Here is today’s column in the Star newspaper, wherein I discuss my community’s obsession with all things legal…

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss practicing law for a living. I miss the money and the intellectual stimulation and seeing middle-aged men in business suits, rather than in board shorts and flip-flops. And did I mention the money?

Still, I don’t miss dinner parties where all the invitees are lawyers, with conversation devolving into war stories about difficult clients, impossible opposing counsel and the time they got that continuance and really stuck it to the other side.

It’s the same in any industry, I suppose; I’ve suffered through several prolonged dinner party conversations about the water table here in the Napa Valley. But even the wine industry’s most boring exchanges about malolactic fermentation and “punching down the cap” beat extended discussions of ERISA law and Sarbanes-Oxley compliance.

Which is why it’s a bit off-putting to be hearing so much law-talk in town these days. It suddenly seems like everybody is a legal analyst preparing for their guest shot on Court TV. I blame “Law & Order,” “CSI” and the latest sensational televised trial for making every man a would-be Matlock. And I marvel at how people having only a sketchy familiarity with the Constitution can explain, in subparts, the unconstitutionality of the health care mandate.

I frequently encounter amateur employment lawyers outlining the repercussions of City Hall layoffs, and hobbyist land-use experts opining on zoning restrictions affecting the latest hotel/office wannabuild. But most off-putting are those dabblers engaged in mind-numbingly dull discussions of the Byzantine Brown Act.

The Ralph M. Brown Act, aka the “Sunshine Law,” aka the “Full Employment for Government Attorneys Act,” aka the “Last Gasp of Relevance for Newspaper Editors Law,” is an undeniably important protection, guaranteeing citizens proper access to their leaders’ deliberative process. Certainly our representatives should not be permitted to conduct business in secret or render decisions without public input and scrutiny. But the act is also hopelessly complex, easy to trip over, and potentially dire in consequences.

Ever wonder why we don’t have more people willing to step forward as candidates for local office? The Brown Act squelches volunteerism, threatening criminal prosecution of hapless councilfolk who violate its terms. Luckily, our local leaders and their constituencies can now add “Brown Act Expert” to their legal resumes, simply by viewing the Planning Commission’s recent “Brown Act for Dummies” presentation via streaming video.

Its former chairman having been accused of Brown Act violations, the Planning Commission was sent to the principal’s office for a stern hygiene lecture intended to clean up its act. City attorneys (we have several, apparently), armed with a battery of PowerPoint slides, led planners and a rapt television audience on a two-hour slog through the law’s statutory framework in theory and practice. The commissioners were well behaved and took their medicine without sugar, cognizant surely that none of them wished to end up in the clink.

Yet despite the educational merits of the evening, I found its entertainment value waning after the first hour and a half. The highlight came when chairman-elect Matthew Heil, always a source of sensible questions, inquired whether the Brown Act applied in the case of emergencies. What, he wondered, would happen if the city were threatened with major flooding — could it really be that City Council members couldn’t confer to save the town?

No, came the emphatic expert advice — there are no exceptions, although a scheduled meeting could be adjourned if the building was underwater. In that case, presumably, the meeting could continue with a quorum of commissioners in a rowboat, so long as interested citizens were issued comparable flotation devices.

It left me wishing that Matt, normally so thorough, had asked the obvious follow-up questions:

• What if a giant meteor is headed for Earth? Can commissioners yell “Duck!” even if Armageddon is not on the published agenda?

• What if Martians invade St. Helena? Are they entitled to the same notice of hearings as local citizens? Same question re: people who only live here during the summer.

• What if an enormous sinkhole caused while planting the Carnegie Building’s outsized palm trees suddenly swallows up half the council? Can the Public Works Department privately debate ways to publicly blame the Tree Committee?

• What if a councilmember is tarred and feathered by locals for violating the Brown Act? Can fellow members hose him down without being charged as accessories-after-the-fact? and

• What if a tsunami sweeps away the city’s legal advisers and their flowcharts? Do the survivors still need to follow their advice?

These and other questions will have to await the next properly noticed special session. In the meantime, if you require advice about this or any other pressing legal issue affecting our city, please consult the many local experts readily available at the street corner, coffee shop or grocery line near you.


Flashback: Far Out

June 26, 2012

The following column is one of the national and state award winners, and I have to admit it’s one of my favorites. Things have changed since it first appeared in the St. Helena Star newspaper  on March 31, 2011. Gas prices have risen even higher, threatening to make Napa Valley women even less geographically desirable than last year!

One of the downsides for single women moving to the Napa Valley is that it renders them suddenly geographically undesirable as potential dates for the majority of available single men living in the Bay Area (of which there are currently two dozen or so).

Women here wishing to date men in, say, San Francisco, must cope with a Geographic Undesirability Index (GUI) rating of at least 6, spiking to 8 in the summer (when there’s traffic). This compares favorably to Sacramento and Santa Cruz women, who have a GUI closer to 10, which is the highest number there is, because any farther and why bother.

Other than Christopher Reeve, who used a time machine to travel back 60 years to date Jane Seymour in a movie, men as a rule are unwilling to drive more than 50 miles to date any woman, 25 if there’s a toll bridge involved.

Whenever I hear about gas prices rising, I worry first about the impact on tourism as it impacts my shop, and then quickly shift my sympathies to those who would seek to lure a man up for a quiet home-cooked dinner when the guy has to pay $3.80 a gallon. I truly believe that many men will choose celibacy, or switch teams entirely, rather than pay $4 a gallon to drive to a woman’s house.

This is why you often observe summer dates involving bicycling. I always wonder how much fun a woman is having as she pedals exhausted 25 feet behind her man in the 100-degree heat, knowing that she’s going to have to pull off that helmet in the near future and let him see her hair. Men, of course, look great all sweaty with their hair sticking to their heads, and if they don’t they simply shave it off so that the sweat literally beads off their domes like waxed apples in the rain.

But to reach the Sweaty Bicycle Date stage, or even the Dutch Treat at Tra Vigne stage with the hope of eventually reaching the mythic Dinner at the French Laundry Where He Pays stage, a man has to be lured up to the Napa Valley in the first place.

Of course, local women could date local available single men, but I know him and he’s pretty booked up these days. So the GUI issue must be tackled head on, and the only way for a woman to overcome a negative GUI rating is to be exceptionally rich or hot, preferably both, with a cellar full of fine wine, access to ungettable restaurant reservations, and a set of balloons that would be the envy of Yountville’s Adventures Aloft.

Incidentally, there is no corresponding GUI index for Napa Valley men, because it is a proven fact that women will travel any distance to date. Incarcerated for life, conjoined to a Siamese twin, still living with mother in Antioch, it’s all workable if the guy is unmarried, mostly straight and not a certifiable lunatic (this last one is negotiable).

And if you’re a single woman living in the Napa Valley, you should prepare yourself to be rejected by the lunatic, conjoined, jailbird whose mother lives in Antioch on the grounds that you are just too darn far from San Quentin for a quick one should he temporarily escape, at least until gas prices go down closer to $3.

It makes me wonder whether St. Helena isn’t having the same problem. As opposed to conveniently-located, reconstructed, unconstrained, open-after-8 p.m. Napa; and lotioned-up, aromatherapied, way-to-a-man’s-heart-is-through-his-stomach Yountville; is St. Helena looking at a GUI rating of 6, spiking to 8 in the summer (due to traffic)?

Could the City overcome this GUI rating by demonstrating that it is already both hot and rich? Perhaps it’s time for our City to tart itself up a bit, show a little leg, and pass out gas coupons. The Chamber could market St. Helena and its single women simultaneously, publishing a Hot Women Winemakers Pinup Calendar, or the St. Helena Hospital Guide to Women Who’ve Recently Undergone Successful Augmentation Surgery.

Meanwhile we can hope that the first female president makes it tax deductible to buy gas for dates in excess of 100 miles from one’s principal residence, and urge President Obama to implement his gas tax holiday to promote local tourism and to encourage treating a girl to dinner and a movie once in a while.

And that’s a stimulus package guaranteed to make the single ladies of St. Helena smile.

Flashback: Home Alone

June 23, 2012

The following column originally appeared in the St. Helena Star newspaper on April 14, 2011.  It brings back happy memories.  With the retail store now online-only, I do miss meeting visiting customers.  But I think my shopdogs prefer blissful retirement.

Women often visit the Napa Valley in groups, and groups of women often go shopping, so I get a regular opportunity to meet them in my store.

One thing I’ve noticed about these women, whether they come from Europe, the South, or the South Bay, is that they have similar stories to tell. And you’d be amazed how many of them are excited and full of praise for St. Helena, while expressing homesickness, longing and regret for having to be parted, however briefly, from their most dearly beloved: The dog they left at home.

My shopdog Winston gets the brunt of it. Dropping to their knees, these lovelorn ladies shower my dog with hugs, pets, even kisses, so that he comes home bathed in the aroma of a dozen dueling perfumes, lotions, lipsticks and tears, smelling as I’d imagine a French gigolo might.

Three women who came in last week were fairly typical.

“Oh, I miss my dog at home so badly,” cried one, displaying a phone screensaver with her dog’s picture on it. “I could hardly sleep in the hotel last night because he wasn’t snuggling next to me.”

“I know what you mean,” sighed her friend, exhibiting a phone screensaver of her dog’s picture. “She’s my little baby girl and I hope she’s OK without mommy.”

“I miss my kids, too,” the third girlfriend agreed, displaying her phone screensaver with children hugging a dog on it, “but I’m sure they’re being spoiled by their grandparents. I also have a husband at home,” she added as an afterthought, with which the other two nodded in nonchalant agreement.

Why, one might ask, do these women suffer such passionate feelings of deprivation for the absence of their dogs, and less so for the absence of their husbands? One would think that the average husband could provide ample snuggling, snoring and shedding to stir feelings of separation anxiety in the average wife.

And I would have assumed that dogs and husbands would raise identical concerns for an absent pet owner/spouse, what with the unsupervised wandering, the unauthorized chewing and the indiscriminate peeing.

I suspect one reason the wives seem to miss their husbands less than their dogs is that they can — and do — constantly communicate with their husbands by cell phone, even when they are on different continents and time zones, or when their husband is — or was — working, sleeping, or struggling with the aforementioned pet left behind.

Judging by overheard cellular conversations these women have with their husbands, which center on how much fun they are having apart, how much the wife promises not to spend in my store, and why a man with a degree in engineering can’t operate a can opener, they could both use this nice little break from in-person interaction.

Meanwhile, the dog-loving vacationer is in complete communications blackout from her beloved pet, who is obviously languishing at home, crying doggie tears, wondering why she abandoned it (actually the dog has completely forgotten her existence at this point, and is now busily seducing the petsitter while figuring out how to get the closet door open so that it can finally mate with the UGG shearling slipper that’s been giving it the come-hither look for months.)

I think that Apple could make a fortune by inventing an iPooch communications device allowing owners to interact with and monitor their pets 24/7. Of course, in my dog Winston’s case, I would be monitoring his stomach and lower intestine, as his desire to chew and swallow any item is in direct proportion to its purchase price.

In this respect, I would think that husbands would have a leg up on dogs, as I’ve observed husbands to be fairly vigorous in tug-of-war games over the remote control, but have never seen one actually chew and swallow it.

I realize that you are wondering why I haven’t mentioned people missing their cats. As a cat lover myself, I can understand why this is almost never heard.  Although I do miss my cat Briscoe terribly when we’re apart, it’s embarrassing to confess such a one-sided longing to strangers. No self-respecting cat would ever admit to missing his human companion; indeed, his attitude is that of a wise but weary professor who feels genuine affection toward his pupil (me) but is relieved that the summer break gives him a temporary respite from having to suffer my colossal ignorance and incompetence with the quiet dignity required.

Plus, he can operate the can opener.

The following column appeared in the St.  Helena Star newspaper on March 10, 2011.  My Napa Valley retail store has since closed, although it exists as an online store, and I still carry the scars — and sweet memories — of my days as a shopgirl.

People often ask me why I decided to buy a retail store. These questions usually begin with phrases like: “Whatever possessed you…” or “Why in heaven’s name would you even think of…” uttered in concerned tones. My friends from my lawyer days assume I’ve had some sort of brain episode, or that I’m doing community service pursuant to a parole agreement. My theater pals are in awe of my continued ability to find creative ways to lose money. My girlfriends suspect that I’m trying to snag a rich husband by positioning myself as a walking tax loss in heels. The truth is more sinister.

I never wanted to be a retailer;  I wanted to own an art gallery. I was introduced to IWolk Gallery owner Ira Wolk, and we spent some months dancing around the possibility of my buying his gallery. We lunched. We talked. We drank wine. But eventually I discovered that there was one impediment to my plan to buy the gallery from Ira: He didn’t want to sell it.

The truth was that Ira really loved having the gallery. He loved working with artists, he loved his clients, he loved his staff; he complained about all of them but couldn’t let them go. I finally concluded that getting him to give up the gallery would be like asking Oprah or Larry King to give up their talk shows. And so we parted as friends, and I moved on to purchase what Ira liked to call, “That little shop where I could buy a gingerbread-scented candle if I ever wanted one.”

He often stopped by the shop just to rib me, once selecting a greeting card then refusing to buy it, complaining loudly that he considered the sticker price simply outrageous.

Ira understood that my dreams of art gallery ownership and its glittering clientele, which I imagined would run the gamut from visiting royalty to George Clooney’s decorator, would be denied because of a local prohibition against the further proliferation of these dens of artsy-ness.

“We don’t want to become Carmel,” sang the Planning Commission and City Council in harmony, ignoring the fact that we lack both Clint Eastwood and a proper golf course (I am informed that nine holes don’t constitute a quorum), nor can we boast an atmosphere tinged with the pungent aroma of saltwater (except at the Go Fish sushi bar).

So I plotted to buy a retail store that already included a fair amount of art, and then gallery it up. But before long, my visions of art-world glamour were dashed as I developed a full-blown case of the Tchotchke Syndrome. I surrounded myself with stuff that made people say, “Oooh … cute.”

I ordered patchouli-scented candles that smelled like the back of my high school boyfriend’s VW bus. I stocked gold-lame purses shaped like Chihuahuas, and argued with the prior owners about who ordered the ceramic chickens with hats. I split my pants loading a giant metal rooster made from recycled oil drums into a customer’s trunk. I suspected another store of spy-versus-spy chicanery when its window featured the same stuffed corduroy dachshund we carried.

Eventually I gained the perspective that only comes from losing large amounts of money while having large amounts of fun. I discovered that for all its ridiculousness, owning a shop provided one undeniable benefit that even the art gallery might not have: I got to meet The People, up close.

Let me just say this about The People: They are not uniformly attractive. They can be demanding, fickle and downright rude, particularly when drunk. As children, they tend to be sticky, grabby and unsupervised. Parents often employ bizarre methods to corral their kids in retail stores, my favorite of which was the lady who told her children to observe “the one-finger rule,” which meant that the kids could do anything in the store so long as they did it with one finger. I don’t need to tell you which finger I longed to use as her darlings toppled breakables with the flick of a digit.

On the other hand, The People can be incredibly kind, charming and fiercely loyal. On vacation, they can be relaxed, silly and downright generous, particularly when drunk. In other words, The People may not be the perfectly polished specimens one might find in a Carmel art gallery, but I suspect they are infinitely more enjoyable. I’d still like to meet George Clooney’s decorator, though.

Flashback: Gadget Envy

June 19, 2012

This silly thing was published in the St. Helena Star on February 11, 2011.  Still posting the oldies  to get them up on the ol’ inter-web, so hang in there!  If you want something newer, scroll down to Wine Open below…

We in St. Helena generally consider our city vastly superior to Napa in most respects, yet in one area Napa can claim a distinct advantage: cool crime-fighting tools. You may recall last year, when the Napa PD chased a suspected Walmart shoplifter (of $70) by helicopter, eventually plucking him out of the Napa River assisted by flashy fire department speedboats, in a scene right out of the movie “The Fugitive.”

And last summer, when an explosive device was reported downtown, the Napa PD bomb squad deployed a highly trained expert in an elaborate 80-pound beekeeper’s costume, who gingerly attached a rope to the thing, dragged it across a bumpy street into a pile of sandbags, and blew it up. The bomb-defeating hero later explained that he was forced to handle the incident in this decidedly old-school fashion because Napa’s robot was “down for maintenance.”

So this has left me wondering ever since: Why doesn’t St. Helena have its own robot?

It is difficult to fathom how we have survived as a municipality without one for so long, since we are completely gadget-crazy here. The minute Apple dreams up a new wireless device it seems half the town is carrying one, despite the fact that it is useful primarily as a doorstop due to the unfortunate placement of AT&T’s antenna in a secret, lead-lined bunker. And when a local restaurant unveiled a gizmo adding bubbles to still water, its competitors had bubbly-water-makers within days.

It is rumored that researchers at NapaStyle are working round-the-clock to develop an animatronic Michael Chiarello for photo ops with celebrity-chef-seeking tourists at Bottega. Plus, as I’ve mentioned: Napa already has one. Clearly we need our own shiny, obedient and discriminately lethal robot, for the following possible uses:

• It can run for Mayor.

It must be lonely for His Honor, running unopposed for high office. Nothing takes the fizz out of the champagne at the victory party like an inability to brag about beating the brains out of your opponent. Wouldn’t it be great if we could spice up the Mayor’s campaign with bumper stickers saying: “At Least He’s Human” or “My Candidate Doesn’t Run on Batteries.” The pre-election debate alone would be worth the price of the contraption, although we’ll have to remember to set the robot’s weapon to stun.

• It can welcome visitors.

Since the city is threatening to remove all funding from the Chamber of Commerce, and downtown business owners spend approximately 68 percent of their time directing tourists to the bathroom, the robot could serve as a Goodwill Ambassador, roaming the streets dispensing coupons, restaurant recommendations, wet wipes and local wine. It could even be programmed to dispense useful misinformation (which we’ll blame on a software glitch) such as driving directions to Yountville that involve traveling west until you hit the ocean, or a geologic history of Calistoga attributing the bubbling sulfur hot springs to decomposing vegetarian dinosaurs passing gas.

• It can fight crime.

There’s a new sheriff in town, as our ever-vigilant robot walks the beat and perhaps rips the head off a shoplifter or two, just as a warning to the others. Watch out, Cheers! revelers, as you’d better be sporting a tightly attached wristband or risk losing a wrist.

• It might even be called into high-risk situations, like maintaining order at school board meetings and announcing local water department rate increases (Note to manufacturer: Please make sure to include the double-strength combat-grade bullet-proof grenade-repelling armor).

Obviously, the St. Helena Robot will be invaluable. Yet how, you might ask, can we possibly pay for it? I’m not generally in favor of displacing human workers with robots, so let’s replace bomb-detonating robots with humans. I personally know at least a dozen thrill-seeking boys between the ages of 8 and 68 who would gladly blow things up at a moment’s notice, many of whom would pay for the privilege. We could auction off the opportunity to blow up the next suspicious object found in town; even lend the high bidders out to blow things up in Napa for a fee (plus we don’t have to clean up afterward).

Not only would this raise funds to pay for essential services, but it would set the entire population of conscientious boys ages 8 to 68 into action seeking out suspicious packages wherever they may be inadvertently set down for a moment or two in the Safeway parking lot while searching for the car keys. And that’s Homeland Security we can live with.

This was my very first column for the St. Helena Star, published December 23, 2010.  I wonder whether other small towns are similar.  While lips have loosened a bit, it’s still tough to get elected if you admit to liking these things — which may explain why we have so few local citizens challenging incumbents for office. 

I was talking with a group of locals the other day, when one of them expressed a strong opinion on a topic of current interest, blanched, and then immediately cautioned: “but don’t quote me.” I hear this a lot in St. Helena, even from people who seem pretty brave and powerful, and I’m coming to realize that there are certain things you can’t say in this town without ending up in the soup.

So, as a public service, I compiled a list of a few things you shouldn’t say out loud in St. Helena:

1. Wine Train

Referring aloud to this train-that-must-not-be-named is akin to saying the name Voldemort in a Harry Potter novel. A fearful silence is likely to result. I’ve never been on the Wine Train, so I can only assume that Mephistopheles himself is the engineer, and that it makes periodic stops in local towns to distribute cigarettes to small children. Locals tell ghost stories — in hushed tones — about elected officials who mysteriously vanish after mentioning you-know-what in favorable terms, while assuring me that “the problem is not the Wine Train per se, but what it represents.” Apparently the WT provokes the same reaction in the locals as the Indian tribes once felt when they saw the smoke and tracks of the Union Pacific edging closer. But maybe we’d be more trusting of touristy transport if we were living in …

2. Yountville

Speak our neighbor’s name, and be prepared for some schizophrenia to take hold. Apparently there are two Yountvilles: the one that is better than us and the one that is much, much worse. The better one has branded itself the “fine dining capital of the world,” its benefactors investing unlimited amounts of money, with no zoning restrictions whatsoever, to refashion Yountville into a food-and-wine lover’s paradise with streets paved in gold, giant Taj Mahal-like spa/hotels, and an invisible magnetic shield at the end of town to prevent tourists from venturing north. The inferior Yountville of lore has no “real there there” and few neighborhoods, fewer schools and lesser wineries. What both Yountvilles can agree on, however, is that we in St. Helena are too darn snooty. In fact, I’ve heard it suggested that St. Helena is distinguished throughout the Napa Valley as being the snootiest most difficult-to-deal-with city around; sort of a gorgeous, high-maintenance girlfriend from a good family. If so, perhaps we should brand ourselves around it. Let’s all visit Yountville, Sonoma and Healdsburg wearing T-shirts that say: St. Helena: Don’t Hate Us Because We’re Better. One thing Yountville doesn’t have, though, is …

3. Cheers!

Love it or hate it, everyone seems to have strong, often conflicting opinions about this organization and the Friday night wine tasting and shopping event it sponsors. Is it a heroic effort to fill the breach left by local leaders who couldn’t save our town on their own; a great opportunity for neighbors to get together in a social setting; a boost for local shops, food and wine; or a drunken bacchanal with gangs of shoplifting youths gone wild chasing fearful residents back into their homes? It’s clear that Cheers! does a lot of good in the community, for which it does not always get credit, and that the Friday socials will continue to evolve. But it is also clear that it will be a lighting rod for an inconvenienced public unable to make a left turn onto Adams Street, and for those who think the music is just too darn loud. At least at Cheers! they pour lots of wine but don’t use much …

4. Water

Evidently everything in St. Helena can be separated into two categories: things that deserve water and things that don’t. The deserving apparently includes: vineyards, any front lawn (on odd or even days) and attached residence previously constructed, well located public parks, and palm trees at city buildings. The undeserving includes golf courses, swimming pools, businesses who can afford their own, and anything to be built tomorrow. Locals seem to agree, however, that St. Helena water is a bit smelly, tastes strange, is incredibly expensive, and plays havoc with the porcelain. In short, it is terrible and we wish we had more of it.

Perhaps we’d be happier if we shipped the water in from Yountville in giant tankers attached to the Wine Train.

Come to think of it, those seeking peaceful discourse should generally refrain from mentioning the School Board, the City Council, the Planning Commission, that other bocce league, tree removal, soccer fields, screwtops, taxes, flood control, weddings at wineries, pumpkin patches at wineries, anything besides wine at wineries, eco-villages, low-income housing, stream setbacks, protected species, nine-hole golf courses and the location of the nearest Taco Bell.

Personally, I enjoy visiting art galleries (and don’t share the town’s deep fear of “becoming Carmel”), but don’t quote me.

Flashback: I Like Mike

June 15, 2012

The following column ran in the St. Helena Star on May 12, 2011.  It is one of the three national award winners.  As long as I’m bashing the Administration in this week’s column, I thought I might as well post this one too.  Hope I don’t end up on a terrorist watch list…

It’s amazing how a person’s appearance can cause a visceral reaction. Take Timothy Geithner, secretary of the Treasury. He seems calm and tidy, and certainly lots of people like him, and by people I mean large multinational corporations and global financial institutions. But for me, he will always suffer from being a dead ringer for a namesake boy who sat behind me in elementary school.

Timmy always smelled like sour milk, was an accomplished nose-picker, and whined incessantly. So even if Timothy Geithner did not ignore small business, negotiate sweetheart deals for financial institutions, and fail to pay his own taxes, I would still feel an almost irrepressible urge to take him out behind the auditorium and smack him around.

Many Americans who share my feelings toward Mr. Geithner are now looking for a presidential candidate who can not only run the country, but who can also outrun a Wall Street coup d’état. Desperate Americans seek a leader who combines Warren Buffet’s strategic savvy and Tony Soprano’s crime boss bravado with hair every bit as high as Ronald Reagan’s. Quite naturally, they have turned to Donald Trump.

Much as I relish the image of The Donald sitting across the desk from Geithner, pointing his finger and saying: “You’re Fired,” I’m not quite prepared to see the White House columns plated in gold and the Capital Rotunda repurposed as the new home of the Miss Universe Pageant (unless he decides to put that global event in the hands of Hillary Clinton, who would allow chunky contestants with glasses, add pop quizzes about the Treaty of Versailles, and employ Bill as an enthusiastic judge.)

But honestly, haven’t we had enough of financial insiders in government for a while? Is there any difference, other than stylistic, between the Wall Street Bulls and the Trump Tower Toucan? I’m sure we could come up with a leader to challenge a Trump presidency with less East Coast flatulence and more West Coast flair.

So who can we get to challenge a world-famous, competitive, ambitious, self-promoting, media-savvy, empire-building, TV-hosting, bestselling book–writing, ornate taste–leaning, winery, vineyard and landmark restaurant–owning entrepreneur from New York? How about our own world-famous, competitive, ambitious, self-promoting, media-savvy, empire-building, TV-hosting, bestselling book–writing, ornate taste–leaning, winery, vineyard and landmark restaurant–owning, entrepreneur from Napa Valley? That’s right, let’s dump The Donald and vote for The Michael — Chiarello, that is.

The Michael has a leg up on The Donald in a number of respects: First, The Michael is more attractive than The Donald, and I say this having seen The Michael not only in person, but from behind while he was wearing bicycle shorts. Between Fifth Avenue, Yountville and my mailbox, I have observed countless photos of them both, not to mention the live specimens, and I can categorically state that we must avoid a Trump visage on Mount Rushmore at all costs.

The Michael’s photos are not only less frightening for the children, they almost always include some kind of food — a subliminal message that a vote for The Michael means the Bolognese will be flowing across America.

And The Michael is not going to have a “birther” problem, as I understand him to hail from Turlock, which I am informed is a city somewhere in California and not, as I originally thought, a device The Michael sells in his NapaStyle catalog to keep rival chefs from boosting the best Thanksgiving turkeys from the freezer.

His election would be historic, as it would make him the first Italian-American to occupy the White House, since Rudy Giuliani’s attempt to achieve that distinction fell short when he declared himself a candidate in 2008 then forgot to actually run for office.

The Michael would prove a formidable adversary for foreign leaders, as he could manipulate their blood sugar levels during negotiations, achieving peace in the Middle East through strategic application of cannoli. And to ensure America’s world domination, he could appoint Padma Lakshmi as Ambassador to the U.N., since she can get any man, and probably many women, to do whatever she wants.

And he comes equipped with his own body doubles just like Saddam Hussein (he cannot possibly be in New York, Hollywood, Positano and Yountville simultaneously).

Best of all, the Oval Office would boast the first presidential desk made entirely out of wine barrel staves, lovingly made to Nonna’s specifications and available for purchase at

And that’s capitalism Americans can believe in.

Wine Open

June 14, 2012

Today’s column in the St. Helena Star

I confess to being bipolitical, meaning I swing both ways — from liberal to conservative — depending upon the issue. Not that there are definitive distinctions between the two these days, with conservatives legislating personal freedom and liberals waging war all over the place.

I miss the days when you could clearly tell a conservative from a liberal, not just by their politics but from across the room at a party: the conservative being the fellow in matching bow tie and suspenders, the liberal rocking a ponytail and wearing bicycle clips on his corduroy bell-bottoms.

And while we’re stereotyping, I often perceive conservatives as secretive, possibly the result of their years of expense-account padding, while liberals are prone to over-sharing, relating details during dinner about their childbirth experiences that would make a gynecologist queasy.

But this stereotype was recently tested when I was stymied by a supposedly liberal government department surprisingly hell-bent on keeping me in unemployed ignorance: the office of the first lady of the United States.

I was asked by the editor of an international wine magazine to provide a list of the California wines most commonly served at White House state dinners over the years. Given the current administration’s commitment to open and transparent government, this sounded like a relatively easy task.

But that was before I met the stonewalling women of the first lady’s East Wing press office who, after much confusion concerning the person in charge, brusquely informed me that the information I was seeking would not be released, knowledgeable persons would not be made available for interview, and I should buzz off.

You see, the White House was criticized when it was revealed that a wine served to the Chinese president in 2011 was reselling for $399 a bottle. And so the long tradition of releasing names of wines served at state dinners — wine paid for by the taxpayers, mind you — was terminated, and the information is no longer made available to the public.

I’ve always admired the first lady, and her commitment to veterans and to exercise and to children eating veggies off the White House lawn. I’ve even heard that she selected certain wines for Christmas because they were made by women winemakers. So I’m certain that if she and I could chat about this over tea and her favorite low-fat snack bars, we’d have it sorted out in no time and she would ensure that our wines had their moment in the spotlight. But her press office — not so much.

It made me wish, as I often do, that we had Britain’s queen as our head of state. For one thing, there would be no doubt about precisely who was in charge: some placid palace undersecretary for wine, spirits and silly hats who would rebuff me, but in a silky British accent. I would then simply consult one of many royal-watchers’ treatises on the subject, such as: “Wines of the Greater Americas, West, As Served by Her Majesty on the Occasion of Entertaining Visiting Dignitaries, Volume I: the Pre-Drip-Irrigation Years.”

Meanwhile, back in the Republic, we the people employ armies of snooty conservationists, butlers and ushers busily dusting the Limoges while eagerly awaiting inquiries about wines served during the Johnson administration that will never reach them. Some poncy silver-polisher could easily rattle off California wines featured at Capitol events, unless he is the one who let slip the cost of that $399 bottle and is now serving as chief usher at Guantanamo Bay.

And just when did it become appropriate to answer criticism by announcing a future intention to hide the facts? Why not simply serve Two-Buck Chuck to the next visiting dignitary, and hope the bitter aftertaste doesn’t lead to global thermonuclear war?

In desperation I consulted a congressman’s office, and was told by a frustrated staffer that he would have an easier time providing the name of the first lady’s shoe designer than the identity of a California winemaker.

Have no fear; in the grand tradition of American journalism, I did some Internet research, called everyone from the Vintners association to the Star staffers to individual wineries, and with invaluable assistance from the Napa Wine Library was able to reconstruct a partial list. The magazine editor seemed pleased.

But why this post-traumatic-press-related oenophobia? Surely people object to the amount spent on helicopters and rocket launchers, too. This was an opportunity to shine a light on a few California wineries in a magazine read around the world.

But that mattered little to a White House criticized, justly or not, for serving a nice bottle of wine to the president of a country that owns the mortgage on ours. And if you can’t stand even that medium-low heat, maybe you should go back into the wine cellar and chill.

Flashback: Most Alarming

June 12, 2012

The following Up the Valley column first appeared in the St. Helena Star newspaper on February 3, 2011.  This is one of three winners of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists first place award for humor, and the California Better Newspaper Contest for Best Column.  Excuse my repeating myself!  A new one is coming Thursday in the Star…

Just before Christmas, I tried to reach City Hall but was informed that the government employees had been furloughed.

From a pure public relations standpoint, I think this looks bad in front of the holiday visitors because it might lead the uninformed to conclude that the city of St. Helena has no money. Instead of calling them furloughs, why not call them Extended Lunchbreaks Without Pay, or better yet, Congés Non Payés, since everything sounds better in French.

We can then create a list of dubious municipal holidays to invoke whenever we’re worried that the payroll checks might bounce, like Bank President’s Birthday or St. Mondavi Day.

The city will need to keep the citizenry apprised of this fluid holiday schedule, but unfortunately, local government is slightly clumsy at the dissemination of information. Officials mail out nondescript white envelopes or undersized beige postcards whispering in tiny typeface that something big is about to happen, which we ignore as junk mail.

If the city really wants our attention, it should print notices on bubble-gum-scented, neon-colored paper including valuable coupons people will read and save, like: “We’re considering raising local sales taxes, meanwhile please enjoy a free scoop of ice cream at the Big Dipper” or “You are being fined for excessive water usage, so take 10 percent off dry-cleaning at Klass Cleaners.”

I always chuckle when the City Council suggests that the full text of its abbreviated communications can be viewed online, not realizing that a significant percentage of local residents who received a computer from their grandkids for Christmas have tossed the electronics in a closet and utilized the box it came in as a nice new litter pan for the cat.

Let’s face it: We need to get this communication thing sorted, because local, county and state governments have much critical information to share with us, what with the water rationing days, the Spare the Air days, the homeland security levels, the government slow-downs and shut-downs, the pollen levels, the pesticide sprayings, the heat and frost warnings, the power outages, the leafy sharpshooter spotting, the food recalls, the Caltrans road improvement delays, the public hearings in anticipation of tree removal, and the public hearings in anticipation of faux Tuscan villas being constructed next door.

We could activate our police department telephone emergency warning system, which has proven so effective in alerting residents to the color the police department is thinking of repainting its squad cars. Or we could distribute updates on television during daily tests of the emergency broadcast system, although this might increase the frequency of citizens punching their fists through the screen as they miss the last 10 seconds of whatever sporting event they were watching or Erica’s latest wedding on “All My Children.”

I was going to suggest that we somehow piggyback onto that eardrum-splitting volunteer firefighter alarm, which sounds with such frequency, but I am informed that this is one of those local sacred cows I’m not supposed to tip over.

I certainly cannot deny the twisted pleasure residents derive from observing visitors’ reactions to hearing the siren for the first time. Hapless day-trippers run toward nonexistent bomb shelters, assume the duck-and-cover position, or stand stricken like deer in the headlights shrieking: “Is it the Big One?”

But seriously, is it good business to scare the tourists like this? I know we want to drive them to drink, but couldn’t we rally the volunteers with a sound that’s more conducive to being on vacation, like the blowing of Hawaiian conch shells or perhaps a chorus of bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace”?

My dream warning system would be our own 24-hour radio station called Radio Free St. Helena. An alternative to the Spanish-language and religious stations currently holding a monopoly on my radio antenna, our city station could provide entertainment for visitors while conveying essential messages to the locals.

Imagine families huddled together around their tuners, like resistance fighters awaiting the signal that allied paratroopers have landed in the shrubbery. Alerts could be tucked in between local programs like Jazz from Vineyard Valley with Mike & Wesla, or Craig Bond’s Hour of Many Choirs.

Chilly winter evenings that do not fall on Spare the Air Days would be signaled by the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” unsafe summer temperatures announced by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas singing “Heat Wave,” and of course, government furloughs heralded by the tune “Take This Job and Shove It.”

And that’s a message we can all hear loud and clear.

Flashback: New in Town?

June 11, 2012

The following Up the Valley column appeared in the St. Helena Star newspaper on January 13, 2011.  I’m posting my oldies here over the next few weeks so that they can be search engine optimized, tagged, and categorized.  Ain’t literature fun?  A new one comes out this Thursday, in which I blow the lid off the White House!  Stay tuned…

 I read recently that the City of St. Helena was intervening in a lawsuit by Indian tribes, who maintained that their prior claims to parts of the Napa Valley bestowed upon them the inalienable right to land. Public officials are afraid the suit could lead to casinos in our small town.

I have to admit that I was baffled. Not that I don’t understand why we would turn our municipal noses up at the concept of gambling establishments in St. Helena, although owning a winery would appear to bear some similarities to owning a casino, except that with casinos the house always wins.

Nor does my surprise relate to our rebuffing of the Indians despite our apparent insatiable need for Native American jewelry stores, of which we now have 12.

No, I was surprised at our objection to the Indians’ claims because it upends everything I’ve come to understand about St. Helena society. I thought the whole idea was that the longer you’ve lived here, the more rights you have.

Certainly people are considered newcomers here who’ve lived for what would be considered a lifetime elsewhere.

Meanwhile, I think we should all pick a date — let’s say 1960 (just so we can make certain long-standing local columnists happy), and agree that any family that has arrived before that date is deemed an old-timer and should just shut up about it. But that still leaves a number of us defined as wet-behind-the-ears St. Helena arrivistes, so for our benefit, I thought I’d go a bit Jeffersonian and propose a Bill of Gradually Acquired Rights.

These rights start to attach from the day you turn 21, unless you are a member of certain Founding Families, in which case they start to run from birth (you know who you are, and if you have to ask, you aren’t.) This being an Official Government Document, it will have to be at least 100 pages, but here are some highlights among the vesting periods:

• Years One to Ten: Congratulations, you may drink local wine, vote and pay taxes. Keep your head down and your opinions to yourself. You may attend council meetings and sit in the audience and look pretty, unless you have the utter misfortune to be applying for a permit, in which case you should hire someone with Greater Acquired Rights than yourself to represent you. You may volunteer for things no one else wants to do, like Park Garbage Cleanup Committee, Defective Jungle Gym Security Detail, or Bocce League Ombudsman.

• Years Ten to Twenty: You may now have limited opinions expressed at dinner parties. If you are a single woman, don’t plan on getting invited to many dinner parties unless you bring your “steady boyfriend” with you, and don’t worry — no one will figure out that he’s gay. You may request appointment to commissions and serve on committees, and even run for elected office, particularly if you can secure the coveted endorsement of the ex-hippy radical environmental fringe group and bridge club at the senior center.

• Years Thirty to Forty: It’s time to start complaining about how much better things used to be. Hone your skills in this regard with reactionary letters to the editor about recent and disturbing trends unearthed via your careful reading of the Police Log. You will be a fixture at all upscale restaurants offering the Early Bird Special, Locals Discounts and Half Price Bar Menus, and then accompany your meal with a bottle of wine costing more than my car, because one has to have standards.

• Years Fifty to Sixty: Feel free to have opinions without any basis whatsoever in fact. Your truth meter should be set on News Network Media Commentator and stay there. If you haven’t already done so, you should learn to play poker so that former-mayor Greta Ericson doesn’t clean you out at senior center events. You might consider writing a column about the good old days before there were streetlights or cars or electricity, when the local folks all knew each other because they were always running into one another in the dark.

• Years Seventy to Eighty: At this point, your primary focus will be on disabling the Safeway cart theft-proofing mechanism so you can wheel your groceries to your house. You will have wonderful stories that we will all want to hear again and again, which is good because you won’t remember who we are or what you’ve told us already. You will attend the public library events where students read to pets and demand the same treatment as a Goldendoodle. You will have survived everything, embraced change and linked us to the past. You will be irreplaceable.