On a recent Sunday I had the good fortune to slip through a wrinkle in time. It happened just as I was finishing a bowl of risotto at the friendly Farmstead restaurant and looking balefully at the endless snake of northbound traffic on Highway 29. They were barely crawling through St. Helena in that weekend pilgrimage to destination wineries along the valley’s main artery.
Getting stuck in gridlock is unclear on the concept of a quiet Sunday escape. We ditched the traffic jam and walked to nearby Merryvale with the idea of tasting without getting into our car. But the prospect of spending $15 a head for a few splashes — you can buy a good bottle of wine for that or two bottles of something pleasantly drinkable — left us in a nostalgic funk for the old days when tasting was easy, personal, relaxed and affordable.
I moved to the Wine Country in the mid 1980s. In those days, there were tasting rooms galore, some really nice, some more down home, where you could drop in for a free taste, leaving you with some money in your wallet to buy a bottle and bring the experience home. So we headed off in the opposite direction from the glamor, out to the airy relief of the Silverado Trail.
Ah, getting closer to the Wine Country we used to know. Then we headed up Deer Park to the forested town of Angwin. Following the signs to Pope Valley, we found the time warp we craved at Pope Valley Winery way above the valley floor.
The tasting room is in a small cabin untouched by designer hands. The tastes of the Eackle’s family’s zin, light, estate-grown cabs and fruity merlots were astonishingly generous, well more than just a few drops in the glass. It was so intimate and the other tasters so relaxed it was more like a small social gathering. It was so prolonged we found ourselves engaging in conversations with other tasters. We also were led out with our full wine glasses to a barn and hand-dug caves still baring their earthen walls more than 110 years after winery founder Ed Haus first cut them from the mountain. We were charged nothing.
Pope Valley is a rare place to find real Napa, still preserved in the high country above the congestion. Dressed in Northern California history and old farm architecture, it’s precious because it’s not pretending to be anywhere else.
It makes a pleasant and easy drive up into these cooler and woodsier reaches. But it’s also a good, challenging ride for the ambitious beginning or intermediate cyclist. From Saint Helena take Church Street to Pope Street and then go right onto Silverado Terrace. Then make a left on Sage Canyon, a left on Chiles-Pope Valley Road and then left onto Pope Valley Road through the heart of this laid back valley, past old landmarks like the rustic old Henry Haus Blacksmith shop. Head back on Ink Grade, jogging right on White Cottage and then taking Howell Mountain Road down and back onto Pope in St. Helena. There’s only one small market in Pope Valley for drinks and snacks for emergencies but if you really want a worthy picnic pick it up before you head up the mountain. The loop is about 35 miles.
Pope Valley Winery throws one of the more relaxed inclusive harvest parties you’ll find in wine country on Aug. 20 The Turning of the Vines event offers slow cooked pork, lamb and tri-tip with unfancy sides like broccoli salad, home-style slow cooked beans, potatoes au gratin, summer squash and French rolls. Throw in live-music, bocce and wine and it’s like a party with friends. You can even bring the kids. Cost is $40 adults and $15 for kids 12 and under. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by Aug. 5. Or call (707)965-1246.
Pope Valley Winery is at 6613 Pope Valley Road. It’s open for tasting 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.