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Great Escapes: Napa Valley

The Art Scene Is Just As Tasteful As The Wine And Food

Larry S. Saavedra
Nov 1, 2010
Photographers: Larry S. Saavedra, Janey Saavedra
The vineyards of Napa Valley are aromatic and full of life, but to the traveler in search of alternative things to see and do, the art scene as well soothes a discerning palate. As naturalist John Muir aptly wrote, "Everyone needs beauty as well as bread."
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Within Napa Valley, the towns of St. Helena, Yountville, and Calistoga are best known for their award-winning whites and reds, from soil that has been cultivated for generations, but the art galleries up and down the valley floor that are filled with original oils, watercolors, and sculptures, also keep visitors returning to this charismatic destination.
Carlo in Calistoga
The town of Calistoga is a throwback to the early days of California: slow-paced, friendly, and full of scenic shops that tickle the imagination. As the story goes, Calistoga got its unusual name from one of the first visitors to the area who said it reminded him of Saratoga because of its natural hot springs and mud baths. Then after a few drinks (presumably of wine), the gentleman fumbled the words and called it Calistoga-the Saratoga of California.
Photo 3/24   |   Carlo sips a glass of wine and reflects about his art.
For us, the trip began at the Calistoga RV and Campgrounds (Napa Valley Fairgrounds) just north of downtown. It was nothing fancy, that's for sure: just 72 RV sites at $18 per night mostly laid out on a square gravel lot adjacent to the local arena. Nearly barren of luxuries, the fairground's claim to fame is that it is within walking distance of a very good nine-hole golf course and downtown. Staying there is a convenient way to see the sights without much fuss.
The sites have full or partial hookups, and the area is clean and quiet. Dogs are welcome on leash, and the spaces are large enough to accommodate even Class A motorhomes or fifth wheels, although they are narrow. There's room to tent camp if you are inclined, but be sure to bring bug and tick spray, as we discovered. If you're in the mood for privacy, nearby Bothe State Park has limited sites available and dogs are welcome and hiking trails abundant.
In town, there are art galleries, fine restaurants, and kitschy shops, but a short drive will take you to the Old Faithful geyser. The geyser is a true wonder of the world, and if you have never seen a geyser shooting out of the ground and can't make it to Yellowstone it is a decent way of keeping the kids entertained.
Of all the art galleries in Calistoga, the must-see is Ca'Toga. The gallery is the vision of 72-year-old Italian-born artist Carlo Marchiori, a Renaissance-style painter, potter, and sculptor who lives in the area.
Marchiori's work is distinctive, even a little spirited by traditional Napa standards-nothing like the art you see elsewhere. If you look closely, you can see the web of wit he's spun around traditional motifs.
As luck would have it, the day we visited he was putting the final touches on floor-to-ceiling Venetian-style murals at the Dell Dotto winery tasting room in St. Helena. We watched as the maestro contemplated the massive scale of his latest project at Dell Dotto, craning to get perspective of his 18-foot figures that embodied the winemaking process of ancient Italy. Murals of this kind have been a Marchiori hallmark for decades. In fact, references to his work of Renaissance, baroque, and neoclassic design, and notably his whimsical trompe l'oeil, pop up everywhere in Calistoga.
"I've been here 20 years, and in that time Calistoga has become a beautiful destination for the traveler. We get four seasons with a little snow in the winter, but the spring and summer months are a good time to visit.
"My father expected me to be a bookkeeper, and I wanted to be an artist. I spent three years in art school in Italy and immigrated to Canada thereafter. I became a graphic artist. I did magazine, TV, and animation art and then produced a film short called The Drag for the Canadian Film Board, which was nominated for an Academy Award.
"I got involved in trompe l'oeil after being commissioned by a Las Vegas hotel and casino, then by Donald Trump in Atlantic City. Although the work I do has taken me all over the world, I ended up in Calistoga where I set up my gallery and villa," he said.
Photo 10/24   |   Entering the Dell Dotto wine cellar is like stepping back in time. Millions of dollars were spent to create a mood for wine connoisseurs from around the world.
Villa Ca'Toga is Carlo's Palladian-style residence, set on five acres of prime Napa real estate. Marchiori opens the doors to Villa Ca'Toga (May through October) and guides art lovers through a considerable body of his villa work that extends from the garden, grotto, studio, and living quarters.
Carlo was quick to distinguish his villa as much more than an eclectic house of mismatched figures, frescos, and fixtures.
"It works for me," he said in a thick Italian accent. "We live in strange times when it comes to art: We've become too sterilized, show biz and television is not really stimulating. The American pioneers had the right idea though, which was to be able to do it all themselves. Then came Sears and Roebuck and it all ended," he laughed.
Carlo considers himself a decorative artist and questions the value of pretty pictures often seen in galleries. "I do work that reflects my personality, I enjoy myself when I paint. It is like growing your own tomatoes."
Asked how he enjoys entertaining the many guests that come to see his villa, he responded, "I don't grind my teeth over it. People are people, and the ones that are too pedestrian I sort of pack them in quickly. If they want too much information, I tell them that I'm not into statistics about my art. I try to put them at ease though," he smiled.
A Brief Stop in Geyserville
Geyserville is a small town within Sonoma County and 45 minutes north of Calistoga near Interstate 101. If you aren't careful, it's easy to pass right by Geyserville without slowing down; the downtown area is short with only a few restaurants and wine shops.
But what Geyserville has to offer is worth the drive, especially if you get an opportunity to see the oil paintings of Sam Racina, an artist who captures the immensity of the Napa Valley region like few others in vivid landscapes.
Racina's Terranean gallery is humble, yet his work is stunningly detailed. Racina works from photographs that he has taken himself, and then painstakingly labors over each brush stroke until the work is completed. Perhaps not the best known landscape artist to come out of wine country, Racina is, however, surely one of its undiscovered gems.
St. Helena's Charm
Art doesn't have to be a painting or hand-formed ceramic pot, and such is the case of Cameo Cinema.
Originally built as the Golden Gate Theatre, this 1915 establishment continues to offer a slate of cultural programming for the artistic-minded visitor-from community theatrical productions to art films, depending on the season.
From the ground up, it remains beautifully detailed in classic early 20th century styling, thanks to proprietor Cathy Buck, and it harkens back to the days when the price of admission opened your imagination, not just your wallet. We highly recommend a visit to the Cameo Cinema if you're in the St. Helena area.
Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of such beloved classics as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and A Child's Garden of Verses, once lived in St. Helena. In fact, history says that in 1880 Stevenson spent his honeymoon in an abandoned bunkhouse at the old Silverado Mine on the slope of Mount St. Helena. Now you can delve into the classics at the Silverado Museum just off Main Street. Scholars and researchers on Robert Louis Stevenson's life and works are encouraged and welcome to spend time at the museum while pursuing their academic interests.
A John Muir Connection
After spending some time in Napa, we made our way back home but not before one final stop in Martinez, California, to the national historic site of the home of John Muir, the legendary naturalist who secured much of our wilderness areas from deforestation and destruction.
Photo 17/24   |   The John Muir home in Martinez, California, was our last stop.
Somewhere along the highway, the little brown road sign encouraged drivers to visit the home of Muir, and so like good tourists, we did. As chances had it, soon we'd be in the company of Robert Hanna, the great-great-grandson of John Muir.
The return trip from Napa couldn't have been better timed. It seems Hanna was only there for a day to introduce a new book, The Illuminated Landscape, written about the Sierra Nevada range, which was his great-great-grandfather's stomping grounds. We were quite eager to hear what he had to tell us about John Muir.
Photo 18/24   |   The desk of naturalist and writer John Muir.
In the conversation, Robert also disclosed that another descendant of Muir owns and operates a winery in Napa Valley called Muir-Hanna, bringing our story 180 degrees to where it began. Right in Napa Valley.
A View of Rutherford
Works from the I. Wolk Gallery can be viewed in Rutherford, home to Auberge du Soleil, a collection of outdoor sculpture like no other in the U.S. Featuring nearly 110 works by 65 California sculptors, the open-air gallery is assembled for viewing and sale. The work is designed around a 33-acre compound and features figurative and abstract sculpture in all media-including bronze, ceramic, stone, and wood.
Visiting Yountville
Yountville is teeming with art galleries and magnificent sculptures literally at every corner of this small town. In fact, one of the oldest buildings in Yountville, called V Marketplace 1870, is home to the largest collection of wine-related art in all of Napa. With galleries such as North Bay, the Blue Heron, and Gallery 1870, V Marketplace is more than a place to shop-it is a destination for the entire family. Plenty of parking for the RV anywhere in town, lots of restaurants, ballooning, and festivals make Yountville a definite place to see or stay.
Photo 19/24   |   Yountville is teeming with art in all media.
Downtown Napa
Finally, there's also the Napa Valley Wine Train, which is the best way of seeing the entire valley in style. The train features music, dining, and plenty of wine choices. It's a good way to reflect on this beautiful valley and take in a sunset to remember.
The RV Scene of Napa
Now that you've discovered along with us that Napa Valley is more than simply great wine and food, here's some not-so-good news about the area. There aren't many RV parks that we can recommend nearby.
Photo 20/24   |   The entrance to Chanticleer Estate Wines embodies the color and character of Napa Valley.
Before you go, be sure to check out the online forums from other travelers because resort websites don't always show the entire picture of the facility. If you plan to visit Napa in the spring or summer, be sure to make reservations first, although during the week, the resorts usually have space available and are on a first-come basis. During peak tourist season, Napa hotels, restaurants, and other destinations fill up quickly. Traffic on the main highway that runs through Napa Valley can get very congested, so try to get there early and leave later in the week if possible.
Once you find a resort that fits your lifestyle, all that's left to do is to go out and enjoy the art, sip a little glass of your favorite label, relax, and take in the surroundings of lush vineyards as the sun sets on the valley known as Napa.
Special Thanks to OCRV
Once again, our friends at OCRV in Anaheim, California, provided the transportation to Napa. With their help, the trip went perfectly, and the Fleetwood Pulse saved us a small bundle on fuel costs thanks to its 3.0-liter diesel.
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If you're in the market to rent an RV or trailer and live in or plan to visit the Southern California area, we recommend OCRV. They have some of the best, most reasonably priced motorhomes and travel trailers available. Best of all, the service at OCRV is top-notch!
For more details, visit them online at www.ocrv.com or by calling (888) 674-6278.


Arts Council Of Napa Valley
Bothe-Napa State Park
Cameo Cinema
St. Helena , CA 94574
Calistoga, CA 94515
Calistoga RV And Campgrounds
Calistoga, CA 94515
Sam Racina
V Marketplace
Yountville, CA 94599