Thursday, September 25, 2008

Cellar Rat: Week One at Unti

Fri Sep 12, 2008 at 08:53:07 AM

(first published in the SF Weekly)

When the price of a burrito in Healdsburg bypassed that of a burrito in the Mission, I knew it was time to hightail it from my hometown to the big city. That was four years ago, and I hadn’t pictured heading up north again any time soon. This summer, though, I was offered a job as a seasonal cellar worker during harvest and I wasn’t about to turn it down.

Unti is a small-production (6,000-7,000 cases annually) winery in the Dry Creek Valley, making European-style reds like Barbera and Grenache quite well. I’ve always been a fan of their wines and I leaped at the chance to be winemaker Sebastien Pochan’s assistant, especially since I am the first female to ever work in the cellar at Unti.

Healdsburg during crush-time is a flurry of activity, and it’s most apparent at this time of year where the town’s main revenue and tourism comes from. Wineries crank into overdrive, with big-production facilities like Kendall-Jackson and Clos du Bois working 24 hours around the clock to churn out millions of gallons of juice coming from
thousands of tons of grapes. Unti is not like that.

Saturday at 8 a.m. there was already fruit waiting for us--several half-ton plastic boxes of Sangiovese that had just come in from the vineyard. Unti has 60 acres of vineyards and all of their wines are made from estate-grown grapes. The winery also sells fruit to numerous other wineries and individual winemakers, including Boulevard Restaurant Wine Directors John Lancaster and Robert Perkins.

Besides me (who is working 6 days a week), there are three part-time workers: two noted restaurateurs (one from Sonoma County, one from San Francisco)--friends of the owner and the winemaker--and an Unti cousin, up from Santa Cruz on the weekends.

I climbed into a stainless steel tank and began hosing it down, learning how to sterilize the equipment we’d be using to crush and de-stem the fruit: tanks, hoses, clamps, and gaskets all had to be cleaned with a solution, rinsed, neutralized and rinsed again. Within an hour or so we were sorting through the grapes, raking the discarded stems and making sure none of the hoses or pumps backed up with fruit and juice that was rapidly getting dumped into a stainless steel tank the size of a Manhattan apartment.

After we finished the first lot, the two tasting room employees came out onto the crush pad and the equipment ground to a halt.

“It’s time! It’s time!” Sebastien called as he jumped down from the platform. “Time for tradition!”

The six of us took seats at the picnic tables and George Unti produced a bottle of vintage Champagne.

“We always have a champagne toast after we crush the first lot of the harvest season,” he explained, as the yeasty bubbles were poured into my glass.

I clinked flutes with my new co-workers and looked out over the Dry Creek Valley: land where my family lived and farmed for more than five generations. I might be able to get used to being home again.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Tawdry Tales II: In which our debaucherous waitress flees her Sonoma County misdeeds, conquers San Francisco, crashes, and burns.

This is a follow-up story to "As The Creek Dries," a piece of mine which ran in the North Bay Bohemian three years ago. Though it eventually won an AAN award for food and wine writing, it ensured I'd never work in a Sonoma County restaurant again.

I didn’t know when I moved to San Francisco that this would mean moments of mouth-agape wonder, making me feel so often like a Midwestern tourist that I’d go and get a giant tattoo on my arm to prove that I belong.

I had one of those moments this morning as I returned from the artists’ enclave in Chinatown where I’ve been spending nights without even wanting to sleep with any of its residents: a painter, a photographer, a hairdresser.

Through the sun and the cigarette smoke produced by a small, clean man wearing slippers on the steps of Grace Cathedral, I saw the Bay Bridge. After three months, the same thing still happens when I see the water from a hill: I stop, I stare, my jaw goes slack and I have another San Francisco moment.

It doesn’t matter that this town is full of guys who don’t call me and that my housemates are very much unlike me in many ways, because last night was spent reading aloud and then translating a letter from a heartsick Nazi to Gretel, dated 1942 as part of an upcoming exhibit where the early model tape recorder will be mounted on the wall with the letter and my voice will emerge, reading the lines to Gretel in German, then in English.

I am considering a move into the pantry where I slept last night, because I now live in a big, beautiful, expensive space that I don’t use enough, and each time I put a personal object of decoration on the windowsill it is silently removed, although my roommate’s glass full of water and rocks is allowed to find permanent residence there.

A lot has changed since I burned all my bridges, and a few creme brulees, in Healdsburg. After the price of a burrito shot up to six dollars and I barely recognized the town where my family had lived for four generations before me, it was time to get out. The plaza was filled with visiting yuppies antiquing and drinks were more expensive than in the Castro. It was time to leave the Hamptons of the Bay Area and move to San Francisco.

Finding a job was no problem--when you grow up in the wine country, have your first taste of Dry Creek Valley zinfandel at the dinner table at age seven, and start working in restaurants ten years after that, the food and wine knowledge tends to stay toward the front of your mind. I took 5 shifts a week at a well-known Bistro and plowed face-first into the trough of San Francisco nightlife, honking it up like a greedy sow.

Married bartenders? Hey, I’m not breaking any vows. Hard drugs? Gimme more! Expensive designer shoes? A girl only lives once. But table after table, it began to dawn on me. This town wasn't Healdsburg. I wasn't waiting on dear old folks who found me charming. My transformation from cute young waitress to hard-edged professional server was happening, and the girls I was waiting on were starting to be younger than me, and cuter than me, and with more expensive shoes. I realized that this was where everyone had gone--I ran into more people from my high school class than I ever had back in Sonoma County. I was waiting on my peers, young people who'd left their small towns to actually make something of themselves, and I wasn't fooling them. Sure, my consistent $300 a night matched their junior corporate salaries, but to them it looked like I was wasting my life. And I was.
Something had to give.

For two years, I drifted from hip new restaurant to famous classic bistro back to hip new restaurant, following the money shifts and blowing my tips the next day on Diesel jeans and dinners out with other waiters. My friend’s lip cracked because he he only drank coffee and beer for two weeks straight. Another waiter I knew went to rehab and lost all his shifts.

The last time I entered the party waitress cycle, I got fat and fired. The chance of getting fired is less now; I’m too good at what I do. The change has to come from within, but the truth is that I don’t want to change. I like being bad. I like breaking the rules, smooching my married lover in the off-camera corners of the restaurant and making out with the doorman at the bar we all frequent. I like smoking cigarettes while it’s still daylight. But I also want to have a spectacular ass.

I fear so much becoming a floozy; an old pro with a raspy voice who flirts with everyone because she doesn’t know how else to behave. When is it time to stop this lifestyle? At age 30, 35? Or was it time to stop it five years ago?

Turning these doubts over and over in a hung-over haze, I began to drown myself with tables, thinking that if I could just work enough I’d be able to stay out of trouble. It worked for a colleague of mine: he stuck himself with the insane schedule of five lunch shifts a week at Boulevard, followed by five dinner shifts a week at Jardiniere; on his day off he worked at a wine shop at the Ferry Building and on the one day a week he had to himself he was too tired to get into much of anything.

I worked ten shifts a week between two restaurants/ working a shift every day or double-shifts, for five months. As summer crept in and the 200 people who had lunch at the business restaurant I worked in during the day wore fewer clothes and looked more refreshed, I began to get bitter.

“I’m a writer, goddammit,” I’d mutter to myself as the other waiters chattered about their most recent one-night stands. “I don’t deserve this shit,” forgetting that the shit had been my choice. I set myself an arbitrary savings goal ($5K) and told myself when I reached the goal I was going to travel somewhere. I made it to $4,500.00 before pulling a no-show at my night job and giving 2 weeks notice at the fancy lunch place and bought a ticket to South America.

The decision to go to South America came out of nowhere, really--I thought I’d take off for a few months and learn Spanish, returning to the restaurant world with the secret knowledge that the cooks I worked with couldn’t gossip about me any more without me returning a barrage of profanities, shocking them and forever earning myself respect and ditching the nickname “Guera (blondie).”

South America cracked me wide open. All the feelings I’d been avoiding by partying too much and working too much came out, and I was really alive. Suddenly, it was okay to be overjoyed for no reason. It was okay to burst into tears at the drop of a hat. People celebrated with you, or patted your hand and said, “No llores mas, linda,” and that was that. I spent two months traversing the continent, staying with friends of friends and tagging along with hiking groups. I felt lonely, got ragingly sick, and walked four days to get to Machu Picchu anyway. Then, just before I was set to fly back to San Francisco, I met someone.

I quit the restaurant industry on December 30th, 2006; and realized during my first week off that I hadn’t seen the sun go down in California in almost ten years--every day had been spent inside a dining room getting ready for service. The change from 5-2am-er to 9-5er was strange at first, but suddenly being in sync with the rest of the world actually felt nice.

Plus, I discovered this thing called happy hour, which is almost as good as happily ever after.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Converse 100 year anniversary party--Buenos Aires

Converse had a bitchin' party to celebrate their 100 year anniversary in Buenos Aires. A big warehouse was filled with with the young fashion set and free-flowing champagne until the wee hours.

Designer from Ay not Dead (right) with her DJ friend (in her design).

In front of the ladies' room.

Fashionable gents.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Last Day in Sao Paolo

The last show of SPFW. I was one of the few who liked the creepy music and futuristic, doll-like collection; though everyone agreed that this designer should pair with Tim Burton on his next project!

SPFW after party. We were verrry tiiiiired.

Hugging the Zaha Hasid shoe sculpture in front of the Melissa boutique. Unfortunately, the shoes are not available yet.

But some other ones were!!!!!

We happened to run into Alexandre Herchcovitch (and a TV crew) in his boutique, which was great since I hadn't been able to ask him all the questions I wanted to backstage after his men's show. For what we talked about, you'll have to read my story!

Monday, June 23, 2008

SPFW Photo Essay

 Andre Lima doing some backstage pinning before his show.

Red Bull was the drink of choice at the Kenzo (yes, THAT Kenzo) party.

Beautiful Gisele Buendchen on the runway for Colcci.

Another taxi...

Me and Paolo, fashion director for Portuguese Vogue.

NEON afterparty.

The Poko Pano bikini that will be mine...

That's right. I tewtally hung with Gisele.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ronaldo Fraga

I want to keep you gorgeous readers updated on what's going on at SPFW as quickly as possible, so I'm transcribing my thoughts from the runway directly from my notebook. Coming to you (almost) live from the second row at Ronaldo Fraga:

Definitely the biggest commotion so far, this beloved designer has created the biggest production yet. The invitation arrived as a big fish wrapped in newspaper, and the runway, bathed in blue light, has giant metal bowls piled with at least 10lbs of rock salt into a pyramid. There are thick boat ropes dangling at the head of the stage and I already feel like I'm under water.

Truly theatrical. All the models lined up horizontally behind the rope and walk out one at a time, their colorful fringed visors hiding their face (except for a sparkle of pink lip gloss on all models, male and female) and making the group of semi-hidden models into a bed of coral. Beautiful, intricately embroidered shifts and fishscale-styled shoes in metallic leather. Flats and 40s style square t-strap heels, they're over the top and I love them. Hair is twisted up into false dreads and knotted on the head like rope.

Relaxed, breezy beach wear in muted colors with really creative cuts. Mix-match prints done well, like madras plad shorts with an ethnic, batic, geometric top. HUGE oversized clutch like a quilted fish. Sometime the nautical theme goes too far (like with burlap sack purses and burlap sack printed silk dresses) and I am not crazy about the fish-printed denim:
stuff but I looooove the print separates and the innovative, yet flattering, cuts on everything:

There are only a couple embroidered pieces but they are by far the best, showcasing Brazil's long (and wealthy) history as one of the world's biggest textile producers:
At the end of the show, the models come out slowly, hand-in-hand, snaking through the big salt bowls like a multi-celled, sinewy creature, stopping and sitting delicately amongst the bowls as Fraga comes sprinting out to take his bow amongst his well-deserved standing ovation.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Alexandre Herchcovitch, Summer '09 Menswear

Besides the semi-creepy brownface that Alexandre Herchcovitch sent his models down the runway at Sao Paolo Fashion Week in, the Middle-Eastern influence in his menswear collection gave the clothes a beautifully ethnic edge, like the super-intricate beading on these pants:

Talk about mixing and matching prints; Herchcovitch does it with such mastery that his clothes are just on the edge of fashion-victim territory without crossing over. "I design for someone [who's] like a more-open minded person, [open] for trying new colors, shapes, and prints," Herchcovitch told me backstage.

If this collection says "politically problematic territories" to you, you're spot on: war zones, countries that suffer totalitarian government, and the traditional garb from places like Eastern Europe, Turkey, Pakistan and India were Herchcovitch's inspiration for the show.

Can't wait to see what he comes up with for the women's clothes tomorrow!

Sao Paolo Fashion Week, Day 1

So much of any fashion week involves lines: standing in line, wondering if you're in the right line, craning your neck to see who else is in line, and then rushing to the door.

I arrived in Sao Paolo after 24 hours travel from San Francisco. The theme for Fashion Week this year is "Japan," in homage to Sao Paolo's huge population of Japanese people. There's three floors in the Bienal center, all connected by a huge central tower/console covered with video screens and filled with computers.

There's some beautiful exhibits here in addition to the shows (which I'll get to later),
like some current looks by Kenzo (who is also here at SPFW) and some older couture from Comme des Garcons.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Mariano Toledo

The architecture in Buenos Aires mixes the old with the new, soaring glass office buildings alongside Baroque cupolas. The city’s foremost fashion architect (and founder of La Escuela de Dise├▒adores Mariano Toledo), does the same with his clothing designs. Patent leather and jet-bead details add a tough edge of urban shine to his flowing, feminine designs in muted colors for day; his evening collection fuses sleek, shiny fabrics with a soft structure and geometric construction. “It's very intersting to be able to talk about, 'soft structures,' a construction that's geometric and 'volumetric,'" he says from his exclusive boutique in Palermo SoHo.The designer (who studied architecture in his university days) known in the local press as the “architect fashionista” always knew he would have a life in fashion, beginning with his obsession for drawing typical costumes from different cultures, especially the Spanish and Dutch with their layers and lace.
Toledo, who counts tough female musicians like La Mala Rodriguez among his favorites, drew inspiration for his current collection from the protagonist of Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers. Toledo’s elegant warriors marched the runway at Buenos Aires Fashion Week in kimono-style jersey dresses with exaggerated shoulders, waists cinched with patent leather or beads. On almost every piece was a mandala, centered in the back of a top or the hip of a jacket, or stamped onto the arch of a stiletto bootie.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

LV Spring 2008 Ready-to-Wear

Louis Vuitton's spring 2008 bags seemed to parade themselves down the runway; the odels dressed in identical Nurse-Rachet-Sexy chiffon were mere accessories to the hand-splashed, painted purses reminiscent of late-nineties' street art with a high-glam gloss. Spring separates turned the models into tulle-draped bonbons in various states of delicious unwrap; clothes and scarves draped in a manner as to draw the eye to the models' right hands, which held the all-important bags. Geometric stripes on skirts and boxy tops reminded the viewer that Marc Jacobs' retro-loving hand was behind it all, but the high-gloss of sequins and satin on shoes and skirts left no doubt that the luxe was pure LV. This spring's ready-to-wear collection takes a whimsical turn away from the stiff pastel ruffles of previous years' collections; perhaps yet another sign of Jacobs' re-creation of himself as a designer, and as a person.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Stella McCartney for Adidas

Amidst a flurry of tiny bowls of vegetarian risotto (Stella's a vegan, and doesn't use any animal products in any of her clothing lines) and tons of free champagne that nobody was drinking (except me. Hey, who cares if it's noon? It's FREE!), models wandered through the palatial conference center at Buenos Aires' hipodromo (racetrack) in muted-colored yoga clothes. The best of the beautiful fashion-media world was in attendance (though I didn't know who any of them were, until my Argentine photographer pointed out who edited which women's magazine, which actress was known for stealing which polo player away from his wife, etc.).

The fashion show was an acrobatics exhibit, models jogging and stretching through a nature-inspired backdrop (screens with trees and water projected on them, and a treadmill hidden inside some fake grass--it was cooler than it sounds) went through a full range of movement to show that the clothes can actually be sported-in. I'm sure I'm kind of behind the times because I actually didn't know that sport clothes could look cool...I usually work out in ratty yoga pants and whatever stretched-out t-shirt that is too old for daytime use.

The show ended with three girls doing some sped-up sun salutations and balancing poses (and the schwag was a white yoga mat with a canvas strap). Kind of made me wish I'd skipped the champagne so I could go home and do some downward-dogging. Instead, I went shopping.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

So Hem So Hot

And by So Hem I mean SOuthern HEMisphere, of course. Australian fashion week's just finished and while I haven't yet been to that continent, the buzz from Sass & Bide's show is loud enough to reach Buenos Aires. Here's the item that everyone's talking about:

They're "Black Rats," the ultimate skinny-jeans-meets-leggings. It's the current evolution of the skinny jean. I mean, really, how skinny can you go? This has got to be the last step before the fashion pendulum swings the other direction and mega-flares come back.

These are FEROSH! High-glam rocker all the way. And of course you've got to be a sample size to wear them (ie, NOT ME), but nobody said heroin chic is easy to attain.

They're not available on Sass & Bide's website yet, but I bet they'll sell out faster than a Tickle Me Elmo. After all, leggings are the new black.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mixed Match

Remember that show from the '90s, Clarissa Explains it All?

Clarissa, played by a now-boring, non-vajayjay baring Melissa Joan Hart, is blond and sassy and her parents pretty much leave her alone except to offer her sage advice when she gets stuck. She’s also got a wardrobe that exemplifies everything terrible about the early ‘90s: clashing colors, contrasting patterns, a total jumble that a first-job stylist must have put together, probably bitter that she was working for Nickelodeon and not MTV.

I’ve got my best Clarissa interpretation on today: I’ve combined a skirt and sweater I’ve never worn together before, and I’m feeling goood. I can’t remember who gave me the rough, off-the-shoulder, green and white striped sweatshirt, but it makes me feel pretty sophisticated (probably because it’s a cast-off from one of my mom’s hairdresser friends, because at 9 years old, I’m already tall enough to wear adult clothes). The skirt is my favorite, with not one, not two, but THREE ruffles of stonewashed blue denim cascading from a pale-pink, v-front panel of polka-dotted canvas.

P.E. is first, and as we walk around the track for a mile, two girls with big bangs scuff up dust with their feet as they pass me. They’re carrying on a conversation and they don’t notice me as I bend over to tie my red L.A. Gears.

“Stripes with polka dots?” one of them says to the other. “Doesn’t she know any better?” It’s not until I’m confronted with points and giggles at the lunch table that I realize the girls had been talking about me.

For some reason, this memory flashes through my head as I’m backstage at Buenos Aires Fashion Week, scoping the models’ personal style. There’s a tall, skinny girl smoking a cigarette (there’s no indoor smoking ban in Argentina...yet) by herself in the corner, and two models are giggling with their heads together in the makeup chairs. I photograph the solo model, noting her crazy scarf, Wellingtons and a leopard-print hoodie framing her runway-ready face. She looks bored, and is dressed very differently from the crop of shorts and oversized-sweater-wearing models that flock in a group from the soda machine to the ashtrays to the makeup chairs.

Pulling off contrasting patterns is a hard look to rock, but she’s doing it and I bet she could care less what the girls in with their heads together are saying. That’s her secret (and it was probably Clarissa’s secret, too)--not caring about the peanut gallery when you’re rocking your own style. The problem with my stripes-and-dots combo was that it wasn’t my own, and it was apparent.