Another Cool Christmas…

December 25, 2011

For those outside the Bay Area, I hope you enjoy snuggling by the fire tonight. Regrettably, the Bay Area Board of Conflagratory Correctness and has declared yet another Spare the Air Day, our tenth since November 1, when our Scrooge-like leaders will impose hefty penalties on anyone daring to light their yule logs. So keep those home fires smouldering and cuddle up to your computer ’cause here’s a virtual fine-free fireplace for you.  Merry Christmas!


Schlock the Halls

December 22, 2011

Here’s a link to today’s column, which deals with some pretty tacky holiday decor — and why we love it.

I’ll be back writing regularly for this blog come January, so stay tuned!

Meanwhile I hope you have a very Merry Christmas.

Up the Valley: Schlock the halls

I don’t have many family heirlooms, but I’ve somehow managed to retain a mangy red tin wreath with faded and broken Christmas balls that made its holiday debut over half a century ago. So each December, I drag out this sorry little specimen as part of my increasingly diminished Christmas display. It may be tattered, but it has become a tradition.

A similar preference for the traditional over the tasteful has apparently gripped St. Helena. Despite pleas from the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Renaissance and the hovering specter of Martha Stewart, downtown streetlights are once again festooned with faded, broken and rodent-nibbled holiday wreaths dredged up from the décor deep-freeze by nostalgic locals. It’s easy to understand the chamber’s frustration. Under new leadership, the chamber is trying valiantly to tart up the city’s image with a new visitor center, updated logo and tourist-tempting website. But now it’s as if the chamber bought a new dining table, covered it with beautiful French linens, set it with the finest crystal and sterling and laid out a sumptuous gourmet feast, only to have an enormous plastic poinsettia centerpiece plunked down in the middle of the table.

The trouble is that many holiday treats and decorations are, by their very nature, hopelessly tacky. No one eats fruitcake or ice cream snowballs because they look or taste good, but because, darn it, that’s what we’ve always done. Santa costumes are used and reused until they disintegrate or spontaneously combust. Every household I know has at least one unspeakable bit of ugly looming in storage waiting to be unleashed: the faded plastic reindeer for the front lawn, the flaccid inflatable snowman, or the papier-mâché nativity scene that’s been missing the baby Jesus since 1972. And these are the professionally manufactured items. Add to this display the generations of handmade, hideous, but sentiment-stirring concoctions fashioned from Styrofoam, glue, glitter and pipe cleaners and dragged out once a year like holy relics, and the holidays can appear more flea market than festive.

And then there are the sweaters. Not to sound like Scrooge-meets-Tim Gunn, but one should seriously reconsider leaving the house wearing any item of clothing that: 1) includes bells that jingle or sound chips playing Christmas carols; 2) requires batteries and features operational lights or a reindeer whose nose blinks; 3) is decorated with elves, nutcrackers or Santa; or 4) is covered with red and white stripes causing the wearer to resemble a barber pole or giant piece of candy. Such costumes are most appropriately worn by individuals volunteering at hospitals, raising money for charity or competing in the “ugliest possible holiday sweater” contest at their place of employment.

But is retiring your “Meet Me Under the Mistletoe” necktie and upgrading your Snoopy Christmas stocking the answer? I’m tempted by the catalogs featuring designer outdoor holiday décor, with their elegant snow-white grapevine-lighted deer sculptures with sparkling antlers. They look so clean, bright and shiny now, but after a season or two of exposure to the elements, not to mention the neighbor’s dog, followed by consignment to some dark corner of the garage between the tiki torches and the unused trampoline, today’s holiday showstopper could become tomorrow’s neighborhood shame.

Still, I must admit that I see both sides of this wreath thing. It would be lovely if our town could hang holiday décor that didn’t make us look like a city in Eastern Germany during the Cold War, or suffer by comparison to glittering downtown Yountville; even Calistoga decorates its tractors with more gusto. On the other hand, as someone who cannot discard either a broken ornament or the box it came in, I sympathize with those having a lingering attachment to these shabby un-chic outcasts from the past. So for now, the wreaths reign triumphant in all their faded glory, a testament to tradition and continuity and the indestructible quality of commercial-grade plastic and tinsel. It is comforting to know that even in a nuclear winter wonderland, these ancient artifacts from our civilization (and some rodents who love them) will survive. I heard a downtown merchant start to complain about their appearance last week, when he suddenly stopped himself and asked me: “Are you in the pro-wreath or anti-wreath camp?” The fact that Christmas wreaths could become a cause so divisive that they have spawned dueling constituencies is perhaps the most traditionally St. Helena thing about them. And that’s a holiday tradition we might consider consigning to the seasonal scrap heap in 2012.

Meanwhile, it’s the first anniversary of this column. Thank you for your readership and encouragement, and here’s wishing you peace, prosperity and laughter in the New Year!

(Laura Rafaty is the owner of Pennaluna Napa Valley, a resident of St. Helena, an attorney and former theatrical producer, and an author and columnist. Read more at

Art of the Deal

December 9, 2011

Don’t give up on me, loyal readers.  I’ve been down with the flu, and even downer with the pressure of closing the retail store, so my hilarity-quotient has been on the wane.  I hope you’ll check out my new column in the Star and look for more from me soon.   Meanwhile don’t let that holiday season of joy make you too crazy-go-nuts!

UP THE VALLEY: The art of the deal

I can’t help but notice that columnists and commentators have all sorts of brilliant suggestions for solving the world’s problems. It’s a mystery why no one listens to them. Candidates running for president have grand ideas of what they are going to do without explaining how they might accomplish them, while the incumbent has a long wish list of things he’d like to do without explaining why he hasn’t gotten around to doing them already. Well, I’m no expert, and so this clearly qualifies me to propose solutions to the seemingly insurmountable challenges facing the world, the nation and our little hamlet:

• Solving our debt to China: We owe China over a trillion, and since we’re a bit short on dollars, at least until the ink dries on the bunch we’re printing right now, we should seek some creative financing alternatives. We might not necessarily have anything China wants, since if we did they would own it already, but we might be able to take something off China’s hands that they really don’t want. So my suggestion is this: we take Tibet and move it to Nevada. Let’s face it, Tibet is a public relations nightmare for China, what with the Brad Pitt movies, and the Free Tibet rainbow bumper stickers, and the human rights violations tweeted by pesky tourists, not to mention the multiple dueling reincarnated deities.

Meanwhile, Nevada is a natural home for Tibet. It’s roughly the same size (if you accept China’s definition of Tibet, which leaves off a huge chunk of the country, but we have to start somewhere) and has roughly the same population, although it’s hard to count since Tibetans and Nevadans are prone to disappearance at the hands of criminal thugs. Nevada has mountains and snow, so the Tibetans would be more comfortable there than, say, Palm Beach, plus there would be less chance of spotting the Dalai Lama in short shorts. It’s a little-known fact that Shangri-La is actually located in Nevada, at 3535 S. Las Vegas Boulevard, where it is currently incarnated as a swimming pool at the Imperial Palace Hotel.

Between Vegas and legalized prostitution, Nevada has the earthbound market locked, but what of the more cosmic tourist? Tibet-Nevada could open as a meditation center and wellness retreat where people from all over the world would seek spiritual enlightenment and physical renewal, catch a floor show, and leave with a Buddha-shaped souvenir or autographed photo of Richard Gere. Of course, we’d have to Americanize the peaceful Tibetans, but this could be accomplished by giving them football season tickets and making the yak the team mascot (“Yak Attack!”) and by marketing yak meat as the latest gourmet craze (yak carpaccio and panko-fried yak balls, anyone?). Plus we could swing them a piece of the lucrative wedding business, as who wouldn’t rather be married by an adorable lama than by an Elvis impersonator? Clearly, Tibet would be a much happier fit with us here in the USA, and China doesn’t deserve it. I’d move Tibet to St. Helena, but they’d hate the climate and we’d never get the permits.

• Solving California’s budget crisis: The state needs immediate cash, and has excess inventory in just one category of valuable liquid assets: incoherent rich starlets and quasi-socialites just out of rehab and their boozy Beverly Hills Housewife mothers. Surely someone in Saudi Arabia or Dubai would pay a fair amount for some of them, and their lifestyles would likely change very little. Plus, they don’t seem to know where they are most of the time — we’ll tell them they’re shooting a movie or a pilot for a new reality series. Best of all, on closer inspection, the buyer will undoubtedly pay us to take them back.

• Solving St. Helena’s budget problems: Three words — Wine & Willie Wonka. That’s right, we put one golden cork in one random bottle of 2011 vintage which, when revealed, is worth one free winery (surely someone is ready to donate theirs). And if you drink enough wine trying to find the cork, you’ll see the Oompa-Loompas for free.

Obviously these few simple steps would make for massive global improvement, and I’m just getting started. It’s a mystery why no one listens to me.

(Laura Rafaty is the owner of Pennaluna Napa Valley, a resident of St. Helena, an attorney and former theatrical producer, and an author and columnist. Read more at