A Passion for Vintage Cars in the California Mille
Speeding along the scenic backroads of the California wine country in a beautiful 1957 Jaguar MkVIIM sedan was a thrilling experience. The California Mille, a vintage car rally covering 1,000 miles in four days, just celebrated its 22nd year. I was fortunate enough to ride along the final day of the event in the comfort of a luxurious vintage Jaguar.
This year, 67 classic cars were part of the event. They included a good representation from Alfa Romeo, Bristol, Ferrari, Jaguar, Lancia, Mercedes Benz, and Porsche, along with Lagonda, Austin Healey, Bentley, Buick, BMW, Chevrolet (Corvette), and Volvo. Drivers traveled from Australia and Switzerland and from across the United States, with a majority from California.
The race is modeled after Italy’s Mille Miglia taking place in Brescia. Martin Swig was responsible for bringing the Mille to California. To be eligible, cars must be at least 50 years old and have been able to enter the original Italian race.
Settling into the comfortable leather and elegant interior of the 1957 Jaguar was a pleasure. The sedan was spacious and luxurious, with beautiful wood and gleaming silver hardware. The powerful engine allowed us to keep up with some of the faster cars along the winding roads. Speaking of the engine, it was a winner of both Le Mans and the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. Owner Terry O’Reilly and co-driver Rene Wiegand took turns driving the narrow back-country roads. The car had spent most of its life in Australia, until Terry purchased it and initiated it into the world of the California Mille.
The route changes every year to keep things interesting. This year they embarked from San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, drove to the Central Valley, Tahoe, Sonoma and Napa Valley, and Bodega Bay, before ending the rally in Calistoga. Many of the participants come back year after year. The thrill of driving a classic automobile on the roads they were designed for and the camaraderie with the other drivers makes this a fun experience. Seeing the array of classic automobiles assembled in one place is a show-stopper.
The day before the event begins, cars are assembled in front of San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel for a free car show. Car enthusiasts are thrilled to be able to view some rare cars and pretend for a moment that they might one day be an owner. Watching the cars arrive, as they drive up Nob Hill under a festive balloon arch and onto a red carpet is a highlight for many.
Cars drive out at 8 am every day along the chosen route. Seeing the parade of brightly colored cars stretched out along the road is a sight to behold. And it’s even more fun to be in one of the cars. There are designated coffee-break locations and a group lunch each day. Every evening they gather for a group dinner, to celebrate and review the day’s highlights and the next day’s route. This is a collegial group who know how to enjoy life.
With so many vintage cars, there are mishaps, most of which can be fixed with a spare part or by the expert mechanics that trail the group. If the car can be fixed in 30 minutes or less, it is allowed to continue in the rally. If not, a flat-bed truck will tow the car. Drivers check to ensure that a vehicle pulled to the side of the road doesn’t require assistance before moving on. This year’s Mille marked another success – I can’t wait for next year!
Stay: Calistoga has marvelous accommodations at all price ranges. I stayed at Hotel d’Amici, owned by Rutherford Grove Winery. This charming modern bed and breakfast is more like a luxurious hotel with their spacious four suites. Some rooms have fireplaces, while others have a balcony. Beds are comfortable with soft linens and bedding. Bathrooms are spacious, some with antique claw-foot bathtubs and others with roomy modern tubs big enough for two. Breakfast is brought to the room each morning and a complementary bottle of Rutherford Grove wine is waiting in the room.
Dine: JoLe offers a farm-to-table menu of small plates. Diners can select from a tasting menu paired with wine or a carefully crafted menu of seasonal items. The wine list includes old and new world favorites and a selection of local wine. We began the meal with a glass of Schramsberg champagne served with salmon carpaccio. It was difficult to decide what to choose from the menu, but in the end we settled on rock shrimp ceviche, bacon-wrapped veal sweetbreads, and Alaskan halibut served with gnocchi. For dessert, we couldn’t resist the coconut cream pie.
Wine: Rutherford Grove Winery offers a complementary tasting to guests of Hotel d’Amici, so a visit was in order. The lovely grounds offer ample picnic space at tables in shade or sun, surrounded by vineyards. This family-owned winery makes a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc, luscious Quackenbush Zinfandel, as well as an Estate Merlot, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petite Sirah. Purchase a bottle to enjoy on their grounds while enjoying the view.