Sunday, April 12, 2009

Worst Wine Tourists EVER

Rather than attempt to succinctly describe our day trip to California's Sonoma Valley, I'll just cut and paste an e-mail Jon sent to our wine expert friend. (Like I tell my students, if you use someone else's work, make sure you give credit to your source. Thank you, Jon.) "...the Sonoma Valley was awesome! Unfortunately, we are the worst wine tourers ever. We only made it to three wineries and the Russian River Brewing Company, where we had the brettanomyces beers. Wild, man [as in wild yeast]. It is like the love child of a Belgian doppel and a Beaujolais. I've never had anything like it! We got there about 5 p.m. on a Monday and the place was packed. Looks like the recession is good for someone! Wine wise, we went to Roche, the first winery at the south end of the valley. Pretty good Pinot Noir! They are close to the bay, so the nights stay cooler than areas further up the valley. We spent the most time at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards. This is the same Italian family that invented the Jacuzzi Spa. One of the 600-plus descendants married into the Cline family, which owns a French-style vineyard also in the Valley. The Jacuzzis make some great Italian wines and their building is incredible. Next time you go back through Sonoma, stop at their winery. I think you'll appreciate the traditional family blends.

Our last winery was...[g]ood, but nothing mind-blowing. After that, we went for a hike at Jack London's Farm, picnicked by the lake, and generally enjoyed the warm, sunny weather, while it was snowing up in Seattle."

There is actually a lake under there...we checked.

The San Francisco Treat

As a teacher, I only get so many days off throughout the year (yes, I know I have the summers off, but at this point, it seems far away), so it's important to take advantage of every opportunity to get out of town. So, when Spring Break rolled around, Jon took a couple of days of leave, and off to San Francisco we went. After our Amtrak adventure (see previous post), we arrived in the city fairly early on Sunday morning. I'd never been to San Francisco, and Jon hadn't been there since he was in high school, so we definitely were the kind of tourists who tromped around with our guidebook in tow. The basis of most of my knowledge of "San Fran" comes from growing up with the girls of Full House and Rice-a-Roni commercials, so I was up for anything. We had planned on doing mostly touristy things that first day, but these plans were stymied by the fact that Alcatraz was sold out (how a prison can be sold out is beyond me, but whatever). Being fairly easy-going people, we quickly adapted and turned Sunday into "outdoors day." We walked around essentially all day, first taking the light rail out to Mission Dolores, one of the original missions in California. We then stopped by Alamo Square Park (which involved scaling some serious hills to get there) with the dozens of other people basking in the sunlight. It was great to actually experience springtime after wading through Washington's rain. While there, we saw some quintessential San Francisco row houses that reminded me of the opening credits of Full House (because yes, we looked it up on youTube to confirm). Our next outdoor destination was Golden Gate Park. This park stretched on and on for miles, and I'm pretty sure we only covered the tiniest of portions. Again, there were tons of people outside enjoying the fabulous weather, and I began to wonder why they call this place the "Fog City." We literally did not see a single cloud the whole time we were there. We did experience a tremendous amount of wind, however, which dampened our venture to the Pacific Ocean. When you grow up in the Midwest surrounded by land, land, and more land, the ocean is always fascinating. Unfortunately, the wind was so strong that we couldn't enjoy it, settling only to touch the surf and retreat inland. Even though we had been advised by a former San Francisco resident (see the post about our train trip) to avoid the Powell and Market Street cable car in favor of the less touristy College Street car, we crowded on with every other tourist and made our way toward Chinatown. As we strolled, I stumbled upon Jack Kerouac Alley, which led me directly to City Lights Books. When I was in college, I took a class about the Beat Generation (think Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William Burroughs...beatniks), and this particular bookstore was their mecca. In general, it's cool to actually see a place you've only read about, so needless to say, I was pretty excited. To appease Jon, we immediately went to a brewery. Flying by the seat of our pants all day, our next destination was the Coit Tower. Like most large cities, San Francisco also has a tall structure that you can sightsee from (similar to the Space Needle, the Liberty Memorial, the Sears Tower, etc.). We had the terrific fortune of arriving at the top just as the sun was setting, which resulted in some pretty incredible pictures. Satisfied with our day, we stopped at an Italian restaurant in North Beach for dinner. On Day 2, we rented a car and headed north toward wine country. As this will be recounted in a subsequent post, let it suffice to say that on the way we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, taking obligatory photos all the way. Our final full day in the city ended up being the touristy day we had anticipated at the outset. We started our day by hopping on a streetcar that took us to the waterfront where we were whisked to Alcatraz Island on the official Alcatraz Cruise Ship (all rights reserved). As I'm not really a big fan of research, I didn't know a whole lot about the penitentiary before we arrived, but the informational video and audio tour quickly solved that. After the trip someone asked me if it was creepy or sad to be there, like visiting a concentration camp. I had to answer with a resounding "no." The victims of concentration camp were just that: innocent victims. The inmates of Alcatraz were there of their own accord. However, as someone else pointed out, the creepy thing was that the place was nearly silent as everyone was on the audio tour. Groups of people walked around the cellhouse in hoardes, stopping when the tour told them to. Even a group of kids visiting with the Big Brothers, Big Sisters (or maybe YMCA) program were quietly following along. If only my Prime Time kids had been like that. If only my high school juniors were like that... When we returned to the mainland, we braved Fisherman's Wharf. As expected, it was incredibly touristy. Not really being shoppers, we stopped for some sourdough bread and kept moving. Next on our list was Ghirardelli Square, which honestly was a bit disappointing. I was expecting a chocolate factory, a la Willy Wonka, not an upscale shopping area. I guess a lot has changed in the 10 years since Jon last visited the city. We tried the cable car again, finally taking that sage advice. It was a much nicer trip when we weren't wedged in between a bunch of sweaty people with cameras around their necks. We even got to see where the cables travel under the street at the Cable Car Museum, which admittedly had a very peculiar odor. We're very interested in experiencing all the unique things different locations have to offer and so hanker after any and all recommedations. When I mentioned our trip to one of my dance teachers, she immediately suggested a Dim Sum restaurant that she and her husband frequent on all their trips to the Bay Area. I had no idea what Dim Sum was, but I gamely took the advice. It turns out that Dim Sum is similar to tapas (sort of like appetizers), Chinese-style. It also turns out that Dim Sum is quite tasty. Knowing that we only had a couple of hours before our respective flights left, we spent our last morning in San Francisco going for a run. I'm going to publicly declare here and now that we are training for a marathon...there's no going back now that I've put it in writing. At any rate, we needed to go running, and it was Jon's bright idea to really experience a San Francisco run by taking on some of the infamous hills. Definitely one of those seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time moments. Surely, there was plenty we missed, but I feel pretty satisfied with our San Francisco adventure. If only we'd had some Rice-a-Roni.

Go by Train

(As long as you have the time) traveling via train is the way to go. Rather than flying to San Francisco for our Spring Break getaway, Jon suggested that we take the Coast Starlight Amtrak. Now, some people would scoff at the idea of spending over 20 hours to travel to a location that would only take two hours by plane, but we relished the opportunity.
We boarded the train on a rainy Saturday morning in Tacoma and were immediately greeted by our porter, Bobby, who handed us two mini bottles of champagne before he directed us to our "roommette" in the sleeper car. Yes, it was tiny, but it's not as though we would spend our entire trip sitting face-to-face twiddling our thumbs. Bobby would have probably kicked us out, anyway, just like he admonished our neighbors--two young single guys--for not running around the train looking for prospective wives.
We each brought plenty to do for the long trip. I had several books and I was sorely overdue in writing in my journal. Jon planned to work on our taxes, as he so enjoyed doing them on the train to Portland last year. Seriously. However, despite the best laid plans of mice and men, we spent a large chunk of our afternoon napping. Our vacation had clearly begun.
Booking a room in the sleeper car involves several perks. First and foremost, all of your meals are included in the dining car for which you have automatic reservations. You have access to the posh parlour car and are invited to various activities such as a wine tasting or a movie or a nightcap of chocolate and cocktails.
Sure, this whole deal was expensive, but when you factor in what we would have spent on a hotel and food, I think we made out pretty well. Plus, we were able to score some killer deals on a hotel and rental car once we got to San Francisco because of our trip on the Amtrak.
The coolest part of the whole trip, though (besides going to bed in one state and waking up in another), was the people we met. Due to space limitations in the dining car, you have the privilege of sitting with whomever has similar meal reservations. Sitting with strangers is very European and proved to be pretty interesting. How else would we have met a woman who used to live in San Francisco eager to give us "off the beaten path" travel tips?!? I know we certainly never would have had the opportunity to meet her husband who was stationed in Germany--coincidentally in Bamberg--when the Berlin Wall fell. If only for the people watching alone, traveling by train is the way to go.

The Hills are Alive...

...with the sound of rattlesnakes?!? Actually, it was more like the sound of grapes growing, or maybe wine glasses clinking. Over the long Presidents' Day weekend, Jon and I crossed over to the eastern side of the state to Rattlesnake Hills AVA (American Viticultural Area) to sample some wine. We took the scenic route to get there, driving through an area Jon named the "Wa-zarks" for its similarity to the Missouri Ozarks. Use your imagination.
Actually, the Rattlesnake Hills area near Yakima reminded me a lot of Hermann, Missouri, a favorite destination of mine. Like Hermann, there is a small community feel with lots of surrounding farmland. There are several wineries in close proximity who work together to host a variety of events throughout the year. The big difference is that while Hermann has some hills, Zillah (the town closest to the hills) is surrounded by mountains.
Due to some unforeseen circumstances, we didn't arrive until late afternoon on Sunday. This still afforded us enough time to visit a few wineries, though. The first couple of stops were okay, but we were content to taste and move on. However, things changed when we arrived at Paradisos del Sol Winery.
This winery, located in a house, had a different feel to it (vague description, I know, but I'll try to do better). For starters, we had to move around the tasting room in order to sample each type of wine. All of the wines were paired with a different type of food, such as homemade tortillas and mole sauce. In fact, one of the dessert wines was paired with mini marshmallows that had to be toasted with the flame of a tealight candle. The place had personality...and attracted some interesting personalities, including the guy with a scarf, "old man hat," and purple teeth (from tasting wine all day) who was chatting us up about our respective jobs.
It should come as no surprise that we decided to buy a couple of bottles of wine (including the one that went with the marshmallows) to take home. As if he were Nostradamus, the proprietor also gave us a box to hold any additional wine we purchased the following day.
Wineries close fairly early, so we booked a room at the illustrious Comfort Inn (it was comfortable) of Zillah. Honestly, the highlight of our evening was watching Flight of the Conchords on HBO. I used to laugh when a friend told me that she loved staying in hotels for the cable, with our approximately 6 channels, I totally understand where she's coming from.
Taking full advantage of our day off of work, we slept in on Monday and leisurely got ready for a day of more wine tasting. It's an upside-down world when I have the responsibility of being the navigator, but I doggedly did my best and we successfully located several more wineries (it helped that everything was ridiculously close to each other and nearly all of the locations were clearly labeled).

By successful, I mean that we continued to purchase more wine as the day progressed. Typically we taste the wine as I very awkwardly try to figure out the most polite way to leave without buying anything (I'm cheap and indecisive...big deal). However, this time, the wine was so good and fairly inexpensive that we couldn't pass it up...and to be perfectly honest, our pocketbooks definitely loosened up the more wine we tasted. Plus, the majority of the wines we tried aren't available anywhere but the wineries, which was a definite selling point.
Even though we triumphantly returned to western Washington with over a case of wine in the trunk (including the half-case of Lemberger we split with some random woman), we only visited about half the wineries. I think that's a sign we'll have to go back one of these days...

Saturday, April 11, 2009

So Sorry

We know what dedicated readers you all are, and for that, we are truly sorry about the lack of posts lately. Surely you've been going through withdrawal--waking up in the middle of the night wondering what shenanigans we've been up to, being unable to focus on work as you constantly refresh your browser window desperately hoping for an update, etc. Well, the draught is over. It's not so much that we've had a lot going on lately and have to write; it's just that we've been too busy with the mundane trappings of life and work to publish every little detail. We have experienced a bit of excitement lately, however, and need to inform you of some updates from previous posts. As is our "policy," we don't want to exploit our families and friends by posting too much information about them, but we would like to congratulate Jon's youngest sister on her recent nuptials. In addition, we would like to congratulate my younger brother on his fairly recent grocery store "booty"--this time he won a "chiminea." Also, Jon's first batch of homemade beer has been successfully consumed. We had created a plethora of names in case the beer was bad, but fortunately, we didn't need to use any of them. Therefore, we were left without a title for the amber ale. In a stroke of inspiration, however, Jon dubbed it "Purgatory Ale" because it wasn't bad, but it could have been better. Since then, Jon expanded his repertoire by brewing an Irish Ale, aka "Atta Boy Ale" since it exceeded (low) expectations. Due to the nature of blogspot, this post will appear further down the page from our vacation posts, but if you do read chronologically, please stay tuned for accounts from our eastern Washington wine trip and our San Francisco Spring Break getaway.