Calistoga: Mud, Mineral Water and Wine


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Right after we had moved to the Bay Area from Colorado, my husband decided to be romantic and take me, on our anniversary, to Calistoga in Napa Valley for a mud bath. When we were led into the bathroom, we saw two tubs filled with dark gray and very smelly mud (think rotten eggs). We both started giggling, which became slightly hysterical when we stepped into the warm, dense mud. Especially the weight, as if an elephant had decided to take a nap on my chest, I will never forget. The scent was very distracting and my husband didn’t help my level of discomfort by asking: “Do you think this mud is ‘clean’, as in: used by us for the first time, or have other people been sitting in the same mud before us?”

I looked at the sunlight that came peeking through one of the windows and thought of the vineyards and nice restaurants outside. Essentially my husband’s question was the trigger to get out of that mud asap. We hosed each other off with a garden hose which felt like we were cattle in a stable rather than spa-goers. Maybe we should have picked that slightly more expensive address…

The assistant who was waiting for us in the hallway was really surprised we were back so soon and while I was ready to beeline out of there, she led us to a small room where we were told to lie down while the room filled with the soothing sounds of one of Mozart’s piano concertos. You have to give the mud the opportunity to penetrate your pores, so you shouldn’t be an asshole and start grabbing for your clothes, just because you want to go wine tasting.

I am just saying: Calistoga is worth a visit, even without the mud.

Near Calistoga, there was a volcano (Mount Konocti) millions of years ago and that volcano caused all sorts of cracks in and around Calistoga. There is a geyser which spouts hot water every fifteen minutes on Tubbs Lane (www.oldfaithfulgeyser.com) and the first Spanish padres (missionaries) who visited the area named it Agua Caliente which was soon translated into Hot Springs Territory.

But Calistoga wouldn’t be Calistoga without the illustrious figure of Samuel Brannan.

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Brannan was Mormon and when the Mormons were forced to move their colony westward, Brannan and about 200 others left New York, in the direction of California, which, at that point, was still Mexican territory. They traveled by boat, all the way via Cape Horn (the southernmost tip of South America), which was a journey of six months and 24,000 miles. In 1846, the expedition landed in San Francisco that was still called Yerba Buena then; no more than 100 people were living there. Brannan started a newspaper (The California Star) and the first English-language school in the city.

Brannan was also the first who launched the news that gold had been found in the American River. Because the finding of gold was initially just rumor-based, Brannan brought proof: holding up a quinine bottle with a yellow material, he ran through the streets of San Francisco and yelled: “Gold, gold, gold from the American River.” He never panned for gold himself, but bought some stores in gold country that sold all sorts of products to the gold seekers. Et voilà, that act of genius turned Brannan into the first millionaire of California (he would boast later in life, that, on good days, his stores brought in $4,000 a day).

When you read California’s history, you keep running into Brannan: he bought large plots of land, helped promote the trade with China and developed banks and railways. In 1864, he started the Napa Valley Railroad Company so people could reach Calistoga more easily, a small settlement where, in 1862, he had bought a large plot of land for a spa retreat (Indian Springs). Mind you, even the name Calistoga came from Brannan: during a tipsy evening, he declared that his spa retreat would become the Saratoga (a town in New York) of the West but because he had been imbibing heavily, he misspoke and said it would be “the Calistoga of Sarafornia”. But the name stuck and in 1885, Calistoga became an official town where the beau monde came to sit in mud baths with a glass of mineral water by their side. When Robert Louis Stevenson visited Calistoga, it was the spa retreat that gave the town its identity: he called it a “metropolitan hamlet” and due to the growing wine industry in the Napa Valley, Calistoga blossomed.

Aside from the apparent must of the mud, another must-see is Chateau Montelena, one of the older vineyards (1880) in the Napa Valley (near Tubbs Lane, and the geyser). Alfred Tubbs had started this family business and even though Tubbs Mansion burnt to the ground in a forest fire of 1964, a faux chateau was built in its place (www.montelena.com) that would become the movie set for the unforgettable wine movie Bottle Shock (2008), a true story in which the California wines managed to outperform all the French wines in a double blind tasting competition which is held annually in Paris (the movie deals with the Jugement de Paris of 1976). At Montelena, you can even get a special behind the scenes tour if you don’t feel like sniffing and tasting wines.

And Samuel Brannan, the founding father of Calistoga?

His life took a turn for the worse. He became an alcoholic and a womanizer and would lose so much of his wealth because of a divorce that he practically died penniless in San Diego. The first millionaire of California could not afford to pay for his own funeral…

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