Breaking Clays in the Other Napa Valley
by Deborah K. McKown
The San Francisco Bay area is a mecca for wine connoisseurs, gourmets and millions of tourists in pursuit of the region's seductive natural beauty. But the City by the Bay does carry some cultural baggage that leads clays shooters to believe they're Public Enemy #1 -- and so they leave their shotguns at home.
Well, I'm here to report the clays shooting scene in the San Francisco Bay Area is a shoot-o-rama, ranging from the sublime to the freaky. And if you're also a wine lover, there's no better place to combine your passions.
When you mention wine and San Francisco a family of names immediately come to mind: Napa, Sonoma, Russian River and Dry Creek. Any of these appellations are accessible by car in an hour or two from San Francisco, starting with a breathtaking drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. For people with a refined a palate and a gold credit card, these destinations can literally change your life.
(If you think I'm kidding, book dinner at the French Laundry in Napa Valley's Yountville. It's probably the best restaurant in America. Getting a reservation is like winning the lottery. The transcendent nine-course menu includes 20-plus tastings and at least five desserts. The service is impeccable, with each patron assigned their own server and managed by a head waiter. For two people, the experience is a $700 revelation.)
Between the wineries and the retired Silicon Valley millionaires, real estate is so expensive, and the zoning restrictions so rigid, that it would be nearly impossible to establish a clays shooting facility within spitting distance of this wine-country nirvana.
Across the Bay Bridge
But if you head northeast from San Francisco across the Bay Bridge to the "Other Napa Valley" you're on the road to a unique part of northern California that can satisfy both the clay shooter and the wine lover. The Other Napa Valley is named Livermore Valley.
This gorgeous swathe of rolling hills has a rich history in viticulture, ranching and the Wild West.
The Livermore Amador Valley was primarily grazing land for Mission San Jose's thousands of cattle and sheep. Robert Livermore capitalized on the land grants in the mid-1800s by getting the largest ranch. Livermore took interest in viticulture and became the set down the first vineyard in the valley -- making the region the largest wine grower in California.
Fast forward to the early 1960s and the Livermore Valley had as much acreage under vine as Napa Valley. But while Napa's star began its ascent, Livermore remained relatively unknown. Today, the Livermore is home to about 40 wineries -- a pittance compared to Napa and Sonoma.
The Livermore Valley vineyards tend to be more mom-and-pop, with some exceptions such as Wente and Concannon. With so many small wineries, Livermore is great for finding quirky and idiosyncratic surprises.
Where Everyone is Beautiful
The staging area for my Livermore Valley jaunt was a lovely apartment owned by my friend Diane C. in San Francisco's Marina District. In this neighborhood, everyone is beautiful, young and confident. And the Mediterranean architecture is wondrous in the sunlight.
Diane and I got an early start. With no fog that morning, the sky showed a lovely pearlescent blue. Mild breeze, pleasant temperature and salt air inspired Diane to insist on driving her Miata MX-5 roadster (instead of us taking my rental). I packed my Caesar Guerini, 20-gauge Magnus into her trunk, as she dropped the top. We drove across town, passing the hilltop mansions of Pacific Heights.
I had already done my homework and compiled a list of places to shoot first and taste later. As she drove, I entered the addresses into my Garmin GPS. Our first stop would be the Richmond Rod & Gun Club.
The city of Richmond is on San Francisco Bay. For San Francisco's yuppies, Richmond is a punch line. Chevron, Shell, Conoco Phillips, Valero and other oil companies have set up refineries in Richmond. The air is foul and it seems that every year at least one refinery explosion turns deadly.
Diane drove and I enjoyed the views. The Garmin took us straight to the front door, or so we thought, of the Richmond Rod & Gun Club. The one-story building was a bit ratty and surrounded by industrial debris. The sign did read Richmond Rod & Gun Club, but the place looked closed -- or condemned. We heard gun fire. An old Chevy SUV parked in front led us to believe that someone stirred inside. I got out of the car.
A Liberian Moment
Going from window to window, I could see a full bar that was closed up -- for the day, for the month, forever, who knew? Then I noticed a guy at a grill in the shadowy nether-reaches. I walked around the building and found an open door. He looked like a short-order cook on a Liberian tramp steamer. I told him we wanted to shoot.
"Does this look like a place to shoot?" he snapped. When I asked him about the club house he barked out some directions.
Back in the car, Diane followed a gravel path. It took us through a junkyard of abandoned cargo containers, cars, busses and RVs. The gun fire grew louder. Then we saw a full parking lot. The entire facility (including the surrounding cargo containers) was painted aquamarine. When we parked, we had a view of marshland, the bay and refineries beyond issuing smoke.
A Covert Training Camp?
Diane waited in the car while I checked out the club house. I had approached it from the rear and when I walked around front there was another bay vista. Trap and skeet fields fronted the water. You just got the feeling that this place was a covert training camp for mercenaries.
When I opened the stubborn clubhouse door, the guys inside turned around -- like saloon gunslingers in an old Western. Salvaged furniture, beaten men and an equatorial torpor stewed to perfection in this hellish relic.
"I'd like to shoot," I said.
One man stood up from a wobbly office chair, his t-shirt and hair sort of the same color. "You a member?"
The other men stared at me, as though my life hung in the balance. (This has happened to me before at other clubs, so I recognize their puzzled expressions.)
"No, I've never been here before. What are the rules?"
He disappeared into a doorway that led to a plywood box of an office. Next I saw him was across a rough-hewn counter. He explained you can only shoot steel shot. I asked for a couple of boxes of ammo, and he gave me 7½. It was the only size they sold.
Finding Position #1
I bought a couple rounds of trap, thinking that since Diane was a brand new shooter it would be a good way for her to learn the gun. The trap range was empty and we started at position #1 -- although it took a bit of work to actually identify it. As I taught her the fundamentals, a few men gathered around the empty oil drums behind us to watch. Soon they grew bored and walked away.
In the middle of her lesson, one of the guys came out and asked if I had paid. He seemed nervous. I assured him I did pay and offered to show the hand-scrawled receipt stuffed in my pocket.
"We don't give receipts," he said.
Then the conversation turned as to whether or not they gave receipts but he didn't want to see mine. It ended with his edgy explanation that the board of directors insisted everyone pay in advance and he was just trying to stay out of trouble. I was a sympathetic listener and soon it was smiles all around before he returned inside.
By now Diane was warmed up and ready to shoot. I suggested a few rounds of skeet.
This time I went inside with Diane and my Guerini. A few of the men commented that she shot pretty good (even though she didn't hit a single target). I placed my shotgun on the rack and it also drew a few admirers
The Guerini is an Ice Breaker
The Magnus features a case-hardened receiver with gold birds, in the style of a finely engraved sidelock shotgun. It contrasted with the smoky grains of the pale wood walnut hand-picked by Ceasar Guerini CEO, Wes Lang. The shotgun was a 20-gauge/28-gauge combo with carefully matched fore-ends. A beautiful shotgun in its own right, the light wood made it quite rare among Guerinis.
In the clubhouse, a few of the members and I started talking about shotguns. Once it became apparent that I knew a bit about shotguns, and that I wasn't a safety threat, we settled onto common ground and became more comfortable with each other.
As Diane and I approached the skeet field, a rough looking man with a pump asked to join us. It was the kind of pump used for home defense. He was actually quite agreeable and explained that this was only his third for fourth time skeet shooting. As we shot around the course, it was miraculous watching him crush those targets. He shot a 21. He did everything wrong yet obliterated one target after another.
A surreal skeet field at the Richmond Rod & Gun Club.
Meet the Club Pro
Soon we were joined by a middle-aged couple who got out of a big Lexus sedan. They too were new to the sport. They struggled to find their groove, shooting Remington 1100s. They sought out my help and of course I obliged. But within a few minutes the club pro made his appearance. With silver hair, tight jeans under his beer belly and hacked-off sleeves, he was the picture of a middle-aged biker. I got the sense that he didn't appreciate my interference.
After that round of skeet it was time to move on. Our next stop was the Livermore-Pleasanton Rod and Gun Club.
It was a quick hop onto 580 East, and as a passenger I took in the scenery.
The tech bubble of the 1990s gave rise to a suburban boom sprawl in the East Bay. Silicon Valley refugees were priced out of the housing market in quaint old towns where Stanford grads wearing Hèrmes scarves sold French country accoutrements. From farm towns to boom towns, these places were now home Apple, Sun, Intel, Hewlett-Packard and other pioneers in the PC boom.
Over the years, the East Bay commutes grew more maddening, and it showed in the clusters of new developments and mini-chateaus built on the sensuous hills -- many with a bulldozer flat-top. It was new money gone bad, like botched cosmetic surgery.
Back in Time
When we finally got off the freeway, somehow the clock had been turned back to the ranching heydays of Livermore Valley. Lovely hills undulated against the eggshell-blue sky. Not much livestock left, but the properties were vast -- some weathered houses overlooked by development, other homes imposing trophies of fat stock-option payouts.
At the Livermore-Pleasanton Rod and Gun Club, there was a sense that an effort was made to integrate the sprawling facility into the hills. For the shotgun sports, only trap was offered. The ten fields with voice-activated controllers looked tidy, safe and well-maintained. A competitive shoot was under way -- answering our question why there were so many RVs in the parking lot.
Diane waited in the car while I signed us in at the club house. Inside, a knotty pine bar dated the place to a post-war homecoming. A canteen kitchen opened onto a gathering place straight out of the 4-H.
A Perfect Moment
A few of the trap fields were reserved for shooters who wanted to knock off a few rounds. Even though my Caesar Guerini was clearly a sporting gun, I figured what the heck -- I'd give it a try. My first round was miserable, the second one better. Still, with the fields facing those beautiful hills I didn't really care that much about my scores. The weather was idyllic, I was breaking targets and the scenery was gorgeous. For the moment it was all that really mattered.
It was getting to be time to jump into the car for some wine tasting. Winery hopping is a perfect way to travel the rural back roads of Livermore Valley. The small operations that populate the "Other Napa Valley" are generally run by entrepreneurs who march to a different beat. Yes, they enjoy people enough to ply them with wine, but come 5:00 PM and there must be this sense of relief that they can return their chosen life of the anti-Napa.
Retzlaff Vineyards captured that spirit. First off, their wines are made exclusively from organically grown grapes. And second, the tasting room resided in a small, rustic cottage. There was something flannel about the feel of the place. A long lawn was shaded by venerable trees -- the few picnic tables beneath them taken by people enjoying life.
When we arrived, the tasting room buzzed with everyone talking wine, but as we progressed through the pours the crowd thinned out.
I'm not a lover of organic wines. They always leave the aftertaste of an amateur winemaker. I can't say that Retzlaff made me a convert, but of the four wines and one port served, two of the tastings stood out as clear favorites. They were the 2001 Estate Blend (85% Cabernet/15% Merlot), and the Cabernet Sauvignon Port accompanied by local, artisan chocolates.
The Maalox of Wines
Our next stop was the Westover winery. It billed itself as a Best of Show Boutique Winery. When it comes to wine tasting my approach has been, when they pile on the superlatives plan on being disappointed.
Inside the lovely Spanish building, the tasting room seemed like a finished basement with a big bar. We bellied up to it. The flight consisted of seven tastings, going from the whites to the red to the dessert wines.
The 2005 Sauvignon Blanc came across as awfully sweet -- not the dry, crisp varietal that you expect. Onward to the 2004 Chardonnay; my taste said caramel, nutmeg but too dry. The Je t'Aime Meritage didn't live up its French aspirations, and in fact was merely your average red table wine. Maybe we just should've quit with average. The 2005 Petite Syrah and 2001 Cabernet Franc were undrinkable, and we dumped the wine into the handy spit bucket. Their NV white port tasted like cough medicine followed by the Maalox flavor of the NV Merlot Port.
Westover prides itself on making more ports than any other U.S winery. Well, how nice for them. We were outta there.
An Ace Up Our Sleeves
It was coming up on 5:00, but we still had an ace up our sleeves. The tasting room at Wente Vineyards stayed open till 6:30 -- way past the punch-out time of the smaller wineries in Livermore Valley. There was not a moment to lose.
When it comes to tasting rooms in Livermore Valley, Wente is like getting a spa treatment. It's very corporate in a good way. Wente has the money and management to take on the best of Napa Valley.
Wente has an 18-hole golf course, great restaurant and a summer concert series. The employees are well-trained, informative and hospitable. I'm all for funky operations if they provide stellar results. But after the Richmond Rod & Gun Club, Retzlaff and Westover, my funky compartment was stuffed.
Diane and I opted for the $10 Winemaker flight of premium tastings.
We began with a small-batch, 2005 Nth Degree Chardonnay. It was buttery and thick -- just how I prefer my Chardonnays. Next up was their 2005 Small Lot Syrah that proved to be competent. That was followed by a special 2006 Small Lot Viognier. It was sweet in a lovely kind of way, and would've been pretty darn good with an omelet. After that, we returned to the Nth Degree line, this time with another 2005 Syrah. It was followed by an Nth Degree 2005 Merlot and we concluded with a 2006 Small Lot Petit Syrah. This last glass was a breathtaking surprise since it tasted like a premium Zinfandel (I'm a sucker for Zins).
So our first day of wine tasting all worked out in the end. As we walked back to her car, a crowd dressed in formals ambled toward us. Someone was getting married later. The air smelled of dry grass. The sun was orange lollipop.
Yes, we had a great adventure.
Deborah K. McKown is the editor of Shotgun Life. Please address your comments to: