Travels & Traditions: Napa Valley - #207

Napa Valley is fifty miles north of San Francisco… and easy to get to. It is a protected agricultural preserve, and the primary activity here is growing grapes that will make great wine. There are parts of Napa Valley that look like the district of Provence in France, or Bordeaux, or Burgundy. And anyone who knows Northern Italy will quickly spot parts of the valley that are similar toTuscany. Napa is one of the most beautiful places in North America.The busiest months of the year are September and October when the wineries are harvesting their grapes and starting to make wine. It’s also the height of the tourist season. If you’d like less crush and more care, then January through March is the right time to make your visit. The fields are quiet. Traffic is light. And it’s easier to get a reservation at the best restaurants.BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The residents of Napa Valley appreciate visitors and during the early months of the year they have more time to welcome them. You can stop in to everything from a mustard festival to a neighborhood barbecue. But Napa Valley is not the kind of place you want to come to for a single day. You really need three or four days to appreciate what’s happening here. And no matter what time of the year you come, you’re always better off on weekdays than weekends.

The most extraordinary way to see the valley is by balloon. Joyce Bowen is the owner and chief pilot for the Bonaventura Balloon Company.

JOYCE BOWEN: I love the sense of freedom, the sense of peace, the serenity, the magnificence... Distances are deceptive in ballooning. When you are looking at something like a half mile away, it seems like you can reach right out and touch it. I think that’s one reason why people aren’t afraid of ballooning when they think they’re gonna be afraid of heights. It’s just so close; it’s like a painting all the way around you, only you’re part of the painting. . . . I liken it to music; as a musician, I think that flying is like a line of music. You’ve got vertical considerations and horizontal considerations and you follow a line, and you maneuver. It’s very much like music

That was the first time I went ballooning and I loved it. The feeling of gently floating along above the world… the amazing peace and quiet… it’s a wonderful way to travel.

The valley runs north to south for thirty miles and the main road along its length is Route 29. The first town that you come to as you head into the valley from San Francisco is Napa. The plan for Napa was laid out in 1847, which makes it the oldest town in the valley. It’s located on the Napa River, which runs down to the top of San Francisco Bay and then out to the Pacific Ocean. During the 1800s, all commercial shipments from Napa Valley, including wine, were transported from the docks at Napa. When the California gold rush got started in 1849, Napa became a favorite winter hangout for the miners. Today Napa still has much of its river town atmosphere and one of the largest collections of Victorian houses still on their original sites.

You can drive out of the town of Napa and head up the valley on Route 29, or you can get a good look at the land and a good meal at the same time on the Wine Train. The Napa Valley Railroad Company was founded in 1864 and continued in operation until 1987 when it was purchased by the Napa Valley Wine Train Company… under the direction of Vincent DeDomenico, who at the time knew more about steaming rice and conching cocoa than spiking rails and rolling stock. His family business invented Rice-a-Roni and owned Ghirardelli Chocolate. And he thought it would be great to have a classic old train take people up the valley while they ate and drank. So every day the Napa Valley Wine Train takes passengers on a three-hour ride up the valley. Meals are served in a restored 1917 Pullman car… mahogany paneling, brass fixtures, etched glass… rail travel and dining as it was in the golden age of the iron horse. And you can drink the wine of the vineyards as you pass them.

Three hours later and you are back in Napa. If you’re moving up the valley town by town, the next place on the trail is Yountville.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): During the early 1800s a North Carolina mountain man by the name of George Calvert Yount wandered into the neighborhood and hung around as a handyman. He became friendly with General Mariano Vallejo who was the Governor General of the territory, which at the time belonged to Mexico. In 1836 George changed his name to Jorge Concepcion Yount, converted to Catholicism and was rewarded by the general with a huge tract of land... which is now downtown Yountville.

Yountville is home to some of Napa Valley’s most famous restaurants. It makes sense to have great food in Yountville -- Napa Valley’s first vines were planted here and today the town is surrounded by some of the valley’s most famous winemakers. And what’s the point of having good wine if you don’t have good food to go with it?

Just north of Yountville is Mumm Napa Valley. G.H. Mumm is one of the great champagne producers in France. But champagne is not only a sparkling wine -- it is also a small geographic area, and French law says that champagne, the drink, can only be made in Champagne, the district.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Which means that if you are a French champagne maker and you want to make more, you’re gonna make it in some other country and you’re gonna call it “sparkling wine.” In 1979 Mumm began a secret search for the best region in North America.

It ended up in partnership with Joseph E Seagram and Sons, and finally decided on Napa Valley as the place. Today Mumm Napa Valley makes a sparkling wine using the same techniques used in the Champagne district of France.

EVAN GOLDSTEIN: I think people are simply missing the boat when it comes to champagne and sparkling wine with food. I mean, historically they’ll start the meal with it, they’ll finish with it, you know, a toast at the beginning to celebrate somebody going to college, a toast at the end of the meal to celebrate getting married -- but during the meal itself, you know, it’s like, “Okay, now let’s have a red wine,” or “Now let’s have a white wine.” They never actually think that the same wine that they might be toasting with might indeed actually be better with the food that they’re having. And it’s really a shame. Sparkling wine is a very food-friendly wine, and in that respect it’s not gonna blow away any particular dish and will generally highlight the flavors of about everything you serve it with.

Mumm Napa Valley’s love of art is not limited to the art of winemaking. It is also involved in the art of photography. In 1959, Seagrams commissioned the great photographer Ansel Adams to produce a pictorial essay on a winery. The works were exhibited and toured by the Smithsonian Institution and now rest in a permanent gallery at the winery. In addition to the Adams photographs, the works of other well-established and promising photographers are exhibited as part of an ongoing program.

The grapes that are used to make the sparkling wines at Mumm Napa Valley come from the southern part of the Valley. The grapes that grow on the land surrounding it go north a few miles to Sterling Vineyards, which is a sister winery also owned by Seagram. Sterling sits on top of a 300-foot hill that looks out over the valley. The architectural style is that of an Aegean monastery. Visitors ride a tram up to the winery for a look at the land below and a tasting of the Sterling wines.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The only unfortunate interruption in the history of California winemaking was a totally misguided and highly destructive experiment by our Federal Government, known as The National Prohibition Act. From 1919 to 1933 they tried to keep law-abiding citizens from drinking anything with alcohol in it. Many of the great California wineries were forced to close. But there was, however, one positive benefit to Prohibition. A number those wineries realized that they could use their facilities for making great cheeses.

Today California is the nation’s leading dairy state. In 1993 it passed Wisconsin in milk production. About half of California’s milk goes into the making of cheese, which is produced in 130 different varieties. One of the country’s most popular cheeses is also a California original. It is called Monterey Jack and it’s named after the place where it was first made and the guy who first made it. Today it is produced in various forms by more than a dozen different California cheese makers. David Viviani is a third generation artisan cheese maker who specializes in Jack cheese. His grandfather learned to make cheese when Prohibition closed the winery where he worked. In 1987 it was the first cheese factory west of the Mississippi River to win a gold medal in Wisconsin.

Today they are making Sonoma Jack. After the solid curds have been separated from the liquid whey the curds are flavored, measured into cheese cloth and rolled into balls. Dave said I should give it a try.

BURT WOLF: Fortunately I was in the Boy Scouts. I can make knots.

DAVID VIVIANI: This was a hundred pounds of milk this morning. Now we have ten pounds of cheese. We’ve got ‘em.

BURT WOLF: I’d better put this one aside... I wouldn’t want any of your customers to buy that --

DAVID VIVIANI: You know, it took two cows to make this much cheese. 

BURT WOLF: It did?

DAVID VIVIANI: They worked all day to make that much milk.

BURT WOLF: I hope I don’t run into ‘em after what I’ve done to it.

Down the block is the Vella Cheese Company, which produces Dry Jack, a cheese developed during The Second World War when the Italians in San Francisco couldn’t get cheese from Italy.

ROGER RANNIKAR: Okay, what we have here is the Dry Jack. A mixture, what you see here, of pepper, cocoa, and oil is mixed together, and each wheel is individually rubbed and put on the carts, and these will age seven to nine months minimum. The cocoa powder / pepper keep the oil in a state of suspension, allowing the cheese to breathe, and the oil keeps the cheese from cracking. When you eat it, you will eat the coating itself and everything, because it is naturally made. And then they’ll just sit seven to nine months, while they age.

Napa’s history as an area for winemaking goes back to the work of the Spanish missionaries in the early 1800s. Its cheese making goes back to the 1700s. But its history as a place to come and rest goes back for thousands of years. These days there are a number of great spas located in the western part of the United States. Many are elegant resorts designed for a three or four day visit in the classic tradition. An example is Meadowood in Napa Valley. Meadowood is a private estate set among 250 acres of thickly wooded land. The main building houses the reception area, and there are rustic small buildings tucked into the forest that house eighty-five rooms and suites. The aspect that struck me the most was its stillness.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): I spend most of my time in cities and they are so noisy I can barely hear myself think. For the last couple of hours it’s been raining here... I can hear the drops on the wooden roof. A pleasant change from car alarms, jet planes, and fire engines. I get to hear sounds of nature… rather than the sounds of man. Nice change.

The Spa at Meadowood has all the traditional treatments, but whatever they do they take a very Napa approach to it. During the two weeks I stayed here they wrapped me in grape seed mud to reduce my stress, polished me with grape seed conditioner to reduce my stress, and rubbed me with grape seed oil to reduce my stress. But there’s historic precedent for all this grape seed business.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): During the 16 and 1700s, the French royalty living in Paris believed that taking a bath in a cask of Chardonnay wine reduced the negative effects of aging. And the more they bathed in it… the more they sat in the wine, the more they drank… and the more they drank, the more they believed that it worked. But then the French Revolution came along, and that had a very negative effect on aging amongst the French royalty. As a matter of fact, most of them just... stopped aging and the Chardonnay bath was forgotten. But not everywhere.

It has returned in the form of Meadowood’s Chardonnay Massage. Of course, the Chardonnay is in a body lotion instead of a barrel, but it’s the thought that counts and that, um, anti-aging thing.

In keeping with the traditional role of a spa, Meadowood entertains its guests with physical activities like swimming in the heated pools... biking along the trails... playing tennis at one of the seven courts...golfing on the nine-hole course, and my new sport: croquet.

JERRY STARK: Well, the objective of the game is to win.

BURT WOLF: Yes, I like that! I like that! I’m in! I got it!

JERRY STARK: There’s a certain pattern you have to follow.


JERRY STARK: So you go through each wicket twice, once in each direction. And the object is for me to get the two balls on my side through all six wickets twice and hit the stake before you get your two balls through all six wickets and hit the stake. When you swing, you want to swing the whole mallet from your shoulders. Your shoulders are the top of the pendulum. So you draw your hands back to the body, and you extend out through the ball. So the whole mallet swings -- the arms should move more. You want everything relaxed; the only thing that should move when you swing a mallet and hit a ball is your arms. Your head stays down, your body doesn’t move, just a nice, smooth swing from the shoulders. Just like that. There you go. ... That’s not makeable. ... One of the hard parts about the game is learning to make the balls do what you want ‘em to do.

BURT WOLF: A lot of physics.

JERRY STARK: A lot of geometry and physics, yes. There’s one trick shot that comes into play once in a while. Let’s say red ball needs to make this wicket, but the blue’s in my way and I’ve already hit it, so I’m not allowed to hit it again. So the only way to do that is to put my feet in front of the ball, which allows me to hit down on top -- that way I got through and I didn’t touch the blue ball and it’s all legal.

BURT WOLF: I’m real glad we’re not playing for money.

Central to the history of the spa resort, and more important these days than ever, is the relationship of the spa to health, especially when it comes to anti-aging. It’s reflected in their activities and in their recipes.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Many scientists are studying the relationship between what we eat and drink and how we age. Recently a group at Tufts University announced that eating foods high in antioxidants helped reduce some of the negative effects of aging. They also pointed out that prunes were at the top of the list of commonly eaten fruits and vegetables that are high in antioxidants.

Ninety-nine out of every hundred prunes grown in the United States is grown in California, so the California prune farmers would like you to remember the study. Prunes actually show up often on the menus of the great chefs here because of their naturally sweet taste and chewy texture. And because the chefs hope that the prunes will help people remember how much they enjoyed the restaurant.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): When I was in the fifth grade I went to a school that was directly across the street from a little market that would take prunes, put them on a wooden stick and dipped them into warm chocolate. Almost every day after school we would stop in and buy a few to eat on the walk home. But today’s prunes are very different than the ones I ate when I was a kid. They are moister, they have a chewier texture, and most of them are pitted. As a matter of fact, people are calling them “dried plums.” But whatever you call them, I’ve been a fan for many years, and always glad to pass on a good word.

The information about dried plums protecting long-term memory and the ability to keep learning is new. But for years experts have known that they were high in fiber, iron and potassium. Good stuff.

And just up the valley from Meadowood: more good stuff… in the town of Calistoga. Lincoln Avenue, the main street, looks like it was part of the set for High Noon or maybe Blazing Saddles. A hundred years ago it was a tough frontier town and much of the architecture has remained. Local shops line the street… no chain stores are allowed in Napa Valley. There are a number of excellent restaurants here and I got to eat in a few of them.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): Brannan’s is named after Sam Brannan. In 1859 Sam was living in San Francisco when he heard that the top of Napa Valley was filled with hot springs. He came up and bought 2,000 acres and put together a plan for a spa and resort that he hoped would rival the famous Saratoga in New York State. Then he brought up a bunch of potential investors and showed them the neighborhood. Threw a big party for ‘em. Lots of eating and drinking. When it came to the point where he was going to explain his plan, Sam had had a little bit too much to drink, and “Saratoga of California” came out as “Calistoga of Sarafornia.” But he got his investors anyway, and Calistoga got built.

Brannan’s Grill has a multi-ethnic staff that is reflected in the menu. We started with skillet clams and mussels -- the Italian influence -- but the sauce is lemongrass curry… the work of the chef Rob Lam, who is Vietnamese. The main course was braised lamb shank with roasted onions, pappardelle pasta, and mint yogurt. It’s like the United Nations in a bowl. For dessert we had a mini-flourless chocolate cake that was served while it was still soft in the center, a scoop of banana ice cream on the side.

Across the street is the Catahoula Restaurant and Saloon. It serves American food that has a southern accent and a Napa personality. There’s also a focus on foods from a wood burning brick oven. The chef and owner is Jan Birnbaum, who grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I am a devoted fan of this man’s cookin’.

BURT WOLF: What’s for dinner?

JAN BIRNBAUM: Burt, we got some goodies! We got Rooster Gumbo with shrimp, okra and tomatoes... a Perfect Pear Salad... and a pork porterhouse steak with red-eye gravy and Soft Sexy Grits.

BURT WOLF: “Soft Sexy Grits!”

JAN BIRNBAUM: You know, grits got a really bad rap. Everybody knows grits as what you get at a truck stop when you order breakfast, you know, and that’s usually cooked with water. If you’re lucky you get a sprinkle of salt. And this one is cooked with some chicken stock, some garlic, a little bit of Tabasco, ‘course there’s some butter and cream in it. Then we have red-eye gravy here, a sauce that’s made first with a hambone, then tomatoes, lots of onions and the usual suspects, but the interesting part is the coffee.

BURT WOLF: Coffee!

JAN BIRNBAUM: I assume that Grandma had a pot of coffee on the back of the stove

BURT WOLF: Oh, yeah

JAN BIRNBAUM: when she was cooking and it was sitting there and she needed something to thin her gravy with, and that made sense.

BURT WOLF: Perfectly logical.

JAN BIRNBAUM: Absolutely. I figure that’s how it must’ve come about. Then we have a little topper of pickled cabbage. One of the combinations that I always taste in Asian in the way a cabbage is something that has that, you know, that really earthy cabbage flavor and sort of a slightly fermented flavor -- that’s pretty hot...

BURT WOLF: Ooooh... oooh...

JAN BIRNBAUM: That’s a pretty plate... nice colors...

BURT WOLF: I’ll be back right after this meal. You have a great sense of color. It’s like a painting. You know what they always say, that love and food begins with looking.

JAN BIRNBAUM: You know, we talk about the love of the food, and I remember a long time ago when I was -- probably one of the first times I cooked something for a group of people, I was under ten -- and I just never forget the feeling of making people so -- you know, you work, and you do something that’s fun and then you deliver it to them and everybody loves you. How can you not want to give that all the time?

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The food in Calistoga is good, but Sam Brannan was right -- what makes this place special and has for thousands of years is that it sits on top of an intense geothermal area that sends hot water shooting up from the center of the earth. It even has its own “Old Faithful” geyser.

Deep beneath Calistoga is a river. As it runs over the molten rock at the center of our planet its water is turned into super-heated steam, which shoots to the surface. Thousands of gallons of water at a temperature of 350 degrees are driven skyward for about 60 feet. The geyser repeats this performance at regular intervals.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): But from time to time the pattern changes, and some scientists believe that change can predict earthquakes. That has certainly been the case in my personal relationships, so I understand why they are monitoring Old Faithful. And speaking of old faithful, I hope you will join us next time on TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I’m Burt Wolf.