By Lee Foster
Several progressive aspects of modern California, whether a traveler is considering urban design or farm-to-fork agriculture, can be enjoyed at California’s City of Davis and the surrounding Yolo County.
The area is about an hour east from San Francisco on Interstate 80 on the way to Sacramento.
The fertile and flat farmlands of Yolo County flourished soon after the Gold Rush, creating the wealth to build a legacy of sumptuous Victorian homes and brick commercial districts in Woodland and Winters, two lovely towns worth exploring. The area close to the Sacramento River, around Clarksburg, eventually became a noted wine district, with good tasting opportunities available today.
It was, however, the early 20th century decision to establish in Davis an agricultural college that transformed the region. The humble agricultural college evolved to become a major University of California campus, adding a special dynamism to the region, now flourishing in the 21st century.
Start exploring the region at Davis, specifically with a look at the UC Davis Campus. (The best travel planning site for a trip is the Yolo County Visitors Bureau, www.yolocvb.net.)
Starting at Davis
Park on the south edge of the campus in the public lot near a performing arts center, known as the Mondavi Center, and take a look around. The center is a gift from winemaker Robert Mondavi and is now a leading cultural venue in the region. Check to see what might be playing during your visit.
Because of the university atmosphere, there is an inherent liveliness and may be some serendipity during a visit. I was greeted by a group of spirited taiko drummers practicing their high-decibel art in the parking lot on the day of my visit.
I proceeded for a walk through the Arboretum that snakes along the Putah Creek waterway on the south side of the campus. This tranquil walk is pleasing, with views of oak trees and other labeled flora.
My plan for that Saturday morning was to attend a talk at the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science. Many such talks about milk, wine, beer, tomatoes, honey, etc are open to the public. My interest was olive oil. I looked at the plantings of vegetables and herbs around the Institute before attending the presentation by Dan Flynn, Executive Director of the UC Davis Olive Center. It is well known that UC Davis has helped transform the California wine industry, producing an army of well-trained oenology graduates to manage California wine production. As someone who loves both wine and olives, I wondered if olives could be the next boom in taste and tour pleasures.
The news from Dan Flynn was good. California’s advancing table olive and olive oil production generally exceeds worldwide standards for excellence. It was a bit shocking to learn that “extra virgin” imported olive oil actually had to meet absolutely minimalist standards, meaning “no major defects and some positive fruitiness.” I did a blind “sensory” tasting of olive oils, and the fresh California olive oil could easily be differentiated from some musty, fusty foreign competition. The U.S. consumer buys about 75 million gallons of olive oil each year. The U.S. produces only 2.5 million gallons, mainly in California, but when all the trees now in the ground mature, our production will rise to 5 million gallons. Yolo County is the center of olive agriculture in California. There are 35,000 California acres devoted to olive oil and 25,000 in table olives.
I then drove to the Davis downtown and spent the rest of the day exploring.
Because this was a Saturday, the robust Farmers Market in downtown Central Park was in progress. This is one of the more vigorous Farmers Markets in all of California, as one might expect. I enjoyed a lunch of lamb with curry, rice, and vegetables from a market vendor, Kathmandu Kitchen.
After the Farmers Market, I stepped next door in the park to the remarkable U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame, located in a former teen recreation center. The question arises: why is this institution located here, in Davis? The answer is an idiosyncratic story of collectors, local politics, and a little cash on hand at the right time. The question might also be: why not here? After all, Davis is a city designed for the bicycle and around the bicycle. At UC Davis there are actually bicycle “roundabouts” so that bicycles converging on an area can avoid collisions and choose their forward trajectory.
At the museum I met a docent named David Takemoto-Weerts, whose day job is Bicycle Program Coordinator at UC Davis. David recounted the story of this Hall of Fame. It was founded in New Jersey in 1986. Three years ago the museum needed to move. Davis had an unused teen center looking for a new occupant. David figured out how to finesse some grants from the Department of Transportation to establish a transportation history museum. So, Davis landed the Bicycling Hall of Fame.
The most interesting artifacts are the 19th century bicycles, as developers sought to create the optimal two wheel vehicle, experimenting with big wheels and small wheels. The most poignant exhibit is that of Major Taylor, a black man who was the highest paid athlete of his time, around the turn of the 20th century, when bicycle racing was a bigger sport than baseball. Marshall Walter “Major” Taylor (1878-1932) was able to win races and earn fabulous sums of money, but he finally gave up the sport because of the systemic racism that made participating unpleasant.
If I wanted to rent a bicycle in Davis, I was told that Ken’s Bike at 650 G Street was a good option. There is a pleasant 12-mile “loop” ride around the city for the casual rider in search of a scenic outing.
I spent the late afternoon and evening looking at downtown Davis, a highly walkable area, so human scale, with mature trees, and with houses tucked amidst the low-slung commercial buildings. Be sure to see the landmark “mission style” railroad station and the scattered art pieces, which made me want to return for a second-Friday night Art About walk, when I could visit galleries and sip wine. For art, I had already seen several of artist Robert Arneson’s “Egghead” ceramic sculptures of heads on the UC Davis campus. A memorable downtown Davis piece is “Stan, The Submerging Man” by Finley Fryer. The Davis Art Walk brochure from the Visitors Bureau has an outlined map walk passing 54 downtown art sculptures and murals, plus a list of galleries, for the do-it-yourself art explorer. The art walk is called a “transmedia” walk because it can also be enjoyed with a phone app or with a phone that scans chips on the art pieces. The app or scans bring each creation to life with descriptions and interviews with the artists.
For dinner, I was in a locavore mood, so I stopped in at Seasons, which features seasonal northern California ingredients. I enjoyed some Delta asparagus roasted in the wood-fire oven, along with a dish of hot olives. The hot olives were flavored with chopped garlic, fennel, orange zest, and oregano. My delicious wine choice was a Petite Sirah from Twisted River Wines in Clarksburg.
For lodging I stayed at the Comfort Suites near the downtown area. My lodging had bicycles available for patrons. Besides chain hotels, various B&Bs and “country stay” lodgings are also available, as the Yolo County Visitors Bureau site can inform you.
My exploration plan for Sunday was a look at Woodland, Winters, and Clarksburg, all the while enjoy a spring drive through the thriving agricultural countryside.
Woodland’s Victorians and Museum
Woodland is north of Davis, allowing a good look at the fecund agricultural countryside if you take the smaller roads.
Woodland is noteworthy for two travel attractions, its Victorian legacy architecture in town and the agricultural implement and truck museum east of town.
The 1885 Gable Mansion, 659 First Street, is the most lavish Victorian of which I am aware in inland California, comparing to the great houses from that era in San Francisco and in Eureka. This Italianate Victorian was built for pioneer ranchers Amos and Harvey Gable. Wealthy farmers built about 400 historic homes in Woodland in the late 19th century. The stately county courthouse and the city library are also imposing, and the town was laid out with wide streets in an orderly but spacious grid, befitting a place of measured and assured agricultural opulence. Roses are popular here, and the Rose Garden adjacent to the public library was stunning during my April visit. In September there is a Stroll Through History festival celebrating Woodland’s architectural legacy.
East of town and grouped adjacent to each other are two major museums, the Fred C. Heidrick Antique Tractor Museum and the Hays Antique Truck Museum. The vehicles and farm machinery document the gradual evolution of mechanized farm machinery and food transport. The historic agricultural combines, harvesters, tractors, and trucks tell the story of ingenious American inventiveness, producing and transporting ever more food in an ever more efficient manner.
Winters’ Railroad History
Winters is another picturesque small town in Yolo County with brick buildings from the early rail era. The extremely compact downtown of Winters now hosts winery and olive oil company tasting rooms, plus restaurants, such as Putah Creek Cafe. The rail line trestle crossing Putah Creek into Winters is now a recreational path for biking and walking. In the early era Winters was famous for a sumptuous hotel, the Hotel DeVilbiss, which is now the Buckhorn Steak and Roadhouse. As you walk around Winters today, some of the historic brick buildings have placards, such as one identifying the John Chadwick Building. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights are the lively times in Winters. Sunday afternoon is quieter.
I enjoyed visiting the friendly Turkovich Winery tasting room. I began this relaxed tasting with their Viognier and later proceeded to their reds, including an unusual varietal, Tempranillo. The family makes cheese as well as wine, and, after sampling four cheeses, I could not resist buying a pound of their sharp cheddar with chive and garlic.
Clarksburg lies on the southeast edge of the county and is noted for its wines. A visit to Clarksburg could be combined with a drive through the Delta or a look at Sacramento.
I drove south from the west edge of Sacramento on Highway 84. It was interesting to see the huge grain elevators adjacent to the deep-water shipping channels that have been dredged so that ocean-going freighters can sail inland to the Port of Sacramento. This facilitated the freight purpose of taking out various agricultural commodities. Written on one elevator was the sign, “Port of Sacramento: Serving The Rice Industry,” suggesting the importance of rice growing.
Bogle Vineyards & Winery at 37783 County Road 144 is a major player in the local wine scene, with a tasting room, picnic area, and vineyard views.
I planned to stop at the Old Sugar Mill, 35265 Willow Avenue, Clarksburg, because this recycled brick facility, set adjacent to the Sacramento River, now houses 10 winery tasting rooms. Sugar beets were formerly processed here, but it is now cheaper to get sugar from other sources, such as corn, so the sugar beet agriculture has declined. I tasted in the Old Sugar Mill complex at the Heringer Estates Vineyard and Winery tasting room. I sampled a range of their wines with some blue cheese, starting with an oaky and buttery Chardonnay. Their most appealing wine was a Petite Sirah. Heringer is family owned, with about 200 acres in the Clarksburg area, producing about 3,000 cases per year. The Heringer clan has been pursuing agriculture here since 1868, over six generations. The interior walls of the Old Sugar Mill were decorated with stunning area landscape photos by Michael Pieretti. After the tasting I enjoyed a delicious chicken salad lunch in Clarksburg at the Husick Hardware and General Store, which is now mainly a deli and wine sales venue.
A Wish to Return
My weekend visit to Davis and Yolo County made me want to return for further adventures.
The monthly second Friday night Art About walk in Davis would be a high priority.
Twenty-two farms in the county welcome visitors who call to make an appointment before a visit. At the McDonald Orchards in Capay I could learn about honey bees, honey, almonds, and walnuts. The details are all in a brochure I picked up at the Yolo County Visitors Bureau office in Davis.
I had four bed & breakfasts and other “country stays” to consider for lodging during my next visit.
Agriculture-based festivals are popular, such as the Capay Valley Almond Festival in late February-early March, when the almond blossoms on the trees provide scenic touring pleasures. I also wanted to be present some future year in later August when fields of sunflowers show their heavy heads.
Among the museums, next on my list would be the Yolo County Historical Museum in the Gibson House in Woodland.
The Sacramento River Train, an excursion train out of Woodland, could be an interesting ride.
I had begun but not exhausted the tasting choices at Yolo County Wineries.
A handy Yolo County Harvest Schedule alerted me to crops ready to be picked from March, when asparagus matures, to October, when the last of the tomato harvest, a major crop, is completed. Whenever a traveler drives around in this region, some agricultural drama will be presented.
The word Yolo was said to be a Patwin Indian word meaning “beauty abounding in the rushes.” The beauty and taste of California agriculture is what gets a traveler’s attention today.
California’s City of Davis and Yolo County: If You Go
As mentioned at the top, the main organizer of travel planning for the area is the Yolo County Visitors Bureau at www.yolocvb.net. When in downtown Davis, stop by their office for brochures and information at 132 E. Street, Suite 200, Davis, CA 95616, 530-297-1900.
Much of California travel is organized around counties because that’s how tourism promotion is funded. The shape of counties is sometimes somewhat accidental, based on history and politics. Yolo is one of those counties where a traveler asks: where exactly is it? You need a map to comprehend the travel discoveries possible in this flatlands area west of Sacramento. What is common to the entire county is that it is a land of agricultural abundance.