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Where I Got My Start in Wine and Food

This is part of a larger piece on the Enotrias blog. During SiP I was invited to the home of Steven and Betsy Moulds to interview them for an article I was writing on prominent wine collectors. It was not only a highlight of the four months I've spent quarantined at home, but a career highlight as well to meet them and spend time in their home. There were so many full circle experiences with them, and in that particular location, that I went off on a tangent in the article, reliving very personal memories, and while it didn't seem appropriate to keep it in the piece about them, I thought that it deserved a separate space. Those first years on my own in Napa, shaped who I've become as a chef, sommelier, and person.

The epiphany bottle. Chateau Montelena's Saint Vincent

The article picks up here:

Sidenote: This all was very surreal to me. I had moved up to Napa the year that I graduated high school, and lived in a room in an incredible home that was built to look like a castle, complete with turrets, that is in full view from their patio. My room was probably close to the size of the home that I own in Oakland now. A baby pastry chef of 18, living in a home out of a fairy tale, complete with hot air balloons crashing in the vineyards that surrounded us. I remember the family watching Titanic on repeat, but my room was on the opposite side of the house, so thankfully “I will go on'' was only heard when I opened my door. As I’ve likely mentioned in several stories pertaining to how I got into wine, I was very mature for 18, and I was not carded when I went to restaurants, wineries, bars, or retailers, and took full advantage of the learning opportunities. But still young and naive, I likely tasted so many wines that I wouldn’t understand and appreciate until I would eventually be paid to drink for a living.

There are two wines that I do remember from the Napa Valley Summer/Fall/Winter of 1998/1999 in no small part because I purchased them from two different wine shops in Calistoga. A sparkling pineapple wine from Maui (that I tasted 15 years later at a Court of Master Sommeliers event in San Francisco, and was the only one to identify the wine blind), and the Saint Vincent from Chateau Montelena that I bought because I liked the label (another building that looked like a castle). The Sangiovese vines that this wine was based on were ripped out the next year, and the wine is nearly impossible to find. It would be a decade later when I would realize the significance of everything that I learned in 1998.

I was in a photography class my senior year of high school, and we would regularly drive to my step grandfather’s home in Hidden Valley on the weekends. While driving the full length of Highway 29 or Silverado Trail, we would stop so that I could take black and white pictures of the vineyards under water. We would pass the Culinary Institute of America, and I remember wanting to visit the grand castle made of volcanic rock, but not even knowing what Culinary meant. When I finally talked my parents into stopping, a cooking demonstration was about to start, and by the end of it I never wanted to leave. I was given a brochure, and learned about a one week Career Exploration course for High School students. At the time I was managing a high end catering business and retail store in Fremont while going to school, and deciding to sign up for the week at the CIA, instead of going with the rest of my classmates to Cancun for the spring break senior trip. At the end of that week I was offered three positions to stay in the building, rescinded my acceptance to Cal State Hayward where I was planning on becoming an accountant, and started planning my move to Napa Valley.

I accepted the position as the line pastry chef (had an insane uphill battle in that role because all of the other employees were older than me by at least a decade) and would spend my days as an assistant to the pastry chef instructors on the floor below the restaurant. At night, in my own open kitchen of the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant (which closed in 2017 after 20 years in business), I would perfectly caramelize hundreds of creme brulee, two at a time, using my trusty Bernz-o-Matic blow torches. With one in each hand, I was the Mr Miyagi and Daniel-san of sugar and cream.

After that shift, sometimes between midnight and three in the morning, I would drive down the valley on highway 29 from St Helena to Napa, window’s cracked, Cowboy Junkies blaring, and smell the grapes ripening, and then, as November came around, I could smell the wine fermenting while I drove my 1992 Honda Accord, probably way too fast, and possibly buzzed on drinks slipped to me from the older line cooks and servers. The ripe fruit, the new French oak, the Autumn leaves, it was intoxicating, and eventually headache inducing, because the scent was so strong in the still and heavy air of the night.

That summer was hot. The CIA was made of volcanic rock, and transformed itself into an oven during the day. I would find a nook under a giant 2,000 gallon Redwood barrel, and try to take a nap between shifts. I would drive the backroads and tuck my car into pull offs on Spring Mountain Road beside York Creek, with my windows open and the breeze just barely making a nap possible. The 1998 vintage got panned. Two decades later these wines are singing, and very near and dear to my heart. We both went through so much, and matured in different ways.

So while the Moulds were building their dream house, I was living my best life as a 18 year old, with my first true taste of freedom and independence, sunning myself on the turrets, while they constructed the life that they are living now, with their family visiting, grandson partaking in piano recitals via zoom in their living room, a girl still finding her way in the world 22 years later, and honored to be in their presence.

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