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Some Reflections on Bay Trip, Final Day

Steve Charles - Some notes from four days in San Francisco.

• Steve wrote the notes for the weekend, similar to what I did during my two week visit last June. I've attached a photo album here and written cutlines to share more on our great Saturday playing tourists.

• First night in San Francisco: we eat dinner at a restaurant Howard found last summer - Cafe Claude. They’ve paid attention to style in every inch of this place. Including the hostess. The waiter recommends something I can’t understand and Howard orders a Sancere wine from the Loire Valley of France and seared halibut. (Steve has a pasta with sausage dish!) Musicians in the other room played jazz on muted trumpet and thrumming bass. The trumpeters name is Marcus Shelby, and Howard makes a joke referencing the old tv series “Marcus Welby, M.D.” We’re the only ones in the place old enough to get it. And I’m wondering where San Francisco hides all its fat people.

• Howard is 2-2 for earthquakes. He wrote about one on his first visit, and we had one the first night we were here. I was resting on my bed in the hotel room when there was a tap at the door, the headboard on the bed knocked lightly up against the wall, and it felt like someone had bumped into the mattress. About five minutes later the TV news reported a 4.2 quake in nearby Lafayette.

I was about ready to blame this all on Howard, or note how cool it was that every time Howard comes to San Francisco, there’s an earthquake. That was before we read in the San Francisco Chronicle that they got about 80 tremors of some sort this past week, and more than 60 the week before!

• Walking across the Golden Gate bridge: bracing, invigorating. We’re higher above the water here than we were on the plane as we made our final approach to SF International. The tides coming in, water swirls and even forms a couple of whirlpools below us, sea lions hang out at the edges of the vortices—must be good fishing. On one of the metal braces there’s a sign describing the symptom of depression with a phone number for a suicide hotline. It’s 65 degrees, the beauty and energy around me is beyond description, the San Francisco Bay on one side and the boundless Pacific on the other. How could anyone surrounded by such beauty will himself to toss it away? I’m reminded of how insidious, how blinding, and how powerful in it own way depression can be. Then I almost get knocked over by a jogger.

• The redwood is the tallest tree in the world, and the sequoia is the most massive. They both thrive in California. We saw the redwoods Saturday at Muir Woods, just north-northwest of the Golden Gate. It was Howard’s first look at them, but I remember camping beneath redwoods when I was about 14, how it rained one night but we never got wet. The trees had collected all the rainwater in the canopy.

One stop on the trail through Muir Woods is Cathedral Grove. Stand there in silence, listen to the water flowing through Redwood Creek, breath in the slightly moist, warm air of this early spring day and try to come up with a better name.

• Napa Valley, Joseph Phelps Winery—Steve Pavy is showing us the room at Joseph Phelps where some of the wine is being aged. Each barrel is specially made and “toasted”, the oak in each chosen for the particular effect and taste it will bring to the wine. Labeled with the maker’s name, type of wood and the forest from which the wood was cut.

It reminds me of the way luthiers choose woods for a guitar: the deep bass, bright treble, brilliant overtones of brazilian rosewood; the mellower, woodier sound of mahogany; the crisp, well-defined notes from curly maple (my favorite): the bright, well-defined midrange of the Englemann spruce top on my Larrivee. Luthiers have hundreds of different ways to hear the wood, like the winemakers have hundreds of ways to describe the way the grapes, the earth, and even these barrels affect the taste of the wine. Ears and tongues more attuned to the world than my own. The words they use are approximations, but they enrich our way of describing the world.

To those less interested in wine or music, all these words can seem like an affectation. But these luthiers and winemakers are trying to come to terms with something wonderful they’ve heard or tasted in the instrument or wine they’ve created. It’s inspiring just to listen.

Wine barrel trivia — some of the barrels at the Phelps winery are made with hoops of willow. Steve tells us the tradition comes from the days when wood boring insects were a real threat to the wine barrels. The borers were attracted to the willow wood and would eat these willow hoops and leave the oak staves alone.

• We spent much of yesterday in a rented Chrysler Pacifica (Howard’s dime) driving through the wine country of Napa and Sonoma Valleys and stopping at tasting rooms. Howard is in nirvana, and the more time I spend here and taste this hobby of his, it’s easy to see why. I’ve got a whole page of new vocabulary to try out when I get home, but we’ve got a plane to catch and I only have time here for quick note.

The image that sticks with me is the pastoral beauty at Joseph Phelps, the premiere winery where Steve Pavy hosted us. Pastoral literally—Phelps uses sheep as lawn mower in their vineyards—no machines, no chemical fertilizers or pesticides. All part of the trend of bio-dynamics in the wine world, where Phelps is on the cutting edge.

His family is from the southern Indiana hills around Vevay, Indiana, but my impression of Stephen is of a man who has come home, both in place and vocation. You listen to him talk about the science of winemaking, the mystery and art of it, and hear him speak about the earth these grapes are grown in. It’s a life of the liberal arts literally grounded in these beautiful hills, and you can hear the joy and passion in his voice when he talks about this work.

Howard can tell you all about the wines we tasted. All I know is that the Insignia I tried was something I’d never tasted in my life. And it was good. I sat at the edge of the parking lot after we said our goodbyes to Steve and just took in the valley — the lines of vines, the live oak leaning like they’re running up the hill. This is what land looks like when it is truly valued (certainly economically, but here, something more.) Sort of what land looked like in Indiana before we started ripping out windbreaks, not letting the land rejuvenate, and contenting ourselves with growing crops in chemicals in sterile soil. I couldn’t help but think of my friend Mike Bachner, who would revel in seeing land so loved.

I called my wife, who grew up in southern Indiana on land farmed the old way, and I described the scene to her the best I could.

†Then one of the employees drove up and I realized it was late and time to go. They needed to lock the gates. Eden was closing.

• One more thing: we returned to San Francisco across the Golden Gate at dusk, full moon rising over the city and the bay, and to the staccatoblasts of fire crackers and the Chinese New Year’s parade. Jammed with people, dragons bobbing up and down on the street, a pickup full of Chinese youth banging on cymbals and a huge drum. It’s the Year of the Pig —Happy New Year — and we're headed home to Indiana.