San Francisco Social Diary: 13th Annual Festival Napa Valley Opening Weekend, Part I

Festival Napa Valley celebrated its 13th season with a record number of performances, including a spectacular light and music show during the opening Founders Dinner.


Festival Napa Valley recently “uncorked” its 13th season. I made my annual summer pilgrimage, one of a delighted 10,000 attendees who enjoyed wine, food, and cultural events over ten days at a multitude of venues throughout the Valley’s Wine Country.

A dazzling roster of musicians and singers participated in an unprecedented 70 spectacular classical music, opera, and jazz performances, and the region’s top vintners and chefs hosted intimate food and wine events.

The internationally recognized Festival Napa Valley gets better and more popular each year, with waiting lists for many of the 2018 programs. Bravo to all involved!

Napa Valley is considered one of the top viticultural areas in both California and the entire United States, with a history dating back to the early nineteenth century.

In Napa Valley, more than 400 wineries grow numerous grape varieties, including cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, and zinfandel, among other popular varietals.


Napa Valley is a remarkably eclectic region, with vintners of varied backgrounds, nationalities, and personalities creating a unique atmosphere at each venue. They include the Italian Dario Sattui of Castello di Amorosa; the Chilean Agustin and Valeria Huneeus of Quintessa Winery; the French Cherise and Christian Moueix of Dominus Winery; the late French Baron Philippe de Rothschild, founder of Opus One Winery; and the French vintner Jean-Charles Boisset and wife Gina Gallo of the California Gallo wine family.

The Tuscan-style Castello di Amorosa Winery, one of Napa Valley’s top destinations, was built in 1994 by Dario Sattui, a fourth-generation vintner and owner of V. Sattui Winery.

The Huneeus family’s contemporary Quintessa Winery features a graceful crescent-shaped design of local tufa stone that complements the beauty of the vineyards and countryside.

Opus One Winery was founded in 1979 by vintners Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi.


To kick off this year’s Festival Napa Valley Opening Weekend, I arrived a day early to attend the invitation-only Founders Dinner to celebrate Festival benefactors and patrons. It was graciously hosted by Darioush and Shahpar Khaledi, at their Darioush Winery, whose architecture made a stunning backdrop.

The Los Angeles couple, stalwart supporters of the Festival since its inception, hold some of the most lavish evenings at their winery, events made exotic thanks to the influence of their Persian heritage.

Hosts Shahpar and Darioush Khaledi. Darioush is inspired by the cultural history of winemaking in Shiraz, the region of Iran known for viticulture and winemaking.


Driving down the Silverado Trail, one of the lovely main roads through the Napa Valley, you might think you’ve seen a mirage when the Darioush Winery and estate comes into view. Its striking architecture is reminiscent of the magnificent ancient city of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of Iran.

The unique winery design features a Persian travertine stone entrance flanked by 18-foot columns topped with carvings of bulls.

Darioush Winery miraculously lost only half their trees in last year’s Napa Valley fires, which now have been replaced with mature ones.

The Persian influence extends to the winery interiors as well.

Every year, artwork highlighting ancient Persian art is selected for the Darius II label; the 2011 vintage features 16th-century Iznik tilework, an Ottoman Empire-era ceramic craft.

The 2014 Darius II bottle depicts the tradition of the Saghi, or Wine Bearer, an influential and heralded position in the ancient Persian Royal courts.


Guests arrived as the sun was setting and enjoyed carefully selected wines while listening to live music, an integral part of every Festival event.

Festival President Rick Walker with his wife Karen Walker.

Festival board member Antonio Castellucci, his wife Rita Castellucci, Kay Fike, and Steve Fike.

Festival board secretary Robin Baggett, Michelle Baggett, Linnea Pearson, and Festival board member David Pearson.

Jeanne Lawrence with Dick and Pam Kramlich, who recently founded the Kramlich Film and Video Arts Series for the Festival.

Festival major benefactors Maria Manetti Shrem and Jan Shrem, sponsors of Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Vocal Art Series, with niece Camilla Ruini

Festival major benefactors Gordon and Ann Getty, one of the Festival founders.

Festival board member Sabrina Persson and her husband Timothy Persson, CEO of Hess Collection wines, founded by Donald Hess in 1986.


At the amphitheater, there was a surprise performance by young opera soprano Nadine Sierra, already a seasoned performer at 30. Nadine told us that she sang so much as a child that her mother hired a voice teacher when she was just 6 years old. At age 10, she dreamed of being an opera singer after hearing the music for the first time.

Nadine has made successful debuts at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, Teatro alla Scala, and Berlin State Opera, and she has performed at top venues worldwide. This past June, I had the opportunity to watch her perform in Don Pasquale at the Paris Opera House.

Host Darioush Khaledi, a former Chairman of the Festival board, greeted us with a Persian saying: “To open the door of your home is to open the door of your heart.”

Offstage, Nadine is lively and open, eloquent enough to be able to ignite younger people’s interest in opera.

Nadine Sierra was presented with the 2018 Khaledi Prize, inaugurated just last year, that recognizes excellence and innovation in classical music.


Dinner included Persian-inspired dishes from Shahpar’s own recipes.

The meal was paired with Darioush 2014 Signature Shiraz Napa Valley and 2012 Darius II Cabernet Sauvignon.

The menu featured slow-cooked stew served two ways and paired with crispy saffron rice.

Dinner was accompanied by a performance by cellist Sophia Bacelar.

My dinner partners were Leslie Frank and former Disney Studios president Rich Frank, of Frank Family Vineyards, who recently made Napa Valley their main home.

We had a magical dinner against the backdrop of 18-foot columns.


At the end of the evening, we were treated to another surprise musical performance accompanied by an awe-inspiring light show.

The Kansas City-based group, Quixotic Cirque Nouveau, is an innovative performance art collective that blends technology, dance, lighting, and live music.

Against the backdrop of the Persepolis columns, the otherworldly sound and light show was an astonishment.

We were mesmerized by the violinist’s theatrical gown that served as a canvas for the light show.

It was the perfect ending to another fantastic opening event at Festival Napa Valley—a preview of what I knew would be equally wonderful nights to come.


The 13th annual “Opening Night: Opera Under the Stars” was once again generously hosted by Meadowood Resort, in the town of St. Helena, which has been involved since the Festival’s inception.

One reason I return to Festival Napa Valley year after year is that performances are usually al fresco in beautiful settings. Another is the pleasure of watching young talent up close in such an intimate setting.

Luxurious Meadowood Resort has been named one of American’s top-rated luxury resorts by Forbes, The Michelin Guide, and other savvy reviewers.

The Meadowood property is surrounded by old growth forest, an oasis of meadows and rolling greens among a sea of grape vineyards.


Each year, Meadowood keeps us guessing by hosting the Festival event in a different location. This year, the setting was the lovely Vintner’s Glen, surrounded by a private grove of pine trees that create a natural amphitheater.

Attendees gathered for wine and cocktails in the property’s Vintner’s Glen.

Refreshing on a summery evening, specialty cocktails were served in addition to wine.

Randy Bigony, Cynthia Bigony, Jennifer Sheahan, Festival board member Maggie Oetgen, and Stephen Oetgen.

Paul Touw and Festival board member Michael Polenske.

Richard Heckler, Mary Agee, Malin Giddings, and Antonio Castellucci.

Maria Quiros and Melina Jampolis, who flew in from LA.

Ted and Pamala Deikel, who are spending more and more time at their home in wine country.

Bonnie Uytengsu, Festival board member Michael Uytengsu, and Candice Uytengsu.

Prince Rudolf Kniase Melikoff, Melanie Kirschner, Kathy Martinez, and Festival major benefactor Jose Luis Nazar.

Olya and Serge Troxel, son of Festival co-founder Athena Troxel Blackburn.

Blake Jungmeyer, Corinne Jungmeyer, Monique Harrison, and Naim Harrison.

Shelly Reid, LeMel Humes, and Suzanne Deal Booth.


Guests were seated in the natural cove to enjoy the performance by the Blackburn Music Academy Orchestra, an immersive program that provides tuition-free training for emerging artists, underwritten by Timothy and Athena Blackburn.

Festival Board Chair Timothy Blackburn and wife Athena support numerous artistic and musical endeavors, among them the San Francisco Symphony, Opera, and Ballet.

The 2018 Blackburn Music Academy Orchestra included 70 youths from nine different countries.


Maestro Joel Revzen, artistic director and principal conductor for Classical Tahoe, led the two young singers, Nadine Sierra and Jonathan Tetelman. This fall, Revzen travels to New York’s Metropolitan Opera House to assist with productions of Turandot, Madame Butterfly, Magic Flute, and others.

Maestro Joel Revzen conducting the Blackburn Music Academy Orchestra.


Executive Producer Charles Letourneau shared his worst nightmare—“When a performer has to cancel, and you have to find a replacement at the last minute. This has happened to me twice during the Festival’s 13 years.” The first time, five years ago, he found Nadine Sierra, a talented soprano then just 25 years old (but an obvious star in the making).

Charles experienced his second last-minute replacement issue this year: This time, Nadine was the headliner and her partner canceling. Happily, Charles found Jonathan Tetelman, who arrived from New York at 2 a.m.—to rehearse and perform at 6 p.m. that very night!

Festival executive producer Charles Letourneau saved the night by finding a last-minute replacement for a singer who had to cancel.

Part of the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Vocal Art Series, Nadine and Jonathan gave a stunning performance of classic and contemporary pieces.

Maestro Revzen exclaimed, “It simply doesn’t get any better than Nadine’s performance,” while Jonathan joked that he’s glad not to be a soprano competing with her.

The crowd went wild over the tenor with the handsome face and the big voice; many of us decided we had discovered the next Pavarotti.

Charles Letourneau, Jonathan Tetelman, and San Francisco Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock.


A surprise encore came courtesy of New York composer Karen LeFrak, who flew in to see the West Coast premiere of her piece “Questa Via.” “I hope we can do it justice,” Nadine said—and they certainly did!

The romantic song brought tears to our eyes and was enthusiastically received. Sitting next to Karen, I loved watching the expression on her face as they performed her composition. What a special finale!

The new star opera soprano Nadine Sierra, only 30 years old, never fails to deliver.

Jonathan Tetelman, Karen LeFrak, Nadine Sierra, and Jeanne Lawrence celebrate after the incredible performance.


After the concert, we enjoyed a superb dinner curated by estate chef Alejandro Ayala of Meadowood Resort.

With so many al fresco events, we were lucky that the weather was perfectly cooperative.

The meal featured an appetizer of prepared perfectly Maine lobster garden salad.

The main course was the most tender beef ribeye with smoked brentwood corn, turnip, and maitake mushrooms.

Jonathan Tetelman, Priscilla Geeslin, and San Francisco Opera President Keith Geeslin.

Lawrence Lui and Gorretti Lo Lui.

Olivia Decker, the new publisher of luxury lifestyle magazine Haute Living, with Teresa Rodriguez and Pamala Deikel.

Opera star Nadine Sierra with Alex Chases and Maria Manetti Shrem.

Maggie Oetgen, Julie Coplon, and Jen Varela.

What a perfect start to the Festival!


Photos by Drew Altizer, Bob McClenahan, Paul E. Richardson, Wikimedia Commons, and Jeanne Lawrence.

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