Category Archives: Travel

The Road to Conceito’s Wines

 

For many, the thrill of the wine experience is the search, finding that great value or rare hidden gem that you read about somewhere.  During a recent visit to Portugal’s Douro Valley, I pursued such an opportunity and survived to tell my story.

For centuries, Portugal has been known for producing the finest port in the world, using native grapes like touriga nacional, touriga francesa and tinto roriz, called tempranillo in neighboring Spain and other countries. In recent years, they have used the same varietals to produce acclaimed red wines.  

In 2014, three Douro Valley red wines, the Dow Vintage Port 2011(#1), Prats & Symington Douro Chryseia 2011(#3) and Quinta do Vale Meao Douro 2011(#4), dominated Wine Spectator magazine’s annual top wines list.

Most recently, critics have made note that quality white wines have emerged from the Douro.  One such release, the Conceito Douro

Hillside vineyards in the Douro Valley

Branca 2016 (white blend) and its story intrigued me and, although they were in the midst of the harvest, I reached out to winemaker Rita Marques Ferreira to arrange a visit.  

As with most wineries, Conceito’s small three person staff were in the throes of harvest, something that is time-consuming and must be undertaken within a precise window to maximize potential for greatness. 

Before leaving the hotel, I asked Lisa, the concierge for directions to the village of Villa Nova de Foz Coa-Cedovim.  She said that it was a beautiful ninety minute drive from our hotel in Peso da Régua.  An hour and a half to travel 43 miles should have been a clue.

What followed was a scenic, but harrowing drive up and over a mountain pass, via a long and winding road without many barriers.  At one point, we were behind a small truck carrying freshly harvested grapes.  For once, I didn’t mind the slow-moving truck.  It gave us some reprieve from being the only snail on the road.

Our GPS did a yeoman’s job of getting us to Cedovim. From there we were on our own, left to find Conceito with no commercial signage. We turned to the right and began to improvise.

In a few miles, we passed a small white building where a woman was observing a man on a fork lift dumping a tub of grapes through a de-stemmer. From her photos, I thought I recognized Rita, so we stopped and approached her.

Carla Costa Ferreira takes me on a tour

“We are very busy today, so you will meet with my mother, Carla,” she said.  “Besides, she speaks better English for you.”  I am always impressed how multi-lingual most Europeans are.

Unecessarily apologizing for the mess and her broken English, Carla Costa Ferreira, Conceito’s owner, gave us a tour of their small facility including the crush pad, large stainless steel fermentation tanks and the barrel rooms.

Afterwards, she led us to a small table with several bottles of their current releases to taste. I noticed a bottle of 2017 Conceito Douro Branca and inquired about the vintage 2016.  She left and soon returned, smiling.  “We have very little left, but I found a bottle,” she said.

The 2016 Douro Branca is a field blend of esgana cao, folgosado and verdelho, all native white varietals in the Douro. This wine was not a “fruit bomb”, dominated by one overpowering varietal, but a perfectly balanced blend with a subtle minerality and lush mouthfeel that lingered throughout a seemingly everlasting finish.  A truly pleasurable experience. Although it is priced at 20 euros in

Tasting the 2016 Conceito Douro white blend

Portugal, consumers in the states must pay $45 a bottle for the experience.

I asked Carla if she was aware that Wine Spectator had given the wine a 92-point rating in their national magazine.

“Yes, I am aware,” she said, “but I think they taste wines too early.  This wine will continue to improve for the next five to ten years.”

I believe her, but this wine was tasting very fine today.  Carla poured their top red blend, the 2015 Conceito Douro Tinta, another superbly balanced blend as well as their “Contrast” label red and white, designed as everyday wines at a lower price.  She said that the Contrast red was actually her favorite wine.

Conceito wines are authentic, created by a small team in a remote mountain village that does not seek notoriety of any kind.  Somehow, it still managed to find them.  

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Lesser Known Wines from Pouilly Fume

vineyards in Pouilly Fume

While cruising the Canal Lateral de Loire, we moored the boat near Sancerre and planned to do some wine tasting.  Wines from the Sancerre region and nearby Rue Pouilly Fuisse are exquisite and easily recognizable in the California marketplace. However, today we decided to travel east of the Loire River to explore some lesser known white wines from Pouilly Fume’.

The Pouilly Fume’ appellation has only 1,300 hectares under vine compared to 3,000 in Sancerre.  The region is small but has produced dry-farmed wines for four centuries.  The only grape planted in Pouilly Fume is Sauvignon Blanc, but the distinction in the wines comes from the terroir, more specifically the soil types:  limestone, marl, a lime rich blend of clay and silt, sand and flint.

Neighboring Pouilly sur Loire, a sub-region of Pouilly Fume’ produces its wines exclusively from the chasselas grape, named after a commune in the Saone et Loire region of Burgundy. A little known varietal with a global presence, chasselas vines grow in Portugal, Switzerland, New Zealand, Chile and other countries. Wherever it is grown, dry, full fruity wines are found.

Distressed vines with signs of esca

Exploring the Pouilly Fume and Pouilly sur Loire vineyards, we found that the soils types could change within a few meters.  Although the region is 270 feet above sea level, there was clear evidence of sea fossils in the stones. 

The autumn changes were visible and some vines looked more stressed than others.  We discovered that this was due to the esca disease, which affects the trunks of the vines, requiring the replacement of nearly ten percent of stock each year.

Recent mechanical harvest missed some grapes at the end of the rows which we plucked from the vine and sampled.  Tasted side by side, the differences and similarities between the Sauvignon Blanc and chasselas were as evident as they are in the glass. Distinctively, Sauvignon Blanc offers more tropical while the chasselas more stone fruit on the palate.

Eventually, we landed in the tiny community of Les Loges, population 78, where ten families have produced wines for generations.  It was there that we met one such heir, winemaker Clement Marchand, owner/winemaker of Domaine Marchand & Fils, whose family has been in the community since 1650.  Today, he makes his wines in the same cellar created by his grandfather, a damp stone chamber filled with stainless steel and fiberglass tanks where the juice of his recently harvested

Winemaker Clement Marchand

grapes were in a slight fermentation boil.  Later, the wines are aged for months in oak barrels.  

Marchand grows high environmental grapes, a method known in this county as biodynamic farming.  While explaining that balance is critical in his wines, he added that it’s all about the soil where limestone can add hints of citrus, flint a mineral element and stone fruit from the marl.

Marchand produces about 25,000 bottles per vintage, divided among his four releases, all of which we tasted.

The Pouilly sur Loire 2017, made to taste young, had clear hints of almond on the nose and a crisp, healthy acidity that would pair well with shellfish.

The Sauvignon Blanc in the Pouilly Fume’ 2017 (Les Kerots) was also fresh and crisp, but with more stone fruit flavors and a lingering finish.  This wine would enhance any seafood dish.

The Pouilly Fume’ 2016, from the local marl-based fossil soil named kimmeridgian, had much rounder texture and a more creamy mouthfeel than the first two, delivering nice stone fruit  flavors.  The “Kimmeridgian” was Marchand’s highest priced release at approximately $30.

Our last wine, the Pouilly Fume’ Prestige 2016 was complex, but not too heavy with nice texture and soft, tropical flavors that  lingered on the tongue.

I believe that environmental elements can effect the way the wines are perceived.  There I was, standing in an ancient

Marchand & Fils Winery in Pouilly Fume

cellar, tasting wines that date back centuries in an authentic, small and secluded French enclave, east of the Loire River.  Of course, they were all tasting great.

Marchand explained that it is hard for his wines to make it to US markets, dealing with limited production and competition of established wines like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from our soils.  Feeling fortunate to have discovered this region and acknowledging that we may not see them anytime soon, my travel mates and I purchased some bottles for the boat.  Pouilly Fume’ is a hidden gem worth exploring.


Falling For Ronda

 

We had explored most of Spain during May 2012, the last few weeks in the south visiting Granada, Alhambra, Cordoba and Sevilla, but Karen had a plan for more. She said, “It will take some time, but I really want to see the white hill towns.” 

Our commitment to spend a few days exploring the hill towns of the Andalucia Mountains took us to a place far beyond our expectations.

We arrived in Ronda by train, seeking a place to sleep between our daily treks to the hill towns.  Rain required a taxicab to the hotel, but our desire to walk and see some of the town before dusk led us back out again with umbrellas and  raincoats. 

First, we stopped by the front desk for some local knowledge.  

“What can we see in the next thirty minutes”? I asked the clerk.

“Go to the plaza.  You take a left at the door and walk straight down the  street,” he said, “You can’t miss it,” 

In many regards, our image of old Spain is based on the Andalucia region.  It is the home of bullfights, flamenco, gazpacho and stunning mountain cliffs. Exiting through the hotel door, we were face-to-face with Spain’s first great bullring, dating back to the 16th Century and still hosting bullfights today.  When Ernest Hemingway wrote of Spain and bullfights, he was living in Ronda.

Puente Nuevo and “El Tajo”

At first glance, the Plaza de Espana was plain and unassuming until I stepped up to a railing. Managing to close my mouth and speak, I uttered, “My god, you’ve got to see this.”

“See what?” Karen asked as she walked toward me. 

“This,” I said, pointing off toward the distance.

As she approached the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge)circa 1751, the deep gorge they call “El Tajo” came into view.  The ravine was nearly four hundred feet deep and two hundred feet wide, dividing the newer town with the old Moorish area, La Cuidad, established around 1485.  El Tajo was spectacular enough with majestic rock formations, stunning natural landscapes and buildings perched on its cliffs,   but the view of the bridge, with huge piers reaching deep into the canyon amid wildflowers and waterfalls, translucent through the rain, was as wondrous as any I had seen.

Our short walk revealed that  Ronda was not just a place to sleep, but the largest and most spectacular hill town of them all.

Cliffs in Ronda

  Our first glance was a stunning preview and sparked my desire to rise early the next morning and hike down the canyon along the Jardines de Cuenca Park trail to view the span from below.

Pulling me from newfound inspiration back to reality, Karen said, “We can’t do it tomorrow, we’ve got a car waiting.”

“You’re kidding,” I said. My mind had latched on to those first impressions and was not letting go.

“Remember, we’re here to visit hill towns. Besides, we’ll be here for a few days.”

I had to quickly refocus.  A few hours in Ronda and I was already trying to figure out if I could live here part-time.

La Cuidad on the cliffs

Amid a steady rain, we received our rental car that seemed like the undersized love child of a Ford and a Fiat, with more dents than hub caps.  The local Hertz office closed and consolidated with the one in Malaga, eighty miles away. Our only option was a friendly, local dealer who acquired his fleet, one  by one, as funding was available.  He delivered the car and soon we were driving among olive groves, then cork forests in the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park before the steep incline of the road reassured us that we would soon be in Grazalema, the  first white hill town of the day.

Nestled into the foothills and surrounded by spectacular

rock outcroppings, Grazalema was a cozy, little village. Whitewashed buildings, red roofs and window boxes overflowing with bright flowers lined the narrow streets that all led to a small public square that, aside from a few hikers passing through, was empty on this Sunday morning.

We stopped into s small pub to warm up with some vegetable soup, understanding and now accepting that the Spanish always add some jamon (ham) to the vegetables. I ordered a small glass of local red wine and was reminded that alcohol

Grazalema

cannot be served until 1:00 PM on Sundays.  The morning belonged to God which explained the seemingly deserted square.

Riding in the passenger seat over the steep Cadiz Mountain pass, in a rain storm, was the most “white-knuckled” journey in my recent memory.  Twisting, slick roads at high altitude with no protective barriers, in a strange car with manual transmission all shared responsibility for the increase in our heart rates.

Karen revealed what was on her mind.

“Don’t say a word about my driving,” she said.

She was the one that first proposed that the least stressful road trip option for us was her behind the wheel and me navigating.  With one slick, winding road up the mountain

and down, my role changed from navigator to comforter.

“You’re doing great”, I said. “we’re definitely not in a hurry.” 

We did find respite at the summit, stopping along the large mountainous saddle rendering views of a distant lake through the lifting fog.  The rain stopped and the sun appeared as we began our dissent down the mountain to the next hill town. 

The white buildings of Zahara seemed to spread and flow down the hills below an old fortified Moorish castle.  Once a Moorish stronghold, it played a significant role in the Reconquista in 1482.  Today, the quiet solitude reflected a much

Zahara

simpler lifestyle with friendly locals going about their Sunday afternoon, leaving the small church where the Virgin of Dolores statute sits or viewing the dramatic panorama from one of the vista points.

The forty-minute drive to our third hill town was easy, flat and dry.  The views of Arcos de la Frontera, shimmering in  the afternoon sun, made the extra drive worthwhile.  The perched old town, separated by a sheer cliff, was detached from the lower village, physically and culturally.

Hungry, we took a chance on a small restaurant near the Plaza del Cabildo and were rewarded with  fresh sea bass and a glass of local wine.  While driving home on a full stomach and a topped-off gas tank, images of Ronda and El Tajo still danced through my head. I anticipated that tomorrow would be a special day.

Our hotel in Ronda was built on the original home site of legendary bullfighter Francisco Romero, its facade seemed to stare

Arcos de la Frontera

at the bullring and long for past brilliance.Typical of many local buildings, the arena entrance lies innocently along the street while the rear exit reminded us that the entire town is perched atop cliffs with riveting vistas. The allure of the cliffs was overpowering and we soon left the bullring and began walking in thedirection of the old city.

Crossing the bridge and stealing another glance at the gorge, we entered La Cuidad, finding more narrowed streets and whitewashed buildings that, like most others, innocently faced the street. Once inside, we realized that they are built  directly on the cliffs of El Tajo.

As we entered the trail down into the canyon, the breathtaking views of clifftop buildings, waterfalls and the surrounding flora changed the deeper we descended.  Dozens of photographs later, we walked back up the trail and began to explore La Cuidad and remnants of early Arab culture.

Engulfed in history, we traversed the Moorish Quarter, moving back toward El Tajo, passed the Old Bridge, built in 1616 and

Karen in El Tajo

an aged wall to the Arab Bridge that marked the ancient entrance to Ronda.

A short distance from the bridge we found the remains of the Arab baths, whose location was not an accident.  After a long journey, the baths provided the essential place to cleanse one’s body before prayer.

The climb back up the opposite side of El Tajo to Plaza de Espana, in a light rain, left us with more memorable views and an appetite. Finding a restaurant perched on the canyon wall, we settled into a relaxing lunch with more breathtaking views. I could have enjoyed the rest of the day in my chair, with a glass of wine, stealing beauty with my eyes.

Karen spoke.  “Don’t forget, we have to be at entrance to the Pileta Cave by 4 p.m.

“Your’e kidding, I said. “Do you really want to go back out in the rain.”  “Ya know, we can’t do everything.”

“Well, I’m leaving at 3:30 and you can come if you want,” she said.

A history buff, Karen had discovered that the Pileta Cave is Spain’s best opportunity to view Neolithic and Paleolithic paintings, some dating back twenty-five thousand years. Curse you, Rick Steves.

At 3:30 p.m., we were both in the car, again passing through olives and cork on the way to the small town of Benaojan, the last benchmark on the way to the cave entrance. 

Descending into a cave is never pleasant, it’s deep, dark, damp and slippery and, as a designated lantern carrier, I shouldered the responsibility for the six people between me and the next lantern.  However, the rewards were astonishing and, at times, difficult to comprehend.  It was prehistoric finger painting that helped us visualize what their world may have looked like. 

Ronda and surroundings created many moments that jelled into one very special memory.  Exploring the Andalucia region surpassed expectations and re-energized two weary travelers to keep going and to always look forward.

 


A Sense of Galapagos

 

 

In 2010, as we lifted off the runway in Guayaquil, Ecuador and banked toward Baltra in the Galápagos Islands, some six hundred miles away, I still didn’t know what to expect.  I had dreamt of this moment for decades, but wondered if reality would match presumption.

Karen patted my knee.

“This is your “leg” of the journey,” she said.

She was referencing a promise made to ourselves forty years earlier, when the relationship was new.  We had spent the last eight days in the Peruvian Andes fulfilling her dream of walking in Macchu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.

“What’s on your mind?” she asked.

“Sally Lightfoot crabs,” I said.

“What?”

“That’s what was on my mind. They only exist here and I’m hoping to see some.”

“Well, good luck, honey, I’m sure you’ll manage to find one or two.”

To my surprise, the first natural vegetation we encountered, after stepping onto Galápagos soil, looked like a large grove of Saguaro

Prickly Pear

cacti.

Proceeding through customs with no lines in a building without walls and a thatch roof was a near stress-free beginning. On the bus for the two-mile trek to the ferry, I got my first glimpse of the prickly pear tree, with large, flat “prickly” pads that resemble the shape of a Saguaro cactus.  An abundant and vital part of the Galápagos landscape, the flowers of the prickly pear feed the giant saddle tortoises,

and the pads, after falling to the ground are devoured by the large land iguanas.

The first ferry ride was less than one mile, the distance between Baltra and Santa Rosa Islands.  The initial arid landscape quickly became a translucent turquoise blue bay inlet with visible sea life, surrounded by coal-black volcanic rocks.

Stepping off the second ferry to Santa Cruz Island, one of the largest in the archipelago, I watched a Sally Lightfoot crab scurry across the rocks.  We hoped to see a few of these colorful, animated creatures, but estimated that more than one hundred thousand crossed our paths.  They  were everywhere, their vibrant color pigments contrasting with the black background.  The infant Sally Lightfoot crabs are black for natural camouflage, the adolescents go through a

Sally Lightfoot Crab

red period before assuming, as adults, gleaming red legs and a dazzling yellow shell with piercing sky blue trim.

Santa Cruz Island was more tropical than the others.  It is also home to the giant domed tortoise that thrives inland from the water that bears its name.  Baie Tortuga is along the route to Puerto Isidro Ayora, where “Carmina,” our nautical home for the next five days, was “anchor down,” awaiting our arrival. An opportunity to observe these gentle giants was enough to delay the rendezvous.

A short hike off the road into a large, lush meadow led to our earliest glimpse of a huge  tortoise.  Everyone’s eyes locked on the first creature, but within seconds we were watching fifteen or so quietly grazing on the grasses.  A few withdrew into their shells as we passed by, but most continued their normal routine of ingesting without chewing, beginning a three-month digestive process.  They often measure six feet in length and their shells reach the height of a tall human adult’s waist.  It’s hard to comprehend these

Giant Domed Tortoise

stupendous creatures once being slaughtered for fresh meat on pirate ships.

The giant tortoises were mesmerizing. We could have watched all day but needed to be in port soon.  As the bus was departing down a dirt road, it suddenly stopped as Pauli, our naturalist, stood up.

“Well, my friends. It seems that one of the tortoises has decided to rest in the middle of the road,” she said.

“What happens next?” John asked.

“We wait.”

Any physical contact with the tortoises is strictly forbidden and closely observed.  We waited for fifteen minutes before Pauli stood once again.

“I need volunteers,” she said.

With limited visitations closely monitored by the Conservancy, she understood the need to remain on schedule.

“I’ll do it,” I said, my arm already raised like a fifth grader who knows the right answer.

Seconds later, six of us carefully surrounded and, with near perfect precision, lifted the giant domed tortoise and moved it several feet off the muddy road. It remained quiet and still during the process but, once on the ground, became the fastest slow-mover of the day.

Other islands are home to the saddle tortoise whose shell is arched to provide more neck reach to the prickly pear flower, food that hangs three to four feet above the ground.

Carmina

Puerto Isidro Ayora, Galapagos’s largest town with a population of thirty-thousand, is the main port for all cruise vessels. As our group of fifteen boarded two rubber Zodiacs for the half-mile journey to the small cruise ship, a discussion ensued regarding people’s diverse expectations.  Some were fulfilling lifelong dreams, others were being dragged along by their partners.  I tuned out, put aside any perceptions and immersed myself in the moment. I was sitting in a rubber raft with a motor attached, in the sea of the archipelago, at the confluence of the three oceanic currents that created this ecosystem.

Settled in on Carmina, we enjoyed a welcome toast with pina coladas and a wonderful dinner prepared by chef Raoul, our new favorite crew member.  We all went to bed early, hoping to sleep through our first night of sailing. The last sound I heard was the anchor lifting through the water as we departed for Bartolome’ Island, a volcanic rock with minimal plant or animal life.

On the Zodiacs by early morning, we left for the island and a challenging hike up four hundred steps through lava rock to the highest

Bartolome Island, Sullivan Bay, Pinnacle Rock

peak, later snorkeling a small cove in Sullivan Bay, directly below the majestic, wind-carved Pinnacle Rock.  Views from the top of the island and below the ocean’s surface were equally stunning, the latter courtesy of a huge school of yellowtail surgeonfish. We

Galapagos penguin

would see many more fish along with sea lions, marine iguanas, eels, rays and sea turtles during our daily snorkeling adventures.

After lunch on the boat, we were back on the Zodiacs, patrolling the volcanic cliffs in search of the shy Galápagos penguins, hiding among the fluorescent Sally Lightfoot crabs and a few Blue-footed Boobies.  Measuring twenty-four inches high, these rare docile penguins are the second smallest of the species that, once in the water, become quick and agile.

Day Two began with a dry landing on Puerto Egas, a lava beach on Santiago Island, and a hike where we encountered large colonies of sea lions, marine iguanas and, of course, more Sally Lightfoot crabs.  The volcanic cliffs led us to a flat plateau filled with tide pools and ledges near the surf, providing protected water access for various species.

With marine iguanas on Puerto Egas Beach

Hundreds of prehistoric looking marine iguanas appeared as we reached the ledge, lying side-by-side and on top of each other, oblivious  to our invasion.  Aside from the occasional snort, ejecting the salt acquired on their latest ocean sojourn to eat red and green algae and cool their bodies, they seemed lifeless.  Over the next hour, we observed the lethargic creatures sunning themselves until the necessity to repeat the cycle drove them to the sea.

I’ve watched the California sea lion, the Galapagos variety’s closest relative, for most of my life, but never studied their daily activities or parenting habits as well as the chauvinistic attitudes of the alpha male.  Pauli consistently identified red-billed tropic birds, brown pelicans, flightless cormorants, Galapagos hawks, lava lemons, and many of

Marine iguana

the fourteen species of finches found on the islands.

After snorkeling in a small bay abundant with sea turtles and rays, we returned to the boat for lunch as it navigated toward Rabida Island for our first deep-water snorkeling off the Zodiac.  The timing for this jaunt was perfect for observing the last lunch call for hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies, innocent-looking, lumbering birds with iridescent turquoise duck-feet that, once in the air, became missiles, diving into the surf with the force and synchronization of the Blue Angels air acrobatic team. Gathering and hovering high above for several minutes, there was a “caw” to action from the leader and suddenly they released, hitting the water like bullets from a semi-automatic rifle.  None of them went back to the cliffs hungry.

Using a backflip off the Zodiac like a scuba diver, Rod was the first in the water.  Before I entered, he reappeared, emphatically pointing to a specific location.

“Look down now,” he said.

Off the boat, after adjusting my mask, I put my face in the water in time to see two marine iguanas feeding on algae.  Watching them smoothly sway back and forth through the water as they swam to the surface was hypnotic, the spell broken only by a large sea turtle passing within arm’s reach.

The five of us who chose to join the first deep water snorkeling were rewarded well beyond our expectations.  Back to the boat to remove our wetsuits, we quickly re-boarded the Zodiac dinghies and crossed the inlet for a wet landing on Rabida Island that promised red sand beaches and large colonies of sea lions.

Beach on Rabida Island

With uniquely gorgeous beaches, the small Rabida Island revealed a landscape of low to medium shrubs and prickly pear trees that vibrantly contrasted with the red sand and soil.  It was there that we first observed the dictatorial alpha male sea lions rule their harems with an iron flipper, lashing out against other interested males or females with a wandering eye.  Thrusting out one’s chest and yelling stridently is, apparently, required to maintain their power or overcome the fear of losing it. I have heard recent rumors that the females have initiated a  #MeToo! movement that is wreaking havoc on the entire eco-system.

On the return trip to Carmina, the drivers meticulously maneuvered the Zodiacs close to the rocks of the minute Nameless Island for close observation of calmer Blue-Footed Boobies.  The docile nesting birds did not seem to match the air-acrobatic profile on

Blue-footed Boobie

display when they were hunting fish.

After dinner on the boat, we set sail to South Plaza Island, a small patch of land, that unlike Bartolome Island, promised distinctive terrain and wildlife.

The early morning rumpling of a dropping anchor signaled that we were close to land.  South Plaza Island required a wet landing because the minuscule strips of sand immediately ascended to steep rocks that were carefully crossed to reach the effervescent scarlet and yellow Sesuvium, a succulent ground cover that surrounded a dirt trail.  A short walk led us to steep, vivid cliffs that afforded close-up views of fierce blue-green surf and Elliot’s storm petrel, a long-legged bird that flies close to the rocks with uncomprehending speed and agility.

The male land iguana that resides on South Plaza Island is also unique, displaying lurid colors to attract females during  mating season. The ones we encountered were two to three feet long with bright yellow scales that resembled an ear of corn.

Quality time for land iguanas

Karen carefully photographed them from all angles and was rewarded when a female arrived for some companionship.

“Give them a minute, Karen,” said Ginny, smiling, “they probably don’t get enough quality time together.”

“They’re iguanas, Karen said,“They have nothing but time.”

Aware of this rare opportunity, she continued to shoot, mindful of the purity and dignity of the moment.

A lasting memory from this small island, thriving with  life, was watching the birth of a baby sea lion and what followed.  A large sea lion was lying on the rocks a few yards away.  Pauli pointed skyward to a large flock of frigate birds that hovered above like hawks over their prey.

“That sea lion is about to give birth,” she said, “and those frigates know it.”

Baby sea lion

Minutes later, the pup was born.  The mother immediately nudged it away from the afterbirth toward the sea, anticipating that the frigates would soon dive in numbers for the unusual meal.

The dynamics of the scene were astonishing.  The acrobatic, hungry frigates, the protective sea lion mother and the pup, trying to comprehend “womb to water,” was mind-boggling to watch.

Something else mind-boggling happened that evening on the boat during dinner.  We sat with another couple, Tom and Carol who, although we had snorkeled together in the group, we had not spoken to.

As a conversation ensued, Tom asked the question, “Where did you guys grow up?”

“I was born in Santa Monica, but I grew up in Sunnyvale,” said Karen.

Tom said, “You’re kidding, so did I.  What high school did you attend?”

On the Zodiacs

“Homestead.”

“Oh my god, so did I.  What year did you graduate?”

“1966.”

“Me too.”  “What was your maiden name?”

“Raven.”

“You’re Karen Raven, my god, I remember you as far back as junior high.  Your brother Kerry was on the high school basketball team.”

Once again, I slipped into the moment.  What were the odds?  We were sitting in the galley of a small cruising ship, somewhere in the Galápagos Islands, and Karen was talking to a new friend who happened to be very old friend.

Months later, Tom and Carol traveled down from Oregon and we attended a Homestead High School reunion together, days after the death of its most famous alumni, Steve Jobs.

Karen at Darwin’s Bay

As the sun rose, we found ourselves near unfamiliar land.  Our time on Santa Fe Island, one of the oldest, began as the Zodiacs entered

the pellucid waters of Darwin’s Bay. A wet landing was required on a beach alive with sea lion activity, which nearly caught one of our group in a compromising position between an angry alpha male and an unwelcome intruder. Amid some loud barking and a few aggressive gestures, the situation was soon peaceably resolved. It seems that the alpha male will defend his harem against outsiders of any species.

The snorkeling group

The other memories of Santa Fe Island came from below the  ocean’s surface.  After a deep-water entry off the Zodiac, we snorkeled the bay, identifying three rays—spotted eagle, diamond and sting—more sea lions, eels, multitudes of fish and graceful sea turtles methodically swimming by. Plants and sea life created a striking visual underwater panorama that has remained a vivid memory.

Chef Raoul outdid himself with a sublime farewell dinner.  Afterwards, we all enjoyed an aperitif and talked about our experiences and our expectations.  Most were met, some not. The few people that chose not to get into the water or the Zodiacs would have enjoyed a luxury cruise more.

Atypically, I mostly remained silent during our discussion, choosing to maintain the purity of my personal insights.  Although I detest the term “bucket list,” exploring the Galápagos Islands was something that I always planned to do during my lifetime and I had a sense of fulfillment.

We toasted Pauli, thanking her for carefully curating the excursion.  We joked that leading small groups through the islands for a living

Pauli leads the landing

was a dream job.  Truly, we all appreciated how hard she worked.  Her patience and knowledge enhanced the adventure more than we could have imagined.

There was a light storm during the final sail to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island.  Needing the help of the guide rails to get our clothes from the dresser to the suitcase, choppy waters made us wish that we had completed packing before dinner. Our bags managed to get outside the door by the 6 am deadline and soon we were on the Zodiacs for our final ride to enjoy the village before departing for the Ecuadorian coast.

At the dock, we observed several locals waiting for a water  taxi, standing while two small sea lions slept on the provided

siesta time for sea lions

benches.  It was a metaphor for the way of life on the islands where an “everything matters” viewpoint is engrained into the culture.

Few have had the opportunity to experience Galápagos and fewer are capable of grasping it the way Charles Darwin did. My resolve to stay in the moment helped me immerse myself into it and take what it was giving.  The memories, and the way it enhanced my perspective of the world, will last forever.

 

 

 


Calistoga Culinary Getaway

 

Not having spent time in Calistoga for years, I recently stayed a few days to discover some wines and enjoy the vibrant, emerging local restaurant scene. The following is a small taste of what we enjoyed.

Breakfast options includes Sarafornia, an old-style cafe with classic comfort food or Bella Bakery for those seeking coffee and an artisan

The Grade Cellars “Sea Fog” Sauvignon Blanc

pastry.  My favorite for atmosphere and menu was Sam’s Social Club east of town, where I enjoyed an omelette of cultivated, wild mushrooms, gruyere cheese, black truffle oil and scallions.

We had the opportunity to taste two local sauvignon blanc releases; both impressive, but very different.  The 2015 Petit Coquerel

Le Petit Coquerel Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc ($20) had shades of grapefruit on the nose and during the long finish with a dry crispness in the middle.

From the producers of fine Calistoga cabernet sauvignon, The Grade Sauvignon Blanc “Sea Fog” 2015 ($28), barrel-fermented in all neutral oak, delivers a pleasant acidity with degrees of citrus and stone fruit flavors and a soft wet stone finish.

Lovina Restaurant

Formerly Calistoga Kitchen, Lovina is a new restaurant in the old building at the corner of Cedar Street and Lincoln Ave.  The new creative ownership team identifies with being a uniquely suited, diverse group of friends. The menu is also diverse, with vegetarian friendly and gluten-free options available.  Uniquely good was the Grilled Cheese with Chestnut and Celery Root Soup and the Warm Duck Confit Spinach Salad, which we shared along with a special Chicken and Dumpling Soup.

Lovina is open Thursday through Monday for lunch/brunch and dinner.  Their wine list features a variety of North Coast selections and they celebrate “No corkage Thursdays.”

Visiting the historic Chateau Montelena Estate always reminds me of their 1973 chardonnay release that led to an Independence Day

1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay

for California wines after winning the famed 1976 Paris Tasting. The 2014 Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay ($58), is aged ten months sur lee in oak with no malolactic fermentation. I found complex aromas, crispness and a rich finish of stone fruit and spice flavors, all welcomed by my palate.  The earthy 2014 Chateau Montelena Zinfandel ($39) also stood out with coffee bean, chocolate on the nose and jammy, ripened fruit flavors throughout.

We first discovered Brannan’s by accident, seeking a place to have lunch in town, and were

Bar at Brannan’s Restaurant

delightfully surprised by their imaginative small plate dishes.  I joined co-owner Ron Goldin at a recent event while chef Colin Curtis prepared farmhand (vegetarian-based), briny (seafood) and chow (the meats), small plate dishes that included Curried Crab Tacos, Moroccan Lamb Chops, Salt and Pepper Scallops and Wild Mushroom Risotto.  Appetizers like Smashed Avocado Toast and Ahi Poke Spoons added to the feast. In an older building on Lincoln Ave., Brannan’s has a large, historic bar, full array of cocktails and an ever-changing menu.

Over thirty years ago when Rich and Carolyn Czapleski purchased the land for their Canard Winery, they got a call from Robert Mondavi, urging them to retain some of the oldest zinfandel vines in the Napa Valley,

Canard old vine zinfandell

dating back one hundred years.  Today, the dry-farmed vineyard continues to produce the 2013 Canard Zinfandel ($45), a balance of strength and elegance.  Smokey flavors of raspberry and spice lead to a rich mouthfeel through the finish.

I tasted the Fairwinds 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Reserve ($110) deep inside the extensive cave system at Fairwinds Estate Winery. It originates from the volcanic soils of the local Kenefick Ranch Vineyard that sources Bordeaux grapes to many top producers. The fruit flavors are intense and opulent, but nicely balanced with the complex spice elements that dawdle on the finish.

Tasting in the caves at Fairwinds Estate

For another special dining experience, I recommend the highly reviewed Solbar, at the Solage Spa, east of downtown.  Fresh dishes classically prepared by chef Massimo Falsini like Tamales Bay Mussels, Petrale Sole Tacos and Steak Frites appear on Solbar’s lunch menu. Seasonal Cheeses and Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras begin the ever-changing entrees like Sautéed Wild Steelhead with Foraged Mushrooms and Crispy Liberty Duck with Abalone-prosciutto ragu.

Aside from health and recreation, the Calistoga experience offers an array of fine wines and prodigious culinary choices at all levels.  For a get-a-way, it has it all.

 


Charbono!

 

Calistoga in north Napa Valley is a distinctive place to visit with surrounding mountain vistas, a quaint downtown, specialty shops and increasingly fine dining, geysers, mud baths, petrified forests and, of course, world-class wine.  Fine cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are still on top but local winemakers have experimented with other varietals since the early 1900s, including charbono, grown almost exclusively in the Calistoga area.  A vast majority of the sixty-five California acres planted in charbono are

Calistoga

minutes from town.

Introduced to California as charbonneau and also known globally as douce noir, corbeau or bonarda, the origin of charbono is Savoie, part of the French Alps near the Swiss border where it was harvested as a food friendly red varietal used to soften blends.  Late-ripening California charbono is generally simple in structure, fruit-forward and soft on the palate.

Charbono began as an Italian varietal in the Savoie region before it shifted to France in 1860. Today, it is behind only Malbec as the second most abundantly planted grape in Argentina where it is known as bonarda.  Several winemakers in Calistoga have adopted the grape and seem determined to keep it alive including Larry Summers who calls it “the Rodney Dangerfield of wine,” noting that few people know of its existence.

The old Inglenook winery imported barbera to the region, only to discover later that it was charbono, first bottling it in 1941. They remained the largest producer of charbono in the 1970s when vines also began to appear in Mendocino County

2012 Shypoke Calistoga Napa Valley Charbono

Pizza and charbono were on the menu at an event hosted by T-Vine Winery tasting room in Calistoga.  It began with a rare and earthy 1985 Inglenook Charbono.  The dark color and the deep, rich forest floor and tobacco leaf flavors were proof that the varietal benefits from aging.  Surprisingly, I have found this vintage on-line and at a local San Francisco outlet.

Winemaker Peter Heitz, great-grandson of immigrants who originally planted the vineyard in 1904, combined grapes with one planted in 1984 to produce nine barrels of the 2014 Shypoke Charbono Napa Valley Calistoga ($35) Herbal on the nose, the rich, tart fruit flavors exercise the palate.

Summers Winery, where I tasted my first Calistoga charbono years ago, was pouring two wines including the Summers Rose’ of Charbono 2014 ($30) that had a refreshing sweet and savory quality with hints of strawberries throughout.  It’s easy to recommend this unique wine.

Summers Rose’ of Charbono

Volcanic soil is prevalent throughout the Calistoga appellation including the estate Villa Andriana Vineyard that produced the nicely structured Summers Charbono 2014($34) with nutty aromas and restrained, complex flavors.  Some of these vines were affected by the recent Tubbs Fire that could impact future releases.

Dry-farmed and organic, the Tofanelli Family Vineyards in Calistoga has produced estate wines on this land since 1929. Their 2014 Tofanelli Estate Charbono ($43) blends 15% petite sirah for a richly textured wine that delivers a floral bouquet, ripened blueberry flavors and a slate finish.

A Calistoga boutique winery, August Briggs produces small lot wines in a prolific way.  Today, they have fifteen different releases with various varietals, all produced in

Tofanelli Vineyards Napa Valley Charbono

small amounts.  From two local vineyards, the August Briggs Calistoga Napa Valley Charbono 2014($38) was self-described as their best vintage.  It is an impressive 100% charbono and at the top of those tasted.  Rich texture, concentrated blueberry flavors and soft tannins bring an intricacy to the wine.

After tasting the August Briggs Calistoga Napa Valley Charbono 2006, I may differ with their assessment of the vintage 2014 as the best ever. The deep color and lush mouthfeel were beyond compare.  Enjoying the integrated, complex flavors, doughy tannins and long finish outweighed any need to dissect it.  I can only imagine tasting the vintage 2014 in 2026.

Whether you choose Calistoga for the natural beauty, exercise and health opportunities, fine dining or the wine, be reminded that it is the only place in the United States where we can spend a day exploring the charbono grape and the expressive wines it produces.

August Briggs Tasting Room in Calistoga

Charbono deserves our respect and wine lovers everywhere have a self-serving obligation to keep it alive and thriving.


Tasting “Sonoma Strong”

 

Sonoma County has experienced tragedy from the recent fires.  There was loss of life and property and we all see areas of scorched earth where beauty once prevailed. The land will recover and the community has begun the healing process with an outpouring of community support.

Staff at Merry Edwards Winery

Thanks to the efforts of firefighters and other public service personnel, most of the landscape remains unchanged, including our famous vineyards.  Sonoma County is open for business and the experience of great wine, food and natural beauty is very much intact. The following recommendations are intended to deliver it all for a memorable day-trip.

The first stop is a late morning reserved tasting at Limerick Lane Cellars, named for their street of origin, on property south of Healdsburg.  Since the Limerick Lane

Limerick Lane Winery

Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2012 (94-pt) placed #12 on Wine Spectator’s 2015 Top 100 list, their wines have become recognizable and highly rated. Currently, visitors can enjoy the 2015 Russian River Valley Zinfandel, the 2015 1910 Block Zinfandel (94-pt),a specialty field blend and the wonderful 2015 Syrah Grenache, a Rhone blend with a pinch of petite sirah added.

There are a plethora of good lunch opportunities in trendy Healdsburg, a few blocks north of Limerick Lane  Two of my favorites are The Shed, offering a delightful farm to table menu and Barndiva, with aesthetic patio dining.

Leaving town and traveling west, Healdsburg Road, passing over  Highway 101, soon intersects with the iconic Westside Road that weaves through the heart of the Russian River Valley.  Not all estates along Westside Road are open to the public,

Patio tasting at Gary Farrell

but MacRostie Vineyards, Gary Farrell and Thomas George Estates offer special tasting experiences that focus on cool climate chardonnay and pinot noir.  All of their single-vineyard releases feature noted local vineyards like Olivet, Durrell and Wildcat Mountain

They all offer a broad menu of tasting experiences, held in modish settings, that are

Gary Farrell Chardonnay Durrell Vineyard 2013

both exceptional and pricey.  Indulge yourselves while enjoying fine wines like the 2014 Gary Farrell Durrell Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Valley (94-pt). Reservations are required at each.

The continuing drive along Westside Road is a virtual feast for the eyes, passing through gorgeous redwoods, oaks and vineyards like Allen, Bacigalupi and Bucher that source grapes to many of the valley’s producers.  As with previous vintages, the medium-bodied 2015 Williams Selyem Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir, sourced from these and other nearby vineyards, has a rich mouthfeel with berry and spice flavors that pair well with my palate.

Hacienda Bridge

Driving south along Westside Road requires crossing the one-way Hacienda Bridge that affords splendid views of the Russian River. Soon, Westside becomes Wohler Road moving south to River Road, toward the Highway 116 wineries.  This is a good time set your GPS for Merry Edwards Winery on Gravenstein Highway North (116) near Sebastopol.

With consistent great releases from an iconic winemaker, poured in a private setting,

Merry Edwards Winery is unsurpassed. The free tasting treats you to more highly-rated single vineyard pinot noir, chardonnay and something more.  The 2016 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley, as well as previous vintages, is arguably the best sauvignon blanc in California. Stable ratings in the mid-nineties and multiple appearances on Wine Spectator magazines Top 100 Wines List substantiates it’s reputation. Several lees-stirrings and the addition of sauvignon musque adds richness to the complex flavor profile of stone and tropical fruits with expressive mineral notes on the finish.  The golden color and floral aromas alone earned a reserved place in my small cellar.

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc

Another nearby option is Dutton-Goldfield, serving more chardonnay, pinot noir and the rich, balanced 2014 Dutton-Goldfield Cherry Ridge Vineyard Syrah, using forty-percent whole cluster grapes from a warmer vineyard to create a soft, velvety texture.

Zasu at the Barlow, featuring pork dishes, Jamaican food at Revibe or seafood at Handline provide options for an early dinner in Sebastopol.

Sonoma wineries are surely open for business and many are dedicating profits to help fire victims.  Come enjoy some of the finest wines on the planet and help Sonoma County rebuild itself.  Your taste buds will thank you.