“California dreamin’ on such a winter’s day.”
--The Mamas and the Papas
Ok, it’s obviously not winter as I write this (mid-August in Alabama); just the opposite—temperatures in the low 90s; humidity averaging 90+ percent; daily afternoon downpours. Alabama could be mistaken for Singapore, but for the pick-up trucks and barbecue. And if you’ve ever been in the Deep South in August, you’d take a winter’s day in New York City in a. . . you know the rest. But’s there’s a more pleasant alternative than a New York City winter to beat the, heat: Napa, California. And when it comes to Napa, there’s nothing like your first time.
My friends were envious and then downright perturbed when I told them that this would be my first trip to Napa. “You? Really?” “You’ve never been to Napa?!” I know, it’s like a Frenchman telling you he’s never had a baguette or smoked a Gauloises. I guess it’s part lack of opportunity, part distance, and part psychological. I had always thought of Napa as a Disney-esque playground full of Millennial yuppies. But the opportunity arrived and I didn’t turn it down, and off I went one day in a first-class seat to SFO.
They should have served me crow on that flight.
When people talk of “Napa,” they typically refer to the entire Napa Valley. And when they do get specific, they only reference the towns of St. Helena, Yountville, or Calistoga, forgetting that there’s an actual town called Napa.
For years Napa was a blue-collar town quickly passed over by busloads of wine-geek wannabes on the way to the big-name wineries. Passing by a local bar where you could find a sturdy local chardonnay next to a tap of PBR. These were places where the guys who worked the fields made the Napa Valley grow.
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This Side of Paradise
©2017 Chris Terrell
The Soda Canyon Store is not for tourists and thankfully so. It could also only exist in northern California. It’s like a high-brow handy mart, the kind of place where you could get a quart of oil for your truck, a gourmet sandwich, and a half-bottle of Kistler.
At first, we weren’t sure Kent was there (Laura had not seen him in a few years), and then we heard “hey guys.” (When Kent talks to you, it is with a combination of Midwestern friendliness and California casualness.)
After a few minutes of catching up and a quick review of the menu, we order some sandwiches and head up Soda Canyon Road to Road 31 Wine Co. Kent’s green ’66 green Ford pick-up leading the way. Our rickety rental car struggles to play catch-up on the rutty, two-lane road. After a mile or so, we make a sharp right onto a steep hill shaded with oaks. Ahead are the caves where Kent ages his wine.
Kent gives us a tour. We taste wine from his favorite barrel. We talk about French Oak. We talk about how Napa has changed with tech money; with tourists. Everything that kept me from here in the first place.
Lunch is under a large oak tree in the middle of a vineyard of young grapes. The unofficial Road 31 mascot, a lab mix, keeps watch, occasionally begging for scraps. Laura and Kent talk about mutual friends they have kept up with, and others they have not. I casually interject when I hear a familiar name. Mostly, I'm more interested in the view.
I’m mellow. Really mellow. I’m relaxed in a way I forgot existed. The kind of mellow that existed when I was in my twenties. Before serious work. Before serious life. Maybe it is the cool breeze that has made it’s way from the Pacific or the second glass of pinot. Either way, I don’t care. I want to live here. This is the kind of place where people like Kent can make a living from their passion. This is the Napa I thought no longer exists. This is the Napa I want to survive.