Toast: Grandfather's Book Opens Door to Past (Vacaville Reporter)

Note: This was my column published in the Vacaville Reporter on 11/6/12 and the Vallejo Times Herald November 11/7/12.

No one enjoys the guilty pleasure of a season's worth of TV consumed over a weekend as much as I do. I was halfway through the first season of "Boardwalk Empire," the HBO series about Atlantic City bootlegger Nucky Thompson, when a genuine artifact from Prohibition arrived in my mail.

It was a book, "The Complete Wine Book," by Frank Schoonmaker and Tom Marvel, that had once belonged to my grandfather. He died before I knew him, so this connection in the form of a wine book is a treasure. A personal treasure for sure, but it is also a historical gem, because it was published in 1934, months after Prohibition was repealed. It gives the reader a firsthand account of what it was like to be a wine lover at a time when drinking wine was not allowed. Maybe I should say that, legally, it was not allowed, there were loopholes.

People who made wine at home, either because of old-world tradition or new-found necessity, were permitted to make up to 2,000 gallons a year. During Prohibition, the amount of California acreage planted to wine grapes actually increased in order to supply these home winemakers. Yet Schoonmaker and Marvel bemoan the state of domestic viticulture at that time.

The problem was that in order to stay in business during Prohibition, grape growers were forced to uproot their tastier varieties, which were thin-skinned and didn't travel well, for heartier grapes that made inferior wine, which, according to the authors, were the alicante bouschet, zinfandel and petite sirah. I strenuously disagree with their condemnation of zinfandel and petite sirah, but I digress.

It takes about four years for a grapevine to produce a marketable crop, and even longer to age a wine. After repeal, even if grape growers had immediately replanted the better varieties, Americans would have to wait years for good domestic wine.

"To expect of American vineyards any real quantity of fine wine before 1940 or 1945 would be to expect a large-scale repetition of the Miracle of Cana," wrote Schoonmaker and Marvel.

They were also upset with grape growers appropriating the names of French localities such as Chablis, Burgundy and Champagne for California wines.

Steve Buscemi as Enoch "Nucky" Thompson "There is no indication that California wine would ever be considered as good as European wine. To attempt to maintain, as Mr. William R. Hearst, a loyal Californian, does with laudable, if mistaken, patriotism, that under these conditions the wines of California are 'just as good as those of France, if not better,' is even more ridiculous."

However, the authors were optimistic about the future of California wine, recognizing the ingenuity of California grape growers.

As evidence, they cite a product that may be the most inventive packaged good of the 20th century, the grape block. It was a brick of dried grapes, seeds and pulp, for making "juice," with explicit instructions of what not to do. Don't add sugar or yeast or keep in a dark place, otherwise your juice might ferment and turn to wine, cautions the grape brick label. This marvel of marketing speaks volumes about the eventual demise of Prohibition and ultimate success of California wine, something on which I'm sure my grandfather, Schoonmaker and Marvel and Nucky Thompson could all agree.


Steve Jobs on Marketing 

Lessons From the Six Billion Dollar Man

Shortly after I wrote this I had dinner with two Silicon Valley "Sistahs" that had worked at Apple, one for over 20 years.  During that time she worked 7 days a week and loved it, but eventually chose family and friends over the heady work world of Apple. My other dinner companion told a story of how Jobs had thrown a friend of hers under the judicial bus, ruining her career,  when there was some funny business over postdating stock options. But when she expressed anger, it was not because of his dirty dealings, rather it was because he died, and she didn't get to see whatever he would have dreamed up next. - AM 11.13.12

Steve Jobs was an unapologetic perfectionist. He drove those around him crazy, but his uncompromising commitment to the customer experience built a six billion dollar empire. Here’s a few “takeways” for your own empire building.

Use your intuition: Market research is fine, but small businesses are successful because they can act quickly when they know they are on the right track.

Mediocrity is not an option: For Jobs, everything, from advertising campaigns to the people who worked for him, were limited to one of two categories: junk or genius. If something wasn’t the best it was abandoned or reworked till it was genius.

Networking AND cold calls: Starting out, Jobs networked with former employers and other contacts but was equally fearless about calling up a powerful CEO to pitch an idea.

Simplify: Just because you can add a feature doesn’t mean you should. Simple is elegant. Simple is fun.

Design: Jobs understood the importance of designing products that were not only functional but beautiful. This passion for design extended even to the inside of his computers, something his customers would never see.

You can't have quality without control:
Jobs wanted to control the customers experience from the moment a package was opened. His attention to detail was legendary - from the stone used in the floors of Apple stores to the color of the ipod’s earbuds.

Image is everything: Jobs designed an early desktop computer with a handle, not so much so that it could be carried, but to “impute” it with a friendly, approachable image for folks who found computers scary.

Focus: Say no to all but the top three directions your business can go and then focus like a laser.


Bad Girl Badass Books

Books you should read by some BADGIRL BADASS women: Gabrielle Hamilton

Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Gabrielle Hamilton learned to cook coming up through the ranks of diners and catering gigs, not at a fancy culinary academy. Her memoir opens with the summer her parents, a French mother and set-designer father, kind of lost track of her in the midst of their divorce. To keep herself going she got a job washing dishes, and ate from the mysterious jars of food her mother left behind. She has some scrapes with the law, does a stint in the catering business with tales of un-fresh and much-too-handled food, finds a very small restaurant covered in rat shit and transforms it into Prune, and falls in love with an Italian doctor, his family and Italy. This woman loves food, men (women too) and life: Agreed.  I swooned for her, Charlie Rose did too.


Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams

This badass soldier went to Iraq as an interpreter because she had learned a little Arabic from a bad boyfriend back in Florida.  She recounts the badassitude of the female soldier along with the dirt, grit and general confusion of war.

Wild by Cheryl StrayedCheryl Strayed

When I'm debating the safety of hiking Mt. St. Helena by myself, a popular hike with a paved path and cell phone coverage most of the way, all I need to think about Badass Cheryl Strayed, who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (at least the part that wasn't snowed in) by herself, even when, with only 2 cents in her pocket, when on a break, her hiking boots tumbled over a cliff. (To be precise, one tumbled, she threw the other one after it). You'll have to read the book to find out how she survived that and other challenges.

What you'll remember about Cheryl, Kayla  and Gabriella is that they perservered because they just couldn't afford to quit.

Who can?


Toast: Price of grapes: A mile makes all the difference


The Lanza Family of Suisun Valley This article first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter in my column, "Toast" on August 28, 20122. Thanks to Richard Bammer, my trusty copy editor for catching my misspelling of terroir- duh!

Taking the "back way" to Napa, through Wooden Valley is a beautiful drive. The road winds along with views of vineyards and, in the highlands, mossy trees that shade your eyes. The border between Solano and Napa counties is invisible, except that the pavement changes slightly as one county's roadway meets the other. What is also invisible on that beautiful drive, but all too apparent in the black and red of a balance sheet, is that the grapes on the Napa side command triple the price of Solano grapes.

Can Napa grapes be that different from Solano's? Is it marketing or is it "terroir"? Terroir is a concept borrowed from the French that refers to everything in the environment of a vineyard that stamps a wine with a unique sense of place. The chemistry of the soil, the slope of the ridge, the climate and weather, all contribute to the terroir of a vineyard.

 Just a mile or so down the road from the Napa County line, Wooden Valley Winery co-owner Ron Lanza laughed when asked about the huge price difference between Napa grapes and his family's Suisun Valley grapes.

"Yes, it's a little frustrating," Lanza admitted. "But, hey, more power to them!"

In fact, the proximity of their vineyards to Napa is one of the selling points for the family's wine and grape operations, a business shared by four brothers and their families that was begun by their grandfather, Mario Lanza. Only about 10 percent of Lanza grapes end up in their Wooden Valley Winery wine. Of the remaining 90 percent, about half to go to other California wineries and the other half are shipped east to small wineries and amateur winemakers.

The route east was a savior to many California wineries during Prohibition, when they switched from making wine to shipping grapes to home winemakers.

Even when drinking alcohol was outlawed from 1920-1933, American households were allowed to make up to 200 gallons of wine a year. Do the math -- that's enough for two people to share more than half a gallon a day! The home wine- making tradition continues, but with an emphasis on fine wine rather than the jugs of the past.

"They want to make wine like their grandpa did, only better," said Lanza.

Unlike grapes destined for California winery consumption, which are dropped at harvest time in ordinary containers and transferred to large industrial-sized trucks, the boxes destined for the trip east are artfully arranged in 36-pound boxes with the Lanza Vineyards logo. The careful presentation and branding has paid off.

When Ron went back east to meet some of the amateur winemakers who use his grapes, he was greeted warmly -- and with lots of wine.

"I arrived first thing in the morning, and they are all pouring me wine made from our grapes," Lanza said.

Ron's father, "Chick," grew the business by delivering wine in barrels and jugs to homes like a milkman, along a route throughout the Bay Area.

The route has extended, and now it's not just wine but grapes that are delivered, but the Lanza tradition of wine for families continues. 


The Smartest Guy In the World

This is an article from the August 15, 2012 Daily Republic.

When I was growing up, I thought my father was the smartest person in the world.

He could riff on the missions of Father Serra, relate the gossipy backstory of Lyndon Johnson and lay out the physics of a submarine’s torpedo. I remember most of these lectures, and lectures they were, from our family vacations, six of us in the station wagon, tent-camping across the U.S. But the little-known-fact soliloquies could occur almost any time, on the way home from church, during a commercial on TV and, worst-case scenario, when he was helping me with my homework.

It wasn’t until my late teens that I discovered the source of his genius, and it happened when I started to read the same magazines he did.

He would start one of his famous lectures, say, for example, about Native American canoe design or Chinese restaurants in New York City, and I would think, “Wait a minute, this sounds awfully familiar.” I realized then that my father was merely parroting an article from one of the weekly magazines he, and now I, devoured. His talent, I came to appreciate, was for total recall and an air of absolute certainty, but the source of his “genius” was now mine too.

If you are reading this, chances are you developed an appetite for reading and learning, even if it wasn’t in the shadow of Lecture Dad. But what if you couldn’t read? What if all you could learn was from watching and listening?

Reading, even as we move from paper to “the cloud” is still the fastest track for learning. Even as more of our time is spent gaming, texting, watching movies and participating in on-demand everything, we still need to read. In fact, reading is imperative.

Educators, business leaders and social service professionals are all concerned about reading in Solano County. Consider these statistics:

  • 40,000 Solano residents are considered low-literate adults.
  • More than one-third of U.S. children enter kindergarten without the basic language skills they’ll need to learn to read (i.e. knowing the words on a page move from left to right, or recognizing the letters of the alphabet).

Not surprisingly, these statistics are related. Adults with low literacy cannot share books and reading with their children, which leads to lagging language skills and slower literacy development. The consequences of a slow start in reading become monumental as they accumulate exponentially over time. Three-quarters of students who are poor readers in third grade will remain poor readers in high school. And the cycle continues.

Solano County Library can help. Library branches hold thousands of children’s books, offer dozens of weekly storytimes, and provide homework help — in person and online. With a free library card, parents who want a better life for their children, a reading life, can give that to them. And they do, we see it every day.

Library literacy tutors volunteer their time to help motivated adults break the cycle of illiteracy. Their goals are achievable: read a bank statement, a prescription bottle, a children’s book to their kids. Currently the Library’s literacy program has 191 volunteers, 111 of whom are tutors who work with small groups or one-on-one with learners.

However, there is still a waiting list of almost a hundred adults waiting to learn to read better. If you are over 18 and can make a six-month commitment to teach someone to read, to change a life through reading, you are needed. Orientations and trainings begin in September. To get started call 784-1526 or visit, under “Programs” and click on “Literacy.” I thought my dad was the smartest guy in the world, the children of literacy students should think that about their parents too.

Ann Miller is the community relations coordinator for Solano County Library. She recommends “Mennonite in the Little Black Dress” by Rhoda Janzen, a laugh-out-loud, cringingly honest memoir about growing up smart, simple and a little screwed up.

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