Flashback: Please Don’t Quote Me

June 17, 2012

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.

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