Monday, April 28, 2008

Skyline-to-the-Sea Sunday

Castle Rock State Park is well-known to rock climbers and hikers who live in the Santa Clara Valley but, to most of us, it's one of a somewhat confusing string of parks and open space preserves with overwhelming hiking options along Skyline Boulevard (Highway 35) in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Last weekend, a friend and I headed up there on a sunny, warm Sunday morning. We walked the Saratoga Gap Trail, a lovely 5.2-mile loop (connect to the Ridge Trail on the return from the Castle Rock campground or it will be a 7-mile plus hike).
The ranger at the park entrance warned us it would be hot and it was, particularly on the hill-hugging exposed sections of the trail facing west, where there are some fine views of the Pacific ocean and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Most times of the year, a cool breeze would blow from the west but, on this day, the air was still and the sun scorching. There's no water along the trail, (except at the campground which is about half way along the route and one-tenth of a mile off the trail) so bring at least two quarts per person if you get a day such as this, when the temperatures reached the mid 80s. However, much of the trail is in lovely cool shade of redwoods, firs, oaks and madrones. We came across several kinds of wildflowers, including a meadow of lupine. Sandstone rock formations, hollowed from the wind, were awesome. The walk was a good work out with some steep spots and a little bit of scrambling up and down some rocky paths.
Back at the Castle Rock park entrance, we got in the car and drove north on Skyline Boulevard made a left on Alpine Road and slowly drove the green hills and hairpin turns, past cattle ranches and farms until we reached Highway 84 heading toward San Gregorio, a route which has to be the prettiest springtime drive in San Mateo County. The weather was spectacular, even at the coast. We poked around the old San Gregorio Store but had just missed the afternoon's live music. Continuing north to Half Moon Bay we stopped at the Flying Fish Grill, where the halibut fish and chips and the fish tacos are quite good and the friendly service and bright tropical setting make a fun stop for a quick bite.
I kicked myself for forgetting my camera on such a gorgeous day, but above is my favorite photo of Half Moon Bay and environs: a crab fisherman at the Princeton harbor.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Old, Old Vines

You see it on wine labels: "Old Vines." The term typically implies an intense, robust wine, probably from a winery with a history as old as California. In Sonoma County's Alexander Valley the other day, I joined a tour at Sausal Winery, which makes wine from vines from the 1870s. Acres of vines radiate out from the tasting room but there's no mistaking which are the old ones: bare in the spring, they are thicker and more gnarled than Sausal's other vines. The winery is owned by the Demostene family, whose first crush under the Sausal name was in the fall of 1973. The winery is small, producing 10,000 cases a year. The Family Zinfandel is made from vines that average 50 years of age; Private Reserve Zinfandel is from vines that average 90 years of age. The grandaddy of them all is Century Vines Zinfandel, produced from those old vines, documented to be more than 130 years old. We were shown through the winery grounds by Mark Housar, vineyard manager at Alexander Valley Vineyards, a friendly competitor and Sausal neighbor. When vines get this old, Housar explained, they have a bigger trunk and better root system. They produce grapes with a greater concentration of flavor, which translates into a more intense wine. Housar led us on foot through Sausal's vineyards and a couple of miles further to Alexander Valley Vineyards, a lovely walk that took us past a restored 1868 former one-room schoolhouse that was also the original home of Cyrus Alexander, one of the pioneers of the area. You normally can't tromp through California vineyards like this. But a tour company, Zephyr Adventures, has come up with a unique way of seeing the Sonoma wine country: multi-day walking tours from vineyard to vineyard, led by a local winemaker or owner. At a couple of scenic spots along the route, tables will be set up where walkers will sample the finished product. It's designed to be a more intense and intimate winery experience than sipping in a tasting room. As Housar said as he wound up his talk on a hilltop overlooking acres of vineyards (while enjoying a picnic lunch of Alexander Valley wines and sandwiches from the locals' favorite deli, the Jimtown Store): for wine lovers, there isn't a better place to be.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Spring has Sprung

Since spending a couple of days in Amador County last April to research Great Escapes: Northern California, I've been looking forward to another spring trip there. (It's also the Great Escape of the Month on my Web site). On a recent weekday morning, a friend and I drove up to Jackson, Sutter Creek, Amador City and the tiny burg of Volcano. Without traffic, this trip is easily accomplished as a day trip from San Francisco. Antique hunters already know this. The towns have some of the best antique shops in the state. It's possible to head out in the morning, stop at Water Street Antiques in Jackson or Miner's Pick in Amador City and be home by sundown with a 19th century dresser, Gold Rush-era bottle or rusty wrought iron plant stand at prices well below those in the Bay Area.
But our goal was Daffodil Hill, the pioneer settlement from 1887 just above Volcano where four generations of the McLaughlin family have planted thousands of daffodil bulbs. The slim green reeds and accompanying yellow and white blossoms emerge sometime between mid-March and mid-April, an event that is anticipated for weeks (to find out if the place is open, which means the daffodils are still blooming, call the Daffodil Hill telephone hotline at 209-296-7048). Entrance to the six-acre hillside, with postcard-perfect historic barn and outbuildings, is free. The family accepts donations, collected in old yellow tea kettles. The money goes toward the purchase of between 7,000 and 8,000 bulbs each year that are added to those already in the ground -- a total of 300 varieties and 500,000 blooms. When the flowers wilt and die, it's over for another year. Last winter was a cold one so the daffodil show isn't as spectacular as some years, one of the volunteers manning the entrance said. But for first-timers with nothing to compare it to, it was quite a sight (see photo above).
From there, it was a beautiful drive down the mountain along Shake Ridge Road to Sutter City, the Gold Rush town named the prettiest in the state in this month's Sunset magazine. Our aim was lunch at Andrae's Bakery and Cheese Shop in Amador City, where sandwiches made from freshly baked bread and a slice of the melt-in-your-mouth Basque cake are worth a long drive.
Our other aim was to get a good bottle of wine. We took the sandwiches and drove north to Plymouth, the gateway to Amador County's wine country of rolling hills that during the spring are a lush green. The area is called the Shenandoah Valley, a name pioneers gave because (in the California spring) it reminded them of Virginia's Blue Ridge Valley.
East on Shenandoah Road past several wineries and about seven miles from Plymouth is Sobon Estate, which was founded in 1856 by the Uhlinger family from Switzerland. After a quick tasting to find a good match for our turkey and ham sandwiches, we settled on Hillside Zinfandel, a good value at $10 a bottle.
Sobon is a terrific place to get a sense of Amador County history. The winery is a California Historical Landmark, having been in continuous operation since before the Civil War (it even kept going through Prohibition when it made limited amounts of wine for sacramental use, which was allowed). A barn-like museum contains displays, including casks, crushers, kitchen tools and old appliances (a butter press, lard press, sausage stuffer, cabbage cutter and butter mold, among them).
You'll never complain about doing laundry again after reading late 19th century instructions from a mother to a daughter describing the best way to do "the wash."
1. Build a fire in the backyard to heat a kettle of rainwater.
2. Set tub so smoke will not blow in your eyes if wind is present.
3. Shave a whole cake of lye soap in the boiling water.
4. Sort clothes in three piles -- one of whites, one of coloreds and one of rags and britches.
5. Stir flour in cold water until smooth, then thin down with boiling water to make starch.
6. Rub dirty spots on the board, then boil them. Rub colored clothes, but do not boil. Take white things out of kettle with broom handle, then rinse, blue and starch.
7. Hang clothes on line except tea towels, which should be spread on the grass. Hang old rags on the fence.
8. Pour rinse water in flower beds.
9. Scrub privy seat and floor with soapy water.
10. Turn tubs upside down. Put on a clean dress, comb hair. make a cup of tea to drink while you sit and rest a spell, and count your blessings.