On the Sideways Movie Trail: A Wine Tasting Tour of Santa Barbara

Far from home, in the Macedonian capital city of Skopje, the American wine-lover’s flick Sideways was providing background fodder at a wine event. For a second, Shawn and I thought we’d been whisked back to the United States, until we spotted the Academy Award winner’s subtitles written in the Cyrillic script, an alphabet made even more foreign after a glass of wine.

Fast-forward two years, and we’d find ourselves in the heart of Sideways filming locations, in rustically-beautiful Santa Barbara County, California. On a tasting excursion with wine entrepreneurs Kevin and Sherene Donoghue, of Santa Barbara Classic Wine Tours, we’d explore three wineries and a beer taproom, don furry Davy Crockett coonskin hats, and hear a plethora of praise for the 2004 film that helped to put this Southern California wine region on the map.

Continue reading “On the Sideways Movie Trail: A Wine Tasting Tour of Santa Barbara”

Tasting Central California: A Paso Robles Wine Tour

Six decades ago, my grandparents and their then-eight children piled into the family car and drove to San Luis Obispo from Minnesota. My grandfather was to begin a teaching position there. Though the family’s chapter in San Luis Obispo (SLO) ended up being a short one (frankly, I don’t know how they bid farewell to charming SLO and its wonderful weather) my relatives left with sunny memories of playing at the beach and in the hills, and a now-iconic photograph of my father sporting golden-brown curls, pushing a 1950s-era wire stroller.

With that personal connection as well as the knowledge that fine wine country exists not only in San Luis Obispo, but also nearby Paso Robles, Shawn and I made a point to stop in SLO as we made our way along California’s coastline from Monterey to Santa Barbara. We were also lured in by SLO’s designation as the ‘Happiest City in America’ and felt that vibe the moment we took to the walkable downtown, past quirky eateries and shops, and the city’s 18th century Spanish Mission church.

Continue reading “Tasting Central California: A Paso Robles Wine Tour”

Into the Wild American West: Genoa, Nevada

Genoa Nevada USA

Named after Genoa, Italy, but pronounced juh-NO-ah, unlike its Italian namesake, the Nevadan town of Genoa epitomizes the American West. Founded in 1851, Genoa is Nevada’s oldest settlement, and it has the distinction of having had Nevada’s first court, hotel, newspaper, and even its first ‘thirst parlor.’

Like nearby Virginia City, which offers similar wild west charm, Genoa, Nevada has also played host to famous personalities such as Mark Twain. Twain is said to have thrown back a drink in Genoa’s thirst parlor, an establishment which is still in operation today. In more recent times, the town served as the set for the film, Misery.

Continue reading “Into the Wild American West: Genoa, Nevada”

Wine, Surf, & Sun: A Weekend in Sonoma County, California

Taking to Bodega Bay’s beach just before sunset, we had to pinch ourselves that we were really strolling through the golden sand in winter. Between us both, Shawn and I had endured our fair share of brutal Midwestern, Canadian, even Continental-European winters, but this weather, we were told, was even exceptional by California standards. During the early-evening hours, the sunbeams beat down on our jacket-less forms, as we watched the Pacific’s waves reaching farther into the sand.

The happiest of dogs pulled their owners down the beach. Sandpipers ran in and out of the water with the tide, looking for morsels of goodies – dining, dashing, then repeating the cycle as the sky turned more intense tangerine hues. The salty-sea air gently kissed our cheeks.

We explored barnacle-adorned rocks, looking for a starfish or two. Instead, we found a coy crab. ‘Poor fellow,’ I thought as I remembered all the roadside restaurant and market signs hinting that they were appearing on seasonal menus.

Continue reading “Wine, Surf, & Sun: A Weekend in Sonoma County, California”

A Day at the Virginia City Camel & Ostrich Races

 

Each September, camels, ostriches, and jockeys from around the world converge on Virginia City, Nevada for the former mining town’s International Camel & Ostrich Races. We attended the quirky event last year, and it’s taking place again this weekend for the 54th time.

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A Long Weekend in California Wine Country: Getting a Taste for Napa and Sonoma Wines (Part 1)

 

“I should like to spend the whole of my life traveling abroad, if I could anywhere borrow another life to spend afterwards at home.” — William Hazlitt

There seems to exist a syndrome among international travelers and expats. They’ve visited the world’s most far-flung destinations, but haven’t seen much of what their native countries have to offer. Perhaps it’s the lure of the exotic, the desire to pin a new country on one’s world map, or just simply forgetting all the worthwhile destinations that exist back home.

Having lived in Europe for more than a decade, this partially rang true with me. From Burgundy and Champagne, to Porto and the Loire Valley, I had paid homage to many of Europe’s finest wine centers, but I had yet to make it to Napa, which together with neighboring Sonoma, is home to nearly 400 wineries.

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Last autumn, during one chapter of our whirlwind American road trip that took us as far east as Québec City, and as far west as San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest, my husband’s parents hosted us during a gorgeous getaway in Napa and Sonoma. They had been eager to do this with us for years.

Napa Valley wine tasting Napa and Sonoma wine tasting

Our timing for the October weekend get-away couldn’t have been better. California’s trees and vineyards were just starting to discard their summer hues in favor of golden red autumnal attire, and the weather was perfect: glorious, sunny skies, and temperate days. There was just a hint of fall in the air.

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My husband, Shawn, and his family have been coming to Napa since his 21st birthday, so they naturally have a handful of favorite wineries that they visit in both Napa and Sonoma. What follows is part one of a Napa & Sonoma series that shares anecdotes from our four days in California wine country. Whatever your language, I say Cheers, à votre santé, saúde!

Friday: Ledson Winery & Vineyards

To celebrate our arrival in California wine country, we picnicked at Ledson Winery and Vineyards in Sonoma. Walking the path that crisscrossed through rows of vines and a white rose garden, I had shades of Burgundy on my mind.

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Though when I glimpsed the young estate’s architecture and contrasted it with my memories of old stone homes in the French countryside, I was reminded that I was in the New World and finally exploring California’s second-most visited attraction. (The land of Minnie and Mickey trumps Napa/Sonoma.)

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As the winery was set to close shortly after our arrival, Shawn’s parents covertly ran inside the tasting room, mischievously returning a few moments later with a golden baguette, Pesto Jack, a small log of Chèvre, and a chilled bottle of Sauvignon Blanc in hand. We sat on benches under the handsome old, twisty trees, listening to the birds, reminiscing upon their Napa memories, and plotting the next three days of our Napa and Sonoma sojourn. We also determined the designated driver duty schedule. My trio of companions chivalrously allowed me to opt out of driving so that I could enjoy the long weekend to the fullest extent.

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Saturday: Black Stallion Winery and Sbragia Family Winery

Our day commenced at The Black Stallion Winery, which is situated on the grounds of a historic equestrian center. My in-laws are members of Black Stallion’s Wine Club, and the establishment was hosting its annual barbecue on the afternoon of our visit.

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Black Stallion had an impressive flight of wines  on offer to taste: 2010 Pinot Grigio, 2010 Napa Valley Rosé, 2010 Monte Rosso Zinfandel, 2008 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2009 Napa Valley Syrah. There were also activities to distract guests. The first was a varietal matching activity, which was visually-pleasing given the six leaf types and grape clusters that were arranged on plates before us. (I wonder how many of those grapes were devoured during the intense deliberation sessions?) The aim was to properly pair a leaf with its appropriate bunch of grapes. Despite the presence of aids nearby to assist, Shawn and I did not pass the test with flying colors. Perhaps we were enjoying the wine too much to give the game the attention it deserved.

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Later, we embarked on a tour of the production room and cellar, learning that due to earthquake concerns and related regulations, the newer Napa wineries do not have underground cellars. Instead, they try to simulate subterranean temperatures in an above-ground room. Wineries that were built before such regulations were put into law were grandfathered in.

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Our favorite activity was Black Stallion’s educational vineyard. Among the rows of vines were placards explaining the history and characteristics of each grape. Surprisingly, we were encouraged to pluck the plump specimens right from the vine as part of our educational experience. We happily obliged. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to devote as much time to ‘wine school’ as we had liked, because Black Stallion’s wine menu, hearty lunch offerings, and conversation with newfound friends kept the four of us occupied.

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Afterward, we drove up the windy Silverado Trail of Napa Valley, cutting across the mountain range dividing Napa and Sonoma into the Dry Creek River Valley. My father-in-law had purchased some wine futures from the Sbragia Family Vineyards and had been invited to a wine futures pick-up party there.

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We arrived at Sbragia just as the sun was preparing to set, casting a magical golden glow over the surrounding vineyard-adorned hills. It was extraordinarily beautiful!

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As we admired the sunset, we continued our lessons in winemaking, watching as a barrel was crafted out of oak planks then forged over a small flame to give it an essence of smoke.

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At our earlier stop, we’d learned that Black Stallion uses Hungarian and French oak for its barrels. The art and science of fermenting and aging wine in oak barrels is fascinating. One specialist I spoke to at Sbragia mentioned that the cost for French oak can often be prohibitive for wineries, leading many to use Hungarian and American oak. A new French oak barrel can carry a price tag of around $1,000 USD, whereas American oak is usually half that amount. American oak is said to be more intensely flavored than French oak. I have read that some wineries even use oak wood chips to produce the sought-after oaky flavor within a quicker amount of time.

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With the sun having slumbered over the Dry Creek River Valley, we decided to call it a wonderful day and head back to our home away from home.

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Where in the World?

What is your wine destination of choice? Do you have a favorite grape varietal?

 

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

 

The Laughing, Wild Horse

Horse colt and adult

Since I have grown up in a part of the United States that is very different from the high desert of Nevada, it’s been a joy to observe the flora and the fauna unique to the rugged American West. From geckos, coyotes and snakes, to sagebrush, tumbleweed and saffron-colored rabbit brush, I’ve emitted many squeals of delight these past months while touring the region. It has been the herds of stunning, wild horses that have most effectively captured my attention though!

In this photo series, a young colt tries his best to appear poised and proper, but soon, he erupts into what looks like mischievous laughter. In classic form, the elder horse remains stoic, not even knowing what the junior horse is doing behind his back.

Horse colt and adult

Horse colt and adult

Horse colt and adult

Getting Our Kicks on Route 66: Highlights from a Cross-Continent Road Trip

As someone who fancies vintage style and history, I’d long wanted to drive Route 66, the so-called “Main Street of America.” So when Shawn and I criss-crossed North America (from Saint Louis to Québec City, then on to Nevada, via Santa Fe, and the Grand Canyon), we declared it essential to hop on what remained of this legendary East-West roadway.

In past decades, Interstate 40 has devoured many sections of Route 66. As a result, we were not always certain how to find the “Mother Road,” especially since we didn’t have a historic map in hand.

When our cruising was abruptly interrupted by “Road Ends” signs, we decided to “consult” Nat King Cole in his 1946 tune, “Route 66.” Nat’s smooth jazz vocals informed us that we could pick up well-restored sections of Route 66 outside of Flagstaff, well into Western Arizona.

And so we enjoyed empty backroads seemingly inhabited only by prairie dogs and the occasional roadster or motorcyclist. We happened upon hotels resembling teepees, mom-and-pop diners offering greasy burgers and refreshing root beer floats, and classic gas stations like the Hackberry General Store in Kingman, Arizona. We also spotted lovingly-restored Model Ts and Corvettes, as well as their long-forgotten counterparts. Equally sad as they were picturesque, the vehicles sat rusting along random stretches of the route, reminding us what happens when Mother Nature has been left to her own devices.

It’s fun to imagine what Route 66 was like in its heyday, when these ghost towns—many now replete with dilapidated motels and diners—were bustling places filled with road-trippers chasing dreams out West.

Established in the 1920s, Route 66 was removed from the U.S. Highway System in 1985. A recent feature in the Cars films has contributed to an infusion of youthful energy for this classic roadway.

Here’s hoping it won’t change too much, though.

A hand holds a Route 66 postcard in front of a car's windshield.

An Arizona Route 66 sign hanging on a white building.

A woman poses next to a green vintage convertible at the Wigwam Motel. The complex rents out teepee style hotel rooms on the Arizona segment of Rotue 66.
The Wigwam Hotel, in Holbrook, Arizona.

A rusted and abandoned car sits on the side of Route 66 in Holbrook, Arizona.

Along Route 66 a wagon wheel hangs on a wall, with a piece of petrified rock below it. On the right, a pawn shop sign advertises guns and gold.
A wagon wheel and piece of petrified rock (left), and a pawn shop sign (right).
The interior of a Route 66 themed restaurant in Holbrook, Arizona.
Mr. Maestas Mexican-American restaurant, Holbrook, Arizona.
Beatles insignia, harnesses and lamps hang on the walls of the Mr. Maestas Mexican-American restaurant, Holbrook, Arizona
Beatles insignia, harnesses, and lamps hang on the walls of the Mr. Maestas Mexican-American restaurant, Holbrook, Arizona
Old American license plates hang on the wall of Mr. Maestas, along with vintage candy tins. The restaurant is located on Route 66 in Arizona.
Old American license plates hang on the wall of Mr. Maestas, along with vintage candy tins.
The exterior of a Holbrook, Arizona bar along Route 66.
Winners Circle, a bar in Holbrook, Arizona.
A Route 66-era gas station turned hair salon in Ash Fork, Arizona.
A Route 66-era gas station turned hair salon in Ash Fork, Arizona.
An American flag flies in front of the Aztec Motel, along Route 66 in Seligman Arizona.
The Aztec Motel in Seligman, Arizona.
The Copper Cart (vintage sign) and Roadkill Cafe (contemporary sign) in Seligman, Arizona along Route 66.
Vintage and contemporary marketing in Seligman, Arizona.
Mannequins and vintage cars sit outside the Rusty Bolt Gift Shop, along Route 66 in Seligman, Arizona.
The Rusty Bolt, a gift shop in Seligman, Arizona.
A sign on Delgadillos Snow Cap (a Route 66 diner in Seligman) reads: "There is no higher religion than human service. To work for the common good is the greatest creed."
Delgadillos Snow Cap drive-in, Seligman, Arizona.
Vintage gas pumps, signs, and a Corvette convertible adorn the exterior of the Hackberry General Store, along Route 66 in Arizona.
Vintage gas pumps, signs, and a Corvette convertible adorn the exterior of the Hackberry General Store, in Kingman, Arizona.
At a gas station along Route 66, a man peeks through the windshield of a vintage convertible.
Shawn peeks through the windshield of a vintage Corvette convertible parked at the Hackberry General Store.

 

If you ever plan to motor west, 
Travel my way, take the highway that is best. 
Get your kicks on route sixty-six. 

It winds from Chicago to L.A., 
More than two thousand miles all the way. 
Get your kicks on route sixty-six…

-Route 66 lyrics

vintage Route 66 signs and wheels at a general store in Arizona.

Vintage gas pumps at a Route 66 gas station.

A man and a woman pretend they're pumping gas at a vintage-themed general store along Route 66, in Arizona.

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An old-fashioned gas pump’s meter.
A Native-American mannequin (left) and a weathered outhouse (right) at the Hackberry General Store, along Route 66.
A Native-American mannequin (left) and a weathered outhouse (right) at the Hackberry General Store.
A man peers into a vintage car at the Hackberry General Store, along Arizona's stretch of route 66.
The Hackberry General Store.
A vintage red gas pump at the Hackberry General Store along Route 66.
A cherry-red gas pump at the Hackberry General Store.

 

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.