Dollars to Donuts

March 15, 2012

I am blessed with both a loyal readership and understanding editor at the newspaper for which I write, but from time to time I have artistic differences with the paper around issues of spelling and grammar.  As my readers know, I tend to invent words or write endlessly long sentences, confident that  my highly intelligent readers will follow wherever I take them.  And while I’m trying to develop a thick skin around this, once in a while my hackles are raised by grammatical changes that perhaps improve compliance with AP standards, but that seriously undermine the funny.  Take this week’s column, which is titled Dollars to Donuts, or as the proofreaders have changed it: Dollars to Doughnuts.  I realize that I am a bit batty, but isn’t Donuts just a funnier word than Doughnuts? The prior week, they changed a discussion of my “journalistic bona fides” to my “credentials.”  Isn’t credentials a sharp, unfunny word?  Anyhoo, my kindhearted editor restored my original of that column (Semi-Pro) online, and I’ve decided — particularly since I am turning 54 tomorrow — to demonstrate some maturity and let the whole Donut thing lie.  But when you read today’s column in the Star, please change Doughnuts to Donuts in your mind.

Up The Valley: Dollars to doughnuts

I read with interest the Star’s recent recap of the City Council’s goal-setting meeting, which put me in mind of Robert Benchley’s quote: “If you are not the lead dog, the view never changes.”

I’m not quite sure who inside or outside the council is leading this pack, or if members have simply become greyhounds circling a racetrack to nowhere. This annual exercise provided an opportunity to break from the pack, innovate and inspire. Instead, participants put Post-it notes on the wall and, after hours of discussion, concluded that the council’s highest-ranking goal is the development of new revenue sources. No kidding.

As Councilmember Peter White put it: “Somehow over the short and long term we need to make this city recession-proof.” I would emphasize the word “somehow” as in “who knows how?” Because for too many councilmembers, economic development still means a willingness to spend the revenue derived from new businesses and increased tourism, so long as no new businesses or tourists are actually required.

Mayor Del Britton and Councilmember Ann Nevero took another opportunity to reiterate their wish that the city look exactly the same in 10 years (with better sidewalks). They remind me of the cartoon characters Mr. Peabody and Sherman, who used a WABAC (pronounced “way-back”) machine to travel backward in time to key dates throughout history, except that this pair has permanently set their WABAC to revisit a date 10 years from yesterday.

In the absence of fresh ideas, the council is considering its favorite Plan B: employment of an expert. But why add an expensive new employee whose conclusions they’ll undoubtedly ignore, when they can ignore me for free?

Through relentless online research, I have identified resilient industries fitting nicely within our current wine, culinary and wellness focus that are sure to shower St. Helena with recession-proof riches:

• Pet Pampering. Let’s face it, wineries don’t like children, but who doesn’t welcome an adorable dog? Local businesses would boost receipts by simply adding the words “for Pets” to their names, like “Health Spa Napa Valley … for Pets.” Animal-lovers spend $50 billion annually; why not on tubby-cat wellness retreats and stressed-out-gerbil recovery centers? And wouldn’t grapeseed-infused dog water be high in vitamin E and antioxidants?

• Lipstick. Lavish spending on lipstick and polish is reputedly a positive economic indicator. So bring on the Fumé-flavored lip-gloss, organic Cabernet lip-stain and Viognier toe-varnish. With all the visiting pets, we’ll have plenty of animals to test them on.

• Romance Novels. Steamy bodice-rippers are the one hot spot in a cooling book market, and what better backdrop for stories of greed, jealousy and lust than the wine industry? Plus, if we want to write about wild women, wily billionaires, scheming divorcées and vengeful disinherited offspring, we can simply follow our neighbors around town.

• Doughnuts. Junk food and doughnut chains have enjoyed an upturn as the economy has down-spiraled. Since the mayor was outvoted in opposing the proposed office complex at the southern entrance to town, why not sweeten the deal by adding Doumani’s Donuts, featuring a giant landmark drive-through doughnut, on Highway 29? It could greet lard-and-sugar-fixated visitors passing through its portal with the slogan: “Welcome to California — We’re Always in the Hole!”

• Tattoos. Forty percent of Gen. X-ers have tattoos; 15 percent of the entire U.S. population has one. At $50 to $200 per tat average, couldn’t we invent some purple grape permanent ink? La Condesa might add tattoos to its bar; tequila makes a tasty anesthetic.

• Vegetable Seeds. Finally, a role for the Master Gardeners besides reminding me to mulch! Seed sales are up 75 percent, with 45 million Americans growing food for their dinner tables. And that doesn’t count those enterprising marijuana growers who cultivate the ultimate recession-proof crop.

• Chocolate. Worldwide annual chocolate sales exceed $80 billion, with candy and chewing gum sales soaring. While we concoct some vintage brut bubblegum, let’s persuade Woodhouse Chocolates to go public and pay sea-salt caramel dividends.

• Condoms. As the economy remains flaccid, condom sales are on the rise. What enterprising local scientist is ready to win the Nobel for inventing a grape-skin prophylactic?

Sure, my economic conclusions could be vetted via a fancy study (which would be swiftly shelved between the Housing Committee’s findings and the General Plan). Any expert would likely agree, however, that instead of fearing change, we should pilot our WABAC machine into the future. After all, 10 years from now, things might look even better than today. Can you imagine that?

If not, then you can’t possibly lead the pack in developing an economy, recession-proof or otherwise. So you’d better start following those who can, and here’s hoping you enjoy the view!

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



March 7, 2012

I know we are neck-deep in a jobs crisis, but it seems I hardly ever meet anyone who has one job —  they usually have two or three.  I guess that’s just what it takes to cobble together what can laughingly be called a living these days.  Or maybe it’s a good sign; perhaps more people are pursuing their passionate avocations, and paying for the privilege with some nice income-producing or benefits-providing vocations.  Certainly that’s the case with the wine writers I met at the recent Napa Valley Professional Wine Writers Symposium at Meadowood.  My recent column about that experience is in the Star, so read it here!  If you can find time between your three jobs, that is.

Up The Valley: Semi-pro

I am reliably informed that serious journalists, as opposed to we humor columnists, are distinguished by a deep knowledge of their subject matter and exhaustive verification of their facts. And while I never let a lack of knowledge stand in the way of my opinions, I try to harvest as many low-hanging facts as 20 minutes spent randomly surfing the Internet can produce. Enter Wikipedia, a collaborative online encyclopedia apparently founded on the principle that if millions of volunteers toss in information they read elsewhere, and this information is consumed and regurgitated to suggest a consensus, then Truth might accidentally emerge. I always assume that the bulk of any Wikipedia entry was lifted from the term-paper of the grad student who sat next to the contributor 30 years ago, that contributor now being a 50-year-old flabby former barista living with his parents and writing under the pseudonym Cindy4u. Still, Wikipedia’s definitions are much pithier than those of the fuddy-duddy dictionaries and far less likely to include the sort of complexity and nuance that might cloud the subject and cause my articles to exceed their 750-word limit.

To further bolster my journalistic bonafides, I attended last week’s annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood. This confluence of world-class wine journalists, bloggers, website floggers, magazine editors, former magazine editors, cookbook authors, book publishers, writing coaches, and new media gurus is co-sponsored by Meadowood Napa Valley and the Napa Valley Vintners. The best local events often involve the NVV, which is to wine enthusiasts what Steve Rubell and Studio 54 were to disco queens, although passage past their velvet rope must be based more upon pocketbook and palate than glamour, judging from some of its scruffy-whiskered winemaker members. Far from highfalutin, our hosts created an atmosphere of conviviality in which even the biggest stars were accessible and forthcoming, if occasionally formidable. Picture baseball camp for wine scribes, except that instead of practice pitching a curve ball with Goose Gossage, you practiced pitching a feature story to Decanter, Wine & Spirits and Uncorked.

Like most events where strangers gather, it resembled high school. The cool people immediately congealed, separating themselves from the rest of us like gourmet balsamic from off-brand olive oil. The usual types emerged: the ultra-driven strivers shoehorning themselves into conversations with editors, the popular darlings flitting about swapping business cards, the true believers burying their noses deep in spit cups to avoid eye contact, and the starstruck who couldn’t believe they were in the same room with both Eric Asimov and the Shafer 2003 Hillside Select Cabernet (and other rarities). Overall the group was enthusiastic, friendly and kind, and we soon relaxed into an easy camaraderie, remaining hopeful even as Symposium founder and nurturer-in-chief Toni Allegra reminded us that the average writer earns $9K per year.

It made me wonder: who becomes a wine writer, anyway? Were they born picky, their first words being: “Mother, I find this chocolate milk smooth on the palate, soft, full-bodied and rich, yet lacking maturity”? Were they finicky in high school, attending keg parties wearing smoking jackets and swilling Champagne? It appears they were always articulate observers, a tad on the sensitive side. These were not the bullies who shoved you into your locker and stole your lunch money — those guys became venture capitalists and bought wineries. These were good kids, super-smart achievers, with a bit of rebellion at the finish. They edited the yearbook or ran student government, but also drummed in rock bands or smoked pot behind the gym — until they discovered wine. One writer admitted that she had been in the color guard: “you know … not quite a cheerleader.” And while many had grown up to become respected and widely-published, few were able to support themselves through writing alone. Does this mean they are: “you know … not quite wine writers”?

According to Wikipedia: “a semi-professional athlete is one who is paid to play and thus is not an amateur, but for whom sport is not a full-time occupation, generally because the level of pay is too low to make a reasonable living based solely upon that source.” Broadly applying that definition, many of us would be considered semi-pro nowadays. Still the wine writers maintain a high level of professionalism, even if they seem a bit obsessive, fretting about botrytis and blithering on about tannins and acids and bouquets when any normal person would just say “yum.” Some don’t actually drink the wine, yet all are compelled to taste, evaluate and report, even if they can’t be entirely certain anyone is reading. In a world where everyone’s a critic, there is nothing amateur about them. And that’s a fact.

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