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Valley of the Moon

Valley oak, Valley of the Moon, Kenwood (11/29/20) David Laurence Sharp

Jack London loved the Sonoma Valley. He called it the Valley of the Moon. It’s where London planned his dream home, Wolf House, which burned to the ground days before the great outdoor adventure novelist was to occupy it in 1913.

The ruins remain on Sonoma Mountain, above Glen Ellen where Jack London State Historic Park memorializes the California author’s fabled life.

Below, arcing through the crescent-shaped Valley of the Moon, vineyards are now mostly past peak, reports wine country photographer David Laurence Sharp, “though the trees are looking great.”

  • Sonoma Valley (423′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, You Almost Missed It!
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Fall, Not Spring Color

Trione-Annadel State Park near Santa Rosa in Sonoma County is better known for its spring wildflowers, not its fall color.

John Natelli found the opposite on Thanksgiving Day with black oak, toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia) and coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) providing peak fall color. In doing so, he scored a First Report.

  • Trione-Annadel State Park, Santa Rosa (400′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Vintage Napa

Yountville (11/22/20) Vishal Mishra

Wine country is peaking, with colors bright and inviting spanning the Napa Valley.

South Bay color spotters Vishal Mishra and Seema Bhat explored the area, visiting Yountville, Calistoga and St. Helena, then shared the vintage locations they found. All are at peak.

Rutherford, St. Helena (11/22/20) Vishal Mishra
  • Napa Valley (253′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Asti

Asti (11/22/20) Walt Gabler

At one time in the 20th century, Asti in northern Sonoma County was more famous for its wine than many of California’s now legendary wine making regions.

Asti was the base of Italian Swiss Colony wines, established in 1881 as an agricultural colony focused on growing grapes and making wine to serve the large community of Italian immigrants in San Francisco (think North Beach and the names DiMaggio, Alioto, Ghirardelli, Ferlinghetti, Coppola, Giannini and Pelosi). By 1905, its wines had won international awards and acclaim and was producing huge amounts of wine from its 500,000 gallon cistern.

Under Louis Petri, the brand Italian Swiss Colony (ISC) was mass marketed across the U.S. following prohibition, but starting in the 1980s acquisitions and changing wine tastes led consumers toward preferring boutique wines compared to mass-produced ones, reducing the value of the brand. Eventually, Chateau Souverain, one of those boutique wines, moved its production to ISC’s Asti Winery.

Today, America’s sixth-largest wine production facility at Asti and the Souverain brand are owned by E & J Gallo Winery. The acquisition provides a lesson in how fortunes shift in the wine industry. In the 1960s, ISC was bigger than Gallo.

So, when North Coast color spotter Walt Gabler took these pictures, scoring a First Report, he struggled to identify the winery calling it the Asti Winery which it is. The image he captured is classic California wine country: rolling hills scored with rows of healthy vines leading up to oak-speckled, golden mountains. It’s all at peak this week in Asti.

Coppola Vineyards, Sonoma County (11/22/20) Walt Gabler

Walt reports that vines throughout Sonoma County are at peak and trees along the Russian River are also at full peak, “Better than I have seen in previous years.” Though, disappointingly, vineyards in Mendocino County were hit by a freeze and their leaves are brown husks hanging dismally from vines.

  • Asti (404′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Down in the Valley

Old Zinfandel, Pagani Vineyard, Sonoma Valley (11/18/20) David Laurence Sharp

Fall colors are looking up, down in the Sonoma Valley. David Sharp found bold color in venerable vineyards.

  • Sonoma Valley (85′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!
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Shufflin Through The Leaves

Leaf blowers are so powerful and efficient that leaves don’t stay piled up for long. Before there’s time to dive into a pile, they’ve been collected. So, when you happen upon a walkway strewn with dry leaves, as Ron and Michelle Pontoni did this week in Arcarta, have fun shufflin’ through them.

As for the color, though Arcata was declared past peak some time ago, Michelle’s photos show exotic Japanese maple and Gingko biloba hanging on at Humboldt State University (campus gates are closed due to the virus) and cedar waxwings and robins feasting on bunches of holly berries.

  • Arcata (23′) – Peak to Past Peak – GO NOW, You almost missed it.
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48 Hours

Historic barn, Westside Rd., Dry Creek Valley (11/15/20) David Laurence Sharp

In the span of 48 hours, “rain and wind on Friday took its toll on the vineyards of west Sonoma County,” reports wine country photographer David Laurence Sharp, “By Sunday, the vines had pretty much gone past peak,” there.

So, David drove to north Sonoma County where fall color was a “mixed bag” peaking in some vineyards and Near Peak in others.

His advice? Get to Sonoma or Napa as soon as you can.

Because of the ongoing storm, we recommend visiting between Thursday and Saturday. Thereafter, there may not be much vineyard color left.

Vineyard, Pastori Winery, Geyserville (11/15/20) David Laurence Sharp
  • South Sonoma County Vineyards – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW, You almost missed it.
  • North Sonoma County Vinyeards – Near Peak to Peak (50-100%) GO NOW!
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Dew Drop Inn

Rain drops, Autumn grasses, Ukiah (11/14/20) Walt Gabler

Walt Gabler traveled back from his backwoods Humboldt County cabin, passing by the Benbow Inn on US 101, capturing multi-colored leaves carpeting the landscape, as autumn color was bowing out.

By the time he got back to Ukiah, rain had arrived, the vines had turned from green to brown and dew had weighed down fall grasses.

  • Benbow Inn, Eel River (440′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW You Almost Missed It.
  • Ukiah (663′) – Peak to Past Peak, GO NOW You Almost Missed It.
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Why Vines Turn Color

Hallberg Vineyards, Graton, Sonoma County (11/13/20) David Laurence Sharp

Rain is diluting the color seen in California’s vineyards, but only momentarily.

We’ve found that unless the leaves are blown off, they usually retain their color following storms. And, the current storm, though it will last, off and on, for a week, it appears to be light, so far.

Doug Stanton of Stanton Vineyards in St. Helena says a greater danger to the leaves is frost. Freezing temperatures will quickly turn leaves brown that will drop to the vineyard floor. He urges going now to see the vines at peak, as with the rain and possible frost, the show could be gone by the end of the month.

The Stanton family has been growing vines in the Napa Valley for 73 years (Doug for 30); they also produce 500 to 800 cases of wine each year.

Bright reds and oranges are not something that’s a good thing. The colors indicate the vines are diseased, which delays ripening. Stanton explains, “Really colorful vineyards didn’t start with clean material.” This occurred because, historically, vineyards were planted from cuttings taken from other blocks which spread disease. Today, vines come from nurseries that certify their stock as disease free.

Disease doesn’t necessarily affect the quality of a wine, but it does reduce the productivity of the vineyard. Stanton explains, “Years ago, wine makers would say, ‘we don’t mind a little disease. It adds character.’ Though, as a grower, I want them disease free, so that they’ll ripen as quickly as possible, before it rains.”

Planting a vineyard is a big investment. Stanton says, “certifying you’re using clean material is the most important decision a grower makes. We want a block to be producing 20 to 30 years or more.”

As such, scenes of brightly colored grape leaves, such as that above – taken in Calistoga a dozen years ago – may soon disappear. The removal of unproductive vineyards is occurring throughout the Napa Valley. Stanton says, “They’re culling the vineyards, right now. You’ll see lots of empty fields with vines, that were no longer producing, heaped up.”

As diseased vines are removed, healthy ones which display bright, yellow and lime-colored leaves are replacing them. That does not mean shots like that above won’t be found. Diseases will always infect vineyards, but more vineyards will be uniformly yellow and green.

A lot of media attention was given to the effect of recent wildfires on wine production. About 30% of the harvest was lost due to buyers assessing the grapes as being “smoke tainted.” Other than the loss of a sizeable part of this year’s harvest, Stanton explains that the smoke did little long-term damage that won’t be blown, washed and pruned away during winter.

As to when grape varieties show fall color, Stanton agrees with wine country photographer David Laurence Sharp who observes that early ripening vines, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, tend to show peak fall color earlier than late ripening varieties.

Sharp says the Alexander and Dry Creek valleys in northern Sonoma County are planted with later ripening varieties, whose leaves, he estimates, will turn later this month.

Stanton’s favorite places to see fall color in the Napa Valley have been the Oakville grade, Far Niente (whose grounds are beautifully landscaped), White Sulphur Springs (though areas were burned in recent fires) and west of St. Helena.

My favorite? Well, since I’m not a grower, any diseased vineyard.

  • Vineyards, Sonoma County (108′) – Near Peak (50-100%) Go Now.
  • Vineyards, Napa Valley (253′) – Near Peak (50-100%) Go Now.
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Hidden Life in a Rain Forest

Fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, Tolowa Dunes SP, Crescent City (11/11/20) Max Forster

Towering redwood trees are so awe inspiring that most visitors to the North Coast look up so much, they miss the hidden life in a rain forest.

Humboldt County color spotter Max Forster explored Redwood National and State Parks (Jedediah Smith Redwoods, Prairie Creek and Redwood National Park) and shares this report:

“Bigleaf maple are well past peak, but you can still find individual trees, usually those that are more shaded by redwoods, displaying peak fall foliage.

“Vine leaf maple are peaking now, along with smaller understory hardwood trees and shrubs of the forest. Very young alder trees seem particularly showy to me this year.

“While the bay laurel trees aren’t showing fall foliage, recent rains have turned up their fragrance to 100. Their smell is as incredible as I can remember, absolutely luxuriant.

“Vine maple in the redwood parks generally turn similar golden hues as the bigleaf, but you can find reds at Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park.

“Roosevelt elk bulls have collected their harems and can generally be found around Humboldt Lagoons State Park (Dry Lagoon/Little Red Schoolhouse area), Elk Prairie at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and the prairies of Del Norte County near Crescent Beach.

“Mushrooms are currently out in abundance and their displays are giving the fall foliage some competition for what should demand one’s attention.

Bigleaf maple, Redwoods National & State Parks (11/11/20) Max Forster

“It’s about to rain in redwood country for a week straight and conditions will be changing rapidly in the coming days, so a visit for fall foliage should be done as soon as possible.

“Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park is at peak and well worth the drive. One can also find great displays of color from old growth poison oak vines that have climbed the redwood trunks for decades. Some of the best spots for poison oak will be along northern sections of the Avenue of the Giants and along Mattole Road between Highway 101 and the Rockefeller Forest parking lot.”

Maple, Laurel, Redwood National & State Parks (11/11/20) Max Forster

In an email conversation with Max today, he mentioned how the Covid-19 pandemic drove crowds to lightly populated Humboldt County. His comments were similar to what I’ve heard from local contacts in the Eastern Sierra, Northern Sierra, South Lake Tahoe and elsewhere where inexperienced outdoor travelers overwhelmed small rural communities and acted unthinkingly, treating fragile places roughly, leaving behind trash and acting as if they didn’t need to act prudently just because they were in the outdoors.

It was terrifying, upsetting and overwhelming to small communities where medical facilities were limited, food services and visitor support were stretched thin and locals were at risk from contact with others from outside their area.

I truly believe that fall color spotters are more sensitive and caring than those described, and we can help by traveling lightly and being mindful of what the Eastern Sierra calls using “mountain manners.”

Always leave a place cleaner than you found it by carrying disposable gloves and a trash bag to pick up trash (even if it’s not yours) and deposit them in the nearest receptacle. Please be respectful of local communities and cultures; this applies not just when you travel abroad, but works anywhere. Finally, support rural economies. Let’s make sure the courtesies they provide to visitors are more than given back.

  • Redwood National and State Parks, Humboldt County (1,000′) – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW!