Heading to Napa
“Listen up, I’m about to get dope, It ain’t nothin’ but some shit I wrote. About a young brotha deep in the game They call me Mac Dre and I’m keepin the name” ~-Mac Dre “Too Hard For The Radio”
At 48, my pallet has evolved from my younger days when the only crushed grapes my friends and I knew were the top-of-the-line wine Carlos Rossi and a motel that would leave the light on.
Much has changed with me and with Napa as well. Growing up near one of the worlds premier viticulture regions, the epicenter of wine country seemed a world away from my Eastbay home in Richmond, California. Plus, my parents weren’t drinkers, and most of our family weekend time was spent consumed with church services.
Sunday wine-tasting trips in my family were only on the 1st Sunday of the month.
Since we weren’t Catholic, we could only savor sour grape juice, and the sommelier was the minister calling it the blood of Jesus. I saw a trip to Mt. Calvary by way of the River of Jordan in my feature–not a short drive on Highway 29 into the heart of wine country.
Napa was known for two things to my friends and me– a State mental health hospital and cheating referees. Those two small bites paired well with the local active Klan–didn’t make for an inviting and welcoming destination. The deep purple grapes blended into a cab or zin were welcomed, just not me or people like me.
Politically, Napa County is patriotically Red.
Strong notes of conservatism aged in generationally inherited cellars–oxidate the paleness of its Mediterranean climate. Make American Great Again signage has been swapped out with #Let’sGoBrandon banners. Fables and long tales about the area had convinced me the city was more antebellum south with mean-spirited police patrolling its city limits.
It actually wasn’t too far in the recent past, a group of Black women were booted off the Napa Wine Train. Why? It certainly wasn’t because they were drunk, hostile, or interrupting or interfering with the train. What were they doing you might ask? Nothing out of the ordinary, unless you’re Black and just your presence can be enough for Mr. Charlie the conductor to treat the 11 members of a book club as if they were their father’s generation of Pullman Porters. “We were treated like we didn’t belong there, and we paid our money just like everyone else, “ Lisa Renee Johnson told KTVU in April 2016. “If they cannot accommodate groups, they should not take our money as a group.” The city of Napa has done something Culture Honey’s hometown of Pasadena hasn’t done. In a unanimous vote in September 2020, they took action against discrimination and racism in the community by adopting a resolution formally recognizing the effects on public health.
These types of experiences are never absent from my overnight duffle. I pack them into my Social Justice Tourism 72-hour bug-out bag. The way my anxiety is set up, I may need to mob out, sideways to the next light.
What could possibly go wrong with traveling on Black Friday, the busiest day of the year? A tire blowout en route to the airport on the freeway? A 90 minute plus TSA screening? Or, how about once in Oakland, you realized you booked and prepaid the rental car for the wrong days. What a premium rate boneheaded slip-up.
I had to charge it to the game.
Yep, it all happened, but we were thankful and looking forward to spending time with family over the massacre-holiday-celebration weekend. Ahem, Thanksgiving.
My Mom supervised. It was all hands on deck. Around my brother’s oversized kitchen island, we chopped, peeled and ooh, it was only a matter of time for our small family affair to get crunk in the dancery. Dinner was coming along. Much like Momma Joe from the 1997 classic film Soul Food, my mother shared her declaration about our family. Her words aren’t for public consumption, but they were in the same vein as the film’s fictional matriarch Joe.
In the story, Momma Joe tells her gathered descendants, “One finger won’t make an impact, but you ball all those fingers into a fist, and you can strike a mighty blow. Now, this family has got to be that fist.”
My Mom’s message to us was one, I believe, intended to prepare us for an inevitable season ahead. The nap on her shoulder following dinner meant so much more. That night, I cried myself to sleep.
Deuces kids, Mom and Dad will see you tomorrow afternoon. We were on the run. 28 hours.
The drive from my brother’s East CoCo County home is about 28 minutes.
We’ve been this close the whole time. The salted delta air and oil refinery smoke plumes approaching the George Miller Jr. Bridge are topographical and environmental reminders of being home.
The ride and toll fare sent me back in time. The hills and trills of childhood in the Bay. I could taste the nachos and ice cream from the snack bar and summer afternoons swimming at church picnics at Chevrons Rod & Gun Club. It was a poor kid equivalent to a five-star resort. I enjoyed the recreation. All of us kids enjoyed the gym and bowling alley. None of us were aware of the complementary toxic pollutants we were breathing. All we knew to hope for, was the refinery alarm didn’t sound to signal an evacuation. Usually, that was because someone’s drunk Uncle didn’t seal a valve, now there’s a burn-off.
No sooner than passing Marine World/Africa U.S.A, now known as Six Flags on 12, you enter the Napa City and County line.
A quick mental health self-check and centering exercise, okay, I’m good. “Shay won’t ruin my day. Not today.”, I affirm to myself.
As we drove past the Wine Spectator HQ and Google with all its mighty algorithms – they returned an article to me about a local wordsmith–also known as the “Ambassador of the Bay” turned wine impresario, Earl Stevens.
Stevens, better known as E40, told Wine Spectator his reasons for entering the space. When he takes younger artists (he calls them “top hats”) to a steak house, he tells them to look around. “What’s on their table?” he asks. All the young rappers see wine-filled glasses. “You see why? You eat a steak, you drink wine with that.”
As we approached the Archer Hotel, we were at a real intersection of cultural exchange.
The car next to us was slapping Mac Dre, true story. The lobby music set a mood with the tune from “Tower of Power.” Plush, modern and contemporary. The desk staff was Uber friendly. The vegan-leather walls in the elevator made us a couple of hip-square’s slide in for a chilled romantic evening.
Being that it was Black Friday, we were looking forward to visiting J. Moss tasting room. The vineyard and winemaker are African American and he’s a master vintner.
For Stevens and Moss, breaking into the PWI (predominately-white-industry) is filled with unfamiliarity and cultural challenges.
Winemaker Phil Long, president of the Association of African American Vintners (AAAV), in 2020 estimated that “About 1 percent of 1 percent of all winemakers are Black.” He said that in 2020 there were a few dozen who were both the winemaker and the brand owner. Bloomberg estimated .1% of US winemakers and brand owners are Black.
A 2019 survey by SevenFifty of 3100 industry professionals found that only 2% identify as Black. The Washington Post pointed out that, “A major entry obstacle for people of color interested in the wine profession is money. It is expensive to learn about wine, from tasting rare, famous bottlings to taking classes for professional certifications. Aspiring winemakers and other wine professionals build their résumés by traveling the world and working harvests in France and elsewhere. Opportunity comes with money.” Long added.
We needed to seek and spend with a Black-owned business, especially one that has some of the best 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon on the market. Wine Spector scored it 92 and recommended it would be best to drink in 2022. We were five weeks away from New Years Day.
Much to our disappointment, the winery was closed in observance of the holiday weekend. Ordering online will have to do.
My hood-foodie critic cousin Mike aka Ricky Vegas recommended Bistro Don Giovanni.
He knows the Napa valley-well. He first introduced us to the region last summer. I under-appreciated his offer to treat at the French Laundry— when I learned they didn’t serve fries. Instead, he took us to Carneros Resort for brunch. Mike’s work in executive protection has secured him many seats at Michelin Star chefs tables around the world. I can count on Mike for two things– a loud and lively conversation and good eats.
No need for the host to escort us to the table. The sonic boom of Mike’s laugh pinpointed us to him. The Judge Jennie-looking lady over his shoulder took some time to adjust her judgy face and wondering left eye. She leered as if she could see the decibels of our chuckles.
We ran through, as usual, a Ray and Claude dialog from the 1999 film Life. The invisible fence line. The crossing over into freedom–away from whiteness and staying in a subjected place for a good pie, is metaphorically an aspirational part of equality and inclusion.
Martin Lawrence “What’ you laughin’ about, Ray?”
Eddie Murphy “Ah, just thinkin’ about you runnin’ with them bullets flying all over the top of your head, that’s something to see there, that was a sight to see.”
Martin Lawrence”The bullets weren’t the problem, Ray. The pie was too hot. Burned my damn tongue.”
My wife had to just sit with it. Shake her head, understanding our occasional hankering for a slice of “White’s Only Pie”
Lunch with two Bad and Boujee Southside Richmond Chassis’
Earlier in the day, we met up with my wife’s friend for lunch.
A quiet hello is shade in our culture. “Hey ya’ll” over the ambient background noise of Highway 29, Tearra’s voice could be heard. Her large smile hadn’t changed in 30 years. Both of these two cheerleader friends are now all grown up. They are mothers and hold down successful executive-level careers. Between my wife requesting black linen to drape over her fitted White House Black Market leggings and Tearra’s imported alkaline water, these two had evolved from a chilled Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, into the bad(est) of the boujee. 68 degrees and sunny this late in the fall is unusual. Alfresco on the bistros rustic backyard seemed ideal.
Che cosa ci?
What do you recommend?
CARPACCIO thinly sliced filet of beef, capers, arugula parmigiano, bistro breadstick $19
MARGHERITA tomato, basil, mozzarella di latte $21
RAVIOLI spinach, pecorino, bellwether ricotta lemon cream or tomato sauce $25
Dinner and Conversation in Black & White
The book club group’s experience was not quite the same as the couple we met at Charlie Palmer Steak. Issa & Rae–a biracial couple we ended up in conversation with at the bar. Neither of us had reservations for the dining room, so the high-top chairs and Lillard and Curry shooting it out was the next best thing to being in a suite in the Chase Bank Arena.
Dinner and drinks. Microaggressions and “Let’s go, Brandon” became fodder for the conversation. Chewing on their BS, certainly, didn’t make me shit. I did appreciate their gastronomic infusion of social commentary and C-Suite-level understanding.
Their afternoon was spent filled with, as Issa described as microaggressions. Almost, as if she could feel the stares from people seeing a biracial couple. Rae was none the wiser.
Issa is a Chief Information Officer for a known silicon valley tech firm and Rae is a highly sought-after mental health care professional. They split time between homes on the Peninsula and Austin, Tx. It was their first visit to Napa. I could understand their whimsical ideology of how they assumed their union could have been accepted. The Peninsula is in the South Bay Area and Austin is the most liberal and progressive city in the state of Texas.
Napa isn’t Austin or San Jose. These two Love Birds, (Issa & Rea) wreaked of being Insecure. I’ve said it before, the Black Tax is a real thing. Not even on Black Friday, is it duty-free.
We spotted up at the bar. Dame Dolla was battling Chef Curry on the screen. Charlie Palmer Steaks–this was gonna be a good night.
Che cosa ci?
What do you recommend?
WEDGE tomato confit | blue cheese | bacon | caraway crunch $14
PAINTED HILLS FILET MIGNON $65
YELLOWFIN TUNA TARTARE avocado | soy-lime emulsion | ciabatta $25
OLD FASHIONED Templeton rye private barrel | Jefferson’s private barrel | nocino | brown butter | bitters $19
ZINFANDEL Saldo by The Prisoner Wine Co, Napa Valley, 2016 $17
On the way out, the next morning we took 12 west for breakfast at Boon Fly Cafe. If you know, then you know. Expect a wait. But, luck was on our side. We were sat immediately.
Che cosa ci?
What do you recommend?
B.L.T. – applewood smoked bacon, lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, sourdough – $16
Boon Fly Chicken & Waffle – Mary’s Free-Range chicken, malt waffle, maple syrup, whipped brown butter – $19
Boon Fly’s Spicy Bacon Bloody Mary – soaking a butcher’s thick bacon strip – $14
A night in Napa will run you some serious coins. Average rooms start at $400 a night. $1299 per night will immerse in a private cottage with an outdoor soaking tub. There is no upcharge for the beautiful serenity of Napa’s countryside.
Plan ahead and make reservations!
Writers Must-do List.
J. Moss Winery ~AA winemaker , J. Moss winery is one of a handful of African American owned wineries in Napa Valley
Bring your own flowers
Black Vines SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 26, 2022
Voted the Best wine festival in the Country
Winemaking is one area where African Americans are significantly under represented compared to their white counterparts. Less than one percent of US wineries are black-owned or have black winemakers—a statistic that parallels the number of US farmers who are black.
I choose the name the biracial couple Issa & Rae because her striking resemblance to the star of the HBO hit series Insecure creator Issa Rae. I seriously thought at first glance it was her. My wife is a big fan of the show and I thought how cool is it seeing her in real life. Then, I saw Rae pull up his chair. Then it hit me, they were together. As soon as Issa said hello, I was sure it wasn’t the raspy, South Central(ish) accent of a LA girl.
I can only hope that I hide my microaggressions–at least better than the Judge Jennie looking lady at brunch.