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Thursday throwaway: blogs, Calistoga and the flu

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I was going to write more about blogging and making money, for which I got slammed in several recent posts, but then I thought, there’s a limit to how much of this stuff even I can tolerate before it gets boring. So I’m dropping it for a while.

In fact, in my flu-addled mind wine seems a distant topic. Right now all I can think of is sitting on some warm sunny beach far away from the rain and cold that has been afflicting Northern California lately. We deserve it, of course, after six weeks of unseasonably dry, warm weather. The mustard flowers this year seemed more glorious than usual, bursting in riotous yellow between the dormant vines, but I know that grapegrowers worried the buds would break prematurely and then be struck down by late winter or Spring frost. In my neighborhood, Uptown Oakland, the plum trees likewise flowered early, with the most delirious, heady perfume, but the Vietnamese kids always break off the lower branches for their New Year celebration, so even though the trees are old, they’re small and stubby, like bonsai.

It was rainy the last two days in Calistoga, too, where I was holed up for a story in an upcoming issue of Wine Enthusiast. My original concept had been to write mainly about tourism in that old town. I know people, mainly women, who go there routinely for the mud baths, facials and massages (none of which, except for massages, appeal to me). There are now some nice restaurants in Calistoga, which never used to be the case, but they’re not as good as the new crop in Napa. I also figured I’d write a little about Calistoga’s terroir, especially for Cabernet Sauvignon.

But running around Calistoga, visiting wineries and chatting up whoever was around, it struck me that I don’t know what Calistoga’s terroir is. The TTB only officially approved the Calistoga AVA in late 2009 (I think it was), so there are no red wines that say “Calistoga” on them. There are plenty of wineries that make red wines in Calistoga, but except for a handful (Montelena, Araujo) that use estate-grown grapes, it’s not clear to me where these wineries actually source their fruit. (I mean wineries like B Cellars, Clos Pegase, August Briggs, Twomey, Envy, Bennett Lane, Summers). So I’m on a mission now to seriously figure out Calistoga terroir, whatever it is, and I have about two weeks to do it before my deadline.

Ah, the good old deadline. Nothing like a deadline in the morning to clear the mind.

I’ll write all about this in the article, which I hope you’ll read. I’m fundamentally at heart a reporter. I like nothing better than to have to report on a good mystery, and have the clock ticking toward my deadline. I started as a writer working as a stringer (freelancer) for the Oakland Tribune. In those days, I’d have to go downtown to the city room personally every morning at 9 a.m., get my assignment, then have until 5 p.m. that day to file. I did murder cases, child abductions, politics and stupid human interest stories (like one on lady wrestlers my editor called the best she’d ever read). Sometimes, there was no way to make my 5 p.m. deadline because it involved a late night City Council meeting, so I’d have to telephone (!!) my copy in to some kid, probably stoned, at the late night city desk and dictate it to him word by word, pointing out every comma, apostrophe and semi-colon (those late night copy kids were notoriously illiterate). In a way I miss the excitement of those pre-Internet days, but not really. I’m glad I can still get excited over a story, the way I am with Calistoga.

I wonder if having “Calistoga” on the label instead of “Napa Valley” will add value to the bottle’s price. The theory is that the smaller the appellation, the more you can charge for the wine. But like all theories, that one is often disproved by the exceptions. Lots of wineries refuse to put a smaller AVA on their label even if they can. Some wineries in Santa Ynez Valley put Santa Barbara County on the label. I imagine some Calistoga wineries will continue to use Napa Valley because they’re conservative, and they figure their customers might not understand the change. Myself, if I had a winery I’d use the smallest appellation I was entitled to.

Now I need one more day of rest to kick this flu or cold or whatever it is out of my body. Then it’s back to full speed, which I’ll need to be at for next week’s Wine Writers Symposium and all those associated activities, culminating in Premier Napa Valley. Nearly a week of non-stop schmoozing. You need to be well rested and healthy for that Olympian activity. Of course, I’ll be writing all about it.

  1. A lot of us have what you have. It lingers for a couple weeks. I read that taking zinc is a good idea. If you need to clear your head go have a barbequed tri-tip sandwich at Buster’s and ask for the “extra spicy sauce.” IMHO, it’s the best place in town.

    Calistoga can be quaint, quirky, and quixotic. (Q words fit pretty well.) There is a lot to like about the town. I lived there briefly in the days that the Hell’s Angels took over the town on their rumbles to Clear Lake. There would be bikes lining main street from the top to the bottom. There were some pretty rough bars in the early days. But you could get soused at one of those bars then check into Duffy’s Alcohol Re-hab. (I can recall more than one fellow drinker who turned out to be an escapee from Duffy’s.) You used to be able to get a mud bath, followed by a high colonic and then with some beer from the market, chow down on a burger at the airport and watch the gliders take off and land. Where else could you do that?

    Interesting people in Calistoga, like the mayor of the town who was once arrested for attacking a woman with a fork. Apartment buildings on the wrong side of town filled with farm workers who leave for work before the sun comes up. Retired folks on social security. Incense coming out of the Russian Orthodox church.

    It’s an odd place that defies description. Some really good wineries, some nice restaurants (which don’t get enough local support to compete with the rest of the valley) and luxury resorts like Calistoga Ranch and Solage, yet still some “personality” remaining from the early days and the Lake County traffic.

    Look forward to reading your article, good luck at defining the terroir

  2. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe it was the lady that forked the mayor. I don’t know how I can’t mix up important things like this.

  3. I grew up in St. Helena, but now live in Knights Valley and spend a lot of time in Calistoga. To me, Solbar and Jole represent the iconoclastic nature of Calistoga very well – the food is unique, new and local, not sterile and reminiscent of some European dream land. I spend time biking, hiking, eating, and sitting in Calistoga. It is a place to be much more than a place to be seen being. (Hey, I am not a writer…).

  4. It sounds like there’s a lot of forking going on up there, Morton.

  5. Don’t be disheartened about the blogging stuff – we need the differing opinions, man.

    Feel better!

  6. “I wonder if having “Calistoga” on the label instead of “Napa Valley” will add value to the bottle’s price.”

    I hope not. I would rather the price reflect the real quality and rarity of a wine.

  7. I have lived in and around Calistoga since 1974 always appreciating its quirkiness and laid back style. If you arrive in Calistoga on a warm summer night after passing through St. Helena, you can’t miss the different vibe. In S.H. all the activity seems to be behind closed doors (well maybe Anna’s Cantina will have some spillover onto the sidewalk) but in Calistoga there will be a street scene. Why the difference? There’s the Latin influence for sure, as many Hispanics reside in Calistoga, and promenade up and down Lincoln St. in the evening. Also there is a European influence, not only because many foreign tourists seek out the hot springs, but also there is a sizable Russian population. In the 70′s it was said that 10% of the residents were Russian–many having come over from China, first having fled there from the 1917 revolution, and then fleeing from Mao. There are still two Russian Orthodox churches. Calistoga loves to have parades, and seems to be able to shut down Lincoln Avenue in spite of it being a state highway (something I have never seen in S.H.). There is the 4th of July parade of course, where the most applause has often been for Mothers Gone Mad, featuring synchronized baby strollers. The highlight of the holiday season is the Tractor Parade, with decorated farm vehicles of all types–cheered on by several thousand people crowding the sidewalks, often in spite of rain and freezing temperatures, with some arriving hours early to set out their chairs. There is also an Our Lady of Guadalupe procession in December. In May there is usually a Cinco de Mayo parade, with lots of great bands and Aztec dancers, and everyone follows them at the end to the fairgrounds to eat Mexican food and drink beer. Also on two other weekends in May, the Tamale Festival and an antique car show take over downtown. Back in the 50′s a local tradition was the ‘Horrible Parade’ where locals made quite an effort to make spectacles of themselves: one example was a car driven by a couple of guys in deer costume (antlers, etc) with some other guys tied across the hood of the car, to parody the deer hunters who liked to cruise the main drag during deer season with their trophy kills strapped to the hood of their cars. Yes, the town has a unique feel. The mayor usually has a table right at the front of the Saturday Farmers Market is case you have something to discuss. St. Helena also has a wonderful farmer’s market, but I kind of feel like i need to get dressed up to go there. Perhaps the spirit of Calistoga begins with the town founder naming it by slurring his words when he meant to tout it as becoming the Saratoga of California!

    What about the Appellation? For me, I just appreciate knowing as specifically as possible where the wine I am drinking was grown, and let me decide how important that is. I recall back in the mid 70′s the great Andre T. gave a talk in which he said we should have an appellation system like in France (OK!) but went on to say that it should prohibit Cabernet S. from being grown north of St. Helena. The great man should be allowed to have had a few things wrong and I think our AVA system reflects better the American free spirit. Perhaps he was following the old saw about the valley getting hotter going from the south to the north. I still hear that being stated as fact, even when car thermometers show it is much more complex than that, with cool air pouring in through the gaps on days with on-shore flows. Even the first edition of Winkler shows St. Helena with slightly higher degree days than Calistoga (the question is Where in S.H. and Where in Calistoga)? In any event, it’s a good thing no bureaucrat could keep us from tasting an Araujo or Monthelena Cab (not to mention Diamond Mountain).

  8. Dear Bill, thanks so much for weighing in with your years of wisdom.

  9. So how about the labelling of *both* Napa Vatlley with a sub-AVA listing of Calistoga? Since most shoppers realize that Napa is in California bu haven’t a clue about the location of Calistoga, it would be an opportunity to engage the customer in a bit of education. Seems Sonoma County has just gone that route and it couldn’t hurt, right?

  10. Based on the longest time series available (1906-2010), Calistoga is considerably warmer than St. Helena. Using data from the WRCC-NCDC (conventional) weather stations in the two areas (both at the valley floor) we obtain 3,543 Winkler heat units (Region IV) for Calistoga and 3,272 (Region III) for St. Helena.
    When we employ data from the 1971-2000 normal, however, the situation reverses: we get 3,464 WHUs for Calistoga and 3,507 for St. Helena. This significant change in SH is due to an increase of 2°F in April-to-October’s mean minimum temps.
    A quick check on Google Earth, at Calistoga’s (38°35’46N/122°36’05W) and Saint Helena’s (38°30’24N/122°28’17W) stations coordinates, though, seems to validate the hypothesis that the impact of urbanization in the area surrounding SH’s weather station is responsible for the temperature increase.

  11. The regs are such that one can not use the sub-appellation (e.g. Calistoga) without the main AVA identity (Napa Valley). As I write this I am not sure if this applies to all appellations or if it is something specific to the NV AVA–perhaps someone from the esteemed Napa Valley Vintners, the protector of the NV AVA, can weigh in on this. Maybe there is some momentary confusion when the consumer sees one of our mountain AVA’s listed (Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain, Mt. Veeder, Howell Mountain, Atlas Peak) alongside the Napa Valley designation, but a moment’s reflection should reveal you can’t have a valley without some mountains. Something else to point out about AVA’s: these are not to imply that all the wines from an AVA should taste the same. In the application for AVA approval (strangely these go to a division of the Department of Treasury) one of the options for making the case, besides soil and climate distinctions, is to verify when the name of the area arose. So for instance in our application for Diamond Mountain as an AVA it was mentioned that in the 1800′s locals noticed sun reflecting off our rocks (obsidian, quartz?) leading to the name. So in an American AVA it is just being said that these wines are of a place and you the customer can decide if that is important to you. Quite different in Europe: my wife had a mentor from Champagne who always predicted the first day of harvest there, and he was always right. We thought he was prescient, but it turns out that date is published in the newspaper in Epernay. There is a committee there that regulates many things. Besides picking date, they regulate even what kind of press one can use…I guess that is part of the perspective of egality and fraternity, but it wouldn’t fly here in the home of the brave.

  12. You’re so funny!

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