Craggy Glen Ellen epitomizes the difference between the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Whereas small Napa towns like St. Helena get their charm from upscale boutiques and restaurants lined up along well-groomed sidewalks, Glen Ellen's crooked streets are shaded with stands of old oak trees and occasionally bisected by the Sonoma and Calabasas creeks. Tucked among the trees of a narrow canyon, where Sonoma Mountain and the Mayacamas pinch in the valley floor, Glen Ellen looks more like a town of the Sierra foothills gold country than a Wine Country village.
Wine has been part of Glen Ellen since the 1840s, when a French immigrant, Joshua Chauvet, planted grapes and later built a winery and the valley's first distillery. Machinery at the winery was powered by steam, and boilers were fueled with wood from local oaks. Other valley farmers followed Chauvet's example, and grape growing took off, although Prohibition took its toll on most of these operations. Today dozens of wineries in the area beg to be visited, but sometimes it's hard not to succumb to Glen Ellen's slow pace and simply lounge poolside at your lodging or linger over a leisurely picnic. The renowned cook and food writer M.F.K. Fisher, who lived and worked in Glen Ellen for 22 years until her death in 1992, would surely have approved. Hunter S. Thompson, who lived here for a spell before he became famous might not: he found the place too sedate. Glen Ellen's most famous resident, however, was Jack London, who epitomized the town's rugged spirit.