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September 24, 2006

The Smell of Home

By ML Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- Something didn’t happen to me. It was something that was obvious in its absence. Normally, when I leave Napa – and I love to travel – the return over the Butler Bridge (the Southern crossing) heralds the end of my journey, and causes a stab of “why did I leave.” Usually it is the smell that triggers it. The smell that changes from the Bay Area’s urban road odors of hot concrete or wet pavement to the sweet breaths of loamy earth that fragrantly hangs around the Napa River’s broad reaches, sloughs, and southern flood plain.

I know I am home when those smells hit my nose. It has been an aroma that has comforted me for two decades.

After my last trip this past week to the San Luis Obispo wine country, I still smelled it on Friday night as I pulled in dusty from a hasty two-day road trip. I guess the epiphany was that I didn’t feel like I had been away.

I cut my teeth on Napa wine (after a brief acquaintance with Boone’s Farm and Mateus). Napa wine country has been my home for all most all of my adult life. I admit, I am prejudiced – home is best.

But, the place I call home has seemed to grow. Philosophically encompassing more of California wine country than just the eighth of an acre where the post office delivers my mail.

This came to me, as I sat having lunch at Tolosa winery on Friday. It was a blessing of the grapes ceremony, celebrating the fact that they were finally starting to pick their Pinot Noir, and celebrating their ties with the historic mission in San Luis Obispo.

It was during lunch that I looked out over the rolling hills of the Edna Valley, closed my eyes, flared my nostrils and realized . . . I just didn’t feel that far from home.

September 14, 2006

The Personable Town of Murphys

By M.L. Hilton

(MURPHYS, CA) -- I tend to hang out in tourist haunts. I did it even before I was paid to. I like the tourist trade. While it comes with incumbent hassles (more traffic, lots of people) typically it protects a very exceptional environment.

Each tourist area has it owns unique local color and personality. In some places, the locals are very convivial; striking up conversations, taking their time helping, sightseeing you as much as you are sightseeing them. Other places are on auto pilot, the locals are waiting for all the tourists to leave so that they can have back their corner of God’s green earth. My youthful experiences on Catalina Island were like that. Sometimes the paid help would “helpfully” guide people to the bridge to the mainland – that didn’t exist.

My recent trip to Murphys, deep in California Gold Country, was not like that. The uniqueness of the town and its offerings certainly stands on it own. I would have been fine dallying by myself amongst the wine tasting rooms, cafes, and other amusements. I don’t expect to be entertained or even engaged in a serious manner.

But everywhere I went, people offered conversation, interruption, and instructions without my asking first. As I was petting the town donkey in her corral, a women in a car who was driving by stopped and shouted out her name. “That’s Clarissa.”

Ironstone was having a big concert that night and retail clerks and café service staff all wanted to know if I was attending. Each had their own recommendation, and each was also attending. If you get general admission tickets, the local advice is to arrive at 4:30 pm to get just the right piece of grass to enjoy the entertainment (that night Heart).

By far the funniest, was dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Open less than four days, the brisk dinner business was easily as much local as it was tourist. I introduced myself to one of the owners who was also the town’s undertaker and County Coroner. In one ear he was telling me the history of the restaurant – his partner was from Italy and recently divorced from his wife, who kept as part of the divorce settlement their restaurant and its name – which was coincidentally the name of the partner.

In my other ear, when the coroner walked out of earshot, I heard the dirt on the divorce, scandalous claims, and got the giggles about the ex-husband opening his new restaurant almost exactly across the street from the ex-wife’s. I was also regaled with stories about dead men and missing crosses.

It is rare to walk into a town that folds you in so completely. A place that is as happy to see you, as you are to see it. I am sure that as the pressures of growth become more difficult to balance, that maybe some of that small town congeniality will be lost.

But for now, if you want to feel like a part of a different place and a different time make sure you visit Murphys and give yourself time to get to know the locals.

If you would like to read more about Murphys, I have posted these stories:
An overview of the area.
The historic town.
A look at Ironstone Vineyards.
Their big October event, the Grape Stomp.

September 8, 2006

Harvest Arrives

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) --The hills were suffused with that soft red glow. It was early evening, and I was on my way home; a slow, easy journey down Silverado Trail.

It is almost my favorite time of year in the Valley. Though, I must admit any season has reasons to hold it up as beloved. The leaves now have reached that deep green of late summer, the grapes have almost all achieved verasion and hang intensely purple beneath their canopies.

The very atmosphere seems to carry an air of anticipation. All the vintners and growers are on their starters blocks, waiting for the crack of the gun that signals the race is on.

Weather becomes watched closely and discussed endlessly. I wonder about the cool spot that we have hit. I think it bodes well for the Carneros cool climate varieties of pinot noir and chardonnays, but are the mid valley and hillside grapes getting enough sun to bump them toward that point of essential ripeness? Opinions vary amongst the lay people kibitzing over coffee in the coffee shops. The professionals, of course, are all out in the field by the time of day that I roll out of bed.

It never ceases to amaze me that this is it for the winemakers. The one and only time of year that they get to produce their merchandise. They get no other chance, at no other time of year.

No wonder the expectancy is almost palpable.