Santa Ynez Valley: Anyways but Sideways

Made globally famous with the release of the Oscar winning 2004 film, ‘Sideways’,  the California wine country around Santa Barbara has grown in both stature and number of high quality wineries. Our road trip allowed us 3 days and 2 nights to taste fabulous wines and enjoy gorgeous wine country scenery.

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Rusack Tasting Room in Ballard Canyon (L.Compisi)

Autumn in the rolling hills and valleys of the greater Santa Barbara County wine country is truly glorious. Like much of coastal California, the weather is usually agreeable in the fall with foggy mornings, glorious sun-soaked days and cool nights. Santa Barbara County currently has six federally recognized American Viticultural Areas (although two more may join soon) including the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Ynez Valley, which is further broken down into four sub-AVAs; Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos District, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. The Los Alamos Valley and the Santa Maria Bench are also showing distinct characteristics that may lead to AVA status. 

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The beautiful Tuscany inspired Melville facility (L.Compisi)

This is part four 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 adventure focused on the wineries and restaurants around Santa Ynez Valley.

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The residence at Clos Pepe (L.Compisi)

Our first stop was at Rusack, a boutique winery and vineyard, nestled among the oak-studded rolling hills of Ballard Canyon about halfway between Buellton and Los Olivos on Ballard Canyon Road.  We were fortunate to spend a few minutes with Rusack winemaker Steven Gerbac. Gerbac explained that the Rusack focus is on estate-grown, Rhone-inspired wines; a popular Bordeaux style blend (Anacapa), and Burgundian styled Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs from the Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley appellations of Santa Barbara County.  The program includes an estate-grown Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and several other delicious offerings.  Gerbac also oversees all winemaking for the Santa Catalina Island Vineyards wine project. We found all the wines we tasted to be sophisticated in style, pleasing on the palate and beautiful in the glass.

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Rusack Patio (L.Compisi)


Rusack Tasting Flight (L.Compisi)

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Steven Gerbac Rusack Winemaker (L.Compisi)

Flying Goat Cellars, whose tasting room is located in the Lompoc Wine Ghetto, was our next stop. Proprietors Norm Yost and Kate Griffith specialize in vineyard designated Pinot Noir and sparkling wines they refer to as Goat Bubbles. Yost and Griffith source Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc grapes from world renowned vineyards around San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties including Ampelos, Bien Nacido, Riverbench, Solomon Hills, Rancho Santa Rosa and Sierra Madre. They opened the tasting Room in 2008. We found the bubbles to be both pleasing and fairly priced between $38 and $60.

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2014 Pinot Noir Flying Goat Cellars (L.Compisi)

The next day we found three exceptional wineries (there are numerous others along this route) located on Highway 246 between Buellton and Lompoc.  We began with a private tour and tasting at Clos Pepe which has recently been leased by Kathryn Hall (owner of her eponymous Napa winery and her Sonoma based Walt Wines). Our tour guide, Andrew Turner, spent a good deal of time with us in the vineyards and then at owners Steve and Cathy Pepe’s beautiful home on the property.  The Pepe’s purchased the property in the mid 1990’s and converted the horse ranch to vineyards. The estate grown fruit produces amazing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which we enjoyed at the counter in Cathy’s kitchen under Andrews tutelage!  Clos Pepe’s former winemaker of 21 years, Wes Hagen, also produced wines from non-estate fruit under the Axis Mundi Wine ‘second label’.  A quite unique experience and truly delicious as well.

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The residence at Clos Pepe (L.Compisi)

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Cathy Pepe’s Kitchen (L.Compisi)

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Delightful set up (L.Compisi)

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Tasted and paired these. (L.Compisi)

Heading back toward Buellton we stopped next at Babcock Winery and Vineyards.  Mona and Walter Babcock purchased the property in 1978 and almost immediately planted 20 acres of vines. Over time they established a small winery on the property and son Bryan took over winemaking after studying enology at U.C. Davis in the mid 1980’s.  Still family-owned and operated, Babcock Winery and Vineyards is a 10,000-case winery with 65 acres planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris. The tasting room serves multiple purposes including eclectic gift shop, vinyl record store and art gallery.  A very ‘fun’ stop with amazingly good Pinot Noir and Chardonnay including a unique Psi Clone of Pinot Noir. SoulStruck is their 2nd label with different varietals available.  Babcock also has a presence at the Santa Barbara Wine Collective in downtown Santa Barbara.

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Babcock Pinot PSI Clone (L.Compisi)

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Tasting Room is a kick (L.Compisi)

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Soulstruck is 2nd label for Babcock (L.Compisi)

Further west along Highway 246 you’ll find Melville Winery tasting room and 120 acres of vines. Ron Melville began his grape growing and wine-making journey in the Knights Valley of Sonoma County (his home county) back in 1989. He moved to Santa Ynez Valley in 1996 to grow and produce ‘cold-climate’ Pinot, Chardonnay and Syrah.  The Sta. Rita Hills offer the perfect climate and Melville’s son Chad now works with him as winemaker to continue their journey. These wines, including a non-vintage Blanc De Noir sparkler, are beautifully structured and balanced.  They are widely available and reasonably priced. You cannot go wrong with Melville wines.

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The beautiful Tuscany inspired Melville facility (L.Compisi)

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2015 Melville Block M Pinot Noir (L.Compisi)

Our last stop was the Foley Estate (  Financier Bill Foley has created a vast empire of holdings throughout the world with none better than his Sonoma County stable of Lancaster Estate, Chalk Hill Estate and Roth Estate.  His Sta. Rita Hills Estate and Vineyards was established in 1998 and now has two distinct vineyard properties: Rancho Las Hermanas and Rancho Santa Rosa.  These properties comprise 443 planted acres as of this writing. One formerly a thorough bred horse ranch and the other planted by Fess Parker. Winemaker beginning in 2017, Ryan Aura has been on a learning journey for over a decade including studying at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, working in the cellars of other wineries and as assistance winemaker at Foley Estate for a few years. The wines here are maturing and I have no doubt that, given time, they will reach the sophistication and complexity of the other Foley properties and their local neighbors. Definitely worth checking in on a periodic basis.

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Foley 2014 Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir (L.Compisi)

Where to Eat: We dined at the Hitching Post II ( in Buellton both nights we were there.  The food is always well prepared and the wine list (if you need more) is well curated including their own Hitching Post label which they have produced since 1979. Steaks are the specialty of the house. Located at 406 East Highway 246,  Buellton, CA 93427    (t) 805-688-0676

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Hitching Post Pinot Noir 2002!! (L.Compisi)

Where to Stay: Buellton is not a very large city at all but the newly renovated Santa Ynez Valley Marriot was perfect for our 3 day visit to the area. So centrally located and just off Highway 101 near the Highway 246 exit. The Marriot is located at 555 McMurray Road Buellton, California 93427

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The Santa Ynez Valley Marriot (Courtesy Marriot)

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King Room at Marriot (Courtesy Marriot)

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The Marriot bar and lounge (L.Compisi)

Getting there: The Santa Ynez Valley is to get to located along Highway 101 and Highway 246 about 140 miles north of Los Angeles and 300 miles south of San Francisco.

For more information:

Rusack: 1819 Ballard Canyon Road, Solvang, California 93463 (t) 805-688-1278

Flying Goat Cellars: 1520 East Chestnut Court, Lompoc, CA 93436 (t) 805-736-9032

Clos Pepe: 4777 East Highway 246, Lompoc, CA 93436 (t) 805-735-2196

Babcock Winery & Vineyards: 5175 E Highway 246 Lompoc CA 93436 (t) 805-736-1455

Melville: 5185 East Hwy 246 Lompoc, CA 93436 (t) 805-735-7030

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Posted in Adventure, Central Coast, Road Trip, Santa Barbara County, Santa Ynez Valley, Wine, Wine Country | Leave a comment

Nostalgic Visit to the Reagan Presidential Library

Autumn 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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Views along the Pacific Coast (L.Compisi)

This is part three 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.

Situated high on a mountain top above Simi Valley in Southern California the Ronald Wilson Reagan Presidential Library stands as a reminder and explainer of the America and the world during the final years of the Soviet Union. Considering the wide-spread angst surrounding the current administration it was very timely to take a nostalgic stroll through celebrating the life of this former sportscaster, radio star, film and television actor, governor and president. Like the mountain, Mount McCoy, which it rests on, the Reagan Library may be considered a guide post for some seeking a return to a time when presidential leadership was clear, concise, good humored and widely respected.


The Reagan Library sits high above Simi Valley (L.Compisi)

The Reagan Library is in Simi Valley about 45 miles northwest of Los Angeles and 30 miles due east of Ventura just off the Ronald Reagan Freeway (CA 118).  Its exhibits and facilities lovingly and factually chronicle the 50-year career of this American actor and politician from his early days in radio as a sports caster to the big screen as a leading man to his life as California’s 33rd Governor and ultimately to his 8 years as the 40th President of the United States of America.

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Ronald Reagan Presidential Portrait (L.Compisi)

It is fascinating to read about the philosophy and values that President Reagan developed starting as a Democrat and later switching to Republican as he developed his belief that smaller government and the American people, not elites in Washington D.C. where better at maintaining and growing the idea of America envisioned by the founders. He faced an amazing array of challenges including the Cold War, Communism and Dictatorships in the Southern Hemisphere of South America, the illegal Air Traffic Controllers strike during which he fired over 11,000 controllers for violating his order to return to work and so many more.  Most he handled adeptly and successfully through the prism of history, but some were near disasters like the Iran-Contra Affair for which he publicly and quite contritely apologized to the American people on National television during prime time.


Mr. Gorbachev tore down this section of the Berlin Wall at Reagan’s request  (L.Compisi)

During his two terms in office, inflation was reduced from 12.5% to 4.4%, average Gross Domestic Product grew by an average of 3.4%; domestic discretionary spending was cut, taxes were cut and military spending was increased.


The Library’s replica of the Oval Office (L.Compisi)

The Library and Museum provides a treasure trove of audio and video archives of so many of his historic speeches as a candidate, as Governor as President and even as President of Hollywood’s Screen Actors Guild. His ability to communicate about complex issues with simple commonsense language was unmatched and remains so, in this writer’s opinion.

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Maggie had a special relationship with President Reagan (L.Compisi)

The Library and Museum also hosts special exhibits. While I was there the exhibit was a collection of artifacts and information regarding the efforts to find the Titanic. The back story on this effort is worth a trip to the Library alone!

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An earlier version of Air Force One at the Library (L.Compisi)

MUSEUM HOURS: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. seven days a week EXCEPT New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.


The grounds outside the Reagan Library and Museum (L.Compisi)

GETTING THERE: The Library is only an hour from Los Angeles International and about 7.5 hours from San Francisco down Interstate 5.

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No Lions, Tigers or Bears but ‘Oh Yes’ to Safari West

If you have never been to Safari West Wildlife Preserve and African Tent Camp in Santa Rosa, California than you need to get it on your schedule now. If you have already visited this phenomenal Sonoma County treasure then you should consider a return visit as this experience is even better the second and third time around and is always changing. Currently, due to the wildfires earlier this month (October 2017), all overnight lodging is cancelled until March 1, 2018, however, Safari Tours and other activities are expected to resume at the end of November 2017. Most importantly, the property is safe and repair work is well underway so now is the time for making your reservations.

IMG_4865 Majestic AddaxThe Majestic Addax (L. Compisi)

Peter Lang founded Safari West as a ranch for breeding and species propagation in 1989. He and wife Nancy, a PhD in zoological biology, opened the preserve to the public in 1993. Interestingly enough, Peter and Nancy met on holiday in Africa on a Safari. The passion they share for these exotic and amazing creatures is evident every where you look while at the preserve. Peter and Nancy actually reside on the property.


A Riot of Fabulous Flamingos (L. Compisi)

Spring time at Safari West is probably the best time of the year to visit for the day or for an overnight. You can do either as the preserve has authentic tent cabins and a guest cottage on the property. And don’t think “camping” when you consider an overnight, these tent cabins are well equipped with linens, en-suite bathrooms with showers, king-size beds and outside sitting areas.

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Tent sided Cabins (L. Compisi)

The preserve has 80 species and over 900 animals including cheetah, monkeys, antelope, white rhinoceros, watusi (long horned cattle), lemur, cape buffalo (ornery and unfriendly), wildebeest, riots of flamingos, eland, gazelle, springbok and an amazing dazzle of zebra. The guides are amazing and extremely knowledgeable about the animals and the preserve. They are also very good drivers which is vital during the excursion over what can be pretty rough terrain.

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Plenty of room for roaming (L. Compisi)

This is truly a Safari like experience (with WWII/Korean era Dodge Power Wagons open vehicles) where the animals actually walk up to the vehicle – sometimes causing a little excitement like when the wildebeest or the ostriches get too curious and perhaps closer than desired by some. This is no drive by visit. Be prepared for a 45 minute walking tour and then a 2 hour safari ride through the preserve.

Dazzling Zebras (L. Compisi)


Ornery Cape Buffalo (L. Compisi

The preserve has a snack bar/restaurant with outside dining under beautiful shade trees in close and very pleasant proximity to the flamingos and the aviary. The menu is simple and appropriate to the experience. The availability of adult beverages like wine and beer will satisfy many wine country visitors taking a break from the typical day of tasting that fabulous Sonoma County wine.

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Long-horned Watusi cattle heard (L. Compisi)

Giraffes caught behind the scenes (L. Compisi)

The day time tours start either in the morning (9 and 10am) or the afternoon (1, 2 and 4pm) during the spring, summer and fall. Hours and tours are more limited in the winter. Regardless of the season, reservations are required. If your schedule allows the Behind the Scenes tour is a very special treat. An additional charge applies but the opportunity to feed Giraffes and Wart Hogs up close and personal is probably once in a life time. For safety reasons children need to be 4 years or older to participate in the Classic Safari riding tour.

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A shy Lemur (L. Compisi)


A proud Cheetah (L. Compisi)

Safari West has been a member of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association for over 12 years, one of only 6 private facilities in North America to achieve this distinction, which attests to both the quality of the animal treatment as well as the professional nature of the operation. Conservation is a key theme at Safari West.


One of many amazing exotic birds (L. Compisi)

What an amazing experience for younger children, adolescents, teenagers and adults. Over 75,000 of whom visit the preserve each year. Its truly the ‘Serengeti in Sonoma’.

Safari West is very easy to find and is located only 11 miles northeast of downtown Santa Rosa at 3115 Porter Creek Road, only about a 7 miles/10 minutes drive off of Highway 101. They are equipped to provide accommodations for guests in wheel chairs.

Please don’t hesitate to email  if you have any questions or concerns. In any event, do not let the recent wildfires dissuade from visiting this Sonoma County treasure.


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North Coast Wine Country is open for business

Despite the recent tragic, and very destructive wildfires, in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino Counties, the California North Coast wine country is open and excited to receive your business. October and November are typically the most important months for tourism in wine country.  Harvest has usually been completed and the juice is in the barrels offering a bit of relief and respite for the growers and winemakers. In that regard, the 2017 harvest is not very different from 2016 or 2015. What is different is the national attention drawn by the recent fires. While the wildfires were deadly for so many and devastating for thousands of homeowners, with a couple of exceptions, the vineyards and the wineries remain untouched. This is not intended to underplay the real human tragedy that has occurred. The facts however may be contrary to what you might understand from the media coverage suggesting that Napa or Sonoma Counties have been ‘destroyed’.

More than ever, wine country needs and desires the tourists to make their annual pilgrimages. As a way of highlighting this reality, I have decided to focus on a few exceptional harvest parties we have attended in recent weeks and to highlight a couple of upcoming events. Some of these events were just before the fires and the others actually occurred in the past week. In all cases, however, each of these wineries in Sonoma County and virtually all others throughout the North Coast (Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Solano Counties) are fine and deserving of your continued patronage.  In fact, nothing would help the return to normalcy more than continued and even increased travel and tourism to the tri-county area. Although so many have lost homes, the jobs related to the wine industry and tourism are key to the economy and the ability for people being to remain and rebuild.

Skipstone is a 200 acre estate located in the Alexander Valley and tucked into the hillside. The Alexander Valley is well known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Skipstone is no exception.  These exquisite wines (including Cabernet and Merlot as well as Viognier) usually sell out fast but if you can get them, they are a treasure of flavor and texture to lay down. They also produce wonderful estate olive oil. The harvest/release party took place in late September before the fires but the estate was threatened by the ‘Pocket Fire’.  All survived and appointments can be made via phone 707-433-9124 or online

Sublime Skipstone Ranch and wine (L.Compisi)

Viluko Estate is another out of the way vineyard estate in the center of the Mark West Springs area and the Fountain Grove AVA (American Viticultural Area).  This area was perhaps most devastatingly affected as the ‘Tubbs Fire’ raced from Calistoga over the mountains to Santa Rosa destroying so much in its path. While we know Viluko was significantly affected by the fires, and that at last report the Arroyo family was still waiting for access to their property to assess damage, thankfully, their friends and colleagues are safe and indebted to the first responders who made this possible. Viluko production and warehouse facilities are both in safe locations and their wine (excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec) is unharmed. They expect to make the October shipments. Their Harvest Party was on September 30th. Call (707) 477-8411 and speak with Frieda for an update and to order this wonderful wine.

Viluko Vineyards with 2nd label Split Rock (L.Compisi)

Geyserville is the home of Ramazzotti Wines which was founded by Joe and Norma Ramazzotti about 15 years ago. Joe and Norma and the extended Ramazzotti family know how to party as well as make wine.  Most of the Ramazzotti fruit comes from their home estate in the Dry Creek Valley, where they live, which was, fortunately, unscathed by the fires east of them.  They specialize in Italian varietals but also produce truly delightful Cabernet Zinfandel Rosé and Chardonnay. A regular at their parties is ‘the King’ performing very credible renditions of Elvis’ music. Good wine, good food and good fun are always present at Ramazzotti parties and their Halloween themed Harvest Party on October 28th was no exception.

Halloween Style festivities with the ‘King’. (L.Compisi)

Zialena Winery in the Alexander Valley is perhaps the newest winery in the Valley with one of the oldest stories. Established by brother and sister team Mark and Lisa Mazzoni and their spouses just a few years ago, their winery and tasting room just opened in February of 2017. Winemaker Mark and Lisa learned the trade from their dad (Mike), who learned from his dad and uncle who learned from their dad, Giuseppe Mazzoni, who had immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s to work at the Italian Swiss Colony in Asti, California (just north of Geyserville). Matt makes wine sourced from the family’s vineyards which surround the tasting room. Although threatened and evacuated due to the ‘Pocket Fire’, their wine was already in tank and survived. Their harvest/pickup party was held on October 29th.

Zialena blend Cappella with food-truck fare (L. Compisi)

So what’s up next?  So many events occur in the fall but just a few to consider. Please help the North Coast recover by supporting our tourism industries.

Wine & Food Affair November 4 – 5, 2017 features wine from the Wine Road’s 3 AVAs. Alexander, Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys

Appellation St. Helena inaugural Holiday Wine Experience in San Francisco at the Golden Gate Club, on the Presidio, November 8, 2017

Napa Valley Film Festival November 8-12, 2017 Nine venues throughout Napa, Yountville, and St. Helena

A Taste of Redwood Valley, November 18-19th, 2017 No Tickets Needed

Posted in Mendocino County, Napa Valley, Sonoma County | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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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                                                   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 | 3 Comments