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.

The following Up the Valley column appeared in the St. Helena Star on June 23, 2011.  If you’ve read it before, I hope you’ll enjoy it again.  If it’s new to you, welcome to the conversation!

I moved last fall into a new house, two blocks from a local school that recently held its graduation ceremony. I shrewdly deduced this from “Pomp and Circumstance” blasting over the loudspeaker for days, interrupted briefly by ’80s songs, feedback and people blowing into the microphone. The Super Bowl A/V crew doesn’t take this long setting up.

Anyhoo, the whole specter of graduation filled me with nostalgia and regret. Regret that I did not open up a valet parking service and charge $5 to the hundreds of graduation attendees attempting to leave their cars on my street. And nostalgia for the many graduation ceremonies in which I participated without hearing a word of the commencement speeches. I was too busy mentally packing my bags and figuring out how to leave town as quickly as possible.

It made me wonder whether local graduates are anxious to depart St. Helena. Why would they be? This is a slacker’s paradise: warm enough to sleep outside, a dress code that virtually outlaws neckties, and a benevolent attitude toward public drinking.

So I performed some unscientific research: meaning I basically wandered around asking young-looking locals whether they were graduates. I think some of them said “yes” — the response consisted mostly of grunting, Footcandy designer shoe shuffling, low-slung pants–adjusting, gum-chewing and blank stares.

But when asked: “Do you plan to spend the rest of your life here?” their answers ran the entire gamut from “no” to “hell no.” Obviously, never having left, these unfortunates have failed to grasp the niceties of life here. So let me point out some advantages of never ever leaving St. Helena:

1. There are few distractions, so you can focus entirely on yourself. Attending the opera, theater, museums, jazz clubs and professional sporting events really cuts into your time for self-reflection.

2. Just think what you’ll save on gas by staying home.

3. If someone you meet at a local bar asks you out, you’ll be able to discover everything about them in under an hour, including their grades in grammar school, full details of their marital status, and any medications they are currently taking, by simply asking around.

4. People care less about the make of your car or the size of your house than they do in Los Angeles or Palo Alto. Same thing regarding the size of your bottom; try being a size 12 in New York.

5. The cops know you and your parents and are more likely to let you off with a warning, particularly if you observed the cop doing the same thing last night.

6. You’ll get invited to the cool events, so long as you have plenty of money or wine, or are related to or were ever married to or have a last name that sounds somewhat like someone who does.

7. Charm, courage or wisdom can equal the wine and money referenced in #6 above.

But what if you really want to stay, while your parents have packed up your room and scheduled the movers? Here’s what to do: At a brunch celebrating your graduation, before your parents’ mimosa buzz has worn off, announce in your sincerest tones: “If there’s one thing my education has taught me, it’s that I must stick to my principles and follow my heart.” This will elicit tearful applause and approval from the parentals. You’ll continue with: “Life is so short, and we don’t know how much time we have, and so I want to spend whatever time I have living as close to you wonderful people as possible.” Then hit them with: “And I feel it would be morally irresponsible for me to work in anything connected in any way to the production or consumption of alcohol.”

It isn’t irresponsible, of course, and you’ve consumed more alcohol in your young life than Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton combined, but they don’t know that. What you’ve done is to disqualify yourself, on moral grounds, from 99 percent of employment opportunities in the Napa Valley.

Now it’s time to “follow your heart” by announcing your life’s dream, which is anything unlikely to get you off your parents’ tax returns, such as: balloon-animal artist, tarot card reader, baseball park organist, Zamboni machine driver, or retailer.

As I see it, in these recessionary times the smart thing to do is to stay put, enjoy life more and worry less. So it’s not really your fault if they sent you to school and made you smart enough to want to stay here forever.


June 7, 2012

I’ve been doing a regular guest shot on KVON radio in Napa, but was recently preempted by ESPN basketball.  And this week, my regular column was preempted by the newspaper’s  need to print the smiling, terrified faces of the local graduating class of 2012.

This business of suddenly disappearing from the zeitgeist is worrisome.  People stop me on the street, as if a relative died, asking in hushed sympathetic tones whether my column has been axed by my editor.  It seems like a  longstanding newspaper columnist is let go on a weekly basis, so such fears are understandable.  Still, knowing that my columns are there at the paper, like airplanes circling O’Hare Airport awaiting clearance to land, maintains me in a semi-comfortable limbo.  This is what I imagine it must feel like after childbirth, when the pain and messy afterbirth are memories, and the infant lies incubating somewhere so the exhausted mother can enjoy a brief, rejuvenating nap, prior to bringing the infant home and raising it until it can graduate from high school and disrupt my publication schedule.

But I’m not one to be ignored, so I wrote a little semi-serious feature article on the Marketplace at Auction Napa Valley, which appears in today’s Star newspaper.  In it I describe being bitch-slapped by Thomas Keller, tidied up by Cindy Pawlcyn, and confused by Masaharu Morimoto.  Think of it as a little palate cleanser.  My regular column will be back next week, unless preempted by something much more important.

Today’s Star article is called Munching at Friday’s Marketplace.