Even if you have lived here most or all of your life, you really haven’t experienced the beauty of the Napa Valley until you’ve seen it drifting 2,000 feet above as the sun peeks over Mt. George.
It’s the kind of experience that brought Chelsea Clinton, her future husband and the secret service entourage here after her father left office. Matt Lauer, Today Show host, once did a broadcast from a balloon in the valley. Many have proposed to their future husbands or wives from a balloon here.
The thrill of ballooning here encouraged local boy and self-described thrill seeker, Bob Barbarick, to get into ballooning 40 years ago. “A group of us saw an ad for hot air ballooning in New York and decided we wanted to try that here,” Barbarick, owner of Balloons Above the Valley, recalled. “At that time there were no balloons in California.”
“We bought a balloon, got a pilot from the South Bay to train us, and called our group the Yountville Aerostat Society,” Barbarick said. “We just did it for fun; at that time the Napa Valley wasn’t known for wine, food or anything else. We noticed whenever we flew, people below were pulling off the road to watch us. Pretty soon people were asking us for rides, which we charged $5 for.”
“I was the owner of AAMCO in Napa and working full time for Safeway in St. Helena at the time. When it occurred to me I could perhaps make a business out of this, I asked my father for his help and advice,” he said. “He said something along the lines of ‘If you build it, they will come,’ like Field of Dreams, and that was the beginning.”
According to Marsha Treacy, Balloons Above the Valley’s new general manager, “We’ve become one of the biggest hot air balloon companies in the country, taking about 14,000 people up right here in the Napa Valley. We have nine balloons, we operate up to five of those consistently.” In addition to her GM duties, Treacy is an accomplished pilot herself and has flown balloons all over the country.
Many passengers come back more than once. Bonnie Caswell, from DeKalb, IL, was recently aboard a Balloons Above the Valley flight 12 years after her first experience. “Originally it was on my bucket list,” she admitted, “so I went with my daughters and we had a great time. The excellent treatment we received brought us back for more. They really know what they’re doing and I love their banter in the air.”
“This time the flying conditions were fantastic,” said Caswell, “we went faster and further than before.”
Of course, as you may have noticed if you were up at sunrise recently, there can be close to 20 balloons in the skies over Napa Valley these days with several local companies offering rides.
Gabriel Gundling, president and owner of Napa Valley Balloons, said his companies fly more balloons than anyone in the country. Gundling owns Napa Valley Balloons as well as companies in Sonoma, Calistoga and Lake Tahoe. His infatuation with balloons began when he was a small boy growing up on five acres north of Napa.
“As a kid, my sister and I would watch these balloons fly over and it was pretty cool,” Gundling recalled. “One day we got this butcher paper and we decided we were going to do a big sign that said ‘balloons land here.’ The very first day we put out the sign, it actually worked. Apparently the pilot and everyone on the balloon wanted to land there for the cute little kids.”
“That kind of got everything going for me,” he said. “Eventually I got to know all the pilots and the balloons. Napa Valley Balloons would take us up on rides, and later on as an adult, Don Surplus, one of the owners at the time jokingly told me I should go off to business school and come back and run the company. I never forgot that.”
He started an apprenticeship with Napa Valley Balloons in 2004, and became a partner in 2008. He bought out the remaining partner in 2012 and has been running it ever since. “Our balloons now carry a distinctive tulip pattern so you can tell which are ours,” he said.
A young couple from Raleigh, NC, Ashley and Patrick Shulman, were on their first-ever balloon ride recently. “I wanted to do something special on the day of our 5th anniversary, something you can’t just do anywhere,” said Mrs. Shulman. “I did some research and we settled on Napa Valley Balloons because they had a brunch at a winery afterwards.”
Her husband said they had a great time: “It exceeded our expectations. The views, where else can you get them like this?” he said. “I’d do it again, for sure.”
His wife agreed wholeheartedly: “Instead of dreaming or wanting to do things like this, you should go do them.”
Balloon companies here in the Napa Valley say that most of their business comes from the Bay Area, with the balance representing local residents, people from out of state and international tour groups. Most fly similar sized balloons, up to 24 passengers, and most charge in the $200-250 range for a 45-60 minute flight, which can include a champagne brunch.
Napa Valley Drifters, owned by Napan Terry Bulman, does it a little differently. In his 20th year, Bulman’s company flies three-, six- and eight-passenger balloons only. “They’re lighter, easier to manage, and a more intimate and exclusive experience” Bulman said. “I’m not into volume; we’re more like a private flight. Two people can have a private flight for $1,000 for instance.
“We have couples who get engaged on our balloon flights, our ground crew holds up a big sign that says ‘will you marry me?’ and the pilot will drift the balloon over the sign. We’ve never had anyone say ‘no.’”
Bulman literally started ballooning from the ground up, beginning with a ground crew. In 1997, he bought Napa Valley Drifters.
“There is no better way to see the Napa Valley than in a hot air balloon,” Bulman confirmed.
Napa Valley Aloft, founded in 1978 and now owned by the Kimball family, is one of the older companies in the Valley. Father Jay Kimball and son Jayson are both pilots.
“We have smaller baskets, up to 12 people, so you’re never crowded or stuck in the middle and you always have a view on the edge of the basket,” said reservations manager, Cammi Tercovich. “We operate five balloons, and often they are up at the same time. We travel wherever the wind takes us.”
As any pilot will tell you, you can only take balloons up or down. Direction can be controlled somewhat by changing altitudes to catch a stronger breeze. It’s not unusual for a balloon to land near the spot it took off, although typically they travel from the Yountville area to various landing spots in Napa.
“I love that it’s so peaceful,” said Tercovich, “being from Napa myself, it’s fun to look down and see places you recognize, but you also see a lot of things from the air that you could never see from the ground. And even with a lot of balloons in the air, it’s never crowded,” she concluded.
Many riders commented about the friendliness, local knowledge and banter of the pilots. As Terry Bulman joked, “we’re all full of hot air.”
It’s clear that hot air ballooning is now a quintessential part of what the Napa Valley has to offer to locals and the world. And as beautiful as they look from the ground, the view from above is equally as stunning. In fact, as someone who recently had a balloon ride for the first time, I can say there’s nothing like seeing the Valley from 2,000 feet at sunrise.
So next time a special occasion rolls around, or you have friends in from out of town, include ballooning on the list of amazing things to do here along with wine tasting, mud baths and dining out. It’s a high unlike any other.