Cities are loud places, but each city has its own particular sound.

New York is a non-stop symphony of honks, car alarms, and back-up beepers as trucks try to maneuver in the narrow streets.

Washington, D.C. is the constant hum of commuter traffic but with the curious absence of airplane noise, since most aircraft are diverted far around the downtown (the suburbs get all that lovely noise).

Philadelphia is like New York, but with the clank of industry overlaid.

Los Angeles sounds the way New York would if it were spread out over an area the dimensions of a mid-sized state. It is multi-layered: The bottom note of autos on the freeway, the midtones of construction and industry, and, if you pause and pay attention, an ethereal top note of nature: wind, hawks, wildlife that hint at the sprawling chaparral the city once was.

The one constant across all cities where I have spent time is the fact that the sound of helicopters is almost always bad news: police searching for suspects, medevac teams responding to injuries, or news crews overhead filming disasters. Los Angeles takes this to a dizzying height – the police love to haul out their air units for even minor calls, at all hours of the day and night, and they’re joined in the air by Hollywood film crews and more news choppers than the mind can comprehend.

A police pursuit on a freeway attracts a swarm of helicopters and the city comes to a halt as everyone tunes in to see what happens. It’s a very noisy spectacle.

When we moved to Napa County in 2011, I was struck by how quiet it is at night. After decades living in cities, it was almost unsettling at first to hear nothing but the rustle of wind and the occasional baying of coyotes.

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One of our first nights here, though, I awoke to a frighteningly familiar sound.

“What the hell is up with the helicopters,” I asked my wife. It wasn’t just one – it sounded like the Ride of the Valkyries scene from “Apocalypse Now.” Were we under attack?

As the sleep cleared from my brain, I realized that there was no public safety problem: It was just the wind machines warding off the frost from the delicate buds in the vineyards.

The wind machines were on in force Thursday night, the first time I have heard them in a while. It was a noisy night Upvalley, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I find the urgent thwack of the blades comforting: It is the sound of agriculture. It’s the sound of good wine being grown and the beauty of our valley being preserved.

I assume the next time I find myself sleeping in a big city such as Los Angeles, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night with a similarly disorienting thought: What the hell is up with all the wind machines?

You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or



Sean has been editor of the Napa Valley Register since April of 2014. His previous credits include the Press Democrat, The Weekly Calistogan, The Washington Times and Time and People magazines.