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Monday, February 2, 2015

Help Napa rebuild: Drink more wine!

Ground-breaking news is causing me to renege on my promise to today write about having Arnold Palmer cameo in my next YouTube promotion.

And, yes, every single earthquake is in some ways what you have to call “ground-breaking.”

California Gov. Jerry Brown has declared Napa Valley, the world-famous wine-growing region, in a state of emergency.

Know what that means?

President Obama has legitimate grounds to fly Air Force One out west to spend five or six days offering federal support to 1 percenters who today are mopping up wine that sells for as much as $75 a glass.

That’s what I’d do.

I’d meet with stricken vintners, sample product and confirm over and over again that Napa wines remain perfectly safe to guzzle. And I’d invite a huge bi-partisan congressional delegation to join me.

It could come out of the FEMA budget!

It’s my contention many of our grinding national problems — too much intolerance, too much incivility — are a direct result of too much sobriety. A nice wine buzz will not only lighten the American mood, it will also bolster a $5.5 billion industry staggered by a natural disaster.

I love Napa. Val and I spent a big, happy part of our ’96 honeymoon right there among the grapes.

We took a hot air balloon ride over the vineyards, toured the wineries, and enjoyed some of the most splendid times any newlyweds could conceive.

Because I was at the time a budding travel writer, one who happened to be honeymooning, many romantic PR agents showered Val and I with lavish perks. We stayed in the finest hotels, dined at the best restaurants and enjoyed some privileges common to only the wealthy and well connected.

So I was in way over my head a few times.

The most notable of these occurred in the dining room of what was then, and is still, considered one of the world’s finest restaurants. It’s The French Laundry in Yountville.

And I’m not making a joke there. It really is called The French Laundry because it is housed in a building that used to serve as an old French steam laundry, and not because the bill for eating there ($$$$$) involves a trip to the proverbial cleaners.

Our hosts (two young gourmands) were very enthused about taking us there for a luxurious wine country lunch.

Understand, Val and I on our own would never have gone there on our own. Heck, we never would have known to go there.

But it was the greatest meal we’ve ever had. It lasted four hours over something like 15 courses with wine! Wine! Wine!

It was magnificent. About halfway through, we heard jazz music and looked outside and there was this joyful little street parade tooling along down below our balcony. It was like this perfect magical afternoon. We were laughing and drinking and eating with our new friends like the good times would never end.

But end they did.

Right after the bill came.

Looking back on it, what happened next was among the most brave things I’ve ever done.

They handed the bill to the woman PR host. Why not? She’d done all the ordering. The waiter assumed she was paying.

So did we!

We later calculated the bill, without tip, was probably close to $1,600.

What did I do?

I sat there like a cigar-store Indian. I was perfectly immobile. I didn’t inquire or ask  if I could contribute and I certainly didn’t reach for my wallet.

I knew instinctively it was a bill I could not pay, not even our fractional share. A decent tip would have cost me $400.

And I was right to do nothing. They said they wanted to take us to lunch and didn’t ask about our means. This, too, was a business expense for her, one that would likely required a lot of explaining to her boss.

Too bad. She learned a valuable lesson: understand next time you take a freelance writer to lunch, you’d either better budget accordingly or request a table near an exit that makes “dine ’n’ dash” a face-saving alternative.

Looking back, my cheapness in that instant may have ensured the longevity to our young marriage. Had I offered to pay, Val would have been furious and our marriage would have started off in a financial and emotional hole. Instead, she came away with a great memory and an appreciation for her new husband’s resourcefulness.

So it all worked out fine in the end.

At least for me and Val!

My second great faux pas went undetected, but the act remains a scar on my sophistication, one that still cracks me up whenever I find myself feeling pretentious.

We were invited on an exclusive tour of Opus One Winery, the heady brainchild of wine barons Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi, who together produced what at the time was the most desirable and expensive wine in America, one that today sells in restaurants for as much as $1,000 a bottle.

Our guide was the perfect host. He was funny, informed and conspiratorial whenever he confided obscure wine facts to Val and I like we were fellow connoisseurs, refined in our tastes, impeccable in our manner.

So we did the tour of the grapes, saw how the best wines were made, bottled and stored until finally and in breathless anticipation he stood before the door to the tasting room.

He flattered our sensibilities by stressing how few of their guests ever got to enjoy what we were about to experience.

Then with a flourish he opened the door. There amidst the multitude of seeping barrels under a gleaming spotlight was a table, and on that table were five wine glasses . . . and a bottle of Opus One Cabernet Sauvignon 1990.

It was like we were gazing upon the baby Jesus.

As he poured till half the bottle was gone, he told us about the clever nuances within each sip, the oaky textures, the piquant aftertaste.

“What you’re about to savor is the result of years of wine-making genius . . . Enjoy!”

I sipped.

Yup, it was wine all right!

I took another sip. I can’t say I was expecting some kind of instant wine erection that would reflexively cause me to drag my new bride back behind the barrels for a honeymoon quickie, but to me it still was just wine.

I remember feeling a little let down, a little uncouth, like someone who’d never appreciated the finer things in life.

I was still feeling this way as he opened the door and led everyone upstairs to the lobby for soulful goodbyes.

I lingered until I was sure I was alone, just me and the half-full bottle of Opus One Cabernet Sauvignon 1990.

The I grabbed the bottle and just chugged it down to the very last drop.

I have to say, I thought it tasted better in about five big gulps than it did in one dainty little sip.

So let’s use this Napa earthquake to all help them rebuild by spending a little time with a loved one — or maybe someone with whom you differ politically — and a good bottle of California wine.

And drink it all up.

Together with more wine we can all make America whine less.

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