Archive:   May-Jun 2011   Jul-Sep 2011   Oct-Dec 2011   Jan-Mar 2012


Alexis Baking Company
1517 3rd St, Napa, CA, 707-258-1827

540 Main St, Napa, CA, 707-252-8115

Asia Cafe
825 Main St, Napa, CA, 707-224-0840

Avia Kitchen
1450 1st St, Napa, CA, 707-224-3900

Azzurro Pizzeria
1260 Main St, Napa, CA, 707-255-5552

Bistro Don Giovanni
4110 Howard Ln, Napa, CA, 707-224-3300

Boon Fly Cafe
4048 Sonoma Hwy, Napa, CA, 707-299-4870

Bounty Hunter Wine Bar
975 1st St, Napa, CA, 707-226-3976

Brix Restaurant
7377 Saint Helena Hwy, Napa, CA, 707-944-2749

Bui Bistro
Napa, CA 94558 707-255-5417

Butter Cream Bakery & Diner
2297 Jefferson St, Napa, CA, 707-255-6700

C Casa
610 1st St, Napa, CA, 707-226-7700

Ca'momi Enoteca
610 1st St, Napa, CA, 707-257-4992

Celadon Restaurant
500 Main St, Napa, CA, 707-254-9690

Cielito Lindo Napa
1142 Main St, Napa, CA, 707-252-2300

Cole's Chop House
1122 Main St, Napa, CA, 707-224-6328

Curbside Mediterrnanian Cafe
1245 1st St, Napa, CA, 707-255-3412

Cuvee Restaurant
1650 Soscol Ave, Napa, CA, 707-224-2330

Downtown Joe's Restaurant & Microbrewery
902 Main St, Napa, CA, 707-258-2337

Eiko's Napa
1385 Napa Town Ctr, Napa, CA, 707-501-4444

Farm Restaurant
4048 Sonoma Hwy, Napa, CA, 707-299-4882

Filippi's Pizza Grotto And Fine Italian Food
645 1st St, Napa, CA, 707-254-9700

Firewood Cafe
3824 Bel Aire Plz, Napa, CA, 707-224-9660

Fish Story
790 Main St, Napa, CA, 707-251-5600

Fridas Mexican Grill
1533 Trancas St, Napa, CA, 707-252-3575

Fume Bistro
4050 Byway E, Napa, CA, 707-257-1999

Gotts Roadside
644 1st St, Napa, CA, 707-224-6900

Grace's Table
1400 2nd St, Napa, CA, 707-226-6200

Kitchen Door
610 1st St, Napa, CA, 707-226-1560

La Crepe
610 1st St, Napa, CA

La Toque
1314 McKinstry Street, Napa, CA, 707-257-5157

630 Airpark Rd, Napa, CA, 707-256-3441

Mini Mango Thai Bristro
1408 Clay St, Napa, CA, 707-226-8884

Moore's Landing
6 Cuttings Wharf Rd, Napa, CA, 707-253-7038

Morimoto Napa
610 Main St, Napa, CA, 707-252-1600

Mustard's Grill
7399 Saint Helena Hwy, Napa, CA, 707-944-2424

Nation's Giant Hamburgers
1441 3rd St, Napa, CA, 707-252-8500

975 Clinton St, Napa, CA, 707-226-9988

1425 1st St, Napa, CA, 707-252-1022

Pearl Restaurant
1339 Pearl St # 104, Napa, CA, 707-224-9161

Red Rock Cafe
1010 Lincoln Ave, Napa, CA, 707-252-9250

Ristorante Allegria
1026 1st St, Napa, CA, 707-254-8006

Small World Restaurant
932 Coombs St, Napa, CA, 707-224-7743

Soscol Cafe
632 Soscol Ave, Napa, CA, 707-258-8707

Sushi Mambo
1202 1st St, Napa, CA, 707-257-6604

Trancas Steakhouse
999 Trancas St, Napa, CA, 707-258-9990

1005 1st St, Napa, CA, 707-258-1000

Uva Trattoria Italiana
1040 Clinton St, Napa, CA, 707-255-6646

Villa Romano
1011 Soscol Ferry Rd, Napa, CA, 707-252-4533

Zinsvalley Restaurant
1106 1st St, Napa, CA, 707-224-0695

829 Main St, Napa, CA, 707-224-8555

Wine Bars, Etc.

1313 Main, Napa, 707-258-1313

Backroom Wines
1000 Main St., 707-226-1378

Bounty Hunter
975 1st st., Napa, 707-255-0622

Carpe Diem
1001 2d St., Napa, 707-224-0800

Ceja Vineyards
1248 1st St., Napa, 707-226-6445

District Four
1405 2d St., Napa, 707-204-9522

710 1st St., Napa, 707-252-8665

Hope & Grace
6540 Washington St., YVille, 707-944-2500

Jessup Cellars
6740 Washington St., Yville, 707-944-5620

6711 Washington St., YVille, 707-944-6889

Napa General Store
540 Main St., Napa, 707-259-0762

Olabisi and Trahan Tasting Room,
974 Franklin St., Napa, 707-257-7477.

Oxbow Wine Merchant
644 1st St., Napa

Page Wine Cellars
6505 Washington St., YVille, 707-944-2339

649 Main St., St. Helena, 707-968-5445

Stonehedge Winery
1004 Clinton St., Napa, 707-256-4444

Tamber Bey
1234 Adams St., St. Helena, 707-968-5345

Taste @ Oxbow
708 1st St., Napa, 707-265-9600

Uncorked @ Oxbow
605 1st St., Napa, 707-927-5864

Vintners' Collective
1245 Main St., Napa, 707-255-7150

The A-List

Exploring the Pleasures of the Napa Valley.
And Stuff I Like.

by lucius bb

Monday, 6 August 2012

After my family bought the land on Redwood Road for our weekend retreat, the world of wine came with it. The Christian Brothers' Mont La Salle slumbered up the road from us, and wine-tastings came with the territory, literally. But in the '50s, Napa Valley claimed just half-a-dozen or so wineries, their clientele an elite comprised of the few who bothered to spend an hour on a tour before they lined up in the tasting room for the free wine.

A dozen or more guests routinely joined us on these weekends, some staying over, and our caravans inevitably took off for the wineries at some point. There were Inglenook, Beaulieu, Beringer, Martini, Krug, and the other Christian Brothers, Greystone, in St. Helena. Sutter Home sold its wines from a modest shed of a space, board-and-batten, painted picnic-table red. It lacked the grand old buildings and the tour, but my uncle swore by their Zinfandel.

Robert Louis Stevenson's verse about wine as bottled poetry seemed to pervade these places--this was the slick marketing of the day--and they still exist in memory as dim images shaded by trees, shafts of intense summer light breaking through here and there. The whole experience screamed pleasant leisure, a slow-paced, low-pressure other-world far removed from the bustle of San Francisco and the modernity of television and finned cars.

Yountville displayed a ramshackle decrepitude punctuated by inebriated vets staggering down the weed-lined streets, St. Helena existed unchanged from the 1890s except for the cars, Calistoga snoozed at Valley's end, most remarkable for the dumpy old Russians who frequented the baths and wandered the streets in 1920s bathing costumes.

Back at the cabin in the woods, the adults would talk about the recent excursion, converse generally, tell war stories; and drink the wine as steaks browned on the stone barbecue fueled by oak and madrone. Romance blossomed in the dark, often between those actually married to each other.

That was the wine country. Then.

A few years ago I sat in one of the few extant Downtown bars next to a young, attractive couple in their twenties. They drank wine, but did not talk of it. Rather, they went on at endless length about the mysteries of the olfactory glands, about synapses, about the science of sense. Over the course of half-an-hour they one-upped each other in the obscurities of sensory perception; like budding lawyers trotting out case law for mutual good impression.

They didn't talk about wine, they didn't talk about how it was made, they didn't talk about any of the lore. They talked about the means by which we perceive wine, in the driest, most abstract way. And how our sense of smell played such a large role. They were absolutely delighted with each other.

And romance blossomed in the bar.

Around The Valley

Scott Lyall has a 50% off sale at his Riverfront's your chance to get hard-to-find masterpieces of contemporary men's fashion at bargain prices.

Gordon Heuther has changed the art at his gallery at Napa Square...I love his models for large projects, but those, alas, are not for sale. As usual, his latest creations demonstrate his virtuosity in abused steel and colorful paint.

The Historical Society recently opened a new exhibit...Ten Threatened Treasures of local the old Goodman Library.

Don't Miss: The Napa Town and Country Fair opens this week...Music in the Vineyards is still on at various locations...and on Saturday, the Napa Valley Museum in Yountville opens a new exhibit focused on old-timers and their stories...and there's a musical picnic at Lyman Park in St. Helena on Thursday evening.

Heard on the Street, at a cafe, from one of a group of teenagers: " know how the vampires, like, hate the wolves? That's messed up, man..."

Monday, 30 July 2012

Napa's second Porchfest music festival seems to have been even a greater success than last year's, with more venues and more people yesterday. Wandering around in the neighborhood south of Downtown revealed one block party after another, stately houses large and small all gussied up for their bands and audiences. A lot of people rode bikes, and packs of happy festival-goers were seen all over town cruising hither and yon. Overheard a funny conversation between a couple of checkers at Safeway; they had to work, but it sounded like they got a contact high from all the music-orienmted customers on bikes...they came before during and after buying snacks and drinks.

Quite a few showed up at the Oxbow Market afterward, including some musicians...out back a zitherist, violinist, guitarist and bassist jammed until the sun finally dropped.

By then, the last round of Shakespeare was under way at the Vets Park, Twelfth Night finishing its run; amazing how many people sat in rapt attention, children too. Heard some very fine singing voises at that performance...and despite dropping in several times during the two-week run, I still don't think I saw the whole thing. But I got more than my usual dose of singing parts last night, and to proclaim that many in the cast are multi-talented seems something of an understatement.

I'd caught some of the show Friday night, too, but that was before I ambled down to Silo's for the songwriters' competition and performances...heard a nice couple of tunes by Dawn Rose...a bluesy number that said something about how she couldn't sleep because she was always dreaming about him...and Most of the Time, a song riffing on how everything may be going fine in general, yet we focus on the things that go wrong. Not bluesy. Reminded me of Joni Mitchell; had a winsome quality.

The Uptown featured Ziggy Marley and his Wild and Free Tour; packed the house. The familiar reggae rhythms suffused the air as the crowd danced in the aisles and at their seats; an adoring audience.

But the highpoint of the evening for me was in front of Tuscany; inside, an R&B duo did their thing, and nine girls exploded out to the sidewalk, and did a dance routine. Just a few minutes long, but very cute.

Now that Shakespeare's gone from the Vets Park, the Napa City Nights rock series will reconvene; Friday nights, 6-10pm, through 14 September.

Music in the Vineyards starts up this week, too, at Beringer Winery; that one's sold out, but there are other events throughout the Valley, until 19 August...think wine, food and chamber music.

Ran into Terry Bradford the other day at Starbucks...the soulful crooner doesn't have any dates set for Silo's, his usual local venue, but he said he's looking to put together a dance party somewhere when he can find the right space. I didn't realize it before, but I just recently learned he's sung in some pretty good company...Celine Dion, Elton John, Whitney Houston. Can't wait for that dance party.

The Valley has a new winery opening this weekend: Odette Estate, a member of the Plumpjack Family. It's in the Stags Leap area, and they're hosting an open house this Saturday and Sunday, 10-3pm; 5998 Silverado Trail, 707-224-7533.

This week also marks the end of the Chefs Market for the year; Thursday night's the last of it for the season, just when it was really getting crowded. Oh, well...

Heard on the Street, from a clerk lamenting his clientele: "...I've worked in stores all over town, and the Browns Valley people always have something to complain about, no matter what..."

Friday, 27 July 2012

The other day, I was writing about social media as a means to promote wine brands...and its limitations, if only because fads come and go at lightning speed now. That's no reason not to indulge the practice; it's just important to realize that the targets keep shifting and your aiming device seems inevitably to breakdown at faster rates.

One local practitioner of the art, however, has it down so well she's worth mentioning. That's Amelia Ceja, who's always reminding me through Facebook that there's something happening with the family winery. But rather than merely posting Hi, howya doing notes, or announcements of a latest wine release, she also makes her own significant news.

A week or so ago, the Ceja Winery celebrated its 11th anniversary, and Amelia posted party pictures from the place in real time...featuring a mariachi band. A few days before that, she was at Union Station in Los Angeles pouring wine at a Napa Valley Meets East LA event. And before that, she announced that plans for a new winery at their Carneros property were ready, and there she was in a picture of her walking into the city offices with plans in hand and a smile on her face.

In the preceding months, I got to see her honored by various professional associations on a fairly regular basis. Meanwhile, daughter Dahlia sends out her Ole Report, and son Ariel is one of the most creative restarauteurs in the Valley. The Ceja Tasting Room on First Street doesn't hurt either. In short, the family uses every promotional vehicle imaginable, seemingly with great effect.

I have a chef friend--Richard Perot--who also uses a variety of media to get the word out and sell his services. He prepares custom dinners for various wineries and their special events, as well as sumptuous meals at private homes...just did one for four at a mansion overlooking the Russian River.

He already has a list of happy customers--he's done quite a few at Peju Winery--but he keeps trying to expand. His latest brainchild? He contacted luxury property management companies who rent vacation homes to a high-end clientele...and if they want the full-on wine country experience, there's a chef ready to bring fine cuisine to their temporary abode.

It's amazing to note all the spillover effects of the wine industry here,,,food, vacation rentals, weddings. But then I heard of another new twist, obvious enough when you think about it...but I didn't. Ran into a friend at a gallery opening, a business consultant whose biz fell off with the recession. So he reinvented himself as a warehouse expert serving the wine industry. He did it the old-fashioned way...600 cold calls to various businesses who had warehouse space to rent or needed same. And he's been doing great.

And speaking of warehouses, maybe you noticed that giant stucco fortress of a building on the west side of Highway 29 halfway to Vallejo. A humongous rectangle of a building with towers at each corner...a wine warehouse.

Don't Miss: The Second Annual Napa Porchfest music party is happening on Sunday afternoon at 2pm. This was a great success last year, historic houses around the Downtown studded with bands and audiences rocking out to various degrees. There was, of course, rock n roll, but also chamber groups, bluegrass bands and everything in between. Just walk south on Randolph Street from Downtown, and you'll see the crowds.

Political comedian Will Durst appears at Silo's tomorrow night...and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night runs at the Vets Park Downtown tonight, tomorrow and Sunday, at 7pm.

And next week, Tuesday evening, Top Hat is playing at the Opera House, starring Fred Astaire in a classic Hollywood extravaganza.

Heard on the Street, from a group of men by Bel Aire Plaza: "...hey, look, we may have war, and famine and tsunamis, and five billion people may die off...but it won't hurt the planet. The planet will do just fine..."

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A couple of weeks ago, there was a wine marketing seminar in Napa, emphasizing social media, and how to use it to sell your brand more effectively. By coincidence, I'd just perused a December issue of Northbay Biz, which contained a column concerning this same topic.

Experts proliferated in both cases, and I've no doubt they know what they're talking about. All the same, I marvel at the limitations of the advice, and the demands of the task at hand...selling wine in a growing market in which the number of producers expands at an even greater rate than that of the customers.

Even worse, the globalization of the wine industry and the market creates competitors from around the world, any of which can cut into your particular niche with greater awareness and effect than ever before. Opportunities are many, but pitfalls are legion.

Which, of course, makes social media all the more important; direct-to-customer sales are often the most lucrative, and social media--especially like Facebook and Twitter--can broadcast your message better than anything else. Maybe.

Here's the real problem with social media and any advice on how to exploit it: Everything you know is becoming obsolete faster than you can absorb or implement it.

This is no criticism of the experts or the practitioners, just an observation that the media world, just as in the world at large, is changing faster than we can respond.

Back in 1997, I worked on a movie website owned by a partnership between C-Net and the Entertainment Channel. It is no reflection on me that I worked with some of the very best internet engineers in the world at the time; I was just lucky enough to be working with them.

The tech magazine of record then--perhaps now, too--was Wired. And the running joke among the various web engineers with whom I worked for two years was that by the time the big new thing made the cover of Wired, it was already old-hat or a failure. And there seemed to be merit in the perception; time and time again, I saw the big new thing revert to not much, after all.

And then there were the Entertainment Channel's websites...Eonline and Moviefinder. Eonline contrived the idea of allowing people to participate in big movie premiers by logging in, chatting, and suggesting questions for the celebrity hosts to ask...someone like Joan Rivers and daughter Melissa.

The first time around--spring '97--five thousand, say, participated enthusiastically. The next time around a month or so later, the numbers had doubled. The third time, the number started to diminish, as it did the fourth and fifth times. And within a year, the exercise had been more or less abandoned. It wasn't new or exciting anymore.

So much for earth-shattering technologies; they wore themselves out at a slightly slower rate than they supplanted representatives of old TV, radio and newspapers.

Things went viral in those days, too, but usually in a feedback loop between big-city newspapers, local TV news and the major networks. Any bizarre or cutting-edge phenomenon identified by one got thoroughly worked over by the rest of them. This was especially pronounced from the mid-'70s through the '80s, when the sensibilities of the Me Generation morphed into news you can use and the explosion of self-help books full of must-know keys to success.

In the late-'70s, I started my publishing career as a business and finance editor for a free tabloid serving Century City, an office-tower complex full of masters of the universe. Amid the endless stream of new tricks to get ahead came the concept of Networking: going to every event you could, meeting, greeting and befriending every manner of stranger, and passing out business cards.

It was good advice, as it still is. But all of a sudden, given this boom in awareness, you were overwhelmed with professionally useless acquaintances making pointless business meetings in the never-ending effort to make connections of dubious value to anyone concerned.

The net consequence was to encourage people to become more selective than ever in screening people out of their lives, and successful networking became more difficult.

And that brings us back to social media, Facebook and Twitter. It's worth noting that a year or two before you ever heard of Facebook, all the buzz concerned MySpace: the new revolution on the internet, bringing everyone together. Facebook came along, and MySpace evaporated.

Now there's talk of Facebook's limitations since it doesn't carry over so easily to cell phones. And when do people get tired of an endless stream of Twitter Tweets?

Which brings to mind the adage, Use it or lose it. In this case, we may indeed lose the effectiveness of social media because of sheer volume. Meanwhile, it's certainly worth using now...until it's not anymore.

On the other hand...on the other hand, the first big thing in personal communication--the telephone--is reasserting itself in a form that renders Dick Tracy's two-way wrist radio a charming anachronism. You can talk on cell phones hands-free, you can order it around like a little data robot, even turn your talk into a text...that's telegraphed at your command, too. Not to mention the world of data at your fingertips, literally.

Direct-to-customer marketing is more important than ever as new brands and labels fight for limited shelf-space, and it's interesting to see how after all the internet hype, this old-fashioned tech--even if updated to the cell phone--has emerged as king.

I believe Bounty Hunter's founder Mark Pope may have done more to exploit the myriad possibilities better than any. In the mid-'90s, he started a business of marketing and selling other people's wines through catalog mailings and phone calls, eventually adopting the internet to supplement his efforts. But one of his most effective sales vehicles now is calling regular customers, and having one of his people try to sell wine, one voice to another, in real time.

There is nothing new anymore about human contact and salesmanship, but it costs more to hire a telemarketing staff than to launch a Tweet; some can't afford it, some don't think of it.

I'm reminded of a friend who started a genuine wine empire 35 years ago, based on selective marketing. All of his sales were direct, either at the winery or through mailings to previous visitors. He created his own range of cult wines based on inaccessibility, and prospered. He's always put on lots of special events for customer/members, he expanded his efforts through the internet as it emerged.

But only within the last half-dozen years did it occur to him to use telemarketing, and he's finally created his own phone banks of salespeople.

While you can't ignore the hype, social media, in any form, has its shortcomings, if only because there inevitably seems to be too much of it.

I think the telephone is the wave of the future in terms of direct sales. Until, of course, wine buyers are swamped with calls pushing products and decide to block them.

And the discussion will happen all over again, in seminars, marketing books and blogs like this.

Heard on the Street, one guy to another, at a coffee shop: "...I figured out that it's all about her...I was overwhelmed with how absurd it is...she's got anxiety attacks, she's into control..and I bought into it for awhile..."

Friday, 20 July 2012

So I just left the Vets' Park and lawns full of theater-goers watching Shakespeare's Twelfth Night; just caught the first 20 minutes, but it will be repeated tomorrow and Sunday nights at 7pm, and next Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, too. The production design places it in the environs and clothes of the Old West, actors dressed as gamblers and dance hall girls.

As I noted last year, these are really pretty good productions, especially considering that they're performed outside along the river. Twelfth Night, of course, is the story of shipwrecked twins who get separated in a strange land populated by zany people and embarrassing situations...I look forward to watching the whole play one of these nights, and it may actually come to pass. But it's also enjoyable in bits and pieces, and maybe I'll have to settle for that.

The Shakespeare company seems to be an off-shoot of the Napa College theater department, with support from several nearby establishments...Downtown Joe's, Carpe Diem and Fish Story; the latter restaurant would be hosting a party after the night's performance, a percentage of the proceeds going to support the effort.

Meanwhile, a pack of cyclists following some pedicabs navigated around the Downtown in a memorial ride honoring Josh Highness, who passed away a couple of weeks ago. I had a nice conversation with him just before his demise, during the Chefs' Market.

Astride the pedicab he often used to take tourists around town, he discussed the biz, the pleasures of meeting new people from elsewhere, the generous tips he received from grateful passengers. An unaffected kid with a big smile and straighforward manner, Josh's untimely departure will leave a hole in many lives.

His friends all ended up at the Oxbow afterward, including the Hub bike shop contingent which supplies the pedicabs, and Bicycle Works, the shop where Josh once worked and where I first met him. Quite a few of his closer friends convened inside by C Casa for an impromptu wake.

Last week, I mentioned that I'd never seen the Oxbow so crowded on a Saturday afternoon and evening...well. last night it was more crowded later than I'd ever seen it. Lots of people past 9pm, and Three Twins Ice Cream was still dishing it out. And I love their green tea and cardamom ice creams anytime.

From the Oxbow, I ambled Downtown, running into a familiar face on the First Street Bridge: Natalie, proprietor of the Vineyard Dog, formerly on Main Street. She was walking her dogs, of course, who didn't seem to mind our brief conversation. She'll be reopening in Yountville, at Washington Square in the next week or so. The Napa Register just did a story on the square's face-lifting, and Natalie's looking forward to the new location, new customers...and the old ones too. She's got the best selection of unique pet products I've seen around here...and the doggie confections look so yummy I'm tempted to give 'em a try...woof!

Main Street was just warming up as I arrived around 10, a blues band at Downtown Joe's filling the street with music through an open door, vying with Tuscany on the other end of the block...kind of like walking through a rock medley, one song phasing into another in the short stroll. And on the sidewalk in front of Tuscany sat 15 or 16 young women at a long table; a bride's bachelorette party...and I think half the dinner business in town on weekends might be derived from that little niche.

But what's the deal with the new dresses, cut on the know, longer in back than in front? I keep doing doubletakes; looks like something unfortunate happened, but no, it's just the fashion. Saw one woman walk by with such an extreme difference between fore and aft, she reminded me of those Carmen Miranda gowns...a pinkish, flowery number, all she needed was a banana headdress to complete the tropical showgirl theme.

Across the street from Tuscany, the Yo Belle frozen yogurt establishment was serving the last of its customers before closing; who knew this would turn into an evening treat and tourist hangout? That's what's happened in the last month.

The Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company has extended its hours, too; open till 8pm on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, certainly an improvement over the 6pm closing, at least if you're looking for a cup of brew in the evening.

Starbucks, the last of the corner's quartet, is still under construction; opening in September, I hear. That will be interesting, if only to see if it attracts any new business to the intersection, especially at night.

Then there's the new bar going into the Fagiani it alright to call it that? Seems the owner plans to use the old name somehow for his new restaurant/bar, and that's turned into a minor controversy...some members of the family object. Claim that it exploits the sensationalism of the murder that took place there three decades past.

Whatever...but I do find it amazing to see how much trouble the new owner suffers just because he's trying to renovate a declining building and create something nice. It seems as if people come out of the woodwork to sabotage his efforts...but he keeps plugging along.

The third story has been added, and it reflects the original design, even if in an unconventional way...the set back facade is certainly different. That's supposed to be completed sometime this summer too.

Almost Forgot: When I took my old friend around during his visit here, ran up to the Hess Collection, one of my favorite places...they've changed the art exhibit around substantially, and it's worth visitng just for that. But I also tasted a very nice Charbono.

And at Oxbow one day not too long ago, Ca Momi eatery was pouring some of their own pro seco sparkling wine...pleasantly sweet, perfectly refreshing.

Also had a chance to try the Robert Sinskey Rose I keep hearing about...and it's as good as everyone says...a sharp, crisp wine, with fruit flavors without tasting fruity.

I consumed a fantastic veal picatta at Uva a few weeks ago, and the music complemented it beyond measure: Le Jazz Hot, guy and gal, guitars, singing, doing French cafe numbers; kept looking for Edith Piaf without success. Funny how some music can create a complete, different-world vibe that transports you to a delightful realm.

And Revolver at Silo's...they did a Beatles Revival show...five guys instead of four, but the drummer did have an English accent. Replicated the songs brilliantly.I just read somewhere that Garth Brooks has already sold more records than the Beatles, who had a 20/30 year head start. No matter; the Beatles changed the world, created pop culture in some fundamental way. They were the ideal soundtrack for the mid-'60s, and they did much to promote the British invasion of fashion, sensibility...and sophistication.

I'm sure they'll be back this time next year for more Beatles...but Revolver will return even sooner, for a Crosby, Stills and Nash night...September, I think they said. Worth catching; even if they aren't the real deal, the songs sound just as good coming from their stage.

Heard on the Street, between a couple of women Downtown: "...well, I had some noodles, so the meal ended up being healthy. This dinner, it was at this real nice house, and they catered it for us, about 60, 70 people, and they served pork belly...I mean, I don't like what it is...but it tasted great..."

Sunday, 15 July 2012

So I walked into the Oxbow Market late yesterday afternoon, and the place looked like Grand Central Station...standing room only, literally. I settled outside on the terrace when a table became available, had a drink, read the bio on Machiavelli I just got at Copperfield's books...killing time before I went to see Ted, the new Mark Wahlberg movie about that man's best friend, in this case a teddy bear.

And then when I walked back inside the market, it was, if possible, even more crowded. Never seen so many people on a Saturday afternoon and evening...Napa City's beginning to actually feel more and more like that great resort destination it's supposed to be.

I passed through Downtown again, and the streets teemed with people; most curiously distinctive, however, because of a proliferation of campily dressed nuns, some with children in tow. What the hell? may not have been the most appropriate response to the spectacle, but it was the best I could do. I finally got a clue as I followed some toward the Opera House, where they all seemed to be heading. Turns out that it was the annual Sound of Music Sing-Along, something of a relief. Thought there might be something perverse going on.

Ted turned out to be a very funny movie, self-consciously stupid, and apparently designed as the quintessence of a film catering to every popular taste...the male-bonding-buddy thing...a romance with a hot babe out of the hero's league...creepy bad guys...lots of pretty girls with cool jobs and clothes...a preditable twist at the end...and, of course, lots of coarse language...and fart jokes. Did I mention the drugs, the sex, the dismemberment? The semi-bestiality? It had everything for everybody!

The film, in short, did not take itself too seriously, and the audience loved it...and the full house in which I sat laughed uproariously throughout.

Then I'm walking down Main Street in the direction of Morimoto, and a guy from across the street hails me to bum a cigarette, and I comply. Turns out he just bought a property a couple of blocks away, with several cottage units, which he'll rent out, keeping one for his own visits to the Valley from his Bay Area home. He's an entrepreneur who has a growing company that sells a revolutionary scaffolding system...and things are going well.

Considering the sorry real estate market, I questioned whether he got a bargain...uh, not bad, but not as good as he there's still hope for those upside down.

Loves the Valley, loves his new place, and especially loves Cole's Chop House, his new home away from home. He loves Bali, where he goes to surf, and he had a great time running with the bulls in Pamplona, whenever that was...and, by coincidence, the most recent said running of the bulls just ended, with no fatalities, and only a few minor injuries.

We became fast friends, he suggested we go have a drink, but I had to defer...Morimoto's Second Anniversary Party beckoned.

I know the way, of course, but if anyone just followed all the dressed-to-kill women in very high heels...they would have found the establishment. Eduardo greeted me--he's got to be the best-dressed man in town--and then I joined the revelries, starting out by getting a White Lilly, a pleasingly alcoholic concoction derived from rice. Yikes!

The DJ did his thing, the music blared, the lights flashed, and the dance floor overflowed with mostly gyrating women; from my own excellent observation post it was easy to imagine I was an oriental pasha watching his harem perform. There were a few of whom stole the show. A classic geek with faded jeans, a buzzcut, glasses, D-ring-and-keys hanging from a belt loop..he did the modern equivalent of a Saturday Night Fever routine, great gestures, pirouettes, facial expressions...a real hoot, and he knew it.

And a tastefully dressed, very sophisticated looking beauty, doing a full-on Elaine Benes act...and if you don't know that Seifeld episode...well, never mind.

Saw Pierce Carson from the Napa Register there, saw Israel the photographer snapping shots, saw Paul Slack from the Artists' Collective. And Steve Loftus, the great bicycle racer.

Things got crazy, the crowd got into it, the DJ played popular party anthems...and all the women present seemed to know the lyrics, they started singing along...dancing...singing along...and I'm quite sure it bore little resemblance at all to what the nuns were probably doing at the Opera House.

Heard on the Street, woman to a new acquaintace, by the Cinedome Theaters: "...but don't you want to watch my boyfriend [deleted] me in the [deleted] on Skype...?"

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

World-class culture graces the Valley for the next couple of weeks thanks to the Festival del Sole, a fantastical medley of music, wine, food and architecture. The tradition continues this Friday with an opening night gala at the Castello di Amorosa featuring mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and the Philharmonia Baroque performing a selection of Handel arias.

I think this is the Valley's premier event, and while it always has the wine, food and architecture, the festival highlights them all with some of the most exquisite evenings of my memory. Standing on the ramparts of a medieval castle overlooking the Valley, glass of wine in hand, the finest music played by the greatest musicians suffusing the's just incomparable. In past years the Moscow Symphony made several appearances, and last year, violinist Sarah Chang. I always feel as if I'm playing a scene in a movie it's all so perfect, so elegant. Dare I say glamorous?

I was lucky to discover it during its first year, I believe, in 2006; there were tastings at Darioush, dinners at Bouchaine, concerts at the Castello, youth performances at the Jarvis Conservatory. The Festival features a variety of events, ranging from food and wine, to health and wellness; and this year, something new, 24 Hour Plays, featuring genuine Hollywood stars in four shows during the course of a day at the Lincoln Center in Yountville.

There are also quite a few free events, many compliments of Bouchaine Vineyards, in support of young classical music artists.

A signal feature is the ability to visit hidden treasures of the Valley, exclusive wineries, houses and gardens generally closed to the public. The Napa Valley boasts a plethora of architectural gems, and there may be no place in the world with a greater variety of contemporary design than here. Stunning landscapes all about, punctuated by incredible personal statements, whether in the domestic or commercial realm.

The Festival del Sole runs from the 12th to the 22d; there's really too much to describe here, but the website has it all at

And a new tradition kicks off this weekend as well: Beyond the Kitchen. The brainchild of Chef Bill Heubel, Chief Instructor at St Helena's Culinary Institute of America. Chef Bill wants to remedy the disconnect between people and farmers, and promote the benefits of unprocessed food naturally grown. To that end, he's arranged 10 dinners at several venues around the Valley, each featuring a local farm.

The idea, he says, is to present five-course gourmet dinners in unique environments...a walnut grove, a vineyard, an antique barn. He also wants to mix-and-match diners, farmers and ranchers so they get to know each other and develop an appreciation for everyone's combined efforts toward a richer life.

Connolly Ranch will host the first dinner this Saturday night, and the local demonstration farm will benefit from the proceeds. And Chef Bill, who has 20 years of experience working at four star restaurants, will do the cooking. This has all the earmarks of a sleeper event going big...find all the info at

Speaking of fine dining...last night, I ran into a friend who works at Morimoto...says the place was packed Monday and Tuesday evenings. If memory serves, said they had 70 reservations last night, and 50+ walk-ins. Meanwhile, comedian Dave Chappelle had some recent dates at Yoshi's in Berekely...and he drops in at Morimoto whenever he can...hear he did a 10-minute riff on Napa during one of his performances. I'd love to know what he had to say about our fair Valley...priceless, I'm sure. But whatever could he say about Napa that might be funny?

Almost forgot: Scott Lyall, the men's haberdasher in the Riverside complex celebrated a birthday a couple of weeks back...wonderful affair, catered by Bounty Hunter. Ran into my good friend Arnulfo there, making barbecue...he's training for a marathon in August, following a broken leg some months back. Just completed a local half-marathon recently...but I digress. Lots of friendly people showed at Scott's, including his mom, Helen, an acquaintance from Benicia. She serves the distaff side, and both Lyalls feature the most stylish clothes in the Valley, I think, and there aren't too many places in the Bay Area with a finer selection of high-end fashion.

And the model wearing the floor-length silver-sequined sheath was breathtaking, dress and all.

Also briefly stopped by Backroom Wines for their Tenth Anniversary hot-dog party a few weeks ago...had another engagement, so I couldn't stay...but they featured a very special wine from the Coombsville area that everyone raved about...and the Crossroads food truck served; if anyone can reduce the oxymoronic nature of that construction, it's that food truck. Kevin and Colin have become regional legends as mobile culinary masters, and they've expanded into Solano County.

Backroom hosts regular Friday tastings, both informative and fun. Proprietor Dan picks a theme...say, reds from Sicily, and pours several examples, explaining the region, the style, what to look for. His selection is voluminous, with many hard to find items...and they feature incredibly detailed tasting notes.

Heard on the Street, one woman to another, on Main STreet: "...and then I might be pregnant, too...I did have sex...that would be the worst..."

Thursday, 5 July 2012

True darkness descended, the clock hand hovered in the neighborhood of 9:30, and the first fireworks exploded over the Napa River. Thousands thronged the Third Street Bridge, the Veterans Park, and all the thoroughfares offering a view. The starbursts commenced, accompanied by what might have been robots, flying saucers, party-poppers, all festoonong the skies overhead.

Right on cue, just minutes after first rocket's glare, an almost full moon rose from behind the Vaca Mountains, directly underneath the ephemeral display. The ascent slowly continued in unison with the fireworks, until it took a position in the middle of the show, a white-glowing orb trimmed with infinite colors of light.

I don't know if the moon always rises there on Fourth of July, or I just missed it in previous years, but my vantage on the bridge turned the day's celebration into a wondrous thing.

After some dismal efforts a few years ago, Napa seems to have gotten serious about a rousing Independence Day party for the town. Last year was good, this year, I think, better. Started with a morning parade...I saw vintage army jeeps in convoy; young senoritas from the Ballet Folklorico in ballooning skirts with ribbons braided in their hair; old-timey dance-hall girls on a float accompanied by the Poor Broke Cowboys; Mexican horsemen on dancing steeds following a mini-band with maxi-sound, compliments of a trombone, a tuba and pair of drummers in the back of a pickup truck.

Once the parade was over, First Street cleared out and the festivities on Main took off, with bands eventually serenading the growing mass of revelers at the Vets Park.

I headed over to the Slack Artists Collective by the skate park, where they had their own barbecue and music fundraiser...had some excellent carne asada tacos, and a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer as a young man played guitar and the alumni visited each other. Later, I headed toward Browns Valley and a barbecue at a friend's house...more steak, chicken breast and turkey drumsticks, too, and a tasty salad full of everything but lettuce, comprised of what might have been grated carrots and zucchini, with a gingery dressing. We washed it down with a magnum of Domaine Chandon sparkling wine.

By the time I returned Downtown, the riverfront for blocks teemed with spectators-in-waiting, the Vet's Park was carpeted one end to the other with bodies, and some dozens danced closely but frenetically in front of the stage...the band seemed to do covers, a male lead vocalist wearing a red, white and blue lei, and two backup singers respectively in red and blue sequined dresses; another guy--guitarist?--wore an oversize top hat in the coloors of the day. They reminded me of Chicago, but without the horns...and they were really good.

Down the block at The Napa River Inn, the party was coming to a close; their Fourth of July bash included a reggae band, the floor full of dancers oblivious to the world outside...until the fireworks began. I spent a couple of hours at that one last year...nice place to spend the day, shade in the heat, river breezes and a plethora of snacks and wine.

And then it was all over, except for the exodus, as the good time came to a slow end on the treks home.

Funny how summer creeps up on you, and then it's half over...but the trip so far has been interesting. Had some unexpected encounters with my past over the last month. One night at the Chefs Market a few weeks back, heard my name was Ira Gabriel, a friend I hadn't seen in almost 20 years. He was a photographer at Sport Magazine while I was an editor there; from our base in Los Angeles, we'd fly around the country together covering various events...the Daytona 500, the Indy 500, more boxing matches in Las Vegas than I can count, and once, a trip to the Bahamas to scout locations for a swimsuit shoot.

Through some feat of skill, magic and charm, he ended up as publisher of Motor Trend Magazine; now he's something of a goodwill ambassador for the brand, and he was in Napa with some colleagues for a series of pep-talks and conferences at local auto dealers. Had a nice little visit in front of Annette's candy parlor; a real pleasure to see a good man do well.

Then I ran into another old colleague in town for the Chefs Market last week...Kevin Nelson, from Benicia. We both worked for City Sports Monthly decades ago and kept in touch; I sent freelance assignments his way when I could, though he mostly wrote books rather than magazine articles. And when I moved back north from LA, it was to Benicia, where Kevin lives...because of his glowing reports of the town. It was a great place to raise a kid, and my son got the benefit of 10 years in a small town offering all the adventures a latter day Huck Finn could desire.

I just recommended one of his books to a young father-to-be...a pregnancy guide for expectant fathers, by Everything Books. An age ago, Shape Magazine hired me to compile such a supplement for the magazine, and Kevin was one of the writers I hired; and he eventually wrote a book on the topic.

There's quite a bit there to write about...I was surprised at the things I learned working on the initial project. I kept meeting single parents with toddlers and discovered that the very act of having a child killed off the marriage...usually because the new parents didn't know what they were getting into...mostly avoidable conflicts rooted in misunderstanding.

Kevin's book unravels the coming mysteries and has no doubt saved at least a few marriages.

And then there was Fred, an artist friend from Venice who lately returned to LA after almost two decades in Europe...most recently from Poland, where he had a Mexican restaurant and tapas joint in a medieval tower. Finally called it quits to go back to LA roots. He came up for a week or so, and we passed a couple of days together here in Napa.

He was genuinely amazed at the food and wine culture he found in Napa, awestruck at the variety available. Given his penchant for Latin America food, I took him by C Casa at Oxbow, and Bistro Sabor on First Street. We had the shrimp tacos, the lamb tacos, the buffalo tacos at C Casa, all excellent, and all new twists on an old theme for Fred.

On another outing at Bistro Sabor, we got the pupusas--a Salvadoran standard--and carnitas tacos...and a wonderful soup...I think it was mushroom-coconut. Fred didn't seem to know what to think, it was all so new and different for him...he was, after all, in Poland, and he was the only guy in the country serving Mexican food--not much chance for cross-fertilization. And it's changed so much in the last decades, especially in foodie places like Napa.

He also han an interesting exchange with Eduardo, one of the managers at Morimoto...Eduardo could talk about the difficulties you have in a place like Napa, with high-end Asian cuisine and a demanding clientele expecting a killer wine list. Fred had a different one drinks much wine in Poland, and all they make in the country is treacly sweet stuff. Getting decent wine in Europe shouldn't seem too difficult, but it was in Poland...and then it was even more difficult to get his customers to drink it.

"...Jesus Christ...why won't she call me? How is it that I'm the one supposed to be calling all these kids...and they're not even my kids..."

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Discovered a wonderful party yesterday, at Vinoce. Situated on Vallejo Street in what used to be an industrial neighborhood, the cellar-like space merged from dark to light after entry, the garage door opened at the far end admitting sunglow and music in liberal measure.

Napa-Town-to-Mo-Town was the theme, and out back a cadre of veterans let loose every soul or R&B classic you ever wanted to hear...even took requests, and the smooth-voice crooner did justice to them all. Inside, the dozens of guests lined up for oysters from the Oxbow's Hog Island, and bread and cheese from the Model Bakery...and, of course, at the two wine bars. Barrels lined the wall, tables sat next to the barrels, and the convivial crowd made merry at every turn.

Outside, people sat on hay bales listening to the music, eating and drinking, while others danced, wineglasses in hand. The star of the show, briefly at least, was a little-girl-toddler, in a red and white patterned dress, who who got down with the music as much as a toddler can, shaking and shimmying to the music--but shyly--with astonishing rhythm and even better facial expressions.

Let's see...met Bruce, a guitarist who's playing this Sunday afternoon at Compadre's...right now, as a matter of fact...the creative director for a dotcom who says she works her tail off but lives on the golf course at Hidden Valley...three women visiting from Morgan Hill...and a young woman embarking on her third year of law school but doesn't think she likes the profession. And a native old-timer who talked about the prune orcards on Dry Creek Road and the crotchety farmer who allegedly shot at kids with rock salt from a 12-gauge when they stole the plums.

There was wine, too...I tried a Sauvignon Blanc that struck a nice balance, floral and dry at the same time; a velvety-rich Zinfandel blend; and a subtle but robust Cabernet blend that bordered on a claret. The Cabernet comes from proprietary vineyards on Mt. Veeder, the rest from various Valley growers. I recommend them all, but the Sauvignon Blanc, especially...I'm not a white wine fan, but I could've drunk this all the summerhot afternoon. I almost did.

Then I ran into Tim Nuss, the party perpetrator I'd encountered before at St. Helena's Cheers events on first Fridays. A 20/30-something in straw fedora and a lavender shirt of raw silk--or a close facsimile--Nuss played the life of the party, back-slapping here, hugging there.

After preliminaries, I asked about Vinoce...from whence came the name...and Tim explained. Let's see...his last name--Nuss--means nut in German...and noce means nut in Italian. The vin is self-explanatory.

It means Wine Nut. Of course.

Everyone was having so much fun, the party ran an hour beyond the scheduled end--but I eventually found myself heading back Downtown when I saw a Mexican guy in front of St. John's selling corn-on-a-stick, an old Central American favorite of it with butter, chili, lime and dusted with cheese. Most excellent.

Meanwhile, Cabaret got underway at the Opera House, and I arrived just in time to catch the last half of the show. This seems to be a local company, featuring local talent, calling itself Napa Valley Broadway Productions. I was as delighted as I was impressed with the performance. Good sets and presentation, a band and conductor ever in view at the back of the stage, scene changes made in the dark, curtain up...modernistic, but not distractingly so.

Nikki Snelson made a wonderful Sally Bowles, David Coolidge a worthy Cliff...I especially liked the Kit Kat Girls, and the rendition of Money Makes the World Go Round, a sensuous, high-kicking little extravaganza.

The house was almost full for this performance, one of the last of the run, and the audience roared its approval.

The musical has been around a good 40-plus years, and the Liza Minelli movie debuted a decade or so later. It's a beguiling story, youthful live-for-today expatriates hanging out in a decadent Berlin at the cusp of the '30s...and the threshhold of the Nazi Era. The bohemian life in Europe's most wide open city exerts a powerful appeal, even moreso as the audience knows how things will eventually play out in a way the characters don't. Madcap fun turns mad ugly between beginning and end.

It all started out as a Christopher Isherwood book, The Berlin Stories, and is highly autobiographical. Isherwood was one of England's bright, young things between the wars, a noted author by the second, when he moved to Hollywood to write screenplays during the hostilities...and meanwhile developed an interest in Eastern spiritual philosophies, heavily tinged with yoga and Hinduism. He eventually settled into Santa Monica and a relationship with a much younger man, Don Bachardy, who achieved a measure of fame as a contemporary artist. Notoriety followed his official portrait of the departing Governor Jerry Brown in the early '80s, a clunky, expressionistic effort reflecting the times and on view at the state capitol.

I met the pair at a party at Chuck Arnoldi's Venice compound, got to sit with them at dinner. They knew Somerset Maughm, one of my favorite writers, and often visited him at Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera in the '50s and '60s, and they regaled me with stories of the good life there, singing Cap Ferrat, the tune of Que Sera, the Doris Day classic from the Alfred Hitchcocki movie, The Man Who Knew Too Much...recently reprised at the Opera House...and Arnoldi has some impressive canvases up at Caldwell-Turner Gallery in St. Helena.

That dinner was in the mid-'80s, just when new research on Ernest Hemingway revealed him to be deeply homophobic...I asked Isherwood if he'd met him...No, said Isherwood, but Ernest and I would have gotten along just fine...and then he giggled. Isherwood died within the year.

Anyway, all that came back to me during and after helluva show, well done.

Heard on the Street, one woman to another, at Three Twins Ice Cream: "...well, I tried to be good, but it was hard with that lemon cookie ice cream and salted caramels..."

Friday, 29 June 2012

So there I was at Uva with a friend, having a mid-week dinner at the bar, and who should take a couple seats next to us but Brenda and Mark Lhormer, the organizers of the Napa Valley Film Festival. I knew them from their Sonoma festival, Cinema Epicuria, a spectacular series of films and events that included premier wines, gourmet foods and much good fellowship.

They brought their expertise to Napa, and last November's fest seems to have been a surpassing success. And, of course, they're already preparing for this year's version.

With a staff of ten marshalled from the former West America bank building just north of downtown, Mark and Brenda have to make arrangements for scores of films and dozens of events in four different venues...Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga. Mark says the Sonoma affair was a snap compared to Napa's, if only because it was all more-or-less centrally located, around the town square. And here, they served twice as many people as in Sonoma, though it isn't as obvious because of the more diffuse nature of the event.

Now, it seems, they're deep into the selection process...according to Mark, they screen something like 300 films on their own, and consider 500 others brought to their attention from other festivals.

Then it emerged that the Lhormers produced the film Bottleshock, which I saw for the first time a month or so ago. Loved that story about the 1976 French tasting in which Napa Valley wines unexpectedly took top honors. A week or so later, I met Gustavo Brambila at the Chefs' MarketGustavo/Thrace.

From there, we drifted into a discussion of films made in Napa. There was the Elvis film...Wild in the Country, I think. My dinner companion told the story of a woman friend who tracked down The King when he was here during the late-'50s filming...Elvis didn't stay in the Napa motel along with the rest of the crew but instead sequestered himself in a little B&B in St. Helena. The local girl finally got to him, got the required autograph and photo with the first real rock n roll superstar.

I'd just finished a memoir by Garson Kanin called Hollywood. He started in the industry in the '30s, getting a dream job with Samuel Goldwyn, eventually becoming a playwright and director. One of his projects was They Knew What They Wanted, a film set in the wine country telling the story of a dumpy Italian grape farmer played by Charles Laughton, who instead of his own picture sends that of a handsome friend to his mail-order bride. Clark Gable's wife, Carole Lombard, played the role. One of the most glamorous stars of the day, it was a beauty and the beast kind of thing; after all, he did play The Hunchback of Notre Dame with minimal make-up.

Kanin offered a few glimpses of Napa Valley life in those days...roadhouse drinking joints, cottages in the country, rutted roads through orchards and vineyards. Shooting here in Napa seems to have been a chore; not because of Napa, but because of Laughton. A difficult actor.

Mark knew about the film, said he'd even bought a DVD of it...but it wouldn't work. Rats.

I missed it, but it seems that the Lhormers' presented another Wine Country Classic at last year's fest...This Earth is Mine. That one starred Rock Hudson, and Jean Simmons, set in the Valley during Prohibition, came out in 1959.

I remember a little cottage used in the movie as a lovers' hideaway. It huddled in the trees along Silverado Trail up by Rutherford. The film crew provided a distinctive facelift with Victorian gingerbread added on, and a striking paint job. Every time we drove by it I felt as if I'd shared a little Hollywood.

But the Lhormers dish out great servings of it; can't wait till November.

Heard on the Street, from a young woman to a Safeway checker, after disbelieving her boyfriend: "...bacon comes from pigs?...Noooo! Really...?"

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A week or so back, stopped by 1313 Main; I keep running into Al Jabarin, the wine bar's proprietor, all over town. I owed him a visit. See him at Oxbow Market with some regularity, and we often run into each other Saturday nights when I'm having a cigarette in front of Uva and he's out for a walk around the block.

He's friendly and courtly all at the same time, and he poured for me a 2010 Pinot Noir bearing his house label. With fruit from vineyards by Petaluma, I had to restrain myself from gulping the delightful liquid...but Al didn't give me the chance. He wanted to show me the patio space out back opened for the summer.

I found a a little garden of delights, red cushions arranged on the bench seats, strikingly contrasted against the screen of bamboo that separates the space from the outside world. It was a classic Napa summer evening, with just the slightest nip in the air; but several large gas heaters, like flaming columns holding the sky at bay, provided a diffuse warmth. I was at first taken aback at the number of women who'd apparently accessorized with identical lime-greem shawls. No, Al explained, they were light blankets supplied by the house.

1313 has four to five hundred different wines available, and dozens of selections by the glass. His CalWine internet operation, run from that same space on Main Street, boasts a mailing list of 15,000, he once told me, and he's one of the pioneers of web-based wine sales.

Al had some guests to greet, and I returned to the bar to finish my wine...and ended up in conversation with the couple next to me...turns out the fellow's grandmother was the first woman to drive a tractor in the vineyards...50 or so years ago, so he said, and believable enough.

On another perambulation a few of days later, I stopped by the Poor House, the recently opened interior design place near the Oxbow. Lots of comfortable, overstuffed chairs and couches, tasteful glassware and such, charming accessories...long matches in vintage boxes, back issues of interior design magazines from France, fascinating coffeetable books.

My favorite was on the Hatch Showprints shop, in Nashville. I love graphics and graphic design, and Hatch goes back a hundred years or more, providing a sampling of shifting tastes and styles over the decades.

Given their Nashville base, Hatch specialized in music and entertainment posters...early numbers herald minstrel shows in the teens, and later, in the '20s, Grand Ole Opry as radio developed. By the '50s, they were doing Elvis, and later, on some of the big names in rock and pop.

Fascinating to see the evolution of style and design within a simple format dictated by a few features...a band, a venue, illustration, and later, black and white photos. Perhaps one of the best things about the book is that it's done on uncoated paper, so the poster reproductions have the look of the originals.

Found another treat as well...a book on porches. Who knew there are porch obsessives out there? Fine porches from around the country graced the pages, including the porch at the Spottswoode Vineyards house, which I recently visited during the Wine Auction.

Mary Novak, who's had it for decades...during which time she established herself as one of the Valley's first female winemakers, famous for her Chardonnay.

Discovered, too, that the house was built by a one-time manager of a grand hotel...the Del Coronado, I think, in San Diego...and he wanted his own house to have a porch that reminded him of the verandah he had known at the height of his professional life.

I was impressed with that porch even before I knew it was world-class.

Also fell in love with Poor House's Luxembourg chairs, with arms and without...especially the bold colors.

Had some interesting coffee encounters, too, over the last few weeks. Discovered that the Napa Valley Coffee Roasting Company is collaborating with Napa Smith Brewery; coffee-flavored beer will be the final result one of these days.

And late last month made the acquaintance of Nancy, a young coffee ambassador from El Salvador. She was a guest of Ritual Coffee, getting to see what happened to her beans as it went to the consumer.

She comes from San Miguel, in the Department of Morazon...I visited there during the Central American wars of the '80s. One of my more memorable experiences came after joining some CIA-encouraged operations in the nearby mountains. Spent a couple of days marching with the army on tortuous trails to our destination, the ensuing firefight over the small town...and then it was over. I was on my way back to the capitol, had to pass through San Miguel, a pretty but deserted colonial city of pleasant aspect.

Stopped in a bakery/coffee shop, and found a primitive attempt at a French cafe, and not badly done at that. Excellent coffee--they didn't serve instant Nescafe, as usual in coffee country--and the pastries were incredible, given the locale and the war. I gorged myself.

Nancy was a little girl then, but she remembered the sense of tension abroad in the land. Now it's behind them and she runs a greenly sustainable coffee plantation with her family. She'd never been to the United States before, and the Ritual folk had feted her in San Francisco and Napa...she was most impressed by denizens of the Castro District, with scenes of affection the likes of which she'd never encountered. She also enjoyed the visit to Robert Sinskey Vineyards upvalley along the Silverado Trail. She'd tried a signature Rose, and she and her friends bought a bottle for the evening.

So she got her tastes of Northern California, saw what happened to her coffee...and then it was home again in a day or two.

Heard on the Street, from two women walking on an empty First Street: "...What they need is coffee houses and cafes where you can drop in and get something that doesn't cost a fortune, and Calistoga, where you can walk in and out of shops that are actually open and sell neat things..."

Friday, 15 June 2012

Well, Natalie and The Vineyard Dog are gone from their Main Street digs, off to Washington Square in Yountville. She was at least a semi-San Franciscan, and I always enjoyed talking to her about the City and other scintillating topics. I am not a pet person, but if I were, I'd have run riot in her store. Tasty looking bon-bons for dogs, and all manner of things to chew on. Natalie also worked with artists who would paint portraits of your animal.

The Grand Hand Art Gallery now claims the space, and I caught its opening last Saturday. Nice wine and snacks, Johnny Smith playing guitar, and the best artists of Minnesota, many of whom do fine landscapes of the Midwest. Art glass and such fill out the collection.

I was most taken by an afterthought of an item, a book on Wet Magazine. Never heard of it? I am not surprised.

It commenced life in Venice, California, in the mid-'70s, and proclaimed itself the magazine of gourmet bathing...whatever that means. I don't think I ever read a word of it when I lived there in the '70s and '80s, but I always looked at it avidly; it featured avant garde graphic design and imagery, bizarre photographs of mundane things and the most quirky of sensibilities. Off-kilter photos of unlikely people standing beachside, a layout that suggested a maniac with a copy machine rather than a layout artist.

With a black-and-white interior, it hadn't the luxury of color to attract your eye, so collage amok did the trick instead. And these haunting or whimsical photos. I noted one while perusing the volume...a gaggle of happy looking women and a breast or two, seemingly looking down at you from a cloud. It was an overhead shot of friends, mostly submerged in a hot tub, the simplest thing in the world. But at first glance you see the work of an achromatic surrealist.

It brought back my favorite memories of days in Venice, when I'd snag a copy and flip through it at the Rose Cafe. Not long after I moved there from Napa, a filmmaker acquaintance took over the Wet space when they moved elsewhere. He was more con man than moviemaker, and he rented the facility just because Bob Dylan's studio sat across the street. He hoped to meet the musical icon to promote his dubious film or pursue some other cock-eyed scam.

Routinely, we'd hear a session going on, but could never be sure who was making the music; Bob often performed, but we suspected that was Linda Ronstadt one day when the rumor seemed to be confirmed by a siting of her skating on the Boardwalk with photographers. Later on, we saw the results on an album cover.

I had a substantial collection of the magazines until a few years ago, when a nameless tragedy took them away. All that came to mind the other evening at the Grand's next to Ubuntu, and well worth the visit if only to check out that volume on a genuine cult magazine.

Not long after I departed, I met a couple of gents from Texas in front of Uva...we smoked and talked. They were doing a guys' getaway, two old friends from Texas who got together once a year to cut loose. A dotcom type from Dallas, a music producer from Austin, both late-30s. They were trying to recruit some local beauties to join them for a wine-soaked pool party at the luxury condo they'd taken over for a few days. They kept looking expectantly at their cell phones to see if the desired text messages had yet appeared.

We talked in the interim, and it became evident that they'd been wallowing in mid-life crisis angst during their few days together. The music producer wasn't as hot as he once was, and the dotcom honcho worried about his well-paying job. Everyone hated him he said, and his friend was the only one who liked him. And they both worried about getting old.

When does it happen? one of them asked. When do you go from young to old? I're right at the threshhold, I said. It's all downhill from here.

They tried to laugh themselves...unconvincingly, because they thought it true enough.

It was all pretty funny and sad, at the same time. They were already thoroughly inebriated, trying to have a good time despite their misgivings about life-in-the-future. Most immediately, Where are the girls? And then what?

It's not really a luxury condo, said the man from Austin. It's a duplex with an aboveground pool. But by the time we get the girls there, it'll be too late...we'll already be there. Ha, ha, ha.

Gourmet bathing, indeed. Napa style.

Heard on the Street, from a serious wine-buying-tourist, at a tasting room: " I sat there drinking their wine, and the place has a popular reputation, and they've got those caves and that incredible tasting room, but when I left, I had to tell the staff they had nothing worth buying to me..."

Monday, 11 June 2012

The Wine Auction hit the Valley weekend before last, and it raised more than eight million dollars for local charities; a little more than last year's seven million and change. I attended my first Wine Auction event back in 1982, a Saturday afternoon tasting at Meadowwood Resort outside of St. Helena. A delightful afternoon on the expansive lawns, under the shading oaks. It was everything you might hope; low-key, casually elegant, all that wine country lifestyle stuff. But real. Over the years I've attended many, reaching a crescendo a few years back; went to six or eight parties in an evening, a dozen events over a few days. That was before the great economic implosion.

Those are tough acts to follow, especially in these days of pinched pennies and tight budgets. Some of the dinners were so lavish as to defy credulity. There was a Las Vegas Casino night at Beaulieu that blew my mind if only because it seemed so very strange...spending a fortune to go to the world-famous Napa Valley Wine Country and its legendary wine order to attend an artificial Las Vegas gaming room. Under a tent. In a vineyard. Incredible as a concept. Cheerleaders for the San Francisco Forty-Niners served the appetizers and wine, and I am not complaining. Just so very bizarre.

But nothing compared to what transpired at Inglenook...or Niebaum-Coppola or Rubicon, or whatever it's called now. The theme was the good old days, in this case the 1880s, about the time the winery entered its prime. Niebaum was among the first ion the Valley to replicate the French estate concept...a substantial manor house, a stone winery of pleasing facade, and fine wines made from the fruit of its own vineyards. Back then, most vineyard owners sold their newly crushed and fermented crop to San Francisco brokers who did the blending and aging. Niebaum joined the first real winemakers

A horsedrawn carriage transported guests to the winery, where staff awaited to greet the arrivals. Very much as if we were attending a formal dinner party at old Captain Niebaum's. The costumes were perfect, candles replaced electricity, and little chamber groups provided the music. Could have been the 1880s, actually; a real treat.

Having been to so many such events, I've lost some of my enthusiasm for them; in part because they are so unspontaneous. An unfair criticism, I know, because there can be nothing spontaneous in such a production as the Wine Auction. But I did stop by the party at the Spottswoode house, just down Magnolia Street from the stone winery.

A dozen or so guests clustered at the edge of the garden drinking wine--of course--but the house, the spread, most claimed my attention. Situated at the west side of St. Helena where the town gives way to vineyards sweeping toward the Mayacamas Mountains and the sunset beyond. The house is a big whitish bungalow, dormers galore, broad porch wrapping around. It's fronted by a circular driveway within the pillared gates, enclosing a patch of perfect lawn a hundred feet in diameter. On the edge toward the house an imposing oak umbrellas the grass; trees and foliage mark the borders of the property. It's a little world apart, including its own micro-climate; the temperature must have been 10, 15 degrees lower than outside the property. However jaded I occasionally feel, I'm still charmed by such places and all the nostalgia they provoke. Life in St. Helena in the 1880s and '90s was very fine if you had the riches, and I suspect it wasn't so bad even for the more modest residents. Certainly less hectic and driven than now.

The next day, I joined my friends for their usual dinner at the bar at Uva...I indulged in a magnificent pork chop with a pesto glaze on top, heavy on the basil; my mouth still waters at the thought. The scalloped potatoes complemented it well, just as the risotto matched the rib-eye steak I also sampled. Another recent treat...buffalo burger at Downtown Joe's; and buffalo tacos at C Casa at Oxbow. Also had a great rack of barbecued ribs at Hydro in Calistoga the other week; and the skinny fries were a paragon of the breed. Found it hard to believe, however, that the town would not allow us to have a glass of beer at the sidewalk tables out front. Lovely spring evening for al fresco dining...but no wine.

As for odd encounters...happened into a shipping place here in the Valley, where several Chinese wine buyers were shipping some loot home. The star was a magnum of Duckhorn Cabernet Sauvignon...and they insured it for $2500. The clerk offered to fudge on the estimated value on the shipping form, so they'd pay less in custom duties at home...they weren't interested...also wanted to send it in the wood box...though that cost an extra hundred bucks in shipping all by itself.

And I ran into a winery president I know; we were talking about direct sales and such, he complained at the often conflicting regulations one state to another...said that his winery pays $20,000 a month to a compliance consultancy to insure the winery doesn't break a rule that could end in criminal prosecution or legal harassment at the hand of some state's attorney somwehere. Imagine that...$240,000 a year to stay out of trouble when you're not trying to make any.

Then I mentioned that to someone else in passing, and they laughed uproariously. Said they'd been in a tasting room a few days earlier, and some tourists from New Jersey bought a couple of cases of wine; I forget the details, but somewhere between the beginning of the transaction and its end, the law had been updated and changed. They had to refund the money and kill the sale.

Heard on the Street, from a teenage girl to one of the two boys she walked with: " just say those big words you don't even you just managed to say prerogative...whoop-ti-do..."

Thursday, 7 June 2012

One of my favorite Valley lunches is an old St. Helena standard, tomato and pesto pizza at The Model Bakery, accompanied by iced tea and one of their magnificent chocolate chip/walnut cookies. That's what I was eating as I wiled away an hour on a hot afternoon last Friday, taking a break from an earlier foray through town before the drinking began in earnest.

This was the second First Friday of the summer season--an oxymoronic construction, I know--and the evening would be perfect, warm with a light breeze. I eschewed the wine--just too hot for me--and drank beer. But it seemed every storefront on Main Street stayed open for the festivities, and most provided wine dispensed by various vineyard reps. Reds, whites, Roses, all flowed in profusion, and I do believe there may have been at least a couple of dozen labels represented in this Cheers! celebration, so called

I like the stores of St. Helena even when they're not serving wine...Vintage Home always features clever, new objects, and on this latest visit I noted something I'd apparently missed before. Great, antique wine jugs, like, five gallons, French, very picturesque and perhaps even practical...for something.

Another of my new favorite establishments is Vino Velo, just south of the downtown; this is a tasting room owned, apparently, by the folks who make the Clif Bar, one of those tasty high-energy Sports Nutrition Products. The place caters to bikies, and they often fill the place. Nice displays of wine and bike gear, and some vintage machines. I especially like the Old Belgian Police bike, heavy, black, oversize and with a holster for the service gun.

Then, right at the edge of town...almost catacorner to Vintage Mike Niemen's Harley-Davidson place. Rents out motorcycles for wine-country cruises. But he's also an excellent metal sculptor, capturing the very essence of the Steam Punk Movement. Welds together tools and hardware into imaginative creations with a Gothic Sensibility, High-tech and retro-ancient all at once. Most of all I like his old radial airplane engines...has one out front, hooked up to a propane tank. Ask him real nice and he might crank it up. Impressive display. Also love his venerable red Indianhead bike...50-, 60-years-old, at least, a real classic.

A couple of blocks up the street you come across Caldwell-Taylor Art Gallery, currently showing a fantastic array of work by Melissa Chandon, lots of iconic California images...or so I thought. The '50s woody station wagon, a row of lifeguard towers at the beach, blue water shimmering in a swimming pool. David Hockney images, with a Wayne Thiebaud pallette. After suggesting as much to Lisa, the art maven I always end up talking to at the gallery, she explained that Chandon was influenced by both, and Thiebaud was something of a mentor.

The canvases were done in acrylics, and radiated color and light...the images looked like confections; one of the things I liked most was that these were not new themes, yet she infused her work with a freshness that defied cliche.

Then Lisa invited me to guess the nationality of clients who were just bonkers over the work...and they were Australians. So an artist from inland California--Sacramento--captured the ideal of beachside life in art...for a nation of beachgoers 5000 miles away. I find that vaguely ironic, but I don't know why.

Finally, I ended up back at the gallery next to the Model Bakery...and beside the usual variety of work, they've acquired a couple of sets of lithographs by Renoir and Dali. Among the Renoirs is a dancing couple...more bistro than ballet...delightful. Dali's five pieces included a trademark bull and toreador...but I most liked the ethereal nudes, sketchy but complete, anonymous yet precise.

Heard on the Street, by the bar at Downtown Joe's, one guy to another: "...that's an interesting idea, but I just don't see why the government would want to turn its citizens into zombies...I'm not so sure I believe that..."

Friday, 1 June 2012

Summer hit us with a vengeance the last few days, so much so that I actually got hot deep in the redwoods. The temp still closed on 90 by the time I headed downtown in the late afternoon yesterday, but with my arrival at the Chefs Market the river breezes kicked in, the sun dropped behind the shade and all was right with the world.

As usual ran into old friends and new, eventually adding to the latter in my stroll down First Street. After joining some friends in front of Tuscany--they'd just polished off a filet mignon and a pork chop, pronouncing them excellent--we drained the last of the red wine, a Cabernet.

I'd already been drinking a Moscato, compliments of the Chef's Demo on Coombs Street, starring while I was there that manager/dessert meister who appeared on the front of Napa Valley Life an issue or two back...forget his name, but he represents restaurant Eiko, great sushi and Pacific fusion. The guy is always impeccably dressed in a suit and does marvels with that liquid nitrogen tank of his with which he concocts incredible sweetstuffs. Strawberries dipped in melted chocolate, say, then quick frozen.

Didn't wait around for the main feature, but I did like that cold, bubbly sweet Moscato. Especially in the declining heat.

Looked for my friend Karena there, disappointed that she wasn't...last week, at this same venue, she passed onto me a very fine Rose...named Zin Gris, made by her boyfriend. As always with Karena, a sommelier in private practice, I learned a whole bunch of somethings new.

She explained that her winemaking friend produced it as a by-product of his day job; he'd been crushing and fermenting a batch of Zinfandel, and to make for a richer, more highly extracted wine, he drained off some of the fresh juice. That juice, fermented separately, without the cap of dark skins, quite naturally remained a delicate pink. This is the saignee--bleeding--process. By draining off a portion of the original juice, the liquid left behind will get fuller benefit of the flavor- and color-inducing skins.

Anyway, that eventuallly resulted in the delightful, coincidental bottle of Zin Gris she presented, that I drank.

She also told me some more about the concrete egg fermenting tank, the existence of which I first learned at Mark Herold's tasting room by the Oxbow Market. Seems that the first concrete fermenting tanks came from France some many decades past, when a winemaker harvested a bumper crop and lacked a sufficiency of fermenting and storage vessels. Couldn't get any in a timely manner, either, so he arranged with a contractor to make some out of cement, and they worked to some satisfaction.

As for the egg shape...the experimenters discovered that the form creates its own pumping over process, the fermemting juice bubbling up and over at the narrowed top, constantly filtering it through the skins. Typically, cellar workers achieve the effect by pumping wine from the bottom of the tank and through the flotsam on top.

In the week since that encounter with Karena, I had the chance to taste some of Mark Herold's Rose, Flux. A tasty classic, and, I presume, a product of that concrete egg fermenting I'd first heard of at his tasting room.

But we were talking about last night's Chefs Market...and new acquaintances. Just up First Street from the Ceja tasting room I found Amelia and Dalia pouring their family vintages. Amelia and I are old buddies, I know paterfamilius Pedro and son Ariel...but I'd never met Dalia, who handles public relations and marketing for the enterprise.

I introduced myself; we discussed her latest endeavor, a wine-oriented MBA. She just started a month or so ago, finds it exciting and challenging. Of course, there are certain core business subjects that come standard...but I speculated that getting a handle on the ever-shifting wine industry and how to market product in such an unstable environment must be difficult.

She agreed, knowing more than most what it's like in the trenches...she's already marketing wine and already knows many of the ins and outs of the industry since she gets such an intimate glimpse of it all from a family-run vineyard. Dalia stressed the importance of social media, and keeping up with its various manifestations...Facebook, Twitter, old-fashiopned press releases.

Her own special project is the Ole Report, a blog about wine, style, food and culture. I always find it entertaining, even though I'm not a 20-something girl. But this is the next generation of wine drinkers and bon vivants, and it's savvy youngsters like Dalia and her friends who will set the trends for tomorrow. Look up Dalia Ceja on Facebook, and you'll get the whole story...

Meanwhile, I quaffed a unique Pinot Noir from their Carneros vineyards...reminded me of a Cabernet with something extra...that characteristic Pinot tang, I suppose. An unexpected treat, really.

Then, just a few minutes later, I came upon the Gustavo/Thrace tasting table...featuring Gustavo Brambila. I'd never heard of him until a week or so ago, when I saw the movie Bottleshock...about which I just wrote a few days back.

That's the story of the 1976 wine tasting in France where Napa Valley wines beat the French on their own soil with their own judges. The flick focused on Chateau Montelena and its Chardonnay...along with the family that owned it.

Gustavo worked there at the time, and figured heavily in the movie. I asked how true the story...and he said, more or less true enough. With some license, though. It wasn't a documentary, he added. And that Bo Barrett--the flick's prodigal son turned hero--wasn't particularly happy with his portrayal...oh, well.

Gustavo mentioned that he moved on to work with Mike Grgch for 23 years...and he was the guy who was winemaker Chateau Montelena when they won top honors at that legendary tasting. I asked Gustavo about that...why so little mention of Grgch? According to Brambila, Grgch wouldn't sign a release, allowing the filmmakers to work him into the script. He's done okay anyway...ended up with his own legendary winery right on Highway 29...Grgch Hills, of course.

Brambila and I talked about those much more fun, and wide-open the wine industry seemed to be, compared to now. He lamented the sense of competition and one-upsmanship that prevails today in contrast to a spirit of generosity and cooperation "Back Then."

He sells his wine at the Gustavo/Thrace Tasting Room, by the Oxbow Market...only does 5000 cases a year, generally; handcrafted in a custom crush facility.

We finished off the conversation as I finished off his version of a vin ordinaire, a non-vintage blend of Cabernet and Merlot...the perfect toast to a marvelous night.

Heard on the Street, by 1313 Main, from a man's voice among several couples, complaining about dinner service down the street: " know, the best service I ever had in my life was at the French Laundry...I know it's expensive, but throughout the whole evening, my water glass was full...and I never had to say a word..."

Thursday, 24 May 2012

I did a movie marathon the other day, and found myself rather overwhelmed by Napa Valley references. While channel, surfing I fell onto The Parent Trap, in which Dennis Quaid plays a vineyard owner with twin daughters--played by the inimitable Lindsey Lohan--divided at divorce between him and the ex. I'd already seen it, so passed...but the movie vineyard belongs to the Staglins in real life, and it brought back pleasant memories of their estate upvalley and the lovely party I attended there some years ago, not least because they're such wonderful hosts.

The original featured Hayley Mills, but I remembered her most of all for Pollyanna, set in St. Helena, in the 1890s. How delightful that world looked, and how well the Napa Valley represented it. Grand houses with mansard roofs, the little white church between Rutherford and the western mountains. Not far from the Staglin's current abode. But I digress.

Then I caught a movie called Ghost Writer, a political thriller with Pierce Brosnan, Ewan MacGregor and assassinations. By Roman Polanski, about a former Brit Prime Minister writing his memoirs, with help from MacGregor. The PM's wife drinks Chardonnay throughout, at one point mentioning that it comes from their megarich host's very own Napa Valley vineyards.

And then, a little later, I finally saw Bottleshock, the kind-of-true story about the Judgment of Paris in 1976. That, of course, was the year that a Brit wine merchant held a blind tasting competition in France and California wines beat the French pretty much hands down. Really put California wines on the world map. The flick stars Chateau Montelena and its Chardonnay.

Just beyond Calistoga, Chateau Montelena has long been one of my favorite wineries just for itself. Engineered by Hamden McIntyre, it features a crenelated stone facade set against a hillside and boasted state-of-the-art design. Down the gently sloping hills there are a couple of small lakes interspersed with little peninsulas connected by Chinese-style bridges and studded with small pagodas and a profusion of oak trees.

Anyway, the movie tells the story of the former San Francisco lawyer struggling with his vineyards and incipient bankruptcy, along with a wastrel son, a pretty intern and an ambitious Mexican cellar rat. By the end, their Chardonnay wins over the French whites and everyone lives happily ever after.

I spent my one season in the wine industry the next year as Daryl Sattui's first winery employee, assistant winemaker my title. Interesting to contrast my memories with the vision of the scene portrayed in the movie. I got my musical friends to perform on the lawn, customers sat at the picnic tables and ate the cheeses, salamis and bread bought inside, drinking copious amounts of wine. The parties often continued after closing and we'd sit an imbibe as the sun dropped behind the hills. Later, we might end up at the St. Helena Hotel bar, the place now a B&B.

I don't know that Daryl ever faced bankruptcy, but he did struggle that first year, yet prevailed. One of the most successful winery owners in the Valley most people never heard of.

The movie portrayed its characters' versions of the life, and they weren't that far removed from the reality. But wine was already more established and well-respected than the film suggests, and Robert Mondavi had already done much to set the stage for the eventual explosion, through his own marketing efforts on behalf of the Valley as a whole.

The one big revelation for me gleaned from the movie was Gustavo Brambilo, the aforementioned Mexican vineyardist...he has a tasting room by the Oxbow Market...Gustavo/Thrace.

As I was writing this, something funny happened. A fellow regular of the Coffee Roasting Company walked in...Gary. Works the tasting room at Stags Leap Cellars. I asked if he'd seen Bottleshock, and he went semi-ballistic. He expressed outrage that the movie focused on Chateau Montelena and its Chardonnay, since, according to him, the really important thing about the Judgment of Paris was that Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon beat the finest French Bordeaux wines.

There's merit to the complaint; red wine is just taken more seriously than white. On the other hand, I pointed out, perhaps the characters provided by Chateau Montelena made for a better story. It was supposed to be entertainment, after all, not a documentary. And I found it very entertaining.

Heard on the Street, from a young woman on Main Street: "...well, only live once, so why not live with as many people as possible...?"

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Well, it must really be summer in Napa...the Farmers' Market at the Oxbow resumed a couple of weeks ago, and the Thursday Chef's Market debuted for the season day before yesterday. That's always a good time to catch up with old acquaintances...half of everyone I know around here seems to show. Got a nice twofer...Amelia Ceja presided as one of the demonstration chefs at the stage on Coombs Street, and she greeted me with sumptuous appetizers; the heirloom tomatoes stuffed with pesto and more makes my mouth water even as I write about it, and the fig wrapped in bacon--I forget the other little goodies--was no less yummy.

Then, when her demo got underway, I sat down next to another friend quite by accident.

It was Karena, whom I met last season at the Chef's Market and ran into occasionally during the year. A former sommelier from New York's finest restaurants, she's been rebranding herself as a freelance wine-marketing consultant... said things were going well.

Meanwhile, Amelia performed for us, making salsa; I loved the overhead camera, the attached monitor displauing her every movement. More wonders of technology! Let's see...fresh-squeezed lime juice, diced garlic, black beans, corn cut off the cob, diced tomatoes, cilantro. Served with a Ceja Rose.

Nice pairing; that was the point, of course, matching the wine and food such that they gring out the best in each other. Liked that Rose, too...really dry, really crisp, without the cloying fruitiness that so often characterizes the breed. Forgot to note the year or the varietal.

Then Karena told me about the great Roses of France, mentioned the Rhone region, and promised to give me a bottle of Rose that her boyfriend--a winemaker, of course--produces on the side. If I liked the Ceja, she said, I'd love her man's concoction.

I wandered the streets, listened to the blues, saw old friends and familiar faces of strangers, finally arriving at Downtown Joe's. Big John Herkins, Unofficial Mayor of Downtown, greeted me, poured a rich, dark, chewy beer and I joined Ryan and Cassandra, friends who work at the Coffee Roasting Company. Kind of...Ryan, former manager, recently decamped for a job at a coffee wholesaler, dictating a time-consuming daily commute. We lamented the traffic; what should be an easy 45-minute is an hour-plus ordeal. He usually leaves two hours before work, just in case there's a jam along the way. All these lovely places in which we live attracted others as well. For better or worse.

Bearing one of the legendary names of Valley winemaking, Ryan abandoned a future in the family business to become a coffee connouisseur instead. He talks regions and roasting techniques with all the authority of a wine-obsessive equivalent, yet another twist in Napa's culinary prowess. Funny, though, the number of second and third generations who have no interest in joining family winemaking operations, especially given the perceived status, and, these days, the measure of opportunity given the general lack of them in so many spheres. On the other hand, all the attraction of such a career has to be balanced against the endless striving. Competition to make not just a good wine, but a better wine...than last year's, than someone else's...and cheaply enough to make a profit. There's plenty of room for family conflict, ego battles, one-upmanship and utter failure despite doing everything right.

Fashions change in wine as with everything else, and even when they don't the demands of marketing your wine are endless, especially these days as wineries and labels proliferate.

And many wineries don't need to make a profit...they're rich folk toys, and I don't know how much fun they really provide.

I'll never forget a Cabernet day at the Culinary Inswtitute in St. Helena some years ago. The wineries in attendance included a man of substantial worth and accomplishment who owns one of the premier estates in the Valley, though little known as such. There he stood behind a table with his young, beautiful wife, the both of them smiling and fawning over anyone who walked by, begging passersby to try his wine, desperately fishing for compliments.

Afterward, I saw them schlepping their goods to the car--an expensive one, of course--struggling with their loads. They reminded me of nothing so much as tired traveling salesmen.

More wine country glamor!

But there is help out there. Ran into one of Mark Pope's employees who works for Chatterbox. They help sell wines produced by people just such as these through direct marketing. Pope established Bounty Hunter to acquire good wines and sell them to a discriminating clientele through catalog and phone sales. Over the years, he's accumulated an active client list of regular, high-end buyers of fine wines. Chatterbox works those same lists to sell other people's wine.

Just as with his own inventory, quality is paramount, and he won't handle just any wine...according to my informant business is better than ever, literally, and sales are up considerably over last year. So I was told, anyway.

Heard on the Street, from a woman scrutinizing the action at Oxbow: "...I'm just scouting things out for my's so hard for her to meet guys her age, and she's ready to give up..."

Thursday, 10 May 2012

For obvious reasons, I've been researching the wine business, with unusual vigor. I'm endlessly amazed by the many nuances of the industry. Just this morning, I was sitting at the Starbucks on Redwood Road and became engaged in conversation with a guy named Chris, who designs and sells wine-oriented gifts and accessories--T-shirts, aprons, hats and greeting cards.

A resident of Marina Del Rey, close to my old stomping grounds in Venice, he'd come to Napa for a hospitality seminar at the Marriott held yesterday...mostly tasting room reps, he said, talking about the latest trends.

He was among the first to market T-shirts that say Life is a Cabernet. He's been at it for 20 years, and he revealed a whole new little world, to me, constantly changing. Until a decade or so ago, he said, men bought 90 percent of the things he sells through tasting rooms. Now the women account for that 90 percent; another indication that women not only made inroads into the industry itself, but that they're now full-fledged participants as more sophisticated wine consumers, too.

Back when he started, he explained, tasting rooms couldn't keep products like his in stock; people wanted a memento as well as the wine country experience. Establishments along Highway 29 fought over his products, and to be the only ones who handled this or that cleverly designed shirt or hat. Not so now. Stark, cool simplicity is the vogue; has a lot to do with the women, too, who have a cutting-edge design sensibility. And they don't want anything to detract from the seriousness of the wine involved.

And that has something to do with the kind of people buying into the industry...bankers, financiers, major real-estate developers. No more are we talking about people with a few million to invest, but tens of says Chris, anyway.

We discussed how the new-winery-owner profile had changed; from the '70s type who sincerely wanted to get back to the land, work it, get his hands dirty...and the '80s version, who wanted to seem like that type, without the dust on the cowboy boots. The '90s stereotype who'd transcended those desires, but still wanted to know those other guys...the old-timers, authentic-enough wine aristocrats.

But with the new millenium, it was a new breed indeed, corporate types with private jets, whose companies started buying up the great estates, and stayed in the grand houses a couple of times a year, for the Wine Auction in June, the crush in the fall.

Couldn't care less about the established locals; they'd bought them out.

And now they're buying great estates of their own--not building them--and buying the best winemakers too.

No, they don't have to bother with consultants, he said...they just go to the people with a name and reputation, and if they don't have a contract...

Well, they make them an offer they can't refuse. So to speak.

So, for chris, his customer base is always changing, and while the more stablished venues become too jaded to bother with T-shirts and trivets, he's developing new regions as they grow their own wine industries...he says there are 200 wineries in Virginia now, and a hundred in Michigan...who knew?

You'll probably see his products around, but if you want to see the full range, there's his web

Just an hour or so later, I was in the Oxbow Market neighborhood, and passed by a storefront on First Street that had been undergoing a remodel seemingly forever. Acha--Spanish for axe--was the only clue. But now people packed it from end to end, and the shingle over the door proclaimed Mark Herold Wines. A Grand Opening. A vast platter of paella complemented by numerous appetizers fed the guests, and Mark, the big man behind the bar, poured the wine with his colleague.

By chance, I ended up standing next to his sales rep, another Southern Californian, Brian. from him I learned that Mark was one of those storied winemakers who consulted for others and then started his own brands; including Acha.

So I tried a glass, a red modelled after a Spanish Tempranillo blend, with Grenache, Carignan, Graciano and Petit Syrah added to the mix. According to the tasting notes...a complex, balanced, yet extracted blend framed by rich, supple tannins. A 2008 vintage.

Then Mark poured the 2009 Flux, a blend dominated by Grenache, with Syrah, Carignan and Petit Sirah. The notes say...spicy red fruits, silky tannins, and a finish of fruity sweetness.

I liked them both immensely.

White wine doesn't appeal to me very much, but Brian, the sales rep imparted some new intelligence my way concerning Mark's. Rather than being fermented in stainless steel or stored in wood, Herold's are fermented in concrete eggs. That was a new one on me, but it seems the French have been doing so for quite some time, imparting hints of a wet rock or mineral flavor.

Aside from concocting exotic blends characterized by unique handling, Herold also has a fine eye for interior decoration...the tasting room boasts a large, brass balance beam scale and a vintage Vespa; other visual touches add to the pleasures of the room.

Nice job all around, and I never walk by without an appreciative look inside.

Heard on the Street, from a young woman on her cell phone, by Gott's eatery " always want to talk, and we talk and talk, but we never end up in a place where I feel secure..."

Monday, 7 May 2012

So there I was standing in line at the Downtown Safeway, and who should be in line if front of me but Greg Cole, owner/chef of the Chop House and Celadon. With Jenn, the checkout clerk, he discussed the recent visit of some more celebrated chef to Oenotri a week or two back, and the Napa Register account. Seems all the great chef had to say was that the restrooms were too far away from his table. I would consider that a good thing. He was accompanied by David Beckham, the great soccer player, and his wife, one of those great Spice people.

Such a glamorous place we live!

Since the conversation drifted into cranky chef territory, I asked Greg about the Screaming Chef Syndrome so evident on all the television reality shows. Is it really that bad?

Not anymore, he said, at least not much around here. He explained that the open kitchen concept is now so prevalent--especially in California--that it doesn't work; customers don't like it for real, as much as it may draw them to the reality shows. But he did say he suffered some periods in hell earlier in his career, and some chefs never stopped riding the staff and yelling at them.

According to Greg, his worst tyrant knew just how to get to him...Does your mother know how stupid you are? he regularly inquired. Said Greg, I used to go home evrey night feeling horrible.

And just as we were finishing up, who should walk in and say Hi but Ariel Ceja. Northbay Biz Magazine recognized him last week as an outstanding young entrepreneur, and a few weeks before that, his sister Dalia got into a wine-oriented MBA program somewhere...Sonoma State, perhaps. She recently joined a panel discussion at the Culinary Institute on Millenials, those just now coming of age, and she also publishes the Ole Report!, her own fashion/lifestyle blog on Facebook.

Later that night, I stopped by Ariel's Bistro Sabor, to watch the Salsa lessons and dancing. Looked like a lot of fun; there stood Ariel, mic in hand, giving instruction, students trying to balance their moves and drinks. By then Downtown Joe's groaned with its own crowd, forced to stop letting people in for awhile. I found both places remarkable for the numbers of pretty young women out on the town, and the complete lack of young men. Same all over town, in the dinner joints too. Seems to me the girls outnumber the boys three or four to one...I'm not sure this is a good thing.

Silo's featured a Stones tribute band; caught the end of the show: Satisfaction, Beast of Burden, Wild Horses. I won't say they sounded just like the Stones, but they did a good enough likeness, even down to the look...lots of long hair, some sequined jackets, pointy-toed shoes...and the front man strutted with all the authority of a graduate of the London School of Economics.

Terry Bradford, singer extraordinaire, will be playing there next Saturday; he's a real crowd pleaser who attracts a friendly, enthusiastic audience.

On Sunday, went to Davis for lunch with friends...heard some interesting backstories about this new law going into effect in July, banning pate de fois gras...that's the deviled goose liver derived from force feeding the birds.

A coalition of chefs has come out in opposition to the law, and is trying to have it repealed...seems that the practices animal rights people find objectionable aren't nearly so objectionable to the geese involved...and people like the stuff, so chefs want to serve it.

LA chef Wolfgang Puck has denounced pate de fois in the most morally charged terms...but there's evidence that he serves it at his restaurants, people tell me. Meanwhile, he's in New York today receiving a James Beard cooking award...and fellow chefs were looking forward to rubbing his nose in the presumed hypocrisy.

Sources tell me that Michael Chiarello, one of our local cooking stars, is leading the charge against the law...behind the scenes. He made some calls to US Congressman Mike Thompson, who will allegedly lean on the California legislature to reconsider the law. Can't wait to see what happens.

Heard on the Street, among three women by The Riverfront complex, two of them addressing the tipsy one: " you just go home to your nest and behave. Go to your rooom, lock the door, and do not leave..."

Saturday, 5 May 2012

I'm sitting at the Oxbow Market now, and the day's crowd is thinning as dinner time approaches, but it's been more or less packed since my arrival after five. The temperature tops 80 degrees, and the tourists abound, all shorts, sandals and summer vacation demeanors. Yet just the day before yesterday the sky cast a gray pall over the land, seeping, but not quite raining.

That creates a sometimes odd effect in the redwood groves, especially when the moisture is carried in a thin scrim of mist rather than your average dark rain cloud. The sun just the other side, it illuminates the moisture, and brightens the sky much more so than on a clear day, when the trees mask the light. Blue sky just doesn't refract the solar rays to the same extent.

Add to that the fact that the same moisture of minute rain droplets covers the foliage, especially the ferns; my forest seems actually to glow in the bright, diffuse light, everything equally lit. It's a delight to wander around my forest-garden, and it presents a stunning visual delight. It makes me think of emeralds.

But it was summer again yesterday. St. Helena hosted its first Cheers! event of the season, and several venues in Napa offered their own first Friday events.

Started the evening at Thea's Wildcat Boutique, where she hosted an exhibit of Cheryl Laube's photo work. Entitled All Things Girly, the show featured tightly cropped closeups of...well...women. The monochromatic prints on paper were blue, those on encaustic and wood, sepia toned. Let's see... some tight shots of cleavage, some of bare breasts, some torsos, some full body shots with multiple women. Abstract and representational at the same time, but more mysterious than erotic.

Somebody had prepared a wonderful sangria, and Bruce Ahnfeldt--proprietor of Uncorked--had provided some Chardonnay. I visited briefly with the winemaking attorney, who informed me that his latest releases are among the best he's done.

The upstairs exhibition area hummed with the capacity crowd, and I think I knew half the people there...Hyla, the Connelly Ranch's Barn Fairy, Dan and Emanuel, the interior designer and landscape artist, respectively, and Julio, one of the Slack Artists' Collective. Louisa Hufstader from the Huffington Post's NapaPatch, too. And then there was the guy I met who takes care of all the greens at UC Davis, my alma mater. Learned a bit of the difficulties of maintaining vast amounts of grass, especially that on the sports fields.

Turns out he's very into sustainable, green practices, and has become something of an expert on the topic...writes papers on the subject, gives lectures to others in his field on how to get by with fewer chemicals, if any.

Thea took the small stage after everyone had consumed their shares of snacks and wine to introduce a performance piece by musician Paul Marotta, late of the Styrenes. An energetic, wiry man dressed in black and wearing a ponytail, Marotta explained that he'd written a piece based on Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Before he started, he told of how this was a creative departure for him...the world had stopped buying CDs over the last year--the internet, again, of course--and he was trying something different.

He'd composed the backdrop music, coordinating it with his monolog, and in the most animated fashion he delivered the story of the wealthy scoundrel who never aged--though his portrait did, displaying in gruesome detail his corruption. I imagine an old leper...

A most lively and entertaining performance. Meanwhile, a blugrass band played out front. Talk about a one-stop talent show...that's Wildcat for you...and the boutique ain't bad either. In addition to fine vintage clothing, the creative displays are tops...worth visitng justy to wallow in the design.

Then came comedy at the Slack Collective...a group of the regulars put together a series of skits, a la Saturday Night Live. Also made some clever videos that punctuated the various skits and standup. The highlight of the evening, I thought, was their focus group for a television pilot, called Bird High. Kids who turn into birds on the sly was the premise, kind of like the vampire thing, but absurd. Okay...more absurd.

They ran a five minute clip of the proposed show, and then quizzed the moronic focus groupies. A later skit--George Washinton's sexual advice to young colonial Americans--really caught me by surprise, and though more obscene, perhaps, than Ben Franklin's counsel to a young man on the virtues of older women, it was also more amusing.

All very funny, and the crowd roared its approval.

Heard on the Street, between a couple regarding storefront art on First Street: "...well, I bet if the artists was here, he could explain it all...I guess..."

Monday, 30 April 2012

Daylight savings kicked in some weeks back, but all of a sudden, sometime in April, it seems that summer's really upon us. The streets are thronged with people on Friday and Saturday nights, and the restaurants and watering holes have customers spilling in and out into the wee hours.

Morimoto is serving people outside along the river again, Downtown Joe's is standing room only during the peak late hours, Uva's filling up with spring brides-to-be and their best friends. The Oxbow Market has finally hit its stride, all its spaces filled, and lived-in so to speak, by seasoned staffers and regular customers. It's become an institution.

Ritual Coffee has become one of my latest indulgences, especially since I drink coffee so seldom; their cappucinos are works of art, individually made from lovingly measured beans, topped with the frothiest steamed milk and crowned with a design. Chris approaches his duties with all the intensity of an old-fashion apothecary, and I have not yet been able to ask him a question about coffee that he can't answer. A few months back, I overheard a strange conversation at Trader Joe's between some of the staff, concerning one of their special coffees made rare because of a questionable processing having to do with animal digestion.

I inquired after details, and the ladies really didn't have a clue; just something to do with an animal they couldn't name from a place they couldn't identify. So I asked Chris, in the most vague manner, because I didn't kinow what I was talking about either. He knew just what I was talking about; in Madagascar, I think it was, lemurs or sloths or somesuch eat the beans, expel them... and then they're collected for the coffee merchants. The process is odd enough, but that it occurs on such a scale as to create an internationally exported product in bulk really astounds me.

Last month, Chris entered his first barista competition, in Santa Cruz; he did not win, but he got his feet wet. He knew what they were looking for, generally speaking; a certain extraction, devoid of this flavor, but full of that. And last week, I found him watching his laptop at the Ritual bar; another competition, this time in Portland, carried by internet video. Seemed rather bizarre, a couple of scruffy guys doing color commentary, wisecracks and analysis.

It always feels like old home week when I go to Ritual; Cristina and Johnny both work there, whom I know from the Coffee Roasting Company at First and Main. Jay is a more recent friend, as obsessed with coffee as Chris, but a little behind on the learning curve. But Ritual is a place to learn, I believe; they take coffee very seriously, buying the very best fair trade beans, weighing doses for every cup and putting them in little metal containers. Each cup is individually made, and they never cease the effort to craft the perfect draft of coffee.

Interesting crowd at the bar, too; met a Hollywood screenwriter there, get to hear of her ups and downs on a regular basis, the triumphs and disappointments of scripts and meetings. And a dealmaker with a diverse background; does something with entertainers, used to work for a certain government agency engaged in intelligence, makes a trip somewhere offbeat every month or so. And a Ron Paul advisor of some sort.

I also recently checked out Molinari's, the new coffee place on Main, by Henry's Bar. Nice, bright and airy space, friendly staff, some unique snacks; I got a slice of their panforte, that dense cake/not-cake confection full of almonds. It's like a hard fig paste or something, with other flavors besides. Also--a rarity downtown--internet access! A new office!

Meanwhile, I notice that the eyewear place has vacated its space opposite the Coffee Roasting Company...and though some Starbucks honcho told me they were going in there, I note there's a for lease sign in the window, so... who knows what's going on with that?

And I had a most interesting encounter with Michael Holmes, the local interior designer who owns Liken, next to Morimoto. Hadn't realized it, but we used to be neighbors a zillion years ago. He grew up on Redwood Road, in a house just down and across the road from where I have my compound now. I have some years on him, but I did briefly share the school bus with his older twin sisters during my brief highschool career.

They lived in a stately yet unpretentious country farmhouse, and when we first acquired our own properties I first heard of The Horse. According to the story, a fifty-thousand-dollar racehorse was buried somewhere in the front yard. That counted as a lot of money in those days, and it struck me as something special in the neighborhood, a small claim to local fame.

That's all I knew of the matter for 50 years, until I finally met Michael for the first time a monthy ago. An affable man with excellent taste--I love the goodies in his store--he filled in the critical detail about that horse. Turns out that Seabiscuit was its daddy, a pleasant surprise, but a particularly apt one too; Seabiscuit came from one of the norcal counties... Mendocino, was it? Nice little mystery cleared up in any case, and a childhood myth turned true.

Heard on the street, in the Model Bakery, between a woman and her friends: ", Easter was last week? Where was I...what were we doing?"

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Time sure flies when you're having fun...or just plain doing stuff. Went on a couple of little roadtrips and adventures, amazed myself yet again with the diversity you find in this state. Spent a couple of days in San Francisco hanging out with my son, a student at SF State. I always gravitate toward the Embarcadero for starters, a legacy of taking the ferry to work in the olden days. It's one of the great gateways to any city in the world, I think, approaching the San Francisco skyline from the bayside, disembarking to enter the Ferry Building and then emerging into the bustle of Market Street.

Just magnificent!

But I'm always disoriented, always seeing multiple scenes in my mind's eye, the five different versions of Market Street I know from my own past, and the multiple others, false memories derived from the photos, documentaries and movies I go out of the way to indulge. When I was a kid in the '50s, it was still pretty much Sam Spade's town, the same city glimpsed in The Maltese Falcon; Ferry Building, Market Street and all. The great Slot comprised our own Wall Street and Broadway, bastions of finance and industry succeeded by deluxe hotels and palatial movie houses, all neon aglow in soft mist.

And everyone dressed up; to go downtown, a man wore a suit and hat, a woman hat and gloves. Even the bums tried.

Just ten, twelve years later, it turned seedy, neon splendor supplanted by backlit plastic and discount stores eternally going out of business. The theaters showed porn or shut down. The long hair and shabbiness of the hippies overwhelmed any sense of sartorial propriety, and even those who didn't join the barbarians looked decidedly inferior in their doubleknit suits, wide ties and unfortunate colors.

Meanwhile, the ill-conceived Embarcadero Freeway emerged between the City and its docks, a looming shadow of ugliness and autos scarring the bay views. In another 10 years Market Street would be dead, a victim of BART as the subway ripped the heart out of the city.

It all limped along for a decade or two, and then--presto, changeo!--the millenium presented us with a new version of a grand boulevard we hadn't seen in years.

Maybe it's because of the America's Cup coming to town, but it just gets better and better down there, at least in terms of walkability for its own sake. The new Ferry Building continues its evolution--it was developed by Steve Carlin, the same guy who did Napa's Oxbow Market--and in a decade its gone from an upscale specialty mall in a historic stage set to an authentic city market. The food vendors and restaurants overflow into each other, The Ferry Winemerchant into the cheese women from Sonoma into the sausage guys from wherever into the Chinese tearoom. There's Peet's Coffee next to the book store, bay beyond, and sharing the view is the Slanted Door restaurant. There's artisan olive oil, artisan chocolate, there's Gott's eats, there's fresh seafood. I ate fresh, hot arepas, from a stand nestled in a corner.

Outside and just west on the Embarcadero a Starbucks opened in an old pier space where I'd frequented half-a-dozen cafes over four decades, all of them bad. I know it's heresy to say so, but now, at least, you can get a decent cuppa there. The pier behind has been opened up, providing a pleasant walk with fantastic views and interesting vignettes. I saw a fisherman land a five-foot tiger shark which we got to scrutinize at close range till he threw it back in, saw a buff young woman training a flabby young man with esoteric fitness techniques, saw a buff guy tormenting a couple of hotties with his workouts as he posed like a drill sergeant.

Historical displays already abounded along the Embarcadero, but now there's a new generation where the walk goes through the piers, photo exhibits of the old days on the waterfront. Somehow, especially on the Farmer's Market days, it looks very much as it did in those old pix. And there's a new walking pier, with benches and wonderful tile ship pictures studding its sides, providing 360 degree views. Stunning even to an old native.

After I connected with my son, we wandered toward Union Square, checked out Karactur on Sutter, where they sell Tin-Tin books and related things, sophisticated versions of old-school pop-culture; unique figurines, little car replicas celebrating obscure manufacturers, European toys. The next door neighbor features precious cookware, especially coffee paraphernalia, displayed so well that every shelf looks like its own magazine photo-spread.

We came upon Wilkes-Bashford, San Francisco's premier clothing store; perfect opportunity for a teaching moment with the boy. Just our was a trunk sale day, with their finest suppliers there in person, in force, to display and explain their wares. Handmade shoes from Italy, and a shoemaker working the fine leather before your eyes into the finest shoes. Hundreds of wool samples for bespoke suits, pretty girls from someplace exotic making silk ties.

No sooner had we walked in than an impeccably attired man took us in tow for a tour, and then upstairs to see the goodies; and riding along with us in the elevator was Mister Bashford himself talking up a customer. On arriving at the appropriate floor, we ended up in the hands of yet another gentleman, who explained the finer points of custom shirts. My son was agog at the finery; he'd heard of such things as hand-made shoes and tailored suits, but this was the real deal. And the staff seemed genuinely delighted to reveal all the mysteries to my boy. A capital experience.

Afterward, we progressed to Grant Avenue, visited Old St. Mary's--the City's first cathedral and, I believe, oldest extant church after Mission Dolores--and looked for dinner. We decided on the erstwhile Golden Dragon, site of a notorious gangland slaying in the '70s, for dim sum. This was much better, say, than the site of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, where Capone whacked a bunch of guys in a garage. In both cases, I believe, the scores were similar, something like seven or eight, but the garage never served food.

We finished the night at the Cafe Trieste in North Beach, a family tradition for three generations now. I popped a couple of bucks into the juke box for half-an-hour of Verdi arias, we lounged in our corner indulging caffeine and sweets, we watched people come and go.

And in walked a statuesque blonde, who ordered coffee and then sat at a table outside. I was overdue for a cigarette, and no sooner had I appeared outside and lit up than she invited me to sit with her. An older beauty from Norway, we discovered we were both writers, but she specialized in astro-physics. Wow; I was impressed. I offered that we lived in exciting times, astronomically speaking, given the great leaps in knowledge of the cosmos made in recent years.

I don't remember how The Big Bang came up, but she scoffed at the concept. She explained that it was a myth, that the universe was infinite, without beginning or end. That there was a benevolent Force in the universe that governed all, we would all live happily everafter...somewhere. So to speak.

This rendered me almost speechless, but I did manage to respond that I had been taught pretty much the same thing in Catholic elementary school in the '50s. This she found absurd, because, of course, that was unscientific, and, well, rather too ignorantly Christian for her liking. I countered that we wouldn't be having the conversation we were having had it not been for the transmission to us of Greco-Roman culture accomplished by the Church in Rome. That all we know of civilization now is a direct outgrowth of that specific tradition.

She thought to trump me by citing a Marxist interpretation of history, as if that was worth a damn as an argument. I could not help laughing, quite spontaneously, sincerely, in her face. I may be an atheist, but I'm not a fool.

And then, thank god, her cell phone rang; and I escaped with a smile and a whispered good-bye.

My days in the City passed much too quickly. I returned to my mountains for a night or two, and then headed up north to do some research on anarchy and black market economies, Trinity County the immediate destination.

The two hours north on the 5 freeway to Redding have to be the longest I've ever experienced, 150 miles of redundant tedium, indeed a journey suggesting infinity, no beginning, no end. Eternity did take a break on encountering the town exit leading to its semi-famous Sundial Bridge, crossing the upper Sacramento River. The light rain imparted a melancholy air to the stop, unrelieved by a glimpse of the convention center, a concrete Frankenstein of a building reminiscent of the post-war brutalist architecture so popular with dictators and Third World countries. It failed in its purposes, I believe--Redding, a convention destination?--and I was told that it's been taken over by a church.

The nearby bridge fits right in with the theme, even to the curvy, modernistic design, a white Nike swoosh sweeping into the sky, cables radiating from it to suspend the structure. All very cutting edge, 1964. Then there's the museum and coffee shop celebrating the river, a late '90s edifice, long rectangle composed of steel beams and varnished wood, flaking. It's mostly closed, I gather, due to budgetary constraints. As I said, very Sixties Third World, overreaching, cutting-edge, going nowhere.

The bridge, at least, crosses to the other side, and I learned that there's a nice network of bike trails through the hills, providing 20, 30 miles of riding. Talk about overkill, though; I think the thing must have cost three or four times more than a simple pedestrian bridge, for this is what it is. And while having the walking surface underlit by long bands of light is interesting, I suppose, I was slipping and sliding all over the thing in my Converse tennis shoes. The authorities wouldn't tolerate the like in any private establishment, I don't think, yet here they went out of the way to spend relative fortunes on a dangerous architectural conceit.

Weaverville was next on the agenda, a town two hours west through the mountains. This is another interminable road of a different sort, endless, monotonous twists and turns, ups and downs, through pine-forested mountains, unbroken by much in the way of traffic, building or anything else.

The old town stands as a gold rush anomaly, the only place outside of the Sierra foothills where nuggets sat close to the surface; it claimed a few years of glory in the 1850s, and its wilderness communities were among the earliest in the state. Named after John Weaver--who earned the honor by winning a poker game--it comprises a couple of blocks of fireproof brick buildings with balconies and cast-iron spiral staircases out front. This allowed landlords to more easily rent each floor to a different tenant.

By 1855 or so, Weaverville had perhaps the largest population of Chinese in North America except for San Francisco, some several thousands. After the gold played out many ended up in Napa, as did other miners; they'd passed through the Valley on the way to the northern goldfields, liked what they saw, and returned.

I arrived a little after one in the afternoon, and went to the courthouse to do some research...only to discover it was more or less closed. Trinity County is essentially bankrupt, so the offices only open from eleven-to-one. And the skeleton staff seemed willfully ignorant, unenthusiastic, unhelpful.

That's where the anarchy comes in. Environmentalists destroyed the lumber industry. Now there are so many regulations and competing bureaus in charge, that the County can't even develop sustainable wood harvesting, though everyone, even the enviros, agrees that it would be good for the forest ecology at this point, not to mention critical to the economy.

Ironically, this led to a land boom. A decade ago, the area was full of retirees, welfare cases and meth heads, drawn by the low housing costs and lack of County bureaucrats to bother you. Then, as rural land prices took off in Mendocino and Humboldt counties as a result of cannabis farming, Trinity became popular because it was so much cheaper. And easier to get away with stuff; last time I checked there were fewer than a dozen cops in Trinity, though there is a contingent from the fish and game constabulary, and the Highway Patrol cruises the main roads.

The local authorities established guidelines for legal cannabis farming, and a real estate boom happened in these remote mountains, now full of odd, little homesteads, circled by high fences, and guarded by dogs or armed, local watches. People tend not to steal thoughtlessly up there, or to cause trouble needlessly, because someone might just kill you, and no one will notice. Or care.

Land prices have gone up to six or eight times what they were six or seven years ago, and previously deserted tracts of wilderness sprouted little communities of growers. I dropped in on a couple of real estate agents; one said he does a couple of deals a week. And, he says, the Chinese are coming back in droves; from China, from back east, from elsewhere in California, to buy land and become farmers. Of sorts.

From the county seat I journeyed to Hayfork, about an hour-and-a-half away, and stopped at the general store on the south end of town. This is the local hangout, and everyone, it seems, stops by here at some did the informant I'd hoped to encounter. It turned out he was headed to his other place in Mendocino later, and he invited me to follow along. But first he'd show me his couple of acres 20 miles from Hayfork; he'd come north to prepare his property for the coming season.

By the time we got there, the rain had thickened and turned into light snow flurries that didn't stick. It takes 40 minutes to travel the unpaved back roads to his little spread, a hillside with good southern exposure on which he'd cleared half the pine trees and dug three-foot holes in the ground where he planted the cannabis in special soil.

A couple of cabins dotted the parcel, trash spread everywhere, the result of marauding creatures who attacked the garbage bags. My acquaintance told of encountering mountain lions and bears in the area with some regularity, even claimed to have seen a wolf once. There aren't supposed to be any wild wolves in California anymore, but the forests are so dense and empty of people, I tend to believe him.

We left after half-an-hour, and I joined him in Mendocino briefly to meet some of his crew, assembling at his house before they left for the mountains in a couple of weeks. They'll drive up in a motorhome, spend the summer planting and tending the buds, and in October they'll do the harvesting, drying and trimming to create the cannabis nuggets that sell for $150-200 an ounce. That, he tells me, was the going rate for outdoor growths; more lovingly tended indoor bud sold for a hundred bucks more an ounce.

Then he got a phone call, a threatening one, from some kind of wannabe gangster, talking about north side crews, and south side crews, and he was gonna get my new friend. The latter laughed after he got over his outrage; the fool knew nothing about him, where he lived, what he really did, nor did he have an appreciation of the extended family with which he was dealing. On the other hand, my friend knew quite a bit about his caller. He read the guy the riot act over the phone, gave him a reality check; I felt reassured that everything would work out well for everyone concerned. My friend wasn't a hothead...but he wasn't a chump either.

It seemed like an excellent time for me to depart, and that's what I did as the crew sat around a comfy room playing a vintage Nintendo game on the television...Monopoly, now a spectator video sport, and they all started making bets on the outcome.

Welcome to Northern Northern California, the new brave new world.

Heard on the Street, outside Bilco's Pool Hall and Bar late one night, girl to new guy: "...we can walk to my place, but stop're not a Gee...that's're definitely not an OG!"

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