Located in what has become an increasingly empty collection of train-railcar shops within Calistoga’s historic Depot retail center, Earth & Sky Chocolates quietly makes and sells some of the region’s finest hand-crafted confections. The shop is owned and operated by husband-and-wife team Christian Parks and Laura Koerth, whose artistic and wildly creative chocolate creations are turning heads.
“We’ve been making confections for 15 years but only opened here in April 2017,” Parks said. “Things were growing steadily when we opened — we’d have 25 people or so show up each day. But since the fires things have changed, and some days we have zero walk-ins.”
Making it work
In the last year the recently renovated collection of vintage railcars has lost the majority of the retail shops that used to inhabit the half-dozen or so spaces. The antique boutique is on the way out, and gone is the candy shop along with a handful of others who have departed, citing reasons such as reduced foot traffic, inability to put signage on the sidewalk and retirement. Unlike with other Calistoga shop closures, the issues of unfair rents and difficult landlords do not seem central to the departures.
“John (Merchant, the owner since 2016) has been really fair and made a bunch of useful upgrades,” Koerth said. “He has a vision for this venue that we really support. He wants to make it a lively place with high-end food and unique retail shops — sort of like a mini Oxbow.”
She was referring to Napa’s Oxbow Public Market, which has a collection of shops that include local produce, a butcher, fishmonger, numerous cafes, wine-tasting venues and even custom spices. Another thing the Napa venue has that Calistoga doesn’t is plenty of foot traffic.
“[Because of the lack of traffic] we’ve shifted much or our attention to wholesale and selling products through our online store,” Parks said. “We used to be open every day from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., but that doesn’t make sense at this point. We are still open Friday through Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. and pretty much any time by appointment. But our focus has certainly shifted.”
Parks grew up in Napa and Koerth in Kansas. The two met while attending the French Pastry School in Chicago. Both initially pursued paths other than confectionary creation — he toward a more typical cooking career and she more toward design — but both eventually came to realize their true passion.
“The precision of making desserts and just how many things can be made blew my mind,” Parks said. “For example, to make high-quality chocolates there are about 30 to 40 variables — different ingredients, each with precise temperatures and handling requirements. And each step is critical — even one degree off can change everything.”
It’s not only making the chocolates to exacting technical standards but also the development of innovative designs and flavor combinations that make Earth & Sky stand out.
Each piece a work of art
“We have over 100 different recipes but typically have 16 to 20 different options each week,” Koerth said. “It’s not only that our items are of high quality and made to the highest standards, using natural ingredients, but we also want to make them visually striking and use flavor combinations that work but are rare or maybe have never been put together before.”
The couple makes chocolate bars, nut brittle and a few other items, but it is their bonbons that stop people in their tracks. Looking more like brightly colored Venetian Murano glass ornaments, each tasty morsel is vibrantly painted in a color that highlights the flavor combination — a paintbrush stroke of green icing to signify the rosemary and caramel, a blocky modern-art design of yellow, red and blue that streaks over a trapezoid filled with delicate peanut butter and jelly cream, or a dome of porcelain white streaked on one side with vivid orange or the alarming red swoosh signifying the surprisingly spicy heat of what they call the “wicked,” that is infused with chili and semisweet, fruity dark chocolate into what is an ethereal combination.
Chocolate and wine Living and working in the Napa Valley means having a relationship with wine. Working with local hotels and wineries, the couple creates customized products for their clients, such as wine-infused confections or customized chocolates used for wine pairings.
“Chris Madrigal (owner of Calistoga’s Madrigal Family Winery) likes to support local businesses, and when he tasted the quality of their chocolates the rest is history,” said Alejandro Tovar, tasting room and wine club manager at the winery. “Since then we’ve worked with Christian and Laura to create what are perfect pairings with our wines.”
According to Koerth, some of those parings have included chocolate bonbons made with infusions of blackberry/thyme, star anise, blueberry/violet, cassis, cherry/almond, black fig and others.
“One of my favorite pairings is the roasted pineapple with our Fumé Blanc,” Tovar said. “The tropical notes of melon, orange peel and papaya in the wine complement the roasted pineapple caramel goodness.”
From Chicago train to Napa Valley train
Before opening their Calistoga shop in 2017 the couple had owned and operated various chocolate-focused businesses since 2005. But before that their relationship had started when they missed a train.
“When I first met him I thought he was too slow at cleaning up after class and he was always singing Broadway tunes like those from ‘The Little Mermaid,’ which I never liked,” Koerth said, smiling. “He’d be so slow that sometimes it would make me miss my train home.”
On one such occasion Parks offered to walk with her to the station.
“We were running after the train but we missed it,” Parks said. “Then we started talking and found out we had a lot in common — she loved and played sports and our food interests were similar, too. Since then we’ve been together.”
Eventually the Parkses left the Midwest and moved in 2005 to the Napa Valley. Here they made chocolates, nut brittles and other confections and sold them at local farmers markets through a business they called Sweet Beast. Two years later Parks’ parents retired and moved from Napa to Tennessee. Deborah, his mother, had worked at Beringer Winery in St. Helena for nearly 20 years, and his father, Robert, had been a financial adviser at Napa’s Waddell & Reed.
The young couple followed his parents eastward, opening their first shop, Earth & Sky Confections, in Jonesborough, Tennessee, in 2007. But like many who feel a nearly magnetic pull back to Northern California’s climate and beauty, in 2012 the couple again made their way back to Napa. They kept the Tennessee shop, which Parks’ mother operated while he traveled back every few weeks to make batches of the chocolates.
For many, living in the Napa Valley often means working two or more jobs
Between traveling back to Tennessee on weekends, Parks worked at Yountville’s Lincoln Center, eventually becoming the executive director. Koerth split her time between taking care of their daughter at home and working various jobs in the wine industry. By 2016 the travel was becoming a challenge, and Parks’ mother decided she was ready for a true retirement.
The couple considered their next move. Would they move back? Sell their confectionary equipment? End their years of experience of high-end chocolate making?
“We were honestly thinking about moving out of state again — it’s just so expensive to live here — but that’s when this opportunity in Calistoga came up,” Parks said.
The space seemed perfect because the rent was reasonable and the space didn’t require the typical sewer and water assessment fee (which can run roughly $50,000 for new food-service businesses, according to Parks).
With the help of the landlord, they renovated the railcar, painting it bright white with clean metal shelves, added warm, weathered wood shelving and drove their equipment halfway across the country in a U-Haul. Now, on the last year of their three-year lease, the couple continues to make some of the finest artisan chocolate creations in the region.
“When I first [saw and tasted] their chocolates, I knew that they had made something special,” Deborah Parks said. “[Calistoga] is a good fit for their business because the Napa Valley is known for high-quality wines and exceptional food, and their candies are some of the best handcrafted chocolates in the world.”