The Grape Escape

William M. Dowd and April L. Dowd photos

Grapevines stretch as far as the eye can see on Lodi's Borden Ranch Vineyards.

This is a tale of two appellations. Napa and Lodi, to be precise, side-by-side regions of California’s wine country and a study in social evolution.

On a recent tour of both regions, I was struck by how much Lodi is mirroring Napa’s past while Napa is shaping a different sort of future.

To much of the world, the Napa region is symbolic of American wine in general. It began emerging from the industry pack in the 1970s, with such names as Mondavi, Beringer and Stags Leap becoming standards of wine quality.

To insiders, however, Napa is in the midst of major upheaval. Families that built some of the strongest brands from what once were farms, particularly the Mondavi clan, are either waging internal tussles for control or are selling out to major concerns as the corporatization of Napa relentlessly grinds on.

But, a short drive to the east, in the Lodi appellation (an agricultural region recognized by the federal government) that sweeps up from the San Francisco Bay/San Joaquin Delta region midway between San Francisco and Sacramento, early Napa is being re-created.

Third- and fourth-generation farm families have been moving from being mostly grape growers supplying major winemakers to developing their own wines and brands. They’re working hard at making the Lodi brand known outside the Pacific Coast and trying to develop tourism and ancillary businesses along with it, just as Napa did in its early days.

A good example is Vino Con Brio Vineyards where Mike and Renae Matson combine winemaking with Amorosa Inn & Gardens, their posh bed-and-breakfast operation. Renae (seen here) gave up her practice as a psychiatrist to run the B&B fulltime, and their daughter, Anne, left her job as a financial underwriter to become general manager of the wine business while Mike oversees the viniculture portion.

To the outsider, the Napa Valley image is wall-to-wall grapes. To anyone traversing the valley on Route 29 or the parallel Silverado Trail, that is merely part of the inventory.

The moderate climate, affected by low mountains on either side and by the narrow Napa River that meanders through the cleft, nurtures brilliant clumps of lilies, oleander and roses, as well as stands of camphor, valley oak, cedar, magnolia and olive trees.

Despite its relatively diminutive size -- 30 miles long and one to five miles wide -- the Napa Valley's undulating topography creates a series of microclimates. Temperatures can differ by 10 or more degrees from one end to the other.

Swaths of browned-out vegetation form the floor of the woods and fields, in marked contrast to the deep blue-greens and brilliant emeralds of the numerous copses of trees dotting the landscape from the little main city of Napa at the valley's southern edge to the village of Calistoga and its mineral and mud baths up north.

In February and March, the valley usually gets its share of precipitation. In summer and early autumn, rain is so rare the natives can tell you on what day in what year they last recall seeing a downpour. This year it’s even easier. It hasn’t rained. Period.

Clever viniculture methods and irrigation systems have nevertheless made this spot an hour's drive northeast of San Francisco arguably America's premier wine producing area.

Visitors touring the ubiquitous wineries and their tasting rooms have about 200 to choose from, places marked by their distinctive main-building architecture that ranges from Victorian farmhouse to French chateau to Tuscan villa to the "Star Wars" look of Mondavi's Opus One operation across the road from its main fields.

A shopper's paradise in downtown Napa.

The valley's growing tourist popularity has fueled the rebirth of Napa, the anchor city of 53,000, and made the region home to such hospitality industry facilities as the Culinary Institute of America's West Coast branch, opened in 1995 in the former Greystone Cellars complex near the village of St. Helena.

Perhaps the most unusual facility in the valley, however, is something called Copia, named for the Roman goddess of abundance who carried a cornucopia, the horn of plenty.

Copia's subtitle is "The American Center for Wine, Food & The Arts." It's a not-for-profit cultural center and museum that has been open to the public since 2001.

The complex includes sprawling herb, flower and tree gardens, as well as several restaurants in the 80,000-square-foot building on the banks of an oxbow bend in the Napa River.

In addition to exhibition and event space, the center, open year-round, has many clever ways of appealing to visitors of all ages. The programs, guests and styles of entertainment are geared toward virtually any demographic group.

Formal or self-guided walking tours in the extensive herb and vegetable gardens -- home to an amazing 100 kinds of tomatoes and 40 kinds of lavender, for example -- show how the institution helps keep heirloom plant species alive.

Copia may be in the heart of California wine country, but its venue is the world. Many visitors take full advantage of being plopped down in the middle of this temple dedicated to the senses.

Conversely, Lodi has a more rustic feel, a sport coat to Napa’s tuxedo.

The land is flatter, dotted with more general farms than Napa Valley as the transition to grape growing almost to the extinction of all else slowly picks up momentum. Here you can still see lots of fruit tree groves, tomato gardens, cornfields, strawberry rows and roadside stands offering produce from those very growing spots.

But lest you think this is solid agricultural country with nothing for tourists to see, think again.

Besides the obvious – wine tasting at the Lodi Wine & Visitor Center, at the Vino Piazza in nearby Lockeford where 11 wineries’ wares are featured, or any of the individual wineries such as Bear Creek, Crystal Valley, Benson Ferry, Baywood Cellars and Jessie’s Grove -- there is an entire sector of activities not so obvious in a land without rain: water tours and sports.

What would any tourist area be without golf courses? The Lodi-Stockton area has more than a dozen with weekday greens fees at some venues as low as $8.

Bicycling is popular as well, thanks to the expanse of flat lands and number of quiet back roads.

The presence of wood ducks, double-crested cormorants, Cooper’s hawks, egrets, great horned owls, acorn woodpeckers and numerous other species make birding a popular pastime here as well, particularly at Oak Grove Regional Park and Lodi Lake. The highlight is the annual Sandhill Crane Festival in Lodi which features the endangered bird and provides a good excuse for family activities, musical acts, habitat tours and the like. This year’s festival is scheduled for Nov. 2-3.

Off dry land, there also is much to see and do. From activities at Lodi Lake Park, host of the Lodi ZinFest every May and the Lodi Fishing Derby every June, to its larger cousin the 160-mile long Mokelumne River, every manner of boating, fishing, water skiing, partying or just gazing is available.

The Mokelumne – a Miwok Indian name meaning people of the fish net – is laden with salmon and trout that draw anglers from all over. Following the course of the river from its origin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to where it opens up into the San Joaquin River and then spills into San Francisco Bay can be a fascinating adventure in both western American history and a wide range of physical activities.

Nearly 25 miles of the river near the Eldorado National Forest is a Class V whitewater area – the most rugged classification for whitewater activities. The area running past Lodi city is calmer, more suited for leisurely boating or fishing. Seven dams and several manmade lakes – such as the aforementioned Lodi Park Lake -- along the river length create recreational areas. Jet skiers in particular like the flatwater area at the start of the San Joaquin Delta just south of Lodi city.

There also is the Delta Loop, a 10-mile long drive along high-levee roads and well off the beaten track of Highways 12 and 160 which carry most of the local traffic. It begins about 25 minutes from downtown Lodi and reveals a steady stream of marinas, shops, restaurants and waterside resorts.

The whole Lodi area is entwined with development of the west. The California Gold Rush of the mid-1800s was headquartered at Mokelumne Hill in Calaveras County. The wild times of those days gave rise to numerous classics of Americana poetry and literature by the likes of Bret Harte (“The Luck of Roaring Camp,” "The Outcasts of Poker Flat") and Mark Twain (“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County").

And, just to show that Lodi country reveres more than grapes, each spring it holds an Asparagus Festival, Cherry Festival and Strawberry Festival; in summer an Apricot Festival, and in autumn a Dry Bean Festival and an Eggplant Festival. Tucked in among them are testimonials to other culinary delights, such as the ZinFest, the Art & Wine Festival, Wine & Sausage Festival, Crawdad Festival, Seafood Festival and Candy Festival.

If you can’t find something to do in Lodi, you’re really hard to please. If you can’t find enough to eat and drink, it’s your own fault.

Huge storage tanks soar at Woodbridge Vineyards.


Valley Wine Tours
Lodi Chamber of Commerce
Napa Valley Country
• San Joaquin Audubon Society
• California State Parks
Lodi Wine & Visitor's Center
• Wine Country This Week Magazine
Dowd's Guides


Interactive Hurricane Dean update

Sky News, Europe's major multimedia news and information operation, has created an interactive map of the Caribbean to help travelers trace the path of Hurricane Dean, now making its way through the region.

For the latest information, click here.


Dowd's Guides


Grape expectations

Sometimes it's difficult wrapping your mind around a large business operation.

In this instance, try to imagine what a grape-growing operation like Borden Ranch Vineyards in Lodi, CA, is like since it is able to grow enough grapes to supply winemaking giants such as Mondavi and Gallo as well as numerous smaller wineries in the region. These days, vineyard manager Gary Patterson oversees 1,400 acres of vineyards for owner Francisco Ayala after years with Gallo Sonoma.

The Borden Ranch appellation, located in east central Lodi, has 12,000 acres under vine. This AVA is the most topographically diverse of any Lodi appellation with a low of 73 feet in the west and a high of 520 feet near the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Merely hearing someone try to describe the rolling hills covered with grape vines of all sorts as far as the eye can see isn't good enough. Instead, you can just take a look at this video showing a piece of Patterson's domain:

William M. Dowd video


City of Lodi
Lodi Conference & Visitors Center
San Joaquin County Parks & Recreation
Dowd's Guides


Virginia City: Historic High Point

VIRGINIA CITY, NV -- Unlike the Adirondacks or other eastern American mountain ranges that reach gradually to their highest points, the Sierra Nevadas are geological teenagers. At their impulsive age of just 150 million years they abruptly jut out of the valley floors and quickly hit rare-air levels.

This old mining town is just 18 miles south-southeast of Reno, but it's about 750 feet higher at 6,220 feet. That's 1,000 feet higher than Denver's much-publicized "mile high" location.

Visiting the Reno/Lake Tahoe area without driving up into the Sierra Nevadas that jut briefly into Nevada from California would be a waste of an opportunity. Not going there to visit historic Virginia City would be sacrilege. And, it’s convenient to other major communities in the northern part of the state up against the California border – just 15 miles from the state capital of Carson City, 23 miles from Reno and 40 miles from Lake Tahoe.

One thing that is so endearing about Virginia City is that its charm is not recreated for modern tourists.

I found a living Wild West town that still has wood-plank sidewalks, an active Boot Hill cemetery and plenty of links to the days when gold and silver from the Comstock Lode helped create a pool of multimillionaires as well as lines of finance to support both sides in the Civil War and fuel the San Francisco building boom.

Never heard of the Comstock Lode? A quick history lesson:

In 1859, a couple of Irishmen named Peter O'Reilly and Patrick McLaughlin discovered gold in Six-Mile Canyon. H.T.P. Comstock cut himself in on the deal, claiming the discovery was made on his property. An itinerant miner named Jim Finney is credited with naming the instant city after his home state. The ensuing rush yielded more than $400 million in gold and silver before the ore lines played out in the mid-1880s.

During that time, greed and force were two of the strongest elements in keeping whatever social order there was. As described in “The History of Nevada: Storey County,” the Comstock Lode discovery ushered in certain standards:

“Numerous disputes about claims occurred in consequence of the uncertain terms of occupation. Those who have had any experience in making possessory claims well know on what slight circumstances the right to a claim depends.

“In most cases, however, possession was the only title and even that was not always good unless a show of force was made to give it respectability. In some instances men fortified their ground and held it by military possession.”

At its peak, Virginia City was the most important town between Denver and San Francisco. Because of its supply of gold and silver needed by the federal government to remain solvent during the Civil War, Nevada was given statehood in 1861 despite not having a sufficient population.

Virginia City itself was home to 30,000 residents. One was Mark Twain, who wrote for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in the 1860s under his real name, Samuel L. Clemens, although it was while employed there he first signed a piece of his work with the Twain pen name.

The droll writings he had published in the newspaper carried the tone of the Mark Twain we know from his many later speeches and anecdotal writings. His column on New Year’s Day 1863 is a good example.

“Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.

“Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. Today, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient shortcomings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time.

“However, go in, community. New Year's is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.”

Besides its newspaper and its mines, the city had many other important claims to fame. For example, it was home to the first miner's union in the nation, and its six-story International Hotel had the first elevator in the American west.

The nightlife was as varied as the characters who flocked to the area with dreams of grubbing wealth from the mines. Everything from Shakespearian acting troupes to opium dens were available. And, of course, what Wild West historic town would be complete with its line of saloons?

My particular favorites: the gaudy Bucket of Blood, rebuilt after the devastating 1875 fire that destroyed much of the city, and dotted with original Tiffany chandeliers plus other artwork and punctuated with live entertainment, and the Delta, perhaps the most famous of the town's 100 original saloons and home to "The Suicide Table," where devastating losses at cards led to at least three suicides. The gamblers’ favorite in those days was faro, a card game that has virtually died out. The Ramada Reno was the last to offer the game, ending it in 1985.

Today, the city of about 1,500 population is a great place for kids, history buffs or the just plain curious. Both formalized walking and driving tours – with some stops appearing on both agendas – bring to life the varied history of the town from its rough-and-tumble mining days right through calmer periods.

Tours of mines, a gambling museum, historic buildings and such mansions as The Castle, built in 1868 by copying the design of a castle in Normandy, France, are available.

As I walked the streets of Virginia City, it was easier to soak in its history than it is in other tourist draws that have rebuilt their past with modern eyes and sensibilities. Little wonder it is the largest federally designated Historical District in America.

The Comstock Archaeology Center is an important aspect of the continued recording of the town's raucous and storied history. It is a private non-profit corporation mandated to encourage the professional excavation and management of the district’s archaeological resources.

Among the unusual aspects of Virginia City that has been unearthed in the past decade is the existence of the Boston Saloon, an African-American enterprise – something that was unusual in the West in the period during which Virginia City flourished.

When you’re not taking a horse-drawn carriage ride or watching gunfight reenactments on the streets, here are a few “don’t miss” spots to see on your Virginia City visit:

Chollar Mine Tour: See original square set timbering, tools and equipment form the fifth largest producer on the Comstock. May-September.

Comstock Firemen's Museum: 1876 building houses a collection of antique fire fighting equipment. May 31-Nov. 1.

The Castle: Built by Robert N. Graves, superintendent of the Empire Mine. The home, copied after a castle in France, took five years to complete. It was widely regarded as one of the finest mansions in the West during its heyday.

Julia Bulette Red Light Museum: The name commemorates Virginia City's most famous prostitute. Paraphernalia including contraceptives, medical instruments and quack medical cure-alls. Opium equipage is also displayed. Open daily.

Territorial Enterprise Mark Twain Museum: Housed in the 1876 Territorial Enterprise Building, it features the desk occupied by Sam Clemens at the newspaper. Open daily.

Nevada Gambling Museum: Display of historic western gaming tables, such as faro and roulette. One-armed bandits and other gaming artifacts are featured. Open daily.

Radio Museum of Virginia City: More than 100 wireless and radio sets from 1915 through 1950. Open daily April-November and most weekends December-March.

Silver Terrace Cemeteries: 16 of the Comstock's 31 cemeteries are located at this site. The first burial occurred here in 1860. A brochure describing the cemeteries is located at the entrance or at the Chamber of Commerce. Open daily.

Tram Tour: A narrated, 20-minute tour of Virginia City departs every half hour.

Virginia & Truckee RR Train Ride: A narrated, 35-minute round trip train ride between Virginia City and Gold Hill. View the historic mining district from the original 128-year-old right of way. Nine steam trains. Daily May-October, and weekends October-November.

Way it Was Museum: Collection of mining artifacts, photos, maps, lithographs, working models, costume displays and cutaways of mines and mills. Open daily.


Convention & Tourism Authority
History of Virginia City and the Comstock Lode
Nearby Reno, not just Vegas' little sister
Dowd's Guides


NY's Capital/Saratoga Region: Land of Plenty

William M. Dowd and April L. Dowd photos


New York's Capital Region is an unusual place. It is at once slightly cosmopolitan, with its four core cities -- Albany, Troy, Schenectady and Saratoga Springs -- as well as typically sprawling suburban, and then very quickly rural and mountainous.

And this time of year, when the thoroughbreds are running at the historic Saratoga Race Course and the Adirondack mountains are in full foliage to shade campers, hikers and boaters, the area is alive with tourists.

Gateway to the vast Adirondack Park "forever wild" area to the north, it also is the center of New York State government which has sent governors Martin Van Buren, Theodor Roosevelt and distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt on to the White House. It also is a center of education with two engineering schools and colleges of medicine, pharmacy and law, creating a college student population of about 60,000.

Albany itself began in 1652 as Beverwyck, a Dutch trading post established shortly after Dutch-financed English explorer Henry Hudson sailed up the river that now bears his name, as does the valley encasing the waterway. Beverwyck eventually was taken over by the British, who renamed it Fort Orange, and then Albany. It ranks as the oldest chartered city in the nation.

The center of the city is the Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, which includes the State Capitol, a line of towers housing state agencies, the 42-story Corning Tower (tallest structure in the state outside Manhattan), the Cultural Education Center that houses -- among other things -- the New York State Museum, The Egg performing arts center, and a host of other state buildings.

In other neighborhoods, such historic structures as the Ten Broeck Mansion, built by Revolutionary War general Abraham Ten Broeck, and Cherry Hill tend to the historic opreservation of the community. And the Albany Institute of History & Science, which is older than The Louvre, is a treasure house of local art and artifacts.

The Hudson River runs north-south through the Capital Region, bisected by the east-west Mohawk River and the historic Eric Canal.

Across the river from Albany is Rensselaer County, with its major city of Troy. It's the home of such American icons as the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," the song "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and the image of Uncle Sam, taken from local meatpacker "Uncle Sam" Wilson who supplied federal troops during the Civil War and is buried in Oakwood Rural Cemetery.

Northwest of Albany is Scenectady, once the world headquarters of General Electric but just now emerging from hard times created when the international conglomerate dispersed its manufacturing facilities. The beautifully restored Proctor's Theatre is the center of an arts complex in the rebuilding downtown, and boating activities are popular on the Mohawk River which skirts the city.

To the north of Albany is Saratoga Springs, a generations-old destination for moneyed vacationers interested in its mineral springs and scenic vistas. Today, it is best known for the annual thoroughbred racing season at the Saratoga Race Course from late July through Labor Day (plus year-round harness racing and video gambling at nearby Saratoga Gaming & Raceway), as well as the attendant social and entertainment events attached to it. An active polo season, and SPAC -- the Saratoga Performing Arts Center (summer home to rock 'n' rollers as well as the New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra) -- add sparkle to the region.


And, of course, the sprawling Adirondacks themselves are home to such renowned spots as Lake Placid -- home to the 1928 and 1980 Winter Olympics; Lake George, Lake Champlain, and expanses of mountains, trails, streams, and flats where people camp, hike, fish, hunt, raft, canoe, backpack and so on.

Other sports are well represented. The New York Giants' pre-season National Football League camp is at UAlbany. The Albany River Rats of the American Hockey League and the Albany Conquest arena football team of afl2 play at the downtown Times Union Center. UAlbany and Siena play NCAA Division I sports, RPI does likewise in hockey, and the College of Saint Rose is a Division II basketball and baseball powerhouse.

The region is heavy in colleges and universities -- Albany College of Pharmacy, Albany Law School. Albany Medical College, Bryant & Stratton, Maria College, Excelsior College, College of Saint Rose, the Sage Colleges, Siena College, University at Albany, Hudson Valley Community College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Schenectady County Community College, Union College, Empire State College, Skidmore College, Adirondack Community College, Columbia-Greene Community College, North Country Community College, SUNY Cobleskill.






• Skiing in Upstate NY and New England
• Adirondacks/Lake George recreation
• Saratoga Performing Arts Center
• Albany Institute of History and Art
• New York State Museum
• National Museum of Dance
• Saratoga Auto Museum
Dowd's Guides

West Virginia: A State of Change

The Mountaineer State is one of America's most misunderstood places. Mention West Virginia and most people flash to visions of coal mines and poverty. However, modern West Virginia is a mecca for outdoors tourists, history buffs, artists and photographers.

From the Panhandle area in the northeast part of the state where Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia come together, to the mountainous center, to the northwestern finger that points up between Pennsylvania and Ohio, the state offers a huge topographic and cultural variety.

Although the state's major cities are Wheeling, Huntington, Charleston and Martinsburg, one of its best-known communities is Harper's Ferry (shown above), on the Potomac River, site of the infamous John Brown incident in 1859.

At the time, West Virginia still was part of Virginia. It broke away and became a separate state rather than side with the Confederacy during the Civil War.

It was at Harper's Ferry that Brown, a participant in the Underground Railroad that helped escaped slaves flee to the North and a fiery abolitionist who believed in armed action against slavery, and a band of his followers occupied a military aresenal on Oct. 16 and took control of the small town.

Brown hoped to initiate the spread of armed insurrection against slavery throughout the South. However, Col. Robert E. Lee and a group of U.S. Marines arrived that night, retook the town, killed 10 of Brown's 21 men, and took him prisoner. He was tried and found guilty of treason and hanged in nearby Charles Town on Dec. 2.

Today's West Virginia has evolved from a mining-dependent state to a more diversified one. It has used its low cost-of-living, inexpensive energy rates, improving public educational system and low violent-crime rate to attract more industry and commercial transportation. Its long-time senior U.S. senator, Robert Byrd, has been instrumental in moving numerous federal offices and thousands of jobs to the state. And, its varied geography is being used to promote tourism and retirement communities throughout the state.


• Whitewater activity
• Whitewater rafting
• Hiking, biking, skiing, horseback riding trails
• Golfing around the state
• Mountain Bike Association
• Bicycling the state
• West Virginia Bass Federation
• Trout fishing

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