After days full of wine, locals come together for a stiff drink
Friday, May 9, 2008
Napa Valley’s famous wines often bring people around the table, but in at least one Napa neighborhood, martinis have been the tie that binds. For almost three years, residents of a dozen neighboring homes in the Alta Heights section of Napa have relied on James Bond’s trademark beverage to provide an excuse to gather on Friday evenings and nurture some neighborly spirit.
“It’s just a good chance to check in and see how everybody’s doing,” says Diane Shimshak, a participant in the roughly bimonthly Martini Fridays.
Napa being where it is, the martinis are largely ceremonial. Most of the neighbors bring wine and drink wine, and several work in the industry. Phillip Titus is the winemaker for Chappellet and for his own label, Titus Vineyards. Lisa and Ed Maass both work for Folio Fine Wine Partners, Michael Mondavi’s latest venture. Melinda Elledge, Scott’s wife, sells French oak barrels, while Tracy Lynne Parker manages the wine club for Markham Vineyards. Shimshak’s partner, Mitchell Klug, is a well-known viticulturalist, who was “on the cutting edge of organic viticulture before anyone was paying attention to it,” explains Titus.
The block even harbors a home winemaker, marketing executive Randy Martinsen, who relies on some of the neighbors he has met at Martini Fridays to critique his efforts.
If Wine Country entertaining, to many outsiders, suggests $200 Cabernets and catered marathon dinners, Martini Fridays give a glimpse of how the real people live.
Although memories vary on the ritual’s origins, most give some credit to Monty Sander, a Napa publicist who used to live in the neighborhood, an area on the east side of town known as “the Berkeley of Napa” for its mix of artists and well-educated professionals. Sander regularly hosted friends for end-of-the-week martinis, and some of his neighbors occasionally snared invitations. But Sander moved out of the neighborhood five years ago and took his party with him.
For the next couple of years, life on this neat, quiet block of modest 1950s bungalows proceeded as it does in many communities today, with neighbors waving cordially to each other when they passed but otherwise keeping to themselves. Then a misunderstanding nudged a couple of residents into action.
Fed up with a neighbor whose debris-filled truck seemed permanently parked on the street, Sue Decker contacted city authorities. A police officer visited the block and knocked on Ed and Lisa Maass’ door. The young couple was flummoxed. Although they did own an old pickup, they didn’t consider it such a terrible eyesore. Decker was mortified when she learned that the officer had approached the wrong neighbors, and over a clear-the-air glass of wine with the Maasses, she suggested reviving Sanders’ ritual and gathering the block for a happy hour.
Decker dropped invitations in all the block’s mailboxes; some residents came, some didn’t. But among those who showed up at Decker’s house with hors d’oeuvres, the sentiment arose that the neighborhood should do it again.
“Right away one of the neighbors tried to organize it,” recalls Lisa Maass. “She made phone lists and calendars, and it was going to be every third or fourth week. People backed off. Nobody wanted to do it because it was another demand on their busy schedule.”
Instead, says Maass, the group has settled into a less structured routine. Host duties move clockwise around the neighborhood, with the host selecting the next meeting date. There is no schedule or presumed frequency, but an invitation turns up in the mailboxes about every two months. The host provides martini fixings – gin, vermouth, olives – the guests bring wine, often from the wineries they work for, and substantial hors d’oeuvres.
“It’s kept pretty loose,” says Titus, a regular attendee. “People bring some really good stuff, but if you’re working late, you just run by the grocery store and pick something up.” Camaraderie is the evening’s focus, not the food.
Nevertheless, some attendees have a signature dish. Scott Elledge, a home designer and builder, brings crostini with smoked salmon and caviar. Decker makes sausage-filled wontons with a soy dipping sauce, and Shimshak frequently brings deviled eggs.
Keeping kids happy
Hosts who have children usually include others’ youngsters in the invitation but keep them sequestered in another room with snacks and entertainment. Sometimes an older child will be enlisted to mind the younger ones, or the neighbors will all pitch in for a sitter.
“The kids talk about how excited they are about Martini Fridays,” says Decker. “Coming out of the mouths of 5-year-olds it’s a little startling, but they have their own treats. We order pizza for them, and sometimes it ends up being a swimming party.”
At 6:30 p.m. on a recent evening, Lisa Maass was pulling mini macs out of her oven – macaroni and cheese baked in miniature nonstick muffin tins – when the first Martini Friday guest arrived: Paula Avanzino, who has lived on the street for more than 30 years, bearing a platter of crackers topped with goat Brie and hot pepper jelly. Wineglasses were lined up like soldiers on the Maass’ kitchen counter, alongside a tray holding a half-dozen martini glasses, Bombay gin, Chopin potato vodka and vermouth-marinated olives.
A big spread
Within a half hour or so, the Maass’ oak dining table was blanketed with platters: the anticipated deviled eggs, their creamy yellow centers flavored with Chinese mustard and dusted with paprika; a bowl of homemade kalamata olive tapenade surrounded by spears of red and yellow endive; cucumber slices topped with a blend of cream cheese, blue cheese and chives; Decker’s famous wontons; Elledge’s smoked salmon; Linda Savage’s Mexican-style shrimp and avocado cocktail in a clear glass bowl; and Linda Onstenk’s picture-pretty mini tacos, with ground pork, chiles and sour cream and a jaunty avocado garnish.
Ed Maass mixed up a few martinis, but most of the guests – about two dozen in all – helped themselves from one of the wine bottles that crowded the counter: Chappellet Cabernet Franc, Markham Merlot, Titus Cabernet Sauvignon and a three-liter bottle of Oberon Cabernet Sauvignon. For more than two hours, the neighbors sipped and nibbled and caught up on each others’ lives.
Martini Friday “has really broadened the base of who knows who, and who knows your kids,” says Titus. “If somebody’s going out of town, you can go to any door and say, ‘Can you pick up my paper, or watch the dog, or watch the house?’ There’s a feeling of everybody watching out for each other. I don’t think it’s spawned any animosity – like, ‘I’ve just had my third martini, and I don’t like your politics.’ ”
Most of the Martini Friday regulars have either remodeled their home or are planning to, so in the beginning, voyeurism drove some of the turnout. “Everybody’s proud of what they’ve done with their home, so there’s a little show and tell,” admits Scott Elledge. But that motivation has faded now, and most of the attendees point to the friendships that have blossomed and the sense of connectedness that comes from knowing one’s neighbors. Arwin Gallenkamp, a full-time mother, says her growing family needs a larger home but she and her husband don’t want to leave the street.
These Wine Country residents span several decades in age and have little in common beyond their street address. Yet they have bonded over these casual gatherings, raising the prospect that the same kind of effort could link other disconnected neighbors. Andrew Bradford, an artist blacksmith, credits the neighborhood happy hour with restoring the vanishing rhythms of neighborliness. “You used to nod to people,” says Bradford, “but now you stop and chat.”
This article appeared on page F – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, May 9, 2008