Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Remedial Expat

Class of '73

It was a sunny day in St. Helena, after months of the dark and frigid torrent of winter back home. It should have tinged my disposition, but the blinds to my soul were still lowered. Maybe it was the phone calls. Maybe it was that mean look the workshop teacher shot at me. However this chapter was going to play out, I had to get away from the people around me, not infect them with this taint.

I trudged up to my room, waving off the man in the golf cart who wanted to take me up the hill. No, I would grind my knees on one more hill, maybe it would force the bleak out of me.

Inside my room I returned a few phone calls. My son isn’t working these days and is wedged behind an avalanche of his own winter. We were in two canyons, yelling out into the heavens, but we couldn’t help each other. I could only hope the search team found one of us soon.

Another call to a friend, asking me where he should take his wife to dinner in Dallas. After a few suggestions I thought to turn the question back to him. “I’m in St. Helena, where should I go eat?” He always knew the little secret spots away from the tourists. “Go to Cook. You can get a nice glass of Falanghina and reset your Italian soul.” While it wasn’t quite the buzzing sound of the helicopters sending down a ladder, I figured it was a possible way out of the chasm. So I grabbed myself up and headed to Main Street.

I wasn’t that hungry. I haven’t been hungry for months. I was in the process of eliminating food lust from my daily activities. Not an easy thing for one involved in the wine business. But somehow that was a battle that I was winning.

Inside the little café there was a counter. Perfect for the solitary diner. I took my seat as close to the kitchen hoping the warmth of the stove might sear off my rotten mood. Pre-op.

The glass of Falanghina appeared, like the last rays of refracted light before the sun sets. Getting warmer. A simple menu took the complications out of decisions. And then, Frank Capra took over the rest of the evening.

Looking up at the back bar I saw a bottle, an apparition, from a friend’s winery in Tuscany. It was a large format bottle and was probably set up there for decoration. Querciavalle, 1985, Chianti Classico. Lovely wine from a family that makes wine in the way Frances Mayes could appreciate. The large bottle was a totem from the wine god, “We hear you. We’re sending someone. Soon.”

As the soup arrived, a remedy of cannellini bean and kale, a woman appeared next to me. Her regular seat was taken and I offered to give her mine. But she was well liked by the people who ran the place and they soon made her place ready. I really didn’t know what to make of it; I still had frost burn on the edges and my glasses were foggy. But it didn’t take too long to realize that the teacher had come to have dinner with her student.

All day I had struggled in classes, and at one point when the instructor shot me this glance of disdain, I recoiled so deep inside, it was a shock. I couldn’t look the instructor in the face, couldn’t take another look like that. My crime? I had read something I had written in class, and even though I had prefaced it with an “OK, here goes, I might be going out on a limb with this one,” the instructor made the decisive cut. She hated me. Class over. Close the books.

But that was in the past, and the soup and the wine were restoring me. And this town’s high school teacher was sitting next to me talking me back into the world of the living.

It wasn’t so much what she said as just the simple California dialect we could speak in. I was after all, from this world, originally, these were my tribal places before the fancy people from the East coast showed up with their ideas and their agendas. I didn’t need an extension class as much as I needed remediation. Along with a delicious secondo, poulet au vin, that is what the teacher did, in a kind and simple way.

We were talking about St. Helena; she had lived here all her life and had taught many of the winemakers who were now living in the million dollar bungalows and making the wines that had transformed her town. She had a goblet filled with ice and Coors Light. She looked up to a bottle of jug wine and told me a little story of several of her students and those jug wines. She was coaxing me out from behind the glacier, I could feel the thaw. The wine in the sauce was helping.

I thought of my wife, Liz, who had passed away on this same day nine years ago, part of the reason for my dark mood. But then there was this kind, sweet person who didn’t want to show me up and make herself feel superior at her student’s expense. She just wanted to drink her beer in her ice, eat her chicken in wine and break the monotony by talking to another person. She was better than the wine and the soup and the chicken, for me, she restored me back to hope, brought me out of the cave, all by simply being compassionate.

This week I have been around some amazing people. The women among them that I have met, Margrit Mondavi and Frances Mayes, are what we call in Italian “mitico”, legendary. And there have been the new young up-and-coming ones this week on the wine trail, Molly from Seattle and Whitney from Los Angeles, future M.F.K Fishers and Jancis Robinsons for their generation. But tonight this California expat couldn’t have asked for a better night out than with the dear old high school teacher with her remedy of kindness.


Susan Guerra said...

Alfonso--What a beautiful post.


Marco Postino said...

uno posto mitico

Kirk said...

Remember the Zen saying I quoted when we met at Bill and Janine's (in connection with your snowed-in son)?

Sounds like you were ready for this teacher to arrive!

Wonderful post!

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks Susan, Marco and Kirk.

Unknown said...

As always you remind me of the simple pleasures and the simple lessons. Thanks for sharing once again.

Jack Everitt said...

Actually, Homestead (went last night), which has only been open for a week, has the best Italian and Slovenian selection in Wine Country.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Hi Jack:
Doh!I must have missed you. Read your tweet but got there @ 9:30.

Chris said...

Alfonso I wish I had read this soulful piece between seminars at the symposium. We could have talked about more than hoja santa and sangiovese.

Keep writing. You have a new fan.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks Tony-lets talk soon a voce'.

Grazie,Chris- I'm sorry too we weren't able to talk more. But we can continue the conversation somehow.

I appreciate everyone's kind comments. Travel safe

Thomas said...

Wonderful post Alfonso. I'd particularly give a limb if I could meet a second MFK Fisher.

One question: "poulet au vin" as "secondi" in an Italian place? Io non penso.

Alfonso Cevola said...

Hi Thomas

Thanks for your kind comments.

The restaurant "Cook" doesn't use the word Italian to describe their food. The menu item i ordered "poulet au vin" was a written on their menu.

I referred to it as a "secondi" because it was the second course i ordered. Sorry for the confusion. I had been advised to go there to "get a nice glass of Falanghina and reset your Italian soul." Which of course it did. And it is a wonderful place with a lot of Italian and Californian influence, even if they do occasionally use French words to describe them.

Thomas said...


Was that French???

Kidding, of course.

Still, a beautiful post. Stai attento.

Samantha Dugan said...

Lovely...simply lovely.

Alfonso Cevola said...

thanks Samantha - [insert blush]
(I'm a big fan of you and your blog)

Samantha Dugan said...

Get out! Now I'm blushing....

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