Noe Valley Voice June 2001

Family Adventures Close to Home:
There's No Crying in Bocce

By Janis Cooke Newman

I used to live in New York's Little Italy, in a fifth-floor walkup that looked down on several bocce courts. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon when the weather was warm, these courts would fill with old Italian men in crumpled fedoras and sleeveless T-shirts who played bocce until it got too dark to see.

I'd watch these men from my window as they crouched in their baggy pants and tossed the heavy bocce balls into the air, trying to get them to land as close as possible to a small yellow ball called a pallino. Mostly, these old Italian men spent the majority of their bocce-playing time drinking homemade red wine from jelly glasses and arguing about whose ball was closest. I'd see them standing in a tight circle, measuring the distance between their ball and the pallino with gnarled fingers stretched out into V's. Even from my fifth-floor perch, I could hear them as they took turns uttering, "Beh!", the explosive syllable that all Italians use to convey profound disbelief.

I'm thinking about these old men and their baggy pants as I watch my 6-year-old son, Alex, and his best friend, Aidan, measure off the distance between a pallino and their bocce balls with their sneakers.

"I am the King of Bocce," Alex informs Aidan. "Well, I'm the Captain Underpants of Bocce," Aidan replies.

The boys each take a sip of their chocolate milk and attempt to measure by stretching their small hands into V's.

Their parents pour themselves another glass of wine.

We are at Preston Vineyards, a winery located near the Sonoma town of Healdsburg, a little more than an hour north of San Francisco. Preston is one of the few wineries where your kids won't stand around tugging on your sleeve and telling you how bored they are, while you talk about malalactic fermentation and residual sugar. At Preston, kids can wander through an organic garden planted with kale that looks as if it comes from outer space, sample bread that winery owner Lou Preston bakes in an outdoor adobe oven, and terrorize a couple of roosters. They can also play bocce.

Bocce, it turns out, is a perfect game for kids. It's much more about finesse than strength. So not being strong enough to send the ball crashing into the board at the back of the court is a good thing.

Aidan's parents and my husband and I sit drinking wine at a picnic table beneath a grape arbor. Next to us the boys stand over their bocce balls and argue like old Italian men.

"There's no crying in bocce," Aidan informs his younger brother Dylan, whose ball has been ruled out of play.

Alex makes a Tarzan-like yodel as his ball is deemed to be the closest. The sound briefly stops Aidan's little sister Julia, who is trying to catch a black winery cat with six toes on each paw.

"Just smell the nose on this," says my husband, sliding a glass of Zinfandel beneath my nostrils. I put down my glass of grassy Sauvignon Blanc and sample the Zin.

While our children hurl heavy metal balls down the court and annoy the winery cats, the grownups eat roast chicken and crab cakes, grilled salmon and niçoise olives -- Martha Stewart-like picnic items we bought at the Oakville Grocery in Healdsburg. A grapey breeze ruffles the dusty-green leaves of a row of olive trees near the picnic tables, and bends the tops of a line of tall cypresses. Behind us, the hillside is covered with crisscrossing lines of grapevines forced to grow in T shapes like little people with outstretched arms. It's Italy without the jet lag.

An altercation has broken out on the court about the correct method of resuming play after a player's younger sister has removed the pallino in an attempt to eat it.

My husband calls Alex over and gives him a lecture on good sportsmanship. When he's finished, I whisper something in Alex's ear.

A short time later, the two boys are once again measuring the distance between their bocce balls, this time with a metal yardstick.

"See, mine is closer," Aidan says to Alex, brandishing the yardstick like a sword.

"Beh!" Alex tells him, in a perfect expression of profound disbelief.

Getting to Preston Vineyards

Take the Central Healdsburg exit off 101 north, which will allow you to stop first at the Oakville Grocery, located at 124 Matheson Street on the town square. There you can pick up gourmet picnic supplies, plus macaroni and cheese and Chinese noodles for the kids. Continue north on Healdsburg Avenue. Turn left on Dry Creek Road, left again on Yoakim Bridge Road, and right onto West Dry Creek Road. Follow the signs to Preston Vineyards.

(Preston Vineyards style)

Select two teams of any number of players. Each team gets four bocce balls. Play is begun by flipping a coin. The loser of the toss goes first by throwing out the pallino, and then rolling one ball as close to the pallino as possible. The opposing team then rolls as many balls as necessary until one comes closer to the pallino than the first team's ball.

The object of the game is to score the most points, up to 12. Points are scored by finishing each round with your team's balls closest to the pallino. One point is scored for each ball closer to the pallino than the closest ball of your opponents. Only the team with the closest ball receives points.

If a ball hits the far end of the bocce court, that ball is out of play. It's okay to hit and move the pallino with your ball. It's also okay to hit your opponent's ball. There is no crying in bocce.

Janis Cooke Newman's recently published memoir, The Russian Word for Snow--A True Story of Adoption, is available at Cover to Cover Booksellers and Phoenix Books on 24th Street.

Are We There Yet?is a Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please e-mail or Janis Cooke Newman at