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Festival del Sole: The Crash Course

Adam L. Brinklow | June 24, 2014 | Lifestyle Story Culture

Festival del Sole, the ten-day Napa Valley festival of wine and song, likes to bill itself as presenting the best of North Bay culture. But what if you aren't the cultured type? Well, you can at least fake it with this handy cheat sheet.

The Music
Violinist Joshua Bell plays opening night, July 11. Dubbed the "rock star of classical music," Bell is the most lauded violinist of his generation. His 301-year-old Stradivarius violin has been stolen twice in in its life (both times before Bell bought it). He'll be playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons. At the July 20 opera gala, Soprano Maria Agresta and tenor Matthew Polenzani will sing arias by Rosinni, Bellini and Pucinni, a kind of Greatest Hits collection of Italian operas. And to complete the trifecta of highbrow, intellectual musical genres, acclaimed jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval plays July 13. If you need a reference point for his music you can alway look up his Oscar performance with Celine Dione and his Grammy performance with Justin Timberlake.

The Dance
Performers are flying in from four different schools and three countries, the American Ballet Theatre, National Ballet of Canada, the Berlin StaatsBallett, and the Stuttgart Ballet. (Chanting "USA, USA!" is not recommended.) Some random notes: The American Ballet Theater's Polina Semionova is a bona fide viral hit: Her 2012 YouTube video has over 2 million views. American Sarah Lane was Natalie Portman's dance double in Black Swan. Canadian husband-and-wife team Heather Ogden and Guillaume Côté are high school sweethearts. Mehmet Yumak is German but studied dance in Istanbul. Swan Lake, Romeo & Juliet, and Sleeping Beauty are all titles you should already recognize. Eugene Onegin is based on the Great Russian Novel of the same title, about a disaffected aristocrat. Le Spectre de la Rose is a German short ballet that's literally about a girl dancing with a rose. The dances will all be pas de deuxs, which is just a fancy word for a duet, usually a love story. And if at any point you find yourself wondering what the big deal is, remember that dancers are athletes as well as artists: ballet is basically a grueling gymnastics routine made more grueling by the fact that it has to look effortless.

The Wine
This is Napa, after all. You came for the wine. If you don't have a head for varietals but just want to sound smart, pick a tasting that provides a lot to work with: The July 14 Vintner's Collection features a concert (pianist Marika Bournaki), an art showing, and a catered lunch, so if you find yourself short on things to say about the wine, there's plenty of diversions. Still, wine is not really that hard: Young reds are purple, older ones are brick red. Wine-barreled whites have a honey color, while others are close to transparent or even a little greenish. Give it a good sniff first and you'll have a decent idea what it tastes like before you put it in your mouth. If it tastes hot then it's heavy on the alcohol, and if it dries your mouth out that means it's heavy on tannin. Merlots should be plummy and Cabernet Sauvignon should be grassy. You'll get the hang of it. If you want to order something obscure, ask for an orange wine—white wine made with more grape skin than usual, making it darker. Some snootier critics don't like them, but they're all the rage in Italy. Or try a Charbono, a red "cult wine" rarely offered (there are probably only about 100 acres growing in the county) but rabidly pursued. Even if they don't have it, at least it'll start a discussion, and you can just quietly take notes.

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