Wednesday, April 17, 2013

12 Tales in Another Town: The 11th Tale (Wine Country)

12 tales in another town: the 11th tale (wine country)


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 them.

     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 communities.

     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 childhood trips.


     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.

Cakebread Cellars     

     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, still outsiders.

      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 up.

      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:


                                                              Wolfe Farm Quail

                                    Fiddlehead Cellars, Pinot Noir, Fiddlestix 7.28, Sta. Rita H
                                    with DuPuy Lentils, Port Wine and Green Peppercorns

Martin remembers, far more specifically, that he had an amazing truffle chicken (black truffle slices slid neatly beneath the skin). I would have ordered that, surely.

     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 travelers!

Los Angeles, April 14, 2013

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