Saturday, March 12, 2016

Taste is tricky in wine country

She said they got a lot of it from castles. I believed her.   
     "The feng shui isn’t the best—too much chi running around.”
     The statue on her newel post had wings and a shield, and seemed Mediterranean, while those in the dining room alcoves were definitely Asian. A Spanish chandelier overhung a huge vase of exotic dried flowers. The angels on the heavy mirror frames in the sitting room, blowing horns, might have been Italian, their silent heraldry reverberating amid all the marble. “We did some odd things,” she admitted, like the phone room with the big chair.
     Another small room was “a perfect shape. They call it bagua,” one side representing money, one representing relationships, a third side representing something indeterminate. She shrugged. “Yada yada yada. I don’t want to know too much about feng shui. Then you get crazy.”
     Nell Sweeney had bright blond hair cropped short, a very large diamond, and a Southern accent. She could be very amusing, but her gaze behind steel-rimmed glasses was unswerving. She spent a lot of time at home and abroad looking at and buying furniture and other things in quantity, and some of these ended up here and some in rooms of the Embassy Suites, owned by her husband.
     The large painting of a peasant on a horse was bought in Hong Kong, where “in the translation from English to Chinese I ended up with a barnful of stuff I didn’t want.” She designed this house herself, to reflect various cultures. “I call it French and Italian. I “just put everything together and hoped it would come out with some style.”
    The house was roughly the length of two basketball courts and clung to the edge of a near-precipice overlooking the Silverado Trail and the breadth of the valley. The fig arbor out back flanked the swimming pool; in the loggia was another massive chandelier. Shrubs, trees, and flowers in heavy terracotta planters were backed by the distant flanks of the Mayacamas and by blue sky. “Our emphasis is on the views—you can see the fires in Dry Creek from here.”
    The framed sheet of a Gregorian chant on the music room wall may or may not have been old. “I don’t know, I just bought it.” The living room tapestries were of indeterminate age and provenance. Nearby stood another statue. “I don’t know who she is. I just buy and buy. We have to outfit all those suites.”
    Such omnivorous practicality extended to the wine cellar, where she kept her fur coats, too. In addition to California wines, “we do some French, some Italian. We go to all the auctions.” The reception room outside the cellar had a vaulted ceiling painted with a phoenix, symbol of the winery, Vine Cliff. “The artist mixed the paint with eggs to make it look like stucco.”
    A party was about to get under way. The chef, brought in for this occasion, wore the traditional black-and-white-checked trousers and white blouson; she gingerly touched the coffee service already arranged on the presentation island. The expected guests, all women, regularly gathered to view one another’s property enhancements, and it was Nell Sweeney’s turn. Her enhancements entailed the removal of a wall between the culinary and consumption chambers (kitchen and breakfast room) and the installation of modern, and ancient, conveniences. The aromatic essence of hot scones escaped the silent authority of the interior environmental controls, while out front, beyond the potted palms, tires whispered in the pea gravel.
     Her husband, Chuck, worked for a quarter of a century in the hotel business when suddenly it came to him: travelers—businessmen, vacationers, whatever—didn’t have to be stuck in a cubicle. For a little more money they could have a suite, and feel special. It was, he liked to say, “a novel product. Suites, not rooms.”
    He had been coming to Napa Valley since the seventies and bought the site of the historic “Vine Hill Winery in the eighties. The Embassy Suites chain proved so successful that he and Nell decided to move to the valley; they had vineyards put in and applied for a winery permit when those were still easy to get, since the old Vine Cliff had burned long ago. Soon they were making fifteen thousand cases, split evenly among cabernet, merlot, and chardonnay.
     They saved a spot up on the hill for a five-bedroom house, and had to dynamite to get it in. The plan and then the house were very controversial. Citizens from all over the valley stood up in public meetings and complained of having to look at it every time they drove up Silverado Trail. Chuck, a big man who waved his hands a lot, wasn’t easy to intimidate. He often told his wife, “These people are looking for spotted owls and three-toed frogs. They’re on a mission. Ignore them and they’ll go away.”
    “Why would anyone be foolish enough to spend millions of dollars on a house that would slip down a hillside? It’s jealousy. I told Chuck I was going to drive up and down the Silverado Trail taking photos of old car bodies and make a big deal of that!”
     The new space was full of attractive women: several gold belts and pashmina scarves, a disproportionate number of blondes. “I don’t like kitchens that look like kitchens,” Nell told them as they helped themselves to coffee and the chef’s delicate baked fare. Indeed, this kitchen looked as much like a combination library and food display unit, with leather-bound volumes of Cook’s voyages, high-backed padded chairs arranged on harlequin tiles, a chandelier made of stag anders. “The pizza oven takes forever to get going . . . This exhaust fan is strong enough to pull your hair out.”
    The handsome antique rotisserie was turned by an elaborate device suggesting a cuckoo clock, with spinning cones and a heavy stone counterweight. “We saw this thing in some castle, and Chuck said he had to have one. We tracked the guy down.”
    A guest asked about the saucers. “I never saw a piece of china I didn’t like. I’m looking for something in gold and green that can be put into the dishwasher. I sent Thomas to England, but he couldn’t find it.”
    No one asked who Thomas was; it didn’t signify. Talk was of other shopping venues, the flea market in St. Tropez. The party moved incrementally into the marble foyer and adjoining rooms, chatting, balancing saucers, an egalitarian bunch: a heavy contributor to the local arts, the wife of the owner of one of the largest wineries, the wife of the owner of a large wine distributorship, the wife of a builder of nursing homes, two caterers whose services would be needed eventually but who now were indistinguishable from the women who would be hiring them. One white pantsuit told another, "We just built two houses, but we’re not living in either of them. Yours in yet?”
    “Are you a kitchen person or a garden person?”
    “Oh, I’m both.”
    A downturn in the stock market could be seen in a switch from decomposed granite to arbor mulch, but for the moment there was no dearth of decomposed granite. There was concern about criticism in the valley—of development, even of vineyards. “Their complaints are so stupid,” said the hostess, of the critics. “They criticized us building on a hillside. We’re on top . . . Why don’t they talk about the nice things?”
    She listed them: the new iris farm near Lake Berryessa, the skeet-shooting club, another club called Second Growth for lucky spermers, a retired race car driver living in the valley . . .
    “And the beekeepers!”
    “And that woman who witches wells!”
    The store of scones, French butter, and marmalade had been seriously impacted. This was just the first round of a prearranged tour that would take them all to a house in St. Helena, for a viewing of the plantings and a lecture. But not everyone knew where it was. “Just follow the red Jag,” said a pashmina.
    They mounted their respective SUVs, bright in the California sunlight, and in a flurry of air kisses and Palm Pilots hied off to the ornamental town garden.
                                  ( From The Far Side of Eden )
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