Smith: Americans and Australians make good mates — and good wine

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You know it’s a good party if half or more of the people there are speaking Australian.

An upscale wine reception the other day on the patio at Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards celebrated, generally, the first 100 years of the U.S.-Australia “mateship.” More specifically, it toasted the role that a lovable, productive corps of folks from Down Under play in the North Coast wine scene.

Playing host to the soirée were the Australian consul general and Australian expat Mick Schroeter, Sonoma-Cutrer’s head winemaker.

“It’s quite remarkable how many Australians are working in the wine industry over here,” Schroeter told his guests.

It wouldn’t have been a party, of course, without fellow Penfolds wines alum Daryl Groom, one of Australia’s most esteemed vintners who moved to Healdsburg with his wife, Lisa.

The reception’s guest of honor was Jeff Bleich, a down-to-earth, organically charming guy who isn’t Australian but from 2009 to 2013 served as U.S. ambassador to Australia. Before that, he was special counsel to President Obama.

Addressing the trans-Pacific crowd at Sonoma-Cutrer, Bleich at once came clean with his most current new role: as part of the leadership shake-up at beleaguered PG&E, he’s the new chairman of the utility’s board.

Aware of the regard in which PG&E is widely held in areas clawing back from firestorms, he said he was glad that finger food was being served so guests gripped no sharp instruments.

Taking in the faces, the vines and the flavor of speech that evoked his days as ambassador, Bleich declared, “It’s good to be back in Australia.”


THE WHEEL DEAL: The Ironman Santa Rosa triathlon was far from over, except for the guy out on Highway 128 in Alexander Valley with a permanently deflated bike tire.

Competitor DeShon Davis of Southern California sat at the side of the highway when there appeared just the man he needed.

Rick Bates, an off-duty sergeant with the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety, was pedaling the Ironman course as a volunteer. He and other members of the Roving Bike Support Team watched for riders in need of a quick repair or other assistance.

Bates, himself an Ironman veteran, saw at once that Davis was having a bad day. His bike’s front tire, of the type known as a tubular or sew-up, was punctured and beyond repair.

“Once they pop, you’re pretty much done,” Bates said.

Bates knew that if Davis, who’d already swum 2.4 miles at Lake Sonoma, did not finish the 112-mile bike race he wouldn’t qualify to compete in the concluding 26.2-mile marathon in Santa Rosa or advance in Ironman standings.

There was just one thing to do. And Bates did it.

He removed the front tire and wheel from his own bicycle, and he and Davis installed it on Davis’ bike.

“I’ve done that race,” the sergeant said. “I’ve finished Ironman and I wanted others to have that experience. I’d hope somebody would do the same for me.”

As the grateful athlete pedaled off, Bates used his cellphone to arrange for himself and his no longer rideable bike to be picked up.

Hours later, he and Davis reconnected in downtown Santa Rosa to swap triathlon stories and also front tires and wheels.

You can reach Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 or

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