To Toil with Vines - Hispanics and Napa Valley's Wineries

Article excerpt

Eighty miles north of San Francisco, tucked away between hills and surrounded by vineyards, lies the little town of St. Helena. Once one of California's best-kept secrets, it is now the heart of the Napa Valley, a region famous for what one sign describes as "bottled poetry": its wines. I grew up in the valley in the 1950s and '60s. I remember days when the sky was sparkling clear and one could ride a horse into town by way of entertainment. Those times are gone. Today, the valley is highly developed and boasts more annual visitors than Disneyland.

Away from the hubbub of the tourism trade, I watch as a lone tractor makes its way up and down a field. Edgar Hermoso, a middle-aged family man and immigrant from Mexico, sits behind the wheel of the John Deere. The machine kicks up clouds of dust as Hermoso turns over soil in preparation for planting a new crop of grapes. Lizards scurry away from the threatening wheels, and rabbits bound into hiding. After a while, Hermoso stops his work to talk with me.

In the misty distance, brightly patterned hot-air balloons rise into the air, carrying visitors aloft for a bird's-eye view of the valley below. "When I first came to California," he muses in broken English, pensively eyeing the balloons, "I didn't have money. I used to walk to work until I could buy a bicycle. Then I rode my bicycle. Now I have a car."

Where Hermoso's tractor has churned away the loam, the overturned earth is dotted by shards of obsidian. Of volcanic origin, the stone is commonly called "black glass" because of its sharp edges. Arrowheads, spearpoints, fishing weights, and scrapers can all be recovered from this land, he tells me. Native Americans once hunted elk, deer, and even grizzly bears in this region, and the plentiful, easily chipped obsidian provided a perfect material for fashioning all sorts of implements.

Hundreds of years ago, the valley floor was dotted with Indian encampments. The area was home to several tribes including the Napato, for whom the valley is probably named. I envision teepees encircling a fire and children playing near a stream or throwing spears at steelhead trout or salmon struggling upriver to spawn. I imagine women gathering blackberries and wild grapes to use as food or to dye clothing, or pounding dried corn and acorns on large grinding stones. Even today, hidden among tangles of overgrown grasses, some of these large stones languish out of sight, waiting for rediscovery. I find myself a little in awe at how--in little more than two centuries--the valley that I have always known as my home has been changed beyond all recognition.

Settlement and Spanish vines

The history of these changes begins farther south. In 1769, Fr. Jun'pera Serra, the Franciscan apostle of Alta California, began establishing missions up and down the California coast. Using adobe, a mudlike brick, and inexpensive--even conscripted--Mexican and Indian labor, the Spanish-style buildings were quickly erected. The missions provided refuge and religion (sometimes forcibly imposed) for those Indians who had been driven from their hunting grounds by well-armed whites, and for the scores of Mexican peasants who had mysteriously, if advantageously, appeared once work on the buildings began.

Dismayed by poor conditions at Misi-n San Francisco de Asis (later San Francisco), Fr. Jose Altamiro explored beyond Las Petalumas into "the place called Sonoma." This is what is now known as the Carneros region and Napa Valley. In his diary, he noted that the valley was "quite proper for the cultivation of the vine."

In March 1812, twenty-five Russians and eighty Alaskans, traveling from Sitka, Alaska--which the Russians called "New Archangel"--came ashore at Bodega Bay. They established a encampment known as Fort Ross some miles to the north. They came to trade for otter pelts, which brought high prices in China. As they explored south to the Napa Valley region they discovered the highest peak in the area; a Russian general named it Mount St. …