Boundless Beauty at Boundary Waters

I just returned from an invigorating and, at times strenuous, adventure at Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, a U.S. Wilderness Area in Minnesota’s North Woods, part of the boreal forest of North America. I was fortunate to be able to participate as part of my grandsons’ Boy Scout Troop’s 50 Miler Award exploit. To understate the experience, it was absolutely life affirming and unforgettable. The trip from origin to destination was eight days and seven nights with six days in canoe. No motors, no cell phones and no computers….and we survived!

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                                  Reflections on Independence Lake (J.Compisi)

Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), or BWCA as it is commonly known, is part of the Superior National Forest and Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. The name “Boundary Waters” is often used in the U.S. to refer specifically to the U.S. Wilderness Area protecting its southern extent, while the Canadian side includes La Verendrye and Quetico Provincial Parks of Ontario. This 1,090,000-acre (4,400 km2) wilderness area, a blend of forests and glacial lakes and streams is under the administration of the U.S. Forest Service and is a popular destination for both canoeing, trekking and fishing. It is one of the most visited wildernesses in the United States hosting nearly a quarter million visitors each year. Its 1,200 miles of canoe routes and 2,000 campsites as well as hiking trails account for its popularity. BWCA was formally established in 1978 by the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act.

Canoe route planning was key as there are a limited number of designated campsites and, except in an emergency, you are required to overnight in these. They are first come first serve and are limited to nine campers at a time so if someone gets there before you…keep paddling. Also, you have portages between the various lakes that are unavoidable so planning your route includes which portages you will have to traverse with all of your gear and canoes. Portaging can be as simple as one trip but may also be 2-4 round trips if you bring to much gear. Some are short (20 rods which equals 100 meters) and some are longer (over 600 rods). A good outfitter like John, from North Country Canoe Outfitters, can help you pick a route that has good fishing, better camp sites and advise about the portages.

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IMG_20170720_114448177 Disappointment Lake

                                                   Disappointment Lake (J.Compisi)

Our group of 27 (adults, scouts and a couple non-scout siblings) arrived at the outfitters after along day of traveling (Think trains, planes, buses and automobiles). The outfitter team took us in hand an assigned us bunks in their various bunk houses dividing us by male-female and adults -adolescents/teens). After a nights rest we were up early for briefings and equipment issue. Well organized and efficient. We then broke into our 3 pre-determined groups of 9 to head to our put-in points with our gear and canoes.

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                                               The author and grandsons (K.Calzia)

Our group of nine was launched at Moose Lake, about 40 minutes from the Outfitters. We paddled for about 4 miles over 3 lakes (Moose, Newfound and Splash) and executed two minor portages in about 4 hours. It was fabulously serene and unspoiled. The only sound was the delighted chatter of our small group and the splash of our paddles hitting the water. We saw our first bald eagle on this very first day but saw several more over the next 5 days. The first afternoon of setting up camp was a bit rag-tag with tent set up, cooking dinner, dish washing and personal hygiene but we developed a comfortable rhythm over the next several days.

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                      Bald Eagle over Disappointment Lake and in tree (K. Calzia)

The four person tents, air pads and sleeping bags were in excellent condition and offered a bit of welcome comfort in this true wilderness setting. We fished morning, noon and night, from our canoes and from the shore. The food provided was more then adequate and included fresh burgers, steaks, eggs and brats for the first couple of days. The remainder was dried pastas and other reconstituted camp favorites like Chicken a la King and Beef Stroganoff. Of course the salami, cheese and PBJs were nearly always available.

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                         Dinner being reconstituted and Loaded Canoe (J.Compisi)

The next day saw more eagles and another 4+ miles of paddling with a couple of smaller portages as we made our way to Ensign Lake nearing the Canadian border. We found a good campsite and decided to spend two nights there. After our dinner of Brats with mustard, we planned our day trip for day 3. Our first inclement weather occurred with fairly severe thunder storms with lightening and torrential rain. Fortunately it passed rather quickly and only returned while we slept and by morning things were fairly dry as we left for Birch Lake and the Canadian Border. We were traveling light as we only took our food (didn’t want to hang it to keep it away from the bears) and our day packs.

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1.Typical Campsite 2.Drying out after the rain 3. Every designated campsite has one (J.Compisi)

Our restful day trip turned into our longest and most arduous. We transited 6 portages, two of them being nearly .5 mile in length, quite steep, muddy and rocky. Did I say muddy? Despite that, the weather held and we passed through Trident Lake and reached Birch Lake around noon in pleasant weather and enjoyed lunch looking at Canada. When we left we took the opportunity to cross the ‘water border’ which is legal as long as you don’t fish or land and move inland.


                                  Two of four canoes paddling to Canada (K.Calzia)

On day 4 we broke camp and headed south through five lakes and three portages but the weather was threatening and we had heard that the campsites at Disappointment Lake were full so we made a u-turn at Jitterbug Lake, a creepy little lake with thousands of lily pads, and crossed back over two portages. Morale was a bit low to say the least. Things looked up when our scout team radioed back that they had found a Club Med campsite on Jordan Lake so we stayed there.

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                                                    Lily from Jitterbug Lake (K.Calzia)

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                                 Tandem portage although solos did occur (J.Compisi)

We decamped early on day 5 to make sure we got to Disappointment Lake early to find a campsite. What an especially beautiful large lake this is. Another Bald Eagle sighting offered more excitement before a stunning sunset encouraged us to get some sleep.

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Fabulous sunset over Disappointment Lake (J.Compisi)

Our final day on the water was quite short as we exited Disappointment Lake heading south and portaged a fairly long portage to Parent Lake, and, after a brief paddle, on to Snowbank Lake, one of the biggest we paddled and our take-out point. The outfitter was there to haul us back to their bunk houses and hot showers. Morale was soaring as we reunited with our two other small groups and began to swap wilderness stories.

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                                    Outfitters pier on White Iron Lake (K.Calzia)

Planning – The key to any successful adventure is planning and preparedness and BWCA is no exception. The troop started planning about a year out by contacting one of the many outfitters in the area who can offer expertise, advice, permits, equipment, supplies and everything else one needs to go into the wilderness for a week. We used North Country Canoe Outfitters (NCCO) and they were exceptional. Owners John and Cathy have been at is for 34 years and there isn’t anything they haven’t seen or heard. They and their team are focused on your safety and a successful outcomes. They got it right for us.

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                                    North Country Canoe Outfitters welcome sign

Permits – Permits are required for groups to enter the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) during all seasons. Between May 1st and September 30th, permits need to be reserved and are limited by day and by entry point. This is done to reduce the impact on the wilderness. It is essential to plan your trip early. After September 30th through April 30th, reservations for a permit are not required. Day use permits do not require reservation and are free.

Getting there – We flew from the west coast to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP), the closest major U.S. airport. It is located a little more than 4 hours south of BWCA and there are transportation service providers who offer ‘chartered’ service from the airport to Ely, Minnesota, the closest city to the various ‘put-in’ points in the area. We employed Voight Bus Services for our group of 27 but there are many other options. Our driver Rick was great and the bus was very comfortable with an on-board restroom, important for the extended ride.

Equipment and gear tips – Our outfitter provided our permits, food, cooking gear, dishes and utensils, tents, sleeping bags, air mattresses, wet (Duluth) bags, personal flotation device and canoes. You should bring: dry bags for your personal gear, a multi-tool (Leatherman), insect repellent, sun-block, insect net for you head, sunglasses, water shoes and camp shoes, couple pair of dry socks, camp clothes, flannel shirt or light jacket for evenings, 1-2 towels for showers in camp (throw away), fast drying active wear shorts and/or pants, a broad brimmed hat and a water proof day bag for easy access while paddling.

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                  Duluth bags with food and gear provided by the outfitter (J.Compisi)

Local Side Trip – The Soudan Iron Ore Mine, close to Ely, takes visitors a half a mile down below the Earth’s surface for a fascinating and a bit shocking view of what life was like for iron miners from 1882 through 1962 when it closed. It is now a very popular State Park hosting 43,000 visitors in 2016 for this interesting 90 minute excursion toward the center of the Earth.

IMG_0426 Soudan Mine

Posted in Adventure, Canoeing, Northwoods, Travel, Wilderness | 6 Comments

Thousands Beat the Heat at ‘Sonoma Wine Country Weekend’

One especially fabulous Northern California wine country fund raising event occurred this past Labor Day Weekend. Sonoma Wine Country Weekend (SWCW) raises, literally, millions for various local community charities. This year, the typically over heated event set new records for triple digit heat but also sported a new venue, the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University.


                                                          Logo Courtesy of SWCW

The weekend kicked off with the usual stunning variety of winemaker’s lunches and dinners, like the Viluko Vineyards Winemakers  Luncheon in the recently established Fountain Grove AVA. The proprietors, Pedro and Karen Arroyo offered exceptional hospitality despite the record breaking 3 digit heat, which exceeded 110 degrees. This 400 acre property is wild and filled with mountain lions, deer and avian creatures…and vineyards – about 70 planted acres of mostly Bordeaux varietals.


                         Recently planted vines and antique equipment (L.Compisi)

Winemaker Tim Milos waxed eloquent as a six course luncheon paired with Viluko wines was paraded into the iconic barn on the property. Wines poured featured six exceptional Bordeaux vintages and varietals including Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec and of course Cabernet Sauvignon.  Milos’s descriptions were fun and flawless.

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                             Winemaker Tim Milos describes his wines (L.Compisi)

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                                2012 Viluko Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon (L.Compisi)

Each course was more delicious than the previous and the pairing wines were elegant, complex and well balanced. Chef’s Shaun McGrath and Jenna Hodges and their Calistoga Kitchen team did an amazing job of producing beautifully plated food in a virtual wilderness setting.


                                       Summer Greens with Avocado (L.Compisi)


                                             Grilled Akaushi Bavette Steak (L.Compisi)

Other winemakers’ lunches were hosted by such all stars as Balletto Vineyards, Cast Wines, Christopher Creek Winery, Comstock Winery, Davis Family Vineyards and Linked Vineyards. Yummy! Winemaker’s dinners included Macrostie Winery & Vineyards, Ravenswood Winery, Seghesio Family Vineyards and Valley of the Moon Winery at Madrone Estate. Sunday featured winemaker BBQs at a few additional wineries. The capstone dinner on Friday night was the Paulée Dinner hosted by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers and held at Landmark Vineyards at Hop Kiln Estate. This end of harvest tradition from Burgundy is fast becoming the hottest ticket for the SWCW.


                                       Pairing Menu at Viluko Vineyards (L.Compisi)

Saturday’s excitement was all about Taste of Sonoma held for the first time at Sonoma State University Green Music Center in Rohnert Park. A crowd of over 2,000 people attended and they were not disappointed, although they battled the heat by consuming significantly more Sparkling, White and Rosé wines then normal. Gloria Ferrer’s Bubble Lounge with oysters, sliders and other nutritious delectables was often overwhelmed with the throngs of people craving chilled bubbles and cold oysters.


                                                            Logo Courtesy of SWCW

Sonoma WCW is jointly produced by the Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Foundation, all proceeds benefit local Sonoma charities including youth education and literacy programs, Girls and Boys Clubs, senior care, the arts and many more.

Posted in Day Trips, Sonoma, Wine, Wine Country, Wine Events | Leave a comment

Elephant Seals and Castles – Cambria, California

September is truly a glorious time to travel the California Coast. The weather is usually agreeable with foggy mornings, glorious sun-soaked days and cool nights. Driving south on U.S. Highway 101 from the Monterey Peninsula I am astounded by the views of farm workers following behind huge farm implements picking produce at a rapid pace. Mile after mile the sight remains the same although the crop is different. Salinas, Soledad, Greenfield and then the vineyards of San Miguel and Paso Robles begin to dominate before turning west to reach the coast of the sparkling blue Pacific Ocean.

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Fog shrouded Hearst Castle main house at San Simeone (L.Compisi)

This is part two of my multi-part series chronicling our 2017 Road Trip from Sonoma County, California to San Diego, California covering over 1,200 round trip miles and 12 days of beautiful sights, sounds, wine, food and spirits – all in the name of adventure.

Our second stop was the quaint coastal city of Cambria (about 235 miles south of San Francisco, 220 miles north of Los Angeles and 140 miles south of  Monterey) situated on U.S. Highway 1 (Hwy 1) along the magnificent Pacific Ocean. Although Cambria has a long history of mining and cattle ranching it may be best known for its proximity to Hearst Castle in nearby San Simeon.

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Stupendous Roman Pool at Hearst Castle (L.Compisi)

Cambria is surrounded by towering Monterey Pine trees and the shimmering Pacific Ocean along its coast. The city is virtually free of chain stores and boasts a picturesque downtown loaded with charm and offering idyllic living for its six thousand year round residents. It is these virtues that likely attracted the filmmakers of the 1990 hit ‘Arachnophobia’ to select Cambria for its location.

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Monterey Pines Cambria (Scott Campbell photo)

Tourism is the focus of Cambria’s economy with William Randolph Hearst’s castle leading the way. Built on the estate “La Cuesta Encantada” (“The Enchanted Hill”), originally purchased by Hearst’s father, George, in 1865, Hearst collaborated with San Francisco architect Julia Morgan over nearly 30 years from 1919-1947 to create this National and California Historic Landmark. A California State Park since 1954, the Castle offers a variety of daily tours and a seasonally scheduled evening tour. We enjoyed the “Design the Dream Tour” which provided extensive access to the 60,000 plus square foot mansion and one of the three 3,000 square foot guest houses. A living window into the lifestyle of this original media magnate and his Hollywood friends. In fact, Hearst’s life was so fascinating to American’s it became the basis of Hollywood’s 1941 classic film, ‘Citizen Cain’, a film he tried to torpedo.

L-R Guest House Casa Del Mar; Hearst Bedroom; Sitting Area (L.Compisi)

Although we had toured several years ago, we were newly amazed by the extravagance and personality of both Hearst and his architectural muse, Morgan. The entire experience is exceptionally well orchestrated beginning with the free film in the visitor’s center theater (Hearst Castle – Building the Dream), to the 10 mile round trip bus ride audio tour through the exceptionally well informed and personable docents at the castle. Worth the travel to Cambria for this reason alone!

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The Neptune Pool undergoing major repair (L.Compisi)

About 7 miles further north of San Simeon, is the Northern Elephant Seal Rookery at Piedras Blancas, home to approximately 17,000 elephant seals. Thought to be extinct in 1892, these huge (some weighing over two tons) creatures are observable from less than 50 feet away from the easily accessible viewing area.  We stood there for 45 minutes marveling at the shear size and personality of these behemoths.  We were there when most of the seals were on the semi-annual feeding migration to Alaska and the Bering Straight. The winter months are the best time to view the larger populations and their breeding activities.  Despite this fact, the 70 plus adolescents and a couple older adults offered much to watch. The docents were excellent and there is no charge for this experience. Parking is free.

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Other nearby attractions include the Piedras Blancas Light Station, Moonstone Beach, Point Piedras Blancas Beach, San Simeon State Beach and the San Simeon Pier. Of course, nearby Templeton and Paso Robles offer some wonderful wineries and elegant dining opportunities. Some of our favorites wineries from past visits include: Vina Robles   Castoro Cellars and Eberle Winery.

WHERE TO STAY: Cambria and nearby San Simeon offer numerous coastal motels and Bed & Breakfast (B&B) offerings.  Our choice was J. Patrick House in the hills above Cambria.  This charming Irish themed B&B features 7 private bedrooms with full bath and a common sitting area where coffee and pastries or wine and cheese can be enjoyed while meeting your traveling neighbors.

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J. Patrick House in Cambria (L. Compisi)

Our room, ‘Tipperary’, was charming and well appointed with a large bathroom and very comfortable bed. The main building, which serves as the office, reception area and dining area also hosts the nightly happy hour where proprietor, Linda Ennen, offers local area wines and hors d’oeuvres to complement the opportunity to become acquainted with fellow visitors and Linda herself. Most delightful during our stay where the breakfasts.  Linda has created some beautiful, scrumptious dishes that are visually enticing. With her ‘Goldie Hawn’ like personality, Ennen provided a wealth of information about the area, welcoming hospitality and smart recommendations on what to see and where to dine.  All quite impressive for this relatively new (not quite 3 years) innkeeper.

  1. Entrance to Office at J.Patrick House. 2. Tipperary Room (L.Compisi)

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Delicious Skillet breakfast at J.Patrick House (L.Compisi)

WHERE TO DINE: We had a couple dining experiences that are worth sharing.  The first was a mid-afternoon lunch at Linn’s Restaurant on Cambria’s Main Street. Our excellent server described the menu and wine list with knowledge and enthusiasm. We shared a great burger with fries and wine from Paso Robles.  Yum!

We also got to experience dinner at Robin’s Restaurant, a mainstay for decades just off Cambria’s Main Street on Burton.  Robin’s menu is eclectic with American and Asian-influenced dishes. Flavor-filled, heartwarming and generous portions are presented using fresh ingredients. We enjoyed the Thai Green Chicken and the Short Ribs with Risotto.  The finisher, however, was the Ginger Creme Brulee!! For convenience, Robin’s has Lunch, Midday and Dinner menus for day long service as well as Sunday Brunch. Business partners Robin and Shanny have opened other restaurants in San Luis Obispo in recent years.

Thai Green Chicken and Ginger Creme Brulee (L.Compisi)

If you happen to decide you would like to dine in Paso Robles, Il Cortile is an excellent choice for an elegant dining experience. Another great option is Bistro Laurent in Paso.

GETTING THERE: Traveling south on U.S. Hwy 101 (the 40 mile section of U.S. Hwy 1 from near Big Sur south to Salmon Creek remains closed due to collapsed bridge on one end and a collapsed mountain on the other) from Monterey takes one through the amazing produce fields of Salinas, Soledad, Greenfield and the vineyards of Paso Robles where you head west through Templeton along Highway 46 to the coast where one turns north to Cambria. The trip north from LA follows Hwy 101 until you reach San Luis Obispo where you cut over to Highway 1 and continue north. Whichever direction you travel, arriving in Cambria is well worth the effort.

Subscribe to be sure you don’t miss the rest of the series: Santa Ynez Valley; Pasadena and San Diego!

Posted in Adventure, Central Coast, Road Trip, Travel | 2 Comments

Steinbeck’s Favorite Seaside Town, Monterey, California

This is the first in multi-part series.

This series chronicles our 2017 Road Trip from Sonoma County, California to San Diego, California covering over 1,200 miles and 12 days of beautiful sights, sounds, wine, food and spirits – all in the name of adventure.


John Steinbeck bust on Cannery Row, Monterey (L.Compisi)

September is a fabulous time to travel the California Coast. The weather is typically agreeable with cool nights, foggy mornings and glorious sun-soaked days. We experienced exactly that weather wise and so much more.


Kayaking is a great way to see Sea otters up close (L.Compisi)

With major portions of the Pacific Coast Highway (U.S. Highway 1) closed because of the major mudslides and closed bridges from the 2016-2017 rains, U.S. Highway 101 was our predominant driving route.  No worries here, however, as US 101 is beautiful in its own right combining the beauty and bounty of miles and miles of farms producing vegetables, vineyards producing wines and a significant piece of coastal views along the Venture Highway and elsewhere.

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Amazing sea birds inhabit the bay area (L.Compisi)

Our first stop was the fabulous coastal city of Monterey (about 115 miles south of San Francisco) situated on the world famous Monterey Bay. The bay is teeming with kelp forests which create great habitat for the fascinating and playful sea otters, harbor seals and the accompanying avian life like seagulls, pelicans, loons, albatross and cormorants. Of course, Monterey is also a great spot to begin a whale watching adventure during the two migration seasons (April to mid-December for Humpback Whales, Blue Whales and Dolphins and Winter and early spring (mid-December to March) for Gray Whales and Dolphins.

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Seagulls abound at Lover’s Point Pacific Grove (L.Compisi)

ATTRACTIONS: The tourist highlights include the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf and the neighboring towns of Pacific Grove and Carmel. Pebble Beach and the 17 Mile Drive offer dramatic views of the Pacific and some amazingly spectacular multi-million dollar homes. The nearby wineries of the Carmel Valley have fast become a real draw for wine loving travelers as well. There are several beautiful beaches (Ocean Beach in Carmel and the Beach at Lover’s Point in Pacific Grove are very popular) and the water is actually the warmest in late August and September, but never real warm!

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Monterey Bay Aquarium on the bay side (L.Compisi)

WHERE TO STAY: We have stayed in several different delightful hotels around Monterey over the years but our favorite, whenever we want to treat ourselves, is the Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa  on Cannery Row. Expect serious dollars for a room and parking but the hotel, situated right on the bay with ocean view rooms practically surrounding the kelp forests and sea otter play grounds, is gorgeous and full service including a roof top spa with open air, ocean view hot tubs. The hotel offers special package and off season rates which we have taken advantage of during previous stays. Really amazing and a great place to host business conferences and other special events like weddings and anniversaries!

Monterey Plaza, King Ocean View, View from roof, Blue Spa (L.Compisi)

WHERE TO DINE: There are so many exquisite and creative restaurants and chef’s in the area.  Previous trips we have enjoyed Passionfish for creative cuisine and Domenico’s on the Wharf for traditional Italian with Cioppino and other favorites (located on a very touristy wharf ). Although we haven’t dined at the Aquarium we have enjoyed the special flavors created by Executive Chef Matthew Beaudin and can certainly recommend him. On this trip our stay was brief, only one night so we took full advantage of the hotel’s restaurant, Schooner’s Coastal Kitchen. We were not disappointed.  The food was very good and the service matched the beautiful food.  The restaurant is situated with maximum bay views and the outside bar is delightful for appetizers and happy hour drinks.  It was worth staying ‘home’!


Beautiful sunset over Monterey Bay (L.Compisi)

Stay tuned for the second in the series: Hearst Castle and the seaside town of Cambria.



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Wine Road Barrel Tasting – A taste of the future of the North Coast

The first two weekends in March witnessed the 35th Annual Barrel Tasting  Wine Road – Northern Sonoma County take place in the sun-splashed hills and valleys of the three Wine Road American Viticulture Areas (AVAs – Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley).  Thousands of wine aficionados from around the country circulated among the approximately 120 participating wineries over the 6 afternoons (many wineries included the two Fridays) that the event encompassed.

A. Rafanelli a must stop for barrel tasting

A. Rafanelli a must stop for barrel tasting

The Wine Road – Northern Sonoma County has ~200 members including 150 wineries and 50 lodging establishments.   The organization sponsors and organizes three events each year beginning with Winter WINEland in January and ending with A Wine and Food Affair in early November.  Although A Wine and Food Affair is considered their premier event, the Barrel Tasting weekends are the longest running and the most popular in terms of attendance over the 6 days.  No single event in the north county can compete for fun, adventure and great wine deals.  It also offers the most likely contact with the winemakers as they are typically offering the barrel samples.

Smiling Dave Rafanelli and guest (Linda C.)

Smiling Dave Rafanelli and guest (Linda C.)

Barrel tasting weekends are not overwhelmed with themes and music and food (although many wineries do offer palate treats) as the focus is truly on the wine.  Most wineries offer the chance to taste and purchase futures (wine in barrel from previous harvests but not yet bottled) at a discount.  Purchasers may have to wait 6-18 months to actually get their wine.   Because so many of the participating wineries are small and have limited production this is often the only opportunity for non-wine club members to actual acquire these special wines.

Flowers and Barrels create a welcoming environment (Linda C.)

Flowers and Barrels create a welcoming environment (Linda C.)

The  Wine Road’s 3 AVAs are spread out over a large segment of SonmaCounty so it helps to use the Wine Road map to do a route plan that avoids running back and forth between the 3 AVAs or back tracking.  Additionally, planning should include lunch as the event extends from 11AM – 4PM each day.  Many wineries offer some food, as reported above, it is mostly lighter fare.  Picnics are possible at many of the wineries and there is always the Oakville Grocery Co., or Dry Creek General Store to purchase picnic supplies.  Alternatively Barndiva, Willi’s Seafood and Raw BarAgave Mexican Restaurant & Tequila Bar, or Bear Republic Brewing Company in Healdsburg are available for a casual quick bite.  Costeaux French Bakery was the restaurant of choice this year with its French bakery and café ambiance and very welcoming staff.  Food is fresh, beautifully presented and priced right.

Meanwhile, the Top Five Reasons to participate in The Wine Road Barrel Tasting weekend are :

A. Rafanelli Winery is located in the Dry Creek Valley and is a fourth generation family operation begun by great grandfather Alberto Rafanelli, an Italian emigrant, in the early 1900s and passed through his son Americo, and then to current owners Dave and Patty Rafanelli.  Daughter Shelly is the winemaker and responsible for all production at the winery and her husband Craig Fehlman handles vineyard management.  Younger daughter Stacy is in charge of daily operations at the winery continuing this family tradition.  A.Rafanelli specializes in Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Tasting and visits are by appointment only and the 11,000 case production is in allocation for non-wine club members.  These wines are rich, exceptionally well balanced and full of fruit.  This winery has the longest lines during barrel tasting due to the high quality and limited availability of the wines produced from their 85 planted acres.  A must visit.  Call 707-433-1385.

Hillside at A.Rafanelli (Linda C.)

Hillside at A.Rafanelli (Linda C.)

Another family operation is located just down Dry Creek Road at Everett Ridge Winery.  The Sterling family, lead by father Murio and mom Doris, has been growing grapes and making wine for several generations.  Besides Everett Ridge the family owns Esterlina Winery, (spanish for sterling) in the Anderson Valley and 253 acre Cole Ranch (Mendocino County),  America’s smallest AVA, where they grow Riesling, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes.  Besides Cole Ranch the family owns vineyards in the Alexander Valley, the Russian River Valley and Anderson Valley.  Everett Ridge specializes in Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah, Sangiovese, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.  They have a second label called Diablita Wines.  Four Sterling brothers (a Physician and an Attorney included) are actively involved.  Eric is lead winemaker, Stephen heads up sales & marketing, Chris – vineyard management and assistant winemaker and Craig handles legal affairs and assists in sales.   The best of the barrel samples were the Esterlina 2012 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir and the Everett Ridge 2012 Dry Creek Valley Estate Petite Sirah.  The best in bottle was the Esterlina 2010 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir!  The wines are all very approachable and reflect the warmth of this remarkable and down to earth family.

Barrel Room at Everitt Ridge (Linda C.)

Barrel Room at Everitt Ridge (Linda C.)

Papa Mario Sterling with happy guest (John C.)

Papa Mario Sterling with happy guest (John C.)

The ‘newest find’ during this year’s barrel tasting was J.Rickards Vineyards and Winery located on Chianti Road just south of Cloverdale (northern Sonoma County) and visible from Highway 101.  The original Zinfandel vines on this 60 acre estate were planted in 1908 and have been augmented over the past 30 years with fresh plantings. Jim has owned the ranch since 1976 and since 2005 he and wife Eliza have been making wine commercially.  They have typically sold most of their grapes ( Cabernet Sauvignon to Silver Oak – next door, Shiraz to GeyserPeak – just a bit south, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah to Dry Creek Vineyards and Winery – just west and a bit south).   Barrel samples of the 2011 & 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel were both delectable and foreshadowed good things when bottled.  The bottled 2009 and 2010 validated that forecast.  The newly released 2012 Muscat Blanc and 2012 Rosé were perfect spring and summer wines. The tasting room is open 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and by appointment. Call 707-758-3441.

Owner Winemaker Jim Rickards (Linda C.)

Owner Winemaker Jim Rickards (Linda C.)

Brothers Jack and William Salerno founded Manzanita Creek Winery in an industrial facility in Healdsburg in 2001.  They source their grapes, the “best grapes, grown in the best vineyards” from Sonoma County including Dry Creek, Russian River, Alexander Valley and Sonoma Coast.  They also source grapes from Lodi and Paso Robles.  The Salernos produce about 3,000 cases of varietal wine including Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Pinot Noir. The barrel samples of 2012 Russian River Zinfandel, Chalk Hill Zinfandel and Russian River Syrah were all well structured and hinting at rich robust flavors when bottled. Their 2nd label, 3 Vines, is available at Costco.   The tasting room is open Wednesday through Saturday 10 – 4:00 pm. Sunday through Tuesday by appointment only.  These wines and this winery are ‘never boring’!

Manzanita Creek in Healdsburg (Linda C.)

Manzanita Creek in Healdsburg (Linda C.)

Animated Jack Salerno of Manzanita Creek (Linda C.)

Animated Jack Salerno of Manzanita Creek (Linda C.)

Winemaker John Pepe has been the artistic interpreter of Bruce and Cheryl Lawton’s romantic vision of all things wine at their Pech Merle Winery.  Named after a cave in France where their vision began taking shape, the Lawton’s continue their passion through all aspects of their winery, their wine club and their wines using terms like devoted, flirtatious and smitten.  Their wines were awarded three Silver medals at the 2013 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.  Recognized were the 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($39), the 2010 Russian River Pinot Noir ($33) and the 2010 Russian River Chardonnay ($27).  The barrel sample offered during the Barrel Tasting weekend: the 2012 Alexander Valley Cabernet Franc,  the 2012 Russian River (Oehlman) Pinot Noir and the 2012 Dry Creek Valley (Alioto’s Bench) Zinfandel all showed huge potential.  Pech Merle’s tasting room is located at J.Rickards in Cloverdale, Friday and Saturday 11 – 4:30 or by appointment 707-891-3015.

Pech Merle Offerings (Linda C.)

Pech Merle Offerings (Linda C.)

Pech Merle owners Bruce and Cheryl Lawton (provided by B.Lawton)

Pech Merle owners Bruce and Cheryl Lawton (provided by B.Lawton)

Make it a point to enjoy Wine Road’s 2014 barrel tasting weekends.  Remember, the first two weekends in March!

Posted in Barrel Tasting, Restaurants, Sonoma, Uncategorized, Wine Country, Wine Events, Wine Road, Wineries | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Wine and Food Affair offers best of season for Sonoma County.

The 14th Annual Wine Road Wine and Food Affair offered the best of all worlds:  two days of sunny skies, warm temperatures, glorious fall vineyard colors, the smells of harvest and, of course, great wines paired with delightful foods.  Why would anyone be anywhere else if they could be here?

Colorful Welcome at Kendall Jackson Wine Center

Colorful Welcome at Kendall Jackson Wine Center (Linda C.)

Kendall Jackson Entrance  (Linda C.)

Kendall Jackson Entrance (Linda C.)

The Wine Road, formed in 1976 as the Russian River Wine Road and updated in 2008 to Wine Road of Northern Sonoma County, is a winery association which represents 190 wineries and 56 associate lodging members within the three North County AVA, the Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley and the Dry Creek Valley.

This event, A Wine and Food Affair is the third major event sponsored by the Wine Road and is considered the annual capstone event.  (The other two events are Winter Wineland held in January and Barrel Tasting in March.)   Over 100 wineries participated this year and each one selected a favorite food and the perfect wine to pair it with.  Each ticket holder receives a cookbook, prepared specially each year, with all the recipes selected by the participating wineries.  In some cases the winery employs a caterer or a local restaurant chef to prepare the food pairing while others employ their own Estate Chef to prepare the food.

Vineyards on the Wine Road (Linda C.)

Vineyards on the Wine Road (Linda C.)

Vineyards on the Wine Road (Linda C.)

Vineyards on the Wine Road (Linda C.)

This years highlights, and their were so many, will be narrowed down to just four for the benefit of both the writer and the reader of this article.  Make no mistake, the adjectives employed to describe these 4 are adjectives that could and likely are being used to describe dozens of other participating wineries.  After all, reasonably, the typical ticket holder might only experience 10-12 wineries over the two days unless they are being chauffeured on a well planned route and spend less than 20-25 minutes at each winery.  Remember, despite there being only one wine and food pairing at each winery, they are typically pouring 3-5 other wines.  So onward considering these are the ramblings of one person’s experience!

The Most Fun:  Founded in 1981 by Tom and Diana Manning, Chateau Diana, located on Dry Creek Road in Dry Creek Valley has quickly become a favorite.  High energy and youthful in perception,  they must have had  their tasting room experience in mind from the moment they began the design in 2005.  It has been open less than 2 years however they have definitely created a buzz.  A wonderfully well-appointed tasting room with balcony overlooking the brilliantly colored vineyards of the Dry Creek Valley.  It also sports a tranquil picnic/outdoor event area with brilliant fountains.  All of this is topped with an array of at least 5 labels each targeting a different price point and level of sophistication.  Always approachable and always priced right, the wines at Chateau Diana clearly achieve their goal.  The constant flow of people reflected that with a clientele envied by many in Dry Creek Valley.  The pairing was the 2010 Three Sisters Zinfandel and a family recipe (Diana’s) for Sausage and meatballs in tomato sauce over polenta. Traditional Italian comfort food.  This was skillfully catered by a la heart catering, inc.

Chateau Diana's Terri Manning at Check in (Linda C.)

Chateau Diana Picnic Area (Linda C.)

Chateau Diana Picnic Area (Linda C.)

The Most Fascinating:  Paradise Ridge is located within the original 2,000 acres of the Fountain Grove estate established and owned by Thomas Lake Harris, the leader of a mid-19th century utopian cult which moved to Santa Rosa from New York in 1875.  The setting is stupendous and offers unmatchable sunset views from the eastern ridge across the Russian River Valley (RRV) toward the coastal hills and ultimately the Pacific Ocean.  Paradise Ridge was pairing their 2007 Estate Zinfandel (Hoenselaars Vineyard) with a wonderful Wild Mushroom & Brie Soup with white truffle oil.  Perfect!  They were also pouring their 2011 Chardonnay (Bazzano Vineyard), 2007 Elevation Cabernet Sauvignon (Rockpile Vineyard) and 2006 Syrah (Hoenselaars Vineyard).  This is a do no miss winery set in a virtual residential area of southeast Santa Rosa.

View from Paradise Ridge (Linda C.)

View from Paradise Ridge (Linda C.)

The Most Idyllic:  Lynmar Estate, located in the Russian River Valley, is the love child of Lynn and Anisya Fritz.  Lynn bought the property in 1980 and began planting a variety of Pinot and Chardonnay clones under the watchful eye of Merry Edwards and Tony Soter who bought the grapes for their very successful wine making endeavors.  In the 90’s, Lynn embarked on small production quantities of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on his own.  Only in 2008 did Lynn and Anisya make the estate their permanent home and fully commit to making premium wines in greater volumes.   Lynmar is an idyllic and exquisite 100-acre property fronting on the Laguna de Santa Rosa water shed.  It is a wonder of rolling vineyards and organic vegetable gardens. Approximately 70 acres of the estate is vineyards of Pinot, Chardonnay and Syrah.  Winemaker Shane Finley earned his chops from 2001 at Copain Wines,  2002 in Australia’s Barossa Valley, a year in the Rhône Valley, Cellar Master at Copain in 2003, Paul Hobbs Winery in 2005 and then six years at Kosta Browne Winery. Lynmar Estate’s Winemaker since 2012, Shane’s touch will soon be seen in the next vintages. Lynmar’s Estate Chef, David Frakes, paired the 2009 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir with a delightful Turkey Chili with goat cheese and onions.  Warm and inviting.  Seconds were definitely in order.

Lynmar Estates outside tasting area (Linda C.)

Lynmar Estates outside tasting area (Linda C.)

Idyllic Gardens at Lynmar Estates (Linda C.)

Idyllic Gardens at Lynmar Estates (Linda C.)

The Most Family Oriented/Unpretentious/Low Key:  Graton Ridge Cellars in Sebastopol is truly a small family operation.  The Paul family began in 1945 as apple and fruit growers but as times changed they ‘evolved’ into grapes and wine making.  The tasting room is quaint and the staff is both knowledgeable and personable.  Proprietors Art and Barbara Paul are on site and fully engaged.  The wines are very approachable beginning with the 2010 RRV Chardonnay and proceeding through 2 Zinfandel and a 2010 RRV Pinot Noir.  The pairing was a Lamb Meatball in tomato sauce, offered by Sally Tomatoes Catering, paired with the 2010 Bacigalupi Vineyards Zinfandel.  Fall is the time for comfort food and this really hit the mark.

Graton Ridge (Linda C.)

Graton Ridge – Owner Barbara Paul on right (Linda C.)

Honorable mention to perennial winners:  The Kobe Tri-tip sliders at Kendall Jackson Wine Center paired with their 2005 Hawkeye Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon.  The cabernet braised red cabbage and blue cheese and buttermilk dressing were mouth-watering.  Pedroncelli Winery, on Canyon Road, has been an icon in the Dry Creek Valley since 1927.  The wines are always good and the family remains visible and dedicated to excellence.  On this date Jim and Phyllis Pedroncelli greeted guests on arrival.

Kendall Jackson wines (Linda C.)

Kendall Jackson wines (Linda C.)

Jim and Phyllis Pedroncelli greet guests on arrival (Linda C.)

Jim and Phyllis Pedroncelli greet guests on arrival (Linda C.)

The Northern Sonoma County Wine Road, Wine and Food Affair is an exceptional event that should not be missed.  Mark your calendars, make a reservation at one of the 56 member lodging establishments and spend a glorious weekend in Sonoma Wine Country.

Posted in Sonoma, Uncategorized, Wine, Wine Country, Wine Events, Wine Road | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mangiare, bere vino e essere felici! Eat, drink wine and be merry!!

A recent trip to Puglia, (the Italians call Apulia), and an even more recent wine event in San Francisco highlighted the advances being made in quality and marketing of these complex and interesting wines.  Puglia is bounded on the east by the Adriatic Sea, the Ionian Sea to the southeast, and the Strait of Òtranto and Gulf of Taranto in the south.  The soils are exceptionally fertile – mostly volcanic and limestone, clay and sandstone predominate.  Geographically, the Province of Puglia is long (985 KM – about 600 miles) and narrow with no point being more than about 65 KM (about 40 miles) from the sea.  It is this maritime influence that make this baking summer weather able to produce quality grapes.

The amazing trulli of Alberobello in Puglia (Linda C)

The amazing trulli of Alberobello in Puglia (Linda C)

Historically an agrarian culture, Puglia remains highly cultivated and accounts for at least 35% of all olives produced in Italy (70% if combined with Calabria – the toe of the boot).  Additionally, Puglia, one of Italy’s 20 wine growing regions, produces more wine than any other Italian Province.  But quantity does not necessarily translate to quality.  There is a distinct difference between the northern part of Puglia, more hilly than the south,  where the wine making is more reflective of the practices employed in Umbria and Tuscany while in the southern Salento Peninsula they are more aligned with the practices employed by earlier Greeks and Romans.

Daniele Cirsone presents overview of Puglia (Linda C)

Daniele Cirsone presents overview of Puglia (Linda C)

Twenty-five years ago most of the wines grown in Puglia were shipped to northern Italy or France to supplement lower harvests or to provide structure to wines from poor harvests.  That has been changing, partially because of the European Union economic advances and the need to produce higher revenues.  This is being accomplished by reducing tons per acre thereby increasing the intensity and flavor profiles of the grapes harvested.

Fabio Cascione of Vigne & Vini (Linda C)

Fabio Cascione of Vigne & Vini (Linda C)

There are twenty-nine Denominazione di Orogine Controllata (DOC), four Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita  (DOCG) and six Indicazione Geografica Tipica  (IGT – table wines) wines produced in Puglia.  Unlike an AVA in the US that designates a geographic grape growing area, in Italy, a DOC designates which grapes can be grown in a geographic area.  The most prominent white grape varietals of Puglia include Bombino Bianco, Bianco d’Alessano and Verdeca although in the past 15-20 years international varietals like Chardonnay and Sauvignon have been increasing in the percentage of overall production.  The main red grapes are Aglianico, Negroamaro (the principal grape in Salice Salentino wine), Malvasia Nera and Primitivo di Manduria (the genetic predecessor of California’s Zinfandel grape).

Kari Moore Chateau Ste Michelle and Tormaresca (Linda C)

Kari Moore Chateau Ste Michelle and Tormaresca (Linda C)

The aforementioned wine event in San Francisco was sponsored by Wines of Puglia II, a temporary association of five wine companies that represent the entire region.  Two of these five companies were represented at the event: Tormaresca and Vigne &Vini.  Tormaresca, owned by the Antinori family of Tuscany and Chianti fame, was established in Puglia in 1998 and clearly fits the category of mega-producer with annual production of 2.8 million bottles.  Vigne & Vini, owned and operated by Cosimo Varvaglione and his wife Maria Teresa, is small by comparison but still represents a large market position with about 700,000 bottles annually.  Both producers have distribution in the United States. Tomaresca is partnered with Ste Michelle Wine Estates for distribution in the USA (they also partner on wine production).

Wines of Puglia wines (Linda C)

Wines of Puglia wines (Linda C)

A brief overview of Puglian wines and the terroir was presented by Daniele Cirsone, representing Wines of Puglia.  Each producer brought a wide selection of their wines both whites (Bianco), rosé (Rosato) and reds (Rosso).

Tormaresca wines (Linda C)

Tormaresca wines (Linda C)

To start, Vigne & Vini, who specializes in native red Puglian varietals of Primitivo, Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera, offered their 2011 Salento IGP Moi Verdeca. It was well balanced, crisp and very fresh flavored.  The reds offered quickly upped the flavor scale!  In rapid order the 2010 Primitivo Del Salento (IGP), 2008 Papale Primitivo di Manduria and 2008 Chicca Primitivo Dolce stood out for ruby red color and full fruit flavors. Very approachable and full bodied enough to stand up to Italian food.

Actual plate of hardy pasta from recent trip to Puglia (Linda C)

Actual plate of hardy pasta from recent trip to Puglia (Linda C)

Tormaresca was not to be outdone.  The 2011 IGT Chardonnay (100%) was floral in bouquet while fresh and intense.  Would be a good companion to fish or a summer salad. The most enjoyable reds of the several offered were the 2010 Neprica a medium bodied blend of Negroamaro, Primitivo and Cabernet Sauvignon.  Soft tannins and drinkability best describes this red.  Next, the 2010 Torcicoda Primitivo (100%) Salento IGT offered hints of plums, cherries and figs.  Very intense with strong flavors and a good balance.  Finally the 100% Aglianico 2006 Bocca di Lupo DOC.  It was intense and dark ruby in color with licorice and fig notes.

More trulli in Alberobello (Linda C)

More trulli in Alberobello (Linda C)

Events of this nature are winning over American wine lovers. The reasonable prices and ever improving quality of Italian wines distributed to the United States from regions like Puglia and Sicily makes them very attractive to a broad range of Americans from entry level through well schooled regular wine drinkers.  Italian wines are and have always been made to enjoy with food and although these Puglian wines have not achieved the stature of the killer B’s (Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello) they can add a special cosmopolitan touch to any American meal.      “Mangiate, bevete e siate felici!”

Posted in Italian Wines, Italy, Uncategorized, Wine | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments