Thursday, September 30, 2010


THE OTHER DAY, I found myself on the road to Napa to visit a hospitalized friend. Interstate 80 makes an efficient route just as Burger King is efficient with lunch. I chose California 128, which begins in Winters (off I-505) and winds up at the coast. The last fifty miles of 128 from Cloverdale to Route 1 is the stuff of legends, but the section from Winters to the Napa Valley provides graceful in-saddle relaxation and a few sections of challenge. Here are a very few notes on what I found:

DOWNTOWN WINTERS. If you, like I, grew up in a small town where everyone knew who you were, take heart that such places still exist. Main Street, Winters CA, is two blocks south of route 128. The downtown bank isn’t a multi-national. The realtor has his own name on the door. The Buckhorn Steakhouse provides world-class fare with area wines from small growers. My noontime found me eating a burger at the Putah Creek Café and eavesdropping on the conversations of locals about the sheriff’s race, today’s unseasonable temperature and somebody’s new baby boy. My lunch prompted me to tell the waitress that most burgers are nothing special, but this one is to die for. Nicely browned, garnished with fresh local produce and sitting atop a bun that never saw the inside of a corporate bakery – if one is destined to have coronary artery disease, this is among the most enjoyable ways to get it. Dive in. Don’t look back.

LAKE BERRYESSA. Not the most picturesque of reservoirs, the turnout at Monticello Dam, west of Winters, affords a pleasant view down the course of Putah Creek. A small resort rests at the bottom and the still waters of Putah Creek provide great fishing and invite a swim on a hot afternoon. At the dam site, the endless efforts of tectonic forces uplift and bend once-seabed into what is now the Coast Range of California. Easily seen are the layers upon layers of sediment that predate just about everything but the big bang. Off to the west, shoreline is a matrix of clustered oaks on a golden-grassland palette. Berryessa is an Anglicization of "Berrelleza" – surname of Basque settlers who first settled this and many other tranquil Coast Range valleys. Somewhere off in the distance, livestock still graze near where the Zodiac of the 1960s did one of his awful deeds. Moonset from this vantage point, one imagines, both warms and chills.

SPANISH MOSS. West, the road rises and settles into various valleys and swales. Where the temperature and humidity are optimal, long arrays of Spanish moss hang from the arms and chins of the valley oaks like beards of a Tolkien character. Its presence gives the woodlands an ethereal quality that goes unnoticed by passers-by seeking the ethereal quality of the redwoods yet another two hours west. Still the soft blue-drab beards and muted light invite fantasies of trolls and animals that talk and young maidens carrying baskets to grandmas. A picnic along the side of the road in early spring or late autumn seems in order.

THE NICHELINI WINERY. Established in 1890, my first visit to Nichelini was the result of stumbling upon it when driving north out of Fairfield with friends. I believe we purchased some wine in a jug, but three decades (and too much wine from jugs) may render the memory a bit fuzzy. One of the oldest wineries in all of California, Nichelini produces absolutely premier wines from local vineyards. Their Chiles Valley Zinfandel accompanies nicely a tri-tip dinner from the Buckhorn in Winters or that picnic under the Spanish moss. Plan on finding space on the rack at home and buying a case. Open for tours only on the weekend, and with limited parking along the windy route, too many people race by and miss this California heritage business.

STATE ROUTE 128 and sister route 121 (directly into Napa) do all the verbs we riders seem to like: sweep, twist, lilt, rise, fall, challenge and invite. My friend’s illness provided an unhappy counterpoint to this delightful route, yet the route provided a delightful counterpoint that would not have been achieved on the Interstate.

A quick scan of two of my habitual monthly reads: Rider Magazine and the BMW Owner’s News, finds that most articles about travel are from those who have journeyed great distances for their story: Alaska’s Haul Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, California Highway 1 – even globe trotting through Africa or around the world. Yet, in most of our backyards are roads people travel for days just to visit. Leave us not overlook these gem-like local routes in our quest to find something special. Special is right here.

RESOURCES: Info on the Buckhorn Steakhouse and Putah Creek Café Established in 1890, the Nichelini Family is the oldest continuously operating family owned winery in the Napa Valley.  This site is devoted to providing information about Winters, California to residents and visitors alike.


  1. A Saturday revisit to Nichelini (after the Wednesday ride recounted) found me speaking with the great-grandson of founder A. Nichelini. (Great-great-grand daughter was nearby.) The man was pouring wine at the tasting table out back while Sinatra sang from a recording in the barrel room. The young (well middle-aged) fourth-gen family member confirmed that, indeed, it was the Nichelini Winery where, back in the late 70s, folks procured jug wine from his grandfather; and that those bringing one's own jug earned a discount.

  2. enjoy your travels tremendously.....a great mix of writing and photography