Fellows Trip to Napa

Thanks to our amazing Jeanne Anderson, the Fellows of Virginia Robinson Gardens enjoyed a marvelous and fascinating trip to Napa, California on April 22 – 25, 2018. Fabulous wines, the most delicious and outstanding luncheons and dinners, and exclusive entrees to beautiful private gardens melded into a special and magical experience.

The tour started with a wonderful lecture by Historian Nancy Levenberg. In Victorian times, settlers and visitors alike arrived in Napa County in droves.  New residents were drawn to the beautiful and fertile valley rich with farming, incredible resorts, mining, bridge building, stonewall and road building, vineyard development, and winery construction. In a short 25-year period, Napa grew from a rough and tumble frontier town catering to miners heading to gold country to an electrified city with churches, post offices, roads, schools, and a library.

The garden tour began with a visit to the delightful Dancing Hares Estate in St Helena.  Owner Paula Brooks selected noted architect Howard Backen, FAIA and landscape architect Ron Lutsko, ASLA to design the house and garden.

The main house is centered on a serene gravel courtyard accented by flowering trees and large pots.  The living room and dining room feature spectacular views of the native landscape. Our visit was happily timed to coincide with the peak bloom of a white wisteria vine, which was suspended over and mirrored in a linear koi pond.

Landscape Architect Claudia Schmidt has been working with the Brooks to maintain and enhance the garden.  Among her contributions are the introduction of a grove of white flowering dogwoods at the entry to the house.

The Brooks compound also contains a charming guesthouse. It is entered via a narrow staircase, which leads to a bridge that connects two guest suites.  Carefully sited within the oak forest, the structure creates a magical sanctuary within the trees.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch at Archetype. The barn like structure housing the restaurant, another Howard Backen-designed building, provided a perfect setting for farm to table cuisine.

The Fellows then visited Nonesuch Place. The owner, Carolyn Meharan, graciously narrated the history of the property in this moving essay:

“Nonesuch Place, our sanctuary in Oakville, California is a very old property in the Napa Valley. Formerly a dairy farm for the home adjacent to ours (the large white Victorian home you’ll see as you come down Walnut Drive), our home has been added onto for years in sometimes funky ways. We have owned it since 1984. Our Napa Valley property has never really been about the physical home, but the environment and beauty that we have tried to create surrounding it over the years. It is a true gathering place for family and our closest of friends.

Interestingly, several religious organizations have housed themselves within a quarter mile of our property: the Episcopal Church on Oakville Grade, the Carmelite Monastery at the end of our street and a Buddhist encampment years ago. We often think there is something rather spiritual about the location of our home, which has attracted all of these organizations to the region. You can feel something special as soon as you enter our property, and drive down our sycamore allée.

We have collaborated with several landscape designers over the years to work on specific areas of our garden, so you do not get that perfect master plan look in our garden, nor the perfect hardscape (case in point – the pool). We worked with Bob Roysten in the early 80s to design the “bones” of the garden – the box and laurel hedges, the birches and the allée of trees in the driveway. Our friend and floral designer Valerie Arelt suggested the beautiful Japanese maples that you’ll see throughout the property. We worked with Roger Warner to create our English border garden around the golf hole and worked with Jane Sylvester to put the finishing touches on our northern euonymus hedge/border, jasmine around the tennis court and passageway with Nucio’s Gem camellias between our “tree house” and tennis court. Betsy Everdell suggested ‘Tamara’ roses under our guest room window in the main house while visiting for lunch one day. So, it’s been a piecemeal collaboration, and I have enjoyed being an active partner with each of these people.

Other than these professional projects, I have been an amateur gardener on my own selecting plants I love and beautifying new areas with roses, clematis, camellias, fruit trees, the garden area going into the vegetable garden, and my true passion – the vegetable garden. I enjoy living in my garden and using and photographing the flowers, fruits, and vegetables that I grow.

It’s not ‘perfect,’ but it’s our sanctuary, and it brings us great joy.”

After visiting this gorgeous garden, we next enjoyed Spottswoode, where our tour began outside the barn and tasting room.  After viewing the innovative trellis system around the barn, our hosts Ann and Barb led us to the Victorian house purchased by the Novak Family in 1972.  The home, which features a veranda patterned after the Hotel del Coronado, is surrounded by a charming garden with large shade trees and intricate paths. Our tour and wine tasting concluded at a newer part of the garden, a pool and terrace designed by noted landscape architect Jack Chandler, FASLA.  The generous brick terrace, shaded by stately Canary Island Palms, features panoramic views of the adjacent vineyards and the Mayacama mountain range to the west.


For dinner, the group enjoyed an amazing meal at the award-winning Acacia House by famed chef Chris Cosentino. The sustainable menu reflects the seasonal bounty of the Napa valley.

The next day, the Fellows visited Iron Horse Vineyards, whose owners are long-time supporters of Robinson Gardens, going back to 2008 when they provided the magnums of Wedding Cuvee Sparkling for the Wedding-themed Garden Tour.

The founders of this family-run winery and vineyards, Audrey and Barry Sterling, greeted the Fellows in the garden of their beautifully restored 1880’s Victorian home. The azaleas, rhododendrons, and iris were at peak beauty, while towering Japanese maples vied with mature Pines and Redwoods to provide natural shade. Iron Horse CEO Joy Sterling joined her parents in hosting a sumptuous duck luncheon, starting with caviar sustainably farmed in the Sacramento River Valley, replete with many locally grown vegetables and fruits in season, fortified by both Sparkling Cuvee Joy and Thomas Road Pinot Noir. The hosts charmed the Fellows with stories of transplanting Merle Oberon’s famed roses, planting a grove of Giant Redwoods for future generations, and lining the approach to the winery with once tiny, but now imposing Palm trees.

The last garden we visited was the Woods garden and winery. Kay and Frank Woods purchased this property in 1970 as a weekend retreat from their San Francisco home. Like many other ranches in the Dry Creek Valley, this property had prune orchards, but by the 1960’s most of the land was converted to wine grapes. After Kay and Frank acquired the vineyards, they founded Clos du Bois Winery, and their first 1974 vintage came from the grapes around their white house. The house has been renovated and added to over the years, but the overall style is still that of a typical Sonoma County farmhouse.

The gardens were originally laid out by the late English landscape designer Peter Coats and enhanced in the early 1980s by Wade and Myra Hoeffer who lived on the property and are responsible for many of the wonderful outdoor spaces and unique plants. The gardens are a series of rooms surrounded and partitioned by Ligustrum hedges that help to create a sense of privacy and order. Straight brick pathways connect the spaces and lead the eye to the broader landscape. Kay’s preference for subtle colors and specifically white perennials, roses and flowering shrubs is seen throughout the gardens’ edges and in pots. In an effort to reduce water consumption, the lawns were recently changed to a varietal of sod that requires 30% less water and fertilizer (called RTF).

The vegetable garden in the center of the main lawn has a series of raised beds filled with seasonal vegetables and herbs; perennials and fruit trees border the vegetables for color and texture. The chicken coop and fruit orchard of apples, peaches, and pears are located near the barn. The barn was a replacement for an old prune drying shed, typical of the Dry Creek Valley, which fell down in 1989. Some of the oldest and most cherished trees on the property are English walnuts — one located at the entrance gate and the other on the south side of the white house, the preferred place to eat lunch in the summertime. The rose garden is designed and maintained beautifully by Rick Weeks of the Petaluma Rose Company. Rick is also the master gardener and consultant for the whole property.

There are 11 varieties of roses including a ‘Gold Medal,’  ‘Bewitched,’ and ‘Brandy.’ In the cutting garden are ‘Just Joey,’ ‘Gold Medal,’ ‘Duet,’ ‘Medalllion,’ and David Austins. The large shrub in the rose garden is a very old Euonymous pruned at the edge of the canopy to display the sculptural quality of its trunk. Above it is an old Atlas Cedar.

Sculptures have been added to the garden in the past few years — the large metal sculpture near the barn is ‘Flat Truck’ by Anthony Caro; ‘Untitled’ by Joel Schapiro is on the east side of the vegetable garden; and ‘Horse’ by William Turnbull is next to the white house. The latest addition is ‘Pecore’ (sheep) by American artist Karen Wilberding Diefenbach.

The wooded area beyond the pool and tennis court is affectionately referred to as the ‘Wood at The Woods.’ Most of these oaks, maples, dogwoods and redwoods were planted in 1994, and the area is maintained as a wild garden.  The grandchildren love this enchanted area for climbing, building tree forts, and playing hide-and-seek.

In 2007 Alexis Woods and Daniel Donahue (of Teira Wines) finished  their new house and garden on the south side of ‘The Woods.’ It is a contemporary house set into the surrounding merlot vineyard and was designed by architect Nick Noyes with the landscape designed by Alexis. The interior is clad in plywood from Kay’s family mill in Alabama. In the garden, old vines were salvaged from vineyard replanting and are used as fences to divide space between the parking area and the naturalized grass and wildflower field. The gravel courtyard in the center of the house is filled with a grove of non-fruiting mulberry trees that provide dappled shade in the summer.

These spaces and gardens reflect the many years of hard work invested by Rick Weeks, Jose Arredondo, Alejandro Corona, and Gloria Espinosa. They have helped to make these gardens a visual and creative joy for the Woods family, and we deeply appreciate their efforts.

A lovely dinner that evening at Bottega restaurant, helmed by acclaimed chef Michael Chiarello, concluded our wonderful journey.

The extraordinary level and quality of these tours is one more reason to upgrade to the Fellows level, if you haven’t already done so! We can’t thank you enough, Jeanne for always organizing such beautiful and outstanding trips!

Post by Lisa Gimmy and Maralee Beck

Friends of Robinson Gardens Board Members

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