Making it Through the Mud in Calistoga, Sarafornia by Emma Krasov

Photography by Yuri Krasov

Traveling to Calistoga, California, I was not up to that muddy business everyone was raving about. When it comes to any kind of dirt touching moi or anything I’m wearing I’m out of there. It might be slightly pathological, but “squeamish” doesn’t cut it.
It took me a lot of nerve and natural curiosity to finally try the world-famous mud bathes in Calistoga. And, I had to do it in two steps – from a water-drawn thin mud looking like diluted black ink to the thick blanket of pure muck – the kind you get stuck in somewhere in the back roads of Russia at the end of a rainy season. Surprisingly, I enjoyed both.

What brought me to Calistoga were its distinct AVA wines and its unique character for a Napa Valley town. Despite being part of the ultimate tourist destination – California Wine Country – Calistoga remains a charming hideaway, less crowded, less commercialized, and more open to leisurely pursuits of honeymooners, romantic couples of all ages, and other deserving vacationers.
An historical anecdote relates how the geyser town in the foothills of Mount St. Helena got its name. An early settler and founder of Calistoga, Samuel Brannan, wanted to make it a “Saratoga of California” in honor of the hot springs resort in New York, but for some reason mispronounced his words, and announced “Calistoga of Sarafornia” to the world instead. Sure enough, a century and a half later, the founding eccentric’s presence is widely felt in the town.

Spacious Brannan’s restaurant on the main drag occupies a corner building with large windows. Inside, atmospheric and richly decorated bar and dinner hall serve classic cocktails, steak house staples, and excellent local wines, like Brian Arden Syrah from Masked Man Vineyard and Cultivar cabernet sauvignon – both produced in Napa Valley. My Berkshire-Duroc pork chop was served with mustard greens, cannellini beans, and grain mustard jus, and was predictably good. My husband’s braised lamb shank with roasted garlic infused polenta and sautéed Swiss chard was fork tender and flavorful, so I had to have some of that, too.
For the night, we settled in a charming little cottage with all imaginable conveniences belonging to Hideaway Cottages – a sister property of the popular Dr. Wilkinson’s Hot Springs Resort. I found out that our lodging was named very appropriately. Hidden among the trees on a side street there was a real hideaway beyond the gate – a shaded alley lined with secluded white-walled cottages, each with a little garden in front of it. A sparkling swimming pool and a hot tub were kid-free and therefore endlessly appealing for us and other weekender guests – mostly couples. All the cottages are named after beautiful cities of the world – Vienna, Paris, Berlin, and even Erevan – the capital of Armenia, and Kiev – the capital of Ukraine. Our home for the night had a cozy fully equipped kitchen with a breakfast nook, a family room with a big-screen TV, and the most luxurious bedroom with a plush bed. The hotel also provides continental breakfast of coffee, fresh baked pastry and fruit.
After breakfast we were enjoying the mineral water pool on premises, and that could count as exercise. We used the excuse to head to town for brunch. Café Sarafornia, named after Sam Brannan’s notorious line, has it written on the wall of its boisterous dining room. It also has a line out the door, waiting to be seated, but the food is worth the wait. The oldest continuously run restaurant in the Napa Valley, Café Sarafornia serves lavish breakfasts all day long. My smoked salmon plate contained a good chunk of lox with capers, sour cream, and fluffy potato pancakes baked with red and green bell peppers. My husband, who likes his morning meal on a sweet side, indulged in cheese and apple blintzes with blueberry compote.
Calistoga, which has always been the major resort area, is known for its historic hotels. Mount View Hotel & Spa maintains its century-old appeal, but attracts visitors with fully redecorated fresh modern looks and a secluded spa area with a heated outdoor pool. The hotel offers a number of room and treatment packages for romantic couples and a list of specials for the area attractions. Friday nights at Mount View luxurious lounge are wine tasting nights that sometimes turn into movie nights on a large screen TV.

At the Mount View Spa, my bathtub was filled with water-based natural mud packed with plant extracts, minerals and vitamins. It seemed non-threatening enough to enjoy it by the candle light until it was time for my massage and then unlimited swim in the sunny pool. That was quite a relaxing way to spend a Sunday afternoon!
Next, I explored the local wineries conveniently located in downtown Calistoga. August Briggs is a very small producer making 13-15 different wines each year, with only five of them going into retail. Most wines come from a single vineyard in Napa or Sonoma, and four – from a vineyard in Calistoga. Obviously, the best way to try August Briggs wines, embellished with a gold dandelion logo, is to come to the testing room or join the wine club.
I tasted 2009 Russian River Valley Chardonnay – golden, buttery, and toasty, with aromas of citrus, caramel, and pear, and flavors of ripe melon, apricot, and sweet cream – only 201 cases produced, and 2012 Leveroni Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay with great minerality – 193 cases. Then there were some excellent pinots of Dijon Clones with their purity of fruit and complexity of aromas, and then Napa Valley Syrah and Petite Sirah with intense colors and distinctive flavors. 2009 Dry Creek Valley “Two Moon Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon impressed me the most with its layers of intense tastes from black currant to plum and dark chocolate.
Before heading for Vermeil Wines/OnThEdge Winery – the legendary local institution, I stopped at the equally legendary art gallery called Ca’Toga, solely dedicated to the multi-media art of Carlo Marchiori. Drawings, watercolors, acrylics, ceramics, bronze sculptures and murals overwhelm the gallery floor, walls, and its vaulted ceiling, creating a full-immersion experience in the midst of whimsical imagery delivered with high technical execution. I could’ve spent a couple of hours at the gallery studying its many wonders, but I decided to plan another visit that would include a Ca’Toga Villa Tour of the artist’s residence filled with Roman ruins, statues, fountains, and trompe l’oeil frescoes.
Vermeil Wines was conceived by Dick Vermeil, Super Bowl winner and two-time NFL Coach of the Year, while winemaker Paul Smith founded the OnThEdge Winery. The paraphernalia-filled testing room reflects both personalities and offers a full line of critically-acclaimed wines. I was lucky to meet here MarySue Frediani – a winery partner, a third-generation representative of a well-known wine growing family, and a walking encyclopedia of all things Calistoga. Following MarySue’s expert advice, I tasted the most enticing and well-rounded collection of wines – each better than the next one, marked by so much love and attention to detail that after visiting the Vermeil Wines/OnThEdge tasting room I had a feeling of achieved perfection.

I thoroughly tasted the barrel-fermented 2011 Vermeil Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley with a little Semillon in it; 2010 Dry Semillon from Luvisi Vineyard in Calistoga; 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon rose; and especially 2008 OnThEdge Charbono – a rare grape from a vineyard on the edge of Napa-Sonoma. Apparently, there are only 93 acres in all of North America that grow Charbono, and the Frediani family owns 10 of them.

Other amazing wines I tried included OnThEdge 2006 Nonna’s Secret red wine blend; 2010 zinfandel ”1956 Block” from Frediani Vineyard; 2005 Library Selection Syrah, also from Frediani Vineyard, and 2007 Cabernet Franc – 96%, with only 4% cab sauv, tasting like black cherries dipped in chocolate. Late harvest 2008 Frediani 1956 zin and 2009 late harvest Semillon with a taste of lychee fruit were sweet, but not sticky and gooey – just perfect, same as everything else in this amazing place.
By the late afternoon I was totally in love with the city of Calistoga and ready for the ultimate mud experience – the real stuff at the Roman Spa Hot Springs Resort.
Baths at Roman Spa offer the authentic Calistoga adventure – massage, mud and mineral baths – a local tradition of over 100 years. The thick black mud, silky to the touch, consists of the volcanic ash, natural peat, and geothermal mineral water.
Sliding into the bathtub, filled with mother-dirt, I felt like a summer worm in a ripe plum – or what I imagine the worm must feel like surrounded by the sweet softness of the fruit. I felt warm, weightless, fully relaxed, and happy. Ancient Romans were known for inventing all kinds of indulgencies, including Terme, or thermal bath resorts more than 3000 years ago, and Roman Spa in Calistoga provides this kind of restorative and nourishing indulgence for its patrons today.

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