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The Past Is Part of the Future: The Napa Valley Barn Tour

by Cheryl Forberg, RD on September 5, 2011

In an effort to learn more about the heritage of the area of Northern California I call home (and where I am now building my own small farm), this weekend I went on the annual Barn Tour given each year by Preservation Napa Valley.

The region may be best known for its current top export — world-class wines — but its backbone has always been agriculture. And while looking at the lush Cabernet and Chardonnay grapes hanging off the vines this time of year can show you one aspect of that heritage, the Barn Tour highlights a connection with the past. And as Preservation Napa Valley likes likes to say, “The past is part of our future.”

Many people are returning to the soil in small big and big ways. An urban farmer may have a window box full of tomatoes hanging from her Brooklyn apartment or she may have a bountiful backyard suburban garden, or even something more substantial. Some of you may already know about my personal project to grow my own vegetables and herbs at my new home in Napa on the site of a former (and now future) farm.

Red Pole Barn at Round Pond

The Barn Tour began early on Sunday morning, when the participants gathered under the enormous canopy of the Red Pole Barn at Round Pond winery in Rutherford, Calif. (Pole barns are open — the roof supported by poles — and often used in places with milder weather for storing hay, sheltering livestock, or keeping equipment.) To the left, you can see a view of the massive roof, with the opening peeking through on the right-hand side.

The property on which this barn is located, now a winery known as Round Pond, was originally a wedding present to Elizabeth Yount Rutherford from her grandfather George C. Yount (founder of Yountville) in 1865 and served as a creamery and then decades later, a cattle ranch until becoming the winery it is today.

Olive Grove at Round Pole

The sky still hung with the overcast haze common to Napa mornings when we arrived and walked among the vines surrounding the barn and came upon this grove of very old love trees.

As we drove away the sun broke through brightening the sky into a dramatic burst of blue.

In Yountville we found the little Pelissa Family Pole Barn, built in the late 1930s from local pine dragged down a dirt road from a source half a mile away using a ’37 D4 tractor that is still running to this day. Back then, the barn would be filled with hay to feed dairy cattle who’d munch their dinner though the openings. Today the property hosts a herd of Texas Longhorns.

The gorgeous Gleason Barn (seen at the top of this page) at Nickel & Nickel winery up the road in Oakville dates back to 1774 and was transported beam-by-beam from New Hampshire to Napa Valley by the Nickel Family. The barn, once abandoned and scheduled to be demolished, is now immaculately kept, and with old farm equipment — wooden pitchforks, saws, and yokes for livestock — that might be as old as the barn itself hangs from the walls as it would in a museum.

North Barn

Nickel & Nickel have also constructed two beautifully built brand-new wooden barns. Here we can see the roof of the North Barn. This fermentation barn (used for storing and fermenting wine) built of 450 hundred-year-old fir beams, and assembled in the old style using 400 wooden pegs (which we found are known as “trunnels”) driven in by hand with wooden mallets.

This last barn truly highlighted a connection to the past. Built to standards of the classic wooden barn this structure may last as many as 400 years.

These are some of the barns and other structures we saw that day. We feel especially lucky because we learned the tour will be on hiatus for the next couple of years. We thank Preservation Napa Valley for the experience.

Learning about the rich history of the place where I love inspired me in my own farming, and while I may not have a soaring barn behind me house (yet!), building the raised beds that house our zucchini, squash, peppers, tomatoes, herbs and more, in some small way connects us to this tradition.

So, what makes you feel closer to your past? What are you growing, and how and where are you growing it?