I just returned from the most wonderful little weekend in Calistoga -- despite the October 2017 wildfires, I saw zero scorched earth. Instead, I saw.... mustard flowers!
The mustard fields, each January through the end of March, are truly amazing. Which is why the Napa Valley used to have an annual Mustard Festival to attract visitors to the area during this magical season.
Where did the flowers come from?
Folklore says Franciscan missionaries dropped mustard seeds as they walked through the countryside looking for sites to establish missions. So, yes, it's an invasive species... but they actually serve a really cool and important purpose in Napa.
Because, while there is some wild mustard, most of what you see was intentionally planted in the vineyards as a cover crop. Conveniently, mustard is perennial -- it grows back every year without a need to replant.
It sprouts after the first heavy rains in December, and about a month later they bloom. At the end of March, when the pruning of the vines is completed, the mustard plant is plowed under.
But the mustard isn't just pretty. It serves as a "biofumigator" by suppressing various soil-borne pests and diseases through naturally-occurring compounds. In other words, they help make vineyards eco-friendly and sustainable!
And. They provide an excellent background for your photos.
I'm not the only one who thinks so -- the Historic Missouri Hopper Vineyard was, well, hoppin'.
Welcome to Selfie City!
This location, the Missouri Hopper Vineyard, is on the west side of Highway 29 on the southern boundary of the Oakville appellation. It's a convenient stop due to the large turnouts on either side of Highway 29 and the lack of ditches or fences keeping photo-seekers out.
It's also one of Napa Valley’s oldest vineyards.
The first vines were planted here in 1873 by “Napa Charlie” Hopper, who had purchased 640 acres from George Yount, the founder of Yountville. Charles Hopper had come to California in 1841, leading a wagon train of 33 emigrants from Missouri.
In 1877, Charlie gifted 100 acres of the land to his daughter Missouri Hopper. Missouri managed to operate a thriving grape-growing business while raising four children and running the Palace Hotel in St. Helena -- which, WINK, is rumored to have offered more than just room and board.
For best results, shoot a little later in the day. The middle of the day is bright, meaning harsh contrast between light and shadows. This is unflattering for photo subjects, and just makes for worse photos overall.
However, you might want to go a little earlier than your typical "golden hour" -- remember, you're in a valley, so those beautiful golds and pinks will just be shadows at sunset.
A couple of sunset photos after our visit to Sterling. It got dark fast!
However, mid-day shooting is possible. My photos are edited slightly for highlights and shadows, but the bright, direct light really made the yellows dramatic, which was an advantage of shooting when we did. We addressed the contrast issue with the help of a strobe.
Lots of people don't know this, but you don't just use the flash in low light. You can use it to even out (or fill in) shadows on faces during the brightest part of the day. If the built-in flash doesn't cut it, you can invest in an external strobe -- the one we used for these was a Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT Flash, $249.00.
If that's a little out of your price range, the Powerextra Speedlight has great reviews, and is only $66.99.
Getting the flash just right is tricky -- you don't want to overdo it, or your photos might look a little funny. Even so, it's definitely better than the alternative, which is just having harsh shadows all over your face.
Strobes are also great for sunset photos, so that subjects aren't just dark silhouettes.
If you're not interested in photography, don't worry about photos. You don't have to take a single shot to enjoy a kiss, a quiet moment, a picnic... or something else in the mustard fields.
So take a break from eating, drinking, and spending money and get in on this annual Napa Valley magic.
About the Author
Eva is a content specialist with a passion for play, travel... and a little bit of girl power. Read more >
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