Somewhere along the line, someone started a bad rumor families can’t have fun in wine country. Granted most kids prefer apple juice to that funny tasting old grape stuff, but that’s ok, because you can taste the flavor of wine country in St. Helena without ever setting foot in a tasting room.
Family-fun in wine country without wine starts with wheat at Bale Grist Mill Historic State Park. A stone’s throw off of Highway 29 between Calistoga and St. Helena, it’s one of those places that’s easy to zip by.
During the week, the park’s gate is closed, but weekends flood life into the tallest waterwheel west of the Mississippi. Look for the milling sign and turn into the parking lot. It’s less than a 5 minute walk through the woods to the mill. Strollers will survive the trek.
The original mill was built in 1846 by Edward Turner Bale. A sordid history of sorts, Bale was a surgeon from England (though no one is quite sure he ever finished medical school) who made his way to California and married well. When he passed away in 1849 at the young age of 37, his wife, Maria Soberanes Bale inherited all the debt he left behind. To make a long story short, she took advantage of the modern technology of the day, upgraded the mill and became the wealthiest person in Napa County.
What you see today is Maria’s mill, charmingly restored. Everything in the mill, except the light bulbs, is powered by the 36-foot waterwheel. Maria’s millstones, 162 years old, are still in use. Visitors can watch as corn and wheat is milled into pastry flour, rye, spelt, cornmeal and polenta. It takes less than 5 minutes to mill 50 pounds of polenta. In its heyday, the mill could churn out a ton of flour in about an hour.
Bags of the freshly milled grains are sold in the mill’s store. Don’t be alarmed by the sticker on the back that reads, “Not for Human Consumption.” 1800’s mills don’t exactly adhere to modern day food safety codes. The stickers are a compromise of sorts between the health department and mill. At $5 for a 2 pound bag, the bargain souvenir is what keeps the mill’s wheel rolling and doors open. Hit the ATM before you come, it’s cash and checks only. All proceeds go to operating and maintaining the park.
The mill grounds are a great place to have a picnic. You can grab everything you’ll need in the morning on St. Helena’s Main Street. The dessert case will catch your eye the second you walk in Sunshine Foods, and the authentic deli smell of Giugni’s Deli will make hard not to eat your sandwich instantly. Kids probably won’t make it past the rainbow of candy displayed just inside the door. For a picnic feel without the work, grab a table in the shade at Gott’s Roadside(same as the Ferry Building eatery). The milkshakes make everyone smile and there’s plenty of room for the kids to move around.
Decided you don’t want to go home? You can’t beat the price and location of the El Bonita Motel. Amenities include a pool, Jacuzzi and rooms with microwaves and refrigerators.