Casino crossroads leads to wine country

By Paul Giambroni

Trying to bring 65,000 poker players together is no easy task. I have learned over the years that the only way to round up a readership that size is to find the poker trail and follow it. While not necessarily visible to the naked eye, it exists as surely as a black hole.

Like a black hole, the trail has a way of sucking you in. Most people probably think it begins and ends with the casinos. They would be dead wrong. The real trail begins with the places in between. My job is to follow this trail religiously and sprinkle a few poker papers along the way.

There’s a hotel in Vacaville that stands out in particular when it comes to poker friendly. America’s Best Value Inn is located where Highway 80 meets the Interstate 505 cutoff. I call this place the “casino crossroads” because along this multi-headed travel corridor lies a smorgasbord of casinos.

Theoretically, you could leave the hotel at 9:00 o’clock in the morning and have breakfast at the Napa Valley Casino in American Canyon, followed by lunch at The California Grand in Pacheco. Then you could go right back up Highway 80 to Sacramento’s own Capitol Casino for an afternoon snack. From there you could easily have dinner at the Lucky Derby in Citrus Heights before ending your evening at either Thunder Valley in Lincoln or Towers Casino up in Grass Valley.

Perhaps both—theoretically.

It gets better. Behind the hotel’s front desk is a guy I call Jimmy the Middleman. He’s earned that nickname by demonstrating his knowledge of the trail. If you want to know about any casino, restaurant, bar, menu, or happy hour in the area you better see Jimmy. He was right on the mark when he recommended the fish tacos at the neighboring Murillo’s Mexican Restaurant. They were so good that I ordered them several times over the course of the week.

By the way, Murillo’s bartenders Deena, Fina, and Terri did a great job of handling the circus that comes with playoff football. They had a beautiful collection of crazed sports fans, beer drinkers, and high quality food. Best of all, they go through poker papers as fast as any place I’ve ever seen. (A special thanks to the gals for returning my cell phone to me the day after the 49er game. I must have been distracted.)

A week later I was working the trail as it winds through Napa Valley. I’m fortunate to have found another poker friendly manager at the Napa Valley Hotel and Suites who has demonstrated a propensity for going through poker papers. Gary Dent was another version of Jimmy the Middleman in that he gave me the scoop on every place in downtown Napa. He also provided me with an exceptionally tidy and convenient room that was only a two-minute walk to everything on the grid.

Under his watchful eye I found another good place for fish tacos. There is a restaurant around the corner that is so good you can smell it before you see it. Called the Bistro Sabor, I discovered the joy of eating fish tacos made with pan seared salmon and diced pineapples while watching another patron consume the poker paper along with his succulent meal.

The owner was a guy who looked much too young to have his own restaurant—especially one this good. His name is Ariel Cejas and he impressed me with his knowledge and the variety of pan-Hispanic dishes on his menu. Over the next few minutes I learned that his Uncle Gus (from downtown Napa’s “Gustavo Thrace”) was the real life character in one of my favorite movies, “Bottleshock” about the origins of Napa Valley’s wine makers rise to prominence. Imagine the odds!

From Napa I followed the trail northwest. Along the way I dropped a few papers at a gorgeous setting in Sonoma called the Nicholson Ranch Winery. The two guys I usually see, Charles and Lance, are more interested in teaching you about wine than they are selling it. I like that. It makes me want to buy something!

Later, I moved up to Hopland to visit with Bob Meadows at the Graziano Family of Wines tasting room. Bob is another engaging individual who loves to educate people about the art of making wine. I look forward to learning something new every time I see him. The lesson that day was about how California wildfires and their smoky environment can wreak havoc on the grapes. Less demand for smoke damaged fruit. Ouch.

I always look forward to trading a handful of poker papers for a handful of his newsletters—very interesting as well as educational. Apparently, there are a few wine connoisseurs/poker players who share the same trail.

I ended my northern tour of the wine country in Ukiah. Normally, my trip begins to slow down by this point, except this time I got a call from Lynn Mueck, the table games director at Coyote Valley Casino. Apparently, they are expanding their poker room and sports bar! With breaking news literally falling into my lap I decided to lay down an extra thick layer of poker papers before finally calling it quits.

At the end of the day I was exhausted from the schmooze cruise and needed a good place to crash. I landed at the Ukiah Comfort Inn and Suites. It was the obvious choice because not only are their beds large and comfortable—like the name implies—they’re also only five minutes from Coyote Valley. Around here, convenience and comfort are a prerequisite when the dust settles on the trail.

As I lay there rewinding the week’s events in my head I realized that I had made over 400 stops and delivered 15,000 papers in the last seven days. The way work, food, drink, accommodations, parking, deliveries and football blended together seamlessly made it easier than I ever thought possible.

It also felt good to watch our papers disappear before my very eyes—like pokerseeds blowin’ in the wind!

This article is dedicated to Dr. Malcolm Ghazal at Sierra Orthopedic in Fresno. Without his help the poker trail, and thus this column, would have been a lot shorter and a lot less fun.