Monday, June 06, 2005

Part 1 A visit to Judd's Hill

Part 1 of 3, By John Olney, Copyright , May 13, 2005. All rights reserved.

About 9:15 am, Thursday, May 12, I visited my business mailbox, which I discovered was filled with a handful of specials offers, and some newsletters from quite a few wineries. I didn’t even start to open the mail as I was anticipating my drive up to the winery I wanted to visit in Conn Valley. This is a magnificently beautiful sub region of Napa County with less than a dozen smaller wineries to enjoy. Located in the gentle rolling hills alternating with green meadows east of St. Helena, it nestles up against the Vaca mountain range that separates Napa County from the much dryer farm land of the Central Valley of California.

The morning air was still and the sky clear in shirtsleeve weather. I was driving up valley via Silverado Trail: the north-south road connecting Napa to Calistoga, along the eastern side of the Napa River. I was in route to Judd’s Hill vineyards and winery to visit with one of its owners, Holly Finkelstein. Now, something in my mind told me I knew this name, but I just couldn’t put my finger on where, when or how.

Conn Valley has two routes in and out. One way is to use the ingress by following the turnoff at Howell Mountain Road. This exit off Silverado Trail is slightly north of the famous (maybe infamous) stone bridge at the intersection of Pope Street with the Trail. Up until this year this was the road you took to find the driveway into Meadowood Resort (and Country Club). However, Meadowood apparently received permission for a direct access off of Silverado Trail. As I started the gently curving road I couldn’t help but notice how truly beautiful the area was. No sooner had I left the Trail than suddenly I found myself in a narrow corridor of trees and shrubs. I immediately flashed back to the horse and saddle, and buggy days wondering if the earlier frontiersmen viewed this entryway to the interior valley in the same manner as I do now?

I passed the former driveway into the club and started the gradual ascent up the foot of Howell Mountain. Then to my left was the continuation of Howell Mountain road, which would take one up the mountain to the town of Angwin. (The winery of, D.R. Stevens is located along this route). Straight ahead was the entry road, Conn Valley, which I now would travel to my final destination. It gently curves and winds its way adjacent to a creek into the heart of the valley. It was a beautiful and peaceful drive. I reflected for a moment on the man for whom the valley is named: John Conn. He had traveled to Napa in the 1840’s. Apparently the man had become quite a successful rancher owning most of this valley and a very large herd of cattle. However, booze was his downfall and he eventually lost everything squandering it away while imbibing his way through life.

Suddenly I was startled from my thoughts by a quickly approaching old yellow farm truck from my rear: a rancher undoubtedly in a hurry to get to fields and crops. I moved over and off the road to let him by as I approached the second of the former old great wineries in this valley. It was the crumbling and overgrown stone building of the former G. Crochat & Co.’s, Franco-Swiss winery. It is located just to the left of the driveway into Seavey Vineyard and winery. What happened to first old winery? I drove by it, near the Rossi street turnoff, as I was daydreaming about old John Conn. It was the former Mountain Cove Ranch winery that now is converted into a beautiful private residence. Also located up Rossi is Anderson’s Conn Valley Winery.

Back onto the main road I now was approaching the turnoff onto Greenfield. Now, this is an interesting drive! The road narrows and the curves are blind. I knew to drive slowly and alertly as the locals know the road but I didn’t. Suddenly a brown UPS delivery truck came around the curve. I’m sure the driver saw the whites of my eyes as I moved so far to the right I was almost scrapping the hillside. We made it by each other and all he did was give me that knowing smile- -you know, the one that says, “Scared you, did I?” A couple more turns and there was the Judd’s Hill driveway turn-off, but I was early for my appointment so I went by and continued up the hill.

I had not been in this area since about 1988 when I came up to visit Buehler Winery to request use of their label on my poster-map. As I approached the Buehler gate there, off to my left, stood the old stone and wood winery relic that once housed the first Salmina family enterprise back in the 1860s-70s. This family also operated the Larkmead winery, which in the 1960s through 1980s housed Hanns Kornell Champagne and is now owned by Frank Family Vineyards. It was getting close to my appointment time so I didn’t continue on up the hill to the Amizetta Winery.

I turned into the driveway and headed down to the building that is immediately visible in front of you as you quickly descend from Greenfield. On my right was an open gate to a gravel road that looked like an access way to work the vineyards. I drove up to the building, which now looked more like a home than a winery. A bespeckled older gentleman came out of the garage and in a very friendly voice asked if I was looking for Judd’s Hill winery. Sheepishly I said I was. I now knew I should have turned at the open gate. We chatted for a few minutes and I showed him my poster-map that included the Buehler wine label. He offered that Mrs. Buehler was coming to his home that evening for dinner and he would tell her about our chance meeting. He then showed me how to get back to the Judd’s Hill property.

I turned down the gravel road and immediately ahead of me were about six SUV’s and mini-vans parked in all the available space by the winery building. I could see that the driveway continued on downhill and went around the winery heading back toward Greenfield. I drove onto the crush pad, stopped and was looking for somebody to tell me where to park when suddenly Art Finkelstein came up from the side and told me just to leave it where it was, keys in it in case it had to be moved for somebody to leave the site. I was finally here and ready to meet with Holly. The name Finkelstein still haunted me. Where did I know this name?

Part 2, “A Conversation with Holly -- The Mysterious Miss Mauna Loa -- of Judd’s Hill,” of this three-part article will appear week of May 16, 2005. Part 3, “Tasting Judd’s Hill a 1,000 feet up,” will appear week of May 23, 2005


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