Theme song - "Red, Red Wine", by UB40
An hour north of San Francisco is California's wine country. From the neighbouring towns of Napa and Sonoma, two parallel valleys stretch away to the north. The Napa valley is now synonymous with wine and the valley is jammed packed with vineyards and wineries. Napa itself if a small city with a pleasant and well restored core of 1890s buildings. We stayed only long enough to visit the tourist office, pick up a map and get some recommendations. As we didn't arrive in Napa until mid afternoon we decided to head to the top end of the valley to visit The Castle.
Dario Sattuti's grandfather migrated from Italy in 1885 and was one of the pioneers of the Californian wine industry. Dario established his own vineyard in Calistoga, at the northern end of the Napa valley, and topped it off with a faithful replica of a Tuscan castle. We took the two hour castle tour and wine tasting. Wine tasting in the US is very different to wine tasting in Australia (and elsewhere). It's almost done on a one to one basis, with the host taking you through each of the wines personally. Great for personal service but it can make for a long wait to get a taste in.
We drove back down the valley towards Napa, checking out the scenery. We struggled to find any budget accommodation (surprise!) so turned north again and drove back to Calistoga. Calistoga is the site of a natural hot spring and was originally a Wappo Indian settlement. The discovery of silver in the nearby hills led to the Indians being driven off. When the silver ran out, the mining town of Silverado was dismantled and re-erected in Calistoga, which became a railway hub and spa town. Calistoga still trades on its hotsprings; there are dozens of spa hotels and just a little out of town is Old Faithful Geyser. It does sound a bit lame but we did go and see it. It's one of those touristy things you've just gotta do. So we joined the crowd sitting around this little pond and waited, and waited, and made jokes about watching kettles boil and then WHOOF - up it went. And it certainly does put out a bit of water - probably some 30 feet into the air for maybe 10 minutes. Apparently it blows about 40 minutes or so, but recently it's been blowing every 15-20 minutes. I don't know what that means. This is a very volatile region.
That night we had an excellent Italian meal at a fancy bar.
The next day we drove back down the Napa Valley, stopping at Beringer Estate (beautiful mansion), Peju Winery (lovely wine) and the Old Bale Mill, which we stumbled on by accident. The mill was built in the 1840s when California was still part of Mexico. The mill was officially closed but as they were grinding corn for a local grower they invited us in for a personal tour. It was really interesting to see how effective mid 18th century automation was.
We drove on to the Sonoma Valley and stopped for lunch at Domaine Carneros. This French style chateau didn't have a restaurant per-se but did tasting plates matched to their wines. They had a different approach to tasting than other wineries. You bought a trio of tasting glasses - champagnes, reds and whites. Shelly had the champagne taster; I had the red, and we bought a cheese plate to share. The wine was excellent and the cheese plate was no measly serving either.
Sated and relaxed we drove on to Sonoma Town. Sonoma is an old frontier town founded in 1823. In 1836 a group of American settlers, who had been flooding in from the north, raised the flag of revolt and imprisoned the governor. The Bear Flag Revolt led to the declaration of independence of the Republic of California, with Sonoma its capital. A few days later however the US invaded California and absorbed it into the Union.
We wandered around the pleasant old town. In the central square a jazz festival was setting up. We had a couple of drinks on the lawn, a pulled pork roll and a corn dog (strange!).
We decided not to stay the night in Sonoma but to get a little bit closer to San Francisco. We eventually arrived at the city of San Rafael, north of San Francisco bay, although we didn't know it at the time. We struggled to find any accommodation and for a time it looked as though we'd have to drive north to find something, but then we stumbled upon a long term hotel attached to a hospital. Although it was expensive we took it and crashed out. Tomorrow we'd be in San Francisco!