After college, I moved to the Napa Valley because I wanted to know what it was like to work on a vineyard and I couldn't get a Visa to work in France fast enough. It was one of those arrangements – a friend introduces me to a friend in the business and then “Poof!” I found myself in the Quixotic world of Napa, working in one of the most amazing wineries (and best kept secrets) of Stag's Leap District – Quixote – as executive assistant to the proprietor, Carl Doumani.
Quixote's design reflects the personality of its owner. Carl Doumani commissioned Viennese architect, F. Hundertwasser to design the winery. Complete with a gold-leaf onion dome espoused for its affects on creativity, Quixote is subterranean and its curves trace the lines of the rocky outcrop of Stag's Leap that towers behind the estate. But the main event isn't the winery, its Carl's grapes – from the rocky soil, Quixote blends together a solid petite syrah and cabernet savignon. Also reflective of the owner's persona.
Now, Carl Doumani, to which many Napa Valley icons can attest – is a bear whose roar is far worse than his bite. Of towering stature and short temper, I found myself feeling slightly inept as the executive assistant to a very detail-oriented and successful businessman. It almost became a joke for us – “Lisa, bring me your list,” he would call from his office. “List?” I would think to myself, “What list.”
Who were we kidding? I am a terrible secretary, but Carl somehow had extreme patience for me... I want to believe he found it amusing that I could tolerate (and even rebuke) his gruff and sometimes rude mannerisms, but who knows really why he didn't fire me outright. While certainly a functional assistant, I wasn't really good. Little did I know exactly how valuable a good assistant is until I had a few myself.
That said, I didn't last very long working as Carl's assistant. Though, we did become good friends. “What do you want to do with yourself,” he'd ask. Of course, being right out of college, I had no real plans. Apparently, he saw some talent in me … One day, Carl asked if I was interested in the restaurant business, and I nodded. On the spot he dialed his daughter, Lissa Doumani, Propietor and Chef of Restaurant Terra. Restaurant Terra is a Napa Valley institution located in St. Helena. She needed someone to manage the reservation books – so of course I jumped at the opportunity to be a part of her Front of House staff. I then found myself working at the winery in the mornings, and the restaurant in the evenings.... with some time in between to volunteer. I loved it.
Carl continued to help me make connections all over the Bay Area, and introduced me to his dear friends Alice Waters and Marcia Guerrero. Alice, of course, is famous for her restaurant in Berkeley, Chez Panisse. But more important to my story, Alice and Marcia are both known for their work in creating The Edible Schoolyard, at Martin Luther King, JR Middle School. Here, I saw children learning to grow and cook food – and care for each other – as part of their urban middle school experience. I began volunteering, often 3 times a week – and it changed my life.
As my life unfolded, I moved back to Michigan, knowing that I wanted to help people connect to their food like the kids do at The Edible Schoolyard. I may end up having that winery after all, someday. Maybe a restaurant, too. Who knows? We are all on Quixotic journey, and I will always remember Carl Doumani fondly for being such an important Quixotic character in my own story of chasing windmills.
About the author:
Lisa Rose Starner is the principal for Soil Water Sun Grow Creative. The "Foodie Chefs" of six one six nicknamed her the "Kitchen Alchemist" for her passionate and instinctive approach to cooking. She is one of the true champions of the sustainability movement in West Michigan. She is also a mother of two beautiful kids. This is her second guest post on My Hotel Life.