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.


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!


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


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

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


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


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.