Category Archives: Travel

Go Slowly

My journey began at a whirlwind pace that pushed me to spend as much time documenting the adventure as I did living it.  Many important points did not make their way into the sprawling posts that attempted to record whole weeks on the road.  The pace has gradually slowed and now I have decided to set up shop in Monterey for as long as I can manage so that I may recount the details in my woefully scattered notes.  Of course I will continue to seek new experiences while I am here.

Croque MonsieurCurrently I am in the Paris Bakery, where I have found the best food this side of the Seine.  The Croque Monsieur is a ham and swiss sandwich topped with a  Béchamel sauce and served warm.  Magnifique!

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Angelica!

I solved it!  The back seat of my car is huge and I slept like a rock.  I awoke early Wednesday morning and took a tour of Solvang, which is about five miles east of Buellton.  It is the most tourist driven town that I have visited in the county, but it seems to have missed the boat when it comes to the wine crowd.  Lots of quaint inns and faux-medieval architecture, but only one wine bar and few tasting rooms.

My first winery of the day was Buttonwood, a producer who focuses on grapes from Bordeaux.  This is an oddity in the Santa Ynez Valley, but they are in a warm, well-elevated pocket.  Their flagship wine is a tasty Sauvignon Blanc.  They also offer a wine called Sibling Revelry, which is the best wine I’ve ever had under $5 per bottle. They only sell it by the case.

For me, the best wines are those that communicate the climate and the history of the vines’ surroundings.  My next stop provided a taste of the very early days of California wine.

Old Mission VinesGrapes are not native to California, but they have been grown here since the Spanish ruled.  One grape variety, called Mission, produced the wines used by missionaries in their church services.  Most of it was simple red wine, but the missionaries made a small amount of Angelica for themselves.  It was fortified and exposed to oxygen; similar to the sherries made in Jerez.  One very small producer, Deborah Hall of Gypsy Canyon, is making a modern homage to this lost classic.  She undertook the project when she discovered a Mission vineyard on her property that was planted in the 1880s and had been forgotten since Prohibition began.  Prickly ShoesWe took a tour of the vines to the chagrin of my shoes.  A more complete description of the wine and its production is coming tomorrow.

The next day I met with Peter Cargasacchi, who farms two of the best vineyards in the county.  The more winemakers I meet and the more wines I taste, the more I learn how direct the effect of the vineyard is on the finished wine.  The planting, pruning and trellising decisions do not simply produce good or bad grapes.  They determine if the wine will be fruit forward or earthy; full-bodied or light.

Shale HillsPeter began our visit on a mountain road, where we pulled over to see a side of the hill that had been cut away when the road was built.  Here we saw layer upon layer of marine sediment that had turned into shale over millions of years.  It was thrust out of the ocean when the Pacific plate collided with the North America plate.  This is the primary soil type in the Santa Ynez Valley.  It is very crumbly and has a high calcium content, which lowers the perceived acid level in the finished wine.

Bottling LineI was due back in Paso Robles that evening so I could get an early start on the bottling line at Dubost.  They do not have the equipment at the winery so they hire a mobile unit in a trailer. I was chosen to feed the foiling machine and to serve as quality control after the wine was corked.  If the fill level was too low or a cork was missing, I pulled it off the line and sent it back to the beginning.  The foil machine is an ingenious invention that pulls the foil from its stack and places it on top of the bottle for another machine to twist it down.  It worked really well – for the first three hours.  Then it didn’t.  My cushy quality control gig devolved into an I Love Lucy episode on the assembly line.

Wildfire HillsOn Saturday I returned to Los Angeles to relax, which sounds weird.  On the way I drove through the hills where the Santa Barbara fires had burned days earlier.

In the days since, I have been focusing on getting A Really Goode Job.  Murphey-Goode is a winery in Sonoma that is going to hire someone to live on their property for six months, tour Sonoma wineries and picnic sites, and make a wine to commemorate the harvest.  The Wine Country Lifestyle Correspondent will be charged with blogging about the experience.  They are paying $10,000 per month!  The selection process has three stages.  The first involves submitting a resume and a sixty-second video showing your production prowess (or lack thereof) and personality.  It is progressing well and I will certainly have a good piece in time for the June 5th deadline.

To view more photos from this week, click here.

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Pinch Me

Santa YnezCould things get any better?

For the first time this week I was awake before Doug and Pam.  No, I haven’t been burning the candle at both ends; I’ve simply grown to appreciate the comfort of a good mattress.  Today was my first foray into Santa Barbara wine country.  I had an appointment with Andrew Murray of Andrew Murray Vineyards at 10 o’clock so I had to get moving early.

Escaping LA was uneventful (thanks in no small part to the GPS that Doug and Pam let me borrow); though I’m sure that the poor souls sitting in traffic going the opposite direction would hate to hear me say that.  After I hit the 101, which follows the coast before running for the hills, one scene after another left me shaking my head with an ear-to-ear smile.  Mountains falling into the ocean followed by high-county lakes and hills draped in vineyards.

Which One Will It Be?Andrew was the first person to reply to my requests for a visit and he was also the most empathetic, having gone through periods of wanderlust himself.  The typical winery appointment consists of a tour of the winemaking facilities and a tasting of the produce.  To make the experience more unique, Andrew took me on a tour of the eastern end of the Santa Ynez Valley, where grapes native to the Rhone Valley thrive.   We visited two vineyards, Thompson and Watch Hill, to inspect the early season development of the vines.  Keep an eye out for an upcoming post that will chronicle the tour.

Andrew Murray has a tasting room in the small town of Los Olivos.  After my time with him I went into town to taste his wines and mingle with the tourist set.  In 1998, his tasting room was the third to open in the small town.  After Sideways put the spotlight on the Santa Barbara scene, the number of tasting rooms grew to fourteen.  Now a town with one stop sign is the favorite imbibery of LA’s weekend warriors.  I heard horror stories – people were dumping the spit buckets on their heads on a regular basis.  No lie!

At three o’clock I traveled the short distance to Buellton, another Sideways setting.  Just off the highway is a new multi-million dollar venture for boutique wine production called Terravant.  Ken Brown is an eponymous husband-and-wife operation that uses the facilities for wine-making and storage; their offices are on the property as well.  Ken is one of Santa Barbara’s wine pioneers.  He worked at Zaca Mesa from 1977 until 1984 when he founded the Byron Winery.  He sold Byron to Mondavi in 1990 and stayed on to manage the wines through 2004.  We had an enlightening two-hour conversation and tasting in his office.  We talked about the growing conditions in Santa Barbara, the history of California wine and the advancements that have been made in the vineyards over the course of his career.

Hitching PostAs I left Ken Brown in the late afternoon, I came across the Hitching Post restaurant of Sideways fame.  They make their own wines and serve them by the glass.  I had the 2006 St. Rita’s Earth with grilled quail and mashed Wild Turkey sweet potatoes.  The dish was an excellent pair with the Pinot, but it worked even better with the 1985 Chateau Palmer.  How did I end up with Palmer?  I sat at the bar next to an off-duty waitress whose customer had brought it the night before along with a 1978 Leoville-Las Cases.  They didn’t finish the bottles, so I had the leftovers.  Not much of the 78, but at least I got a taste.  Over half the bottle of Palmer remained and I shared it with another wine tourist sitting on the other side of me.  The staff didn’t care for the wine, saying it was too heavy for their tastes.  More for me!

Now I’m off to complete the day with a viewing of Wolverine before finding a rest area to try out my latest theory on comfortable car sleep.  We’ll see what this passenger seat is capable of!

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Goodbye San Diego. Hello, Los Angeles!

San Diego ShoreLast week I set out from Annie and Simon’s house to see the Arizona wine country before heading over to San Diego.  When I first left St. Louis these stops were not on the itinerary, but the first week on the road had instilled a more leisurely mindset that continued through the second.

On the way into San Diego, I spent my first night sleeping in the car at a rest area.  This will take some getting used to.  My second night was at a campground on a beach north of the city.  It was pleasant, but not worth the $35 per night price tag.  The last night I met up with Doug to share his room US Grant Hotel, which made up for having to sleep in the car two nights before.

I could tell that San Diego is normally a beautiful town, but the weather did not cooperate with me much on my visit, save for a sunny afternoon on the cliffs just south of the pier.  Most of my time was spent in Ocean Beach, a surfing community to the northwest of downtown.  On the last day in town I traveled to the eastern hills to check out the relatively new Ramona Valley AVA.

Los AngelesI brought Doug from the conference back to his home in Los Angeles.  This is my first L.A. experience.  It had never been high on my list of places to visit, and I was sure that I was going to hate it when I got here.  Thus far I love it.  The weather is always sunny and at a temperature comfortable enough to wear a jacket, but you don’t have to.  It begs you to get outside.  I have been hiking at Runyon Canyon Park in West Hollywood, which provides great views of the city.  Healthy food is more accessible than junk food.  The traffic is horrifying, but I can avoid it.  AND the radio stations here are actually worth listening to!

The vast number of people allows for a comfortable anonymity similar to New York or Chicago, but people here smile and are open to making conversation.  Everyone is from someplace else.  The only two natives I met in San Diego were the guy who brought my bags to my hotel room and the guy who cleaned my windshield at the gas station.  I have yet to meet an L.A. local.

Macaroon StoreWe checked out the Beverly Hills shopping scene.  They have a store that exclusively sells macaroons.  So dangerous, but so delicious.  These were almost as good as those I became addicted to at the Loire Valley chateau.

Wine MerchantThe Beverly Hills wine scene did not disappoint, with their own version of The Wine Merchant demonstrating how to cater to the cost-no-object rich.  The selection consisted of the greatest names in wine and included the world’s most expensive bottle.  Mouton JeroboamThe Jeroboam (Three-Liter Bottle) of 1929 Mouton-Rothschild was thought to be destroyed in World War II, only to be unearthed in Ethiopia in the early 1970s.  A gift from Phillipe Rothschild to Wine Merchant owner Dennis Overstreet.

Doug and Pam are providing me with a base for conducting operations in Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey Counties over the next few weeks.  Up to now, my path has led through the obscure vineyard land of the southwest.  As I prepare for the next leg, I am excited to see the homes of the wines I have been drinking and selling for the past five years.

For more photos from my second week on the road, click here.

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Kief-Joshua Vineyards

homelogoOn my jaunt through the Sonoita AVA in southern Arizona, I came across a budding young winery that shows potential.  I would not normally make that assertion without tasting the produce of the vineyards, but in the case of Kief-Joshua, that is not possible.

Kief Manning planted his first vines on “winery row” in 2005.  It takes three years for the vine to produce a commercial crop, thus the 2008 harvest, which will be released this fall, was the first on the estate.  To sustain themselves on the path toward 100% estate production, the winery purchases grapes and juice from California and Arizona.  They currently feature Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and a blend of Nebbiolo, Sangiovese and Tempranillo.  New plantings are progressing at an acre per year and the vineyard is expected to fully supply the winery’s grapes within a decade.  He has planted an eclcectic range of ten varieties: Tempranillo, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Syrah, Zinfandel, Reisling, Semillion and Viognier.

Kief has created a sustainable model for his vineyards – foregWinery KJoing the use of pesticides and herbicides.  He was trained in biodynamic viticulture in Australia, and he has adopted many of its principles.  He said he will never be able to put the term “biodynamic” on his labels because his estate cannot produce enough fertilizer for its needs.  Everything on an official biodynamic estate must come from the property.

I have been attracted to the idea of biodynamics because it emphasizes symbiotic relationships as a substitute for chemicals.  In the case of Kief-Joshua, they promote the presence of praying mantis, owls and hawks to control pests.  My favorite animal that they employ are the Baby Doll Sheep.  Full grown these mini-munchers stand two feet tall, too short to reach the grapes, but the perfect height to feed on weeds and grass.

Mini MuncherThe combination of thoughtful viticulture and well made wines (albeit from other sources) promises a bright future for Kief-Joshua.  I will be checking back in with them regularly.

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Welcome To Your Office. Can I Take Your Order?

McDonald'sAfter an expedition into Arizona wine country I decided to get an early start on my days in San Diego.  It’s 9PM Pacific and the sun is long gone.  Tonight will probably be my first attempt at seeing how comfortably I can sleep in a driver’s seat that I’ve been sitting in all day.  My grand plan for internet access on the road suffered a small hiccup when I came to find that this McDonald’s charges for Wi-Fi.  Personally I think that internet access should be treated as an inalienable right, second only to life, liberty and water.  It’s only $2.99 for two hours, but that adds up.

Traveler’s Note: When a sign says “Next Services 33 Miles” it doesn’t necessarily mean that those services will still be in business.  The following twenty miles were a bit nerve racking.

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Thank you, Annie and Simon

p4181876Today I depart Carefree, Arizona where I have spent the better part of four days in the vicinity of the swimming pool.  This break has provided a chance to decide how I want to go about this expedition.  I was only able to take this time because of Simon and Annie Lehrer, who have been excellent hosts.  Check out Annie’s website – cheesemongerswife.com

We went to the local wine shop, AZ Wine, on Saturday night for a Bourbon and Barbecue tasting.  It was a great line up.  Buffalo Trace, Blanton’s and Woodford Reserve were the highlights.  I picked up a Marsannay Rosé from Regis Bouvier that was great for the hot tub [I have yet to try a Marsannay Rosé that wasn’t worth the money ($16)], a bottle of Segura Viudas (for $8) and the find of the trip thus far – Domaine de Canton.

p4181875Canton is ginger-flavored and is the sister liqueur to St. Germain, which is rare in Missouri because none of the distributors are representing it as of yet.  Every now and then, we got our hands on St. Germain, which is a slightly sweet, elderflower liqueur, but I had never even seen a picture of the Canton bottle.  I like the St. Germain on its own, on the rocks or in mixed drinks that include some orange liqueur.  The Canton does not do nearly as well by itself.  It is drier than the St. Germain and the ginger lends a spiciness that needs to be tempered.  We started with Canton Royales – four parts Segura Viudas Sparkling Wine and one part Canton.  It helped spread out the flavorful liqueur, but did not provide any extra complexity.  Simon’s concoction added triple sec to the mix which gave it the citrus notes it had needed.

I’m off to Elgin, Arizona in the Sonoita AVA where I’ll be asking, “What’s the deal with your monsoon season?”

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