“I’m Baaaaack”: lists, reading, blogging, and Halloween

I'm Back

Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

It’s been 10 months tomorrow since I last posted on this blog, though it seems much longer than that. These are trying times, indeed.

I came back to this web site partly because of a column I read in the New York Times’ Book Review last Sunday.  In it,  the writer “reviewed” the web pages of the authors whose books currently sit on the fiction best seller list.

The first, Mitch Albom’s, dealt with lists… the 15 best movies, the 10 best songs, etc. This was a bit coincidental as I was to begin teaching Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity the very next day, which is a novel founded on the idea of “best of…” lists.  Hornby’s lists are amusing and fun, from the 5 best Dustin Hoffman movies to the 5 best songs to play on a rainy Monday (depending on whether you want to lift your spirits or wallow in the gloom.)

And speaking of coincidences, one the last pieces I had posted last year was a piece on Jess Kidd’s wonderful novel Himself,  which I have just finished teaching a week earlier. (Perhaps the pile of 60-plus essays that I am carrying around to grade is really what’s driving me back to the blog. Procrastination is a great inspiration for doing things other than the tasks at hand. As one writer once said, “My house is never cleaner than when I am working on a novel.”)

Himself book cover

Himself by Jess Kidd

Anyway, let me reach out to any and all readers to find a copy of Himself. (It came out in paperback this summer.) It is a wonderful, magical, and darkly comic read.

But back to the NYT Book Review, the number two best seller’s blog tracked the number of profanities in his novels (compiled by his son) and number three’s blog focuses on houses–both real and fictional–and their architecture. The deal is that most publishers want their authors to have some on-line presence and this is what is presented.

And so I re-examined my own blog. At one time I was posting four times a week: a post on books, one on movies, one on music and one of commentary. But I can’t promise that anymore. Either, I am too disorganized or there are less hours in a day these days.  But, I am, once again, going to take working on my postings as a serious venture.

And so it is that after 10 months I decide to post again and on Halloween no less which is why I featured the frightening picture of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining.

Halloween is undoubtedly the greatest holiday in my neighborhood for both young and old. For example, last year between 5:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m., we gave out over 800 pieces of candy. Four and five of our neighbors sit together on the sidewalk, sharing wine and


My treat for this night of tricks and treats.

beer and catering to a constant stream of children that parade by. (I have two bottles of Witching Hour red blend and my wife has a six-pack of pumpkin beer for the occasion.)

Some of the costumes are wonderful and clever and imaginative, and some are pretty lame, but everyone is happy.

After we run out of candy—although there are still many people walking by and many people handing out treats—we head up the street to another neighbor’s who is hosting his annual Halloween party. His own costume is often the talk of the neighborhood for the next few days. (i.e. Walter White in his briefs with a pistol in the waist band, Jack Torrance himself with a full door framed around his head, a priest dressed as Elvis.)

The party—and the entire night—is festive, but more importantly it is communal.

And god knows we certainly need that these days.


A river of wine…and a clueless wine drinker

So we move up from San Francisco to Napa for a series of private parties. The drive into the Napa valley is impressive, acres and acres of vineyards, rigidly straight rows of vines that climb up mountainsides and spread out for as far as one can see.

We got there Friday afternoon, in time to go to party number one.  The reception was held in The Backroom, a wine store in the town of Napa proper. It was hosted by Chateau Montelena. If you don’t know Chateau Montelena–and I certainly didn’t until someone pointed it out to me–it is the winery that famously won the blind-taste test against French wines, the “Judgement of Paris,” the first time a Napa wine ever won on the international scale and certainly the first time such a wine had beaten out the French wines. The story is the basis of the movie Bottle Shock, starring a delightfully snooty Alan Rickman.

Anyway, a “variety of wines and heavy hors d’ouevres” was what was listed on our invitation, and it ran true to what it said. When we walked in, we were brought to a table and offered a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon which was to be paired with a skewer of mozzarella, basil, and cherry tomatoes. There were seven other tables with rows of various bottles and different foods–steaks, chicken, vegetables, polenta, cheeses, chocolate truffles–and we were to go from one to another for the next four hours. We tasted them all–many of them over and over again.  The night was capped when a jeroboam of the Montelena Reserve was uncorked.

The Jeroboam of Montelena

Giving a jeroboam some visual perspective

The next morning seemed to come very quickly, but we had to get moving, for we were to go to the Detert Family Vineyards–to “Grandma’s house” for a reception.  The Detert vineyards butt up against the Mondavi vineyards, and they provide the Mondavi winery with 75% of their Cabernet Franc crop–retaining the remaining crop for their own estate wines.

We drove up an old dirt road, parked between some olive trees, and then walked behind “Grandma’s House.”  The stone courtyard was set up with white-clothed tables and white umbrellas.  Small pots of lemon trees, pendulous with fruit, ran around the perimeter.  About thirty yards away, a swimming pool looked out over the ascending vineyards. And in the corner of the courtyard, in gleaming array were rows and rows of glasses of sparkling white wine. We grabbed a glass or two, mingled for a while and then walked out into the vineyards with the Detert brothers.  They  explained the nature of the soil, the cultivation of the grapes, and the business side of the winery, in terms simple enough for even the most ignorant of the group (me). But for me  the visuals were the most compelling. About twenty of us were standing between rows of shoulder-high vines, the sun glistening off the white wine in our glasses, and the real world seeming very far away.

When we returned to the courtyard, the table of sparkling white had been replaced with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (the wine that the Deters are most proud of). Two long tables of food–roast beef, chicken, grilled vegetables, cheeses, breads, fruit–ran along two sides of the courtyard.  I was sure I would never eat and drink again after the night before, but I lied.  Conversation, laughter, food and wine–it is an irresistible combination.

Three hours later we were heading back to our apartment–we had to hurry though, there was another reception in less than an hour.

The reason we are in California at all is that our neighbors in Philadelphia, Rick and Laura, were celebrating their 20th-wedding anniversary and they wanted to share their love of Napa–and wine–with their friends.  Rick is very much a wine connoisseur, and apparently, is fairly well known around the wineries here.  There were several winemakers in attendance–as well as the largesse provided by the wineries at last night and this afternoon’s events. Well this later reception was hosted by them and featured wines from their own stock.  Again a beautiful setting, magnificent hors d’ouvres (to be followed by dinner), and a bottomless supply of wine.

On a table were ten double-magnums of Cabernet, one for each year from 2000 to 2009. The idea was that you were to taste them all–in order–and compare. You could repeat any particular year–many got stuck on the 2003 and 2005 vintages–or you could stay on the one you liked the best, but they encouraged you to try them all. Later in the evening, they brought out a double-magnum of Syrrah and a  double-magnum of a Gold Label Reserve Cabernet that a local winemaker had brought as a gift.

I am too ignorant about wines to distinguish greatly between any of them. I do know that they were all much, much better than what I usually buy at the grocery store.

And so, for a period of twenty-four hours, I have attended three private receptions in the Napa Valley.  I have eaten more than I eat in a week.  And I have drunk a river of wine.

And now, I am headed off to the final planned event of this Napa weekend–a Sunday champagne brunch!