San Francisco Bay Area, CA

2 August 2006

The wine growing Sonoma and Napa valleys were our destinations today. Sonoma Valley is just to the east of Novato over a range of hills. To the east of Sonoma Valley, over a range of hills, lies the Napa Valley. We visited their namesake towns and St. Helena in the northern part of the Napa Valley. The valleys are really easy to describe, vineyards are everywhere except most of the hilltops. We have not been in the Napa Valley in eight years and our perception is that there are more vineyards now, even encroaching on more of the hills. The main routes through both valleys are lined with wineries, some well known names and others that are only known to the experts (we are not among them).

Our first stop was the town of Sonoma. The Mission of San Francisco Solano was founded in 1823 as the northern end of a chain of missions founded by the Spanish and Mexico starting in 1523. The Mission is opposite the northeast corner of the Plaza that is the center of the town. The streets on all sides of the Plaza have many buildings that date back to mid 1800s.

We went on to the Napa Valley and the town of Napa. I have been in this town several times and I find myself unimpressed by it. It lacks the character of Sonoma and is, to me, just another tourist destination. Napa lives on the fact that is the center of wine producing area, with tasting rooms all over the center of town. As we headed north up the Napa Valley, some of the biggest names in California wine had wineries along the road. More vineyards are being developed all over the valley. Multi-million dollar homes dot the hills around the town.

After leaving downtown Napa, we drove up to the Hess Winery on the hills west of town. We just wanted to see how the family was doing... just kidding. We walked around a bit, looked at the price of the wines sold in the winery and walked out. Neither of us is that enamoured with wine that we would pay the prices asked. I understand that some are limited vintages, but I'm quite satisfied with the Hess wine I can buy in our neighborhood that sells for about half the price of the cheapest wine sold here.

Leaving the Hess winery, we drove on to St. Helena. This town also caters to the tourist, just as Napa does, but it seemed to us a lot more interesting. We walked around the main street for a while before heading back to the campground. I let the GPS guide us back to Novato by way of Glen Ellen, in the Sonoma Valley. The hills to the west of the Napa Valley looked easy from a distance, but we soon learned otherwise. The road was another roller coaster ride with a 12% grade as we drove down into the Sonoma Valley. That is the steepest grade we had encountered on any of the paved roads we traveled to date. Fortunately, the GPS smiled on us and took us down the Sonoma Valley and on to Novato bypassing the hills.

POSTSCIPT (Added after initial upload)

We just experienced our first Californian earthquake. The earthquake, a magnitude 4.4, occurred at 8:08pm local time. It was centered about 3 miles west of Glen Ellen (17 miles north of us), the area we drove through this afternoon on the way back to the campground. A magnitude of 4.4 is mild and it felt like we ran over a bad bump in the road... except we were not on the road. At first we thought that it was a strong gust of wind, but looking at the trees outside, I could see we had relatively mild wind. As Rick told me, after a similar quake in Los Angeles, it felt like a garbage truck hit a bump on the adjacent street. About ten minutes after the shake, a ticker came across the TV screen telling us about the earthquake. I have been to California many times over the years and this is the first time I experienced a quake. We really don't mind if we don't have another.


Sonoma City Hall sits in the center of the Plaza
The Mission of San Francisco Solano
The east (l) and west side of the Plaza contain a number of buildings, some dating to the 1840s
The Barracks, built in 1836, is across from the north side of the Plaza
Apartment house on the north side of the Plaza
The Toscana Hotel, adjacent to the Barracks, dates back to early days of Sonoma
We spotted this theater ticket booth on the east side of the Sonoma Plaza. The cashier is a real dummy.
Susie checking out the family winery

St. Helena