Appellation St. Helena ‘bASHes’ it out of the park at CIA Greystone

Appellation St. Helena (ASH) continues to be synonymous with first class events which promote this historic and pastoral American Viticultural Area (AVA) in northern Napa Valley.  The 2018 bASH (7th Annual) Food and Wine Pairing Competition at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) established new limits in exceptional food and wine pairing events.


Fabulous and historic CIA at Greystone, St. Helena (L.Compisi)

Over Thirty (30) wineries collaborated with forty-eight (48) CIA student chefs and a unique mix of professional chefs from St. Helena restaurants and Estate Chef’s from local winery estates to produce creative food and wine pairings to complement the elegance and dignity of the CIA Barrel Room.  This year’s smart and upscale event perpetuated the truism that ‘great wine and food’ make for great experiences.

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Hall Wines represents the best of St. Helena (L.Compisi)

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Del Dotto vineyards is a loyal participant in bASH (L.Compisi)

Participating St. Helena restaurants and Estate Chefs included Acacia House by Chris Cosentino, Charles Krug Winery Estate Chef Daryl Muromoto and Goose & Gander restaurant. These chefs bring an air of experience, creativity and confidence to their dishes as ell as extensive wine and food pairing knowledge.

The food pairings were judged by the public attendees and the top vote getters were announced near the end of the event. “Sip, Taste, Vote!”, is the over-arching theme. Chef Lars Kronmark, CIA Chef Instructor and present on the Barrel Room floor of the CIA, did his usual amazing job of guiding these chef students to success. Although the dishes prepared by the professionals at times had a quality and completeness that contrasted with the sometimes unevenness of the student dishes, that is merely a sign of experience and practice that the students will gain as time goes on. Unmatched, however, is the wide eyed enthusiasm of these young neophyte chefs and the burst of confidence they displayed as the evening went on.

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Chef Lars Kronmark receives check from Lesley Russell (L.Compisi)

As always, however, the strength of this event was the wineries.  It is important to note that all the wines; Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Red Blends were all from grapes grown in the St. Helena AVA.  These wineries, large and small, are so passionate about their wines that you will find many of the winemakers, vintners and family members pouring their wines.  Examples include: Calafia Cellars (Mary Lee and Randle Johnson, owner), Flora Springs, Hall Wines, Raymond Vineyards, Rombauer Vineyards, Saint Helena Winery (Lesley Keffer Russell) and Varozza Vineyards (Jack and Dianna Varozza, owner) all present to pour and describe their wines. Each deserves mention and praise for the high-quality wines that are produced each and every year.

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(Boutique producer Calafia Cellars proprietors, Mary Lee (c) & Randle Johnson (r) with Student Chef Priya Singh (L.Compisi)

Student Team Winners:

1st place – Del Dotto Vineyards, St. Helena Cabernet Sauvignon, students David Ju and Chase Evans (Steamed Bao Buns with Braised Beef Cheeks, Shallot Aioli and Spring Vegetables)

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(R-L) Winemaker, Gerard Zanzonico, Students David Ju & Chase Evans and Del Dotto Estate Chef Joshua Schwartz (L.Compisi)

2nd place – Parry Cellars, 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, students Sean Smith and Reilly Brown (Ancho Beef Taco with Charred Salsa and Escabeche)


Parry Cellars (Stephen & Sue Parry) and CIA Team #5 – Sean Smith & Reilly Brown (L.Compisi)

3rd place – Rombauer Vineyards, 2014 Stice Lane Cabernet Sauvignon, students Allison Komara and Nina Widjaja (Korean Beef Short Ribs “Galbi Jjim”)


(l-r) Nina Widjaja, Allison Komara and Lesley Russell (L.Compisi)

4th place – Pellet Estate, 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon Pellet Vineyard, students Brandon Matthews and Carlos Ramires (Cornet of Red Wine Braised Kobe Beef, Creamy Polenta, with Morel and Black Truffle)


(l-r) Eric Risch (GM Pellet), CIA Students Carlos Ramires & Brandon Matthews, Tom Rinaldi (Pellet winemaker) and Lesley Russell (ASH) (L.Compisi)

5th place – Ballentine Vineyards, 2016 Maple Station White Blend, students Cameron Hassell and Nicolas Stogsdill (“Wanna Wonton”)


Team Ballentine Cameron Hassell & Nicolas Stogsdill (L.Compisi)

Professional team winners:

1st place – Beringer Vineyards, 2012 St. Helena Home Cabernet Sauvignon, with Acacia House by Chris Cosentino (Oxtail Toast, Pickled Mustard Seeds, Wild Fennel)

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Team Beringer, pairing by Acacia House receives 1st Place award. (L.Compisi)

2nd place – Ehlers Estate 2015 “1886” Cabernet Sauvignon, with Goose & Gander (Braised Lamb Neck and Candy Cap Mole, Steamed bun, Benne salad, Lemon Crema)

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Ehlers Estate Team with Chef Nic Jones of Goose & Gander (L.Compisi)

3rd place – Charles Krug Winery 2016 Limited Release Sauvignon Blanc, with Estate Chef Daryl Muromoto (Braised Pork Ciccioli Crostini, Estate Citrus Marmellata)

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(l-r) Charles Krug Estate Chef Daryl Muromoto, VP Estate Management Jim Morris & Lesley Russell (ASH)  (L.Compisi)

Chase Cellars received the “CIA Director’s award for Excellence in Creativity and Innovation” (2017 Zinfandel Rose, Hayne Vineyard), with students Charles Fulbright and Conner Black (pairing their “Saturday Special”)


ASH volunteers are the backbone of this pairing event. (Courtesy P. Goyins)

Greystone is a National Historic Landmark, related to its operation from 1950-1989 as the Christian Brothers Winery which, of course, has its own historical and wine significance.  There is nothing like this event anywhere in the Napa Valley, or perhaps all of California!

Appellation St. Helena (ASH), is an organization of over 80 winery and grower members, which promotes the highest standards of grape growing and wine making for which the St. Helena American Viticultural Area is famous.  Originally founded in 1875 as the St. Helena Viticultural Society and then disbanded during Prohibition, the organization was revived nearly 20 years ago and includes associate membership for wineries outside the appellation that use grapes produced by member growers.

The Organizers of this event were:

Appellation St. Helena in partnership with:

The Culinary Institute of America

The St. Helena Chamber of Commerce

Visit Napa Valley


Posted in Culinary, Napa Valley, Restaurants, Travel, Wine Country | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Taming the Colorado River: Hoover Dam and the Dam Bridge

Located just 30 minutes southeast of Las Vegas, Nevada and spanning the Colorado River along the Arizona and Nevada State borders, the Hoover Dam, remains one of the engineering marvels of the world. Conceived in the early 1900s and approved by the United States Congress in 1928, the project took less than five years to construct (begun in 1931 and dedicated by President Franklin Roosevelt in September 1936) during the Great Depression. It is truly a testament to American ingenuity, resourcefulness and creativity.


The Power Houses below and the Memorial Bridge over the Colorado (L.Compisi)

The Colorado River ran wild during rainy periods causing devastation and human suffering along its uncontrollable banks across numerous states and Mexico. During dry periods the farms and orchards in these same states would fail and lead to other forms of tragedy.  The Hoover Dam changed all of that and provided valuable benefits for millions of Americans.

Aerial view Hoover Dam

Aerial view Hoover Dam (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Unlike so many public construction projects (think California’s High Speed Rail Project and Boston’s Big Dig), Hoover Dam was completed 2 years ahead of schedule by a six company consortium called Company Six. It was an amazing example of a successful public-private partnership.


Lake Mead was created by damming the Colorado River (L.Compisi)

Many of the techniques used in building this Dam (like piping cold water through the massive amounts of concrete walls to help it dry faster) had never been used before and certainly not in a project this massive. Many pieces of equipment had to be manufactured on site because there were no roads or vehicles heavy enough to transport it there.


Dizzying view down 726 feet of concrete (L.Compisi)


Cars and pedestrians cross from Nevada to Arizona (L.Compisi)

Thousands of Depression Era workers flocked to this area in southern Nevada to find work which over 5,000 did and over 100 died in accidents during the project. An entire city, later named Boulder City, was created nearby out of nothing to house and sustain the labor force.  The Dam quickly paid for itself and remains self-sustaining through the sale of hydroelectricity generated as the impounded water from Lake Mead, created as a result of the Dam, is released and spins the 19 massive turbines located near the bottom of the 726-foot-high Dam.  The electricity generated is sold to public and private utilities in Nevada, Arizona, and California.


Photo taken from the Arizona side showing the Lake Mead side (L.Compisi)


Two of four intake towers plunging deep into Lake Mead (L.Compisi)

It is a mere 45 feet wide at the top and 660 feet thick at the base. Originally known as Boulder Dam, it was renamed the Hoover Dam by a joint resolution of Congress in 1947 in recognition of President Herbert Hoover’s (1929 – 1933) support of the project while President.


This intake tower sports Arizona Time, another Nevada Time (L.Compisi)

It was a thrill to walk the 1,244-foot length of the Dam from the Nevada side to the Arizona side. Looking down its 726-foot concrete surface to the Colorado River below created a real sense of vertigo as well as awe. You can also drive across the dam, in fact, until the amazingly beautiful Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge was opened in 2010, U.S 93 ran on the Dam. The Memorial Bridge, itself a wonder at 900 feet above the Colorado River, is the second highest bridge (the Royal Gorge Bridge is first) in the United States and the world’s highest concrete arch bridge. There is also a pedestrian walkway along the Memorial bridge.


The Dam is Art-Deco and the bathrooms are stylized in brass to match (L.Compisi)

The Visitor’s Center ($10 per person entry) offers a short film with unbelievable and fascinating original news footage of the construction of the Dam. Of course, there are interactive exhibits and a gift shop as well. There were no tours of the actual inner workings of the Dam while we were there but per the Bureau of Reclamation website on March 27th, 2018 all dam and powerplant tours were back in normal operation as of March 24th 2018. Recommend checking the website in advance.



A slightly different view of the beautiful 900 foot high Memorial Bridge (L.Compisi)

Nearly 1 million tourists from all over the world visit the Dam annually. The Dam is a National Historic Landmark and has been rated by the American Society of Civil Engineers as one of America’s Seven Modern Civil Engineering Wonders.

Posted in Adventure, Amazing Sights, Day Trips, National Parks, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Surviving and Surprising: A Death Valley Experience

The amazingly vast Death Valley is located in California’s northern Mojave Desert along the Nevada-California border.  It is part of Death Valley National Park and has an area of 3,000 square miles. It is also one of the hottest places in the world (134.1° F reported in 1913 at Furnace Creek) at the height of summertime.  Further, it is the lowest point (Badwater Basin at 282’ below sea level) in the Continental United States and only 86 miles from the highest point (Mount Whitney at 14,505’ above sea level) in the lower 48. Within Death Valley, Telescope Peak at 11,043 feet is the highest point. All of this is introductory to why our recent 5-day adventure now ranks as one of the most memorable of my lifetime.


View along Zabriskie Point trail (L.Compisi)

Although we had considered driving from our Sonoma County home base the daunting 10+ hour drive motivated us to fly into Las Vegas instead and use the City of Pahrump Nevada as our base of operations. That proved to be a great call. Upon landing at McCarran International Airport, we picked up a rental car and drove the 63 miles to Pahrump in about an hour. Very little traffic and some amazing mountain and desert views along the way.

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Butte along Scenic CA 190 (L.Compisi)

Activities and adventures:

We had two objectives for our visit: to hike as much as possible and to see as much of the stark and awe-inspiring terrain and vistas as we could. Each morning after a quick breakfast at our hotel, we drove the easy 50 miles to Scenic Highway (CA 190) entrance to the Park. Although the route from Pahrump (Nevada Highway 160) to the Park is mostly 2 lanes, there are enough straight sections to allow for passing of slower vehicles. We did not have any issues with traffic and, again, the scenery was so different and beautiful that the time seemed to melt away like we were in a time warp.


More views along CA 190 (L.Compisi)

The Park has a couple of Visitor Information Centers and the Stovepipe Wells Village for food, fuel and other human needs.  This is a National Park.  Entrance fees per vehicle are $25. Per person is $12. Motorcycle fees are $10 for one person or $20 for two people to a flat rate of $20. Death Valley Annual Pass is $50. Fees for most campsites in the park are $4 per night. Four campgrounds in the park continue to be free: Emigrant, Wildrose, Thorndike, and Mahogany. Of course, U.S. citizens or permanent residents aged 62 or older can get lifetime Senior Passes for $80.

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Crazy formations and colors (L.Compisi)

Golden Canyon Trail is an easy, slightly upward, trail that starts just a couple miles away from the Furnace Creek Visitors and Information Center which, in turn is 60 miles from Pahrump. This visitor center has a small refrigerated section with premade sandwiches and drinks as well as a gift shop.  It also is a Park Service Ranger Station for information, assistance and fee collection.  The trail head has a parking lot and restrooms. No water is available so bring at least a bottle per person for this 2-mile round trip hike.  Add an additional 1 mile and you can get fairly close to the Red Cathedral, a massive rock formation which has features resembling a gothic cathedral.


Amazing colorful layers and formations (L.Compisi)

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View of Red Cathedral at the end of Golden Canyon Trail (L.Compisi)

On our second day we decided to combine short hikes and a dazzling scenic drive.  We drove to the Natural Bridge trail head which sported the typical restrooms and again, no water. This is an easy .3-mile one way walk.  It is gradually uphill on the way out. The trail is a narrow canyon and once you reach the 50-foot tall bridge you can continue for another .5 miles to the end past a couple of obstacles requiring scrunching down around a large boulder or scrambling up a dry water falls until you reach a 20’ high dry waterfalls that requires special gear to scale. Once we finished this easy hike we decided to drive the one-way Artists Drive. We were very happy we did.

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50′ high Natural Bridge (J.Compisi)

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Boulder obstacle after Natural Bridge (J.Compisi)

The entrance to the one-way Artist’s Drive is located off Badwater Road about 10 miles South of Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center. The start of the drive is clearly marked. It will take you about 45 minutes to complete the drive (assuming little traffic or slow-moving vehicles). Early on the drive you’ll reach a parking and view area. The .5-mile uphill walk to the view point is worth every step. Driving on through numerous roller coaster type dips you’ll arrive at Artist Palette, about 5 miles from the start. There are restrooms here and it is worth taking a few minutes to walk through the amazing washes and canyons here. So different from what you may have already seen.

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9 mile Artists Drive offers dips and colorful surroundings (L.Compisi)

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Indescribable formations of eroded rock (L.Compisi)

After leaving the Artists Drive, we drove about 23 miles past the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center to the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes.  All day (and the day before) we had seen this area north and east in the distance which appeared to be clouds and rain. We realized when we approached that we were wrong. These large sand dunes were whipped by the wind creating the ‘clouds’ we had seen.  This ‘sandstorm’ was exaggerated by the people walking on the dunes causing additional sand to be picked up into the air. Again, worth the time to visit and take a walk on the sandy-side!


Wind blows the sands at Mesquite Flat (L.Compisi)


People Surfing the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes (L.Compisi)


Zabriskie Point, named after Christian Brevoort Zabriskie, who was vice-president and general manager of the Pacific Coast Borax Company in the early 20th century and made more famous through the 1970 film.  The Pacific Coast Borax Company mined and transported Borax in Death Valley. The effects of wind and water erosion in this area are mindboggling!  The View Point is a thrill with broad vistas of color filled windswept rocks and folds. Indescribable!! The Zabriskie Point trail head offers a few options including a 7-mile loop via Gower Gulch, Golden Canyon, Badlands Loop and back to Zabriskie Point. This trail offers such a variety of geological up thrusts, colors, washes, and heart stopping drop-offs that we actually thought about turning back at one point.  Proceeding forward was the well rewarded decision. It is about 55 miles from Pahrump to the Zabriskie Point parking lot. The parking lot offers well maintained rest rooms which always come in handy.

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Zabriskie Point Trail Head (J.Compisi)


Badlands Loop returning to Zabriskie Point (J.Compisi)


Leaving Golden Canyon toward Badlands Loop (L.Compisi)


Looking back toward Golden Canyon (J.Compisi)


Near bottom of Badlands Loop (L.Compisi)

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View from Zabriskie Point scenic look out (L.Compisi)


Amazing erosion folds from Zabriskie Point (L.Compisi)

Where to stay:

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Pahrump and were very impressed. The hotel is fairly new, about 3 years old), very clean, well-managed with noteworthy service by an exceptionally friendly and helpful staff. The Holiday Inn has a very well-equipped fitness facility and an inviting outdoor swimming pool with hot tub. With rates starting at $143 including free parking, internet and complimentary breakfast (very good coffee and a variety of breakfast options) this was a perfect choice for us.


Holiday Inn Express & Suites Pahrump (L.Compisi)


Clean fresh rooms and comfortable beds (L.Compisi)


Beautiful pool and hot tub at HI Express (L.Compisi)

There are other places to stay within Death Valley National Park but the rates were very high at the resorts and the availability was extremely limited in the hotels/motels in the vicinity with more reasonable rates.

Where to dine:

We had breakfast everyday at the out hotel (see above) and grabbed lunch at one of the visitor centers. Dinner offered 4 opportunities to experience the local fair in Pahrump. We enjoyed the Thai food at Chat Thai Bistro on one night and found Mom’s Diner to be unique, fresh and well prepared. Ultimately, however, our favorite dining spot in Pahrump was Symphony’s Restaurant and the integral Pahrump Valley Winery. First, finding an operating winery in Nevada was a bit of a surprise. The winery has multiple labels including Nevada Ridge whose wines are all made from either Estate grapes or grapes from small local Nevada growers. Additionally, the Charleston Peak label sources grapes from nearby California vineyards on the western slopes of Mount Charleston along the CA/NV border. Finally, the Pahrump Valley Winery label which maintains the legacy California sourced wines of Symphony (a unique cross of Grenache Gris and Muscat of Alexandria created at UC Davis), Desert Blush and others. The wine is only part of the story and quite worthwhile on its own, but Symphony’s Restaurant was like discovering the mother lode. Owners Bill and Gretchen (also the winemaker) Loken have given Executive Chef David Hutchinson a free hand.  Great move.  Using fresh sourced produce and wonderful meats and seafood, the dishes coming out of the kitchen are flavorful, delightful to the eye and plain delicious.


Pahrump Valley Winery and Symphony Restaurant (L.Compisi)

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Main Dining Room at Symphony (L.Compisi)

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Chunked Dungeness Crab (L.Compisi)


Flakey and tasty Grilled Halibut (L.Compisi)

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Perfectly prepared Filet with Béarnaise Sauce (L.Compisi)

Death Valley in Films, on Radio and on Television: At least 24 films, with the 1970 “Zabriskie Point” being perhaps the most well-known, used Death Valley as their venue or were filmed there. “Death Valley Days” was both a radio series from 1930-1945 and a TV series from 1950-1972.

Getting there: We flew United Airlines from Sonoma County’s Charles M. Schulz Airport (STS) via San Francisco (SFO) to Las Vegas (LAS). The 1st leg was about 20 minutes and the 2nd just over an hour and 15 minutes. Very relaxing and the $10 per day parking at STS was very reasonable.

Posted in Adventure, Hiking, National Parks, Restaurants, Travel, Wine Country, Wineries | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Albion River Inn: Home on the Mendocino Coast

The California Coast is explosively spectacular, especially north of Monterey. With this breathtaking scenery comes the innumerable inns, hotels, motels and B&Bs that offer lodging with unworldly views. It is hard for any County; Sonoma, Marin, San Mateo, San Luis Obispo or Santa Barbara to compete with the shear ruggedness and accessibility of the Mendocino Coast. And with that coastline the inns and other lodging availability in Mendocino is equally spectacular. You will find it very difficult to find an inn that combines coastal views, delightfully intimate rooms and fine dining more to your liking than the Albion River Inn in Albion. We know, because we have stayed at more than a few and now we have stayed there.


Ocean view from our deck (L.Compisi)

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Lawn view from outside the restaurant (L.Compisi)

The Albion River Inn has a fascinating history that includes a stint as a blacksmith shop, a Ford dealership and an earlier incarnation of the restaurant. The current history begins 37 years ago, in 1981, when Flurry Healy and co-owner Peter Wells purchased the 10-acre property. They gutted the existing restaurant and set about, over many years, building the existing 20 cottages along the magnificent bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Adding texture and drama to this stunning location is the Albion River Bridge, an historic wooden deck truss bridge crossing the mouth of the Albion River just adjacent to the Inn property. At 300 meters long and 150 feet above the river, it is the last wooden bridge on California State Route 1.


The last wooden truss bridge on CA Hwy 1 (L.Compisi)

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Albion River Bridge view from our deck (L.Compisi)

The Owners: The paths of Healy, a railroad man from Butte, Montana and Wells, an Englishman and actor converged over their respective real estate careers, Healy in Mendocino and Wells in Marin County when Wells moved his family to Mendocino in early 1972. Truly a family operation, all of Peter’s children worked in the restaurant and his son David was the Chef until 1993, a role now filled by Flurry’s nephew Stephen Smith.

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The Dining Room and Bar (L.Compisi)

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Morning view from restaurant (L.Compisi)

The Rooms: The rooms are very well maintained, many with wood burning fireplaces and large two-person bath tubs. We had a king bed (amazing headboard) which was noteworthy for its comfort. Great soft sheets and perfect bedding weight for these winter months. The rooms are equipped with a small refrigerator (important for wine and other beverages). Of course, the rooms are important and must be comfortable but it is the location and the views (even from the bed) that are so fabulous with patios/decks overlooking the majestic Pacific Ocean. Words do not do the scene justice so I will use a lot of pictures to express the amazing beauty.


Twenty cottages each offering spectacular views (L.Compisi)

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Most rooms have wood burning fireplaces (L.Compisi)


The king beds are exceptionally comfortable with ocean views (L.Compisi)


River to ocean views from our deck (L.Compisi)


View from lawn up to our deck – sweet (L.Compisi)

The Restaurant and Bar: It is clear from the clientele that the restaurant at the Albion River Inn has consistently offered high quality dining experiences. It is reflected in the obvious local clientele that made the dining room and bar quite busy in this slower season for the northern California coast. Executive Chef Stephen Smith, classically trained at the now defunct California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, has been at the helm in the Restaurant for years and has honed his style to a fine point. His take on California Coastal Cuisine is visually delightful and filled with flavor and texture. Smith and the front of house team, including long time mixologist Laura Spradlin, happily welcome guests as the family has done for the better part of four decades.

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Sparkling window seat in the dining room (L.Compisi)



The Swordfish was prepared perfectly (L.Compisi)


Grilled Shrimp is a specialty (L.Compisi)

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Merry Edwards Pinot Noir paired well (L.Compisi)

The curated award-winning wine list is comprehensive befitting a fine dining experience. Assembled by Mark Bowery, it has received the Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence” for 19 consecutive years, and boasts wines with California and international origins. Bowery has assembled over 400 spirit items from around the world. The evolving inventory includes 224 whiskies (predominantly from Scotland), along with 44 tequilas, 21 vodkas and so much more.


Fabulous Cosmopolitan at the bar (L.Compisi)


Delightful happy hour daily from 5:00-6:00pm (L.Compisi)

The Views: Little can be added to the images that will follow other than perhaps the time of year and the perspective from which they were taken.  Leave it at: Breathtaking, Spectacular, Stunning and Sparkling!

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The morning light is amazing (L.Compisi)

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Unbeatable sunset view from the dining room (L.Compisi)


Room with a view (L.Compisi)


Outside the restaurant. (L.Compisi)

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Local Mendocino Chardonnay on our deck (L.Compisi)

The Area/Activities: There is so much to do during a stay at the Albion River Inn.  Some, like us, will have to force themselves to leave the property to take advantage of the variety of water activities (kayaking – both river and ocean), golfing, hiking, biking, shopping (Mendocino City) and wine tasting (Philo and the Anderson Valley are less than 45 minutes away) to name a few. We enjoyed an easy but beautiful 5-mile sylvan stroll in Van Damme State Park and the Fern Canyon. Joyful experience.

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Nine bridges offer easy creek crossings in Van Damme (L.Compisi)

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Ferns abound in Fern Canyon (L.Compisi)

How to get there: The Albion River Inn is located at 3790 N. Hwy. 1, Albion, CA 95410, about 150 miles north of San Francisco or 90 miles north of Santa Rosa.  Santa Rosa Airport (STS) offers the closest commercial airport hub and is served by United, American and Alaska Airlines. P: (707) 937-1919  E:

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Afternoon light (L.Compisi)

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You’re next! (L.Compisi)

Posted in Coastal Adventures, Day Trips, Hiking, Mendocino County, Restaurants, Road Trip, Travel, Wine, Wine Country | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Pruning Season in the Russian River Valley – Benovia Winery

As I have said before, enjoying wine is more than just the liquid in the glass. To deeply appreciate the wine, understanding what it takes to get the juice into the glass is integral. That’s why last weekend’s vine pruning seminar at Benovia Winery was both fascinating and educational.

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Benovia Winery in Santa Rosa (L.Compisi)

Pruning grape vines is a vital process in maintaining and in some cases enhancing the vigor of wine grape vines.  Chris Kangas, Vineyard Manager at Benovia lead the thorough and fun vineyard adventure.  Aided by three able members of Atlas Vineyard Management (contract vineyard management company employed by Benovia and many other Vintners) team Chris began the experience with a detailed safety briefing regarding the pruning tools used and the hazards of a real vineyard e.g. gopher holes, spiders and snakes.

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One of the larger versions of pruning tools – Chris Kangas “Safety” (L.Compisi)

After breakfast pastries, coffee and introductions, Chris and the Atlas Team lead their 21 guests into the Martaella Vineyard at the Hartman Road home base of Benovia.  The 58-acre property has 42 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay located in the heart of the Russian River Valley in Laguna de Santa Rosa. The vineyards had been mostly pruned before our arrival but Chris and team had left 3 rows in two different blocks as our classroom.  One was cane pruned while the other was cordon pruned as two examples of pruning styles. Chris answered questions and demonstrated the various objectives and techniques revealing the depth of his experience after 36 years in the vineyards.

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Chris Kangas (r) demonstrates and educates (L.Compisi)

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A guest tries her hand supervised by Jorge from Atlas (L.Compisi)

We broke down into 4 teams with Chris or one of the Atlas team leading groups of about 5 each.  We spent the next 90 minutes being coached and corrected by the experts as we each worked the various techniques while pruning the different blocks.  Chris showed us one block where the pruning techniques were being used to restore a vineyard that was showing less vigor than desired.  The phrase, ‘listening to the vines’ or the ‘vines talking to the pruner’ rang so true as the lesson continued. The judgment displayed by the experts made it clear that there is both a science and an art to successful pruning.

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The Trunk and Cordon give way to the Cane and Spurs year to year (L.Compisi)

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On left the professionally pruned on the right amateur hour (L.Compisi)

When sufficient learning had occurred, we were invited back into the wine production facility where we had the opportunity to taste 6 different Benovia wines.  VP of Sales, Bob Cooley lead the tasting, beginning with a Blanc de Blanc, a Chardonnay and then 4 different Pinot Noir. All exceptional although the 2014 Cohn Vineyard, Russian River Pinot Noir was my favorite.  It was elegant, smooth and so well balanced with a plush velvety mouth-feel. It retails for $75 a bottle and is worth it.


Blanc de Blanc with empty soldiers waiting (L.Compisi)

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Nicole Kosta welcomes guests with Blanc de Blanc from Benovia (L.Compisi)

After the pruning and tasting we were treated to a delicious lunch catered by the locally renowned, Forestville based, fusion restaurant, Backyard.  The Buttermilk Fried Chicken, Biscuits, Carrot and Vegetable Salads were to die for.  Nicole Kosta, Benovia’s Events Director, assisted by teammate Gail, provided overall event planning, coordination and execution to great effect.

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Lunch and Tasting – Standing l-r Nicole, Chris and Bob Cooley (L.Compisi)

This was an unusually informative seminar but like all things Benovia no detail was missed in creating a memorable guest experience. We’ve have had many and expect we will have many more in the future.

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Guests even received a Certificate of Achievement (L.Compisi)

Benovia Winery is located at 3339 Hartman Road in Santa Rosa.  Tastings and Tours are by appointment only although they do participate in various Wine Road events, the next of which is Barrel Tasting on the weekends of 2-4 March (Benovia is only participating in this first weekend) and 9-11 March 2018.  Tickets are available. 

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Tasting Barolo in the Piemonte – the Langhe

The Langhe is a hilly area in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. It is famous for its wines, cheeses, and truffles—particularly the white truffles of Alba. The countryside remains largely agrarian and is highly regarded for its vineyards which produce, predominantly, Nebbiolo grapes to make the wines of the region, most notably Barolo and Barbaresco although Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera d’Alba and Arneis are also highly regarded as well.

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The Langhe terroir and terrain is absolutely gorgeous (L.Compisi)

We flew from San Francisco to Milan, via Washington, D.C. (we avoid Chicago and LaGuardia at all costs) to arrive. Although Turin is closer to the region (68 km versus 160 km from Milan), our travels included Lago di Como, the Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Liguria so Milan was a better choice for us.

For our visit we stayed in the hilltop town of La Morra for 5 days in early September. The municipality of La Morra, a small village in the heart of the Langhe, is surrounded by rolling hills of vineyards and is close by the world-famous towns of Barolo and Barbaresco. The vineyards are recognized for providing an outstanding example of man’s interaction with his natural environment and provide an international benchmark for adapting grape varieties to specific soils and climatic conditions.

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The streets of Barolo during Festa (L.Compisi)

We stayed at the Corte Gondina Hotel.  Corte Gondina is elegant and comfortable and is situated in the center of La Morra. It is a delightful private habitat where the proprietors, Elena and Bruno Viberti, have skillfully combined past and present to create a unique experience. Elena and Bruno offer concierge services. They made our reservations for tours and tastings at several wineries and dinner at the local restaurants.

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The pool from our room at Corte Gondina Hotel (L.Compisi)

We, quite unexpectedly, were in the region during the annual Barolo Festival which was nearby. Barolo is only about 6 kilometers from La Morra. The Barolo experience was magical and intimate, unlike anything we had attended in California, although it was very similar to wine festivals we had attended in Tuscany and Umbria. The town is quite small and, of course has a castle at its center. The streets are brick and narrow.  No sidewalks so pedestrian compete with the small Italian cars for space, quite congenially. There is no ‘competition’ between producers, rather it is an opportunity for the region to present their wines. Local crafts, produce and cheeses competed for our attention.

Local Produce (l) and formal pouring of Barolo at the Festa (L.Compisi)

The Barolo Museum (Enoteca Regionale del Barolo) was unique and offered wines for sale as well as other books and materials for the serious student of this wine growing region. It reminded me of our experience at a similar festival for Sagrantino in Umbria in the town of Montefalco. The Barolo Regional Enoteca, located in Castello Falletti, was founded in 1982. It’s organized and sponsored by the 11 communes that produce Barolo, by the province administration, the Cuneo Chamber of Commerce, the Barolo Consorzio, and by the Piedmont regional government. A non-profit entity, its mission is to promote and preserve the image of Barolo wine and its production area. Producer members, at present 195, must produce Barolo. The public area comprises three sections: the displays show wines (not all for sale) from the overall Barolo area, a tasting area, a retail sales area with bottles at producer-established prices. Quite fascinating.

The Enoteca Regionale del Barolo (l) and wines for tasting at the Festa (L.Compisi)


Castiglione Falletto from a distance (L.Compisi)

We were fortunate to visit 3 wineries in the region.  Each was unique, family run and truly Italian.  We visited the family wineries of Marcarini, Vietti and Cavallotto.

The Marcarini family, now six generations strong, manages their own vineyards and produce wine according to the most rigorous Piedmont and, in particular, Langhe traditions. It is located right in La Morra and very accessible. The cellars are very impressive and the wines were truly typical of the region.

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Marcarini Barolo (L.Compisi)

The historic Barolo winery Vietti continues to be managed and guided by enologist and CEO Luca Currado, a member of the Vietti family line.  Founded in 1873 in the commune of Castiglione Falletto,  Vietti is currently owned by the Krause family of Iowa. The winery and vineyards represent 84 acres of prime real estate. We were very impressed by the tour and tasting we experienced with Elena Penna Currado.

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Fortunate to taste library wines at Vietti (L.Compisi)

The Cavallotto family has owned the estate Tenuta Bricco Boschis since 1928. They were the first cultivators in Castiglione Falletto, in 1946, to vinify all of their estate’s fruit. In 1948 they released the first bottling of their own Barolo wine, with the label and registered trademark of Cavallotto. Today the children of Olivio – Laura, Giuseppe and Alfio, the 4th generation working the family farm – continue to exclusively vinify the grapes: Barolo, Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera d’Alba, Langhe Nebbiolo, Langhe Freisa, Langhe “Grign” made from Grignolino grapes, Langhe Chardonnay and “Pinner” made from Pinot Nero grapes. We had a delightful vineyard tour and tasting in their tasting room. Ah…Barolo!

Cavallotto Nebbiolo grapes and their barrel room! (L.Compisi)

The Langhe were inscribed on UNESCO World Heritage site list in 2014.

Posted in Barbaresco, Barolo, Italian Wines, Italy, Piemonte, Travel, Wine | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

An Elegant Taste of Burgundy

Okay, I’m a California Pinot Noir lover but when it comes to vin de Bourgogne, I admit I am a rookie. However, a recent trip to the Côte d’Or has begun to change that. We arrived in Puligny-Montrachet in mid-September right at the beginning of harvest. We had made a room reservation at La Maison d’Olivier LeFlaive ( based upon some very good Trip Advisor reviews and a recommendation from a wine writer friend in San Francisco. Little did we know what a unique adventure was about to unfold. The Olivier LeFlaive Experience!!

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Monsieur Olivier LeFlaive with ‘Grandma’ (L.Compisi)

The LeFlaive family has been known for grape growing and wine making in the Côte de Beaune, the southern part of the Côte d’Or, since the 1700s. In the past century that continuity has been associated with Domaine LeFlaive which had been managed by Vincent and Jo LeFlaive, the sons of Joseph LeFlaive, who died in 1953. When Vincent died in 1982, Olivier LeFlaive (Joseph’s son) and his younger cousin Jean-Claude LeFlaive (Vincent’s daughter) took over the operation. Domaine Leflaive is a winery in Puligny-Montrachet, Côte de Beaune, Burgundy. The domaine is very highly regarded for its white wines, and its vineyard holdings include 5.1 hectares (13 acres) of Grand Cru vineyards.

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Harvest in Puligny-Montrachet (L.Compisi)

Wishing to expand and experiment, M. LeFlaive struck out on his own leaving Jean-Claude to manage the Domain. M. LeFlaive established his Olivier LeFlaive winery with the financial assistance of his customers who appreciated the quality of wine that he made and loaned him the money to purchase the grapes.

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One of the several Grand Cru wines (L.Compisi)

Building on his background, he began purchasing grapes from around the Côte de Beaune from the neighboring vineyards and vigneron he knew so well. With his continuing success, his production has grown from a few thousand bottles to the 800,000 bottles he produces today. 80% are White Burgundy (Chardonnay for us rookies) and 20% Red Burgundy (Pinot Noir). Olivier says, “I am retired now but we do not want to increase beyond the 800,000 as we can continue to manage as a small family operated business”. It is exciting to note that they will be releasing their fist Champagne in 2017.

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Three of nine wines we tasted at pairing (L.Compisi)

LeFlaive is passionate about wine but insists that it is to be enjoyed with food, so early on he began serving his wines for friends, clients and visitors with food. He did this at his family home on the square in Puligny-Montrachet, where the winery is also located.

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LeFlaive family home on Place du Monument (L.Compisi)

It wasn’t many years later that M. LeFlaive realized it wasn’t safe for people to drive anywhere after the tasting. Always creating and experimenting, he purchased a neglected 17th Century village house, also on the square, and developed La Maison d’Olivier LeFlaive.


Tasting bar and dining room, La Table (L.Compisi)

The Maison has 24 unique and very well appointed rooms as well as a dining room and tasting bar.  La Table, the dining room, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and also offers food and wine pairings with a choice of wither 6 or 9 wines.  The operation of La Maison remains in the family with Olivier’s daughter Julie providing flawless leadership. The food and wine are quite exquisite.

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We loved our ‘Pop’ decorated room (L.Compisi)

To make the ‘Olivier LeFlaive Experience’ complete M. LeFlaive and his co-owner brother, Patrick LeFlaive offer comprehensive and good humored vineyard and winery tours, all within walking distance of the Maison. Quoting M. P. LeFlaive, the brothers follow two principles: ‘Protect the Terroir’ and ‘Take Your Time’. One percent improvement here and there will add up to an exceptional wine and an exceptional experience. Today, over 10,000 visitors from the USA, the UK and Japan, among many other countries, enjoy the tours and tastings each year. Truly elegant and delightful.

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Patrick LeFlaive poses with ‘Grandma’ (L.Compisi)

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Charming Charles (Charlemagne) guides vineyard tour (L.Compisi)

Puligny-Montrachet is very well located as a point of departure to Chablis and the other wonderful appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) of Burgundy.  It is also just a few miles from the historic and beautiful medieval town of Beaune, a great place to spend at least half a day or more.

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The fascinating Hospices de Beaune (L.Compisi)

If you are considering traveling to Burgundy, I would recommend a visit during September and especially to La Maison D’Olivier LeFlaive in Puligny-Montrachet in the Côte de Beaune, where you will personally have the ‘Olivier LeFlaive Experience’. You will not forget it!

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