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It is said luck is when opportunity meets preparedness. I could use a little luck, and the arrival of a new year feels like a time to prepare. I find the sleepy cadence of January gives me a moment to take stock, put the house in order, map out a few leagues, and get the lay of the land. In simpler terms, a fine time to plan and prepare.
So, stepping into 2024 with the abandonment of reason that my broad curiosity requires, I’ve already made well over 20 loaves of brioche, dozens of sourdough boules, hundreds of pierogi and blini, and watched Jeff make 15 liters of homemade Chardonnay mustard (almost 16 quarts for the Imperialists out there), all in preparation to host guests. We have become the preppers of wine country.
My current prep is tinkering in that space between the domain of nature and the world of culture, aka food and wine. It is the stuff that lets us experience life on a very human scale.
Jeff and I are spending a good amount of time at the Gentleman Farmer Bungalow, our downtown studio. In addition to shoring up our gastronomy foundation, my prepping has extended to other ambitions, let’s call them the aspirations of 2024.
They are somewhat arbitrary, however, good marks to shoot for nonetheless: 20 solid accordion numbers to pull out at a moment’s notice, a ten-minute magic performance piece down pat, and a solid lineup of ten clean and funny jokes. What can I say? I’m an entertainer at heart.
I feel these commitments in my carriage. Jeff and I continue our preparations in anticipation of seeing you at our studio very soon. Our doors are open to you and your friends, please come take a look at what we have prepared for you (hint: it could be wine with breakfast). Check out what we’ve prepared. Explore experiences at The Bungalow.
In this issue, the Gentleman Farmer Bungalow has bright and shiny things for your new year. Also, I take a momentary break from all this preppiness to meet up with a San Francisco stage icon, listening to her inspirational story over snacks and Chardonnay. Finally, the aforementioned blini make an appearance in my kitchen and hopefully yours, bon appetit.
Vintner, Cook, Prepster
P.S. If you enjoy these wintery thoughts, interviews, and recipes, we’d love to have you join our Field Notes readership.
With so many years in production, our studio space is now live. We’ve assembled a place to gather, taste an array of wines, ponder pairings, savor some bites, hear stories, host friends, and reconnect to being human.
Last weekend, we hosted our first all-out event. Sixty people arrived from both coasts and everywhere in between to celebrate the birthday of a longtime friend. It was a pleasure to see so many people in our bungalow kitchen and studio space, catching up, sharing laughs, and sipping wine with snacks and bites zipping out of the open kitchen.
It all just felt right, like we had envisioned all these years. I consider us lucky, we get to spend time in delicious pursuits and, at times, rest in the present moment.
This soirée was just one in a line to come. We are filling out our 2024 sketchbook with happenings of wine, cooking, and song.
Additionally, we will be hosting evening salons featuring creative people from diverse backgrounds of art and culture, along with good wine and food. The salon provides intimate engagement and an opportunity to hear their interesting stories.
Considering an event of your own? Click here to submit a reservation inquiry.
Shining in theater, television, film, and song, Renée Lubin is a multi-threat. Jeff and I met Renée and her husband Addison last year through our good friends Mary and Susan over a wine country afternoon.
A veteran of the San Francisco stage, she is a contralto, a rare female singing voice with a low range.
She joined the famed Beach Blanket Babylon in 1986. She played a myriad of characters in a review known for gigantic wigs and hats, the largest of which is a 250-pound replica of the San Francisco skyline. Holding the title of “longest-running performer in a musical review,” she had a 33-year engagement with Beach Blanket Babylon, whose claim is the “world’s longest-running musical review,” spanning over 45 years.
Currently, Renée finds herself at the Presidio Theater in the City by the Bay, at her new home in Napa, and recently at our Gentleman Farmer studio table, where we enjoyed snacks, a bit of Chardonnay, and talked about environmental biology, jet setting, and having Stevie Wonder to dinner.
Joey Wolosz: From environmental biology, music, to theater, tell me about your path.
Renée Lubin: I’ve been a singer all my life, and I was good at science. My parents thought majoring in the arts was frivolous. They were probably very afraid that I wouldn’t be able to take care of myself. So, I went to school for environmental biology at San Jose State University. I actually started in microbiology.
At the time, I had started doing theater on the side. There was a black theater workshop in San Jose doing Ntozake Shange’s show, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.
It was a big hit and those that finished the workshop got cast in the show. From there, my hobby turned into my career. As I did one show, someone would see me and I would go on to do something else. I went from there to Theater Works, and from Theater Works to Beach Blanket Babylon in San Francisco.
JW: What interested you in microbiology and environmental biology?.
RL: I enjoyed it, I loved it, I was doing it in high school.
For my elective, I decided to join the choir. When I got to advanced choir, I remember my choir director said, “Where have you been hiding?” And I was like, “umm, the science department?”
He was instrumental in my first big break, which was singing for Jazz Faire IV. I auditioned in San Jose. The director was Quincy Jones. Jazz Faire IV was the thing that hooked me. Something about it just fills you up to overflowing.
JW: When did you start singing?
RL: I was brought up in the church. I sang in the church. To me, my voice was not incredible because there were so many voices around me that were. I didn’t see myself as anything special. When I got to college my sorority sisters told me that it was special. Sigma Gamma Rho. I’m part of the black Fraternal Order.
JW: What happened after San Jose State Univeristy?
RL: I went straight to theater, the San Jose Black Theatre Workshop. I did my first shows with them. They weren’t doing musicals, but they were utilizing my vocals.
Because I really wanted to do a musical, I started venturing out. I did something with the Sunnyvale Players, then I went to Ohlone College and did Jesus Christ Superstar. From there, I went to Theater Works and did my first musical with them.
Robert Kelly, who is probably the main reason that Theater Works is now a Tony Award winning company, was in charge. He even got me into doing Shakespeare! When he asked me, I was like, “Are you nuts? I don’t know Shakespeare.” He said, “I’m going to help you,” so I ended up doing Twelfth Night and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
JW: Was theater the plan?
RL: I didn’t care, the only thing I asked from God was to make a way for me to sing.
I sang in church. I basically started teaching myself then took some voice lessons with a couple of people.
I started doing weddings (that’s a pain in the butt) and little small events and then theater. Really, theater was my outlet.
My mother was a singer, an unrealized singer. She was in the Texas State choir, a soprano. I always wanted to be a soprano and it took me a long time to really appreciate my contralto voice. I never thought it was a special as a soprano.
JW: Is that above tenor?
RL: It is above, I can sing a tenor part. It’s to the top of the alto range. I never realized it was special until my sorority sister started pushing me. One year, they decided to send me to the National Boulé, the national convention of the sorority, for the talent competition. I won regionally and then I went to win nationally. Back then they gave you a big ol’ trophy about as tall as me.
From there, I just had a lot of friends who were really supportive and would always push me. I remember auditioning for Dream Girls back in the day. My sorority sister, who worked for HP at the time, said, “I’m coming to pick you up and we’re going to the city.” She brought me in, even though she knew that they didn’t want me because I wasn’t tall enough. Everyone had to be at least 5’ 7”, and I’m all of 5’ 1”. But I showed up anyway. Michael the director was there and he said, “Beautiful voice, too short, thank you.” Height made a difference over voice.
JW: What brought you to San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon?
RL: Simone Cox, who was a great actresses with Theater Works, came to me and said, “I auditioned today in San Francisco, you should go.” At that time, they didn’t have any blacks in the show. Simone is biracial and she said, “I got to try on a hat, and I did this, and I did that.”
So I went. The line went around the corner for the audition. There was all kinds of crazy people, any kind of strange thing that you did, people would bring it. One guy was on skates, all kinds of crazy things. I got down to the last five women. At the very last minute, some agent comes in with this really tall black girl. It seems she got the role. I got a Dear John letter.
Three years later, I got a phone call. It was so odd to me, I didn’t even know it was real. The guy on the phone says, “Hi, this is Steve Silver. I’m calling because I remember you from the audition.” I said, “Stop lying. Who is this?”
“I am having auditions for Beach Blanket and I believe that you may be perfect for this role.”
So, that’s how I ended up getting the role. I was only there 33 years, not the entire 45 years of the show.
I never intended to stay that long. Honestly, I thought I’d be there for five years. I was like, “I’m doing five years then I’m going to Europe. That’s where they really appreciate a vocalist like me.” I envisioned myself sitting in Paris at Le Bilboquet. Then I met my husband, he was in the audience one night, 35 years ago.
JW: Do you miss Beach Blanket?
RL: God, I missed that family. Backstage, there’s a camaraderie. You don’t always see everybody on a personal level every day, but you’re all there, to create this. This thing that entertains and brings the light to everyone. I miss that.
JW: The show seemed to change just a little bit every few months, to the point where, over time, it became an entirely different show that what it was even a year ago.
RL: It totally evolved. People that were in the show from the very beginning want to compare that to how Beach Blanket ended. But it was totally different. It was so much more than what it started as.
It was extremely fast paced. I had, like, 14 different costume changes. In one show I was Glinda three times. And that didn’t include me as the country western lady, the Am I Blue lady, the Tina Turner, the Oprah Winfrey, the Michelle Obama.
JW: Did the hats and wigs get bigger?
RL: The hats didn’t necessarily get bigger, there were more of them. The women in the show carry the hats. It wasn’t the men, it was the women. We carried the weight of the show.
None of it was good for you. I saw how they wore them in the very beginning. They had those little girls with the back of their spine strapped in, holding it up. You could see their legs shaking as they were carrying them. By the time I got in the show in the late 80s the back brace was connected to a frame that went down to the floor with wheels on it. So even though it was not good for you, you’d be pulling it while you’re walking. You would get into this strap and they put what we called the land shark up onto your chest bone, strap you into this thing, then they put a costume over that and the hat’s on top. And then you walked forward.
JW: You took a leave of absence from Beach Blanket.
RL: My husband decided that Atlanta had the dream job. So we relocated to Atlanta. I sold my house. Yes. Traumatic to this day. I lasted 10 months. Beach Blanket didn’t last long either because they were trying to get me back.
JW: Who was your understudy?
RL: That’s why they were calling. When I left there were two girls, but it wasn’t working the way they wanted.
Beach Blanket was flying me in every other weekend. By the way, people were saying, “It must be so hard.” I was having the time of my life. Yes. Every other weekend I was back in the Bay Area. My stomping ground. I’m a San Francisco native.
They were flying me in and out, so I’d be home for a week and be gone for a week.
Jet Setting was fun. I got to know the stewardesses because we were on the same flight. On Sunday morning, I’d be on the first flight out from San Francisco to Atlanta. It’s funny because the girls from Beach Blanket said they wouldn’t do that for anybody else.
But they interrupted everything in my life. My vacation, my sick time. When it came down to bereavement, that’s why I drew the line. When they were calling me back from bereavement, I was like, Okay, I’m done with this.
They leaned on me a lot, and they knew I loved my job. At one point, I told them it’s time for you guys to really start thinking about hiring people who are up to the task. I have a degree in this show. They taught me well about what to accept and what not to accept. I told them this is no longer acceptable when you call me back from bereavement. When you have two understudies, why is that acceptable?
I was doing the show 75 to 90% of the time. Why do I need the coverage if I can’t have it? Crazy. I remember one sunny day, I called in to have a day off. Both of my understudies were unavailable. So I had I had to go in, instead of them, since when am I their understudy?
JW: Why the move to Napa?
RL: Because, my husband told me he always wanted to live in the Napa Valley. I rolled my eyes and said, “Everybody wants to live in the Napa Valley, get out of here. I do not want to commute, thank you very much, but if you can figure out a way to make that happen without commuting, I’m all for it.”
We got an agent out here, and we started looking. I had a wonderful meeting with Elizabeth Swanson. She let me stay in her little place to kind of check out the lay of the land.
We had already seen Sonoma I didn’t like how eclectic it was. I wasn’t crazy about what you could get out there. We started to look on our own and we found this little cul-de-sac with new homes on it.
Ourside was a trailer on a hitch with a sign that said “Holmes.” That’s my husband last name, Holmes. The sign was pointing towards the front door. I said, “what more do you need, it’s a sign.” I took a picture of it. I called my agent.
We were weekenders until 2020. We love just being out here. It’s a far cry from being in San Francisco where you can’t find a place to park. Here the pace is a little slower. I’ve met some really wonderful people. If I can sing here and meet great people, it’s not much better than that.
JW: Are you singing here now?
RL: I sang at Handwritten. I also sang at Migration. I sang at Kosta Brown. I sang at Be Bubbly.
I am slowly making my way here. I still do one show a year in San Francisco. I’m contracted with Peggy Haas, my boss at the Presidio Theater. I’ve signed one contract this year so far. Now, I’m taking a little bit of a break. I’m not in a hurry. I have a gig coming up with Women in Jazz History with Dee Spencer at the San Bruno Library. I haven’t booked anything yet this year for Napa.
JW: Tell me about your connection to wine and food?
RL: Addison and I started collecting wine back when we started dating in 1990. He has about 400 bottles, so we collect (I should say “he collects”), and we definitely love food.
I remember the first time I cooked something for Addison. He’s from Chicago, so he does ribs on the grill really well. Addison’s ribs are amazing. So one year, he was at work and I made baby back ribs in the oven. He had never heard of that. He came home from work and I had these ribs, “How did you do that?”, and I was like, “I just did him in the oven.” He tasted them, “you’ve been holding out on me.”
JW: Friends and family excluded, who are two people you’d like to share a long, lingering meal with and what would you serve?
RL: Maya Angelou, and because he is my favorite favorite, favorite, favorite, favorite, favorite singer-performer of all time, Stevie Wonder.
It is interesting you should ask, “and what would I serve?”, because Maya Angelou said the perfect dinner is a good roasted chicken, great bread, and a glass of wine.
I’m not saying that’s what I’d serve, because I have a Creole background. What I can actually serve is gumbo.
My Father is Creole, and my mother’s from Texas. When I make my gumbo, I still get my sausage shipped from Louisiana. Have some sausage from Louisiana, and it will change your life.
I make a mean étoufée as well. Or, maybe I would do some baby back ribs in the oven and homemade potato salad.
JW: What are you putting your potato salad?
RL: I tell you what I won’t put in it. There’s a joke because you know black people are very particular about who makes the potato salad. Did you know this?
There’s a little joke about our white counterparts and potato salad, how they put raisins in it. In this joke, you can just see everybody clutching their pearls, saying, “Somebody’s wife is putting raisins in the potato salad!”
I don’t put too much crunchy stuff. My husband seems to like little pieces of potato, and my mother taught me how to make it where it’s all nice and smooth with olives, paprika, relish. I’ve had it with celery, and that’s not my favorite. I don’t like crunching on my potato salad. I like a smooth egg.
JW: What would be your spirit animal?
RL: It would be a cat, a kitty cat. I’m on the cusp of Leo-Virgo. I’m really a Virgo with all sorts of Leo risings. In fact, most people think I am a Leo. I’m not, I’m a Virgo, very sensitive.
JW: What’s your motto?
RL: Walk In Love.
Blini are an impressive and elegant alternative to toast rounds. They can carry a wallop and a topping. They can be dressed up with crème fraîche and caviar, meet you on a weeknight with gravlax or rillettes, or team up with a casual hummus. They are easy to prepare, and I find them therapeutic to make. There is always something satisfying watching the bubbling and rising of yeast activity and working with a yeasted batter or a dough. Recently, I have been topping these buckwheat blini with a silky and simple eggplant spread and a sprinkling of chopped chives and enjoying these little bites with a glass of our Gentleman Farmer Napa Valley Chardonnay, sipping both during and post-production.