Napa Valley

By: Brian Shinnick

White then black white then black then white then blackblackblackblackblack then white then blackblack then muffled sound then white then blackblackblack then muffled sharp pinging noise then white then “Booshkie-booshkers!” then black then “We almost gotta leave, Bri-bees!” then Oh My God What The Hell Time Is It? Black. Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod.

My eyelids peeled back slowly, and I could fuzzily see my mother skip around the white hotel room yelling at me to rise and greet the day for “Nnnnnnnnnnnn-apAAAAAAA!”  I rolled the comforter away from my body, slipped my legs over the side of the bed, put my head between my hands and accepted the hangover I was bathing in.  Come on, I thought, this is like a distant cousin to a full-blown Check-me-into-detox-over.  Just get up and go, I thought.  So I did.  Showered then shaved then coffeed then lobby waited.

Hotel lobbies are a place of eminent danger when hungover.  You just sit there in those luscious comfy chairs and there’s pleasant music playing faintly and your mom is oozing happiness and everyone’s super nice to you and they ask you if you need anything when you don’t need anything and it’s just a universal vacuum of awfulness.

We’d signed up for a small trip to Napa Valley with Green Dream Tours that was to take us direct from our hotel to wine country where we’d visit three different wineries with a stop for lunch at some point.

It’s 7:56 a.m. and the small white bus has arrived.  Before I can rub the feeling back into my face, my mother has already run out to greet the driver and tour guide, Katherine.  Katherine, might I add, is stunning.  Tall, blonde, she wears red lipstick and a tight flower-patterned dress beneath a jean jacket.  She smiles genuinely, warmly, and immediately I can tell she’s got zero time for my Chicago bullshit.  I’m in love.

Green Dream Tours

I catch the two of them mid-conversation when I approach the bus. “And I STILL haven’t been on a cable car!  Three days gone past.  I mean, San Francisco and we haven’t been on a single cable car,” my mother divulges exhausting her breath.  “Whew! Oh, here he is,” she says looking at me.

Katherine and I nod to one another, and she’s already hot to my game.  She raises her eyebrows in judgment and goes, “You really ought to take your pretty mother on a cable car, you know.”

“Yeah…” Nodding my head I ask with a raw voice painted in cigarettes, “You got any wine on that bus?”

“Come on, champ,” Katherine laughs patting my back as we get on the party bus that’s been fitted with wrap-around leather seating, a knock-off hardwood floor, and an elaborate sound system that’s linked to Katherine’s quintessential tour guide headset.  We’re the first ones on the bus as we drive from hotel to hotel picking up other small groups of people, mostly couples.

There was a red-headed husband and blonde marathoner wife from Philadelphia in their late thirties. A couple near my age from Quebec that looked more like they’d strolled down from New York’s East Village, they were sleek, trendy. An uncomfortably politically correct trio of Asian women in the hierarchy of a daughter, a mother, and an aunt. Another husband and wife from Minnesota that were really quiet and a lone Brazilian man of about forty.

The morning drive is quiet and foggy.  Peaceful.  Katherine chimes out Napa Valley trivia through her headset and no one is really paying attention before she stops and says, “Listen, people, I know it’s quiet now and we don’t really know each other. But trust me, you’re all gonna be chatty best friends by the time we pack up for the ride home.”  I sat there and saw it all unfold:  Mom would get wasted, like crazy wasted because she’s drunk on two glasses of wine and now she’s gonna be guzzling buckets of wine the whole day. She’d probably just get lost in the vines and collapse, and we’d leave her behind, and her first born son wouldn’t even notice because he’s fallen in love with the guide.


A two-hour drive and fifteen “I gotta pee”-complaints-from-mom later and the bus pulls into an industrial lot.  “I know what you’re thinking, folks: Hey where are all the vines and hills? Right?  But you’re really going to enjoy the Spelletich Winery,” Katherine assures us.  She was right.  Even though I felt like I was in a bathroom remodeling company’s showroom drinking absurdly delicious wine while a cool jiving sixty-something sommelier lady, we’ll call her Charlotte, spat an encyclopedia’s worth of grape knowledge at me.  While most everyone did this swirl-sniff-tiny-sip routine, Jan and I threw back the petite glasses of grape sauce in one gulp like it was Pepto-Bismol.  Some people we’re even pouring their leftovers out into these big buckets and me and Mama Bear are looking at each other like: Do these idiots know they’re tossing out free booze?  I mean it’s free.

We head to the big backroom where there’s a grape press and a million barrels stacked on top of each other and every time Charlotte dips into a barrel and asks if anyone would like to try, Mama Bear and me are throwing Southside ‘bows through the crowd trying get at the nectar.

“Now you’ll notice in this press the density of these grapes more so than any other batch from another year.  That’s caused by this incredible drought we’re in the midst of here in California.  The yields of grapes are drastically underwhelming.  But the grapes themselves are the best quality they will ever be.  The fruit closes in on itself and tightens when it endures dehydration.  That tightening intensifies the sugars and thus the fermented product.  It’s marvelous for the product, yet detrimental to our livelihood as wine makers.”  Charlotte shakes her head, “The artistry of wine will dry up at its peak.  The beauty of it all will collapse from the apex of where it could ever go.  Poetic really.”

The crowd goes quiet and still at this painful reflection.  No one brings a glass to their lips.  Somber looks all around.

“Yeah,” I shrug my shoulders, “but it’s just wine, right?  I mean, no, it’s great stuff and all, but… didn’t the government, like, declare a state of emergency.”  Uh oh, somebody’s buzz from the night just woke up. “Terrible for the economy and the rest of the Jesus Juice elitists, sure, no one’s doubtin’ that.  But come on, we’re talking about water here.  Our bodies are, like, 98.6% water, right?  We need that shit.”  Everyone is staring at me, and I got my arms stretched wide as if others will join me in agreement.  “I mean, let’s just put the poetry into perspective.  Right?”


It’s one o’clock by the time we roll around to lunch.  The spot we stop at is like a highway oasis, but it’s like a 5-star artisan oasis with charcuterie and sushi and organic bars of soap for sale.

“Oh my goodness!” she puts her hand over her mouth, “Do you think they have one of those Chinese herb shops with the immune booster shakes?  Oh my goodness GRACIOUS!  Look!”  She points to a fluffy pink sign hanging in the corner of the open-air building and begins speed walking toward it.  By the time I catch up with her she’s already in line.  She turns and looks at me like that creepy little dude from the Lord of the Rings movies and says, “Cuuuuuuuuuup-caaaaaaaaakessssssssss-uhhh.”

“You’re gonna eat cupcakes for lunch?”

“Cupcakes and wine.  We’re on vacation.”

“Does that mean I can smoke cigarettes?”

“It’s your vacation too, Booshkers,” she says with gentle understanding.  So she bought a bunch of cupcakes.  I bought some ice cream and a pack of cigarettes.  We snuck back to the bus a little early, cracked a bottle of Cab and giggled hiding in the parking lot.  She always yelled fiercely at my smoking, pointing her fingers at my face, my throat.

Then she asked for a drag.

Wine Country with Mom: Part I
Wine Country with Mom: Part II
Wine Country with Mom: Part III