As I drive south out of Napa Valley after a weeklong housesit, I stop at Prager Winery and Portworks in quaint St. Helena on the recommendation of a friend.
The tasting room is in a brown-planked barn with a bell beside the door. The sign asks visitors to ring the bell for assistance. I ring the bell. As I wait for someone to come open the door, I appreciate the garden courtyard – particularly the scents of rose and lavender – and note subtle differences between this small, family-operated winery and the larger ones:
First off, it’s not along the main drag with huge gateway signage at the entrance of a tree-lined avenue. Instead, it’s a residential property with house and barn tucked back off a side road.
Secondly, as one of the three brother owners greets me at the door, it’s got that down-to-earth homegrown feel to it. He personably spends the next hour and a half giving me the history of the place, learning about me and mine. I imagined he’d heard it all over the years pouring port. Mine could have been no different.
Kick-started by his father, Jim, back in 1979 during what he described as a severe attack of midlife crisis, Prager's is now run by his sons and daughters Peter, Jeff, John, Mary and Katie, as well as his son-in-law Richard.
While tasting a highly consistent selection of wines and ports from this estate vintner, including not-so-common white port – which if you drank it blindfolded you’d never know it wasn’t red – I listened to John explain the money stapled to the plywood walls and ceilings.
He indicated that one of the first customers said he was going to start a fad. Taking a dollar bill from his wallet, he wrote his name and the date on it and pinned it to the wall of the barn. (He’s since been back to see that his idea did in fact take root and left subsequently larger bills on top of his original bill.)
Notables such as the godfather of cinema, Francis Ford Coppola, and former Major League power pitcher Vita Blue have left money. Most have been signed with a black marker. Excluding foreign bills, John estimates that almost $90,000 has been left on their walls in the last thirty years.
I take out my own dollar. John hands me a red permanent marker and with it I scratch the words “Solo Traveler” on my worn bill.
He promptly attached my dollar just above the window near the door. With my box tucked under my arm, I wave my goodbyes, knowing that I’m now part of an elite club – a club of believers in fate, in destiny, in fads. In making and in creating.
And yes, I joined their wine club as well. Their line of port is THAT good.