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.


Flashback: Gadget Envy

June 19, 2012

This silly thing was published in the St. Helena Star on February 11, 2011.  Still posting the oldies  to get them up on the ol’ inter-web, so hang in there!  If you want something newer, scroll down to Wine Open below…

We in St. Helena generally consider our city vastly superior to Napa in most respects, yet in one area Napa can claim a distinct advantage: cool crime-fighting tools. You may recall last year, when the Napa PD chased a suspected Walmart shoplifter (of $70) by helicopter, eventually plucking him out of the Napa River assisted by flashy fire department speedboats, in a scene right out of the movie “The Fugitive.”

And last summer, when an explosive device was reported downtown, the Napa PD bomb squad deployed a highly trained expert in an elaborate 80-pound beekeeper’s costume, who gingerly attached a rope to the thing, dragged it across a bumpy street into a pile of sandbags, and blew it up. The bomb-defeating hero later explained that he was forced to handle the incident in this decidedly old-school fashion because Napa’s robot was “down for maintenance.”

So this has left me wondering ever since: Why doesn’t St. Helena have its own robot?

It is difficult to fathom how we have survived as a municipality without one for so long, since we are completely gadget-crazy here. The minute Apple dreams up a new wireless device it seems half the town is carrying one, despite the fact that it is useful primarily as a doorstop due to the unfortunate placement of AT&T’s antenna in a secret, lead-lined bunker. And when a local restaurant unveiled a gizmo adding bubbles to still water, its competitors had bubbly-water-makers within days.

It is rumored that researchers at NapaStyle are working round-the-clock to develop an animatronic Michael Chiarello for photo ops with celebrity-chef-seeking tourists at Bottega. Plus, as I’ve mentioned: Napa already has one. Clearly we need our own shiny, obedient and discriminately lethal robot, for the following possible uses:

• It can run for Mayor.

It must be lonely for His Honor, running unopposed for high office. Nothing takes the fizz out of the champagne at the victory party like an inability to brag about beating the brains out of your opponent. Wouldn’t it be great if we could spice up the Mayor’s campaign with bumper stickers saying: “At Least He’s Human” or “My Candidate Doesn’t Run on Batteries.” The pre-election debate alone would be worth the price of the contraption, although we’ll have to remember to set the robot’s weapon to stun.

• It can welcome visitors.

Since the city is threatening to remove all funding from the Chamber of Commerce, and downtown business owners spend approximately 68 percent of their time directing tourists to the bathroom, the robot could serve as a Goodwill Ambassador, roaming the streets dispensing coupons, restaurant recommendations, wet wipes and local wine. It could even be programmed to dispense useful misinformation (which we’ll blame on a software glitch) such as driving directions to Yountville that involve traveling west until you hit the ocean, or a geologic history of Calistoga attributing the bubbling sulfur hot springs to decomposing vegetarian dinosaurs passing gas.

• It can fight crime.

There’s a new sheriff in town, as our ever-vigilant robot walks the beat and perhaps rips the head off a shoplifter or two, just as a warning to the others. Watch out, Cheers! revelers, as you’d better be sporting a tightly attached wristband or risk losing a wrist.

• It might even be called into high-risk situations, like maintaining order at school board meetings and announcing local water department rate increases (Note to manufacturer: Please make sure to include the double-strength combat-grade bullet-proof grenade-repelling armor).

Obviously, the St. Helena Robot will be invaluable. Yet how, you might ask, can we possibly pay for it? I’m not generally in favor of displacing human workers with robots, so let’s replace bomb-detonating robots with humans. I personally know at least a dozen thrill-seeking boys between the ages of 8 and 68 who would gladly blow things up at a moment’s notice, many of whom would pay for the privilege. We could auction off the opportunity to blow up the next suspicious object found in town; even lend the high bidders out to blow things up in Napa for a fee (plus we don’t have to clean up afterward).

Not only would this raise funds to pay for essential services, but it would set the entire population of conscientious boys ages 8 to 68 into action seeking out suspicious packages wherever they may be inadvertently set down for a moment or two in the Safeway parking lot while searching for the car keys. And that’s Homeland Security we can live with.

This was my very first column for the St. Helena Star, published December 23, 2010.  I wonder whether other small towns are similar.  While lips have loosened a bit, it’s still tough to get elected if you admit to liking these things — which may explain why we have so few local citizens challenging incumbents for office. 

I was talking with a group of locals the other day, when one of them expressed a strong opinion on a topic of current interest, blanched, and then immediately cautioned: “but don’t quote me.” I hear this a lot in St. Helena, even from people who seem pretty brave and powerful, and I’m coming to realize that there are certain things you can’t say in this town without ending up in the soup.

So, as a public service, I compiled a list of a few things you shouldn’t say out loud in St. Helena:

1. Wine Train

Referring aloud to this train-that-must-not-be-named is akin to saying the name Voldemort in a Harry Potter novel. A fearful silence is likely to result. I’ve never been on the Wine Train, so I can only assume that Mephistopheles himself is the engineer, and that it makes periodic stops in local towns to distribute cigarettes to small children. Locals tell ghost stories — in hushed tones — about elected officials who mysteriously vanish after mentioning you-know-what in favorable terms, while assuring me that “the problem is not the Wine Train per se, but what it represents.” Apparently the WT provokes the same reaction in the locals as the Indian tribes once felt when they saw the smoke and tracks of the Union Pacific edging closer. But maybe we’d be more trusting of touristy transport if we were living in …

2. Yountville

Speak our neighbor’s name, and be prepared for some schizophrenia to take hold. Apparently there are two Yountvilles: the one that is better than us and the one that is much, much worse. The better one has branded itself the “fine dining capital of the world,” its benefactors investing unlimited amounts of money, with no zoning restrictions whatsoever, to refashion Yountville into a food-and-wine lover’s paradise with streets paved in gold, giant Taj Mahal-like spa/hotels, and an invisible magnetic shield at the end of town to prevent tourists from venturing north. The inferior Yountville of lore has no “real there there” and few neighborhoods, fewer schools and lesser wineries. What both Yountvilles can agree on, however, is that we in St. Helena are too darn snooty. In fact, I’ve heard it suggested that St. Helena is distinguished throughout the Napa Valley as being the snootiest most difficult-to-deal-with city around; sort of a gorgeous, high-maintenance girlfriend from a good family. If so, perhaps we should brand ourselves around it. Let’s all visit Yountville, Sonoma and Healdsburg wearing T-shirts that say: St. Helena: Don’t Hate Us Because We’re Better. One thing Yountville doesn’t have, though, is …

3. Cheers!

Love it or hate it, everyone seems to have strong, often conflicting opinions about this organization and the Friday night wine tasting and shopping event it sponsors. Is it a heroic effort to fill the breach left by local leaders who couldn’t save our town on their own; a great opportunity for neighbors to get together in a social setting; a boost for local shops, food and wine; or a drunken bacchanal with gangs of shoplifting youths gone wild chasing fearful residents back into their homes? It’s clear that Cheers! does a lot of good in the community, for which it does not always get credit, and that the Friday socials will continue to evolve. But it is also clear that it will be a lighting rod for an inconvenienced public unable to make a left turn onto Adams Street, and for those who think the music is just too darn loud. At least at Cheers! they pour lots of wine but don’t use much …

4. Water

Evidently everything in St. Helena can be separated into two categories: things that deserve water and things that don’t. The deserving apparently includes: vineyards, any front lawn (on odd or even days) and attached residence previously constructed, well located public parks, and palm trees at city buildings. The undeserving includes golf courses, swimming pools, businesses who can afford their own, and anything to be built tomorrow. Locals seem to agree, however, that St. Helena water is a bit smelly, tastes strange, is incredibly expensive, and plays havoc with the porcelain. In short, it is terrible and we wish we had more of it.

Perhaps we’d be happier if we shipped the water in from Yountville in giant tankers attached to the Wine Train.

Come to think of it, those seeking peaceful discourse should generally refrain from mentioning the School Board, the City Council, the Planning Commission, that other bocce league, tree removal, soccer fields, screwtops, taxes, flood control, weddings at wineries, pumpkin patches at wineries, anything besides wine at wineries, eco-villages, low-income housing, stream setbacks, protected species, nine-hole golf courses and the location of the nearest Taco Bell.

Personally, I enjoy visiting art galleries (and don’t share the town’s deep fear of “becoming Carmel”), but don’t quote me.