The Green Integer Blog supplements our Green Integer website with essays on various cultural topics by editor/publisher Douglas Messerli, along with a listing of Green Integer titles and information on our new books. Please note that all essays and commentary are copyrighted by the author, Douglas Messerli, and may not be republished without permission.
12 Tales in Another Town: The 11th Tale (Wine Country)
12 tales in another town: the 11th tale
In February 2002, my friend and Green
Integer author Martin Nakell and I were invited to read in San Francisco.
Martin and his wife Rebecca determined that they would drive up a couple of
days earlier and tour the wineries of Napa Valley, ending in a special dinner
at the famed restaurant, Ken Frank’s La Toque, and asked me if I’d like to join
I enjoy Martin and Rebecca’s company immensely (later in 2009, I stayed
with them for several weeks on the island of Ischia and traveled with them to
Pompeii and along the Amalfi coast), and I readily agreed. Although I knew that
they were not early risers, I suggested we get a fresh morning start; but
predictably they showed up somewhat late, their car containing yet another
voyager, Los Angeles theater-director Alec Doyle, whom I had met earlier (he
had directed a play by my friend, playwright Mac Wellman). So the four of us
sped toward Napa Valley, taking, for some inexplicable reason, the mid-California
route, State Highway 5, a highway that is filled with stormy mountainous passages
skirting the desert territories of Bakersfield and other eastern California
What I also did not know on that first trip with the Nakells is that
both of them have, as they jokingly agree, very small bladders, which meant
that we had to visit nearly every major gas station along the route. I admitted
that I too had been known for having to stop at bathrooms all along my family’s
As I write in my stories of Ischia, moreover, Martin and Rebecca are
both born wanderers rather than destined travelers, as Alex and I tend to be.
Nearly every gas station along the way also contains a store filled with what I
might describe as tourist junk: glasses and plastic tumblers with the names and
logos of California football and baseball teams, ash trays with waving palm
trees at their center, oversize t-shirts, piles of plastic key chains, plastic
necklaces, soda, candies and numerous other things of little interest to most. My
mother would never have been found dead in such a place, and Alec and I, if
more tolerant, perceived little in any of these tourist shops to tempt us.
Martin and Rebecca, on the other hand, were utterly fascinated by these piles
of “junk,” which caught their attention immediately after clearing out their
bladders, and held them in awe sometimes for hours at a time. It was not that
they purchased anything in these places, they were just fascinated, as cultural
anthropologists, in what these strange American consumer outlets contained.
Along with a lunch stop at the Harris
Ranch (good food perhaps but not always so enjoyable with the smells of nearby
cowpiles) these frequent stops and strolls meant that we arrived on the
outskirts of San Francisco at nearly 11:00 at night—which I embarrassingly
admit is well past my usual bed time.
The Nakells were determined, moreover, to stop in the city before
driving out to Napa where we had booked our hotels, to see a friend, Eve
Alintuck, who ran a local bar. Eve greeted us with some suspicion, but
gradually warmed up, particularly to Alec. We had several drinks with her
before heading off into the night, leaving Alec to find his way to his friends
in the city.
Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge under the midnight glow of the moon, I
was, by that late hour, nearly in a trance (long voyages tend to do that to me)
and Martin and Rebecca were somewhat giddy. As he continued up route 29, which
seemed to me more like a back country road than the “highway” by which it was
described, it soon became apparent that we were lost. But before we could even
begin to recover our bearings, Martin had to urinate; by this time so did I too.
We stopped along the road and headed into a small clump of nearly trees.
Suddenly I noticed a car pull up behind ours in which Rebecca sat alone. I
motioned to Martin and we quickly ran back to the car and drove off, the other
car following. Who were they, we could only wonder, redneck teenagers out to
get a thrill, late-night voyeurs on the prowl, would-be assailants surely? We
were terrified, startled, slightly thrilled and nervously giggling.
Soon we found ourselves in the small town of Sonoma, wherein are the
offices of the West-coast representative of my Michigan printers, McNaughton
& Gunn. A café seemed to beckon us, and we quickly drove into its lighted
parking lot, trying to seek out directions to Napa. The waitress turned us away
at the door, but a nearby hotel greeted our questions more hospitably, turning
us around to move back in the direction from which we had come. Fortunately our
followers had taken off with a horn-honking hoot. It was clear that in these
wealthy vineyards, daily filled with tourist groups, we were, nonetheless,
Finally we found my hotel, a few miles from the Hyatt which contained La
Toque, where Martin and Rebecca had made reservations.
Despite the late hour, I awoke early, as is my wont, the next morning,
knowing that the Nakells would not yet be awake. At about 10:00, I called them,
and they reported they’d soon be over to pick me up. Hours passed, during which
I watched four different versions of the Rocky movies! At about noon, they showed
Rebecca had obtained a map of the wineries, and we each suggested which
ones we might enjoy visiting. Our voyage, fortunately, began with the Cakebread
Cellars, where the wine was wonderful and winery representatives presented a
quite organized lecture, explaining the various procedures and nomenclature
that went along with “tasting” wines. For perhaps the first time I could taste
the chocolate and lilac-flavors of various red wines, the minty or slightly
sour grapes of white samples.
Our next stop was the Francis Ford Coppola wineries, which also
contained a good number of film mementos. I have always found Coppola’s merlots
as being far too tannic, but we enjoyed the tasting party nonetheless. After,
we visited yet another winery, but I can no longer remember which one—perhaps
because, by that time we growing slightly tipsy.
Accordingly, we stopped off at a posh grocery, not unlike Southern
California’s Bristol Farms. There we purchased the ingredients for a full
picnic, to which we treated ourselves before visiting yet another nearby
winery, Silverado Vineyards, I seem to recall.
Rolling along the somewhat mountainous roads, Martin now realized that
the wine had gone to his head, and Rebecca and I were woozily listing. To clear
our palettes, so to speak, we decided to stop in for a champagne tasting at the
famed Mumm Champagne vintners. Somehow we stumbled up into their large tasting
room and enjoyed the bubbly, before moving on to one last serious swallow of
wines at another cellar. Martin and Rebecca dropped me off at my hotel, while
winding their way back up the road to the Westin Verasa Napa.
I took a short nap, calling a taxi this time, and arriving at their
hotel at about 7:30, since we had an 8:00 reservation at La Toque. My
colleagues had fallen into a deeper sleep than I, and it took a while of
pleading with them to move before they could ready themselves. Meanwhile, I
went into the restaurant to keep our reservation.
I don’t remember what we had for dinner that evening, but at the prices
La Toque charges (currently it costs $275 per serving) I am sure it had to be
an incredible dining experience. On a recent on-line menu, I found what I might
order today—and may have back in 2002:
Fiddlehead Cellars, Pinot Noir,
Fiddlestix 7.28, Sta. Rita H
Lentils, Port Wine and Green Peppercorns
remembers, far more specifically, that he had an amazing truffle chicken (black
truffle slices slid neatly beneath the skin). I would have ordered that,
What I do remember is—in part in recompense for
Marty’s stalwart driving and Rebecca’s perseverance in booking this trip—I paid
for all three of us! As I often joke, credit cards are my only macho! But
Martin remembers differently, he and Rebecca paying for that night, I paying
for an almost equally expensive dinner the following night at Compton
Place.Memories are always unreliable,
so I have learned.
The next day, all quite exhausted, we
checked in to the Hilton Union Square Hotel, where I had made reservations.
After a shower we met across the street at one of my favorite restaurant-bars, Compton
Place (now Taj Compton Place, which currently features a French restaurant). Again
after urgent pleas, we grabbed a taxi to get to the location just in time for
our reading. Evidently, we returned there for dinner that evening.
Although San Francisco has long been a
noted place for poetry readings, I have never had much success in that city: of
the 3-4 readings I’ve done there only once did I attract a large audience. For
Martin and my reading, only two people appeared: Alec and what appeared to be
his new girlfriend, Eve. In a large room, the two of us, basically, read to our
“fellow travelers.” Martin remembers one
poor soul wandering into the reading and staying through to the end. Perhaps it
was the ghost of Elijah! I don’t think I saw him.
Soon after this foray into the wine
country, Alec married Eve, and they now have, so I’ve heard, a daughter. I have
never seen Alec since! It was a trip to which we evidently lost one of our