9.30.2014

Photograph Nature? Prepare to Face a Fine-Time To Fight Back!


The federal government, specifically the U.S. Forest Service, is seeking to change language in their rules which will allow them to penalize people who take photographs/still images and/or video images on federal wilderness areas, meaning they, actually YOU, will need to pay a fee in order to take a picture. I am a travel writer and photographer. My not so edited reaction is WTF?

Many unwitting people are suggesting that this is not the directive of the government. Well, I have read the directive and I can tell you what is uniformly true of any government document: it is vague and open to interpretation. My official and edited response during this public comment phase is listed below. The Forest Service Handbook, states that only commercial filming activities require a use permit when specifically, “that involves the advertisement of a product or service, the creation of a product for sale, or the use of actors, models, sets, or props … when created for the purpose of generating income.” Here’s the newsflash for the federal government – any travel book, article, collection of photographs, etc. is done by a writer or photographer for the purpose of generating income – by it’s very definition that is our job. That this directive is so poorly written and could easily be punitive is disturbing. I encourage everyone to add their public comment HERE and make sure you include that your comment relates to “Commercial Filming in Wilderness, Interim directive (ID) 2709.11-2013.1” You have until November 3rd, 2014. Click the GREEN button at the upper right labeled "Submit a Formal Comment." Otherwise images that I took, included below may not be seen much anymore.


In Re: Commercial Filming in Wilderness: “The Forest Service proposes to incorporate interim directive (ID) 2709.11-2013.1 into Forest Service Handbook (FSH) 2709.11, chapter 40 to make permanent guidance for the evaluation of proposals for still photography and commercial filming on National Forest System Lands.”

I am compelled to respond to the U.S. Forest Service’s proposed action to charge photographers and writers for images taken in the 36 million acres of federal wilderness areas across the U.S.

As President Theodore Roosevelt wrote “There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness, that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy, and its charm.” And I heartily concur. As a travel writer with six travel books, many of which include listings of state, local and regional parks and wilderness areas, not to mention dozens of travel articles that feature these areas, it is an important part of my job to document and photograph what are the compelling reasons for guests to visit these areas. According to your proposed legislation, Interim Directive FSH 2709.11, chapter 40, section 45.51b, “It will provide guidelines for accepting and denying still photography and commercial filming applications in congressionally designated wilderness areas.”

Whether you understand it or not, people are visual creatures, and as such the primary goal of an article or book is to draw visitors to wilderness areas based on images more so than actual text. I have happily supported and promoted federally protected lands all of my life. My goal as a writer and photographer is to get people interested in these places and if that means it's a photograph of a stunning vista, then that is the hook. Writers like me do not make a lot of money. Yes we sell books, articles, we write blog posts, and write for websites but that does not mean we are given remuneration such that it would cover a $1,500 fee to photograph nature areas. Any attempt by the federal government to mandate that we should sign a waiver and pay an upfront fee, or be denied a permit and/or fined for doing our job, will result in catastrophic consequences for the Forest Service. As President Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children's children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred.” Travel writers like me never mar the landscape, never harm these areas because we have such inherent respect for the natural beauty that makes America great. We only seek to fulfill Roosevelt’s admonition to preserve these areas for future generations.

Recently I was working on a nationally distributed travel book and a California wilderness area demanded that I pay an upfront fee to photograph part of it. I explained that I did not have the financial resources to cover the fee and that it was to their advantage to allow me to photograph the place, and thus promote the area, bringing in revenue. They did not relent. Therefore, I cut them out of my book entirely. That is a sad commentary specifically for the number of tourists who could have visited. But to demand money from photographers, writers and editors is a lunatic piece of legislation, which will backfire in the long run. I for one, and other travel writers like myself, will not tolerate in any way shape or form this kind of, what amounts to, extortion. We support, promote and encourage travel to federal lands, but we will not be coerced into paying a fee because the government cannot manage its own resources – and it seems clear this is what this directive is about - money, or your lack of it. We are all aware of budget cuts, which are affecting our parks and wilderness areas. But there are other ways to increase revenue rather than single out a specific segment of the population (writers and photographers), which amounts to discrimination. If this legislation goes through, I will see it as my duty and obligation as a writer to corral my travel writer colleagues around the globe, not just the U.S., to boycott Forest Service lands. Do not assume a small group of travel writers does not have much of an impact, we do. Persistence of forcing a fee onto the back of writers clearly shows that you cannot see the forest for the trees.  

9.14.2014

Of Water, Washington, and the Virgin Mary: Berkeley Springs Part 2


Small, unassuming Berkeley Springs, located in the panhandle of West Virginia, might not seem like much of anything besides a dot on the map.
As I’ve written about before however (HERE) this small burg has a history dating back to our first president, George Washington, and what we most know about Berkeley Springs is actually derived from the journals of George Washington himself.

The town’s best-known attribute is water - specifically the Lord Fairfax Spring. Lord Fairfax, a British citizen who owned land here, hired George Washington as a young man to survey his property. One of the key aspects of Berkeley Springs has always been the thermal springs, which even today bubble up from the ground in Berkeley Springs State Park at a constant 74.3-degree temperature. Though Fairfax was well liked by the colonists he nonetheless lost much of his property once the 1776 petition to draw up the town went through. More about him and how George Washington helped develop the town can be found at the Museum of Berkeley Springs which resides inside the 1815 Roman Bath House, where you can still bath in the natural waters. 


Aside from water there is also geology and the museum is a smart place to start your visit here as it puts everything in perspective. Silica sand and crystals fill the mountainsides and the museum’s showpiece is an 800-pound crystal unearthed near by. There are a few Indian artifacts as well period bathing suits from the turn of the century, old glass water bottles from the 1930s and historic information of Washington and others who help make Berkeley Spring America’s first spa town. The museum is open on weekends during the summer months but it’s well worth the modest $2 admission. And of course Berkeley Springs is home to the oldest water tasting competition in the world, which you can see my video of HERE.

EAT
Part restaurant, part inn, and part local art gallery, Tari’s restaurant has been around since 1989. Current owner Amy Mcbee has worked at Tari’s since it opened and she has a vested interest in its success. With brick lined walls and open windows to the street they serve lunch and dinner and there is traditional food like burgers, fish and chips, and salads to curried hummus and crab fondue. Lots of local art covers the walls and the Tari’s is definitely a dependable choice for quality, consistent food if you stay the weekend or are just passing through.


DO
Since Berkeley Springs gained attention as a spa town, there are a number of spas and packages available. The Atasia Spa opened their doors in 1998 and this surprisingly large spa offers a full compliment of services, as you would expect. I decided on the eucalyptus wet steam, a 20-minute sweat inducing stress reliever. Hot steam with eucalyptus oil fills the room nearly to the point whereby you can hardly see the person next to you but it relaxes you and help cleans out the sinus and toxins built up in your body. During the cold winter months it restores your core but who doesn’t need to de-stress in the summer as well? There are also whirlpool baths using Berkeley Springs water, massages, mani/pedis and even reiki treatments. Spas are not just for women and any guy can benefit from a little treatment too, as I did.

STAY
Berkeley Springs is not short on lodging and offers everything from old-school B&Bs, to chain hotels, to the unusual Maria's Garden Inn. The hotel is homage to the Virgin Mary replete with religious iconography, statues, relics, photographs and plaques everywhere you look. This doesn't mean you need to be Catholic to stay here, but clearly there is an affinity for the spiritual, and they also have a working chapel upstairs. Perhaps because of the numerous images of Mary, the place is quiet and everyone is that much nicer to each other. More sedate than other properties in town it is set just off the main street so there is easy walking access to the downtown area.

Small and unassuming, Berkeley Springs offers a wide array of things to do including nearby Cacapon State Park with golf, hiking, boating, fishing and even a clay shooting range, so the town is really not that small after all, though thankfully it’s still unassuming.

8.31.2014

SoO: The Wines of Southern Oregon


There is a saying that when people think of Oregon, they think of the three “Ps” - Portland, Precipitation and Pinot. Yes, there is rain; yes, Portland is the largest city in the state, and yes the main wine coming from here is Pinot Noir. But Oregon, specifically Southern Oregon, also excels at under-the-radar grape varieties an inherent natural beauty, and a road less traveled. Interstate 5 is the artery, which can quickly get you to multiple wine regions and off the beaten path. (Watch my video of Southern Oregon HERE).

Though it’s not always practical, it is essential to visit wine regions to experience firsthand the soil, the climate, people, the food, everything. You simply cannot understand a wine region by purchasing a bottle of wine off a shelf. Oregon is best known for the Willamette Valley and Pinot Noir, however the southern portion of the state, with regions like Umpqua Valley, Red Hills, and Rogue Valley, produce wine of greater diversity than Willamette.

“Pinot Noir is too expensive and Chardonnay is what my mom drinks,” Rob Folin of Folin Cellars in the Rogue Valley, tells Exploracation. Located 250 miles south of Portland, Folin and others like him, including the tiny God King Slave Wines are looking beyond conventional wines in order to make their voice heard. GSM blends (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre), and Spanish and Iberian varieties are what this southern half of the state is finding best expresses their landscape. But Oregon also faces unexpected weather variations and those fluctuations means that wines cannot be replicated year to year – a selling point for some, and a drawback for others. “Winemakers need to be more artisanal and less technical,” says Daniel Rinke of Johan Vineyards. His sentiment is expressed in probably what is the best white grape currently grown in Southern Oregon - Viognier - where its crisp acidity and less perfume characteristics make it a “loud mouth wine” as Rinke calls it, a sort of brash child who demands attention. Many Southern Oregon wineries are succeeding with Viognier including Kriselle Cellars, and Spangler Vineyards.

King Estate Winery
The largest single winery in all of Oregon is King Estate covering 470 acres planted predominately to Pinot Gris, their signature wine. They also have 14 acres of orchards, gardens and bee-keeping which provides food for their lunch and dinner restaurant, as well as local schools they donate a lot of food to. There’s also on-site bakery and charcuterie, an impressive winery and well worth visiting for the wine, the food and the views. Their standard offering is uniformly excellent. I had the chance to taste eight-year-old, and 13-year-old Pinot Gris on my visit both of which still showed extremely well - structured with engaging acids and citrus, caramel and melon flavors.

Pat Spangler (L) & Earl Jones (R) in Southern Oregon
Other wonderful wines come from Abacela and Spangler located in the Umpqua Valley. “If you're driving I-5 (the main highway running through the state) and you don't stop at exit 119 you're making a mistake,” says Pat Spangler. Of course he'd say something like that except that since his tasting room is there except he's correct. Both of these wineries are exemplary of what the mid-Oregon region can do. Pat was a beer drinker until a trip to Napa in 1989 caused him to switch to wine. He owns no vineyards and focuses on direct-to-consumer sales, all the more reason to visit first hand. His Viognier is a spot on example of what the grape can be; clean and viscous with minerality and subdued floral notes. His portfolio includes Grenache and Cabernet Franc.
 
The winery dog at Cowhorn,: biodynamic winery, blue eyed dog.
By contrast Earl Jones of Abacela Winery is distributed in 26 states and he uses all estate fruit because he doesn’t want to “buy other people's mistakes.” Jones is that type of man who does his due diligence and his climate research showed him that his site was uncannily similar to the Rieba del Douro where Tempranillo is king. So Jones carefully planted specific sites. “We're farming at the climactic edge of grape growing,” he says, due to the unpredictable weather patterns, which plague Southern Oregon. Jones may seem like he is pushing the envelope but he is practical as well. His property boarders a wildlife sanctuary and Abacela has a program called “zoo doo” whereby elephant dung is used as fertilizer for the vineyard. He is making terrific Tempranillo, a stunningly good Albariño (so close to those in Spain it will shock you), Malbec and a Tawney Port than will make you swoon.

It's always Friday the 13th at Valley View Winery!
For sheer fun, Valley View Winery near Jacksonville not only has terrific wines, but if you’re a fan of Friday the 13th – you’ll need to visit. Does this seem like a non-starter? Well…in the original film the sole survivor of the massacre at Camp Crystal Lake was Alice Hardy, played by actress Adrienne King who moved to Oregon after Hollywood and worked for a time at Valley View Winery. Together, they created Crystal Lake Wines, which uses Valley View wines in unique labeled bottles, including a painting done by Adrienne of her character lying in a canoe on Crystal Lake. Jason’s creepy hockey-mask and One Sheets and other Friday the 13th paraphernalia create a novelty shrine of Hollywood and Vine. You can pick up Survivor’s Syrah, and Cabin A Sauvignon to scare your friends. How cool is that?

Outside of McCully House in Jacksonville

If opening that wine is too scary then definitely pick up their Red Rogue wine, an everyday drinker for about $12, one of the best value wines I’ve ever had And a night’s stay at McCully House, a seven-room intimate B&B in the heart of downtown Jacksonville is comfortable without being cutesy; sophisticated and ideally situated within the walkable downtown core of Jacksonville.

Find other cool Oregon things here:

8.15.2014

Vegas, Baby: Of Clubs, See-Thru Showers & Riding High


The Dayclub
Victor Drai seems to have the appetite to take over the world. A man obsessed with creating theatrical spaces, Drai (film producer, Weekend at Bernie’s, The Man with One Red Shoe) has been behind trendy hotspots like Drai’s After Hours Club, and Tryst, both in Las Vegas, and Rare on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, but his latest offering, Drai's Beachclub+Nightclub at The Cromwell, Las Vegas’ newest boutique property, outperforms them all.

Positioned atop The Cromwell on the 11th floor Drai’s reigns over what is arguably the busiest intersection in Vegas; Caesar’s Palace is across the street as is the Bellagio. During the daytime Drai’s is a beach pool party on steroids, a perpetual spring break soiree; in the evening it morphs into an upscale high voltage nightclub. The dayclub embraces north facing views including the Red Rock Mountains in the distance and the Bellagio fountains across the street. 
The Nightclub
 A central pool is flanked by palm trees and a white exterior with pink curtains covering the 15 second-floor cabanas outfitted with HD TVs but with all the hard bodies dancing to the tunes of a live DJ we doubt you’ll be watching much TV. The nightclub, a two story indoor space facing the dayclub pool, is all shiny black semi circular booths and a horseshoe DJ station surrounded by columns glittered with postage stamp-sized mirrors. The two-story nightclub has seven control table operators behind the DJ for visuals of the 270-degree wraparound video wall and the first ever ceiling video panels, so it’s a constant stream of optical illumination. VIP tables and booths ring the dance floor and match the second floor private balcony areas, all of which are imbued with black imitation crocodile coverings highlighted with pink and orange. The sound system is off the charts and the music will rattle your very bones, literally. This non-stop flood of music, vibration and light is a near primal sensation. And if lighting your very own fireworks show has always been a dream, Drai’s will make it a reality starting at $10,000 - detonator included. It’s an Odd Couple relationship since The Cromwell by contrast is downright sedate.
There are the standard casino gambling offerings at The Cromwell of course, but the property is just 188 rooms, teeny by Vegas standards, and that’s exactly the point; it’s a boutique property in a vast sea of sameness. The 169 standard rooms are not large but do have a seating area and desk and frankly, most everyone isn’t spending time in their rooms. There are 19 suites ranging from 723 square-feet to a 2,550 square-foot, six-bedroom suite. The rooms, with six-foot burgundy padded headboards in case you need that sort of thing, have dark hardwood floors and luggage and trunk-style furnishings which makes them feel nostalgic, a kind of speakeasy charm reminiscent of vintage Paris but without the accents. A full-length smoke tinged mirror in the room actually looks into the shower – a happy fact I discovered accidentally when my wife was showering. 
The interior hallway carpets are printed with phrases in English and French such as, “You cannot desire what you do not know,” and similarly, the bathrooms also have tiled phrases. It is far from the glitzy or cheesy décor of many Vegas properties and feels like it was done on purpose, whereas many hotel rooms seem to have the design integrity of Ikea. The other draw to The Cromwell? Celebrity TV chef Giada De Laurentiis has opened her first restaurant here. When I visited Giada’s wasn’t open yet, therefore I don’t include any information on that here. But by all appearances Drai’s and The Cromwell will leave a lasting mark for foodies, partygoers, and gamblers.

But Vegas is not merely perpetual parties, de jour hotels and lost wages; it does offer something new and interesting all the time, almost out of necessity. Case in point is the High Roller, a Ferris wheel with enclosed pods that take you for a (slow) spin for the best and highest views not only of Vegas itself, but with view to Red Rocks and the vast dessert of Nevada. 28 glass-enclosed cabins reach 550 feet in the dry air, thus they claim it to be the highest observation wheel in the world. I’m guessing that’s probably right, it is Vegas after all. The ride is 30 minutes and prices spin as much as the wheel does with different pricing for daytime (cheaper - $24.95) and nighttime with all the gleaming lights ($34.95). Then there are discount coupons at Caesars hotels (like the Cromwell), special discounts for groups and different pricing depending on the time of year, so check around. Fortunately kids under 12 are free.

6.29.2014

Celebrating Sonoma! - Part 2


The Tucker car at Coppola Winery
Sonoma’s Hollywood Connection
With wineries in both Napa and Sonoma, Oscar winning film director Francis Ford Coppola turned to winemaking after filmmaking. His Sonoma property located in Kenwood, just up the road from Healdsburg, is a palatial estate. In addition to an on site restaurant and tasting room, Coppola has a mini-museum with props from some of his well-known (and not so well known) films including Apocalypse Now, Dracula, Tucker; The Man and His Dreams, and his iconic American gangster film, The Godfather. Surfboards used in Apocalypse Now hang from the ceiling.
I may not be The Godfather, but the desk is from the film
The Tucker car gleams in the center of a room flanked by circular staircases. The iconic Godfather desk and chair used in the first two films sits atop a staircase lit by amber lamps and there’s also a collection of Coppola’s five Academy Awards, not to mention other awards for his directing skills. Yes, it’s more museum than anything else, a little kitschy and over-the-top, but with an on-site Italian-themed restaurant, plenty of wine and more than enough visuals, you can spend a lot of time here, undoubtedly that was the point.

The wine and food pairing at Lasseter Family Winery
As for Rhone-style wines you’ll see these reflected in Lasseter Family Winery. John Lasseter was the man behind some of the most successful animated films ever including Toy Story, Cars, and A Bug’s Life. For Lasseter making wine is similar in its process to making an animated film. “Just like looking at a rough sketch and four years down the line we know it will be a memorable character in a movie, wine takes time as well,” Lasseter tells Exploracation. Lasseter moved to the Glen Ellen region of Sonoma and his sophisticated tasting room is more about the wine than his illustrious past. “At Pixar we make movies we love to watch, and it’s the same thing with our winery, we make wines we love to drink,” he says. The wine tasting is always pared with food and takes about an hour.

Jamie Kutch focuses on Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir
Of course Sonoma is not all celebrity driven. Jamie Kutch is creating distinctly different, hard-to-classify Pinot Noir from the most exciting region for Pinot - the Sonoma Coast. Kutch believes in whole cluster pressing his fruit, gravity feeding it, and using one-ton stainless steel fermenters which enable him to “crush, and sub crush” different lots and vineyard blocks. He picks his fruit earlier than most therefore his wines lack the traditional bright cherry and raspberry flavors, are lower in alcohol, and retain a pragmatic acidity. He firmly desires to produce “true coastal Pinot from Sonoma,” and Kutch believes that the cooler and rougher coastal vineyards are where the future of Sonoma Pinot Noir lay. Sitting down with Kutch during harvest in 2013 and sampling wines in bottle and barrel, his coastal Pinot Noirs are different animals altogether, a near mythical beast that lumbers through the backwoods, both surprising and intriguing you with its elusive characteristics. His Pinot Noirs are not fine-tuned elegant expressions; they are burly, but balanced, aggressive but informal, all about rich, intense and viscous fruit.

The remains of Jack London's Wolf House
Calling the Wild
Though he died in 1916, author Jack London (White Fang, The Call of the Wild), was one of the foremost celebrities of his day, authoring over 24 novels and dozens of short stories. He built for himself a 15,000 square foot, four-story stone and wood home he called Wolf House, deep in the forests of Glen Ellen. Just weeks before he was to move in his massive residence mysteriously caught fire and was destroyed, only the stone and brick chimneys standing like mute sentinels as witnesses to history. To this day no one knows who started the fire; was it an accident, did his wife set the blaze, were locals intolerant of this unsightly celebrity structure in their backyard, did London himself set the fire to cash in on the insurance money? These are all viable theories, but the truth is still as elusive as the smoke that rose from the ashes and disappeared nearly a hundred years ago. You can visit Jack London State Historic Park and visit the burned out shell of the home, now clearly a metaphor for what happened to London and his short-lived career, since he took his own life at age 40. A half-mile walk on along a dirt path takes you into a clearing where the moss-covered stone walls surrounded by pine trees is at once eerie and calming. There’s a surreal nature to the stark immutable stone, which still stands, punctuated by the occasional laughs of intolerant youngsters who may never have a clue to who Jack London was. The nearby museum is worth a visit as well and it holds information about London and his life and times. And, ironically, as Jack London’s legacy fades, the formidable outer structure of his valiant home still perseveres.
A winning bid at the Sonoma Wine Country Auction

The Sonoma wine experience is unique and needs to be explored, apart from a visit to Napa. Sure there is competition between the two (the Sonoma Valley Wine Auction always seeks to best the Napa Valley Wine Auction in terms of money raised for charity and both are star-studded, flamboyant experiences worth your time). Though it’s only open to the public once a year during the monumental Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, MacMurray Ranch was once the apple of actor Fred MacMurray’s eye. MacMurray whose notable films included the classic film noir Double Indemnity, and the comedy The Absent Minded Professor, as well as TV’s My Three Sons, started raising and showing shorthorn cattle (actually competing against my great uncle, affectionately known as John O). But MacMurray had visions of turning his ranch into a working winery - something that eluded him before his death. However his daughter, Kate, eventually accomplished this in honor of him. The Gallo Family purchased his property and still works with Kate MacMurray to turn out exceptional wine including MacMurray Ranch Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. If you attend Sonoma Wine Country Weekend in September during the grand tasting at the ranch you’ll notice two redwood trees planted by hand by MacMurray himself back in 1941 at the entrance to the original 1840s barn.
Winemaker Chris Munsell of MacMurray Ranch above the Russian River

Ultimately Sonoma is a different world imbued with an expansive array of wine, food and culture all its own, a slice of quintessential California and a place of relaxation, regardless of whose name is on the bottle. So come for a few days, a week, or longer and enjoy California at its best.
Take a VIDEO TOUR I shot while in Sonoma!   Click here for Part 1 of this story.


SONOMA WINE COUNTRY WEEKEND 
SONOMA WINE 

Celebrating Sonoma! – Part 1


Sleepy Sonoma - it’s routinely in the shadow of its muscular elder brother, Napa. And while the Napa Valley is the de facto region for Cabernet Sauvignon, the vast Sonoma Valley offers a greater diversity of grape varieties, specific growing regions for those wines, and friendly price points.

Sonoma is home to 15 separate American Viticulture Areas (AVA), the most well-known being Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Coast for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; Knights Valley in the north for Cabernet Sauvignon, and Dry Creek Valley which is Zinfandel territory. Along the way there are over 60,000 planted acres producing 50 varieties being poured at 400 tasting rooms. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the dominant wines in Sonoma with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc in the number two positions.

Sonoma County is notoriously large, in spite of the fact that just 7% of all wines made in California come from here, and any visit requires some planning to fully appreciate the region. From mega-large to boutique, to ultra premium to celebrity-owned wineries, Sonoma is known for its unencumbered pace within a beautiful rustic backdrop. The Sonoma County Airport, also known as the Charles Schultz Airport (named after the Peanuts comic strip author and long time Sonoma resident) is the only regional airport with direct flights from Los Angeles and San Francisco. It is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that is the calling card for Sonoma, and the Russian River Valley is the spot where the acidity of these red wines shows best; something Napa cannot offer. “If those high end Napa guys want to try their hand making Pinot Noir they come to Sonoma first,” says Mark McWilliams, owner of Arista Winery in the Russian River.
Fresh tomatoes at Atista

Sonoma Food & Wine
Vineyard grower Phil Coturri, who farms 700 acres of organic and biodynamic vineyards in both Sonoma and Napa equates winemaking to cooking: “Winemakers are chefs, though we cook just once a year.” His point is well taken and Russian River Valley’s Arista Winery is one example of the new attitude for Sonoma who exemplify a harmonious blending of wine and food. Their land was originally hop farmed (for beer production) but now produces 5,000 cases of lovely Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. “We make sit down wines not cocktail wines,” McWilliams tells me. They and others like them are indicative of new trends in Sonoma; a literal farm to table approach with the realization that wine should not be tasted in a vacuum. Offering a $75 five-course food and wine pairing their beautifully prepared foods properly showcase their wines. That sounds common enough, but Arista is aiming for a closed loop system of food and wine. For example, they have 38 different varieties of tomatoes on the property, farm fresh eggs, herbs and spices growing just feet away from the tasting room; a dirt-to-plate mentality. You might find Alaskan halibut with pickled onions and local mushrooms, to lamb confit topped with their farm eggs.

The entrance to Ram's Gate Winery
In the southern portion of Sonoma, Carneros, the cool winds coming off San Pablo Bay buffet vineyards creating greater acidity and structure. One of the best and most amazing experiences is Ram’s Gate Winery sitting near the water’s edge. Ram’s Gate produces 13,000 cases of wine, none of which you’ll find outside of their architecturally beautiful winery. The design of the winery makes you feel like you're visiting a friend's weekend house in wine country, albeit created by an interior designer who worked with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel group. You can choose from a variety of areas in which to taste the wines: the pavilion with a view of the pond, on either side of the double-sided outdoor fireplace, inside at the bar, in the library or even at the chef's table and there are various wine and food pairing options. The 30 foot ceilings, exposed beams, weathered wooden walls made of reclaimed snow-fencing from Wyoming, and massive floor-to-ceiling glass walls open to sweeping vineyard views of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines. Assistant winemaker Jesse Fox worked as a chef for six years before making wine at one of Napa’s premier Cabernet houses, Harlen Estate, prior to coming to Ram’s Gate. He ages his Chardonnays on the lees and the bulk of the fruit is estate.
Food and wine pairing at Ram's Gate

Sonoma Wine & Cheese
But Sonoma is also becoming known for its cheese trail including McClelland Dairy, and Weirauch Farm. The region is returning to its agricultural roots with dairies and creameries offering tours, tastings, and artisanal cheeses made from cow, sheep and goat, all with unique flavors to rival cheeses from Italy, France and Switzerland. The cheese trail is spread throughout both Sonoma and Marin counties with over 30 dairies and creameries thus far. This makes for a lot of ground to cover but the allure of wine and cheese trails will take you from Petaluma to Point Reyes at the coast giving you a broader understanding of the geography of Sonoma not to mention the diversity of these artisanal cheeses. (See my full length post here: SONOMA CHEESE TRAIL.) Click here for Part 2 of this story.
Take a VIDEO TOUR I shot of Sonoma!

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