Nomaville: The Devil and Daedalus Howell

Rebel angel.Readers have occasionally asked me how it was that I came to be acquainted with the devil. I tell many versions of the story (though fewer than those I tell about the origins of my name), yet all sprout from the same bad seed of truth: He came looking for me.

Last October, I had just repatriated to the county after a bout of Hollywood that, due to the stagnating nature of the place, aged me only three of the five years that I lived there. Whereas some would attribute this self-preservation to well-applied sunscreen, others know that Hollywood can be a place of slow death. Thusly acclimated to this Never-Neverland approach to personal maturation, I chose to live in Sonoma, which according to the online brochure I read, suggested that the only thing that aged here was wine. Peter Pan’s dark secret wasn’t that he didn’t want to grow up, but that he didn’t want to die. Having recently turned 30, I knew the tune was the same but now in a minor key.

Still relatively single at the time and with gaps in my social schedule threatening to swallow me like some great maw of loneliness, I diverted myself with every and any event that I could muster. I watched a lot of community theater, probably more than the surgeon general would recommend, but I had foresworn film as the first misstep in my psychic downfall and avoided the local movie houses like an alcoholic does his taverns.

A local youth company was staging a production of “Porknuckle and Schtickelfish,” a compendium of Bavarian folk tales about a pair of sad-luck footmen whose comic bane is being dispatched on bizarre and embarrassing missions by their employer Mad King Ludwig. I once considered poaching the fables as source material on some ill-fated script gig and thought I could tolerate this minor exposure to my system, as one might take an inoculating ride on municipal transit to bolster one’s immune system.

The curtains opened and the play began, but immediately I knew something was amiss. I knew every “Porknuckle and Schtickelfish” episode ever penned, including the so-called “forbidden text,” which, though I’d never seen it (no one had), I knew at least in broad strokes. The reason the play had been banned, then buried, in Bavaria was that it allegedly contained an incantation in the end of the second act said to summon the devil. Its author had installed the spell there to avenge a previous production that had been marred by censorial meddling on the part of the aristocrat who had commissioned it (this back story was to be the crux of my film project). When word of the author’s Satanic booby trap got out, he was summarily arrested, tried and hanged and the play was eventually presumed lost to time.

Not one to trifle with the potentially supernatural, I considered cutting the play short by yelling “Fire!” or killing the lights, doing anything that would stall the action. As I contemplated these and other notions, I happened to notice how wooden the student actors were and how generally dull the production was as it inched headlong into oblivion. My eyes glazed and within a plot point I had fallen asleep.

I awoke with a start to the sound of applause. The audience was on its feet, awed by some spectacle I had apparently missed. The houselights came up and an usher fanning herself with a fistful of programs shuffled us into the foyer for refreshment. I was stupefied by the praise I overheard from parents about how “professional” the special effects were.

As the crowd ambled back from intermission toting oatmeal cookies and plastic cups of wine, I stayed behind to help myself to another pour of plonk. The houselights dimmed.

“I’ll have some of that,” a voice cooed like rough silk through the dark. He punctuated his words by smacking his lips.

I turned, bottle in hand, and poured the wretch some wine.

“I know who you are,” I said as calmly as I could muster.

“And I know you’re the one who slept through my grand entrance,” he toasted and took a swig.

“Ghastly. Not you, I mean the wine. Well, maybe you, too. Whomever you are.”

“Daedalus Howell,” I said, almost reflexively.

“Fly too close to the sun, then?”

“That was the other one.”

“Not a wing maker then?”

“Writer.”

“Damn. Used to have wings, you know,” he said ruefully. “We all did. Great, sweeping things – catch the slightest breeze and you’re right off your feet.”

He shuffled his heels on the floorboards in an odd little dance, which received an instant hush from the usher. He scowled back, snagged the wine bottle and threw a sinewy arm over my shoulder.

“So, you’re writer, then, eh, mate?” he whispered in a conspiratorial tone. “Well, have I got a story for you…”

Buena Vista Carneros

Will I drink?In 2001: A Space Odyssey, computer superbrain Hal asks a researcher, “Will I dream?” before getting his plug pulled. If researchers at Japan’s NEC Technologies have it their way, the next great artificial intelligence might inquire, “Will I drink?” They’ve created a winetasting robot that uses an infrared spectrometer to analyze the contents of a glass and report on its flavor profile (sommeliers the world over collectively shudder). Bomb squads have long used robots to go where humans fear to tread. Is the day far off now when robots are sent into tasting rooms in lieu of, say, wine writers? Not, dear readers, if I can help it. I promise that I will always venture heedlessly into any tasting room, any time–for you–even at the risk of getting bombed (in the blotto, not blammo!, sense of the word).

This nearly happened on a recent visit to Sonoma’s Buena Vista Carneros tasting room, which is likely the oldest such establishment in California. The winery’s history is recounted in a wall-sized story board that recounts its founding in 1857 by Count Agoston Haraszthy, a member of the Hungarian Royal Guard, who, among other disparate pursuits, also ran a ferryboat and founded a city in Wisconsin before launching the local wine industry. Despite the rich heritage of Buena Vista’s location, the winery sources its grapes down the road a few miles at the lauded Carneros appellation, where it owns a thousand acres of the prime real estate. Recent efforts by viticulturist Craig Weaver have borne fruit, which was summarily crushed and expertly turned into award-winning vino by winemaker Jeff Stewart.

The 2004 Syrah ($25) is rife with leather and tar, and satisfies an olfactory addiction for the deep, smoky aroma of hot asphalt about to be bulldozed. The 2002 Merlot ($25) is an inky, peppery wine with a alluring dusty quality, not unlike the cozy smell of a recently reignited furnace. Likewise, the 2003 Pinot Noir ($35) has a toffee nose that gives way to cherry and wood notes, which finishes in a flush of Mexican chocolate. In contrast, the 2004 Chardonnay ($22) is like eating a caramel apple from the inside out. It begins with the crisp hues of green apple, but finishes with a broad caramel flavor — perfect Halloween sipper.

Buena Vista 2005 Pinot Noir – Red Wine

Buena Vista Carneros, 18000 Winery Road, Sonoma. Open daily,10am to 4pm. Tasting fee, $5. 707.938.1266.

Nomaville: Lost in El Veranonville

Will the real George Webber please stand up?When I was first exiled to Nomaville (’twas either that or reveal Her Majesty’s secret services), I was advised by No. 6, my fast friend on the welcoming committee, to never dine at any establishment festooned with flags. Doing so, he reprimanded, would mean that I had been in the presence of tourists, a scourge apparently second only to phylloxera in this wine-drenched burg. Flags, he explained, attracted the eyes of the naïve and appealed to some latent jingoism that simmered deep within their heartland hearts. I guffawed, he said gesundheit and I thought the matter closed. (Later, this same agent would disclosed his hatred of windsocks, the close cousin of the flag, which he observed are really just flags rolled into tubes. Mercifully, we never got to pennants, the haricots verts of banners, but I sleep safely swaddled in the notion that he despises them as well).

I acquiesced, if only temporarily, to No. 6’s peculiar proviso about flag-waving tourist traps until I felt I could adequately tell the difference between myself and a tourist, lest I accidentally board on the wrong bus and wake up someplace more far than near, less wine more beer.
Meanwhile, back in El Verano, that mythic province said to lay just over the defunct Riverside Bridge (which, for reasons beyond my political comprehension will not reopen until after the coming election) the local establishments are gleefully short on flags. This doesn’t mean the quaint hamlet is not amenable to tourists, but rather that it cares not to pimp itself out. As evidenced in Spitzy’s book column, the town’s history is steeped in a moral sepia-zone, rife with intrigue and local lore. By my reckoning, it’s only a matter of time until Sonoma’s numero uno walking-tour impresario George Weber finds an old timey El Veranon to add to his repertoire. While he’s busy building the west side market, Spitzy and I will hold down the Plaza gig doing George Weber impersonations for the clamoring hoards. Though it may seem awkward at first, that is, having the two of us simultaneously impersonating the dude (replete with hat, boots and mustaches), we’ll work in some “duality of man” type tripe, and turn the whole gig into avant-garde theater. To differentiate the two Georges, mine will wear a suit coat. George will be proud.

Unfortunately, I lack the Real George Weber’s encyclopedic grasp of local history. Or any history for that matter, seeing as my wine-addled mind no longer has the capacity for short-term, let alone long-term, memory. To wit, my inner experience is one of constant forward movement, you know, like the march of time itself. In this way I’m in synch with the universe, though my relationship with the fourth dimension has long been strained. I’ve been late since day one and it was for this same reason that I was slow to discover El Verano. I actually had to have our ace shooter drive me through today to take a gander, but I blinked and missed it so he had to drive me through again. To thank him I offered to a round at the Keeps, but he demurred.

“Do I look like I have hyperdontia?” he asked cryptically.

“What the hell is that?”

“Having more than the average number of teeth,” he said wryly.

“It’s talk like that’ll get a guy socked in the mouth,” I retorted.

He just shook his head took me to the Cheese Factory to look at the pretty flags.

SonomaWino: Rubicon

The horror.“Don Coppola, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your winery to enjoy the rebranding of your estate. And may your first wine be a masculine wine.” This is what I would have said upon meeting film-director-turned-wine-maven Francis Ford Coppola if we had met during my visit to his Rutherford compound (recently rechristened Rubicon Estate and formerly known as the Niebaum-Coppola). Further camouflaging my sycophancy as wit, I planned to follow up with “I love the smell of Napa in the morning,” in the hope that the Godfather would guffaw approvingly, throw a bearish arm over my shoulder and drag me off for a night of hard drinking and talking about what a brilliant filmmaker he is (and how brilliant I am to agree).

Never happened.

I did, however, take the opportunity to survey some recent upgrades made to the joint, namely the reduction of the fanny-packed hordes that show up to ogle the movie memorabilia displayed on the property, now in the process of being moved. In the coming weeks, suckers for Tucker et al, will have to journey to the recently acquired Chateau Souverain (a Coppola-branded venture in the Alexander Valley) to commune with, say, the desk from The Godfather.

Like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now redux, Rubicon Estate isn’t a complete reworking of the original premise, but more of a restorative effort intended to recapture its lingering legacy. In a previous incarnation, the estate released a 1941 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon which is still lauded as one of the 10 greatest wines in the world.

With premium wines, however, come premium prices. Recent vintages of the eponymous Rubicon label go for as much as $140 a bottle. More cost-conscious selections include the vivid 2003 Cask Cabernet Sauvignon ($70), a robust berry- and cocoa-driven sipper which, at first blush, suggests cherry-flavor Sucret throat lozenges and triggered a sense memory of being home from third grade, bundled up, watching Leave It to Beaver reruns while my mom called Dr. Fugi. Also nostalgic, the 2004 Edizione Pennino Zinfandel ($40) is a pleasantly dusty wine that finishes like that last satisfying splash of Royal Crown Cola after the ice has melted in your cup and the waitress is off counting her tips.

For kicks, when you’re at the counter, ask for Bart Hayes—he’s the tasting room guru who happens to be a veteran of the San Francisco Opera. With some gentle goading, he’ll gladly sing selections from La Traviata.

Rubicon Estate, 1991 St. Helena Hwy., Rutherford. Open daily, 10am to 5pm. $25 for five tastes. 707.968.1100.

Nomaville: Send in the Clones

Funny, you don't look clonish.Valuable life lessons, prepackaged and ready for application, come from many sources and in just as many forms. Consider Robert Fulghum’s primer on hard-won wisdom “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” or that Jim Croce tune “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim” with its rousing reprimand “You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, You don’t spit into the wind…” both of which are affirming signposts on the road to wisdom.

Newspaper columns, likewise, have long been conduits of life advice and though I would never deign to a pen a “Dear Daedalus” feature (the paper would pass on it anyway for fear that I’d crash and burn somewhere between liability and libel), I have, in weaker moments, felt my fate might one day mirror Nathanael West’s “Miss Lonelyhearts.” The novella’s title character is a debauched beat reporter whose sense of self is challenged when he is assigned the “advice for the lovelorn column.” He eventually contracts a fatal martyr complex and gets shot and killed in a stairwell. To wit, I will keep my advice in this space to a minimum. So here goes: Never order your clone off the Internet.

Yup.

True story: Since I’ve often pondered the notion of franchising myself, you know, when my brand is in such demand that I’ll have to expand more than my waistline to maintain leverage in the market place, my position on the human cloning debate has officially been, “Yes, but what can you do for me?” The answer recently came in the form of spam to my newsroom e-mail account, in which the pitch “Got DNA?” was followed by “Get your ready-made, fully-grown clone – no assembly required, no questions asked.” The possibilities of the offer proved too alluring to decline and soon I was letting the genome out of the bottle.

As requested, I sent my DNA sample (easier to obtain that you think – merely a swab of the inner cheek) along with a brief bio and a list of my favorite books and movies for the “socializing and contemporizing” portion of the clone’s conditioning. An audio recording of my voice was also necessary to mimic my accent and speech patterns (which, admittedly, are homemade and difficult to replicate even for me). I greedily input the digits of my credit card, paid extra for expedited shipping and handling and waited. And waited. Until last Tuesday. When the doorbell rang, I had all the giddy anticipation of a selfish child on the eve of a birthday, which was only slightly diminished when I was greeted by the slouching figure at the door.

“Da-dood-alist?” the man asked, staring hard at the receipt pinned to the lapel of his coat.

“Daedalus, yes?” I corrected.

“I’m your clone.”

Ah, yeah. I double-checked the receipt before letting the clone indoors and gave him a hard once-over. You see, when I look into a mirror, I usually see my reflected image (except that one time I came down with vampirism and had to take antibiotics until my reflection came back). I expected the same when I looked at the clone. However, I saw not my swarthy Mediterranean mien, the hooked and crooked proboscis, the A-frame brows and piercing gaze I’ve honed since adolescence in every reflective surface I’ve chanced to pass, but some freckled Irish kid, both shorter and thinner and definitely redder than I. Moreover, he lisped, which made my patter sound untowardly comical and had trouble with the subordinate clause – my stock in trade. Not to mention that my clothes didn’t fit him, he had food allergies (which I do not), and he did little to disguise his unabashed interest in my wife’s chest.

After a few days, I had to accept the fact that my clone wasn’t sourced from my DNA at all, but was rather just some dude who had the chutzpah to claim he was a copy of me and move into my guest room. But he’s a helluva ghostwriter.