Travel Diaries

Travel: Wine Country Road Rally

By Fredric Hamber

It was a peculiar sight at 8 o’clock sharp on an August Monday morning in St. Helena. Two dozen people, masked and socially distanced, stood in the Harvest Inn parking lot near a row of vintage and contemporary Porsches, Ferraris, and a 1965 Shelby Cobra. Harvest Inn co-owner Rick Kaufman was giving a pre-talk about the day’s route, along with reminders about hand sanitizer and information on gas station locations. “This is not a race; this is a rally,” he says, his beloved 2016 Morgan 3 Wheeler nearby awaiting his key in the ignition.

Clearly the day’s agenda was no ordinary wine country tour. For one thing, there would be no wine at all until sunset, when everyone had safely returned to the property. The group of farmers, tycoons, winemakers and philanthropists, including a few couples from Colorado (their collector cars having been trucked over the Rockies), had gathered for the inaugural Napa Valley 750: The Wine Country Road Rally. The name refers to the number of miles covered over the course of the three-day event, through parts of six counties of the Golden State. It’s also a sly allusion to the volume of a 750 ml bottle of wine.

The Vineyard View Collection Suite.

Memory Lanes

As we left the parking lot to begin the excursion, my vantage point was not from one of the sporty coupes but rather a Ford F-350 Platinum truck with trailer, driven by Denny Ghiringhelli. A local boy if ever there was one, Ghiringhelli was born in St. Helena, the grandson of Italian immigrants who settled there a century ago. He’d had a career as an airline pilot and mechanic, so he’s the sort of person you’d want if … well, if anything went wrong with your clutch cable, for instance, while navigating a twisty pass through the Mayacamas. “Just in case” was the role Ghiringhelli and his trailer were playing that week.

He’s also the perfect road companion, which is why I felt privileged to be in the passenger seat. Each bend in the road evokes a memory. “There used to be a bar called the Corner Bar in Rutherford where the post office is,” he muses as we exit Highway 29 onto the Oakville Grade. “Robin Williams would come in and turn the sound off the television and do voices of whoever was on the screen.” A poignant pause, and then: “He was a funny guy.”

The first day’s route went to Jenner on the coast, then north into Mendocino County as far as the Albion River Inn, where the group met for lunch overlooking the Pacific. Everyone tucked into lime-and-ginger grilled prawns, chicken with summer vegetable ragout and a dessert of house-made sorbet. They then set off for the return leg toward Highway 128 through Anderson Valley.

Or at least most of them did. In the parking lot, David Donner, an accomplished racer out from Colorado Springs with his wife, Meredith, was having an issue with his 1973 Dino 246 GTS. Since there were plenty of automotive experts around, bare hands were tenderly placed on the radiator to check temperature. Gadgets were retrieved from Ghiringhelli’s truck. Revolutions-per-minute were increased and decreased. Hypotheses were articulated by shouting over the engine noise.

“That’s just the overflow,” Donner yells back from the driver’s seat. “Yeah, but why is it overflowing? It should just be flowing.” As I watched the scene unfold, I reckoned I would probably trust Ghiringhelli to perform an emergency appendectomy if I ever needed one. The diagnosis was a sticking thermostat, possibly due to an air bubble preventing water from passing through to the cooling system. A fix was made, and the Donners were back on the road, making it beyond Boonville until they had to pull over and give the thumbs-down signal. Onto the trailer went the GTS for its ride back to St. Helena.

Occasional mishaps may be inevitable on a multiday, multicar jaunt, but the planning was meticulous. In the weeks prior, Kaufman drove the complete route three times, noting potholes, historic spots and where to stop for gas. Day two went over Mount Tam to the coast and through Point Reyes to Bodega Bay. Day three ventured into Yolo County and wine-growing areas of Pope Valley and Lake County. A detailed and handsomely produced route book was distributed at the outset.

When Kaufman was a boy, his father, a Marin physician, volunteered as a track doctor to provide emergency medical attention to race-car drivers. In planning the rally, Kaufman decided that the St. Helena Hospital Foundation would be the recipient of the charitable donations participants would make, including a generous sponsorship by Ferrari of San Francisco. “It is only with the blanket of health security that the St. Helena Hospital provides us that we can sleep easy at night, and drive easy during the day, knowing that they are there for us when needed,” he says.

Kaufman is a veteran of road rallies in different parts of the country, including the Peak to Peak in the Rockies, through which he developed deep friendships with several of the people whom he invited to join in this inaugural event. Cars and entrants both had to meet certain criteria. Motorcars needed to be significant in their own right, for reasons that could include limited production or being a unique example of a particular model. And entrants are “real car people,” Kaufman says, “from all walks of life, with a great attitude. Think Gilligan, not Thurston Howell III.”

Whereas many rallies involve a multiday progression from point  A to point B, entailing transfers of baggage to each stop along the route, a welcome aspect of the Napa Valley 750 is that drivers return to the same home base each night. Harvest Inn, set on eight acres with a sculpture garden and more than 300 California redwood trees, features a spa and spacious guest rooms with brick fireplaces.

The perfect setting for two on property at Harvest Inn in St. Helena.

Vineyard Views

Opening night dinner was held outdoors on the inn’s Vineyard View Terrace. Twenty paces away was the edge of the Leonardini Vineyard, from which was produced the 2012 Whitehall Lane Cabernet Sauvignon that accompanied Chef Vincent Sanchez’s brined Kurobuta pork loin and wilted Swiss chard with apricot and sour cherry mostarda. On subsequent evenings guests are shuttled to catered dinners at Inglenook and Far Niente wineries.

Over dessert of stone fruit cobbler and coffee I chat with Aaron Hagar and his wife, Misha, down from Lake Tahoe. The appeal of a road rally, Hagar explains, is “the circle of friendship, and seeing other dream cars that you don’t have.” He and Kaufman have been friends since boyhood in Marin, both being sent to board at the Robert Louis Stevenson School in Pebble Beach. Their shared history of shenanigans includes “liberating” Kaufman’s father’s cars for joyrides, never understanding how his father always found out.

“We never knew he had these forceps,” Kaufman chuckles. “He would insert cotton balls all the way up the exhaust pipes. So, when we would start the car, they’d get soiled and fly out the back. We’d have no idea, because it’s the floor of the garage … a cotton ball … whatever. Dad didn’t even have to touch the motor or look at the odometer. He’d just look at the floor of the garage and if there was a cotton ball, it was like seeing the snapped mouse-trap … ‘Son, how was the drive?’”

Across the table sat KR Rombauer of Rombauer Vineyards. He was participating in his first rally by swapping driving shifts each day with his friend and fellow enthusiast Scott Weems in cars from the Rombauer family collection, including a 1957 Jaguar D-Type. Like Kaufman and Hagar, KR inherited a love of unique automobiles from his father, whom he envisioned looking down now with pride from “the big winery in the sky.”

“This is a great experience for myself and Scott to do what should be done with these cars,” Rombauer shares, “which is to take them out and respectfully drive them. Not beat them up. Not drag race them. Go out and cruise them.”

The next Napa Valley 750 is scheduled for April 11–15, 2021. Organizers plan to make changes to the route each year.

At press time, our thoughts are with everyone touched by the recent wildfires, including the LMU Complex Fire that impacted some areas the road rally traversed. We’ve heard from Rick Kaufman, who writes, “My 10-year-old son rode with me the last day [of the rally], and I have little doubt he’ll remember it forever. It was his first time in the Pope Valley and around Lake Hennessey. Those areas all burned — so the scenery will only be a memory.” Donations to the St. Helena Hospital Foundation may be made at shhfoundation.org.

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