Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Pursuit of Fun

Ah, Napa Valley – coconut palms and ocean breezes, grass skirts and tiki torches, nightly luaus of poke and poi, ukulele music and dancing girls – wait, hold it! The Napa Valley? Yes, if you’re hanging around Judd Finkelstein, who with father Art, mother Bunnie, and wife Holly, runs Judd’s Hill winery on the Silverado Trail. That’s precisely what Napa Valley looks like. Paradise.

Judd plays in a ukulele band called The Maikai Gents, and recently I had the pleasure of seeing him and his band mates perform during Halloween at Copia at an event called “The Spooky Lau,” and in another event at the grand opening of a new restaurant in Napa called “The Lobster Shack Luau.” They had costumes that reminded me of the fifties, with Hawaiian pastel shirts and short brim hats, and they sang classic Hawaiian songs like “Tiny Bubbles” and “The Hukilau.” I should also mention that it’s not just The Maikai Gents – it’s The Maikai Gents with The Mysterious Miss Mauna Loa (which I’m pretty sure is really Holly, Judd’s wife, but don’t tell anybody). She can often be seen dancing the hula along side while they play. On the band’s playbill, a Disney animator has created cartoon caricatures of Judd and Holly performing, which are spot on – you’ll immediately recognize them if you happen to visit the winery.

But let’s be honest, when people decide they’re going to start a band, it’s usually to get chicks or to seek fame – and more often than not it’s rap music or punk. To choose the ukulele, well, obviously that has an entirely different aim. It’s the pursuit of pure pleasure, and from the way The Maikai Gents play, with both enthusiasm and skill (and I especially appreciate Judd’s fine singing voice), you too can join in on the fun.

This pursuit of fun can also be seen at Judd’s Hill winery, with their most recent event, The Hanukkah Hootenanny and full latke bar with more Hawaiian music performed by Judd’s band. But just as important for the Finklesteins is family, which you notice right away from the office layout (through the glass windows in the entrance hall are Art’s desk and Bunnie’s, with Judd’s and Holly’s right next to them, everyone working happily along side one other). When Judd’s Hill moved from St. Helena to the property off the Silverado Trail, Art designed the new winery, and on my recent visit, he was outside busy putting on some finishing touches, laying ornamental rock and planting trees.

Art is no stranger to the wine industry. He and Judd’s uncle started Whitehall Lane Winery over thirty years ago, and the business became very successful. Judd remembers growing up in St. Helena, playing in the vineyards or down by the creek, living an idyllic childhood. But not all was fun and games with his uncle always on the road selling wine, and with Art working way too hard to keep the business growing. Neither had the time to make the wine anymore, which was why they had started the winery to begin with – so, in the end they decided to sell. Art started Judd’s Hill on a much smaller scale, where he could make the wines like he had always wanted. He chose to use his son’s name on the new winery label in hopes that someday Judd would join him in the family business. Judd went away to college in the Southwest, yet always returned every harvest to help Art make the wines, and in Southern California he met Holly, eventually getting married before coming back home to Napa Valley – and to the family winery.

Judd’s Hill winery makes only 3000 cases a year, which allows Art’s and Judd’s winemaking to be hands-on in every way. On my recent visit I tasted through their whole lineup of wines with Judd, and one detail jumped out right away no matter what the varietal – all the wines were very fragrant. They all had just terrific noses, which might be on account of their judicious use of new oak. When I pointed this out to Judd, he showed me his profile and quickly quipped, “Well, that’s because terrific noses run in the family.” Then he asked if I had ever tasted their estate Cabernet Sauvignon. I hadn’t, so Judd revealed his secret stash of Estate wines hidden in a large Hawaiian tiki. Perfect.