Wednesday, November 3, 2010

California Journal

St. Helena, California
Friday, September 3, 2010.

The first Friday of the month. Cheers St. Helena, an opportunity to stroll downtown and taste wine from local vintners, takes place tonight from 6 to 9. Several thousand locals and visitors will turn out this balmy late summer evening to walk up and down Main Street sipping glasses of local wine. Pay $35, get a paper bracelet and you get to taste as much as you want.

I saw Todd White, the organizer, at the bocce ball courts last night. He was in an expansive mood as he asked how my last job interview went and poured himself a glass of wine. Wine goes with everything here. On Halloween parents have a glass in hand as their kids go trick-or-treating. The kids get candy, the parents get a pour of wine. Attend a party and thirty, forty, fifty bottles of wine are on the table. One rarely sees a bottle of beer, even more rarely a bottle of distilled spirits. Bottles from Napa, bottles from Sonoma, Mendocino, bottles with fancy labels, bottles with no labels at all (the cork might tell you who made it), bottles people produced themselves, bottles given to them at work.

During the twenty weeks of the year when people play bocce, team members lay out enormous spreads of food and dine while they play, a clutch of wine bottles on every table. Some players even roll while holding a wine glass in their free hand, making a sort of jaunty, devil-may-care statement. One team lays out table cloths over two tables, sets down plates, cutlery, glowing lanterns, and dines after the match by lamplight.

Todd moved here from Atlanta, operates a winery and likes to make things happen. The first Cheers happened in April of 2009. Despite the rain people turned out – several thousand. Merchants and restauranteurs were thrilled to have the business and Todd become a sort of local celebrity.

One evening I dined at the bar at Cook, a small restaurant on Main Street and my favorite hangout. I often walk in there alone, sit at the bar and within minutes find myself in conversation with people I’ve never seen before. After a while, we’re swapping winery stories, then swapping wine. Here, have some of this.

Swirl, sniff, inhale, sip, slurp, swallow. Inhale. Exhale. Mmmmm. Nice. Now have some of this . . . .

That evening I found myself talking to a stunning young woman from back East, who was traveling with her mother. Her mother was just barely less beautiful. Both women were well-dressed and had enough precious gems on them to fund a small bank. They were enjoying their vacation. The owner of their B&B up the street told them to come here. He eats here all the time, they explained. Ah, Todd White, I say, a peach of a fellow. Everyone knows Todd.

There are no degrees of separation here.

After a while they turned and asked what a lot of people ask: The Napa Valley is obviously a great place to vacation, and we're having a great time, but what's it like to live here? Like, what do y’all do here? I mean, besides eat and drink?

Well,uh . . . um . . . hmmm . . . . We, uh, eat, we drink, we hang out, we dig each other; um, hike, bike, play bocce ball (you know Joe DiMaggio’s dad played bocce ball, worried that little Joey played this silly base-a-ball) - swim. Some of us are pretty serious runners and bikers, I guess. You know, I often feel like I’m a character in an extended Winnie-the-Pooh story. Different characters show up from time to time, like Kanga and Roo coming to the forest, and are enfolded into this enchanted fairyland of a place. That’s the way it’s been for me. We tell stories, we hang out, we enjoy. You know, we don’t really do much here . . . And we're very happy.

Todd’s operation has gotten smoother with each passing month. As I sit here in the Bakery on Main Street, white-clad members of the Cheers crew cruise up and down on new bicycles that look like the old Schwinn I had as a kid. One stops to post a map of St. Helena to a tree. The map lists port-o-potties, places to buy tickets, where the bands play. Tubs full of ice and free bottles of water appear, along with extra trash and recycling bins. Security for the operation is light, but efficient. Reports of out and out drunkeness have been few in past months.

A couple of Mormon elders walk by. Two fund-raisers for Oxfam-America walk into the Bakery for coffee. I wave to a friend making a cell phone call outside of his office as I leave. I will be standing where he is with a bunch of other Rotarians this evening to talk about Rotary. Small town America gets ready for the festival.

* * * * * * * * *

That evening people thronged the sidewalks. Rotarians from distant cities stopped by to say hello. Afterward I went with Cindy and Dave to a Mexican place for tacos. We talked briefly above the din of how we each got here. Cindy came up just for a summer some four years ago to get away from Los Angeles and decided to stay. Dave came up from LA over a decade before. Neither wants to live anywhere else at this point. I decided to spend time doing massage and bodywork in some Bay Area spa several summers ago, flung out dozens of resumes and got a response from one in St. Helena. I had never heard of the town before, although I must have driven through it. I still spend winters in Washington, but for the rest of the year, this is home.