My apologies, loyal blog followers. This post is (a) late, and (b) not about life in New York. L1 was called upon to fly to Northern California for meetings, so I tagged along, as indeed I’m tagging along, L2 like, on this entire year’s adventure. So this post is about California. But perhaps you’ll be pleased to take a break from the intense cold, manic pace and expense of New York to spend a little time in the Golden State.
It so happened that in the week before we left I met several people who knew the San Francisco area well. The consensus seemed to be that the city itself was not what it used to be.
“San Francisco is the new New York,” said A, a management consultant who travels there often. “It used to be kind of an alternative, creative place, but now it’s full of hyperactive, money hungry techies. They’re the only people who can really afford to live there.”
“The traffic is diabolical,” said another friend. “Really, you don’t want to drive anywhere near the city.” (This rather put the fear of God into L1, who had booked us into a hotel in Half Moon Bay, thirty miles south of San Francisco, and was planning to drive in for meetings every day.)
Another woman, who moved from San Francisco to New York six months ago, said “It’s all over for San Fran. The weather isn’t great – it’s almost always foggy and a little chilly. And the only people who live there are the fabulously wealthy tech players, or the desperately poor and homeless. There’s not a lot in between. Plus any day now there’s going to be a huge earthquake and the entire place will fall into the sea.”
On this cheerful note, L1 and I boarded our American Airlines flight to SFO. We then hired a car (which L1 described as a giant sitting room on wheels) and made the half hour drive to Half Moon Bay, a little gem of a place (and the pumpkin capital of the USA, no less) perched on the west side of the San Francisco Peninsula directly across from Palo Alto.
Well. It may or may not be true that San Francisco is a has-been city that is about to fall into the ocean, but Half Moon Bay is pure magic. The Pacific views are breath taking, and even in the rain and fog which we experienced one day, the place is a sensual feast. While L1 made the (not nearly as bad as advertised) drive to the city every day, I spent my time writing, walking and taking in the views. (Oh, all right, I also had the occasional lunch-for-one accompanied by a glass of chilled Lioco.) During one particular walk north of the hotel, and from my vantage point on the cliff top, I spied what looked like two local mums and their children cavorting on the beach below. I thought how lucky they were to have such a place as their after-school playground. Then I spotted a dog walker with no fewer than twelve dogs, in all shapes and sizes, running along the beach and in an out of the surf. I thought how very lucky they were too, both man and dogs. Of course, dogs are happy to be running and playing off the lead no matter what the environment, and Wimbledon Common or Richmond Park would be pretty highly rated by any canine friendly version of Trip Advisor, but you’d have to think that the beaches of Half Moon Bay would be any dog’s top pick for a daily walk.
Now, I’m not knocking the experience of lounging on a blue and white striped mattress, walking on hot sand, and floating in the azure seas of the South of France, but there’s a particular charm to the Half Moon Bay type of beach, which is not unlike those to be found in Cornwall or Scotland – long, wide, virtually empty, and with rough silvery seas and a backdrop of cliffs. And there’s a particular charm to a beach in winter, when there’s no pressure to spread out a towel and roast yourself, all the while picking grains of sand out of your hair, teeth and sandwiches. You can just walk, or sit atop a rock and stare, enjoying the exhilarating feel and sound of the wind and the waves. I don’t wish to sound too Californian about it, but I can honestly say that walking along those cliffs and down on those beaches was a spiritually uplifting experience I won’t forget.
But back to my solitary lunches. One of the chief advantages of dining alone is that you’re free to eavesdrop while staring out to sea or down at the pages of the book you’re pretending to read. One lunchtime, my ears were craned towards a table occupied by two couples who looked to be in their early seventies. I think they hailed from somewhere in that vast expanse of territory that lies east of California and west of New York. Mid-way through my pumpkin, grapefruit and kale salad (I know what you’re thinking, but I promise you it was delicious), I realised that they were also Trump supporters. I’ve not met a live Trump supporter in the three months we’ve been living in America, unless you count the few I walked past at Columbus Circle during the women’s march. My curiosity piqued, I began to listen in with greater intent. I caught a lot of stuff about the booming economy and the recent tax cuts having had a positive effect on hiring and wages. (This appears to be true, which means that although Trump is a disgrace and a buffoon on almost every level, he may well be proven right about the much scoffed at trickle down effect.) There followed some mildly disapproving talk of the President’s Twitter habit, then some comments about his performance on the world stage, and the mention of North Korea. I lost the flow of the conversation for a few minutes at that point, only catching little scrappy bits and the tale end of it, when one of the men said, “Well Gees, he’s such a crazy son of a bitch, right, so what ‘r you gonna do?” The other man said, “Yeah, you sure got that right.” I wasn’t sure which particular leader they were talking about.
After the chat about the crazy son of a bitch, whichever one they were referring to, came the inevitable discussion about healthcare. It would be fair to say that if you listened in on almost any conversation in America for long enough, you would eventually hear a moan about healthcare. It looms over people’s lives here in a way we can’t begin to understand in the UK. Do they have enough cover? How will they afford their ever-rising premiums? What happens when they retire or change jobs and their cover stops?(One friend, on the verge of retirement, said that she and her husband were acutely aware that their family was just one serious illness away from being financially wiped out.) Worries about healthcare devour an inordinately large share of brain space and thinking time. No matter how creaky our NHS might be in places, it should be nothing but beloved by us. It’s a life-saver and a life-enhancer.
After four days in Half Moon Bay, L1 and I packed up our enormous red tank and headed up to Napa Valley for the weekend. We made the grave error of squeezing in a game of golf beforehand, meaning that we rolled out of the bay late afternoon, hitting the legendary San Francisco traffic bang in the middle of rush hour. We fairly crawled across the Bay Bridge and through Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond and the other suburbs north east of the city. As we cursed our own stupidity, we nevertheless took note of the fact that the sluggish traffic had none of the lurching impatience of the traffic in New York, and none of the sound effects. Not a single horn was honked during the course of our entire three-hour journey.
Before leaving the traffic jam and the suburbs of San Francisco, I must mention @n.wolstenholme on Instagram. Nanu takes beautiful and unusual photographs of architecture in and around Oakland, many of them at the disused Alameda Naval Base. She has a superb eye, and her pictures – all washed through with soft blues, greens, and greys– are at once calming and inspiring.
Eventually we rolled into Yountville, where we were due to stay at the Vintage House Hotel. Our arrival there, in the dark, was a little surreal, owing to the fact that Yountville was still – on the 25th of January – in full-on Christmas mode, trees and buildings all swathed in silvery-white fairy lights.
It was almost, but not quite as surreal as walking out onto the terrace of our hotel in Half Moon Bay on the first evening and hearing the bag pipes being played by a fully kilted Scotsman, who cut a magnificent, if unlikely dash against the Californian backdrop. Coming from London, where there exists an unspoken rule that all Christmas lighting must come down on the sixth of January, we were momentarily taken aback by the festive hangover in Yountville.
Yountville is a very pleasant place, but a funny place too. It’s a little as I remember Palm Springs to be – a couple of well appointed streets lined with immaculately kept shops and tasting rooms, plonked onto some very flat land in the middle of some hills. There’s something of the Truman Show about it, not during the day, when you do actually see people walking around, but certainly at night. We left one restaurant which had been noisy and full of life, only to walk out onto the street and find it completely empty. We walked back to the hotel in the eerie quiet and didn’t encounter a soul. We did spy a couple of people through the window of one shop, but L1 declared them robots, planted there to fool us into thinking we were living a real life as opposed to one constructed and overseen by the heads of the studio.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. After our late evening arrival in Yountville, but prior to the next evening’s dinner at the noisy (and quite excellent) Bistro Jeanty, L1 and I spent a glorious day tasting wine in the Napa Valley. We took a drive along the Silverado Trail shouting out the names of famous Vineyards as we went – look there’s Stag’s Leap! Or, I’m sure we’ve had a bottle of that Signorello! Just before noon, we pulled up at Pine Ridge Vineyards for our scheduled tour and tasting session, whereupon we were immediately served a glass of their chenin blanc-viognier blend to sip while we waited for the other guests to arrive.
Picture, if you can, what it would be like to take a wine tour led by a considered and highly knowledgeable version of Amy Schumer, and with fellow guests Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, a young Meryl Streep and a not-quite-so- young Chevy Chase. Bloody marvellous fun, right? And indeed it was.
We learned a great deal about the process of winemaking and the history of the vineyard, including the story of how its founder, Gary Andrus, was inspired to invest his winemaking dollars in Napa after learning about the 1976 Judgement of Paris, in which a blind tasting of French and American wines took place and the unthinkable happened: the 1973 Stag’s Leap wine Cellar S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon took top honours, triumphing over first-growths and other renowned wines of Bordeaux. The Judgement of Paris story is captured in the film Bottle Shock. According to our fellow tour guests, the film is twenty-percent truth and eighty-percent Hollywood, but is nevertheless a must see.
We also learned a few random facts, such as these: that the founder’s wife used to ride her Harley Davidson though the underground wine caves, just because she could; that they dropped grass seed on the fires that raged last year, along with the water, with the result that the valley is now full of trees with fuzzy branches; and that the oak barrels in which the wine is stored cost an astonishing six hundred dollars each. This, apparently, is one of the differences between good wine and cheap plonk. The plonk is stored in metal barrels with a single oak panel stuck down the middle in an attempt at replicating the rich, vanilla scented deliciousness that an oak barrel imparts to the wine.
Some spectacular wines were tasted. But mostly, we had a hoot. It turned out that Goldie and Kurt (a couple) knew Meryl and Chevy (also a couple), and that they all knew Amy from previous visits. So it was more like a jolly gathering of old friends than a formal wine tour. All of them also knew quite a lot about wine, and the vineyards in the area, which L1 and I lapped up. Goldie and Kurt are members of no fewer than twelve wine clubs in Napa, though Goldie insisted they were soon to cut back. On club memberships, she was quick to add, not the enjoyment of wine.
Talking about the wine tour afterwards, L1 and I were struck by something we struggled, at first, to articulate. Goldie was a retired teacher, Kurt a retired electrical engineer, Meryl a marketing manager for a small firm, and Chevy a roofer. Not a hedge fund manager or a tech gazillionaire amongst them. But all of them had a passion for good wine, and for the culture of wine. They regularly build holidays around wine. And their varied and unexceptional jobs afford them the possibility of doing this. Wine, and the enjoyment of everything to do with its creation, like so many things in America, would appear to be broadly accessible. It has been democratised. America is not a classless society, nor is it without enormous income disparities between the richest and the poorest in its society. But there’s a kind of openness and evenness, an essential democratisation, that makes it feel so much less class encumbered than the UK. If healthcare is the country’s bête noire, this democratic spirit is its triumph.
On our second day in Napa we met up with our NBFs again, sampling the delights on offer in three more vineyards along the Silverado Trail. Each Vineyard has its own unique story – the history of its founding and the philosophy underlying its winemaking. Darioush was founded by a Persian who escaped Iran before the Shah, arrived in Los Angeles with nothing, and went on to establish the largest chain of grocery stores in California, the proceeds of which he used to create the majestic winery that bears his name. The building that houses the wine cellars and tasting rooms is staggeringly beautiful, a little bit of Persia in the middle of Napa valley. Dariush had all the stone shipped from Iran and his wife’s Persian artwork adorns the walls and the signature bottles.
The whole thing could not be more different than the assortment of restored stables, barns and jalopies that make up the more rustic Regusci Winery, just up the road, but each has enormous charm and an appeal all its own.
L1 got somewhat overexcited as we approached the last of our tastings, held at the famous Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, where the very bottle that won the 1976 Judgement of Paris holds court in the foyer. As we tasted a variety of cabs and merlots on the Stag’s Leap terrace, (and directly below the rock formation across which the famed stag supposedly leapt) we learned just how important an apostrophe can be. Because there’s another winery with stag in its name, just up the trail, producing an entirely different sort of wine. We wondered how many times we’d got it wrong in the past, thinking we were purchasing a Stag’s Leap when really we were only getting a Stags’ Leap.
We left Napa with a couple of cases of wine on order and a clutch of new email addresses scribbled on wine tasting menus – the addresses of our original Pine Ridge friends, and a few more we picked up along the way. I believe Nicole is going to visit us in London or New York, and L1 has an open invitation to go to Arizona and play golf with Bob. L1 really did enter into the spirit of it all in a way that might surprise our children, who’ve known him to seize up when forced into excessively long bouts of intense socialising.
We also left Napa certain that we would return. There are over four hundred wineries in the valley, and we’ve visited just four. We never even got close to Beringer or Mondavi. Clearly, there is still some work to do.
P.S. Although I was delighted by L1’s social stamina, I was less pleased to learn that he’d sat on some critical information for days. As we drove away from Half Moon Bay he said, “Oh Digs, I forgot to tell you that when we were at breakfast the other day, there was this really beautiful, glamorous woman sitting behind you and I just knew she was someone famous. I finally figured it out that she was that woman from Billions. You know, Paul Giamatti’s wife.”
You can imagine my fury at having missed out on an opportunity to become firm friends with Maggie Siff. But I suppose it served me right, for (yet again) taking the seat with view of the sea rather than the view of the room.
And finally…. since the novel writing has begun in ernest, and I really must focus, I’ll be posting every two weeks from now on. So please don’t go assuming I’ve fallen into the sea along with San Francisco if your email alert doesn’t pop up one week.