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Wine Industry
Napa supervisors cancel Chile trip because of wildfires

Two Napa County supervisors decided that helping with wildfire recovery trumps going on a previously scheduled, taxpayer-funded trip to Chile for an international wine conference.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Belia Ramos and Supervisor Diane Dillon were to be delegates at the Great Wine Capitals meeting from Nov. 5-9 in Valparaiso, Chile. What might be the biggest disaster in Napa County history changed their plans.

Both supervisors said they canceled their trips in the wake of the Atlas, Nuns and Tubbs wildfires that broke out on Oct. 8. Hundreds of homes burned in the Mayacamas Mountains and in the eastern mountains during the subsequent two weeks.

“My county needs me here,” Ramos said.

Dillon voiced similar sentiments. She said property owners lost structures and have questions about cleaning up debris and rebuilding.

“We need to respond to them as quickly as we can,” Dillon said.

Napa County for more than a decade has participated in Great Wine Capitals conferences. Recent practice calls for sending two county supervisors and the agricultural commissioner at county expense, with Napa Valley Vintners and Visit Napa Valley paying to send their own representatives.

The local contingent in recent years traveled to such places as Porto, Portugal and Mendoza, Argentina to represent the Napa Valley on the international wine scene.

The Board of Supervisors voted Sept. 12 to send Ramos and Dillon to Valparaiso, Chile for the latest conference at a maximum cost of $17,500. It authorized them to travel out-of-state from Oct. 28 to Nov. 13.

Only one wine grapegrowing area and gateway pairing from each nation can be a Great Wine Capitals member. San Francisco/Napa Valley is the United States’ representative.

Proponents of the annual trips say that Napa County’s wine industry has a $13-billion-a-year economic impact locally and competes globally. They see value to meeting with officials from the world’s other wine regions to discuss such issues as the relationship between tourism, agriculture and government.

“We think Great Wine Capitals is an important organization,” said Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners.

He too has dropped out of this year’s trip. Napa Valley Vintners is focused on helping its members recover and the community heal from the wildfire damage, he said.

But Visit Napa Valley will send a representative.

“We do need to get the message out there that the whole valley has not been burnt out and we are open for business,” Stults said. “I think it’s appropriate that somebody from Visit Napa Valley goes and helps to spread that message.”

Clay Gregory is CEO of Visit Napa Valley. He made last year’s Great Wine Capitals trip, though this time another member of the organization will go, along with a representative from San Francisco Travel.

“The benefit is it connects us to other great wine regions around the world,” Gregory said. “Over the years, we’ve learned a whole bunch from each other.”

One benefit came a few years ago, when Napa County faced an outbreak of the invasive European grapevine moth, Gregory said. The county received information from Great Wine Capitals partners on how to successfully fight the grape-damaging pest.

The Great Wine Capitals experience has also helped bond the Napa Valley with San Francisco Travel, Gregory said. That’s important in bringing San Francisco tourists to Napa Valley.

Chile earlier this year faced its own historic wine country wildfire devastation. A January photo from National Geographic portrays a cloud of smoke towering over Valparaiso, a scene similar to that in Napa Valley during the height of the local fires.

Great Wine Capitals members are San Francisco/Napa Valley; Adelaide, South Australia; Bilbao/Rioja, Spain; Bordeaux, France; Mainz/Rheinhessen, Germany; Mendoza, Argentina; Porto, Portugal; Valparaiso/Casablanca Valley, Chile and Verona, Italy.

St. Helena's 'Ghoulinary Institute' offers Halloween scares

ST. HELENA — For one day each October at the Culinary Institute of America, “Boo!” meets “Yum!” on the way to “Thanks.”

Within the stone-block walls of the culinary school’s Greystone campus arises a maze of frights, leading children through darkness and stage fog past witches, zombies, gravestones and endless cobwebs. Awaiting those emerging from this ghostly tour, however, are ghost-white cake pops, demonic-looking chocolate apples and other autumn treats made with the gourmet touch of CIA students – the same students who also built the house of horrors inside the place renamed, for three hours at least, the “Ghoulinary Institute of America at Gravestone.”

Halloween imagery took over CIA Greystone Sunday evening for its fifth annual Harvest Festival & Haunted House, during which the second floor of the landmark stone building became a spooky playground.

“All right! The Ghoulinary Institute is open for business!” proclaimed “Skippy” – normally known as Ryan Terrio, a CIA student – as some 40 parents and costumed children awaited the haunted house’s 4 p.m. opening. With a wave of the arm, Skippy, a “doctor-slash-butcher” sporting a white lab coat liberally splashed with stage blood, beckoned the little ones into the maze.

Created in 2013, the St. Helena haunted house serves each fall as an outreach both to families and to charitable causes, according to Catherine Reble, student life coordinator at the St. Helena academy.

“We started it as a way to give back to the community,” she said before Sunday’s opening. “Everything we do here is nonprofit. The admission is canned goods, or donations to an organization.” For this year’s festival, CIA Greystone asked visitors to bring canned goods for the Napa Valley Food Bank or donate cash to Redwood Credit Union’s fund for fire relief in the North Bay counties.

With guidance from Reble, students create a theme for the haunted house, then assemble props and decoration on their free weekend time – a task complicated this year by the smoke and disruptions the wildfires in Napa County.

“We didn’t have as many weekends as we planned, but somehow, it all came together,” said Olga Kokarenko, a CIA student who painted children’s faces at the festival while sporting a steampunk-inspired costume.

Setting up the maze’s haunted forest, she said, proved the greatest challenge, with much moving and re-moving of trees before finally settling on a layout.

“It feels impossible, until you actually see it coming up,” said Kokarenko. “The guys came up with different systems before it finally worked.”

Apart from one undead stranger pouncing from the blackness, the Halloween maze provided more of a spooky atmosphere than outright scares – mysterious noises, tilted grave markers, a robed woman in a pointy hat asking passers-by “Will you have finger of witch? Or maybe her eeeyyyyyyes?”

Yet the scenery was enough to impress visitors like 10-year-old Dylan Groshart of Calistoga, who made the tour with his friend, Ayden Triglia. “My favorite part was where there was some random banging a few times,” said Dylan, who arrived at Greystone in the hooded outfit of Connor from Assassin’s Creed. “It was a little creepy.”

Dylan’s 3-year-old sister Gigi, however, needed some parental reassurance afterward. “She was scared – the zombies scared her,” her father Jason quipped, boosting his daughter onto his shoulders.

Those emerging from the haunted tour treated themselves to a spread of Halloween-style treats, within sight of a spoof road sign urging people to “EAT LOCALS.” At a nearby table, Nadia Torres of St. Helena watched her 8-year-old daughter Isabella start on one of the candy-dipped apples from the buffet table – a welcome dose of the ordinary at the end of a tumultuous month.

“We were so afraid we would be coming back to nothing,” said Torres, a St. Helena Elementary School teacher who left town with her family to avoid smoke pollution from the wildfires. “For those two weeks, the possibility of none of this being here was just unthinkable.

“It’s so great to have this to come home to, to come back to normal.”

Howard Yune, Register  

Sunday’s fifth annual haunted house at the Culinary Institute of America’s Greystone campus in St. Helena featured students in a host of roles, including baking student Marcie Langford playing a witch who offered “witch’s brew” to children traversing the maze, graveyard and haunted forest sets.

Culinary Arts
Napa chef part of a 'sisterhood' team competing on Food Network Show

Things have become even more delicious for Napa Valley chef Sharon Damante who, together with her cooking partner Sherri Williams of Crestview, Florida, will be cooking on Guy Fieri’s new show “Guy’s Big Project.” The show premieres on Sunday at 9 p.m. on the Food Network.

Selected from a pool of more than 7,000 aspiring food television hosts, Damante and Williams are two of 10 finalists vying for the chance to host their own Food Network dining and travel show.

While most of the finalists are competing alone, Damante, 55, and Williams, 54, have teamed up as a duo. Neither are strangers to food TV, both having appeared individually on Food Network’s “All Star Academy,” which aired in 2015, and then together as a team on a special episode of “Guy’s Grocery Games” in 2016.

While they knew of each other via some online cooking groups, and other food competitions such as the World Food Championships, it was in New York, while filming “All Star Academy” that the two became close friends.

“When we were in New York together, it was like the sisterhood flourished,” said Damante, “You get close, you are with each other several hours a day. We were compassionate competitors. If I didn’t win, I wanted Sherri to win.”

After being paired up on “Guy’s Grocery Games,” these grandmothers realized that they have some sort of crazy chemistry together, “It’s uber crazy” said Williams right as Damante added, “It’s silly, it’s crazy, we are just like sisters. We talk all over each other!”

“She’s the yin to my yang,” added Williams.

Rather than submit a polished, professionally done concept video to apply for the new show, the women said they did a very casual, impromptu Skype video. They were just loose, and having fun, said Damante.

“People trying to get into food TV sometimes make the mistake that they are already supposed to be the experts and their own producer. The reality is that the network is looking for raw talent that they can mold,” she said.

“We were raw!” Williams emphasized with a laugh. “It was just us, being real. I think that’s why they picked us. We weren’t overproducing ourselves. We were having our natural banter, which is funny, and our conversation, which is real. Nothing is scripted.”

Contestants for “Guy’s Big Project” include some grilling dads, a cake guy, a biscuit person, a brisket lover, a cross-fit trainer and some others, as well as the self-proclaimed “well-seasoned grandmas.”

Neither Williams nor Damante, known as GiGi and Nonna respectively, have formal culinary training. Williams is a self-taught home cook who began as a child learning from her grandmother, then elevating her own form.

She also watched a lot of the Food Network. “Never thought in a million years I’d have this 15 minutes of fame. Dreams do come true.”

Damante is not a certified chef either. She has taken courses at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, as well as some classes in Italy, and then learned a lot via the television shows.

After her Food Network appearances, she began some Napa Valley private chef work that has grown significantly. She also hosts cooking adventures with “Sharon’s Travel Table” to destinations such as Italy for small, private groups.

“For me, being on Food Network with “All Star Academy” and “Guy’s Grocery Games” was a platform to ignite my own business and be able to be validate and become credible,” Damante said. “I enjoy what I am doing!”

Williams enjoys teaching kids about the importance of cooking in her hometown in Florida. “I really like to get in there with the kids that have never really cooked something before. They are all excited. They are like sponges…. It’s a lot of fun, that’s where I get my joy.”

“What Sharon does on her end, Napa-side-snooty-tooty,” Williams jokes. “I am countrified.”

Says Damante: “I am Napafied.”

Although they come from different walks of life, the chefs says they really are very much the same. “That’s what this sisterhood is like. She’s kind of a city girl, but I’m originally from Virginia. We are like the perfect blend,” Williams said. “Our friendship, it’s really like a family. We have gotten closer, and spent incredible time together, and we love to cook together.”

When asked if Fieri is as much of a rock star in true life as he appears to be on television, Damante said, “Absolutely! Though what the camera doesn’t always capture is just how warm and down to earth Guy is. I found that we were well taken care of under his tutelage. He is direct. He does not say anything he doesn’t mean. He’s also extremely compassionate, and also has the best production eye. He’s like a Clint Eastwood, great in front of the camera, as well as behind. He is hands-on — a master.”

Damante said she thinks that what attracted the casting folks, the producers, and Fieri to them as a team is that they are super real. “When you get to our age in life, you start to lose your inhibitions. We set off with this whole idea that we are going to try to be ourselves and use this as a platform, to use it as something new. We are not contestants. We are prospects. We are really only competing against ourselves to grow as ourselves.”

“Guys Big Project” begins in California, but then the production moves all over. Viewers will have to tune it to see where it goes.

“Expect the unexpected,” Damante said. “This is shot in a whole different format than anything that you’ve seen on Food Network. It’s going to be epic. It’s going to break some boundaries and open up a new direction in the way that Food Network shows are filmed.”

J.L. Sousa 

Diane Dillon

Prolific plaintiff protests Bank of Napa purchase

A Bank of Napa shareholder who has a fondness for filing class-action lawsuits has initiated such a complaint against the bank, its directors and would-be purchaser Bank of Marin.

Bank of Marin should not be allowed to purchase Bank of Napa, reads the complaint filed by Paul Parshall, who owns 70 shares out of some 2.3 million shares of Bank of Napa stock. The value of Parshall’s stock is about $805.

Parshall’s class-action complaint states that the merger application contains “false and misleading” statements and is missing important information.

The application for the sale, or registration documents, is missing relevant information about both banks’ financial projections, reads Parshall’s complaint. Projected financial information is important because it allows shareholders to better understand the proposed merger, the complaint states.

Because of false and misleading statements in the application, Parshall and other shareholders “are threatened with irreparable harm,” it reads.

Tom LeMasters, the president and CEO of Bank of Napa, issued a comment about Parshall’s complaint.

“It appears that Mr. Parshall is a serial plaintiff who routinely files nuisance lawsuits in transactions such as ours with the goal of securing a personal financial settlement,” said LeMasters.

“We are very confident there is no merit to his claim. We look forward to the opportunity to defend ourselves.”

Russ Colombo, president and CEO of Bank of Marin, declined to comment on the complaint.

The merger of the two banks was first announced in late July. Bank of Napa has two branches in the county. Bank of Marin has one branch in Napa County.

The deal, worth $51 million, was said to close in the fourth quarter, according to a news release from the Bank of Napa.

According to the Securities and Exchange Commission, shareholders of Bank of Napa will receive 0.307 shares of Bank of Marin common stock for each share of Bank of Napa common stock.

After the deal is closed, Bank of Marin would have approximately $2.4 billion in assets and operate 22 branches in five counties: San Francisco, Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Alameda.

Parshall could be considered an expert in class-action lawsuits.

He’s filed or been involved with more than 40 similar complaints in a variety of states including California, New York, Florida, Arizona, Indiana, Colorado and Utah.

He’s part of so many lawsuits that when a reporter called him at his Florida home to ask about the Napa Bank complaint, Parshall said he couldn’t remember the specific details.

“I’ve got a lot of them pending,” said Parshall. “That’s what I do.”

According to the complaint, Parshall bought his 70 Bank of Napa shares in November 2016. The two banks started merger talks in January of this year.

Parshall, 77, said he researches companies that look to be likely candidates for a merger and then buys stock in those entities.

“I own a lot of stock,” he said. He said he has previously owned media companies including newspapers, and “I also own patents and intellectual property.”

He reportedly retired at age 45 but, “I’ve been fully invested in the stock market for over half a century,” Parshall said.

“It keeps me out of the bars and wineries,” he added.

Parshall said he files these class action complaints to advocate for the other shareholders. Sometimes he challenges the value of the stock the shareholders are scheduled to receive in the transaction.

For example, “If we file litigation maybe the (bank) directors will say we have to have more money for the shareholders,” he said. “In some cases they are looking out for themselves not the shareholders.”

Even though his own investment in Bank of Napa is worth less than $1,000, Parshall said he doesn’t consider the class-action complaint a waste of time or money for him or the bank’s management.

“That’s what they pay attorneys for,” he said. Plus, “It’s not a waste of time for the shareholders.”

He also said he is not an opportunist.

“I have a right,” to ask such questions, Parshall said. Besides, if he prevails, the bank will pay his costs and attorney fees, he noted.