December 23, 2017

Lucchesi pastel bd
Lucchesi Vineyards (2005), companion piece for Napa Vineyard curving cypress (watercolor crayon on pastel board)

These vineyards are pretty spectacular—sitting in the Sierra Foothills surrounded with dense pine forests. During the cool fall months through early spring you can see snow on the Sierra Nevada Mountains that are in the distance. (This view is of the western side of the Lucchesi Vineyards, with the Sierra behind me.) I spent a couple enjoyable afternoons traipsing the hillsides through these grape plants and I think the pastel shows the kind of deep blue green that exists in northern California that I don’t see in SoCal. The greens here have that hint of yellow or gold, as you might find in a eucalyptus or palm tree. Once you get north of San Luis Obispo County you can see this kind of blue green in the landscape.

Ode to Old Grass Valley

My mom and dad, along with my paternal grandfather, went into business together in the early 1960s. My parents invested in 10 acres of rental property near downtown Grass Valley. There were 6 or 7 very old little houses on the property. As kids we thought the houses very funny as the toilets in each house had a wooden box on the wall high above the toilet bowl and it had a chain hanging down. You pulled down on the chain when you wanted to flush it. My dad loved to say, “Would you like to hear the story about the chain and the turtle? Pull the chain and the turd ‘l go down.” I think I thought that funny the first dozen or so times he said it…

Back in the 60s no one would have planted vineyards. I imagine the old timers that lived there would have thought it crazy to plant grapes and go to all the trouble of making wine when there were already a great many bars and liquor stores all along Mill Street and West Main. In its early years Grass Valley flourished as a mining town once gold was discovered near Sacramento in January 1848. It was an honest to God boomtown and the Empire Mine in GV ran from 1850 to 1956. According to Wikipedia it was the oldest, biggest and richest gold mine in California. And Grass Valley has the distinction of continuing to thrive to this day even after gold fever moved to the Yukon.

It seems the 10-acre rental property my parents bought was very much a part of early Grass Valley history. It was at the end of North Church Street and most of the streets around that area were named after women, such as: Doris Drive, Carol Drive, Bernice Drive, Hazel Lane and Jan Road. During the early days of the “hard rock” mining done at the Empire Mine that part of town was known as the “red light” district. There were a number of tiny houses in the area that were inhabited by prostitutes that the miners were known to frequent. And I guess some of the women were so famous that some of the streets were named after them. As an adult I thought it amusing that there were so many bars in town and with a quick walk down North Church you were on Doris Drive.

You may have noticed that the Empire Mine had only been closed a couple years when my dad bought the property. Later, in the mid-1970s, my mom and dad bought an 1863 pre-Victorian in Grass Valley near downtown and their rentals. One of their neighbors across the street had worked in the mine until it closed in ‘56. I think I remember him saying that if any miner found a particularly large nugget or a sizable vein of gold threading through the quartz the mine was immediately shut down. This was so management could go down and take a good look without the “hired help” around. Jim speculated that they didn’t want anyone volunteering to work that part of the mine in case they might be considering taking “samples” home with them. Hmmm…

Back to the partnership between my dad and his father…

It was always a kind of precarious arrangement as my grandfather had been a lifelong alcoholic. However, at that time he was on wife number two and as my dad said, “he seemed to be behavin’ himself.” I guess my grandpa had been mostly sober since meeting and marrying her. Finding and buying the property all coincided with my grandpa, his wife and her brother going to the CA state fair where they had seen cabins made of cedar that went together like Lincoln logs. The wood was notched and drilled so they could be assembled one on top of the other, with long pieces of rebar to stabilize the 10-foot by 13-foot little cabins. It was all decided that my grandpa and his brother-in-law would build a mill and they would make the cedar logs and then assemble them on the front half of the property near the few existing little houses. So, now my dad was on board because he was sure my grandpa would be too busy to drink. However, my grandpa’s brother-in-law liked to drink. And throughout the time they built the cabins that brother-in-law would disappear for days on end. Eventually he would then turn up at the local jail for public intoxication and disorderly conduct. Then they would get back to work.

So, even though the miners were long gone, my family built a number of these little cabins I’m sure long ago miners would have loved to inhabit—so close to work, town and Carol Drive. Over time, the town and the partnership changed. My grandpa’s second wife died and he began drinking again and married wife number three. They were “hitched” in the Flume Room at the local bowling alley, a short walk from the property on North Church. That building was eventually taken down and is now a Holiday Inn. And with my grandpa’s third wife his drinking resumed and the rentals became populated with his drinkin’ buddies. My dad decided things had to change and bought out my grandpa, then forced him to move off the premises.

And so as the characters in my life’s story changed, so did the character of the bar-filled town. If I think about it, there’s only one of those original bars left. Even the old Gold Pan Liquor store is now a “head shop.” And there are more sophisticated businesses with wine and coffee bars. And the sleepy little mining town, and surrounding areas, has become a destination rather than secret places hidden in the foothills of the Sierra. Large homes and a couple golf courses were added for the “white hairs” that have moved in. I’m not really sorry for so many changes. I’m not so sure I think things were better in the past whether it’s Grass Valley or any other place in California. It was just the past and sometimes people think it was simpler and more romantic long ago. Yeah, tell that to the miners that went straight down into the blackness of the Empire Mine everyday in the late 1800’s.

That actually reminds of very visual bit of gentrification that has taken place in Grass Valley. When we were kids there was a particular landmark we would see as we drove into town. On the Del Oro Theater on Mill Street was a huge, if rather simple, mural on the back wall. It depicted a giant heart with a miner holding a pick and shovel on either side. Centered inside the heart were the words, “Grass Valley, The Heart of the Gold Industry.” In 2009 that was painted over by a muralist in a kind of Trompe L’oeil image. The painting is meant to trick your eye into thinking you are looking directly into a mountain—complete with rock, flowing water, greenery and timbers you might find in a gold mine. Then, as if in a mist, on the right is the depiction of long ago miners sitting side by side, top to bottom, in a kind of vertical train that would transport them down into the darkness of the mine to work. No words for this one. Oh, and at the very bottom around the back door to the theater is a painting of a prominent city guy from the 1990’s to early 2000’s. He looks as though he is going in the back door of the theater. Of course you can imagine the controversy this started with the few old timers that were left.

In the mid 80s my grandpa died in a little house just off the property he and his brother-in-law helped my parents develop into a business with 25 little cabins. Just before he died my dad said he was behavin’ himself again and they would get together and talk. I think my grandpa was pleased to remind my dad that all the hard work had paid off and all the heartache of the past was just the past. That must have been true as my mom and dad had forgiven him and were just about to invite him to come live with them when he passed away. So, maybe the past is important to remember, but it was never perfect. And in my opinion, trying to reproduce the past should certainly not be a blueprint for the future. Besides, if this winery hadn’t been built, this pastel would never have happened. And more importantly, all their wonderful wine would never have been produced and tasted.

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