Local grape grower Graeme MacDonald can look at a stream near his Napa Valley home, call it “To Kalon” and know he’s using more than a nickname.
His quest to officially name the stream in the heart of wine country has succeeded. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names in September accepted his proposal by an 11-1 vote, clearing the way for “To Kalon Creek” to appear on maps.
The creek has gone from no-name to having a name to be reckoned with. “To Kalon” conjures up Aristotelian philosophical concepts and sublime wine flavors.
“It’s such a rich, rich name,” MacDonald said.
Aristotle used the Greek word “kalon” to signify virtuous actions undertaken for the sake of nobility or beauty. Oakville area pioneer vintner H.W. Crabb bestowed the name in the late 1800s on the area where MacDonald now lives, writing that “I try to make it mean the boss vineyard.”
To Kalon has relevance in the 21st-century wine world. The name is a wine trademark owned by Constellation’s Robert Mondavi Winery. Prominent grape grower Andy Beckstoffer is also associated with the To Kalon name.
MacDonald grows grapes on 15 acres that his family has owned since the mid-1950s and grew up playing in what is now To Kalon Creek. As a winemaker, he sees “to kalon” as meaning the pursuit of perfection with humility.
“I feel like I couldn’t describe what we’re trying to do in any other better term,” he said.
He took up the To Kalon Creek naming project a year ago. First, he had to figure out how to name a creek. A Google search led him to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names.
“I said, ‘How cool is this, to be able to name it and it will show up on every map that comes out from the federal government,’” MacDonald said.
The U.S. Board on Geographic Names was created in 1890 and its naming decisions for rivers, streams, mountains are binding on all federal agencies. Board researcher Jennifer Runyon said the board at any one time has 250 applications.
Over the summer, the agency’s board during its meetings in Washington, D.C. unanimously voted to rename Iowa’s Sewer Creek as Cardinal Creek. Proponents said the name “Sewer” was no longer appropriate because residents no longer left trash there.
But the board nixed the name Peanut Peak in Arizona because of lack of local support. It nixed changing Massachusetts’s Kimball Island to Rogers Island despite local support, saying the present name is well-established.
MacDonald didn’t want his proposed To Kalon Creek to meet the same fate as Peanut Peak. He obtained letters of support from the Napa County Board of Supervisors and local legislators such as Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, and state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa.
“We’re in D.C.,” Runyon said. “We don’t have (direct) interest in a stream in California. We want local people to support it.”
In addition, he won support from David Howell, a geologist emeritus with the United States Geological Survey. Howell said having creeks with names is useful for geologists researching the formation of alluvial fans on the Napa Valley floor.
MacDonald also researched the history of To Kalon name in Napa Valley. He found a 10-page, typed account from 1981 that just happened to be written by his great uncle, Gunther Detert.
“I’m building on a foundation of what Gunther started,” MacDonald said.
A potential roadblock arose – the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has a policy against naming things after commercial endeavors. That Mondavi trademark was an issue.
MacDonald responded that Mondavi adopted a historic place name and the creek is being named after that history, not the Mondavi endeavor. His family sells grapes to Mondavi, but is receiving no compensation for the creek naming.
Another possible roadblock was whether the unnamed creek actually had a name. Such diverse parties as Caltrans, the California Land Stewardship Institute and Napa County Resource Conservation District have at times referred to it as Doak Creek.
MacDonald said Doak Creek is actually a creek to the south. A U.S. Board on Geologic Names report said Doak Creek ultimately flows into the stream that is To Kalon Creek, which possibly caused the confusion.
In short, MacDonald did what amounted to a research project to win the To Kalon Creek name.
“He did do more legwork that most,” Runyon said. “To be honest, we have proponents who just fill in the application form.”
MacDonald had to do more than convince the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. In the case of California, the agency refers proposed names to the California Advisory Committee on Geographic Names for screening.
The one thing MacDonald didn’t do was fly to Washington, D.C. to be at the Sept. 14 U.S. Board of Geographic Names meeting to make the To Kalon case in person. He said he’d been told that having someone make a presentation to the board delays the vote until the following month.
Now that he has the naming knack, MacDonald might try again with other unnamed creeks in Napa Valley. Once again, he would try to find names that have historical significance.
“It brings value to the fact that the history of this valley is really important,” MacDonald said.