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 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: Tarted-Up

October 10, 2013

Since the grocery store has become the new town square, I have to put on makeup to buy a carton of milk. Today’s column in the Star.

According to an unscientific poll conducted on another continent, one in three women never leaves the house without makeup. This research was conducted in the UK, where such indigenous beauties as Camilla Parker Bowles decorate magazine covers, so you can imagine how many more American women must get tarted-up before stepping out the door.

Contrary to what I suspect is the popular opinion, I do wear makeup — indulging in a daily application of mineral powder foundation as I dab, tap and swirl my way to a flawless complexion. And I can in fact operate an eyelash curler, although it’s probably time to reevaluate my black versus black-brown versus black-noir mascara choices. But time spent beautifying is time spent wasted, because I am so perpetually exhausted, the makeup just slides right off my face — no doubt in search of a fresher face to decorate.

I sometimes find myself rubbing my finger along my cheek before leaving the house, unable to visually confirm that I already applied makeup. This is clearly the latest step in my slow steady decline; soon I will start breathing onto the mirror each morning to verify whether or not I am still alive.

And while I do own nice clothing, very little of it fits when push comes to shoving myself into its strictly-structured contours. I have a few stalwarts for social occasions, but if I’m going to sit, write, or phone — or indeed bend in any direction — a tight waistband is not a sustainable option. I therefore leave the house most days sporting speculative facial adornment and dressed as a clean but comfortable female hobo.

So imagine my shame when confronted daily with the indigenous population of St. Helena, where the women are often flawlessly coiffed and smartly clothed — even if their outfits involve counter-intuitive combinations like Burberry quilted vests with flip flops. It’s as if they stepped off the pages of some fantasy Wine Country Lifestyle Magazine, which omits articles about hours spent sitting in tourist traffic, long lines at the bank on Fridays behind paycheck-cashing farmworkers, and 2 a.m. vineyard-wind-turbine wakeup calls.

Many of these women are as fit as retired Olympians — well-burnished and bronzed — with glistening streaks of blonde highlighting their bouncy hair. They are frequently accessorized by a slightly sun-damaged and weathered husband — or perhaps it’s just that he is 30 years older than his spouse — but they do look gorgeous grabbing groceries at Sunshine Foods.

Naturally, the sloppier I look the more of them I run into at the grocery store, which has become the Town Square of our little hamlet. It used to be that Main Street was the gathering point of any small town — a bustling thoroughfare where all the business of a community — social and economic — could be conducted. If you wanted to run into a neighbor or a friend or a colleague, that’s where you’d go.

But in our town, a stroll down Main Street has become an irregular occurrence — which is a shame, because so many of our neighbors, friends and colleagues own businesses there. They are the ones who buy advertising in the paper that pays for printing the high school sports scores, who donate auction lots, pay property taxes and even hose down the sidewalk when one of us gets excessively liquored-up.

As a former member of their ranks, I lament the fact that I have so few occasions to transact the business of my day for their benefit. The reasons for this are as complicated as the number of years it has taken to devolve to this point, but my feeling is that even if I can’t necessarily afford to shop with them regularly (due in large part to my former role as recession-era retailer), at least I can support them on those rare occasions when they ask for help.

A group of them did, recently, when a high-end San Francisco jeweler proposed to open a large store on Main Street. This is a market that is clearly well-served by our existing retailers, who have battled through Caltrans construction and economic catastrophe to emerge semi-scathed but still alive — at least until Safeway opens a diamond department. They seemingly recognize that the problem presented by another luxury jewelry store is not the competition for customers, but rather the continued erosion of Main Street as a diverse shopping destination.

Until the Planning Commission is empowered by the City Council to foster a creative mix of experiences on Main Street, restoring its natural place as the hub of our town, residents will continue to shop, socialize, withdraw cash and rent their evening’s entertainment at Safeway. Main Street will attract more high-end seasonal stores, imperiling the local businesses operated for years — and year-round — by our friends and neighbors. Still, there is one attractive side to this steady march toward the Stepfordization of Main Street. You can bet that the women who shop there will put on plenty of makeup before leaving their hotels.

Up the Valley: Cop Talk

September 26, 2013

The local police department finally cracks down on criminals (me). Today’s column in the Star…

Do not read this column on your cellphone while driving. And while we’re at it: Remove the plastic wrapper from the fish sticks before placing them in the oven, don’t place the shower cap over your nose and mouth, and for heaven’s sake refrain from knocking back NyQuil while operating a chain saw.

These are all solid safety tips, but the first one — the bit about driving while cellphoning — also constitutes my well-researched legal advice (no charge). Because I have it on good authority that the local Police Department has undertaken a zero-tolerance crackdown on prohibited activities that are simultaneously vehicular and cellular — and the authority in question is the cop who recently found me foolishly engaging in both.

As I explained to the officer, I am not a serial cellphoner on wheels; phoning while driving is something I rarely do. The echo chamber of my car’s interior represents the ideal sanctuary where I can calmly reflect upon the events of the day without the interruption of ringtones and message alerts. It’s also the place where I sing badly but loudly to Broadway musical soundtracks, CDs by female vocalists who are loud enough to drown out my caterwauling (bless you, Ann Wilson of Heart), and where I mentally choreograph elaborate dance numbers that I would almost certainly perform if only I were younger, thinner and talented — or Miley Cyrus.

When you live in a small town, you get to know the public officials, and as a former Main Street business owner and lawyer, I have had varied interactions with local police. Some individual officers are consistently reasonable and helpful; a few can seem bad-tempered or arrogant. But on balance I will admit that there was a time — now emphatically consigned to the past — when I didn’t think much of their overall performance.

I vividly recall the time when I summoned police to my store to rescue two children who had been abandoned there by irresponsible parents. Giving the local dispatcher my address — spelling my store name three times — I wondered why they couldn’t identify downtown shops, when New York City officers can learn the names, addresses and even the owners of the public businesses on their beats. And I’ll never forget the sight of the responding officer walking up and down the street — on the opposite side — apparently unaware that the odd numbers were on one side and the evens were on another.

I also remember the time — several years ago — when a drunken driver plowed into the front yard of a friend’s house, demolishing several trees, his car floor littered with empty beer cans. When the police arrived, they took a firm position — pro-perpetrator — urging my friend to refrain from pressing charges because the offender was “a nice guy” who would make full restitution (he didn’t).

But my favorite cop moment was when I called to report an open window in a closed real estate office next door to the store, which was entered by multiple officers swarming SWAT-like with guns drawn. I feared that if the fax machine suddenly beeped it would be cut down in a hail of bullets. Oh, and there was that prolonged period when they seemed incapable of solving major crimes, leading a prominent local resident to dub our town “Cold Case USA.”

But that’s all in the past, because the local police now impress me as diligent, respectful and competent. Where they once might have refused to release a serial suspect’s description for fear of “compromising the investigation,” they now release detailed information about both appearance and modus operandi. Last summer, this enabled my sharp-eyed neighbor to help them bust a notorious neighborhood burglary ring, and has led many locals to feel an increased sense of confidence and security.

My conversations with the police chief — a no-nonsense female of considerable experience — have always been positive, and I am grateful that these dedicated public servants put their lives on the line for our citizens and businesses. Which leads me back to the recently stepped-up enforcement of our vehicular safety laws. Of course this is right — distracted driving, whether due to cellphoning or texting, or fumbling in the glove compartment for that Miley Cyrus CD, is ill-advised on all counts.

I do, however, think that cellphone conversations conducted at a standstill, while caught in Caltrans construction, should be an exception to the rule under a new theory of defense to be called: “distracted driving due to having been driven to distraction by daily delays.” But that’s just one citizen’s cry for common sense, and categorically does not represent well-researched legal advice.

Do we all really need more than one car? Today’s column in the Star…

If you are seeking evidence that I never stray from the Napa Valley, look no further than my odometer. My 10-year-old SUV only recently reached the 44,444 mark — and most of those miles were logged during the first two years while commuting from St. Helena to Palo Alto twice a week.

To be honest, suggesting that I traverse the entire Napa Valley is stretching it — I rarely venture past Yountville. It’s as if I’m running up against one of those invisible electric fences, set to keep me well at heel in my Upvalley backyard.

Nonetheless, I retain my road-hugging, gas-guzzling, broken-windowed Mercedes ML320, a vestige of my distant past as a commuter of means. And I curse the Saudi gods — as the rest of you must do daily — on those infrequent occasions when I am required to fill ’er up.

So now that we’ve established that I have no real need for an automobile, may I mention my current obsession with owning a convertible? I regularly fantasize about warm evening commutes from the theater in Yountville to my home in St. Helena — 10 miles at most — with the wind in my hair, the scent of ripening grapes up my nose, and the radio blasting classic jazz from a favorite SF station.

The reality is that I can’t roll down the windows on my SUV due to the noise and fumes from highway construction. The prevailing scent on warm nights is often eau de dead bugs hitting the windshield, and the only blastable radio station would likely be in Spanish. Convertibles carry other complications, too: the hat, the hair, the hat hair, and the risk of the dog diving out to pursue the first passing squirrel.

But reality has nothing whatsoever to do with automotive purchases. How else to explain the multiple, mismatched cars owned by my neighbors, except perhaps some new strain of vehicular schizophrenia?

Everyone needs basic wheels — I get that. For many, it’s a family conveyance: spacious enough to schlep kids to school, dogs to the vet and groceries home from Sunshine Foods. Maybe there’s a second car for the spouse, plus a tricked-out truck — a shiny new big-wheeler that you can hear rumbling around the corner two streets away. Trucks are often white, sometimes red, but never dirty — I wonder whether their owners secretly maintain a second, grubbier truck, the way my grandmother always kept a second set of “nice” towels and tablecloths reserved exclusively for public display.

Other neighbors own clunker trucks — old, low-slung, with balding tires — that you can hear wheezing around the corner two streets away. They arrive laden with tons of gravel and dirt, or piled high Clampett-style with personal possessions; they depart leaving an oil slick behind. Some are rarely used but serve as comforting reminders of a rural wine country lifestyle that no longer exists. I’ve noticed that there are weekend outfits to match these trucks: the scrunched hat, a broken-in pair of boots and something in a torn but clean plaid flannel. Whatever the getup, it seems to be a joyful trip; “Taking the Truck to the Dump” has replaced “Cruising Main Street in a Dragster” as America’s foremost four-wheeled entertainment.

On nearby streets, well-heeled neighbors display the glamorous, high-performance compact convertibles they never drive. Less an automotive purchase than a cry for help, these midlife-crises-on-wheels represent the adventurous unfettered youth the purchaser plans to reclaim 20 years hence — when the kids graduate from college. Of course, by the time those kids actually move out — and take the grandkids with them — the owner will be too old to twist his body behind the wheel, much less operate a stick shift; indeed, the gas-powered engine may be obsolete. But still the roadster sits in the garage, meticulously maintained — a promise for the future, along with Medicare supplements and Roth IRA accounts.

Back on my street, multiple cars are creeping up along the curb — where once there were two or three, there are now 10. The only no-parking zone is the garage or driveway. Sometimes neighbors park in front of my house, leaving their own street front empty — which seemed slightly impolite until I discovered they were just clearing room for the many cars owned by their regularly visiting friends and relatives. By the way, neighboring convertible owners are welcome to park in front of my house any time. Leave the keys — and don’t worry — I’ve probably just taken it for a short spin to Yountville.

A local affordable-housing project recently proposed limiting parking to one car per unit, and for some objectors this was akin to the Chinese capping the number of children at one, or a bartender cutting them off after the second bottle of Cab. But I’m content with my single, sensible car, dreaming of the day when I can look out my front window and see my very own impractical convertible sitting there, ready to carry me and my dog to faraway lands like Healdsburg or Berkeley or even — dare I say it? — Carmel. Oh, the places we’ll go.

When did the primary care physician become an answering machine?  Today’s Column in the Star…

I’m so pleased to hear about the rebound in housing prices, and am not at all bitter that I sold my two most precious pieces of real property at the absolute bottom of the market at the absolute worst possible time. I realize that real estate markets experience certain unpredictable cycles, like broken washing machines or perimenopausal females, and that those out of sync with their circadian rhythms run the risk of being bitch-slapped by whichever fickle goddess controls the global economy.

As the market becomes increasingly robust, I anticipate the return of one of my favorite phenomena: the Heights effect. Certain developers believe that by simply attaching the name “Heights” to any neighborhood, its value will instantly triple. Pacific Heights and Presidio Heights are two examples, but my favorite occurred when Marin County discussed selling San Quentin prison to developers for luxury waterfront housing, causing locals to nickname the neighborhood: “San Quentin Heights.”

Here in the Napa Valley, we have no real heights to speak of, since building on a visible hillside is considered a capital crime. Still, some of our older neighborhoods might spark buyer interest if they christened themselves “Crinella Heights” or “Angwin Heights,” or if the local mobile home park adopted the somewhat-confused name “Vineyard Valley Heights,” which, quite frankly, fits the perplexing personalities of some of its more outspoken residents.

Another way to increase the value of your brand is to call yourself a “Concierge” anything. Concierge Doctors are simply capitalists focusing on high-paying clients and consigning the lower end of the market to others. But they do hold out the promise of providing more personal attention to patients, plus fewer instances of confusing one’s prostate exam with another’s pregnancy test.

For those unable to engage a Concierge Doctor, most health care is managed by an answering machine. It generally responds: “Hello. You’ve reached the office of Doctor so-and-so. If this is a life-threatening emergency (and we all know what a hypochondriac you are), hang up and phone a friend. We will be unable to help you if your illness cannot be treated in the 4.7 minutes we’ve allotted per patient appointment, and besides, the last thing you want is to have our receptionist telling you where to apply the tourniquet.

“Our office is open Monday through Thursday except every possible holiday (including St. Mondavi Day) from 10 a.m. (it used to be 9, but the local pharmacist sleeps in so why shouldn’t we?) to 12 p.m. and from 2 to 4. We turn our phones off between 12 and 2 sharp because (a) by that point in the day we are sick and tired of hearing about your problems; (b) we’ve scheduled a nooner with a particularly attractive pharmaceutical company sales representative; and (c) we can’t eat lunch at our desk and listen to you complain about your bunions at the same time.

“On Fridays we work half-days, so if you call after 12 you’ll be on hold listening to the Love Theme from ‘Titanic’ until Monday at 10 (unless it falls on St. Mondavi Day, in which case ‘My Heart Will Go On’ until Tuesday). We wouldn’t work at all on Fridays except that some high-priced consultant said we need to become more ‘customer focused’ if we are ever to realize our dream of becoming Concierge Doctors.”

Now I ask you: In what other profession is it acceptable to completely turn the customer service obligation on its head? Still, you have to admire the forthright way in which they so quickly and decisively lower their customers’ expectations. Perhaps other professions should do the same.

We lawyers could say: “Hello. We’re busy overbilling someone, but we’ll listen to your message with one ear while listening to another client through the other, which is how we generate 20 billable hours in a 10 hour workday.”

Retailers might say: “Hello. We’ve closed at 5, even though you keep telling us that you prefer to shop after work, because we tried staying open late to accommodate you, but you didn’t come and you didn’t call and we got terribly depressed, sitting there all alone chewing wet cigarettes in the dark.”

And of course, wineries should simply say: “Hello. We can’t come to the phone right now because we’re out back drinking up the excess inventory.”

If only newspaper reporters could choose to cover events occurring between 9 to 12 or 2 to 5, and restaurants, stores and other businesses could be opened when convenient and profitable. But that would leave only Private Chefs and Personal Shoppers, and Concierge Editors reporting the news third-hand from their homes; sitting in their pajamas wondering whether the AP newswire editors realize that St. Helena is in California, and not in Washington state.

I understand that doctors use these message machines because the pressure of medical practice, with its labyrinthine regulations, recordkeeping duties, insurance forms, and malpractice insurance requirements, has transformed the venerable medical profession into a thinly margined volume business, lacking the glamour, prestige and financial stability of — say — a small-town newspaper columnist.

Which reminds me, does anybody know a good Concierge Career Counselor?

Has the Napa Valley Wine Train revealed that St. Helena’s slip is showing? Today’s column in the Star…

Tourists are different from us, not just in origin, but in mindset. This was never clearer to me than during a recent cross-valley trek on the Napa Valley Wine Train.

The word “trek” is defined in the Random House Dictionary as “to travel or migrate, especially slowly or with difficulty,” and in South Africa: “to travel by ox wagon.” I’ve never actually traveled by ox wagon, but I suspect that your average well-motivated oxen can haul their keesters faster than the Wine Train chugs its way up and down the valley. And while I would never describe one traveling in the leisurely luxury of the Wine Train as experiencing “difficulty,” the phrase “especially slowly” fits its schedule to a T.

This is not a bad thing. For vacationers wishing to drink in the beauty of the Napa Valley — its lush vineyards, verdant hills and expansive skies, while sampling delectable food and wine — it’s a delightful experience. Guests can choose from the retro skyline rail car with birds-eye view, the rough-n-ready open-air saloon car and luxury dining cars recalling train travel’s glamorous heyday. With stop-and-go traffic a major hassle for visitors, the chance to relax and let the train engineer do the driving must be a treat.

But for a bunch of busy local business-owners trekking in the middle of a workday, it became an exercise in Zen Buddhist mind-control. I’m talking about a recent trip organized by the ever-energized St. Helena Chamber of Commerce, when a phalanx of local leaders, merchants, restaurateurs and other chamber members were invited to enjoy lunch on the train. Like many locals, I had not experienced the Wine Train, so it was a chance to discover why so many call it a highlight of their valley visit and to meet its friendly and knowledgeable staff.

The company was congenial, the wine flowing and the food thoughtfully prepared by Chef Kelly Macdonald. But as I toured the other cars, each brimming with well-dressed revelers enjoying their vacations, I couldn’t help but compare them with us stressed-out locals. Disconnected from our offices and forced to “be there now” for what felt like an eternity, we stewed watching our everyday landscape pass by in slow motion. And while we settled into semi-relaxed conversation, many of us lunged for our cellphones at lunch, seeking an Internet connection like addicts scrambling for a fix.

The train slowed to a crawl approaching St. Helena, so several of us decided to take a closer look at our fair city from the viewpoint of a Wine Train passenger. And I don’t think I’m overstating it to say that what we observed was disturbing. Because like many cities viewed from the train tracks — as opposed to the view from the main highway — it often looked downright shoddy.

Picture a panorama of the backs of buildings with unmatched or peeling paint, punctuated by trash containers, weeds and broken asphalt. A few were well tended, and some unkempt buildings were spruced up with flower boxes and other random decorations. But overall the view revealed an urgent need for a total makeover of the Great Lady of St. Helena’s backside, and the immediate application of the municipal equivalent of Spanx so that her unsightly bumps and bulges might be more completely camouflaged.

I sympathize with the building owners, who likely never expected their backyards to become Napa Valley focal points. It’s as if a magazine offered to do a photo-shoot of your home, but then only photographed that ugly spot right next to the compost bin where you’ve stacked your old skis, rusting hammock stand and unused trampoline awaiting eventual consignment to the dump.

I had a similar experience recently while making my bathroom sparkle, suddenly noticing its unsightly ceiling. What was shiny was now splotchy, and little bits of soap congealed above the shower were now turning colors like specimens ripening in a laboratory. I considered cleaning the ceiling, but for those who have never tried it, let me give you a word of warning: “Don’t.” First you spot-clean, but those spots are now a different color from the rest of the ceiling. So you try cleaning the whole ceiling, but the finish changes and so you need to repaint, which is impossible to do without dripping paint on the walls, so now you are repainting and re-flooring, and you really might as well just move to a new house.

We all have some eyesore, junk drawer or embarrassing backside we don’t want exposed to the public, whether in our cities, in or homes, on our persons or in our personal histories. Luckily the Wine Train tourists experiencing St. Helena’s rearview seemed unfazed. They laughed and ate and toasted and drank, no doubt planning to visit Main Street for a shopping excursion during their trip. As for us locals, we resolved to add: “Tart Up St. Helena’s Posterior” to our to-do lists, just as soon as we were finally able to detrain in Napa, reconnect to our smartphones and retrace our treks — briskly — back home.

Is the global economic crisis leading to a severe shortage of snickerdoodles? My latest column in the Star…

One subject I wish that I had studied more closely in school is economics. What seemed like such an abstract field in my youth now appears to provide the secret decoder ring essential to deciphering the world.

My formal training in economics mirrored Father Guido Sarducci’s “Five Minute University” — which reduced college subjects to whatever graduates were likely to remember five years after graduating. All I recall of the entire economics curriculum is: “supply and demand.” Later, I learned from Russell Crowe — playing a dishy but deranged mathematician in “A Beautiful Mind” — that world-changing economic theory could be based upon the number of women a guy could pick up in a bar.

But for a crash-course in supply and demand, I encourage you to visit the coffee counter at Dean & DeLuca, where I am currently waging a one-woman campaign to educate the staff on the serious economic implications of their inability to provide as many snickerdoodle cookies as the public, specifically I, might wish to consume.

I often swing by D&D as I traverse the valley in my epic, eternal search for the elusive snickerdoodle, like some philosophical but low-blood-sugared combination of Kung Fu and Cookie Monster. I stride through the tourist-filled shop with the smug confidence of a Napa Valley local and former NYC D&D devotee who has seen everything — specifically their complete cookie collection — before. Making a beeline for the coffee counter, I scan the baked goods selection in guarded anticipation, spotting large peanut butter and oatmeal raisin cookies piled high.

“Do you have any snickerdoodles today?” I inquire, seeing none on display. “No,” they reply, “they are all gone.” Noting my disappointment, they add, forcefully: “You have to get here earlier,” clarifying — should there be any doubt — that my failure to obtain a snickerdoodle was due entirely to my own lack of character. What they don’t understand, aside from the time-demands posed by my multiple careers, is that I begin each day with a firm resolve to avoid snacking and sweets. It is only by late afternoon — when the pressure of construction-related traffic delays, dropped cell phone conversations and landline robocalls have driven me to the emotional breaking point — that I reach for a restorative cookie.

“Why don’t you bake more?” I once asked, realizing the folly of the question as soon as it left my lips. These cookies are likely not baked on the premises, and certainly not in quantities specified by local managers. They are probably imported from some distant NAFTA or Eurozone-partner and distributed by computer according to a demographic formula calculated by postal code. A global economic trade imbalance caused by Ben Bernanke and Ayn Rand has led to embargoes of Brazilian sugar, Sri Lankan cinnamon and Asian flour — creating a severe worldwide shortage of snickerdoodles.

“Why don’t you bake them yourself?” I hear you asking, hopefully realizing the folly of your question as soon as it left your lips. Yes, why don’t I have my chef do it, or my maid, or my movie star boyfriend, for that matter? The better question is: In an America where the customer is always right, where supply is supposed to be carefully calibrated to satisfy demand, and where elite gourmet food chains exist for the sole purpose of catering to a consumer’s urgent, illogical desire for a $4 tomato, a $40 slice of cheese or a $400 pound of cat-anus coffee — in that great country — why can’t Dean & DeLuca keep snickerdoodles in stock?

One doesn’t need a degree in economics to understand the implications of my writing this column. Having planted the seed in your beautiful but impressionable minds — for why would you still be reading a newspaper if you were not, to some degree, impressionable — you will now crave snickerdoodles, dream about snickerdoodles, and stop the owner of Dean & DeLuca in the street to demand snickerdoodles.

He will write a memo, which will be forwarded to corporate headquarters, where the VP of Baked Goods will elicit the assistance of the U.S. Department of Commerce to ease restrictions on sugars and spices (including cream of tartar — a dash of which distinguishes the true snickerdoodle). Guidelines will be promulgated to individual stores mandating that snickerdoodles be stocked at all times; failure to do so will lead to reprimands, loss of promotions and bonuses paid entirely in the form of those peanut butter and oatmeal raisin cookies that have been sitting around, untouched, all day. Snickerdoodles will become as ubiquitous at Dean & DeLuca as snazzy square napkins and crisp white handle bags.

But when that day comes, will I still want that snickerdoodle? Will you? Only an economist knows for sure.

Among the skills in my portfolio of which I have always been most proud — right up there with my expertise in hooking up stereo equipment, an extensive knowledge of show-tune lyrics and the ability to bring dead houseplants back to life — is my aptitude as a parallel parker.

My parking prowess was not born in me but was achieved through years of diligent study and practice, particularly during the San Francisco garage-less years. I spent a significant portion of my late 20s circling my Pacific Heights apartment in hopes of shoehorning my beat-up Honda Civic between two gleaming Bimmers. Even under the pressure of heavy traffic, I could reverse right into the tightest of spots — and in those days, cars were low and long and it was hard to see the front end of a black 280Z or RX7 in the dark.

Today drivers sit up high in SUVs, so there’s no excuse for bumping the car behind you (unless it’s a Mini-Cooper, in which case they’re asking for it). But these SUVs also have big tires, and there’s the rub. For you see, I, too, have an SUV, with bald tires that were recently replaced with some all-seasons type with thick, chunky treads that have totally changed the vehicle’s handling. As a result, I can no longer park with my customary aplomb.

You’d think that I could adapt to these new tires in no time. But after a few bumps and scrapes, and more than a few embarrassing public incidents driving my rear tire up onto the curb, I have to admit that I’ve totally lost my parking mojo. Unfortunately, daily affirmations, personal parking pep talks and reflection upon past parking triumphs won’t restore my confidence — the minute you think about it, you’ve already failed. Gliding into a tight parking place needs to come as naturally as breathing or laughing or slithering into a beloved pair of skinny-jeans.

It’s amazing how just one little failure can undermine levels of self-confidence that took years to build. In an instant, one loses the ability to accomplish tasks previously performed effortlessly — like cracking an egg, flipping a pancake or throwing a basketball through a hoop (OK, that last one I wouldn’t really know; I’ve tried to perform it only once, in or around 1987, when the ball swooshed through the hoop, and having nowhere to go but down, I quietly retired from sports). My male friends tell emotional tales of certain “this never happens to them” incidents of poor performance, prompting endless soul-searching, trips to the doctor for little blue pills and desperate late-night online purchases of medical devices which are undoubtedly fully covered by Obamacare.

Perhaps due to some related disturbance in the parking continuum, my parking Karma seems to be on the fritz as well. I’ve always abided by the “everyone will assume the good parking spots are already taken” rule, frequently snagging a spot right in front. Now I am reduced to squeezing into a space labeled “compact” and crawling out the passenger door. Clearly these big ol’ tires have sent me careening dangerously off-balance, like a girl who spent her life in spiky Jimmy Choos suddenly having to navigate the world in a pair of Dr. Martens. I probably suffer from a post-traumatic parking-related stress disorder that can only be cured by one of those luxury cars that parks for you; I wonder if this is covered by Obamacare?

Oh why did I ever replace my tires? And what made me decide to buy this off-road vehicle anyway? The full extent of my off-roading consists of traversing the unpaved overflow parking lot at Nordstrom during the holiday shopping season. Where was I planning to use the dashboard compass, why did I purchase an under-carriage brush protection package, and precisely what was I planning to tie to this roof rack — some moose I bagged during a hunting trip to the Adirondacks?

Maybe I’m just not good at shopping for cars. Come to think of it, perhaps I was never a skilled parker at all. Maybe I was just lucky, and one day I finally ran through my allotment of favorable parking opportunities. It’s even possible that I am parking-challenged, and that my faith in my own ability to park was just raw hubris — like that of those tone-deaf contestants on “American Idol” who think they can sing, or uncharismatic political candidates who think they can be President.

I’m afraid we’ll never know, because a talent for brutally honest, accurate self-assessment has never been one of the core skills in my wheelhouse.


June 30, 2013

Dear Readers,

It’s official – my “Up the Valley” column in the St. Helena Star won first place last night from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, in the category of humor. The ceremony took place in Hartford, Connecticut, and awarded prizes in six categories. Fellow winners included the late Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, who won for his online column, and Pulitzer Prize winning-humorist Dave Barry, who was awarded the Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award.

The specific Up the Valley columns submitted were: “Dumb and Dumber” “Eat Your Feelings” and “Semi-Pro.” This is the second consecutive year that the column has been awarded first prize.

The judge said some nice things:

First Place – Laura Rafaty, St. Helena (Calif.) Star. Judge’s comment: I thought the best of the bunch (first place) was Laura Rafaty, one of the columnists whose work actually produced multiple laugh-out-loud moments. Very conversational style, with a wide mix of subject matter (not just kids and insufferable spouses, as is the case with many of these entries). Her writing allows readers to sail along on a sea of mirth, a skill I saw lacking in many other entries. Like all good writers, she takes readers from the first to last sentences without them being aware they have just made the trip. Good journalistic writing is invisible.

Thanks to all my readers for your support of this column over the past year. Lots more silliness to come!


What’s most surreal about Auction Napa Valley? Read my column in today’s St. Helena Star

The Friday opener of Auction Napa Valley always provides plenty of surreal sights, although I hear that the weekend gatherings provide even more.

I’ve heard tales of 110-pound cheetahs lounging on the Meadowood fairway alongside purring Jaguars (the four-wheeled species), of distinguished revelers dousing one another with squirt guns at resplendent dining tables, and of Robert Mondavi modeling a dinner jacket made entirely of wine corks for auction by Jay Leno, fetching $95K. And speaking of emcees, I hear Ryan Seacrest once spontaneously raised 70 grand by inviting 8 bidders to hang out with him backstage at “American Idol.” I wouldn’t know, because such extravagant weekend auction events are above my pay-grade, or more precisely, above my press-pass access.

Still I was thrilled to once again troll the Friday marketplace for signs of Auction Napa Valley’s trademark brand of over-the-top indulgence in the name of warm-your-heart philanthropy.

In past years I’ve spotted Oprah Winfrey, or the specter of her anyway, dressed in blazing yellow and surrounded by a phalanx of large, black-suited bodyguards, her filtered image shimmering like the sun peeking through a forest of towering Versace-clad sequoias. I’ve watched eager, overstuffed crowds descending en masse into the serpentine water-featured caves at Jarvis Winery, like vacationing Disneyland passport-holders waiting to board the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

But I hadn’t seen anything until I saw the Red Room at Raymond Vineyards, which I was privileged to visit this past Barrel-Auction Friday morning, bright and early, for breakfast.

Plunging into this darkened lair from the bright Napa Valley morning sunlight, it took time for my eyes, and then my brain, to process what I was seeing. There was a red velvet canopied ceiling with gleaming Baccarat crystal chandelier, reflective fleur-de-lis flocked wallpaper, and voluptuous red velvet Victorian furnishings just asking for an assignation. Offered for consumption was an abundant feast of breakfast foods and bubbly; the glossy lacquered black bar served coffee and juice to those lacking the moral courage to drink before 10 a.m.

Portraits of seductively-sprawled Marilyns adorned the walls, alongside books on Playboy and Pucci. Corner glass display units offered Baccarat crystal and designer leather goods and handbags. I was puzzled by the purse display, until I remembered a female sociologist telling me that the handbag is a metaphor for certain ladyparts — which makes it the quintessential accessory for the Red Room (although this sociologist carried an oversized, beaten-up leather bucket bag, so what subliminal message was she sending?)

If one assumes, as I do, that the hereafter consists of one’s own individually-themed luxury lounge, not unlike Auction Napa Valley’s Live-Auction lots, then the Red Room surely resembles the future heavenly abode of Hugh Hefner, where he will swap decorating tips with neighbors Sally Stanford, Mae West and Gypsy Rose Lee. What’s so strikingly different about the place, as situated in the Napa Valley, is the uncensored sense of naughtiness it conveys. A Napa Valley winery can be many things — graceful, bucolic, stately, even earnest, but naughty is not in its nature. Where most tasting-rooms would be perfectly paired with a soft-rock concert, a cool jazz combo, or even a country hoedown, this opulent outpost shares a closer kinship with the burlesque peep-shows of Dita von Teese.

Just as I adjusted to all this delightful decadence, hosts Jean-Charles Boisset and the Staglins started speaking. They were engaging, playful and infectiously enthusiastic, sharing stories of early-bird pledges and worthy beneficiaries, of the Staglins’ exceptional efforts to extract extraordinary donations, and of Cabernet-colored nail polish — only $30 at the Auction gift shop. Monsieur Boisset captivated the crowd with French flourish, making everyone present — even lowly “journalists” — feel important to the Valley and to the Auction. “If you are heeere today, you are now members of zee Red Room,” he proclaimed.

I fear his statement was purely symbolic, because I now wildly covet Red Room membership, not only so that I might at-long-last invite someone to “meet me in my favorite dark bar in St. Helena,” but so I can carry the membership credential, which I imagine to be either a crystal credit card, a platinum Playboy Club-type key, or a key fob in the form of a cabernet-red velvet-covered vibrating grape cluster.

Back outside on the expansive lawns of Raymond Winery, there were echoes of the Red Room’s bordello-chic, but this time in tastefully-placed white divans and carved white chairs that glowed in the blinding hot Napa sun. White café table sets sat under sheltering trees, sunlight flickering through the leaves although there was no breeze. There might have been a white peacock in a cage, or perhaps I dreamt it.

What stayed with me was not the sight of the Red Room, or the lovely winery and its festive food and wine marketplace, or even the fevered bidding at the barrel auction. It was the image of Jean-Charles Boisset clearing out his own wine, just because Garen Staglin asked to use Raymond’s barrel room for the weekend, to raise money for Napa Valley neighbors in need. That’s an image I find absolutely, wonderfully, surreal.