Gimme Shelter

The haus the Jack builtIt’s well known that a granny unit, cottage or bungalow without a writer properly installed in it is really just a big doghouse. Finding a dog large enough for that kind of real estate could cost you thousands and the cleanup even more. Also, a dog, no matter what its size, cannot provide valuable “literary escrow” nearly as well as an actual scribe.

But don’t fret — writer Daedalus Howell is available to increase the value of your dwelling by staying in it as long as it takes. Be the envy of your neighbors when your pad is commemorated with an official “Daedalus Howell slept here” plaque. You deserve it. Especially if you live in the Wine Country.

The Aviary Soars to the Silver Screen

Photo by Abe LevyThe Aviary, the only film about flight attendants penned by an actual flight attendant, premieres at 8 p.m., THIS Friday, July 22 at the Lark Theater in Larkspur. The feature film was produced and written by Sonoma County native Silver Tree, a flight attendant on a major US carrier the past five years — and, in the interest of full disclosure, a pal with whom I’ve occasionally discussed the merits of our mutual friend Charles Shaw.

Directed by Tomales-raised Abe Levy (another buddy of Shaw’s and mine), The Aviary was shot throughout the Bay Area and stars Lara Philips (Road to Perdition) as Summer Pozzi, a flight attendant unwittingly stationed in San Francisco where she must live with a cadre of airline personnel that includes fashion chameleon Portia, catty malcontent Kate (Rachel Luttrel and Claire Rankin, respectively, both of whom currently appear in Stargate: Atlantis) and male flight attendant Lucas (Michael Gilio of the acclaimed independent film Quick Stop). Summer’s dreams of marrying a captain takeoff when she is pursued by hansom pilot Julian (Josh Randall late of NBC’s Ed, currently appearing on Scrubs). Matters get complicated, however, when Lucas also sets Summer’s heart aflutter.

The film features music by Santa Rosa-based musician Josh Staples of bands The Velveteen and The New Trust. Both Levy and Tree will be in attendance at the premiere to introduce The Aviary, which will be followed by a Q&A. Cast members will also be present at the screening as will I (look for the guy drinking from the brown bag and repeatedly telling ingenues “You know, baby, I am the co-producer”).

Tree began writing her script when temporarily furloughed following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

“When I was a junior flight attendant I was really dazzled by the lifestyle — I read all the books, saw all the movies, bought all the tchotchkes. But after the initial buzz I realized that most of it was garbage. It in no way reflected the way life at 30,000 feet is. Especially the movies,” explains Tree. “The movies about flight crew up to this point have all been horrible caricatures that poke fun and ridicule. There’s a place for that too, don’t get me wrong, but reality needs to be represented as well.”

Levy, who directed the feature film “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Trying,” which premiered at the Mill Valley International film festival in 2000 and later went on to the Los Angeles Film Festival, was happy to be working locally, shooting in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Sebastopol.

“The Bay area is a great place to shoot. People here aren’t jaded like they are in Los Angeles where I often work. Here, they still have a sense of wonder when it comes to the movies,” says Levy. “This is a great boon for productions that are flying under the radar, because everyone wants to help, and even if you get caught shooting where you probably shouldn’t be shooting, they’ll usually be nice and let you get away with it anyway.”

Indeed, the independently-produced film redefined the meaning of “guerilla filmmaking.” Shot with a shoestring budget, the production made use of the flight benefits Tree accrued as a flight attendant to shoot locations that would otherwise have been impossible to visit.

“We shot in so many locations it makes the head spin. We actually shot in Los Angeles and New York City the same day on one occasion. Not to mention a couple of shots on the way,” recalls Levy, who also clocked time in Chicago, New York and Hawaii while directing the film. Tree, who also served as production designer spent sometime behind the camera as well.

“There were times when I had to shoot some shots without the rest of the crew. Since I’m always flying around the world it made getting shots in certain places very inexpensive for us,” recalls Tree. “Abe taught me how to use the camera and I just strapped it to my roller bag. I did some pretty difficult shots in Paris where we needed my arm to be in the shot, but I had to operate the camera as well, plus I had only ten minutes to catch the Eiffel Tower while it sparkled for midnight,” she explains. “My crew bag has double zippers so Abe rigged a hidden camera in it for some of our trips. We got some amazing footage that way, things that would have cost us tens of thousands of dollars — we got for free.”

The filmmakers are excited about premiering The Aviary at a local venue.

Says Levy, “After all the globetrotting it took to make The Aviary it’s good to be home.”

The Aviary premieres at 8 p.m., Friday, July 22 at the Lark Theater, 549 Magnolia Ave., Larkspur. For more information about The Aviary, visit www.theaviarymovie.com. For ticket information and additional screening times go to www.larktheater.net

Back in the swing of things

Richard Olsen, photo by Robbi PengellyCareer planning was a cinch for Sonomabased musician Richard Olsen. As the affable singer, band leader and clarinet player admits, “ Music is the only thing I know how to do.”

Fortunately, Olsen’s talents, ambition and professional path dovetailed into a 40- year career that continues to flourish. Locals can see ( and hear) Olsen ply his trade tonight when he and his 17- piece Big Band Orchestra perform in the Plaza as part of the 10th annual City of Sonoma Party.

The gig is a return engagement for Olsen, who points to last year’s performance at the city party as indication of what audiences might expect this year.

“It was really a lot of fun. Everybody came out and danced. We had little kids standing in front – we have two female vocalists – so they were just gaga over the girls,” he laughs.

“There were people who were 80 who loved it and teenagers too. There’s something for everyone.”

Accommodating the musical tastes of “ everyone” is a staple of the trade for working musicians.

“I do so many private parties and wear so many hats. When you play clubs you usually work up a certain type of material and style and you stick within the boundaries. If it’s a swing club you play nothing but swing, that kind of thing. At private parties you play everything that they want, from background music to Sinatra to Motown to the Stones,” said Olsen, who is looking forward to performing a wide selection of music at the show.

For Plaza party goers, Olsen plans to perform a survey of popular music from 20th century, culling tunes from catalogs as diverse as those of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin and Tom Jones to Benny Goodman, Santana and the Beatles.

“We cover a lot of genres and we do it pretty authentically,” beams the charismatic Olsen, who will be backed by a band comprised of nine horns ( of which he is the lead), a fivepiece rhythm section, percussion, drums, keyboards, guitar and two women sharing backup vocal duties.

“These guys are really excellent players. They’ve played with everyone from Van Morrison to Tony Bennett,” said Olsen, who was a member of the seminal 1960s psychedelic rock act the Charlatans, which included Dan Hicks, later of Dan Hick and His Hot Licks fame.

Olsen has seen the Bay Area’s live music scene evolve over the course of his career and points to several peaks and valleys that have come and gone as audiences’ preferences shifted and styles changed.

“Live music is really hard now because everything is really DJ- oriented,” Olsen laments. “ In that respect it’s been difficult in the Bay Area.”

That said, Olsen remains optimistic that such transformations are both inevitable and more importantly, cyclical.

“The whole San Francisco scene changes every 10 years. And the skyline changes every 10 years, too,” said Olsen, who remains enthusiastic about the Bay Area as an epicenter for performers. “ I think that sort of creative thing with the water and the hills and the liberal aspect of it just draws musicians and artists. You can be so diverse and nobody cares. Nobody is going to say, ‘ Oh, let’s kick him out of town.’ All diversity is welcome.”

Olsen moved to Sonoma five years ago, but visits his old San Francisco haunts regularly.

“I lived in the city so long it’s in my blood.

I have to go in every few days just to get my electricity,” he said with a laugh, but is quick to remind that he loves Sonoma. “ It’s beautiful here, the thing is you get to the point where you’re enjoying it so much you’re not doing anything. You have to stimulate yourself somehow. If you’re here and enjoying the outdoors and stuff, then all of a sudden a few days have gone by and people are forgetting you. You have to get back and knock on the doors.”

When not knocking on doors Olsen practices, practices, practices, in a home studio he installed in the second story of his home.

“I practice more since I’ve been here, because it’s kind of peaceful and nobody bothers me,” he says.

They may be impressed with his sartorial finesse. Olsen enjoys classing up his act by donning his band in tuxedos.

“I had a lot of fun last year because nobody knew what to expect. People were just going thinking that it’s the ‘ Tuesday thing,’ then there we were, all these guys in tuxedos with horns. I think it blew a lot of people away,” Olsen recalls. There’s a certain respect for music when you dress up. It’s like going to church. It makes it special and that’s what it should be. A lot of the old jazz groups used to dress really well.

“Then you see acts playing in T- shirts and jeans. You close your eyes and it’s great, but it doesn’t add anything visually. There’s nothing special about. It’s like they’re rehearsing instead of performing.”

Looks can be deceiving. Olsen reminds that one shouldn’t judge a band by the cut of its lapels.

“A lot of people will assume we’re a certain kind of band, but as the evening goes on and it gets darker we’ll get more in the rock and Motown. We do all kinds of stuff,” Olsen said. “ It’s like a progression. It’s interesting to see what people respond to in this area.”

Lights, Camera, Lawn Chair

Drive-ins have gone the way of the dinosaur. DVDs are encroaching on the natural habitat of the single-screen movie house. Yet, something of a hybrid thrives in community parks throughout Marin and San Francisco. This cinematic missing link is Film Night in the Park, an outdoor festival of classic and contemporary movies that’s playing through October in a park near you.

For the past four years, Film Night has been a collaboration between Marin County resident Tom Boss and A.P.P.L.E. Family Works (the acronym stands for “Advancing Practices and Principle of Life Enrichment”) and has grown from its original Creek Park venue in San Anselmo to include three additional Marin County locations and three in San Francisco as well.

“This brings families and neighbors together. This is a great ‘mental health’ program. That’s really what it is,” says Lew Tremaine of the nonprofit in Marin, which aids Film Night in soliciting the donations that keep it going. “It gets people out and together and enjoying community. That was Tom’s vision all along, and that’s Family Works’ vision, so it works really well.”

On a grassy knoll in Creek Park, Boss surveys the grounds as a Miles Davis CD plays. Youngsters, from grade school age to teenagers mill around toting pillows and sleeping bags. They stake out plots, while parents get chairs or purchase popcorn and raffle tickets from a nearby concession stand. The theme of this year’s Film Night programming is “All in the Family – Films For and About the Family” and indeed local families have made Film Night regular weekend entertainment. As night begins to fall, Boss gives a cue that fills the outdoor screen with light from a digital projector perched on the hill. The crowd breaks into spontaneous cheers.

“We get a lot of teenagers. That’s one of the main things – to provide something positive for middle school and high school kids to do,” says Boss. “You see groups come and go, they’re kind of just here to meet up, but a lot of them hang out and enjoy the films. I’m always surprised at some of the films that do draw big crowds of teenagers — some of the classics.”

Boss lists titles that one might assume a younger audience member would pass over in a video store: “Some Like It Hot,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and the surprisingly popular “The Philadelphia Story.”

“We got a huge turnout of teenagers for that,” says Boss. “Again, it was a huge crowd in general, but about half of them were kids. I was really blown away by that.”

Film Night was founded in 1992 by Boss and a small cadre of cineastes who used to meet at San Anselmo’s now-defunct Cafe Nuvo. From there they would carpool to San Francisco to see films that wouldn’t play at the local multiplex.

“Sometimes it would be the Castro Theater for a classic or the Red Vic for something interesting, or the Cinematheque at the Art Institute for something really eclectic, but then we realized that ‘We’re a group of people, we love these films, why don’t we do something ourselves?’ We started at the cafe, but it became so popular we quickly moved it outdoors,” recalls Boss.

The outdoors factor has proven to be as big a draw as the films themselves, not to mention the socializing that naturally occurs in such a novel situation.

“We take advantage of that. We realize that people come, not just for the movie, but for the social experience and being outdoors. We take advantage of that and mix it up. We’ll show some well-known films to draw in the crowds but then we’ll show some lesser-known films to turn people on,” says Boss, a lifelong lover of film. “You can hear the comments while people are leaving, ‘Wow, that’s such a great film, I can’t believe I never saw that,’ or, ‘I’d never seen it on the big screen.’ ”

Likewise, audience members such as David Potts, a 22-year-old Fairfax resident, enjoy the novelty of not being confined by a theater auditorium.

“I enjoy it. It was a pretty fun night last night. I got to see ‘Napoleon Dynamite,’ which was a killer movie,” says Potts. “I like the environment. I don’t like to be stuck in a movie theater. That sucks.”

When Boss upgraded from a 16-millimeter film projector to a digital DVD projector three years ago, he anticipated some fallout from die-hard fans of celluloid, but was pleasantly surprised to find the new tech-savvy system embraced by his audiences.

“We made the change to digital and got nothing but compliments. We were waiting for the complaints. A few people say, ‘We liked the sound of the projector,’ ” says Boss, who points out that some of the DVDs of the classic films he has shown were made from old prints and retain enough imperfections to keep his more nostalgic audiences happy. “You still get the lines and a hair now and then,” he said.

And what of the Bay Area’s mercurial weather patterns? Boss says that Film Night has never been preempted by one of those pesky late-season showers that the area has recently endured.

“We haven’t had a rainout, but we have had a ‘sprinkler out,’ ” he said. “We were showing ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’ about two years ago. About five minutes before the ending, right at the peak of the film, the sprinklers went on and everyone screamed and ran. We all had a good laugh and the equipment didn’t get ruined. We’ve been very fortunate,” recalls Boss. “That won’t happen again — that was pixies or something.”

Upcoming Film Night highlights include family favorites “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (the original Gene Wilder film), The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Boss has also programmed some rare gems seldom seen on screen, let alone outdoors.

“I do get pleasure turning people on to films I love that they have never seen or heard of before,” says Boss, who cites actor Charles Laughton’s sole directorial effort, “Night of the Hunter,” as an example. “Not a film for the kids, but one of the greatest American films. Not a lot of people have heard of it, so we’ll be turning people on to it this year.”

For more film schedule information, visit www.filmnight.org or call (415) 453-4333

The Mayor of Wine Town

Christopher SawyerWriters and booze — it’s a cliche as well-worn as the elbow patches on the late-Hunter S. Thompson’s coat. Local critic and sommelier Christopher Sawyer, however, has both the talent and the temperance to thrive in what is for him a professional admixture of wine and ink.

With his signature long sideburns, his vintage suits and spectator shoes, Sawyer cuts a dapper figure as he crosses the floor of the Carneros Bistro and Wine Bar at the Lodge in Sonoma where he recently became sommelier (equal parts wine steward and educator). It’s a role he has played before for such clients as philanthropist Gordon Getty and Pixar Vice President of “Creative” and Sonoma resident John Lassiter. Now Sawyer is sharing his expert palate with locals.

“There are really good places in Sonoma, of course, but they’re all down on the square. This is like a whole community out here,” Sawyer says of the Broadway street location of his new roost, then muses, “It’s all about being as close to Carneros as you can get without being in a vineyard.”

As a reporter on the wine beat, Sawyer has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Wine Business Monthly, Vineyard and Winery Management, Wines and Vines, California Wine and Food as well as WineX Magazine where he is also the publication’s tasting coordinator. Sawyer graduated from the University of California at Davis where he took wine classes, but found his initial calling writing about music. That gave way to wine when he returned to his native Sonoma County.

“If I’m going to live here and make some money it’s going to be in what actually makes money in this area and wine is A-number-one. I think cows are second, I’m not sure,” he says with a grin.

Sawyer boned up on wine through the Santa Rosa Junior College’s viniculture and oenology programs, then later studied with master sommeliers. His writing assignments have taken him all over the world where he sampled wines from locales as disparate as Italy and Chile. Indeed, if tasting wine were finishing school for aspiring oenofiles, Sawyer would graduate with honors.

“I have a deep perspective of the wine industry because I’ve had so much wine sent to me,” he muses. Indeed, on one occasion, when this reporter was present at Sawyer’s sprawling ranch home on the Sonoma-Marin border, a bulky shipment of wines arrived by parcel post. Sawyer did everything he could not to roll his eyes as he trundled the delivery to his cellar. There, the staggering amount of wine is rivaled only by the number of vinyl LPs Sawyer spins while corking rarities for friends (Sawyer is probably the only sommelier that can effectively pair wine and punk rock — a skill he has honed through countless hours of practice surrounded by a cadre of pals in what has become something of an ersatz salon).

For all his wine worldliness, Sawyer prefers to offer only wines from Sonoma County at the award-winning brasserie where he works several days a week.

People often assume that sticking only to Sonoma County wines is limiting. It’s not,” he says flatly. “There are over 200 wineries in Sonoma County that make so many different kinds of wine. I’m able to select by what I’m trying to fill into this little hole here as far as cabernet goes, or syrah or sauvignon blanc or something as crazy as pinot blanc.”
Sawyer’s approach is something akin to being a travel agent, whisking diners on a tour of the region without having to leave the table. “Taking you all over this fine county that we live in,” as he says. “‘Where do you want to go?’ is what I ask.”

Moreover, as a critic with a professional reputation to maintain, Sawyer is not susceptible to marketers offering discounts for inferior product (Sawyer even uses a reporter’s notebook when tasting wines with distributors). He works closely with fellow wine steward Brian Nicholson — but it’s his name, if not his byline, that is subject to scrutiny with every list created for the restaurant.

“I stake everything on it. That’s why when I’m out there on the floor talking to the people, I have a story for each one of these wines. They’re not just wines that I looked up in the Wine Spectator. I don’t even want my distributors coming in here and talking about Wine Spectator numbers or anyone’s numbers,” says Sawyer of the popular ratings system. “I have to taste those wines and know if they can go with the food because I take that responsibility on my shoulders. It’s about knowing the styles and wineries and tasting the wines on a regular basis to know what can work with this food and what can’t.”

Sawyer has beefed up the restaurant’s wines-by-the-glass program which now features up to 24 different wines at any given time. He is also proud of the eight tasting flights he has devised and the fact that he has brought down the overall outlay for winesat the bistro.

“The biggest change is lowering the prices on the list. I like great chardonnays but I’m super-picky. Am I going to buy a $140 bottle of Kissler Chardonnay? No way, it’s just not going to happen. I needed to really adjust prices and find a way to sell the wines and buy new ones that would reduce the price. One of the ways I did that was starting a really in-depth wines by-the-glass program. We have the most wines by-the-glass of any of the restaurants here in Sonoma County.”

The wine list and the myriad programs Sawyer has instituted at the restaurant have received approbations from his colleagues in the wine trade.

“The executive directors of the Carneros Quality Alliance, the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association — these guys all know me and they’ve been in here and have looked at this list. It’s what I stand for, it’s what we all stand for here. I want people who come to this restaurant to feel that they’re in Sonoma County. That’s why we do this kind of wine list,” Sawyer explains. “There’s no reason for me to be pouring Napa Valley cab for them. They can go over there if they want and occasionally they do, unfortunately. The fact is, I’m trying to convince people that we have much more diverse a terrain — these wine regions aren’t near each other.”

Sawyer has also put his spin on the wine-related events that occur at local restaurants.

“Most restaurants do ‘winemaker dinners’ where there’s a winemaker and five wines that he made and every a time a new course is served he’s got to stand up and everyone has to be quiet. There’s just something that’s missing there. It’s a forum that’s not user-friendly. In this case, we’re honoring the vineyard. These are vineyards either in the Carneros or Sonoma Valley where this fruit is sourced from.”

A dinner in honor of Sangiacamo Vineyards hosted by Sawyer last week was a success. The dining room was packed with area wine luminaries (including members of the Sangiacamo family) that had Sawyer buzzing around the room, meeting, greeting and making introductions. His ease and polished manner accounts for why some of his friends have taken to calling him the unofficial “Mayor of Wine Town.” Pithy nicknames aside, Sawyer takes his work very seriously not to mention his dedication to the region.

“This is Sonoma, man, this is the Bear Republic — let’s not forget our alma mater here — you have to dare to be different and that’s something we’re doing with our wine, food and parties,” says Sawyer. “I’ll never know enough about wine — that’s the greatest pursuit — to continue getting knowledge. Styles change, fads change. I don’t have a favorite wine. The question is, what’s the setting, the food, the music, the people? Once I know that, then I start pairing.”

And hopefully pouring.

Every Thursday Christopher Sawyer hosts the complimentary seminar “Grapes to Glass — Wine Education in the Herb Garden” where he introduces new and interesting wines from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. on the Carneros Bistro’s Herb Garden Patio.

The Carneros Bistro and Wine Bar at the Lodge in Sonoma is located at 1325 Broadway in Sonoma. For more information about upcoming wine events call (707) 935-6600 or go to www.thelodgeatsonoma.com.