Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Eco-Touring” September 2007.
Ramblin’ On by the Napa Nomad, Eco-excursions in the Napa Valley
Above It All – Oakville Grade
By Arvis Northrop
There are many fantastic views to behold in the Napa Valley in such places as Skyline Park and Westwood Hills Park in Napa. Getting to them, for me, would be a “real” hike with boots, proper clothing, water bottles, even a sturdy walking stick. But sometimes I just want to take off on foot to explore something nearby that only requires my usual sneakers or sturdy sandals, with a picturesque and comfortable destination in mind and the availability of good food. So, I came up with this idea to walk up the Oakville Grade, seeking a fantastic view with the added bonus of a lovely picnic area nearby. I recruited my good friend Renee to join me. Renee is mostly an “indoor girl” but with a healthy dose of “trooper,” so she was happy to try out this excursion.
We took the #10 Vine bus from Napa, up Highway 29 and got off at the Oakville Grocery store. We had small backpacks and purchased a sandwich to share (they have large, delicious sandwiches), some potato salad and an amazing chocolate-coated peanut butter cookie; after all, we would need our strength. Oakville Grocery is maybe half a block north of the start of the Oakville Grade road. At a safe break in the traffic we scurried across Highway 29 to begin our ascent to the view. At the corner is Taqueria La Vaca, a Mexican restaurant with spacious outdoor dining and a wonderful dancing cow in the middle of the lawn. Well, the cow is a statue, not actually dancing. She resembles Marilyn Monroe quite a bit, from the movie “Seven Year Itch,” with the billowing white dress and coy expression. It’s worth a stop in itself.
The walk up Oakville Grade to a panoramic valley view is about 1.5 miles. You could bring a pedometer or simply use my landmarks. There are so many intriguing, historical sites in the Napa Valley. On the valley floor on the south side of the road is Far Niente Winery. Tucked way into the vineyards, Far Niente Winery was founded in 1885 and there’s a wonderful story of its history on their website http://www.farniente.com. On the other side of the road is the quaint St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, a very pretty photo opportunity. They hold Sunday services at 8:00 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
We continued along the road, which is a gentle walk surrounded by vineyards. As the grade becomes steeper, there is a sign to the right announcing the Carmelite House of Prayer. This wooded paved road leads to the magnificent Carmelite Monastery. In 1955 the three founders of this Northern California monastery took possession of the Doak Mansion, which was built in 1921. If you have the time, I recommend this detour to see the monastery and its view from the grounds. John McLaren, designer of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, originally landscaped the grounds and they are open to the public to explore. Currently the Monastery has contact information and a schedule of their masses, which are open to the public, on the web at http://www.ocdwest.org/oakville.html.
From this point we started our more vigorous climb, being mindful of occasional vehicles, and staying close to the side of the road. Up ahead, on the left was our picnic destination, Diamond Oaks Winery. It is truly an oasis on the hillside. But, hold on just a bit longer; before entering Diamond Oaks I encourage you to go just .3 of a mile farther. Look for two turnouts in the road, one on each side. Cross to the south side turnout and look east at a view of the Oakville appellation.
Oakville became a burgeoning wine making region in the mid 1800s and is known worldwide for distinctive Cabernet grapes. To gaze over the vineyards and hillsides of the Napa Valley is a calming experience, a beauty to behold. You can enjoy this walk in spring and then again in fall to compare the views. By June the valley is full, lush and green; a vibrant green carpet on the valley floor. Return in October to see Nature’s way of dying in brilliant style. The vines don’t fade away, but are dressed in the colors of jewels: amber, ruby, amethyst and garnet.
Now you’re ready for your picnic. Visit the winery, bring your food, buy a refreshing bottle of wine and sit at a table in their beautiful setting overlooking the Oakville appellation of the valley. You can call ahead to reserve a table, a great idea if you’re sightseeing with guests and doing the wine-tasting thing. This winery is a little off of the beaten path, not crowded and the atmosphere is casual and friendly. The grounds are woodsy with some areas providing expansive views. There’s more information about Diamond Oaks at http://www.diamond-oaks.com. For an alternative to the wine and picnic, start back down the easy Oakville Grade and treat yourself to the delicious food at Taqueria La Vaca.
My friend and I were quite pleased. We got good exercise, experienced nature, learned a little history and had good food and wine. It always helps to have a special reward for exercise. Getting back to Napa, or points south as far as Vallejo, you can catch the #10 Vine directly across the street from the Oakville Grocery. The #10 also continues north into Calistoga. For Vine routes and schedules go to http://www.nctpa.net/vine.cfm.