Month: October 2016

Travel Log: 16 Lakes, Countless Waterfalls, and Too Many U-Turns

This is the fifth  installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going.  She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city.  In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed the first installment you can find it here:  My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going.  The second installment is here:  Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? And the third is here:  Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.  The fourth is here:  “A” to Zagreb.

The first five days of our trip we did not need a car as we were in Venice (where no cars are permitted) and then in Zagreb where we were able to walk around.  For the rest of our journey, though, we will be traveling by car.  Before leaving Zagreb, we swung by the local office of European car rental agency Sixt to pick up our trusty vehicle for the next 10 days or so:  a Volkswagen Golf.  Thinking ahead, I requested that the car be equipped with navigation; when the car pulled up, it had a Garmin GPS system plugged into the power source.  Because my wife did not know our next destination, I took the Garmin and typed in “Vila Lika,” which the GPS located immediately and told us was just over 2 hours away.  How wrong it would be!  Or, should I say, how wrong “she” would be.  You see, the voice for our Garmin was a female, and she spoke in what initially we thought was a charming British accent.  As the day wore on, we would find “her” to be more and more annoying.

Pulling away from the car rental agency, though, we were full of anticipation and excitement as this would be our first European road trip together.  Our many previous trips have been of the planes and trains variety, but generally did not include long stretches of driving.  For my part, I was looking forward to being behind the wheel of a stick-shift car again – something that has all but disappeared in the United States.  In my younger days, all of my cars were manual transmission and shifting gears was second nature.  It has been a long time, however, since I drove a car with a stick.  My father used to say that driving an automatic car is just “steering,” not driving.  I have to agree with this, so I specifically requested a manual transmission car for the trip.  Since the missus is an old-school kind of woman, she also can handle stick-shift cars so no worries there.

After finally figuring out how to find reverse, I backed out of the space and asked the wife to use the Garmin to navigate.  That’s when the fun started.  Pretty quickly we realized that our lovely British-accented Garmin lady guide did not know how to pronounce any of the Croatian street names. In fairness, the Croatian language seems to have a grudge against vowels.  You will find entire words that are 100% consonants. On top of that, although the alphabet is mostly the Roman alphabet (A to Z) that we use in English, there are enough new letters (and pronunciations) thrown in to really mix things up.  The way I see it there are three “C’s” and a bunch of “D’s” and “S’s”.  Try singing the old “ABC” song to this:

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Clearly, our she-Garmin did not study Croatian in school as she blithely ignored the little “hats” that sat above the C’s, S’s, and Z’s.  One symbol turns a “c” into a “ch”; another into an “sh”.  But like all confident speakers who don’t know any better, the Garmin just crammed all of the letters into a cruel soup of sounds that could not be comprehended to save one’s life.  The first three turns we were supposed to make just getting to the main road in Zagreb we missed because the Garmin pronunciation sounded nothing like the name on the street sign.  After a while, we wondered whether some sadistic programmer at Garmin conspired to record just a single pronunciation for the tens of thousands of Croatian street names.  To us, everything sounded like “yelkamostya oolika.”  Already, the two-hour trip estimate was under stress as it took us 25 minutes to leave town.

Once on the road, my bad-ass self took to shifting gears as often as I could, even when shifting was not entirely necessary.  But hey, when you’ve got the stick in your hand you have to use it, right?  We settled in for what we assumed would now be a smooth ride.  About half an hour in, the Garmin instructed us to proceed on some undecipherable road, which we gathered was straight ahead. Unfortunately, the road was closed for construction and a very major detour was put in place, forcing us to head due east for many miles instead of south as intended.  This part of Croatia is not particularly wide and I was afraid we would end up in Bosnia.  For nearly 50 miles, our Garmin guide, in “her” perfect British accent, instructed us “as soon as possible” to make “a legal U-turn.”  This, presumably, so we could go back to the road that was blocked off.  The missus and I kept thinking that “she” would readjust her bearings and give us a corrected route, but we were mistaken.  She continued to bleat out the same request for us to turn around until, finally, we were able to reconnect to the main road.

When I originally planned this destination, I saw on the map that there were some impressive waterfalls along the way.  Given the detours we had taken, I was no longer positive that we would pass that way.  However, at the last moment, as we were about to drive by, I noticed a sign for the town where the waterfalls were located.  I whipped the car over (downshifting twice, I’ll have you know) and parked by the side of the road.  “Is everything okay,” asked the wife, “why are we stopping?”  “I thought this might be a good place to take a picture,” I told her.  Boy was I right.

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This is where we stopped to see waterfalls

I didn’t bother asking she-Garmin how to pronounce the town – Grad Slunj.  But it was a gorgeous location with some amazing powerful waterfalls created by the confluence of two rivers.  These are the views from just next to the main road.

We have visited Oregon several times and without question that state has some amazing waterfalls, including the impressive Multnomah Falls. Croatia, though, may have the most impressive series of waterfalls we have ever seen.

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Me, she and falling water

The missus would have stayed longer but I dragged her back to the car.  Unbeknownst to her, we would be seeing even more impressive waterfalls the following day.  Eventually, she-Garmin started to get optimistic, telling us that we were 50, 30, 10, and then finally 1 kilometer from our destination.  We pulled into the driveway of a lovely lodging property that backed up to the mountain.

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Vila Lika in Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

We got our key and headed to the room to crash.  We brought food with us because I knew the location was somewhat remote and there would be few local restaurant options.  The room turned out to be very nice – not overly spacious but recently built with some very modern and elegant touches.

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Our room at Vila Lika

The view out of our patio was stunning as our villa building overlooked the entrance to the national park.

 

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View from our room

So where were we, you might ask?  We were about .4 kilometers from the entrance to Plitvice Lakes National Park, the largest national park in Croatia.  It is on the bucket list of most sensible people who are aware of it, and the rightful source of national pride for Croatians.  Think of it as their Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Yellowstone Park. It has been chosen as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its immense natural beauty.  We were there to check it off of our bucket list.

We went to bed early and got up early as we wanted to see the entire park before heading off to our next destination.  We enjoyed an impressive buffet breakfast at Vila Lika (including one of the best omelets we have had in many a year) and headed off to the park.  In all, it took us about 5 hours to get around the park, which included nearly 20,000 steps and 60 floors of walking, a tram ride, and a boat ride.  Plitvice Lakes is an immense place and we saw every inch of it.  The missus was blown away as generally I would not think to include something in our itinerary that involves a great deal of walking.  For her, and for this place, I made an exception and I have no regrets.  It was one of the most stunning places either of us has ever been.

Plitvice Lakes has sixteen lakes in total, and so many waterfalls that we have not seen a reliable count.  Some of the waterfalls are huge, cascading over 275 feet from top to bottom, while others fall just a few feet.  But there are waterfalls every way you turn and everywhere you go.

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On the boat to the Upper Lakes
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Stunning waterfalls
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Gorgeous backdrop
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One of the beautiful lakes
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What can I say?
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Hiking along the lower lakes
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Lovely fall colors
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Did we mention lakes?

During the first half of the day I told the missus, “I don’t think I could ever get tired of seeing waterfalls.”  As we rounded hour 5 and made the steep climb to get to the top of the walking path for the Upper Lakes, I reconsidered.  “I’m over the waterfalls,” I told her, perhaps in jest.  Perhaps not.

Anyway, we were proud of ourselves for making it through the whole park.  We made it back to the car, did a quick change of shoes, and again I set the destination in the Garmin.  Due to high winds crossing the mountains we were diverted from the main highway onto a series of switch back mountain roads that seemed more dangerous than the original one.  Garmin told us it would be two hours to our next destination. We were starting to think that a variation of the “Los Angeles” phenomenon was in play: when we lived in LA, if someone asked how long it took to get from Point A to Point B, we would say “20 minutes.”  Maybe “two hours” is the answer in Croatia?  In total, the trip took about 3 1/2 hours with a series of missed turns – some of them our fault, and some of them “hers” due to the wretched butchering of street names.  Next post I’ll tell you where we ended up ….

John Ingersoll

October 29, 2016

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“A” to Zagreb

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Hotel Jagerhorn in Zagreb, Croatia

This is the fourth installment in the chronicle of the European vacation where I decided to plan the entire trip and not tell my wife where we are going.  She has discovered each destination as we cross a border or enter a new city.  In most cases she has been in the dark until almost the last minute. If you missed the first installment you can find it here:  My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going.  The second installment is here:  Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret? And the third is here:  Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.  

CHAPTER FOUR …

The wine-infused drive through Slovenia and into Zagreb all but assured that the post-Venice leg of our trip would be a positive one.  What really had me worried was three nights in Zagreb, a city that neither my wife nor I had every visited.  Of the many risks of planning a vacation without any input or knowledge of one’s “other half,” probably the biggest is picking the wrong hotel.  After 11 hours on the road from Venice, our driver dropped us off on a side street in Zagreb, about a block from our hotel. She explained that our hotel was in the “pedestrian zone” and therefore she could not get us any closer to the hotel via car.  Thus, we dragged our large suitcase, two backpacks, and an entire case of wine that we picked up in Venice from our new friends, the Abruzzo winemakers.

As we approached the hotel from the other side of the street, I couldn’t help but think it looked very unimpressive. Rather than having a grand entrance like many hotels, the Jägerhorn had a small archway stuck between two retail stores.  Oh boy, I thought, this doesn’t look anything like the pictures on the website.  Because it is “off-season” in Croatia, many of the places I planned for us during our trip are much lower than summer rates – in some cases a third of the cost.  My first thought about the hotel was, maybe I played it too cute – did I get us too much of a bargain?  Three days in a bargain hotel would be a great way to mess up the entire “surprise” nature of this entire trip.

I shouldn’t have worried.  Once we passed the archway and entered the courtyard, I could see that the hotel was as nice as it looked online.  Because we had not eaten for several hours, we had some coffee and tea and dessert in the hotel cafe before heading up to the room.  “Oh my god!” said my wife as she pushed the door open. As any husband knows, “Oh my god!” can have several positive connotations and many negative ones as well.  When uttered, it is often difficult to tell what the motivation behind the words are in that moment. I held my breath as the missus looked around the room.  “Is this  a suite?” she asked.  “Why yes,  of course it is,” I answered, as if I could have reserved nothing less.

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Front room of Hotel Jagerhorn

She breezed into the bedroom and  I heard another “Oh my god!”  “Yes?” I asked nervously.  “I love it!” she exclaimed.  “What a beautiful room!”  An examination of the bathroom ensued, which also turned out to be more than acceptable and generated a final “oh my God!”

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Large bedroom at Hotel Jagerhorn
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Spacious and modern bathroom at Hotel Jagerhorn

Everything about the hotel turned out to be ideal. The buffet breakfast each morning was cozy and well-stocked.  The cafe/bar was a perfect spot to stop in every night before heading up to our room for the night. And the location could not have been better: we were right in the middle of the coolest part of town, about a quarter of a mile from the main square and no more than 10-15 minutes walking distance from all of the places we wanted to go.  Our hotel was located in the “lower town” of Zagreb, but literally through the center of our hotel courtyard were stairs going to “Upper Town.”

One of the things I read while planning this trip is that Zagreb is a town for people who love coffee.  According to many blogs and travel sites, there is a coffee shop almost every 50 meters in Zagreb.  If this is an exaggeration, it is only a small one.  We did in fact find coffee shops all over town.  Most importantly, these coffee shops were authentic, local places serving really nice brews.  I am happy to report that there is not a single Starbucks in Zagreb; in fact, there are zero Starbucks locations in the entire country of Croatia.  There will also be no Starbucks locations in any of the countries remaining on our trip.  Just real coffee made by genuine roasters of coffee beans and brewers of coffee.  Okay, I will get off of my soap box now.

Needless to say, we consumed a lot of coffee in Zagreb, although it took us a while to learn how to order what we wanted.  I started out ordering “coffee,” but that confused the people at the coffee shop, and they would reply “American?”  Well, no, I don’t want “American” coffee – do I have to get back on my soapbox about Starbucks?  What I realized is that “American” means coffee with milk, although I tend to think as “American” as black coffee.  Eventually I figured it out and we made the most of the both “American” coffee, black coffee, and various Croatian takes on espresso, cappuccino, latte, and other coffee drinks.

What else did we do besides drink coffee?  We walked around Zagreb quite a bit to soak up the ambiance of the city.  Neither of us likes to go to a city and take the mandatory 25 pictures of monuments so that we can say we “saw” the city.  We prefer to follow the rhythms and routine of the locals and go the places they go and do the things that they do. If we see some monuments along the way, that’s a bonus.

The first morning we left the hotel to get to know Zagreb better.  A wonderful part of traveling so late in the year (“off-season” for sure in Croatia) is that there were almost no tourists in town. We were walking among Croatians, among the people who live and work every day in Zagreb.  It was an amazingly lively city, very reminiscent of a place like Milan:  everyone was dressed very stylishly and there were fancy stores and quaint squares on almost every block.  Certainly, it was not what I was expecting, having visited Eastern Europe and Slavic countries in the past.  Zagreb was much more cosmopolitan than I imagined and more reminiscent of a Western European capital.

The missus, who is originally from Russia, was delighted that she could understand quite a bit of the Croatian language being spoken.  Apparently there are many words that are identical or very similar between Croatian and Russian.  She did most of the talking when we were not speaking English.  Right across the street from our hotel she ordered her favorite thing: chestnuts.

 

We then decided to walk to the main Zagreb Farmers Market.  It is important to distinguish between the U.S. version of a farmers market and the Croatian version.  In the United States, the farmers market is usually a weekly event where people pay too much money for small amounts of fruits, nuts, vegetables or other food items.  No one (at least no one in their right mind) would do their weekly shopping at an American farmers market.  In Zagreb, by contrast, the Dolac Farmers Market is the market  – the place where locals of all income levels do their fruit, vegetable, fish, meat, eggs and other food shopping.  The giant market has both an outdoor and an indoor section and covers several acres.

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Dolac Farmers Market in Zagreb
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Irene’s food drug: mushrooms!

It would have been fun to buy some mushrooms, meat, pork or chicken and cook it up but this was not possible as we were staying in a hotel.  We did, though, pick up some very tasty local fruits and hazelnuts for our walk around town.  From the market we made our way to Zagreb’s Upper Town, perched on the hills overlooking the city.  We were in search of another coffee shop, of course – Palainovka, which we had read about in a blog about Croatia.  To get from Lower Town to Upper Town there are two ways: walk, or ride a funicular.  We were feeling energetic so we walked up the stairs next to the funicular, which we were later told is the shortest one in the entire world.

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Stairs to Upper Town
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Cute restaurant at the top of the funicular with views of Zagreb

We did pass some cool monuments along the way to the coffee shop and we dutifully took pictures of them.

But we mostly enjoyed blending into the city as much as two Americans can and living the live of Zagreb citizens.  We went to a restaurant one evening that was recommended by locals – Lari I Penati.  We ate some great Croatian dishes and had our first taste of Croatian wine.

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Soup at Lari I Penati
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Home-made Pate
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Pasta with local mushrooms
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Chicken wings Croatian-style
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Our first Croatian wine

After nearly three years in Napa Valley we have gotten used to the big, bold flavor of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon.  The Croatian red wines have a much different aroma and flavor profile than anything we are used to drinking at home.  The flavors are subtle and the wines are silky and fruity, although not overly so.  We are planning on drinking more local wines during our trip including visiting some actual wineries when we get farther along on our trip.

Because we are not experts on Croatian wines (yet), we thought it would be fun to get a deeper understanding of them.  While planning the surprise trip, I “met” Dario Drmac (through our blogging and Twitter), a real-live Croatian who lives in Zagreb.  Not only does he live in Zagreb, but he runs an online wine export company focused exclusively on Croatian wines, and he owns a bar that serves only Croatian wine.  As it turns out, this bar, Wine Bar Basement, was about 200 meters from our hotel.  Before leaving the United States, I arranged to meet Dario at Basement for some charcuterie, cheese and, of course, Croatian wine.  Dario and his partner spent nearly three hours with us taking us on a tasting tour of Croatian white and red wines, as well as our first ever “black” sparkling wine.  Most sparkling wines are either white or pink; we had a Croatian sparkling wine that was very dark.   Anyone visiting Zagreb must make time in their schedule to visit Wine Bar Basement and check out their assortment of well over 100 Croatian wines.  One thing we liked the most about Basement’s wine selection is that Dario focuses on small-production family wineries that are generally not available in stores or restaurants. He is committed to supporting local Croatian producers.  Ask for Dario and let him know that you are friends of ours.

Wednesday morning came and it was time to leave Zagreb.  Our bags were even heavier than when we arrived a few days earlier as we purchased several bottles of Croatian wines from Basement the night before.  But no worry, we were renting a car from Zagreb and heading ….well, you’ll have to wait until the next installment.

John Ingersoll

October 28, 2016

Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border

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Italy-Slovenia Border

We left Venice at 10:00 a.m. after a short stay in that magical city. Because it is impossible to rent a car in Italy and drop it off in our final country, I found a great service (Ondaytrip.com) to drive us to what i told my wife was “city 2 and City 3.”  As we set out in the car, she  thought we were going somewhere else in Italy.  As we continued on the freeway, the signs pointed the way to the Italian cities of Udine and Trieste.  Along the road there were miles and miles of grape vines, leading her to conclude we were visiting some northern Italian wineries.  Cagey man that I am, I did not correct any of these impressions and merely grunted every time she made a guess.

She wasn’t wrong in terms of the direction we were traveling – north and east of Venice – and the famous wine regions that can be found in that direction.  But before we arrived in Italian wine country, we veered due east and took some small roads through the beautiful countryside at the foot of the Dolomite mountains.  One minute we were in Italy, the next minute we were in Slovenia.  Twenty-five years ago, this crossing would have been much more momentous and could not have happened in such a sneaky manner.  Back then, the trip would have been from Italy to Yugoslavia, which was one of the Soviet-bloc countries and had much stricter border control.  Today, Slovenia is a member of the E.U. and the borders are open, unmanned and require no surrendering of passports or other documentation.

After we crossed the border, we meandered through the Slovenian countryside for a few miles before turning off on a small road and making our way a narrow mountain road.  Halfway to the top we pulled into a parking lot for an establishment called Kabaj Morel.  “What’s this?” asked the missus.  “It’s where we’re having lunch,” I told her.

Two weeks before we left on our trip,  Jean-Michel Morel, the winemaker at Kabaj Morel, was in San Francisco promoting his Slovenian wines to the California market.  A friend met him and got one of his cards for me.  I decided that it would be fun to visit since it was only about two hours from Venice and on the way to our next destination.  “Where are we?” she asked.  “Goriška Brda,” I offered, as if this was helpful information.  “That doesn’t sound Italian,” she replied.  “What a relief, since we are in Slovenia.”

Any possibility that she might be upset or shocked by being whisked to an obscure winery in Slovenia was erased by the views visible from the parking lot as soon as we got out of the car.

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Kabaj estate vineyards directly behind the winery

It was as if Napa Valley and Tuscany got together and produced the perfect offspring.  Rolling hills covered in grape vines with beautiful houses and a church at the top of almost every hill.   We went inside and were  greeted by Jean-Michel Morel’s wife Katja Kabaj, whose family has been tending vines in the local area for many generations. Together, they have been bottling their own wine since 1993.  Katja told us that lunch would ready in about a half hour and that we should take some wine with us to enjoy on the patio outside overlooking the vineyards.  We found the perfect spot with the perfect view and enjoyed a glass of Zeleni Sauvignon, which translates to “Green Sauvignon” but we would call it Sauvignon Blanc in the United States.

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Irene enjoying some Kabaj Zeleni Sauvignon

When we were called in for lunch, Katja told us we could choose between a five-course lunch, with each course pairing a different Slovenian offering from their Kabaj label, or we could order any of the items from the course menu and have it a la carte.  We chose the five-course menu, naturally, which turned out to be the absolute right decision.  Each course was an authentic Slovenian dish made from locally-sourced, seasonal ingredients, but accentuated with a modern touch.

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Leek omelette with thin slices of Slovenian bacon
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Sauerkraut soup
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Barley and bacon in a pumpkin seed oil
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Steak Slovenian style
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Traditional Slovenian dessert

For each course, Katja brought a different wine and explained how it was produced, how long it was aged, in what type of barrel, etc.  We were blown away by the uniqueness and quality of these wines.  In terms of color, aroma and flavor, they were not at all similar to anything we are used to consuming in Napa Valley or other U.S. wine regions.  Many of the white wines were, well, not so white – they had more orange and in some cases brown hues, a result of the process of “maceration” where the juice is left in contact with the skins for extended periods of time.  Almost all of the Kabaj wines have long maceration periods to extract impressive colors and deep flavor.

The wines shown above are what we would traditionally think of as white wine.  We also tasted one of their red wines, a blend, and it had a very nice balance of fruit, earthiness and minerality.

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Kabaj red blend

We stayed at Kabaj for 4 1/2 hours and left well fed and most definitely over the 0.08 alcholol limit, which made us very happy that our driver Barbara was at the wheel.  We felt a little bit bad for her that she could not drink with us, but felt better about the decision as we headed east out of the wine region and across some windy roads to our intermediate destination, Ljublana, the capital of Slovenia.  It was dark when we arrived so we asked Barbara, who lives in the town, to take us somewhere where we could see the city lights and enjoy a bit of the evening ambiance.  We started at the castle, which sits high above Ljublana with near-360-degree views of the capital city.

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View of Ljublana from the castle

We then went into town and walked along the river and down some of the streets where there were many bars and restaurants and people sitting on outside terraces.

We did not have enough time to enjoy Ljublana and will definitely go back on our next trip to this region.  It looked like the kind of town where a two night stay would be very enjoyable.  But we were on a mission – heading east again – and left the capital city after about an hour and a half.  “Where are we going now?” asked the wife.  “You’ll see soon,” I told her.  It would have been nice to sneak her across another border, but this time we were traveling to a country with a traditional border control/passport inspection.  After surrendering our passports for a few minutes, we were in Croatia and on the short drive to Zagreb.  Despite the long day, the wife was still smiling and told me as we drove to the hotel:  “You’re 2 for 2.”  Let’s see how long I can keep that streak going.

John Ingersoll

October 25, 2016

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Sign hanging over the door at Kabaj winery in Slovenia

 

Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret?

If you followed my first post about the two-week European trip that my wife and I have embarked on, you’ll know that I planned the trip all by myself and just gave her enough information to make reasonable decisions on what clothes to pack.  We have a dynamic itinerary and the goal was to have her discover each new destination literally as we crossed a new border or entered a new city.  Thirty minutes into the trip, even before leaving San Francisco, there was a breach, one that I tried to anticipate but failed to think through all of the possible failure points.

The first leg of our trip was San Francisco to Istanbul – that part she knew.  I figured she needed to mentally and physically prepared for a 13 1/2 hour flight.  The part that she didn’t know was that we would have a few hour layover in Istanbul and then fly to Venice.  After printing out our boarding passes at home, I gave her the SFO-Istanbul card and kept the Istanbul-Venice pass in my backpack.  As we checked in our bags at the airport, the woman at the desk told us, just as we were wrapping up, “The bags are checked through all the way to Venice.”   AAAAAARRRRRRRRGGGGGGGG!

Whipping my head around, I thought maybe the missus wasn’t paying attention, but from the grin on her face I knew she did.  “Venice?!  We’re going to Venice?!”  If she wasn’t carrying a backpack with two weeks worth of clothes at the time, I think she would have jumped up and down.  “I never guessed Venice; it never crossed my mind.”  So destination #1 got out of the bag a bit sooner than I was hoping, but there is a silver lining:  knowing that she was going to Venice seemed to make the flight to Istanbul more tolerable.  When they served dinner she asked “How much longer do we have to go,” to which I replied by pointing to the flight tracker on our personal video screen.

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Time remaining two hours into the flight

She didn’t complain too much about the flight length and in truth the 13 hours passed faster than either of us would have expected.  After getting off the plane in Istanbul, we found a comfortable place to sit and wait for the connecting flight to Venice.  Following the old rule “when in Rome,” or in this case, “when in Istanbul,” we ordered some Turkish coffee and a traditional Gozleme pastry.

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Fast food Istanbul-style

Finally it was time to board our flight to Venice.  We slept almost the entire way and woke up just as the flight was approaching Venice.  After landing and clearing customs, it was time to make our way to the city!  Because we were scheduled to land after midnight, and public transportation becomes sporadic, I pre-booked a taxi to take us from the airport to our hotel.

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A unique way to travel

Of course, there are no cars in the city center of Venice and the only access is via the canals.  Our “taxi” was a motorboat that picked us up adjacent to the airport and dropped us off just a few yards away from our hotel.  A bit after midnight, nearly 24 hours after leaving San Francisco, we were at our Venice hotel.

Planning a vacation without input from a spouse is fraught with danger.  Planning a vacation without input from my particular spouse?  The danger is compounded ten-fold.  She cares much more than I do about the style of the places she visits.  Picking a hotel that she would like was not easy because the most expensive or luxurious is not always the best choice.  The missus prefers hotels with their own personality and charm and a sense of the locale.  After wading through TripAdvisor and Expedia and other travel blogs, I thought that the Hotel Giorgione was the perfect choice.  Nestled in a quiet street a bit away from the bustle of Venice, the hotel seemed to have the right blend of history and local Venetian charm.

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Even before walking in to the hotel, the missus pronounced her verdict:  “I love this place!”  After checking in we took the elevator to our room and again she seemed very happy with our home for two quick nights.  I have to say, it was a very nice room with a living area downstairs and the bedroom in a loft above.

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Spacious room at Giorgione Hotel in Venice

We fell asleep almost immediately, around 1:15 a.m., but due to the jet lag we were both wide awake at 5:30 in the morning.  Unable to sleep any longer, we had breakfast downstairs and were walking around Venice very early in the morning (early for me, anyway, as I prefer to sleep in and hit the town closer to lunch time). We wandered around aimlessly, which in Venice is often the best way. We crossed many canals and walked down the uniquely Venetian narrow streets and alleys.

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One of Venice’s many canals

From there, we set a course for Venice’s most famous spot, Piazza San Marco. As soon as we entered the piazza I remarked how much it reminded me of Plaza Mayor in Madrid.

 

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Piazza San Marco in Venice

My other observation was that it seemed very crowded, although everyone we talked to told us that it was “off-season” and much less congested than it would be in the summer.  Given how many people there were in late October, I have vowed never to visit Venice in the summer.  I know that I could not tolerate the crowds and what has been described as oppressive heat and humidity.  My better half, though, did not mind the crowds as much and I’m pretty sure she would need no convincing to come back again at any time, including the heart of summer.

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An “off-season” crowd in Venice

By 10 a.m., when I prefer to just be climbing out of bed and logging my first steps, we had already exceeded 10,000 steps according to our FitBit.  We decided to stop and enjoy some coffee behind Piazza San Marco overlooking the Grand Canal.  Applying the “when in Rome” principle again (or “when in Venice”), we ordered traditional Italian coffees and a Venetian pastry to enjoy as we people-watched.

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Authentic Italian Cappuccino

After basking in the sun for a while, I suggested that it might be fun to take a gondola ride.  I know that such activities are only for tourists, but I did not care and kept bringing the idea up every few minutes.  Eventually, she wore down enough for us to go and ask the price; after hearing the price, we politely declined.  The gondolier, however, pursued us and twice reduced the price; we appreciated his charming persistence and agreed to take the “medium” ride – about 40 minutes.

 

Much to her surprise, the missus really enjoyed the gondola ride – not just seeing the canals and the buildings from water level, but hearing some interesting facts and history from the gondolier about Venice.  We probably will never have to ride a gondola again, but I’m glad we did it this one time.

Because we only had one full day in Venice, we wanted to make the most of our time so we continued walking around town after the gondola ride, checking out the many stores and bars.  We worked up an appetite and decided to have a “when in Venice” lunch – a traditional Italian pizza and some Italian wine.  We chose a restaurant with outdoor seating so that we could enjoy our lunch and still feel a part of the Venetian energy.

We shared some calamari, a small pizza, and a half bottle of Brunello wine.  After lunch we decided to head back to the hotel and take a nap so we would be rested for a dinner where we would be meeting some new friends.  Both of our phone batteries had died and we had no GPS to help us navigate the labyrinth that is Venice – a  series of canals and dead-end streets.  Occasionally we would stop for directions and a kind local resident would point in a vague direction and assure us that we were only “cinque minuti” (5 minutes) away.  After about 45 minutes of being only cinque minuti away, we finally made it to our hotel.  We passed out and slept for about 3 1/2 hours and then got dressed in our fancy clothes to eat dinner at Terraza Danieli, the rooftop restaurant at Venice’s famous Hotel Danieli (where the Johnny Depp movie “The Tourist” was filmed).

Through our blogging and Twitter activity, we had met an Italian husband-wife team that make wine in the Abruzzo region.  They drove the 6-7 hours from their home to Venice to meet us for dinner.  They turned out to be a fantastic couple and we had a wonderful time getting to know them and hear about their adventure making wine.  They even brought a couple of their wines that we enjoyed with dinner, including a lovely Prosecco.    We are looking forward to the time when their wines will be available in the United States.

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Irene with our new friends
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Al of us together in the lobby of the Giorgione

We went to bed quite late and then it was time to leave Venice.  Stay tuned for the next chapter in this surprise vacation …

 

John Ingersoll

October 24, 2016

My Wife Doesn’t Know Where We Are Going

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Waiting patiently for our 13 1/2 hour flight

Today we are leaving on a two-week trip to Europe. Normally, my wife and I plan our trips together and work through the intricate details of itinerary:  where to visit, how much time to spend in each place, what sites we should go to, where to find the best food and wine.  This trip, I decided to do things differently.  I told my wife how long we would be gone and the general weather conditions in the locations we would be going.  She had a couple of follow-up questions to help with clothes and shoe packing.  Fancy or casual? Any outdoor activities such as hiking?  Any cultural restrictions or considerations on clothing?

She has tried to get me to divulge the secret a couple of times – I think more to test my resolve in keeping the secret than because she wants to know ahead of time.  Miraculously, I have managed to purchase airfare, book hotels and rental cars, and line up a dozen activities without her figuring out where we are going.  This trip will either be the best ever …or it is going to suck.  But it surely will not be boring.

The only thing my wife knows is that we are flying from San Francisco to Istanbul this evening.  What she does not know is that after a short layover we will be flying to Venice, Italy to spend a couple of days there.  You may wonder why we are flying SF-Istanbul-Venice?  The easiest answer is that the fare on Turkish Air was almost half of what other airlines were charging into any European destination.  Another good reason is that Turkish Air was the most flexible option for flying into one European city and flying out of a different city in a different country.

I wish I could say where we are going after Venice, but it would spoil the surprise.  We will be in the air when this blog posts, so mentioning Venice is safe because she won’t see it until …she is in Venice.  But I will have a post for every country we visit – at least five, but I’m hoping to squeeze in a sixth country toward the end of our trip.

Wish us luck, and stay tuned for updates!
John Ingersoll

A B&B That Serves Wine for Breakfast

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Bluebird Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast in Willamette Valley

We traveled to Oregon in late September to drop off a kid at the University of Oregon in Eugene.  Wrapped around that momentous event, we planned a series of adult activities for ourselves:  wine tasting, visiting some nice restaurants, attending an Oregon football game, and staying at some wine country bed and breakfasts.  This post is the fifth and final in the September 2016 Oregon series.

When we started to look for a hotel room in Eugene for a couple of days in late September, we realized that we had waited too long.  All rooms, ranging from “nice” to “halfway decent” to “ugh, at least it’s only for two nights” were booked.   The rooms that fell into the even lower categories of accommodations were demonstrating the interaction of the competing economic forces of supply and demand by charging Ritz-Carlton prices for accommodations so substandard that nearly all Yelp reviewers advised sleeping in the car as a preferred alternative.  We decided not to stay in Eugene at all and started looking for something a bit outside of town.  By a stroke of good fortune, our internet search led us to a cozy bed & breakfast:  the Bluebird Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast.  Located in Monroe, Oregon, about 45 minutes north of Eugene and 30 minutes south of Corvallis, Bluebird Hill Farm is a perfect spot for visitors to either University of Oregon or Oregon State.

We stayed at the B&B two nights, the first of which was after the Oregon football game; because we had dinner after the game, we didn’t arrive to Bluebird Hill Farm until well after dark.  Our innkeeper, Sue Shay, must have heard us coming up the driveway and was outside to greet us when we got out of the car.

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Sue Shay, Innkeeper, Bluebird Hill Farm Bed & Breakfast

She led us upstairs and showed us to our room, one of only two in the B&B.  We noticed right away that there was a large window overlooking vineyards outside, a pleasant reminder that we were in the heart of Willamette Valley.  We wondered whose vineyards they were, a mystery that was cleared up the following morning at breakfast.

We slept in late and slowly made our way downstairs for breakfast.  Sue had arranged a nice spread for us in their dining room and we loaded up with coffee and breakfast goodies for the day ahead.  During breakfast, Sue sat with us and gave us the history of not only the B&B, but also of the vineyards and winery operation.  As it turns out, the vines we could see outside of our window belong to Sue and her husband Neil.  Like many other Oregon winemakers that we met, the Shay’s story of becoming winemakers in the Willamette Valley has a charming, modest and almost accidental feel to it.  In 2010 the Shay’s moved to Oregon after Neil took a position at Oregon State as Professor of Food Science and Technology.  Neil and Sue wanted to live out in the country and they spent about a year looking for the perfect spot.  Their patience paid off when they found a six-acre property with a lovely home surrounded by overgrown Christmas trees.

As we noted in one of our earlier Willamette Valley post (A Lot of Sass In Willamette Valley), we saw hundreds of acres of Christmas trees being farmed in several spots in the Valley.  As we enjoyed breakfast, Sue told us that when they moved in to their new home, the six acres were dominated by these trees.  They blocked views from the house to the Valley below and also took up land that could be put to better use.  During the week Neil worked his professorial day job; on the weekends, he and Sue took on the herculean chore of cutting down about 2,000 trees.  If we had to cut down 2,000 trees – or 2000, or 20, or probably even 2 ,we would hire someone.  Not the Shay’s.  With a trusty chainsaw in hand, they cut and cleared the trees themselves, giving themselves not only a gorgeous view but a lot of open land suitable for planting.

And what do you suppose they planted?  Grape vines, of course!  True to their Willamette Valley location, they planted Pinot Noir; the first vines were planted in 2013.  The Shay’s also planted Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, two white varietals that are also very common in the Valley.   They now have about three acres planted on the property.

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Vineyards on Bluebird Hill Farm estate

Today, the Shay’s are selling the fruit of their labor (or is it the labor of their fruit?) through their own winery ,which they have named Bluebird Hill Cellars.  Their wines are made from grapes grown on the estate as well as fruit sourced from other high-quality producers in the Willamette Valley.  Like others we have met, the Shay’s did not come to Oregon with the expectation that they would grow grapes and make wine.  Instead, they followed Neil’s job opportunity and picked a serene and beautiful property on which to live.  When they describe the decision to plant some grapes, it sounded very casual, not at all compelled by a commercial purpose, but for perhaps the same reason that we plant tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables in our garden every year.  At some point, again seemingly without commercial motivation, the Shay’s decided to make wine from their fruit.  We do not know what their long-term aspirations are in terms of size and volume, but we do know that they are committed to being very involved in their grape growing and winery operations and selling small-lots that meet their high standards.

For the two days that we stayed at Bluebird Hill Farm B&B, we got an up-close view of what a small lot, husband-and-wife wine operation looks like.  Each morning, while we were enjoying breakfast, Neil was working with the grapes that had been harvested in the days leading up to our visit: doing “punch downs” when necessary and measuring “Brix” (sugar levels) in the fermenting wine.  In the middle of one of our breakfasts, Neil came into the kitchen with a couple of glasses of what looked like grape juice – except that they were in wine glasses.  After having Sue taste the samples, he put some glasses in front of us and let us taste them.  One of the samples was from approximately a week prior, so it was pretty far along in its initial fermentation and had a higher alcohol content.  The second sample was from a few days ago and it still had a fair amount of sugar and the alcohol was not as pronounced. Finally, the third sample was from grapes crushed the previous day and tasted as yummy as any grape juice we’ve had.  Perhaps we should have felt some level of shame for wine tasting with our breakfast, but for some reason it felt natural and normal.

After breakfast we left for a day of wine tasting and exploring, including a stop for dinner along the way.  Sue promised that if we made it back early enough she would let us taste their wines – not the fermenting juice, the stuff that actually made it to a bottle.  When we got back, Neil and Sue were having dinner with Bobby Moy, their smart, young winemaker who, like us, lives in Napa Valley.  We told Sue that we didn’t want to get in the way of their dinner and would skip the tasting.  She was having none of it and invited us to join them on their outside deck.  The Shay’s opened all of their wines and we had our tasting overlooking the vineyards on a beautiful Willamette evening.  It was a special feeling, more like sitting with friends than visiting a winery.   Adding to this special feeling was having Bobby there giving us inside information on each wine, vintage, and sharing their wine making approach.  It was exciting for us to see two people approaching the wine business with a mixture of adventure, seriousness, curiosity and humility.

We enjoyed the Bluebird Hill Cellars Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, as well as their Rosé of Pinot Noir.  We purchased bottles of all of these wines to take home with us.  Many of their wines are sold out until the next vintage is bottled, but their Chardonnay and Pinot Noir  and Rosé are available for sale on their site: http://www.bluebirdhillcellars.wine/shop.  Unlike small-lot producers in Napa, which often charge exorbitant prices for their wines, Bluebird Cellars’ wines are very reasonably priced:  $20 for the Rosé, $22 for the Pinot Gris, $28.00 for the Chardonnay, and $32.00 for the Pinot Noir.  In our opinion, the Bluebird Hill Cellars wines can hold their own against much more expensive Willamette Valley offerings.

As we pulled out of the B&B driveway on our long drive home on Monday morning, we felt like we had made new friends that we hope to see again soon.  Certainly, the next time we have to be in Eugene, we will skip the chain hotels, even if reservations are available, and stay with Neil and Sue at Bluebird Hill Farm B&B.  The tranquility of the setting and the warmth and hospitality are well worth the extra few miles of driving.

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 19, 2016

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A view of the b&b from the bottom of the property
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Not all of the Christmas trees were removed!

Pinot Noir? Pinot Nowhere.

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Troon Winery in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley

As we rolled up to our final winery of our Oregon visit, we might be forgiven for expecting to enjoy one more glass of Pinot Noir before returning to California.  Certainly, the Willamette Valley, where we spent the beginning of our Oregon wine sojourn, is best known for Pinot Noir:  over 70% of vines are planted to Pinot Noir.  Our final winery, however, is a trend setter of sorts and is carving out an approach and style all its own.  Troon Vineyards is located in the Rogue Valley AVA about a 15 minute drive from the I-5 freeway that connects Canada to Mexico.

When we left the Willamette Valley that same morning, the temperature was in the 60’s and it was raining.  By the time we arrived at Troon, the sky was a perfect blue and the dashboard temperature monitor showed an outside temperature approaching 100°.  Nestled between the Cascade and Siskiyou mountain ranges, the Rogue Valley benefits from what is referred to as a “rain shadow effect”:  the mountains create a barrier against moisture that results in a very dry climate.   Situated near Medford and Grant’s Pass, Troon has a climate that more closely resembles California’s Central Valley that it does Willamette Valley or Coastal Oregon.

We arrived at Troon around 1:30 in the afternoon and were met by Craig Camp, one of our virtual friends from Twitter whom we have been following for the past several months.  Craig recently moved to Troon from Napa Valley where he was General Manager at Cornerstone Cellars. Our first pour of wine established the uniqueness of the varietals planted at Troon:  it was the only Vermentino that we consumed in Oregon.  In fact, it was our first Vermentino we have ever consumed anywhere. It turned out to be the perfect companion for walking around the large estate on a scorching day in early Fall.  Craig showed us the breadth of the vineyard plantings and the impressive number of varietals currently being farmed – upwards of twenty if we recall correctly.  Not a single planted vine was Pinot Noir.  Paraphrasing Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz”:  “Toto, we are not in Willamette Valley anymore.”

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Vermentino vines at Troon Vineyards
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Old-vine Zinfandel at Troon Vineyards

Many of Troon’s vines were planted nearly 45 years ago, qualifying them as true “old growth” vines. The winery’s founder, Dick Troon, has a pioneering spirit and a keen sense of curiosity.  He wanted to figure out what would thrive in the hotter southern part of Oregon and experimented with a number of different varietals, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon among them.  In addition, Troon planted Malbec, Tannat, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Syrah, Carignane, Vermentino, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc.  We may even be forgetting some varietals!

If you read any of Craig Camp’s articles, blog posts or Tweets, you’ll understand the philosophy that he and the entire team at Troon are attempting to fulfill:   follow sustainable farming practices, create a healthy environment for the vines to thrive, and do as little as possible to the grapes before they go into the bottle.  Consistent with this approach, Troon hand-picks its grapes, rather than harvest them by machine as some other wineries do.  More impressively, they crush their grapes the old-fashioned way, by stepping on the grapes and allowing the juice to come out without the aggressive pressure from machine crush.  During fermentation, Troon allows the wine to ferment in the grape’s native yeast rather than adding commercial yeasts into the mix; fermentation is done in mostly neutral oak to minimize the addition of aromas and flavors that result from the use of new oak.  Craig also mentioned that rather than blend some of their wines (where two different varietals are fermented separately and then blended together), Troon is doing co-fermentation: the grapes are harvested and then fermented together. Blending is the more common technique as grape varietals often require different practices during fermentation, which makes co-fermentation a bit trickier.  But co-fermentation also yields a different result than blending, since the individual varietals have been together since before crush.  The difference has been described as similar to making a stew:  if you cook all of the ingredients together from the beginning, the flavors come together to form something different than if the potatoes and meat were cooked separately and mixed together at the end.

During our visit to Troon, we tasted every single wine currently in release – all of the reds and the whites.  We really enjoyed the Vermentino on the white side, as well as the Rosé; of the reds, our favorites were the Zinfandel (both the blue label and the red label) and the Sangiovese.  We purchased several bottles and Craig sent us home with some complimentary bottles as well (which we appreciate but have not influenced this review).  Living in Napa Valley, we have grudgingly accepted the rising cost of wine in our area.  It is not uncommon for Cabernet Sauvignon to exceed $100 or even $150.  Chardonnay routinely costs $50-75.  Zinfandel and Merlot from Napa and Pinot Noir from Sonoma County regularly cost $60 or more.  Thus, when we saw the Troon prices we were very pleasantly surprised:  all of the white wines were under $30, with most closer to $20.  Their most expensive red wine is $50, but almost all of the rest of the reds are $35 or less.  The Troon “red label” Zinfandel, which we think is a very drinkable wine, sells for $20.  These price points are extremely competitive and we encourage fans of sustainable, quality wines to give Troon a try.

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 17, 2016

Rioja, Oregon

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No, this is not Rioja. Yes, this is Southern Oregon.

The mother (and mother-in-law) of this blog-writing duo was born and raised in Spain and did not come to the United States until she was thirty years old.  She brought with her a fierce pride of her homeland; nowhere was this fierceness more evident than in her preferred beverage: red wine from Rioja.  She refused to drink white wine at all (“Why would I drink a white wine when I could be drinking Rioja?”).  In her later years, she also refused to drink any wine that was not from Rioja.  For many years, finding Rioja in the U.S. was no easy task as the volume of imported Spanish wine was relatively low.  “You know, there are some good California wines,” we would tell her.  She would screw up her face with outrage and say, “Oh please!”  We cannot even imagine what she would have said if we suggested she try Oregon wine; or, worse yet, an Oregon Tempranillo, which is the dominant grape varietal in red Rioja wines.

Over the past 10-15 years, the importation of Spanish wine has increased significantly, both from Rioja as well as other wine regions such as Ribera del Duero, Penedés and Rías Baixas.  Today, store shelves have many Spanish options, led by a number of labels from Rioja.  Similarly, wines from Spain appear on restaurant menus across the country.  Americans have become more familiar with and are embracing the unique aroma and flavor profile of Tempranillo.

Around the same time Mama was bemoaning the virtual absence of Rioja wines at her local liquor store and supermarket, Earl and Hilda Jones had a similar question:  why aren’t Rioja and Tempranillo part of the American premium wine scene?  Living on the East Coast at the time, the Joneses wondered why Tempranillo and other Spanish varietals were not being planted domestically.  Earl and Hilda dedicated several years to understanding the ideal growing conditions for Tempranillo and other Spanish grapes.  Ultimately, they identified the Umpqua Valley in Oregon as a suitable location; after more exploration they found the site where they would plant their vines and build their winery.  The climate in the Umpqua Valley is very similar to Spain, which may come as a surprise to those that have visited Oregon.  However, the Umpqua Valley is in the southern part of Oregon, about 3 1/2 hours driving distance from Portland, and has a decidedly different climate than the northern part of the state.

The Joneses planted their first vines in the Umpqua Valley in 1995 and made their first wine in 1996.  They named their winery Abacela, a derivation of an old Spanish and Portuguese word meaning “to plant a grapevine.”  Since then, Abacela has grown in reputation for its Spanish varietals, earning international acclaim both for its Tempranillo and its Albariño.

At the end of September we were driving from Willamette Valley back to our home in California, roughly a 7 1/2 hour drive.  We asked our B&B hosts if they had any recommendations for winery stops on the way home, and they enthusiastically recommended that we stop for a bit of wine and food at Abacela.  When we input the winery address into our GPS, it indicated that we would be driving by at exactly lunch time, which felt like fate!

We arrived at Abacela hungry and thirsty (for wine). They offered a number of food pairing and wine tasting options.  Because we wanted to have a “Rioja-type” experience, we opted not to try any of their international varietals (Merlot, Malbec, Syrah) and instead stick with the traditional red varietals from Spain. In our flight we had Graciano, Garnacha, and a couple different Tempranillos.  We paired the wine with a traditional platter of Spanish meats and cheeses.

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Queso and Jamon platter at Abacela

At the risk of Mama putting a spell on us from above, we have to say the wine was very tasty.  In Rioja, red wines are generally aged in American oak barrels, which tends to impart a sweeter flavor (vanilla) and a creamier texture.  At Abacela, the winemaker uses both French and American oak, including some new oak, which historically was not done in Rioja (older wineries often used the same barrels for decades).  We mention this not as a criticism, simply an observation for those that care about things like this.  The end result at Abacela, for all the wines we tasted, was a nice, balanced wine – nice fruit aromas and flavor with minerality and earthiness.  We took home several bottles of Abacela and look forward to doing a side-by-side tasting of their Tempranillo and some Spanish Rioja that we have at home.  In a future post we’ll share those results.

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 14, 2016

 

A Fun Little Lie in Eugene, Oregon

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Raining cats and dogs (and ducks) at Autzen Stadium

Don Essig has been the public address announcer at Autzen Stadium, the football home of the University of Oregon Ducks, for the past 46 years.  In 1990, umbrellas were banned at Oregon football games after fans complained about blocked views.  Fortunately for the fans who attended that first umbrella-less game, it did not rain that day.  In his pre-game weather report, Essig tossed out a somewhat tongue-in-cheek line:  “It never rains in Autzen Stadium.”  Somewhat miraculously, it did not rain again at Autzen for 34 games, which made Essig’s line seem quite prophetic.

Of course, eventually it did rain, and has rained many times at Autzen Stadium, as we can attest from last year’s Cal-Oregon game where we had to drag out the coats we never wear in California. And the hats. The gloves. The scarf. The beanie.  The rain boots.  It rained very hard that day, which was just insult to injury as Cal lost by a wide margin and I went back to my hotel soaked to the bone.

For our second trip to Autzen, though, there was not even a hint of rain.  We had the most beautiful blue sky with just a couple of puffy white clouds floating along.

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A sunnier day at Autzen Stadium

The game we attended was the Ducks’ Pac-12 home opener against the Colorado Buffaloes, a game that coincided with move-in weekend for students.  With all of the students back for Fall quarter and thousands of parents in town as well, the stadium was rocking to say the least.  For the second year in a row, Oregon lost its first conference home game.  Last year the Ducks lost Utah by a shocking score of 62-20 – a six touchdown deficit at game’s end.  This year, the Ducks kept it closer, failing to score at the end of the game and losing a close one 41-38.

In both games, something struck us about the fans that attend Oregon games:  they are some of the most intense, loyal and committed fans in football.  No matter what the score, Duck fans stay engaged, they keep cheering their team on, they find something positive to focus on. Even down by five touchdowns last season, they applauded first downs and big gains knowing that the team could not possibly come back and win.  At many stadiums, when a team gets down by 10 points, or 14 points, or worse, the stands start to empty out.  Things are different at Autzen Stadium.  Last year, at the end of the third quarter, down 54-13, sitting in a torrential downpour, virtually no fans had left the game.  Admittedly, after one more score the fans started filing out, but long after they would have most other places.

This fan loyalty must be partially cultural, but also reflects just how difficult it is to get a ticket to a Ducks football game.  There are only 54,000 seats at Autzen Stadium – far less than the 100,000+ capacity at other football powerhouses such as Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State or Alabama. Moreover, for students, getting a ticket to a home football game is nearly as monumental as getting a golden ticket in the Willy Wonka movie.  About a month before the Fall term begins, a small number of student season tickets is made available via online lottery.  Students, including our son, have multiple browser screens open at the Athletic Department website waiting for the stroke of 6 p.m. Pacific Time when the allotment of tickets are put on sale.  Most students are unable to get tickets through this lottery process; their recourse is to put their name in for a supplemental lottery each Thursday where single-game tickets are available.  With such a mismatch between supply and demand, we suppose that students understand how lucky they are to get a ticket.

One consequence of the high demand-to-supply ratio is that the visitor’s section is one of the most meager and inhospitable of any we have seen in college football.  Many stadiums allot the visiting team an entire end zone, or several sections in one of the corners of the stadium. At the Colorado game, we thought for a moment that there were no visiting fans; but when Colorado scored we heard a tiny commotion coming from a group of stalwart fans cheering from the tiniest wedge of a section you could imagine.  This was the same for the Cal game and the Utah game in 2015, which tells us that the Ducks simply don’t allocate tickets for the visiting team.

The combination of a hard-to-get ticket, and nearly 100% home fans, make for a raucous and energized crowd. During the entire game, the student section never sits down; the fans are jumping up and down and leading non-stop cheers. Our favorite tradition occurs at the start of the 4th quarter of every Oregon home football game:  an entire stadium of fans singing the song “Shout” from Animal House.  What’s the connection, you ask?  Perhaps the most iconic college comedy of all time was filmed at the University of Oregon, with most of the fraternity scenes shot in an actual University of Oregon fraternity.  Ever since the release of the movie, students at U of O have had a strong identity with the movie.  Perhaps the strongest “Animal House” identification is with the song “Shout,” performed during the movie by Otis Day & the Knights.  We shot a quick video of the assembled 54,000 fans singing the song, clapping and dancing along to the words (“a little bit louder now,” “a little bit softer now”).

Last season, during Oregon Basketball’s run to a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, I witnessed the same thing at Matthew Knight Arena, home of the men’s basketball team.  Although the basketball arena is a smaller venue, it is indoors so the energy of the crowd was even more frenetic than at the football game.  We will try and get to at least one basketball game this Spring, and maybe one more football game this Fall.

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 12, 2016

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Shocking – raining at Autzen Stadium!
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The Ducks wearing their throw-back uniforms

 

A Lot of Sass In Willamette Valley

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Are we in the right place?

A couple of months ago we “met” an Oregon winemaker named Jerry Sass on Twitter.  At this point we can’t remember if he followed us first or the other way around.  But either way, after checking out his website we liked what we saw in terms of the winery’s story and the approach to winemaking.  We sent Jerry a note telling him that we would be in Oregon in late September and would love to stop by and meet him in person and check out his wines.  We agreed on the Friday after move-in day at the University of Oregon, which was our reason for being in Oregon.  We set the GPS for the address that Jerry gave and set off from our bed & breakfast; when the GPS said we had about 1 1/2 miles to go, we turned onto a dirt road and proceeded slowly up a rough gravel road.   At least, it was rough for our Prius.  On either side of the road for nearly the entire drive  were Christmas trees – thousands and thousands of them, some just planted and others towering over the new plantings.  “Are we in the right place?” we wondered.  It was difficult to imagine that a vineyard and a winery were going to magically appear among the giant Christmas tree farm.

Finally, we came upon a mailbox by the road whose address matched the one that we had entered into the GPS.  We pulled into the driveway and drove towards some buildings, hoping to find some sign of Jerry.  We felt a bit more confident that we were in the right place as there were many acres of grapevines surrounding us.  We arrived at the first building and peered in at two people working inside.  They both looked a bit surprised to see someone driving into their operation; we waited for a wave, but they just stared at us.  We turned the car around, puzzled, wondering if we screwed up somehow.  Luckily, the two guys in the building came out and asked us, politely, if we needed help.  “Is one of you Jerry?” we asked.  The younger of the two men answered:  “I’m one of the Jerry’s.”  “How many Jerry’s are there?” we inquired. “Three,” he told us.

One of the Jerry’s then said, “hey, are you the wine bloggers from California?”  “Yes, yes, that’s us!” we replied excitedly, happy to know that we were expected.  Apparently there was some confusion as to which Friday we were coming.  We parked the car and introduced ourselves formally to Jerry Sass III, the son of the Jerry that I had been communicating with, and Kevin, a local neighbor that has been helping out at the winery.  We found out that the “other Jerry” would be back soon; in the meantime, “young” Jerry invited us into the winery building and asked if we wanted to taste some wines. And when we say “some” wines, we really mean every single wine that they had on hand in storage.

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Now this is a tasting!

It is important to mention that we arrived at Sass smack in the middle of harvest and crush.  Several days before, they had harvested multiple blocks of grapes, which were now sitting in tanks going through the initial stages of fermentation.  The following morning, they were due to harvest additional blocks of grapes.

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The barrel room at Sass Winery

During the day we were there, Jerry and Kevin were also “punching down” some of the fermenting wine, which is hard, time-consuming work.  Despite the chaos, Jerry Jr. and Jerry III took us through their entire array of white and red wines and spent nearly three hours telling us about their winery, their grape growing methods, and how they approach the art of making wine.

Frequent readers of this blog know that we prefer wines that are farmed organically and  dry-farmed when possible (ie, they do not use any irrigation other than rainfall).  Moreover, we have a strong preference for wine makers that follow a minimalist approach in the cellar – less new oak in the aging process  and judicious use of secondary (malolactic) fermentation for the white wines.  Without question, Jerry’s approach to vines and wine fits in with ours.  For one thing, Sass Winery is a member of the Dry Roots Coalition, a group of grape growers committed to dry farming; in light of climate change and lower rainfall in the West, this is an increasingly important commitment.  A further commitment to the environment is Sass Winery’s certification as a Live Certified Sustainable wine operation.  This certification applies to both vineyards and wine operations and signifies that qualifying wineries meet strict standards of sustainability.  Today, being organic and sustainable makes good business and marketing sense, but that is not why Jerry does it.  He is a purist, someone who believes in the “right” way of doing things, the “natural” way.

This purism, which is combined with a decidedly stubborn streak, is evident in Jerry’s selection of vines on the winery property.  The vast majority of vineyards in Oregon, the rest of the United States, and across the world, are planted on “root-stock.”  This means that a vine was grafted above ground onto an existing vine that is rooted in the ground.  Why do almost all grape growers use rootstock?  Because there is a pest called phylloxera that has, on several occasions, wiped out hundreds of thousands of acres of vines across the world. To combat the pest, which lives underground, grape growers use a phylloxera-resistent rooted vine and graft onto that vine the wine they want to make (Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, etc.).  There are those, Jerry among them, that believe using rootstock and grafting vines onto the rooted plant changes the nature of the plant itself and, therefore, the grape that is produced.  As a result, on the 6 or so acres surrounding Sass Winery, 100% of the grapes are “own rooted,” which means the vine was planted in its own roots.  Despite the potential risk of phylloxera, Jerry continues to farm his own-rooted vines because he believes it impacts the integrity of the grapes grown and the wine made from those grapes.

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Vineyards at Sass Winery

Okay, enough about the grape growing and philosophy; how was the wine, you might ask?  We truly loved all of the wines, both the whites and the reds.  With several of the wines, Jerry allowed us to taste multiple vintages so that we could taste the differences caused by unique growing conditions facing them in different years.  Over the course of our visit, we tasted the following white wines from Sass: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Pinot Blanc.  In our home wine region of Napa Valley, we get our fair share of Sav Blanc and Chardonnay, but we enjoyed tasting Jerry’s take on both of these varietals.  Our favorites among the whites, though, were the Pinot Blanc and the Pinot Gris, two varietals that are not so common in Napa and Sonoma.  Both of these wines are fermented in stainless steel and neutral oak, giving them a crisp finish with little to no residual sugar, but nicely balanced acidity and fruit.  We are not sure if Rosé is a white or a red wine, but we’ll cluster it with the whites for purposes of this narration.  Like the other whites, the rosé is fermented in stainless steel; it does not undergo any malolactic fermentation in order to keep its flavor crisp.

Listing the Sass red wines is easier: Pinot Noir, lots of Pinot Noir.  Lest you think there was only one red wine to try, though, Sass makes several different Pinot Noir wines from the winery estate property as well as the Walnut Ridge estate.  We tasted the Sass Willamette Valley Pinot, the Walnut Ridge Pinot, the Emma Block Pinot, and the Vieux Amis Pinot Noir.  They were all very strong examples of Oregon-style Pinot Noir:  strong cherry aroma and flavor with earthy/mineral tones and some floral notes as well.  Our favorites among the four, though, were the Emma Block and the Vieux Amis; they stood out as having the most depth, balance and finish.

You might think that after tasting 9 different types of wine (and multiple vintages of several) that we would be too toasted to drive.  Thankfully, we learned how to spit at our Napa Valley College class last year, so we were both feeling fine after the tasting.  We left Sass Winery with a case of wine (and a 13th bottle just for good luck), our purchase a clear sign of our appreciation for the quality of Sass wines.  Actually, we left with 13.75 bottles – Jerry told us he did not want all of the wine we opened to go to waste, so he popped a cork into the open Sauvignon Blanc and told us to enjoy it at our next stop, lunch in Salem.  We are believers that good people can win in life, and the Jerry’s are evidence of that.  Hospitable and friendly, stewards of the land, and makers of first-class wine.  We feel like we met someone in Jerry Sass that we will want to stay connected to for a long time.  Certainly, we’ll be back soon to visit.

Just two days later, we had the chance to stop by the Walnut Ridge vineyards, which are owned by Jerry’s partner in Sass Winery, Jim McGavin.

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Jim McGavin at Walnut Ridge Vineyard

There is a tasting room at Walnut Ridge that offers only Sass Wines.  So for the second time in a span of a couple of days, we had a Sass tasting.

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Love these Oregon prices!

During the tasting, we heard about the adventure Jim and his wife Wendy have been on, coming to Oregon from Southern California to grow grapes.  After our tasting, Jim bundled us into his trusty pickup truck and drove us around the 8 acres of vineyards.  We stopped a couple of times on the trip, once to taste some grapes and once just to take in the amazing views from the hill on top of the property.

 

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 11, 2016

 

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More barrels outside
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Two Jerry’s