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Knights Valley

Knights Valley, the most remote of Sonoma County’s appellations, snuggles up against Mt. St. Helena, the area’s most influential feature. The unique character of this appellation can be discovered in its mountain vineyards , where ideal growing conditions have resulted in cabernet sauvignon of regal quality.
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Knights Valley

by Michele Anna Jordan

     High above the floor of Knights Valley, a peregrine falcon circles and glides on currents of warm air.  Neat rows of chardonnay grapevines hug the ground, descending downwards towards a wide bowl-shaped valley of flourishing cabernet sauvignon, the Les Pavots vineyard of Peter Michael Winery.   Rising above it all like a grand sentinel is Mt. St. Helena, the area’s most influential feature, whose stark rocky summit seems close enough to touch. The still afternoon is interrupted only by the occasional melodic song or startling squawk of a lone bird. 

     Knights Valley,  the most remote of the eleven American Viticultural Areas in Sonoma County, is tucked between Alexander ValleyShow on map, Chalk HillShow on map, and Napa County.  There are about three dozen vineyards, and just two wineries.  Soils here are alluvial--literally, washed in water--and rocky, with huge boulders that are often home to the rattle snakes that thrive in valley’s dry heat.  Nights offer a cool contrast to the often sweltering days.

     To get to Knights Valley, head north from Calistoga on Highway 128.  About 7 miles north of town, you’ll pass back into Sonoma County, but if you’re not looking, you may never see the sign.  Even addresses encourage confusion; the nearest post office is in Calistoga.  You can’t deny that this obscure region feels like an extension of Napa Valley, yet it is one of Sonoma’s richest historical treasures.
 
     The history of Knights Valley is agricultural.  Shortly after Thomas Knight made the arduous journey from his native Maine in 1845, an explosion destroyed his wagon and all of his possessions, leaving him stranded and broke in what was then known as Mallacomes Valley.  Knight turned to farming, and succeeded to such a degree that he was able to purchase Rancho Mallacomes, the northern portion of the valley, in 1853 from Jose de los Santos Berryessa, who had received the land in a grant from the Mexican Governor.

     The valley began to prosper.  Knight expanded the adobe hunting lodge built by Berryessa; apples, wheat, and grapevines flourished in the region’s rocky alluvial soil.  Real estate baron F. E. Kellogg founded the town of Kellogg, with plans to turn it into a thriving resort, similar to nearby Calistoga.   By the 1880s, Knights Valley had several dozen acres of vineyards and three wineries, Hood, Folker, and Delafield, which would become the most successful of the trio, receiving several gold medals before the triple blows of phylloxera, Prohibition, and the Great Depression reversed the valley’s early progress.   In the early part of the century, the wine industry all but vanished, and a succession of fires destroyed what remained of the town of Kellogg.

     Farming continued here during the quiet decades following Prohibition.   Charlie F. Laufenburg, a bachelor farmer who lived in Knights Valley his entire life, raised cattle, grew hay, and harvested pears from an orchard that is currently being restored.  Before his death in the late 1980s, Laufenburg began to search for a guardian for his 175-acre ranch. 

      “I want to leave my ranch to an agency that will  never sell it,” he said, “and that will maintain it as a working farm, an historical farm.  And that won’t plant grapes.”  He felt there were enough grapes elsewhere in the valley, explains David Katz, director of the Sonoma County Land Trust, steward of the property. 

     Laufenburg Ranch, which has been farmed for about 120 years, is layered with history. Wappo Indians once thrived here, and when the Land Trust finds their grinding stones, mortars, and flints, they leave them in place.  One of the oldest stone walls in Sonoma County surrounds a portion of the ranch, and above the valley floor, in a remote part of the property, are remnants of prune and citrus orchards, with a single remaining orange tree, old and gnarled, that still produces  a few great tasting oranges each year, succulent gifts from another time.  Although difficult to access and without water, the orchard is about 10 to 15 degrees warmer in the winter than the rest of the property.

     Bidwell Creek flows through the Laufenburg ranch, and a grappling hook that Charlie used to snag steelhead salmon from the creek hangs nearby.  Deer, foxes, coyote, feral pigs, wild turkeys, and bobcats have all been spotted on the ranch itself, and there are constant rumors of bear and mountain lion sightings throughout Knights Valley.

     Last fall, the Land Trust leased the property to Forni Brown Gardens, a little Calistoga farm with a big reputation.  For 21 years, Lynn Brown and Peter Forni have been growing specialty produce for the Bay Area’s brightest culinary stars, Alice Waters, Joyce Goldstein, Jeremiah Tower, Bradley Ogden, Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, and virtually every other top chef from Berkeley to Calistoga.

     Brown is reluctant to make predictions about the land he’s just getting to know.  “It’s all very early, very experimental,” he explains.  “I don’t know the insects that are here, or the fertility of the place.  But we’re very excited to be in Sonoma County.”  So far, there’s been fantastic baby spinach but it’s too soon to know how the dozens of other varieties currently in the ground will do here. 

     Brown and his partners--Barney  Walsh brought his marketing expertise to the operation 11 years ago, and his daughter is now in charge of distribution--will let the land itself tell them what to grow.  “Our vision is to create a horticultural record people can use for a long time,” Brown said.  They see the farm as more than an expansion of their existing garden; they plan to use the large facility to teach younger farmers their unique and highly successful methods of French intensive organic farming.  If things go well and there’s an abundant harvest this year, we could see Forni Brown at one or two farmers markets before the season ends.  Currently , several local restaurants--Mariposa, Syrah, Mixx, Lolo, and Equus--buy Forni Brown produce.

     When it comes to viticulture, Beringer Vineyards dominates the valley floor, with nearly 600 acres under vine, the first planted in the 1960s.  The enormously successful winery grows cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, sauvignon blanc, semillon, and sangiovese here; Beringer’s Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the winery’s most highly prized wines.  Beringer itself is located several miles south of Knights Valley, in St. Helena.

     Although Peter Michael Winery is on the valley floor, where Kellogg once bustled with activity near the intersection of Ida Clayton Road and Highway 128, it is the winery’s mountain vineyards that reflect the region’s unique character.  High above the valley’s heat, chardonnay thrives in the cool breezes that wash over the elevated vineyards.  The infertile, rocky soils produce grapes with intense, concentrated flavors; cool nights insure the grapes’ acidity.  

     Sir Peter Michael, a native of England, purchased 600 acres, most of it a cattle ranch, in Knights Valley in 1982 and began planting his vineyards the next year.  Michael inherited a love of wine from his father and together they hoped to establish an estate in France, but when he worked in the computer industry in Silicon Valley, he discovered Sonoma County and Knights Valley, a region he believes is superior to France for a new winemaker.  The extraordinary quality of his wines affirms his suspicions.

     Today, Peter Michael lives outside of London, and visits his Knights Valley estate a couple of times a year, staying in his historic Highway 128 home, one of the valley’s first structures.  His interest remains in creating world class wines from mountain vineyards--he has no plans for a tasting room, nor does he wish to increase production beyond what his carefully maintained mountain vineyards can yield. (Not all of the winery’s vineyards are in Knights Valley, however; plans are under way to plant about 40 acres of pinot noir along the north coast of Sonoma County and the winery has contracts with vineyards in several other viticultural areas.)

     The history of the region and stewardship of the land is important to Michael and his staff.  Before construction began, the winery’s architects studied early photographs and modeled the buildings on those of the town of Kellogg.  The beautifully maintained grounds surrounding the winery evoke English gardens, and nearly 10,000 redwood and Douglas fir trees have been planted on the land since Michael acquired it.

     If the land’s current stewards continue to care for Knights Valley as they have nurtured it until now, chances are good that it will remain as rustic and wild as it is today, and has been for so long.  Perhaps the success of the region’s best known wines will secure Knights Valley’s continued existence as an agricultural area.  Maybe Forni Brown Gardens will further lift the profile of this remarkably beautiful part of the county that so few have seen. The Kellogg grocery store closed many decades ago and nothing--no 7-11, no strip mall, nothing at all--has taken its place.  I think that’s a very good sign.

Knights Valley Map

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