Sunny Sonoma

Sonoma Town Square /Michelle Locke

You know how they talk about Berkeley being a hotbed of protest? They’re lying. It’s pretty much always perishing cold here. When we went through a (mercifully brief) pro-nudity movement a few years ago that was the question all of us locals were asking: How can they stand the cold?So I was particularly happy when business took me to Sonoma this week. This is a small city of about 10,000 people in Sonoma County wine country. The main attraction is the plaza downtown, beautifully landscaped with a pond so serene just looking at it makes your heart rate slow down. (In a good way.) The early 20th-century City Hall is here, as are the Mission San Francisco Solano and an assortment of shops and cafes.

Sonoma County doesn’t get quite the same kind of press as the Napa Valley next door, but it’s definitely worth a visit. One of my favorite wineries is Benziger Family Winery.  For $15, you can take a 45-minute tram tour of the vineyards, farmed biodynamically _ just learning about that is an experience _ and see the fermentation facility, crush pad and barrel caves. Oh, and you get to taste a little wine.

Another good side trip is Jack London State Park, where the author of “Call of the Wild,” etc., lived from 1905 to 1916. There are the ruins of what was to be his dream house, which burned down in 1913, and also a cottage where he lived and wrote. I visited a few years ago and was impressed by his mantra of write 1,000 a words a day, every day. Can’t say I live up to that. Of course, he didn’t have the handicap of being distracted by unbearably cute pictures of cats on the Internet.


Learning to speak vinacular: My buddy Brunello

Writing about wine is a wonderful thing. Great places to visit, smart, engaging people to talk to … and a whole new world of ways to stick your foot right in your mouth.

Let me tell you about my first experience with Brunello di Montalcino.

It was some years ago and I was writing about an international wine competition. The important part for me was that a couple of California wines had scored big. Local angle, check.

But I couldn’t help noticing as I scanned the list that Brunello di Montalcino came up a lot, too. Really an impressive showing in the top 10.

So, when I interviewed one of the contest officials, I had to ask: “Who is this Brunello guy? He really seems to be raking in the prizes.” (I didn’t share, but I had a whole vision in my head of Mr. B. Stocky, muscular, dark brown hair just beginning to go gray and a rich, riotously curly beard.)

There was pause. A sigh. And then the official said gently, “Brunello di Montalcino is a type of wine.

“Ah,” I said, ever one with the quick comeback.

I am sure you would never drop such a clanger, but just in case you need a refresher, Brunello di Montalcino is a red wine produced from grapes grown in vineyards near the town of Montalcino in Tuscany. Brunello means brownish (roughly) in Tuscan dialect and the wine is made from a clone of the sangiovese grape. Not a lot gets made and this is one of those wines prized by collectors; 2004 was a good vintage.

Adding a bit of drama, the region was the source of scandal a few years ago when Italian authorities investigated whether some producers were using grapes other than sangiovese, strictly forbidden under the many regulations governing how brunello is made.

So, that’s your brunello primer for today.

Now, I’m off to find out more about my new wine friend, that Australian minx Margaret River.


Auction Napa Valley


A lot at the Napa Valley wine auction /Michelle Locke

Napa Valley vintners partied like it was 1989 for their annual auction this weekend, and what a swell party it was.  Black tie, evening gowns and a fancy emcee: Out. Flowered dresses, big hats and “Walk Like an Egyptian” rock group the Bangles: In.

The result was $8.5 million raised for local charities, a good showing for any year and downright impressive for the Great Recession. As honorary co-chair Beth Novak Milliken put it, “a spectacular weekend.”This was the 30th anniversary of the auction, which started out with $140,000 raised in 1981. Back then, the valley was so laid-back organizers used bedsheets instead of tablecloths because there wasn’t a local linens supplier with the resources to put on that big a party. Over time, the Napa Valley shifted upscale and in recent years the auction followed suit, switching from relaxed garden party to posh dinner complete with big names like Jay Leno performing host duties.

But this year it was back to basics, with a relaxed dress code and less formal vibe. You knew you were in for a change when you walked into the big tent for the live auction Saturday and saw water pistols on the tables. It was a warm afternoon and the pistols got plenty of use. To the point that Mme. Vinecdote was used as a human shield by one sharpshooting vintner who shall remain nameless.

There was still plenty of glitz during the four-day event, formally known as Auction Napa Valley. Elegant parties were held at wineries on Thursday and Friday night featuring fabulous wines and four-star food. But the star turn of the weekend was the live auction held, as usual, at the exclusive Meadowood Resort in St. Helena.The most suspenseful action of the day came with a lot from Colgin Cellars. A winning bid of $250,000 quickly grew to $1 million after Colgin Cellars kept offering to duplicate the lot for others willing to pony up that much. What did winning bidders get? Eight magnums of Bordeaux blends, dinner for six and a comparative tasting for six.

(It is without a doubt a splendid thing to watch other people spending thousands of dollars for a good cause, never more so than when your own bank account is a shade shy of six figures.)

And, in keeping with today’s frugal aesthetic, there were bargains to be had.Take the $200,000 bid that secured a 6-liter bottle of the highly sought-after Screaming Eagle. (The 6-liter bottle is known as a methusaleh and is the equivalent of eight regular bottles.) In 2000, a 6-liter bottle of Screaming Eagle went for $500,000.A $300,000 discount? I’ll drink to that.



Goodbye, Fess

Fess Parker, 85, died today.

Parker, of course, is famous to Baby Boomers as TV’s Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. But he was also a force in wine country, founding The Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard in Santa Barbara wine country  some 30 years ago.

I visited the winery in late 2002 while writing a story about celebrity vintners. I really didn’t know what to expect, but what I got was a gracious, silver-haired giant of a man who radiated equal parts charisma, country charm and a sly sense of humor. He was 78 then and full of energy, driving myself and a photographer around the property in a Hummer, occasionally stopping to stride through vineyards, his long legs eating up the yardage. One of our stops was at a local diner where the waitress knew without asking to bring him his usual breakfast,  a substantial plate heavy on the pancakes.

Fess was my favorite kind of interview, the subject who has interesting things to say and isn’t shy about saying them. The deep,  gravelly drawl didn’t hurt, either.  We drove around hills that were just beginning to turn green with winter rains and he talked about everything from his serious pursuit of wine excellence to his days in Hollywood. And he told stories on himself, like the time his wife went to the wine store to fill the cellar in their new Bel Air home and came back with such famous wines as Chateau Lafite from France. His reaction, he said with a twinkle, was a shocked, “How could you spend $6 a bottle for wine?”

Interestingly, the family at first called the winery simply Parker, wanting the wine to speak for itself. But it wasn’t long before Fess convinced them they needed something extra to stand out from the thousands of brands crowding store shelves. “I learned one thing from Walt Disney,” he said, “and that was the value of a trademark. Some people take it the wrong way and say you’re just promoting yourself. But my vision is to have a presence that represents quality.”

After the interview was over, I thanked him, went home and wrote the piece. I didn’t expect to hear from him again but a few days after Thanksgiving a fax came across my office machine _ a handwritten thank you note from Fess. That’s unusual in this business, and very unusual from a celebrity.

So, today lots of people will be remembering Fess Parker in his roles as frontier heroes Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone _ great characters both. But I’ll be thinking of Fess Parker, wine pioneer and gentleman.

Farewell, Fess.