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It all makes sense in the long run


Got away for a few days on assignment for Wine Enthusiast. It involved a lot of driving through Northern California wine country’s back roads. Except for the last day, when a cold front moved through bringing showers, the weather was gorgeous — pure California spring, with temps in the 80s and the most gloriously blue skies. At this time of the year, most of the vines are in budbreak — not all of them, depending on location and variety. Budbreak is a pretty sight, with the bunny-soft green buds so bright against the mahogany-brown of the vines. The mustard-flower blossoms are still a cheery yellow, purple lupine dots the hills and fields, and flowering fruit trees — cherries, apples, plums — add splotches of pink and white against the sky, like an Impressionist painting. The brooks, streams and rivers are in their final rush toward summer, carrying what precious little water has fallen this season out to sea, and all the little animals seem to have a new-born sense of freedom after the long, dark, cold days of winter. Squirrels are running around with nuts in their fat cheeks. Raptors swoon above the roads and fields, whether hunting out prey or just enjoying the giddiness, it’s hard to tell. I’ve seen the season’s first robins and butterflies, and while the nights still are chilly, the promise of California summer is just around the corner.

That’s the pleasure of getting away out into wine country. You forget your troubles, and the hassles of the big city: the noisy neighbor, the rumble of garbage trucks at 6 a.m., the lurid headlines announcing the latest murder. Where I was staying — one night in Mendocino, the next in Dry Creek Valley — was in little cottages in the middle of vineyards, so on both days I watched out my window as the field workers, almost all Mexican I presume, worked the vines, driving the pickup trucks and tractors and performing the eternal rites of farming.

The tasting rooms seemed to be doing all right. At one place, in the Russian River Valley, the lady working the bar told me she’d been mobbed all morning — and it was a Tuesday workday in the off-season. On the other hand, I stopped by the Booneville Hotel, where the proprietor said the restaurant was experiencing hard times due to the economy, and she was uncertain about what days they’ll be open this summer. I remember when people would drive for hours just to eat at the Booneville Hotel.

Stopped by unannounced to see Bob Cabral at Williams Selyem and was not surprised to learn he and his family are on vacation. Someplace warm and tropical, I hope. This is a good time for winemakers to travel for pleasure. Pretty soon, they’ll have their hands full, as the vineyards swing into serious mode, and all kinds of blending and when-to-bottle and when-to-release decisions have to be made. Then it culminates in the harvest, 2, 3 and even 4 weeks of non-stop, no-sleep frenzy. If you’re going to get to Hawaii or Puerto Vallarta or wherever, early Spring’s the time to do it.

I’m back in Oakland now, the same-old same-old. But the memories of my little drive through wine country refresh and revive me. I highly recommend it. Just jump in your car, get off the main roads (Highway 29 in Napa, Route 12 through Sonoma Valley) and out onto the back roads, and take your time. The age-old rhythms of wine country put it all into perspective; somehow, it all makes sense.


  1. Hope you tried the chili and the Jimtown Cafe. It’s delicious!

  2. I just drove up from SoCal yesterday and went from Napa over to Petaluma. The amazingly green vineyards through the Carneros district and on up into Sonoma as viewed from 12 and onto highway 116 were remarkable. This is why people want to move here to experience wine country living.

  3. Spring is so invigorating. Even for those of us who live or lived in wine country this is a special time. Thanks for the written snapshot.

  4. Morton Leslie says:

    Today was just about perfect. Wife and I started out to do the “loop” a walk around vineyards in St. Helena’s west side when she suggested we walk down to Beringer’s and see what they had done in the restoration of the Rhine House. I almost never go there except on business thinking about a crush of tourists, but it was so beautiful today I’d follow her anywhere.

    I have to say, for corporate ownership they surely have good taste and have done a superb job on that old house. The grounds were spotless and beautifully landscaped and much was in bloom, especially dogwoods and Banks roses. Everyone was relaxed, most everyone had a smile. No one was rushed. A gal took time out from her job when we asked about the restoration to take us around and show us back rooms and other interesting points of the restoration. A woman sat smiling on a bench next to a bed of flowers reading a book. A Japanese fellow was taking a picture of his party, and she put down her book, got up and volunteered to snap the shot so they all could be in the picture.

    We decided to make it a regular stop on our Saturday walk, maybe I’ll take a book along and become a camera volunteer.

  5. Is there a place in wine country that does not look lovely in springtime? I was in Lodi last week, not a place I go very often, but the foothills were green, the Sierra was snow-capped and the vines were pushing.

    The Zin was thick, rich, chocolaty and not really my style, but there are something like 75 wineries out there now, most of which are new and some of which are well-capitalized and are succeeding in their attempts to put more fruit and less ripeness into their wines.

    it is a great time of year to be out in wine country–even better than crush both because the crowds are smaller and the overall aspect is prettier.

  6. Couldn’t agree with you more, Steve. Call me a bit of a Thoreau-type, but I can’t help but retract from the concrete and find a sense of calm closer to nature. Especially at this point in the season when everything is coming alive. You’d think pollen allergies would lower my spirits, but I embrace what comes with it. I think it’s important that people remember they aren’t running away from their lives when they do this, they’re actually running toward life.

  7. Springtime in wine country. You and I have seen many, Charlie, and they’re always fine.

  8. Steve, you are giving away our secrets. I am beginning to believe Jack Benny was right.

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