The A-List Archives:  May-Jun 2011

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Where to begin...lots happening this Fourth of July Weekend, so I stopped by the Napa Tourist Info center and asked Candace if she had any suggestions. So she says, Well, I just so happen to have that list because I just put it together.

A very good list, too, I might add.

Napa Valley Art & Music Festival, Trinchero Family Estate, food and wine too, 1-3 Jul, info: 707-963-2209.

Napa County Fair & Fireworks, Calistoga Fairgrounds, 1-4 Jul, info: 707-942-5111

Silverado Vineyards Magnum Weekend, 2-4 Jul, info: 707-257-1770

Grgich Hills Wine Festival, 2 Jul, info: 707-963-2784

Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Perfect Circle Pinot Noir Launch and Food Pairing, 2-3 Jul, 707-869-2030

Wineries of Napa Valley Beer & Wine Tasting, 2-4 Jul, info: 707-253-9450

Back Room Wines 9th Annual Hot Dog & Wine Event, 2 Jul, info: 707-226-1378

Robert Mondavi Summer Music Festival, Gavin Degraw, 2 Jul, info: 888-769-5299

V. Sattui Winery Independence Day Celebration BBQ, 4 Jul, info: 707-963-7774

Napa Veterans Park Celebration, 4 Jul, info: 707-257-9529

Yountville Independence Day Celebration & Fireworks, 4 Jul, info: 707-944-4600

Napa Valley Wine Train Dinner & Fireworks Show, 3-4 Jul, info 800-427-4124

Silverado Country Club Fireworks Display, 2 Jul

City of Napa Parade, Downtown, 3 Jul

Napa Valley Opera House, Robert Wuhl in "Assume the Position," 1-3 Jul, info 707-226-7372

While we're on the topic of great events, I have to say something about the Festival Del Sole, coming to Valley venues between 15-24 July. I attended many of the festival's events back in '07, and it was the best musical week or so of my life.

The locations were spectacular; Darioush Winery, the Castello di Amorosa, Bouchaine; and Lincoln Theater has remarkable acoustics. Had the balcony to myself most of the time, sat in the far back center, no audience visible, could've been a private performance.

I'll never forget the first violin. The orchestra was Russian, perhaps from Leningrad, and I'm sure they played Tchaikovsky at some point, as well as many other things in the several performances.

The quintessence of Russian beauty, Svetlana wore a black sheath of a cocktail dress, her golden locks gleaming against the ebony; and the sound she brought forth from that violin...absolutely transcendent, the vision, the sound. Watched her through opera glasses, damn near hyperventilated at what I beheld, this angel of light and dark and the strains of heaven. First violin, indeed.


Hearing James Galway play the flute at the Castello was a deja vu treat. First heard him at the Hollywood Bowl in 1978, when his star began to rise; a daring production that included distant flutes not on stage, one of them Galway's. Such a pleasure to see him again at the height of his fame. Then Daryl--I mean Dario--gave a speech; seems it was his deceased mother's birthday or somesuch. I knew her back in the old days when Daryl started, a woman deaf, with a speech impediment.

She never let it get in her way around the winery when she came up to help, and Daryl told about how she helped him with his paper route as a boy. One of the few times, I believe, anyone ever saw Sattui shed a tear. He wasn't alone that night.

Never been to such a series of parties and musical events, never so consistently found myself just marvelling at how well done it all was.

The Mondavi Summer Concert Series starts this weekend, too: Gavin Degraw, 2 Jul; Colbie Callat, 9 Jul; David Foster & Friends, 16 Jul; Chris Izaak, 23 Jul; k.d. lang,. 30 Jul.

While we're at it, some of my old-time favorites are coming to the Uptown: Jefferson Starship, 9 Jul, and David Grisman, 16 Jul.

Random Notes: Just met Natalie for the first time at Vineyard Dog, on Main next to Ubuntu. Love the store even if I don't have a dog anymore; he'd love those beef tripe twists, and the decorated dog bones look good enough to eat. To me, I mean.

She couldn't wait for the street to re-open--it did a week later--so get on back there and get something nice for Fido.

And check out Betty's Boutique, while you're at it. Owner Kim was not happy with that street closure, but it did give her a chance to catch up on her designing and sewing...she never stopped moving the whole time we talked. She was in the middle of June wedding month--as if things will slack off in July--and the eager brides are waiting.

Her creations are unique, elegant, combining vintage elements with contemporary design into a fabulous fusion; anyway, they're really pretty. Love to have my own bride decked out by her, if I had one on deck.

Then you can drop in at Ubuntu Annex for a glass of wine, or get your hair cut at Bloom.

The Farmer's Market is finally filling out, lots of people and vendors, many great specialty products and artisan that a real term? Anyway, met Juston Enos from Full Table Farm up in Yountville; he may have a stand up there, too, one of these days. Specialty vegetables and lettuces, saw some great arugala, frise, and even, maybe, mache. But I'm not sure and forgot to ask

Sunday afternoon stopped by Copperfield Books at Bel Air Plaza to meet Jay Goettings, a former local politician who wrote a fascinating book about the early days of jazz: Jelly Roll Morton playing on Mississippi River excursion boats, for instance. Looks like a good read, and they may even have some signed copies left.

Also met Raymond Lawrason, manager at the book store, responsible for many of the reading and cultural events; like Rachel Sculley playing guitar and singing there for the store's birthday. Raymond is an artist--abstracts and Tiki Primitives. Check'm out at

Later that day ended up, of course, at the Oxbow, for music out on the patio. What a Sunday treat...Rue Manouche made the music...that would be Manouche Street? Michel Saga sat on one stool singing, his two guitarists perched on their own stools to the side, his raspy voice reminding me rather of Tom Waits doing Charles Aznavour. Could have been along the Champs Elysee, and he even sang that wonderful old song. Gypsy Jazz and Musette, says Michel of the music style

And finally, pay attention to Alice's Consignment Shop, coming soon to a storefront on Randolph near First. Alice features a great selection of antiques, everything from vintage clothing to estate jewelry to furniture and knick-knacks. I even found an old blacksmith-made wagon jack there. I'll just miss stopping by the feed store on Yajome to look at the chickies, one of favorite side visits when I went to Alice's.

Heard on the Street, by Oxbow, from a flustered guy arranging a date: "I'd better look sexy? You bet you will. I mean I will..."

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

I am walking down First Street Friday night after shutting down the Oxbow Market, seeing the last customers of the night at Three Twins Ice Cream and C Casa Taco Lounge, and Kitchen Door was beginning to stack the chairs. I hadn't gone far, when I heard the distant strains of killer guitar. Any knowledgeable reader knows by now my limitations as music critic, but I know great riff when I hear it, so I was off to Veterans Park and the Friday night jam.

The plaza is packed with dancers, the amphitheater undulates in the dark, and this banty rooster of a guitarist is ditty-bopping across the stage from one side to the other, and he's wearing...he's wearing, I don't believe it, he's wearing red velvet boxer shorts low top cons, I think, and a mop of curly hair. I swear to God this guy could have been auditioning to be Mick Jagger. But no, it was a tribute band called AD/DC--figure that one out--but whatever it was called, he was good, and so was everyone else on stage.

The crowd demanded and got a few encores, then dispersed, joining the flow of diners and partiers looking for the next hotspot. They were everywhere Friday night, from DT Joe's, to Henry's across the street, down at Uva and around the corner at 1313 Main, where proprietor Al Jabaran did a little launch party to celebrate the reopening of Main Street. The place is really ready to take off now, because it's been doing well on the strength of word of mouth alone, despite a broken street. Made a new friend today--Lucia, who works at Napa Valley Adventure Tours at Oxbow. She's a vineyardist, and raved about her first visit there, and the fact that they'd opened a 2002 Caymus for drinks by the glass. Turns out she's up Soda Canyon Road, just below the ruins of the grand old Soda Springs Resort--"The Most Delightful Resort in the Western Hemisphere" claimed one old ad I saw. It was true; had a nice time talking about this great local architectural legacy.

But I was talking about a hot Downtown on a hot night, and I can't remember the last time I saw so many people out and about. Almost thought I was back at the Santa Monica Promenade, or Main Street in Venice. Carpe Diem, Celadon, Angele, Morimoto, Fish Story, Tyler Florence's Place...people everywhere, all having fun, all making the rounds. Even more down First, by the Avia Hotel; John Anthony Tasting Room, Norman Rose, Oenotri.

Eiko, though, was the star down that way, if only because everyone's been waiting for it so long , and the preview parties were so much fun. Look for a whole new scene to evolve down that way.

Another tasting room is opening at Avia, and across the street, off the court behind Oenotria, Kitchen Table is preparing to open, a gourmet cook shop by all appearances.

Speaking of Avia, the guys there tell me Kyle Orton of the Denver Broncos passed through recently, as did Seth Myer of Saturday Night Live. You also want to check out that display in the corner space presented by the Napa Preservation Society; great slice of Napa history with portraits, photos and stories of select old-timers who can tell you about the early half of the 20th Century. My personal favorite was the Regusci matriarch; had a crush on her pretty daughter back in the late '70s, who drove the coolest blue '37 Plymouth with a clipper ship hood ornament. Worked for Daryl Sattui then--I was his first winery employee--and showed up late for a kind of date because it was crush, which honored no time. Didn't matter. Linda was baking cookies, and we drank chocolate in the kitchen. Her mom--the Regusci matriarch--came through in jeans packing a slab of beef she was taking to the Yountville Saloon for steak.

Back then, the Regusci property was cattle ranch instead of a winery, and they supplied the best restaurants with their product. The Saloon was next to where Ad Hoc now sits, and featured great musicians during the week, intimate shows with cult stars; heard Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown do blues and harmonica there, and later, the Persuasions, the best pop a capella group ever. That was the night Greg Cochran ran out of champagne, so I rummaged through the refrigerator till I came up with some suspicious white, a French Sauterne.

Turned out to be a legendary '66 Chateau d 'Yquem. Didn't know what to expect, but was surprised at it's sweetness, not then considered hallmark of a good wine around here. Despite my ignorance, I recognized divine nectar when I tasted it, and I paid attention to the date and chateau. Didn't discover how special it was for aother 20 years.

Earlier that afternoon, encountered two women luxuriating in the sun and wine in front of Bounty Hunter, 30-year-old Manhattan career girls out for a big Google sales staff conference in San Francisco last week, 3,500 strong. The women handled large accounts that advertised on Google, I asked about the state of the internet beast I once knew so well and how those deals worked these days. They're the middlemen between the client's advertising agency and the ad on Google, and they lamented how often the client complained to them about a crappy ad, or its placement and delivery timing, when all they did was respond to the specifications in the contract and put the ad they were given online. They took grief for the ad agencies shortcomings. Not that it bothered them, all part of the job, and I marvelled at how little things change. Had the same problem when I was building the Internet 15 years ago, the same problem when I worked magazine publishing 30 years past.

This was the biggest Google conference yet, they said, and they're rolling out something REALLY BIG next year. They would offer no hints, weren't quite sure how revo or not...but it was a REALY BIG DEAL! Can't wait.

They were done for the week, and decided to spend two days and a night in Napa, hired a Beemer and driver for $250 and here they were, absolutely enchanted with the Valley they'd yet to see. These were tough, seasoned New Yorkers, could snap your head off in a heart beat in a deal, and there they sat in their cute summer dresses and sandals, sipping wine, with the most contented little Mona Lisa smiles you ever saw. They'd never been here before, just wallowed in this Napa Valley Lifestyle stuff after a single morning and part of an afternoon.

They were especially impressed with the food. Even compared to New York? I asked. Oh, yeah. They just don't do the fresh thing there like you do here. And if they do, it takes forever. And it's not as good.

Thinking of moving here, I asked? I am now, said one, the other nodding.

A month earlier on a like Friday afternoon at the same time, met another pair of New York girls just like them who worked for one of those ad agencies that delivers ads to people like Google on behalf of clients. Outside Bounty Hunter; they invited me to join them for a glass of wine, so I did. Then the was married to a guy who had George Costanza's job on Seinfeld: traveling secretary for the New York Yankees! He loved the job and its excitement, though she found it a little tiresome, especially when I made the immediate reference, which, apparently, she's heard about a million times. Then she told all the ways her husband kind of resembled George, and we laughed over our wine until we all had to go. They had those same little Mona Lisa smiles too when they got going about how much they enjoyed it here.

Love those tables in front of BH; just today ran into Eric again--did a nice tasting with him up at Girard Cellars in Yountville last month, with his girlfriend Shannon--she's an old buddy who worked the coffee house when we met--and her sister Rayelynne. They work at Meadowwood Resort outside St. Helena, for my old friend Paul Asmuth. Few people seem to know this around here, but Paul used to be the World Marathon Swimming Champion; Wrote swim columns for me when I edited Triathlete Magazine. I first met him when he took the crown swimming 27 or so miles from the Sea of Cortez to the Pacific Ocean around the tip of Baja back in '85. I was supposed to be covering the race, and I'd arranged to be in Paul's pilot boat. Seems the pilot might have been bribed by another competitor to lengthen Paul's race; since Paul was swimming, he was in no position to complain much. The boatman and I spent the eight hours of race yelling at each other as I demanded he straighten out the line, while he called me a meddling SOB. But Paul won and all came out well.

NASCAR's Jeff Gordon and family were at Meadowood on Saturday for a kid's birthday party, I hear, and Stuart, from Mad TV, also made a recent visit. Kyle Busch, by the way, won the race at Sears Point yesterday, and Gordon took second. Heard on the Street, by First & Main:"So I looked around the Cameo Theater, and all I saw were a bunch of old, retired white guys, and that's wine country. And we were the ones who said never trust anyone under thirty."

Saturday, 25 June 2011

So here I sit at the Napa Valley Coffeee Roasting Company on a Saturday afternoon, watching the town go by. My friend Rachel just walked in with her dad for a cup of coffee, was shortly telling her friends behind the counter about her new job at Kitchen Door, at the Oxbow. "We do multi-ethnic comfort food," she explained to friends Gabby and Danielle, and then gushed about how much fun it was to work there, great staff, place mostly packed, and she just opened her first boottle of wine for a customer last night, and got it just right.

Kitchen Door opened a week or so ago, and I was really impressed with how smoothly it all went, even during launch parties in which they sort out the problems before opening to the public. Ever since, the restaurant has been filling its tables and overflowing onto the patio.

Hey, Terry, I heard one day walking into the place, and I looked over to see Rachel, but it took a second for her to register; she was out of context. I knew her from the coffee house, so she had no business being somewhere else. I adjusted. But that's happening to me all the time; people I know from the coffee house who show up at everywhere else, unexpectedly. Christina's worked there for a few years with her mom, Gabby, and I did a doubletake when I saw her serving a friend at Ritual, the artisan coffee place at Oxbow. Chris, the guy who worked here, kept popping up at Peet's, where he also worked. But he left the Coffee Roasting Company for the Napa River Inn, where he works with Matt, who organizes the First Friday Open Mic Nights at the cafe. Nice to run into familiar places everywhere you go.

The week's higlight for me, though, was the launch party for Eiko, the new restaurant that replaced Piccolino's. I forgot to ask the owner his specific culinary niche, but it seems to me it might be called Japanese Comfort Food. Sushi, sashimi, inagi, yakitori chicken, little dumplings in exotic sauces, Eiko's take on a Japanese taco. And I never did get the details on that luscious dessert, sherbet swimming in some liquor, but it was exquisite.

Best of all, though, as usual, were the people I met. Sat down next to Asa Baird, who works the tasting room at Sullivan Vineyards. He used to own a popular restaurant in Bel Air Plaza, and he knows people and the business. One of his specialties is to advise his wine tasting customers as to the best restaurant given their preferences; Asa not only makes the reservations, he guarantees a little extra welcome. He told me some of the Eiko story, pointing out the restaurant's namesake as she greeted admirers. She had maintained a small Japanese restaurant at the factory outlets--Fujia--and the eventual proprietors of Eiko were regulars; she was doing well enough, but Nancy and Rick believed she could thrive in the right location. So they found one and went into business with her, the beginning, I hope, of a great success story.

I found the staff especially sharp; was a time not long ago when there were more high-end restaurants in Napa than polished staff to work them. Those days are gone, I think, evidenced by Alexis' answer to a trivial question about a delectable she served me. Whatever the Q or A, she had it down, from the details of the food, to the restaurant's philosophy, and she certainly knew how to sling hash efficiently, with a bright smile.

Eiko has a unique look and design, at once familiar but distinct. Divided into separate spaces, your sense of the place depends on where you sit, whether the bar/lounge, the outside patio, the island of a sushi bar in the central room, the tables lining the streetside windows. Each space elides smoothly to another, creating a sense of expansiveness and intimacy.

Like I say, there was something singular about it despite the deja vu, and then I discovered why when I sidled up to the bar and looked next to me to see the interior designer responsible. Dan Worden has designed half-a-dozen of Napa's favorite eateries, but only Farm and Norman Rose come to mind; I blame that sherbet. Minutes later ran into his partner, Emanuel Donvan, a landscape designer devoted to sustainability and medical cannabis. He may be part of Napa's first legal dispensary when authorities make up their minds. He invited me to a movie screening at the library on the 30th, called "What if Cannabis Cures Cancer?" I can tellya, exactly; bureaucrats will make getting cancer a felony in order to eliminate the cure. I don't think that would work, though it wouldn't stop the gesture.

I met Emanuel at the coffee house, as I have most of my newer local friends--I am an oldtimer here--and the diversity of interesting people passing by that corner from around the world astounds me. Emanuel, from France, for one, and not too long ago I met a well-healed Belgian couple that divides time between Brussels' suburbs and a resort home in Florida. A gruff, down-to-earth type, the husband turned out to be a beer expert hired by China to brew and build the nation's favorite brand around the world. So you're the guy I owe for all those fine evenings quaffing Tsing-Tao beer, I exclaimed. Yup, he said. That's me.

Just the other day, this incredible woman entered, looking as if she were walking into a fashion shoot for Cosmopolitan Magazine. Really. Five-six on five-inch heels, she wore a bright red dress with a short, stiff, full skirt, and she resembled nothing so much as an exquisite rose walking around on a pair of the most singular stems you can imagine. Obviously a serious beauty, emphasis on beauty, one might assume.

Oh, deceptive appearances...Hanna turned out to be an international lawyer in Warsaw, Poland, with offices here in the States. She explained in the most charming accent she was currently working on a dispute among China, Vietnam and the Philippines over who owned the Spratley Islands of the South China Sea. Turns out she was meeting her fiance here for a weekend in Napa because he had to fight a parking ticket; didn't want her in court, so she had a cup of coffee, giggling that she couldn't understand why he dropped her off at the coffee house rather than let her sit in and watch.

I suggested that he might be embarrassed having her watch him bumble around in court in front of his legal expert of a girlfriend. That hadn't occurred to her; more girlish giggles. Then he drove up, and she disappeared out the door, drawing stares and gasps from everyone who saw her, man and woman.

Heard On The Street, man to woman, by Oxbow: "Well, the bummer is, I lost this great guy for a one night stand, and it wasn't very good

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

This was Ubuntu week for me, and everywhere I went there was someone from Ubuntu. First ran into Sandy Lawrence, the owner, on Main, then Aaron London, the chef, at Safeway. So Wednesday night, I met Spencer at Bistro Sabor's trivia night; he's one of the service staff, and he raved about working there, how much fun it was, and what a great staff to work with.

Nice to hear, of course, that fine restaurants do not necessarily depend on screaming chef's or bossy managers for excellent food and service. Mellow, pleasant and efficient seem to be the hallmarks of Ubuntu from my experience, and I discovered, not surprisingly, that Sandy is the reason.

Theresa Sterling spelled it out Thursday afternoon when I stopped by the Ubuntu Annex to try some of Sandy's wine, Lion's Run. She has two acres of Cabernet Sauvignon on her Mount George property, producing just a few hundred cases a year, now available only at the restaurant or the Annex, next door.

After studying French at Davis and eventually raising a family, Theresa became an interior designer, somewhere along the way taking up yoga. Sandy, meanwhile, had acquired her property in the late '90s, and by the millenium had planted her vineyards, employing every element of responsible land stewardship. Indeed, the name Lion's Run reflects Sandy's sensitivity to her wilderness neighbors; she'd noticed that the resident mountain lion had a track right through the middle of where she intended to plant. She planted anyway, leaving the familiar path open for the cat. The Lion's Run.

Then there were the Thursday night yoga dinners Sandy hosted at her home, Theresa becoming a regular. They tended to be a vegetarian lot, but the narrow range of standard recipes led to boredom, and later, discovery. She developed her own recipes and then had a brainstorm walking down Main Street one day as she noticed a vacant storefront. It became Ubuntu Vegan Restaurant and Yoga Studio, of course, and it's become a nationally recognized Napa institution of refined eating and health.

Turned out Theresa had a hand in the design, and she indicated the defining features of the Ubuntu and Annex spaces, from undressed stone walls to rough timbers. The annex sells yoga wear and select wine and food accessories, all of the sort you would naturally associate with the restaurant.

I sipped the Lion's Run as Theresa told the Ubuntu story, the 2005 and '06; reminded me of my favorite clarets. I preferred the earlier, with a higher alcohol content, though lacking any discernible evidence of it; the '06 was lighter, a perfect red for a Sunday Brunch.

From there I headed back toward First and Main, as the Chef's Market came to life; but I was going to Cake Plate Boutique instead. A couple of days earlier I'd met Lauren at the Coffee Roasting Company, discovered she worked for Benefit Cosmetics, a Louis Vuitton concern. They had opened a summer pilot mini-store within Cake Plate, and an opening party was nigh.

That's what I walked into Thursday evening, greeted by Karyn, a statuesque ash blonde dispensing the most delightfully blue Bay Breeze cocktails from the highest of high heels. Cake Plate caters to hip 20- and 30-somethings, and Benefit Cosmetics is one of their favorite products. Amy was in from corporate at Berkeley, explaining that temporary satellite stores like these helped gauge their market and consider something more permanent.

As we talked, the staff demonstrated their products to the pretty ladies in attendance, a wide variety of concoctions to make skin glow, lips glisten; the Benefit women also tint eyebrows and lashes. This was all new territory to me, but it was fun to watch while taking a closer look at the girlish, colorful fashions that Cake Plate features. And I ran into Sara Brooks, General Manager at the historic Napa River Inn, the quintessence of the Cake Plate customer.

She demystified the Benefit Cosmetics brand for me, explained the specific appeal; great products, good prices, clever presentation. A lot like Cake Plate, she said; fun, cool, hip. Also finally got to meet Paige, who I'd seen a zillion times at the coffee house, as I indulged the strawberry malted milk balls. Great with the Bay Breeze, and all Cake Plate.

Friday afternoon found me up at Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville, for a celebration of the departed namesake's 100th birthday. His widow Margrit gave a toast, everyone applauded and the music started. Tables groaning under etched glasses of Fume Blanc graced the entrance arch, guests invited to drink their fill and enjoy the lawn under the sun, soundtrack provided by a Latin-style jazz band.

Hadn't been there for a few years, forgot how pleasant that triangle of grass facing the Mayacamas Mountains, flanked by the arms of the enclosing collonade. It is a perfect modern rendition of the mission theme, and the serial salons opening along the walkway offer one inviting tasting room after another.

Several of the rooms offered photo exhibits honoring Bob's life, but I still don't believe people fully appreciate what a giant he was. He's credited with putting Napa Valley wines on the map, but I would counter that he reinvigorated a moribund industry worldwide. By creating new markets in America while promoting wine science research in the universities, he laid a new foundation for the explosion to come. Whole wine industries thrive in nations around the world as a direct result of Robert Mondavi's vision.

At the far end of the north wing, Margrit has assembled a wonderful collection of Benny Bufano sculptures; he chiseled that spectacular bear in front of the building's entrance. A San Francisco native who claimed North Beach as home, Bufano notoriously cut off a little finger and sent it to President Roosevelt, to protest World War Two. Interesting man, indeed, and his work is worth seeing.

The biggest treat of the day came when I walked into one of the elegant sitting rooms, and Richard Miami bellowed out, So where have you been!?

Richard was my favorite Copia person, and the film series he ran there accounted for some great Friday nights. I think Bogart's Casablanca may have been the last thing I saw there, and I greatly miss the opportunity to see such classics on a big screen, as was meant to be. The end of Richard's film nights was the greatest loss for me when the place went under, but he informed me there was new hope; he'll be doing something similar at the Opera House this fall, right after the Napa Valley Film Festival. Can't wait.

Speaking of the film festival, haven't seen much of Mark and Brenda Lhormer around lately, but evidence of a crystalizing event are everywhere. Weekend before last, they were hosting a volunteer meeting up in Yountville while I was cruising Vintage Inn and Hotel Luca down the street. As expected, even the volunteer meeting sounds like it was a pleasant event, held at the community center, where wine, cheese and snacks accompanied the business of festival making. And a few days ago, I noted that Amelia Ceja was talking up special recipes for the event on her Facebook page.

Speaking of Mondavis, went to a great party in Davis at Morgan's house. This Leave It To Beaver classic is a block or two from the school, and Morgan hosted a birthday party for an airline pilot with an extensive Air Force background. Eighty people in the garden around the pool, wines, Champagne, sangria, light salads and succulent tri-tip, and the most incredible people and stories. Lots of Air Force studs there, I mean serious hotshots, and I'm talking about the women. One after another I met these sweet, suburban moms, loving wives, doing soccer practice and play dates--when they weren't flying the most dangerous secret missions, often with their husbands somewhere in the operation, perhaps in the pilot's or co-pilot's seat. Some pretty, sultry blonde belted out the sexiest Patsy Cline I've heard since Patsy Cline, and sure enough, another one of those backgrounds. Met the cutest, tan, blonde you ever saw, maybe five-foot-three, hundred pounds, A-line summer dress, sandals; turns out she not only did the most gut-wrenching, stressful flying you can do, she was also a paratrooper. Went through jump school not too long after me. Now these men and women are flying us around for the airlines when they aren't serving our country, and a finer group of humanity you never met. So, Happy Birthday, Jimmy, and you're a lucky guy to have such a helluva woman as Ramona by your side, at home and in the cockpit. She told me to write that or she'd whip my ass. But it's true just the same.

What's that got to do with the Mondavis? I'm getting to that. I first attended Morgan's partys when she lived in Napa, in the Vaca Mountains beyond Coombsville. She had a wonderful Hawaiian-style house on the ridge, broad, hipped roof providing shaded patio all around the perimeter. I think she had the best view extant of the Napa Valley, straight up the corridor, Mount St. Helena at its top. It was like looking at one of those old-fashioned bird's-eye-view maps, where everything's where it belongs, but with all the major geographical and architectural features drawn in as well. I lived at a house sharing her road, and from my wing I could see the Wells Fargo Bank on Main Street with binoculars, and I could make out the Veterans' Home and points beyond. It was spectacular, and Morgan's view was even better, as I noted at several of her delightful parties, everyone of which featured a marvelous cast of characters much as I met at her latest soiree.

Anyway, Morgan sold the house and moved to Davis. And Margrit Mondavi bought the place, and now she has that great view. She was my neighbor briefly up the mountain--you can see the place if you know the right notch in the ridge--and a grander dame you never encountered. Can't think of anyone who deserves that view more, and I hope she enjoys it as much as I did.

Father's Day could have been rather anti-climactic, and I missed that great vintage car show in Yountville; too exhausted. But as often happens, things just clicked into place; my son and the ex-wife drove up from Berkeley, spent a few hours hanging out at the Oxbow, heard my sons plan's for his upcoming trip to Colombia. Finished up at Ritual Coffee with the best chocolate chip walnut cookies I ever met, from the Model Bakery.

No sooner had they left than I found myself engaged in conversation with Chris, Hollywood film exec in exile; Ritual Coffee is his new headquarters. Can't wait to hear the end of his story about the new Hollywood. More to come on that.

Then my new business partner showed up, and we drank wine and shared a pizza at Ca Momi; love that rustic-style pizza, especially the Carbonara we tried Sunday; also think the pizza Margherita's among the best ever tried.

Not a bad way to plot our way to empire.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Sunday morning dawned so summer-like, I could hardly rouse myself to leave my haven in the redwoods. As the day progressed, though, I knew I'd regret not doing something special, so I headed to Yountville. I walked the length of the town as I often do, and wandered into Hotel Luca on the north end.

It's no coincidence that I felt like I'd walked into a slice of the Italian countryside as I passed through the central archway of a rural estate compound, contemporary version. That's the point of romantic getaways like Luca, to create a self-contained little world. An interior all creamy and accented with dark woods, the lobby seamlessly fades into lounge, one side open to the garden and outdoor seating. I especially admired the grand posters from the '30s, masterpieces of Italian graphic arts and advertising, as I proceeded to the pool, lush with Mediterranean plantings.

I had just been passing through, found myself thoughtlessly impressed by the quiet luxury of Luca, when, a block or so closer to town, I encountered the Vintage Inn. Of course I walked in, and this time a found myself entering a French Provincial courtyard, yet another self-contained micro-environment. This establishment, too, had a lobby bar phasing into a covered garden, cafe tables and chairs, and a shrubbery shrouded pool. Best of all, though, was the afternoon tea, that bartender Chris suggested I sample. Watercress sandwiches of artisan breads white and rough, and rich cream cheese, pastry puffs filled with soft, herbed cheese, and an array of petit fours to warm the heart of Marie Antoinette. All made on the premises, by the way, and the little triangles of bittersweet chocolate pie almost stopped my heart. But Earl Grey kept me going.

No, I'm not going to compare it to being in Provence, but it was a fine sojourn nonetheless, sitting in the filtering summer shade, reading a New Yorker and eating bon-bons.

Anyway, there are lots of delightful little hostelries around this valley, and they're worth checking out just for its own sake. These two, just a block apart, opened my eyes to some of the hidden pleasures most of us miss because we actually live here.

I'm also discovering fairly obscure wine-oriented niches I didn't know existed, in this case from a guy named Q who works for Western Wine Services, situated in one of those large warehouses toward American Canyon. A company with national affiliates, they handle wine shipping services from wineries to wholesalers cross-country, as well as handle large personal wine collections. Met him at the Coffee Roasting Company, and he revealed a whole new business for me.

This latter caught my attention, as I heard him describe sizable inventories people keep stashed away in these high security, temperature conrolled environments, until they call for a selection that arrives a few days later. Kind of like a universal cellarmaster for those who need one. It's easy to forget that some people have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in wine, and specific rare vintages; the closet cellar doesn't quite cut it.

Wandered from there through a Sunday sleepy Napa to the Oxbow, and signs of life on the back patio, where Cosmic Buzz played smooth jazz you might hear in a bar from Star Trek, xylaphone, bass and drums, all spacey, melodic and mellow, perfect sound track to sunset over Mayacamas. The patio's always well-populated on days like that, but Kitchen Door, was opening at Oxbow in the space where the Winemerchant once did business before moving inside; Sunday was another test run.

This is Chef Todd Humphrey's creation, I'd been crashing the party since Thursday to watch the prep, and I can't wait to see this joint develop. A big open room packed with tables, community and private, Kitchen Door should turn into a lively people watching venue and favorite eatery. Rustic pizzas, rotisserie meats and chicken and a variety of fun bar food characterize the menu, suggesting a great future of casual yet sophisticated dining. Can't wait to try that pizza bread you dip in the warm goat cheese. Yum.

Hundreds passed through last night for the official opening, and they were raving in praise; at least those I eavesdropped.

Ran into Catherine Bergen at her C Casa Taco Lounge, asked her about Cause for the Paws. A benefit for the Napa Humane Society, she's hosting the event at the Grove at Silverado Country Club on 24 July, Johnny Smith supplying the sounds. Lots of good wine and food on shady lawns on a summer day sounds like its own reward, whatever the cause. Also encountered Paul Hendricks, owner of Napa Valley Adventure Tours.

He used to operate out of the east side of the Oxbow, just down from Catherine's patio. Now he's in the building beyond the Model Bakery; Paul's is the place with all the kayaks and bikes out front. Told me a nice story; last Friday, he took 23 Iraq War vets from the Vets' Home in Yountville for a kayak outing at Lake Hennessy. "It was really great," he said. "These guys don't have much opportunity to get out like this during their recoveries. They had almost as much fun as we did."

Paul's done more to get people out on the Napa River than anyone else in town, I think, and this vets outing was no pick-a- good-deed-from-a-hat routine; he was effectively orphaned by the Vietnam War. He gets it, and I look forward to some future outings together on the river.

Last night, I had one of those odd evenings where I kept running into the most interesting people. I'd stopped by Ubuntu on Monday afternoon to say Hi to Sandy, the proprietor; then, just before midnight in front of Safeway, I started talking to a guy with a fine Greg Lemond racing bike. Great bike, he said, road it all over Europe for nine months, ain't carbon-fiber light, but light enough, and rugged.

Then he mentioned he'd seen me at Ubuntu earlier. Turns out he was Chef Aaron London, who took top job after Jeremy Fox left a year-and-a-half ago. He looked to be around 30, and I made the mistake of asking how he learned to cook. Started washing dishes in a restaurant in Grayton, his little hometown in Sonoma, at 17, and just kept moving up till he went to the Culinary Institute at Hyde Park. Then it was Manhattan Madness, and I lost track of all the trendy restaurants he moved through before he went to cook in France, including, wouldn't you know it, in Provence. He started at Ubuntu when it opened in September '07, as a line cook, and kept moving along.

Like me, he's a carnivore, unlike me, he likes vegetarian food. But I do like everything I've tried at Ubuntu, further proof that you can cook meat free without concocting wretchedly imaginative combinations better left undiscovered.

But that was after I met some Master-of-the Universe, wine country edition. Stopped in to say Hi to Ted Jarvis, Monday night Pub Quiz MC at Downtown Joe's. Bartender John pointed out the obvious, lost on me, that playoffs were on. Next week the quiz'll be back. By then I was drinking some Guinness and trading wisecracks with the guy sitting next to me.

Coy from the get go, this guy wasn't telling me nothing, least of all his winery affiliation. But it's in the top 20 of the Valley, and this national sales VP was full of interesting info revealing, again, my ignorance. Best of all, though, this guy looked and sounded just like a younger Alec Baldwin, a New York macher who swaggered sitting down. It was like hanging with that scary character Baldwin played in Glen Gary, Glen Ross, but even better. He couldn't fire me, so he entertained me instead. I was in my own movie all of a sudden.

My last visit to London, noticed the almost universal unawareness of California and Napa Valley wines, while Chilean, Australian and Spanish brands are everywhere. I was hanging out with a rather sophisticated crowd, and these guys all drank French wines, not because of ignorance, but rather they found Napa wines overpriced, overalcoholic and not worth the trouble. Great marketing opportunity there, I thought.

"Nah," he says. "Let the Chileans and Australians flood a saturated market. We're not interested in making a nickel a case. Asia's the market, and it's high-end. That's where the real profit is. That's the future"

Earlier in the day, I'd encountered a bus full of Taiwan Chinese at the Wine Train Depot; just the customers he was talking about, and I discovered such excursions are ubiquitous. Lots and lots of Asians are discovering wine and want to see the wine country.

Then I asked about further shakeouts in the wine industry; any more winery bankruptcies coming?

No, he says, going on to explain some dynamics lost to most of us. According to my new best friend, all the weak ones beyond hope are gone. But a large number of wineries suffered desperate cash flow problems with the banking and credit crises of the last couple of years, regardless of their good health. Many would have faced doom, except that banks, apparently, went out of their way to keep them from going under.

Not through altruism, however. If the dominoes had started falling, there's no telling where it would have stopped. If wineries failed in large number, the banks would have lost fortunes in devalued assets. So they kept the money coming with creative loan renegotiation.

So things have stabilized, and everything is blue skies and sunshine from now on.

And this guy was such a unique piece of work, I actually believe everything he had to say. He sounded like Alec Baldwin, after all.

Heard On The Street, in Yountville, from a woman leaving Bouchon: "It was just like eating at the French Laundry, but without all the expense and bullshit..."

Sunday, 12 June 2011

One of the most pleasantly curious things about Napa these days is that even when the streets look empty and the eateries are thinning out, you find pockets of conviviality, little ad hoc parties popping up here and there. At The Westin Bank Bar, I watched a dozen strangers getting to know each other over fine wines and specialty cocktails; at the John Anthony Tasting Room at Avia, three girlfriends engaged in lively wine conversation with the woman pouring, all girlfriends together for an hour. I stopped at 1313 Main for a Fogdog Petit Syrah, the new hotspot one of my favorites.

There at the bar I met John and Chelsea, from Colorado, just finishing their weeklong honeymoon in the Napa Valley. "I kind of expected to go on a cruise or to a beach resort," said Chelsea. "This was a surprise, and it exceeded all my expectations. It's so much more wonderful than I imagined."

They hit 15 wineries during the stay, Peju one of the highlights. They had a great time with Scott, who did the pouring, and the party continued when they ran into him at Brix a little later. John loved the bottle room, all dark wood, walls lined with fine vintages. Just what he'll do in the family mansion...after he gets rich and buys one, he says with a chuckle.

A few nights later, I met Michael and Amy, from Atlanta, at Taste, the tasting room opposite the Oxbow. Mahoney and Waterstone are the premier labels here, and Michael took tasting notes assiduously. Mark Montoya was our host, an alumnus of Chateau Potelle, the Mt. Veeder winery started a couple of decades ago by a couple of wine spies sent to the Valley by the French government to see what was going on here. Really. They defected, and started their own operation, sold out not too long ago to Kendall-Jackson.

Michael and Amy recently got engaged and came out for the weekend to indulge his yen for Cabernet, and hers for the romance of the Napa Valley she'd long fantasized about. They had just arrived in Napa when I met them at Taste, and they'd seen enough of the countryside to be taken with it already. Amy couldn't stop smiling, and Michael revealed his quest for the ultimate Cabernet. He found it, he later told me in a chance encounter at Bounty Hunter, at Caymus Vineyard, where he saw his judgment confirmed when some guy walked in and took over the tasting room with his purchase of 24 cases of Cab.

Meanwhile, I tasted a Mahoney Tempranillo, a Spanish varietal from the Las Brisas Vineyard in the Carneros. The Mahoney patriarch was a pioneer out in the Carneros, one of the first, I believe, to tap it for Pinot Noir; Larry Otis and friend played acoustic guitar and mandolin--a Friday night routine--and I ate from the cheese plate, trying my first goat bleu cheese and a melt-in-your mouth triple cream, both from France.

Michael's just 23, and a law student, but his knowledge about wine was profound, something that strikes me often when talking to youngsters around here. The Valley has become a Mecca for everyone in the food and wine business, and I met as well several young couples and singles scouting or completing relocations to here.

Like the young woman I encountered at the Oxbow who's looking for a tasting room job and found that making the rounds and tasting was the best way to get face time and make connections with potential employers. Can't believe how helpful everyone's been, and she's stoked at the opportunity to try all these wineries and wines. She spent one day last week doing Spring Mountain: Sherwin Vineyards, Terra Valentine and Bherens Family Vineyards. She especially liked the latter's Airstream Trailer, used for small tastings.

The knowledge these aspiring and actual wine professionals bring is nothing short of amazing. They do their homework, never so evident as at the Bistro Sabor Trivia Nights on Wednesdays. Ashley is the normal host, and Jonah, Ariel Ceja's right hand man, fills in when she's not available.

They feature food and booze categories, and the obscure things these 20- and 30-something contestants dredge up shames me with my ignorance. Last Wednesday, Bistro Sabor was packed to overflowing for the game, the air electric.

Pub Quiz at Downtown Joe's on Monday's has caught my attention, too, and it's interesting to see the different approaches the emcees bring to their questions. Ted Davidson, a one-time sommelier for the Four Seasons Hotel chain, does the duty at DT Joe's; he tends to come up with a more eclectic, off-the-wall range of categories, in which I can occasionally excel. His real job is at Jarvis, almost as well-known for their caves as the wine; I'll be visitng him one of these days, especially since running into someone who'd just returned from a tasting there and couldn't stop praising the experience.

Meeting new people who like showing off their competitive smarts is its own reward, of course, and I had a front-row seat a couple of times. I sat the game out one night at Sabor, tossing an occasional answer to the newlyweds seated at the next table. They won despite my help, and we had a great evening together. A few days later at Joe's, sat next to an acquaintance during their trivia night. She comprises her own team, regularly almost winning. Well, this time she did, the Singular Sensation, despite my help. And got to know Ted. Another scintillating evening with new friends.

Heard a great guitarist first thing at Thursday's Chef's Market, guy named Michael Knakholz--MK, Extreme Acoustic virtuoso. Cranked off several '60s classics, Cream, Byrds, Stones Paint It Black. Doesn't cover them, though, but makes songs his own with intense finger picking and a manic precision.

Stopped by Bounty Hunter for their happy hour special on Friday afternoon, ordered the ribs and slaw with one of the house Pinot Noirs; best deal around. Wouldn't you know it, met a couple from St. Louis, a bartender and waitress, who want to relocate here. This is where the action is for food professionals, said the latter, and when she mentioned her plans at work, the chef who wouldn't give her the time of day became her new best friend. Then there were the guys from Charleston, admiring the Bounty Hunter's architectural details, reminder of home. Couldn't have cared less for the wines; they were getting off on exotic beers they'd never encountered.

When I started making the rounds, guitars, again, featured prominently, and I don't think I ever experienced so much mastery at that instrument in one night. Dalan Santos, one-time Napa institution was over at Silos playing a few songs between kareoke acts; he's visitng from his new home in Hawaii. He played the most soulful At Last I've ever heard in so intimate a setting, and the vocals by Stephanie S. were just heart stirring. This is a fun scene for the regulars, and almost every seat is filled; the best informal entertainment around, these Silos singalongs, organized by Sandy, who plays keyboard for the house band.

Then I stopped into DT Joe's to catch the Charles Wheal Band. I presume Charles is the front man, but he banged out the richest rockabilly sounds I've heard since the Stray Cats. Worth tracking down to go see when you have the chance.

So it was wholly unexpected to walk into the Opera House to hear Tommy Emanuel create--jaded as I was this evening with guitars--a most vigorous, footstomping wall of sound. This was a blue-grassy number, but he plays any great guitar piece of any style, and you'd swear you were listening to a guitar orchestra. Great patter between songs, too. I don't think there was an empty seat, and everybody was alternately bouncing to the beat or rocking in laughter.

Ended Saturday night at the Opera House, too, but only after a lazy spring day divided between the redwoods and birdsong and Bel-Aire Plaza. At Trader Joe's, ran into Paula, from the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville. She's excited over the new president and executive director, the former an ace organizer and fund-raiser, the latter an alumnus of the Historical Society, Kirsty; forget her last name, and not sure of the spelling of the first. But Paula says she has lots of new exhibitions lined up for the year.

With Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and Peet's all together, regular crews of every sort have crystalized, and I'm always seeing familiar faces. Like Jerrod, formerly of the running store on Main by the coffee house; part of the TJ team now. This has become Napa's suburban community center, nice counterpart to the Downtown.

Ran into Jack Pollard outside Uva as he was getting ready to perform, R&B par excellence. Discovered that, like me, he's a San Francisco native and lifelong Bay Area denizen. Says he's been spending part of every year playing Europe now, a regular season for him; turns out he used to be a fan of Cafe Society, a great little bistro on Main by First, since departed. Can't believe we never met there before.

Then it was back to the Opera House for Chanticleer, America's premier male chorus. Hear them regularly on that classical station cranked out by Sacramento State, and more haunting, beautiful voices and songs you never heard. They find incredible, obscure ethnic works from around the world, along with contemporary pieces. The vocal range is most impressive, bass to alto soprano among the 10 men.

At intermission, had a cup of tea and piece of chocolate cheesecake while chatting with the young woman pouring wine. Art histry major from Davis, her knowledge of art was truly impressive; we shared stories about the Venetian art scene and the Bellini brothers.

Then a stunningly turned out woman appeared for a glass of wine; stately blonde, diaphanous sheath dress, lots of tasteful gold and the most voluptuous satin handbag passing for a handful of red roses. Asked her how she liked the performance, and she did, very much, of course. Then she told me about Straight, No chaser. "If you like Chanticleer," she said, "you'll love these guys; great vocals and moves. Just think Chanticleer crossed with Lady Gaga. They'll knock your socks off."

But the fact is, she had already done that. But I'll keep an eye out for Straight, No Chaser, anyway, just for a repeat performance.

Almost Forgot: Napa Valley Pride has several functions leading up to the main event at the Fairgrounds next weekend; hosted a nice little under-21 dance party on First Street Saturday night, too.

Heard On The Street, one guy to another, in Downtown Napa: "There's no such thing as a bad idea, there's just bad timing. And it was bad timing to suggest that we bring in a superstar at this point..."

Wednesday, 8 June, 2011

Friday morning revealed a glorious, blue sky day, and at Noon I met a friend in town before heading out to the hills for a picnic at Mont La Salle. Along the way we stopped at Brown's Valley Market, one of Napa's best downhome gourmet grocery stores, to grab supplies. At the deli we ordered my favorite, the Mozzarella Caprese Panini, a hot sandwich comprised of fresh tomato, buffalo Mozzarella and pesto; just excellent. We complemented it with a tortelini pasta salad, a Greek salad with feta cheese, and Pellegrino sparkling water to drink. For dessert, dark chocolate covered pomegranite seeds and fresh blue berries. We passed on wine for the afternoon, but they have not only a great general selection, but their wine bargains are first rate, as far as bargains go. If they're selling it, it's a pretty decent wine no matter how low the price. And as you move up the scale, you find some real deals.

Mont La Salle was built in the '20s as a school to train Christian Brothers, a Catholic order originally founded to provide schools for tough, poor boys, though the schools have now become elite prep schools for the upper-middle class. My Dad was one of the first category when they instructed him in New York's Hell's Kitchen around 1910; I got them six decades later, as a member of the second group, at Napa's Justin High, in the '60s.

Now a retirement home for those Brothers of the generation that so briefly taught me, Mont La Salle replicates a Spanish Mission with a sizable Baroque chapel and bell tower, all set on a hill overlooking Redwood Canyon in the distance and its own vineyards in the foreground.

Most enchanting are the two gardens, one on each side of the chapel, all surrounded by collonades topped with classic red tiles. Ringed with redwoods, the complex's gardens provide a tranquil little sanctuary, Old California version. After a short walk around, we sat at a table across from the fountain to eat, serenaded by birds singing against a backdrop of silence.

And then a series of great bellows emanated from the chapel; it seems the organ was being tuned. Following our repast, we went inside, and Roger Inkpen, expert organ tuner, explained that the instrument was made by a preeminent craftsman of the field, and Roger works on organs around the Bay Area, including the one at the Stanford Chapel. Then he belted out some riffs for us, filling the space with overwhelming sound and reverberation. Roger also plays from time to time; catch one of his performances if you have the chance. It was the perfect end to a perfect lunch.

It was also First Friday of the month, so things were popping all over the Valley; the Main Street Party in St. Helena, open mike night at the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company in Napa, and a Happening at Wildcat, just down First from the coffee house.

But first I went up to Silverado and First for a tasting at JV Wines and Liquors; Adam Glatt was pouring for Robert Craig Winery. I tried an Affinity Zinfandel--hints of black cherry and mocha. According to Glatt, the wine comes from some of the most sought after zin vines around, all grown above 2400 feet.

JV Wines does tastings every Friday, 5-7, and they serve crackers, cheese and salami along with different winery offerings. They're a knowledgeable bunch, and Audrey was especially helpful. I asked her about a liqeur I encountered in San Francisco, Elderfleur, by St. Germain, a French producer. Audrey told the Elderfleur story--elder flowers picked in the Swiss alps, their flowery essence distilled into a most elusive delight of a drink. I'll be stopping by tomorrow, I think, for the Scotch tasting.

By the time I returned, the Roasting Company open mike performances were well underway, and the talent showing up has really improved; three middle-aged guys ripped out some bluegrass, a local version of Justin Bieber sang and played guitar with harmonies from a girlfriend, but the standout was a band called Anadel, with a great mix of guitars, percussion and violin. Matt, a fine musician himself, has been doing standout work setting the talent up, and barristas Tina and Danielle keep the coffee flowing; good entertainment team, that.

This is where I first heard Rachel Sculley; guitar, clear, powerful voice, with good range and her own songs. She played at Copperfield's Bookstore at Bel Aire Shopping Center the next day, to celebrate the store's 30th Anniversary. I missed it because of the rain--I was just too cozy out in the redwoods--but I'm sorry I missed her.

Wildcat vintage Clothing Store and emporium for all things hip and trendy, circa 1957, has started its own special First Friday series of events, and I caught a show by a guy named Jason, who creates provocative art pieces combining collages of comic book images, seasoned with his own pen and paint. Well-executed and visually exciting, Jason says he's trying to find that place where comic book art and high art merge. "When they said they aren't compatible," he says, "I asked why not." Then he did his own thing, with inspiration from Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.

Thea, Wildcat-in-chief, beamed over the party in her upstairs gallery, happy with the turnout and positive response. Lined wall to wall with local hipsters drinking wine and eating the tasty snacks, the room was abuzz with creative energy and collaborations to come from various members of the creative crowd. As things finally slowed down the party just drifted over to Bistro Sabor, where for the first time they had a live band for Salsa Dancing; the party lasted long into the night.

At Wildcat, ran into Richard Perot, a local baker and chef who also makes art and music. I missed his gig in San Francisco last month, but he told me of an art opening he's having this coming Saturday, at Hanna B's Body Mod Studio--tatooes and piercings?--situated at 818 Third Street. The event runs from 7-10, and Richard's showing with a few others. He'll also be singing and playing piano at some point, one of several musicians scheduled.

Last week, of course, was Wine Auction Week, and Saturday night featured the actual auction and closing party. I went to several editions up till a few years ago, and it's a magnificent collection of events, from the barrel tastings they do for the general public, to the exclusive parties at various wineries. I'll never forget Coppola's presentation at Rubicon; just like time-travelling to the 1880s.

The rain seems not to have dampened the festivities much, if at all, and they set a new record, I believe, more than $7 million. So far, after 30 years, the vintners of the Valley have raised a hundred million for local charities. There is no more worthy or effective fund-raiser in all of Napa, and few better party venues than Meadowood, if any.

Celebrities seem to like the place; hear that Don Cheadle stayed there a week or so back, and earlier this spring, Keith Urban, Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen. Hinting at a romatic getaway of a visit, Kidman and Urban, I hear, ate in their suite most of the time.

I ended up at Uva, as usual early Saturday nights, to join my friends at dinner at the bar, always entertaining because you get to eat and meet people. This time around, I actually noticed their Martini Menu, listing about eight concoctions, all of which sound tantalizing. Then I saw the Velvet Fog, and sure enough, it has Elder Fleur Liquer in it. Must try it one day, when I get over my preference for old school Manhattans.

Went by Downtown Joe's for Monday Trivia Night, but the NBA Playoffs preempted it; the place was full, and DT Joe's offers one of the best venues in town to go watch a game with a bunch of likeminded fans. It's always lively and good-natured, and the enthusiasm is infectious. And I don't even like sports.

Tuesday's a slow night, so the Oxbow's locals evenings have become a big hit, so much so that the place is packed almost inside and out; most vendors offer free samples and special prices, and families especially seem to enjoy it. I stopped by Gott's to discover they've just started serving fresh blueberry milkshakes for the summer; couldn't resist and it was fantastic. When I recovered, I wandered over to Ca Momi, an Italian eatery, to sample their little cream puffs--bignes, they're called. Tried the chocolate Grand Marnier and the chocolate-hazelnut: crystalized sugar imparts a slight crunchiness at first bite, just before the explosion of savory, creamy cloud to follow. Each one provided some of the best three bites I ever had.

Fortuitously enough, David, of Tillerman Tea, is right next to Ca Momi, and he gives free samples Tuesdays. He invited me to try a Roasted Oolong tea from Taiwan. Rich tea flavor with a distinct nuttiness, product of the roasting. Complemented the cream puffs wonderfully, but one of these days I'll do a serious tasting with David.

A scholar of Chinese history who taught at university in Canada, he became enamored with tea and its lore. He has an extraordinary variety, and no one knows the subject any better. Also nice ceramic tea pots from Chinese artisans.

I finished my evening at 1313 Main, the new wine bar and lounge. Sean, a Bounty Hunter alumnus, poured me a Fogdog Pinot Noir from Sonoma while he expressed satisfaction with the growing clientele.

"We were packed till closing on Saturday," he says, attributing it to word of mouth.

"We get a lot of wine professionals; tasting room people, winemakers, vineyard owners. It's turning into a real insider's place, but the tourists are catching on too. The ones who are really into wine find us, and they fit right in," he says.

Heard on the Street, outside Cole's Chophouse: Hey, I scratched too! I devoted two years of my life to that project for nothing. And that sucks..."

Coming Soon: Kitchen Door, a new restaurant, at the Oxbow, opening 14 June... Father's Day Vintage Auto Show, Sunday, 10:30-3:30, 6525 Washington Street, Yountville...Backyard Lawn Day at Freemark Abbey Winery, halfway between St. Helena and Calistoga, with croquet, bocce ball, wine and food, Saturday, 1-4, 800-963-9698...Tour of Historic Tulocay Cemetery, Saturday, 10-12...Saturday night at Silos, Phil Berkowitz and the Dirty Cats; Chicago blues...Robert Mondavi Winery Summer Festival starts 2 July, with Gavin DeGraw, 888-766-6328.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Just spent a few days in a splendid apartment in San Francisco. Even though I grew up in the City and still visit often, it's easy to forget how much easier it is to enjoy when you live there or stay in just the right neighborhood. This was one of those places, on top of Russian Hill by Filbert and Hyde streets. The cable car runs right by, Downtown to the Wharf, bells ringing in the distance.

There's little to appeal to the average Pier 39 tourist, so you won't see him here. But the discerning observer will discover a wealth of little treasures.

A block down Hyde Street, you find Zarzuela, a Spanish restaurant that's become a neighborhood institution over the last couple of decades. They do paella for two or any number more--you ultimately serve yourself from the great platter--and it exceeds even the paella I ate in Barcelona. Also tried a small plate of the most succulent little lamb chops, with scalloped potatoes; a meal in itself. Washed it down with a glass of dry Spanish rioja, not unlike a Chianti, while my companions shared a pitcher of nectar-like sangria.

Aside from hidden little treats like Zarzuela, this stretch of Hyde boasts some singular antique and curio shops. Busacca Gallery is among my favorite anywhere, with a staggering array of exotic items. A beautiful space a half-block from Zarzuela, it's packed with perfect little pieces from the past; a 200 year-old miniature brass cannon, precious little busts of beautiful women from the Art Nouveau era in bronze, carved African gods, Chinese calligraphy brushes, fine ceramics, a Gurkha kukri knife with ivory grip.

Across the street and down the block, Hyde & Seek is a tiny curiosity shop bursting with goodies. The proprietor has an affinity for Bakelite jewelry and Indian artifacts; baskets, beaded leatherwork, fetishes. Lots of Art Deco and vintage clothing, too. She also specializes in helping people fill out their collections of with the right items.

One morning We headed down the hill on Filbert to Polk Street, one of those major neighborhood commercial avenues that makes the City's distinctive little communities. Had lunch at Toast, a sleek diner specializing in classic breakfasts. I had instead the pulled pork sandwich and the sweet potato fries, my friend the lobster chowder. All yummy.

As for the shops, there are just too many to mention, most distinctive in their approaches, whether for pets, gifts, antiques or food. The Polk Street Gym even has regular-guy boxing some Friday Nights.

I left the City by ferry, just as I had taken it in, from Vallejo. The Ferry Building has become one of the outstanding highlights of San Francisco, and I'm overwhelmed with a sense of timeless deja vu everytime I pass through. I've known it since childhood, even took a ride once in the last days of the old vessels. During the '60s, I would arrive at the Ferry Building on the Sausalito boat, after having hitchhiked there from Napa. It was beginning to look sad then, as it did when Steve Carlin renovated the property into a destination.

He built the Oxbow Public Market here in Napa, of course, and that's one source of the deja vu--there are Hog Island Oysters, Gott's Refresher, the Ferry Wine Merchant, all hopping with customers. Kind of like the Oxbow.

Got back to Napa Thursday night, just in time for the Chef's Market, and some white chocolate, compliments of the demo team from Annette's Sweet Shoppe on First Street; but I usually get the dark chocolate Winter Cabernet Truffles from the girls who work at the Oxbow outlet, Cameah, Deveny or Amber. Best chocolate fix I know. The Bumpy Roads Band cranked out powerful rock and blues riffs on the other side of First Street, and Johnny Smith was singing the Beatles' Blackbird Song--perfect for his signature guitar picking-- when I stopped in at Billco's.

Heard on the Street, by Three Twins Ice Cream, at Oxbow: was one of those expensive adventure trips, you know, and what they do is take you climbing to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, and then they make ice cream from the snow when you get to the top...

Coming Soon: Aussie guitarist Tommy Emmanuel on Friday, Chanticleer, "world's pre-eminent male chorus," Sunday, at the Opera House; Tainted Love--'80s classics--Friday at the Uptown. Charles Krug Winery does a walk through the vineyards and silent auction, Saturday. And JV Wines and Liquors at First and Soscol is doing its first Scotch tasting on Thursday, 5-7, with snacks!

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

My weekend started on Friday afternoon, when I decided to spend a day in Yountville tasting wine and visiting shops. Can't believe what's happening with this whole tasting room thing, and the unique concepts everyone manages to create. There was the place that highlighted art, wine and ranching, another that stresses cutting edge design incorporating old and new textures, heavy on old masonry.

Hope and Grace features a wonderful collection of antique art objects, from a little bronze lion to an Art Deco beauty to elegant liqueor glasses, most one-of-a-kind, and by the scores. Just across the courtyard I discovered Ras Glass Gallery, a repository of fine glass work from around Northern California. An abundance of shimmering, glistening fantasies grace every shelf, but what most appealed to me were the candy bon-bons in glass. They look better than the real chocolates emulated. Perfect gift for someone you might be sweet on who has everything.

Stopped into the newish Jessup tasting facility, not so long ago Emanuel Volakis Gallery. Jessup was packed, so I didn't bother my friends there, but I looked at the art, of course. I'm a traditionalist stuck on conventional oil and bronze, but these assemblage pieces really engaged me. With the dimensions of large canvases, the surfaces were covered with collaged images and clever texts, but the works were additionally shallow shadow boxes, with cutouts revealing three-dimensional objects and figures. There was a literary theme, lots of ironic associations and complete visual delight.

Never got the artist's name, nor did I taste their wine that day, but I plan to remedy the shortcoming soon.

I finally made it to Girard Cellars at the north end of town on the main drag, destination for the afternoon. My friend Eric suggested I stop by when I ran into him out front of Bounty Hunter a few days earlier while I was taking a cigarette break from my writing in the Roasting Company.

He told me that the vintner's going strong in the Asian market, and Eric's become an accidental video celeb in some markets because they love the winery's ads. Huge potential market there, he says, and they're just beginning to develop serious wine palates among emerging middle classes. Domestically, he says quality Roses are looking like the new hot thing.

The tasting room is a light airy space with dark wood highlights, the bar complemented by high tables and stools at the bay windows. Eric was busy prepping for a media dinner later, but there was time for a tasting.

"Our thing is quality wine at a moderate price," he says, "with an emphasis on being food friendly. Not too acid, not too dry, a wine designed to be eaten with."

We started with the Sauvignon Blanc--"rich citrus and green apple highlights"--and progressed to a crisp Chardonnay, barrel fermented in new oak to eliminate the once popular buttery overtones.

Then he presented the Rose, a blend of Zinfandels, some from 35 year old vines, others from a 115-year-old vineyard in Calistoga. Just off-dry, it showed a hint of fruitiness, but light and crisp, in the French style. A Signee, I believe, is the proper word for the treatment. According to the tasting notes: strawberry, water melon, rose petals.

The topper for me, though, was the Petit Syrah--blueberry, lilac, coffee, black cherry. Whatever. Loved it.

Nice little collection of customers passed through, too; like the artist from Dallas who specializes in doing real-time paintings of events to celebrate big nights; wine auctions or other fun, festive occasions. He's thinking of relocating here. And the visitor from Silverado Cellars who reminded me of the excellent collection of Belle Epoque posters at their winery, and the magnificent Thomas Hill painting of the pre-bridge Golden Gate hidden away in the back room. Wonderful view of the Valley from there, too. She bought a Zinfandel and tried to poach Eric for her tasting room.

I left with a pleasant glow and a mighty hunger, and what should I see down and across the street but a taco truck behind Pancha's cantina. Pancha's is probably the last old-fashion bar in Yountville, a charming little hole in the wall frequented by locals of every sort, especially Harley riders Who Know. Almost got my ass kicked there 41 years ago one night when a friend and I beat two much better pool players with the most strategic bad playing you ever saw.

But I went out back for food at Tacos Garcia mobile restaurant, and ordered a couple of chorizo tacos, ever harder to come by at the trucks. Just excellent; crisp, spicey and saucy. The attendant told me they cater, recently did a hundred people for less than a grand. Can't beat the food or the price.

By the time I got back to Napa, I was ready for another drink, and it so happened that one of my favorite bartenders had moved to a new place opening that day.

I just got to know Jordan at Bounty Hunter, and then he moved on me.

1313 Main, is the name, and address, just around the corner from Uva and across the street from Azzuro.

Opened by Al Jabarin, 1313 Main offers a sophisticated lounge with rustic overtones provided by the room's original redwood roof timbers. Fireplace in the corner, sumptuous leather couches along the wall, an extension back from the space with big, common table, wine shelves on the walls. I counted almost 500 labels, and the rotating inventory exceeds 800.

Al was an early adopter of this internet thing, and he started Calwine in the mid-'90s; he had a store on the Trail just north of First Street, but his business really came from online.

He's leveraged that into a smooth establishment that serves light snacks with the grape, and he eventually expects to show black and white photography, maybe show pre-color classic movies on special nights.

I dropped in later that night and the next; nice crowd all evening, not packed but soon to be, I suspect. When I was over at Uva Saturday night, the Bride's Night Out crews were coming and going, and I was tempted to send them over to 1313 just to have a look at Jordan and what they're giving up. Hollywood handsome, Jordan is the complete gentleman as well. If I had a daughter, I'd want her to bring a guy home just like him. He's an attraction all on his own. And he returned my stolen chrome cruiser.

After that, I ended up at the Opera House for the last half-hour for the local schools Jazz Night, now in its third year. Robust, big-band sounds with lots of brass and some belt-it-out singers; just loved Paper Moon. And Midori, our local Horse-Whisperer, whatever the two songs she performed. Who knew she could sing too?

Meanwhile, Silos had one of their singalong nights; Saturday, too. This is like karioki with a real band, and it just so happened that the guy singing when I walked in was great. Looked like he could've been a Marine home on leave, well-built, close-cut hair, blue-collar roots obvious. Forget the song--something like You Work Hard for Your Money--but no pro ever did it better.

By Saturday noon I was at the Oxbow in the wake of the Farmers' Market, the latter already accumulating more vendors over previous weeks. It was packed inside, diners eating from here, drinking from there and desserting someplace else, an endlessly dynamic ballet, with food.

My eventual dinner would be a burger at Nation's, with tomatoes and grilled onions; no one does this classic better. Joined my friends at Uva for a glass of Zin while they ate the fresh salmon filets; all four of them, as a matter of fact, had the salmon, a favorite when available. Jack Pollard later supplied the bluesy-soul standards with a smooth bass voice, while Bloom hair salon staged another Happening at Pearl and Main.

A benefit for Latino Rappers who want to go to Cuba--I think--the performance-art-like display was way cutting edge, circa 1973. Kid on floor in dark playing guitar desultorily until another kid drags his bike out and blows through the handlebars, trumpet like. Then he dons a gas mask to say words like toxic waste, Chevron, capitalism; then he takes off the mask, declaring he is taking off the mask so he will not be muffled, to say it loud, to speak truth to power...toxic waste, Chevron, capitalism. Very moving, indeed, and I sincerely hope they make it to Cuba. Bravo!

Stopped by Ubuntu, and ran into Sandy, the proprietor. It was packed, of course, and she gushed about a new chef. Along the way, I discovered Natalie Portman, star of the Black Swan, had recently dined there. Sandy invited me to a glass of her Lions Run wine, but I had to defer, and ask for a rain check. Must try the yoga one day, too.

Ten minutes later, I wandered through Morimoto, my first visit. Great, dynamic scene, people eating light snacks on the Main Street side, serious but fun dining toward the river view. Loved the collection of Japanese antiques on display--for sale?--behind a glass wall/room divider.

And the bar was almost packed, with extraordinarily beautiful young women. If I were a certain kind of rich guy, this is where I would go to look for that trophy wife.

But that's another story.

Heard on the Street, outside UVA, from a tall, pretty blonde running out of time: Well, I told them I wasn't Jewish, but I'd be happy to convert...

Saturday, 28 May 2011

So I walk into the Oxbow on Friday night, and I hear the chanteuse from Venezuela and she's knocking out "Girl from Ipanema" in the original, people are eating pizzas from Ca Momi, empanadas from Pica Pica, and drinking beer and wine from around the world. Mare's tails paint the sunset skies above the back patio, and there's a line at Casa for the fresh-as-can-be tacos.

No sooner had I seated myself than a friend from St. Helena stopped to say hi. Took me a minute to recognize the out-of-context face. It was Christopher Hill, who runs one of the best fine art galleries in the valley on St. Helena's Main Street. He shows lots of grand, painted canvases, and he comes up with things you just won't usually encounter. A few years ago he exhibited a series by an artist named Schneuerman, a long-dead German-Israeli who rendered Jerusalem cafe society from the 1930s in a neo-expressionistic style and muted pallette the likes of which I've never seen. Wonderful work!

The artist's name escapes me, but Christopher also has some powerful urban paintings that capture everything you find mysterious or exciting about cities. The gallery is upstairs, next to the shoe store with that delectable footwear.

That's why Oxbow is one of my favorite offices; everyone shows up there eventually, and some quite often. The other night I saw Mark Loermer presiding over a table of what looked like new volunteers for the Napa Valley Film Festival. It's not until November, but planning for these things takes time, and I've been seeing Mark and his wife Brenda all over town the last couple of months.

The Loermers staged one of the finest festivals I've ever seen of any type for several years in Sonoma as Cinema Epicuria; a fabulous blending of movies, food, wine and people. They tell me things are flying along here, and everyone in the community has been supportive. Can't wait to see how it comes out.

Went to the Chef's Market last night, and who but the ubiquitous Cejas, Amelia and Dahlia, were the featured cooks at the demo. They made spicy prawns paired with their Vino de Casa white blend.

All the usual suspects were out and about, drinking to the music. Maple Station Express delivered some killer blues between the front man who sings with a bass voice counterpoised against a woman who could sing up to him; the crowd in the Plaza glued their attention to the performance, and the rhythm guitarist rewarded us with a little saxophone from time to time.

When I wandered into the Quent Cordair Gallery I discovered it was International Chardonnay Day or something like that, and I got to look at the art sipping a Sonoma Chard from Expressions Vineyards; their tasting room is out on the Silverado Trail. Several dozen checked out the art and wine at this Twitter arranged event, and Cordair Gallery seems to do something special every month, with tastings. Romantic Realism is the art genre, but whatever you call it, you won't find better displays of representational skills than here.

Then I indulged a time-travel as I walked into the Gordon Building when nobody was watching. I took the little creaky elevator up to the second floor and emerged into the kind of office corridor once common in all those old buildings in San Francisco. Dimpled or frosted glass windows fill the door frames, the business name rendered in black and gold Roman lettering. A skylight delivered what little dusk light remained, and I descended down the stately staircase as in a childhood dream. The edifice is beautifully restored, and it's worth visiting just to see how elegant routine life once was in Napa.

I ambled by the Goodman Library, home of the Historical Society; new executive director there, and she seems determined actually to celebrate the town's glorious past. The first issue under her tenure of Gleanings, the society's newsletter, contained several historical articles, notably absent from its pages for some years.

I finally ended the evening at Silos, and a private event to which I was not invited. I was hanging around out back on the patio savoring a cigarette and last light when another Christopher appeared to clean up after the outside portion of the program. Turns out he's on the board of Napa Family Services, beneficiary of the night's event.

Family Services started after World War Two in order to help vets readjust to civilian life, and over 70 years it's morphed into a full-service family counseling agency. It's a privately organized, grass roots agency grounded in the community, which is enough to recommend it to me as a worthy cause.

In his non-volunteer life, Christopher works with Flowers Vineyard and Winery, source of the crisp white wine we imbibed. We drained our glasses and went back to work, Christopher to manage his event, and I to another party.

At Uva, where they featured a big-sound rock band that even had a violin.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Much to my surprise, I ran into a new friend first thing at the Farmer's Market on Tuesday morning. She makes jewelry and art, her table displaying a variety of exotic pieces made from found objects and accented with just the right item from the hardware store. She's adept at patinating metal, concocting strange brews to make the copper and bronze turn just the right shade of green, or transform new brass into old rarity.

Some of those hardware store chains could have passed for onyx, others chunky gold. She also creates whimsical impressionistic art prints, signed.

I met Sharon at games night at Oxbow, and the night before she and Volakis humiliated me at Scrabble; I was relieved of further embarrassment by a phone call beckoning me to dinner with the Borgia's.

This was a Showtime miniseries about the Spanish family that manipulated European affairs from the Vatican when Columbus discovered America. It presents Machiavelli's world of Renaissance intrigue with a vivid clarity. Of course, they played with the history; Machiavelli, for instance, was portrayed as an influential advisor to the Medici, when he was in fact an anonymous midlevel clerk. His fame came not until after he published his book on power, "The Prince." Dedicated to the Medici, Machiavelli's favorite model in the book was Cesare Borgia, son of Pope Alexander.

The young man was an unscrupulous, cold-blooded killer, but he got results. Machiavelli, who wrote so knowingly of power and influence, lost what little he had with that book, and he barely escaped excommunication and worse.

Regardless of historical accuracy, the show brings history alive in a way books cannot. It finished up the other night, but it'll return next season, and if you haven't seen it, the sure-to-come DVDs are worth getting.

But back to Sharon Hedlund, jewelry designer, artist and, I discovered, musician. She's a singer, and told of the program she'd seen Sunday at Mont la Salle, up Redwood Road. The Napa Valley Choral Society--I think that's what it's called--did a performance of Mozart's Requiem Mass.

I'd heard them do this piece up there several years ago, and it was the most sublime musical experience of my life. Sharon refrained from such a superlative, but she did admit to weeping throughout. It's reallly magnificent, and that choral group is wonderful. Worth hearing whatever they do.

Sharon hopes to audition for them later this year; but in the mean time, you can find her crafts at the Farmer's Market.

Also encountered some special artisan foods. Jacob Katz makes olive oil on the family farm in Suisun valley. Formerly owners of the Broadyway Terrace Restaurant in Oakland, they became enamored of the ingredients. So they created 25-acres of orchards. The Katzes press their own extra virgin oil, and they have all the requisite greeny certifications; a large number of those specialty olive oil people buy the stuff and add flavors. All that's special about it is their label and bottle. These folks are the real deal. They also do hand-made vinegars from wine. Learn more at

Then there was Whitney, a founder of Not Yer Momma's Granola. They do all natural, gluten free cereals, sweetend only with honey. They do custom blends with fruits and nuts, as desired. NYMG feature a couple of basic mixtures that they customize as creativity demands. My own favorite was the cardamom apricot. Thery started last year, and quickly had to expand. Great stuff. Learn more at

Chaz & Company provided the morning's a small PBS crew from San Francisco's KCET shot video for next season's documentary on Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in Yountville.

Heard On the Street: A master of the universe discussing a great scheme at a local hot-spot. Napa Valley Tequila! Had it all figured out, NAFTA loopholes and all. Make it down in Jalisco at cut rate prices, and barrel, age and bottle it here.

But the best were a few girls doing the bride's blowout thing Saturday night. The town was shutting down earlier than these party girls from the Bay Area were willing to accept. I saw them off and on up and down Main Street, looking for fun they couldn't quite find. They finally made it to Henry's, where someone congratulated the imminent bride.

Her best friend then proclaimed, "She's never going to [make love} to another guy again...her fiance has a HUGE [endowment]!"

Everyone in earshot stood there open-mounthed, and the almost-bride grinned widely, entering the bar for a last drink on her last party as a single.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Spent a Thursday evening wandering the first Chef's Market of the season. Of course it's always nice to see an event that draws so many people, especially here in Napa. Lots of beer, wine, and a cooking demo from the chef at Zin's Valley Restaurant. And a couple of rock bands. But I do miss the chamber trios of days yore.

Checked out the Treasure Hunter's Roadshow visit to Napa on Friday afternoon at the Best Western Hotel out by the Red Hen. They're here for two days, hoping some locals will turn up with a priceless antique with a story. This is some kind of knock-off of PBS's Antiques Roadshow, and if anyone expected to see hordes of people with neat stuff, they'd have been disappointed. By the time I got there at four, a dozen huddled over their loot in a little lobby outside a banquet room awaiting their appointments with the experts.

The lady behind the desk was harried despite the lack of crowds because she set up the appointments, some several hundred for the day. Avoided the glut, but lost the glamor.

Military memorabilia and toys seem to be the hot items for this market, and the event featured a display of items ranging from a big, steel toy dump truck from the 1930s, a World War One pickle stick helmet, to several elegant old pocket watches. Bayonets, too, but the finest piece appeared to be a Nazi ceremonial dagger with a silver hilt.

I think my old Californio cutlass from the General Vallejo era might have made the grade, but I ain't waiting in line, appointment or no.

My friend Peter took an ivory snuff bottle from China, exquisitely carved in deep relief on one side, incised on the other. Elegant little piece, but the appraisers weren't interested because of trade restrictions on ivory. There goes his TV appearance.

Stopped by Bounty Hunter afterwards to taste the Brown Bag Special. It's two bucks for a short pour, and it's free if you guess the varietal and the country of origin. As usual, I got this one wrong by guessing it was a Montepulciano from Tuscany. Jordan informed me that it was a Pinot Noir from Carneros. The staff is one of the best things about Bounty Hunter, and their lack of turnover is amazing.

Jordan's become my favorite bartender lately since he found and returned my stolen bicycle. I'd chained it behind the place while away on a trip for a few days; someone clipped it. I gave up on ever seeing it again, but Will walked into the Coffee Roasting company next door for some java a few weeks after the event. He's the manager at Bounty Hunter, I mentioned my loss, he said he'd ask around.

Turns out Jordan found it abandoned not far from where it was stolen. And that's how I got my vintage chrome Raleigh back. Thanks to Jordan and Bounty Hunter. I like all their barbecue, too, especially the beef brisket sandwich.

Went to Sonoma for a Friday dinner at Murphy's Irish Pub, a stand-by favorite at the end of one of those little alleys off the square. The Nepalese restaurant acoss the way played folky standards, while Murphy's specializes in Irish and Celtic music. I ate my fish and chips listening to Sweet Penny Royale, three women playing, respectively, accordion, cello and flute, with a little drum thrown in. Lively jigs in Gaelic.

Then I went to a buddy's house to watch a recent movie called "Nine," a three-part flick discussing the meaning of life and what it's like to be God on earth, with us humans. God, or some hunky guy who thinks he's God, tries to figure it out with the help of a couple of ambiguous women. Very hip and stylish in an odd, life-affirming way.

Made the rounds Saturday night, but most everything was shutting down by well before midnight. Bistro Sabor defied the trend with its salsa Saturday Nights; dancers even drifted into the plaza. Downtown Joe's and Henry's had some crowds, and Morimoto's bar was packed. Meanwhile, Bloom, the hair-cutting joint at Main and Pearl that does music from time to time, featured an avant-garde keyboard player accompanied by a guitarist in a dark room dotted with floating green light spots.

Almost Forgot: Went to the First Friday summer party in St. Helena a couple of weeks ago. Stores open late and featuring local wines, sidewalks packed with people visiting each other, food stands offering a variety of fare.

They staged some nice little dance performances on the sidestreet in front of the Coffee Roasting Company in St. Helena, but the best part of the evening for me broke out after the crowds left with the light.

A Mexican Ranchera Band--I think that's what it's called, kind of Mariachi, but cowboy-oriented--featuring nine or ten musicians, including a female vocalist, a couple of violins and brass. Love those riffs where the singer belts out a lingering high note, violin strings emphasize it, the horns addding a flourish of punctuation. A big moon rose in the black sky, the few dozens of shadow audience swayed in nostalgia, and as one of the food vendors let loose and joined in, the woman singing with the band pulled her up for a duet.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

The other day I rode my bicycle from Yountville to Stag's Leap Wine Cellars to talk and quaff with Dave Menzel, tasting room manager. One of the ongoing mysteries out there is who planted the first vines, built the first wineries, who had the first commercial label.

After tasting some rich Fay Cabernet--from one of the older vineyards, named after a bygone owner--we meandered up to the lake. An oak-studded hillside looms above, at its base nestling the remains of a wine cellar built into the slope. It's small, 15x10, walls eight-feet or so high, sand stone covered in green moss. A most picturesque ruin as it is, there are plans to save and restore what's left.

There are two winery concerns hugging the base of Stag's Leap that bear the name, and it's a natural source of curiosity for all concerned to know the history.

Even the name "Stag's Leap" is in some doubt. It supposedly derives from an Indian legend concerning a deer escaping its pursuers by leaping from one rocky crag to another, arrows aflying. But the name was generally unknown in 1890 to all but the recently arrived owners who built a fine manor house on the property and dreamed up the moniker. They added a Spanish style winery building some years later, a ruin itself in the picture I saw from 1971.

I've since learned the entire property--a large one--was owned by a partnership including the uncle of the wealthy young man of estate, and that it had been in grapes of good reputation for a decade or two before. But it wasn't until the late 1870s or early 1880s that wine exploded as an industry in the Valley.

That's why I think the old building at Stag's Leap cellars is probably among the first in the area. Its small size is consistent with the early industry of the late 1860s or early 1870s. Just what a serious farmer-winemaker might build in starting out. If I'm right, it's a nice historical coincidence that it graces this particular winery property, one of the four standouts at the Judgment of Paris in 1976.

Before heading out to Stag's Leap, I stopped by Groezinger's Wine Shop. Owner Rick collects Grateful Dead memorabilia, and I love his displays. We talked about changing fashions in wine, how the big, buttery Chardonnays of the '80s and '90s are mostly gone now; and the popularity of Pinot Noir, ultimately leading to lighter Cabernets.

The original G. Groezinger built what is now called Vintage 1870 to age his large wine holdings, and it was one of the earliest large scale wineries in the Valley. That's 20 years before the Stag's Leap ruin associated with the house was built, further indication of the advanced state of winemaking in the area even then.

Rick's shop, by the way, is at the south end of town; good selection of hard to find wines, and he ships all over the United States

Picked up an interesting factoid the other day from a young bicycle-racing friend who works in restaurants. The best places to work to establish yourself as a serious waiter? Oenotri, Ubuntu, Morimoto.

Almost Forgot: Tasted some wine shortbreads at OxBow the other day. Subtly sweet and tangy, they go great with goat cheese. From the Napa Cookie Company.

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Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The summer season is hard to define in Napa, but the beginning of the Farmers' Market is as good a sign as any. I caught the first Saturday edition last week; a little anemic, but more vendors will show as the schedule re-establishes itself. The Farmers' Market shows up every Tuesday and Saturday at the OxBow until fall. You'll find organic fruits and vegetables, and several natural gardening gurus, too.

Many of the OxBow merchants set up outside on market day, and I hope the event reinforces everyone's business. The OxBow Market is one of the best hang-outs in Napa, a gourmet food-court extraordinaire, with fine merchandise thrown in. There's a cadre of regulars, and on Monday nights a crew has taken to playing board games.

That's how I met Emanuel Volakis, erstwhile galley owner in Yountville. He's a fine artist in photography and a most discerning art dealer. A year or so back he vacated his public gallery space Upvalley to open a studio gallery in Napa. There he consolidates his activities as artist and consultant.

Aside from magnificent photography, Volakis also boasts a small inventory of other art objects of a singular type. But I like his own architectural pix most of all. Check him out at

Games nights are proliferating around town lately. I just discovered a Monday Trivia night at Downtown Joe's when I stopped to talk to a friend deep in concentration at the bar. Thought she was taking a test or something before I figured it out.

I've been going to Bistro Sabor lately for my trivia, and caught the last two weeks. A good, lively crowd of teams sharpshoot each other answers in whispers while eating exotic fare from Latin climes. I tried the Pupusas with Pork, the fluffy corn cakes topped with succulent morsels in salsa. Better than any I ate in El Salvador, and the Red Stripe beer I washed it down with evoked pleasant memories of Jamaican adventures at Queen Anne's Bay.

Ariel Ceja orchestrates the action, a sight to make his mother Amelia proud, so evident when I last saw her at the Bistro. A wonderful family establishing their own traditions here in town and at their vineyard in the Carneros District.

Cinco de Mayo didn't seem to inspire many public parties, but Compadres came through with a friendly little blowout on the back patio under the stars. The party was free, there were specials on drinks and tacos, and everyone made the most of everything.

It'll be a year till the next one, but Compadres keeps the parties going with regular specials. My favorite? Tuesday Taco Night, a buck a piece.

I also do Saturday evenings at Uva, and the other day I had the best bite of filet mignon I can remember.

The Chef's Market starts on Thursday night, and that should liven things up for awhile, and this weekend there's some kind of novel bicycle ride that runs 60 or a hundred miles, and starts at Napa, winds up the killer Ink Grade, passes by the Culinary Institute in St. Helena, and then returns to town. Good food, wine and music are worked in there too, for those libertines who bike.

That would be the Napa Gran Fondo, this Saturday. I wouldn't ride it, but it might be fun to watch; call 707-486-0279 for info. Same with the Second Annual Bocce Tournament at St. John's, also this Saturday. There's lunch, wine and a silent auction; call 707-224-1786 for info.

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