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Saturday, November 3, 2012

Wine Country Traveler: The Tourist's Guide to Wine Tasting in Napa Valley

20101020 Villagio Vineyard

I visited Napa Valley many times as an outsider, but for the last 2+ years I have lived here and had the wonderful opportunity to explore it in depth, and I want to share some of my insights with people who can use them.

First off, let's note that I have titled this blog entry, "The Tourist's Guide." This is not a guide for wealthy wine connoisseurs and collectors. This is more for casual wine drinkers who are visiting the Napa Valley as a vacation experience--so other factors come into play when choosing a winery to visit other than just the quality of the wine. Visiting wineries in a scenic valley and tossing back tasty alcohol ought to be fun. There's no reason to feel intimidated when visiting wineries, even if you taste a few wines that you could never afford to buy, and part of that fun can be laughing at the pretentiousness of others you may encounter.

When to Visit

August through October is an exciting time in the Napa Valley, as the grapes are harvested, and then the smell of the crush delights winery visitors (or sometimes just driving past). With all the varietals and the different microclimates in which they are grown, the harvest goes on for most of these three months.  But as enjoyable as these months are, they are the time of the most tourist activity in the valley, which means not only annoying traffic slow downs up and down the valley, but prices at hotels and bed and breakfasts that can be more than twice as high as in the off-season.

And really, anytime of year is good to come and enjoy the mild climate of the Napa Valley. Thanks to cool morning fog coming in from San Pablo Bay, it rarely gets scorching hot in the summer, as it does regularly a short distance away in Fairfield and Vacaville. And while locals will complain about the cold in winter, snow is a once-a-decade or less rarity--although it can be seen on the slopes of Mount St. Helena.

But perhaps the best time of year to visit is February.  This time of year you will get much better rates at places to stay and much less traffic on the highways. The countryside and the hills will be green, rather than the golden brown of summer and fall. And there's the mustard. Lots and lots of glorious bright yellow mustard blooming all over the place--among the grape vines, along the side of the road, in open fields. It's quite the sight to behold.

20100328 Mustard on Mustard

Navigation

There are two ways up and down the valley, California Highway 29, and the Silverado Trail. There are plenty of services, none cheap, to give you a ride via limo or bus, which will let you drink your fill without worrying about it. But most people drive. It's good to have a designated driver who really limits themselves to a TASTE of each wine, and skips some of the tastings.

Highway 29 will deliver you quickly from Napa to Yountville, and then you hit the most famous stretch of wineries up to and through St. Helena. But you also hit the slow traffic as the freeway ends and 29 becomes a two-lane road. On a weekend in the prime season--August through October--the crawl going into St. Helena will likely raise your blood pressure dangerously. On the Silverado Trail, on the other hand, you might find yourself stuck behind someone going 15 mph below the speed limit for many miles without any chance to pass, but going only 40 mph is still better than being stuck in stop-and-go traffic on 29.

My advice is to head up the Silverado Trail on the way out, and come back via 29. Of if you take 29 both ways, hit the wineries you plan to visit on the east side on the way up valley, and the west side wineries on the way back. That way you will always exit the winery onto 29 with a right turn. Having to make a left turn on that road in heavy traffic could ruin your vacation!

Wineries to Visit

There are hundreds, and they vary enormously. First off, how many wineries are you going to visit? There are so many densely packed that many people imagine they will be able to visit several per day, but I've never found that to be the case. Two or three is typical, and you may have to find one that is open later to accomplish that. Almost all are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., most are open until 5 p.m., and a few are open until 5:30 or 6:00 p.m.

Second, know that there are wineries open by appointment only, and ones open to all comers. Don't be intimidated by the appointment-only wineries! They do that just to control the number of visitors at a given time, which means they are the smaller wineries with more intimate tasting rooms, which you may prefer. If you're staying at a boutique motel or a bed and breakfast, they will likely be happy to suggest some appointment-only wineries and call and make the appointment for you.

But don't let the snooty types stop you from having fun at the big tourist mill wineries. These places have gone to a lot of effort to attract people to visit them, and often times they've done well. The Castello di Amorosa is perhaps the most extreme example, a fake 13th-century Italian castle. Comparisons to Disneyland are inevitable and  frequent. But the place is a lot of fun, especially if you're dragging children along on your boozy getaway.

The big attraction wineries are much easier to list than the numerous smaller ones:

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Sterling Vineyards

At Sterling, the big attraction is the aerial tram ride up to the winery on a hill. From there you take a self-guided tour of the facility with stops along the way to taste wines. There is a lovely outdoor deck with views southward over the valley--definitely a great winery to linger at on a nice day. The charge is for the aerial tram and includes the wine tasting whether you use it or not, which means that those who are not imbibing have to pay just as much as those who are.

20101204 Banquet Hall
Castello di Amorosa

As mentioned above, this is the most Disney of the wineries in Napa Valley. The employees talk of it as though it actually were a 13th-century construction, and you've got to admire some of the lengths they went to--like having brick outlines that look like where former doors and windows were that were later filled in. They dug caves for wine storage and put in a dungeon with replica and historic torture devices too, which you can see on the tour. You might want to call ahead and reserve a tour if you are going on a weekend.

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Beringer

Beringer is an historic winery just off the tunnel of elm trees on Highway 29 on the north edge of St. Helena. It features an historic mansion with elegant woodwork and lovely stained glass. A secondary attraction is the cave some of the wine is stored in, featured in the tour.

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Chateau Montelena

This winery played a key role in the development of the Napa Valley wine industry as we know it today because their Chardonnay topped the ratings of the judges in the Judgment of Paris in 1976, which helped American wine achieve greater cachet. You can learn more about it in the tasting room.  But behind the historic winery building, which is best viewed from the loading dock area, is the best reason for visiting: a large Asian garden and pond with views of Mount St. Helena. You can reserve either of the two picnic tables on islands in the pond.

20100901 Domaine Carneros
Domaine Carneros

As you drive along Highway 12 through the Carneros region on the way to Sonoma from just south of the city of Napa, you'd have to have knocked back several bottles of white zinfandel to escape noticing the enormous French chateau dominating the hillside to your left. There's nothing subtle about the appeal this place makes to lovers of the good life. They offer gourmet food items with tastings and just straight glasses of the still wines and bubbly they produce on their spacious patio with expansive views (especially nice of the di Rosa across the road). They also offer tours. None of it is cheap.

20120501_1958
Artesa

A little off the beaten path--not right off one of the main highways--in the Carneros Region are the impressive grounds of the Artesa winery.  You drive up a hill to the winery's parking lot, then climb steps from there. Atop the hill lies a pool with a big Gordon Huether sculpture, and magnificent views of the surrounding countryside.  You can even see San Pablo Bay to the south. Inside is a lot more of Huether's art.

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Hess Collection

Drive west along suburban Trancas Street, over the freeway as it becomes Redwood Road, keep going past the tract housing, and soon it gets interesting.  The road passes an old farm building, and curves up into the hills along Redwood Creek.  You have to take a left turn to keep going on Redwood Road (otherwise you're on Mount Veeder Road), then immediately after the Christian Brothers retreat you will find Hess. It's the site of an historic winery named Sequoia Vineyard, and the original gate posts from 1903 remain at the far edge of the parking lot, along the drive that runs between Hess and the Christian Brothers.  The two old stone buildings Theodore Gier built for the original winery have been fully enveloped and incorporated into the new winery, which also contains an extensive modern art gallery. No photography is permitted in the gallery portion, unfortunately, but you can buy a postcard of my favorite piece, a flaming typewriter.

There are plenty more interesting wineries of course, and I hope to add to this blog entry as we make it to more of them.

Wine Tasting Etiquette

Do I have to buy something? Should I tip? Fair questions.

You never have to buy a bottle of wine when tasting anywhere. If you don't like the wine, or think it is terribly overpriced, then you shouldn't even think about spending your money on it. But the rest of the time . . . there is some social pressure to spend some money there. There are several factors that go into it:

How much did you pay for the tasting? The less you paid, the more pressure on you to spend some money on wine to take home. There are still free tastings, at off-the-beaten-path wineries (mostly outside of Napa Valley), via coupons, or the Napa Neighbors discount (for those of us who live here and have the ID to prove it). But some wineries will charge $25 for a basic tasting, and more for reserve wines.

20100523 Tasting Flight

How much of their time did you take? If you visited a winery heavily visited by tourists and the person assisting you spent little time with you, then there is less pressure to buy wine. They are dealing in volume, and enough people will drop money that they don't have to worry about those who don't. But if you are visiting an appointment-only winery and the person helping you was very knowledgeable and helpful, then there's a lot more reason to reward their effort. And if that appointment was set up for you by you by a concierge or a bed and breakfast host, there is even more pressure to buy something, as it reflects back on the person referring you.

But again, don't think of buying a wine you didn't really enjoy. There are too many good wines available for anyone to do that.

If, on the other hand, you are definitely planning on buying wine on your trip, and maybe lots of it, know that this will open doors for you. Make it obvious you are planning on buying wine, and what wines you really liked when tasting and want to buy. And then if they don't offer you a tasting of some of the wines not listed on your basic tasting, ask if you can taste others they have that sound appealing to you.

As for tipping--I'd advise buying a bottle if you wish to reward to your server, as it will reflect well on them and they may even get a commission, rather than leaving a tip.

Where to Eat Along the Way

Well unfortunately, the restaurants are all located along Highway 29, whereas I've advised you to drive up valley on the Silverado Trail.  You can either hit the restaurants on the way back coming down 29, or take a cross road over from the Silverado Trail. There are plenty of upscale options for the visiting gourmand, as you might expect, since food and wine go hand in hand. But here are a few tasty options that are affordable:

20110821 Buttermilk Fried Chicken
Addendum

(Use Yountville Crossroad to get over from the Silverado Trail.) You can't really talk about food in the Napa Valley without talking about Thomas Keller. His Yountville institution, The French Laundry, is one of the top restaurants in the world. Or so I have read--haven't had any chance to verify that personally, and I probably never will eat there. Way out of my league. Maybe I'll make it to Bouchon or Ad Hoc, two other restaurants of his in Yountville that are more reasonably priced, yet still expensive. But in the meantime, I've eaten at, and will continue to enjoy, Addendum, and Bouchon Bakery (described below). Addendum is behind Ad Hoc.  There are outdoor picnic tables to eat your very limited selection of barbecue items available at very limited hours.

20101207 Macaroons
Bouchon Bakery

(Use Yountville Crossroad to get over from the Silverado Trail.) There can be long lines of tourists at this place, which unlike Addendum, you are likely to find open (much more extensive hours).  They have a few sandwiches to go (there are some tables between the bakery and the main restaurant Bouchon, but you might have to wait for a seat), and extensive pastry selections and fine espresso. We stop here a lot, but skip it when the line looks too long.

20110120 Highway 29 Pitstop
Oakville Grocery

(Use Oakville Crossroad to get there from the Silverado Trail.) The old Coca-Cola sign on the side of the building is a definite eye-catcher not long after Highway 29 dwindles from a 4-lane freeway to a more leisurely 2-lane road in the heart of the best vineyard region. While more affordable than a sit-down restaurant, this deli is a little pricey, but it offers high quality food and picnic tables out back with great views.

20101229 The Deli @ V. Sattui
V. Sattui

(Use Zinfandel Lane to cross over from the Silverado Trail.) V. Sattui is one of the most visited wineries in all of the valley, although it appears at lunch time that most of the crowd is there for the deli. If it's busy, make sure to grab a number when you come in. Many times people wait around for a while before realizing they need to do that. They have picnic grounds on which to enjoy your food there, and they sell packets of paper plates, napkins, and plastic utensils to make taking it elsewhere to picnic easy.

20100811 Double Cheeseburger
Gott's Roadside

(Use Pope Street to cross over from the Silverado Trail.) Originally known as Taylor's Automatic Refresher--the sign for that is still up at the original St. Helena location--this restaurant has been featured on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, and the Gott brothers have opened additional locations in the Oxbow Public Market in Napa and the Ferry Building in San Francisco. They have gardens behind the St. Helena location and feature produce from those gardens on the menu in late summer and fall. Burgers and fries are the basic fare, but they other options too, like the ahi tuna tacos, not to mention a full selection of beers and wines.


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Pizzeria Tra Vigne

(Use Pope Street to cross over from the Silverado Trail.) The more elegant and more expensive Tra Vigne is right off 29 as you enter St. Helena. This more casual and affordable alternative is tucked away soon afterwards.  Take a right just past the Merryvale Winery building and before Southbridge Hotel, and right across the road from Gott's Roadside.  Drive back a little aways and you will find a family-friendly restaurant with top-notch food and reasonable prices.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Lost Neon Sign: Martinez's State Theatre

20120612 State Theatre

This is my second attempt at this blog entry on the giant, crumpled neon sign in the parking lot of the Warehouse Cafe in Port Costa. It says "STATE" on it, with the "ATE" on one side of the bent-in-half sign, and the "ST" on the other. In searching for where it might have come from, I stumbled upon a small photo online of the old sign for the Golden State Theatre in Monterey, which for a time just went by "State Theatre," and no longer has its neon. They looked the same, and I posted a blog entry, but it was a very small image.

I later was able to find a better image, and see that the "A"s did not match. Plus, I had someone point out my error in a comment on my blog, and another in a comment on my Flickr photo. The latter also led me to the real identity of the sign: it came from the State Theatre in Martinez. That does make much more sense for hauling that giant sign to Port Costa, which is right in between Martinez and Crockett.

According to the information posted on the Cinema Treasures entry for the State Theatre, it was built in 1926, but remodeled in 1932 after a fire a year earlier. I would guess that the sign dates from 1932. Here's a photo of the theater with the sign on it all lit up, from 1942.

So how did the sign end up in Port Costa? The sign likely came down sometime in the 1960s. The theater stopped regular operation in 1961, but reopened briefly at least a couple of times after that. And it would have made perfect sense for Bill Rich to have brought it to Port Costa then.

Bill Rich, according to a San Francisco Chronicle article, bought much of historic Port Costa in 1960, the year after the railroad closed its switching yard and roundabout there, removing the town's last economic reason for existing. Rich filled the Warehouse Cafe and the Burlington Hotel with "antiques and oddities," including quite a bit of architectural salvage and a giant stuffed polar bear, which decorate the Warehouse Cafe.

20080329 Warehouse Cafe
Warehouse Cafe Interior

But then there's this entry on the Cinema Treasures listing:

In the mid-seventies, I worked for a woman who had the original marquee. I recently (Dec 2007) went back to the Bay Area for Christmas and drove by where the woman stored it. Oh my God!!! The marquee is still there!

And I don't remember seeing the sign in Port Costa when I went there to eat at the Warehouse Cafe in March of 2008.

But there are photos of the sign labeled as being in Port Costa taken in 2005 and 2006 on Flickr. Unfortunately, those are close-ups of detail, and don't give any clue as to the exact location. Maybe it was just tucked away somewhere in Port Costa.

I welcome any additional information!

Oh, and here's the Martinez Historical Society's page on the theater.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Wine Country Traveler: Historic Pope Valley

20120421 Aetna Springs Gate
Welcome to Aetna Springs Resort

I'm into history, and I'm into roadside curiosities, and I'm especially into historical roadside curiosities. So I had heard of Litto's Hubcap Ranch, where thousands of hubcaps were on display, in Pope Valley. But I knew the hubcap collector had died, and wasn't sure if it was still around, and neither did I know exactly where Pope Valley was, other than somewhere in the Northern California wine country. Then I read about a hike sponsored by the Napa County Land Trust that would afford people the opportunity to see an abandoned, historic hot springs resort in Pope Valley, and that was more than enough impetus to set me off in search of Pope Valley to see what there was to see.

The valley is awfully close to Napa, but not so easy to get to. It's about 30 miles from Napa (a scant 12 from St. Helena), but the scenic drive takes about an hour, winding through the hills with constant sharp turns on steep inclines.

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But once one arrives at the bottom of Howell Mountain Road and the junction with Pope Valley Road, the historical sites leap right out at the traveler. There to the left is the Pope Valley store, covered in old metal advertising signs and with a classic visible style gas pump--meaning there is a clear glass cylinder on top where the gasoline to be purchased could be seen and measured with markings on the side. On the right appears to be an even older piece of history, the Henry Haus Blacksmith Shop, nestled under a tree and straddling a small creek.

20110416 Henry Haus Blacksmith and  Wagonmaker

They were interesting enough just to look at from the outside, but thanks to the Napa Historical Society and Napa County Landmarks, I later got to see inside both of them. And they were chock full of goodies, lots of antiques, and junk.

Swiss immigrant Henry Haus, according to the literature of the historical societies, arrived in Pope Valley in 1889 at the age of 16 and provided blacksmith services to the valley from 1897-1950. Inside his shop lies all that was there when he closed it up in 1950, old metal tools, wagon wheels, and even cans of food.

20110416 Dutch Boy White  Lead

The interior of the Pope Valley Store is even more crowded with antiques, collectables, and just plain old junk. If it weren't for the historical nature of the property, it might be a candidate for the television show Hoarders. There are many precious antiques and interesting artifacts mixed in among the dozens of Jolt Cola cans, and everything is getting covered with a fine layer of mouse-poop dust. And the smell! Mouse urine, I was told. In high concentrations.

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The store had many uses. The front part lined with bottles and cans appears to be the store portion. In the room behind that is an old bar with some great old refrigerator units in the wall. Climbing up a staircase outside on the back of the structure, one reaches the "hotel," a handful of rooms on the second floor. While there is some evidence from a few pieces of antique furniture that it was once well appointed, it now resembles a film noir flophouse. Tucked in a corner near the stairs is a an unexpected gem: a tiny telegraph room--with the remains of telephone exchange in the next room over. Compared to the first floor, this area is less crowded, and quite a bit less smelly--although the dead bat in the window near the landing is quite unpleasant enough.

20120421 Pope Valley Flophouse
Purchase this photograph.

Driving farther north up Pope Valley Road, one finds the Pope Valley Winery, established in 1897 as the Burgundy Winery by Swiss blacksmith Ed Haus, brother to Henry of the aforementioned blacksmith shop. According to the winery's literature, they produced wine that was shipped to Al Capone during prohibition.

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It's a pleasant stop with picnic tables, a bocce ball court, a friendly staff, and, best of all, my favorite kind of wine--free wine! Yes, tasting is free. The lovely bottle of port we took home was not, however.

20110410 The Undisputed Title Holder

Just a smidgeon farther up the road is Litto's Hubcap Ranch, complete with historical marker. The story goes that Litto Damonte (1892-1985) put some of the stray hubcaps that flew off onto his property together along the road, and people started leaving more there. Now there are over 2,000 of them on display. Living in Pope Valley seems encourage the hoarding impulse . . . .

20110410 Abandoned Victorian Resort Building

Finally, there is the highlight of Pope Valley, the largely decaying, but partially preserved, remains of a grand old hot springs resort, Aetna Springs. A resort was first opened there in 1873, but many of the most interesting buildings at the site were built, or remodeled, later and designed by Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan.

20120421 Buildings Designed by Julia Morgan
Buildings designed by Julia Morgan. Purchase this photograph.


Attracting Hollywood stars in addition to the just generally wealthy, the resort must have still had some cachet in 1966 when Ronald Reagan announced his intention to run for governor of California there. Yet the resort closed just 6 years later.

20120421 Soda Fountain 2

For some years after, the resort was used for retreats by the Moonies. The business that currently owns the property, apparently, is the one that was associated with the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. They have leased the property to parties interested in redeveloping the resort, but without success. In 1999 a measure before the voters of Napa County that would have allowed redevelopment was voted down. A decade later, renovation had begun on some of the buildings, but the move by the county to reject a planned golf course adjacent to the resort led the developer--citing investor flight--to cease operations.

20120421 Social Hall
Maybeck Interior

But in 2012, things changed. The same developer that had ceased operations in 2009, presumably with new backers, received approval from the county planning commission to revive the resort. Doing so will involve restoring 28 buildings, according to a story in the Napa Valley Register.

20110410 Caroline

But some of the beautifully decaying ruins that exist on the site now will have to be cleared, according to the architect who guided us on Pope Valley Day. They are too far gone to be restored, and there is no way in our litigious society to preserve them just to look at as they slowly sink back into the earth. Some idiot might try to go inside and end up killing himself. Luckily, I got some photos.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Wine Country Traveler: Napa's Oxbow Public Market

20111025 Oxbow Public Market

In my two years of living in the city of Napa, my favorite place in it to go has been the Oxbow Public Market. Despite the name, it is a privately-owned business, and not public. And despite the signs indicating the way to the "farm stands," it does not contain farm stands or other temporary vendor stations. But it does function very much like a public square or a traditional European marketplace, serving as a place for people to hang out, eat small bites, and shop--both locals and tourists. Every town needs a communal gathering space, and the Oxbow is ours.

The business model resembles the restored Ferry Building in San Francisco. The architecture is much less grand, and the farmers' market held there certainly pales by comparison, but both are havens for foodies, featuring full-service restaurants, specialty vendors, and shops with food-related items. The Oxbow Public Market has an advantage in that it was actually designed for this usage, and the vendors have deeper spaces in which to manage their businesses.

Tourism in the Napa Valley revolves around wine, gourmet food, and spas. The Oxbow covers these first two. Visitors can follow up a wine tasting at the Wine & Cheese Merchant with an olive oil tasting from the Olive Press, and come home with a lovely antique absinthe spoon and glasses set from Heritage Culinary Artifacts. The food scene here emphasizes local and organic, and both tourist and local can enjoy the reasonably priced, gourmet offerings. For local families, like mine, the casual atmosphere of the climate-controlled pavilion make it a great place to take the stroller and not have to worry about the baby making noise. On Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings, there are lots of families with little ones who come to eat and browse. Why Tuesday? That's locals' night at the Oxbow, when most purveyors offer a discount--you needn't be a local to take advantage of it, though.

Opened in December of 2007, the name Oxbow comes from the curves in the Napa River at this site. It is across a bridge from downtown Napa, but that bridge is across Napa Creek just before it joins the river. On the opposite (east) side of the market, next to the shuttered Copia, stands the bridge crossing the Napa River. The market has a deck area, partially available for all patrons to use, and partially reserved for Hog Island Oyster Company, that looks out on the river, and there is a nice walking path departing from the Oxbow and running behind Copia along the river, but much of that is currently closed, in need of repairs.

A run-down of the current, as of March 2012, selection of vendors at the Oxbow:

C Casa
20101005 Tacos
Fancy Tacos

I'm giving this "Innovative Taqueria" top billing because for so long I failed to realize its merits. There are plenty of inexpensive Mexican restaurants in Napa, and I didn't see any point in paying more for C Casa, especially since I was annoyed that they never had any good locals' night specials. But for the quality of the food they offer, this restaurant is a bargain. The Michelin Guide even says so, recognizing C Casa on their San Francisco area "Bib Gourmand" list, meaning "the restaurant is an inspector’s favorite for good value." And C Casa is much less expensive than the other Napa Valley restaurants that made that list.

Ritual Coffee
20100712 Ritual Latte

Fortunately, we discovered this place early on after moving to Napa. Far and away my favorite espresso drinks in the valley. Most of the coffee I drink is made at home, but when I get out for a latte at Ritual I almost always think, "Damn! That's an amazing latte!" on the first sip. Rich but smooth, not at all bitter, like Starbucks is. We observed that they use organic milk in their lattes--not that they advertise that. They just do.

Three Twins Ice Cream
20120127 Cookies & Cream and Mint  Confetti

Organic, locally produced, incredibly delicious ice cream. For my birthday I got the megasaurous, a 27-scoop ice cream sundae. That put me off eating their, or anybody else's, ice cream, but only for a few weeks.

Pica Pica Maize Kitchen
20100708 Cachapa
Cachapa

A place that features Venezuelan dishes based around gluten-free cornmeal, and also offers a nice selection of alcoholic beverages and drink specials. Probably the best bargain in the Oxbow.

Kara's Cupcakes
20110430 Chocolate-Covered Strawberry  Cupcake

A dozen mini cupcakes is the perfect thing to pick up quickly for entertaining or to bring to an event.

Heritage Culinary Artifacts
20100807 Heritage Culinary  Artifacts

A fascinating place, essentially an antique store of food-related items. It's always fun to look at what they have, although most of it is out of my price range--like $3000 for hanging lamps from an old ice cream parlor.

Ca Momi

20120302 Bacon, Carmelized Onions, & Pecorino Romano Pizza

They operate both a winery and this restaurant, which features gourmet pizza and small pastries. It's all good, and they are very warm and family-friendly.

Cheese Merchant, Wine Merchant

20100803 The Good Life

One outfit. You can get flights there for wine tasting and pair them with small food plates. We had them ship wine to Washington D.C. for us, and they surprised us with a bonus bottle.

Whole Spice Company

A great place to pick up gift sets for friends who like to cook, or a specialty spice to try out at home.

The Olive Press
20100702 Olive Oil Samplers

We usually take first time visitors to Napa here for the free olive oil samples, and also have bought gift sets here. Bring in your own bottle and they'll fill it for $1 an ounce.

Tillerman Tea
20100702 Tillerman Tea

You can just buy tea and tea-related items, or have a full tea service at the shop. They sponsor the dragon dancers for Chinese New Year's each year.

20111019 Tea Service

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Chinese New Year Celebration

Anette's Chocolates

Their main shop is on First Street, where they also sell ice cream and espresso, but you can get their chocolates and chocolate sauces, and taste the sauces, at the Oxbow.

Oxbow Produce and Grocery

The closest thing to a farm stand at the Oxbow, this is where you can buy your fruits and veggies, and a small selection of items to go along with them.

Five Dot Ranch
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Beef purveyors. They have an impressive display case of cuts of beef, but also serve a couple of items ready to eat, such as hot dogs. On St. Patrick's Day they offered a corned beef and cabbage dinner, with the best corned beef I have tasted.

Hog Island Oyster Co.


It looks fantastic and the oysters look delicious. This is the highest priced place to eat in the Oxbow, however, and a bit out of my range. Maybe someday.

Kanaloa Seafood Market

They sell fresh fish and shellfish to cook at home, but don't usually offer anything to eat on the premises.

La Crepe

20120323 Croque Madame

The newest addition to the vendors, I got my first crepes there served up by a man with an outrageous French accent. That was fun.

The Kitchen Door
20110824 Chicken Dinner
Chicken Dinner

Slightly off the main pavilion, they have a large space with large windows and patio access out towards the river. You can order from the counter or get them to come to your table, if you have a large group. Much like the rest of the Oxbow, it's casual and comfortable, yet upscale and gourmet.

Those are the businesses inside the main pavilion, but there is more to the Oxbow complex.

Model Bakery

A branch of the long-established St. Helena business, this full-service bakery also offers sandwiches and Peet's Coffee. They were made famous for their English muffins by the Food Network, and now they limit how many you can buy, and still sell out of them. But I tried those unusual English muffins before the Food Network show, on the advice of an English professor I met in the Mojave desert. They're good, but the food I would recommend from the Model Bakery is the pizza.


Gott's Roadside
20100914 Date Night

It started out as Taylor's Automatic Refresher in St. Helena, which was purchased by the Gott brothers. That spot was made famous by Guy Fieri on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, but the Gotts also opened restaurants in the Oxbow, and, fittingly, in the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Some of the produce they use on their menu is grown on land adjoining the St. Helena location.

They offer traditional diner and drive-in fare using high quality ingredients, but also have more diverse offerings, such as the ahi tuna tacos. And they offer the best locals' night specials of any merchant at the Oxbow.

We ate there so often when we first moved to Napa that we've had to back off a bit on the frequency, but we still go. I've taken quite a large number of photos at both the St. Helena and Napa locations, which you can see here.

Fatted Calf

I always forget about this place, but have been meaning to check it out to get something to cook at home for dinner some night. Despite the name, they do not specialize in beef steaks, as they did not want to compete directly with Five Dot Ranch. They specialize in sausages, pates, and "other meaty goods."

Napa Valley Adventure Tours

Operating out of a garage-like structure in the back. I don't know anything about them.

More of my photos from Oxbow.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lost Neon Sign: Sacramento's Philipp's Bakery

20070426 Philipp's Bakery

Not really lost. Just disappeared from public view, into the warehouse on the old McClellan Air Force Base where the Center for Sacramento History stores its large collection (more than 30) of vintage neon signs, including those from the original Shakey's Pizza on J Street in East Sacramento, and the Rosemount Grill, the bakery's former neighbor. I think they also have the Ark of the Covenant in there, but who really cares about that? THEY'VE GOT MORE THAN 30 VINTAGE NEON SIGNS!!! (I'm an enthusiast.)

New Off-Site Storage Facility #10
[This photo, from the Center for Sacramento History's Flickr account, shows them moving signs into the warehouse.]

According to an article by Lance Armstrong (presumably not the famed cyclist enjoying an encore career as a local interest writer), German immigrants Julius Herman and Angelina Philipp first opened their bakery in Calistoga, then moved to East Sacramento in 1925.

Besides the fact that the bakery was a longstanding institution in East Sacramento, the sign for it was a notable landmark on the old alignment of U.S. Route 50, pre-freeway. You can read more about the vintage remainders of this section of the old highway in my blog entry on Sacramento's Folsom Boulevard.

In 2007, I met the a man who claimed to be the owner of the building while taking the photo below. He was a broker who had returned to Sacramento and told me he had been very excited to be able to purchase his father's bakery and that his wife was running it now. He gave me his and his wife's cards and asked me to e-mail him a photo from that night. I did, but never got a response.

20070426 Philipp's Bakery

He told me that he had the sign restored (by Pacific Neon) in place, as he was afraid if it were taken down the city would not let him put it back up again. During the restoration process, it was discovered that the sign was a flasher, which he did not recall as a kid. He found out why. It was restored as a flasher, and a part kept burning out that had to be replaced for a couple of hundred dollars regularly. He figured his father had simply wired it to stay lit continually so as to avoid the expense.

Shortly after this conversation, I was surprised to learn that the bakery had closed, and a blog on the Sacramento Bee's website indicated that the brothers who owned the building had refused to renegotiate the lease of the baker and instead evicted her. Strange situation if said baker was the wife of one of the brothers.

20040824 Philipp's Bakery

Sorry to see the lovely old sign leave the neighborhood, particularly since I haven't photographed it since I upgraded from a compact digital camera to an SLR in 2008. I have been meaning in recent months to reshoot it, but once again I failed to act in time. Hopefully the Center for Sacramento History will let the people get another glimpse of it. Preferably sometime before their big Ark of the Covenant of show.

About Me

My photo

I love to learn about, visit, photograph, research, and write about everything that is interesting, unique, and historical about Northern California, and wherever else I should be fortunate enough to find myself.  I've spent many years scouring the roadside in my little car for interesting subjects and walking down hiking trails in the Sierra Nevada and along the coast to get to know the wonder that is Northern California.  I share most of this via photos on Flickr, and as much as time permits me to on my blog, the NorCal Explorer.  Fine art prints of my photos are for sale on Imagekind.