Up The Valley: What happens in St. Helena

Now that we have a new, energetic leader at the Chamber of Commerce, it’s time to finally address a major problem facing St. Helena: lack of a really cool nickname.

Most great cities have one: “The Big Easy,” “The Big Apple,” “The Windy City,” “Motor City,” and so forth. San Francisco is so cool (both culturally and thermostatically) that it has earned the nickname “The City,” without need for further embellishment.

Yet while everyone has heard of the Napa Valley, fewer outsiders know St. Helena or can distinguish it from its neighbors. When I tell people back east that I’m from St. Helena, they think Washington or Oregon. Well, actually, they think I’m from Los Angeles because to New Yorkers, any address on the West Coast is automatically assumed to be LA (although certain opera- and ballet-loving Upper East Side residents acknowledge that San Francisco exists as well).

So why don’t we have an official nickname already? Our fellow farming neighbors — Castroville (artichokes), Gilroy (garlic) and Watsonville (strawberries) — all advertise themselves as their respective “Crop Capitals of the World,” while Yuba City is the “Prune Capital of the World” (which makes it sound more glamorous than it is.)

Some nicknames are optimistic: Chico is “Where Everything Grows” and Coachella is the “City of Eternal Sunshine,” so why couldn’t we be the “City That’s Always Mellow but Never Moldy”? If Vegas can be “Sin City,” maybe we could be “Sip City,” and not just because the water here is too expensive to gulp.

Some nicknames send subliminal messages, like “The Biggest Little City in the World” (Reno) or “The Most Vertical City” (Jerome, Ariz.). Maybe we too should try something suggestive, such as: “The Town That Gets You Tipsy” or “The City That’s Always in Season” or “St. Helena: Ripe for the Plucking.”

Other nicknames are inspirational: Riverside is the “City of Arts and Innovation,” and Richmond is the “City of Pride and Purpose,” whereas regular viewers of our local public hearings might dub us “The City of Grapes and Wrath.” Some are hard to fathom: Forestville, for example, is called the “Poison Oak Capital of the World,” which would be like calling ourselves the “Home of the Glassy-Winged Sharpshooter.”

I’ve always thought that Tombstone had the coolest nickname: “The Town Too Tough to Die.” I’m not sure if we’re ready for a really macho nickname like Tombstone’s, unless it’s “Home of the $50 Sirloin Steak.”

Come to think of it, maybe we’d be better off with a good slogan — our own version of “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.” How about: “After 8 p.m., What Happens in St. Helena is Very Little.”

For the frustrated visiting motorists stuck in traffic driving through town, we could erect a sign saying: “Historic St. Helena — Enjoy our Authentic Potholes and Unevenly Paved Roads Like Days of Yore,” or “It Took You Forever to Drive Here So You Might As Well Stay and Enjoy It,” or simply “Stop, Sip, Shop!” I considered a sign saying “There Are No Toll Booths on Main Street” but didn’t want to give the City Council any ideas.

Perhaps we need a slogan that addresses our reputation as being a bit precious compared to our wine country cousins, like: “St. Helena: Not As Snooty As You’ve Heard,” or “Tight Sphincters, Loose Corks,” or maybe just: “Welcome Back to St. Helena — Sorry If We Were Rude Before.”

We need to get this slogan thing solved because, to be honest, lots of people come to the Napa Valley on vacation, book a hotel in downtown Napa with a view of a highway overpass buffeted by traffic noise, and are disappointed that it’s not, well, us. They come looking for sprawling vineyards, rolling hills of mustard and lavender and Tuscan villas surrounded by olive trees, and find the local equivalents of the Olive Garden instead. And those are the lucky folks not suckered into “wine country” excursions to Livermore or Long Island.

So perhaps what we really want to convey is this: “St. Helena: The Wine Country You Were Looking For.” Of course, if we make that our slogan, we’re going to have to make certain that we preserve the Napa Valley of everyone’s dreams. Our message to would-be visitors should serve to remind us that we are not beloved worldwide as the “Strip-Mall Office-Complex Empty-Storefront Capital of the World,” but as “The Real Napa Valley,” pure and simple. And that’s a slogan we can be proud of.

(P.S. Please share your own nickname and slogan ideas for St. Helena by posting a comment to this column at sthelenastar.com.)

(Laura Rafaty is the owner of Pennaluna on Main Street, a resident of St. Helena, a former attorney and Broadway theatrical producer and an author and columnist.)

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Helpful Hardware

August 4, 2011

Up The Valley: Helpful hardware

Before moving here, I visited friends who own the quintessential St. Helena home surrounded by vineyards with a lovely blue swimming pool. Sitting poolside sipping chardonnay, I noticed a bucket swarming with yellowjackets. On closer inspection, I observed that the bucket was filled with soapy water and had a chunk of beef floating inside, suspended on a string.

I asked the host whether this was some new pre-barbecue marinade from Sunset Magazine. He explained that it was a homespun solution to the yellowjacket problem suggested by the folks at Steves Hardware. He recounted presenting his yellowjacket issue to Steves’ staff, whereupon some heated debate ensued regarding the superiority of traps versus sprays, the group eventually landing on the soapy-roast-on-a-rope solution.

He apparently worried at the time that this might be a local hazing procedure: “Let’s tell the city guy to dangle his meat in a bucket and see if he’ll do it.” But of course, like most solutions proposed by Steves, it worked.

The only downside, my friend mentioned, was that a visit to Steves could take what seemed like hours while the various experts conferred, argued, and assembled the moving parts needed to address the problem at hand.

After moving here, I had many similar experiences with the guys at Steves tending to my countrified needs — my favorite of which was when my well started to run dry and the plumbers wanted to run a camera through it for  $1,000, Steves sold me one half-inch metal washer (29 cents) and a long piece of string (complimentary with the purchase of the aforementioned washer), which I dangled into the well until it hit the bottom, then measured the amount of wet string to see how much water remained. Brilliant.

Now at the risk of being accused of living in the past and denigrating the present, which could get my column banished to the back of the classified section where it will run every other Groundhog Day, I have to admit that Steves has become much more speedy and efficient than it used to be. Sure, maybe I’ve slowed down to a St. Helena pace, and what once seemed an eternity is now just a St. Helena Minute, which is measured, by the way, in the amount of time you spend sitting at the intersection waiting for the Wine Train to pass and for that super-slo-mo gate to raise up again.

But it does seem that the days of the guys at the hardware store standing around, scratching their whiskers and pondering the best way to fill a square hole with a round plug, chicken wire and some duct tape, have gone the way of handwritten sales slips.

Still, I would happily spend hours at Steves in order to avoid visiting certain parts of Central Valley Hardware. Don’t get me wrong: I regularly shop

Central Valley and find it indispensable, plus it just seems to get better all the time. But spending time there is, I imagine, what it must be like when you die and approach St. Peter’s Gate.

On one side is Heaven, typified by Central Valley’s garden section, where helpful, happy, knowledgeable workers give thoughtful advice, lift heavy objects for you, and generally fill your world with fruit, flowers and fragrance.

Then there is the Purgatory of Central Valley: the main indoor section of the store. Shopping here, for me, can either be quick, efficient and satisfying, or a bewildering maze where I wander lost and alone, beckoned forward by the inviting scent of freshly popped popcorn that never actually materializes.

And then there is the dreaded Back Yard. Exiting through those two swinging back doors I feel I should be wearing a hospital gown with my backside exposed, as some humiliation inevitably waits on the other side. It’s not that they’re unhelpful; they’ll fill your propane tank and load it into your car. But I always feel I don’t belong back there, not being a contractor, not being a male, and clearly having been profiled by the employees as one of those unwary customers most likely to step in front of a crane or get hit upside the head with a two-by-four.

On the plus side, the Yard definitely moves at the slower St. Helena pace formerly featured at Steves, and offers the scent of freshly cut lumber and of sweaty men working with their hands. So if this is what Hell turns out to look like, it might not be so bad after all.

(Laura Rafaty is the owner of Pennaluna on Main Street, a resident of St. Helena, a former attorney and Broadway theatrical producer and an author and columnist.)