The A-List Archives:  Jan-Mar 2012

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Yikes! Missed the Ides of March, the day on which Julius Caesar was whacked two thousand or so years ago. He's been much on my mind lately, since I bought Robert Hughes' new book, Rome, at Copperfield's Books. Hardly ever buy a new book, but I couldn't resist. Wonderful survey of the history, life and art of the Eternal City. An Australian with little formal schooling, Hughes burst onto the world as an art critic for Time Magazine in the late-sixties or early-seventies. His appointment excited outrage and envy in much of the art world, as this two-fisted, self-taught titan shot his mouth off about things he could not understand as did the establishment.

So, of course, he ended up being one of the most well-respected critics of his day, if not in the inner recesses of the elect. His Shock of the New, a PBS series and a book, provided one of the greatest syntheses of art, culture and history you'll ever encounter; came out in the '80s.

So, there I was sitting at Starbucks, amazed at the interesting conversation I'm hearing between a couple of vineyard owners and managers, one Mexican, one Anglo, both forty-, fifty-something. The nuances involved, the things to know, the tidbits I picked up. Talk of the black clay somewhere here in the Valley, and how it produced mediocre Cabernet; according to the Anglo. So they grafted Sauvignon Blanc onto the rootstock, and the winemakers like it just fine. And his annoyance with early spring and late rain. The Chardonnay out in the Carneros is starting to bud too soon for him, and apparently the rain will not help the situation...whatever it is. Also, the benefits of dry-farming the vineyards. Uses less water; who knew?

The Mexican guy offered a suggestion here and there, and it was evident that regardless of his fieldworker's garb and broken English, he was a man of substance. Heard him mention that he produced a 1000 cases of Cab a year; but he had more good grapes than he could use. The other guy was interested. Then they discussed the Latino's prospective land deals, houses to build, vineyards to consider.

Meanwhile, they were arranging for the Mexican to bring crews to the Anglo's vineyard for whatever it is they do this time of year.

Appearances can be deceiving; you never know who really does what...or how well they're doing. I'm reminded of the "documentary" Mondo Vino, released back in 2005; a real hit job, the Mondavis the target. Along the way, the filmmaker went out of his way to slam the Staglins, too. Somewhere in the travesty, it was suggested that Mexicans are suffering horrible exploitation at the hands of the wine industry. And that only rich Anglos made wine. Nice stereotyping there.

Meanwhile, Amelia Ceja, a well-known local winemaker and proud Latina, was recognized a couple of weeks ago in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for her dynamism in the industry and beyond.

Also, a couple of weeks ago, Israel Valencia had a photo show at Wildcat Boutique. That was just a one-night stand, but Bistro Sabor, owned by Amelia's son, Ariel, features his work. They're the pictures on the wall of vegetables, rendered gigantically, captured perfectly. Israel's the nicest guy in the world, and I think he can probably take a great picture of anything.

And speaking of local stars, Mike Bolen was recently named one of ReMax's top real estate brokers; got an award in Las Vegas and everything. Just a month earlier, his brother was accused of making the best Zinfandel in the world. Some family there; I suspect some parents are very proud.

My own real estate agent also won an award. Robin Short's facility in selling rural properties earned her kudos from Cabella's property division.

The highlight of my week was a Friday night dinner at Hydro in Calistoga. Fried prawns with a lime dip, and crosscut sweet potato french fries. Washed it down with the house red. Most excellent!

Heard on the Street, at Uva, one rich guy at the bar to another, a little less rich: "...I've proposed to three women, and every one said No. Women don't want to get married anymore..."

Monday, 12 March 2012

So, there I was sipping Cabernet and wandering around in a world of bohemian splendor. Wonderful paintings by William Keith and Virgil Williams--both of whom painted at Napa's Soda Springs Resort--and Thomas Hill, another California master who specialized in capturing the magnificent California landscapes. Ornate Victorian objects; inkwell, toy soldiers, memento jewelry. A primitive kava bowl, and tapa bark from the South Seas.

The Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena hosted a lecture Wednesday night, highlighting the parallel but separate lives of Stevenson's wife, Fanny Osbourne; and Gertrude Stein, the avant garde writer and art collector. Both women passed through the same Oakland apartment house and lived in the same neighborhood, both women spent memorable times around St. Helena. And both women challenged the female stereotypes of their times, Osbourne in the late 1800s, Stein in the early 1900s. A beginning, so to speak, and the end of the beginning.

Marissa, the new executive director, delivered the talk, accompanied by a fascinating series of vintage photos. Perfectly captured the romance of a couple of different eras and ways of life, as well as the perennial sweetness of life in the Valley at its best.

Tom, a local architect and winemaker, emceed the evening, explaining along the way that the Museum has the largest collection of Stevenson memorabilia in the world. I've long appreciated the place, wrote about it a few months ago after a visit upvalley; but I didn't know how significant the collection is. Tom made that clear enough, and said the Museum hopes to get the word out more.

I can't endorse the place enough; it's really one of the finest gems of the valley.

Almost forgot; that was a lovely Cabernet served liberally at the lecture: a 2009 Two Old Dogs, from the Herb land Vineyards. Oak, unsweetened chocolate, with cedar and cherry-pie filling. Lots of other flavors, too. Comes from around Howell Mountain, home of a wonderful literary tradition; that's where the acid Ambrose Bierce lived, and carried on his emotional affair with Gertrude Atherton. Both fine pieces of difficult work. That would make a nice lecture, too.

Check the place out...the Museum, I mean. Right next to the St. Helena Library, with nice views of the mountains east and west.

A few hours earlier, made the rounds of my favorite St. Helena haunts; like Christopher Hill Gallery, where I ran into Cristopher and Tom, talked art. The market they say, is getting better, much moreso than last year. Always enjoy my visits there, they always have something new, and I'm always re-discovering things they've had awhile. Like the David Schneuers; he painted Jerusalem cafe society in the '30s. Never knew there was such a thing, now did you?

The winner for me, though, is the scene of the Grand Canal in Venice, a sleak water taxi gliding through that great cityscape. Takes me right back. I've spent a week in Venice on two different occasions, feel much more proprietary about it than I have a right to. But the place is in my bones, somehow, an amorphous dreamland in which I always feel at home. Where I want to lose myself in a four-, five-, six-hundred-year-old past.

That painting I love is by Luigi Rocca.

Then I stepped into Footcandy next door; just love seeing the whimsies for women, all those sexy, shiny shoes reeking of a pleasing decadence. Had a nice conversation with Monica, a local girl who went to my old alma mater, Justin-Sienna. She alluded to its cliquish nature. So true in my time, as well. But then, that's all of Napa Valley. You never know what's really going on under the surface. Kind of like the Italian Venice. Not to mention the California one. Yikes!

Had a nice reminder of that latter when I walked into the Taylor-Caldwell Gallery; it features a giant painting by Chuck Arnoldi, who lived in my old Venice neighborhood. Went to quite a few parties at his place, an art compound shared with Billy Al Bengston. Met Christopher Isherwood there one night. He's the guy who wrote the Berlin Diaries that became the movie Cabaret.

Back then, Arnoldi did big, interesting stick arrangements, presented more or less as paintings. This piece at TC is all paint, well defined rectangles of it, in bold colors.

There's also work by a guy named Buckingham, who does fascinating things with found, painted metal from the SoCal deserts; some nice geometric pieces, but most feature big words. Don't remember any, but they're clever as hell and pleasing to look at. Interesting contrast with the local artist who does painted steal slabs.

Heard on the Street, at Starbucks, from a construction supervisor looking for a job: "...all kinds of horror stories went on with that train crossing...every kind of corruption, embezzlement, weird little side deals..."

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

First Street looked all but deserted down by City Hall last night. All illusion; Oenotri and Norman Rose showed signs of life, Tarla, too. Good restaurant crowds despite the post-dinner hour.

But one storefront displayed a uniquely warm, amber glow, inviting despite evident emptiness. More illusion. As soon as I walked into John Anthony Tasting Room I caught sight of the host, just inside the door within a cozy banquette. Covered with unshorn cowhide, spots and all.

Jeff was entertaining the couple from Phoenix, newlweds here on a second honeymoon. He disengaged from them just long enough to pour me a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc.

They were here for a week or so, enjoying the visit just for the sake of being here, of course...but also to buy wine. They'd already established a few routines like this; April in Carneros, the Alexander Valley and beyond during crush. This was a twofer trip; a few days in Napa, and then up to Santa Rosa to do the Sonoma Wine Road tastings this weekend and next.

The things I learn from visitors...the Phoenecians love those Sonoma events because they can easily hit any number of the hundred or so participating wineries. But even better, they tell me, is that you find unique deals, and great discounts, depending on who's got too much of what in the warehouse. Something of a treasure hunt. And the barrel futures; enjoy what you taste coming out of the wood? Buy a case of it or so... and if it comes out as good as you hope, you might be paying only 60 percent of its final price of a year or two later when it's bottled.

Regular patrons of their local wine merchants, they bought only wines they couldn't get at home on trips like this latest; that's why they were at John Anthony. One of their favorite negociants was friends with the namesake of the brand, which he did not have in stock since it's sold only at the tasting room; more or less.

According to Jeff, the winery produces fewer than 4000 cases a year, all from John Anthony's vineyards just north of town by Oak Knoll and Dry Creek Roads. The Sauvignon Blanc I quaffed came from a production of about a thousand cases. This is the one wine, says Jeff, that's distributed to the wider world. In small doses.

It perfectly reflected the terroir, I presume, because it didn't taste like anything else I'd ever tasted, and I loved it... even though I'm not partial to white wines. Jeff explained that the vineyard is one of the southernmost in the Valley for this variety, ripening more slowly than it does further up. John Anthony's vines are still adding sugar well after its SB cousins have been harvested. The extra hangtime makes for greater complexity, and even my ignorant palate recognized it.

Tropical fruit and citrus come through, and it strikes me as the ideal wine for a spring lunch or long summer brunch.

The 2009 Syrah comes from a production of 400 cases, and Jeff tells me it was much in demand when it came out. John Anthony crafted the best 2007 Syrah in the Napa Valley according to several cognescenti, but the 2008 crop was ruined by frost. This release is a customer favorite, he says; absence made their hearts grow fonder. I could taste why. Dark, berry fruit, chocolate/vanilla finish...Yup. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

Then we proceeded to the 2008 Oak Knoll Cabernet...what the winery's all about, said Jeff: their Foundation. Comprised of a very solid 170 cases.

Bright red fruit, silky smooth finish, well his description. Again. But I would say exquisitely balanced. And speaking of balance, I'd be in heaven with those two reds, the right companion, and a couple of steaks following a fleet of bruschetti.

The couple from Phoenix said their good-byes; and Jeff perused his smartphone as I imbibed. Checking his reservations to Phoenix, of all places. Headed out for the weekend to host a wine party or two at customers' houses; like a Tupperware Party, but with wine. Says he's done parties with eight to thirty people, and they tend to buy eagerly. You can't get this stuff just anywhere.

I had wandered into John Anthony after the City Council meeting devoted to deciding whether Starbucks or its like would be allowed Downtown; the City Council determined that now was not the time to pass laws restricting new businesses. Wisely, I believe, given the fact that Downtown is full of empty storefronts, and I often hear tourists lamenting the fact.

Our local activist--Alex Schantz--is behind this measure, as he was behind Occuipy Napa, and the Napa College SDS branch before that. For a self-proclaimed anarchist, he sure seems to like making rules for other people. And I did see him at Starbucks just a few days earlier.

Saw Louiisa Hufstader at the meeting, busily keystroking away. The editor of, Louisa is also responsible in large part for the summer music porchfest, along with Thea from Wildcat Boutique. Ran into Louisa a few weeks ago at open mic night at the Slack Collective. Didn't hear her friend play guitar, but did have a chat with her. Says her branch of the Huffington Post is doing well; much better than expected, even. Wouldn't tell me numbers, but did confess that some days NapaPatch amassed up to 75,000 hits.

And I'm green with envy.

Heard on the Street, outside Gott's eatery, one woman to another: " I said, I guess you don't care about us Indians, and if we die eating the fish..."

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

So the two big events over the weekend were the Premiere Wine Auction at Greystone--that's the CIA's building in St. Helena--and the Academy Awards Gala at Mondavi. On Saturday night at the Culinary Institute, there was my Good Friend Fritz Hatten selling the wine, and who should be the night's biggest buyer but my other Good Friend, Mark Pope of Bounty Hunter.

Funny thing, to know them both drinking java. With Mark at the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company, with Fritz at the Model Bakery in St. Helena, when I was writing a book. But that's another story...

The charity auction raised more than three million bucks, up from last year's $2.36 million; this is being interpreted as a vote of confidence in the health of the luxury economy, wine country version.

Later that Saturday evening, I caught some of the Academy Awards hoopla early on with Silo's presentation, featuring Bay Area Media Star, Jan Wahl, she of the big hats. Movie reviews and all things star-struck comprise her beat, and she told fun anecdotes about Academy Awards past, punctuated by Oscar-winning movie songs. These were provided by Mike Greensill on piano, and Wesla Whitfield's vocals; some other chanteuse did a turn or two as well, but I missed her songs, brilliantly done according to proprietor Keith.

But I did catch Wesla's When You Wish Upon a Star, from 1940's Pinocchio. And Jan told us about her favorite movies, at least in terms of personal influences derived therefrom. She mentioned 1976's Network, with Faye Dunaway and William Holden, for its prescient view of the media future, with reality TV, and every other kind of craziness resulting from the entertainment divisions taking over news divisions to deliver more entertaining news. Cited that as the reason she left straight-up news to do entertainment journalism. There are a variety of paradoxes in there, but I'll ignore them.

On the other hand, Wahl cited His Girl Friday as the reason she got into news; she loved watching the wise-cracking Roz Russell thriving in a man's world against Cary Grant, her newspaper editor and ex-husband in the movie. This is a hilarious expose of every kind of contemporary corruption, from crooked politicians to rotten newspapermen to incompetent cops to a bloodthirsty public. Timely now, even though it dates to the '30s. Started as a stage play called the Front Page, by a one-time Chicago newspaper reporter named Ben Hecht.

I read his auto-bio once, and the best part was his describing the real trial on which the story rests; seems Robert Frost, the poet, was on staff at the time. Didn't last long; a little too clueless, dreamy and...poetic.

This was director Howard Hawks's first big success, I believe, in a huge career, full of Academy Awards. He also made the cult classic The Big Sleep, with Bogart and Bacall, the latter whom he discovered and hoped to claim for himself, romantically speaking. Bogey got her instead. His Girl Friday was a ground-breaker for quick-fire, over-lapping dialog.

Don't know how many Academy Awards Hawks won in his career--five or six I believe--but I got to hold every one of them. Used to be good friends with his son and daughter-in-law in LA--Greg and Penny Hawks. They had the best Academy Awards parties at their place in Santa Monica; lots of beer, pizza and Hollywood producers and Venice artists. Every table featured an Oscar centerpiece and at least a Hollywood player or two. So much fun, especially the in-house game we played as we predicted who we thought would win.

Haven't seen them in several years, but will get together soon, I hope. Penny most recently curated a show of architect Frank Gehry's work; he was for a time working on the Hall Winery in St. Helena...wonder what happened to that. And Greg has a new Baja buggy ready for the off-road-racing season. Did my first Baja 1000 crewing for Greg; I got lost in the desert in a motorhome driven by a caffeine-crazed guy who built the dune buggies used on the moon back when we sent people up there. Honest.

When Greg was a teenager and expressed interest in off-roading, Mr. Hawks sought out the NASA mechanic as a mentor. Somewhere along the line, he also bought Steve McQueen's Ford Bronco, one of the first vehicles to do Baja. For Greg, who still has it, I believe. Even better, Greg got to hang around with John Wayne, one of his dad's good friends.

Anyway, thought about all that as I headed down Main Street. Couldn't help noticing the Oscar fashions in Helen Lyall's windows along the way; saw none of their like the next night at Mondavi, but it was still a nice event. Raised about thirty grand for AIDS and cancer afflictees.

Then I wandered into Downtown Joe's and a Girls'-Night-Out Pre-Wedding Party. Yikes! A dozen hotties, many made up Mard-Gras Style, all booty-shaking to the rockers on stage. Accompanied by two or three bedgraggled young men. Brides-to-be Lindsey and Trish played their parts magnificently, as the latter avoided falling off the chair she was standing on with a blue cocktail upraised; and the former did fall off her six-inch heels. Recovered nicely, though, and continued the dance.

And I could hardly avert my eyes from the petite brunette beauty in orange strutting atop her own six-inch black satin numbers featuring big, black roses on the toes. And a man-killer of a blonde, all in black, her beauty barely contained in a crotch-skimming skin-tight dress. Yikes! all over again. And no young men to dance with. Speaking of movies, I'm reminded of that line in It's A Wondeful Life: Youth is wasted on the young. Uttered by an old guy watchiong Jimmy Stewart talk to death Donna Reed. Instead of just kissing her. Oh, well...

After my late afternoon flirtation with the Mondavi Gala on Sunday, I ended up at a friend's house for the tail end of the Oscars. Looked really glamorous and fun, in an old-fashioned Hollywood-glitz kind of way. Mainstream, in the best sense of the word.

Discovered yesterday exactly how clueless I was, when I checked out Nicki Finke's Deadline Hollywood. This is a real insider's look at the industry, from one of its power brokers, a former colleague, of sorts, at Los Angeles Magazine. I was brought into the nutjob editor's office not long after being hired, so I could listen in on his phone conversation as he fired Nicki. This was back in 1995. She'd written an article for the magazine about Hollywood's biggest talent agency, CAA, run by Mike Ovitz, the biggest guy in Tinseltown. Back then. It wasn't favorable, and when it came out, she sent a gift to Ovitz...a bottle of perfume, brand-named Poison. So Mr. Nutjob fired her. I was His Boy Friday for about ten-minutes, and I was CYA witness. He fired me a month or so later. Then I helped get him fired a month or two after that.

Nicki came out smelling like roses, and now she's a major influence in her own right. Perfumed Poison, of the most foul nature.

She trashed the event from one side to the other, in real time, as she commented for her web site. Didn't have a nice thing to say about anybody, and kept snarking that the only people who watched anymore were the gay guys who did the makeup. And some of her best friends are gay. Really. And homophobia her favorite crime to condemn.

More than 600 comments agreed with her various cruel assessments. I loved every line, just for the outrages.

Recreational ridicule, the more cruel the funnier. That's our real national sport. ANd Nicki and her friends are superstars at it.

But the biggest deal of all this weekend in Napa, was Lady Gaga's visit. I hear she's house hunting; but what do I know...just after shooting my mouth off about the New York guys gonna take over the Borreo Building, the paper says four parties are vying for it, none from New York. Oh well. Again.

But Lady Gaga was here, honest. And she ended up at Sonoma's The Girl and The Fig for dinner Sunday. Ordered a beet salad and steamed mussells. So there.

Funny, that. Just last week, Tyler Florence had a little event to intro the restaurant's new cookbook. Ran into C Casa's Catherine Bergen there. Looking for recipe ideas. Maybe the Fig girls will send Ms. Gaga over to C Casa should she move here. I still want to see her in that meat dress. And one of the cuts might make for some tasty tacos. I had better stop right here.

Heard on the Street, near Bel Aire shopping center: "...they've both got melanomas on their legs. They just played too much tennis in the sun..."

Saturday, 25 February 2012

By the time I walked into the Olabisi & Trahan Tasting Room, yesterday afternoon, the couple from Florida were half way through their sampling flight. Each had a notebook out, hers full of winery business cards stapled three or four to a page, notes on their wines scribbled to the side. Jodie Mackenzie, the house marketing maven, greeted me, poured a 2008 Olabisi Mendocino Chardonnay. Explained that it had a slightly smokey flavor because of that year's summer forest fires. The winemaker had worried about it, said Jodie, the effect on the finished wine. Turned out just right, and people liked that new, elusive aroma.

At which point the man from Florida said he loved stories like that, and that was one reason he was buying a bottle. Seems he and his wife host several wine parties each year, and they've become their upscale Tampa neighborhood's wine missionaries. Entertained 50 to 70 at a time, he said, and the stories about the wines and where they came from were some of the highlights for his guests.

A professional money manager, he and his wife come out here once a year on buying trips, stocking up for the year to come. They look for great wines at good prices, the more obscure the better. And they don't buy anything they can get at their local wine shops. This is their shared passion, and they revel in it. Their wide-ranging knowledge about wine was impressive, and it was fascinating to hear the perspectives of people from the outlands who kept surprising me with interesting factoids.

They expressed dismay at what's happened to Pinot Noir, for instance, and how since the movie Sideways, everyone who can makes one, not all of them that good. Or how the Rombauer Chardonnay sells out immediately at their area merchants because they make it in that buttery, heavy oak style that accompanied the variety's first mainstreaming in the mid-eighties. And stories of their guests, receiving a first-class exposure to wine world, and how they respond. The ones who beg invites to parties they hear about, the ones who sneak into line for a second taste of a special wine before others have had their first.

Meanwhile, I'd progressed to the 2008 Carneros Chard, also by Olabisi, which she described as the classic presentation; vanilla and a hint of oak.

From there, we moved to the reds, my general preferrence. And there I entered a realm in which I most severely experienced my shortcomings as a wine drinker. The truth is, I have no great interest in being a "wine expert," and I'm not that interested in taking notes. I lack the skill and vocabulary to go the cinnamon, jam, coffee, cat pee route. I like it or I don't, and while I can recognize the exotic flavors or characteristics that more knowledgeable people will share with me... I just don't worry about it that much.

So I'm completely unable to describe in any specific way why I liked those reds so much, but I'll do my pathetic best. I drank six reds, three or four Trahans, I believe, and a couple of Olabisis. Let's see: Petit Verdot, Malbec, Petit Syrah, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. And a Cab-Claret. I frankly forget which bottle came from which winery, but every one of them was unique, and I was overwhelmed by all those tasting cliches I'd heard over the years. I picked up all kinds of jams, blackberries and currant and, and... well, you get the idea.

However these people make their wines--Ted Osborne from Olabisi, Chuck Custodio from Trahan--they hit all my buttons; I believe it would be fair to suggest they're more European in style than not.

They're also trying something relatively new, by exploring the varietal qualities of grapes used exclusively for blending in Europe, like Petit Verdot and Malbec. According to Jodie, of 800 wineries in Napa, only a dozen are making a Petit Verdot as a varietal in its own right. These are both small operations: Olabisi produces about 1200 cases a year, total, Trahan under a thousand.

Please forgive my inadequacies in describing the wines more fully, but you can overcome my shortcomings easily enough by checking out the place on your own. Jodie's an excellent host--she can riff on just about any topic under the sun--and she certainly knows wine; once had her own wine-tasting bar in another world.

And when the couple from Florida departed, they left with one of each.

It was a nice way to end the theoretical work week, and the beginnings weren't bad either. Tuesday night, I attended a portion of the public hearing at the Opera House concerning the Napa Pipe development proposal for a housing tract south of town by the river. Caught the last hour or so, and it seems that what the County wants is a little less in terms of density than what Keith Rogal, the developer, wants. He expressed his dismay at the County's proposal in the most subdued tones, thanking them for their professionalism in the whole process. Then, ever so apologetically, he explained it might not be worth the trouble to develop the property under those terms. In other words, he might lose money on the deal, never a good thing if you hope to be financially successful.

I'm an agnostic on his project, but I do like his Carneros Inn, and Keith is quite personable. What I find amazing is how much trouble he's having with a project that the County wants. I ran into Keith a couple of days later at the Ritual coffee bar at the Oxbow Market, asked him how long he's been working on this project. Six years, he said.

One can only imagine what it would be like if the County was opposed to his project. Talking about killing a guy with encouragement....

In between those encounters, I caught the Real Jazz Quintet at Silo's, featuring my new good friends, Max and Colin, pianist and bassist, respectively. Know them from the Slack Collective, enjoy standing around smoking cigarettes with them while telling funny stories. Max Bonick has a million of them, none of which I can share.

But I'd also gleaned from the pair that they're very serious musicians. So I wasn't fully surprised when I heard them play the other night, accompanied by a saxophonist, guitarist and drummer. I caught a couple of pieces by Thelonious Monk and another by John Coltrane, pieces that allowed each musician to do a solo as part of the whole work. Damn, they were good, complex works tightly done whether as group or virtuoso. Felt like I was back in one of those cool Harlem jazz clubs up Lexington in the hundreds back in 1962. The only thing missing was the cigarette smoke.

The next night, Thursday, I dropped into Downtown Joe's for a beer with John Herkins, Mayor of Downtown. Some months back, spent half-an-hour talking to Joe Peatman, the proprietor. Told me how he went to University of Oregon, was a big Ducks football fan already. Just got better for him when Napa's John Boyett made the team. So Joe took John Herkins with him to a season opener last September.

Well, I got an update from Mayor John, who said they went down to the Rose Bowl for the Ducks dramatic victory over Wisconsin last month. John, at least, had a great time; said he spent most of it drinking beer. Another good time with a happy ending.

Heard on the Street, between a husband and wife, departing a local crab-feed fund-raiser: "...there's something wrong, John. You haven't touched me in months. It's not normal ..."

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Funny how things just seem to go along without any visible changes, then, presto!, things are different. As much time as I spend around town, I'm still surprised by things that just seem to pop up out of nowhere. A few weeks ago, walking down Main Street, and Zuzu's was no more, at least temporarily. Its front covered by scaffolding, the interior gutted, the tapas joint was undergoing a seismic refit. Looked like they'd be dark for months. A few days later, walking by again one late night, the scaffolding's gone, and guys are inside working. And a day or so later, Zuzu's is back in business as if nothing happened.

A few doors down there's a new cafe going in. Italian inspired, I hear, it's supposed to have all the coffee variants we've come to expect, as well as deli delectables. Gelato, Torani sodas and the other usual suspects will probably show up, too. Best of all, they intend to stay open late, way late. Ten o'clock late, which in Napa is the equivalent of all night.

Then there's the Fagiani Building, a gutted hulk for the last two years; rumors say it'll open in June. Hope so; can't wait to see how that turns out.

Back toward First Street, there's that corner opposite the Coffee Roasting Company where rumors of a Starbucks opening led the local radicals to declare revolution against evil chains. Well, an open storefront with business seems far superior to me than an empty one, but what do I know? Alex Zander wants to direct every other aspect of your life, so why not tell you what coffee you're allowed to drink? I look forward to the day when bright young things like him are totally in charge, just so we can see exactly how smart he really is. A heart-warming prospect, no?

I suspect tears of laughter and despair will flow copiously when the day comes.

Despite Alex's best efforts to save us from the evil minions of capitalism, it looks like the Starbucks is on its way in. Ran into a district manager at the Starbucks on Trancas and 29, and he said it's almost a done deal; look for Starbucks #8--or is it 9, 10, or ll?--by mid-spring.

I asked Ryan Heitz about the prospect; he's the manager of the Coffee Roasting Company, another of those wine dynasty scions who'd had enough of the grape such that he was not interested in that industry. He's a coffee guy now, through and through, and he's undaunted at the prospect of competition across the street.

He knows better than anyone the extent to which some people just hate Starbucks; and his joint has a core group of loyal customers. He's confident they'll continue on just fine.

I tend to think the more businesses of any type Downtown will help everyone already there, and a cluster of coffee houses on Main Street might well bring new people to town just because there's something going on.

Lots of Starbucks, Peet's and other chains--restaurant or retail--seem not to have hurt Walnut Creek very much; all the stores in that town center have legions of people passing by, and all the stores benefit, big operation or small, chain or not.

There's news concerning the Borreo Building, too. That's the stone edifice on Third and Soscol; I've been told it's been taken over by deep pockets from New York, and a high-end restaurant's going in there. God knows we need another one.

Meanwhile, regular life goes on, and that would include our Valley's many fine museums and such. The Historical Society has a very nice exhibit on Napa's Craftsman architecture, with a special nod to Luther Turton, who's responsible for the old town's most memorable edifices.

Heard on the Street, between husband and wife tourists, by the Avia Hotel: "...there's just nothing to do or see here...just nothing..."

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Went up to St. Helena with friends last Sunday night, for a movie at the Cameo. As usual on these jaunts, we ate at the Mexican place on the corner, the Armadillo; excellent chicken mole, and some of the best salsa around.

Then there was the film. Nice to go to an old-fashion movie house, kind of like time-traveling walking under the marquis to see actual movie posters, a little lobby where they sell snacks without the Disneyland-like twisting line confronting a small army of counter folk muddling your order between the numbers of cokes and popcorns, with or without butter. And while all movie snacks tend to be pricey, at the Cameo it's simple and straighforward, no elaborate formulas or designations that result in a "small" soft drink that comprises a quart and takes two hands.

They sell coffee, tea and cookies, btw, all reasonably priced.

The Cameo also shows the lesser-known movies that you never see at the multi-plexes, as well as promote themed cultural events, movie style. This month there's a chef, food, movie thing going on; I forget the details but it sounds fun.

So we saw Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a story rooted in the events of 9/11, the death of a father in the towers, and the problems his 12-year-old not-quite-autistic son has in dealing with his loss. Based on a novel by Jonathan Foer, the movie starred Sandra Bullock and Tom Hanks as mom and dad, with Max von Sydow and John Goodman thrown in for full measure.

What a beautifully acted work, what a cleverly told story, and the kid who plays the kid was excellent.

God, how I hated that movie.

For whatever reason, popular literary fiction--is that an oxymoron?--loves to wallow in varieties of common human misery. I don't read these books, but for many years I was married to someone who did. Several times a week she'd be sobbing herself to sleep over these sad books, and I'm sure I failed the husband sensitivity test when I suggested that she just not read them.

I don't know why people want to read stories about characters who live lives pretty much like everyone else, but with some weird quirk or perversion or illness thrown in to demonstrate how miserable we all are. Or how all apparent happiness is just illusion masking horror. As often as not, they seem to be rather plot light, as well. Maybe people embrace that literature just because it is so much like regular life, and our lives seem pretty good in comparison. I dunno.

This story did have something of a plot, a mystery with a twist, so it doesn't fully qualify within my vague categories of dislikes. I have no interest, however, in how someone deals with grief at all, let alone a contrived variant with a mentally disturbed kid at the center. Yikes! The very idea makes my skin crawl.

Some of us have already had our shares of death, grief, family derangements and child tragedies in the real world; there is no need to indulge these pathologies as entertainment. But that's just me.

Excellent movie, though. Even if I did want to slash my wrists.

Despite my ragging on multiplexes, the staff at the Cinedome seems always accommodating, helpful and friendly. My truism that such places gravitate toward big mainstream movies is true enough, but I got something of an eye-opener on my last visit, to see Warhorse.

A poster in the lobby advertised Leonardo Live, a one-night presentation for this Thursday at 7 p.m. Described as a first of its kind, it is, essentially, a PBS-style documentary on the painting of da Vinci based on an exhibition at England's National Gallery. The theme is on his painting techniques and desired goals, all explained by most eminent art critics and historians. The exhibition claims to have an unparallelled assembly of da Vinci's painted works, including pieces from private collections that the public never sees.

It's interesting to note that da Vince developed his reputation as the world's greatest painter on the heals of the Dutch and Flemish masters preceding him whose hallmark was the excruciatingly rendered detail. But da Vinci's work seemed somehow more lifelike.

Due to his experiments with light, vision and optics, he figured out something that evaded the others: sfumatta. Unlike with the more precise painters, there's a softness of lines in da Vinci's work. He realized that when you're looking at a person at close quarters, the only part of him in clear focus is that point at which you're looking. All the other lines of demarcation are in reality slightly out of focus. This is a subtle thing not easily noticed; when you shift your gaze to another part of the figure, it automatically comes into sharper focus, and the previous detail affects that fuzziness at the edges. Unless, of course, you look back at it, and presto, it's in focus again.

Knowing just what to delineate how sharply was da Vinci's gift, and that's why the infinitely more detailed Dutch canvases look unreal. You never see a whole person in perfect focus as portrayed in those precisely rendered paintings.

Rembrandt, of course, was a Dutchman, and he's one of those perennials compared favorably with da Vinci as one of the greatest painters, and I'm sure some parisans would take him over the Italian. Rembrandt seems to have intuited the same realization about tricks of the eye. He emphasized the clash between darkness and light, however. But his paintings still look more Italian than Dutch, and that's why. In my opinion.

Also on Thursday nights--lately, anyway--the Slack Artists' Collective opens the studio up to guests who can admire the art created there. Always an interesting range of work by undiscovered locals, some of it very well-executed. But it's the crowd, as often as not, that makes it most interesting. A couple of weeks ago, met a guy there who's into bootlegging. A few years ago, he became ever-so-slightly interested in brewing beer, and a local brewmaster invited him to watch. The guy kept going and watching, and subsequently spent a small fortune on his own home equipment.

At some point, he realized that brewing and distilling were very similar, except that you could distill liquor alot faster. So now he's bootlegging liquor, for personal consumption. Coincidentally, a month or two earlier, a woman passed through whose husband had a similar interest. She was handing out tastes of a grappa-like liquor with lavender overtones; her man seemed to be making all kinds of interesting concoctions. And one of the young regulars at the Collective is endlessly experimenting with beers, ciders and brandies.

The latter's name is Ian, and he tells of a pear brandy he made with fruit from Max Bonick's orchard out in the Carneros. Max is a great jazz pianist, I'm told, who studied music at UCLA. He plays with Colin, on bass, and their Modern Jazz Quartet is slated for a date at Silo's on 22 February.

Heard some funny stories from Max about his UCLA days, and he's impressed me with his wide-ranging knowledge of the arts. I got to know him through encounters at the Oxbow Farmers' Market last year, where he sold the Bonick Family Orchard pears. But I met him at Paul Slack's Collective, and it turns out that Paul supplied the pear trees for the orchard some years back. Paul's subtle influence is just everywhere.

And speaking of people met at the Slack Collective, Alex Bader has become an interesting new addition. Bader's in his mid-20s, and he's running for City Council; forget whose vacated seat. A graduate of Sacramento State, he studied government. don't know much about his platform--he does talk about the need for decent jobs around--but he's a smart, personable guy.

Heard on the Street, from a husband to his wife, on exiting the highly acclaimed movie, The Artist "...Well, that was just stupid...just stupid..."

Tuesday, 7 February, 2012

On Friday nights, Backroom Wines does a tasting featuring wines reflecting a theme. I got a twofer when I stopped by the other evening; an art exhibition and sparkling wines.

Elizabeth Bush provided the art, in this case close-up photographs of old trucks in rustic surroundings, all digital. According to the artist's statement, she worked in film until she discovered digital cameras and never looked back. So to speak.

Printed on metallic paper, the pix displayed a vibrance better than real, and looked as much like impressionistic paintings. Nice effect, and I liked the subject matter. I never managed to identify the artist, but I did run into Lorenzo Mills, who's becoming as ubiquitous as his sculptures. I seem to be running into both all the time lately. His faux bronze ceramic busts are on First and Main, in different venues. He'll be taking over the Gordon Heuther monopoly any day now at this rate.

Heuther, btw, was recently featured in that oversize Napa/Sonoma magazine put out by the people in Walnut Creek, Diablo Publications. Highlights his efforts on behalf of public art in Napa..

But I was talking about Backroom Wines. Proprietor Dan was pouring sparklers from Italy, Spain and France, the first two white and crisp, the last a true Champagne, but with a little blush and hint of fruitiness absent in the other two. He handles somewhere around nine hundred different wines, he tells me, and all he cares about is value: how the wine tastes, and are you getting the best quality for the money, whatever the cost.

I noted quite a few inexpensive wines, and, of course, he has pricey selections as well. The tasting notes for each wine are impressive, going so far as tell you how long to let the wine breathe after opening. His colleague informed me that they sample something like 5,000 wines a year, they've been doing so for quite some time, and they've developed an instinct for such things. That's what makes them experts, I suppose, but I am endlessly impressed by the detailed information that spouts forth from such people. A few weeks back, I was visiting another wine bar, and someone asked a question about a semi-obscure appellation in France; the guy behind the bar knew the major land owners, their histories and myriad other things.

With Dan, I raised that issue of terroir versus manipulation, and he conceded that the science of wine making has reached the point that even he can't keep up with all the things going on in the wineries, garages and labs. Now, there are more ways to manipulate the wine in the making than even the experts know. Different experts, after all, have different kinds of expertise. And the new tricks of production keep mounting.

For Dan, it all comes down to the final product, regardless of other factors. How does the wine taste?

We moved on from wine when I inquired about his father-in-law, Paul Krassner. Back in the '60s, Krassner published a little magazine called The Realist, a masterpiece of absurdist social and political commentary capable of outraging anyone for some reason. I first encountered it in the Haight-Ashbury in 1966, and devoured a copy, along with its semi-obscene little line drawings, which could not begin to compare with the coarseness of the printed words.

He reached the heights of notoriety with a picture of LBJ doing something indecent to JFK's corpse after the assassination; not a photograph, btw. Thank god. Do I need to add that the event recorded in those inky lines never actually happened?

And then Dan reminded me of another piece of art that got Krassner some fun and trouble: he commissioned an illustration of the major Disney characters engaging in a variety of bawdy relations. A classic of its sort.

It was shocking to hear he's 80 now, though it shouldn't be; I'm old too. Anyway, according to Dan, Paul's working on his memoirs. Just like me. Meanwhile, Paul's daughter, Holly, was showing off their new baby, just a month old. Dan is adjusting well to the adventure, he says. I forgot to ask his new daughter's name, but I welcome her into our world.

Also made some stops into Silo's over the weekend; on Friday night there was a Johnny Cash tribute, Saturday night it was Patsy Cline. Great performances both, and Susan, owner Keith's right-hand person, made me stay a little longer than usual with her hospitality. There for Johnny Cash was her husband John, whom I've come to know over the last several years. He's a retired construction management type, and he may have been involved in the building of the Napa River Inn, which houses Silo's. He got bored in retirement, and started driving limos.

How's that working out, I asked. Ever get a hard time from your clients?

No, he said, they come to Napa to enjoy themselves, and they're in a good mood, conducive to looking on the bright side of things. And they tend to be high-end customers, as well, who know how to treat people.

He drives people on winery jaunts, says that after the third or fourth visit they inevitably decide he's the best driver they ever had. Some, I'm sure, probably decide he's their best friend, too. At least until morning. Anyway, John drives for Napa Valley Tours, and he knows his way around. And he can just about always get you into Silo's.

Then there was the Jarvis Conservatory's monthly first Saturday event; singers and performers of classical pieces, new and old. Heard a young woman play a lovely Chopin nocturne on piano, another sang an operatic piece, and a young man did the same. Both of the latter performed contemporary works.

I respect these youngsters more than they know; there's not a lot of peer pressure to perform classical pieces, and I suspect they get little positive feedback from most kids their age. But they've embarked on a course of discipline, excellence and tradition seldom indulged these days, and they're all the more admirable for it. And the venue is wonderful; intimate and professional all at the same time, the little theater a jewel box for performance.

Over the summer I dropped in on several performances associated with the Festival del Sole--young musicians the specialty--and each was a treat. The place also hosts some excellent film selections.

The house manager was a nice Russian guy named Vlad Pomonorov. He always made me feel welcome, and he couldn't have been more friendly when we encountered each other around town. Last time I saw him was at the Oxbow a while back.

So I was stunned on Saturday to discover that the evening was devoted to Vlad, who'd recently passed away at the age of 35. Sorry to see him go; he was a real gentleman.

Heard on the Street, by Starbucks, among women affiliated with a local school: "...Well, they're all working, alright, they're just not working on our project..."

Friday, 3 February, 2012

Last time around I wrote about a book signing at the Tyler Florence store, fine wineries the subjects. I mentioned that the first winery I thumbed open to was the Hess Collection; an excellent choice for such a book, one of my favorite wineries.

Well, on Thursday afternoon, I was sitting in the Coffee Roasting Company, and a guy with an accent inquired of the counterperson as to the best winery in Napa. That's a loaded question, and the respondent didn't know what to say. It called for an intervention.

The guy's name was Igor, and he was from Croatia; his girlfriend, Donya, came from Montenegro. Turns out that Igor was really interested in Zinfandel because the varietal apparently originated from his locale on the Adriatic coast. I suggested he go to Grgich Hills Winery, near Rutherford; Mike Grgich is a Croat, one of the early winemakers who came in the '70s. Igor was appeased.

It was too late to get up there for a tasting that day, though, and Igor wanted to go to a winery. Like now. I suggested he check out the Hess Collection, and before I knew it, we were headed out towards Mt. Veeder.

One reason I love sending people to Hess is because it's close to town--a 10-, 15-minute drive--but it's also otherworldly. I think Redwood Road is one of the prettiest country byways anywhere, and one minute you're driving by the suburbs on the edge of town, the next--literally--you're in forested mountains with a creek tumbling alongside the road.

The winery itself is housed in a stately, old stone building, and its courtyard is full of sculpture, a harbinger of the art inside. The Hess Collection includes many masters of modern art, and regardless of whether you like modern or contemporary work, it has a nice selection of the best, ranging from representational works to abstract and conceptual pieces.

The giant portrait of the beautiful blonde is a wonder to behold, and the Francis Bacons are enticing in their weirdness and precision. And since my last visit a few years ago, they've installed a couple of works by Andy Goldsworthy, the environmental artist famous for using heavy earth-moving vehicles to fashion his art. These were more modest; an arrangement of artificial stones--I presume they're artificial, anyway--and a screen made of twigs, with a circlular void in the center.

Meanwhile, the gallery director was taking a tour through, and we got the occasional benefit of his stories; the trouble he went through to finagle the Goldsworthy's to Napa, the dilemmas inherent in arranging the stones just right, as the artist wanted, while allowing a clear space for walking through. There were worries about the twig curtain, especially; it looks more delicate than it is, and appears ready to self-destruct with a random breath blown in its direction. The gallery director assured us it was a rugged piece, Mr. Goldsworthy had even given it a couple of good shakes, without ill effect. We couldn't exhort him into a repeat performance, though.

Igor and Donya expressed their pleasure and surprise; art was the last thing they expected that day.

We closed the gallery, then scurried down to the tasting room before it shut down.

Hess took over what used to be Christian Brothers Winery, and they in turn had built on the legacy of Theodore Geiss, the German who first planted vines up there. Consequently, Hess still has some very old vines of varieties that you seldom see much anymore.

Among these was the Gewurtztraminer, so I tried a glass; not sweet as the Christian Brothers made it in the old days, but light and fruity. Also tried the Petit Syrah and the Malbec. Coincidentally, I liked the Zinfandel most, vinted from grapes from Sonoma's Dry Creek area; there was something very French about it.

Igor was new to the whole wine thing, but he wants to learn; he's decided he wants to make wine back home on the family properties, and he has his dad almost convinced. He explained that lots of people grow grapes in his area, but not many people make or drink wine; they're into slivovitz, a clear brandy-like drink made from any kind of fruit, from cherries to plums. The grapes, he says, are sold to Germany. A wasteful crime. So Igor hopes to do for his patch of Croatia what Robert Mondavi did for Napa.

Right now, he's a construction engineer and project manager, but he's planning to take six months off sometime soon to work at any wineries that will have him.

Pouring our wine at Hess was a retired airline pilot named Slice; he got the wine bug after flying some friends to a business meeting in his private plane. He killed time playing golf and visiting a winery. It became a habit, especially the winery visits, so he eventually moved to Napa and went to work at the tasting room. Or something like that.

He was an excellent host, friendly and knowledgeable, and he left Igor and Donya suitably impressed.

Speaking of wine, just saw a Facebook post by Mike Bolen, Remax realtor; it seems his brother Eric won kudos for making a wonderful Merlot, among the best in the world. He didn't start out all that long ago, I don't think, and his background wasn't much different from my new friend Igor's. Something construction oriented, I believe.

And speaking of real estate, Igor tells me that all the good land deals along the Adriatic are mostly gone. After the Brits and Germans worked over Majorca and the Spanish beach cities, they took their real estate development deals to Croatia when the civil war ended. Then Russian zillionaires came along and bid everything into the stratosphere. Alas, the twenty-thousand dollar lot across the street from the beach in a town just four hours south of Venice is no longer available. Shoulda bought it when I could back in '05. Such bargains no longer exist.

And speaking of new money from old Communist countries, I heard some interesting tidbits about Chinese nationals buying wine. Heard tell of a couple from Hong Kong who said they wanted a box of wine for their little store back home. Further discussion revealed they really meant a pallet, or some 36 cases of very expensive bottles. And another anecdote has a couple walking in at closing time, much to the dismay of a tasting room staff ready to go home. Someone took pity, gave them a tasting and sold two cases of hundred-dollar-a-bottle wines. They were so pleased they brought friends in some days later. They dropped several thousand dollars on wine themselves. And then the two couples continued buying lavish amounts of wine through the wine club.

Heard on the Street, from a young man in front of Downtown Joe's yelling across the street to a couple of hotties who had just left: "Hey, girls, come back over here...I am so worth it...honest..."

Monday, 30 January 2012

So there I was at the Tyler Florence store Wednesday night, sipping wine, looking at winery books and talking to a friendly author named Tom Silberkleit. He's created a series of coffee table reference books called the California Directory of Fine Wineries, each featuring a different region and its most distinctive establishments. Good wine we can take for granted; he wants to highlight the wineries that make for a special experience beyond the palate.

Beautiful photos and a couple of pages of text sum up the subjects, and he's got a sensibility after my own heart. The Tyler Florence store hosted this release party for his latest edition, devoted to Northern California; he also had editions of his last work, on the Central Coast. The first winery I came on when I flipped open the latest book was the Hess Collection, one of my personal favorites since it was my first winery back when it was owned by the Christian Brothers. First winery I ever entered, and the property has long enchanted me, all the more since Hess took it over and installed a world-class modern art gallery. And that's the kind of place Tom highlights in his book.

My next random pick turned out to be the Frank Family Vineyards, north of St. Helena; I discovered it's rated as having one of the most popular tasting rooms in the country. It's also one of the most locally historic; Lillie Coit once owned the property and vineyards there, sponsoring one of the finest salons in the state. It is said she helped influence poet Joaquin Miller adopt that winning western style that made him the toast of the Bohemian world for 10 minutes back in the 1870s and '80s.

And the Frank Zinfandel Tom poured made it that much better. Rich Frank, btw, is a former president of Disney, and he's continued to make sparkling wine, a more recent tradition set by Hans Kornel after the 1950s.

The store of course features the chef's signature condiments and food-oriented products, but it's also one of place where you can find that classic white ceramic ware you take for granted in France--the Cordon Bleu line. They also featured some tasty cooking chocolate at the opening. As for what's happening with the restaurant, the store employees were vague except to say they were just refining things a bit, and hoping, perhaps, to put in a firepit. Elsewhere, however, I heard they intended to build up there infrastructure so as to be able to offer more food choices of every sort, and a liquor license too.

Subsequently, I made the rounds of the Riverwalk Complex, and talked to some of the neighbors. Visited Michael Holmes's design place, Liken. Noted the big faux bronze busts by Lorenzo Mills; the latter, btw, also has a storefront art installation on First Street. Liken specializes in big, interesting objects: a large concrete ruin of a Greek inspired statue, antique Mary's and a Jesus or two, and a nice collection of paintings for sale, ranging from bold abstracts to sweet tromp l'oiel creations.

And then there are Helen and Scott Lyall, the mother and son who sell fine fashion. Helen, I hear, has a clientele of women ranging throughout the West; her taste and collection are thought to be exquisite. Scott's apparently doing the same by providing men with equivalent clothing.

Coming soon to the complex? An Italian-inspired cafe not unlike Il Fornaio, with fine coffees, pastries and gelatos. Also, another women's store, selling hip, casual styles.

There also seems to be a lot happening every time I walk into the Oxbow Market lately. Thursday evening it was some kind of pageant of the master's project, with kids from the Blue Oak School, charmingly dressed like French peasants--I presume-- posing within the bounds of picture frames, for photographs. Laguna Beach south of LA is famous for a like event, but that's so over-the-top it transcends kitsch. Anyway, it was fun, crowded and interesting, with well-mannered children enjoying themselves not in front of a screen.

Yesterday I walked into a Chinese New Year celebration hosted by Tillerman Tea, including a wonderful collection of dim sum dispensed by Gianna, and at a low table proprietor David supervised a tea ceremony.

Not that Lilly, an Asian goddess in red and blue silk, seemed to need any supervision as she elegantly performed her tea ritual.

The Oxbow seems to have taken off this last year; it's more crowded than ever, and I mean that in a good way. At least there's somewhere in town that you can always find some kind of life. Especially on rainy days, not that we've had many lately.

Friday I went by the Cinedome to check movie times, and who should walk out but Mark Pope, founder of the Bounty Hunter. Asked him about rumors that he was looking to sell. Well, he said, he's always willing to sell when the price is right. Until then, he's satisfied continuing to run a first-class institution, and he's excited about the whiskeys he now gets to serve.

But I was talking about movies, and I saw Iron Lady, Meryl Streep's role as Margaret Thatcher. Yikes! So convincing I sometimes felt I was watching a creepy documentary...and creepy just because it was discomfiting to see Margaret go a little dotty through its course.

Also saw Warhorse and The Artist over the last couple of weeks. Warhorse was your run of the mill feelgood epic; I enjoyed it, but when I'd heard it was based on a book, I presumed it was a true story. So even if it was corny and sentimental, it doesn't matter. It's true!

But as the credits rolled, I noticed it was based on a novel. So a made-up emotionally manipulative novel got turned into a made-up manipulative movie. I felt used. Especially because I liked it. Thank you Steven Spielberg.

The Artist is some kind of magnificent, though filmed in black and white and silent. All kinds of clever references to other movies, all executed very well. But at times I found it tedious without the sound. I just wanted to yell at the screen.

Say Something! Please!

But I got over it. A great film, not to be missed.

Perhaps the new Valley film festival had something to do with it, but there is new movie life around town. The Opera House has a classic series hosted by Richard Miami, and now there's another track called Seldom Seen Cinema, presented by Terrence Ford, a filmmaker-type who teaches at the college in Angwin. Check EventingNapa for schedules.

Heard on the Street, from a group of teenage boys at a burger joint: "...didn't he have some idea to get rich by killing people? How did that go again...?"

Thursday, 26 Jan 2012

It was just getting dark, the river reflected the last of the light on its glassy, surface, and the Napa River Inn began to light up for Saturday evening. Keith at Silo's supervised the sound check for the evening, Carlos Reyes the performer. Caught his show a couple of hours later, a big man wearing red shoes, a white hat, brandishing a blue violin. He ripped it, with a back up band matching his riffs. So interesting hearing familiar songs and familiar instruments brought together in ways not usual.

A million times I've heard the song Bessa Mi Mucho--I think it means Kiss Me Alot, but I'm no more sure of that than I am of the initial spelling--but here it was different because of that violin. Later, he played a harp that sounded like marimbas. Reyes, it turns out, comes of Paraguayan parents but he grew up in Contra Costa County. His father and grandfather were famous guitarists, so the musical bug was natural, even if he suffered a different infection.

Often the case at Silo's, the room was at capacity, a rollicking night club. A rarity in Napa.

Now, finally, it really can claim to be a Night Club since Keith and Silo's have gotten a full-range liquor license. At that encounter earlier in the evening he explained that some customers just don't want to drink beer or wine when they're out clubbing. They want whiskey and vodka and exotic cocktails. Now he can serve what they want, and everyone's the happier for it, though Keith concedes it's more difficult mixing drinks than opening a beer tap or pouring a glass of wine. But he doesn't mind at all.

People want to dance, too, and Bistro Sabor offers that in the form of Salsa lessons. By 9:30 the crowd was gathering, and the floor was all but stuffed with pretty girls preparing to shake it; if I were a younger man, I'd learn how to dance.

I can't believe how busy the Ceja's are; besides the salsa night on Saturdays, Ariel's Bistro Sabor does DJs some Fridays, and a popular trivia night on Wednesdays. Absolutely no room there last night.

Ariel's mom Amelia and sister Dahlia are busy as well. I see Amelia's Facebook updates regularly, and she has more fun than any three of us. Christmas jaunts to Yosemite, a 49ers party the other day with Linda Cordair, whose art gallery is across the street from the Ceja tasting room in First Street. Dahlia seems to hang with her mom on some of the latter's adventures, and on her own she publishes a blog on what's happening out and about. And Pedro, paterfamilias, recently put in some bocce ball courts at the Carneros winery.

Stopped by Bounty Hunter the other day, had a nice little conversation with Jake, one of the servers. Told me they're busy with special events, and they, too, now have a liquor license; just started serving their first whiskey, a special Bounty Hunter selection from the Four Roses Distillery. The Bounty Hunters picked their favorite barrel, bought it and bottled it. Eventually, they intend to add more to the selection.

And I ran into Mike Bolen, too, a week or so back. The Remax realtor who used to work from the office at First and Main, he also staged some great art exhibitions in the space. Works out of the other office now. Asked about the real estate market, was surprised to hear that there aren't enough houses to go around, saleswise. Seems that the bargain-hunters with cash snap everything up when available. Mike says there should be 900 to a thousand houses on the local market, but it's fewer than 300.

Don't Miss: Tomorrow night is the Napa Culinary Crawl; organized by a Bay Area group, they get four or five restaurants to participate. Comfort food is the theme, and I notice Bui Bistro and Gott's on the agenda tomorrow evening.

Also, Meet the Makers at Mumm, in Rutherford. Celebrating food artists, along with 40 photo portraits.

There's also a benefit for Brian Stow, the Giants fan who got beat up in LA last opening day. At The Uptown, Saturday night. Check out the EventingNapa link for more stuff to do.

Heard on the Street, this exchange between two men by the Starbucks at Trancas and Hiway 29: "Hey, it's the guy who doesn't respond to my emails or twitter feeds..." ..."Hey, it's the guy who makes 700-dollar-a-bottle wine..."

Sunday, 22 January 2012

So I'm sitting at the coffee house at First and Main drinking tea, and who should walk in but Al Jabarin, proprietor of 1313 Main, and His wine bar is among the most elegant in town, and Sean and Jordan are the most attentive bartenders; I'll forever be grateful to the latter for somehow returning to me a stolen vintage bicycle.

I asked Al about Calwine, and got quite an education about the evolution of internet wine sales. He was among the first to enter that arena, in 1994, and he says he might be the oldest still operating. Virtual Vineyards, he says, started about six months earlier, and within a couple of years it morphed into, a domain name for which someone paid $3 million. Within another year or two they were out of business.

That was the brainchild of Peter Granoff, the man behind the Ferry Building Wine Merchant in San Francisco, and the Oxbow Wine Merchant here in Napa. I first met Peter in 1996, at an internet seminar in Sacramento, tailored for the wine industry. He was still Virtual Vineyards then, and I heard more good advice from Peter in an hour than I would encounter for a long time. A couple of years back I asked him about; he rolled his eyes and alluded to the craziness of the dotcom era during the boom, and how various idiots in marketing screwed up a good idea while wasting vast amounts of money. I had been there myself and could sympathize., of course, is back in business with different owners, and Granoff has his retail outlets, so there was some kind of happy ending for someone. Meanwhile, Calwine kept plugging along. For years, says Jabarin, not many could appreciate the potential of the internet. Now, he has 16,000 clients on his mailing list, with customers literally around the world. And in the last few years, the space has exploded, with hundreds of internet wine sellers making a success of it.

So Al may not have been the first, but he was still a pioneer, and one of the more successful of them, from all appearances.

Wine production has changed dramatically during the same period, a fact that came out during a conversation I had with a guy I met at yet another wine bar. He's a 30-something chef who shares a house with a winemaker from a distinguished label. He was at the moment lamenting the injustice represented in a recent article published in a San Francisco magazine. It featured notable Norcal wine makers, including one whose wine was, in fact, made by his roommate and the latter's mentor. The individual just wrote a check to the guys who made the wine, and took credit for the fine vintages.

The individual knows nothing about winemaking, said the chef, and everyone knows it. Except, of course, the raders of the article.

That's an old story, and I've heard it in various versions for a decade. Then the conversation took a turn to how different things are now. Up until 10 or 15 years ago, you never heard much of this term "terroir," let alone anyone's commitment to properly reflecting it in their wine.

Terroir, of course, refers to the unique nature of where the grapes are grown: the terrain, the vineyard, its weather. In the touting of it, one is talking about not manipulating the wine production process to create some unnatural vintage, regardless of how good it may be.

When I was involved in winemaking with V. Sattui's first crush in 1977, you got the best grapes you could, and you just tried not to screw up a simple process: the crushing, the addition of sulphur to kill the natural yeast, the addition of your own yeast. Pumping over during fermentation, and then moving the fresh wine to barrels and then aging it a few years. It was a process of making sure all your equipment was clean, especially tanks and barrels, and then keeping it topped off in the barrels so air can't damage it. Getting expensive French barrels was about the extent of possible manipulation. The oak flavoring would be different, or more pronounced.

This was before the French took California wine very seriously, and before local winemakers started throwing around French words. Like terroir.

See, back then, you had no choice but to reflect the terroir, because we didn't know how to tweak the process as we do now. The chemistry is so well understood, and the means to overcome natural processes, that a winemaker can all but forget the terroir, or at least transcend it.

A few columns back, I mentioned that I asked a winemaking friend about the weird weather of the last harvest, and the need to bring in the crop early to avoid moisture damage from the rain. An early harvest, though, means the sugar content won't be ideally high, meaning a lower alcohol content. He explained the evaporation trick, by which you remove all the alcohol and some of the water, and then reintroduce the alcohol. A wine that should naturally be 10 or 12 percent alcohol given the year's weather can still be bottled at 15 or 16 percent with the artificial fix.

Then there's micro-oxidation, I believe the process is called, by which you can age a wine a faster by pumping little air bubbles through it just right. This practice most famously came to light in the documentary slander "Modovino," a hit piece targeted at the Mondavi family and how they corrupted the world of winemaking.

The film slandered the Staglin family as well with cheap shots. But besides the gratuitous insults, the filmmaker did introduce us to a French consultant who traveled to places like the Napa Valley to tell winemakers how to manipulate their wines; micro-oxidation seemed to be a cure-all. He appeared to fly around in a private jet, hop into limosines, and then cruise from one well-known winery after another to advise micro-oxidation.

Anyway, that's why you hear all this talk of terroir now; not playing games with the wine is the point. And half those legendary winemakers you see featured here or there are takling credit for someone else's expertise, whether or not they emphasize terroir.

Heard on the Street, at Oxbow, from a young man to his date: " Mom introduces me to these guys we run into, and then she says he might be my father...and I don't look anything like my Dad..."

Saturday, 14 January 2012

I made a happy discovery with this still fresh year, just down the road from my place in the country. Bel Aire shopping center and Whole Foods are obvious enough, but it's taken me the longest time to stop by the latter for a Friday night wine tasting. Made up for it last night and last week. Geoff is the store's wine buyer and master of ceremonies at these little events, and though he denies being Irish, he conducts the affair with all the amiable aplomb of a village pub owner. And his Irish credentials are sterling, at least in some respects: He spent his junior year abroad at Trinity College in Dublin.

Just last night we reminisced about the famous library there, and I commented on the Book of Kells, a magnificent example of the illuminated manuscript. Only to be informed by Geoff that it had been found at some farm where the owner regularly dipped it into his animal troughs, indulging a superstition that the tome would somehow disinfect the water and insure the health of his livestock. Who knew? Well, Geoff.

Last week, Katie from White Hall Lane Winery poured; family operation just south of St. Helena. She used to do finance in San Francisco, now does a little bit of everything. Of the four or five wines she dispensed, all but the Pinot Noir came from their property. But the best part was the company, and all of a sudden, everyone was reminiscing about San Francisco in some old days. The woman to my right had been in the Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties, Geoff talked about the City of the Fifties, and Katie knew all about the high-flying Nineties. Then Kelli joined us, and it developed that she had lived and worked around the Venice Boardwalk, where I once had so much fun. From Tennessee, she's a masseuse at Carneros Inn now; her friend, Wolfgang, works for the FDA reviewing medical devices. Los Angeles stories ensued.

Ryan, general manager of Howell Mountain's Cade Winery did the honors this time around; they also produce the Plumpjack label. He came to Napa from Oregon in the '90s, got a job in the tasting room, and presto, GM. Turns out the guy to the right of me had gone to University of Oregon, as had Ryan; the fellow ducks talked football.

Meanwhile, Geoff introduced Dana who was a Deadhead, and she and Kelli, who had returned last night with Wolfgang, got into a spirited discussion about what sell-outs Bob Weir and Phil Lesh were for joining the Bohemian Club. So counter to the counterculture. I, of course, leaped to the Club's defense; I love the place. The downtown building is a masterpiece of the San Francisco Edwardian Era, the Bohemian Grove summer retreats feature some of the most lavish musical shows you'll see anywhere--including Broadway. And the live music is generally excellent--Bob Weir and Phil Lesh are members, after all.

Then Eduardo sat down at the bar. From Ahuachapan, El Salvador, he attended Stanford and the Wharton Business School. His family's been trading coffee for decades; he's back in the Bay Area to supervise a roasting facility, lives in Napa.

We reminisced about the Central American revolutions of the '70s and '80s, and how ironic it is that the one-time rebels have been voted into power.

Anyway, I found a fun, lively crew at Whole Foods, and Geoff insures that whatever wine is poured is worth drinking. And did I mention it's just two bucks? Friday and Saturday, 5 to 7.

I also made my first substantial foray to Downtown Joe's for the new year last Friday evening. Ralph Woodson and his Hendrix tribute band Purple Haze took the stage, and, as usual, magic happened. Where else can you sit and watch Jimi Hendrix play from ten feet away. Yes, I know, but it's real enough, and I have an imagination. A wonderful show, and the garlic fries are among the best I've ever had; the girl next to me at the bar thought so too.

They were probably still coming down from a collective high over there; I know Joe Peatman and Big John Herkins are big Oregon State football fans, and the team couldn't have had a better year. Some months ago had a chat with Joe, who told me how he went to the school, runs into old classmates who wander into the bar during their trips to Napa. And john and he had just gone up there for a roadtrip and a game.

How much nicer the season given that Napa's Boyett was part of it.

Cruised by there last night, another band, playing that '80s anthem that a little dance, make a little love, get down tonigtht, get down tonight...well, you had to be there. The '80s I mean. But they were, indeed, getting down Friday night. Some girl was out front dancing with someone on the other side of the window, inside her friend was dancing on a chair, another friend taking pix of the other two. And everyone was partying hard.

Silo's meanwhile hosted a well-attended singles event; and by the time I got to Eiko, it was packed inside and out, at midnight.

Heard on the Street, at Oxbow, one guy to another, after greeting a woman friend: "...She gives a great [deleted}, man. You wouldn't believe it."

Sunday, 1 January 2012

We all got through another year, more or less, not to mention New Year's Eve. That's always been one of my most vexing nights in a lifetime of parties, in part because there's always so much pressure to have fun. So often, people try so hard, it just seems rather flat compared to expectations. Most especially when you sign on to one of those Gala Celebrations to End All Celebrations, and it turns out to be nothing much.

My first, best New Year's Eve occurred in San Francisco's Pacific Heights when I was nine or ten; I ended up at the house of wealthy playmates, whose parents had decided it would be nice to have an adult-like party for the children. We were all dressed up, pre-teen boys and girls, and Swiss fondue was served, along with champagne at midnight. Indeed, there was probably a little wine throughout the evening, and I got one of my first hints of a sophisticated life that I knew mostly from movies.

A grand room with beam ceilings in a rustic mansion, silver glinting from the table in candlelight, real crystal, and a bunch of kids acting grown-up, trying to have meaningful conversations, just like adults. For some reason, however, I do not remember lots of wild kisses as the clock ticked twelve. But I had a great time anyway, if only because it was so unexpected.

A couple of decades later, I attended one of those canned parties at a place in Venice, the California one, called F. Scott's. It was my first of many nights there, but bittersweet does not describe the evening. Residing in the St. Charles Hotel, a turn-of-the-century building replicating the palazzos of the real Venice, the joint resembled a speakeasy. A shiny black gondola leaned out from the gallery wall, a mural of Rio beneath it, chrome railings separating the raised area from the bar opposite. F. Scott's specialized in old jazz and blues and night club-type singers, and the canned music of the sound system overflowed with the likes of Fats Waller, Billie Holiday and Cole Porter. One of the owners would take to the piano as the evening began, and then defer to the night's act.

That New Year's Eve, she was an opera singer with a broad range of voice and material. The evening was everything we could have hoped, and it was very much like those raucous but civilized scenes of the Roaring Twenties. But I was destined to leave LA in a few days, along with departing from my girlfriend of nine months, a stunning young creature modeled after Jane Russell. I'd started my publishing career, but discovered I needed another class or two to graduate from Davis. I'd finish those up at Napa College in the next few months and return, but I couldn't know it would all work out then. Or that the girl would be waiting when I returned. The pleasant Napa I remembered became a Siberia for me after the glitz of LA. But I would later get my fill.

So if the night was less than wholly satisfying, it was the fault of my personal circumstances rather than that of the canned celebration; that latter was excellent.

Well, last night, I checked out quite a few New Year's Eve celebrations, canned and otherwise, and they all looked pretty good. First, I closed the Oxbow Market, full till five, deserted well before six, when they locked the doors. I'd visited with Cris, the Hollywood player in exile who hangs at Ritual coffee, heard of his trip to Banff to visit a client. Bought some chocolate truffles from Kamaya, one of the many beauties who works at Anettes; then some tea at Tillerman's.

An amble down the empty back street delivered me to the Wine Train Depot just as the locomotives pulled into place and the staff scurried aboard to prepare for the party.

It had already begun, and inside the building a couple of hundred well-dressed people danced to the music, drank champagne, nibbled at the treats. I saw a man in tails and a velveteen homburg hat, another in tuxedo, under a black cowboy hat. Lots of dark suits, and sequinned cocktail dresses; all illuminated by the little white lights cascading across the ceiling. A great looking party even before they boarded the train and the main event.

Encountered a 30-something couple from Virginia, here for the holidays to visit relatives. They'd done the wine tour thing over the last few days and are headed home tomorrow. The Valley was everything they'd imagined, and they overbrimmed with happiness at the evening, the party happening around them, the party to continue on the train. Like most, they posed for photos to remember the evening, a glamorous New Year's Eve cruising through starlit wine country as they feasted.

From there I wandered over to the Westin Verasa Hotel, where big, new cars dropped off diners for La Toque; inside, the Bank Bar was being prepared for the black and white ball a little later on. Important-Looking People in tuxes and gowns tried to look in control as they entered and and sought their bearings before hustling off when they figured it out.

But it was time for me to go to Uva, and join my friends at the bar; no sooner had I arrived than John poured me a Mondavi Pinot Noir, and the other John insisted I sample the pot roast. Uva does great comfort food. Jack Pollard and his crew were just setting up the music gear, and I saw the statuesque Lilliana and her friend, drinking martinis. Stopped by to say, hi, Happy New Year, met the friend, Debbie. By which time my friends at the bar were getting toasted; they left under the care of designated drivers. And Justin, the bartender, went out of his way to shake my hand and wish me a Happy New Year.

I went to Silo's, to catch some of Terry Bradford's act. He's appeared there a lot the last several months, and his vocal range keeps filling the house. His Somewhere, Over the Rainbow, would have shamed Judy Garland; a little later, they convened for a meet and greet. Meanwhile, I visited with Keith, the proprietor, who's still bubbling over the new liquor license they acquired; now the place was a real night club, cocktails and martinis supplementing the beer and wine that's kept them lubricated so far.

Walked by Angele, standing room only, bar crowded; walked by Morimoto, busy as ever. Downtown Joe's was just beginning to fill up by 10, a line out front. Inside, a reggae-inspired rock band wailed, and I saw one of my Uva friends dancing her ass off inside...never saw That side of her before.

And in front of Eiko, saw a trio of the prettiest young things, all dressed up, alone together. I'm amazed at all the great-looking women I see out on the town, in company with each other, without men. Has dating ended...?

Anyway, other engagements called, and I headed for the hills, passing the Uptown as Ozomatli got ready to play. The first of the night's many booms went off, the number accelerating as midnight approached. Just like cannons saluting the New Year, culminating in a series of broadsides at midnight. A Happy New Year.

Heard on the Street, woman to man who asked how she was doing: "...I'm doing very badly...but not really. Everything's great. Just wanted to say something different..."

* * *

All Contents Copyright 2012