Tucked away in the far eastern corner of Sonoma County is the lesser-known Knights Valley appellation. Established as an American Viticultural Appellation (AVA) in 1982, today, the area has been fortunate to retain its rural look, with a sparsity of residences and wineries. While the valley and hills are dotted with vineyards, the overall quiet solitude of the region remains intact, offering a welcome, calming sense of place.

Knights Valley is overshadowed by the more recognizable AVAs—Alexander Valley to the northwest and Napa Valley to the southeast. Mount Saint Helena, seen from much of Sonoma and Napa Counties, is the towering landmark of Knights Valley.

The beautiful valley and imposing mountain have always attracted settlers: the Onasatis (Wappo) tribe arrived at least four thousand years ago, followed by the Spanish. Peter Michael Winery owes its favored position here—rooted in prized rhyolitic soil and enjoying one of the best wine-growing climates on earth—not only
to geographic and geologic forces but also to the people who came before.

Despite its relative youth and volcanic rock, Mount Saint Helena is not a volcano. Geologists believe that a widespread system of fissures and vents laid down heavy layers of volcanic materials, and later, faulting raised the mountain. Along with silica-rich rhyolitic soil coveted by winegrowers, the volcanic vents distilled and deposited valuable elements that attracted miners and created hot springs that warmed the imaginations of entrepreneurs.

An early photo of Les Pavots Vineyard shows what was once cattle pastures, now planted to vines, leaving the native trees and shrubs untouched.

The beautiful valley and imposing mountain have always attracted settlers.

The area was farmed for at least four thousand years by the Mutistul, one of three subgroups of the Onasatis, the longest continuously inhabiting Native American tribe in California. Mount Saint Helena was known to this tribe as Kana’mota, or Human Mountain. For the Onasatis, farming revolved around respectful management of natural resources.

Two intersecting trails were known to have been used by the Onasatis. One trail descended the Ida Clayton Ridge, ending at the Pacific coast, where the Onasatis gathered salt, seaweed, and seashells. The second trail traversed from the southern end of the Napa Valley to the geysers in the north. The two trails crossed near the site of Peter Michael Winery.

In 1843, a 17,742-acre land grant was given to José de los Santos Berryessa by the Mexican Governor Manuel Micheltorena. Most of Mallacomes Valley and Calistoga (then known as Agua Caliente) was within this grant. Mallacomes Valley became Berryessa’s private hunting preserve, where he built an adobe hunting lodge that stands to this day. Thomas Knight, a participant in the Bear Flag Revolt at Sonoma, bought a large portion of Rancho Mallacomes from Berryessa in 1853. Mallacomes Valley would later be renamed Knights Valley.

The Holmeses were California pioneers who turned their “Malacomes Rancho” in Knights Valley into a prosperous estate known for gala parties and dances

Descendants of the Folker family, whose winery wagon is shown above, still live in Knights Valley.

Calvin Holmes and his brother Henderson had come to California from Arkansas to make their fortunes in the ’49 gold rush. Finding almost no gold, they turned to freighting mining supplies and then driving cattle from Texas, saving enough money to buy the present-day Cloverleaf Ranch and Fountaingrove areas north of Santa Rosa. In Texas, Calvin met and married Elvira Eliza “Ella” Huffman, and she gamely accompanied him to California along with forty-three men and a herd of cattle. In 1861, Calvin Holmes began purchasing land in Knights Valley.

At that time, rumors of silver were sending hordes of hopeful prospectors to the slopes of Mount Saint Helena. The ore they brought into Napa was pronounced worthless, but in 1860, red rock being thrown away down the hill was discovered to be cinnabar. The Ida Clayton and the Yellowjacket Mines were located in Knights Valley and were among the earlier attempts to mine cinnabar and mercury. They were owned by real estate moguls Giles Kellogg and W. A. Stuart, who built a toll road to the mines and named it Ida Clayton for the local schoolteacher.

Calvin Hall Holmes

Elvira Eliza Holmes

The Ida Clayton Toll Road was extended to the more successful Great Western Mine in 1875. Andrew Rocca, the superintendent of Great Western, often drove the miners’ payroll from Calistoga the long way, via the Ida Clayton Toll Road. This was a not-always-successful attempt to avoid Buck English and other less infamous robbers lurking along the more direct Lawley Toll Road. Silver was later discovered in the 1870s on the southeastern side of Mount Saint Helena, but mining petered out at the turn of the century. In 1916 the Ida Clayton Toll Road became public, but with no mining traffic, it was used infrequently.

In the 1870s mining was still considered to have a bright future in Knights Valley, which gave rise to land speculation. In an attempt to recoup losses from the seldom-used toll road, Giles Kellogg, W. A. Stuart, and Charles Laird began building a small resort town modeled after Calistoga. The town, which was called Kellogg, included the area from the Berryessa Adobe to the intersection of Ida Clayton Road and Highway 128. At one time, the town consisted of a general store, a school, several cottages, summer cabins, a hotel, and a winery. Avenues and lots were mapped out, and plots advertised with great hyperbole. But railroad lines were never laid to the town, and it never developed into the grand vision held by Kellogg. Meanwhile, Calvin Holmes continued to expand his purchases, buying the failed town of Kellogg and other properties, until he owned most of the northern portion of the valley.

Today, the land and the vines are still cultivated by hand.

In the 1870s and ’80s, Holmes’s ranch included hundreds of acres in wheat and large flocks of Merino sheep. Holmes also planted vineyards and was an early supplier to vintner Charles Krug of Saint Helena. Even a voracious plague of grasshoppers in 1885 proved just a temporary setback. Holmes and his wife, Elvira, built a large Second Empire–style house in 1878 that still stands today. The original Sugarloaf Ranch house was built by the Holmes in 1887 for their son, William, and his new bride, Jennie Shattuck. For half a century, until 1939, several generations of the Holmes family prospered here.

By 1912, the leading crop in Knights Valley was grapes. Three wineries—Hood, Folker, and Delafield—had been established in the late 1800s, and Delafield’s accomplishments included three gold medals. Unfortunately, Prohibition and then grapevine diseases ended Delafield’s grape-growing endeavors. In 1939, the ranch was sold and over the next forty years it passed through several hands before Sir Peter and Lady Michael purchased it in 1982. By then, very little remained of Kellogg. A large fire in 1964 burned most of the town, and another fire in ’68 destroyed the Post Office and general store, leaving only a winery, the Adobe, and the two houses built by Calvin and Elvira Holmes.

Knights Valley has not changed dramatically since the turn of the century. Wildlife is still prevalent. Vineyards grow on the valley floor and lower foothills are interspersed with cattle ranches and fruit orchards. There are no mines, no towns, and no shopping centers. The rugged upper mountain slopes remain beautiful and pristine, offering those who come to experience this special place a true sense of history.