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By Dan Clarke


Geo Starke photo courtesy of St Helena Star PicmonkeyGeorge Starke photo courtesy of St. Helena StarMy friend George Starke died Saturday.

After serving his country as a naval officer in World War II, George enjoyed a career as a petroleum engineer. He and his wife Bette moved up to the Napa Valley after leaving Standard Oil.

In the early days of his retirement George and Bette were involved in the ownership of Napa Cellars winery, but we met subsequent to that part of his life. George was penning his column, Up and Down the Wine Roads, for the St. Helena Star and I was writing for the California Wine Press. He had taught wine classes for UC Irvine in Southern California and, later, at Napa Valley College. He knew all the major players in Napa’s wine scene and most of the minor ones, too. Though living in Sacramento, I was in the Napa Valley frequently and would always pick up a copy of the Star, mostly to read what George had to say. His column was breezy—sort of a wine country version of those by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Herb Caen—but there was real news in it.

Our paths crossed frequently at winery events. He and Bette were delightful company. She was substitute teaching in the Valley and would sometimes have a story or two to share about how her day had gone. George and I could swap wine writer tales and, on occasion, he’d even ask what I knew about some developing story. Hardly ever would I know more than he did, unless the action was taking place far beyond Napa. Mostly I listened and learned.

Though they were older than I was, George and Bette didn’t seem like it. They were fun to be around and must have been way more adventurous than most of their contemporaries. This morning I spoke to David Stoneberg, Editor of the St. Helena Star, seeking permission to run a picture of George for this article. During our conversation I mentioned a moment with George and Bette at a luncheon in San Francisco about 20 years ago. They had just returned from a trip and George was still feeling the effects of a European skiing accident. I confessed my fear of heights and said I’d stick to cross-country, adding, “But, George, I guess if a man grew up with downhill skiing it’s probably not so intimidating.” That might be so, he concurred, but he hadn’t grown up in the sport. He said he’d taken up skiing just two or three years earlier. Mr. Stoneberg replied that George had long championed the construction of a zipline running out of the Napa hills toward the valley floor. Though the zipline didn’t come to pass, the publisher said George would likely have been the first passenger for such a thrill ride. He showed a zest for life many younger folks might have admired, but didn’t emulate.

George Starke is survived by Bette, his wife of 68 years, sons James and Paul, grandson Zane and granddaughters Elizabeth and Francine.

George had a shorthand for recurring aspects of his column—things like “Didyaknow” and “Rumor Du Jour,” but always ended with what he called a “Caboose Item.”

In David Stoneberg’s obituary, which appeared in both the St. Helena Star and the Napa Register on June 1, 2015, he reprised George’s last Caboose Item which ran in both those papers on May 7th:

“My ballpoint pen has been sputtering lately, so I took it to downtown St. Helena, and was told by several shops that it was running out of ink and could not be repaired.

“The alternative is to replace it with a new pen. At my stage in life, an investment in a new pen seems to be less than prudent. I made several inquiries to find a ‘lend-lease’ arrangement, but none of the merchants seemed interested. So, it appears that the only solution is to, after over a half a century of writing, call it quits. I need to thank all who submitted material to me. And to all of my faithful readers — thank you!”

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