Saturday, June 27, 2009

13 Ways of Looking at Michael Jackson

1) As much as any artist from the label's heyday, including more obviously transgressive peers such as Marvin Gaye, Jackson pushed against the strictures of the Motown machine, demanding creative freedom, room to grow and personal expression. The fact that he did so while still a child highlights his audacity.

2) His long history with plastic surgery and facial modifications (begun after a botched late-70s operation to fix a broken nose) eventually came to epitomize the worst trends of American desire - namely, not the quest for eternal youth or the perfection of beauty (a desire to some degree harbored by all cultures) but merely the need to possess the latest innovation, to stay eternally ahead of the curve, to defeat boredom through purposeless forward motion.

3) By crafting a masterpiece like 1979's "Off The Wall," yet seeing it stall at Number 3 on the Billboard Charts, Jackson recognized that black pop remained within a ghetto (of the mind, of the airwaves, of the home stereo system). One wonders if he winced at receiving the 1980 Billboard Top Black Artist and Top Black Album awards - not from any self-loathing of his ethnicity, but for the fact that his efforts clearly outshone such restrictive categories. He wasn't nominated for a Grammy that year - the Doobie Brothers' "What A Fool Believes" took home both best song and record, Billy Joel's "52nd Street" Best Album.

4) Jackson offered an unapologetically ambiguous approach towards masculinity, one continually in backwards flux. He slowly arrived at puberty after years of communicating through his pitch-perfect child's voice, only to later fade back into a pre-puberty state. This is still considered to be majorly transgressive in a culture that worships machismo.

5) His label as "The King of Pop", coined by Elizabeth Taylor (not exactly an expert on popular music) is on the one hand absurd, a mere marketing tool that fails to grasp the totality of his talent and vision, yet also perfect, in a way, by grasping "pop", not "rock" or "soul" or "r&B", as his fundamental goal and achievement. He was "pop" because you could shred along with Van Halen, nod your head along with Paul McCartney or bop in time with Quincy's arrangements .

6) His visual style trumped expression - or, better yet, his style was his expression, down to his military-fantasy overcoats and his symbolic sequin-festooned lone glove.

7) 1982's "Thriller" served as the perfect embodiment of the modern music industry's stake in global culture, in which individual tunes, whole albums and the artist themselves were sold as property and commodity to the youthful consumer. Add complex videos at the birth of MTV and mix in Reagan-era devotion to flash and celebrity, and one achieves cultural supremacy.

8) Whatever the truth of the allegations of child molestation and lewd behavior - and most are willing to admit the truth may never be fully uncovered - pedophilia charges seemed almost expected against somebody so clearly willing and daring enough to transcend the clearly-marked lines between youth and adulthood.

9) Similarly, the spectacle of Jackson's slipping ever further away from any recognizably adult relationship with the greater world stood as a reminder of the inherent creepiness latent in Disney, Peter Pan, circuses, cartoons - the possibility that never growing up would be a horror story rather than a fairy tale.

10) All the blather about "post-racial" societies seemed at least possible at times in relation to Jackson. Certainly his assertion that it "don't matter if you're black or white" seemed less absurd coming from a young man who'd achieved trans-racial world adoration and seemed determined to slip into a non-specific racial identity.

11) "Thriller," for all its dominance of the charts and absolutely irrepressible infectiousness, at times seemed too calculated to appeal to all musical types or to cut across all boundaries. With a dizzying array of styles and collaborators, it could seem an album by committee - the focus group approach to success. Yet why do we cry "sellout" or "calculation" for a black artist seeking wider approval, yet scold those white artists lacking broader sonic palettes? Could it have something to do with antiquated notions of "purity"?

12) To watch Michael Jackson dance in his prime was to see the possibilities of movement. He made one jealous of his limbs, his skinniness, his androgyny. He made me want to wear white socks and loafers, if only so I could bust a move.

13) By writing and performing "Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough," he achieved pop perfection - one of the greatest handful of radio minutes in this or any other era.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

If I Can't Twitter, I Don't Want To Be Part of Your Revolution: Thoughts on the Iranian Election and Western Media

No doubt, it can be perilous for Westerners to wade into the mire surrounding Middle Eastern and Persian politics, and the ongoing drama taking place in Iran is no exception. Cultural, political and geographical differences combine to make analysis, comparisons and even empathy tricky for the most level-minded observer. Yet the disputed election, populist uprising and official response offers some insight into both Iranian history and the jockeying for power among Western interests. At the risk of getting in over my head, I'd like to offer a few thoughts on something I know a little bit about - the American media.

Whatever one's political orientation, the election discrepancies, the Basij-backed suppression of and violence against protesters, and the massive limits on and censorship of media coverage unfolding in the streets of Tehran should cause revulsion and anger. Yet one needn't sympathize with the likes of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to recognize that even a flawless election would have been scrutinized and attacked by the majority of Western observers and the press corps, and that the wall-to-wall coverage of this complex state of affairs has been greatly simplified - little surprise, as the majority of Americans incorrectly believe, among other things, that Iranians are Arabs. I won't suggest I have any major insights into Iranian political culture or what the disputed presidential election may portend for the greater future. But I will argue that I'm somewhat dismayed at the black-white approach assumed by our television, print and electronic commentators in the mainstream media. Indeed, the amount of coverage awarded to the elections themselves - air time, column space, blog entries - is somewhat telling. Certainly, Iran's volatile reputation, nuclear ambitions and long history of estrangement with much of the Western world would unsurprisingly result in massive attention being paid to an election, disputed or not. Yet I'm reminded of the distinction made in the late 1980s by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman between "legitimizing versus meaningless third world elections," in which both the official stance from Washington and the coverage assumed by the media of foreign elections is directly linked to and partially pre-determined by the United States' interest and / or sponsorship of political parties. One needn't subscribe to Chomsky's worldview to recognize that, for example, Nicaragua's 1984 election, in which anti-Washington leftists achieved victory through rather undisputed voting procedures, would be viewed less warmly than 1984's El Salvadoran inconsistent yet ultimately "pro-American" election. Given the long history of antagonism between the United States and Iran, any electoral inconsistency would of course be highlighted and analyzed. On the one hand, this is as it should be - any rigged or faulty election is a blow to democracy and justice. On the other hand, many other elections suffering equal or greater discrepancies become overlooked or explained away by Western observers, depending upon the larger sympathies or political interests at play.

Ahmadinejad is a difficult figure to defend in any capacity, yet it says something about the media's appetite for sensationalism that so much Western coverage has focused on his loathsome comments about the Holocaust. These inflammatory statements seem less born out of ignorance or even pure hatred and more from a tired and predictable (and therefore even more immoral) approach to political divisiveness and the rallying of extreme factions. Make no mistake, his anti-Semitism deserves coverage. Yet these comments overshadow nearly everything else taking place within his rule, including the fact that Ahmadinejad's support in Iran has at least as much to do with his rather outspoken commitment (whatever his real reasons) to fighting poverty and assuming a populist fiscal approach. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, it must be noted, has assumed a much more privatization-friendly approach. The election, therefore, seems as much about traditional political and economic differences as about the fight against tyranny and suppression or the desire to crush Israel.

This is a complicated business, and requires some level of simplification for outside observers. And yet I'm surprised at how the American media has attempted to frame the election, the disputed results and the resulting protests through an incredibly simplistic prism of American political and social culture. To my mind, this has manifested itself in three distinct framing devices with which the media, the commentators and the wonks have analyzed the election fallout.

1) Neocon attempts to paint the protests as the direct or indirect spawn of President Bush's stated ambition for greater democracy in the Middle East. This argument is understandable in a time of upheaval for the neoconservative movement in general and a period of defining the legacy of George W. Bush. Yet one wonders how a people lumped into a hastily-conceived "axis" would identify or even wish to be associated with the philosophy of the recently-departed president. Despite his anti-democratic tactics and moral ambiguity, Ahmadinejad is no Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong-il. And the neocon push for Middle Eastern democracy seemed mere lip service at times, in which the use of force trumped populist movements and political hopefuls needed to toe a pro-American line. In the end, crediting Bush with the Tehran protests seems deluded wishful thinking.

2) Equally simplistic has been the crediting of a so-called "Obama Effect" on Iran, in that Obama's somewhat open approach towards Iran and the 2008 election itself had somehow coalesced to throw off the shackles of repression and let the sunlight of freedom shine broadly upon Persia. As somebody who voted for Obama, I reserve the right to find the media's adulation of him rather silly and somewhat distasteful, and while I'm willing to admit that African democracy movements may yet find some inspiration in Obama's election, I suspect that his impact on the Middle East has been, and will be, rather negligible for some time. The citizens taking to the streets and dodging the aggression of the Basij likely have things other than the 44th President of the United States on their minds.

3) Perhaps the most insulting framing device to my mind has been the media's anointing of social networking devices as the prime instigator and enabler of the ongoing protests. Naming movements is always fraught with peril, but unsatisfactory as the "Green Revolution" or the "Persian Awakening" may be, they at least reflect some degree of cultural specificity. But when I hear talk of a "Twitter Revolution" (a term also tossed about during the Moldovan unrest this year), I suspect the worst. There's no denying the fact that tools like Twitter, iPhones, blogs and other electronic networking devices have assumed a large and necessary role in a time of media and journalistic suppression. Important pieces of information, raw video and timely communications have undoubtedly spread thanks to these tools, and the future may well show that revolutionary movements and dissenters have gained a new weapon in the fight against authority. But much of the dialogue strikes me as a mere marketing tool. Never mind the fact that the accuracy and effectiveness of the blogs and Tweets have yet to be proven (unsurprisingly and understandably, large amounts of information transmitted through these means have proven inaccurate, inflated and incoherent). I fear the future ad campaigns for social networking tools that aim at convincing American teenagers that having a MySpace account in and of itself constitutes social activism. I imagine a "Start Your Own Revolution" campaign in which posting fan photos of John Mayer is juxtaposed with the martyrdom of Neda Agha-Soltan.

There's little doubt that something went wrong in the voting booths of Iran last week, and that the official government response has been brutal, censorious and unacceptable. Yet I wonder why the media is so quick to assume the standard narrative of American pluck and technology transforming peoples across the globe. We're still trying to fully understand the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Let's not get ahead of ourselves with this one, no matter what we decide to call it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Entering the Pacific Northwest: From Lakeview to Tacoma

Crossing over from northwest Nevada into southeast Oregon doesn't mean one leaves behind the scrubby sageland and enters primeval forests and foggy hills. Rather, an enormous expanse of eastern Oregon is a continuation of Nevada's dry countryside - what some have dubbed the "Oregon Outback". This is a massive and lonely part of the country, with few towns, high elevations and extreme weather. I spent my first night in Oregon at the town of Lakeview, just north of the Modoc, California county line. Poking around the town the next morning, I discovered a sign listing the number of churches in the area. With a population of 2,474 and 18 churches listed, that works out to approximately 1 church per 137 people.

I discovered this battered yet proud beauty of an old movie house along the main drag. Not many of these around anymore. And still being used!

So many of these interior west towns feature small, privately-run museums with artifacts and documents of earlier times, often from eras of gold and silver rushes or exploration. Lakeview was no exception,.

Back on the road, this time north on Highway 31. More lonely scrubby country, sometimes winding between marshy areas and enormous lakes (like Summer Lake ).

Just outside the remote town of Paisley, I pulled over to examine their airport, just off the main highway.

Up past Bend, the countryside began to change a bit as the highway moved closer to the looming Cascade Range to the west. Soon, the hulking presence of massive mountains, heavy with snow, became visible in the distance.

I took Highway 26 as it wound to the southern base of Mount Hood, the 11,240 foot giant that dominates the Portland area.

And on my way west to Portland, I of course passed every Portlandian's (?) favorite and most accurate highway exit sign.

A few days later, I made my way up the monotony of the I-5 to the Seattle / Tacoma region, and met up with Jane and her family for a brisk hike around Point Defiance Park. The summer has slowly settled in to this gorgeous, green, moist area, and the trails were shadowed in appropriate layers of gloom.

Yet other views looked onto more barren areas, such as the Tacoma-Narrows Bridge towards Gig Harbor.

The park is massive, and yields numerous hidden areas, such as this sad park bench slowly being devoured by the forest.

Then it was down to Portland once again, and a winding route towards the Cascades and the beauty of snow-packed Crater Lake. Next time.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Across Nevada's High Country: Tonopah to Denio

There's more than one way to get from San Diego to Seattle, and over the last few years, I think I've tried every logical (and illogical) combination of north-south traveling. A combination of friends, family and business brings the both of us to the Seattle / Portland / Walla Walla (!) nexus at least once a summer, and each time I attempt a different approach that might reveal new scenery, new towns, new sights. Jane tends to fly. She might be onto something there.

San Diego lies surprisingly far east compared to the rest of the west coast - the oft-repeated nugget is that San Diego and Reno lie along the same latitude. As a result, my drives to Walla Walla have taken me through areas as far from the coast as Nevada, Utah and Idaho. Other approaches have found me barrelling up the monotony of California's Central Valley, across the edge of the Sierras or poking along the entire northern coastline, from Astoria to Bodega Bay. Each time, I find myself wearied at journey's end and exhilarated by the sheer scale of the valleys, mountains and shorelines I've driven along. Cynic though I remain, the untouched beauty of the West can choke me up sometimes.

Our latest trip to Seattle/ Portland found me looking over various maps to piece together some new areas to explore, and I decided to journey up the middle of Nevada's high country before entering the dry Oregon interior and winding along to the foot of Mount Hood. My route through Nevada, especially, would follow secondary roads and hug the vast valley floors that run across the state like fingers dragged through soft clay. My fascination with the state of Nevada must have something to do with my love for lonely places and rough beauty, and the fact that most people think Nevada begins and ends with Las Vegas. While Vegas is certainly the largest urban area in Nevada, it lies in the extreme southern portion of the state, which is also the only portion of the state conforming to stereotypical "desert scenery". In fact, few states are as dominated by one single geographical entity as Nevada - the Great Basin Desert, or Sagebrush Country (Vegas lies in the Mohave Desert range, Nevada's only other geographic realm). Therefore, the majority of Nevada is not cactus and sand dunes, but sagebrush scrub and twisted pine, with cold winters filled with snow and even warm summer days giving way to surprisingly chilly nights. The state's average elevation is 5,499 feet (By comparison, California's average elevation is 2,900 feet), which limits agricultural attempts (the city of Ely sees 218 nights below freezing each year) and tended to support range land and mining (until the silver lodes ran out).

I did my best to speed through California, jostling for position along the I-15 with the masses streaming towards Vegas before pulling off the freeway at the desert town of Baker and picking up single-lane 127, paralleling Death Valley, lying just over the Black Mountains. After crossing the Nevada state line in the middle of the Amargosa Desert, I picked up 95 north and began steadily climbing in elevation. The three towns the route passed through on my way north exemplify the emptiness of interior Nevada - once bustling mining towns, now ghostly even with hotels, dining spots and gas stations sprinkled on the outskirts. The town of Beatty (1,154 people) lies at 3,308 feet. Much further north, the nearly abandoned (and cop-infested) Goldfield boasts a mere 440 people, which still accounts for more than half of Esmeralda County's population, of which it is the county seat (as of 2008, Esmeralda County has shrunk to 677 people total - at 3,500 square miles, it's more than twice the size of Rhode Island). And even further north, high among the San Antonio Mountains, lay my destination city of Tonopah - 2,600 people, elevation 6,030. Much of the city looks as if it has remained untouched since its creation in 1900 as a gold and silver mine community.

Outside the city limits the following morning, lonely Highway 376 took me through the enormous expanses of the Ralston and Big Smoky Valley, flanked on either side by tall mountains - the Toquima Range and the Toiyabe Range, with peaks topping 11,700 feet. This may have been the emptiest road I've ever driven on.

During an entire day's worth of driving, I only passed through five towns of any size, including the blink-and-you'll-miss-it metropolis of Carvers....

....and after a steep climb across the Toiyabe Range (look! trees!)....

.....and a maximum elevation gain of 7,484 feet......

......I dropped into the extremely lonely town of Austin, NV, elevation 6,575, population 340 (I love these towns with a higher elevation than population number!), where I briefly checked out their small cemetery at the junction of Highway 50 and 305.

After crossing the Shoshone Range and dropping into the Reese River Valley, I found some pleasure in spotting the many dust devils appearing here and there along the valley floor. At one point, I watched a pair of twins spiraling across the sage scrub.

After a brief stint in Interstate 80 and lunch at a Winnemucca-area Taco Time, I resumed 95 north until I came to the split with 140 East and a view into the enormous Quinn River Valley, the route which would take me into Oregon.

Just south of the small town of Denio, NV, I entered the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, where I came across these curious and scruffy wild burros.

I left Nevada and entered the "Oregon Outback". After a sheer drop down the "Guano Rim" into the "Guano Valley," I only needed to skirt the edges of several lush rivers and canyons before entering the city limits of Lakeview, OR, lying between the enormous Goose Lake to the south (partially in California) and the equally large Lake Abert to the north. Both have seem significant drying in recent years, and Lakeview itself has not boasted a view of the lake in some time.

And that's my journey across the middle of the Silver State. I would like to note for the record that I saw not a single brothel or evidence thereof in over 600 miles of Nevada highway. Maybe next time.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Signs of Life

The blog is not dead.
Rather, the blogger is (once again) on the road.
Travel may be good for the soul, but it's bad for the blogging.
I will return to the blogosphere when I once again reach San Diego. Tonight, Klamath Falls. Tomorrow, Sacramento.
Thoughts on Nevada's high country, the Olympic Peninsula's abandoned beaches and temperate rainforests, and the wetlands and snowy peaks (and old abandoned graveyards) of the Cascades Range to follow.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Slouching Towards Calistoga: A Guide

Below find four posts detailing our recent trip to the Napa Valley region, helpfully broken up into a broad overview, a look at the land, reviews of the wine, and comments on restaurants. The pieces start at the bottom and work upwards. I can finally take a deep breath...

Slouching Towards Calistoga, Pt. 4: The Food

Let's wrap this up with a brief word in praise of Napa's food, shall we? The combination of vast agricultural land and world-class wine production makes the Napa region a mecca for excellent dining. Much of it is on the pricey side (see below), but deals abound and the quality and variety is fantastic. We all did our best to institute a "Napa Diet" before our trip. Now that we're home, we're having to institute the diet once again.

Bistro Jeanty is the operation of Chef Philippe Jeanty, and offers hearty, traditional French countryside food. While some members of our party found the food almost a little too rich, I tucked in with gusto. Creamy risotto, fresh mussels, succulent pate, cool tartare - all wonderfully presented and affordable.

Through a mix-up at Mumm Napa, we were given a comped meal at Auberge de Soleil, a restaurant tucked up into the hills, boasting one of the finer menus and finest views of the entire valley. Our salads were exquisite, and my green garlic soup a rich and chilly blend of flavors.

The French Laundry needs little introduction. Thomas Keller's fine dining establishment has made the Top 5 in nearly every Best Restaurant Survey for the entire country since first opening its doors, and checking the place out (2-month-in-advance reservations, please) is more a ritual than a meal. With nine courses and over 4 hours of splurging, this is not a restaurant for the faint-hearted or the budget conscious. But what an experience! The craft and attention that went into each dish is enough to dazzle anybody with experience in the kitchen, and the fact that the chef's tasting menu changes nightly (aside from a few staples) means that innovation in guaranteed. A delight for the food fanatic.

The espresso was world-class, too.

Much lighter on the pocketbook was Terra, an Italian-fusion restaurant that we enjoyed as much as the French Laundry (it helped that our wine sommelier was infinitely more approachable and humorous). Jane's soft-shell crab was a revelation. Melissa was introduced to rhubarb. We cleaned our plates.

Slouching Towards Calistoga, Pt. 3 : The Wine

In all, we visited sixteen wineries across the Napa and Alexander Valleys. Our friend Melissa, along on the trip with her main squeeze, was lucky enough to have a dear friend of the family as an east coast wine distributor, with the happy result that we were given several opportunities to get private tours, complimentary tastings, and behind-the-scenes views at several prestigious wineries - a real treat.

Mumm Napa is considered among the premier makers of sparkling wine in the country, so-dubbed as the term "champagne" is supposed to be limited to only those wines produced in the Champagne region of France (while the US was suffering under Prohibition at the creation of the original treaty restricting use of the term "Champagne," and thus did not sign the agreement, producers have largely adhered to the rules). Prior to this tasting, neither Jane nor I were particular fans of the bubbly, but perhaps that was just a feature of our relative inexperience and the cheaper brands we've sampled. As it was, our tour and tastings were fantastic, and perfect for the warm summer weather. A complimentary bottle of the highly-regarded DMX release didn't hurt, either.

A quick stop at the nearly-unpronounceable Grgich Hills Estate, set up by one of Chateau Montelena's original winemakers, resulted in several fine white and red samplings and a recommendation to try the much-smaller Sawyer Cellars. This was one of our favorite wineries of the trip, partly due to the fact that we were the only patrons in the tasting room. Our hostess (a self-proclaimed 'wine diva') poured us several excellent wines, including a Meritage that we all went nuts over. One of the bottles accompanied us to Terra for dinner a few nights later, and the rest went into the box. A fantastic place.

Tucked off the Silverado Trail lies the sprawling and almost impenetrable complex of Quintessa, maker of strong Bordeaux-style blends. We were once again treated to a private tour, of both the grounds and the wine making area, before settling down to an extensive sampling of high-end reds. Despite the rather heavy price tags, we couldn't help but grab a few bottles. The estate cabs should age nicely in our makeshift cellar.

Frog's Leap, just down the road from Quintessa, offered a marked contrast - rather whimsical and quirky, with the tasting room outside and the grounds dominated by farmland and gardens. The wines were lots of fun, the all-organic approach was refreshing, and the goats proved especially delightful to Jane.

A semi-private tasting at highly-regarded Caymus kicked off Day 3. More excellent cabs, and a few strong whites. The tasting was marred by some of our fellow wine enthusiasts, who spent less time talking and sampling the wine than they did talking about snakes. One fellow seemed especially keen on pointing out the strengths of the nearby Francis Ford Coppola winery, including a magnum bottle with a dvd of Apocalypse Now enclosed within the base.

Our private tour of the remote and nearly inaccessible Buehler estate was another highlight. More great cabs, these squarely in the affordable range. Hence, we loaded up.

At the northern edge of Napa Valley lies Chateau Montelena, in the town of Calistoga. Famed as the winery that beat the French wines in the Tasting of Paris 1976, it's a historical site and boasts lovely grounds and strong, pricey reds. Unfortunately, it also boasts a bit of an attitude, as our library tasting was dominated by a rather aloof pourer who lectured us blandly on the virtues of their wine club membership rather than offer any points on the wine itself. Perhaps he thought we looked too young to appreciate their offerings...maybe he just wanted to get back to the little man in the main area who was literally clutching a fistful of hundreds while he tasted. Whatever the reason, his disdain was palpable - the only instance of such behavior on our entire trip. We still picked up some wines (hello, 1999 estate cab!), but the experience was disappointing.

Much more satisfying was the nearby Lava Vine winery, as small and charming as Chateau Montelena was imposing and removed. This was a big hit, as our pourer engaged with us and offered cooking tips and he poured multiple red wines. We loaded up at this place, too.

More bustling activity, this time down the road at Vincent Arroyo. We were offered a dizzying array of wine varietals, including many we hadn't yet sampled in Napa, such as petite syrah, sangiovese, zinfandel and various blends. We were a bit overwhelmed by the variety and our palettes were beginning to go into shock, but I insist these are good problems to have.

A long drive north and west past Sonoma into the Alexander Valley and Healdsburg took us to yet another private tour, this time courtesy of Mauritson, makers of excellent zinfandels from their remote and gorgeous Rockpile vineyard, part of a unique and small AVA. Our guide was none other than winemaker and owner Clay Mauritson, and it was indeed a rare honor to have such an intimate peek at his livelihood and grounds. The wines were excellent, too - strong and in it for the long haul, and deeply reflective of their unique terroir. A true highlight of our trip. Again, we loaded up.

A few other stops in the Sonoma / Healdsburg area yielded equally fine wines. Our tasting at Passalacqua was brief yet enjoyable (two bachelorette parties pulled into the tasting room as we sampled, drawing withering glares from our friendly pourer), and Unti offered an excellent spicy rose (although an overly talkative guest managed to monopolize our pourer's attentions). A final highlight were the wonderful zinfandels at Talty, the smallest of the small, with the winemaker himself pouring in their one-room center. With releases exclusively limited to zins, the quality was astounding. Another wonderful place.
The Francis Ford Coppola estate, which we checked out on our way back to Oakland, offered wonderful and historic grounds, a museum-like atmosphere (one could peek into sealed rooms offering wines dating back to the early 1890s) and more tchotckes than one could shake a stick at. It was rather underwhelming.

I'll admit to having an anti-Napa bias before this trip, largely due to the swanky reputation it has cultivated over the years. But one can definitely jump between larger estates and smaller mom-and-pop operations. And the quality of the wines and the friendliness of the people was surprising. I suspect we'll be enjoying our purchases for several years to come.