1996 - Moving to Napa
Landing in Napa August 1996 was abrupt. My first wife and I had left behind pretty idyllic life in Charleston, SC on promise of a small bungalow in a vineyard near Mustards Grill and a job waiting tables there. About half way across the US and two weeks into our sojourn I was faxed an offer to be an Assistant Manager paying roughly half of what I would’ve made as a Waiter. Upon arrival the address we were given for said bungalow was riddled with human-sized holes in the exterior walls and a lack of indoor plumbing. I’ll spare you the next few months’ worth of lodging shenanigans.
One of my duties at Mustards was to assist the wine buyer, meaning stocking, inventorying, costing, etc. It also gave me direct access to all Napa Valley wineries we did business with. You have to remember, the Valley was way small back then… Don Weaver would come down and deliver my allocation of Harlan himself. Gil Nickel, Rob Sinskey, Jason Pahlmeyer, Helen Turley, Barbara Eisley, Bill & Barney Rhodes, Al & Boots Brounstein, Bart & Daphne Araujo, Chuck Wagnoner, Bob & Margrit Mondavi, Tim Mondavi, Michael Mondavi, Jim Barber, David Abreu, Dan & Nancy Duckhorn, Christian Moueix, Larry Turley (remember this name!), Jamie Davies, the Chappellet's… not to mention so much of Hollywood. It was nuts the folks I’d meet and get to know in a few short years.
So was it the Mongolian pork chop over mashers with pickled cabbage and finished with Chinese mustard that packed the place day and night? It was, but it was also one of the greatest wine lists of all time to pair with that upscale “truck stop deluxe” fare. Michael Oullette was the wine buyer and managing partner and he was a F&B savant. He bought all the obligatory Napa and Sonoma wines, but to lure the winemakers themselves he knew that wasn’t enough. (I mean, who wants wants to drink the juice they make for a living while alternatively choosing between Chave and Rayas to go with a burger?!) So he cherry picked from the greatest wine houses the world over in the greatest vintage years; Chave, Vega Sicilia, DRC, Jayer, Comtes Lafon, Lafite Rothschild, Ducroux Beaucaillou, Guigal, Raveneau, Dauvissat, Latour, VT, Rayas, La Nerthe, Rudy Weiss, Pichler, Prager, Nigl… you get the idea.
Anyway, after spending two years at Mustards raking in $28K/year pre tax I had two job offers to choose from:
1 - Front of House Tasting Room Manager for a handsome raise and solid hours
2 - $10 bucks an hour driving a tractor and working in a wine cellar.
Be very careful what you wish for …