The A-List Archives:  Oct-Dec 2011

Friday, 30 December 2011

On Tuesday night, I indulged the rarest of treats. The Opera House showed one of my favorite old movies as part of its new classic film series, Yankee Doodle Dandy, starring Jimmy Cagney. I've seen the movie half-a-dozen times, but never before in a theater. How different the experience compared to watching it on a television screen.

Richard Miami, who used to run the film program at Copia, introduced the film, and I presume he chose it. What a spectacle, what a great choice, if only because the movie captures so much of a lost world.

Just seeing it in a theater, a roomful of people in a dark space collectively focusing attention on a black and white screen made it a unique experience for these days. And the old-time interior of the Opera House enhanced the experience, made suspension of disbelief complete, if only because there was little reflection of the stripped down sterility of your average multi-plex theater and our post-modern world.

It's a biopic about George M. Cohan, a scrappy Irish song-and-dance man who came of age around 1900 and proceeded to become the toast of Broadway for the next generation, cranking out hit after hit show, hit after hit song. The Man Who Owns Broadway, they said of him.

He was an unapologetic flag-waver, and his tunes defined patriotism well beyond the second world war. I'm A Yankee Doodle Dandy was the most notable, but he also wrote Over There, the song that accompanied our forces to France in the first world war. A lot of his songs were such standards that they comprised a large part of the canon taught in school music classes into the 1960s; we learned to sing such songs as Over There, and learned as well the historical context of the society that spawned it.

Indeed, the movie was a concise little history of 50 years of life and entertainment in America, from the boarding house existence once so common, to the evolution of mass culture. While the film starts out in the days of music hall variety shows and Vaudeville, it ends with the Broadway extravaganza of elaborate sets and dozens of beauties in the most outlandish costumes.

There was a special bonus for me in all this. Cohan wrote the song Yankee Doodle Dandy for his first big hit show, called Little Johnny Jones, based on the career of a jockey named Tod Sloan. He was one of the world's first international celebrities, but his career ended in 1901 when he was accused of unethical behavior with suspicions of cheating. His reputation was eventually restored years later. In the meantime, Sloan went to Paris and opened the famous Harry's Bar, still alive, around the world. Regularly hung out at the LA branch in Century City, and ate a most memorable meal at the one in Venice, right before going to Teatro Fenice, and a moonlight cruise in a gondola with a sweetheart.

It turns out that Tod Sloan achieved his earliest successes here in Northern California, which led to his recruitment by rich New Yorkers to go east. He dominated racing for the last half of the 1890s, and he made standard the jockey style of leaning forward and riding high on very short stirrups. After he was banned from racing in Britain, and then in the United States, he showed up here in Napa, at the once-famed Soda Springs Resort. I came across that factoid and his name while researching old newspaper archives at the county library. It seems that he went to the Springs right after his racing ban, one of the finest places anywhere to lick your wounds.

At the time it meant nothing to me. But sitting in the Opera House and watching the Cohan movie, it was all spelled out. I even got to see the highlights of Little Johnny Jones.

And the once famous jockey, Tod Sloan, the once famous resort, Soda Springs, and the once famous blockbusteer, Little Johnny Jones, have all descended into obscurity. Along with that once famous song, Yankee Doodle Dandy. And for most people under 40, even Jimmy Cagney, one of the greats of the motion picture age, is just a name most have never heard.

Afterward, I ambled over to the Slack Collective, which has its own Tuesday movie night, but later. The '80s fantasy Willow appeared on the screen, and I watched it again in fascination. I first saw it when it came out, in Westwood, the disrict by UCLA, where all the big movies premiered in Los Angeles. There was a new version of the George Lucas THX promo for his sound system. It blew the speakers out in the theater, and we got a rain check for the next day.

At the time, Willow was considered cutting edge for its special affects, with flying fairies, cavorting little people, transforming magicians and witches, and elaborates sets and lots of action with warring knights.

It wasn't my kind of movie, but it seemed impressive for what it was.

I couldn't believe how dated, how hokey, it seemed, especially the special effects. So unlike Yankee Doodle Dandy, a piece of pure propaganda, the best sort, released six months after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Just by coincidence, while sitting at Starbucks and writing about events circa 1900, I took a break to dig something out of my backpack. Came across a flat bag with a Christmas present I bought for myself in San Francisco last week. And forgot.

I'd gotten it at Aria, an odd little store on Grant Avenue in North Beach. The place resembles a well-decorated junk shop, the inventory assembled into strange little ad hoc art works. And all the junk seems to come from France, old odds and ends that must be a dime a dozen there, but count as wonderful curiosities here.

What I bought was a couple of pages from a photo album dedicated to the Paris International Exposition of 1900. Whoever put it together must have taken hundreds of photos--I got 16--documenting every aspect of the world fair. Each page was divided into quarters, each quarter with a picture and caption. Every entry was inscribed in such perfect, tiny hand-writing, that I thought it must have been printed to look handmade. I was wrong. Someone had lovingly devoted weeks, at least, to attend, photograph and write about the festival.

The 2x3 inch pictures include several views of the Eiffel Tower and various exhibits: a reconstruction of Old Paris, with a man who looks like Lenin taking a closer look; an army officer, sword on belt, in front of the Palace of Metallurgy; a peasant church from the ersatz Swiss village. And lots of well-dressed Parisians. A real delight, another lost world, never to be seen again, co-existing with Tod Sloan, Napa Soda Springs and Jimmy Cagney.

Don't Miss:

*Black, White & Pink New Year's Eve Party, Wine Train, 5pm
*Terry Bradford/Rockin' New Year's Party, Silo's, 8pm
*New Year's Eve Bash w/Ozomatli, Uptown Theatre, 8pm
*Boogie Ball, Marriott Hotel, 8:30pm, 707-253-8600

Heard on the Street, from a teen-age boy to a teen-age girl, at Third and Main: "...the kids who think they're cool, the popular ones, really aren't. Now the people I think are cool, are really cool. At least I think so..."

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Christmastime visits to San Francisco always leave me somewhat bewildered, questioning. What happened, where did that go, where did that come from. Born there, grew up there, loved the City more than my family, I do believe. Nowhere else existed, nowhere else needed to exist...I had San Francisco. It was even better at Christmas. Now, however, I feel like one of those ghosts of Christmas Past, and everything I knew of San Francisco has disappeared except in my memory. I even wonder about that.

Throughout the '50s, it was still a formal city, where the men all wore hats, the women, Hats and Gloves. At Christmas everyone dressed up even more, and so did the stores. In my inner-Richmond District neighborhood, Clement Street served as our commercial thoroughfare, just a block from the family house on California Street. Even walking to school was a treat along Clement, starting at Pinelli's Flowerland, the local florist. Christmas trees for sale on the sidewalk, wreaths galore, holly and berries and the smell of evergreen. Everyone said Merry Christmas to everyone else as they passed; with a smile. Fog often still lingered, obscuring the view just right, while magnifying the glow of lights, just like London, I imagined, and I half expected Ebenezer Scrooge or Tiny Tim to emerge in every random pedestrian encountered. Neon lights still predominated, magical in the mist, and even the liquor stores delighted me, with lurid pulp magazines arranged out front in racks, with special Christmas tragedy issues, damsels in distress dramatically portrayed. And just before rounding the corner I passed by King Norman's Toy Store; I'd linger in the seemingly vast place for an hour after school. By the time I made it home, often after dark, fires had been lit, the smell of burning wood faint in the air. Christmas trees of every size and description loomed in the bay windows of old Victorians.

At some point in early or mid-December, the family dressed up and went downtown for a big dinner at one of the restaurants, after which we looked at the window displays in the great department stores. The Emporium, The White House, The City of Paris, all San Francisco institutions now gone. And Macy's and Penny's, too. Every window had some version of Santa's workshop, or reindeers, little mechanical figures making toys, or handing them out or something. They must have numbered in the hundreds, and I often wonder where they all went.

The Emporium was the best--now it's the Westfield Shopping Mall or somesuch, just as good as what you'd find in the suburbs, but hardly worthy of its predecessor. The toy department presided on the top floor, full of things that no longer exist for children; kits that allowed you to make your own lead soldiers, or wooden ships. Steam engines that actually worked, chemistry sets with things you could set on fire, carbide cannons that boomed like the real thing. Every kind of toy gun, western or military, every kind of toy soldier. Balsa airplanes that flew, pond yachts that sailed, cars with little internal combustion engines.

For a few bucks, you could send your kid through the special Santa Line, and he got a little gift; then you kept going, to the North Pole on the rooftop, where there were lifesize reindeer and Santa's sleigh and a ferris wheel and Christmas songs on the sound system; and elves. I'll never forget my first time, I was five or six, a mixture of fear and awe at the magnificence of it all, expecially rising up that ferris wheel, the whole of San Francisco ten stories below, and all lit up. I weep at the memory.

Then we'd head up Powell Street and walk to the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill, and go to Blum's, San Francisco's premiere sweet shop, and we'd all eat ice cream sundaes.

We always got a big, bushy tree, cut on a weekend in Napa, from a neighbor's Christmas tree farm on Redwood Road, where we maintained our country retreat. My mother had accumulated a wide array of blown glass ornaments, then usually made in a still recovering Germany, one of their few exports. The tree accumulated dozens of gifts, since we were a large family. And even though my parents always poor-mouthed me in explanation as to why they couldn't assure me the big present I wanted, Santa might be kind and bring it. Every year I feared disappointment, and every year I got exactly what I wanted and then some.

After opening gifts, we trekked to Star of the Sea for Mass, usually the one in which I sang in the choir. A beautifully appointed church in a high renaissance style, the choir loft boasted a back wall of massive organ pipes, and you felt the powerful harmonies in your very bones. The Mass was Latin in those days, the finery to match, and incense and bell sounds punctuated the affair. And then a long day at home or my aunts house, where dozens of us ate and drank and I wallowed in my new loot.

That San Francisco is all gone, but I still enjoy it during the holidays, even if you can't say Merry Christmas without insulting someone. New family traditions evolved, my own family's, that moved with the time and place. In Los Angeles, we used to go to the tree-lighting at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, took my son to see Santa somewhere in Santa Monica. After moving back up here, it was all San Francisco again.

When my son reached a certain age, Santa Claus was no longer an issue, but we still went through the Christmas motions: ice skating at the Embarcadero, looking at the decorations at the Hyatt Regency, lunch at Kuleto's, dinner at Tadich Grill.

We got together last week for an outing, certainly nothing like the good old days, but good enough. Cruised through the Fairmont--Blum's is long gone. Checked out Grace Cathedral, where we used to go for Christmas music and Handel's Messiah. Then a big dinner at Tadich Grill. We eat at the bar, and always end up with the same ageless waiter. I think this must have been the eighth or ninth time in succession he's served us a Christmastime meal.

Afterwards, we went to the Metreon Theater, to see the new Tintin movie, in 3D. I loved the Tintin books growing up, the only graphic novels that ever interested me. They were a rarity, reserved for those who went to Europe, or knew someone who did. I was in the latter category, and the one year I got an edition for Christmas, I devoured it, over and over again.

The movie wasn't bad, and that was all I could ask for at that point.

Heard on the Street, from a saxophonist playing carols in front of Whole Foods, on Christmas Eve: "...Yeah, I did pretty good today. I averaged about $50 an hour..."

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Friday was a very good day for me. Last time around, I mentioned meeting Robin Short at Uva, and that she sells rural properties with her mother. We all made a date, and I met Robin and CeCe at the Starbucks on Trancas. From there it was into the mountains. I showed them around my two parcels, one of which I intend to keep, the other to sell. I won't bore you with the details, but it was a real pleasure to encounter a couple of real estate professionals who know country properties. Met a whole bunch of the other kind, especially during the boom years when houses sold themselves. They'd hustle to get my listings, and then not know what to do with them.

The ladies explained the current market in the Napa Valley, that buyers with cash proliferate, especially from other countries. What they want are bargain estates, the dream house built for $5 million that's now available for half that. Coincidentally, the recent sale of Robert Mondavi's former manor for less than half of the $25 million value it once claimed made the point.

Another interesting observation: People want to buy properties with any kind of crop, vineyard, orchard, to generate a little income. One suspects this is a harbinger of the eat fresh, eat local trends, with a little pre-Apocalyptic fear thrown in.

Anyway, meeting the two Shorts is one of the best Christmas presents of my year. Another is the announcement that the America's Cup yacht race is coming to San Francisco Bay. Always been fascinated by things maritime, especially the America's Cup. As a youngster, I lusted at the prospect of being able to see those races, but it seemed unlikely, and there was no way they'd ever come to San Francisco.

In those days, Newport, Rhode Island had a lock on the America's Cup, and so did America. They were called 12-meter boats, though the name referred to a complex design formula that meant nothing to normal folk. One of the rules dictated that the boats had to be constructed within a given country only from products made there. Since The United States led the world's economy in the postwar era when the races started up again, we always had a high-tech advantage others lacked.

And the New York Yacht Club ran the affair, with a measure of exclusiveness and condescension that rankled other American sailors. Ted Turner, I believe, was the first outsider to crack the aristocratic mafia and win the Cup without their approval. I forget all the intrigues that resulted in the Australians finally getting it, but it was my good fortune to be on hand as a new chapter opened.

I happened to be in Australia for a triathlon in '85 or '86 when America's Dennis Connor was racing against New Zealand for the right to challenge the Aussies. Spent almost every day for a week eating the vast seafood buffet at the Esplanade Hotel in Freemantle before going out in a 50-foot yacht to see the action. Truth be told, it's not the most exciting thing in the world, especially since you don't really know what's going on over there on the horizon where the itty-bitty sails are barely visible. I didn't mind; I was drinking scotch out of a silver flask and flirting with pretty girls when I wasn't getting doused by the warm waves of the Indian Ocean from my spot toward the bows.

And we all knew when Dennis Connor won in the end, and such a parade from the sea back to port I never expected to see again, boats by the hundreds honking air horns and tooting whistles. Just brilliant. Connor went on to win the Cup back afterwards.

Received a wonderful repeat performance, of sorts, a decade later when the Cup was back in San Diego. I'd missed all the prelims, and after a week or two of racing, the boats were tied, and America and New Zealand would slug it out in one last race. I lived in LA at the time, and decided at the last minute to drive down.

Arrived just in time to miss the press boat, but as I stood dockside I notices a battered little sailboat heading out. I hailed the captain, and he was, indeed, going out to watch the race. I asked if I could go along, and he long as he didn't have to come get me. I quickly stripped to my shorts, shoved my things into a plastic bag stolen from an empty trash bin, and swam out.

The surprised skipper couldn't renege at that point, and he pulled me aboard, proferring the first of many beers. Tim Scanlon was a cab driver from Boston who removed to San Diego with his trade in order to buy an old sailboat, learn the arts of the sea, and then navigate himself around the world. He'd acquired the boat just months before and was still learning to sail.

Within half-an-hour we cruised into the thick of the race, almost literally. His deficiencies in skill kept putting us on the course, and eveentually, a small Coast Guard vessel made itself our escort. No other spectators had a better view of the race than Tim and I.

Afterward, I found myself in front of the restaurant hosting the New Zealand crew's victory party. I had not, of course, been invited, so I did that o;d Rockford Files thing; I saw a nametag waiting for a claimant, said I was Peter Smith, and joined a raucous but civilized drinking fest during which I actually got to hold the fabled America's Cup. I was sorry to see it leave our shores again, but it couldn't have gone to a nicer bunch of people. I had been there at the beginning of the quest as well as at the end, and boasted of the fact to quite a few Kiwis. Then they bought me another drink.

But I digress. San Francisco's got the race, and I don't even know who's got the Cup anymore. But Napa did merit note as the officizal Wine Country of the America's Cup. When I was watching the races in Australia, it was the Swan River Appellation that got the honor.

And now I'm off to ready myself for a couple of days in San Francisco.

Heard on the Street, between two grandmothers in Yountville:"...Oh, he's a funny kid. They had to change the whole Santa Claus story because he'll get all freaked out over the idea of some strange man sneaking into the house through the chimney..."

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Spent a pleasant Saturday afternoon at the Michael Mondavi Family Winery out in the Carneros. They had a Home for the Holidays event, with music, snacks and, of course, wine. Guitarist Adam Traum alternated between Christmas songs and ballads, someone offered me tidbits from a tray, and Jessica poured some Pinot Noir.

Not long after the Big Corporation took over the Robert Mondavi Empire five or six years ago and excluded the sons from the company, Michael started his own wine business, Folio. He developed several brands, Oberon my favorite just because it's the old name of the bar we know as Downtown Joe's. Then, a few years ago, he acquired the Francis Mahoney property in the Carneros on Dealy Lane.

I rode my bike out there on a crisp, clear afternoon, first time in the last couple of years. It's seldom more pretty than in early winter, the meadows green with new grass, bursts of yellow mustard dusting the rows of vines. Artesa winery loomed in the distance as I pulled into the drive, Milliken Peak to its west just beginning to screen the falling sun. A quartet of women left on bikes as I arrived, acting silly, having fun, enjoying their little outing--winetasting on bikes!--and noting with relief that the Carneros Inn was in view and a short ride away.

The winery itself is a simple affair not inconsistent with the architecture at the Mondavi Winery in Oakville; white stucco, heavy wooden doors, all function guiding the pleasing form. The Tasting Gallery resides in what appears to be a converted farmhouse. In front sits what I've decided is the ultimate Valley status symbol: a Porsche, in red and cream colors. But this is a diesel, and it's a tractor. Never heard of such a thing as a Porsche diesel tractor, but there it was, and it was a beauty. Of course.

Jessica, my host, joined the staff in May; just moved here from Texas after studying some version of ag econ at Texas A&M. After a visit to the Valley just had to move here. She loves the place, the job, everything; a dream come true, so far.

I decided to do Pinot Noir for the day, and Jessica started me off with a 2010 Hangtime, their lightest wine of the varietal, blended of Pinots from around the state. From there she proceeded to a 2008 Arroyo Seco, grapes from Force Canyon. This is Central Coast stuff, with temperatures not far removed from those of the Carneros.

Then we progressed to the Isabel Mondavi Estate Pinot Noir, made from grapes grown in the vineyard behind the erstwhile farmhouse in which we sat. This one I enjoyed most, not surprising given that the property claimed some of the first Pinot Noir in the county, planted by Francis Mahoney, who did more than most to promote the Carneros region and its suitability for the varietal.

The Michael Mondavi name on the winery is a new addition; took a while to work out the legal details, avoid confusion with the Other Mondavi brand that now belongs to the corporation. And it does seem to be a family affair; Isabel is Mrs. Michael Mondavi, and son Rob actively manages the operation with his father.

And then there's Lydia, Rob's wife, who's created a line of cosmetics called "29," evoking our very own winery highway. It touts the benefits of grape seed oil, and its anti-oxident qualities. I recently heard from a young woman in the know that it's becoming popular at spas on the East Coast. But you can get 29 in the Tasting Gallery too.

The facility has porches front and back, picnic tables here and there, and permits that allow you to indulge in an al fresco repast in the vineyards. It's the perfect field trip, a short drive from town and a million miles from reality.

By the time I got back to town, I'd missed most of the candlelight tour of craftsman houses, but I did stop in at the first house on the list, a grand structure on Franklin. Visitors sat on the generous verandah, lights glowed in and out, and the redwood pillars and wainscoating stood out proudly against the whitewashed walls. The pair of old Fords in front just frosted the cake, especially the 1930 limo, silver with black trim. The little yellow coupe wasn't bad either.

Ultimately joined my friends at Uva for a drink, ordered some of their garlic bread to snack on; I don't think anyone does it better, especially fresh out of the kitchen, and hot. Then I overheard the girl sitting next to me at the bar proclaim that she was a Napa girl first, last and always, and someone cracked, Too bad. How so? she asked; this is a great place to live, people from all over the world want to live here.

That shut the guy up. We started talking, Holly, her name; went to St. John's Elementary, Justin-Siena, St. Mary's College in the East Bay, now works at Mumm's Champagne by Rutherford. She has a nice life, and unlike so many, she knows it and appreciates it. Good friends, too, and she introduced me to one of them, Robin. Another Justin-Siena alumnus, she sells rural real estate with her mom, told of riding horses and SUVs to check out some properties.

And that is just the kind of real estate agent I've been looking for to sell one of my land parcels, so we made plans to look at my property. I couldn't have been happier.

Heard on the Street, from a social climber, in a shop in St' Helena: "...You know, at the Rutherford Grill there'll be four or five people eating at the bar, with a bottle of wine sitting in front of them, and it's their wine, with their names on the label. That's where the insiders go to eat..."

Friday, 9 December 2011

Met a young woman the other day at Starbucks killing time and doing homework while she waited for the traffic to thin out before she headed home to San Francsico. Christina attends the Culinary Institute of America, almost ready to graduate. It was surprising to learn she quit a good job at Google to start a new career as a chef, especially considering that a major cooking school in San Francisco came under fire last summer because former students couldn't get the jobs promised at studies' end.

But she got fed up with the dotcom world, really much less glamorous or fun than it's made to sound, had it with cubicles, meetings that never end or decide anything; and clueless managers. She lamented the high cost of the program, but then lauded the curicula. She really feels like she's learned what she needs to know. Even better, there's only one Culinary Institute of America, and two campuses; in the Hudson River Valley of New York, and here in the Napa Valley. The name counts for a lot, she said, and it's given her quite an advantage in the job search; she'll be starting soon at Michael Mena in San Francisco pretty soon.

We talked about the chef shows, where everyone's yelling at each other all the time. It's really like that at a lot of restaurants, she said, but she intends to avoid that scene if possible.

Reminded me of Aaron London, chef at Ubuntu before its hiatus, and the calm chaos over which he presided. A few months ago, I was riding BART in San Francisco, met another woman going to chef school, but that Other one in trouble. As soon as she heard I was from Napa, she gushed about Aaron, and his appearance at some of her classes. Just loved him.

I haven't eaten at Ubuntu for some time; not my style. But I spent a memorable New Year's Eve there on the cusp of 2007-08, and had the best vegetarian food ever. And I'm no fan of vegetarianism. Sorry to see the place dark now, but the yoga continues, I hear.

And that reminds me of Kang, the number 2 or 3 chef at Morimoto; talked to him one night as he was trimming veal cheeks. That's another place that seems to get by with minimal hystrionics in the kitchen; but Kang doesn't seem like the type. Like Christina, he was another one of those who already had a career path and then took a hard turn in another direction. He was going to school in Ohio; soil engineering, I believe, and then he did graduate work in toxicology. Along the way he worked in restaurants, caught the bug, and became a chef instead.

Christmas is an odd time of year for the restaurant business; it's really slow, unless it's not. The usual patterns, flukey as they may be already, go all to hell over the holidays. Some places go empty, others, for whatever reason, become the places to go.

Morimoto seems never to go begging for customers, and its world-class status probably accounts for that; it's a destination restaurant in a destination region. On the slowest nights elsewhere in town, Morimoto always has a decent crowd, especially in the bar. Eiko has surprised me lately too, with a full dining room early in the evening and a packed bar later on, at least on the weekends.

Stopped by Inti the other day; that's the place on First just down from Brown Street that sells exotic imports, especially from Asia. There are always lots of carvings from Indonesia, everything from Buddhas to dragons to lovers entwined. Also jewelry and small art objects of every description. I have a weakness for metal castings in this age of plastic, and noted several geckos and such available in iron; and original oil paintings of saints and virgins from one of the Andean Republics, forget if its Bolivia or Peru--Ecuador, maybe--but they're classics of the type, richly detailed and colored.

And then there are the Christmas decorations. Once was a time when everyone used to drive to the south county where American Canyon is now. Back then, the first tract there was called Rancho del Mar--we're talking early, mid-60s--and it was populated by refugees from the south who came up during the war to work at Mare Island. A tough, combative lot, they went nuts over Christmas in orgies of decorative one-upsmanship. Everything outlined in red and green lights, and these were the days of homecraftsmen with jig saws. People competed to have the most complete Nativity scenes, life size, cut from plywood, and the Holy Family never sufficed. Angels appeared, then wise men, their camels, the shepherds and sheep. Then it was on to Santa Claus, Rudolph showed up, and eventually the sleigh and all the reindeer.

I was just a kid, and maybe I was easily impressed, but it seemed the displays went on for blocks, and for all its tackiness, despite the kitsch, the exhibition was marvelous against the misty air of a dark night, the lights not just shining, but glowing auras around everything illuminated.

Presumably, equivalent streets still exist, albeit with store-bought decorations; but I'm not looking for them. What I discovered in a walk through the old neighborhood between Fuller Park and the river, however, did just fine. There's a house on Oak Street by Coombs that trimmed itself just right, covered everything with lights, but without overdoing it despite its lavishness. House trimmed in white lights, small yard trees done in red, green and gold, big trees out front wrapped in blue.

This is one of those old farmhouses that once stood on the edge of town, and then the town encompassed it and its water tower. Whoever owns it restored it nicely--down to the white picket fence--and they seem determined to entertain the neighborhood with their presence. Last summer, they hosted Greg Forbyn's Eric Zahn Band during the Porchfest music day at historical houses around town.

And across the street, three modest little houses decorated themselves as well; they, too, were just perfect in their simplicity.

Heard on the Street, from a teenage girl to a tweener boy wearing a fauxhawk: "...She's your big sister, and you should do what she says even if you do think it's unfair...She's lookin out for you..."

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Funny the things I pick up just hanging around one coffee house or another--though I am in fact an inveterate tea drinker. Right now, I'm sitting at the Starbucks by Vallergas on Trancas. Just saw Mark Jessup walk by, said hi. Mark started Jessup Vineyards, and he's had a tasting room in Yountville for several years, expanding over time and moving to a larger establishment. But I usually see him at the Oxbow, since renewing our acquaintance last summer over beers at the Oxbow Wine Merchant. That's when I first learned that Jessup Vineyards didn't belong to him anymore; he cashed out, and now he's working on a new label.

Seems like the thing to do for many people; build and sell when the timing's right, collect some profit, catch your breath, start again.

A couple of weeks ago, ran into another friend at the Coffee Roasting Company at First and Main. He was thumbing through a recent Napa Valley Life Magazine, I joined him, and asked if he was working again. Until last summer, he'd been with the same winery for 15 or so years, got let go as the once rich owner--he's an investment type with a locally well-known name--found the vanity winery too expensive to maintain.

He was just finishing a crush, he said, at one of the custom facilities, for a brand few have ever heard of; happily, after so many years at the same place, he didn't mind particularly that he'd be off work for the Christmas Season and beyond. We mused over the declining fortunes of his owner, and the fact that he wasn't alone. Indeed, in a similar conversation with a banker-type, I was told that lots and lots of wineries were in trouble, but that banks and investors kept carrying them, if possible. No one wants to see the dominoes start falling such that even marginally healthy institutions end up in trouble because credit dries up in fear of those same dominoes comin' atcha.

Some already cashed out just because, some are looking to cash out because they're deperate, some cashed out because the price was too attractive to pass up, and they could start all over again with deep pockets and a wealth of experience and connections. Like Jessup, presumably.

Then our talk turned toward the latest crush. Not only was there less fruit to go around because of the cool summer, grapes had to be harvested well before ripening in some places because of the fear of mould. What's that do to the sugar content? I asked. Without the high sugar, you're not going to have the high alcohol contents so popular with local vintners.

I realize, of course, that the chemistry underlying the making of wine has progressed to such a point that winemakers can manipulate final results in ways unimagined when I was an assistant winemaker with Daryl Sattui back in the late '70s. All this talk in the last decade about reflecting terroir is an outgrowth of the changes. In the old days--30 or so years back--you had no choice but to reflect the terroir; you crushed the grapes when it was time, fermented the juice, and that done, you put it into barrels to age. That was pretty much it, and making a good wine was almost wholly dependent on your grapes, when you picked them, good oak barrels, and, most important of all, keeping everything clean. It was largely a matter of not doing something wrong in an otherwise simple--if not easy--process.

And there are rules limiting what you can do; you couldn't add sugar, for instance, to pump up the alcohol content, or add oak chips to a barrel, to speed the aging and flavoring process.

But there are loopholes; there are companies that take old barrels, take them apart and reassemble them with fresh oak slats inside to make possible the richer flavors of new wood; there's the pumping of oxygen through the wine to speed the aging. And that's just the beginning; wine chemists can do all kinds of remarkable things.

Back to my friend and that low sugar problem. The solution? He explained that you evaporate out the alcohol and some of the water, and then reintroduce the alcohol, with less of the water, to achieve the desired alcohol content. So there are no foreign additives, so to speak, but you can create the same effect. Then my friend picked up his copy of Napa Valley Life, to show me an ad for a winery. It displayed a picture of the cellar, and in front of the barrels sat an evaporator. Seems this is something of a grey area, though, and he was surprised they let this little trade secret slip.

And speaking of odd winery practices, just heard a great anecdote about a new boss from "corporate" who took over one of the Valley's oldest premier labels. He thought they'd have less trouble with crush and getting workers and all that stuff if they moved up the schedule; seems he asked his astonished underlings why they didn't do the harvest in February. The mysteries of agriculture were apparently beyond him, though he had the office politics down pat.

That is supposed to be a true story.

Just read an interesting blog piece at about the difficulties of wineries in the current climate, especially small, family-owned properties. It mentioned one going out of business because they lost their line of credit, and another that's retrenching, and saving the money they once spent on junkets here and there, special marketing plans for different clientele, different pricing structures.

Also found an interesting piece by Napa's Paul Franson, revealing that the stone building on Third and Soscol may turn into a winery co-op.

Meanwhile, I see from Amelia Ceja's Facebook postings that she and daughter Dahlia went to Yosemite for a vintners' dinner at the Awhanee Hotel. Those two seem to have the best time.

Finally, I hear that some parts of the Bounty Hunter empire are up for sale; don't know what, or why, but heard murmurings from several directions.

Heard on the Street, from one of four partying girls leaving Downtown Joe's after a real good time, in regard to the sculpture out front: "...I think I'd really like to ride piggy back on that thing..."

Don't Miss:

Fri, 9 Dec
*Murder Mystery Night, Wine Train, 5:30pm, 800-427-4124
*A Victorian Christmas, Napa Valley Museum, Yountville, 7pm, 707-945-0500

Sat, 10 Dec
*Home for the Holidays, Michael Mondavi Winery, 11am-5pm, 707-256-2757
*Ringing in the Season, Napa Valley Museum, Yountville, 2-4pm, 707-944-0500
*Art Show & Open House, Black Stallion Winery, 12-4pm, 707-227-3248
*Cheers Main Street Party, St. Helena, 3pm
*Candlelight Tour of Historic Houses, 3-7pm, 707-255-1836
*Snowing at Delphi, Dreamweavers Theatre, 8pm, 707-255-5483
*Napa Valley Ballet, La Magie de Noel, Opera House, 7pm
*The Wallers & Lee Scratch Perry, Uptown Theatre, 8pm

Sun, 11 Dec
*Baroque for the Holidays, Napa Symphony, Opera House, 2pm
*Dave Brubeck's Mass: To Hope, Napa Valley Chorale, First Methodist Church, 3:30 & 7pm, 707-261-6156
*Snowing at Delphi, Dreamweavers Theatre, 2pm, 707-255-5483

Monday, 5 December 2011

I didn't think too much of it when I first saw the red and white lights approaching from the northern sky, faint but getting clearer on approach. Just another plane...but no sound emanated from the apparition, and it seemed to drift rather than fly. Whatever it was floated above the river until it just dematerialized somewhere above the Old Adobe on Soscol. Didn't give it much thought, but soon after it disappeared there came another one from the same direction, following the breezes through the night sky, only to fade away just as the other had.

It was about nine on Saturday night, and I was regarding the view from behind the Napa River Inn between sets at Silo's, and within 10 minutes I saw three or four of these little unidentified flying objects, that seemed to have been launched from somewhere by the Wine Train station. I really can't begin to know for sure what it was, but it looked very much like big red balloons, each with a candle suspended below. The frosty night air with a deep black sky and just a flutter of air current made for a delightful little display. Nice phenomenon someone dreamed up, whatever it was, and somehow perfectly Christmas.

Meanwhile, Kellie Fuller and the Mike Greensill Trio were knocking them dead at Silo's, with Ms. Fuller singing her heart out to a receptive crowd that returned the effort with lavish applause. From the sleek cocktail dress to the between song patter to working the crowd during breaks, Fuller's the compleat cabaret singer, and she couldn't find better accompanists than the MG Trio. I've never seen more people in the place, and Keith, the proprietor, couldn't have been more pleased. And while he's always a friendly, welcoming host, he was really On the other evening; also saw Kathy there, his chief lieutenant, as always making sure everything's running smoothly on the floor.

Now that Silo's has a full liquor license, they can start serving the sorts of cocktails you expect to find at a cabaret; all they need now is Joel Grey and Liza Minelli.

It's funny how deserted the Downtown appears some nights, belying the activity somewhere. As I headed into town late that afternoon, the first visitors were hitting the Beazley House Bed & Breakfast for the Christmas candlelight tour. Several buses dropped people off, and they eagerly started their adventures in old timey architecture and interior design. The pilgrims made the rounds of eight grand old houses, including my personal favorite, Cedar Gables Inn. I lived there briefly in another life, in the days when they rented apartments and rooms. I assure you it's much more romantic now, and it's especially gratifying to see the once shabby splendor replaced by the magnificence of renovation, care and prosperity. You can say that for most of the Victorian Era mansions in town.

The new name of the place escapes me, but the great house behind Cedar Gables was owned by one of the town's big men 120 years ago, one Mister Churchill. The Gables was a gift or somesuch to his son. More or less across the street is a classic Victorian with a mansard roof; the property's been defaced by a small apartment house put in the front yard, some past travesty. That house was owned by Churchill's partner, Mister Goodman. Not only did these two create the First National Bank of Napa, but they were also responsible for the Eschcol Winery; it's called Trefethen, now. And Goodman, of course, was the man who donated to the town its first library. That would be the fine stone building on First Street that houses the historical society.

By the time the B&B tour was over, Eiko and Morimoto were well into dinner hour, and both joints were crawling with merry-makers, bars full, people having a good time. Even the outside fireplace at Eiko boasted a full complement.

Then there's the new art on First Street, installed in vacant storefronts a couple of weeks ago. Let's see...there's the collection of miniature outhouses in the windows of the Tax Assessor's office, somehow very appropriate; there's a series of vertical blue neon lights at another venue; there's an abandoned lot with rubble, more or less, up the block. Very Damien Hirst. And the District Attorney's office has a bunch of puppies in jail in the window.

My own personal favorites ended up side-by-side.

Brandon Gomez created something of a masterpiece that resembles, at first glance, a tree shooting off a couple of large branches from a short trunk. Closer scrutiny reveals the life-size human forms writhing through the limbs. Interesting artist statement, too, incorporated into the work, with empty, spattered paint buckets for punctuation. Something about going crazy for your art.

I know the feeling because I saw Brandon making the piece, over at the Slack Collective; he made dozens of forms from real people--Slack Denizens--and then made plaster castings. Couldn't imagine how he intended to put it all together, but he did. Brandon's incredibly prolific and talented; he did a small painting project on glass, a dozen little panes, each portraying a cutaway of a head, starting with the face, working through the skull. The semi transparent images create a 3D effect, and as you take them apart one by one--or put them together that way--you get into someone's head.

Until a month or so ago, Brandon was the guy who kept things running at Ubuntu; he left so he could work on the First Street art project, and it's a triumph. This young man needs a Medici, and if he finds one, they may discover a Michelangelo.

I know Lorenzo Mills from the Coffee House; his piece is called A Jury of My Peers. A dozen life-size disembodied heads are lined up in two rows, a stern judge and tormented defendent off to one side. The two art works display well together; both sculptural, both demonstrative of real technical ability, thought, and lots of hard work.

Wildcat Boutique held its usual First Friday art show, most recently Virgin A-Go-Go. This is not my mother's Virgin Mary. Interesting riffs on the theme; Rob Struven, tattoo artist extraordinaire, had one of his designs up--Pray for Us Sinners--showing a deadly looking pachuca. Kat Attack presented a remarkable piece of photography, of a beautiful nude, modestly hiding her charms. And someone else did a nice little tryptich of an Oriental woman in a deep blue kimono spangled with golden stars. There were lots of cartoon-voluptuous nudes in the show, along with quite a few guns. And some nice little Virgin of Guadelupe figurines for context.

And speaking of virgin births and Christmas, who should I see walking out of Backroom Wines Sunday afternoon but Gordon Heuther, Napa's World-Class Artist, and Craig Smith of the Downtown Association.

They had in tow nine folks who seemed to be on a tour of sorts; God knows Gordon's the one to show people around town; his art is everywhere, from the random street corner to the parking structure to half the walls of the local masters of the universe. I'm beginning to think of Napa as a mere backdrop for the man's art; any day now, we'll be calling our community Heutherville.

I was reminded, of course, that St. John's Catholic Church was debuting a new altarpiece by the Great Artist, so I thought I'd drop by for the afternoon Mass to have a look. The big-as-life crucifix is a classic, and it floats in front of a circular flash of light rays in steel. Turns out the Jesus was done some time ago, by Italian carvers, in wood. But the starburst is all Heuther.

I was speechless.

The presiding priest thanked all the parishioners who made the new altarpiece possible through their donations or labors, including several construction types who did engineering and seismic work gratis. Not to mention the generosity of Heuther's genius.

Didn't stay long, but I did admire the carving of the Holy Family in the corner opposite the church's own Virgin of Guadelupe. It portrays Jesus, Mary and Joseph as a young family, and it, too, was fashioned by Italian craftsmen. Nice piece.

Meanwhile, a little fiesta got underway in the parish hall across the street. A couple of dozen people clustered in the entry, began singing in Spanish, and then proceeded into the hall where their families waited to join the song.

They invited in the stranger hovering just outside, and to his inquiries as to what, exactly, was going on, a friendly man explained that it was a Mexican folk custom that usually happens on Christmas Eve. Some kind of fanciful re-enactment of Mary and Joseph looking for a place to stay, and the community coming together to welcome them with hospitality.

This time of year, the man said, the hall's booked up all the time. So we're doing it a little early. We don't want our children to forget our customs.

It was sweet beyond words, and made my Christmas that much merrier.

Heard on the Street, from a woman commenting to her friend on an artwork: "...That's just lazy work, just lazy, and there's no excuse for it."

Friday, 2 December 2011

A strong north wind blew down the Valley Wednesday, the occasional eddies making their ways into my canyons and gullies to roil the tops of the redwoods outside the front door. Branches randomly fell, the thunks on my rooftop reminding me of the trees waiting to fall my way. Seemed like a good day to go to St. Helena and find a warm place to sit around and read.

It was mid-afternoon when I arrived, the sunlight already receding because of the closeness of the western mountains. And looking up Main Street I regarded a scene right out of a Thomas Kincaid painting, but the reality of the thing portrayed, not an idealized fantasy of kitsch. The soft light, the long vista up Highway 29, and the sparsely populated street combined to give it a dreamlike air.

First thing, I ambled toward the library to visit the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum. This is one of the most charming rooms in the Valley, full of artifacts related to one of the most beloved authors in any language. Treasure Island, Kidnapped, of course, and one of my personal favorites, Silverado Squatters, his account of honeymooning with Fanny Osbourne in a cabin on Mt. St. Helena.

It's amazing the numbers of people I've met in the Valley who proclaim an interest in local history--and volunteer at the likely venues--who have never read the book, or even realize that it's not a novel. His description of Vallejo in the late 1800s is priceless, and so are his many little adventures around the upper Valley. The word portrait about Jacob Schram captures the character of a real character, and the whole work recreates a long-lost world far removed from the Napa we know now.

The museum boasts a marvelous collection of Victoriana, ranging from one of Fanny Osbourne's dainty old-timey shoes to the lead soldiers Stevenson played with as a child. There are drums and kava bowls he collected in the South Seas during his great voyage on the Snark, there are pieces of tapa bark cloth. And there's his inkwell, elaborately rendered in gold. Many fine paintings, too, some of Stevenson, others by his artist wife. Indeed, the medallion she earned when she graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute is there as well.

The school was run at the time by Virgil Williams, one of California's great early painters, and the museum features some of his work, in addition to a canvas by his most famous, prolific pupil, William Keith. But the most impressive is a painting of Stevenson's Mount St. Helena, by Thomas Hill, whose work commands rather more critical acclaim and higher prices than his contemporaries. There's a terrific painting of his at Silverado Cellars, of the Golden Gate, 50 years before the bridge.

I made it back to Main Street not long before closing time, but I did find some treats. The Harley rental place at the south side of town on the east side of the street has an Indian Motorcycle for sale, a real American Classic. Great design, great Indianhead logo, even a light mount shaped like a chief in headdress.

A few storefronts up the street, discovered a place devoted to Ottoman art and design; forget the name, but it was a riot of color. Ceramic bowls, large and small, in the most intricately rendered hues; small, painted cat figurines; glass hands, in blue shades, traditionally meant to protect you from the evil eye; and all manner of platters and such. Also a fine collection of Turkish rugs, from the areas bordering with Iran. But the stars of the show for me was the jewelry, based on designs going back six, seven hundred years, in silver. Studded with rubies and emeralds, some gold gilt, each was a kaleidescope of color.

Across the street, kind of, is Vintage Home. Lots of unique glass serving dishes and like accessories, but it was the Christmas tree that caught my eye; a good 12-footer, it dripped, top-to-bottom, with fine glass ornaments of every description. Very simple, very traditional and utterly magnificent. Best tree I've seen in years.

Pennaluna, next door, or almost, is also worth a visit even if you're not looking for embroidered linen napkins; it's just a beautiful space, and the antique architectural elements inside are alone worth the visit.

After proceeding up the street to the Model Bakery for a chocolate-chip-walnut cookie--they're the best I ever had--I crossed over to the I. Wolk Art Gallery. I especially liked the large paintings of galloping polo ponies. They also feature some funny little bronzes, entitled "A Walk on the Beach," comprised of a conch shell, with legs, striding along.

Proprietor Karen Johnston introduced herself, and explained that she also works with Ma(i)sonry Tasting Room in Yountville, where they create a fusion between wine, art and design. She had a neat little sample pack of Blackbird Wines on display at the gallery. I've been meaning to stop by for a taste, and now that will happen sooner than later.

Martin Design, a few doors down, has always been a favorite just because of the grand creations that appear there on a regular basis. The other day I saw the biggest lamp shade of my life, must have been six-feet across; looks like hammered steel. Impressive. And then there's the oddly jarring item, in this case, white serving platters with a ceramic gun in the middle. Very edgy.

On a more innocent note, they have a couple of herds of small elephants and bulls, and a flock of owls. Each is a concoction of wood and brass, four or five inches long or high. Look like a collaboration between Picasso and Brancusi.

Martin Design also tends to have a collection of fantastic, seldom seen art books, big, fat things, that thouroughly exhaust the given topic, whether it's the work of a particular artist or a design theme, say Japanese anime. My special pleasure was a book of photographs of New York City. Must have spent half-an-hour looking at one great image after another, documenting the city from the time of the first cameras. It made my day.

Then, I finally made my way to the St. Helena branch of the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company; this place is much different from the Napa version, if only because it stays open till 8pm, and has wireless. And there I sat to drink some tea, eat my cookie, and read my book in a cozy corner.

Heard on the Street, from a man talking to a stranger in St. Helena: "...Well, I guess it wasn't very smart of me to tell a stranger that I have a-half-million dollars worth of Renoirs on my wall at home, but I am getting a security system pretty soon."

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone, another harvest over, and finally, once and for all, the end of summer and it's last traces. Funny how easy to slide from spring, to summer, to Indian summer, without much noticing. Then the clocks change, dark descends, the rains come. And it's winter.

I love the holiday season, and given my birthday just after Christmas, I naturally assumed the month's worth of festivities were all about me. Didn't mind when I gradually learned that wasn't the case; enjoyed it anyway.

We used to do big family gatherings, first in San Francisco, at the Edwardian house on California Street; and later at our imitation Frank Lloyd Wright house on Redwood Road outside Napa. Both venues lent themselves to holiday cheer, and they were tough acts to follow for some time. Then I learned to take them as they came, and stop childhood comparisons. Since then, I've had some of my best Thanksgivings and Christmases. With friends in Venice, relatives in Colombia, with girlfriends wherever. And some very nice ones with family here and there.

This last I spent with friends in Browns Valley, some kind of domestic perfect. The children watched Will Ferrel's Elf movie, mom and grandma prepped the traditional fixings, the host poured lots of wine.

Napa shifted into holiday mode with a Christmas tree lighting Wednesday evening, with a new installation of art on First Street; too bad it rained, but it worked anyway. The skating rink behind the old Goodman Library was full every time I passed, and on Friday night Yountville did its annual Festival of Lights, and the town burst into illumination. People everywhere, streets flooded with crowds, restaurants overburdened with customers.

The scene somewhat repeated itself the next night in Napa, for the Christmas Parade. Lots of floats, the Pepperettes dancers, a few politicians, and a fleet of vintage cars trimmed with lights. And the Vintage High Band marching down the street playing Christams carols.

The parade started just after five, and the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company closes at five on Saturdays. Jewelyanne and Hanna were cleaning up to go, as normal, around four, four-thirty, the place all but empty; then the line started to form inside, it got longer and longer, and the girls were lucky to get out by six. By then the parade was over, and not long after the streets were all but deserted.

I avoided all the Black Friday stuff, but people were out in droves, and they all seemed to stop by the Oxbow at some point; it never wasn't crowded, I don't think, the whole weekend.

I'm not much of a Christmas shopper; but I do shop around anyway, without much excuse. But cruising antique stores over the holidays gives me extra pleasure for some reason.

Heritage at the Oxbow has become one of my favorite merchants anywhere; it specializes in culinary items, but Lisa, the owner, so broadly interprets the mission as to dazzle you with unique objects. Knives especially appeal to me, and aside from the obligatory kitchen stock, she often finds vintage hunting knives. Found an excellent Mexican-made dagger a hundred years old; perfect for my collection. Then there's the White River skinning knife that caught my eye, but I already have one. And it was from her stock that I learned that an odd knife I found at a junk store was, in fact, an oyster knife. She also carries corkscrews, ivory or bone spoons carved by hand, exotic salt and pepper shakers; cast iron pigs, stuffed pheasant, French bread boards. She recently displayed a pair of candelabra made of cam shafts welded onto a base. And lots of one-off serving dishes and the like.

It's really akin to a museum of food-related curios, with an ever-shifting collection; I stop by regularly just to admire the latest aqcquisition.

This afternoon I made the rounds of the antique stores Downtown. Community Projects on Franklin is more like an ongoing rummage sale, but I feel guilty not checking it out at every opportunity; no telling what treasures you might find there. Some guy I know found an original Audubon bird print there for a few bucks. The biggest ever produced, actually, and they sell for thousands of dollars. Once, I picked up a couple of ancient figurines, museum pieces, perhaps. I'm still researching them but I may have gotten the find of a lifetime for ten bucks. Great book deals, too. Now, the place is full of Christmas decorations, cheap.

Two blocks closer to town, next to Grace's Kitchen, is Peter and Karen's place; don't know the name, but they have a wonderful selection of glass and ceramics always, and nice Victorian pieces. They handle many local estates, and I got a fantastic piece there a few years ago, that goes back to early California: an original Mexican cutlass, blacksmith made, of the sort General vallejo's soldiers carried at the time of the Gold Rush. They have a large new stock of old carpenter's tools; vintage planes, handsaws and more. And they always feature old Life Magazines; nice to travel through history, randomly, as you flip through the pages.

A few doors away, at the corner of Second and Franklin, is Molly's establishment; don't know the official name, but you can't miss it. She generally has the largest selection of things in town, including vintage clothing and jewelry; lots of fine Southwestern silver and tourquoise, too. I also like the art that passes through there. A while back missed out on an incredible panoramic pencil sketch of San Francisco from the '30s; fantastic details of a pre-skyscraper city. Someone else got it while I was thinking about it. Drat! Molly also has some nice old tools, including some axe-like implements I'm still thinking about. Again. I'm sure I'll regret not buying them today.

Then there's Alice's, on the Corner of Third and Randolph. She just changed locations over the last few months, from over by Yajome Street and the New Tech High. She does consignment things, and lots of quirky, hard-to-find items; saw old door-plate and -knob sets, magnificent purses, vintage Christmas decorations. My personal favorite was a jewelry box made out of matchsticks and scrap wood. A real Tramp Art classic.

So much neat stuff, so little space,

And now, as the Oxbow readies to close, I think I'll go ice skating before heading to the Slack Collective for a movie.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

From all outward appearances, the Napa Valley Film Festival sure looked successful. I kept finding myself otherwise engaged during the week, but even so, I couldn't avoid evidence of the Festival throughout downtown Napa. The Copia visitor's center was hopping everytime I passed through, wine apouring, music playing, people having a good time and talking movies.

Ran into Richard Miami there, who remarked on how strange it was to be back in Copia. I couldn't have agreed more. Richard ran and hosted the film program at Copia before it died, presenting unique films every Friday night. One evening saw Russian Ark there; the film is unique in that it's almost two hours of a single take, shot at the Hermitage art museum in St. Petersberg, in period costume. And Casablanca, a film I've seen dozens of times, but never before on a big screen. And here he was again, presenting films at Copia, if only for a few days. In his other life Richard's a wine educator at Mondavi, in Oakville.

Also met Nicole Marino, editor for, a new web site that intends to choose and publish various bloggers writing about the Valley's favorite topic. She also takes pictures, will be your own personal paparazzi for any big event. She was shooting pix for the Festival to document its various aspects, with hopes of selling others; just recently Wine Spectator picked up one of her photos.

She said the opening gala at Mondavi was a great success, with Margrit Mondavi presiding. Meanwhile, for several evenings I could see the searchlights darting through the night sky even from my forest preserve in the redwoods. And the number of limos cruising around, everywhere, Downtown, back roads, everywhere, was astounding. Stretched in every variety and color, fleets of simple black Lincolns.

Restaurants were packed: Coles and Ubuntu overflowed, Cielito Lindo and Bui Bistro doing brisk business. Uva had more customers than it could handle, too, and the Vintners Collective went wall-to-wall. So there was lots of fest. And when I headed home late Saturday, the John Anthony Tasting Room was hosting a festival party full of Beautiful People, all having the best time.

On one afternoon, on the way back to Oxbow, crossed paths with Keith Rogal, who brought us the Carneros Inn, a place I much enjoy, and hopes to develop the Napa Pipe property into a vast housing tract, a project I could do without. But he's also pushing for a light rail franchise or somesuch on the Wine Train right-of-way, running from South Napa to just beyond St. Helena. What a great idea.

I dropped in briefly for the final film, on Sunday night at the Opera House; never have I seen the place so absolutely full. Don't know what the movie was, but there was lots of sexing and texting, almost simultaneously; so much for Modern Romance. But from what I briefly saw, it certainly captured the zeitgeist of our age.

Meanwhile, I was reading DisneyWar, a book by James Stewart--not the actor--about the two-decade tenure of Michael Eisner at the Disney Corporation. He'd worked in television--you can thank him for Laverne & Shirley--and some other movie studio by the time he took the Disney job in the mid-80s. A weirdly chilling book, since the man was so obviously talented, and he raised the worth of Disney from the hundreds of millions to tens of billions. Yet, his management style was described as throwing six pit bulls into a ring and see which one came out alive. Then, likely as not, he'd fire the guy, and blame someone else for the carnage.

I knew some Napa connections to the story--I was one of them--and The Sharpstein Museum in Calistoga is an indirect Disney legacy; it was founded by Ben Sharpstein, who retired to the town after spending years as one of the company's lead animators. It's the best museum in the Valley, and his visual skills are obvious in the dioramas and displays. The renovated little cottages leftover from Sam Brannan's rip-roaring resort are a special treat.

But there are other Disney alumnus, too. Rich Frank was one of those who escaped from Eisner's clutches, but with enough money to buy Hans Kornell's old place, and turn it into the Frank Family Vineyards on Lillie Coit's old property on Larkmead Lane north of St' Helena.

More significant is Silverado Vineyards, started by Ron Miller, the Disney son-in-law who got kicked out to make room for Eisner. I knew there was a Disney connection there, but I didn't know that Diane Miller was Walt's daughter, or that her husband ran the place for years. Two decades later, Eisner forced Roy Disney Junior out, the last real family tie. He also gutted the executive ranks top to bottom, and did quite a bit of damage to ABC, as well, after acquiring it. It all seemed to be about ego and control, making losers everywhere he turned because of his need to feel like a winner. He did make money though...

I suffered through all this, but lower down in the ranks. I worked for Los Angeles magazine about the time Disney ended up owning it, and the editor I worked for was a nutjob incompetent who was himself working on a book about Disney that had the studio worried. He kept demanding that I find dirt on Eisner and his best friend, Mike Ovitz; he was the other most powerful guy in Hollywood. The editor wanted to believe the worst, most absurd rumor, and I failed everytime I couldn't find evidence of what never happened. He finally got fired; the author of DisneyWar speculated it was because of my ex-boss's Disney book. In fact, he was fired because I was quoted in the LA Times describing his outrageous behavior. He'd already fired me by then, so I had to settle for poetic justice.

A few years later, I was working for CNET and the Entertainmect Channel on a movie website. Somehow or other, Disney or ABC became an owner for some months; that's when I met Rich Frank. Funny running into him a few years ago as I drank his sparkling wine, at the winery; the last time I'd seen him was at an E! Channel Christmas party in the late-90s at the Hollywood Athletic Club.

Anyway, it was interesting to be reading about the film industry and it's massive evolution over the last few years, as Napa celebrated its film festival. It was so revealing to to get a glimpse of the mega-forces that altered my career a couple of times, and remade the nature of our entertainment.

They don't just make movies anymore; they manufacture marketing vehicles to sell toys and music, they create franchises so they can make bad sequels trading on a good original, they contrive multimedia extravaganzas to extend brands that don't stand for anything.

DisneyWar's a great book even if you don't care that much about movies or Disney; it provides an example of how business is conducted these days, how modern management techniques and the attendant slogans have warped so much of our culture.

Those aren't the kinds of movies the Llormers tend to show at btheir festivals, and for that alone we should be thankful.

Heard On The Street, at Oxbow, one 20-something to another: "It's really been interesting being in business with a friend...but you know, I don't care what he says...he doesn't do crap..."

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Well, what can I say beyond Hooray For Hollywood? For all of the Napa Valley's ever-promiscuous talk about world-class this or that, there is finally something worth crowing about.

The Napa Valley Film Festival shows every prospect of living up to the highest expectations. Essentially the creation of Brenda and Mark Llormer, this latest extravaganza features sneak previews, gala celebrity parties, VIP lounges, and a succession of flick 'n' sips where movie, wine and snacks all intersect. I first met the Llormers at Cinema Epicuria, their version of the Sonoma Film Festival in 2005. Never encountered such a consistently pleasant and well-run event. Went again the next year, too, and found the same first-rate production.

The local edition will span the Valley, with film villages in Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville and Napa serving as community headquarters for the associated events, ranging from cocktail parties to dinners to panel discussions and lots of movies.

Leonardo DiCaprio's biopic J. Edgar so far enjoys the most buzz, previewing tomorrow night in Yountville; George Clooney's Descendants will screen in Napa. A bunch of celebs are slated to pass through town-- Rob Morrow, Jeffrey Wright, Judy Greer--but my favorite is Adrian Grenier, from Entourage. Reminds me of my own good old days in Venice and West LA during the '80s, with all the perks my media jobs allowed. But that's another story.

Downtown's Avia Hotel seems to offer the best chance of celeb sightings, but all the best venues will undoubtedly claim their shares; the John Anthony Tasting Room next door is an official lounge, and 1313 Main, Zins Valley and Morimoto will figure in festivities too.

Festival Pass holders, of course, get priority, but for flicks not sold out, there are $10 tix at the door. Here's your chance to see all the movies everyone will be talking about in the next few months.

Then, in true Hollywood style, there's an awards show at the Opera House on Sunday, our own little pre-Oscar competition.

My good friend Addison DeWitt covered Cinema Epicuria back in the day; read his accounts here, here, here, and here.

And now, get with the program, and go see a movie!

Heard on the Street, at another celebrity-packed event, from a fan to a star: "I know you're somebody, but, uh, who are you?"

Monday, 31 October 2011--Halloween

I had no idea the bizarre wonders awaiting me later in the day as I walked down the hill from my compound Thursday morning. Hendry winery was harvesting the last of its crop from the vineyard below, the familiar "thunk" of the bins awakening me, and half-an-hour later, the banter of workers drifting my way in the form of clipped Spanish. The sun shined in a blue sky, the air had the burgeoning warmth of a spring day at the end of October. The last of Indian summer.

The Bay Area my destination, San Francsco would be my first stop before backtracking to Berkeley for a prolonged visit with my son. As a an old news junkie, I could not deny a fascination with this Wall Street Occupation Movement, and its seizing of a portion of the Embarcadero in the City, and the City Hall Plaza of Oakland. I've been watching the Bay Area counter-culture close-up, off and on, for more than fifty years. Of course I went to this scene of incipent revolution; that's been my specialty for decades, and I've watched many rebellions, most failures. How could I miss this one, on my very doorstep. So to speak.

I'd heard about the widespread squalor chracterizing the San Francisco encampment, the disruption of normal life by the Occupiers, heard that the San Francisco Police Department had in the middle of the previous night prepared to remove them, but then didn't.

The camp was not immediately visible as I emerged from the Embarcadero BART station and regarded Justin Herman Plaza, but inquiries set me in the right direction, to a patch of lawn perhaps a third the size of a football field. Situated in a grassy area with a concrete perimeter of steps and seating, the camp looked pretty neat and well-organized to me. Hung out for several hours, actually, and I couldn't have been more surprised at how far removed press reports were from the reality.

Not that I endorse the "movement" in any way.

However, there was no filth, no great trash problem, and port-a-potties served the most intimate needs. In one of the little council meetings, people took turns talking, and listened to each other. The guy I happened to hear the most turned out to be a Ron Paul supporter. The crowd applauded him, believe it or not. Then I met a quartet of bankers from Montgomery Street who came to see the show; they acknowledged the system was broken, and were wholly approving of the action. Who knew?

A big-time political comedian I never heard of took the floor, explaining that he appeared on both Fox and MSNBC cable channels to explain everything in the light of humor. Visiting from New York--he'd been at the real Wall Street occupation earlier in the day--he soundly excoriated the greedy one percent. Then he handed out free tickets to his show at the Orpheum Theater for the next night, guaranteeing that the grand old movie palace down Market Street would be full of likeminded comedians.

But San Francisco was nothing compared to what I found in Oakland on Friday and Saturday. A block-size space in front of Oakland's downtown City Hall had been seized by "The People." Though the police cleared the plaza just days earlier, half of it was again covered by tents, the amphitheater commandeered by organizers, and most other spaces served impromptu displays or performances. Straw covered the ground, the tents stood in orderly rows--more or less--and pallets played as sidewalks. And while public restrooms are all but impossible to find in downtown Oakland, I found the port-a-potties at the camp cleaner than those at most of the public events I see in Napa; and usually vacant.

A crew printed original silkscreen posters on site, several editions a day in some cases, instant collector items for which people stood in line for half-an-hour or more. Hella Occupy Oakland, they said, with great renderings of landmark buildings--The Trib, for instance--with Greed their corporate brand. Revo art by Ravers, it's powerful and fun regardless of whether you approve of Anarchy. Decent meals were served to those who wanted them, hundreds lining up, eating; there was an acupressure and massage area where they dispensed special treatments for the post traumatic stress derived from the police removal. A cluster of Bhuddists meditated, acrobats contorted on ropes, the Cougar Cadet Drum Line from the Boys and Girls Club of Alameda marched through, drowning out the general council meeting at the amphitheater. And a handful of adolescent boys ran around in red and yellow tights and capes in emulation of some suprhero who's evaded my awareness.

I've heard the Occupants denounced as mindless parrots on the radio with recordings of a crowd repeating the words of a given speaker; discovered it's what they call "the people's microphone." Speak in short, clear sentences, and the crowd repeats it so everyone can hear. Hokey, perhaps, but effective enough.

On Saturday morning they organized a "kitten action," in which small groups would range through the city and try to engage people in dialog, in the afternoon I heard speak Tariq Ali, a Pakistani intellectual-in-exile who everyone seemed to think was instead Saddam Hussein's mouthpiece, Tariq Aziz. Ali denounced President Obama for releasing fewer people from Guantanamo than President Bush. And the Service Employees International Union sponsored a dance of American Indians, led by the Aztecs. A befeathered woman said something connecting Wall Street to the extermination of Indians, I think. But there was definitely lots of solidarity.

Every variety of communist seemed in evidence, along with every variety of activist, all providing tactical advice, all propagandizing. It is, by the way, no accident that there are no clear demands; clear demands can be dealt with, somehow. Free-floating discontent, anger and resentment are rather more difficult to handle. Meanwhile, just a coincidence, I'm sure, I spoke with half-a-dozen bright, attractive young women with serious, professional jobs, every one of whom worked for some kind of non-profit institution. Don't know what that means exactly, but those who want to dismiss the whole movement based on the often inarticulate trolls and gnomes the media likes to highlight are missing something much more significant than meets the television's eye. Each of these young women held a position with reach and influence: organizing political activity on the web, teaching political theory, dispensing small business loans in the ghetto, instructing children in non-violent play.

Quite a contrast with the Tea Party shindig hosted at the Napa Fairgrounds a month or so back. Supposedly the kickoff of a national roadshow extravaganza demonstrating support for their brand of Americanism, the Tea Party chose Napa because of its presumably conservative sympathies. Thousands were expected, and perhaps six or seven hundred showed up, many from out of town. And almost overnight, locals by the hundreds turned out to denounce That Movement.

Met Louisa Hufstader along the way; she's editor of, the local outlet for the Huffington Post, all part of the reorganization of media as we know it and the decline of the newspaper. Louisa, I learned as we walked up Third Street to the fairgrounds, had been a manager for folk singers in a previous life, before doing some work for the Napa Register and transforming herself into an editor for NapaPatch. Turns out she's largely responsible for Napa Porchfest, the local music festival held at various historic houses around Napa.

She told me about the anti-Tea Party protesters amassing at the Vetrans Park, and I resolved to go have a look--but didn't need to, since they came to us, so to speak, marching our way just as we approached the fairgrounds. I found the giant rat effigy most impressive.

We parted ways in Tea Party territory, a vast emptiness ringed by tables serving various conservative concerns, mostly selling stickers and coffee cups with flags and expressions of patriotism; a few hundred people clustered around a stage, a big Tea Party bus as backdrop. Lame comedians and mediocre musicians with strongly held beliefs performed to overenthusiastic applause, the whole conducted by the masters of ceremonies, Jack Armstrong and Joe Getty, a radio talk show duo from Sacramento.

I love those guys, best I've heard on the radio, ever, and even they couldn't save the event from its utter...nothing-muchness.

I'm not unsympathetic to the Tea Party's complaints, but there is no method to its madness, and there is no madness. But whatever is going on there, however valid or well-meaning, it comes across as weak, flabby, and very, very old. Hipness and cool should not, perhaps, be any criteria by which you judge the worth of political argument. But unrelenting cluelessness concerning the evolving world around does not bode well for philosophical longevity or practical success.

What I find most significant, though, is that both movements, Occupation and Tea Party, represent a profound unhappiness with the "System" as it currently exists, and those discontents are shared by millions of people across the spectrum. Meanwhile, mainstream elites--left, right, moderate--ignore these emerging movements as irrelevant, limiting their debates to what seems to be increasingly sterile, conventional blah-blah.

Something's happening here; what it is ain't exactly clear...but it may just engulf us in...something.

Heard on the Street, from a speaker at the Oakland Occupation: "...and we have to get rid of that IRS that keeps taxing us, and taking our money away, and kicking us out of our homes..."

Tuesday, 17 October 2011

So my kid finally left the hospital for his mother's house in Berkeley over the weekend, and things now replicate normal, in some general sense. I returned to Napa after several days with my sonOn Saturday night, I walked into Uva, and there were my buddies at the bar having their regular dinner, Kurt and Sarah tended the bar with their usual good cheer and high efficiency, and someone poured me a glass of wine.

Saw a friend, Susan, who used to be the assistant to the president of the college. Like me, she was a morning regular at the coffee house until Andy Anderson died. I joined her and daughter Olivia; turns out they were doing a night on the town, going to see Ryan Adams at the Uptown later. Susan raved about their earlier dinner of sushi at Eiko, and they seemed to enjoy their cocktails at Uva between the main events.

Susan liked the interior of Eiko as much as the food, and we both marveled that the same designers did the latter, as well as Farm, the Oxbow and a bunch of other places. The conversation drifted toward design generally, and Susan revealed that she and Olivia were considering the design business themselves. I presumed they meant interiors--they live in a spectacular little bungalow across from Fuller Park, each room a jewel box of antiques and paintings--but no, they were thinking clothes. It is, perhaps, enough to say that they wear their own wardrobes to such fine effect that they should have no trouble at all making other women look beautiful as well.

Then, from the corner of my eye, I caught another habitue of the coffee house standing behind me. It was Greg, who manages the Napa Valley Running Store next to Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company, out for a repast with his family. That's one of the things I like about Uva; it's a family place, but for adults. Parents and their grown children go to dinner together, listen to the music; wedding parties, before and after; family reunions.

I've known Greg for years, at a distance, because of the running store's location next to the coffee house. Saturday mornings the crew from group runs stops in for some fresh brew, Greg their shepherd. Then I'd run into him riding his bike out to Browns Valley. Turns out he's active in the local organized cycling scene, too, with the Eagle Cycling Club; a few months back they hosted one of the great rides of the Valley, with more than 2,000 participants. Benefitted the Veterans' Home in Yountville, I believe.

Greg was there with his wife and two children, boy and girl, apparently home from college, or getting ready to return; of course you go to Uva.

As I said before, it was comforting to walk into these familiar scenes given the recent chaos of my life, trips to the hospitals, new neighborhoods to explore when my boy was getting worked on or sleeping. The Potrero District's 24th Street, for instance, by San Francisco General Hospital, a great, old fashioned brick building. I had no idea where it was despite being born and raised in the City, and the Potrero District may as well have been in Phoenix or Las vegas for all I knew. Turns out the hospital is right next to the 101 Freeway just south of Downtown; passed itg a million times on the way to the airport.

The commercial district along 24th thrived with the activity of a unique demographic, a well-established Hispanic neighborhood with smatterings of young hipsters; no gentrification here. The St. Francis Fountain still serves sandwiches and ice cream along a lunch counter, all original, from the neon outside to the chrome and formica inside. Across the street was the San Francisco Taqueria, run by guys from Guadalajara, who made excellent carne asada burritos and served horchata, the sweet rice-based drink I've come to love. My son especially liked it as he came out of sedation and needed to consume something orally; his broken jaw dictated intravenous feedings and liquids.

The neighborhood's full of one-off bicycles, mostly single speeds, personally customized, used parts abounding, and I've seldom seen so many laundromats on one street, each with a distinctive look and name--like Mr. Burbuja, or bubbles. Lots of Mexican spiritualists, and stores selling curative herbs and spells for love, sickness, goodies, two bucks a pop, and lots of multicolored little saints you never heard of. And coffee houses, my favorite the Sugarlump cafe, which had Saturday afternoon food specials, a couple of glasses of wine, salad and soup or something. And the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor, great neon sign, dating back to the 1920s.

But the real find was Humphrey Slocombe's ice cream, first evident because of the longest line for ice cream I ever saw. Wow; never imagined such flavors. Black sesame, fennel and maple, salt and pepper. Just as delightful as unexpected; my mouth waters thinking back on it.

And another thing about SF General and the neighborhood; it was as if everyone understood that temporary regulars would show up for a week or two and then disappear, because of the hospital. Never encountered so many sensitive people in my life, all aware that this interloper now showing up all the time might well have some serious worries. And I got more hugs from strangers than ever in my life from the staff at the hospital, disconcerting when I realized that it was, to some extent, special treatment because my son was so badly mangled at first glance. And he was in intensive care.

Then the boy was moved to Kaiser in Oakland, and another new neighborhood invited me in, along Piedmont Street. This is where all the Sixties Berkeley grads moved when they made it, I think, upscale hip with Peet's, Starbuck's and half-a-dozen other coffee houses along the eight or ten blocks. Wandered into a capoeira studio, devoted to the Brazilian martial art masking as dance, developed by the slaves in days gone by to look non-threatening, met a young woman from New Zealand on her way to Rio to go to the source. Meanwhile, she was visiting friends in Berkeley and getting a capoeira fix in transit. There was a fantastic comic book store, most impressive I ever saw, with vast archives of everything, and all the books about comics too. And fantastic super-hero figures.

Lots of other quirky bookstores dot the area, and a specialty magazine store with art and fashion titles you've never heard of, from around the world. Somewhere along the line I picked up a biography of Joseph Duveen, in hard cover, for a buck, and spent the next week wallowing in the world of the highest end art dealers of a hundred years ago, and how some of the world's great museums ended up with their greatest works of art; Lord Duveen and family did the deals, from countless Rembrandt's to the occasional da Vinci. Discovered that Joe Duveen arranged for the room and display of the Elgin Marbles--the friezes from the parthenon--at the British Museum, where I got to admire them 50 yars later. In a degraded state it turns out; Duveen had them cleaned to the extinction of their finest details. Oh well.

At Piedmont Antiques, encountered Marty Martinez, a sign painter who got rich by accident. Told me how after serving in the Korean War he'd studied painting at one of the famous Bay Area art colleges, forget which, along with Richard Diebenkorn. The latter had the nerve to stick it out as an artist and become rich and famous. Marty had a family to support, thus the sign painting. Bought real estate with savings, back when it was cheap. He's weathered several booms and busts without damage, and now at 80-something, he gets to buy and sell paintings, as well as a storefront's worth of curios. As we talked, he brushed a glaze of varnish on an old canvas backdrop from a bar, a large painting, maybe 8 by 12 or 15 feet, of a victorious gladiator reveling in the applause of the crowd, his victim dead in the dust; a naked goddess hovered to the side. Gave me some good advice as to how to preserve one of my own favorite paintings, a three-hundred year-old Dutch maritime battle, with victorious admiral in portrait.

Best of all, he sold me a wine-bottle opener for my collection, a rare design seldom seen anymore, in which a spring extracts the cork even as you twist in the corkscrew. In the most tiny engraved print, it identifies itself as from the Christian Brothers wineries, one of which exists up Redwood Road from me, though now called Hess.

There is a world beyond Napa, I discovered to my dismay. Who knew?

Heard on the Street, man talking to woman, in the Potrero District: " turns out her fingernails were a big deal." "Oh, c'mon, that couldn't have been THAT big a deal." "Oh, yeah, they were. A VERY big deal..."

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 ,b>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..." Thursday, 30 June 2011

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

A very good list, too, I might add.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silverado Country Club Fireworks Display, 2 Jul

City of Napa Parade, Downtown, 3 Jul

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 25 June 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a bad way to plot our way to empire.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 12 June 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 June, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 5 June 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that's another story.

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

Saturday, 28 May 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 22 May 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 May 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, 18 May 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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