The Right Stuff: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House Blooms Again

“Turn the world on its side and everything loose will end up in Los Angeles.” ~Frank Lloyd Wright.

As you stand at the entrance to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House located in Barnsdall Art Park, the Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory peer down from the hills. They are iconic images of the City of Angels, but so too is Wright’s recently restored residential masterwork. After $4.4 million spent over six years, Hollyhock House, the only Frank Lloyd Wright property you can visit in Los Angeles, is once again open to the public.

Though many people would prefer it not be known (including Bill Maher, and probably Wright himself) the house was used in the 1989 film, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death in which Maher starred alongside Shannon Tweed. The exterior suggests a Mayan temple (we assume that might reference the “avocado jungle” but we’re not sure) and though film shoots are no longer allowed, this ‘house-museum’ has garnered respect not only for its renovation and imperious design, but Hollyhock is now on a tentative list of the first modern architecture nominations from the United States as a UNESCO world heritage site - and since there are fewer that 25 UNESCO sites in the entire U.S., that’s a pretty damn big deal.

A UNESCO nomination would absolutely bring validation to Los Angeles, which constantly fights against perceptions it is a cultural wasteland. “We’re not as Philistine as we’re made out to be,” Jeffery Herr curator for Hollyhock House tells me. Wright’s initial concept included a residence for owner Aline Barnsdall, a theater, a director’s house, dormitory for actors, studios for artists, shops and a motion picture theater. Most of that never materialized, but the residence stands as a promise of what might have been. Barnsdall, a Pennsylvania oil heiress, wanted to produce theater in her own venue and she purchased a 36-acre site known as Olive Hill in 1919, and commissioned Wright to build a theater where she could produce avant-garde plays. “The house is unconventional, built for an unconventional client,” says Herr, who toured me through the house on opening day. “It’s disorienting and at the same time it mystifies people,” he surmised. A long rectangular tunnel leads you up to the formidable cast concrete doors, which are not at all welcoming. To your left is a small triangular metal plate, a tiny doorbell dead center. It seems completely out of place given the cold imposing concrete structure. But like much of Hollyhock, it is indicative of the playful use of volume and scale that Wright seemed to find amusing. The hollyhock flower was Barnsdall’s favorite so Wright crafted an abstract symmetrical block version of the flower used throughout the exterior and interiors including furnishings. The cool thing is that the renovation also planted hollyhocks, which were in bloom the day I visited. It’s no secret that Barnsdall herself barely lived in the house and when visiting L.A. she most often stayed at the Biltmore rather then her one-off Mayan temple. Yes, she fired Wright because of cost overruns; yes, he was difficult - a childish genius of whom you forgave his faults because he exuded copious inspiration and creativity.
The stylized hollyhock motif is used throughout the property
But restoring an iconic house from a nearly mythic architect isn’t easy. The restoration was like “detective work,” Herr says. He had to rely on mangled, faded architectural blueprints and old photos as clues to what Wright had originally envisioned. The recently completed restoration allows visitors to experience the house in much of its original handcrafted elegance. Floors, windows, doors, decorative molding, and long-forgotten paint colors have been recreated. Gone are the sliding glass doors leading away from the living room, which were erroneously installed during the 1970s renovation, something that Wright would have abhorred, and frankly speaking, so too would I. In its place are the correct wood accordion-folding doors, which add an angled depth and historical accuracy. Even exposed screw heads reflect the original work in spite of their seemingly unfinished state. Water intrusion has always been one of the hallmarks of Wright’s design failures. In this case the hollow clay tiles covered with stucco that formed the building blocks were not the issue (unlike the Pasadena Millard House), nor Hollyhock’s flat roof; no, it was 90 years of clogged drains both inside and outside the home that proved to be the culprit. Water goes where it will and if a drain is clogged, water will nonetheless find the lowest point it can.
The dining room
Architectural failings aside, the house is a wonder of design, space, light and shadow, and Art Deco imagery. The bas-relief fireplace made of cast concrete blocks is the central unifying image, one that can’t be ignored, though Wright never interpreted its meaning. “It’s a theatrical statement,” Herr told me, a modernist landscape commanding the living area. Flanked by oak sofas with verdant green pillows designed to take in the stage, and a three foot pool at the foot of the fireplace with a skylight above, it ties in the classic and spiritual four elements: earth, water, fire and air. Yes, Wright designed all the furniture and you notice the library, living and dining areas are comprised of very precise angles on his designs including the chairs. Having sat in several of Wright’s original chairs, I can personally tell you they were never designed for comfort, but were set pieces for the theatre of any Wright home: cool looking but not comfy.

It used to be that tours were lead by docents but Herr has abandoned that formula in favor of “self guided” - allowing people to spend as much time as they want ambling about the home. Docents are on hand to answer questions and each room has handheld notes, almost like a theatre program, that give the specifics of each room. But the advantage of allowing people time to meander though Hollyhock is that there truly is a sense of discovery. Perhaps someday the remaining 60% of the house that is still unseen and unrestored might get its due. For now one of the most creative West Coast residences is finally accessible in which to bask in the revelation that is Frank Lloyd Wright.

“Walk Wright In” tours run Thursday through Sunday, 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Last admission is 3:15 p.m. Cost: $7 for adults, $3 for students and seniors. There is free parking. www.barnsdall.org

(NOTE: The original version of this article first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, March 2015)


Sweet on the Pearl

Re-Vitalise: The Pearl District in downtown Portland, Oregon is one of those success stories of urban renewal. Originally mapped in 1869 and built with small houses for “blue collar” workers, it morphed into warehouses and industrial buildings and eventually deteriorated to the point where it was avoided at all costs. But all urban centers are part of the ebb and flow of good times, bad times, revitalization and decay. The Pearl has reinvented itself so that now it’s a trendy, hip, pedestrian, fashionable, de jour, funky – whatever you want to call it. And regardless, it’s a positive thing.

Lovejoy Bakery
Every neighborhood needs a bakery (pun intended) and Lovejoy first opened in 2010 and now has two locations including a corner spot in the Pearl. Diversity is the key as they bake 25 daily breads and rolls including golden raisin pecan, potato bread, vollkornbrot, and an egg challah braid. There's an industrial feel to the place with concrete floors, open ductwork and communal tables but of course the best digs are the outside tables that hug the perimeter. There are lots of animated conversations over a cup of tea, coffee and a scone; or a cookie like Snickerdoodles, their chewy and moist ginger molasses, and their chocolate crinkle. Cakes and pastries like chocolate passion mousse tarts, and Opera cakes to cheesecakes and macaroons are here too. They do lunches and breakfasts as well. Why Lovejoy works is that with their large diversity of foods, they do it consistenlyt and they do it well, not to mention it’s a great social hub.

Cool Moon Ice Cream
We may all scream, but it doesn’t mean we get the best ice cream. The first official account of ice cream in America was in a letter written in 1744 in Maryland. The first advertisement for ice cream in the U.S. appeared in the New York Gazette in May 1777, but it’s believed that ice cream has been around much longer, however it’s also believed that early iterations were simply juice was poured over ice, not the ice cream we know today. So when Cool Moon opened in 2007 they kicked it up several notches. With flavors like the tasty peanut butter and jelly kulfi with whole peanuts loaded in, to the coffee crackle pumpkin, buttermilk Marion berry which is mild with definite buttermilk and mellow bright berry flavors, to lemon lavender, you’ll find something you want. It's small inside, and in the blink of an eye it gets packed, like their quarts. They offer a 5% discount for cash purchases (we like this) and right across the street is Jaimeson Park a small part grass, part water feature park filled with kids playing in the low waterfalls, the perfect spot to eat said ice cream. Their ingredients are clean and pure resulting in terrific ice cream.

Sugar Mama’s
I am a fan of Sugar Mama’s for the best cinnamon rolls, though they are not technically located in the Pearl (less than a mile away). But no matter, these are killer cinnamon rolls, all mostly soft and gooey with a few crisp edges. Though large and slathered with icing they strike a balance between sweet (but not overwhelmingly sweet), a wee bit of savory with just the right balance of cinnamon. And the ingredients are the real deal, not substitute flavorings or manufactured ingredients and this is evident in the taste. Sure they serve decent breakfasts and lunch too, but come for the rolls. Clearly if I lived in Portland I’d have a problem with self-control.

The Pearl has plenty of restaurants, bars, brewpubs and is just a 40-minute drive into the Columbia River Gorge and a handful of terrific wineries on both the Oregon and Washington sides of this stunningly beautiful river. Over 90 waterfalls are here including the iconic Multnomah Falls (read about the waterfalls here), white water rafting, stand-up paddle boarding, mountain biking, wind surfing, and the list goes on. Portland is one of those classic American cities, which offers everything within close proximity so you can be urban and then quickly lost in scenic beauty with lightening speed…and give in to your sweet tooth. Watch my brief Oregon Wine County video, and my Gorge Waterfalls video as well.
READ MORE at Exploracation with a post of Southern Oregon Wine Country


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.  


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.

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.

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.

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.


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:


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.


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.