Stuart George

Open up that Golden Gate: Travels in California

In Travel on October 28, 2009 at 5:29 pm

“Joni Mitchell’s voice and guitar wafted through the speakers as the plane landed in San Francisco…”

The young Joni Mitchell

The young Joni Mitchell

How’s that for the opening sentence to a pulp thriller? At any rate, it was a nice way to arrive in California.

The mood turned Hitchcockian when I was unable to find the driver who had been sent to collect me by my host Dr SuHua Newton. Eventually we found each other—he had even walked right past me while I was sat outside in the sun reading David Frith’s Bodyline Autopsy, one of the best cricket books ever.

Golden Gate in Fog (image courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica)Of course, the drive into (or rather past) the city was for me thrilling, especially over the Golden Gate Bridge. I had been told that I would be staying at Dr Newton’s “hotel” in Mill Valley, a prosperous suburb just north of SF. I thought I was staying in her house, so I was bemused to learn that I would be parked in a hotel and one that wasn’t even in the city. When I arrived, all was revealed. The “hotel” turned out to be a splendid house that Dr Newton uses as her office. It was Friday so I would have it all to myself for the weekend.

We went for dinner that evening at a the Tong Kiang restaurant and drank a half-bottle of 2001 Newton Vineyards Merlot, which was mature, balanced and supple though rather short.

Mill Valley, looking towards San Francisco

Mill Valley, looking towards San Francisco

On Saturday morning I woke up and gazed from the patio across Richardson Bay to the city, which was shrouded in thick fog. It was cool too, “a nipping and an eager air.” The climate of San Francisco and the Bay Area is extraordinarily capricious.

I caught a ferry from Sausolito to the city. Taking a punt on the sunshine that had emerged earlier that morning, I was in shorts and sandals. I froze as the ferry alternately bobbed across the water through thick fog or bright sunshine.

Haight-AshburyDr Newton told me off for leaning out of her car window while she was showing me round the city. (She is a very impatient driver). Apparently some kid had his arms or legs sheared off by a passing car when leaning out of the window so a law banning such things was passed hastily. San Francisco’s weather is capricious but so is its legislation. In the city of Haight-Ashbury, the Beat Generation, hippies and the Summer of Love you cannot even lean out of a car window without breaking the law. This famously liberal city is bound up by legislation tighter than the bark on a Giant Sequoia.

It has a dark and disturbing underbelly, too. There is a magnificent and sombre film made in 2004 by Eric Steel that explores why so many people end their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge. The images captured by Steel of people leaping from the bridge into the icy water are shocking and linger in the viewer’s memory like a bad dream.

Pacific Heights, San Francisco

Pacific Heights, San Francisco

On a more cheerful note, Dr Newton lives in a Pacific Heights house with magnificent views across the city and harbour. We sat in her lounge eating, drinking, talking and watching the occasional container ship go past Alcatraz as it headed out to sea. The ships were rarely fully-loaded, their plimsoll lines usually visible. The shipping industry has been hit hard by the “crisis”. I visited some friends in Hamburg recently and they told me that for a couple of days last autumn the usually thriving shipyards there were eerily still. If local residents were spooked just imagine what it would be like if you worked in that industry.

On Saturday evening we went to a Thai restaurant called Yukol and drank 1982 Newton Vineyards Merlot. The nose was cedary and good but the palate was drying out and left acidity rather than fruit on the finish. Nonetheless, it was a rare treat.

A taxi was ordered at closing time to get me back to Mill Valley. Dr Newton was due on a nightshift in her role as a paediatrician. She is an extraordinary lady—a winemaker and doctor of medicine, with qualifications in every subject imaginable. She also paints well, speaks several languages and used to be a model. What a woman she is! I hope that somebody captures her remarkable life in words before it is too late.

In London, taxi drivers always know where they’re going. If they don’t, they consult a map or SatNav. I assumed my man would know where to go. He didn’t. Nor did I. It was late, it was dark, I had barely seen any of Mill Valley and I was tired. So we drove for at least an hour around Mill Valley to find the “hotel.” He had the courtesy to switch off the fare machine but I had been advised $40 would cover the trip from SF to Mill Valley. So that is what I offered him.

“You’re kidding?”

No, I wasn’t. This led to an earful of abuse. I pointed out to him that UK cabbies usually have a map handy. Why didn’t he?

He wanted to know why I didn’t know the way.

“Are you slow or somethin’?’”

Something, since you ask. And I’m too tired to argue and want to go to bed. More abuse. He sped off before I could note his registration plate. But, like Jerry Garcia, I believe in Karma.

Jerry Garcia

"Captain Trips"—Jerry Garcia

Sunday was spent in a very warm Napa, the temperature hitting nearly 90 degrees that day. Dr Newton showed me her Carneros Vineyard, which supplies grapes for the Unfiltered Chardonnay. Lara Abbott, Domaine Chandon’s and Newton’s Australian-born but US-raised PR, joined us here. She took my digs over The Ashes in good humour. I had been reading about Bodyline, after all.

The Razi vineyard was also visited. The owner had a charming ticking-off (sic) from Dr Newton over various things, irrigation and burned grapes and so on. She explained to me afterwards how she turns on the charm to get the best out of people. A good lesson for life!

I joined a tour group at Newton Vineyards to have a look around the estate. It’s a long way up—the pine tree that is shown on the bottle labels is at 1,700 feet above sea level. Some of the vineyards surrounding Newton’s winery are at a 60-degree slope—nowadays, new plantings are only permitted at up to 30.

Lunch was at the Auberge du Soleil restaurant up in the hills at Rutherford. SuHua and Lara cooed at Colin, the boyish-looking and charming sommelier. It was very good, especially the cookies made to order for Dr Newton. Being a generous soul, she let me and Lara try them.

The afternoon was spent with John Caldwell at his estate in Coombsville. I had arranged to meet John after having had to request images from him for a brilliant Jonathan Swinchatt article that I edited in my previous dayjob.

John and Joy Caldwell

John and Joy Caldwell

John used to sell his grapes to Pahlmeyer Winery and others but began bottling his own wines with the 1998 vintage, though production has remained tiny at less than 1,000 cases per year.

The red wines are big and fleshy, especially the Proprietary Red. Caldwell Vineyards’ winemaker is Marbue Marke—from Sierra Leone! But he hasn’t yet made a blend called “Palm-wine music.”

The Caldwell bottles with the “C” logo mould cost $3.50 each, John told me. Money is tight but “I love it too much to sell.” He and his wife Joy have a young family. He’s one of the good guys and deserves his successes.

Three days is hardly enough to see California but I was due back in New York on Monday night.

At JFK airport I was refreshing myself with a beer when a car ad appeared on the bar’s TV screen. It was subtitled “Do not attempt yourself. Professional driver on an enclosed track.” Only in America…

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