Saturday, October 7, 2017

Napa, 14 years and one earthquake later

I left Napa fourteen years ago for a job in Southern California. While visiting over the years I got a snapshot of the changes going on in the town I grew up in; some good, some questionable. First the good. The restoration of the wetlands at the south end of town, Napa over the years has been subject to severe flooding. Removing levies, obstructions, and low bridges allows the Napa River to follow a more natural course to the San Pablo Bay. It seems like every time I visit the riverfront trails are getting longer and better connected.  The food here is outstanding and you no longer need to go upvalley to get a nice meal, but be prepared to pay for it, it ain't cheap.  This brings me to the not so good, the Napa I grew up in was very working class.  People worked at the shipyard, Kaiser Steel, Napa State Hospital, a winery, or any one of dozens of small businesses.  That Napa is gone, pushed out by the restaurants, hotels, and boutique shops that the tourists come to see. The shift to lower-paying service jobs means more people moving to cheaper outlying cities like Vallejo or Fairfield.  This coupled with tourists coming from the Bay Area means traffic. Lots of traffic, not LA traffic, but way more than I'm used to. Damage from the earthquake is still evident; the old courthouse is still covered in scaffolding and there are now vacant lots where buildings once stood. I'm reminded of the old saying "You can't go home again", I think you can if you realize it's a moving target.  In many ways the city feels younger, lots of 20-somethings coming up from the city to see grapes, the scene is a lot like the west side of LA.  Eating, shopping, and drinking wine are the entertainment here. There are about four hundred wineries with tasting rooms in Napa Valley alone. 
This red-tailed hawk was exercising right in front of the bus

We are here during harvest, the busiest time of year in the wine industry, and for those who are interested in more than just drinking the wine, the most interesting. Red grapes are being crushed, inoculated with yeast, fermented, pressed, barreled down, and put away to age about 18 months. White grapes are crushed, pressed, the juice put into barrels or tanks, inoculated with yeast, and barrel or tank fermented. This adds up to a lot of activity and the smells are amazing. If this process is something you are interested in I recommend visiting the smaller wineries as the process is less industrialized. All the marketing aside, wine making is a process no different than any other food production. The larger wineries usually have a "show" area with perfectly stacked barrels beautifully stained with red wine, upright wooden tanks with maroon painted steel bands, soft lights, etc.  The real work is done behind closed doors, forklifts, large stainless steel tanks, filters, dozens of pumps, hoses, and bottling lines staffed by cellar workers. If you do visit please be respectful of the cellar worker's time, it's not uncommon for them to work 10-12 hours a day with maybe one day a week off.

The last couple of mornings the marine layer has been missing, perfect for flying hot air balloons. I woke up yesterday with seven or eight flying over south Napa.  All in all there are worse places to be in the fall.


  1. OMG! This is amazing to follow you all on this incredible adventure. Thank you for sharing. <3