A History-Lovers’ Guide to the Napa Valley

One of the things I love most about this valley is the graceful way it’s evolved over nearly two centuries. Many of its earliest structures are still in use today as wineries, restaurants, hotels, and other businesses. Looking at vintage photos from the nineteenth century, you can still identify the streets on which we walk today.

If you enjoy history as much as I do, here are a few spots to put on your short list:

Historic wineries: Nichelini Winery in Chiles Valley is the oldest local winery in continuous family operation since its founding in 1890 by Anton Nichelini. You can still visit the Greek Revival-style house that he built on top of his stone winery. The business is also an example of the many wineries that quietly supplied bootleg wine to local miners and Bay Area businesses during Prohibition, posing as a sacramental wine delivery service. Other historic wineries to check out: Beringer Vineyards, Stagecoach Vineyard, Inglenook, Chateau Montelena. (Also see related post, “Ghost Wineries of the Napa Valley”).

Shades of the past: The Bale Grist Mill, built in 1846 on property in the Rancho Carne Humana land grant, still runs today as a working mill powered by a waterwheel. It was once the social center of the valley as locals gathered to have their corn and wheat ground into meal or flour.

If you’ve ever visited Calistoga, you’ve heard about Sam Brannan – the state’s first millionaire – who developed the town as Hot Springs Resort in 1862. You can still see two of the last remaining cottages from that time. One is the Brannan Cottage Inn, and the other is part of the Sharpsteen Museum.

For other historical buildings in the area, see the National Register of Historic Places.

Want to incorporate wine? Active Wine Adventures offers a Literary Legend Tour which focuses on local history (with a Robert Louis Stevenson theme) and goes to several locations, including the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, Bale Grist Mill, and historic wineries such as Beringer Vineyards.

A Tuscan fantasy: Or, if European history is more up your alley, by all means visit the Castello di Amorosa. About 20 years ago, V. Sattui proprietor Dario Sattui embarked on a project that came to be known locally as “Dario’s Folly” – building an exact replica of a medieval Tuscan castle in the hills above Calistoga, importing authentic materials and craftsmen from Italy to realize his vision. Today, you can tour the amazing property, which even includes a dungeon and torture chamber.

Museums: There are several excellent resources for exploring local history, including the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville, the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena, and the Sharpsteen Museum in Calistoga.

Cemeteries: In my opinion, there’s no more intriguing way to pass an afternoon than reading lichen-covered headstones with untold stories of the past. If you share this view, wander over to the Pioneer Cemetery (just north of Calistoga), or the city cemetery in St. Helena, where you can see the names of some of the valley’s most prominent early winemaking families. At the Yountville Cemetery, you can spot the grave of city father George C. Yount (the first white settler in the Napa Valley). There’s also the Ancient Indian Burial Ground, honoring the area’s very first residents. And at the Veteran’s Home across the highway, the cemetery includes veterans who fought in the Civil War.

Eccentricana: If you’re headed over to Pope Valley, don’t miss Litto’s Hubcap Ranch, a drive-by photo opp of the home of the late Litto Damonte, who began collecting hubcaps in 1935 and used them to festoon every surface and fencepost. When he died in 1985 at the age of 93, there were 3,000 hubcaps. Today there are more than 5,000.

Gallery credit:
Brannan Cottage Inn
Chateau Montelena
Bale Grist Mill
Nichelini Winery

Kirsten Mickelwait is a St. Helena-based writer who has lived and raised her family in the Napa Valley for nearly 20 years.

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