Kevin Nelson Writer

Travel. Adventure. Discovery

One article, many sources: The Grgich wine label and the Napa earthquake

Grgich signOne article can have many sources. Such is the case with “The Grgich wine label, and how it relates to the Napa earthquake,” which will be featured tomorrow on Local Wine

First, I had the good fortune to attend a blessing of the grapes at the Grgich Hills Estate winery in late August. Mike Grgich, the 91-year-old founder of the Rutherford winery, was there. Two days later came the Napa earthquake. During this time I was reading George Taber’s Judgment of Paris which talks about, many other things, how Robert and Margrit Mondavi helped Grgich get his winery off the ground in 1977 after his success in creating the Chardonnay that won the white wine competition in that famous California v. France competition. Then I started thinking about how winemakers and others in Napa Valley come together in times of need such as the recent earthquake, and this is what came of it.


A look inside Napa’s Mercedes-Benz 300SL Museum

The 300SL Museum is a small but tasty car museum in Napa that showcases the exquisite Mercedes-Benz Gull Wing 300SL, one of the loveliest and most valuable collector cars in the world. It’s worth a visit for sports car enthusiasts especially. I stopped by there the other day, and filed a story on it.

Read the article here

A rear view of a sporty 300SL.

A rear view of a sporty 300SL.

Two places to go in Yountville for a nice after-dinner walk

The tribute to firefighters in Yountville's Van De Leur Park.

The tribute to firefighters in Yountville’s Van De Leur Park.


Yountville is best known as the restaurant capital of the Napa Valley—home of The French Laundry, Bouchon, Bottega Ristorante, Bistro Jeanty, Redd, Lucy and many more. But there are other places to explore in this tiny little town on Highway 29 when you’re not engaged in random acts of fine dining and drinking. One is Van De Leur Park with its fire fighter statue, sculptures and ancient, historic roses with a story all their own. Another is the charming and easy to miss French Laundry Culinary Garden across the street from the famous Michelin 3-star restaurant. The garden supplies the fresh produce for all of Thomas Keller’s eateries in town—TFL, Bouchon and Ad Hoc—and is wonderful for both socializing and solitary contemplation. Both the park and the garden are within easy walking distance of each other on Washington Street and are nice places to stroll before or after a meal.

A table for two at The French Laundry's culinary garden across the street from the restaurant.

A table for two at The French Laundry’s culinary garden across the street from the restaurant.


The Grgich Hills Estates wine label, and how it relates to last weekend’s Napa earthquake

Grgich Hills label

Wine labels are fascinating things. They often tell stories, although the stories can be hidden from view. So it is with the label for Grgich Hills Estate, the Rutherford winery founded by Mike Grgich. Actually, it is not true that Grgich founded the winery; he co-founded it with Austin E. Hills, a winery owner and executive and a member of the Hills Bros. coffee family. Thus, the name Grgich Hills.

A horse is in the lower right corner of the label; this is from the Hills family coat of arms. Bottom left is the red and white flag of Croatia, where Grgich was born and lived much of his life until immigrating to the U.S. in the early 1950s. You can hear the lingering influence of Croatia in every syllable the 91-year-old winemaker utters.

The label’s central image is a cluster of chardonnay grapes, fitting because it was Grgich, when he was with Chateau Montelena, who oversaw the creation of the Chardonnay that won the white wine competition at the 1976 Judgment of Paris and showed that the best California wines were on a par with the best of the French. But that’s not the entire story of the label; it was Margrit (Biever) Mondavi who helped design it! George Taber, writing in Judgment of Paris, explains:

            Grgich got lots of help from the local wine fraternity in his venture. Margrit Biever, the special promotions director for Robert Mondavi who three years later would become his second wife, helped Grgich design his first label. It shows a cluster of Chardonnay grapes and has a symbol for each partner: a horse from his family coat of arms for Hills and the Croatian flag for Grgich.

The 6.0 earthquake that hit Napa last weekend is showing, once again, what a tiny island Napa Valley really is and how wineries and winemakers band together in times of need. Their products may compete with one another on store shelves but the people behind those products willingly exchange information and cooperate with one another if the situation warrants it. That was true with Mike Grgich when he was trying to get his winery up and running in the summer of 1977.

Not only did Margaret Biever help him with his label, her future husband and the founder of Robert Mondavi Winery played an even larger role. With “no winery, no vines [and] nothing but wild grass,” as Taber writes, Grgich wasn’t sure he was going to able to crush the grapes he was buying from local farmers to produce his first vintage. A friend and former employee of Mondavi’s, he asked his ex-boss if he could use his winery’s equipment if the construction Grgich was doing and the machinery he was buying wasn’t ready on time. Mondavi said yes and although Grgich ended up not needing it, Mondavi’s generosity helped buoy his spirits and lift him through a time of need.

Recently I visited both the Grgich Hills and Mondavi wineries and filed pieces on both of them. If you’d like to see what these wineries are like today, please see “Celebrating harvest at Grgich Hills” and “A Walk in the Vineyard at Robert Mondavi Winery” at 

Giving thanks, saying blessings, celebrating the Napa harvest to come

Mike Grgich

Every year since its founding in 1977, Grgich Hills Estate in Rutherford, Calif. has conducted a ceremonial blessing of the grapes in the early days of its annual harvest. Similar religious blessings have taken place in vineyards all across the world for hundreds of years.

Mike Grgich, pictured above at this August’s blessing, is co-founder of the winery and at 91 one of America’s most venerated winemakers, as well as being a man of faith. In his brief remarks he talks about the transformative nature of holy water—how it can make you “an angel.” Father Andrew Metcalf is a retired Santa Rosa priest who followed Grgich with remarks of his own and a reading of the formal blessing. Here are excerpts from both men’s remarks, addressing a gathering of some 50 people who joined with them to celebrate the day:


I am very happy that we have so many friends. And every year we hope to have more. If you make, every day, at least one new friend, in 365 days you will have 365 friends. No money can buy that.

And so it makes me really happy that so many friends are here today to become a recipient of holy water. Because holy water may make you an angel. If you become an angel you are able to fly over the vineyards. The first picture I saw when I came to Napa Valley [in the 1950s] was the Beaulieu Vineyard. Picture it. Highway 29 and angels flying over it. You may become all angels today. So do try to get some holy water over you. Father Andrew is here to help and again I thank you for coming. Enjoy this day because it’s just once a year. Thank you very much.


The blessing of the grapes has a beautiful root, a beautiful sense of tradition because it always takes place around the solemn feat of the Assumption of our Blessed Mother, which we celebrated Friday. And so in Europe that’s the day they begin to gather the harvest and bless it. So I will begin the blessing, now that you know what the source of this is and why we do this at this time of the year. Let us remember that we are in the presence of God’s beauty.

We praise our blessed Mother, the Virgin Mother of our Lord on this feast of the blessing of the grapes. We honor earth’s mother and heaven’s queen. In venerating you, O Mary, we give glory to God in our prayers and gratitude for the bountiful harvest of these grapes. We rejoice in all of the tastes and full and colorful gifts of mother earth, in wheat and corn and grains and apples and plums and grapes, and all the fruits of the land. For these fruitful blessings of the earth and for all it gives, we are truly thankful. We bless our brothers and sisters who work in the vineyards, who on this day make merry in special celebration. We too rejoice in this year’s harvest of grapes.

From the dawn of history grapes have been a rich source of food and have been transformed into blessed beverage and wine, which has been a delight for the heart and the bond of friendship and a maker of magic at feasts and celebration. It has been further given the place of being an essential gift in our Eucharistic worship of our God. So through the intercession of our holy Mother, we ask divine blessing upon these grapes. May all who taste them give God praise. May all who eat them savor the joy of this feast. We now enrich them with this blessing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

[As he begins to sprinkle holy water on a bin of freshly-picked grapes, and then sprinkle the water on the people in the group, he says:] I bless these grapes now in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. And as Mike said, “This water should go from here to all of you.”

For more complete coverage of the blessings ceremony, please see Kevin Nelson’s article “Celebrating harvest at Grgich Hills” at

Father Metcalf greets Mike Grgich at the ceremony.

Father Metcalf greets Mike Grgich at the ceremony.

Robert Mondavi: On wine, business, and living the good life

Mondavi bookLike many winery tours, the tour of the Robert Mondavi Winery ends by design at the gift shop, where they sell wine and other items. While my wife perused the wine shelves, my eyes migrated to a table with copies of Robert Mondavi’s autobiography, Harvests of Joy, published in 1998 and in its tenth printing. She bought the wine—a rosé and a Fumé Blanc—and I bought the book.

In today’s world, a book that remains in print after 15 years is a notable achievement, and Harvests of Joy deserves its success. This is not the book for those in search of scandal and intrigue about America’s most famous wine personality and his family. But if you’d like to learn a little about Napa Valley history and get a sense of one of the men who helped shape it, this book, co-written with Paul Chutkow, delivers. It provides a window into Mondavi’s optimistic, risk-taking personality, so similar in this regard to other successful entrepreneurs in and out of the wine business.

Another thing I liked about it was how quotable it was. Ever a promoter for his winery, Napa Valley and wine in general, Mondavi by his own admission was seldom at a loss for words (he died in 2008). He proves equally adept in Harvests of Joy, providing insights on wine, life and how to succeed in business. Here are some choice Robert Mondavi nuggets:

Always taste the wine, not the label.

The finer the grapes, the finer the wine.

There is no secret: Great wine begins in the vineyard.

The greatest leaders don’t rule, they inspire.

Always remember that business is, first and foremost, about people.

No one makes wine alone.

No matter what business you’re in, there’s always going to be turmoil.

In life, as in wine, excess and imbalance are no virtues, even in pursuit of a noble goal.

What it took ages for me to learn was really very simple: Don’t be negative, dogmatic or judgmental. Be positive and flexible. —On managing people

Making wine is a skill, fine wine an art.—One of Mondavi’s most famous lines, used as a motto for Robert Mondavi Winery

In the art of making fine wines, the quest for greatness always comes down to this: the artist and his gifts.

My husband always said, ‘If something is good, don’t talk about it. Do it.’  —Margrit Mondavi, recalling one of her husband’s sayings at a Robert Mondavi Winery concert

Always leave time for playfulness and laughter. There is no better tonic for keeping love alive and vibrant than laughter and good cheer.

All things in moderation, with a few glorious exceptions. —Perhaps Mondavi’s most famous line, widely repeated

Operation Bullpen goes into new edition, still generating comment, positive reviews

Kevin Nelson’s Operation Bullpen, the true story of the sensational autograph fraud case that was recently acquired by super-agent Harlan Werner to be developed into a movie, has reached a new landmark: It is going into a new printing. A new edition of the book is now available on Amazon and other outlets around the country. Those who would like a copy of the book autographed by the author can order here.

The author, at left with his back to the camera, watches as the truck unloads the new edition of Operation Bullpen.

The author, at left with his back to the camera, watches as the truck unloads the new edition of Operation Bullpen.

Originally published in 2006, Operation Bullpen has been featured on ESPN, made into a cable TV documentary and won international acclaim. It continues to cause comment and generate positive reviews, such as this one posted recently on Amazon:

5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book You Can’t Put Down: MUST READ For Any Autograph Collector!August 6, 2014 

By J. Mccay (Queens, NY)

This review is from: Operation Bullpen (Paperback)
As someone who assisted the FBI in 1999 with Operation Bullpen, I know nearly all of this story first-hand and read the original FBI Operation Bullpen report in early 2000 soon after it was released. This book was exceptionally well written and was definitely a page turner that I didn’t want to put down. No matter how much I learn about the Autograph hobby, there’s always more to learn and this book did just that for me.
The FBI’s Report is a real yawner to be perfectly frank. Kevin Nelson puts the story in a much more enjoyable context. Any autograph collector of any age must read this book or you are simply wasting your hard earned money. There’s so much truth in this book that you NEED TO KNOW if you collect autographs. Please do yourself a HUGE FAVOR and read this book. It’s not too long, it doesn’t over explain things (something I tend to do), but it gets all the important facts on the table from both sides of the story which is the only FAIR WAY to write a non-fiction book!​

Squaw Valley’s thrill-packed tram ride

Squaw Valley Tram By Kevin Nelson The Squaw Valley Aerial Tram is perennially rated as one of Lake Tahoe’s top ten attractions, and there is a reason for that: It’s big fun. It delivers the thrills of an amusement park ride with tremendous views of high mountain peaks.

Starting from Olympic Village in Squaw Valley, the tram carries you 2,000 feet up the mountain. In the winter it transports skiers and snowboarders into the upper regions of one of the best ski areas in the western U.S., the home of the 1960 Winter Olympics and many ski races and events since then.Riding Squaw tram

In the summer (when we went) there are still plenty of things to do when you reach the top of the ride at High Camp at 8,200-feet. First, relish those views. The sparkling blue waters of Tahoe are to the east with lots of mountains all around. Places to eat are the year-round High Terrace Restaurant and Bar and a cafe next to the swimming pool and hot tub. Families are welcome, with kids, grown-ups and couples swimming, skating at the outdoor roller rink (in the winter it becomes an ice rink), scaling a climbing wall, playing beanbag toss and croquet, and walking on balance beams. Hiking trails take off from there as well.

One must-see is the Olympic Museum, which is free and has exhibits and artifacts (such as vintage ice skates and cable binding skis) from the 1960 Games. There is a pretend awards stand in which you can pose in front of an American flag as if you’ve just won the gold medal for your country.

If all you did was take the tram, however, it would be a worthwhile trip. You stand as you ride, hanging onto an overhead strap (if you care to) as if you were taking an underground subway. The max capacity of a tram is 110 people but ours was nowhere near that full. As you ascend a guide tells you about the mountains you’re seeing and the cable car system that is taking you up into them. When the tram opened in 1968 it was the largest aerial tramway in the world, an engineering and construction triumph that required miles of cable and tons of concrete. The tower terminal alone on the valley floor used 5,000 yards of concrete and 500 tons of steel. It has since been updated with the latest cable and electrical systems. Going up or down, the best place to stand may be in the front of the cab but there are windows all around and terrific views can be had from anywhere. One reason to be up front is that when the tram approaches a mountainside it appears for an instant as if it is going to run smack-dab into it. But alas, disaster is averted every time at the last second as the tram keeps on its upward path.

Squaw Valley Aerial Tram, Squaw Valley Resort, 1960 Squaw Valley Road, Olympic Valley. Summer tram hours: 10:40 a.m.-4:20 daily, Tues., Fri., Sat. open until 5:20. Reservations recommended. Adult tram tickets are $39 per person, with lower prices for children and seniors; discounts for buying in advance. Packages that combine tram with use of pool and skating are $44 per adult. 800-403-0206. The Olympic Village has lots going on too—shopping, restaurants and outdoor activities such as cycling and tennis. See Squaw’s website for more. Vintage ice skates

Meeks Bay Trailhead, Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe

By Gabriel Nelson, Guest Photographer

Desolation Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada mountains is one of the most popular wilderness areas in the United States. Located west of Lake Tahoe in California, full of high mountains, forests and alpine meadows, it attracts thousands of hikers and backpackers every year. We asked photographer Gabriel Nelson to explore the area around the Meeks Bay Trailhead, a popular Highway 89 access point into the wilderness, and come back with five images that captured his imagination. Shooting with an iPhone, here is what caught his eye:

A creek near Highway 89 at Meeks Bay, near the trail leading into the wilderness.

A creek near Highway 89 at Meeks Bay, near the trail leading into the wilderness.


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Operation Bullpen makes big news

The announcement yesterday that superstar sports agent Harlan Werner had acquired the movie rights to Operation Bullpen made news around the world. You think I’m kidding? I saw the news reported on Reuters, the famous British news agency. Of course, most of the interest was in and around Los Angeles, which is where Werner’s Sports Placement Service agency is located. In case you missed it, here is a copy of the release:

Top Sports Agent Acquires Rights To Operation Bullpen Crime Story

PR Newswire

LOS ANGELESJune 24, 2014 /PRNewswire/ — Harlan J. Werner, the renowned sports and marketing agent who represents Muhammad AliJoe Namath, Sandy Koufax and many other superstar athletes, announced today that he has secured the motion picture rights to Operation Bullpen, the sensational story of the most notorious and successful gang of forgers and memorabilia crooks in American history.

Werner, who is a long-time sports memorabilia collector and dealer as well as co-owner of a national chain of retail movie memorabilia stores, made the acquisition along with film and television producer Art Horan.

“This story is a cross between ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ and ‘American Hustle,'” said Werner, referring to the Operation Bullpen saga in which a dysfunctional family of con artists, led by a conniving grandma and her pot-smoking son, fooled the FBI for years and ripped off a gullible American public for a cool $100 million. “It’s a great story.  It’s very cinematic with broad appeal.”

Operation Bullpen, by award-winning author Kevin Nelson, is widely regarded as the definitive insider’s account of the explosive case that shook up the $1 billion a year memorabilia industry. The forgers and their accomplices were ordinary middle class people who went wild, living the Vegas high life, indulging in sex romps and spending lavishly, all the while churning out hundreds of thousands of fake autographs that were sold on TV, the Internet and in stores across the U.S.

Werner himself actively participated in the FBI’s undercover investigation of the gang, as did his client Muhammad Ali. (The FBI’s dramatic bust of the gang was the largest one-day takedown in Bureau history.) Ironically, Ali, Namath, Koufax, John Riggins and Jim Brown—all clients of Werner’s at his Sports Placement Service firm—had their autographs forged and sold by the crooks.

In addition to his personal knowledge of the memorabilia and autograph industry, Werner executive produced the movie “Tyson” and consulted on “One Night in Vegas” for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.

Horan, a former Warner Bros. executive, was president of WMG Film Group where he was Executive Producer of “The Usual Suspects,” a two-time Academy Award-winner. Horan recently was Executive Producer of “Ring Girls,” also for ESPN, directed by academy award nominated director Amy Berg and is co founder of Undisputed Champion Network, a digital channel dedicated to the combat sports.

For more information, please contact Harlan Werner, SPS, 330 West 11th Street, Suite 105,Los Angeles, CA 90015. Phone: 213-744-1308. Email:

SOURCE Harlan Werner

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