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December 21, 2005

When Divas make scents

By M.L. Hilton

(ST. HELENA, CA) -- One of the most interesting aspects of a lifestyle that involves the enjoyment of wine is the varied vocabulary and discussion of wine’s sensory experience, much of which centers around things olfactory.

I must confess that I fail miserably at the “Smell That” wine game. Thom’s recent pronouncement of a Bonny Doon Syrah Port “brimming with aromas of raspberry Kool-Aid on steroids” escapes me. This confounds family and close friends who have accused me of having a shark’s keen sense of smell (apparently sharks can smell things as distant as two football fields away). But I guess my nose is a mother’s nose, meant for deciphering activities of those close to me. Or perhaps, it is just that I have not educated myself enough to label the hidden notes that waft out of a glass of “inky purple elixir,” yet I can clearly identify hidden hints of tobacco, secreted sweets, and other brushes with a day’s by-products.

It is my love of smells that drives me Upvalley to a little shop in St. Helena. Diva Perfumes is tucked tightly into a narrow storefront not quite mid-way up the west side of Main Street. At one point, the shop was much like an apothecary’s den with a prominent counter behind which the shopkeepers kept their wondrous goods—shelves and shelves of fragrances and scents from floor to ceiling. Steve and Jola Young have recently made a nod to modern buying patterns and now the interior boasts a small amount of delicate women’s finery meant to entice discerning shoppers off the street.

While lovely, it is the amazing perfumes, colognes, eau de’toilettes, and fragrances of wonderful breadth and complexity that I come for. Steve and Jola are not unlike alchemists. I bring them a simple description of the person that I am buying for and they disappear among the boxes peppering me with questions about their personality.

For the gentle, aged spirit that lives next door to me, I went home with a fragrance commissioned by the Medici’s in medieval Italy that softly, tenderly evoked tradition and longevity; beauty and serenity. I believe it is the only scent she wears now and when I catch a whiff of it when she is busy in the kitchen with her family’s evening meal it reminds me that she has more layers than just that of mother, grandmother, and wife of more than 50 years.

My beautiful South American girlfriend, as delicate as a doll and who dances until her shoes crumble off her feet, loves to garden. The scent we found for her would make you lose her amongst the roses. I think if we could not see her and had only our noses to find her, we would not be able to pick her out among the flowers.

Diva’s perfumes come from all corners of the earth (excepting those corners that mass produce today’s celebrity flavor du jour). When I come into the store, I can pretend that my purchases were discovered on some exotic trip to a faraway village. This is an experience I have never duplicated at the counter of a mall department store.

You can close your eyes and you can close your mind, but you cannot turn off your sense of smell, sound, taste or touch. I know in today’s society that is somewhat p.c. to abstain from personal fragrances on the off-chance that you might send someone into seizures caused by the random allergy. Some places have even gone so far as to declare themselves to be fragrance-free zones.

Of course there are smells that can send me into fits -- most better left unnamed, but often found in my adolescent son’s bedroom. If life, however, could not provide me the smell of a great meal when you walk into a family’s home, obvious black cherry (and alcohol) from a dark glass of wine, a salty man straight from his day’s work, or a fragrance that transmutes the ordinary into a fantasy, something would be lost to me. And it would be a dimension that I would mourn.

Diva Perfumes, 1309 Main St., St. Helena, CA 94574. (707) 963-4057

December 13, 2005

A Toast for Yosemite's Vintner Holidays

By M.L. Hilton

(YOSEMITE, CA) -- There are times when only a few hours separates you from the mundane daily work-a-day life, and journeys so delightful they seem worlds apart. Some trips are gifts in and of themselves; others take on dimensions so ethereal that there will never be a similar confluence.

Bright Autumn weather, spectacular ocean views and rollicking wine events tickled my senses (my sensibilities were otherwise engaged) in beautiful Monterey during the Great Wine Escape in early November.

A couple of days later and a couple of hours by road, the incomparable Yosemite Valley was my destination. I enjoyed an exquisite three days at The Ahwahnee. The trip was like a prism in bright sunshine, there was something delightful at every turn.

If you have an occasion to stay at The Ahwahnee, you must take it. My occasion was a session of the Vintner’s Holiday 2005 series. Moderator Gilles De Chambure, M.S. presided over wine tastings with Chris Benziger, Steven Canter (Davis Bynum Winery), Phil Bilodeau (Grgich Hills) and Bill and Dawnine Dyer of Dyer Vineyards (and other fame). The series included a Vintner’s Reception held in the stone splendor of The Ahwanhee’s grand common area complete with massive fireplaces, crackling fires, enormous windows, and generous pours of the hosts’ wines. Even more fun was the Gala Vintner’s Dinner in The Ahwahnee Dining Room. As unreal in its enormous space as Hogwarts dining hall in the Harry Potter stories, the food presented by Chef Percy Whatley was as excellent as you would find in any culinary mecca.

The weather held amazingly, unseasonably, and old man moon waxed full. It was Yosemite’s magical lantern providing silver light on a deep fall landscape.

Opportunities to visit majesty are usually hampered by daily chores, beautiful weather is a blessing any time, but takes on significance when it is out of season, and romance . . . well, that is provided in books and movies, because there is too little available in most mortal realms.

When you have wine, and food, and weather, and place, what is there left but someone to share it with?

In Yosemite, ardor cloaks itself in many impalpable forms -- in the fragrant smoke of the fireplace that stokes the heart of intimacy. As night’s platinum glow illuminates tall granite towers. And during quiet walks among grandeur when eyes speak more than words.

Yosemite is for falling in love. Sometimes it is under a full moon with the tender heart of a companion; and sometimes it is again with Mother Nature where in her bosom you are reminded of the deep connection between man and his world.

December 7, 2005

Monterey, A beautiful place for life

By M.L. Hilton

(MONTEREY, CA) -- I am falling in love with Monterey. My crush has evolved into a full-fledged affair. Over the past year, Monterey has gone from a favored place to visit into the I-could-live-here category.

The first spell was cast by the spectacular scenery: majestic ocean views, pulsing dunes, fog-covered pines knarled by wind and sea spray, cold mists and fireplaces, sunny valleys, and dusty farming towns. The area, in a quiet ever-present manner, reminds you of man’s diminutive stance against nature. And the residents have worked, and fought, hard to keep it that way.

Of course, maybe my affinity has something to do with the fact that every time I visit it is for some fabulous party of one type or another. The most recent event was the annual Great Wine Escape.

But my kinship has another reason. Every time I visit, someone I meet invites me to come back and stay with them. No, not the lecherous (or otherwise) single men, it has been young families, wine aficionado marrieds, sweet widows; in Monterey, either the people are incredibly nice or I have been incredibly lucky.

This last trip, my table mates at the Pairings at the Plaza, part of the Great Escape Weekend, kept me laughing so hard that by the end of the day I wanted to throw my carefully crafted schedule to the wind and finish the day with them drinking martinis at some fabulous Carmel bar.

M and M (names fully withheld to protect the exuberant) are an over-the-top (of their glass) couple who were married a decade earlier by an Indian Elvis in Las Vegas. They met in London and began a party that has been continuing ever since. They consume substantial quantities of wine and know what they like, and don’t like. Viognier was dismissed as the "Trophy Wife" of white wines. “Why?” Because, M quipped, it is low in sugar and low in calories.

As a journalist, I am typically embraced by the business world – “stay here,” “taste that.” But it is the people that I meet on every trip that give me the flavor of an area or an experience. Those that provide their email addresses, exhort me to stay, “drink this,” “laugh with me,” “come enjoy . . . .”

I have been seduced by Monterey, its people and its timelessness. If you haven’t already, open yourself and be pulled into Monterey’s spell.