The Komisar Scoop Reports & Analysis by Investigative Journalist Lucy Komisar

Friday, December 29, 2006

France & UK Ignore Corporate Bribery: One Hand Launders the Other

Filed under: Corporate Abuses,Crime & Corruption,Government Abuse,Scoops — Tags: — Lucy Komisar @ 3:35 pm

By Lucy Komisar
Inter Press Service (IPS) – Dec 29, 2006

This month, Siemens, the Germany-based global engineering and electronics company, informed the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that prosecutors investigating the company for corruption have seized bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, two leading “offshore” banking centres.

Investigators in Switzerland, Germany and Italy have been looking into evidence that some of the more thanSiemens half a billion dollars that Siemens — Europe’s largest engineering company by sales — paid to “consultants” since 1999 were in fact bribes.

And an investigative judge in France is looking into charges that French oil and gas giant Total paid bribes to win a two-billion-dollar gas contract in Iran in the late 1990s. Christophe de Margerie, the official who Total logonegotiated the contract, has also been accused of corruption in the Iraq oil-for-food programme. He is scheduled to become Total’s CEO in February.

Evidence was provided by Swiss investigators who froze 82 million dollars in two Swiss bank accounts they believe was a bribe Total paid to an Iranian intermediary to get the Iranian contract.

Just a few years after the mega-corporations Enron and Parmalat focused the attention of the press, the public and politicians on the nefarious use of offshore banks and shell companies set up by Citibank and Chase Bank (now JP Morgan Chase) to cook the books and cheat investors, after the Bank of New York was shown to have moved and laundered billions of dollars for Russian criminals and tax evaders, after the revelations that ex-Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet had used secret bank accounts to hide arms sales kickbacks, the offshore secrecy system is alive and thriving.

What has happened in the French case suggests why. The French investigating magistrate in both Total cases, Philippe Courroye, has a reputation for independence and skill in probing corruption. However, he is being stymied by his own government. At the request of a Swiss magistrate, the French fraud squad seized documents in Total’s headquarters last March, but declined to release them for reasons of “national interest”.

French governments under both the socialists and the conservatives have refused to provide records to another investigating magistrate, Renaud van Ruymbeke, that allegedly show the details of more than one billion dollars in bribes and kickbacks paid by the French arms company Thomson (now Thalès) to Taiwan and French officials for a frigate warships contract.

Money deposited by the alleged “bagman” has been frozen in Swiss accounts. The French excuse: “defence security.” However, many believe it is more likely that the high French officials who got the kickbacks are thinking of their own security.

“National interest” is the same the reason given by Prime Minister Tony Blair when this month he forced the UK Serious Fraud Office to drop its investigation of bribes the British arms company BAE may have paid Saudi officials beginning in the 1980s to win multi-billion-dollar contracts. BAE British arms corp. logoSwiss bank records show that BAE ran an offshore bribery system using Swiss bank accounts and British Virgin Islands shell companies.

The U.S. has also ignored big-time offshore illicit dealing. A still secret report, seen by IPS, based on records seized in the 2002 Operation Spiderweb dragnet coordinated by Italian authorities and involving France, Monaco, Switzerland, Germany, Canada and the U.S. showed that billions of dollars a year was channeled offshore for Russian crime groups through the Bank of New York (BoNY) and other banks, and then to Europe to be invested in legitimate businesses, or returned to mafia-controlled enterprises in Russia.

A U.S. Congressional investigation found that the Bank of New York had moved seven billion dollars from Russia through shell company accounts in the late 1990s. The BoNY network was clearly a major Russian crime operation, yet under President George W. Bush, the U.S. Justice Department’s scrutiny was dropped. BoNY got a verbal slap on the wrist and had to promise to improve examination of clients’ identities and suspicious transfers.

New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau — famous for exposing and prosecuting the BCCI offshore scandal in the early 1990s when George Bush senior’s Justice Department sat on its hands — believed that the department didn’t dig deeply enough. However, U.S. authorities told him not to pursue this case and cut him off from information.

Global Witness, the London-based group that investigates corruption in African extractive industries, has detailed how Angolan heads of state have stolen billions of dollars in revenues that western oil companies such as ChevronTexaco and TotalFinaElf conveniently deposit in offshore accounts run by banks such as Lloyds. Watchdog groups note that Tony Blair’s highly touted “Campaign for Africa” becomes a cruel joke when he refuses to shut down the system that loots those countries’ revenues and prevents them from being self-sustaining.

There are now more than 70 offshore centres that sell bank and/or corporate secrecy, collectively holding deposits worth trillions of dollars. They allow criminals of all stripes, including big-time tax evaders, to set up companies and accounts under fake or borrowed names. Offshore “tax havens” are banking profit centres.

“There is no reason for any country in the world to be permitted to use the common plumbing, the common financial infrastructure that we all use to move money around the world, without guaranteeing that funds can be traced from beginning to end when something goes wrong, whether it goes wrong from sanctions busting, a terrorist, a drug money launderer, a spouse hiding money from a husband, or a wife hiding money from their ex-spouse,” Jonathan Winer, a former deputy assistant U.S. secretary of state for International Law Enforcement, told a Congressional panel in March.

“It does not matter. The transactions need to be traceable, and the information needs to be shared, and the U.S. foreign policy should be focused on that goal because there are a lot of goals that can be accomplished not just for the United States but for a lot of other countries that cannot tolerate what we can tolerate because they are not as wealthy,” he noted.

Experts believe that as much as half the world’s capital flows through offshore centres. Tax havens like the Cayman Islands have 1.2 percent of the world’s population but hold 26 percent of the world’s wealth, including 31 percent of the net profits of U.S. multinationals.

Another few hundred billion come from fraud, corruption and drug trafficking. According to the International Monetary Fund, between 600 billion and 1.5 trillion dollars of illicit money is laundered annually, equal to two to five percent of global economic output — most of it in offshore banking centres.

But Western governments, who may think their banks and corporations are simply ripping off other countries, should take a closer look. They are losing billions of dollars in taxes through offshore tax evasion. A hearing in the U.S. Senate in August detailed how Sam Wyly, famous in the U.S. for financing the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” attack on presidential candidate John Kerry, may be guilty of one of the largest personal tax frauds in U.S. history.

With the help of Bank of America and an offshore network of fake companies in the Isle of Man, he and other members of the family allegedly cheated the country of taxes on nearly a billion dollars.

While the cheating on taxes has an often deadly impact — killing people from poverty-related causes when their governments lack revenues for development — other purposes for which the offshore sector’s opacity can be used have a speedier lethal effect.

In June, police in Spain and France arrested 12 people they said had for 20 years funded the Basque terrorist group ETA through extortion, blowing up businesses of those who refused to pay. They laundered the money through tax havens around the world.

Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who has rejected status quo policies in other respects, may see good reason to reject the do-nothing attitude of his colleagues in the U.S., Britain, Germany and France and press for action to dismantle the worldwide offshore secrecy network.

See article on IPS site.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Poisoned Russian linked to investigation of possible bribes by ex-Yukos official

Filed under: Crime & Corruption,offshore,Russia,Scoops,World — Lucy Komisar @ 2:59 pm

By Lucy Komisar
Dec 27, 2006

Poisoned Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko appears to have been involved in collecting information about Alexei Golubovich, a longtime associate of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the Russian oil company, Yukos. Khodorkovsky is in jail in Russia for tax evasion. Golubovich was a top official of Yukos from 1992 to 2000 and is under house arrest in Italy at the request of Russia which has charged him with fraud and embezzlement.

A woman living in London told the press that she sought out Litvinenko for “book research” and that he told her that he was planning to blackmail some Russian oligarchs who had been targeted by the Russian Federal Security Service because they had looted the country. She did not tell the press that she worked for Golubovich, who fit that description.

The story about the investigation of Golubovich has not been published before.

Litvinenko died in London Nov. 23 from a lethal dose of radioactive polonium-210. He had reportedly been building dossiers on corrupt Russian businessmen.

Yevgeny Limarev, a Russian former intelligence officer who collaborated with Litvinenko, last year visited a couple in Paris — Elena Collongues-Popova, (shown here), who once worked for Golubovich,Elena Collongues-Popova and Roger Kinsbourg, who also had dealings with him — trying to obtain information about Golubovich, particularly about bribes that he might have paid to Lithuanian officials to get control of the state-owned Maziekiu Nafta oil refinery.

A majority share of the refinery was bought by Yukos and lodged in its Netherland subsidiary, Yukos International Ltd. The refinery is managed by Williams International, a US company.

Limarev, reached on his mobile phone, acknowledged meeting with the two. He declined to say anything more and sent an email referring a reporter to his press agent in Lithuania.

“Limarev wanted to know if we had any evidence of bribes being paid by the Golubovich gang or companies to high-ranking civil servants,” Collongues-Popova said by phone from Paris. “He wanted to know about Golubovich’s payments in the Baltic countries.”

Limarev’s name surfaced after the death of Litvinenko, because he reportedly provided to Mario Scaramella, a controversial consultant to an Italian parliamentary commission investigating Russian intelligence connections in Italy, a memo from Russian sources warning that the three men were on a death list organized by Russian secret service agents and ex-military. Scaramella says he informed Litvinenko three weeks before his death. Scaramella was arrested in Naples on Sunday on charges of international arms trafficking.

Limarev says he is an independent consultant, specializing in Russian politics and security issues. He lives in Cluses, France, just across the border from Geneva. Limarev told “Paris Match” this week that after he met Litvinenko in 2001, the two decided to exchange information about the activities of the Russian Mafia and former intelligence agents.

Limarev would have thought Collongues-Popova might know of bribes paid by Golubovich, because when she worked for Golubovich from 1996 to 2000, her job was moving money in and out of secret offshore bank accounts. The transfers, she says, involved insider trading of Russian stocks such as Yukos and also transfers for which she didn’t know the purpose.

The Limarev investigation of Golubovich leads in an unusual triangle back to Litvinenko. Julia Svetlichnaya, a Russian who identified herself as a student, told The (London) Observer this month that she had sought out Litvinenko while doing research for a book on Chechnya. She said that he had documents he planned to use to blackmail Russian businessmen and politicians and that she had emails in which he had tried to involve her in his plots.

However, Svetlichnaya’s interest in Litvinenko might have been more than coincidental. She was communication manager for Golubovich’s company, Russian Investors. Journalist Hilde Harbo wrote Dec. 6th in Aftenposten (Norway) that Svetlichnaya was listed on the Russian Investors website as a contact for its philanthropic equestrian project. Immediately after the article appeared, Svetlichnaya’s name disappeared from the website. However, Golubovich’s webmaster appears ignorant of the fact that nothing ever really gets erased from the internet, and one can find both the earlier and expurgated versions, shown below.

Russian Investors site with and without Julia Svetlichnaya's name
Kinsbourg said Limarev contacted him through a Geneva journalist who knew about Collongues-Popova’s conflict with Golubovich. French tax police had discovered large money transfers she was moving to and from offshore accounts owned by Golubovich, and authorities had ordered her to pay back taxes and penalties that now amount to $15 million. That includes $1 million from a criminal trial in Paris where she was sentenced to a year in prison, suspended provided she paid the taxes and penalties.

When Golubovich refused to take responsibility for the taxes in deals detailed in cartons of documents police seized from her home, she sought to take control of a Swiss account she had run for him but which was listed in her name. That has led to legal battles with her former boss and his wife.

“Limarev’s main interest was to find out if we had proof of Roger Kinsbourg corruption by people in the Russian government,” said Kinsbourg, (shown here). “Golubovich had been involved with Lithuanian Prime Minister [Algirdas] Brazauskas, and Limarev was [also] interested in bribes he might have paid to officials there.” Brazauskas is no longer prime minister.

Kinsbourg explained, “I went to the Baltic countries with Golubovich when we were friends, and we dealt with banks. There were lots of transfers from his offshore companies to the banks in the Baltics.” He added, “Kristina, the wife of the prime minister of Lithuania, was a good friend of Olga Mirimskaya, the wife of Golubovich. Mirimskaya was doing some kind of ‘private banking’ for them.”

According to a report about Golubovich that Limarev gave Collongues-Popova and Kinsbourg, Golubovich gave Kristina Brazauskas “the possibility to use his different offshore accounts for transactions without the setting up of a legal entity and bookkeeping.” The report, in an English translation obtained by Kinsbourg, says, “The SVR [Russian Special Secret Service] is aware of the relationship of Brazauskas and his spouse with Golubovich and Mirimskaya. Possibly, this information could be used as pressure means against Brazauskas.”

“The information he had seemed to be from Lithuanian intelligence dealing with Russian intelligence,” Kinsbourg commented. “He came and brought this information. He was expecting we would give him some information he could negotiate or leverage somewhere else. He was very shady, moody, not a guy you would trust.”

Kinsbourg recalled, “I said to Limarev, ‘Listen, money was transferred to offshore companies, but we didn’t know who were the beneficial owners.’ We gave him the names of the banks in the Baltics where money was sent. They were Saules Banka in Riga, Latvia (corresponding bank: Bankers Trust, New York), Estonia Forex Bank in Tallin, Estonia (Bankers Trust, New York) and Optiva Bank in Tallin, Estonia (Bankers Trust, New York). We have a lot of information about transfers to banks when Golubovich was signing in lieu of Elena because of Elena’s [tax] problem here.” Corresponding banks run accounts for foreign banks, allowing them to move clients’ money into the corresponding bank’s country.

More connections to the Russian government appear in the report Limarev provided. It says, “It is very important to note that within the framework of Yukos suits, Golubovich was taken to court neither [as] the accused nor [as] the witness. But he became the important confidential adviser to the FSB [Russian intelligence].”

Golubovich needed Russian friends because he was in conflict with former Yukos associates, Leonid Nevzlin and Mikhail Brudno, over control of the Maziekiu Nafta (MN) oil refinery as well as over his share of Yukos assets in Holland, Switzerland and the Czech Republic. The report says, “Golubovich is negotiating with [the] Kremlin represented by Igor Sechin and the siloviki [former KGB agents]. He is trying to get support from them to take Nevzlin[‘s] share away from Yukos (including MN),with the following transfer of these assets to RussNeft/Setchin.”

The report continued, “The problem is the Kremlin doesn’t trust Golubovich and is suspicious that he is playing a double game (on behalf of Nevzlin) or he is trying to get Yukos’s remaining assets.”

Russian companies had wanted the plant, which was built to run on Russian crude oil. However, when Lithuania privatized the refinery in 1999, it looked for a non-Russian buyer in order to reduce Moscow’s influence in Lithuania. It sold a strategic stake to the American firm, Williams. That company had financial difficulties and sold control to Yukos.

Kinsbourg added, “Limarev was also trying to find out information about Stephen Curtis.” Curtis was the London-based Yukos official who was killed in a suspicious helicopter crash in 2004. He had been involved in organizing offshore shell companies and bank accounts through which Yukos and other Menatep companies cheated minority investors and tax authorities.

A third Yukos connection comes in the media reports from Spain that Litvinenko had provided information that contributed to the arrest in May of nine members of the Russian mafia, including Alexander Gofstein, a lawyer for Yukos.

Golubovich indicated in an interview with the Russian daily, Moskovsky Komsomolets, in December 2005, that he was being pushed out and prevented from having his share of Menatep assets and that he had been threatened by some Menatep shareholders. He noted, “I prefer to go to court rather than wait for an explosion or poisoning.” However, this year Golubovich was forced to sell his shares in Group Menatep.

At the same time, Golubovich’s good relationship with the Russian authorities appears to have collapsed. In May after he flew into Pisa, Italy, he was detained at the request of Russian authorities who accused him of fraud and embezzlement of $283 million, the amount that Menatep, the Khodorkovsky holding company which also owns Yukos, reneged on investing when it bought Apatit, Russia’s largest fertilizer company. Platon Lebedev, one of Yukos’s major shareholders, was charged with the same offense and is now in prison.

If Limarev and Litvinenko were investigating Golubovich, they had more than one likely client.

© Lucy Komisar / The Komisar Scoop
Photos of Collongues-Popova and Kinsbourg by Lucy Komisar.
For permission to reprint this article or use photos, contact editors (at)

Friday, December 1, 2006

Sophisticated week-end in San Francisco and the Wine Country

Filed under: Travel — Lucy Komisar @ 1:14 am

Fascination with “the grape” draws visitors to Sonoma County


By Lucy Komisar

Northern California is a magical place that is a model for the sophisticated urban-plus-country living we’d all have if the world was organized by smart people. Spending a long weekend there in the fall makes one put it on the short list of where to live if you ever moved from where you are. We landed in San Francisco for a taste of classy city chic, then moved on to the wine country, passing through forest and beach on the way.

Omni Hotel, San Francisco, photo Lucy Komisar.

Omni Hotel, San Francisco, photo Lucy Komisar.

When you fly in to San Francisco, an excellent place to stay is the Omni Hotel on California Street at the base of Nob Hill in the financial district, steps from Chinatown and Union Square. The 17-story building was the first skyscraper in the city, constructed in 1926 with a bank on the ground floor. It was damaged in 1989 by the Loma Pietra earthquake and boarded up for ten years.

Omni Hotels bought and reopened it in 2002. The design copies the original décor in a rich Florentine Renaissance look with marble chandeliers, thick carpets and tapestries, and high ceilings. The dining room is of traditional dark mahogany, the walls hung with vintage black and white photographs of the city in the 1920s. The Omni serves luxuriant breakfasts in the morning and later metamorphoses into Bob’s Steak & Chop House. The financial district set visits the bar in the evening.

Chinatown, photo Lucy Komisar.

Chinatown, photo Lucy Komisar.

On Saturday morning, we and five other visitors gathered at the bar to meet a guide from the free San Francisco City Guides walking tour. It departs from the hotel every Saturday at 10 am.

Our tour was of Chinatown, and, not surprising for San Francisco, the guide’s repartee was “progressive,” with some fascinating history about the discrimination suffered by the 19th-century Chinese immigrants to California. She showed us the house in an alleyway where Chinese nationalist leader Sun Yat Sen had lived in exile. She pointed out a statue of Robert Louis Stevenson, who fell in love with a San Franciscan and moved to the city. We stopped for samples at a fortune cookie factory. She stopped at the building where the Chinese immigrants’ children –deprived of education – had finally been able to go to school. This wasn’t just a tour of buildings, but a glimpse into history.

Then we checked out of the Omni and started out on a highlight of the trip, a visit to the Sonoma County wine country. Driving across the Golden Gate Bridge, we stopped at the Muir Woods, a national park that protects and preserves and features the glorious Redwoods. Park rangers are posted at key places to give talks about botanical lore. From the forest, we headed to the Pacific Ocean and lunch at a fish shack at Stinson Beach and then walked on the sand to gaze at the Pacific.

Lobby of FountainGrove, photo Lucy Komisar.

Lobby of FountainGrove, photo Lucy Komisar.

By the time we reached Santa Rosa, we were delighted that our destination, the FountainGrove Inn, was perfectly located just off Highway 101: no need to go searching. We were ready to sample the first taste of local wines at the hotel wine bar and were delighted to discover that it was also a piano bar, presided over by Ron Cameron, an old time movie actor, now 80. “What roles did you do?” we asked. “I played in movies for Columbia… good guys, bad guys!” he replied with a twinkle. But now he plays standards such as “I’ll be seeing you” and “The nearness of you.” Requests for those songs yielded an artful, jazzy medley.

The theme of the FountainGrove, a low, spread-out hotel with a lot of dark wood and a hint of the Japanese influence that infuses California, is horses. There’s a bronze horse head in the sky-lighted, rock-walled lobby, and the gourmet restaurant is called “Equus.” We had dinner there in a comfortable room with low lights, modern art, and huge vases with gorgeous blooms. From the California menu by Jeff Reilly, I chose a seafood sampler of Dungeness crab cake with tomato ginger relish, seared dayboat scallop with curry coconut sauce, oyster on half shell with Mignoette sauce, and Ahi poke with Tobiko caviar. A wonderful palette of flavors. Then the main course of delectable sea bass with watercress, leek and white wine cream sauce. And, of course, Sonoma wine. Jeff Reilly, in charge of the kitchen, is a Five Star Diamond-rated chef, a high national honor in the trade.

In the morning, we barely had to fall out of bed to arrive at the Paradise Ridge winery a five-minute drive away. This is a boutique winery owned and run by the Byck family with a total production of only 5,000 cases. Paradise Ridge wines are made from small lots of Sonoma County grapes.

Paradise Ridge wine, photo Lucy Komisar.

Paradise Ridge wine, photo Lucy Komisar.

It’s on a gorgeous site, high on a ridge overlooking the Russian River Valley. From the inside tasting room or on the deck, there’s a view of the hills. And group tastings of one or two whites and two to three reds are free. You can bring a snack and sit on the deck or in the champagne cellar. On summer Wednesdays, people bring picnics, buy wine and watch the sun set over the coastal hills.

The wine is good! Mishka Lord, who organized a tasting for us, explained proudly that the 2002 Rockpile Cabernet Sauvignon at $35 won a best of class gold from Harvest Fair of Sonoma County against $60 cabs and others. “Cabs” are what the trade calls cabernet sauvignons. And this winery is only 13 years old! Rockpile, Mishka said, is a new cult appellation.

The Paradise Ridge champagne cellar features an exhibit about Kanaye Nagasawa, the first Japanese wine maker in the US whose vineyard can be viewed from the balcony. He had been a samurai, left Japan to study the western economy, and became an important Sonoma County viticulturist and enologist, founding the Fountaingrove Round Barn and winery in Santa Rosa in 1875. It won international acclaim. Nagasawa died in 1934. The FountainGrove Inn has bought and is restoring the dilapidated Round Barn which he built in 1899 and is adjacent to the hotel.

Japanese Gate at Paradise Ridge Wood Sculpture grove, photo Lucy Komisar.

Japanese Gate at Paradise Ridge Wood Sculpture grove, photo Lucy Komisar.

When it’s time for a walk, it’s nice to amble through the Paradise Ridge Wood Sculpture grove, featuring a huge Japanese gate as well as quirky modern art. Owner Walter Byck, a retired radiologist who married into a wine-making family, is proud of his outdoor art gallery.

We drove east to our next stop, Arrowood, another family winery, started in 1986 by Richard and Alis Demers Arrowood. Winemaker Richard practices organic farming, using stems, skin and seeds to return nutrients to the soil. The winery’s own soil is volcanic, which provides a higher class of fruit. The grapes that make his wine are all from Sonoma County. Arrowood produces 25,000 cases a year, mostly chardonnay, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon.

Arrowood Winery tasting, photo Lucy Komisar.

Arrowood Winery tasting, photo Lucy Komisar.

Roseanne DeBenneditti gave us a tour through the vineyard, the cellars and the production facilities where she talked about the wine-making process. She explained that Arrowood uses natural instead of commercial methods. For example, it lets sediment settle naturally, which takes longer, rather than using filtration pads or egg whites to sop up the sediment, which harms the character. Look for “unfiltered” on the label. Arrowood uses real oak barrels, while some wineries use oak chips. And it practices organic farming, planting cover crops to give nutrients back to the soil.

Visitors can take those tours, along with sit-down tastings, if they reserve in advance. On a nice day, people can sit on the veranda overlooking the vineyard and hills. At our tasting, an unusual treat was an Auslese white Riesling, a sweet wine perfect with fruit-based deserts and salty cheeses. Auslese refers to wine made from grapes that are allowed to stay on the vines until the frost. Offering a hint of his own preferences, Richard’s license plate says “Auslese”!

Roseanne told us that there is now a move in Sonoma County toward biodynamic farming in which planting is done according to the cycles of the moon. Organic-biodynamic farming has been adopted by Joe Benziger of the wine-growing Benziger family, and so we next proceeded to his vineyard, just down the road from Arrowood, where we could find out about that.

Rod, who was pouring for our tasting at this next winery, explained that Mike Benziger came to California from White Plains, NY, in the 1980s. Sonoma Mountain was sacred to Indians, and Benziger wanted to respect the land. Rod said that Joe Benziger discovered biodynamic farming and moved to it in 1993. Now his wines are made from grapes grown in biodynamic vineyards.

Benziger’s vineyard tasting, photo Lucy Komisar.

Benziger’s vineyard tasting, photo Lucy Komisar.

So just what is biodynamic farming? Rod explained that it involves establishing natural elements for a sustainable economic system. The Benziger grape farmers put bat houses and insectories in the vineyards, not pesticides. Instead of filtering, they depended on the tidal pull of the moon. “What!” I declared in disbelief. He explained, “There is high pressure at the full moon. The wine rises with the tidal pull, and the sediment compresses.” That’s when they turn the barrel. Then he said, “On the equinox, we have to bury bullhorns filled with asylica crystals from a volcano in Arkansas.” Well, that seemed pretty fishy to me, but who knows!

Benziger’s vineyard was certified for organic farming in 2000 by Demeter in Germany. Certification can take three years; it’s harder than being certified by the FDA. Now, Rod said, Benziger is moving to an all-organic process and getting FDA-certified as organic.

We learned that this unusual vineyard has another special feature. In the 1980s, the Benzigers’ Glen Ellen winery produced 4 million cases a year. In 1984 year it got some special grapes. Joe Benziger’s friend Bob Nugent created the Glen Ellen “Imagery” series, commissioning painters to design creative labels. Rod said, “Now there are 8000 cases a year of the oddball thing!” And the labels – all paintings which, in one way or another, show the Parthenon – are on the walls of the large tasting area where people can arrive without reservations. There is no formal tour.

Wolf House restaurant, photo Lucy Komisar.

Wolf House restaurant, photo Lucy Komisar.

That evening, we relaxed at dinner at the Wolf House Restaurant, on the banks of Sonoma Creek and part of the historic Jack London Saloon and Lodge. London lived on a ranch in the area from 1905 until his death in 1916. I could see the creek from our table in the charming country purple and beige dining room that recaptures the feeling of London’s early 20th-century years. The music was jazzy Satchmo and Billy Holliday.

All the food at the Wolf House is seasonal. To start, we ordered forest mushrooms with Parmesan Tuile, micro salad and truffle essence along with a salad of Fuyu persimmon and goat cheese Napoleon with lollo rosso greens and endive. Then basil crusted lamb rack and cider brined pork chop with roasted apples. They were sensuously flavorful. We were delighted that the wine list featured Imagery burgundy! The kitchen is presided over by executive chef Chris Kennedy Aken.

The Imagery wine got us into a discussion with owner Elaine Neally about biodynamics. She was very much in favor. She explained, “It means you make better use of the environment. It means you generate more of own things — power through solar, your own compost. It means no sod runoff into drainage. You take better care of land and the community as a whole.”

San Francisco Solano de Sonoma Mission, photo Lucy Komisar

San Francisco Solano de Sonoma Mission, photo Lucy Komisar

The center of the “community,” if there is one, might be the town of Sonoma. (Santa Rosa is bigger, but Sonoma is more charming.) It is worth a visit. The 1835 town square is surrounded by old adobe buildings. The San Francisco Solano de Sonoma Mission, built in 1823, changed its function when Mexico secularized all missions into parish churches in 1834. Now it is run by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. Visitors can see exhibits in five original rooms, including the bell room, dining room, chapel and courtyard. In 1832, some 900 American Indians worked the 10,000 acres of land; a plaque now recognizes and honors “those Native Americans who died during this Mission’s 11-year existence.”


If you go

Omni San Francisco Hotel, photo Lucy Komisar.

Omni San Francisco Hotel, photo Lucy Komisar.

Omni San Francisco Hotel
500 California St
San Francisco, CA 94104
(415) 677-9494

There are 362 rooms with have high ceilings with mahogany and cherry wood furniture. You can book a Kids Fantasy Suite with bunk beds and beanbag chairs and plenty of games and toys, as well as a “Captain Cool” concierge to read bedtime stories; available end of May through Sept. Or reserve a “Get Fit” room with a treadmill, dumb-bells, a floor mat and stretch cords. Plus there’s a health club with exercise machines and weights. And free wifi.

Muir Woods National Monument
Mill Valley, California 94941-2696
Visitor Information (415) 388-2596
Visitor Information (Recorded Message) (415) 388-2595

FountainGrove Inn, photo Lucy Komisar.

FountainGrove Inn, photo Lucy Komisar.

FountainGrove Inn
101 FountainGrove Parkway
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
(800) 222-6101
(707) 578-6101
Fax (707) 544-9374

An hour’s drive from San Francisco. There are 124 guestrooms and suites decorated in hues of gold, sage and sienna. Pool and spa. Free wifi. Facilities for meetings and conferences.

Equus Restaurant: Starters focus on seafood; main courses of fish, duck, pork steak and lamb. Bring your own wine for corkage.

Paradise Ridge Vineyards & Winery sculpture, photo Lucy Komisar.

Paradise Ridge Vineyards & Winery sculpture, photo Lucy Komisar.

Paradise Ridge Vineyards & Winery
4545 Thomas Lake Harris Drive
Santa Rosa, CA 95403
(707) 528-9463
Fax (707) 528-9481
Free tastings 11 to 5, daily. Private tastings for a fee, and you can keep the glass as a souvenir! For more, you get private tastings with cheese plus a tour of production facilities, explanation of wine making, and in March, barrel tastings.

Weddings, receptions, and events for groups of ten or more. The Paradise Found Wine Club provides two bottles of pre-selected wines at a discount three times a year. No membership fee. (707) 528-9463 or

Arrowood Vineyards and Winery wine, photo Lucy Komisarl

Arrowood Vineyards and Winery wine, photo Lucy Komisarl

Arrowood Vineyards and Winery
14347 Sonoma Highway
Glen Ellen, CA 95442
(707) 935-2600
Fax (707) 938-5947

Tastings 10 to 4:30 daily, except major holidays. Reservations required for private tour and tasting, but not for tasting at the bar. Guided tastings at the bar and walk around property to see crush pad and outside facilities. More for private guided sit-down tastings at 10:30 and 2:30, which lasts from 1 to 1 ½ hrs. Reservations 3 weeks in advance for week-ends; 1 to 2 weeks in advance for midweek.

Imagery Estate Winery artistic bottle, photo Lucy Komisar.

Imagery Estate Winery artistic bottle, photo Lucy Komisar.


Imagery Estate Winery
Benzier Winery
14335 Sonoma Highway
Glen Ellen, CA 95442
(707) 935-4515
(877) 550-4278 toll free

All tastings are walk-ins except for large groups. Visitors stand at the bar or sit on the patios. Prices for bar variety wine and for reserve wine tasting. There is no formal tour of production facilities. The larger Benziger winery has a tour every hour on the half hour on which visitors see the vineyard, the crush pad, and the cellars and learn about biodynamic farming. There is a wine club for mail order sales.

Wolf House restaurant, photo Lucy Komisar.

Wolf House restaurant, photo Lucy Komisar.

Wolf House Restaurant
13740 Arnold Drive
Glen Ellen, CA 95442
(707) 996-4401

Starters of smoked salmon, paté, pasta and salads; main courses including pasta, fish, quail, chicken, steak and lamb.

Sonoma State Historic Park
363 3rd Street West
Sonoma, CA 95476
(707) 938-9560

Visits 10 am to 5 pm. Entrance fee includes all historic sites in town.

Sonoma County Tourism Bureau

Hotels in the town of Sonoma
El Dorado Hotel, (800) 289-3031.
The Sonoma Hotel, (800) 468-6016.

Café Citti, 9049 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, (707) 833-2690. A good casual, inexpensive place for lunch where patrons order pastas, salads and other dishes at the counter and have food served at small tables with a view of the hills.

Maps and guides from Insight.
California Wine Country fleximap. This was invaluable as we drove through the wine country. San Francisco fleximap. Northern California Insight Pocket Guide, with a pullout map. The pocket guides help one navigate to the key sites to see in each area. San Francisco Insight Pocket Guide, with a pullout map. San Francisco Insight Pocket Map. A handy pop-up map that fits into the smallest purse or pocket.

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