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Vernacular is a new-wave lit mag, travel blog, etc.
Vernacular is a new-wave lit mag, travel blog, etc.
Vernacular is a new-wave lit mag, travel blog, etc.
Vernacular is a new-wave lit mag, travel blog, etc.
Vernacular is a new-wave lit mag, travel blog, etc.
Vernacular is a new-wave lit mag, travel blog, etc.

ST. HELENA, NAPA VALLEY, CALIFORNIA / FEB 2024

MUSTARD BLOOMS—MOUNTAINTOP WINERY—LEAP OF FAITH—WILD FIRES—TIMELESSNESS

Our window looked out onto a sunsoaked field of dazzling yellow-gold. It was that time of year when mustard flower erupts between rows of barren, resting grape vines in California’s wine country. Unexpectedly, winter—this season we readily ascribe to death—lets through happy life as if to assure us.

Mustard blooms in California vineyards.

BY M. SULLIVAN

It was February and the rains had just come through for the past few weeks. By pure chance, the clouds broke for our arrival. A brick pathway led past the pool to our room at the Vineyard Vountry Inn in St. Helena. And the first thing we did was walk through the small construction-paper–yellow flowers that came up to our waists. Bees flitted from flower to flower.

Vineyard Country Inn in St. Helena, Napa Valley, California.

We walked a mile or so along the main road to get to town. We stopped into Giugnis Deli for lunch and shared a sandwich. We aren’t wealthy and wine tastings aren’t cheap so we avoided the shops and walked back to the inn where we made weak coffee in the room and stood out on the porch to stare again at the mustard blooms and the busy highway.

 

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Later we drove to Paloma Vineyard, which is at the top of Spring Mountain Road. We were greeted by two golden retrievers—one of them (Franc) brought us a stick. We talked to owner, Sheldon. He told us how his parents purchased the land on a whim, sinking their life savings into the land, not knowing anything at all about wine or crops or how to care for the vines. And how his mother tended the vines herself—acre after acre— alone—when they were first getting started.

Paloma Vineyard, St. Helena, Napa Valley, California.
“It’s motherly,” you said. “That she was able to just tell what the vines needed.”

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In the afternoon we went to Nichelini Winery, which is a vineyard that somehow feels more secluded than the mountain-top we’d just left. Nichelini feels like you’ve stepped back to gold rush times when roads where dirt and a sepia haze washed over the entire state. Which is not altogether far off from the truth. The house dates to 1895. Before that, the Nichelini family lived in a homesteading cabin (still on the property) which was little more than what you might find for rent on St. Marks Place in New York—that is, a hundred or so square feet with no running water. 

 

After we’d finished our last glass of wine, our hostess offered us a desert wine, which they called “Porchlight” in honor of the Nichelini family matriarch, Caterina. You see, this winery—this house—is so secluded that Caterina would never turn off the porchlight just in case some lonesome or weary traveler got turned around and found their way out there. Caterina would take them in immediately and show them hospitality. The thinking was that no one simply stumbled across the Nichelini home unless they were hopelessly lost.

Hennessey Fire, California
Hennessey Fire, California

All around the home are pictures and old documents—a marriage certificate, a diploma, family portraits. One photo shows two girls sitting in front of the very same window where we sat. And in the background, the same hill: looking the same now as it did then. 

“Hasn’t changed,” the hostess said. “Even after the fires swept through here the other year. Came right up that hill. But you look at the old photos and you look at it now: hasn’t changed. I love that about this place.”

Nichelini Family Winery, St. Helena, Napa Valley, California.
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