Today’s Vineyards, Yesterday’s Tall Oaks

 April 21, 2012                                                  New York Times/The Bay Citizen

On a recent sunny day in the Napa Valley, Robin Grossinger cupped his hands around his eyes and surveyed the landscape. He said the scene gave him “a feeling of grandeur.”

Tidal marshlands. Courtesy CA Historical Society
He was not talking about the vistas of hillsides draped in vineyards, with their gnarled vines tinged green with new growth that by fall will be laden with the valley’s renowned cabernet sauvignon and other grapes. Mr. Grossinger, a scientist with the San Francisco Estuary Institute and author of the new Napa Valley Historical Ecology Atlas, had turned his gaze onto another charismatic species: a small line of valley oak trees. 

While today’s visitors — around five million annually — come to drink wine and soak up the beauty of Napa’s viticultural landscape, past visitors came to marvel at the majestic oaks. 

The area where Mr. Grossinger was standing, near Oak Knoll in the southern end of the valley, is where travelers entering from the south first took in the beauty of the oak savannas that defined the valley floor, bursting with wildflowers in the spring. The trees at Oak Knoll supported abundant wildlife and created shade in the heat, among other benefits, prompting the California State Senate in 1858 to declare them “at once an ornament and a blessing.” (more)