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.

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In Today’s column in the Star, I explain why the first fifteen minutes of any relationship is the most important…

Like most women in America, much of what I know I learned from watching Oprah.

I learned, for example, because Oprah said so, that how you treat the actual cash money in your wallet tends to mirror your general attitude toward handling your finances. As someone who keeps currency and receipts scrunched into tiny clumps stuffed in her wallet, and also organizes tax records by leaving piles of paper all over the house that make perfect sense until the cat scrambles them chasing a dust-ball or a forgotten pile emerges from under the sofa with really juicy deductions from tax year 2009, I recognize that there may be some truth in this. Besides, that Oprah knows money.

I learned from Oprah that Tom Cruise is prone to fits of irrational relationship exuberance, that vast wealth cannot buy permanent weight loss, and that while a live studio audience may enjoy viewing Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts in the flesh, nothing excites them more than a goodie bag full of complimentary swag cherry-picked from the list of Oprah’s Favorite Things.

I also learned that the true mark of a best friend is one who will give you your own spin-off television series, and why mine hasn’t done so is among the many disappointments in our longtime friendship, along with her persistent need to remain younger and thinner than I am.

But one of the most useful things I learned on Oprah was this: A person will tell you everything you need to know about your future relationship within the first 15 minutes of meeting you. Not only have I found this “FirstFifteen” rule to be true for friendship and romance, it has been extremely useful in business as well.

For example, I once hired an employee who was late for her first day of work, calling breathlessly from the road to report that she crashed her car. “I don’t want you to think I’m the kind of person who has accidents and is late for work,” she apologized, assuring me that “this has never happened to me before.” Two years, three cars, and multiple vehicular incidents later, I should have known from the “FirstFifteen” how it was all going to go down.

The annals of dating are rife with similar examples. A person who answers their cell phone or sends text messages during the “FirstFifteen” of a date will never make time for the relationship. A person who can never find your phone number or remember making plans is not going to become “less” forgetful. On the plus side, a person who can make you laugh during the “FirstFifteen” might just keep you smiling for a lifetime.

Occasionally you hear about couples who have a disastrous “FirstFifteen” but go on to marry. To them I say: you must have heard “something” intriguing in those “FirstFifteen,” or else you go to extreme lengths to overcome a bad first impression.

One caveat to the “FirstFifteen” rule is the Too Good to be True (TG2BT) exception. If during the “FirstFifteen” with a potential contractor you receive a long list of promised deliverables at bargain prices on an impossible timeframe, you are guaranteed never to hear from them again. And if the “FirstFifteen” of a date consists of someone with whom you “just click” explaining why you are perfect for each other while trying to book the second date, you might as well start drafting the restraining order now.

The reality is, though, no matter how disturbing the revelations during the “FirstFifteen,” it’s hard to heed the danger signs. We want to believe that his failure to bring a wallet to dinner doesn’t mean that he is cheap or broke, that bad taste can be re-educated, and that there is some very good reason why she was married three times before the age of 30.

Still — and this is key — if a person makes a flat-out confession to you during the “FirstFifteen” which you are tempted to doubt (“you won’t believe this, but my last boyfriend thought I was too clingy;” “I don’t seem to be able to hang onto a girlfriend for more than a month;” “My mother is my best friend”) do yourself a favor: believe them. But chances are that you will not, because you once knew a girl who had a college roommate who married a guy who had been divorced three times because he traveled constantly for work, but then he met the friend’s roommate and they fell in love and he started telecommuting and they just celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary.

I have reached the conclusion that we spend the “FirstFifteen” minutes of any relationship learning everything we need to know about a person and the balance of the relationship trying to rationalize why those things are not a problem. And if that information proves useful to you in the future, I hope you’ll remember: you learned it from reading Laura.

Up the Valley: The Skinny

January 24, 2013

Explain-away unwanted weight gain, Hollywood-style. Today’s column in the Star

One of the advantages I’ve always imagined attaches to being a film star is the ability to blame unwanted, unsightly weight gain on the need to “bulk up” for a movie role.

De Niro and Streep can eat all the pasta they want, plus dessert; it’s assumed that they are simply in the midst of another miraculous physical transformation, preparing for an upcoming biopic of Pavarotti or Clooney (Rosemary), respectively. “The Oprah,” herself a film star of sorts, can not only use this particular excuse, she can reuse any pesky holdover post-production pounds as fodder for her latest cookbook, inspirational-coach-turned-TV-host spinoff, or highly rated tear-soaked primetime special. Even chubby opera singers can croon about reaching their “perfect singing weight.”

Yet it seems that Hollywood actresses continue to shrink to unprecedented, unhealthy and unattractive levels.

I had finally gotten used to the modern ideal of movie beauty: impossibly young puffy-lipped females with oversized heads bobbing above sinewy muscular frames onto which two giant breasts had been stapled. Resembling Olympic marathon runners (men’s division), their bodies displayed the benefits of long lunch-less office hours spent at the gym, with a quick stopover at the plastic surgeon’s office on the commute home.

But now the muscles seem to be disappearing, consigned to extinction along with the curvy hip and the plump bottom, leaving only bones and artificial bumps. Picture Popeye’s Olive Oyl in a D-cup.

At a recent film opening, the adorable actress Emma Stone appeared so thin and lollipop-like that comments on fan sites ranged from “OMG” and “This is frightening” to “Somebody please get that girl a sandwich.”

Contrast such actresses with their male counterparts. Other than Daniel Day-Lewis, who could clearly grow a horn if cast as a unicorn, you don’t generally see male movie stars losing weight to an alarming degree. In general, an actor’s only reason to purposefully slim down is to eliminate his gut and reveal six-pack abs, thereby increasing his odds of selection as People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, or at least a guest shot on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Yet no one anticipates publication of People’s Skinniest Woman Barely Alive issue, although it would be a page-turner. It simply doesn’t matter how unhealthy actresses appear; the red carpet recap focuses on the svelte wearing a pelt, never mind the pallor.

Of course, this is old news in the fashion world, despite occasional movements to feature “healthy” models who are only slightly emaciated, as opposed to all-out anorexic. That models can appear dewy and bright-eyed despite prolonged undernourishment merely proves that they are either 12 years old, heavily medicated, or are digitally produced holograms.

What would land a normal person in an eating disorder clinic lands these girls the cover of Vogue. I’ve often wondered whether there is a special French fashion cemetery for the European variety of the fast-living gamine, where they can be efficiently stacked for all eternity, like kindling, alongside the black-clad magazine editors and chain-smoking ballerinas.

But back in Hollywood, it’s not surprising to see male actors shrink or expand, since sudden temporary weight gain is one ticket to an Oscar nod, as is playing a character who is physically or mentally challenged (see De Niro and Day-Lewis, above). The equivalent female formula requires a spectacularly glamorous actress to render herself almost unrecognizably unattractive (try serial killer or crime victim), to be imprisoned by Nazis, or to be Meryl (see Streep, above).

But what does this all mean to you and me, we unfortunate many who cannot attribute unwelcome weight gain to our film commitments? Let’s just come up with a few excuses of our own, and agree — as a community — to accept them, no questions asked.

For example, people in the wine industry might try: “My increased body mass helps me more efficiently metabolize alcohol.” Or those involved in tourism could claim a need to “be more relatable to visitors from Kansas City.” The culinarily employed already rely on the reasoning: “Well, I have to taste everything to recommend it, don’t I?” And you are welcome to use my excuse: “I am suddenly sedentary from spending so much time working on my novel.”

Actor Jonah Hill reportedly lost a great deal of weight a couple of years ago, hoping to “age up” so that industry bigwigs would stop associating him with frivolous juvenile roles. This weight loss succeeded in broadening his range of potential parts, raised his salary demands and triggered the inevitable Oscar nomination. But recently, according to photos posted on online gossip sites, he has regained much of the weight he had previously lost. Word is, Hill is bulking up for an upcoming movie role.