Back when I started writing this column, I reflected on the 40-minute commute I took each day from my home in Calistoga.
The drive, I wrote, “turns out to be one of the more interesting parts of my job. Soothing, even.
“Every day, I see the valley in all its many moods and expressions. I see the ebb and flow of the workers in the vineyards and the cycle of contractors and delivery trucks that keep business moving.”
Going on three years later, the drive has gotten, if anything, even more interesting. I’ve had the chance to watch three harvests pass, three summer tourist seasons, three back-to-school weeks, three holiday seasons.
There are certain landmarks on the roads that remain constant. If you’re a frequent driver on those roads, you’ll begin to know the patterns.
There is a curve on Silverado Trail south of St. Helena and north of Joseph Phelps winery where traffic slows for no good reason. There’s a slight hill on Highway 29 in front of Freemark Abbey where the speed limit is 50 but most northbound cars drop to 35. There is a stretch of Highway 29 north of Rutherford where someone obviously mulches with pomace – the remnants of pressing grapes into wine – because it always smells heavily of overly fermented grapes.
You can tell where Yountville is even as you’re driving through St. Helena simply by looking at the balloons high in the air. After a while, you can even begin to determine where the balloons have launched from that morning – Napa or Yountville – merely by where the dots appear in the sky as you leave St. Helena. I have counted 10 or 11 in the air at once on some of the most beautiful days.
You know which wineries are likely to be the destination of slow-moving tourists. You’ll know to add 5 to 10 minutes to every trip starting in August and ending in October to account for grape haulers. You can watch as work crews sweep back and forth across the fields as the seasons change.
You know the patterns of fog – the point south of Calistoga at the Tucker Farm Center where the clouds usually break and the sun shines brightly; the strips across the valley between Yountville and Napa where visibility suddenly drops to nothing, but then breaks to crystal clear without warning. You realize it’s possible for it to be raining in Calistoga, sunny in St. Helena and cloudy in Napa all at once.
One of the more interesting things, at least to my eye, is to watch the effects of fall on Napa County. The pines and redwoods remain defiantly green, while a handful of trees try on the reds and golds familiar from the great deciduous forests of the East Coast.
The grapes, meanwhile, undergo a fascinating change. During the summer, they are a great undifferentiated mass of green across the valley and hills. But starting in August, new colors begin to creep across the leaves. Different varietals turn different colors at different times, revealing the intricate patchwork of grape types that the vineyards really represent.
Seeing the majority of the county stretched out in front of me every day has solidified my appreciation for this place as a place – not as a haphazard collection of small separate communities, but a single, living thing.
Back in 2014, I wrote that the daily commute “makes me realize that these places are all different yet all very much united. We’re all in one county. What happens in, say, the city of Napa can have ripple effects even in the remote fringes of Calistoga and vice versa.”
The past two and a half years have solidified my impression of Napa County as one big, beautiful place – a place we’re all in together.