disfigured, maybe not so handsome to some, no work, dejected, so he drinks. And there is an air of cynicism and maybe a bit sinister too.”  Being a good white lady from America, I politely kept eye contact with him and gave a smile.  I was not going to insult him by turning away, and I was drawn in and curious.

As he smiled languidly, posturing back and forth under the window, he continued to speak to me, I think sort of asking questions, sort of making remarks.  I smiled back, nodded, didn’t really know what to say or how to say anything.  Then, from the seat behind me, one of the young Kenyan women rose up and leaned over my shoulder to see who was there.  The young woman’s name is Julie; she’s about thirty years old and married with children.  She works with a village outreach program near Bondo, Kenya.  She is brilliant and committed to making changes to better the lives of women and children.  I had enjoyed talking with her earlier, listening to her beautiful command of English.  She is playful, also driven and direct, and now she had a few words for the young man outside my window.  She came around to my seat and half-stood with her knee on the seat, leaning beside and over me, craning to address him.

“Jambo…aye”, she started out in Swahili.  He looked up at her with a coy smile.  Then they began their exchange in Swahili, over my head, back and forth.  She asked him questions; he countered with brazen smiles and challenged her in return with sarcastic tones.  They ignored me.  She talked for awhile, him nodding or shaking his head.  He’d look at her, and then look away, sort of squirming with shoulders twisting in uneasiness.  She continued to speak; not sounding as if it were a stern lecture, but firmly conveying information that he alternately listened to intently and then he’d break away with sly smiles or what appeared to be flippant answers.  She pressed on with him, and he didn’t turn and walk away.  I sat, elbow on window frame, supporting my chin, with my mouth pressed into my hand, an attempt to look nonchalant, not taking sides, not butting in.  When either of them glanced at me, I felt they accepted that I was “in” on the conversation.  I didn’t know what Julie was saying to this man.  I had assumptions, maybe a gist of the conversation.  I figured at any moment he would just walk away from her, but he didn’t.  Then I watched as something unexpected happened.  He rubbed his hand over his face, as you do when trying to rub off sleep or confusion.  As he dropped his hand from his face, he straightened up, squared his shoulders and then looked directly at Julie.  With a respectful tone he said, in English, “I understand”.  She smiled and nodded.  He nodded and repeated, “I understand”.  Then he turned and walked away, back to the group of people near the shack.

I looked up at Julie, and she down at me.  She sat down next to me and I asked her what she had said to him.  “I told him to stop drinking,” she said.  We just looked at each other for a moment.  I didn’t need to ask for more.  I understood.  Her words and her intention sunk into me, as they had sunk into the young man outside my window.

Our bus was rocking again, jostling everyone again, slogging through the mud and pulling away from the village and back onto the road.  Now all the others turned in their seats and waved out the windows.  Julie returned to her friends behind us.  A powerful, emotional, but fleeting moment had passed and we were on our way again.  As I sat alone, contemplating and absorbing what I had witnessed, my heart swelled with love.  Love for Julie, for the Kenyan women and their pride, determination and commitment to family and community.  I have lots of stories to tell, and photos to share, from my trip to Africa. But while there or upon my return, I didn’t tell this story right away.  I was unsure of my feelings surrounding the story.  It was a private and intimate encounter suspended in its short duration of time.  It seemed to be a particularly personal story.  At first I thought, not personal to me exactly, but at the heart of it, it did indeed affect me.  I was witness to a spontaneous but intimate exchange between two strangers, and I sat right in the middle of it. I felt honored to be in their presence and to have shared this incident with Julie and the handsome Kenya man.

Impossible Blue

In this one you are showing me off to Mom and the camera.  You are so proud to have me, your chubby little toddler, stuffed securely in your backpack, ready to roll, bouncing along on your shoulders.

I don’t remember being that small up at Donner Lake.  But I remember several summer vacations there, after that.  The Sierra Club lodge; so old, with heavy wooden beams across an enormous dining hall.  Pancakes and strangers; sharing breakfast with other families.

I go to Donner Lake every summer now, with my loving, comfortable husband.   Just coming over the grade, the first glimpse of the impossibly blue lake, shimmering and welcoming, is my thrill.  Donner Lake, the mountains, the pine trees, the sandy families all over the place – this is another home of mine.  Here I breathe better, my skin feels better.  We brought you back with us in 2004 and in this photo you are frail and old; 90 years old, sitting on the lakeshore, not splashing in the water with me.  But watching me, and I’m still calling, “Daddy, look at me! Watch this!”

The lake is the same, our rolls are reversed.  I make sure you are secure in your chair; I shake the sand from your shoes.  But even with this twist of time it feels the same.  Your bright blue eyes reflect the shimmer of the lake.  Your smile is wide, as wide as in old photos.  Somehow you do still carry my on your back. – August 2007