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

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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.

Success from the Heart – The Heart of the Mendocino Coast, Part 1

I’ve visited the Mendocino coast nearly every year; as far back as I can remember.  My dad was passionate about the Northern California

Village of Mendocino, CA

Village of Mendocino, CA

coast and the rugged shores of Mendocino.  We headed there on summer road trips, to brave the bracing winds and stinging-cold water and watch my mom comb the beaches for shells and pretty pieces of glass.   In my early adolescence I became fascinated with the bohemian lifestyle of the village of Mendocino: a grocery store in an old church, charming bookstores in funky water towers, and colorful people and their artwork all over town.

This year I traveled to the Mendocino coast again as I planned and assisted the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce with a press trip for travel writers.  I was meeting and working and getting to know a few people who live and work in Mendocino and Fort Bragg.   As I listened to them I somehow began to sense what it feels like to live there.  I could feel how different and unique it is to dwell on this coastal edge; edging up against the rocky beaches, cold and windy days, forest roads and rural living.

It’s not completely easy to live on the Mendocino coast.  The town of Fort Bragg, the village of Mendocino and a few small hamlets along Hwy 1 are on their own for providing all of the modern conveniences that we, in the 21st century, take for granted.  Cell phone service is limited, having just landed in Mendocino about two years ago; still, most likely, you have to duck around a corner, or go outside on your porch to pick up a signal.   There are not a lot of choices for employment; working and making a living takes creativity and diligence. Keep reading

Between a geologist and a water witch

View from Stagecoach Vineyards

View from Stagecoach Vineyards

Yesterday I had the greatest pleasure to visit Stagecoach Vineyards; way up the hillside of Soda Canyon Road.  From the office of Krupp Brothers Estate vineyards, you can see across their property to the top of the mountain side, where 500 acres of Stagecoach vineyards are planted.  This is high-elevation, hot, rugged landscape.   Jan Krupp had a marvelous vision…a person that wants to take his vision all the way.  The land he set his sights on had no known source of water, no roads to the area, and what it had most were huge rocks and thin, rocky soil.  It didn’t seem feasible, or even possible.  Why go there?

I have only heard Jan talk of this vision briefly, but I today I am still pondering with fascination the drive and perseverance that he and his partners put forth to realize this vision.   And the water was found…first, a geologist marked out five areas where water might be, but concluded it was too far to drill…concluded it “couldn’t be done”.   Then a water witch was consulted and yes, there was water, in the area of the marks of the geologist and probably 350 feet underground.  The Krupp’s drilled and got their water.  Today we enjoy the remarkable cabernet sauvignon they have produced…and more. The grapes of Stagecoach vineyards have produced award winning wines for over 50 wineries in the Napa Valley.  http://www.stagecoachvineyard.com/

I conclude that from here forward, when I think “it can’t be done” or my faith is waning, I will summon my new mantra:   “somewhere between a geologist and a water witch” and I’ll give it another go.

Please indulge yourself and explore the wines of Krupp Brothers,  http://www.kruppbrothersestates.com/home.htm

What about the “witch”??  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dowsing

Intriguing, yes?

Roll and stroll through Hercules, CA

A couple of friends and I have a joke about how you can take San Pablo Avenue all the way to Los Angeles.  Of course in truth it starts at the top of Contra Costa County and runs through all the cities along the San Pablo Bay, ending just a few blocks west of Lake Merritt in Oakland.  That’s two counties anyway, and an impressive stretch of boulevard connecting our historic Bayfront towns. For driving north

Blend of old and new architecture

Blend of old and new architecture

and south, I’m using San Pablo Avenue more often, rather than put up with the massive transit on Interstate 80.  Along the way I’ve discovered how this thoroughfare, which in fact is the historic and scenic Highway 40, is evolving with its well-defined bike lane, offering alternatives to being caged in our cars.

Along San Pablo Avenue in the city of Hercules, there are signs naming the bike lane, the “I-80 Bikeway”.  I love how that label seems to give more credibility to this alternative to commute transportation.  And the bike path through Hercules is safe and scenic; getting to school or work, or running simple errands can be pretty convenient throughout this city.  The Contra Costa Transit Authority has released a draft update of the Contra Costa Countywide Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan.  Public workshops were held in June to engage the community in expanding the opportunities of bicycle transportation throughout the county.  More information is available on the City of Hercules website:  http://www.ci.hercules.ca.us/index.aspx.  As stated on the site, “If you are interested in the process and would like to read the draft plan or the previous Issues and Options Report, visit the Contra Costa Transit Authority website on the update to the Countywide Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan at: http://www.ccta.net/EN/main/bike/cbpp.html.”

I have to say that the urban design of Hercules has made this city very bike and walking friendly; eco-friendly indeed!  When it’s time for a leisurely bike ride or stroll I recommend exploring the up and coming Sycamore Downtown district. At the junction of Sycamore and Railroad Avenues you’ll find a charismatic blend of old and new architecture.  From Railroad Avenue turn onto Santa Fe Avenue where the newer neighborhoods circle around to embrace the historic homes of Bay Avenue, Pinole Street and Talley Way.  Throughout the Sycamore area, the new architecture purposely invokes the feel of “small town America” with the inviting porches and “gingerbread” décor of over a century ago.   The urban design of connecting neighborhoods encourages people to walk about to shops and restaurants and enjoy the wide-open view of the San Pablo Bay.  While exploring on a weekday I saw several people walking their dogs, or on lunch-hour jogs, and kids making their way back home off the big boulevards through paved pathways into their neighborhoods.  Off the concrete sidewalks, you can make your way along the more rustic Railroad Avenue path all the way to neighboring Pinole with a continuous view of the San Pablo Regional Shoreline.

Parks and open space take up about one-third of the terrain in the city of Hercules; a generous portion to consider if the urban sprawl of the Bay Area has one concerned.  In the middle of Hercules is one of the prettiest city parks I’ve had the pleasure to dwell in:  Refugio Valley Park, located at junction of Refugio Valley Road and Sycamore Street.  With over sixty six acres, the park beckons with spacious lawns, unique and captivating sculpture gardens, sparkling water fountains and a calming lake complete with lazy swans a-swimming.  It’s the perfect place to get away on your lunch hour; but beware, I’m sure it’s going to be hard to return to the office!

Carneros – Wide Open Spaces

2CarnerosEastweb

Carneros, Napa Valley

Sometimes I feel surrounded by traffic and noise.  All the progress and construction going on in Napa!   Maybe it’s good to just get away from it all, alone in wide open spaces to stretch our legs, our minds and perspectives.  I know just the place to do this, out on the edge of the Carneros.

The Carneros is the largest of the Napa Valley wine growing regions and shared, as well, with Sonoma County.  Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are its most famous grapes, others include Merlot and Syrah and it was the first region to be designated an appellation in 1983. Continue reading