For as far back as I can remember, late September in our Valley of the Moon was marked by warm days, cool evenings, the sweet fragrance of grapes being crushed at Sebastiani Winery and the brilliant reds and orange hues of the vineyards.
It is also Vintage Festival time. In my childhood, it was the biggest Valley event of every year, more celebrated even than the Fourth of July.
The festival, which dates back to 1897, when it was held at the farms of the Gundlachs, Bundschus and Dresels west of town in Vineburg, was dormant for many decades, including during WW I, the Great Depression and WW II.
In the 1940s it was revived by local civic and business leaders, including my grand aunt Celeste Murphy, who was editor and publisher of the Sonoma Index-Tribune at the time.
Aunt Celie was a militant advocate for the preservation and celebration of Sonoma’s history. As a young woman and leader of the Sonoma Woman’s Club, she led the fight to save the Sonoma Mission. She bought and restored the barracks, in which she and her husband, Walter, lived until they both died in 1962.
She also wrote and directed historical pageants that were performed every Vintage Festival during the 1940s, ‘50s and even ‘60s. I ran across several of her scripts recently, along with her collection of old mission photos, some of which reflected how badly the structure had been allowed to deteriorate before she and many other local allies convinced the state to restore it.
The founding of the mission was her most popular theme. Vintage Festival “actors” were usually well-known local residents including members of the prominent wine families, local merchants and Sonoma City Council.
She always chose a narrator to set the scenes and describe the historical context for each part of the pageant. Here is a sample of Episode I from one of those plays:
“Most zealous of all the padres at San Francisco Mission was Padre Joseph Altimira from Spain. He looked beyond the sentinel mountain Tamalpais and yearned to carry the word of God and salvation to all… in the north.
“His prayer seemed answered when Gov. Arguello at Monterey abjured that the Mission the northern frontier might be just the deterrent needed to half the Russian aggressors who had founded a colony on Sonoma County’s coast in 1812.”
Aunt Celie’s narrator carried on for many paragraphs so that the pageant audience got a California history lesson along with the show.
Her script reminds us that Sonoma began as a religious and defensive outpost of Mexico in response to threats of intrusion by Russia.
While Sonoma and California have changed dramatically since then, we still seem to be dealing with a Russia issue after more than 200 years.
Aunt Celie’s pageants are no longer performed, but I’m happy that the Vintage Festival is carried on every September by a small, dedicated group of local citizens.
It remains a sweet anachronism and reminder of our roots.