Charley Donnait was born in Sonoma, CA. Sonoma is often thought of as the poorer step-sister of Napa, which is generally viewed as the Jerusalem of bold California reds. Charley's father worked on a vineyard. Charley learned a lot, growing up on the vineyard, watching his father.
It was a good life—but Charley was embarrassed by it. He loved his father, but his father was a glorified gardener, more or less, and Charley went to school with the children of the winery owners, who rubbed his nose in the dirt just enough to remind him of his working-class roots.
When he was of age, Charley ran as far away from Sonoma as he could run—to Italy. There he lived with a family who grew Barolo grapes and he impressed them with his knowledge of wine. Charley was a sponge for knowledge, and given his environment, he quickly picked up on the farming, fermentation, and tasting aspects of wine. By the time he could legally drink, he had a very finely honed palate.
He never got drunk—he wasn't that kind of teen, or drinker. Rather, he was an impresser—he liked to impress his friends with blindfold taste tests...being able to identify just about anything old and grapey. It's what the cool kids did in the Sonoma-Napa area, and most of them would spit the wine out when they were done with the Swirl. Go figure.
Long story short, the kindly Italian family put Charley through sommelier school, and it wasn't long before Charley was taking San Francisco by storm as the city's hottest new Somm.
It was 4:30PM on a windy day about a year into Charley's career and he was already sniffing the ricotta—it was the anchor taste in Grandma Mosticelli's kitchen. It was that ricotta base that formed the soul of the wines that he would recommend that evening.
Each night Grandma's cheese combinations changed and, since the restaurant's menu revolved around their own family-farmed cheese, so did the choices of wine.
Guests arrived at 5:30PM—it was wine time. Charley felt pressure in two separate parts of his brain—first to sell "upgraded" wines...his job description—but also to honor his artistry and choose that perfect wine. Hopefully he would elevate the act of eating to epiphanic experiences of something more than protein-liceous face-stuffing.
There were the Adolphos—a couple married for fifty-five years—who had been coming here every Tuesday night since the Vietnam War ended. They had lost their dog during that war, and they drank to Sparky's memory every Sunday night. Sparky hadn't actually fought in 'Nam, he just went missing in January '73. Regardless, the Adolphos held Sparky's memory sacred, so the wine had to have soul.
Then there was Maximilian Conningsworth, who had no knowledge of wine but liked to pretend that he did to impress whichever business associates with whom he happened to be socializing. His favorite thing to do was to "correct" Charley on various tidbits of wine knowledge. Charley might recommend a zinfandel with Max's steak, if he wasn't above such an unspeakable trick.
He later came across Stephanie, a young lover of wine...but she also had the finances of a young person. It was tough for her to afford the fine libations she adored. Charley connected with her passion, however, and found her the best drink her money could buy.
For all his efforts, Charley received a range of tips from generous to non-existent. He received a smattering of compliments on his expertise and excellent recommendations, but also the usual looks of self-importance from people who were really not as important as they would like to believe.
Ah well, comes with the territory. Few patrons are truly deserving of the wine Charley serves them, and, unlike the wine itself, most of them only get worse with age.