The A-List Archives:  Jul-Sep 2011

Friday, 29 September 2011

It's late on a Friday afternoon, the fall sun is dropping toward the Mayacamas Mountains, and the the Beatle's Hands Across the Water is playing on the sound system at the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company. A little while ago I watched the Vintage High Homecoming Parade march down Main Street, and tonight, Merle Haggard's playing at the Uptown. And tomorrow, Paul Slack's producing the Do It Yourself Festival by the skate park.

All so familiar and small-town pleasant despite the Napa Valley's reputation as a "world-class resort destination." Yet it seems fantastic to me now, this idyllic day, because I've just gone through the most surreal two weeks, I believe, of my life.

Flashback to a Friday two weeks ago, capping a wonderful week; a fun movie night at the Slack Collective on Tuesday, an array of a capella performances at Silo's on Thursday, and on Friday, an evening of musical excess. The Slack Collective, again, presented a great lineup, starting with the dapper Daniel Pendergas, playing keyboards and voicing his own songs in plaintive tones melded with the ivory harmonies. I took off for Silo's to see what was happening, walked into a set by Jazz at 8, five women and three men singing and swaying, conductor bobbing and pointing, and half-a-dozen musicians--bass, drums, a horn or two maybe and piano, I suspect, et cetera--cranking out swing rhythms. Thought I'd wandered into a '30s club where they forgot to dress right and dance, a big band sound without the visuals. Or it could've been a radio performance from those days if you didn't look too closely.

Morimoto's was well-packed, Fish Story had an intimate little crew clustered around the bar, and Downtown Joe's overflowed with happy campers and rock and roll.

Stopped by the Opera House to hear Joan Osborne and Dar Williams, a Joni Mitchell for our time, heartfelt guitar strummings and songs about the rain and moving to Soho, entertaining little stories declaimed by a charming raconteuse.

Continued down Main Street, past Cole's crowded bar and dining room, through Ubuntu to watch Kevin make food art and choreography in tune with Aaron English's calmly delivered commands; by Cielito Lindo and what looked like a roomful of romantic dinners, the different couples leaning over their tables to smile, whisper to, kiss each other, between tidbits proferred back and forth.

Back to the Collective a block up Pearl, where I walked into Bone Cave Ballet, five players, I believe, and a girl for a frontman. Led Zeppelin meets Metallica, I was thinking, and Brandon--the bass player I met and talked with later--said, Yeah, that's fair. And that girl just thrashed that guitar.

Then Trebuchet came on, two men, two women, with a wide array of instruments, including banjo and mandolin. Turns out the four are voice teachers or somesuch, and in addition to the creative instrumental melange, they wove their voices into a complex tapestry of melodious sounds.

The crowd numbered perhaps a few dozen, all delighted with what they heard, every song another unexpected triumph, crisply executed with a tangible precision, whether banjo strumming or mandolin plinking. Then, done, the assembly demanded an encore through the applause. And the band stood there in consternation, looking blankly a moment before one of the members mumbled that they didn't have anymore songs to play.

I arose late Saturday morning, got to the Farmer's Market at Oxbow as it dissipated, visited with a friend here or there; made plans with Jay, Ritual Coffee barista, to get together later in the afternoon for a glass of wine at my place in the woods. Hung out, read and wrote at the coffee house, went by the Community Projects thrift shop on Franklin to look for curios.

The hours passed easily, and I wandered back to Oxbow to connect with Jay, only to discover he'd run into a couple of friends he knew from UC Berkeley, Deirdre and Chris. A chance meeting; Deirdre had come from Oakland to the Farmers' Market to dispense samples of the company she represents, Hodo Soy Beanery. By the time introductions were complete, we'd decided on a full on picnic; we headed to the mountains.

The redwoods are most pleasant on a late summer day, the Valley's heat moderated by the forest, the light diffuse. We settled in the library, threw the doors open, and indulged the view: vineyards below, ridge beyond, and the Vaca Mountains in the distance, Soda Springs just visible. Mozart played on the radio.

Deirdre took command of the coffee table, laying out the bread, cheese and tofu morsels; I retrieved a bottle of Zinfandel made by my friend Warren Mufich, who grew up in these same mountains during the Depression. A Clayton, from the Sierra foothills, a label owned by one of Warren's many friends.

We got to know each other as we nibbled; Chris did something technical and complicated concerning GPS systems, worked freelance as he desired, some sort of dream job. Deirdre, of course, made and promoted soy goodies; not surprisingly, she was a vegetarian, and she loved her job, loved being on the cutting edge of food.

Then it developed, unsurprising as well, that she'd been to India; and she regaled us with stories of the Sikhs' Golden Temple at Amritsar. Meanwhile, we ate Hodo Soy Beanery's tofu treats, quite an odd little exercise for a meat eater like myself.

The Curry Nuggets and Five Spice Morsels actually reminded me of meat, very tasty, light meat, and I ate of them liberally as Deirdre described the glories of the Temple complex, Jay looked at my graphics collection, and Chris gazed at the view. Of this latter, I was particularly fond; just the weekend before I'd gotten my son to come up for the day to assist me in taking down a particularly ugly bay tree that obscured with ragged growth half the available vista.

The problem was that its upper portions would fall onto Redwood Road, and I didn't want to take out a car; my son would stop traffic when it came down, and then assist me in chopping it clear of the roadway. All very easy theoretically, but fraught with myriad dangers to all concerned should something go amiss. I was still cheating death hours after my son's departure, but all came out well, and I had that newly expanded view. I'd been admiring it for a week, and it was a pleasure to share.

We enjoyed the leisurely repast, traded small talk, drained the wine; I showed off my various treasures. And after a decent interval we went for a walk through the redwood groves to the ridgetop meadows. You could see the upper reaches of the Bay and Pinole Point, Carneros Hills and Sonoma in foreground; and the sun set behind near foothills tumbling into the distance, everything bathed in a misty glow worthy of Joseph Turner.

The forest darkened quickly, but over time it's sufficiently cut back that it does resemble that natural garden I am creating, and there are well-cut trails; so the trek was more enchanting than harrowing. Returning to the library, we drank tea, snacked on sweets--candied nuts, I believe, another treat from Deirdre--and shared lofty speculations.

Then we watched a full moon rise in the middle of that view I'd so recently cut out with my son. A perfect evening.

My slumber was disturbed at eight the next morning; my ex-wife, I knew this wasn't good. Her voice trembled as she informed me that our son had been in a horrible car accident, and was at the intensive care unit at San Francisco General Hospital. Fractured skull, fractured jaw, broken face, broken arm.

Yikes! Yikes...

I don't mind telling you it was pretty scary for a few days, until he came to and we dicovered that he wasn't nearly as badly damaged as we'd feared, and he will fully recover--more or less--in three to six months. That served as great news considering the possibile alternatives we feared, and I'm oddly elated; he got mangled and battered, he'll spend months in a head brace, and I'm happy. Relatively speaking.

That accounts for the surreal nature of my perceptions these days, added to a couple of intensely singular environments: ranging from San Francisco General in the Potrero District, to Kaiser Hospital in Oakland by Piedmont Avenue. God knows the hospital experiences were bizarre enough, but the neighborhoods were each unique in a specifically Bay Area way. Grit and grunge hipsters in the City, well-healed counter-culturalists in Piedmont. Like Berkeley, with better taste.

And now, every time I pass a routine day in Napa, the pleasant, familiar things, it all seems like a strange dream.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

So I walk into Downtown Joe's Monday night expecting, finally, to see Big John Herkins, Mayor of Downtown, conduct the regular Trivia Contest. Instead, I found an indoor tailgate party; that trivia thing is seasonal and now it's time for Monday Night Football. The girls were decked out in their favorite jerseys and short shorts, the guys wore theirs--jerseys I mean--and everyone oohed and aahed in unison. Denver vs Oakland...I think. Never got into sports despite a five-year stint working for a magazine covering just such games. My last ex-wife had to tutor me.

But that's another story.

Before I knew it, a bear-paw of a hand was slapping me on the back, and I turned to regard Big John himself, wearing a Raiders jersey. How ya doin'? he asked, playing personal host.

Big John and I have a special bond, our love of conspiracy theories, secret mysteries: Area 51, the Bohemian Club, The Shriners. But all the bartenders I've gotten to know there are classics: Kevin, 14 years at Joe's, threatening to write a book; Wyatt, a football player's build, a past, indeed, of playing local football, and the friendliest guy you'll ever meet; and Patti, who greets people with a Hey, Darlin'.

I've always been more a cafe than bar person, but the best times I've ever had with my feet on a brass rail have been at Downtown Joe's the last few months. Ralph Woodson's Jimi Hendrix covers with the band Purple Haze would be reason enough, but Charles Whiel and Amber Snyder have played some mean music for me too. But it's the people, the scenes, I've watched play out there that I most enjoy.

The morose looking guy sitting next to me one late week night who finally asked if I was from here in accented English. Yeah, I admitted, wondering where this would go with this inebriate who wanted to get something off his chest. Well, his name was Klaus, and it turned out he and his friend Karl--he would soon join us--came from Germany. They had just arrived in Napa that afternoon after a six-week, 5,300 mile tour of the United States, New York to San Francisco, on rented Harley Davidsons. It was their lifelong dream to do this, they had the best time of their lives, and they wanted to get drunk with an American just so they could tell him how much they loved the country, how nice the people were. I got to be the American, and we had the nicest time drinking beer until we staggered out.

Another night stopped by on the way to the Slack Artists Collective around nine, saw what looked like a corporate crew, men and women, 30, 40-something, out here for a conference. They were dressed for dinner, seems they stopped by Joe's for a drink after; the men sat, talked and drank with each other, the women trolled and danced with young guys. One of these gals, black cocktail dress, squeezed by with a hunk, smiled at me, I smile back, and for some reason, I winked at her; she smirked back.

A few hours later, stopped by Joe's again, and wouldn't you know it, she squeezed by me again, on her way out, on the arm of yet another young stud 15, 20 years her junior, a big, Hollywood-handsome kid. She stuck her tongue out at me.

Gotta love it. I also enjoy the random wedding parties passing through--the other night saw a beautiful, fun-drunk bride sauntering in, her long wedding gown dragging over the sidewalk, followed by the new, bewildered-looking hubby, and raucous girlfriends joking about the day. Yeah, Joe's always has some surprises in store if you pay attention.

There are all kinds of little scenes at various places around town. I've yet to go to Carpe Diem for a drink, but the owner Steve is a straightforward, friendly guy, and the place is always busy in the afternoon and evening. Tuesday, the crowd spilled onto the sidewalk; saw Sara Brooks, GM at Napa River Inn in its midst. She explained Carpe Diem has little fundraisers for the local Education Foundation once in awhile--ten bucks buys a glass of wine and a handful of raffle tickets. Popular little event, from appearances, and rather creative take on fund-raising, I'd say. I have a soft spot for the place anyway, ever since a bland Fourth of July celebration a few years back; there was no barbecue or food for sale anywhere on Main Street, but CD was selling hotdogs for a dollar, as patriotic a gesture as I've ever seen.

Tonight I stopped by Bistro Sabor to catch a little of their trivia evening with Ashley; they were talking apples when I came in: what city got its nickname from the many racecourses ringing it, popularly called "apples?"; what was the name that made famous John Chapman, a guy who planted apple trees all over Ohio and Indians in the old days. I didn't hang around for the answers, but they were New York and the Big Apple, of course, and Johnny Appleseed.

It was something of a bittersweet visit. Just got word through Amelia Ceja's Facebook page about a young woman named Erika who died unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago at the Burning Man celebration in Northern Nevada. She was in her early '30s, I believe, and succumbed to an out-of-the-blue cerebral hemorrage. The comments of friends expressed their grief, loss and surprise, sentiments I fully appreciate, though I hardly knew her.

Did meet her on my first visit to Bistro Sabor for trivia night, however, and a couple of more times as well afterward. She was pretty, smart and friendly, and from what I've gleaned, talented and accomplished as well. Last talked with her and the boyfriend briefly out front of BSabor six or eight weeks ago; they seemed really happy with each other.

Knowing her as little as I did, I can't claim any real feelings of grief, but it sure as hell saddened me, and reminded me anew the importance of making the most of your time here. Seems that she did, and the only consolation is that she died more or less content, it seems, her life apparently in order, while on a great adventure. Her problems are over. And while time doesn't heal all wounds, it does soften the pain and reduces memories to the best of them.

Yesterday ran into a friend of hers who'd been at Burning Man, too, told of dancing naked for almost two hours to the drums and drummers, sweat pouring down through the mud, total earth-mother fantasy come true for a time. Turns out she was wearing one of Erika's blouses at our encounter; Erika's mother and sister had invited her friends over to her house and allowed each to take a memento. What a sweet gesture.

Many people commit them, I've noticed; several times over the last six months I've seen Ariel Ceja and colleague Jonah serve meals to homeless in front of Bistro Sabor. They claim that "a customer" paid for it, but I suspect most of the time it's Ariel and Jonah concocting the fiction so they don't turn into soft touches.

And a couple of months ago I observed an equivalent vignette of kindness at Bounty Hunter. I was having a cigarette in front of the NV Coffee Roasting Company when I noticed a man across the street with a white cane in hand and a confused look about him. I walked over to offer assistance, he at first declined, then changed his mind.

I'm looking for a place to eat and get a glass of wine, he said. Vegetarian. Thoughtlessly, I responded Bounty Hunter, just across the street, but a barbecue joint. I started to backtrack on that basis, but he said he'd find something to eat there; he'd heard about the wine selection.

We introduced ourselves during the short walk; his name was Paul, worked for a major organization for the blind in Washington, DC. He was just getting his bearings when I saw him, using a Braille wi-fi device with GPS that told him where he was and where he wanted to go. I don't think Paul is ever lost, though it takes him a little longer than the sighted to figure out the obvious, but I've never seen a blind man move with such facility and assurance.

We arrived at Bounty Hunter, to be greeted by Katie at the door; I introduced Paul, made known his vegetarian preferences, and Katie took over. Now, I know that any decent server would have taken a little extra time to dote on Paul, but Katie was all over him for the best part of an hour. I paced and smoked at the Coffee House corner, Paul's outdoor table visible a hundred feet away; Katie was always there, or coming and going. Ran into Paul later, told me they contrived an off-menu plate of veggie delights, and Katie helped him through his wine selections. Ran into Katie later, told me he came back for dinner with his wife.

I suspect he asked for Katie to be his server, but the whole Bounty Hunter crew is great. Will's an attentive manager, and I already related here how he helped me recover my stolen bicycle after Jordan, the bartender now at 1313, saved it from abandonment. Nice detective work, and a great kindness to me.

Arnulfo has become another Bounty Hunter favorite, an outgoing man of generous nature. First met him at an odd weekend hour pulling great masses of barbecued beef and pork from the great contraption out back. A flame, smoke and meat specialist extraordinaire, we see each other all over town, and whenever that big, black menacing truck with the dark windows honks at me on the bike, I smile and wave at Arnie.

Then there are the girls at the Coffee House, Becky, Hannah, Danielle and Jewellyanne, recently joined by Stephanie. I must have seen a dozen girls pass through there, and they're unfailingly kind to the most troublesome customers, including me. Those mentioned continue the tradition, and they'll take their work habits and kindnesses elsewhere. I see Tina, a former alumnus, at Ritual Coffee; her Mom, Gabby still works at the Coffee House, as does Becky, another of her daughters. Wonder if Gabby sets the tone; I've seen her raise quite a few young women, workingwise.

And two more of them, wouldn't you know it, have ended up as hostesses at Bounty Hunter: Amelia and another Hannah, as kind and efficient as I remember them at the Coffee House five years ago. It's deja vu all over again for me, everywhere I go.

Dont't Miss: The Napa Valley Horseman's Association is hosting it's annual Mustang Days on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 8am-4pm. Fun just to go and watch the wild horses up for adoption and learn the lore. Also lots of entertainment this weekend; the great vocalist Terry Bradford's playing at Silo's Saturday night. Diana Ross is at Lincoln Theater in Yountville tomorrow, Joan Osborne and Dar Williams are playing the Opera House, and Rob Schneider's at the Uptown Saturday. It's also Open Studios for Napa Valley artists this weekend and next; check out Eventing Napa for more info.

Heard On The Street, from two women in the Oxbow parking lot: "...and they make everyone attend these classes about hate, and stuff like that, but it's all people from one part of the town against people in another part of town..."

Monday, 12 September 2011

I hadn't been to Hands Across the Valley for several years, not since the Rubicon days. I don't know if it's been at The Ranch Winery before, but my first visit there was Saturday evening, and I found the usual suspects in a familiar environment: fantastic food and wine from the Valley's premiere artists and artisans, under a darkening blue sky with the Vaca Mountains providing stunning views as the light shifted west.

Ran into some old friends and met some new ones. Dario Sattui loomed large, as always, and we traded jibes and wisecracks as we have for 35 years. There's a black tie bash at his place this coming weekend, but most of us aren't invited; it's a special for his wine club members, and that may be reason enough to join up.

Saw George Altamura, one of the founders of the event; and Gordon Heuther, the Valley's most well-known artist, especially lately, since he's creating that local 9/11 memorial out of girders from the World Trade Center. The Tenth Anniversary of that great national tragedy was the next day, of course, but it was difficult to reconcile those realities on a shaded lawn, glass of Pinot in hand.

Met some really nice people from Queen of the Valley Hospital, one of the sponsors, I believe. First there was Del, an internal medicine specialist from Jamaica. I told him of my adventures there exploring the island beyond the resorts, he told of growing up on a farm where they grew their own food. Before long, we were discussing the merits of breadfruit; I tasted it in Jamaica for the first time, and Del correctly guessed it had been roasted. Ah, you should try it boiled when it first ripens, he explained. That's one culinary delight I have yet to see the local wizard chefs work magic on, but I'm sure that's just a matter of time.

Over a glass of red and a lamb chop served atop corn kernels and tiny hominy, we went on to discuss the merits of plantains and their many manifestations. Then we were joined by Bob and Susan, a most lovely couple Del knew from the hospital. Turns out Bob is director of operations at the hospital, but before I discovered what that meant, Sister Somebody joined us to regale us with some interesting stories.

Though dressed in civilian clothes, she was a nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph, the same order that first taught me at Star of the Sea, in San Francsico; seems I heard somewhere at that Hands Across the Valley party that the order started in New Zealand, and then came here. They're the ladies who own the Queen, so to speak.

The Sister shared her love of the Giants, but it turns out she grew up outside of Los Angeles, just far enough away to think of it as the enemy; thus the Giants. And her Dad loved them, so that settled it. Nice touch that Bay Area sportscaster Mark Ibanez was there; just a week or so earlier, he was at that event at the Lincoln Theater where they talked Giants baseball and showed off the World Series Trophy.

She also told a funny story about getting beat up every day after school by some girl. Dad told her to punch the girl in the nose, but, not surprisigly, the eventual nun refrained. So Dad went to the school, had a talk with someone, and a solution was found; Bad Girl had to stay late for half-an-hour every day so Nun Girl could get home without a thumping.

I don't think they do things like that anymore; no one punches anyone in the nose in self defense, and no one has to stay late for being a bully; too many potential law suits in either direction.

Ate many wonderful things; great tri-tip from the St. Helena Fire Department, spectacular gazpacho from the Culinary Institute of America. And I ate something really good from Grace's Kitchen, though I can't remember what.

Hands Across the Valley benefits the Napa valley Food Bank, so it's only natural that we ate well; unfortunately, another engagement dictated I leave before the actual dinner and the auction action, emceed by Kelli Fuller of KVYN.

On the way out, stopped to say good-bye to Sattui, when some friends of his came along; Prab, a Stanford cancer specialist who's become especially treasured by certain wine families in the Valley, and Marquetta, a founder of Chateau Potelle.

Prab, I discovered, is a major league oncologist, and a poster child for cancer charities; his mere association with you is an endorsement. Turns out he's a bike racer, too, so it's not surprising he ended up getting to know Lance Armstrong; we had fun trading anecdotes about the great man.

Marquetta has a singular history of her own. She came to the valley a couple of decades ago employed by "The French" as a wine spy, to see what, exactly, was going on in this newly burgeoning wine region. She decided to change sides, and started her own winery with a partner. Chateau Potelle hovers above the mid Valley on Mount Veeder, used to enjoy visiting up there; Marquetta sold out a few years ago, and now she's launching her own label from new digs along the river in one of the Coombs Street compounds. Must visit one day.

In actuality, however, my weekend started Thursday night; wandered into Uncorked, by the Oxbow, to catch a little of the open mic action Bruce Ahnfeldt does every other Thursday at his wine bar. Ended up having a cigarette out back with Don, lead guitarist of the Merchants. First heard him a couple of weeks ago at the Slack Artists' Collective; very smooth performer, good stage presence, writes his own stuff, sings well. We talked of his plans to go to Austin to try to Make It.

Don's 23, already tried San Francisco; found it too chaotic in too many ways, and the prospect of earthquakes, on top of everything else, made it less than desirable for him. Austin's primarily about music, and crazy counter-culture is secondary. Sounds like Don's kind of place, at least to Don.

Paul Slack is the man who established the Downtown Artists' Collective, a venue for some really interesting performances, ranging from straight-on music to performance art to odd movies on Tuesday nights. Saw Frank Zappa's 200 Motels there a couple of weeks ago--Geez! That was acid without the LSD--and before that, Branding the Brain, The Red Shoes and Dead On Arrival. In reverse succession, that would be Film Noir, The last of English Film Epic, Existentialism and Psychedlic Dadaism

Paul Slack also owns Bloom and Boom Hair Salons, both on or near Main and Pearl Streets, and that classifies him as a classic small businessman serving his community. But Slack does so much more than most, and for all the Big-Money philanthropy in this Valley, and the Big People involved, few genuinely do more to promote the creative impulse among Napa's young people. He rents low-cost art studios, he puts on events, he encourages youngsters to follow their bliss, but most of all, to Do Something. In fact, on the weekend around 1 October, he's staging the Do It Yourself Festival, a creative block party adjacent to the skate park.

He's been at it for some years, and before I knew anything of him, wandered out to his place in Carneros for some jams.

He produced just such an evening of music at his Carneros Slack Ranch Thursday night; headed out there from Uncorked; dozens of musicians cut loose out in the vineyards under the moonlight. When I got there, some young man riffed heavy metal, backed only by a drummer; couldn't believe the amount of sound he made, and I'm not talking volume. Really had his licks down. Though the feel is impromptu, these are serious music makers, in a variety of genres; Buttercream, for instance, has a strong local following, and I was assured they'd be breaking into the big time by next year.

My favorite of the evening, however, was U2Plural, Ephraim and Jenn, he on keyboards, she on cello. Did you get that? Cello!

They sang in duelling falsettos, his dynamic banging on the ivories countering her wild sawing on the cello, and it was exquisite.

And out front, a couple of dozen sat or stood around a great bonfire drinking beer as Venus rose above Mount George.

Heard On The Street, from a couple of old ladies doing lunch: "...and this man ran out of the woods and stole her purse from the golf cart. Well, she had $500 in it, and he just took off down the hillside. What she was doing with $500 on the golf course I'll never know..."

Thursday, 8 September 2011

This is a big weekend for events, some of Napa Valley's signature soirees! Hands Across the Valley must have been going a couple of decades now, or close to it. Last time I went was a few years ago, at Copolla's Rubicon; this year it's at The Ranch, in Rutherford. Don't know the venue, but if history is any guide, it'll be a blast Saturday night.

Same with the Staglin Family Vineyard Music Festival, regretably on the same evening. The Staglin's are among the most gracious couples in the Valley; met them during the Wine Auction a few years ago, when they hosted one of the pre-auction parties at their house. That would be the same house, I believe, featured in the movie The Parent Trap; Dennis Quaid, and two Lindsey Lohans. One life seems to be too much for her now that she's older, but that's another story.

Anyway, the Staglin place is wonderful, and Sheri Staglin couldn't have been a more charming hostess during my visit. Should be another great party.

Lots more happening than that, though; the Valley Ukulele Festival kicks off tomorrow at the Opera House, more events to follow; Tears for Fears is playing the Uptown tomorrow as well. And on Sunday, the Carmelite Monastery is hosting its annual steak barbecue in Oakville; that's a most pleasant afternoon on the grounds of a great estate, gardens designed by John McLaren, the Scot who laid out Golden Gate Park a hundred-plus years ago.

Check out Eventing Napa for relevant contact info.

Last night ended up in Calistoga for the Cheers to Taste event for the wine industry; the whole town stayed open late for the guests, and several served wine and snacks. The tasting rooms, of course, were packed.

I started out--and finished--at the Vermeil Tasting Room, just as you enter town on the left, by Ca 'Toga--I think that's it--the Venetian design extravaganza. Went through all the Vermeil reds available--a Zin, a Cab, a Syrah(?)--and found them most drinkable. So I did, again and again.

The Village Bakery served little turkey sandwiches and the most delectable chocolate-nut things as dessert; orange biscotti, too. The place was packed the whole evening, and the most lovely young woman sang the sweetest songs as she played guitar. Met a woman recently moved from Montana, became a wine educator just last month; a trend I seem to keep confronting. Thirty/forty-something women moving to the Valley as their version of Under the Tuscan Sun...or Eat, Love, Pray. Looking for a new, more meaningful life in a beautiful place; spritual fulfillment; and I suspect, husbands and babies.

I fear there may be such a glut of them that there won't be enough of that fulfillment to go around. But I hope I'm wrong.

Also met Chris Landercaster, who manages the organic farm maintained by Gott's Refresher, with branches at the Oxbow in Napa, the south edge of St. Helena and San Francisco's Ferry Building. I guess there was a time when roadside drive-ins really did serve foods from their own farms somewhere, but it's rare enough now. Gott's is a real treat, and their ahi sandwich is to die for; especially with some sweet potato fries and a blueberry milkshake. Don't know if that's proper food pairing, but I don't really care. Yum!

That's how it was, people wandering up and down Lincoln Street making friends with the others wearing name tags. Standing in line at some point I started talking to the woman next to me--Sara Bixler, it turned out--whom I'd met briefly a few weeks before in Napa; does marketing for the Napa Valley Film Festival. Didn't catch her colleague's name, but we discussed the coming movie extravaganza, and they discovered I'd gone to Cinema Epicuria in Sonoma few years running. That was organized by Mark and Brenda Loermer, who now direct the Napa Valley version.

They asked what I thought, and I replied as honestly as I could: One of the best, most consistently well-organized series of events I ever attended in a long life of high living and promiscuous party attending.

The Napa Festival won't premiere until November, but you might want to buy tickets now; I suspect the best packages may sell out sooner rather than later.

But now I have to go; there's music coming from Uncorked, and later I'm going with Jay--the Ritual barrista,--to an event at the Slack Ranch. Music, performance art, friendly bonfire.

Monday, 5 September 2011

It's Labor Day, and for the first in some years, I believe, there's no river celebration. It's slow around town, everyone recovering from the long weekend, a hot, lazy summer day, perfect for the barbecue with friends around the pool or under the loggia.

Had the best evening last night, highlighted by Kenny Loggins at the Uptown; great show, great staging. Playing to a packed house, Loggins gave us a historical music tour of his career, playing hits from various phases and albums, spicing it all up with the best stories and reminiscences. Told of playing with Stevie Nicks when Fleetwood Mack toured following release of the Rumors album, started up about how they were great friends and...and...well I was one of the few who wasn't, he joked. The crowd roared in laughter, and an old groupie yelled, "Liar!" More laughs. All I can say about Stevie is I used to make her Margaritas at the Hamburger Hamlet in Beverly Hills, she tipped well, and I didn't get lucky either.

But I digress.

Then Loggins went on to play Sweet Love, after assuring us this was the first time he's cheated on Stevie singing the song with another woman, in this case Georgia Middleman, who belted it out opposite Loggins, lights flashing, colors throbbing, five Corinthian columns looming behind

Then he did This Is It, more lights, colors; and more stories. What a spectacle. But, I must admit that every show I've seen there so far had been grabnd in its way; these traveling roadshows have it down, and so does the Uptown staff. George Altamura's beautiful black Bentley was parked out front, so the man responsible for all the fun shared in it. Ran into George on Second Street the other day, shared greetings; few people appreciate what a kind, approachable man he is, and a great philanthropist.

Earlier last night I dropped in for a little ENNIO, billed as the Human Cartoon or somesuch, at the Opera House. For several days I'd been overhearing theatergoers rave about the performance, and I caught the last half-hour.

Where to begin with ENNIO...? The guy is a hell of a dancer, and he moves against the backdrop of familiar music, from behind the guise of various masked identities that change before your very eyes. He did Oh Happy Day as a gospel choir, behind a cardboard cutout of an eight person choir, with blinking eyes and gaping mouths; next thing I knew, he'd morphed into Elvis Presley with pompadour. And then there was Liza Minelli--or was it Judy Garland--doing New York, New York. Before it was over he'd gone from Sumo wrestler to a can-can dancer to the Statue of Liberty...or maybe he started with the Statue of Liberty.

I swear this guy must have seen the same ancient film clips as I of Nijinsky dancing in the Dhiagalev Ballet Russe; indeed the whole nature of his show suggests the influence, updated. The Opera House never ceases to amaze me with unexpected delights; the pas de deux ballet presented during Festival del Sole, Josh Kornbluth's cosmic speculations and 10,000 Maniacs just within the last month or so. And now ENNIO.

The evening already felt rather complete as I rode home under the stars, but as I passed the Connely Ranch in Browns Valley I was assaulted by Van Morrison's Brown-Eyed Girl being delivered with a country drawl. I followed the sounds and lights only to discover a party, band on one side, giant open fire on the other, guests bobbing and weaving in time to the music and wine. The executive director, Bob Pallas, grabbed me to say hi; it was a fund-raiser, of course, to get more kids out there. Met a nice lady from the Bay Area who explained they hope to bring more city kids out to our local country farm.

Next weekend the Ranch is putting on its Chili Cookoff; I trust the mechanical bull will appear as well. And speaking of chili cookoffs, I neglected to mention the one a few weeks ago Downtown. My good friends from Pacific Union Real Estate won; their office is next to the Coffee Roasting Company, and I see them all the time. Author of this year's victory was Dave Bridges, who makes killer chili with his daughter and her recipe. Sommelier at Domaine Chandon in another life, he's the hardest working realty agent I know now. And he and his daughter won last year, too.

And now I gotta go for my own special gourmet Labor Day barbecue, at Richard Perot's house. An excellent musician, a talented artist...but most of all, a superb chef, who does special events for all the best people.

Heard on the Street, one business type to another, at Oxbow: "...People resent me the moment I walk into the room, they fear me, they don't like me at business model scares them, so it's a tough sell..."

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Well, it was hard readjusting to coming back after just a week away, and then I was right back where I started, more things to do and write about than I can keep up with. But I'll try.

The events of last week all kind of run together, actually; there was the San Francisco Mime Troupe's production of 2012, The Musical, there was a Vintners' Association meet and greet, there was an anniversary party, there was a sweet evening in a wine bar. And did I mention Brian Wilson and the new beachboys' back-up band?

I first encountered the SF Mime Troupe in the late '60s in the Haight-Ashbury; by then rock impressario Bill Graham had established the Fillmore Auditorium and the Psychedelic Sound, but he got his start, I believe, performing publicity and management duties for the satirical theater group.

Digression here--I'm sitting at the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company at First and Main, and the sound system is playing Richie Havens, whom I first heard some 40 years ago at that same Fillmore. Not the worst piece of my past to be reminded of, I can assure you. Last saw Richie close-up in the lobby there after performing, as he staggered out. His heroin days, I presume. Last saw him perform at the Maritime Hall in San Francisco in '96, when Chet Helms briefly reactivated Family Dog Productions, the people who competed with Graham's Fillmore with events at the Avalon Ballroom, just off Sutter.

Back then, the Mime Troop made fun of capitalism, the Vietnam War, and everything mainstream. Did pretty much the same the other night at Veterans' Park, to half a full crowd. Didn't catch the whole show, but it was funny what I saw of it, especially when people from the future came back to warn us about eco disaster, in outfits of shiney blue, topped with rock star wigs, in a disco revue dance number.

They railed against corporate greed, as always, but this time greeniness was the central theme, and well-meaning characters who sell out to get their green messages across. A stand-in for the devil who bought her soul explains to one confused activist how she knew exactly what compromises were made with truth, mockingly reminding activist that composting was never really going to save the planet, and self-righteous activist knew it.

That's what I like most about the Mime Troupe; they insult everyone, puncture every hypocrite's balloon. The cast was 20- to 40-something, and really talented at singing, dancing and shouting out propagandistic lines most effectively, especially the guy who kept asking when he could give his Off The Pigs speech. I found most ironic the fact that 45 years ago this was cutting edge youth culture, and it's still relevant, and the youth are doing their own versions of this everywhere. Yet most in the crowd were 50-plus, with a mere smidgen of 20-somethings.

Among the former I talked with Harris Nussbaum, once owner on Brewster's Surplus Store at Main and Pearl; the motto said "If we don't have it, you don't need it." Literally true; first entered its doors in 1957, and I was in a kid heaven of Army/Navy stuff. Not only could you buy packs, guns and bayonets, but canned water and life-raft survival rations. Just like the motto said. And not so many years ago, boarded a horse at the same place as his wife Joanna, some great stable in the Carneros; how I miss galloping through the vineyards!

Then I wandered down toward where I heard some music along the river, and walked into a Vinters' Association event spanning Morimoto and Tyler Florence's Rotisserie, tables overflowing with wine bottles dispensing every variety of the finest local nectar. Saw Gerret Staglin there--his family-sponsored fund-raiser for mental health is coming soon, check out Eventing Napa for the date--and just missed Amelia Ceja. Amazing how she and I end up at so many of the same places without ever bumping into each other. Porchfest a few weeks back was an exception; encountered her, husband Pedro and son Ariel at a wonderful Craftsman-style bungalow featuring bluegrass.

What looked like a grown-up garage band serenaded the Vintners' event with old standards well-done, Morimoto dished out sushi by the score, Tyler's gang did the same with ribs, slaw on the side. And wine, wine, wine, everywhere, of the best labels.

Met an interesting gentleman whose name escapes me who did mergers and acquisitions for companies in the 10 to 50 million range. Been at it since the '80s, had an interesting perspective on the evolution of the business of finance. And while there's always been lots of activity in that range, it has finally slowed in recent months, probably as people wait for some measure of stabilization, whether in the stock markets or government policies. I did catch his wife's name, though, and it was Sharon Goldman, director of marketing for St. Supery. I complemented her on the museum-like displays there: relief maps, a grape vine with a cutaway showing the roots, a smellovision machine that gives you an idea of the aromas you look for in a wine.

She suggested I come by to see the Wayne Thiebaud art exhibit before it closes out; I'll take her up on it. He's as California an artist as they come, with work whimsical and profound. But his richly painted pastries and cakes are most compelling, and were so long before the current food obsessions.

Encountered Cleo Pahlmeyer, too, of the winemaking Pahlmeyers. She joined the family business just recently after spending several years in London, working for Sotheby's auction house, among others. Turned out she joined the firm right after I went to London for one of the great estate sales in England's history, handled, of course, by Sotheby's. She'd studied art history, but found she was more interested in the marketing aspects of business; applied for a job with the family when an opening arose. She got the job, and seems to be reveling in it.

That was Wednesday, I believe, and then there was Thursday. Was hanging out at Oxbow, writing this column, still trying to catch up with life in Napa, and noticed a party across the street at Gloria Hair Salon; checked it out. Ran into my new best friend Sharun Ufberg, local columnist and radio personality, who introduced me to her publisher, Kari Ruel of Napa Valley Life Magazine. Had a nice discussion about the green life, made plans for her to see my own little demonstration forest in the redwoods. Then I got to know her friend, Tom, who works at the Lawrence Livermore Lab on--get this--laser generated power. He explained some of this, but the science now escapes me; anyway, lasers may provide our power one of these days. First heard of this research at the coffee house at First and Main; met a Frenchman and family, from Bordeaux. But he wasn't here for the wine; he, too, was at the Lawrence Livermore Lab, but just for a few months in some sort of research collaboration having to do with laser generated power; any year now, he said. Tom, however, hadn't met Phillipe. But Tom assured me we're way ahead of the French in this, and he isn't as sure we'll see it very soon.

Gloria Hair Salon's anniversary party is a nice, homey affair, but with the best people, wine and nibbles. Ran into caterers Burt and Melissa Teaff again, ate some more of their cream and goat cheese inventions.

That was good for half-an-hour, but as I returned toward oxbow, heard music coming from Uncorked, across First Street; dropped in over there for music and good company; always enjoy talking with Bruce Ahnfeldt, the owner. He stages the equivalent of an open mic night on Thursdays, attracting a pleasant range of musicians, their friends, the odd couple that wanders in. Last week it was a 60-something couple from Oklahoma, who were getting the biggest kick out of California in general, and Napa in particular; saw them later at Downtown Joe's having even more fun.

Was ready to head home by then, but passed by the Uptown and remembered that Brian Wilson, The Last Beach Boy, was playing that night; caught the last half of his act. Backed up by eight or nine studio musicians, Wilson fronted magnificently, playing the keyboard and singing. Sounded better than the originals, I do believe, and it was the most complete treat to hear him sing Barbara Ann and Help me Rhonda. Ran into Scott there, bellman at Avia and bassist for the Merchants, and he was stoked beyond measure, as were Sam from Ubuntu, Ian, a Mambo alumnus, and Nick, Uptown intern.

Looked like a sell-out show to me, though it was hard to tell if the few empty seats up-top matched the dancing bodies down-front. Another night of unexpected delights in Downtown Napa, I thought to myself. Then I walked off under the glow of neon against a velvety black sky.

Heard On The Street, by Downtown Joe's: "'s funny, man, I get along real good with one brother and sister, but, it's like the other ones, they just don't get my vibe..."

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

This looks to be a particularly lively weekend, with a political rally and a disease fund-raiser walk, but most important to me is the Beer, Barbecue and Blues Party slated for Downtown on Saturday afternoon. Sponsored by Bounty Hunter and DVI Beverages, it'll feature the best suds, the best ribs and, presumably, the best blues available all year, at least in combination.

One of the difficult parts of trips and vacations is the coming back; hanging out in Nevada threw me off badly. Still recovering from the disorientation. Spent a lot of time the last week working in my redwood forest, sculpting the mountain, cutting brush. Returning to the rarified Napa Valley of renown is quite an adjustment.

Caught the Vintage Car Show on Saturday, the Downtown streets lined with cars from the '50s and '60s. This was oddly disconcerting, as if my Reno experience had seeped into Napa. When I first landed there on Amtrak a couple of Thursdays back, it was the first of the Hot August Nights celebration and car show, American classics by the hundreds. On that Thursday night, a parade of cars went down Virginia Street in endless numbers, crowds lining the way in front of the casinos. Quite the spectacle.

Finding old cars on Napa streets my first weekend back had me trying to sort out this sense that every place was like every other place, or at least every other place in my own personal movie.

Anyway, it's nice to be back in Napa, with familiar routines. Stopped by Oxbow last night, ran into a new friend from a few weeks back. I was on my way to Yountville for the opening of the Napa Valley Museum art show, Discrepancies, War and Peace. Stopped at the Marriott, had a glass of Artesa Pinot Noir poured by Zaiga, who works at the place. I told her how much I liked the history displays there, not to mention the views. Mentioned the art show to her, she said she might show up, and did as I was leaving for First Friday in St. Helena.

That's how I know Zaiga, and she told me what I missed after leaving. First, she had a scintillating conversation with Eleanor Coppolla about the latter's work in the show; and then she admired the works in the company of a man she just happened to be on the same pace with, who also seemed to be a mighty fine critic. Only later did she realize that it was Robert Redford.

I had quite a few adventures Upvalley before I unexpectedly went to Nevada, adventures I failed to recount.

It's been a good three weeks since the Napa Valley Writers and Poets Conference, and I caught the main event at Robert Mondavi in Oakville. One of the attendees, a frustrated Broadway type, I suspect, took over the baby grand piano and played the most sophisticated old school night club faire, all Porter and Gershwin and successors, Cab and Chard flowed liberally, and I watched the most exquisite sunset while nibbling on great culinary treats, complements of the cooking arts program at the college. Met a few aspiring poets--an escrow company owner from Park City, and a couple of retired ladies from Scottsdale--and it was perfectly charming to hear them discuss their aspirations and exercises in the writing workshops.

I was just an old magazine hack, no creative aspirations here, just crank it out, and it was touching to see how these writers labored to develop their muses, to tap their creative energies. There were many like them, and I couldn't help regarding the scene without thinking of a Robert Altman movie, like Nashville, or the Wedding, in which all these people get thrown together, their individual stories merging into a confusing whole.

Margrit Mondavi was there, of course, and the mistress of ceremonies explained how this particular event at Mondavi had become a treasured tradition of the conference, a reception and reading at a summer sunset in the vineyards.

A poet named Major Jackson performed the reading that night, with poignant sketches from the ghettoes of--Baltimore? Most charming were his simple stories in between the poems, especially the one about staying in Robert Frost's house as part of a fellowship, and people dropping in at all hours to look at the famous poet's house, and everyone's surprise, on looking in the windows, especially at night, when they saw inside a black man in briefs eating frosted flakes and pacing the kitchen. Poet at work.

A few days later caught Samantha Chang lecturing at Napa College's Upvalley Campus in St. Helena. She discussed manifestations of memory, referring to Marcel Proust and Rememberence of Things Past; and a host of others who provided insight and perspective concerning storytelling and recollection. Afterwards, conferees were given the opportunity to read pieces written since starting the program, alternating between those in the poets' workshop, and those in prose.

Heard several moving or thoughtful pieces, but none so interesting as that written by a pretty young woman in a light summer dress. The very short love story--a page, say--described her arising in the morning before going to work, and thinking about her boyfriend, saying his name to comfort herself, writing it in the steamy glass in the shower. Going to work, normal routine all day, thinking of Him. Until afternoon, and she's laid-off; she's depressed, goes to a bar for a drink. The guy on the stool next to her says she has a nice neck. And then she's lying in bed after sex with the stranger, wondering what four words she will say to her boyfriend when she sees him in an hour or so: I still love you or I cheated on you.

Yikes! is about all I can say to that one. I hope it's not autobiographical. And I'll remember that line. Yikes! Again!

This was the 31st year of this program presented by Napa College, and I imagine that it's quite a wonderful experience for attendees; meals served by students at the college culinary school, and readings at beautiful wineries around the Valley. The Upvalley Campus in St. Helena where the workshops take place is especially intimate, and town's a short walk away. Indeed, I ran into Sam Chang an hour later in that designey place on the corner next to Anna's Cantina.

A week or so later went to the first Wednesday wine industry event at Sterling Vineyard; what a pleasant event and venue. Hadn't been to Sterling in years; think the last time was in the '80s, to see a James Galanos fashion show. He dressed Nancy Reagan, and it was the hottest ticket in Northern California that summer; later that evening went to a Francis Ford Coppolla premier of Hammet--that would be Dashiell, the detective writer--at the Liberty Theater, now the Cameo, in St. Helena.

Sterling has the look and feel of a fortified Greek town in the islands, hilltop surmounted by white towers and plazas, a vertiginous delight of multiple levels and great rooms commanding breathtaking views. As the sun sank toward the Mayacamas Mountains, the Carlos Herrera Band serenaded us with smooth Latin jazz, while we circulated among the wine bars and snacks tables.

Sumptuous cupcakes from Kara's, a fine Cabernet provided by Rosenbloom Cellars--in Alameda!--and my new favorites, cream and goat cheese morsels from Melissa and Burt Teaff, the mother/son catering team I run into everywhere. First tried their special shortbread at Oxbow, then blundered into their kitchen and offices on Coombs, where the old Sawyer Tannery used to be. The kitchen was inhabited by a couple of guys making cakes and conversation; odd little scene, this impeccable kitchen, these fellows making cakes, actually rather surreal. They told me the Teaffs were down the row a bit, and then came on their offices, Melissa and Burt tasting some meringue delights; ordered me to try one. Did so gladly, and my taste buds appreciated it. And love the office, too, especially the antique tin columns behind her desk.

But I digress; I was talking about the Sterling event. Encountered Dr. Sharon Ufberg and husband, Charles; she's the new wellness columnist for Napa Valley Life, and he's writing a futuristic science fiction romance. Hope that's not autobiographical either.

Also ran into some of the Bouchaine Winery crew, whom I'd briefly gotten to know during the Festival del Sole. Bouchaine proprietors Garrett and Tatiana Copeland are lavish sponsors of the young musicians program, and I caught a couple of performances at Jarvis Conservatory. Along the way met some of the staff. Winemaker Ken Gautier, who filled me in some more about recent Carneros history and the identification of various strains of Pinot Noir; he also makes his own wine bearing his name on the label. And Stephanie Jarvis, who handles corporate communications.

She showed up to the Sterling affair, and there I learned she comes from the family that produces wine under their own esteemed label--been meaning to visit those caves Dr. Ufberg told me about first time we met at oxbow--and they're the same people who created the Jarvis Conservatory, where I heard play the young musicians sponsored by Garrett Copeland. Napa's just full of interesting cross-connections, isn't it? Along the way discovered that she's a university-trained mushroom expert, and has even written some monographs on specific types.

Had just read an article about Bouchaine and the Copelands a few days earlier; turns out he used to run large chunks of Dupont, and she is descended from the great Russian composer and pianist, Rachmaninoff. And they were instrumental in arranging for the Russian National Symphony to appear at the Festival del Sole. Just for the record, I became a big fan of their Pinot Noir back in the early days of the Boone Fly Cafe at Carneros Inn.

Then the sun dropped behind the mountains, and everyone left Sterling for dinner.

Heard on the Street, at the Farmers' Market: " I finally told her, just wash your cat. It takes half an hour, I know it's a pain. But she just has to wash that cat."

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Where to begin...? I went to Area 51 out in the Nevada desert for a few days to settle some old mysteries, but the main one is how people ever came to live out there. My particular hangout is halfway between Ely and Tonopah, 150 miles apart by highway, and no gas stations or anything else but remote ranches to suggest humanity, most abandoned. My hideout is 20 miles off that highway on unmarked gravel roads, and you can see the nearest neighbor at night, another 20 miles away, across the lake bed that dried up 10 million years ago. But I can say little more about the place with discretion. So I'll talk about Reno instead.

At first glance it looks like a low-rent Las Vegas, and I'm ever outraged that the town fathers tore down one of the most richly built cities in the country to make room for tacky casinos. As if there wasn't available land just a few blocka away. Reno grew out of a succession of silver booms, and by the 30s it really was the biggest little city in the world. Now it's one of the most interesting.

The last of the Old West lurks around every corner, in the form of an old bar, an old cowboy, a young prospector looking for gold in the old diggings. And outlaws of every description abound. The homeless and down and outers lurk everywhere, and many show every indication of having doggedly embraced the life; the old hippie, a tan, beefy Charles Manson look-alike riding a tricked-out junker of a bicycle, rainbow-dyed racoon tales fluttering from antennae, and a pool lounge chair on wheels hooked up as a travel trailer so he can park and sleep wherever he wants; the tall midget, pushing a child-size shopping cart along the riverside, it's full of odd paraphernalia suggesting eccentric habits, and he's dressed in black coveralls, matching helmet and chains all over him, a bondage master for hire, perhaps, who does house calls.

The Truckee River runs through town, and it's been landscaped and worked over to such extent that it amounts to a an urban waterpark, people running the benign rapids on air matresses, inner-tubes or simply swimming it. Cafes line the riverwalk, and where it intersects Virginia Street, the main drag, you're in casino land. CalNeva quickly became my favorite, five bucks for steak and eggs 24/7, and the steak and fries I had were as good as I had anywhere. But I missed the Elvis impersonator.

Reno wasn't immune to the recent excesses of the real estate boom, and big, ambitious, pretentious buildings proliferate, from the Federal Building to the Art Museum, the former a giant juke box in grey, the latter a Noah's Ark of a structure in off-black that might have come from a post-armageddon movie based on the biblical classic. Since urban renewal had cleared the city years ago, the new additions did not, I think, replace anything but empty space. So the urban landscape displays a remarkable, screwy diversity, and the leftover old buildings seem to be appreciated and house every kind of bar, restaurant or shop. Just around the corner there's a fantastic bookshop in a great old mansion, for instance.

The Granite Street Cafe, West Street Market Wine Bar, the other Market restaurants and vendors, art galleries; all fill fine old architectural spaces. The Post Office is a masterpiece of '30s Federal Architecture, and the Washoe County Courthouse reflects the best of a hundred years ago, with a wonderful little rotunda, copper dome without, stain glass ceiling within. On third Staurday evenings during the summer, the riverwalk hosts a wine and cafe romp.

I stayed at the El Cortez, once the finest hotel in town--in 1931--and downstairs was a pizza joint and bar, with karaoke next door, 9pm to 5am. Reno presents the aspect of a gaudy neon front with nothing much behind it, but down the most deserted side streets little knots of people clustered here and there, evidence of a club, a coffeehouse, a scene.

At one such on a Monday night, I found within a little club, bar on the left, band at the far end 30 feet away, banjo, stand-up bass and drums, plucking out aggressive bluegrassy blues. They called for Mary at one point, and in walks this elfin 20-something lately smoking out front, drink in hand, she slumps to the stage, her girlfriend gets a boyfriend, and he's playing mandolin, she's doing backup, and Mary, slouching at the microphone, starts belting out sharp lyrics precisely enunciated, her voice piercing in the most appealing way.

Kept running into scene after scene like that, counterculture meets casino culture meets the University of Nevada at Reno. Antiques and Downtown Treasures promoted its Burning Man section, which meant "Hippie Clothes" according to the staff. Seems Burning Man sold out early, 25th anniversary, 50,000 people in the middle of the desert. In one empty lot near the river and behind a historic building put to other use--cafes, galleries and such--stands a monument to the event, a 30 or 40 foot burner, of sorts, a giant propane heater, of stainless steel.

And in an alley--Fulton Alley?--I found the entrance to the Knitting Factory, a music and dance joint, the John Butler Trio finishing up their American tour and on the way home to Australia.

Other Reno highlights? Thomas Aquinas Cathedral is another little masterpiece, monumental brick, with towers and cupolas, recently accessorized inside and out, from hammered copper doors, to restored stainglass, and stations of the cross rendered in a uniquely garish, Thomas Hart Benton style that works. The railway to Reno from Sacramento compares to the most dramatic in the world, at some points clinging to the mountain a couple of thousand feet above the Truckee River.

Spent most of the trip in the observation car and got another rare treat; the opportunity to get to know half-a-dozen Amish, three couples from various points east of Chicago, who went to San Francisco together for medical reasons. Spent hours conversing with these time-travelers from another world, and I trust they found my way of life as strange as I found theirs.

Heard on the Street, outdoor cafe, several couples discussing the ideal celebrity child: ...ya know, Hilary Swank never got in trouble with booze or drugs, she's a nice girl, and she got an Oscar...Nah, Barry Manilow. He's always buying stuff for his parents...Well, you can't beat Liberace; did any guy ever love his mother more...?

Monday, 8 August 2011

So there I was walking down First Street last Saturday night, around 10, passing by Allegria, and this flash goes off just inside the door, and I look, and there's like a dozen hotties in black surrounding this vision of chastity in white, and then the image is gone, and I can't see for a second, my eyes adjusting from harsh illumination to darkness. What the hell, I'm thinking, and I pass by a few feet, roll a cigarette, and then this parade of babes in black dresses and very high heels trickles by, the imminent bride in their midst.

They make it halfway to Bistro Sabor, and they parley...Well, hey, we're not done partying yet, are we? Really...let's PAR-TEEE...So they went over to Tuscany, where Simon and that great vocalist were ripping it up; there was already a decent little party underway there, bar full, some strays dancing, and then Tiffany and crew came through and took over the place, all the free space consumed by writhing women in black, surrounding the bride-to-be, in white, like some pagan ritual, and Simon's banging the keyboards, and the singer's out in the middle of the girls dancing along, their playing like Santana and Sly, and it's spilling into the street, and another bunch of bride and friends comes along, and it was just pandemonium...of the best sort.

Talk about cognitive dissonance; not long before, I'd been at the Opera House, catching comedian Josh Korbluth's show, Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? Watched his TV show on KQED a few times 7 or 8 years ago, but he was a little too cute and cuddly for me; so I didn't know what to expect with this...Andy Warhol, good for the Jews? Yikes! But it suggested an edginess I'd missed in his television incarnation.

So he's going on about the Marx Brothers movies his Dad took him to, how he pointed out their every subversive trick to undermine elites, power structures and the like, to expose them to ridicule. How his Mom and Dad were diehard communists, the last few left in the Bronx of the '60s and '70s, the fad long over, and suspicions that their remaining colleagues were all informers.

They were atheists, of course, and seemed aggressively to deny their Jewishness, perhaps to the chagrin of Josh's paternal grandparents, who'd become estranged from their son. As Josh put it, their brilliant son should've been the second Louis Brandeis; he was the first Jew on the Supreme Court and served with such distinction they named a university after him. Instead, Grandparents Fred and Julia got a cross between Karl and Groucho Marx...Kroucho Marx.

By the end of the show, Kornbluth's describing his very first visit to a Synangogue, at the age of 50, and how comfortable it felt. It was a fascinating intellectual journey, covering everything from family nuerosis to the nature of the cosmos and the creator...all hilarious in a sincerely ironic way. The staging was simple yet effective, too; interesting portraits and graphics backgrounding him as appropriate to his story. And a little klezmer-like clarinet riff to punctuate the story. Got gods and art all in one stop.

It was that kind of weekend, and I suppose it started Thursday evening, with the last Chef's Market of the season. I ended up having dinner with friends outside at Bistro Sabor; had the chicken mole tacos, took me back to Tarahumara country in the canyons of northern Mexico where they really get into mole sauce, a tantalizing dark blend of chocolate and chiles. The Red Stripe beer washed it down just right on the warm evening, the band below covering '60s and '70s rock standards.

Caught a couple of songs by the Gin Blossoms at the Uptown after that; I'm forever amazed by the proliferation of good music of every sort of which I'm completely unaware. Never heard of these guys, but the main floor of the Uptown was packed with their fans, the lead singer strutting, dancing and prancing back and forth across the stage, banging the tambourine as he put it out there; and almost everyone in the place was standing, dancing in place.

There was a like scene the next night--Friday--at Silo's: the Sing Along kareoke jam with live music overflowed with singers and fans; caught a pretty housewife type singing a nice old-fashion love song with a thin, clear, pretty voice. Showed vulnerability and courage singing it out, the crowd roared its approval. Then some guy sang Sweet Caroline off-key with so much panache everyone in the room was singing on his cue, swaying where they sat, raising their arms in unison.

But that was toward the end of the evening, and I'd started early last Friday night. First, I dropped by the Marriott off Trancas; the bar gets interesting once in a while because the Raiders set up shop there. More about that later. But met Zaiga, a well-travelled woman who works for Artesa and pours a mean Pinot Noir. Then I headed north to Yountville to begin the party.

The Napa Valley History Museum opened a new show themed Discrepancies: War and Peace. General idea seemed to be how we seem to have been at war forever, and the angst is just overwhelming for some people, especially artists, who made very significant statements to this effect at the show.

The St. Helena Community Band played John Philip Souza marches, brass and drums blaring out Stars and Stripes Forever, From The Halls of Montezuma, Anchors Aweigh, the wonderful soundtracks of a hundred years ago and the Age of Imperialism. Wine flowed from several tables, cheese, crackers and sweetmeats abounded. Met some of the new crew from the new Savour Tasting Room in St. Helena, which I visited last month over Fourth of July Weekend during the First Friday Street Party. Met Dejan, talked about the Old Country. These two at the Museum were a couple of saucy women, and the one in the pink dress and black stockings poured wine with such vigor and dispensed such floridly accurate descriptions of the wines that I kept going back for more. Especially liked the Veedercrest Mountain Cuvee; 45 per cent Cab, 50 or so merlot, and a little Cab Franc.

Saw a couple of great pieces; a linoleum print by Alondra...? can't find her last name now, but the work was called Mi Virgin, and it showed in stark black and white a stylized mushroom cloud, an image of the Madonna visible within. I believe Helen Wilson is the name of another artist whose work impressed me; two life size front-on full-body portraits of 8 or 9-year-old boys, one in underpants, cowboy boots, a holster, holding a six-gun. The other was a young suicide bomber. On the backside, the pencil-on-paper drawings were complemented by drawings of the internal skeletons of the boys, the picture on the other side just barely visible. Really clever, and well-executed; even if I did find the comparisn specious.

Had an interesting conversation with the artist; I expressed my ambivalence toward this ambivalence toward war evident in the work. I'm a war lover, I explained, and if it was better waged, there would be less of it. I didn't point out that for these people it was still a distant abstraction, and they were only aware of it because of the nature of the media, and the ability to see or hear of what's going on in once remote regions. All things considered, most people do live in peace now, and the Cold War worked out just as the American Cold Warriors hoped: with a Soviet whimper instead of the Big Bang. Not so bad.

Meanwhile, a quintet sang what sounded like Gregorian Chants; an ancient requiem piece, perhaps, for some war dead a thousand years ago. All in all, a great first show for Kristie Shepherd, the new director of the museum.

Oh, yeah; almost forgot the classic old '50s cruiser--a DeSoto, perhaps?--with missile mounted on the roof. And Eleanor Coppola's photo work and meditations on war and peace, life and death. All very disorienting amidst verdant vineyards, lovely music and good company.

Half-an-hour later I was on St. Helena's Main Street for their Cheers Wine Down on First Fridays thru October; tried a wonderful zinfandel at, I think, ,b>Flats, a store that sells wonderful, simple ballet slipper-like shoes in great colors. Not right for me, of course, but very Audrey Hepburn on the right feet. They also carry incredible soft wool scarves in myriad patterns; very exotic yet subtle environment there. Don't know the label on the Zin, but lots of licorice; interesting, whatever it was. Such flavors usually evade me if the labels don't.

Only then did I head back down Valley to catch the Inkslingers show at the Bloom Salon at Main and Pearl, the strange imagery of body art combining modern sensibilities with savage art craft. Ben Corn's patterns merge Japanese woodblock evocations with Mexican folk art, and Rob Streuven displayed a compelling piece portraying an OG anime thug in the classic forms of a samurai. Ran into Donovan there, of Garage Ink, one of the most well-respected tat artists in the Valley. Expressed my regrets to him that I hadn't used him for my recent first. The next one, perhaps.

Odd Site, at Uva, Saturday night: 20-something Asian couple, raggamuffin guy, joining his beautifully dressed date who seems to enjoy his company. His dress T-shirt--beige--said, believe it or not, Eat More Rice Bitch.

Heard on the Street, one young man of entitlement to another: grandfather isn't giving me anything, and when he does, it's not much. I've got too many aunts, man, and when he dies, I'm not getting a thing...

Thursday, 4 August 2011

I got up early Saturday morning--five days ago; I'm actually catching up here--went to the Farmers Market at Oxbow. Said Hi to Sharon Hedlund, jewelry maker, who reminded me about Porchfest; duly noted. But I really wanted to see Hector and his alternate culinary family. Hector was my dinner host at Cielito Lindo a week or so ago, the new gourmet Mexican Restaurant on Main where Anneliene used to be. Then I ran into Hector at the Farmers' Market on Tuesday, at the La Crepe tent; he introduced me to Fabrice, a proprietor, and they invited me in for a sample on Saturday.

At which time I met Fabrice's partner, Barbara, who suggested I try the Crepe Citron, a French classic dusted with powdered sugar and sprinkled with lemon juice; also recommended the Juice, a concoction of carrot, apple and citrus. There I sat at a little table by the river, the subtle tunes of a guitarist/singer drifting through the air, mothers and their babies, couples in love on a romantic weekend...well, it didn't quite remind me of Paris's Left Bank, but it sure made me think of the similarities in terms of people just enjoying a Simple, Good Life. And with every bite of that crepe and sip of that juice I felt the most superb contentment.

There is talk of them opening something permanent in Oxbow, but crepes by the Napa River on Tuesday and Saturday mornings half the year is its own unique pleasure; for now.

Was already in a good mood; also washed down the crepes with my morning tea to go from the Coffee Roasting Company, where I blundered into another little scene evoking thoughts of the Seine...the Madeleine childrens' books, specifically, from the '30s. A couple of dozen pretty, dolled up girls in black lined the interior waiting for their coffees and lattes; turns out they're from the Melange Beauty College.

Outside I met their Headmistress, Madam Thu Nguyen, a most dignified lady from Saigon; came here, I believe, in the late '70s. Asked her what the deal was, she explained that she loved this country and the communities she lived and worked in, and was grateful to be here in the United States. A Land of Freedom that was denied her by communist brutes at home. So she takes the girls out Saturday mornings to coffee to wake them up, and support local businesses; takes them over to Ben and Jerry's in the afternoons, too.

She and her colleague--sorry, forget her name--invited me to come by one day for a look at the college; think I'll take her up on it. Not quite Madeleine and the schoolgirls of Paris taken adventuring by a nun, but even more appealing to me.

Just by coincidence, the next night ran into Patrick and Thi Bui, a couple as well from Saigon originally. I had just departed the Slack artists' collective around the corner, and there was Thi, lounging on the wicker couch out front, swirling a glass of red and puffing a fine cigar, with family friend Andrew, similarly indulging. I introduced myself, Thi claimed ownership, and beckoned her husband, Patrick, who was still inside cleaning up from the night's trade.

Thi and Patrick own Bui Bistro, on Pearl between Main and West streets, a French cafe with an Asian twist. Patrick left Saigon as a 10-year-old, in 1970, thus missing the worst to befall his country. But before that, he grew up in that unique hybridized culture of refinement when the educated Vietnamese learned French, became Catholics and often went to Paris to study. Patrick didn't go the full route, but the French influence remained. Their restaurant is so intimate, so perfectly cosmopolitan in a Euro-Asian way, I can't wait to eat there. It has been arranged, and I'll keep you posted on the delights, once indulged.

As so often happens around here, old relic that I am, I felt a flash of memory, and thought of Pretenders' Playhouse, once resident here. That was Napa's original theater group, at least in my day, the early '60s. Saw a performance of Tea and Sympathy there; how ironic that a popular '50s, '60s fixture of such dramatic groups as that play should now be banned by law.

A story of cougar love, it's set in a New England boys' school, and the popular teacher and coach is married to a woman of higher sensibilities than her meathead jock husband. She becomes aware of the Sensitive Boy denounced as a sissy by other students, encouraged by her husband. So she gives him her greatest gift and makes him a man. Not only would they want to hang the generous woman these days, they'd imprison the playwrite and filmmaker for child pornography; really!

After a lazy day of garden party, pool, bikinis, summer salad and wine in the model Leave it to Beaver house, dragged myself to the gritty energy spilling out from the Dj at Hannah B's Body Piercing Salon on Third. James Byron and Brian Cox throw an event a month or so, and no one can top them for fitting a lot of activity in a micro space. Three artists displayed their works inside, artists and admirers discussed the work outside and the morrow's Napa Porchfest party. Lauraine Forbyn showed her delicate-yet intense-little pencil and charcoal sketches, along with her highly stylized-yet-whimsical works in colored pen or pencil. Didn't catch the other artists' names, but one did painting on glass in old window frames, life-size heads and busts, of robots in love; oddly brilliant.

But I got ahead of myself here. Caught some great entertainment moments on the fly. Ralph Woodson played DT Joe's, and I was surprised to see him doing Ralph Woodson instead of Jimi Hendrix, with Purple Haze, his usual persona. When I ran into Johnny Smith at Uncorked, his friend Eddie revealed that he was taking lessons from Ralph; he went on at length about Woodson's skills and what he was still learning even though he was already an accomplished guitar player.

Woodson sat in a chair in civilian clothes and just played; I caught a Carlos Santana number--forget the name, the big one, came out in '96, '97. Ralph's a real Master of the Guitar, and it was an unexpected delight to see this other side of him as he riffed through new territory.

That was Thursday; Saturday, think it was, heard Amber Snyder and company at same venue. She sings and plays guitar, probably writes her own stuff too. Don't know how to explain her vocal style, but imagine Judy Collins with a yodel thrown in. The way Amber manipulated her voice and its sounds was, well, a trip. Sat glued to my seat much longer than I intended.

Napa Porchfest the next day was the musical extravaganza facilitated in large part by Thea, of Wildcat Boutique fame. Some 40 bands play on the porches of about 30-odd historic houses, mostly in Old Town south of Downtown between Fuller Park and the river. Found Thea in front of a place on Oak Street, where the Eric Zahn Band played, named after an H.P. Lovecraft character and featuring Greg Forbyn--yes, Lauraine's hubby, what a coincidence!--and Gary Williams and patrick Williams, no relation. First mjet Greg and Lauraine at the Coffee Roasting Company, when he showed up with that wine box electric guitar he made out of $4 worth of stuff.

They played original work, old-fashion rock and roll, of such singularity that they easily top most of the really good bands I hear doing the genre. Also caught a chamber group on Franklin playing Summertime, and later, across the street, a trio of viola, violin and flute did the Titanic theme. Heard the Rhythm Cats at Churchil Manor--think that's the place--who get down in the '50s way--Stray Cats?--and Thea's husband Bruce's bluegrass band somewhere down Randolph in a fantastic Craftsman style house.

People covered lawns on their blankets or in their chairs, some people ranted chairs out, and the Mexican icecream guys kept everyone sucking on fruity paletas of exotic fruits. Lots of wine, cheese and beer, lots of people on bicycles. The event ran from 2-5, and must be counted as a great success. Some Sunday!

Then, at seven, the party continued at the Slack Colelctive, with a Heavy Metal and Punk show, the highlight of which was Paul Slackcranking on his guitar with a drummer. Thought I was back in LA again at Al's Bar, HQ of the urban art scene in the '80s. But even better; it's here and it's now.

Heard on the Street, at Oxbow, man to table of friends: "...well, I go to work and then watch my wife get's great..."

Monday, 1 August 2011

Not surprisingly given that Saturday night, last Sunday--as opposed to yesterday--dawned slow and late for me, so much so that I managed to miss Catherine Bergin's Cause for the Paws event at Silverado. But when I ran into Johnny Smith the next day at the Ahnfeldt-Carducci tasting room across from Oxbow, he informed me that there were a thousand people there, more or less, and according to Catherine, they raised around $200,000.

Alas, instead of hearing Johnny Smith play at Silverado, I was listening to Alma Desnuda--Naked Soul?--at Silo's, a rare Sunday matinee at the venue. Proprietor Keith explained that these guys had some dotcom connection, as in got rich from, and the garage band got serious, and now they go on national and international tours. They were packing up for the season, and Keith got them for Just One More Show. Kinda rock, with jazzy overtones and a world beat. A last-minute announcement to their regulars almost filled the room.

Seems every time I walk into Silo's I get an unexpected little treat. Went in Wednesday, I think it was, to taste some wine, found instead another musical bonus. This time it was just some patron who comes in and plays the piano some afternoons; turned out to be Rocco Ruggiero, brother of one of my oldest Napa friends, Ron; he's the guy you see driving around in the souped up '69 Chevy Nova with the airscoop sticking up from the hood. Brother Rocco tinkled the keys of the baby grand like a virtuoso, played just the kind of old standards they played at piano bars till they died off; a little Gershwin, a little Sinatra, a little Porter. Rocco later explained that he's self-taught, can only play in the key of C; limits the number of other musicians he can play with. So glad I don't know what he's talking about and simply enjoy the music.

The Heitz 2007 Zinfandel, by the way, perfectly complemented the music; a little fruity and citrus tart.

Speaking of wine and music, beer and music, food and music, and, finally, dogs and music, one name comes to mind quite often these days, and it's Johnny Smith's.

Like I said, ran into Johnny last Monday night at Bruce Ahnfeldt's place--Bruce, by the way, is one of the few attorneys I've encountered in Napa who is not a pathetic, incompetent, greedy fraud, so you should drink his wine on general principle. So there was a Facebook event that included Ahnfeldt's Uncorked, Taste at Oxbow down the block, and around the corner, Gustavo/Thrace. Local hipsters circulated among the three, and that's how I blundered into Johnny at Bruce's.

Johnny is the most likable guy, but he's also the most versatile of guitarists. I'd been hearing him forever around town as background music, and really started paying attention once in a while. C Casa started doing music on Wednesdays, and a few weeks back there was Johnny, playing Ain't Misbehavin', and I was transported back to an intimate Speakeasy, circa 1931. Johnny has a loyal following and several fans had tracked him down for yet another opportunity to hear Johnny. No wonder he featured at Cause for the Paws.

Running into Johnny has become something of a recent habit; just a week before, ran into him at Wine Country Crossfit. We showed up to the same demo class with Beth Rypins, one of the fittest women I know. If you're thinking weights, weights and more weights, with a little cardio thrown in, well, you're wrong. Beth and CrossFit emphasize functional strength, muscle made for use, not for show.

I spent a couple of decades as a health and fitness editor/writer until the end of the millenium. Can't believe how much things have changed in the decade since. I just got hints of the full range of workouts they do at CrossFit from the array of bars and ropes and trapeze-y stuff on one side of the space.

Johnny and I got a small sample in her demo. First, she assessed our fitness levels to determine how much to push us; Johnny and I are both pretty fit, but with caveats, most having to do with age and past injuries. Nothing too serious for Beth, though, and she let us have it just right.

Started out having us do squats, or knee bends. First learned them years ago, gave up because of knee stress. She showed us how to avoid that, had us do 10. Then she had us doing box jumps--jumping up and down off a wooden box one, two, or three feet high. Johnny handled the tall one, I settled for medium. Afterward, Beth showed us the kind of pull-up she wanted; easy ones where you hang from rings on ropes at a 45 degree angle to the floor, so you're moving half your body weight instead of the whole carcass.

She had us do a little race to see how fast we could do 10 reps of each exercise three times. I think five or six minutes was the goal, but faster is definitely better in her book. Bend, bend, bend...jump, jump, jump...then the pull-ups. Well, I did just fine--for two reps; coulda done the last, but I still had parties to attend, didn't want to exhaust myself. Johnny, of course, performer that he is, felt compelled to show-off and finish the series in excellent time.

It's enough to say that I got one of the best, short workouts ever, and I was sore just right a day or two later. Seems to me these workouts would be perfect for someone already fit, who wants to add the final touches to turning muscle into efficient moves. But then I saw another class starting with a colleague; a dozen people, including an older woman, formed a circle, and performed balancing and stretching movements. Lacking the rigor of what Beth had us doing, this other routine obviously taught refined muscle control and balance.

These people are still new to me, and Beth tells me they keep changing the nature of their classes so clients don't go stale, always find their muscles challenged by new moves and stresses. So the old dog learned some new tricks. I will be back for more, if Beth will have me.

Worried as I am about my declining fitness and decadent life, I've been compensating with more workouts rather than less dissipation; moderation takes many forms. So I tried some yoga at Ubuntu, too.

Did a Sunday afternoon with Maidhur Nain's Kundalini Yoga class, which seems to emphasize the most aggressive breathing. I was only good for half the 90 minute class--attention deficits, other engagements and sheer exhaustion got the best of me. Hard-core, old-school jocks tend to dismiss yoga for its softness, slowness. Meanwhile, you're stretching your muscles, holding yourself in place, whether prone, facedown, and lifting your trunk, or prone, facedown, and lifting your legs. And you're straining to hold the position as long as suggested, and, and, you're breathing in this intense, measured manner. A completely different set of muscles and systems are at work from what's used in conventional exercises; not only do you do something uniquely different with your muscles proper, but you're changing your metabolism, too, though I'm not exactly sure how. This is serious breathing with a point, and I'm prone to buying all that quasi-mystical stuff about tapping new energies, et cetera.

By the time I left, felt exceedingly clear-headed and refreshed despite the new muscular strains, and, again, felt sore just right a day or two later.

Also caught a Monday morning class with Courtney Willis, who runs the Ubuntu yoga program; this was sports yoga, I believe, and again, I only lasted about half the class. My first acquaintance with yoga came about 45 years ago; Hatha Yoga, it was called, and I believe this sport yoga might be an outgrowth of that.

Courtney started the class with the cross-legged lotus position and thoughtful breathing, and then brought the class through the succession of contortions we associate with the practice. It looks so simple, so easy, and though I'm fit and relatively limber, I couldn't begin to match the others in the class with even feeble attempts and bad form. I spent a lot of time just watching, trying to figure out how they did it, made it look so easy...well, practice I suppose. Anyway, yoga is much more athletic than it looks, and if you're in good shape and want to try some fine-tuning of muscles, ligaments, tendons and internal systems you've neglected, Ms. Willis and company might be just what you need.

Don't Miss: Big John Herkins, Downtown Mayor and Ace Bartender at Downtown Joe's, is taking over trivia duties tonight and ever after. Should be a great show, whatever happens; John's like that.

You also want to catch the art opening at Paul Slack's Bloom Haircutting Salon on Friday night, 5 August; that should be one busy First Friday.

Heard On The Street, a girl to a couple, her friends, by Fish Story, after happy hour: "...hey, I'm not putting out for a drink. If that guy wants to get lucky, he has to get dressed up and take me out to a full-on dinner..."

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Festival del Sole claimed lots of last week, and Friday night I went to Lincoln Theater for The Dance, a series of pas de deux routines by ballerinas and ballerinos. Perfect set up if you're not a serious ballet person; lots of five minute stories. Exquisite movement, only two or three participants, beautiful young people who can make their bodies do the most extraordinatry things. I've seen some of the great companies, and it's overwhelming sometimes; this intimate setting allowed a single pair to shine at a time, and you to appreciate them. Don't know what the moves are called, but I saw men doing great acrobatics in the air, women floating across the stage, belying the difficulty of their achievements. Much of this you miss in a full on ballet if you don't know what you're watching.

These Festival events are most notable for the large display of sophistication visible; everyone beautifully dressed, uncommon cars. Bentley's, Aston Martins, the latest Mercedes and Jaguars, the latter two looking ever more like each other, and equivalently elegant. Saw Margrit Mondavi there looking great, as ever, and my friend Suzanne from the gallery on Main Street in St. Helena, by the Model Bakery. More new stuff, I noted last time I was there.

But I digress. I passed on the party at Quintessa--I know it was wonderful, their outdoor evening parties always are--and I went to the Trancas Steak House, where I once tended bar when it was the Tucker Bag...whatever that was supposed to mean. But the bar was great, and so were the bands and partying. Those days are gone now--dancing is illegal in Napa, you know--but the Trancas Steak House did its best to uphold the tradition. Talented and bold kareoke singers alternated, the cowboys, tomboys and everyone in between dancing, kind of; and by the time I hit Downtown at midnight, everyone had gone home, so I did too.

Saturday started late and lazy for me, intended to spend the day writing at the coffee house, and then I met a delightful young woman there, and we wasted the day together talking and wine-tasting. From here, visiting, lives in Santa Cruz, wants to open a breakfast joint one day; she likes the idea of starting people off on good day with a good meal, with a smile. Smart, ambitious, and doesn't take for granted that plans work out just right.

She mentioned a grandfather she never knew, wanted to know more, to write about him--He lived the craziest life...!--and she told this crazy story. How he was sold to beggars in his little town in eastern Canada during the Depression, ended up arrested under a bridge in Vallejo in 1932 at the age of 11. Sent to Napa Juvie because Vallejo didn't have one. She had these stories from an aunt, I believe, and the next episode has him moving into this big, farm family north of Napa somewhere in the country. Raised cattle and dairy and grandpa lived pretty well compared to before until World War Two came along, and he didn't do badly then. She mentioned the family name, and it was the same people who own the Regusci Winery, a branch called Simone; I wrote about cookies and chocolate in the kitchen a few numbers back.

We drove up there, did a walkaround, did a tasting. The girl tried to pick out details she'd heard about, and the property fit all her preconceptions generally. I love the Regusci property, used to be called the Occidental Winery before the cows, then it was a ghost winery, and now it's back, a classic of the sort. Big stone winery building circa 1880s, farm house, outbuildings, all at the base of the Vaca Mountains just south of Staggs Leap. Great views every direction.

We arranged for a tasting in the patio shade, and Erin introduced herself. We asked about the Simone family, and she immediately started talking about the DiSimones; she's friends with Mike, the guy who gave us the Riverfront development, along with Morimoto, Tyler Florence and Fish Story. Didn't know about the Regusci-Simones. Asked Erin about herself; a Cordon Bleu graduate, she made the rounds of fine eateries in America after leaving France, most recently opening Morimoto last year. Decided she needed to learn more about wine, wants to be a sommelier and a great chef, so she's at the Regusci tasting room.

We confined ourselves to the reds, and she was generous to a fault. The Zinfandel and the Cabernet at the end of the long flight really got my attention. I'm not a jam, currant, chocolate and cat pee kind of taster, so forgive my lack of wine-flavor vocabulary; these just tasted great to me, and were unique in my memory when it comes to Zins and Cabs. So there.

We moved on, the young lady and I separated never to meet again, and I spent the rest of the afternoon musing on the day's strange series of coincidences while resting for a busy evening.

Renegade's kick-ass RocknRoll at Silo's, other rockers at DT Joes, Shakespeare at Vet's Park. That latter, by the way, has been just wonderful, and the crowds attest to its popularity. Great set and costumes, and the casts have been delightful. Met the Artistic Director--Jan?--a drama professor at the NVC who wants to elevate the level of play. Doing excellent job, and it's as professionally done as anything I've ever seen of the type. The Compleat Shakespeare--an irreverent spoof--came a little later in the week; a Julia Child type started carving people up for Hamlet or something. Really funny. Bravo!

Stopped by the Opera House for the Lisa Clark Dance Troupe out of Suisun City, of all places. Go Figure, huh? Well...this was such a contrast to what I saw the night before at the Festival event at the Lincoln Theater. There I saw the stylistic differences between European and American fashions in classical ballet rendered by some of the world's best. Here I saw daring contemporary work, in this case with a Zodiac theme. Libra went five minutes, a dozen or so beautiful young bodies dancing out the dual nature intrinsic to the sign, all awash in blue. Smooth, athletic, engaging; these kids from Suisun City were brilliant. Then came Scorpio, a mixed pair against red backgrounds, the guy holding girl inverted, legs akimbo as scorpion claws...well, it was so erotic I just had to leave. Bravo again!

The English Beat played the Uptown, and that energetic dance-in-the-aisles show served as my cold shower. Brought me back to those Eighties days when Boy George, Men at Work, the Pretenders and Madonna all mixed and matched the New Wave trends that evolved out of Punk. The ground floor was damn near packed, and the building would've swayed with the dancing if it weren't reinforced concrete.

People were dancing for real at Bistro Sabor by then, and by eleven or twelve, Ariel Ceja's salsa lessons turn into a dance party. Couples danced and grinded, they danced and spun each other, the stars took turns showing off, snagging different partners, then showed off some more. A hot blonde in a short blue dress was so salsa'd up grabbing guys' asses thought there might be a cat fight; no fear, everyone just joined the beat.

Got so crowded, ultimately, that a bunch crossed over to Tuscany, where I had ended up. Beautiful, alone, 40-something dancing by herself to Simon's beat--he's a keyboardist and singer who works with Skyler Jett, music columnist for Napa Valley Life; he just did a great interview with one of my old-time favorites, front man for the Chambers Brothers. Caught them at the Fillmore several times, as well as in Central Park, all '68, 69. Skyler, I mean, not Simon. First heard him a few weeks ago; he has that '70s R&B thing down so well thought I was listening to a record.

Anyway, Simon's playing with some woman singing, and she's out of this world; the babe in black's dancing alone, digging being the show while a few couples circle the floor, and then blondie comes in with a crew from Bistro S, she takes the floor with some stud she lured from another babe, and just ran the solitary dancer off. It's party time! And the pleasant, intimate scene of a few minutes earlier turned into a pleasant get down party in a matter of minutes.

And I was just so overwhelmed by all the excitement I had to retreat, again, to my forest lair.

Heard on the Street, Downtown, guy to girlfriend:" don't like bulldogs? Well bulldogs don't like you..."

Sunday, 24 July 2011

So much happening, so little time to write about it. Let's see...where to begin tieing the week's loose ends:

Been meaning to introduce you to Dr. Sharon Ufberg, Wellness expert for Napa Valley Life Magazine. The next issue will carry her third column in the bi-monthly journal of everything relevant and elegant on the Valley: The first two were about finding your Inner Goddesss and a couple of enablers who guide the search; and where to find a healthy smoothy in the Valley, and what makes one such. A chiropractor, for 30 years she had an Upper West Side practice in Manhattan, and she works successfully with conventional MDs in promoting a wholistic approach to living and treatment, when needed.

A Napa resident for almost two years, she landed here after closing her practice to travel, and then taking a house here for a couple of months while figuring her next move. Liked it so much she stayed and decided to take her experise into new areas.

She's already having an impact; besides her magazine column, Sharon does a wellness show on KVON/KVYN with Kelly in the Morning on Wednesday's at Seven. Met her at Oxbow one Sunday afternoon; she was still glowing from a wine tasting in the caves at Jarvis Winery. She's a great addition to the Valley; left me with alot to think about after half-an-hour with her.

By coincidence, right after that met Dr. Tim--forget his last name--but he's president of the local chiropractors' organization. Had a stroke just two months earlier, would never have known it. And he talked very highly of Sharon. Who later returned the favor. Another funny coincidence, met a top Jarvisite at Monday Trivia Night at DT Joe's His name is Ted, works the tasting room there and MCs the trivia; used to be a sommelier at Four Seasons in Boston. Sharon knows all the best people. Already.

Kitchen Door at oxbow for snack of fries, ran into Harold and Peggy; he was animal expert at Marine World in Vallejo before they went roller-coaster, now history expert at Francis Copolla's Rubicon, soon to be renamed Inglenook, it's original moniker...and Peggy is a spa expert who opened Solage in Calistoga a few years ago; now she's a spa consultant specializing in high end properties in places like the Napa Valley. Met them at the Boone Fly Cafe in its early golden days. And visited Chris, KD chef, as he ate a lunch of yummy looking fried rice that I don't believe is on the menu. But the fries were so perfectly crispy I didn't mind.

Nation's Giant Hamburger Joint serves the best fresh strawberry cream cheese pie I ever had, been eating it there since the place opened 35-40 years ago. The place was a cult favorite even then, the original on San Pablo Dam Road. The Rockwell Band crew turned me on to it, after gigs, open all-night. Perfect topper to a night at the Old Fillmore Auditorium, leaving after hearing The Doors, say, at two, and gorging on hamburger, pie or both at three. Breakfast all day too, but this one closes at Midnight. One of the hottest places in town after 10; only reliable place to get a good late meal. Oh, yeah...the pie...get it now, while strawberrys still in season.

Carol, Chesapeake Bay Waterman and Napa River kayak guide, at Napa Valley Adventure Tours. Got to know her a bit making the Oxbow rounds...proprietor Paul tells me she mapped 600 miles of C Bay coastline from her hometown of St. Michaels, Maryland, one of those remotely quaint fishing towns that's now full of tourists; economy based on oyster dredging and the Chesapeake Bay Skipjack, a localized schooner designed for the purpose. She tells great stories about the river...mist rising in the morning, other intimate scenes; and I'm jealous she's been sailing on a skipjack, and I missed my chance when at Annapolis for my nephew's grad from the Naval Academy. Love hearing about how she fished for soft shell crabs, my personal favorite during that visit...and Kanaloa Seafood at Oxbow just happens to be selling said blue, softshell crabs.

Stopped by Tyler Florence's rotisserie at Riverfront, had glass of Zinfandel with a friend, ordered their fried bread to snack on; kind of like deconstructed bruschetta, a bowl full of fried bread chunks, buffalo mozzarella, baby heirloom tomatoes, and just enough olive oil. Great twist on an old favorite. Server Amy was the best; a mountain girl from Alaska and Colorado, she could teach even me a few things about living off-grid in the wilderness.

That was Thursday night, and I had so much fun hanging around the bars, missed the Chef's Market. Started the afternoon at DT Joe's with a dark brew and Big John Herkins tall stories. He's the unofficial mayor of Downtown, I hear; think I'll just make it Official. Mayor Big John Herkins.

Found myself sitting next to Walter, another bartender, just off-duty from Fish Story. Then Big John starts talking aliens. He's got this stuff down; aliens, conspiracies, secret societies. Told his own Fish Story--maybe?--about a bunch of NASA guys who came into the bar a few years ago; up here for a conference. John asks the table about UFOs, they all kind of look around, don't know nothin', then look at one of their number, and someone says, If anyone knows, he does, but he won't say anything. So John, wily bartender that he is, waits till the guy's had a few and orders his last of the evening. John's ready; he has two coasters, on one of which he'd drawn a puic of a big-head alien. Puts the coasters down, says to NASA bigshot as he hands him a beer, Do me a favor, and choose a coaster...the guy hesitates, looks John in the eye...and he puts his beer down...on the Alien! So that settles it.

This other bartender, Walter just got here from Seattle a couple of months ago, works days at Fish Story, invited me to happy hour one day; lots of good food deals, he says. One of these days...and Walter is one entertaining guy, too; killer-math-smart, he could be as big a know-it-all as myself one day, but much more charming.

Earlier that day, caught another free concert at the Jarvis Conservatory, a Festival del Sole event; just great, again. Kid nnamed Matt Lyons played guitar, polished yet casual stage presence, demonstrating an ease and confidence beyond his years--he's part of the young musicians series. Composes his own, played a tune inspired by George Gershwin; managed to play rythm and lead guitar at same time, strumming with his picking hand, and picking with his fret hand. Couldn't quite believe what I was hearing, every note, crisp, clear, precise, for both ends of the song. Visited with Mike, the super limo driver again, as well as Vlad, who runs the Jarvis Conservatory; those Jarvis folks know quality when they see it, but even better, they promote it with wine and culture.

Heard On The Street, tourist wife laughing to husband after talking to kid at camp on cell phone, by Eiko: "...he says he lied last week about liking soccer camp so we didn't feel bad; he hates it and wants to go home..."

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Well, I just had too much fun for a Tuesday, and the highlight of highlights was dinner at Cielito Lindo, the new restaurant on Main where Anelienne used to be. The window says Unique Mexican Food, but it's much more than that: It's genuine Mexican Gourmet Fare. A young couple--Annel and Jeremy--own the place with family, and hers is from Puerto Vallarta, where they've been dishing out quality meals for decades, often fishing it themselves.

Erin greeted at the door, introduced me to everyone, sat at the bar under the tutelage of Hector, someone's uncle, I bet, who explained with pride everything I ate and how it was prepared. I kept it light and simple, had the Aguachile Jalisco and Prensadas de Chicharon. The Gulf shrimp a la Jalisco were butterflied, lime cooked and covered with the most subtle of jalapno salsas. The prensadas were tostada like, but served instead on a small, thick corn tortilla--prensada?--and graced with the little morsels of crispy pork, pepper aioli, cabbage shreds and cojita cheese.

Every mouthful exploded with a diversity of subtle flavors, and the sweetened cucumber tea--Pepino--served as the perfect refreshment on a warm evening. And Hector was the perfect culinary guide, and he's got some good fish stories, too. Lots of fun talking to Erin and him about San Blas, the once Spanish treasure port turned sleepy Mexican fishing village. Talk to them first if you ever want to go on a real vacation south of the border. And go anyway just for a whole, new take on Mexican Cuisine.

Truth be known, I was already in the most excellent mood as I walked in; had departed just minutes before from the Opera House performance of the US Army Band and the Moscow Symphony; actually, a couple of brass quintets picked from those august orgs. The ten started together, five pairs of tubas, French horns, trombones, and two types of trumpet; they rocked. Vlad Lavrik, formerly of the Red Army, charmed the crowd with his diffident English as he occasionally groped for a word as Master of Ceremonies, a duty he shared with Master Sergeant Harry Warren? of the United States Army. After the opening numbers the groups performed separately, playing Bach and Handel, with a little of Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee thrown in.

The Opera House was full up for this free concert, a gift of the Festival del Sole. This should be a major destination event for music lovers, and I doubt there's any stage in the world that offers more charm to music lovers of every sort than this. Already wrote about my experience with the Festival in 2007; endless series of great dinners and performances for insiders, great free events for everyone else, and affordable once-in-a-lifetime music and musicians.

Following that memorable dinner en el Cielo, I went to the Slack Studios, and ran into the man himself out front where he concocted strange contraptions with Greg, guy I met at the Coffee House when I saw him strumming a homemade guitar with a wine box for a sound chamber. Made it electric, even. Cost $4 bucks and scraps, says Greg, who explained he'd just finished a matching amp. He and Paul Slack continued to discuss weird science and workarounds: a natural cooling unit running air through a chamber full of cold bottles of water; hot water or electric power drawn from copper pipes or wires, arranged just right. Like that. Tuesday is Movie Night at the Slack Studios, a warehouse space Paul opened over by the skate park by Pearl Street.

Opened three months ago, a couple of dozen teens and 20-somethings do their painting and other creative experiments here, and Slack's Ranch toward Cuttings Wharf provides an isolated music venue where volume isn't much of an issue. Showed "The Bad Seed;" Patty McCormack played the sweetly evil little girl, William Hopper, Hedda's son and the detective on the '50s Perry Mason TV Show played Dad. Best bad/happy ending ever so, especially avant garde for the early '60s.

In between visits to the movie, played chess with Brandon, a manager at Ubuntu. Best game I had in years, we slugged it out, I had him beat, and he turned it all around in a move or two and the king was dead. Anything can happen at Slack Studios. Brandon's a good artist too; perfect representations, good abstracts. Girlfriend Emily does over size photo-realistic pencil sketches that surpass camera work. Amazing.

A 40-something, Slack just likes giving youngsters outlets for their artistic energies; also happens to own Bloom Hair Salon around the corner at Pearl and Main. Seen and already written about some of the "Happenings" there. Nice to finally meet Paul, renegade philanthropist.

Tuesday morning got out early to catch a young cellist at the Jarvis Conservatory, before lunch; a virtuoso with a piano accompanist for some works, the teenager played a variety of works unknown to me, especially a modern piece in which he plucked the strings in between sweeps with the bow.

Met the house director, Vladislav Ponomarov; been there a few years, discovered he was responsible for the excellent movie selections I've caught there. Forget the exact name--"The Golden Lotus Palace," or somesuch--but it was the greatest epic with martial arts I ever saw. Dynastic wars in 12th Century China, say, and casts of thousands, and whole armies of Ninjas, samurais and everything else, cultural accuracy be damned. Breathtaking cinematography.

Then I had one of those interesting little encounters that opens up a whole new world for you. I met Michael R. Nielsen, Limousine Driver Extraordinaire and Temporary Executive Assistant.

I'd lingered after the performance to admire a blue Bentley Turbo; the company's a Festival del Sole sponsor. Michael was parked and leaning against his car; the client came out to get some bottles of wine to sign and giveawy. Michael, of course, had a backup special pen.

Looked like one of those guys who works for Corporate Titans in movies; slick as can be, perfectly on, ready, got what you want before you ask. Wears Armani, probably Gucci, too, drives a simple, elegant, black Lincoln Town Car. I established a world record in a Town Car--fastest transit from the top of Mt. Whitney to the bottom of Death Valley--and I extolled the merits of big, overbuilt Detroit Steel. Drove a hundred miles an hour in 130 degree heat uphill with the air conditioner at 60, the temp guage didn't budge. Michael had a similar story about going over the Grapevine. Anyway, this guy even carries two kinds of sealed Altoids, a sewing kit and a life raft, I think.

Not your usual limo driver, most professional I've met so far; asked if many more like him. Oh, yeah, he said. I respect those guys.

They give each other a good name. If you ever need the best in drivers, remember Michael Nielsen,, 707-486-5510.

Then I took a bus to St. Helena--I'm exceedingly green, you know--to pay a visit to Tom at the Christopher Hill Gallery; to search for treasures at Lolo's Consignment Shop--once snagged a pair of fine little wooden boxes from Italy, displaying the finest inlay; and a sentimental lunch at the Model Bakery where I once wrote a book. Had more tomato pesto pizza than I can remember, and choco-chip-walnut cookie and iced tea. Talk about comfort food. Stopped by Crane Park for a smoke, and who should I run into but Sierra, who worked at the Model Bakery back then, and Miguel, erstwhile bartender at Anna's Cantina; did my drinking and internet work there after the bakery closed. Shared a bottle of Chardonnay as the afternoon waned, and I waited for the next bus.

So many people want to go to Dario Sattui's Love Castle by bus they put in some stops by there; I got out almost across the street, and as I approach the long drive to the Castello Amarosso, whom should I see but Michael! He sees me coming, but I'm surprised he recognizes me at a distance, dressed up. But that;'s what makes him special. And I get closer, and he's opening the back door for me to get in, and it's not Michael, but Rick...I'll find his card and get back to you. This guy was good too; drove me right up to the Castle, and before I knew it, there I was backstage with the Moscow Symphony Orchestra as they prepared to go on with Sarah Chang, the great violinist.

Following an overture, Chang came out to perform a medley from West Side Story with the orchestra; had never seen her before, or her animated style of play. Something to behold in her bright red sating dress, gathered at the knees above flaring skirts, her body arched and undulated with her play, the black and white of the orchestra heigtening the effect.

As I walked the collonade, I espied Dario and Yana Sattui sitting in the gallery above, so, of course, I joined them. Chang done, we retired to a little party for friends of the Festival on one of the hidden plazas, the upper valley spread out below.

Bouchaine's Gerret and Tatiana Copeland served as event hosts; they're Festival del Sole's most visible patrons, and in 2007, their Carneros property served as backdrop for the wedding of Stefane and Oisoff Deneve. Became acquainted with Oisoff--probably not how it's spelled, but she's Swedish--back then at some lovely lunches and dinners. Saw her last night at the Castle; she lamented that it's taken so long to return. Stephane is much in demand as a conductor, and their life has been a whirlwind of international travel and cultures.

Dario told me about his recent trip to Turkey, and some guy comes along and tells Sattui the sound'll get better as the evening cools; the temperature really made a difference, he said. Turns out he's festival director, and, of course, I didn't get his name. Later, maybe.

Then, then...Oh My God, I saw my first pair of real live Christian Limbourtin shoes, the distinctive bright red sole the giveaway. Simple, black, but the epitome of Those Shoes, and I think CL may have started the platform and spike style. A 30-something beauty, hair up, in a simple black sheath...could've been born with them.

More music, sounded like a Beethoven symphony, but I am ignorant of these things. Enjoyed it anyway from the crenellated heights of the grand tower, a screeching hawk flying by overhead to ride the thermals into the sunset. What a night.

Don't forget: Cause for the Paws, Sunday afternoon, at Silverado Resort, Johnny Smith doing the music.Presented by Catherine Bergen of C Casa Taco Lounge.

Heard On The Street, by Peet's Coffee:...he didn't touch me the whole time we were alone...I'm sick of it. I know this sounds psycho, but it was the worst party night of my life...

Monday, 18 July 2011

I started my Friday with an afternoon jaunt to town, stopped by Community Projects on Franklin to look at their books; got some wonderful volumes, one on the seven wonders of the ancient world, another on the First Century AD, and all the things going on around the world while the greatest acts of western civilization played out. Then discovered that a couple of the ladies working there were San Francisco natives who actually remember the good old days when the city was The City. One of them told about a relative, a famous restaurant owner and host, who got divorced in the early '50s. Merited a front page headline in the papers, she said. How things change, huh? Now it's news when someone doesn't get a divorce.

Had ribs and slaw at Bounty Hunter for a light dinner, made the rounds, listened to the band at Vet's Park briefly, then headed over to Silos for more music. Keith and Sandy came by to say Hi, and then I went time travelling again as this band called something like Cream of Clapton performed the master's best stuff, especially from Fresh Cream. Layla, I Shot the Sheriff, like that. Most excellent renditions, and really good woman guitarist as well.

Ran into Rachel Sculley and her Dad Mike there, drank wine with them on the patio, and then Andrew showed up, a sous chef from Angele recently arrived in Napa from Portland. Into birdwatching, 200+ sightings! Rachel was still glowing from her performance Thursday night at the Vet's Park; she's a fantastic singer, song writer, guitar player, said that for the first time she felt like she'd done a genuinely professional job. Mike poured Andy some wine, Andy shared his fresh turnip greens with everyone, all nibbling the healthy snack, sipping chard and avoiding my cigarette smoke.

Then I walked down the riverwalk to Morimoto, and Yikes! I thought I'd been transported to Manhattan or some other distant place; LA in the '80s? Could hardly get through the door, beautiful women tottering on Those Shoes, throbbing music, bodies writhing in dance, Morimoto himself slicing the sushi for a crowd of admirers. The traffic jammed heading to the bar for a drink, jammed heading from the bar to watch the Master Chef. Servers weaved through with a snake-like precision, offering endless platters of sushi, tasty nuggets of I don't know what, little fishy canapes. And just as I gave up hope of getting a drink, Rima came to my aid and snagged me a beer.

Security man Jesse presided over the action with a calm, steady eye, bow-tied manager Eduardo greeted guests like an old-world impressario, made sure things continued to run smoothly with a gracious manner and smile. Met one couple that stopped by for a simple birthday drink for the lady involved, and she was delighted to see what they walked into; just kind of decided the party was for her, and enjoyed herself on that premise. Out-of-towners, the grin never left her face and the look of bewilderment never left his.

And the shoes! You should have seen the shoes! I had to comment on Ashley's, two-inch platform, six inch heel, a darker shade of prussian blue with a hint of lavender, in suede. Yikes! Tan, brunette, all dressed in black, silky, tight slacks and loose top; and a Coachy bag with a giant brass plaque on it. A local girl; her friend Sierra confirmed my opinion, said she said same thing: best shoes in the house. Sierra's weren't bad either, but all I could make out was a little stub of patten leather toe from under the long jeans. She was from Paradise; of course. Long, thick wavey blonde hair and the face of an angel. Paradise, indeed! The one by Chico.

Then there was this other pair, a stunning Amazon topping six-feet in Those Shoes, and her doll friend who pulled off five-feet and change with Those Shoes. Dressed in black and red, respectively, the skirts ended just south of indecent, and the girls looked great dancing with each other and the random ragamuffin of a guy who weaseled in; cognitive dissonance, indeed!

And the statuesque blonde in the filmy burgundy dress with open arms cuffed at the elbow, notable as much for her shoes as beauty; flat, patten leather gladiator sandals, real warrior princess all dressed up for the Bachanal. Wished I'd taken a picture of her and the Amazon when their orbits crossed; blonde, blue eyes, slender, cut; black locks, dark eyes, voluptuous, cut. Did a questionable sketch instead.

A flock of butterflies, by the way, flew up the Amazon's back from the netherworlds.

I'd had my fill of wine, women and DJ by 1:30, headed out; I hear the party lasted another hour. Then everyone went home with a little help from Jesse and Eduardo. Especially the ragamuffins; don't they feel stupid looking like that around women looking Like That? And the Ooooah's!? Yikes!

Did I mention that the party commemorated the first anniversary of Morimoto? So the next night was a little anti-climatic; I'll just have to get used to the normal complement of Those Shoes and Those Girls.

Hit Silo's Saturday night, too, and caught some of Kelly Fuller's performance with accompanist Mike Greensill; Cabaret classics spanning the 50s, 60s and 70s. Could have been at F. Scott's in Venice, place with a gondola on the wall, or the Carlysle Hotel in New York, Bobby Short's longterm home. Kelly told stories about the songs, who did them when, why. Killing Me Softly with his Song hit it with Laura Nero--I think?--but she'd adapted a poem that had been turned into a song. Kelly polished it off like it was her own, as she did the rest of her repertoire. This is one of the most civilized rooms in town. Intimate entertainment, always a good, appreciative crowd, and the lay-out encourages everyone to get to know each other, table-to-table. Every time I'm there, I see starngers walking out friends.

Silo's also picks some real gems, of whatever genre; the week before I caught this big country western band with a deep-voiced front man who could have starred at Branson; maybe he did. Anyway, not really my kind of music, but they kept me in my seat for half-an-hour with virtuoso performances. Terry Bradford's playing next weekend, and he's got a bunch of dates planned there; excellent vocalist, does everything, and has a devoted fan-crowd.

Went to the Uptown next, for the David Grisman Bluegrass Experience; walked in late just right. David told the story of the guys who really started bluegrass, the Monroe Brothers of Kentucky, in 1936 or so, broke up by '38. Got famous with a song called Rollin' On, characterized by that bluegrass tendency to stablish a clear tune of subdued instruments until they exploded into the wailing violin, hopping banjo, thundering speed-bass, screaming guitar...and David Grisman making magic with that mandolin.

Told how the brothers split into rival bands; the successful one called his The Kentucky Bluegrass Boys; big surprise, huh? Then Grisman and Company played the latter's Will You Make Love To Another While I'm Away; big hit in WW2. Big surprise, huh?

Interesting to hear Grisman do this bluegrass experience show; been used to hearing the guy just rip that mandolin since the '60s at the Fillmore. Last heard him a few years ago in Hayfork at the Tribal Stomp and Cannabis Harvest Festival, not far from my plantation; late to that too. Was building the cabin that now anchors the horticulural compound. Still will never forget the fading light, clouds of divine smoke, Grisman setting fire to the place...and then the fireworks. Peak moment, that.

EVen so, never knew what a great storyteller he was till the other night.

Had a slow Sunday, thought about going to Yountville, didn't; thought about getting a kayak at Napa Adventures at the Oxbow, didn't; thought about going to Compadres for a margarita on the patio and music, didn't. Lounged at Bel Aire Plaza, did some shopping at Trader Joe's, sampled wonderful ice cream at Whole Foods. Snoqualme Brand, from Washington State, made from scratch, all gourmet, all green as can be. The samples rep--Karen? Needs a biz card--explained that lots of organic ice cream people buy ingredients since they're too small to do the full on cow to cone thing. Loved the Lavender's elusive flavorings, and the plant came from the farm.

She also represents Three Twins Ice Cream, out of Petaluma, with an outlet at Oxbow. Learned they're the biggest organic ice cream maker in the country--4000+ square foot facility. Do it all there, top to bottom, udder to utterly delicious. Excuse me for that.

Ended up hanging around the Oxbow and the Ritual folk, Annamaria and Tina, the latter recently arrived from the Coffee Roasting Company. Annamaria's finishing her script, Tina's getting deeper into coffee lore and science. Was thrilled when Ryan Heitz, of Coffee Roaster fame, came by for the rival's brew.

Then I walked down the street, watched the Wine Train load up, heard the expectant conversations of passengers embarking on a Big Napa Valley Adventure. And made small talk with the engineer until the mighty locomotive chugged off into the sunset. Followed by a glass of Chardonnay and small talk with Kurt Schneider, manager of the Bank Bar at the Westin. Nice place for a drink on warm summer days, when they open the back doors to the pool patio, indoor and outdoor merging somewhere east of the lobby. Gotta try their prix fixe menu one of these days; looks good, looks like a bargain.

And then I stopped by the Uptown again, for India...and the Raichels. The latter seem to be a new couple collaboration between an Israeli guy and an American black woman doubling as African Love Goddess. Long, clingy but flowing electric blue dress, multicolored turban rising from atop her head, she told a story of burning out on the music bis a couple of years ago, fired everyone, considered retirement, travelled, wrote, thought, met this guy somewhere, they started working together. She said she's always wanted to sing in another language, so started with Hebrew, and then sang what sure looked like a love song between the two; he played piano, she sang, they sang to each other, locked gaze between them.

Don't know what they were saying with those words, but the universal longings and desire of romance were clear enough. When she asked if anyone spoke Hebrew in the packed house, half responded; and then I saw a "shwarma" personalized license plate on a VW Jetta in the lots. A whole bunch of multi-culturalism going on there, and it was all good.

Heard On The Street, at Tuscany's sidewalk tables: "'s like, she pulled herself together, and married him for the money. Then afterwards, after she moved in, she started up like before, and kinda fell apart again. It's bad..."

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Did anyone notice that Thursday day was Bastille Day? Kind of like our Fourth of July with rolling heads. But that came later. Little known fact that there were two guys in that dreaded prison: a rich pedophile who had a private suite, servants and his own furniture; and a poor mad man. The warden agreed to let the mob in if they promised not to hurt anyone, and they happily agreed. Then they slaughtered the warden, the guards, and on the way home, did unspeakable things to a young noblewoman whose segments were paraded around town on the ends of pikes. Viva la revolucion! To the glory of the French, and all that!

I know JV Liquors had something planned; French wines, perhaps? Have to ask Audrey one of these days.

So, where was I when I was so rudely interrupted by fun at the Westin? Oh, yeah, trying to catch up on the week.

Wandered through a slow night into Eiko around 10, and discovered manager Felipe performing science for some guy lounging in an overstuffed chair by the fire. Several little bowls, and Felipe deftly skewered a nugget of chocolate ganache--choco sphere with crunch in it, from Anette's--then twirled it in the one containing dark chocolate. A dubious looking mist arose from within one bowl--liquid nitrogen I learned--and he twirled it again in the freezing fluid. Then into a bowl of white chocolate and vanilla, into the nitro bath, and more dark chocolate. The recipients appeared delighted.

Down the street, visited the John Anthony tasting room, learned he's a son of the Truchard's, a lovely couple Carneros adjacent who craft a brilliant Cabernet. John Anthony's doing his own thing, explained Chris, man on duty. Already carried a full load, so demurred on a taste till later. Just by coincidence, ran into a friend who attended his brother's wedding; at the winery I think. Name's Anthony; wonder if middle name is John.

Somewhere in there I finally stopped by Kitchen Door for something to eat; had the flat bread, the celery salad with walnuts, and an Anchor Steam beer--think that's what it was. Read one of those fascinating vintage cookbooks along the wall during the repast, finally made it to dessert, what they called a Napa Valley Fruitcake; some ambiguous connotations there.

It was in fact pannetone, a moist, dense Italian delicay, with almonds; I'd encountered the very same as sample at Browns Valley Market. The thin slices burst with elusive fruity flavors, even better with a dollop of the soft serve ice cream. About this time proprietor Todd Humphrey stopped by, his T-shirt bearing the visage of a smiling Jimi Hendrix. Somehow Todd missed the three performances of Purple Haze over the Fourth Weekend just ended, missed Jimi's reincarnation as Ralph Woodson. I believe he regretted it.

Really nice set-up there; you order and pay at the counter, food's delivered to your table, and the server tends to your further needs; seamless.

That all must have been Monday or Tuesday, but it doesn't matter, because Wednesday was really very interesting.

Hanging around at Oxbow, the Ritual coffee crowd, Annamaria and Jay, then headed toward Downtown at seven or so, passing by Anette's candy counter, where I'm prone to help myself to a dollop of Italian Cherry Chocolate Merlot Fudge Sauce. What a great mouthful! Then I noticed an unfamiliar face behind the counter, one Zoe who'd been a candy professional for a year; asked her how she liked it.

Started out a lttle scared, first job, heard stories about mean managers and customers, all very intimidating for a 17-year-old girl. Wasn't like that at all for Zoe, everyone was wonderful, the other girls helpful. I knew some of them, Deveny, Kamaia, she raved about them especially. And they all worked well together, socialized after hours, just the best job.

Ten minutes later I'm walking down First Street, walk into Eiko to check it out, and before my exit, I hear, Hey, and I turn, and it's Deveny and Kamaia and another of Anette's crew new to me, Jess. Almost didn't recognize them, no aprons or blouses, but decked out tops to bottoms, great shoes, better legs, hot dresses, serious girls night out.

Joined them for a while, they raved over the food and fun had; especially the cold popcorn, said Jess. Something else they do with liquid nitrogen, apparently, and I told them about the chocolate delights; Jess again--Eiko gets the ganache nuggets at Anette's. Of course.

Told the girls I'd just met Zoe, that she'd been talking about how they hung out as I was then observing, how nice it was, and I could see it alll right there. And then they talked about how much they liked Zoe. There are some real sweethearts out thre, and Anette knows 'em when she see's them. I like her chocolate a little extra just knowing it's made with so many good vibes floating around.

Talk turned to the Chef's Market, how much they enjoyed it because it was for locals; and the next night, walking by Anette's--across First from Eiko--I ran into Jess, manning, so to speak, the Anette's stand. Started to help myself to some of their butter brickles--chili and beer infused--and noticed a sample jar of that Italian Cherry Chocolate stuff. Jess understood immediately, dropped a big dab on the brickle. Pure ecstacy!

But I was talking about Wednesday. Dragged myself away from the bevy of Anetteys, and went to an outlaw barbecue in Old Town, drank beer, ate chicken wings just right, and showed off my latest snake. One of the guys just did a year at Folsom, hanging with his little girl and the guys; she named it Athena. From the mouths of babes...the toddler had no idea how right on that was!

By the time I hit Downtown at ten, even the sidewalks had curled up for a nap. Even 1313 Main was closed, and as I considered my options, the strangest vision came rolling down the street at me.

I couldn't begin to discern what it was beyond a wheeled vehicle, a cannon or giant telescope mounted on top, all trimmed in blue lights. The contraption on the roof--shaped and colored like a giant long-neck beer bottle--seemed to wear a clear plastic hat at a jaunty angle.

I was stunned and speechless until it drew closer, and before I had a clue as to what it was, one of the pilots yelled, Wanna ride? Uh, sure.

A motorized freight trike from China rated for a 1200 pound load, it had morphed into a Burning Man Mobile Performing Art Project. Don and Tracy explained everything, even the device mounted above where I sat in the 3x5 truck bed; a giant kaleidescope made of cast-off junk that looked very professionally made, all things considered. They asked my destination, I suggested the lot by the Coffee Roasting Company at First and Main. Don deftly made a U-turn right after a police cruiser slowed to regard the sight, then speeding off as if he'd seen aliens. Kind of; they're from Richmond. Don activated the kaleidescope on arrival, Tracy explained everything, and I saw vision up that tube I hadn't seen since 1968. A fun time was had by all.

But there was more; I go into DT Joe's to visit a bit with Big John Herkins, and he pours me a dark brew, and then there's Paul, a guy I've known from around Bounty Hunter for several years, and he's telling me how good the business is, he works the back rooms, direct sales to elite customers, kind of like filling out stock portfolios; but with wine. Business is so great, he says, he's forgetting to have any fun, and that's why he's at DT Joe's at midnight.

Next thing I know, someone's dragging Paul off to be in a picture, and I'm being dragged off too, and half the bar ends up in this posed frame that takes entirely too long fror this half-drunk to shoot. But the deed is finally done; a little commemorative photo for a man from Mexico City along with his wife and crew, and it's his fortieth birthday.

Ended up there again 24 hours later--DT Joe's, I mean--but no pix Thursday. That was after where I left off at the Bank Bar at the Westin, where I ended up following my watcvhing the train arrive, a old fond habit. All the tourists were loving it, linming up for their commemorative photos. Didn't make it across the lot to the hotel till 10:30 or so, sat in the lobby, wrote. Went out for a cigarette on the patio, and clustered atop the little fountain circling the Westin Eternal Flame, stood half-a-dozen men and women smoking cigars as they leaned into the flame to cut the colod. Indeed, the only discouraging word heard by the train was the lament that a jacket was lacking.

The Westin lobby started filling up after 11, snacks and drinks by the indoor fire, others partying in the superlarge hot tub. Met some couples from Chicago; the ones who didn't leave were a lawyer who does corporate litigation, and an astro-physicist who does cloud computing software. From Hinsley, a pricey suburb; told about their favorite wine merchants and the benefits of good advice; and a cigar joint in Memphis where they specialize in regional tobaccos and old school treatments. The whole terroir thing, with tobacco.

Then I went to Morimoto, and there was even a crowd there approaching midnight.

Proving, once again, that there's more to Napa than meets the eye. Day or night.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

I felt guilty leaving the forest as late as I did on Sunday afternoon, but my bird neighbors provided so much entertainment leaving was difficult. Happy serendipity. There I was riding through that nice Browns Valley neighborhood with the perfectly paved streets--Scenic Drive is my route--and the sound of bag-pipes drifted through the air. Of course I had to follow the sound; my wild goose ancestors marched to battle, death, victory and glory behind the Empire's pipers. The sound emanated from a house with Old Glory mounted on one side of the garage, a fireman's flag on the other. A memorial service for Captain Bill said a sign.

Lounged on a lawn across the street, closed my eyes, listened to the wind in the trees, the familiar plaint of the pipes, and imagined all the scenes where such sounds might have been heard. Small villages in Spain, Belgium or France in Napoleon's day, throughout India, Africa and Asia a few generations later. Had to have a look at the piper before proceeding, walked into a nice backyard with a pool, set up for a Sunday afternoon wake. Just as I entered the gate came a familiar amplified voice saying she felt honored to perform at the gathering.

Turned out to be Linda and her trio, keep forgetting the name, but you never heard such a sweet combination of women's voices and guitars. Then they played the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: We're getting too the point...

Well, I damn near lost it and had to go it evoked so much memory, and that song was part of the background music. A friend's highschool sweetheart, Linda and I went back a long time to the great Napa days when Rockwell played gigs all over town and beyond, an endless party. For several years, anyway. Rockwell provided the live sound track, and their travelling road show included dozens of Napans, and no one would have referred to us as any kind of Napkin. Someone might wipe the floor with you. But the parties! Once a month someone rented the Carneros or Hagen Road grange hall, supplied a keg, and Rockwell did the rest. Some of those early promoters have dinner every Saturday night at the bar at Uva; Leo, John, Tom and John. Those were the days.

Their once lead singer, Ernie Rodriguez, lives in American Canyon; last heard him at a fairgrounds highschool reunion six, seven years ago. He and a different Rockwell covered a lot of standards well, but they used to stick to their own stuff. Asked Ernie why they didn't play any of it. Looked blankly at me for a minute, thinking. We just kind of forgot all the songs, he said.

Finally made it to Taste by Oxbow to meet the winemaker from Mahoney Vineyards, an event organized by a young old friend, Mallory Uran, whom I'd last seen as a 19-year-old server at the Boone Fly cafe at Carneros Inn. Those days were pretty good, too. Dinner at the bar with a circle of friends several times a week, drinking lots of fine wine, compliments of our investment fund buddy CEO who'd gotten a cashout.

Mallory grew up, got a degree, and next thing I know she's hosting her own first event, a pairing of Mahoney wines and Dim Sum Charlie's dim sum. She poured some Fleur Rose, perfect for a warm Sunday afternoon, and then I joined winemaker Ken Foster for a most illuminating story.

I'd heard that Francis Mahoney had pioneered Pinot Noir in the Carneros in the '70s, but Foster straightened me out. He cited Domaine Carneros, for one, and I think Swann as early adopters. He explained that what Mahoney did was to try to identify and standardize it. Seems that Pinot Noir tends to divide into sub-varietals, allowing for wild fluctuations in what you might expect from one variety. Turns out that the first imports of the cuttings were rather random from throughout Bordeaux, the variability of the breed unknown. Mahoney noted it, discussed the issue with other growers, and then he retrieved sample Pinot cuttings from all their vineyards. By separating and growing each collection as a group determined by the source vineyards, he was able to indentify distinctions between the sub-varieties, and establish a general standard for the different manifestations.

So Mahoney was an early pioneer of Pinot Noir with others, but it was his classifying and standardizing of its variants that most distinguished him. Liked the Pinot Noir, too, when Foster poured a draught; saw what he meant about fruit forward immediately, though I'm no oenephile. His winemaking philosophy is simple: keep it simple, manipulate the process as little as possible.

Richard Perot played keyboards throughout, what he calls rock Americana, with original lyrics. Friend Eddie provided hand-drum percussion. Discovered Richard planned to play the day before, at Bel Aire Plaza by Whole Foods. He was sitting with a friend who also turned out to be a Rockwell alumnus; so I was all prepped for Linda the next day because of...well, can't remember her name. But her sister ran with frontman Jimmy Lloyd; that I remember.

Saturday night was remarkably dead around town by 10:30, legacy of everyone still recovering from that great Fourth of July weekend. Morimoto alone stirred with any activity; I don't include Henry's or DT Joe's because they're all that's left, late. Amazing how crowded Joe's gets in an otherwise empty downtown. Everytime I look in, there's Big John Herkins, bartender extraordinaire, ringing the bell again, slinging another drink and wisecrack.

Before all the shutters went down, ran down to 945 Jackson Street, where there was some kind of happening with bands, grafitti artists and what all. It's in that complex that once dried and shipped California prunes, once the real king crop of Napa; did you know that the battleship California, launched during WWI, was known as the Prune Barge? Didn't think so.Napa was part of the reason. Riding my bike into that old industrial facility at night reminded me of the downtown art seen in LA in the '80s and '90s, Al's Bar, Coagula Art Zine, and Alberto's private after hours club, rather wierder than the one in Star Wars.

That's what it felt like heading in there, people lingering out front, raw music emanating from deep inside, fusion of urban grit and local culture. Went deeper into the space, grafitti ever more prolific, corridor opening into rooms, getting larger, then a big warehouse space with a band in the middle and the smell of fresh spray paint as new art emerged before my eyes as some guy grunt-sang with the voice of the beast and a matching back beat.

Picnic benches circled the room and band, audience young hipsters, grungers, skaters and their tattooed elders. One of them was Jimmy, think I met him, maybe not, but we talked on the phone later. The party started in the morning, ran till 10 pm or so, bands, artists and peformers of every variety doing their creative things. Jimmy owns the body-piercing joint next to the Harley place on Third by Soscol where I last saw--wouldn't you know it--Richard Perot perform on Saturday night a month ago.

Anyway, Jimmy used to dream up projects for the local kids to do to stay out of trouble, kind of like Tom Sawyer getting someone to pay him to paint the fence. Jimmy's on a bunch of worthy non-profit boards, too, so he got this idea of staging happenings so youngsters who aren't into sports or the conventional outlets could get a little help, too, doing their thing. These kids want to skate, make music and be artists, and Jimmy dreams up the creative opportunities. Also works with wandering Rose.

This particular party benefitted a program to provide sexual assault services. All this philanthropy from a guy who runs a small body-piercing enterprise; the best example of a real community-oriented businessman in town.

Well, hey, I'm just getting behind here, the Bank Bar at the Westin, gets more interesting by the moment--it's Thursday, now, after the Chef's Market--and I'm gonna stop an enjoy myself with this interesting group from Chicago...

Heard on the Street, by Whole Foods:...his Dad tried to explain how he wasn't around that much because of his job and how hard the work was, and then he discovered there was a mistress, and it wasn't all about work, and he was pissed off all over again...

Thursday, 7 July 2011

I'd missed all the First Friday doings in Napa by the time I returned from St. Helena; the Coffee Roasting Company had just closed the Open Mic, and I forgot about Thea's soiree at Wildcat, a photo exhibit displaying works by David Alosi--images composed through found grids, like a store display shot through an intervening scaffolding; and some local college student from Jalisco who captured wonderful vignettes in Argentina--a shrine to Evita, a striking tango dancer and her menacing partner.

Instead, I was distracted by the concert at Vets Park, and the unmistakeable voice of Jimi Hendricks. It was, of course, Ralph Woodson, and that man is not only good, he looks just like you would have expected Jimi to look at this age if he'd lived. Hardly an empty space remained throughout the plaza, Downtown Joe's rocked away to it's own beat, Bartender John slinging drinks, customers overflowing and merging with the concert audience, and other revellers thronged to-and-fro. Can't remember the last time saw so many people having so much fun in Napa. Big even for a Fourth of July weekend.

Wandered down to Ubuntu for some reason, found myself standing by the hostess station transfixed by the culinary ballet behind the opposite counter. You know those chef shows where everyone yells at each other, encouraged by the star? I hate that.

Half-a-dozen pros shifted about, twirled and dodged, hot skillets flying this way and that, all the time assembling food as art; I believe I saw the lakes and mountains of Asia emerge several times in different configurations at one station. The complexity of the dexterity and dance I observed hinted at an extraordinary team. Chef Aaron London stood in the middle of the orderly maelstrom, calmly issuing instructions, the targets acknowledging the order with a simple "oui," residue, perhaps, of Aaron's apprenticeship in France. In 20 minutes never heard a raised voice, never saw a break in the clockwork efficiency. They carried on a few conversations with me, too, at the same time, still undistracted from their bliss.

Got so into this, made it a topic of reasearch over the weekend. Saturday night, I stood around and watched Collin and John at Kitchen Door; Connor had attracted my attention a couple of weeks earlier with his own intensity making pizzas and other treats. Very similar vibe as Ubuntu, if not as frenetic. Chef Chris presided with all the aplomb of a captain on his bridge, calmly issuing edicts to eager ensigns. Took the opportunity to meet Todd Humphrey's, the owner-chef who sets the tone there, both...very...calm.

At Riverside's Morimoto, the sushi chefs displayed all the flair you'd expect, but since so much happens backside, the choreography of cooking evaded me. There I stood by the end of the bar for a good view, and such a display anyway. One after another, little human caravans in matching brown livery delivered tablesful of orders, six or eight servers passing by, hands extended to support the square platters, each a distinct visual masterpiece. They go down pretty easy, too.

Later, out by the river for a smoke, ran into Matt, one of the snack plate cooks, asked about this screaming thing. Seen much of it? Nah, not much, he said. Most places are pretty mellow. Exceptions? He named a few--I will not--but each could claim a hint of Gaul.

As I said in my previous dispatch, I never saw so much going on here. I missed half of what I intended to partake, and it made no difference; always something else. Honestly, it's all a blur now--no, I was not in my cups--so I don't know when anything really happened anymore. Kept seeing Jimi--I mean Ralph and the Purple Haze tribute band--so often I thought maybe it was Purple Haze, along with the hallucinations it used to induce and so well remember. At DT Joe's Saturday night, I think, a crowd outside gathered, a couple of members marvelling throughout at the man's mastery. Then he did Independence Day at Vets Park, ending his set with the Star Spangled Banner. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Morimoto. Passed through a few times in the past, finally stopped by Friday and Saturday nights for a beer; best deal for the best show in town. Almost thought I was in LA in the eighties again, and I was 30. Beautiful people of every sort, sophisticated women, refined staff--I love Jesse, ad hoc floor manager--and the bartenders are most excellent. Between the two evenings got a wealth of people watching, enjoyed myself at the bar, savored the tables outside in the balmy summer air above the river.

And met several pretty ladies. A pair at the bar, furtive glances exchanged among the three, but no opportunities to talk until they left. Smiles from the lovely blonde as she passed, smiles from the elegant brunette...who just happened to have trouble with her shoe in passing, right where I was standing. It was a golden slipper; words were exchanged, and then some more, and then she disappeared into the night. Wish she'd lost the shoe so I could return it. Next night, same corner of the bar, I was joined by Marilynne, Leona, and, God forgive me, a friend whose name escapes me.

A petite Madonna from Caracas, Marylynne works at the Culinary Institute, in personnel. Talked about Venezuela and its similarities with Colombia, where I cut my teeth. Not sure she believed my story about introducing Lance Armstrong to the world in Valencia, but that's okay; no one else does either.

Sometime during the weekend, Dan at Back Street Wines staged his Ninth Annual Independence Day Hot Dog Celebration; got there late, of course. But people still lingered with the hot dog truck, and whom should I find in the latter but my favorite bartender from the Boone Fly Cafe. Colin, it seems, owns the Cross Fire Chicken Mobile Grill and Gourmet Poultry Dispenser, with his brother Kevin. Seen the truck at Chef's Market, smelled the tantalizing smells, never succumbed yet. Then I discovered these were the guys I heard about from Casey, the lucky guy who shares Hanna's affections; she works at the coffee house. So Casey's eating this great looking sandwich, and he tells about this truck at JV Liquors. It was the Crossfire Chicken guys. Anyway, Colin doesn't work at Boone Fly anymore, but you'll see him everywhere else. They even showed up in the Independence Day Parade.

And Ariel, Jonah, and the Ceja clan celebrated Bistro Sabor's First Anniversary on Friday night, with salsa dancing and a packed house. Same Saturday night, when I lingered outside watching the gyrations within; talented couples spinning, twirling and embracing each other in a kaleidoscope of color and movement. And pretty creatures rhythmically shaking booty, in light summer finery. Then I went soemwhere else, to cool off. Eiko, say. But I don't remember.

Enough. The parade was excellent; the faux Japanese women with giant drums, the three twelve year-olds and their rolling garage band, the several horse troops; shoulda seen that woman dressage down Main. Saw my good friend Alberto at his best, he's a security guard at Town Center. He's also one helluva Californio Vacquero, and there he was decked out in broad hat, chaps, astride the prettiest painted horse you're ever likely to see. Got to know him one night after Eiko opened, learned of his real self, started talking horses, and next thing I know, I'm riding unshod stallions bareback across the Sonora desert again in my youth.

Kind of place Alberto grew up, and it stuck. Has a string of horses out by Black Stallion Winery. Anyway, Alberto and his crew put on a show, especially the kid with the lariat. But they all knew how to make their horses dance, and few appreciate how remarkable the feats achieved when they see these displays.

Alberto started showing off, made the paint horse skip this way and that, shimmy that way and this. These guys can make a horse do anything but fly, and I have my doubts. Before and during the Gold Rush, the best horsemen-adventurers in the world came here and marvelled; these Californios were the best horsemen in the world; and that was the Women. And the men...The Men were as Gods on a Pegasus.

Loved the marching bands, hearing Stars and Stripes Forever; and when I heard them playing the old Army song, When the Caissons Go Rolling Along, this old soldier just wanted to ride off into some war on the back of some spirited warhorse. Those were the days.

Colin and Kevin rolled by; Bobby in his Uncle Sam outfit, on his bike, with trailer, and bunting; some stinking politicians--GL, MT--and, finally, one of the stars of the show, the Wells Fargo Stage Coach, team of matched blacks. Too bad the global monsters appropriated the brand, using the trust it once represented to plunder current customers. Did you know, by the way, that they issue Parking Tix to customers who stay too long in their lot at Second and Main? And then squeeze you with threats for the money? Collection agency and credit rating kind of stuff. Once was a time--during the Gold Rush, say, and they decided to help themselves to an extra pinch of dust--they would have been dragged out, tarred, feathered, and horsewhipped. Literally, with popular pleasure. Maybe hanged. Please forgive the nostalgia.

After the Parade, Napa put on the best party for itself, I think, in living memory, and maybe beyond. Bands at the Vets Park, parties at every restaurant, every square yard of Downtown space claimed by a specimen of amiable humanity. Passed an hour at the River Inn with the Blues Brothers, heard Peter Gunn for the first time in 20 years, Rawhide, 40. Saw Harry and Linda Price, Napa's most sincerely generous couple, and Sara, who runs the joint, and Keith and Sandy, who run Silos. And Susan, who thoughtfully provided an Altoids one recent night after smoking something questionable. I missed the tri-tip--late again--so ate a bunch of hot dogs.

Jimi--Ralph Woodson, I mean--had the stage before the fireworks lit the sky, playing at his end, that Star Spangled Banner, introduced during the Vietnam War as a protest edition. As Jimi the First played it, the long, whining chords ended in the discordant crashings of falling bombs. Ralph, God love him, did not go there, and I think everyone lost the irony.

Jimi's Star Spangled Banner Protest, morphed into another endorsement of the Great American Dream, on her Birthday.

And then the fireworks raced into the sky, at the twilight's last gleaming, bombs bursting in air...well, you know.

And the flag still flies.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

I'm sitting in the vicinity of C Casa at Oxbow on Monday afternoon catching my breath before the fireworks in a few hours. Damn...I can't remember a better four-day run in Napa since the late '60s, when that expression first developed a completely different meaning.

Chef's Market was its usual self, but somehow later that night I did something I really enjoyed that I simply cannot remember. I know this because the next day I didn't rouse myself from my forest lair until early afternoon, and I excused myself this self-indulgence since I'd had such a good time. It will come to me, whatever it was.

Anyway, I ended up wandering around Main Street St. Helena by three, settling in before the Cheers Celebration, their summer series of first Friday events. Dropped into the Model Bakery, snagged a piece of tomato pesto pizza, had'm heat it up for me, got a choc-chip walnut cookie and a black ice tea. I won't say these are the best of each I've ever sampled, but they're my personal favorites, and I'm disappointed no end every time I walk into the Napa branch time after time only to discover they've sold out of the cookies.

They're good, in any case, these favorites, but especially delectable to me for the sentimental value. They constituted my most faithful lunch for about a year, and I did my own little re-enactment and reminiscence, sitting again at my preferred table. There I wrote a book about the previous year, a true-life account of the cock-eyed unrequited romance I had with my horseback riding instructor in Sonoma.

Helluva a story that, but another nice one evolved out of the year at the Model Bakery and the friends I met while I wrote the book. A series of great girls turning into women became my buddies, they let me hang around after closing to finish a paragraph, a section, I bussed tables during the day and played host to people looking for a seat. So Karen, the Boss, wouldn't throw me out for taking so much space so long. Reached the point where she'd rag on me if I didn't keep pace with the dirty tables.

Alex and Maureen, Sierra and Bryn--a bunch of others, made it a daily pleasure to go in and relive some very difficult moments; forever grateful here.

My favorite girlfriend, though, was Louise, a 90-something pushing a hundred, and I'm not going to patronize her with any spry old lady crap. She's a swell gal of any age, and so's her daughter, Mary. Louise is not a native, but she goes way back, into what passes for ancient history around here.

Moved from Minnesota with her family as a young woman in the latest '30s, dad following a job with some businessman-farmer he worked for back there. Guy's name was Cesar Mondavi, and Loiuse's pop supervised the vineyard he bought with the Charles Krug concern. We shared lunch several times a week for some stretches, Louise regaling me with tales of the early years of the empire, coinciding with early years of the war. Met her husband somewhere in there, and by an odd coincidence, he'd driven a truck for the Model Bakery in the old days. The Bakery has a nice photo of him and the truck in the St. Helena store.

But her Bob Mondavi stories were the best; his break with the family as he promoted his vision of a pre-eminent Napa Valley; his brand at the center, literally and figuratively. There was a personal toll; Rose, his wife, was often ill, and Bob had to leave her alone when he took to the road. He asked Louise to stay with her in his absence, and they became great friends. Otherwise, Louise worked various jobs at Krug Winery, and later at Robert Mondavi Winery. Worked the bottling line for ten years at the end, a supervisor, perhaps.

Louise tells of how wherever it was she worked, Bob was a constant visitor, chaffing the employees, saying hello to everyone all the time, showing the flag to the troops, showing appreciation. Somewhere in there, Margrit Biever entered the picture as a public relations person or somesuch, and Louise described the innocent romance that developed between them as their respective spouses declined in health.

Their eventual union constitutes what may have been the greatest love story of the Napa Valley, one with worldwide repercussions, given the global wine industry that Mondavi sparked. Margrit was an integral part of that, and now she's the greatest Matriarch as well.

I got all that from Louise, and I often wondered how she was doing until one day a year ago. She was sitting not far from where I am now, at the Oxbow, waiting for Mary to show up with lunch. From the local branch of the Model Bakery around the corner. I don't think they have a picture of her husband, though.

The revellers began to appear in downtown St. Helena by five or six, and I knew wine would soon be a flowing; got a cup and started visitng. At Christopher Hill Gallery, Tom showed off some recent pieces he knew I'd like, painted by an Italian from Taranto, a maritime city along the heel of the boot. I love industrial images, big works-of-man stuff, and this guy has it down, moderating the brute force of the images with a soft ethereal style; massive ocean liner in dry-dock, great locomotive speeding through the station, Italian Futurist of the '30s updated for now.

Downed a nice Zin from Pope Valley Winery, one of my favorite hidden treasures; the young woman, a member of the family owners, had some pretty interesting Pope Valley stories, too. Her family built the store, the gas station and most everything else out there, 70 or 80 years ago; acquired the winery about a decade ago. I passed by six, seven years ago, spent a pleasant, wet spring day alone with the winemaker who revealed all the secrets of the charmingly simple building; along with all its complexities. Also bought a wonderful Zinfandel Port, and I'm told they still make it. It's worth a visit, whether for the wine, the winery or the folks.

Next I went to Tamber Bey, just off Main near the Napa Valley Coffee Roasters Company. Named after the owner's horse, the tasting room features equine paintings and photos, big overstuffed chairs on the fringes, bar in the center. Barbara served me a Cab, I believe, a very tasty Cab, but I must admit that I was so fascinated by the horse stories that I didn't pay much attention to the wine. Seems the guy has several fine Arabs, and he races in endurance runs, the 100, 150 mile variety, like the Tevis in Auburn. I have a soft spot for difficult Arabs--my first tried to kill me weekly when I was 14--but a few years ago I leased one at that same stable I mentioned before. Jaxon, by name, he spooked easily. We got along fine, though, and galloping through various Carneros vineyards at high speed was one of the best thrills ever, especially when Jaxon did a sudden 180 as the geese took off from the irrigation ponds. Ultimately, the Arab got sold to someone who wanted to use him for those very same races. Wonder if Jaxon ever met Tamber Bey out there in the mountains somewhere.

Ran into Paul Hendrickson, outside TB, his handsome little infant son strapped to chest. He doubletook seeing me, out of context thing, I'm usually dropping by his adventure sports company at Oxbow. Also paid a visit to Suzanne, don't remember the name of her art gallery, but it's next door to the Model Bakery. She's always got a nice collection of paintings available, but, wouldn't you know it, one of the artists does excellent little horses in bronze. The work's long been a favorite; interesting to see the evolved style after a few years. Stopped at Lolo's, too, tried a nice screwtop red from Elevensance Cellars, met winemaker--I think--Tim Nuss, has a Blues Brothers thing going on. Interesting to see this gritty approach to the generally restrained wine biz, but here's a blend for Tom Waits and Charles Bukowski fans, an oft neglected market. I think I like Tim just because he's up Wall Road; and because he told me about a party: The Blues Cheese Party, 23 July, more on that later.

Then I walked down the road to Trinchero Family Vineyards for the opening of the art and wine festival held there. Got distracted, however; what a surprise. Another wine bar--Savour--it was empty due to the festivities north. Met Dejan, a Serb from Belgrade. I'm half Croatian; our peoples have hated each other for at least a thousand years, and they took up the feud again in the '90s, just about when Dejan left for Chicago, just where my grandfather landed from Bosnian Mostar. We discussed the unpleasantness over a Cabernet, musing that had we stayed in the old country, we'd have been shooting each other. But we're all Americans here, now, and it doesn't matter what happens there. Something to remember on Fourth of July weekend.

Finally made it to the art festival, late, as usual, the crowd thinning out with the waning sun. Going from light to dark, it took a minute to identify the guy hailing me from a table on the edge of the tented art booths. Turned out to be, of all people, the same Christopher Hill whose gallery I'd visited an hour earlier, friend Lulii by his side. No sooner had I absorbed having encountered them, the stranger to my side spoke up, and he was another old acquaintance, Doug Ernst, former editor of the Napa Register. He bailed and I joined Christopher and Lulii for a glass of wine; Rombauer Cabernet, 2007, I believe, hints of blackberry, currant jam, chipotle, pineapple, roast beef and fine old cigars. You get the idea.

I'd last seen the pair at Oxbow, naturally, and I told Christopher how much I liked that Italian's paintings, we talked art a bit, he much more knowledgeable than me; and I commented on Lulii's beautiful layered strings of simple, tourquoise discs arranged into a necklace. They took their leave to see art, and I ate some wonderful fish and chicken tacos, followed up by an array of yummy desserts; but that may have been the other place, wherever that was.

I eventually drifted into the maze of art tents, rendered all the more ethereal by all the people no longer in evidence, and the soundtrack, a jazz band playing by the wine tables. God knows I never learned the names of these songs, but they were all sentimental favorites, a sound coming out of the euro hip early '60s, stuff you'd here in the background in a Sean Connery- Bond flick set in St. Tropez; or Bermuda; or Majorca in the good, early days before popular discovery. At leat that's what I heard whenever visiting those climes.

So, I was lost in nostalgic deja vu, admiring the art that caught my eye; Locke Heemstra's fine art photographs that recapture a perfectly detailed Venice, but with Seurat's a photograph; some incredible old-school Modernistic bronzes by a guy from LA--great girlfriend--spaced on his name, but I'll write of him later; and then I find Christopher talking with Aaron Memmott, who shares a space and a life with penelope.

Aaron paints bold, urban landscapes in rich colors, perspective often askew; just the kind of stuff I collect, but newer. penelope likes capturing the shimmering light and color reflected from glass, a natural for glasses and bottles of wine, and she knows it. But she also knows the latter is a crowded genre, dominated by the likes of Thomas Arvid, with whom she's friends; she spoke at length at how supportive he'd been. Though sharing a theme, penelope does not want to do Arvid, and she's exploring the possibilities, but her way.

Since Christopher has exactly the kind of sophisticated high-end gallery she'd like to hook-up with, she solicited his opinions of her work and where she should take it. With me in attendance.

What a treat, what a performance, to hear Christopher riff on her work openly, candidly, telling her exactly what she wanted to hear, unvarnished truth and opinion, so she could best accomplish the goal of discovering a good market sensibility, while creating exactly the kind of art she wanted to make.

This is exactly the kind of conversation artists should not have with their friends, especially not with highly educated amateurs like myself, who may know art generally, and certainly what they like; and are opinionated. Art's a personal, intuitive thing, and the wrong idea fixed upon can screw up an artists vision and inclination immeasurably. But penelope was no blushing beginner, Christopher is as knowledgeable an expert of contemporary art as I've met--including in most museums--and I was privileged to witness this precise dissection of the artists work at the hands of a master. And everyone enjoyed the exchange, C and p, deeply engaged in this rapidfire intellectual exercise about markets, sales, visual nuance and uncompromised expression. Aaron and I stood there mute watching this display, fascinated at Christopher's picking out the merits that distinguished p's work, her questioning whats and whys, no hint of defensiveness, but a demanding probing to hone in one what, specifically, C meant. And C, standing back, scrutinizing, pointing at this or that, pronouncements flowing in this authoritative manner. Spent the last 30 years seriously working galleries, museums, artists and their studios, and never got to observe such an intimate exchange of this sort. All in the last light of day after everyone had gone.

I'd dis-reserved my ride home, and instead rode down Valley with Doug Ernst, erstwhile Register honcho, and now ensconced in the center of wine power, money and politics as editor of the St. Helena Star and the Weekly Calistogan. Napa may be the County Seat, but that's a recipe for constipation, bureaucrats doing what they do and plugging the natural flow of events and commerce, much like a certain spastic, constricted orificial muscle. From Yountville north, the people are free of the most gratuitous attentions of the meddlers, and there are real, fun, interesting things going on, devoid of the endless official wrangling and red-tape endemic to Napa City.

Doug and I talked shop driving south, a couple of old journalists shooting our mouths off about the state of the profession, incursions of the internet, stuff like that. Then we lapsed into an appreciation of the beauty we regarded in the dusk, picture pretty vineyards and houses at every turn, dramatic mountains behind every sylvan view. God, you forget how pretty it is, we mused.

Then Doug told the most incredible story, a true romance, about a couple of youngsters in love, in Austria, in the late '30s. The girl, not a Jew, still didn't like the smell of Hitler and his approach, and moved to England after failing to convince her beau to accompany her. He was a patriot and a Jew who thought he could somehow stand-up to the creeping ugliness, so, of course, right after the Anschluss, he got shipped to Buchenwald, a first-rate death factory. And somehow the guy escaped in a year or two, walked across Asia to Shanghai, and made his way to San Francisco, where he enlisted in the American Army. Seems they needed men like him who knew the language, the culture, and he shipped to England, eventually to join Patton's Third Armored Division. Along with George, he got to liberate Western Europe from Nazi tyranny; coincidentally, he also liberated Buchenwald, re-uniting with the few survivors he knew before his escaspe.

Oh, yeah...he also found the girl in England, and married her. He didn't quite live happily ever after--the camp and the war haunted him--but it was close enough. Doug's parents, by the way, and he wrote a book about the epic, looking for a publisher. Fantastic story, and I hope it makes it into print sooner rather than later. I used to collect Holocaust stories from anyone I encountered in LA with the wrist tats, but we all know the horrors. My favorites are like Doug's, some kind of happy ending after the nightmare, but most especially the bright glimmers of human decency that occasionally flash from the carnage.

Such a contrast. Louise and her sweetheart living out love and war in the Napa Valley; another couple of young lovers, same age, different place, way different story.

Made us appreciate the beauty around us all the more, and before I knew it, we were at the stop light at First and Main, where I said good-bye, hopped out and wiped a tear from my eye.

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