Plumpjack and Terroir


I have wanted to visit Plumpjack Winery in Oakville for some time, interested in tasting their estate syrah whose past two vintages appeared on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 List.  Spending a few hours with winemaker Aaron Miller, I learned that Plumpjack is a lean and mean operation that focuses on doing the very best with what the land gives them.

A 1992 partnership between Gavin Newsom and Gordon Getty established Plumpjack Wine and Spirits, which stills thrives at different locations in San Francisco.  From that, Plumpjack Winery began in the Napa Valley, offering a menu of nearly twenty wines.  After joining the team, President John Conover persuaded the staff to limit production and concentrate on what the local terroir supports:  cabernet sauvignon and syrah. They have achieved this while expanding a family of wines that highlight different micro-climates throughout the Napa Valley

The 2015 Plumpjack Syrah ($60) was everything I thought it would be and comes with an interesting story.  It is sourced from two distinctive vineyards, the Stagecoach that sits above the Napa Valley floor and the Hudson in the cooler Carneros region.  The higher

Plumpjack Syrah Napa Valley

elevation adds intensity of fruit and cooler climates help retain the varietal character.  Balanced and powerful, the smokey, spice flavors nicely overlaid those of baked fruit for a rich mouthfeel

The 2015 Syrah is 30% pressed whole cluster and, according to Aaron is often done barefoot, “I Love Lucy”-style.  Sounding natural and authentic, he described it as exhausting, while creating small, painful acidic scratches on the feet and ankles.  I urged him to work through the pain and continue what he is doing.

The Plumpjack family now includes two other nearby wineries that exhibit distinct terroir and persona.  The Cade Winery, located on Howell Mountain to the North, experiences warm days and cool, windy nights while Odette, in the historic Stag’s Leap District is naturally cooler, known for combinations of clay, loam and volcanic soils.  We compared the characteristics of current cabernet sauvignon releases from each winery, all with recent reviews in the mid-nineties.

Plumpjack winemaker Aaron Miller

With minimal pruning to the vines,  Miller lets the fruit do the talking with his Oakville 2015 Plumpjack Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($130), adding touches of petit verdot and malbec. Expressive, fruity aromas extend into jammy berry and cherry flavors with herbal notes, silky tannins and spice on the finish.

The soils up on Howell Mountain consist of more rock and less clay. In both aromas and

Plumpjack Cabernet Sauvignon

flavors, winemaker Danielle Cyrot’s 2015 Cade Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($110), with small amounts of petit verdot and merlot added, has an earthy quality with hints of tobacco, coffee and cassis.  Muscular tannins are softened by a very rich mouthfeel.

Jeff Owens is a veteran winemaker who began with Plumpjack, became an assistant winemaker at Cade, before being named as head winemaker at Odette.  His 2015 Odette Cabernet Sauvignon Stag’s Leap District ($140) epitomizes the balance of power and elegance. Rich, concentrated dark fruit and spice on the nose and palate are nicely restrained throughout a lengthy finish.

Selecting one of these wines over another is like picking a favorite child.  In the end, they’re all great.  It isn’t a competition, but a rare opportunity to discover, first hand, the nuances of distinctive terroir that exist in a region simply known as the Napa Valley.

Among the reds, we managed to taste the 2016 Plumpjack Reserve Chardonnay Napa Valley ($50) that, again, is sourced from two unique appellations:  cool Carneros and warm St. Helena.  Aged in stainless steel (65%) and French oak (35%) with no malolactic fermentation, it has a crisp acidity with citrus, tropical and stone fruit flavors and a pleasant, creamy vanilla on the finish.

Plumpjack tasting room

Various tastings range from $50-$80 per person, but are not for everyone. Nonetheless, those with serious palates and an interest in education of the local terroir will be amply rewarded.

Plumpjack is in a good place.  They are happy with their growers and the estate vineyards are performing well. The plan is to continue with the current format, respect the land, treat each vintage as its own and strive to make extraordinary wines.



Riding The Flying Red Horse


The word got around the neighborhood quickly.  Balloons and banners were going up at the new local service station and, in 1955, that was all the advertising needed.  The Grand Opening was Saturday and everyone who was anyone would show up.  Copious amounts of food, drinks, rides and other free stuff would be at hand.  The fathers, wearing wingtips and work boots, would mingle with the new manager, eating hot dogs and listening to his subtle pitch of reliable service and proximity.  In those days, no one wanted to travel too far from home.

The mothers, dressed in petal-pushers and scarves to protect their hair from the wind, would talk among themselves. The adults would have their discussions and make decisions, but, for us kids, it was a young baby-boomers dream, fun in the sun on a Saturday afternoon at another gas station opening in post-WWII Santa Clara Valley.

This new station was a Mobilgas, so the flying red horse  ride would be there.  The deep red-winged stallion in full motion mimicked the large neon ones that hung above each station.  Today, it was a perfect fit for both my frame and imagination.

What is the attraction to a seven-year-old boy of sitting on some tiny molded horse that moved two inches forward, then backward to simulate galloping?  It certainly wasn’t my first rodeo but the red flying horse was different, an upgrade from the scratched up old mechanical mare outside of the grocery store.  This was a flying red horse, permanently posed, head down, wings spread as if in flight. It would be totally cool to ride a real red flying horse, although I would have to replace my cuffed blue jeans and homemade shirt with a super hero costume.  For now, I’ll use my mind’s eye and settle for riding this one, which comes with a free photo.

In addition to the rides and hot dogs, there was cotton candy and stacks of wooden crates holding glass Coca-Cola bottles.  This opening even had a guest appearance from local country radio disc jockey, Cottonseed Clark, a who broadcast a few hours of his radio program from the event. Another souvenir photo, autographed.  Mobilgas was pulling out all the stops for this one.  In the 1950s, these events were common because gas and service stations played an integral role in our daily lives.

Filling the car up with gas was only one reason for our weekly trek at the service station.  It began when we drove over the black hose that made a chime sound to alert the mechanic.  In 1955, there were enough cars to keep each station busy, but the pace was such that the operator could perform maintenance  work and still handle the pump demand.  The fact that our parents were having children in record numbers would change that dynamic and contribute to the slow death of the full-service experience.

“Hi George,” my dad said, “fill it up with Ethel.”

Before he said a word, George Osaka would open the hood, then walk to the rear of the car and insert the gas hose. Because he had to hold the hose the entire time, he had a few moments for friendly conversation before he completed his checklist.

George said, “How’s she running?”

“So far, so good,” said my dad, “that whine is gone since you replaced the belt.”

“Guess that was it.”

George would always acknowledge me in the backseat.

“You staying busy, Butch?”


My father thought that we could afford premium Ethel gas even though, at twenty-three cents per gallon, it was two cents higher than regular.  I would always roll down my back seat window during this process to experience the sweet smell of gasoline.  There are many people in today’s world that are addicted to intoxicative inhalants and, there but for fortune go I.  I loved the smell of fresh gasoline, possibly associating it with freedom.  I dreamt of driving my own car one day and, if I could ever save fifteen hundred dollars, buy that new Ford convertible shown on the local car commercial and take it on a long road trip.  There was not a faint glimpse of a thought that, years later, I would find the odor of gas toxic and obnoxious, connecting it to congestion and dirty air.  In the 1950s, cars and gasoline were the wave of the future, just listen to Walt Disney talk of his Autopia.

Tank full, George would focus his attention under the hood, checking the oil and radiator water levels then shaking the hoses to assure none were loose.  After checking the tire pressure, he would spray and clean all the car windows to complete the service, all for the price of the gas that, somehow flowed plentifully from a magical underground  reservoir.

“Everything looks good. That will be four fourteen,” said George.

My dad handed him a five dollar bill and he returned with the change, green stamps and wishes for everyone to have a good week.  Mr. Osaka was our go-to service station guy because my dad thought he was a good and trustworthy mechanic and had this belief that the Japanese were honest business people. I found this somewhat conflicting because he was slightly more than a decade removed from a foxhole in Tawara, but I witnessed him, on numerous occasions, do and say things that expressed his respect for the local Japanese community.  He would say that government leaders, not people, start wars.

After the car was serviced and when there wasn’t a station opening that I could persuade my parents to go to, our Saturday morning routine took us to the local donut shop for a late breakfast of donuts, coffee and chocolate milk, which set us back another dollar fifty, including tip. Then, on some days, it was off to the local car wash.

My father normally washed our car himself, but once a month we went to the new modern carwash because they vacuumed the interior and cleaned the cigarette smoke residue that would form inside of the windshield.  Carwashes represented new, state-of-the-art technology and it seemed like magic as I peered through soap-film-stained windows to watch our car go through.   Occasionally, in lieu of a gas station opening, we would go to Bounceland USA so I could jump on the trampoline.  For this enterprise, someone leased a vacant lot, dug twelve pits, covered the top with springs and rubber straps and charged fifty cents for kids to jump up and down for twenty minutes.  Life in those days would allow such a venture.  No liability waivers, no spotters, people did things at their own risk.  These, and similar endeavors, would soon fall prey to the mating calls of lawyers in love.

I stayed on the lookout for new Mobilgas stations during the next few months, but the arrival of a new Hopalong Cassidy bike, named after the television serial cowboy, and a pogo stick vastly escalated my mobility and I moved on from the flying red horse.

In my mind, that old icon has become a metaphor for innocent, simpler times when we had one phone, attached to the wall, one small television displaying three channels in a large ugly cabinet, one car and one bathroom. I am also reminded that, in 1955, I had seven normal years left before it all fell apart. As my family crashed and burned, there were times when I wished I had a red flying horse to take me away from it all.

Pairing Imagery


Life is good. On a Tuesday evening, I explored the emerging Dogpath neighborhood in San Francisco, was introduced to young entrepreneurs and enjoyed a sublime dinner at Studio Table hosted by Jamie Benziger to introduce her new tier of Imagery wines.

After discovering that we were neighbors in Santa Rosa, Jamie, 29,  and I discussed her new endeavor.  She was passionate and articulate in describing  her wines and their target markets. Yes, she is the daughter of Joe Benziger who started the Benziger winery thirty-five years ago.  The children, however, don’t get special treatment and are expected to earn any role that they play in the business

New Tier of Imagery wines

Jamie’s story is one of a young woman who grew up in the wine industry, went off to study at Loyola Marymount University before transferring to Sonoma State to study wine marketing.  She has paid her dues inside and outside the family business, including a stint in New Zealand, and is now partnering with her dad to create tasteful, affordable, food-friendly wines intent on broadening the palates of the next generation or anyone seeking a good value enhancement to their next dinner party table.

By all accounts, she has succeeded. From my perspective, the pivotal needs of her market have been addressed:  artistic labels,(c’mon,

how many of us have purchased wine solely for the label art?), screw caps that fit the modern lifestyle better than corks, affordability

Jamie Benziger

($16.99 per bottle) and complex wines that leave you with that “big bang for my buck” feeling.  Let’s speak to the wine in the context of the food pairing with comments by me and Chef Ben Roche.


First Course

Wine: 2016 Imagery Sauvignon Blanc

Winter Nicoise — “a hearty salad of frisee, scallops, and potato cream to complement the minerality and citrusy acidity of the Sauvignon Blanc.”

The sauvignon blanc blends 20% muscat from Lake County.  In the New Zealand-style, I found floral notes on the nose and  balanced, fruit-forward flavors with hints of grapefruit and a soft mouthfeel.  I enjoyed it solo as an introductory wine and with the scallops in potato cream.

Second Course

Wine: 2016 Imagery Chardonnay

Butter-poached vegetables, buttermilk and Buddha’s Hand  — “a buttery-but light dish with a floral touch bring out the mineral-forward quality of this unusual Chardonnay.”

The blended chenin blanc adds to the crispness and citrus elements of this wine that paired well with the vegetables.

Third Course

Wine:  2016 Imagery Pinot Noir

Pancetta & Leek Quiche with cabbage and caviar — “rich, caramelized pancetta and eggs from the land and the sea make this Pinot Noir sing.”

The addition of 20% petit verdot to pinot noir is unusual, but here it adds structure and body while softening the tannins for an accessible wine.  A terrific value.

Pancetta ans Leek Quiche was cabbage and caviar

Fourth Course

Wine: 2016 Imagery Cabernet Sauvignon

Duck Breast with cherry, mushroom, spinach — “earthy, savory flavors, bright cherry puree and robust duck come together for this big Cabernet.”

The enhanced spice element from the blended 15% petit sirah is evident throughout and there are soft “code blue” and cherry notes on the palate.  It would be difficult to find a better cab under $20.

Fifth Course

Wine: Port

Hazelnut Brownie with goat cheese and raisins — “a rich and savory dessert, finished with olive oil and a sprinkle of flakey sea salt, help the chocolate and dried fruit notes of this delightful port shine”.

This is a Sonoma County non-vintage blend of zinfandel, petite sirah and touriga nacional that is shipped direct to consumer.  The high 18% alcohol level was balanced and paired well with both the sweet and savory aspect of the dessert.

Studio Table is located in the loft and working studio of artist Heather Day. She has partnered with Michelle Wei and Chef Ben Roche in creating a unique, artistic fine dining concept with stated goals “to challenge expectations and create conversations.”  Jamie’s wines, with the design representation of a drop of paint running

Imagery wines at Studio Table

down the label, matched the elegance of the table with Heather’s hand-painted menus.

These are the finest $16.99 food-friendly wines that I have tasted in a long while.  The new tier of Imagery releases will help to grow interest in wine through good taste, quality and value.  I recommend that you try them.

Richard Longoria Wines


Years ago, while enjoying a dinner with friends at the Ballard Inn in the Santa Ynez Valley, we selected a local wine, the Richard Longoria Fe Ciega Vineyard Pinot Noir from the Santa Rita Hills.  The wine began my appreciation for cool-climate chardonnay and pinot noir from this appellation and of Richard as a winemaker who works the land.

Richard and Diana Longoria established their winery in 1982 after building a résumé with other local producers.  Richard’s desire to make wines in the Burgundian style and the

Richard Longoria

unique terroir of the region remains a successful partnership.

The Santa Rita Hills lie forty minutes up the coast from Santa Barbara on the north side of Point Concepcion, California’s only east-west coastal mountain range. The vineyards are directly exposed to cool nights, moderately warm days, wind and fog, protected only by the hills and valleys.  The soils are rocky, somewhat stressed and infused with marine sediment that helps to define the wines.

The Fe Ciega Vineyard is a great property in a prestigious neighborhood that includes Fiddlestix, Sweeney Canyon and Seasmoke vineyards among others.  The 2014 Longoria Chardonnay Fe Ciega Vineyard Santa Rita Hills ($50) is sourced from a few rows of Mt. Eden clone and is aged sur lee in only 26% new French oak.  Although Richard usually avoids malolactic

Fe Ciega Vineyard

fermentation in his chardonnay releases, nearly three-quarters of this juice went through it.  There is a distinctive herbal, earthy quality to the flavors and a balanced acidity on the finish.

Longoria is cautious with new oak and doesn’t make any determinations until he analyzes the juice.  His signature wine, the 2014 Longoria Pinot Noir Fe Ciega Vineyard Santa Rita Hills ($55) was aged fifteen months in 40% new French oak resulting in complex herbal, fruit-forward flavors and soft, but clear tannins.  The “Fe Ciega,” which translates to “blind faith,” expresses the finer qualities of pinot noir in the appellation.

Whole-clustered pressed, the 2016 Longoria Chardonnay “Cuvee’ Diana” Santa Rita Hills ($45), with juice sourced from two vineyards, is aged separately for 14 months in 23% new oak, then blended before bottling.  The rich, creamy texture and baked fruit flavors explode on the palate and last through

Longoria” Fe Ciega” Pinot Noir

the finish.

What a difference a vineyard can make.  Sanford and Benedict is one of the oldest and most respected vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills.  In contrast to the Fe Ciega release, the 2014 Longoria Pinot Noir Sanford and Benedict Vineyard Santa Rita Hills ($50), aged fifteen months in 39% new French oak, exudes big, bold cherry pie aromas and flavors.  Drinkable now, this wine will get even better with some time on the shelf.

Richard’s favorite varietal from the region is actually cabernet franc.  The problem with cabernet franc is that it suffers from an ailment called “cabernet sauvignon love.”  It can’t compete. Years ago, he began using it in a unique Bordeaux blend with added syrah.  Are the French scorning or just envious?  Re-launching the disguised cabernet franc, he called the annual blend, “Blues Cuvee’ to honor his love of blues and jazz.  Each label has original blues-themed artwork, a perfect gift for those passionate about vino and vibes.

2006 Longoria Syrah Alisos Vineyard

To my fortune, Richard pulled out a twelve-year-old bottle of syrah from the Alisos Vineyard, cooler than most that produce it.  The 2006 Longoria Syrah Alisos Vineyard Santa Barbara County ($40) had spice notes, but the expressive flavors were so integrated and soft, I was surprised to find an alcohol level of 15.9 percent.

Two very different varietals, both sourced from the Clover Creek Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, are worthy of mention. The 2016 Longoria Albarino Clover Creek Vineyard ($25), offers a spirited acidity and clean stone fruit on the palate.  In the late-harvest, dessert wine category, the 2012 Longoria Syrah “Vino Dulce” Santa Barbara County ($23) is at the top of my list.  Albeit

Longoria Blues Cuvee’ label

sweeter, the herbal, spice qualities of the grape, along with rich fruit and berry flavors, are expressed throughout.  To sip it after dinner is captivating, but to pair it with chocolate is simply decadent.

Tonight, in honor of Richard, his 2014 “Fe Ciega” pinot noir was perfectly paired with the 1979 Bill Evans’ “Paris Concert, Edition One” recording.  It’s always a pleasure to sip and listen to “Quiet Now.”



Calistoga in north Napa Valley is a distinctive place to visit with surrounding mountain vistas, a quaint downtown, specialty shops and increasingly fine dining, geysers, mud baths, petrified forests and, of course, world-class wine.  Fine cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are still on top but local winemakers have experimented with other varietals since the early 1900s, including charbono, grown almost exclusively in the Calistoga area.  A vast majority of the sixty-five California acres planted in charbono are


minutes from town.

Introduced to California as charbonneau and also known globally as douce noir, corbeau or bonarda, the origin of charbono is Savoie, part of the French Alps near the Swiss border where it was harvested as a food friendly red varietal used to soften blends.  Late-ripening California charbono is generally simple in structure, fruit-forward and soft on the palate.

Charbono began as an Italian varietal in the Savoie region before it shifted to France in 1860. Today, it is behind only Malbec as the second most abundantly planted grape in Argentina where it is known as bonarda.  Several winemakers in Calistoga have adopted the grape and seem determined to keep it alive including Larry Summers who calls it “the Rodney Dangerfield of wine,” noting that few people know of its existence.

The old Inglenook winery imported barbera to the region, only to discover later that it was charbono, first bottling it in 1941. They remained the largest producer of charbono in the 1970s when vines also began to appear in Mendocino County

2012 Shypoke Calistoga Napa Valley Charbono

Pizza and charbono were on the menu at an event hosted by T-Vine Winery tasting room in Calistoga.  It began with a rare and earthy 1985 Inglenook Charbono.  The dark color and the deep, rich forest floor and tobacco leaf flavors were proof that the varietal benefits from aging.  Surprisingly, I have found this vintage on-line and at a local San Francisco outlet.

Winemaker Peter Heitz, great-grandson of immigrants who originally planted the vineyard in 1904, combined grapes with one planted in 1984 to produce nine barrels of the 2014 Shypoke Charbono Napa Valley Calistoga ($35) Herbal on the nose, the rich, tart fruit flavors exercise the palate.

Summers Winery, where I tasted my first Calistoga charbono years ago, was pouring two wines including the Summers Rose’ of Charbono 2014 ($30) that had a refreshing sweet and savory quality with hints of strawberries throughout.  It’s easy to recommend this unique wine.

Summers Rose’ of Charbono

Volcanic soil is prevalent throughout the Calistoga appellation including the estate Villa Andriana Vineyard that produced the nicely structured Summers Charbono 2014($34) with nutty aromas and restrained, complex flavors.  Some of these vines were affected by the recent Tubbs Fire that could impact future releases.

Dry-farmed and organic, the Tofanelli Family Vineyards in Calistoga has produced estate wines on this land since 1929. Their 2014 Tofanelli Estate Charbono ($43) blends 15% petite sirah for a richly textured wine that delivers a floral bouquet, ripened blueberry flavors and a slate finish.

A Calistoga boutique winery, August Briggs produces small lot wines in a prolific way.  Today, they have fifteen different releases with various varietals, all produced in

Tofanelli Vineyards Napa Valley Charbono

small amounts.  From two local vineyards, the August Briggs Calistoga Napa Valley Charbono 2014($38) was self-described as their best vintage.  It is an impressive 100% charbono and at the top of those tasted.  Rich texture, concentrated blueberry flavors and soft tannins bring an intricacy to the wine.

After tasting the August Briggs Calistoga Napa Valley Charbono 2006, I may differ with their assessment of the vintage 2014 as the best ever. The deep color and lush mouthfeel were beyond compare.  Enjoying the integrated, complex flavors, doughy tannins and long finish outweighed any need to dissect it.  I can only imagine tasting the vintage 2014 in 2026.

Whether you choose Calistoga for the natural beauty, exercise and health opportunities, fine dining or the wine, be reminded that it is the only place in the United States where we can spend a day exploring the charbono grape and the expressive wines it produces.

August Briggs Tasting Room in Calistoga

Charbono deserves our respect and wine lovers everywhere have a self-serving obligation to keep it alive and thriving.

Edvins and Florencio


I remember simpler times when a face was just a face, another friend on the playground.  Post World War II Santa Clara Valley was rapidly expanding and most of the faces moving into the new houses were various shades of Europe. We were all different to some degree and, beyond a little curiosity, it was quietly accepted or irrelevant within the serious business of childhood.

Most of our fathers fought in the war, mine in Tarawa and Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. The common paradigm for returning GI’s was to get married, have kids and live happily and peaceably ever after.  The textbooks called it “Return to Normalcy,” a panacea for the scars of battle.

My parents had little money, but I had everything I needed and some things I didn’t, like freckled cheeks and a “cowlick” on the back of my head resembling the Alfalfa character on the “Little Rascals” television show.  Another social challenge, surprisingly, came from re-runs of The Honeymooners on the CBS channel.  In each episode, Bronx bus driver Ralph Kramden, played by Jackie Gleason, bullied and yelled at his sewer-worker neighbor named Ed Norton.  For an entire year, I was known only as “N-A-W-W-T-O-N,” usually from voices at maximum volume. Aside from that, things were quite normal.

During the 1958-59 school year, in Ms. Joan Davis’ fifth grade class, I met two young boys who were as different as any two people could be.  Although our friendships were short-lived and we have had no contact in sixty years, they both remain in my memory because their stories are still pertinent today.

Both Edvins Augusts and Florencio Lopez were immigrants, one seasonal and the other fleeing communism with his parents after the Soviet Union invaded his homeland.  Neither of them had television sets and both called me by my first name.  They focused on what they had, never on what they didn’t.

I asked, “Hey Edvins, where are you from again?”

“Latvia,” he answered.

“Latvia.  I’ve never heard of it.”

“Oh, that’s because it doesn’t exist anymore.”

He often spoke of his homeland but didn’t dwell on it.  He told us that his father was an engineer in Latvia, but they had to leave and now he was managing an orchard across from the school until something better came along.  We never discussed it, but I strangely became empathetic to his quiet struggle and understood that life was a little harder for him. Feeling empathy was a new experience for me.

Edvins was outgoing, verbose and smart.  These factors offset his non-athletic, somewhat flabby body and the thick crew cut that fully covered his head like a completely grown “chia pet” gnome.   He had no reservations in assuming the role as the smartest kid in class and his strong opinions convinced us that he hated the “commies” more than we did.  His personal stories, many handed down from his father, reassured us all that Kruschev was the devil and the Soviet Union was indeed the “Evil Empire.”

Edvins was the first kid that I met who was an artist.  He could draw anything and often spent his day sketching portraits of other classmates and not concentrating on the subject at hand.  For the most part, we all saw his art as an asset, one that we relied on to make our class projects better.

One day, years later, in seventh grade homeroom, Edvins quietly passed me a dollar bill.

I whispered, “What’s this for?”

Gesturing with his finger, he said, “Look at it.”

Edvins had drawn a near perfect one dollar bill, both sides. At first glance, I easily mistook it for the real thing.

“I want to try it out at lunch,” he muttered.

I knew what he meant and still allowed my curiosity to make me complicit in his plan.  We ate lunch together in the cafeteria, then set out for the room where students took turns selling ice cream to other students.  The money raised went to the end of the year picnic.

Edvins said, “Two Fudgesicles,” holding up his fingers in the shape of a “V”.

The innocent student clerk took the phony bill, handed him the two bars and seventy cents change. Barely able to contain our emotions, we took the contraband and slithered out to a remote area to eat it.  Edvins was beside himself, celebrating the fact that he had pulled off his little scheme.

On our way back to class, we stopped by the ice cream room as Edvins turned over a real dollar bill and asked for his forgery back.  We all laughed, knowing it was typical Edvins, mischievous but honest, curbing his boredom in ways the rest of us could not imagine.

Florencio Lopez had dark skin.  His slim  but strong physique and the deep cheekbones in his face looked like an old, sepia photograph of a Native American warrior. His wardrobe consisted of jeans and a few different flannel shirts that he always wore with the top button fastened. His hard-soled  shoes looked like they had survived generations.

Florencio was shy, quiet and stoic, remaining a mystery to most of us.  He stood out as the sole Hispanic kid in class.  Because English was not his first language, he was often slow to comprehend lessons, making this strong kid self-conscientious and vulnerable.

When Ms. Davis called on him, he often answered, “I don’t know.” She was very patient and set an all-inclusive tone in the classroom,  yet  he remained aloof and preferred to be by himself.  There was still this mysterious aura that made us unsure and cautious about approaching him.

Florencio’s moment came not in the classroom, but on the playground.  In those days, every fifteen minute recess and the half hour remaining after lunch was ample time for many of the boys to divide into teams for a day long progressive touch football game.

He started showing up on the sidelines and watching us play.  One day, someone asked him if he wanted to join in. He nodded quickly, then as the football hurled toward him as an impromptu try-out, he raised his large hands up and stopped it in its tracks. After an instant of stunned silence, an argument ensued.

“Okay, we’ll take him.”

“No, no, we’re a man down, we’ll take him.”

With minutes of recess left, the dispute was quickly resolved and, before the bell rang, we all learned that Florencio Lopez could run like the wind.  From that point, he was known to everyone as Flo and he embraced it.  His athletic abilities became his wristband to inclusion.

He could outrun anyone else backwards in hard soled shoes and the team he was on typically called only one play, “Throw to Flo,” hoping that he would not out run the arm strength of the passer.  For weeks afterward, Flo became the playground star and far less mysterious to us all.

On the first Saturday of December, there was a district-wide football jamboree where all the elementary schools would gather for one day of competition.  Permission slips and a small lunch fee were required.  We all expected Flo to be our secret weapon, but he quietly told us that he couldn’t go.  We pressed the issue until it became uncomfortable for everyone.  Things that most of us took for granted were beyond the reach of others.

The last time that I remember seeing Florencio Lopez was a chance meeting when I was visiting his neighbor, Edvins Augusts. Next to Edvins’ modest, green, 1940s ranch house was a large, old bungalow in disrepair and in need of paint.  Florencio lived there with his parents and five younger siblings. Ironically, the only two dwellings in the large orchard were side by side and the homes of my two new friends.  Outside of class, it was the first and last time the three of us hung out together.  The afternoon did not include art or football, just the three of us talking about whatever ten-year- old boys talk about.

Florencio did not return for the sixth grade, but Edvins stayed for a few years.  The orchard was being sold off and by 1961 became a neighborhood with its own expressway, no longer in need of a manager or a foreman.

Recent research revealed an Edvins Augusts of my age who married twice, once in California and once in Nevada to a woman with a Russian surname.  The search results for Florencio Lopez ranged from a Professor of Finance at a major university to a notorious Mexican drug lord apprehended in the late nineties.

Their fates remain unknown, but for me, getting to know Edvins Augusts and Florencio Lopez in the late fifties widened my young perspective and began to cement the understanding that, with our differences, we are all, deep down, the same.

Sojourn in Sonoma


The Sonoma Square is a peaceful place.  I’m rarely in a hurry there and, aside from finding a weekend parking spot, the surroundings bode well for managing stress. In addition to the quaintness, the California history and fine restaurants like Cafe Le Haye, Girl and the Fig and El Dorado Kitchen, it’s about another treat described as “Pinot on the Square.”  Within the next several weeks, I will feature local spots for tasting fine pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay, each offering a private, stylish setting and hosts that are passionate about the wines and their story.

Our first stop is Sojourn Cellars on East Napa Street where I met with Director of sojourn-cellars1Marketing Sherrie Perkovich.  My first introduction to Sojourn was in 2007 at an annual Pinotfest event in Pasadena and I have closely followed their releases since. This tasting would include a chardonnay from a noted vineyard, three pinot noir releases and a Napa cabernet sauvignon.

In the past month, I have tasted four chardonnay releases from the Durell Vineyard, all from separate wineries. It straddles the boundaries of the Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast and Carneros AVA’s and has produced highly sought after juice for decades. The well rated 2015 Sojourn Durell Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast($48) is 100% Wente clone stock, pressed whole cluster with full malolactic fermentation, aged in forty percent new French oak and has the known


Durell Vineyard

qualities of low-yield vines. There is a restrained intensity in the bouquet with complex, layered stone fruit flavors and a soft “wet stone” finish.

Terroir defines the wines. It starts with the stock, then the dirt and the winemaker only comes in at the end. To that point, we tasted a flight of vineyard-designate pinot noir, each with distinctive qualities.

Located at the foot of the Petaluma Gap, the Rogers Creek Vineyard is, interestingly, the furthest east, but the coolest and last one harvested.  The cool winds thicken the skins, the grapes struggle and the result is deep, more intense flavors.  Using the Pommard clone, the 2016 Sojourn Rogers Creek Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($48), 140576hyounger than the others, had the most expressive aromas and flavors of the flight.

From a popular local Sonoma vineyard, the 2015 Sojourn Pinot Noir Sangiacomo Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($59) offered definitive pinot noir aromas and flavors with shades of spice. More earthy and textural than the Rogers Creek, the Sangiacomo experienced low yields in 2015, that enhanced its fruit flavors.


Sangioacomo Vineyard

The earthiness and the savory side of the 2015 Sojourn Pinot Noir Reuling Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($69) made it the most distinctive wine we tasted.  I enjoy many Sonoma Coast designated pinots but the name is deceiving in that the appellation extends to vineyards miles inland.  The Reuling Vineyard is located between Forestville and Graton, next to the northerly Russian River Valley. The stock is Calera clone and some so-called “suitcase clones” smuggled in from Burgundy.

With the Reuling, typical vanilla spice bouquet and cherry flavors defer to those more earthy and herbal.  Head winemaker Eric Bradley is said to prefer unpretentious, natural wines and this release is a fine example.

Our last tasting reconfirmed my opinion that the 2015 Sojourn Cabernet Sauvignon post-sojourn-cellarsHome Ranch Cuvée Sonoma Valley ($59), and earlier vintages, is one of the best value cabs in the state.  From a vineyard originally planted by Sojourn proprietor Craig Haserot in 2007, the flavors of the “Home Ranch” are intense, but balanced and smooth tannins surface throughout the finish.  It has received many rating in the low to mid-nineties.

For those with more discerning palates, Sojourn produces a few cases of high-end cabernet sauvignon from well-known Napa Valley vineyards including the 2014 Sojourn Cabernet Sauvignon Beckstoffer Georges III Rutherford ($125), awarded 95-points by Robert Parker, the Wine Advocate.

Any wine tasting excursion on the Sonoma Square should include the little house on East Napa Street where Sojourn provides enlightened comparable tastings in a private setting, complete with Reidel stemware. As with other local wineries, there is a $35 tasting fee but your minds and palates will be broadened.