The Napa Valley is home to many legends and lore that add depth, texture, character and, occasionally, humor to the area's history.
One of these stories highlights a defining feature of the landscape of Napa Valley - and a regional harbinger of spring: the mustard plant with its bright yellow floral mantle that blankets the valley in the late winter.
This profuse plant with its cheerful flowers is not indigenous to Napa County. While proven to be a beneficial vineyard cover crop today, its seeds are thought to have been equally as beneficial for a directionally challenged early-1800s explorer.
In 1823, the first Spanish and Mexican exploration party entered Napa Valley. Its goal, purportedly, was to find a suitable mission site.
Led by Don Francisco Castro and Jose Sanches, a Mexican army ensign, the small party also included a Jesuit priest, Father Jose Altimura. Altimura is said to have introduced the mustard plant into the local landscape.
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There are two version to this story. The first one claims the priest loved the condiment so much he scattered mustard seeds everywhere he went, including Napa Valley.
According to the second version, Altimura was said to have a poor sense of direction. Those who tell this story underscore his inability by saying, "Altimura could get lost in a closet."
Reportedly, Altimura made every attempt to conceal his challenge in order to preserve his job and reputation.
The legend claims Altimura would leave a broad, but discreet, trail consisting of a large swath of mustard seeds whenever he had to venture away from the expedition party or their encampment. The legend points out his plan was apparently a success, as Altimura always found his way back to his fellow explorers.
The bright yellow blooms of the mustard plant are a perennial reminder of Altimura's time in Napa Valley - and his imaginative solution to his secret dilemma.
Rebecca Yerger is a Napa native, writer and historian.