A collection of columns that locals particularly like, according to extensive scientific research conducted in the produce aisle at Safeway

Up the Valley: Lord of the Wrongs

October 23, 2013

As if Yountville doesn’t look enough like a theme park already, its latest winery will be staffed by dwarves. Really. Today’s column in the Star newspaper.

When I am not stoking my schadenfreude by deconstructing wedding announcements in the Sunday New York Times, or sharpening my math skills by tallying factual errors in the Napa Register, I often expand my social horizons by reading Paul Franson’s NapaLife, a newsletter describing the full spectrum of happenings in the Napa Valley.

In a recent issue, NapaLife confirmed a story that had been rumored for months:

The Del Dotto Family is opening a new winery called Ca’Nani, meaning “house of the dwarves.” Franson quotes Desirée del Dotto as saying: “We do plan on having some little people working there,” and describes the project as “an Italian country-style winery with caves, being built across from Mustards in the Yountville Hills” featuring “a fairy-tale theme with various characters for each wine produced.”

The Ca’Nani Facebook Page displays a dwarf carrying an outsize bunch of grapes, and a winery design that looks like a fantasy Italian stone castle courtyard, but without the gritty realism of Castello di Amorosa. The owners explain: “We chose this theme for our new label because dwarves are jovial and light hearted, and perhaps magical.”

This project raises several obvious questions, including: Doesn’t Yountville look enough like a theme park already? Who are these jovial dwarves (the few I’ve met were decidedly cranky)? Will there be a “Dwarf Wanted” posting on WineJobs.com? And doesn’t this give delightful new meaning to the phrase “short pour”?

This story should become a Napa Valley epic fantasy novel:

Once upon a time, there was a brave planning director and disciple of Saint Helena, who ventured into the forbidden village of Yountville to observe its legendary wonders: wide pothole-free streets, clean branded awnings, and certain mythic buildings kept for the use of “visitors” who are reputed to “check in” and “stay the night.”

An enchanted place where faux-Italy and faux-France peacefully co-exist, there is supposedly no school system in Yountville; just a fairy princess who reads fables to young children before stuffing them into the oven at Bouchon Bakery. Overwhelmed by its beauty, the planner wanders into Hurley’s for a restorative lager, and accidentally leaves behind his precious Golden Drafting Compass.

This Golden Compass, essential for making planning decisions on Saint Helena’s behalf, is placed in a box behind Hurley’s bar and lost for what feels like 1,000 years. Without it, no one can assess the square footage of a hotel site, or calculate the city’s water needs, or determine the number of staff required to run a municipal department. Thus the Upper Kingdom of Saint Helena, unable to pass even the most General of Plans, cedes its dominance to the Middle Kingdom.

Fortunately, the People’s Prince, Lord Dario of Sattui, during a late-night rendezvous at Hurley’s, retrieves the Compass and conveys it to his Upper Kingdom Castello for safekeeping. There it is locked in a dungeon guarded by an irascible Croatian gargoyle answering to the nickname of “Mike.” Access to the treasure requires enthusiastically chanting the word “Cheers” 50 times to a troll at the gate.

Meanwhile, the Lords of the Middle Kingdom plot to recapture Saint Helena’s Golden Compass and usurp her town’s exhaustively-market-researched-and-branded position as “Napa Valley’s Main Street.” And so they erect a fantasy kingdom of their own deep in the Yountville hills, and cunningly lie in wait for the day when they might deploy an army of dwarves to seize the talismanic Compass.

The epic battle unfolds as the diminutive warriors commandeer the Wine Train, venture Upvalley, and storm the Castello. But wily Prince Dario, who maintains a second, less-lofty castle on the side, summons its army to advance from the south, and routs the would-be usurpers. The small-stature survivors scatter to hide in the Petrified Forest, followed by a long and perilous journey to the Safari West wildlife preserve. There they will mount flying unicorns and journey back to the Middle Kingdom. (How do you know there aren’t unicorns at Safari West? You haven’t been there.)

A peace conference is convened by the Lower Kingdom’s Tax Assessor and Registrar of Voters, but he betrays both parties and steals the Golden Compass for himself. Lacking any compass of his own, he has been unable to certify election results for what feels like 1,000 years.

(Lest you feel that my fear of impending invasion rings false, remember that the Town of Yountville recently announced plans to annex Domaine Chandon, which is much like the time Henry V decided to annex France, except that instead of resulting in the acquisition of another country, it will result in the acquisition of another Michelin star.)

Meanwhile, back in the Middle Kingdom, will the Lords of Kellerville and Chiarelloland, and Sir Richard of Reddington, sit idly by, or will their publicists force them into the fray? Will Ca’Nani’s promised fairy-tale characters include dwarves named Swirly, Sippy and Spitty? And will the ultimate victors be the lawyers of would-be winery workers over 4 feet 10 inches in height? You’ll have to read another chapter in the “Lord of the Wrongs” cycle to find out.

Up the Valley: Character-defining Elements

February 5, 2014

Our local leaders make an unusual proposal to protect a local eyesore:  My latest column in the Star….

It is remarkable how one neighbor’s eyesore can be another’s architectural treasure.

In the decorous neighborhood where I grew up, one house on our street featured a lawn display adorned by plastic deer and the associated flora and fauna of an enchanted forest. For years neighbors plotted — and sometimes accomplished — the kidnapping or mutilation of Bambi & Family, but replacement creatures always magically appeared in their places.

Another neighbor’s front yard contained a tranquil Japanese garden complete with bonsai-style trees, cement pagodas and cherry blossoms that, while lovely, were in distinct disharmony with the wagon wheel-adorned ranch house next door. In otherwise restrained neighborhoods, I’ve seen homeowners display a lifetime’s accumulation of hubcaps, beer bottles and faded, burnt-bulb lawn figures re-creating Santa’s Workshop year-round.

Here in St. Helena, where the town’s residents rarely reach a consensus on anything, there is a building located on a busy corner of town that is so incongruous, so dilapidated and so deleterious to the landscape, its pending demolition has inspired a resounding chorus of: “It’s about time.”

Chiming in with dissenting voices, strangely enough, are The People’s representatives at City Hall.

By way of background, let me explain that the blemish in question consists of the unsightly remains of a gas station built in the 1940s. It is a battered white metal box with a small service window, connected via tattered overhang to a platform that once supported gasoline pumps, harkening back to a time when motorists had their gas pumped and windows washed by live humans. In its day, it undoubtedly displayed a distinctly Edward Hopperesque Deco design. But today it is downright shabby, held together by peeling paint, decades of congealed grease, and plastic signs advertising smogging services.

The owners of the local hardware store — a respected and community-spirited family — purchased this old gas station property, which is adjacent to their store. They planned to replace it with a well-designed two-story commercial building, welcomed by many residents as a long-overdue overhaul of the downtown streetscape. Two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars later, their developmental dreams were dashed when city officials deemed the rickety relic a “character-defining element” of the downtown historic district, triggering further delays and pricey environmental impact studies.

Rather than demolishing this architectural anachronism, City Hall’s planning experts are demanding that the owners relocate it to a public park several blocks away, where it can be shored-up and repurposed as (wait for it) a restroom.

Ah yes, what greater tribute could be paid to the architect’s vision than to have his work permanently enshrined as a public toilet, where transients, escapees from police custody and local canines frequenting the adjacent dog park may forever seek refuge in its historically insignificant embrace.

Ironically, City Hall is itself such a ramshackle teardown that city leaders tried last year to offload it to some unwitting buyer looking to invest millions of dollars to replace it with a hotel, hoping guests would taste enough Napa Valley cabernet to sleep through the eardrum-splitting sirens of the Fire Department downstairs. City officials seemed desperate to dispose of the premises before someone discovered ancient relics buried in the basement or spotted owls nesting in the eves, or before some do-gooder came along and had the thing declared a “character-defining element” of historic downtown.

Still, this irony may present the perfect solution. Since the current occupants of City Hall seem so sentimental about this former service station, I would propose a swap. The hardware store owners should be permitted to build their new commercial building on the current site of City Hall, while city government should be relocated to the old corner gas station.

This would prove extremely convenient for everyone involved. Residents and prospective business owners could utilize this “Drive-thru City Hall” to have their permits denied without the bother of having to get out of their cars. Land-rich-but-cash-strapped locals could drop off sacks of gold, livestock or other tributes to pay their ever-rising water bills. And routine municipal services could be outsourced to overseas workers, at considerable cost savings to the city.

Imagine driving up to the window, but instead of an attendant, you encounter a giant menu and tiny speaker, just like Jack in the Box. You might select No. 1: Business License, No. 2: Building Permit, No. 3: Use Permit, and so on. A courteous Indian-accented voice streams through the speaker, saying: “We will be exceedingly pleased to help you. It is our great happiness to serve your profoundly important needs. If you will kindly give us your most excellent order and your telephone number, we will be contacting you very shortly, or never, as the case may be. Thank you for doing business with the Best Exotic City of St. Helena.”

If only you could order fries with that, it would be perfect.

Members of the neighborhood’s animal kingdom have become my dependents. Does this make birdseed tax deductible? Is pet acupuncture covered by ObamaCare? My latest column in the Star.

Each New Year brings renewed opportunity for sober reflection and frank self-assessment. And one particularly problematic personal shortcoming stood out during this year’s mirror-gazing: I’ve made far too many of God’s creatures dependent upon my efforts.

The problem is most pronounced in my dealings with the animal kingdom. Regular readers of these scribblings may recall my beloved but brain damaged Tibetan Spaniel, my uncontrollably hyperactive mini-Aussie, and my criminal mastermind of a cat.

Each time I return home, I am accosted by all three in the cramped entryway even before I can slip my body through the door. They lunge with paws outstretched and mouths open, demanding instantaneous feeding and rapt attention. Well, the Tibetan doesn’t really demand, and he couldn’t quite muster a lunge. He just bumps around randomly in all directions like one of those robotic vacuum cleaners, hoping he’ll run into me, then wedges himself against the door so I can’t open it without clunking his head — earning himself the fond nickname among my visitors of “Doggie Doorstop.”

Neighborhood pets not my own nonetheless seek my patronage, frequently presenting themselves at my doorstep requesting assistance in locating their owners. Even some baby bunnies converge on my front porch each spring, requiring temporary daycare while waiting for their irresponsible mothers to collect them at dusk.

Other representatives of the local wildlife community have declared themselves my dependents, from the songbirds and the squirrels to the homeless cats who chase them. Unfortunately, the following expenses are not tax-deductible on Form 1040 Schedule A: wild bird food, Nyjer seed, hummingbird nectar, the latest anti-ant and squirrel-resistant birdfeeders, nuts for the squirrels, “natural” repellent for the ants, microwave pads to keep a feral cat warm on a freezing night, and sterile gauze and disinfectant to treat a bite sustained while placing a feral cat on a heated pad.

And where is my tax credit for the following: dog food, cat food, the new cat food because the cat woke up today and decided to stop eating the old food, heartworm medicine, de-worming formulas, flea and tick protection, MRI’s, X-rays, anal gland clearings, and newfangled fur removal products? If corporations can deduct employee training and health insurance, why can’t I deduct dog training classes, cat psychologists, pet acupuncturists, and anxiety-taming Thundershirt purchases?

A creature needn’t be in-residence to demand that I snap-to. One red breasted hummingbird travels from the west side of the house to the north whenever the feeder is empty, buzzing my kitchen window and staring me down until I refill it. I recognize that noted hummingbirdologists and representatives of the Nature Channel might doubt whether a birdbrain is capable of this level of thoughtful planning and execution, but as my grandmother used to say: “I know what I know.”

Her tendency toward firmly-held knowledge without regard to actual fact is a genetic trait I seem to have inherited. I know, for example, that God sends me insane pets because I am a spinster with the time and inclination to care for them, while couples busily raising actual human children might regretfully consign such four-legged unfortunates to the pound or the afterlife. I also know that animal shelters use the same system, entrusting the crazed, drooling, sensitive-skinned, barking biters with irritable bowel syndrome to us singletons, while gifting the even-tempered, un-finicky, trainable, non-shedders to families with children.

I hold other unsupported but unshakable beliefs. I believe that my friend Joan can cause it to rain. I believe that by washing my car, I can cause it to rain. I believe that God sometimes makes it rain on my birthday just to mess with me. And I firmly believe that God is not going to finish me off until I’m happy, rich, thin, in love, or some combination of all four.

I also, apparently, hold the unconscious but equally baseless belief that if I take care of nature’s creatures in need, the universe will take care of me. Time will tell, but so far, the universe has greeted my efforts with a resounding silence, accompanied by a plethora of bills payable and Petco rewards points.

Still, what can you do when a critter comes calling with soulful eyes, a growling tummy and a Ph.D. in the exploitation of human weakness? A recent study suggested that a cat’s cry was genetically engineered to sound like a human baby’s in order to trigger our protective instincts. I believe that the cat’s personality has been genetically engineered to make us feel inferior, like math prodigies, swimsuit models, and members of the British royal family.

I’ll doubtless end up spending my fortune maintaining my own little eco-system, living out my dotage escorting squirrels across the street, broadcasting predator warnings to baby quail, and transporting spiders, flying bugs and rainfall-stranded worms to safer territory.

And I will always believe that God recognizes and appreciates human kindness toward innocent animals, and that He or She maintains a particularly unpleasant place in Hell for animal abusers, despite a total lack of evidence to support such a theory. Because I know what I know.

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