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Visiting East of Eden

By Paul Franson

The Napa Valley Vintners' slogan is, “To a wine grape, it's Eden,” referring, of course, to the Napa Valley.

But what's East of Eden?

Little known even to many residents of Napa Valley itself, is a fascinating world of wine and more in the mountains and valleys of eastern Napa County. And though the area is part of the Napa Valley American Viticultural Area, and its wines can are labeled “Napa Valley,” it's quite distinct.

This land “East of Eden” lies over the Vaca Range east of the Napa Valley. It consists of the Chiles and Pope Valleys and some of Napa County's other 129 valleys and canyons. These areas offer a bucolic contrast to the hectic Napa Valley with its hoards of tourists.

The region east of the Napa Valley is a great place for a picnic, but be sure to pack your own lunch. And don't expect to buy much in this area, which has very few commercial establishments.

From Napa Valley, the usual approach to this unique region is to go east on Highway 128 at Rutherford. The road winds past Lake Hennesey, which allows fishing and boating but no swimming, then passes the low-key entrances to the vineyards on Pritchard Hill, including Chappellet Vineyards with its pyramid-shaped winery, Long Vineyards, and such exclusive sites as Colgin Cellars, David Arthur Vineyards and Bryant Family Vineyard.

Continuing on 128 at the fork, you head up into Sage Canyon. One great stop is Kuleto Vineyards at the top of the hill to the left, but you must make an appointment in advance. You have to know the gate code to enter, there's no intercom available and don't even think about using your cell phone up here (no reception!).

Near the top of the climb up the canyon is a winery with a Swiss-Italian legacy, Nichelini Winery. It's a must stop when it's open on weekends. This historic, family-owned winery is perched on the hill with parking nuzzled under steep hillsides by the road, just as you'd find in the Tocino region of Switzerland. The winery dates back to 1890 when Anton Nichelini moved there and planted grapes. A stone worker by trade, he built the stone winery and it has been in the family ever since. The old Roman press he once used is on display, as are photos of the family from the past.

The Nichelini Winery is a picturesque place to visit, with outstanding picnic facilities and the friendly staff on duty is likely to include a member of the family. One unusual wine produced at Nichelini is Sauvignon Vert, which is white, not green in spite of its name. It comes from Bordeaux, where it's called Muscadelle. A pleasant, light wine of no particular excitement, it recalls wines made in similar wineries in Switzerland and northern Italy. It's perfect for a picnic on a warm day. The red wines include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, plus rustic Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and Barbera that seem perfectly mated to the vineyards and atmosphere of the winery.

Being careful as you leave, continue a few hundred yards where you have to make a decision: straight ahead 128 continues through the back country to Lake Berryessa you turn to go on the Lower Chiles Valley Road. If you head toward Lake Berryessa, you will pass the Brown Estate Vineyards, where you can taste some of the best Zinfandel and Cabernet around (by appointment only) and can enjoy a picnic under giant trees.

If you choose to turn left onto Lower Chiles Valley Road, you'll find this is truly the “road less traveled,” and you'll see more cows and horses than people. This pastoral valley was named after a pioneer settler. The skinny Chiles Valley has a long legacy of vineyards, and new plantings attest to the quality of its grapes. It lies at an altitude of about 1000 feet, significantly higher than the Napa Valley, and its days are hotter than the Napa Valley's, while its nights are cooler, making it ideal for sugar-acid balance in grapes.

The Chiles Valley is part of the valuable Napa Valley appellation, it also has its own American Viticultural Area designation. It grows excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel grapes. Louis M. Martini's Ghost Pines Vineyard is here. Mike Martini says it's one of the best places to grow Merlot that he's found.

Two wineries are on this stretch of road, RustRidge Ranch Winery and Eisele Family Estates. RustRidge is a great place for a picnic as well as winetasting. Definitely informal, it reminds you of the Napa Valley of the ‘50s except that the wine is much better. Zinfandel is probably its star, though it makes a collection of other wines as well.

RustRidge Ranch and Winery also has a modest, but friendly B&B and raises thoroughbred race horses as well as grapes. It's the only lodging in this area other than a few accommodations at Lake Berryessa. They do provide a kitchen for cooking, but the ranch is only about 20 miles from St. Helena and its renowned restaurants.

There's no winery at the Volker Eisele Family Estate, but you can visit this historic estate. At the end of Lower Chiles Valley Road, you can turn right onto Chiles & Pope Valley Road, but you might want to take a look at the historical plaque above the road on the left. It commemorates an early mill; it's difficult to believe, but this was a prime route to the Bay Area in 49er days.

The Green & Red Winery lies way up the hill just beyond and a relatively new winery in Chiles Valley, Catacula Lake Winery, is open by appointment. It has a nice visitor center and even a lake, if you want to try fishing. After that, you drive along a quiet stream where cows seek relief from the sun under majestic valley oaks while horses graze and lambs gambol on the modest farms and ranches.

Soon you rise, then drop into the much larger Pope Valley. The Pope Valley is as long as the portion of the Napa Valley that runs between Calistoga and Rutherford. Although this region hasn't seen much development or many people, it has lots of grape vines. As prices have risen for land in Napa Valley itself, many wineries and growers have turned to the Pope Valley for both vineyards and grapes. Though it's not part of Napa Valley geographically, being over a mountain range and draining into Putah Creek toward Lake Berryessa, the area was gerrymandered into the Napa Valley American Viticultural Area by smart landowners and wineries and its grapes qualify for inclusion in expensive Napa Valley wines. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the grapes, by the way. Many are excellent. Higher in altitude and warmer than Napa during the day, the Pope Valley cools off more at night, making it ideal for many varieties, particularly the Bordeaux and Rhône varieties.

At the corner of Pope Canyon and Pope Valley Roads lies CE2V Winery, an offshoot of Yountville's Cosentino Winery. Its “secret clone” Cabernet got a lot of attention — and big bids — at a recent Napa Valley Wine Auction. Despite the mystique, you can't visit the winery yet.

A right turn right at Pope Canyon Road takes you to The Eagle & the Rose Winery (on the right). It was the first modern production facility in Pope Valley and is popular for processing grapes from local vines. It is open to visitors by appointment. Its owner, octogenarian Norm Alumbaugh, also owns the airport and the closed restaurant next to the winery. He would like to reopen the restaurant, but the county won't permit it. The airport was once the world's largest parachute training facility during World War II. In a building there, Alumbaugh is developing a business jet he hopes will challenge Lear and its brethren.

Few wineries note the Pope Valley location on their labels at present, but St. Supéry Winery promotes its Dollarhide Ranch (in the Pope Valley) to its growing renown. The Dollarhide Ranch is actually in a separate valley off of Hardin Road (after the airport) and is not open for visits.

Back on Pope Valley Road (It loses the ‘Chiles' somewhere), you come to the heart of Pope Valley—the post office and a tiny store sharing a left-over World War II Quonset hut and a rundown garage plus an old closed hotel and a historic blacksmith shop which is open once a year. North from the store at Pope Valley is Litto's Hubcap Ranch , a folk art site recognized as a California State Historic Landmark. Over a period of 30 years, Emanuele "Litto" Damonte collected more than 2,000 hubcaps and used them to decorate his property. Though he's gone, the hubcaps remain; people still drop them off when they visit the area.

The nearby historic Pope Valley Winery offers a delightful visit on weekends where one can see the 100-year-old, creaking winery and the old blacksmith shop. You can taste some excellent wines, including a dry Chenin Blanc, a wine rarely seen today. You can also picnic on tables provided under a giant oak tree. It's best to call before visiting.

Down the road, north at the barrel mailbox, Aetna Springs Cellars makes excellent Cabernets. It, too, is only open by appointment. Just past is Aetna Springs Road and the dilapidated Aetna Springs Resort. Once a famous resort, it fell into neglect as tastes in vacations changed. A consortium has bought the property and intends to turn it into an exclusive private club. It contains many interesting but still sad buildings, some probably designed by famous architect Bernard Maybeck or at least his students.

Across from the resort is a modest 9-hole golf course that is presently closed. Its small store and deli, also closed for now, is the only place in Pope Valley you can buy a beer and sit and talk with your friends.

If you continue north from Aetna Springs, you pass Snell Valley Road, the turnoff to the isolated but well-kept subdivision of Berryessa Estates, one of the least expensive places to live in Napa County. No one has flowers here; deer lounge in front yards and eat anything that dares to pop out of the ground. A small store sells basic supplies.

Returning south past the Pope Valley Store, turning left on Pope Valley Cross Road to Pope Canyon Road eventually takes you to Lake Berryessa, a popular summer water recreation area with limited casual visitors' facilities. Much of the land around the lake is leased to permanent run-down trailer and mobile home parks that exclude visitors. This will likely change over the next few years when their leases expire, for the Bureau of Land Reclamation that runs the area is expected to exile many of the trailers and create new day-use and over-night facilities open to anyone, not just trailer owners. There are modest visitors' facilities along this road including the excellent Cucina Italiana restaurant with its chef Stefano Gusberti in the Spanish Flat Shopping Center at 4310 Knoxville Rd. The phone number is (707) 966-2433.

The road along the west of the lake ends at Highway 128 at the funky Turtle Rock Café, which is famous for its hamburgers and its eggrolls. Take a right and you'll return to Rutherford.

Wineries

Only the Nichelini Winery and the Pope Valley Cellars are open without appointment and then only on weekends. All others require appointments.

Aetna Springs Winery

7227 Pope Valley Rd., Pope Valley, ( 707) 965-2675. www.aetnaspringscellars.com

Brown Estates Vineyard

3233 Sage Canyon Rd. (Highway 128) (707) 963-0179

Catacula Lake Winery

4105 Chiles Pope Valley Rd. ( 707) 965-1104. www.cataculalake.com

Eagle & the Rose Estate

1844 Pope Canyon Rd., Pope Valley. (707) 965-9463 . www.eagleandrose.com

Green & Red Winery

A premium, Zinfandel-only winery. Definitely by appointment only; when you call, they'll tell you where they are! (707) 965-2346

Nichelini Winery

2950 Sage Canyon Road, St. Helena. (707) 963-0717

Pope Valley Cellars

6613 North Pope Valley Road. (707) 965-1380
Hours: Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

RustRidge Winery

2910 Lower Chiles Valley Rd. (707) 965-9353 . www.rustridge.com

Volker Eisele Family Estate

3080 Lower Chiles Valley Rd. (707) 965-2260

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