4.02.2014

Calico Ghost Town: The Silver is Gone, but it's Gold for Tourists


If you’ve ever driven I-15 between Las Vegas and California you probably have noticed the signs for the Calico Ghost Town, a tourist attraction tucked into the sparse mountains. It’s three miles from Barstow and three miles from Yermo, smack dab in the middle of nowhere. A large flat cut-out of a prospector holding a shovel and looking un-enthused tells drivers it’s only three miles up into the hills and you can clearly see the name Calico written on the top of the low mountain. So, is it; kitschy, or visit-worthy?

Adult admission is just $8, kids under five years old are free, so if you go and find it’s not your cup of tea, no big loss. To start with: it is clearly not a real ghost town. The place has been completely restored and the center of town is paved, but it does give you the feel of what an old mining town might have looked like in its day. In fact the structures at Calico were rebuilt nearly exactly were they stood over 100 years ago, so it lends to an authenticity few other places can. Yes, it is aimed squarely for a tourist market, and that’s not a bad thing, depending on how you approach it. Yes you can find wooden nickels, wanted posters with your picture on it, all manner of kitschy paraphernalia that is pointless, overpriced average food, pony rides, a tiny slow train, and talk to employees in “Western” garb (in spite of their sneakers). Remember this was rebuilt by Knott’s Berry Farm founder Walter Knott, who was the nephew of John King of the King Silver Mine located at Calico – so he certainly had some vested interest in the place, no doubt a nod to keep history alive while pocketing a few bucks. But all of that should not detract from the truth that this was a real mining camp pulling out tens of millions of dollars worth of silver in its prime.
It was tough mining at Calico


There are 30 miles of tunnels and shafts still at Calico and no you can’t wander in them. The closest you can get is Maggie’s Mine that goes back 1,000 feet and is the only original mine left that you can access. Of course, there are over 20,000 mines throughout the vast Mojave Desert of all sorts and types harkening back to the gold rush days.

This rock shows the geologic forms in and around Calico
Though it started in 1881, at its height approximately 1,500 people lived at Calico continually, sometimes up to several thousand. But those days were short lived and by 1890 there were fewer than 100 people living in Calico’s remote dessert location. There were 22 saloons and 2 known brothels. The only original wood structure still standing is the park office on your left-hand side as you enter the town. There are a few other true historic, though fully restored, buildings as well, and an old cemetery with at least one grave dating to the 1800s.


Overview of Calico looking out to the Mojave

Why Calico is worth a visit is that it gives you a sense, not only of how a mining town haphazardly grew, a one street town sitting on a inclined mesa devoid of trees, but it also shows you the geography that the miners had to deal with, the strata of rock which still glimmers with little flecks of mirror-like feldspar, alluring in its own right. But the rocks also give you an idea of how difficult it would be to tunnel through, haul out and then build on top of and in - all to seek out silver. In the old days the earth was removed by mule team and taken to Dagget, about six miles away to be sorted at the stamp mill, a long laborious process. Our forefathers didn’t have the use of cars, cell phones with GPS mapping, and the luxury of heading to Starbucks for a morning latte before hammering out rock in a mine (though currently you can find Seattle’s Best Coffee here). Nor did they have what we all value – comfort. 

1800s fire truck

Calico is hot in the summer and cold in the winter – it is not temperate. To mine in these conditions was hard work, which is why the population died out when the silver did. If you can look past the obvious Hollywood-ish set, or merely embrace the kitschy while seeing the bigger picture, you will appreciate Calico. It's good to get here early before the throngs of tourist buses and RVs show up crowding the town, where you can walk the street and pathways in relative quiet and imagine how different your life is, why people chose to keep living here even after the silver mines gave out, and how you may not have survived in Calico.
 
For some of the best Mexican food around, head to Lola’s Kitchen (1244 E. Main St.) in Barstow if you’re passing through. Tasty, flavorful and reasonably priced, I highly recommend it. If interested in more gold rush era posts, check out some of the crazy characters of the Northern California Gold Rush on my other blog here: GOLD RUSH


2.16.2014

Germany’s Grape: Racy Rieslings along the Rhein



The German wine region is vast, convoluted and sometimes as difficult to understand as the German language itself. But a wine journey following the Rhein River generates life long memories of picturesque storybook villages and wonderful wines against the backdrop of lush agricultural lands. The dominant grape in Germany has always been Riesling and some documents record the sale of this grape as early as the middle 1400s. Many German producers are seventh generation wine families, or longer, and they are immensely proud of their history and their heritage grape. Riesling of course comes on many styles, from dry table wine, to semi-sweet, to intense and stunningly gorgeous dessert/sweet wines. Rieslings can easily age 20 to 30 years and it’s not uncommon for wineries to pull out a 15 year-old bottle just to show off. Unlike America where we’re obsessed with the most current, vintage German wines are proud of their age-ability and older vintages at tastings are common.
Jakob Schneider shows me a soils chart

Of Time, Wine and Long Visits
I visited the wine regions of the Rheinhessen, Rheingau and the Nahe, which accounts for about 50% of all wines produced in Germany. The curious thing about wine tasting in Germany is that, unlike the flamboyant and dominate architecture of Napa, these are old villages with small twisted cobbled streets and fairy tale charm. You’re more apt to sample wine in someone’s living room, sitting at their kitchen table, but that’s the inherent joy. Wine tasting in Germany is a lengthy process, several hours on occasion. Many producers will pull out 15 wines, give you food, and tell you stories of their ancestral heritage. At Jakob Schneider, he pulled down a family bible from the early 1700s for me to look at. Such is the way of things here.


Rheinhessen Region
Oppenheim is the gateway to the Rhine wine region, a mere 40-minute drive from the Frankfurt airport. The wineries along the river here are comprised of villages tucked in the flatlands between rolling hills, with similar architectural themes; red tile roofs, a prominent church steeple and white walled façades, punctuated by bursts of color like yellow houses, green shutters and blue walls. Wineries are in most every village and in fact, you’ll be surprised how many wineries co-exist peacefully. In Germany the signs for a winery will read “weingut” which literally translated means “good wine.” Most wineries do not require an appointment, however it’s always best to phone ahead to make sure someone is there. In Oppenheim, Hotel Zwo is situated in the downtown core and its modern rooms are sleek and minimalist, a sharp contrast to the old villages. An afternoon spread of nearly two-dozen cheeses, shrimp, sausages, herring and fresh baked bread is available and this is a terrific home base in which to explore the local wines.
Many German cellars date back hundred of years

500 Years and Counting
From there, the drive to visit Groebe and Wittman wineries located in Westhofen are accessed by a 15-minute drive. Groebe has been a wine family since 1763 and their 500 year old cellars beneath the city streets are, like most German cellars, musty, dank and the perfect place to store and age wines. They do not use pesticides or herbicides in their winemaking. Wittmann Winery, run by Phillip Wittmann and his wife Eva, has been a family operation since 1663. Their new tasting room is filled with their personal collection of art, keeping the room fresh and lively. One of Phillip’s cellars, located 25 feet underground, was built during the Middle Ages and he even has behemoth oak aging casks from the 1890s.


Walter’s Willingness
Driving south, Neirstein and its narrow curved streets is a perfect example of a Hansel and Gretel hamlet. The cross-timbered construction of many shops in town, accented with flower baskets, thatched roofs and intricately painted details on the facades are classic Germany. Strub Winery, owned by Walter and Margrit Strub, is in its 12th generation. Not one to rest on tradition, Walter told me, “Wine styles are ever changing and you need to change with them.” He makes a Riesling called Soil to Soul exclusively for the U.S. market, knowing Americans penchant for sweeter wines. Strub wines are all restrained, delicate and clean and Water, an affable, portly man with a good sense of humor and good English skills, is delighted to have you taste. Additionally he produces Sylvaner and Gruner Veltliner.

The Guttenberg House
Rheingau Region
Crossing the Rhine River to the north you enter the Rheingau region. The vineyards here scream straight up the steep mountain slopes and some extend nearly to the river itself. The historic village of Eltville is an ideal place to use as a base from which to explore the wineries. Hotel Hof Bechtermunz, built in 2003, has 10 rooms, all with exposed rock walls, hardwood floors and wood beams and modern amenities. A stones throw is Gensfleisch, part of the noble court that belonged to the family of Johannes Guttenberg, the inventor of the movable type printing press which produced the Guttenberg Bible. A short stroll from there is the St. Peter and Paul Church, which began construction in 1350. Currently the church offers concerts and various art exhibits and abuts the old city ruins from 1332. The narrow defensive windows, small enough to just shoot an arrow through, overlook the languid Rhine. There is also a splendid dirt trail for walking and running that hugs the river as you pass by palatial estates. Eltville is a perfect base from which to explore numerous wineries that line the Rhine River.

Schlossing the River
Within a 5-minute drive of Eltville, are wineries like Josef Leitz, and Schloss Vollrads (Schloss means “castle”) whose estate, parts of it built on Roman ruins, houses their own restaurant, wine store and banquet facilities. Just down the road, Schloss Reinhartshausen produces other varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. Tours though the labyrinthine underground caves dating to the mid 15th Century require reservations, but the beauty of old wood casks, historical mining equipment and the dark, musty caves create an ideal photo opportunity. After the tasting, dine at their rustic bistro Schloss Schanke for traditional German cuisine of schnitzel, perch or sausages. They also offer one of the few Five-Star hotels in the area.
Many vineyards are planted on steep slopes like this heading directly to the Rhein River

Spunde…What?
Whatever restaurant you venture into in Germany, make sure you order spundekäs, a concoction of curd and cream cheese with sweet paprika, garlic, butter and egg. It’s a creamy, mildly spicy dip, perfect with fresh chewy pretzels and it has a long tradition in Germany. The name literally means “bung cheese” perhaps as a reference to the way the curd was formed in old casks. Spundekäs is great with whatever wine is served, or a hearty German beer. The best I had anywhere, hands down, was made by Margrit Strub from an old family recipe.
 
The charming villages are just one of the draws of this region
If driving around quaint villages is too daunting, (and certainly it takes time to get used to corkscrew streets, right of way and signs you can’t understand) there are Rhine River boat tours and bike tours to make things easier. However, the true experience lies in navigating the villages on foot in order to immerse yourself in each region and having the time to sit and chat with friendly winemakers. Though German wine is imported to the U.S, a trip to the beautiful historic villages and the chance to meet winemakers face to face trumps simply buying Riesling at a wine shop. After your trip, Riesling will fit nicely on your dinner table once you’ve discovered the beauty of this grape. If you go, get a GPS and learn the rules of the autobahn. Though the region, just west of Frankfurt is an easy drive, it’s tough to negotiate unless you’re absolutely focused. Other wineries to be on the lookout for: Kunstler, Tesch, Donnhoff and Leitz.  WINES OF GERMANY

10.05.2013

Water, Water Everywhere: A Visit to a Pennsylvania Water Facility


Everyone drinks water but most of us don't think much about our bottled water, where it comes from, how it’s filtered and cleaned, how it gets into a plastic or glass bottle and how it shows up on our local store shelves. Water may be simple, but bottling it is not a simple process. Bottled water plants are food manufacturing plants and therefore are rarely open to the public. So it falls to someone like me to make the trek to Allentown, Pennsylvania to visit the Nestle Waters plant. Since I write about water and water issues, this was my 3rd visit to a bottled water facility. My first visit was the Evian water plant in France. Then I had the extraordinary opportunity to visit the Kunlun Mountain water plant on the Tibetan Plateau in China at about 9,000 feet, and rarely visited by anyone, anywhere. So Allentown was a little easier to get to. Located in the Lehigh Valley in Eastern Pennsylvania the region is home to two other bottled water facilities, Ice River Springs and Niagara Bottling. Must be something good in the water around here.

Nestle produces two kinds of bottled water here, Deer Park, and Nestle Pure Life, as well as flavored waters, and teas. It’s important to remember that bottled water is a food product, therefore the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has set strict guidelines for how the plant operates and how everything is handled – which is why I had to wear a hair net, hard hat, and needed to remove any jewelry. But there is also the issue of proprietary information inside the plant therefore photos are limited. The plant is fairly unique in that it manufactures its own bottles on site, and the creation of bottle to filling it to packaging it and getting it on a truck takes less than an hour. Plastic bottles start as PET resin pellets, are made into pre-forms as the photo shows, then they are molded into bottles using 450 PSI to blow the pre-form into an actual bottle. They are then transported single file into the filling area, a sealed off space where water is filled so fast it is hard for the human eye to capture the fast moving bottles.
Resin pellets turn into a preform mold, which turns into a bottle

Nestle Pure Life is water sourced from the local municipality and the plant cleans the water, adds in minerals for a specific flavor profile then bottles it. On the other hand the Deer Park is natural spring water, pulled up from an underground spring, cleaned, filtered with micro-filtration and bottled. People rightfully wonder how the source water is protected and that is a fundamental question. After all, what good is it to have spring water if that water has been tainted by agricultural pesticides, animal feces, or industrial runoff? Nestle purchases large swaths of land around their water sources ensuring there is no interference with their pristine supply. Additionally they utilize a two-level protection system. First the borehole (where the spring actually is intercepted) is sealed off, and an alarm will sound if the door to the borehole is opened. Second, motion sensors alert the facility should people or animals get too close. But since these are remote areas that rarely occurs. As is typical of Nestle and most bottled water facilities, the physical springs are within 60 miles of the facility, designed to reduce tanker truck times on the road.

This massive plant is fundamentally built for speed as the loud hum of machinery attests. Bottled water plants are heavily automated and run with an impressive precision and intricate machinery few people know about. And this is what few people see, the incredible number of parts that go into getting a bottle of water on your store shelf, from both machines and man. And most consumers also don’t see that this plant alone employs about 460 people from Allentown and the surrounding communities, has a 100% recycling rate, and was the first food manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania to receive the US Building Council’s Gold LEED certification for being designed and run as efficiently as possible. And like most bottled water companies they have an active presence in the community including partnerships with Lehigh University allowing two students each semester to intern at the facility. Eastern Pennsylvania, and specifically the Lehigh Valley, is big on food-manufacturing and facilities like Nestlé provide the opportunities for a tremendous number of jobs and an economic boon to the area. With all that in mind the next time you reach for a bottle of water you might remember that water is simple, but getting water to consumers takes a lot of people, time and effort. But what you hold in your hand is the most critical resource we have on our planet; pure, clean, healthy water. Drink up!

For a more detailed, technical version of this article please visit BottledWaterWeb

9.14.2013

The Spirits of Nova Scotia


No one confuses Nova Scotia with hard liquor. In fact, no one really confuses Nova Scotia with anything because most people have no idea where Nova Scotia actually is. It’s a Canadian province on the east side of Maine and the name means New Scotland, though you’ll find few remnants of the Scottish way of life around. What you will find however is a vibrant community of micro-breweries, wineries, distilleries, restaurants as well as artisan cheese-makers and maple producers; an impressive dedication of excellent food and drink from such a small region.

Just a Scotia of Wine
The wine industry has been here for 300 years. Never heard of it? Well, most of the wines, via an archaic distribution system, are relegated to Nova Scotia and rarely make appearances into other Canadian provinces, let alone the United States. Happily you can board a plane to visit the region to get the full effect. Among the nearly 15 wineries currently in operation, Jost, Gaspereau, and Benjamin Bridge are taking the lead. 
Hans Christian Jost

Jost Vineyards is one of the pioneers of the wine industry and Hans Christian Jost, though still a young man, is, in essence one of the founding fathers. His vineyard is peculiar in that you will see oyster and lobster shells strewn across the property, which he uses for micro-nutrients. “The ocean is the most balanced organism,” he suggests. I ask what good can these shells do as they won’t break down as nutrients for a hell of a long time. “But that’s exactly what I want,” he responds, “a nice slow release. There’s nothing wrong with doing things for your kids and grandkids.” And Jost is the epitome of understanding that farming and life, all take time, and what we put into practice today will have consequences for future generations.

Yes, there is a smattering of Chardonnay, even a few plots of Pinot Noir in Nova Scotia, but the tenuous farming is best suited to white grapes; French hybrids with names like Vidal, Seyval Blanc, L’Acadie and Castel. Of the red wines Marechal Foch is the reigning champ, but this is a peculiar red wine with a strong acidity and dark dirty fruit which lacks the comprehensive characteristics of traditional red varieties.

The region is also great for Icewine (there’s an Icewine Festival every year), then there are the maple wines; yes, intriguing dessert wines made from the area’s maple trees and surprisingly good. Certainly the local vintners produce more traditional grape varieties, but the growing conditions favor these reds and whites which are hardy enough to survive in the climate and, thankfully, Nova Scotia vintners have embraced their limitations and focused on wines they do best. And for a change of pace, Lunenburg County Winery has some of the best fruit wines I have ever tasted. They make 26 fruit wines in all, from fruit on their property including artic kiwi, strawberry and blueberry. These are simple and effective fruit wines that are devoid of sticky sweet elements, and are so far removed from traditional Eastern Seaboard counterparts as to be nearly a revelation.
The historic and vibrant Lunenburg

Halifax 6 Pack
Ironworks Distillery in Lunenburg (a cool little seaport village) uses apples and other fruit to create apple vodka, apple brandy and pear eau du vie. “Grain doesn’t do it for us,” says owner Lynne MacKay of her unconventional approach to making spirits. “We don’t want to do anything that bores us.” I like that idea. And the vodka she is producing is quite good, the cranberry vodka being the most popular. She’s experimented with pine needles and all manner of things just to see what it might yield. Small batch of unusual stuff, this is a place to stop and check out what’s happening.
Lynne MacKay of Ironworks Distillery

The breweries within Nova Scotia are also assuming the mantle of change.
Alexander Keith’s is the behemoth of the beer industry, similar to Budweiser in the U.S. but small brands like Propeller and Garrison have carved out their own niche for artisnally-crafted brews that are exceptional. “The niche market is underserved,” says owner Brian Titus of Garrison Brewery in Halifax who has created a dedicated following. In part that’s because Garrison is doing things like making a Black IPA; though the made up name doesn’t give appropriate credit to this hoppy but chewy malty beer since it’s technically not a stout nor an IPA. They also produce jalapeno ale which has achieved something of a cult following in Halifax, and best of all is their very own 3 Fields Harvest Ale, an unfiltered beer with hops grown, surprisingly, within Nova Scotia’s own borders, not hops shipped in from the U.S. West Coast. “We knew that by filtering our beers we were stripping the best ingredients out of it,” Titus told me on a recent visit. “What we drink is off the tank, it’s not a 6-pack that’s two months old, sitting on a shelf. We’re able to bring the freshest beer to our customers.” This is the reason that his Halifax port location is doing incredibly well: that and the desire for true foods and drinks that reflect a sense of place is quickly coming of age.

Brian Titus of Garrison
Sugar Me Timbers!
I wasn’t familiar with the term ‘sugar camp’ prior to visiting Nova Scotia and, frankly, the mind reels with sarcastic replies. But it’s simply a term for a maple farm and the folks at Sugar Moon Farm are exemplary of what Nova Scotia is well-known for: maple syrup. They have about 1,000 sugar maple trees on their 10-acre property, and tapping those trees produces a small but incredibly concentrated maple syrup that will challenge the great maple-producing region of Quebec. You can visit the sugar camp, have lunch on site in their rustic cabin-in-the-woods location (with all manner of maple flavored food!), and see the process (a laborious and time consuming effort) of actually getting syrup out of a tree, distilling it down to a concentrated syrup. They use a gravity flow drip line which brings the maple to their cooker. This is one of those places they you need to visit because it’s so entertaining and educational
The trees at Sugar Moon Farm


Nova Scotia offers a surprising array of things to eat and drink and I highly suggest anyone consider a visit to this off the beaten path spot. 






7.09.2013

My Big Fat Greek Wine: The Compelling Wines of Crete


The Greeks are known as the architects of democracy, but the architects of wine? Wine history stretches back 3,500 years on the island of Crete, originally started under the Minoan Empire, and the island has native grape varieties seen no where else. Today Crete, now part of Greece, is seeing a resurgence in wine.

You might assume that centuries of winemaking would mean that the wine industry hit its stride ages ago. Ah…no. It’s only been since 2003 that the wine region on this formerly tumultuous island has achieved a modicum of interest. To understand why you need to know two very specific events which road blocked the wine industry:

1) Phylloxera hit Crete in the mid-1970s and devastated most of the old vineyards. But the little louse produced big changes when aging vineyards on aging rootstock were replanted.
2) In 1998 the legislature, in an effort to “promote” and hold on to the indigenous grape varieties, passed a law allowing for the extensive planting of almost exclusively Vilana, one of Crete’s native white grapes, but also its least promising. So the expansion of vineyards with a multitude of unique grape varieties was hamstrung, and Vilana became over-planted. The law was finally overturned (you go democracy!) and the freedom to plant any grapes, anywhere has allowed a resurrection of Crete wines.
The Crete landscape

Vidiano has emerged as Crete’s flagship white wine. “Vidiano is full of apples, yellow fruits, rich balanced aromas, velvet body, with a twist of oily texture, and refreshing acidity,” says Nicolas Miliarakis of Minos- Miliarakis Winery. But there are other whites native to Crete including Dafni, and Plyto, along with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and the like. As for the reds, well, red wines are not the strong suit here, however there are some solid examples of what red wine can achieve. In Heraklion (Crete’s capital), Kotsifali is an indigenous grape but needs a blending partner to round out the rough edges. Syrah is the best partner I tasted when I visited Crete, though there were a few blends using Merlot and Cabernet. “Kotsifali has elements of spicy prunes, leather, cinnamon, and small red fruits,” Miliarakis tells me. “It has a long after taste, matching very well with tomato and onion sauces, goat and lamb; ingredients that characterize Cretan cuisine,” he says. There are two main wine growing regions on Crete:
The wines, and food,  of Tamiolakis
The lovely ladies at Domain Paterianakis

Heraklion
Located just outside of the port city of Heraklion, Domain Paterianakis is heading up wine tourism. In addition to their winery they have a B&B on site; four rooms that come with a breakfast basket and free wine tasting. Their facility looks down to low rolling hills and out to the Cretan Sea. The dirt road up to the property seems inhospitable at first, a bumpy uphill journey over dirt roads, but once at the top, almost as if on cue, a stocky bearded sheep herder passes by my car, the staccato clinking of tin bells around the necks of his goats punctuating the motionless warm air. The winery and B&B were built using stones from the property and Paterianakis were the first to farm organically, and the healthy bees on the property keeping the vineyard thriving, which is why they use the bee logo on their bottles. Their rosé made with Kotsifali and Syrah is one of the best on the island.
In Crete, everyone helps out in the wineries!

The calcium rich soils of Tamiolakis Winery help to make wines like their flagship Ekti Ekdosi (meaning ‘Sixth Edition’), an extracted blend of Kotsifali, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. “This wine is a blend of our Cretan past and French history,” owner Maria Tamiolakis tells me. I tasted two different vintages when I visited with them, both different and impressive showing that Cretan blended red wines have structure, finesse with layered fruit. Minos-Miliarakis Winery also makes a terrific Kotsifali, but adds Mandilari for color and tannic structure, and Mourvèdre, spending 8 months in oak. Douloufakis Winery planted their grapes in 1996 on American rootstock and owner Nicos Douloufakis makes Liatiko, another native variety usually reserved for sweet wines as it has a propensity to oxidize quickly. But his dry red version was perfect with the Greek lamb I had and the wine shows notes of black cherry, pepper, lavender and resin.
Zacharias Diamantakis

On a windswept hill Zacharias Diamantakis and his namesake winery have impressive views of a patchwork quilt of vineyards and olive trees as far as the eye can see. Zacharias let me sample multiple years of Vidiano and this his wines are clean, with bright acidity, body and depth, perfect with seafood which is ubiquitous in Crete. “I love this variety, it is our future,” he says of Vidiano. In addition he produces a second label called Prinos and makes Chardonnay and Syrah for the international market (available in the U.S.) and Diamantakis has pulled in several Decanter wine awards. Additionally he makes raki, something far better than the traditional anise dominant ouzo. Similar to grappa, raki is distilled from the must of grapes, and is usually clear. But Zacharias barrel aged his and it took on a golden color, softer and smoother than straight raki. If you visit Crete you’ll find raki for sale, and most winemakers have some, somewhere. It’s a delightful spirit, potent, but something you’ll find nowhere else.
The port city of Chania
Chania
Moving west along the island, there are less than 10 wineries outside the lovely port city of Chania and this region differs from Heraklion typically with less wind but more heat allowing Crete to showcase more international varieties like Chardonnay, Grenache, even Tempranillo. Manousakis Winery offers Rhone styled wines like Syrah, Roussanne and Grenache which fall under the Nostos label - available in the States. You can get a tour and tasting here for around €4, or a light lunch of Cretan food, tasting and two glasses of wine which will run €15 per person. And this is where Crete is a great value: local fresh foods, native grapes and unique experiences at prices you can’t find in better known wine regions. Of note Manousakis Winery have a few old olive trees on the property, one of which was planted in 1290 AD, a massively twisted and gnarled trunk, still producing fruit and a thing of beauty in its own right.
The team at Manousakis Winery

At Dourakis Winery there is a charming tasting room made of hewn stone blocks, a mini agriculture and winemaking museum, and two art gallery spaces, and their wines are all under €10. There is a clear acidity on the white wines, potent little numbers that cry out for food but which are effective in their simplicity and which reflect the local region. Just down the road the beautiful tasting room of Karavitakis Winery represents exactly what Crete is working so hard for: namely wines that are compelling, using international varieties, but not shying away from the native grapes which make Crete so unique. Clearly visitors to Crete will not be familiar with many of these native grapes, therefore well-known wines like Merlot offer an easy introduction to traditional Cretan reds, and Karavitakis bridges this gap very well. Karavitakis Winery are producing perhaps the most diverse portfolio. Their Syrah for example is a dusty tannic wine, oaked aged with elements of blackberry and leather, similar to their fine Cabernet Sauvignon with its blueberry, blackberry and cocoa notes. Other producers to look for in Crete include Domain Zacharioudakis (who make very nice Kotsifali blends), Alexakis Winery (their Vidiano is a terrific value), and Lyrarakis whose Okto label blend of Vilana, Muscat and Sauvignon Blanc is another wonderful value wine available in the U.S.
This olive tree in Crete is over 3,000 years old








The beauty of the bourgeoning Cretan wine industry is that it’s tourist friendly and you’ll find wines here you cannot find anywhere else. A visit to this island will provide an opportunity to sample what very well might become world-class wines in the making.
To learn more about Greek wines:
Look for Raki while in Crete
LEARN ABOUT GREEK WINES



 READ my other post about the Palace of Knossos: Knossos Palace
 
WATCH this VIDEO I shot in CRETE
My Big Fat Crete Video

5.04.2013

Stepping on History: Crete’s Knossos Palace


Humans are fascinated by cataclysmic events. The lost city of Atlantis was once an oasis for humanity, an idyllic Shangri La. But of course it was destroyed…somehow. There’s a theory suggesting the Greek islands of Crete and Santorini were once a single island, and home to Atlantis. Allegedly a massive volcanic eruption split Crete and Santorini in two, and sunk Atlantis in the process. There is some geologic evidence of this, but it’s not a foolproof theory. What is foolproof is a visit to the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete is a must if you’re in the region.

The Palace of Knossos was one of four original palaces built 4,000 years ago as cultural and spiritual hubs across the island. I arrived with the throngs of people to view this amazing complex during the stillness of a hot July day as the sounds of cicadas and peacocks offered a counterpoint to the various languages from visitors all over the world. Approaching the Palace it initially looks unimpressive; just a bunch of large flat stones atop a small mountain. But as you make your way across said flat stones you begin to realize the depth of this multi faceted building, literally. This was a four-story behemoth.

At 22,000 square meters (75,000 square feet) Knossos was built with the sense of proper architecture, order, and a desire to live life in connection with ones surroundings. The King and Queen of Minos ruled here as part of the Minoan Empire and their respective living areas were built to allow air to flow through upper clerestory openings, taking advantage of the mild evenings keeping the ruling couple cool during the hot days. Okay, so they are the rulers and sure, they’re supposed to have the finer things. But hold on. The Minoans on Crete, all of them, had sewage systems, running water, toilets, even central heating over 1,000 years before the Greeks. A nearby stream once flowed, which provided water for the Palace and also took their effluent away.

This staircase is 4,000 years old and you can walk on it
What is mind boggling, and one of a handful of utterly unique experiences in life, is walking stone staircases created four thousand years ago, seeing the clay plumbing pipes, vessels and vases that have withstood the test of time, some partially reconstructed, some still in their original form. Portions of the Palace have been rebuilt, anything over three feet tall won’t be original, and there was a lot of anger in the 1920s when the Palace was partial reconstructed. It disrupted the natural order of things, and by a British archeologist no less, they said. It violates the organic nature of the historical context, and yes that’s partly true. But the small reconstruction also helps us comprehend what the Palace might have looked like and how it functioned. Originally unearthed in the 1880s, the Palace’s most thorough excavation was done by Sir Arthur Evans, who spent 30 years on Crete uncovering the Palace in all its glory; he unearthed 1,500 rooms in total.

As was true then and is true today we seek to beautify and embellish our world and the Palace has visible storage areas, pedestrian thoroughfares, and living quarters with colorful and decorative motifs. Of particular note to me were the winemaking capabilities the Cretans had, the bathtubs and all the needs for a working society. There is an amphitheatre, which many believe is the oldest in Europe. These are ultimately not the remnants of a forgotten society, but a stepping-stone to our current world since all that has come before us impacts on our lives today, even if we don’t readily comprehend it. And that’s the lesson of visiting Knossos; you innately understand that, though 4,000 years have passed, the needs of a society to be remembered, to build not just an architectural marvels, but to construct a society which includes the arts, spiritual and cultural enterprises, is no different than today.

The King's throne room
The Queens room
You can tour the Palace on your own, spending as much time as you wish and signs are in Greek and English. You can hire a private guide who will give you a two-hour history intensive tour, as I did. One is not necessarily better than the other; however a guide will give you insight you won’t have, and answer your questions. If you forgo a guide make certain you do some research in advance to understand the how and the why of the place you are in. The Palace is a modern day museum – a place to ponder how much has changed in the last four millennia, and yet how similar life’s fundamentals are. It was thrilling to be here, to walk across streets that have been traversed for thousands of years by probably thousands of people, and to be part of a continuum of history.

Getting to the Palace
From Heraklion, Crete’s capital, it’s 30-minutes by car. There’s a Knossos Palace city bus, and tour buses, which are full day excursions, which include the Palace as part of a longer itinerary. Admission is €6. 

Arrive early to beat the heat and the crowds, and bring water with you, as there is minimal shade. If you hire a private guide the cost is about €150 and it’s best to hire them in advance via a reputable travel agency not on site. There’s a small gift shop to purchase a walking guide, there’s a café and a few other eateries across the street. The Palace opens at 8 a.m. and closes as early as 3 p.m. and as late as 5 p.m.

4,000 year old clay plumbing pipes...not bad!
 
READ my other post about Crete Wine: The Comeplling Wines of Crete
WATCH my video I shot in Crete: My Big Fat Crete WIne

3.29.2013

Only On Oahu Part II: Sharks, Mai Tais & the Family Jewels

 
Honolulu has always been decried as “L.A. on the beach.” Sure, it’s a big city, however Oahu is also an island loaded with many cool things to do which vacillate between the obvious, and the lesser known. Of course there is Pearl Harbor, which includes the Arizona Memorial, as well as the battleship Missouri, which is fascinating because this was where the U.S. and the Japanese signed the treaty to end WWII. Located on the port side of the ship is a plaque commemorating this historic events, as well as additional historical info. But there is much more to consider on Oahu.

DO
The Iolani Palace, downtown Honolulu, was built in 1882 and brags that it’s the only royal residence in the United States. That’s because back in the day Hawaii was ruled by a king. The Hawaiian Kingdoms’ last two ruling monarchs both lived here. The tour is limited; just parts of the two-story interior, but there is a comprehensive museum in the basement.

 



Though the palace is architecturally beautiful from the inside and outside, it’s the museum that really sells this visit. Old photos, state jewels (the Royal Order of Kamehameha Knights Grand Cross and Collar is pictured here), dinnerware, military and ceremonial swords and a history of the odd relationship the Hawaiian Islands have had with everyone. 
From a royal palace to a Buddhist temple, Byodo-In Temple near Kanohe is called the “best kept secret” but once you arrive and see the tourists , well it’s not all that secret. Patterned after an ancient temple in Japan, this baby was built without the use of nails. Start by ringing the 3-ton brass prayer bell. From there the temple can be entered, but it’s meant for quiet reflection, not noisy conversation so turn off your cell phones. There is a small gift shop, koi pond, and beautiful visuals. Is it worth the drive up to the leeward side of the island? I’d say yes if you have something else planned in the vicinity.


The –obviously - great thing about Honolulu is the water – specifically being underwater. I don’t surf, but I do scuba and a wreck dive 120 feet down, just a few miles off the coast of Honolulu with Rainbow Scuba was a fantastic experience. They do everything for you, and guide you down, through, and around the wreck site, in our case a boat from the 1950s. This was my first wreck dive and frankly a whole lotta fun. Plus this water is way warmer than my home in Santa Barbara.


At North Shore Shark Adventures in Haleiwa you can get in a protected cage and hang out with sharks – and you don’t need any special gear. The boat takes you 3 miles out and they will get 6 of you in a (very safe) cage with snorkel equipment, which means you’re barely under the surface, but are close to these fascinating and beautiful animals. Sadly, people demonize sharks, and should you chose to be willfully ignorant, you’ll never understand these creatures (nor anything else in life for that matter). There were four sharks during our 15-minute drop down under the warm Pacific. The sharks won’t hurt you and hanging out with sharks in their home is unbelievably awesome. They do not add chum to the water to attract the sharks, they naturally move to the boat when they hear the hum of the engines.

Wreck diving
EAT
As a restaurant reviewer I’m always looking for authentic food native to where I am. Two picks worth mentioning: Helena's Hawaiian is located in a crappy strip mall and is a small space which has seen better days but the food is terrific and cheap. Butterfish and pork wrapped in poi leaves then steamed gives this an earthy subtle tobacco note. The pork is smoky wonderfully moist and very flavorful. The Pipikaula short ribs are meaty, fatty and rich. You won't find many tourists here and that’s exactly the point, this is excellent traditional Hawaiian food.
As a stark contrast to that, Sushi Sasabune has some of the most incredible sushi I’ve had buy you pay dearly for it. The best option is to go with their 13-course dinner. Yes, 13 courses, but you can stop whenever you like. This is not an order off-the-menu thing (though you can do that) they will bring you what they want and even tell you the preferred way to eat it. Some folks don’t like being told how to eat their food, but when you’re in the hands of a sushi master, don’t argue. We went back the next night too.

DRINK
The Mai Tai is the quintessential drink on the islands: maligned, mocked and most are sticky sweet, weirdly viscous and plied with so many fruit and flowers it looks like a parade. After seeking out every iteration across Honolulu, I had that eureka moment. Located inside the Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel, the 1944 Mai Tai made at Tiki’s Grill & Bar uses Cruzan Estate Light Rum, Myers Dark Rum, Orange Curaçao, Orgeat Syrup and fresh lime juice, then topped with Passion Fruit Foam (made with Licor43 - a Spanish liqueur made of fruit juices and vanilla) passion fruit puree, pasteurized egg whites, and the juice of a lemon. This is killer. You get the mellow rum, a hit of tangy citrus from the juices and the delicate addition of passion fruit seals the deal, adding a flavor dimension, making this mai tai immensely drinkable.

Distilled in downtown Honolulu, made from local island sugar cane, and then filtered through lava rocks, Hawaiian Vodka has a creamy viscosity, a unique sweetness backed by a rich maple, almost rum-like note with a minimal burn and small wisps of mint. The lava, actually a large cube of crushed lava rock, and the copper pot still work their magic to create a very fine and unique version of how cool vodka can be. Currently it’s only available on the islands but will hopefully make its way to the mainland. Distiller Dave Flintstone is having a tough time keeping up with demand. Pick up a bottle locally or ask for it at a bar.

To make your time easier on Oahu consider the Go Oahu card, a valuable asset to get discounts to many traditional activities and sights on Oahu (Iolani Palace, Pearl Harbor and museums) as well as things you may not have thought of. Using it wisely you’ll save yourself some cash. 
For hikes around Honolulu check out my other post On Oahu: HIKING HONOLULU


And Watch my “2 Minute Travel” video I shot On OahuON OAHU VIDEO

The Battleship Missouri at Pearl Harbor