Hoffman Farms, a hidden gem in the crown of Northern California's most famous wine grape growing region, is about sixty miles from the Bay Area. John and Margaret Hoffman have owned the twenty-three acre orchard located on Silverado Trail since 1949. U-Pick for over twenty-five years, the land is a study in small farming that has all but disappeared in a region once known for eating as well as luxury fruit.
I met John Hoffman in 1998 when I was working for Thomas Keller at Bouchon. Attracted to the intriguing walnut trees first from a photographer's perspective, I came to eat and use a sampling of what his farm has to offer. Originally a pear orchard, the Hoffmans began planting French Prune and Sugar Plums to sell to Sunsweet, then based in Napa.
Needing to take a job away from the farm for a number of years, John and Margaret happily returned to Napa in the mid 60's and, after consulting with George Slinson, a fellow farmer and neighbor, started learning about and planting the Hartley varietal of English Walnut trees. Having started, grown and grafted each tree by hand, the walnut trees are a study in graphic individuality.
Walking through them, whatever season you choose to visit, is an enchanting experience. Some trees stand mightily, or are caught mid-dance, some grafts sit low, others grow sideways with abandon, mimicking a grand Banyan tree and tempting you to climb or sit, hiding under the lush layered canopy.
Not feeling agile enough to pick your own fruit and nuts? Hoffman Farms offers what's ripe, at the peak of its season in a little open garage outfitted with a hanging scale and paper bags. What you might find on any given day: whole walnuts, peaches, three different varieties of persimmons, Sugar, Mariposa or French Prune plums, Pineapple guavas, Bartlett or cooking pears, quince, and five or six kinds of apples. Not to mention the wild blackberries growing on the banks of the Napa River in summer.
Or maybe you're fascinated with Bonsai? John Hoffman, Bonsai tree enthusiast and arborist, has a fantastic collection of the elegant little trees he's trained. Not for sale, John said he sits among the trees for relaxation. If you love trees as much as he and I do, you may want to ask him about the book he wrote called Trees of Napa. According to Margaret, "he loves talking about himself!"
I love visiting Hoffman Farms and having time enough on my hands for a visit with John. If I make it in at the right time Margaret might be baking a walnut inspired baked good and putting on water for tea. Speaking with them about the fruits and trees has been a priceless education for me and those I have brought to this hidden place.
Sadly, there's a chance when the Hoffmans die, their farm will too. Hoffman Farms has been land marked by The Landmark Society of Napa, but in absentia it may only mean that the land may be not be used for non-agricultural use. In Napa language it means trees are torn out to make room for more grapes.
When ever you plan to visit, or for what ever reason, I hope this introduction leads you to a farm you will cherish as much as I do.
2125 Silverado Trail, Napa 94558
Telephone: (707) 226-8938
Hours: Aug-Dec 7; Daily 9-5