As we leave the line of houses on Redwood Road behind and round a curve he has regularly passed for over 100 years now, Bob Streich Sr. says dryly, “This all looks vaguely familiar.”
Streich was born in 1906 in a farmhouse near the end of Redwood Road, on a hillside vineyard called Castle Rock. The vineyard, rimmed by ridges of Douglas fir, was named by Streich’s uncle for the 100-foot-high volcanic monolith nearby.
“It reminded him of rocks along the Rhine that had castles on them,” Streich says.
Today, at 102 years old, Streich is on his way back to Castle Rock for a visit.
After climbing through the canyon and passing Hess Winery, Streich points to a house in the trees that has been enlarged from a core of stone walls. “That was my school,” he says. He attended it from age 6 until 13, when he moved on to Napa Union High School.
Vines above the valley
What is now known as Redwood Creek was known as Mill Creek in the early 20th century.
But even by 1890 the area had been nearly completely logged and the mill that operated in the canyon had closed. Over many years, German families like the Streichs, the Benkisers, the Heidhoffs, the Heins and the Jachens had bought land there and planted orchards and vineyards. A neighboring summer house was known as “Little Heidelberg.”
It was a time when the residents there took their wagons or horses — or even walked — over the nearby ridge to Sonoma. Downtown Sonoma was only four miles away, while downtown Napa was twelve.
Streich’s father Ernest accompanied his own father Nicholas and younger brother Robert to California in 1880 (it was Nicholas’ third trip). Nicholas, who had grown grapes in Germany, looked around for land in the Napa Valley and settled on an already-planted plot in St. Helena. He put down a $500 deposit, says Streich. But then a hard frost came and killed the crop.
“He (Nicholas) would have none of that,” Streich says. “He walked away from it.”
Nicholas went looking for different property, this time where frost was less of a threat. In late 1881, he bought 160 unplanted acres in Redwood Canyon at 1,200 feet in elevation, and then another 160 from a neighbor.
“They dug the vineyard out of the brush, he and his two boys,” Streich says, and also built a house and a small stone winery with a Roman press that still exists. Back then, Streich says, people with wagons “went through my folks’ front yard (and southwest up over the ridge to what is now Partrick Road) and down to town” because Redwood Canyon was still impassable for wagons.
After only nine years, Nicholas moved back to Germany, turning over full operation of the vineyard to Ernest. In 1903, Ernest married Lillie Mabel Kunzel, whose family had a farm and small resort called Hillside Farms on what is now Partrick Road.
In 1906, in the house his father and uncle had built, Robert Jordan Streich, now Senior, was born. Only three years later, his mother Lillie passed away from tuberculosis.
Into the cellar
Mike Yates and his daughter Whitney, co-winemakers for Yates Family Vineyards, which has owned the vineyard for nearly 60 years, welcome him back. His last visit was a release party seven years ago, when he identified himself as the young teenager in the old photo they had on display, cleaning barrels in front of the cellar in 1920.
Streich steers his rolling walker slowly through the original redwood door on cast iron rollers. He enters the ground floor of the small cellar, which is about the size of a two-car garage. The stone was quarried in the canyon nearby, and the heavy redwood beams were cut and milled on the property. Once inside, Streich sits on the chair of his walker and looks around at the racked bottles and barrels. The air is cool but not cold.
“I used to come in here,” he says, “just to come in here.”
On to the rest of the winery
After a rest and a look at bottles and labels from his father’s time that the Yateses found in the cellar, Streich steers his walker back out the front door. Attended by his son and the Yateses, he heads up the long ramp to the second floor where the winery was housed. A Roman press still stands ready for work. The press works by lowering the weight of one end of a log, a long, tremendously heavy tree trunk, in slow increments over the large basket full of grapes.
“Just the weight of the beam would make gallons of grape juice,” says Streich. “I would get down on the ground and drink it” from the floor channel that led to the open concrete tanks and then to barrels in the cellar below. It was perfect after a long day of picking grapes.
Other parts of childhood at the end of Redwood Road seem to have been idyllic, as well.
“On Sundays, my sister and I would take our nickel and hike over to Sonoma to get an ice cream cone.” They’d top the ridge near Hogback Mountain and descend what is now Gehricke Road to reach town.
On another day, while he was in the garden shooting his BB gun, he accidentally hit an employee of his father’s who was washing barrels in front of the cellar.
“He was bent over — nicely,” says Streich remembering the moment 85 years ago, “and I got him in the butt.”
As a boy, he and friends hiked up nearby Devil’s Canyon to Devil’s Well, a waterfall that has carved a deep bowl in the rock below, now part of the Archer Taylor Preserve of the Land Trust of Napa County.
“It made a lot of noise when the water was running,” says Streich. “There were a lot of tales about Devil’s Well: ‘It has no bottom’ was one. We tied a rock to a string and found out it was quite deep, but there was a bottom.” The pool, about eight feet in diameter, is 18 feet deep.
Life after the winery
In 1925, Streich graduated from Napa Union High School and was accepted at UC Berkeley, to study engineering. That year, in the face of Prohibition, after farming the property for nearly 45 years, and making it one of the best-known and most technologically advanced small wineries of his time, Ernest sold the vineyard and surrounding acres, holding onto the 14 acres the family still owns today.
Bob, his older sister Emily, and Ernest all moved to Berkeley while Streich attended Cal. Streich graduated in 1929 and went on to marry and raise his own family in Inverness while working for the RCA facility on Point Reyes. He spent the last years of his career in New York, and returned to Napa to retire to a house in Alta Heights, where he lives today. Ernest, who had returned to Redwood Canyon, passed away in 1951.
Streich has been on the move for an hour, exploring the old cellar and winery. He is clearly enjoying himself, the beautiful day, and his memories. He slowly descends the slope again to the driveway and gets into the car. Bob Jr. stows the walker in the trunk. We head down the driveway and Redwood Road, back toward Napa. Streich gazes silently out the windshield at the redwoods that have grown back since the logging more than 100 years ago.
This article originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register on May 2, 2009.
Bob Streich Sr. passed away in 2011 at 104 years old.