Fried Chicken and Frosé Fuel the Bocce Battles of Napa Valley

When wine industry friends compete at bocce, both the competition and refreshments are fierce.

The Bocce Battles of Napa Valley
Photo: José Mandojana

It's 8 p.m. on a summer night at St. Helena's Crane park, and the balls are rolling.

The name of the game is bocce. The teams battling it out, at least on this court, are the Sand Crabs—so named, apparently, because when you play bocce you sort of shuffle along like a crab before you bowl — and Balls on Ya. The overhead lights are bright; with 17 teams on eight courts, there are a hundred people here, easy, mostly in the wine business in one way or another.

Bocce is a simple game. There's a long dirt court, sort of like a shuffleboard court. Whoever starts off stands at one end and tosses the golf-ball-size white pallino down to the other end. Then, teams take turns rolling larger colored balls down the court, trying to get as close as possible to the pallino. Closest ball wins. (There's more to it than that, but you get the idea.) Bocce is one of the best sports on earth because you can play it with a wineglass in one hand. And when everyone on your team works in wine and you are playing in the heart of Napa Valley, what goes in those glasses is really, really good.

To wit: At the Sand Crabs table tonight, there are bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon from K. Laz Wine Collection and Marston Family Vineyard, some Newfound Grenache from the Shake Ridge Vineyard out in Amador County, a few bottles of Champagne (why not?), and too many others to keep track of. And Solo cups. But there are none of those plastic Govino glasses, which is odd, because Alexa Cutler, one of the team captains, works for Govino. "The ongoing thing is she can't get us Govino glasses," says Josh Phelps, the owner of Grounded Wine Co. "It's weird." Phelps himself is holding a moisture-beaded cup of frosé; he borrowed the frosé machine from a friend's restaurant for the night, and he has been making boozy slushies for everyone using his own Space Age Rosé. Short version: how to be the most popular guy around on a steamy summer evening.

Team Players

The Bocce Battles of Napa Valley
José Mandojana

Andrew Wright ; Winemaker, Merryvale Vineyards St. Helena, California

Kerrin Laz ; Owner, K. Laz Wine CollectionYountville, California

Josh Dempsey (and daughter Quinn); Regional director, Vanguard Properties , St. Helena, California

Audra Chapman ; Co-owner, Newfound Wines , St. Helena, California

Erin Dempsey ; Marketing director, JD Napa Valley , St. Helena, California

Josh Phelps ; Owner and winemaker, Grounded Wine Co. , St. Helena, California

Someone yells, "Nice roll for living on a boat for the last decade!" Not clear who the player is or why they were living on a boat, but yes, definitely, a nice roll, with the ball — red, unfortunately, which means not the Sand Crabs but Balls on Ya — knocking into the pallino with a gentle tock and nudging the Sand Crabs' green ball farther away at the same time. Things are looking dicey for the Crabs. "We don't regularly win," Kerrin Laz observes with a shrug. "Our food and wine though? Definitely top five."

The guys who win? Those are the much-feared (well, sort of) Hone Dogs, who are known for being both good and extremely competitive. They show up in sleeveless white T-shirts and straw cowboy hats, come armed with tape measures (to check distance in disputed situations), and are known, I'm told, for once playing a game at the old folks' home down the valley and completely crushing the 80-year-olds they were up against. Zero mercy. "All these ladies with walkers were like, 'Yeah, I'm not going to play anymore,'" Phelps says. "I mean, our team is not as aggressive as I'd like. I play to win. But come on."

The Bocce Battles of Napa Valley
José Mandojana

The other competition going on here is the food, and it's equally hard-fought. The picnic tables are loaded. For the Crabs tonight, it's deviled eggs (from Genova Delicatessen down in Napa), buttermilk fried chicken (chef Thomas Keller's recipe, which cannot be beat), a platter of caprese salad with tomatoes from the St. Helena farmers market, and Phelps' sweet-salty watermelon salad with feta. Across the way, someone has enough birria to feed, well, a large bocce team, with tortillas filled with cheese sizzling on a grill, not to mention chips, guac, rice, peppers — the works. Other tables are similarly ambitious. There's a definite competitive vibe, but it's all in service of fun.

Around 10 p.m., the last teams — Sand Crabs among them — are wrapping up. The lights are still on. The Northern California stars wheel overhead. Final score: 12 to 5. The Crabs were 10 and 32 last season, not exactly playoff material. "Bro, that was baller!" someone on another court yells. Tock! But even with tonight's loss, this season is looking better. Maybe not Hone Dog level, maybe the old guys on the Paisans will still crush them, but better. Hope springs eternal. Here, have that last piece of fried chicken.

The Bocce Battles of Napa Valley
José Mandojana

The Wines

2020 Grounded Wine Co. Cabernet Sauvignon ($18)

Winemaker and team member Josh Phelps' luscious California Cabernet is a steal at the price.

2021 Newfound Rosé ($30)

A blend of Grenache and Mourvèdre gives this snappy rosé gorgeous aromatics.

2019 Merryvale Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($36)

Winemaker Andrew Wright barrel-ferments this lemony, zesty white for additional richness.

2018 Laz Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($165)

Kerrin Laz enlisted noted winemaker Celia Welch to make this polished, powerful red.

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