By Larry Saavedra
The vineyards of Napa Valley are aromatic and full of life, but to the traveler in search of alternative things to see and do, the art scene there as well soothes a discerning palate. As naturalist John Muir aptly wrote, "Everyone needs beauty as well as bread."
If you travel from end-to-end on the valley floor, the towns of St. Helena, Yountville, and Calistoga are must-sees because they are best known for their award-winning whites and reds, from soil that has been cultivated for generations. But it's the art in these picturesque towns that often catches the public's attention.
For instance, Calistoga is a throwback to the early days of California: slow-paced, friendly, and full of scenic shops that tickle the imagination. As the story goes, Calistoga got its unusual name from one of the first visitors to the area who said it reminded him of Saratoga because of its natural hot springs and mud baths. Then after a few drinks (presumably wine), the gentleman fumbled the words and said... Calistoga, the Saratoga of California.
For us, the trip began at the Calistoga RV and Campgrounds (Napa Valley Fairgrounds) just north of downtown. It was not fancy: 72 RV sites at $18 per night mostly laid out on a square gravel lot adjacent to the local sports arena. Nearly barren of luxuries, the ground's claim to fame is that it is within walking distance of a very good nine-hole golf course and downtown. Staying there is a convenient way to see the sights without much fuss.
In town, there are art galleries, fine restaurants, and kitschy shops, but a short drive will take you to the Old Faithful geyser. The geyser is a true wonder of the world, and if you have never seen a geyser and can't make it to Yellowstone it is a decent way to keep the kids entertained.
Of the art galleries in Calistoga, the must-see is Ca'Toga. The gallery is the vision of 72-year-old Italian-born artist Carlo Marchiori, a Renaissance-style painter, potter, and sculptor who lives in the area. Marchiori's work is distinctive, even a little spirited by traditional Napa standards, nothing like the art you see elsewhere. If you look closely, you can see the web of wit he's spun around traditional motifs.
As luck would have it, the day I visited with my wife, Carlo was putting the final touches on floor-to-ceiling Venetian-style murals at the Dell Dotto Winery tasting room in St. Helena. I watched as the maestro contemplated the massive scale of his latest project at Dell Dotto, craning to get perspective of his 18-foot figures that embodied the winemaking process of ancient Italy. Murals of this kind have been a Marchiori hallmark for decades. In fact, references to his work of Renaissance, baroque, and neoclassic design, and notably his whimsical trompe l'oeil, pop up everywhere in Calistoga.
"I've been here 20 years, and in that time Calistoga has become a beautiful destination for the traveler. We get four seasons with a little snow in the winter, but the spring and summer months are a good time to visit. My father expected me to be a bookkeeper, and I wanted to be an artist. I spent three years in art school in Italy and immigrated to Canada thereafter. I became a graphic artist. I did magazine, TV, and animation art and then produced a film short called The Drag for the Canadian Film Board, which was nominated for an Academy Award," he said.
Carlo was fascinated by trompe l'oeil, a style he perfected and eventually commissions followed. While his work has taken him all over the world, Carlo calls Calistoga home, and that's where he's built a gallery and villa. Villa Ca'Toga is Carlo's Palladian-style residence, set on five acres of prime Napa real estate. Marchiori opens the doors to Villa Ca'Toga (May through October) and guides art lovers through a considerable body of his villa work that extends from the garden, grotto, studio, and living quarters. Carlo was quick to distinguish his villa as much more than an eclectic house of mismatched figures, frescos, and fixtures.
"It works for me," he said in a thick Italian accent. "We live in strange times when it comes to art. We've become too sterilized, show biz and television is not really stimulating. The American pioneers had the right idea though, which was to be able to do it all themselves. Then came Sears and Roebuck and it all ended," his sense of humor filling the room.