I had never met one of our Central Valley sales representatives, Barbara, when she called me out of the blue a few months ago. She invited me to host a wine dinner at Barnwood Restaurant in a town I had never heard of named Ripon, California, pronounced Ripe-On. She told me not to worry about the location, the owner had a great following consisting of local doctors and commercial farmers.
My first feeling of apprehension rumbled in my gut when a few days prior to the scheduled dinner, I checked the route to the restaurant on my iphone. The trip looked easy enough, about 4 hours, cutting East from Paso Robles and across the canals of Los Banos. It was the final destination that raised alarm, Barnwood restaurant appeared to be located feet from the 99 freeway, actually inside the loop of the on-ramp!
I decided to take this positively, in a location most likely long coveted by the national fast food chains, this independent restaurateur must command a loyal enough customer base to fend off the big boys and stay independent.
I arrived in Modesto on a beautifully sunny day, the weather was warm, but not yet late-summer baking. As we made our rounds to the few gourmet restaurants and fine wine retailers in and around Stockton, jokes about “good luck surviving tonight’s dinner” quickly became routine. The jokes then all seemed to take a turn towards the Greek owner’s homoerotic tendencies, “oh, John’s going to like you, big boy!”
Driving to our last account call of the day, gazing out the window at the hazy, flat farmland, I couldn’t help but think of my extra-curricular High School education working for another famous Greek named John at Papadakis Taverna in San Pedro, California. The memory that came surging into my frontal lobe after being buried deep for several years was from a busy Saturday night when I was sixteen. At that point I had been promoted to Busboy and I was hurriedly clearing an 8-top table, knowing that another party was waiting at the front of the restaurant. A round of Greek leaping high-kicked Hasapiko, plate breaking, and belly dancing had just electrified the room, and I practically ran through the restaurant with my tray piled high with plates and glasses on my shoulder, tray-stand in the other hand. My mind was racing a couple steps in front of me, as I had to set that big table and serve salads etc.
The former all-American USC half back, the great John Papadakis was standing over another eight person table telling a story, when he told them “hold on, folks” and pivoted to take up the entire aisle, blocking my path. I felt myself screech to a stop to the point of coming up on my tippy toes, trying to counter the forward momentum of the tray piled high above me. Still being a true Trojan war horse of an athlete, John swiftly caught me at the pinnacle of instability, with his big hand holding me up, BY THE CROTCH!
Still teetering, now extremely uncomfortably, on my toes, John looked me in the eyes from just inches away. He operatically gestured with his free hand as he projected for the entire room to hear, “Hey, Petey, when you’re working in the dining room, SMILE, ok, son?”
“Alright!” as he released his grip on my balls, let me down, and slapped me on the ass as I skirted around and away to the kitchen. The packed house thought the whole scene was hilarious, just one more element of the show!
Petros Papadakis added a gratuitous slap on the ass once I was through the service doors into the prep area as he deeply belted out a Frank Sinatra tune.
Despite the constant locker room antics, I credit my years at Papadakis Taverna for my work ethic, my love of Lamb, and my very first wine purchase. Of course, my work ethic was openly disputed by John, who at one staff meeting tried to make me feel better by announcing “Petey, you’re lazy, but that’s a good thing, because you’ve figured out how to make other people do your work for you, and because of that, one day you’re going to be a very wealthy man.” I think my love of lamb came from night after night of having the grilled racks waft up at me as I survived on scrounged lentil soup, romaine lettuce and feta, and kalamata olives wrapped in bread; all shoveled into my mouth before service. My first wine experience happened late one night when I eagerly handed over all my tip money for six bottles of 1990 Dom Perignon that had “fallen off a truck” leaving the port.
So basically, I had a pretty good idea that I was in for a colorful night with this other Greek John of Ripon, California.
Barbara dropped me off at my La Quinta Inn to freshen up before heading up a couple exits to Barnwood. When I arrived, I met John the Greek of Ripon and he ushered me into his back office. The reason for this pre-event meeting was to inform me that this wouldn’t be a normal wine dinner (duh), because he would be commanding the guests’ attention for most of the evening. So far it looked like John of Ripon was fitting the bill!
John did indeed entertain the room as promised. It turns out he is an extremely thoughtful and involved chef. He gave us a education on Cardomon pods, and taught us how to infuse herbs into Honey, which made for one of the best pork chops of my life, Smith & Wolinsky corp. might think of a re-brand to Smithalopolous & Wolakis. But surprisingly, it was John’s sister Ella, who took on the risqué topics, regaling the audience with a tale of escaping arrest in a European train station by showing off her former 44 D chest, which segued perfectly into her recent breast reduction surgery and boasts of just how perky they had become.
John closed the night by informing us that his desert “was probably the highest calorie dish you have ever injested, I don’t care how old you are”. Par for the course.
Now this whole evening, I was a bit relieved that the focus was on the Greeks. I had only hosted one other wine dinner in the Central Valley, way down the 99 in Bakersfield, and those commercial farmers had pretty much laughed me off my dry-farmed, low-yielding pedestal. Up here in Ripon, 6 different ranch families showed up for the dinner, and it turns out they had all gotten fed up pushing their land to the limit for the profits of the constantly orbiting Death Stars of the Central Valley, Gallo, Bronco, et al. These enlightened farmers had told the big multi-nationals headquartered here to take their demands for flood irrigated, chicken shit fertilized plonk elsewhere, and the six unanimously planted nut trees instead. These guys understood the difference between conventionally farmed negociant wine and boutique, estate grown fine wine.
After I finished my introduction of our profit sharing program and the 2009 La Cuadrilla had been poured, a gentleman named Dale gave me some Central Valley history that we never hear about over on the much newer coastline frontier. Back when migrant conditions were at their worst, even his subsistent Portuguese family, with all the kids pitching in after school, couldn’t avoid the ramifications of labor abuse. Dale told me that somehow the Mob had involved itself in labor reform, vilifying the labor rights efforts of Cesar Chavez. Instead of allowing the Portuguese to continue to sustain themselves, the Mob started laying on the pressure to higher outside, newly regulated laborers. The pressure got so bad that Dale’s grandfather learned there was a hit out on his life, and sold off the land. Dale’s father’s generation all became truck drivers.
Immigration, labor, and global capitalism issues grow more complicated every generation, but it was fascinating to hear first hand about the struggles in the Central Valley that continue today.
As I throttled the Mini Cooper over the Sonora Pass en route to Bishop and Mammoth the next day, I was refreshed not only by the High Sierra air, but by the newfound thankfulness for being able to run a farm sustainably, above interference and without negative social impact. All in all my 24 hours in the Central Valley had been memorable on all fronts; from the brief refresher on Greek shock-value, sticking it to the corporate negociants through the bountiful nut harvest, to a reminder of the twisting history of California agriculture