I arrived in San Francisco late in the evening of Wednesday 16. The next day, Abra and I took to the road and headed south out of the city district into the luxuriant agricultural valleys of the Santa Cruz and Monterey regions. Our plan was to visit some of the places made famous by the great American author, John Steinbeck, whom both Abra and I hold in high regard - indeed, Abra takes her name from a central character in my favourite Steinbeck novel, 'East of Eden'.
En route to our first location, Salinas, the setting for the aforementioned novel and home town of Steinbeck and his family, we stopped at a vineyard owned by a Swiss-German businessman, where a friend of Abra's is one of the chief wine-makers. After a solitary wrong turn, we found ourselves climbing up the gentle slopes on one side of the valley through which we had spent the past hour driving, fields of green and yellow, patches of vibrant colour flashing past, the windows down and the boistrous wind whipping through our hair, such that conversation was shouted, seat-to-seat. A gravel track led us round some twisting bends, before opening out into a straight final section. The scene that greeted my eyes was that of a typical approach to a vineyard, a sight that never fails to quicken my pulse in heady expectation, to cause an involuntary intake of breath at the sheer peaceful majesty of the view. A gentle slope led up through a dappled avenue of trees, tell-tale rows of vines running off on either side, beyond a sturdy wooden fence. Sunlight played upon the fields, weaving among the vines, ducking in and out of branches overhead. Roses capped the head of each row of vines and I found myself recounting the story behind their origin here in vineyards by French vintners all those years ago. For those who may have missed my entry concerning wine-making in Chile (shame on you): the French first planted roses at the head of each row of vines as a precautionary measure. Roses are far more susceptible to blight than the vines and so their loss would alert growers to the oncoming storm and provide a window of opportunity to limit the damage that could ensue. Despite the advent of superior technical methods, roses are still incorporated into many nostalgic vineyards today. Red roses signify a row of red grapes; white roses, white grapes and pink roses, grapes designated to become rose wine.
Abra parked the car under an oak shedding forth shade and we made our way to the tasting room, as the footsteps of all responsible wine-lovers should do. Here we were met by two representatives of the winery, lovely folk passionate about their wine and full of wonderful knowledge, insights and recommendations. Upon remarking that by taking up one's suggestion of sampling a young malbec I forewent then possibility of tasting a second pinot noir (due to having used up my six sample choices), my heroic guide simply tossed her head, tipped me a wink and poured me a small glass of pinot also. We four struck up some light conversation, neither Abra nor myself being particularly confident in this delicate, highly skilled field of sniffing, tasting and commenting. We need not have feared; the couple pouring our wine, proving such genial hosts, were far from pretension. While enjoying a glass or three, Abra's friend called in during a break from his labours above the tasting complex, up in the pressing area. We had called at one of the busiest times of the year for a Californian wine producer; harvest. Nonetheless, Juanjo was welcoming and friendly, inviting us to visit him at the pressing area once our tasting was concluded.
A short while later, Abra and I were rambling, physically and vocally, up the short rise to the pressing area. Here, Juanjo met us and proceeded to take us on a tour of the area, including demonstrating to us the process of the pressing in action - handing both of us a wine-glass, he encouraged us to sample the fresh grape juice dribbling out of the press: it was delicious! Next, he took us to the fermentation area and spoke briefly of the process of fermentation, whereby the grapes absorb alcohol (again, this is something I wrote of at far greater length when detailing my trip to a winery near Santiago, in Chile). We were given a sample of this fermenting mixture, straight from a vat: this was a novel and interesting experience indeed! Finally, we wandered into a storage room, where we were confronted by rows and rows of oak barrels; some French oak, others American, still more Chilean and Hungarian(!). Juanjo talked us through a little more of the wine-making process while drawing forth wine from a number of the barrels: it was at this point that my heart truly leapt skywards - a real barrel tasting! Among those sampled were a merlot, a cabernet sauvignon and some pinot noir. All were absolutely delicious and a superlative end to a wonderful tour, far more personal and far more bountiful than anything I experienced in Mendoza all those months ago. As we said our goodbyes, Juanjo presented us each with a gift bottle of wine from the storage area: a simply brilliant send-off and one that had me bouncing all the way back down the hill to Abra's car.
Large smiles adorning both of our faces, Abra and I continued on. We passed swiftly through Salinas, a town baring little resemblance to those descriptions to be found in Steinbeck and now quite a dangerous neighbourhood. At last we arrived in Monterey, perhaps Steinbeck's most famous, most endearing location. It was here that a number of books visited, including the heart-warming tales related in 'Cannery Row' and its memorable sequel 'Sweet Thursday'. The cannery area itself has long since stood altered from its original, fame-delivering occupation and now is a strong tourist enclave. Nonetheless, it was wonderful to stroll along the street, reading the old, delapidated signs proclaiming 'Monterey Cannery' and such-like. The sights and smells of the ocean gladdened my heart and I enjoyed especially the strong visual references paid to Steinbeck and his work. Besides a bust to the great man there were included also fliers hanging from multiple street lamp-posts proclaiming some of his greatest quotes. Furthermore, there was even a second bust, to 'Doc', who it transpired was based upon a very real person, something that hitherto had escaped my notice. The day was swiftly waning, our time at the vineyard having overrun wildly and so I saw little more than the famous cannery row - in fact, there is little else to see beyond this area that has any strong continuing connection to Steinbeck. It was enough for me to have walked some of the same streets, to have seen some of the same sights - similar at least - and perhaps to have experienced some related emotions.
The sun dipping low in the sky, Abra led me along a seaside path out of the row and along one of her favourite spots from her time here as a postgraduate employee at a local company. Seabirds wheeled overhead, salt lay light upon the breeze and surfers dotted the waves, waiting patiently to catch their moment. We sauntered along the sand, reminiscing about separate though related experiences, centred predominantly around returning to old haunts. It is strange, to revisit a place that might have meant such different things in such a different time. We go back, yes, but; is it not more accurate perhaps to view this regression as actually going forward? In a temporal sense, this is certainly the case and it is in the temporal realm that such thoughts take place as those detailing how something has changed - often, it is we ourselves that are altered; simply, it takes a past mnemonic to remind us of the past itself and it is then, when we are reminded to view that faded time, through the looking-glass of hindsight, that we realize - perhaps with shock, perhaps with dismay, hopefully with courage and acceptance - that a place, that we ourselves, have changed. Such was the thread of conversation; Abra put in mind of her past time spent here in Monterey, I of similar episodes back home, while simultaneously looking ahead to a swiftly approaching moment when such thoughts will no doubt fill my mind once more.
As the sun began to set, not just upon the day but, upon our nostalgic reminiscences also, and the temperature began to drop, the wind to strengthen a little more, we returned to the warm welcome of the car and a now familiar route back up the coast to Palo Alto. It had been a beautiful day, full of delightful surprises and of experiences far beyond expectations (seeping in despite my best efforts to the contrary). As we drove away from Monterey, my mind returned to a quintessential Steinbeck remark concerning its landmark, made famous by his work: "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." Thought far from endowed by such a literary wealth as Steinbeck, nor bestowed with such a multiplicity of facets concerning the row alone, nevertheless, this description is a neat summary of my own experiences across the course of that day and it most certainly ended akin to a dream, driving into the onrushing darkness back up to San Francisco.
Best wishes to all!