View a selection of our past stories


                                         © By Janet and Stuart Wilson                                                     

     "The other half of this building is moving north while this half's just sitting still,"says Ralph Hurd, assistant wine-maker at DeRose Vineyards.  We are in San Benito County's Cienega Valley, sniffing bouquet of Negrette,a rare inky-dark red varietal said to be planted on only 180 acres in the world. But the fissure running down the center of the building's cracking crumbling concrete floor proves more memorable than the Negrette.  "According to those geologic instruments over there, (the building's) moved one and a quarter centimeters in the past 12 months," Hurt explains.


      Mission Church and Plaza Hotel in San Juan Bautista State Historic Park

     Less than a dozen miles northwest along the San Andreas Fault, the village of San Juan Bautista, like the warehouse's western half, drifts imperceptibly northward on the very edge of the Pacific Plate.  Here, not just the fault creeps slowly: Time too seems to move at a leisurely pace.
        Over a recent weekend in San Juan we awoke to a rooster crowing at dawn, trod the original El Camino Real, and got buzzed by iridescent hummingbirds while wandering through the mission's gardens.  From the top of nearby Fremont Peak, we took-in vistas sweeping to Monterey Bay and beyond.  We observed an ancient religious ritual in the 1812 mission church. And, poking around Third Street, the main commercial street where antique shops, art galleries and restaurants occupy intact 19th century storefronts, we watched cars stop for chickens crossing the road.
       Standing in the town plaza, San Juan Bautista State Historic Park guide, James Rendon, swept his arm wide and proclaimed that the surrounding buildings represent the Spanish, Mexican and American periods--the whole of 19th century California history.  They include Mission San Juan Bautista built between 1803 and 1812; the Plaza Hotel built in 1858 but incorporating as its ground floor former Spanish military barracks dating from 1813-14; the Castro-Breen Adobe constructed between 1838 and 184; the Plaza Stable built about 1861; and the 1874 Plaza Hall.
      In continuous use since 1812, the huge adobe mission church miraculously withstood the 1906 earthquake, and still serves as the local parish church.  During our visit, it also served as a theater for performances of La Pastorela by El Teatro Campesino, San Juan's renown professional theater company.  Begun in support of United Farm Workers organizing in the San Joaquin Valley, the non-profit company is still guided by its founder, Artistic Director Luis Valdez.  El Teatro stages productions at their Fourth Street playhouse throughout the year.
      "La Pastorela," a biannual holiday performance, is one of the most popular.  A folk art tradition dating from the Middle Ages in Europe and brought to Mexico in the 16th century by Franciscan missionaries, pastorelas or shepherd's plays dramatize the journey of shepherds to the Nativity.  We could have reached out and touched the tattered shepherds, shimmering angels, even the gangster-style Devil himself, performing on a cross-shaped stage in the center of the church.  Although almost entirely in Spanish, the occasional impeccably-timed English phrase, together with the highly expressive performance and English-language libretto allowed us non-Spanish speakers to follow the story.
      A self-guided tour of the mission ($2 donation), includes the church, cemetery, garden and a former convent wing, now a museum.  Another historic collection fills the Castro-Breen Adobe, part of the State Historic Park since 1933 (admission $2).  Succeeding generations of Breens, members of the Donner Party, owned and occupied the two-story, balconied adobe from 1848.


        San Andreas Fault runs through Winery  and a Cienega Valley Vineyard

      Built with the idea it would serve newly created San Benito County as a courthouse, Plaza Hall ended up as a family residence, its upper story where the court was to have sat, as a dance hall and meeting room.  Turns out Hollister was selected as the county seat.  This event signaled San Juan's deceleration to a slower pace.
      After ambling around town fruitlessly searching for an espresso, we sought alternative stimulation and headed up Fremont Peak, a steep and winding 11-mile drive ending in a parking lot below the summit.  On a blustery, showery day we climbed toward the 3,170 foot peak, soon passing a sign describing John C. Fremont as "the West's greatest adventurer.  Our little adventure, a half-mile walk to a well-trod summit, began to look dubious as we neared the top.  For the final few yards we scrambled over rocks, slippery with rain, our balance challenged by a cold, gusty wind.  The view proved worth the effort but would have been better on a clearer day.
      We then steered for two local wineries in the Cienega Valley with recently opened tasting rooms.  Pietra Santa and DeRose wineries presented a dramatic contrast.  Housed in a modern, brick-faced building with arch-top windows and doors, and a tower, said to resemble the old Spanish missions, Pietra Santa sits on a gentle rise amid the vines.  DeRose, well, we've already described the mammoth 1950's gray warehouse hard by the side of the road that we almost drove by before realizing it was the winery.
      Approaching Pietra Santa we passed the owners' residence, a beautifully restored Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house.  Up a flight of stairs, the tasting room affords vineyard views from balconies.  It's really a small shop purveying wine-related merchandise, Pietra Santa olive oil, some specialty foods, and of course wine.  We liked the 1999 Sassolino, a proprietary blend of Merlot and Sangiovese, but our favorite was the 2000 Zinfandel.
      At DeRose, the day's offering was arrayed on a folding table where we stood, sniffed and tasted, surrounded by huge stainless steel tanks and an old one of redwood, a remnant of the time when Almaden made wine here.  Along with the Negrette, we sampled several varietals and a proprietary blend called Hollywood Red.  Ralph described the winery's dedication to careful, intensive viticulture and limited production (6,000 cases total, some bottlings a mere 150 cases).  We took home more Zinfandel and some Hollywood Red.
      A glass of Hollywood Red Stu enjoyed with dinner the previous evening at the Faultline Restaurant had peaked our interest in the local wineries.  A San Juan institution, the Faultline occupies a bungalow perched on the edge of the San Andreas. Chef/Owner Edie Franc prepares a limited number of a few entrees.  The halibut in ginger, wine and lemon was perfectly cooked, moist and delicious; the chicken and prawn cacciatore had the traditional, subtle herb flavors but seemed to be missing prawns.
      Our window table overlooking the fault line gave us yet another view of this unhurried place that has so far has so far defied the onslaught of time and the San Andreas.

Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle

For more information:  San Juan Bautista Chamber of Commerce ; El Teatro Campesino Playhouse ; San Juan Bautista State Historic Park and Fremont Peak State Park