This column first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on 12/31/13.


Roger King has the gift of gab. I caught up with him at the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative this week where he riffed, part professor and part bartender, on everything from histamines in grape skins to the water engineering of Solano pioneers.


His ability to talk, with interest and certainty, about almost anything served him well in as a marketing executive for Kirkwood Ski Resort and now as the president of the Suisun Valley Vintners and Grapegrowers Association. Even as a young man an air of certainty was evident. When his law school dean told him his test scores were good and leaving would mean starting again from the beginning, King replied, "You don't get it! I don't want to be one of you bungholes." Except he didn't say "bunghole." King tells it like it is.


If you like to know where your wine comes from, Roger is your man. His dead-on vineyard descriptions and their familiar landmarks are part of the joy of drinking his wines. His King Andrews Albarino comes from a vineyard in one of the cooler locations of Suisun Valley, across the street from Larry's Produce. Seventeen miles to the north, his Sangiovese is grown off of Shale Peak Lane, halfway up Mt. Vaca on the final ridgeline separating Vacaville from the Sacramento Valley.


The two vineyards are a study in contrasts. According to King, part of the albarino vineyard is sitting on an old creek that was diverted by some early farmers and is consequently so full of moisture it needs no irrigation.


King Andrews Zin block with view of Mt. Vaca from Yelp"I've been dry farming this for years but I call it my most irrigated vineyard," King said.


At the other extreme is the Shale Peak Vineyard, an arid location that clocked 117-degree temperatures earlier this year, with irrigation dependent on a well that goes dry as early as January. According to King, the heat is perfect for his Sangiovese, a field blend that includes cabernet sauvignon and petite sirah.


"The heat is great for burning the acid down. The trick is to find the balance between getting the acids down and the alcohol not too high. It is a testament to the fact that grape vines will adapt."


King's barkeep lectures are almost entirely focused on location, soils and weather. Clearly, this is a man who believes in terroir, the environmental factors expressed in a wine that give it a sense of place. He is a minimalist winemaker, preferring vineyard management to experiments in the cellar. He ferments about half his wines with indigenous yeasts, a practice that requires fortitude and patience since they are less reliable than yeasts that are developed commercially.


He's bullish on Solano wine, citing the I-80 corridor as key to its success. However, he's cautious not to jump in so completely he becomes a "captive to selling wine."


King has a Facebook page but no retail or website, you'll find his wines only at the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative, which is not a hardship considering tastings are free. When you visit try the Albarino, with bright acidity and a fragrant whiff of spiced pears and a hint of lime zest on the finish. I tried the 2012 and 2013, which will be bottled this spring, just in time for warmer weather.


The King Andrews Sangiovese is a bold ruby, with medium structure and a play of cherries and raspberries that amplify in a spicy blend through the finish. See if you agree with the King of the Hill, that Vaca heat is the key to great wine.


Ann Miller is a Napa resident and wine enthusiast.



In Defence Of Rest

Life's too short to feel guilty about eating chips and salsa.I've long known that if I needed to "be creative" the best thing to do was to take 1) a shower, 2) a napa 3) a walk. Best, but not necessary, would be to do all three. In the words Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence we need times of  "open awareness" to be receptive to seemingly unrelated ideas.

I came home from a fantastic New Year's Eve yesterday with big plans to Get Things Done.  Instead, I took a nap, ate a year's worth of chips and salsa and binged on The Killing, Season 3.

My only regret was that it took me till halfway through the chips and salsa before I decided to just go with it and not feel guilty. Do as I say not as I do, go for it, even if that means A Big Long Rest.


Edith Head: A Deserving Google Doodle

Blue princess: you really need to see these clothes in action It’s Edith Head’s birthday.  I know because Google told me so.

The reason I know who Edith Head is, and just about every millennial does not is that she was 1) the creator of stupendous fashion for movies in the black and white era and 2) she made herself into a brand, the first and perhaps the only movie costume designer to do so.

Her designs for To Catch A Thief make me catch my breath every time  Grace Kelly entered the frame. But without Head's savvy branding her costume designs would be merely pretty dresses, not Edith Head.

Her round glasses, her icy critiques and her frequent appearances on talk shows like Merv Griffin and the Tonight Show made “Edith Head” a known quantity. But without the quality of her designs she would have been just an early Kardashian, a brand in search of substance.

FYI, Edith Head was never as portly as she was sketched here 



You Don't Have to be a Farmer to Love Harvest

Note: this was first published in the Vacaville Reporter on Sept. 24, 2013.

One of the best things about living in wine country is the newspaper headlines, especially at this time of year.Murder and political malfeasance are not the stuff of our breaking news. What do we care about? Grapes! “Growers Expect Early Harvest,” “Wine Grape Harvest Could Be Biggest In Years,” “Grape Harvest Accelerates,” who knew there was so much to report about grapes?

The articles that accompany those harvest headlines invariably quote winemakers who have been walking the vineyards for weeks, sussing out the ideal levels of sugar, acid and color. They calculate the logistics of vineyard crews, cellar tanks and “hang time,” ever vigilant for the heat wave or rain shower that could ruin everything. When everything is as good as it can be they “call the pick” and harvest is underway.

No matter what the challenges of the vintage year, these winemakers are media savvy; each year their quotes indicate that THIS harvest is “one of the best.” Rarely do they publicly worry that a freak rainstorm will turn their crop to rot or a hot spell will bake their grapes into raisins. The standard comment about a late season rainstorm, as typical as “it’s an honor to be nominated” from an Oscar loser, is “No problem, the rain was just enough to wash the dust off the grapes.” Vineyard full of baked cabernet? “The yields may be off but overall the quality of the grapes is outstanding.”  

The winemakers are not so sanguine in the cellar. Their art involves many choices: yeast strains, fermentation temperatures, pressing techniques, and barrel choices, but the quality of the grapes is paramount. They’d rather enhance the flavors created by a playful Bacchus than the fix problems wrought by a cranky Mother Nature.

For everyone in the wine industry it’s an exciting time of year, like final exams and graduation. The work of a season culminates in long and anxious hours, with the promise of leisure once it is all over. People like me, for whom the industry is a spectator sport, see the signs and get excited too. The lights in the vineyards before dawn, the yeasty aromas in the air, the cellar worker in the coffee line, bleary-eyed and still in his rubber boots, all signal that harvest is here.

Harvest is a time when we, in our world of freeways, reality TV, and shrink-wrapped vegetables, can reach back to the ancients and celebrate the elemental pleasures served up by earth and sun. When the daylight is waning, the hills are brown, and even the crape myrtles seem melancholy, it is cheering to see the vineyards. There we see bunch upon bunch of fat, round berries, full of juice and ripening before our very eyes.

I look forward to the day that Solano’s emerging wine industry shoves those joyless headlines off our newspapers in favor or our own harvest news.  For now I can enjoy more immediate pleasures:  turning leaves, an orange moon, and wines of earlier harvests.


Wine Pioneers In Their Own Words: Grgich, Martini, Mondavi, Winiarski and More

Note: This article first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on August 27, 2013 under the title, Toast: Our Wine Pioneers: In their own words.

Martini's first winemaking experiences: sometimes good, sometimes not. It smells good in here. Usually I say that when I enter a winery.

This time I'm talking virtual aromas. If we could smell through the Internet (it's just a matter of time, isn't it?) the Bancroft Library's oral histories of wine pioneers would smell of cedar cigar boxes, a hint of grandpa's aftershave and wine, of course.

The introduction to the collection explains oral history as "a spoken account, offered by the interviewee in response to questioning, and as such it is reflective, partisan, deeply involved, and irreplaceable."

Yes, it is exactly that, deeply involved and personal. The kind of thing you would hear at the knee of a favorite uncle, when you grab the nuggets of what you want to know from what he wants to tell you.

All the names are here: Gallo the behemoth of Modesto; Mondavi the restless innovator; Winiarski -- political theorist turned winemaker; and others (admittedly almost all white and male) who made California wine a product of pride for all Americans.

Most of the histories are from winemakers and growers, but a few of the pithier accounts are from a sharp lawyer named Horace Lanza, who recognized prohibition as a business opportunity. "Well, I was one that didn't believe in Prohibition anyway, and I didn't do anything to get in trouble with the government, but if I saw that you bought for sacramental purposes but went around the corner and drank it yourself, I didn't care a darn ... "

Miljenko Grgich relates the frustration of making wine in post-Prohibition Napa, when the industry was starting again, almost from scratch. "White wines were mainly dry sauterne and chablis -- very poor quality. Those wines would be good for six months on the shelf, and then they would oxidize and be worthless." Twenty years later, Grgich made a wine that changed California wine forever, when in a blind tasting, henceforth known as the "1976 Judgment of Paris," French judges chose his chardonnay over those of their own country, which until then had been unthinkable.

The evolution of California wine may best be illustrated in the contrast between two Martinis, father and son, both named Louis.

The younger Martini, educated in enology at U.C. Davis, discusses his interest in microclimate research, sales strategies and the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve.

In an earlier chapter of the same account, his father remembers the San Francisco earthquake, his loyalty to the "paisani" -- fellow immigrants from the Liguria region of Italy -- and the wine he sold from a clam wagon.

When asked about the kind of grapes he bought, he replied, ""Zinfandel, anything."

And the wine he made? "We made white wine and red wine, put it that way."

What a difference a generation makes.

You'll find the stories of more than 90 wine pioneers at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library's Regional Oral History Office online at

This is old-fashioned reading -- these oral histories are not easily scanned.

But like the reminisces of a favorite uncle, they are stories you will never forget.