Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The other wine district

Our trip to Napa recently had been lovely but with the departure of the family, we were to be staying at a winery a friend has an interest in located in Sonoma called Deerfield.  We'd drunk the wines before and liked them a lot so this was likely to be great fun.  But to get there we were traveling overland from Marin through the town of San Jose in which was the Charles M Schultz Museum (see website here).

Hands up who doesn't like Snoopy, Charley Brown and the rest?

Not me for sure so there was no way we'd by pass this wonderful opportunity.  However we decided to go on the day of the week it was closed (Aaaagghh!!!) so only had the chance of visiting the gift shop and a small museum there.

But it was worth it.

Schultz himself was a rare kind of guy.  Born and raised in Minnesota like Garrson Keilor who wrote the forward to his first collection of cartoons from 1950-52, Schultz moved first to New York when his cartoons were dropped by the local papers... of course they were snapped up and syndicated country wide which enabled him to move to San Jose where he brought his beloved ice hockey too.  Schultz sponsored the local team and the US Masters Olympics team into the 1970's.  This is why Snoopy and Woodstock play ice hockey.

Snoopy and Charley Brown started day 1 but it took Snoopy 4 years before he first stood up on his hind legs.  Where the Red Baron motif came from is unclear... the suggestion being that the Canadian pilot, Roy Brown, who shot down the Red Baron was somehow connected to Schultz.

Even without the full museum experience, it was wonderful!

The town of Sonoma is south of Snoopy's home and we finally arrived there after most of the museums were closed but still managed quite a bit of a historical tour.

And it is quite something.

Sonoma was first settled in 1823 by the Mexicans (after Spanish independence in 1818, Mexico simply took over) as the Russians were further up the coast in Fort Ross hunting sea otters and other furry creatures and they wanted to check the Russian advance.  The way they did it was by the manner of establishing yet another mission.

The mission

This requires a brief historical retrospective.  Spain was a European backwater after 1600 or so.  They'd managed to kick out the Moors in the 1500's and then almost immediately sailed to the new world in search of expansion (because none was available in Europe) and more importantly gold, silver and other loot.  They found it and it financed all of Charles V's European ventures throughout the rest of the 16th century.  However transporting it meant outwitting pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake, something they were pretty poor at.

Spain centralized power in the new world in various locations, the most northerly being Mexico City from where they administered the territories in present day USA.  They had 3 routes north: one into Texas, one through Arizona and New Mexico and the third up the west coast by the establishment of missions starting in Baja (or lower) California heading up into Alta (or upper) California.  The route these missions traveled was along El Camino Real (or the King's Highway) with the missions being set 1 day's travel apart.

The hotel across the road from the Mission

The intent of these missions was that they would be the mechanism for expansion and assimilation of the territories.  Spain hadn't the men and wherewithal to impose control by force or by other means so simply sent in the holy men.  First were the Jesuits, then the Franciscans and finally the Dominicans.  The missions were to last 10 years by which time they would be 'secularized' (or dismantled) and the township (or pueblo) that had sprung up around it would take over as the new colony.  The mission itself would then revert to being the parish church.

In practice this didn't happen at all.  The system began in the early 1700's and it wasn't until the 1840's that they were disbanded, presumably under duress as that was the time the upstart US colonists were pushing back against their Mexican overlords.  In Sonoma, 30 of these 'frontiersmen' (as US history currently refers to them) went up to the front door of the then governor, General Vallejo, and 'arrested' him.  In reality, he knew them all and invited them in for drinks and dinner.

Whatever the real story, these men wrote a declaration of independence, created the California bear flag and started to worry what an annoyed Mexico would do to them.  Fortunately 6 weeks later a US detachment arrived and raised the stars and stripes and promptly declared war on Mexico.

The original bear flag.  Vallejo never liked it.  He thought it looked more like a pig.

The war lasted only a short time and Alta California or the Republic of California as it then became, joined the union.  General Vallejo became the first elected representative of the state and the legislature offered him the chance of having the state capital named after him.  Vallejo first suggested Eureka and then the town bearing his name, however neither were acceptable so Sacramento it was.

Immediately after the gold rush began in 1848 and Sonoma became the main winter quarters for the miners in them thar hills.  However this didn't last long as steam powered river boats were soon introduced enabling resupply from San Francisco up the Sacramento river.  This finished Sonoma.

Or it did for a while anyway as Vallejo had begun to plant grapes.  He first took those from the mission and then planted thousands more.  At the same time a colorful Hungarian Count Haraszthy arrived from south of San Francisco and declared that the terroire and weather in Sonoma was better for grapes than anywhere else in the world.  Despite being accused of embezzling from the California Mint (where he had acted as Treasurer and Controller) he bought up land and planted thousands of acres of grapes imported from Europe.

His winery was called Buena Vista and was the first winery to plant the zinfandel grape, a grape from Croatia incidentally and not France or Italy.

The count and Vallejo were friendly with their children inter-marrying and the industry became the lifeblood of Sonoma.  The count came to a sticky end as while looking to establish a rum plantation in Guatemala, he fell into a crocodile infested river and was never heard of again!

Vallejo's home in Sonoma

However in the 1870's a massive recession hit the US at the same time as the phylloxera bacteria ate its way through Sonoma's grape vines (and incidentally General Vallejo and the Count's fortunes).  Disaster again and Sonoma entered a lengthy sleepy phase again.

Wine was its saviour again and over time nearly 400 wineries have sprung up to tap into the perfect climate Count predicted would produce the best wines in the world.

Where Napa is new and glitzy, Sonoma has charm and elegance and an old world feel to it.  I like it.

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