Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Napa & Sonoma Valleys - Gorgeous California Wine Country!

 Definitely the highlight of the trip for me, the Napa and Sonoma Valley Wine Tour (well a tour of 3 wineries in a wine country filled with 600 wineries) was a beautiful adventure. Though a bit rushed, our Great Pacific Wine Tour guide was a fantastic guide, and knowledgeable - not to mention a commercial photographer who helped Sheena and I have a few great pics together!

Larson Family Winery

Three Lab Cab!
In 9 hours, we visited three wineries. The first was the Larson Family Winery, a small establishment in which we learned a few tips on exactly how to hold a wine glass and best savour each sip.

  • Always hold a wine glass by the stem! - If you hold by the bowl, the wine will be too warm
  • First, swirl vigorously - holding the base with two fingers. This "swish and spin" starts the oxidation process for better tasting
  • Take a deep sniff - put your nose right in the glass!
  • Taste it! - let the taste roll on your tongue so you get let all the tastebuds taste it
  • Take a few sips before you decide - all sips are not equal! Especially if you have been tasting a lot of wine, give your palate a moment to adjust
  • Did you know - cork is made from tree bark? It takes 8 to 10 years to grow the tree to get the cork. Although wine can be made just as well with a screw-top, the winery owner said there will always be "traditionalists" in the market,who want the "authentic" cork in their bottle.
Pete the Lab
The Larsons have three Labrador Retrievers, after whom they name their wine! The Three Lab Cab, I'm sorry to say, was not my favourite - but cute bottle, right? (see pic on the right). Definitely, gorgeous dogs, too! Apparently, they normally just roam the vineyard, but we were lucky enough to meet all three. At our next winery, we learned that the dogs can actually sniff out pests that ruin the grapes, before humans can even see their effects. Smart puppies!

Viansa Winery

Flower Cluster Stage of Grape Growth (May 2012)
 Napa & Sonoma valleys are quite similar - except that Napa is farther from the ocean and warmer, whereas Sonoma feels the winds. Our second stop was Viansa winery, which was by far the best. It stands for Vicki and Sam, the two original owners. The grapes here are picked at night when they are firm and cool. The 45 minutes on this tour at Vinasam was definitely not enough - it was just barely enough to make our choice of the four included wines and buy a couple bottles, and dash off!

Wines, apparently, are simply named after the type of grape. We chose San Giovese(lighter and spicier red called Chianti in Italy), Cabernet Sauvignon, which is usually what I order at restaurants, Cabernet Franc (which is like the Cab Savignon but with a much smoother ending to the wine, surprisingly thanks to the high percentage - 20% of Syrah, another type of grape). We also tried some Tocia on the house, which was similar to the Muscato - a sweet, dessert wine.

Next, we decided to try the Zinfandels, which were light and sweet as expected and then the Rose - the two of them were unexpectedly different. One - Aratico Rose had too sweet of an ending, but the other, Vino Rosata was perfect; both Sheena and I purchased a bottle. Did you know that the leaving the grape skin on longer is what makes a wine "rose" coloured? I think the San Giovese and Vino Rosata were the first $30 bottles of wine I've ever purchased! At least, now I will feel a bit more informed about my wine choices at fine dining establishments!

Dom Chandon

Dom Chandon is one of France's most famous champagne makers - the company discovered California in 1973 and decided it was the ideal place to have a joint venture with American winemakers. Dom Chandon has wineries in France, Australia, Brazil, Napa Valley - and 2 new wineries coming soon in India and China (they do vineyards in Asia, really???)

Barrels hold the wine before it is syphoned into a hose, to be pressed into bottles. White wine is in steel tanks for 6 months, whereas reds are usually in oak barrels for 6 to 18 months. The bottles used to be on a "riddling rack" back in the day (like a stand where they are held at a forty-five degree angle). They used to be turned 1/8th to 1/4 of an inch every day, for months, to let the yeast settle and ferment. Now, with modern technology, this takes only 7 weeks!

At this point, I had had so much wine that I have to say, I couldn't quite tell you which champagne tasted the best.

Check out the slideshow below!  Remember, you can hover over the top part with your mouse to change the speed it plays at. We took a very educational tour that discussed the Yountville, Carneros and Mt. Veeder vineyards. I've added titles and descriptions to help explain the process of making wine, especially champagne! (You have to click the picture, which pauses the show, to see the descriptions)

At the end of this trip, I have to say that I love visiting California! I've been here three times in the last four years - and it may be another four years until I get back.
Now, back to reality - selling my house and car, working, and hopefully taking some summer chill time (with some wine!) before I'm off on my British/European adventure. California, what a beautiful state!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Golden Gate, Millennium & Asia SF: Views, Cuisine and San Fran's Thailand

 As I mentioned in my last post, our most spectacular pictures of the Golden Gate were not after our two hour bus/trek to the top of a windy hill on Saturday, but the morning after, as our bus stopped there before our wine tour. (A welcome surprise, but honestly, for all the preparation in a guided tour, they could have mentioned it, and saved us the journey the day before!)

I guess we're lucky though -we ended up with two different, but equally beautiful, views of the bridge. Next trip, I will definitely plan ahead to take one of the "Bike the Bridge" tours. It must be long though, since I remember seeing one advertisement as follows "Bike the Bridge! Take the ferry back!"  Hmm....

I won't bore you with them all, but here are a couple of our best shots:

What's that? You left your heart in San Fran?!


Delectable dining was an amazing part of our trip - I love new (veggie) food experiences from world famous chefs. Sheena liked the food, too, a really good and "interesting" experience. That's the word of the trip!

Millennium Vegan Cuisine

Millennium (Sunday night after our wine tour - yes, I know, my blog is doing a bit of time hopping this time around), was more scrumptious than I could ever have imagined. It's an all vegan, high class restaurant attached to a hotel that books up so fast, we were seated at the bar. We tried the three course "frugal foodie" menu for $40 and ordered different items so we could experience as much of the menu as possible. Thank you, Dayna, for this awesome recommendation!
Check out Millennium's website here

  • Artisan Bread - as the menu states, you have to specifically ask for this delicious bread - the chickpea hummus was kind of dry, though
  • Fried Green Tomatoes - yum!
  • Wild Kale Salad with Tofu -  I have to say the cabbage taste threw me off - it was good, just not very "salad" like. Yes, I have to shock all you vegans and healthy food eaters and confess, despite the trend, I have not really been that impressed with kale in general!
  • Risotto Cake - Now, this was a flavour festival! The rice, packed into a round patty, was pretty normal, but the curries, veggies, and sauces surrounding it, like a moat, reminded me of tastes from Thai to Chinese to Indian. Yum!
  • Potato Picadillo Roulade -  heavy and filling, but delectable, this potato pastry was filled with lentils, nougat, hazelnuts---and some other delicious combinations!
  • Chocolate Bourbon Black Salt Molten Cake with Strawberry BBQ sauce (no, I did not make that up). This one put the negative connotation in "interesting" - I really couldn't eat it!
  • Chocolate Almond Midnight -Sheena's dessert, however, was to die for. Too rich to have more than half though - a cross between cheescake and fudge, this was heavenly. In fact, some locals come to the restaurant on Friday nights, just to order a Midnight to go!

Asia SF - San Francisco's Thailand

   Asia SF was definitely the most interesting experience though, which borderline reminded me of an xmas 5 years ago with Dennis in Thailand; some ladyboy dancers with fusion food that was served in small plates Californian Asian style. (Click here for my 2006 post on Bangkok, Thailand); ahh, the Singapore memories!

The dancers at Asia SF varied in their skill and danced to Top 40 songs, but were quite hilarious. Tickets for this also book up weeks in advance, but with a little planning, this may have been the best $45 we spent! Well, plus the martinis which were definitely filled with full shots. 

Asian Fusion Cuisine

In dresses and heels, this was the best girls' night Sheena and I have ever had together!  

A few hours sleep and then we were off to the most anticipated part (for me, anyway) - Napa Valley! (Stay tuned for an awesome slideshow in my next post!)   

Saturday, May 26, 2012

San Francisco - Fisherman's Wharf & Alcatraz!

Although our trip was off to a frenzied start, with two hours delay in flight an an eclectic hostel (Orange Village Hostel), our first night in San Francisco was a semi-success. The hostel was much more basic than the HI Hostel or Green Tortoise brands I'm use to (who both charge $50 a night per person for an 8 bed dorm in the San Fran area!) Our $30 a night hostel was clean and warm, but definitely the ultimate backpacker style. The lady at the front desk failed to inform us that, despite being located next to the Hilton, we were steps away from "The Tenderloin", an area reminiscent of Vancouver's Hasting Street. Not that we encountered anything dangerous, but taking the longcut "home" was the safe bet!

Alioto's & Carousel Fun

Sheena and the crab!
Exhausted from a 3 am start to the day, by 6pm we finally had a chance to grab some food at Alioto's Waterside Cafe, which featured a surprisingly delicious vegetarian pesto penne, with zucchini and squash. Yum! Sheena had a 

lobster/crab combo that was apparently succulent and also interestingly presented. 

In search of the perfect view of the sunset, we asked the local waiter, who directed us on a bus to Treasure Island, where we would see an amazing view of the skyline and Bay Bridge while sipping a martini. Perfect, we think. In reality, after an hour on buses that were a bit "sketch", we ended up at an old U.S. Naval base complete with a shady pub. Wow, the local waiters sure have some strange tastes!

Too late to catch the sunset at Cliff House, which would have been across the other side of the city, we took a few pics and headed back on over to Fisherman's Wharf--we accidently stumbled upon Pier 39, the famous pier on our list. Lit up beautifully at night, it was definitely a touristy area with a few cute shops (Sheena bought some neat  Christmas ornaments for her kids). We took a token picture by the famous carousel and found a delectable crepe shop where we had dessert. Mmmm...cheat meals taste best on vacation! I will admit that after a long day, a luxurious hotel may have been a better choice than Orange Village!

The next morning's trip to Alcatraz was an amazing historical site and definitely the best audio tour I've ever been on. This tour is so popular it sells out three weeks in advance - and the night tour sells out two months in advance! 

Check out my Glog poster below for interesting details! If it's not loading for you, click here.  Despite the fact that I PAY for Glogster Premium, it looks like you have to click where the pink Glogster sticker is, and choose "View Full Size" from the drop-down menu to actually see it (or click here) - it took forever to make and I was hoping it would show up properly!

After Alcatraz, we wandered around Fisherman's Wharf once more. Ghiradelli Square's chocolate shop was pretty, but let me tell you, it was definitely undeserving of the World Famous title! Boudin Bakery, however, was delicious and had some interesting crab-shaped baguettes!

The rest of Saturday was a frenzied afternoon attempting to get to the Golden Gate Bridge and take a few pictures(which we later found our winery tour the next day stopped at!). Golden Gate will be in my next post, as those pics are definitely beautiful. Hours of traffic, chilling winds and late buses, thanks for Memorial Day weekend, meant after a hurried day of sightseeing, we really needed our Saturday night out!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Das Parfum: Patrick Suskind's Story of A Murderer

Pic from
Perhaps the darkest, yet most eloquent piece of literature I have ever read, Suskind's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985) tells the tale of an orphan who was abandoned as a baby, with an extraordinary sense of smell, a lack of identity, and an obsession to explore his gift of scent into dark extremes. Jean-Baptiste Grenouille learns the art of perfume making, finds beauty in a virginal woman's scent, and seeks to transfer her scent into a bottle.

Sexually charged, mystifying, and about the love (and hatred) within humanity, Suskind's work is a horrifying page-turner. As Grenouille realizes that he, himself, was born in the stinkiest city in the world, with no smell, he experiences the pain and suffering of an innocent man, and despises humanity.  As the rich and poor try to save their daughters by marrying them off and banning them from the streets, Grenouille relishes in the game and hunts twenty five of them, knowing that he needs them, needs their scent. With third person narration that brings us directly inside the mind of a murderer, this novel draw you into deeper darkness with each page.

The Art of Translation

Most translated works seem out of place, missing character, and most definitely not original - but Suskind's story is magnificently transformed  by John E. Woods. Set in the backdrop of Paris during the French Revolution, we feel the streets come to life and Grenouille's twisted power change the people of city. As I have just started an online German course before my move to Europe, and  my career venture into linguistics, I cannot begin to imagine the difficulty and artistry required to translate the mood of this text.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer PosterA Ruinous Film

Yes, I venture to call it ruinous - disastrous. Without spoiling the beautiful climax and denouement of this novel, (a short novel I definitely recommend), I can only say that the film changed the meaning of the novel itself, simplifying both Grenouille's tragic descent and the horrifying actions of the townspeople. While Hollywood can only go so far in depth, Tom Twyker's Perfume (2006) simply cannot captivate Suskind's horrific, mystifying plot.