Vintage Years in the Napa Valley

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But St. Helena’s chief historical attraction is the Silverado Museum on Library Lane. It honors Robert Louis Stevenson, who in 1880 came to the valley seeking relief from his tuberculosis. He and his bride spent a week in Calistoga and several months atop Mount St. Helena at the head of the valley, living in the assayer’s office and bunkroom of the abandoned Silverado Mine. “We lived … entirely in the wreck of that great enterprise,” wrote Stevenson in his 1883 account of the adventure, The Silverado Squatters, “like mites in the ruins of a cheese.” The museum is a hoard of Stevensoniana; everything from his baby hair to most of his first editions is on display here.

Just north of St. Helena are three of the valley’s older wineries: Beringer Brothers, Christian Brothers, and Charles Krug. Krug is Napa’s oldest operating winery, but Beringer Brothers gives a good tour of its fortresslike winery, the Chinese-dug tunnels, and the German Gothic mansion on the lawn. In 1870 the local paper called the Beringer cellar “the most handsomely finished of any in the valley.” I was similiarly struck.

Another few miles up the road is the Bothe-Napa State Park, site of the Bale Grist Mill. Dr. Edward Turner Bale was Yount’s contemporary, an English doctor who married the niece of the powerful Mexican general Mariano Vallejo and was awarded a huge land grant. Fond of liquor and argument, Bale was once publicly flogged for contesting the honesty of his wife’s uncle and was later arrested and then released for shooting that gentleman. According to a contemporary’s diary, Bale’s house “looked desolate enough standing on a dry plane near a dry black volcanic mountain almost destitute of vegetation … and about 10 or 12 Indians lying naked in the scorching sun finished the scenery of the rural domain.” This paradise Bale named Rancho Carne Humana—human flesh.

But Bale contributed more than lore to the valley; he built his grist mill here in 1846. That year a party of Americans met here on their way to Sonoma to arrest General Vallejo and to declare the birth of the Bear Flag Republic. The mill was later equipped with the largest wooden overshot waterwheel west of the Mississippi; today’s restored version of that wheel bristles with huge redwood timbers and fist-size bolts.

In the 1870s, hot springs drew wealthy San Franciscans to take the waters as the Indians had before them.

High up on a hill, a jump beyond the park, perches the Schramsberg winery. Robert Louis Stevenson tasted Jacob Schram’s wines in 1880. “To Mr. Schram this was a solemn office; his serious gusto warmed my heart … ,” wrote Stevenson. Though the Scot found Schram’s vintage “still raw,” he detected promise enough to prophesy, “The smack of Californian earth shall linger on the palate of your grandson.” Schedule an appointment for a tour of the modern Schramsberg, which makes prizewinning champagnes but sadly offers none to taste.

My final stop in the Napa Valley was in its northernmost town, Calistoga, a resort created by the renegade Sam Brannan, who led a flock of Mormons west to California, took their tithes, and ran. Before long he was a millionaire with a plan to develop the Saratoga of California beside some Napa Valley hot springs. Legend has it that, somewhat inebriated when announcing his plan, Brannan inadvertently called it the Calistoga of Sarafornia. The name stuck. Five hundred thousand dollars later, Brannan had two thousand acres, twenty-five cottages, a hotel, and assorted parks, bathing pavilions, and stables. The resort opened in 1862, and for thirteen fine years Brannan dallied with his wealthy guests—too much so to please his wife. Their 1875 divorce settlement forced him to liquidate, and he lost his Calistoga.

Today Sam Brannan’s world is memorialized at the Sharpsteen Museum, which features a diorama of the resort. One of the original cottages is attached to the museum; it is furnished with antiques and manikins dressed in period clothing.

Stevenson stayed briefly in one of these cottages, and from its porch he observed the fretful pace of this Western valley. “This stir of change and these perpetual echoes of the moving footfall haunt the land,” he wrote. “Men move eternally, still chasing Fortune; and, Fortune found, still wander.”

— Karolyn Ide