Dr. Wendell Dinwiddie Peaches
The Doctor Is In… The visual journey a peach tree displays every year is as satisfying for me as the fruit they bear. From the colorful yellow and gold leaves deposited on the ground in the fall, to the reddish bare canes standing at attention through the winter, to the spectacular blossoming in the spring time, to the endless waiting for the first peaches to ripen on the Fourth of July, there is always a progression of the seasons on display in a peach orchard. The sights and smells of walking amongst the peach trees and catching a glimpse of the ripening fruit through the canopy and the filtered summer sunlight scattered everywhere makes for quite a romantic setting.
At the North West corner of the Silverado Trail and Deer Park Road, just north of St. Helena, there sits a humble peach orchard with a painted sign facing towards the flashing traffic light intersection that simply offers “Farm Produce Peaches” then below that “Thursday” is hung. As a St. Helena local, when the sign is posted you make a mental note to have cash in your pocket for Thursday, and allow fifteen extra minutes to get to work, so you may pull into the gravel lot and acquire the current gems ripening out of the Dinwiddie peach orchard.
“I get to be part of the community,” the Dr. reminisces, “We have been selling peaches for nearly twenty years now. Even when people move away, they come back every year to their favorite peach orchard.” We stood there talking as cars full of enthusiasts kept showing up in droves to grab their flats of peaches, and even those who do not stop honk and wave to the doctor on their way by. The stand often runs out of the days harvest by the early afternoon, so there is a glee in the eyes of each arrival when they discover there are still peaches to be had.
Dr. Wendell Dinwiddie moved to St. Helena around 1970 and was working at the St. Helena Hospital, located at the base of Howell Mountain East of town, for thirty years as the orthopedic surgeon. Deer Park road was cut through from Highway 29 to the Silverado Trail in 1969, cutting a prime piece of top soil into two parcels, but creating a more direct route to the hospital. The Napa river and its five year floods have deposited a vein of rich top soil and sand against the embankment of the Silverado Trail making it a fertile and flood prone site for a peach orchard. Over the years the occasional flooding in the valley has picked up his fruit stand and carried it down the trail and into the trees. “Most years the stand gets caught in the barbed wire fence, so we do not have to chase it very far.” With all of these stories of the trials and tribulations that all farmers can relate to, Dr. Dinwiddie tells them with a wry smile. It is almost as if this man who spent his life mending broken bones and hips realizes that no matter what Mother Nature throws at his orchard, all is usually repairable, and to some degree the adversity is an expected part of life.
Every day the Dr. would descend Deer Park Road to the valley below, and eye the parcel at the bottom of the hill. He purchased it in the 1980’s and began planting crops he thought would thrive. He planted corn, tomatoes, apricots and cherries. “The cherries,” he smiles, “The cherry trees did not perform especially well, but the birds sure seemed to enjoy them every year.” “But the few peach trees we planted seemed to do fine.” So in 1987 he planted the two acres over to eight different peach varieties. Is it a coincidence that the St. Helena Hospital, long established as a promoter of healthy lifestyle choices as an integral part of healing, would inspire the Doctor into planting the sacred symbol of longevity in the Chinese culture, the peach tree. It has been celebrated by the Chinese, since ten thousand B.C., but it was the Spanish explorers that brought it to America in the 16th century. Today the peach represents the second largest fruit crop in America, just behind the apple.
About every two weeks another variety of peach ripens giving us a beautiful and bountiful harvest lasting from July 4th through to Labor Day on Sept 7th. The Flavor Crest peach is the first to arrive and still my favorite. It is unbelievably dense and rich, and the color is the warmest golden hue kissed by a bit of sunburn shoulders. That is followed by the Babcock white peach, then the Suncrest, Elegant Lady, and the Zee Lady. Faye Elberta and O’Henry survive the hottest months, and then the days start to get shorter, and summer begins to ebb, and the Trazee peach ripens to close out the season in September.
For years I was not a peach fan because the offerings at most grocers are picked unripe so they transport over long distances better. The flavor was not very good, and they were always too firm. Then I discovered the Doctor’s peach stand, and a forgotten world of flavor was brought back into my life. The difference in a peach plucked at the perfect ripeness, and a stone picked for transport is night and day. We all require motivation for certain good habits in our lives, but the peach is one of the strongest candidates for teaching people that good food is at hand, you just have to support your small local farmers and they will reward you with local, fresh, delicious efforts.
By: Khristopher Lund
Khristopher is a freelance writer, sommelier, mover & cocktail shaker living in the Napa Valley. For more on Kris check out his blog.