In the Napa Valley, it is known as “the road less traveled.”
It is the Silverado Trail, which runs up and down the east side of this world-renowned wine region, and provides much appreciated relief from Highway 12, which can clog with bumper-to-bumper traffic during the summer tourist season.
The “quiet life” along the Silverado Trail dates back well before grape growing and winemaking arrived in the valley. Strolling through the meadows of wild flowers, grasses and grains, the native Indians must have lived in paradise. The volcanic activity that formed the valley left it fertile, protected by mountain ranges and stunning to the eye.
A river flowing through the valley provided life-giving water and an enviable menu of fresh fish. Fruits, nuts and berries were plentiful. Tools like arrowheads, knives and ax heads were carved out of obsidian, a volcanic glass. Mortar and pestles were used to grind the grains.
Deer and other wildlife looking for food along the base of the mountains carved out the first trails. Life was peaceful, except perhaps when a bear wandered too close to the village.
In 1831, George Yount, a frontiersman from South Carolina, received a land grant of 11,000 acres from General Vallejo, the last Mexican Governor. Yount built a blockhouse — a rustic fort to defend his wife and family from unfriendly Indians, ruffians and bears. (Today, you can see the brass plaque that commemorates this spot just outside of Yountville).
Within a few years, herds of cattle roamed his rancho, and wheat and Mission grapevines were planted. A flour mill and saw mill were built. Wine was made to provide libation for special occasions and dinners.
“Civilization” had found the Napa Valley. Messrs. Chiles, Berryessa and Bale followed Yount with grants in hand, and carved out ranchos for themselves.
In 1852, the first permanent road was built from Napa to Calistoga, providing a major trade route for hauling wheat and fruit, the primary crops, as well as travelers. This road would later be known as the Silverado Trail.
Before the end of the 1850s, a silver rush hit Napa Valley. Mining activities flourished on mountainsides in the northern end of the valley.
A clever landowner, Mr. Patchett, recognized the expanding mining industry as a grand opportunity for wine sales. A young Prussian who knew something of winemaking was employed by Patchett to make 1,200 gallons of wine using a cider press. Thus, wine commerce began in the Napa Valley.
Vine diseases and Prohibition largely put an end to Napa’s wine industry for several decades. The so-called “modern era” began in 1976 when Napa wines outshone French bottlings in a famous Paris tasting that now has been immortalized in two movies. The resultant publicity sparked new interest in Napa wines and growth that has continued unabated into the 21st century.
Along the Silverado Trail, dozens of wineries beckon visitors with their own unique niches. Here are a handful that definitely are worth checking out…
* Clos du Val. Cabernet Sauvignon is the specialty, but this also is the only winery that makes Zinfandel from grapes grown in the Stags Leap appellation. 800-993-9463
* Chimney Rock Winery. The architecture is extraordinary, with its white facade standing out among the vineyards. Be sure to try the Cabernet Franc. 800-257-2641
* Stags Leap Wine Cellars. Made famous in the aforementioned Paris tasting of 1976, and still crafting amazing renditions of Cabernet Sauvignon. 866-422-7523
* Pine Ridge Winery. Makes district-specific bottlings of Cabernet, one of the best Chardonnays in the valley, and a fabulous Chenin Blanc that includes a touch of Viognier in the blend. 800-575-9777
* Robert Sinskey Vineyards. While the Bordeaux-style Vintage Reserve is the star, don’t pass up the Pinot Blanc. It’s sold by the half-bottle, the perfect size to accompany a picnic lunch in an area set aside just for that purpose. 800-869-2030
* Plumpjack Winery. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is a partner in this limited-production winery, which sells most of its wine on-site and to high-end restaurants. 707-948-1220
* Rutherford Hill Winery. Another great place for a picnic (buy a glass of Sauvignon Blanc or Gewurztraminer), and home to an amazing mile-long cave system — which explains why the tours take 30 minutes. 707-963-1871
* Duckhorn Vineyards. One of the most beautiful estates in the valley, and the maker of one of the best bottlings of Merlot this side of Chateau Petrus. 888-354-8885
* Cuvaison Estate Winery. It’s easy to get burned out on Cabernet Sauvignon when visiting the Napa Valley. Come here for excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 707-942-3468
* Dutch Henry Winery. No flashy marketing or tasting room here — just great wines offered in a low-key setting for a reasonable $5 tasting fee (much lower than most other estates in the valley). 888-224-5879
* Clos Pegase. An architectural wonder (the winery blends in seamlessly with the surrounding vineyards), and home to an amazing art collection. 800-366-8583
Start your day with one of the famous breakfast burritos at the Soda Canyon Store, where you also can pick up picnic fare to enjoy at one of the wineries later on. The store’s deli stocks meats, gourmet cheeses, homemade salads and more.
It’s going to be a long day on the trail, so be prepared!