Wine Country Uncorked

By Mike (Roadie) Marino

This Roadhead has done a bit of traveling and asphalt kicking in his time, but when it comes to the sheer galactic gravitational pull of tourism few regions can top the G-force of Northern California. It’s a dazzling display of towering redwoods and sequoias, every bit as impressive as the Statue of Liberty or the Washington Monument. Magnificent coastlines that get washed by large, roaring Pacific waves that crest, crash and roll onto shore with the speed and fury of a Neptunian NASCAR race, then gently and quietly recede to the same ocean that just gave it birth, leaving in it’s wake a pristine beach awash with curious flotsom and jetsom that will include sandollars, seaweed and seashells.

It’s also a region of quaint seaside communities like Steinbeck’s beloved Monterey and bustling burgs like Jack Kerouac’s San Francisco and Jack London’s Oakland. One region, neslted in a valley approximately 50 miles north of Ess Eff has been enticing a breed of tourist known as The Vino Visitor to this land of the vintner’s art from around the globe in droves. A veritable Garden of Eden of varietal’s and vino…The Napa Valley or Wine Country USA!!

The Corkscrew Tour and History

The Napa Valley is a paradise for lovers of the vine and those who wish to worship the grape gods. The valley has wineries aplenty from the large established names like Mondavi and Sutter Home to the smaller unique boutique operations. Wine tours and tastings are plentiful and guaranteed to please the palate and to insure that your visit is truly memorable, nothing goes better with fine wining than a good bout of fine dining, and you have plenty of award winning choices in that category. Shopping, of course, is an offbeat treat with merchants offering up for sale everything from wicker picnic baskets, complete with fine china and stemware, to an assortment of Hawaiian Shirts and custom Jerry Garcia neckware. Touring the valley is varied and exciting no matter which mode you choose. You can drive yourself, or luxuriate in a limo or you can even pretend your Steve Fossett trying to circumnavigate the globe and enjoy the sunrise with a spectacular view of the rolling valley below while sipping on a glass of early morning champagne. To top off your day, you can ride the rails in luxury with haute cuisine and fine wines on The Wine Train as you roll gently through the valley with a backdrop of mountains kissed by a sunset. So grab your corkscrew and get ready to Uncork The Wine Country!!

The Napa Valley wasn’t always a vintners enclave. The Wappo Indians inhabited the region 4,000 years before the Spaniards arrived. Mexico eventually gained it’s independance from this European power and assumed control of the whole of California. In 1831, George Yount, the first American settler in the Napa Valley arrived and it was he who planted the first grapevines. These original plantings were from Mexico and it wasn’t until 1860 that the higher grade European grapes were introduced. The Gold Rush came and went and in it’s wake it left a demand for the Valley’s wine. The demand was greater than a Pacific tsunami and by 1891 there were over 600 vineyards in the valley serving the needs of a thirsty population. Today, there are more than 200 wineries in the area, turning out marvelous Merlot’s, Zinfandel’s and Riesling’s and other faves of the wine crowd. All this has also produced a harvest of tourist green with over 5 million Vino Visitors a year!

Uncorking the Valley

Highway 29 is the main vino vein that passes through wine country like an asphalt artery. Napa, Yountville, Oakville, Rutherford, St. Helena and Calistoga each have something different and unique to offer the visitor. NAPA at the southern terminus of wine country is the Gateway to the Grape!! One of the highlights of the town are hand painted murals that adorn the downtown buildings depicting the regions history and the growth of the wine industry. More than just informative they are truly a visual folk art feast for the eyes. Traveling north on 29, you’ll come to the community of YOUNTVILLE, and yes, it is named after George Yount, the Johnny Appleseed of Viticulture. After paying your respects at his grave in Pioneer Cemetary, you may want to visit Vintage 1870, a three story brick building with over 40 eclectic emporiums that will cater to every shopping whimsy. Quaint, best describes OAKVILLE, the next stop on your journey of wine discovery. Famed for it’s historic grocery it is a definite must stop and see. Continue north and you come to the town of Rutherford, home of the Niebaum-Coppola Winery and is a wine country stop you can’t refuse!! Sure, it’s a winery, and yes, you can get a tour and a glass of wine, but the main feature is showing in the upstairs Francis Ford Coppola Movie Museum. Props and artifacts from many of this famed directors films are here on display, but for my money, the hands on fave rave is the chair and desk from The Godfather where Brando and Pacino, as the Corleone’s, ruled their celluloid criminal empire. St. HELENA is your next stop and it’s a stylish boutique boomtown with enouch cappucino to float the Queen Mary. It’s Bar Harbor without the harbor and design and flair ooze from every shop, so don’t expect any Blue Light Specials in Aisle #5!! As you journey ever northward on Highway 29, just north of St. Helena, on your left you’ll see the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, serving up some the finest cuisine in America west of NYC!! Prepare now to enter the spa and mudbath kingdom of CALISTOGA. Rumour has it that the original name was to be Saratoga of California, after the fabled resort in New York State, howevery, alcohol got the better of town founder Sam Brannon’s tongue and he proclaimed loudly to all…This will be the Calistoga of Sarafornia!! Calistoga it is then. Bubbling mineral waters, massage and mud baths create a mellow air in this reknowned realm of relaxation. Pampering has been elevated to a high art form and smiling faces are the rule…all that’s missing is a group hug!!

The Alterna Tour

The wineries of course are the main attraction in Napa Valley, and along with unique shopping and dining experiences it is a true adventure for palate and wallet. If, however, fine wines and tastings aren’t your brown paper bag idea of a vacation and you could care less if your wine requires a corkscrew or has a screw top there are a host of other activities and attractions. MOUNT ST. HELENA stands guard at the north end of the valley, stately and Sphinx-like, she guards the geyser realm that bubbles below her in Calistoga, spawning spa’s like a fertile rabbit on overdrive. The mountain was also home to fabled Silverado silvermine made popular in Robert Louis Stevenson’s THE SILVERADO SQUATTERS. Robert Louis also spent his honeymoon on Mount St. Helena in 1880 and you can hike the five miles to Consumation Summit to view the marker that indicates the cabin’s location. Robert Louis Stevenson State Park is named in honor of the author of TREASURE ISLAND and is located 7 miles north of Calistoga on Highway 29.

Many hot springs and geysers dot the valley but one ranks as the Ethel Merman of heat and steam…California’s version of OLD FAITHFUL. The old girl belts out a plume of steam 60 feet into the air every 30 minutes or so and is every bit as stirring as a full chorus singing a Broadway showtune. If it’s a touch of natural history and Humphrey Bogart your looking for, look no further than California’s PETRIFIED FOREST, also located near Calistoga. Before Walt Disney figured out that tourista’s would shell out cold hard cash to see pirates and Mad Hatters, Petrified Forest Charlie beat him to it in the mid 1800’s by charging folks to look at a petrified tree he had dug up!! In 1910, Ollie Bocker and her husband began serious development of the area and today is a primo attraction for the petro-curious from around the world.

The Roadhead chrome-magnon love of Detroits’s metal and muscle auto industry will do well to visit LITTO’s HUBCAP RANCH on Pope Valley Road just 2 miles northwest of Pope Valley. No Cabernets here, but you will find over 2,000 hubcaps collected by Emanuele LITTO Damonte. Born in 1892, Litto created arrangements and art forms over a 30 year period comprised of hubcaps, bottles and pulltops. Litto passed away to that Great Auto Scrap Yard in the sky in 1985, but left behind one of California’s pre-emminent 20th Century folk art environments and is California Registered Landmark #939. Litto’s Hubcap Ranch Kicks Asphalt!!

Planes, Trains and Automobiles…

Touring the green, rolling hills of Napa Valley is one of life’s indescrible journeys. Lush fields seem to undulate suggestively with row after row of well manicured fruit of the vine. Majestic mountains frame this verdant panorama straight out of Monet or Gaugin, and travel options are as plentiful as the award winning varieties of wines produced in the region. The do-it-yourselfer will find the absolute joy of asphalt discovery by renting a car to explore this Wine Wonderland, or for the more luxury minded, you can book a Limo Tour from any number of companies that specialize in Wine Country so you can luxuriate with an informed designated driver while you imbibe and sample the finished product of the the harvest.

If you have some Boxcar Willie lurking in your genetic code, you can ride the rails on The Napa Valley Wine Train, enjoying champagne brunches or dinners in a restored Pullman car as you sniff and sip your favorite varietal concoctions. The Pullman’s harken back to a time of railroad style and grace and are completely refinished in rich, imported Mahogany’s, brass fixtures and grape motif etched glass to surround you with quiet elegance as your Wine and Dine Magical Mystery Tour rolls gently up valley for a culinary experience you’ll not soon forget. The Wine Train station is located in downtown Napa, and while your waiting to board the Vino Version of the Orient Express, you can avail yourself of the many gift stores to shop for that perfect Wine Country gift or souvienir. Don’t forget to stop at the Wine Emporium that is filled to the cork with over 200 varieties of wine and wine related items. All Aboard!!

The Wright Brothers and Charles Lindberg certainly made aviation histoire, and you take advantage of their innovations in flight and take to the skies for a Birds Eye Tour of Wine Country by booking a flight on a Wine Plane!! Charter a wine tasting flight over the Valley and enjoy the view while sampling Mother Grape. In addition to flights over Napa Valley, many of the charter companies offer combo tours of the Valley and San Francisco. All in all, this tour gives new meaning to the term FLYING HIGH!

…and Balloons!

Ever since the Montgolfier Brothers soared the big blue in their big balloon, the race was on! Everyone from Jules Verne to Steve Fossett had been bitten by the gas bag bug. In Napa Valley, champagne balloon flights of fancy are not only a reality, but plentiful, and you have your choice of flight specialists to take you soaring into the early dew laden morning sunrise. The balloons themselves are works of aeronatical art, stretched like an artist’s canvas as they expand and fill to reveal brilliant, colorful designs that float above the valley floor as though on display at some private flying museum of modern art…and is one of the definitive Wine Country to do’s that is not to be missed.
The Napa Valley is a wine lover’s paradiso…to be enjoyed by the corkscrew and the screwtop crowd alike. It doesn’t matter if you enjoy your vino in a glass of crystal or a paper cup, Wine Country only gets better with age, like the fine wines this award winning region produces year and after year. Once you visit Wine Country, you’ll come back time and time again..if for no other reason than to keep the grapes happy, after all, nobody wants to feel..The Grapes of Wrath!!

This Dharmabum Roadhead writer’s work has been described as DELIGHTFULLY WIERD and WICKEDLY WONDERFUL!! Mike (Roadie) Marino is a publisher of an on line magazine called ROAD TRIPPIN’ USA. It’s an asphalt kickin’ journey of Roadside Nostalgia and American Pop/Car Culture for the Chrome-Magnon in all of us. The style is lock n load and deals with the realm of where Pop Culture and Chrome meet Asphalt and Art!!

Mike also writes a monthly feature column under the banner THE ROADHEAD for the award winning Offbeat Travel zine. His column deals with bizzare ashpalt and roadside oddities and locales from mechanical museums to Cadillac Ranch. Mike is also a freelance writer of travel and history pieces that have been published in magazines and ezines in the US and Europe.

Most current project includes toiling endlessly on his first book about Pop and Car Culture in America of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. Although born in the rustbelt of industrial Detroit, he’s also been the definitive son-of-a-beach and has lived in a treehouse in Honolulu, the tie dyed spare change neighborhood of Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, as well as the North Beach district..where the Beat Goes On!!

Today Mike (Roadie) Marino lives in Missouri near the banks of the Missouri River with his word processor. In addition, to writing and backpacking, Mike has a penchant for Hawaiian shirts, Jimmy Buffett albums and Corona Beer. If you would like to use any of Mike’s articles some of which are included here, contact him at the email address below or at He also accepts contract work and what the hell, a good agent wouldn’t hurt either. So contact him for rates and information. Now…Have Fun Reading…Grab A Cold Corona..And Kick Asphalt!!!

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