Charley Donnait was born in Sonoma, CA. Sonoma is the poorer step-sister of Napa, CA, which is generally viewed as the Jerusalem of bold California reds. Charley's father was a gardener. His job was to drive the tractors back and forth between the grapes, manage the drip irrigation systems, and, at harvest, run the small forklift. So he was more than a gardener. But he paid the bills and provided a nice home life with baseball (Charley could throw a nasty curve—it just wasn't good enough for the pros), hot dogs, apple pie, and Cabernet.
It was a good life—but Charley was embarrassed by it. He loved his father, but his father was a gardener, more or less, and he spent time with the children of the winery owners, who rubbed his nose in the dirt just enough to remind him of his roots (which needed watering three times a day, so get on it, boy).
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—the family was beyond impressed with his knowledge of wine. Charley had been a sponge for wine trivia since he was little. And given his environment, he picked up both the preparation, cooking…and drinking part of wine. So by the time he could legally drink, he'd had almost a dozen years of real experience with a very finely honed palate for picking up taste differentials in batches.
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.
So this Italian family sent Charley through a top-of-the-line sommelier school; the degree he obtained there held quite a bit of weight once he moved back to the States and set up shop in San Francisco, just a short 50-mile jaunt from Sonoma. However, even though he held this hot ticket in his hands, he didn’t need to cash it in just yet. Right off the bat he got a job with some cousins of his Italian family who ran one of the finer Italian restaurants in San Fran…wasn’t long before he was the sommelier there....
Charley loved what he did. He both reviled and revered the clients he served—he revered them for the passion in wines they shared, but reviled them for their condescension and poor tips. He wanted to BE them, but not be LIKE them…wine to Charley was a combo of an emotional windmill and a religion. Truly great wines were not meant to be drunk by Philistines.
It was 4:30 and he was already sniffing the cheese 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 farm cheese, so did the choices of wine.
Guests arrived at 5:30—it was wine time. And Charley felt the pressure in balances—to sell "upgraded" wines...his business hat—but also to honor his artistry and choose that perfect wine. Hopefully he would elevate the act of eating to epiphanic experiences that took it to rare moments of something more than proteinaceous face-stuffing.
There were the Adolphos—a couple married for 55 years—who had been coming here every Tuesday night since the Vietnam War ended. They had lost their son in that war and they drank to his memory every night. The wine had to have soul.
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. Oh, if only he wasn’t above spitting in that jerk's Syrah….
There was 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 mentored her, teaching her many of the ins and outs so that she might become a sommelier herself one day….
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 he serves them. And most of them only get worse with age.