Tag: italy

Top 10 Wine Moments of 2016

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View of Carneros wine region from Artesa Winery

2016 was unquestionably an impactful year no matter what filters you apply to its 365 days: geopolitics, U.S. politics, the global economy, or the premature passing of a disproportionate number of treasured artists.  Certainly, a historical understanding of 2016 will require a thorough review of all of these areas and more.  Our goal, however, is not to define 2016, put any labels on it, or attempt to put it into any particular context.  Instead, we want to celebrate some of the wonderful events and moments that we experienced in 2016 that are as important to remember.  Below are ten  of our top 2016 moments, not ranked by importance (how could we even do that?) but chronologically.

  1.  Wines of the World.  In January of 2016 we took our first class in the Viticulture and Winery Technology department at Napa Valley College.  Most of our wine education came to us in our important role as consumers (i.e., wine drinkers); we knew a fair amount about California and international wines, but were by no means global wine experts.  On our first day of class we were poised with our notebooks and pens to take copious notes about the wines of the world.  “Where are your glasses?” asked our professor.  Apparently this was a wine drinking class!  If we knew that such a class existed we would have taken it years before.  For the next class, we brought six wine glasses each and tasted wines from 7-10pm each Wednesday for 15 weeks.  Each week, we tasted between 12 and 14 wines, starting with France and moving through the rest of the Old World (Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Portugal, Eastern Europe) and eventually the New World wines (Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America).  Along the way we learned about the different wine regions in each country, the grape varietals growth there, unique wine-making styles, and the specific terroir of each location.  Together with the wine tasting, it was quite an education!
  2. Bottlerock 2016.  Music festivals have become a real “thing” the past several years.  In Napa, we have our own 3-day festival, Bottlerock, that has grown since its inception about five years ago into an honest-to-goodness kick-ass event.  Each year, the quality of the headliners as well as the rest of the festival lineup has increased significantly.  For Bottlerock 2016, the headliners were Florence & The Machine, Stevie Wonder and The Red Hot Chili Peppers.  We bought tickets for two days – Florence and Stevie – and came to the festival early to catch some of the unheralded (but often equally impressive) early acts.  Beyond the strong performances, the food options were more plentiful than in prior years as were the wine and beer selections.  We are looking forward to purchasing Bottlerock 2017 tickets when they go on limited pre-sale tomorrow!  Please buy yours some other day.
  3. El Centimo.  Through our wine class (see #1 above) we met two of the dynamic people behind El Centimo Real, a wonderful wine from Spain’s Rioja region.  Jesus Parreño and Alaina Velazquez both live in Napa and have wine industry “day jobs” but are also trying to share their Rioja passion with the U.S. market.  We are often called wine snobs so when we tell you that our New Year’s Eve dinner featured two bottles of this luscious Rioja, hopefully you’ll conclude that the wine is fantastic.  More surprising, perhaps, is that the wine costs at least half of what we typically pay for quality California wines.  You can find out more about El Centimo Real here:  El Centimo.
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    2010 El Centimo Real (Lot 532)

    4.  Meeting a Legend.  On Father’s Day 2016, we had the opportunity (along with two of our kids) to meet Mike Grgich, the founder of Grgich Hills winery in Napa but also one of the people who helped put Napa Valley on the global wine map.  In 1976, Mike Grgich was the winemaker at Chateau Montelena and their 1973 Chardonnay, in a head-to-head contest in Paris, came out on top of a roster of wines that included the best of France’s white wines.  This so-called Judgement of Paris ignited the world’s understanding and acceptance of American wines.  Here’s a link to our Father’s Day blog entry:  A Pair of Aces for Father’s Day.

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    The crew with Miljenko “Mike” Grgich

    5.  A chance invitation to a wine party.  Some time during the summer we received an invitation to join a wine event at a winery with which we were not familiar:  Y. Rousseau.  Via Twitter, we met Olga Mosina from the winery and she told us about the event and a bit about the winemaker, Yannick Rousseau.  Given our interest in and focus on “hidden gems,” Y. Rousseau seemed right up our alley:  a small production operation housed in the up-and-coming (but still mostly hidden) Crusher District.  As interesting was the fact that Y. Rousseau’s two signature wines are Colombard and Tannat, both rare wines to say the least in the land of Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.  To read our original post click here:  A Frenchman in Napa Valley.

    6.  Tasting wine with another legend.  Again via Twitter, we connected with Amelia Ceja, the founder and owner of Ceja Vineyards.  Sourcing fruit 100% from their estate properties in Napa and Sonoma, Ceja makes a number of different varietals, including some really fantastic Pinot Noir offerings.  What is particularly compelling about the Ceja story, we thought, was the fact that Amelia and her husband both came to Napa Valley from Mexico as children and went from picking grapes alongside their parents to growing grapes on their own property and making excellent wines.  Our write-up on our visit is here:   An All-American Story.

7.  A cool Oregon winemaker.  After drop-off weekend at the University of Oregon we made a visit to another winemaker that we met on Twitter, Jerry Sass, at his estate vineyard near Salem.  We quickly became fans not only of Sass Winery but of Mr. Sass as well due to his personality as well as his approach to viticulture and winemaking. Jerry has a dry wit very similar to ours and an honest outlook on life that drew us to him right away.  As a grape grower and winemaker, we loved his commitment to dry farming his grapes (no irrigation) and the fact that 100% of his vines on the estate we visited are “own rooted” – no grafting of one grape varietal onto the roots of another type of grape.  Jerry considers making wine a craft and respects the land and the fruit he picks.  End result?  Fantastic white and red wines.  You can read our write-up on Jerry and his wines here:  A Lot of Sass In Willamette Valley.

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9 wines is the right number for tasting

 

8.  Hey let’s meet some Italian winemakers!  One of the nights we were in Venice we arranged to meet with a dynamic duo, Roberto and Natalia from The Vinum Winery in Ortona, Italy.  It was quite an experience sharing dinner with them at the famous Terraza Danieli restaurant overlooking the Grand Canal – and drinking some of their wines with dinner.  They make a fantastic Prosecco as well as a number of other white and red wines; we managed to bring a case of their wine home with us and look forward to the day their wines are available here in the U.S.  Our day in Venice, including dinner with Roberto and Natalia, can be found here:  Why Is It So Hard To Keep A Secret?

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New friends in Venice

9.  What country is this?  After leaving Venice, Italy on a Sunday in October we whisked our way north and east into what the wife thought was going to be more of Italy.  We quietly crossed the border from Italy into Slovenia and ended up at the Kabaj Morel winery in the Goriška Brda region.  We had probably the best overall wine tasting experience of our lives at Kabaj Morel; in fact, it is an insult to the experience to call it “wine tasting.”  Our visit lasted 4 1/2 hours and consisted of a five-course lunch and drinking (not tasting) many of the Kabaj wines.  Our stop at Kabaj was a top highlight on a trip of top highlights.  You can read about our gluttonous feast here:  Sneaking The Wife Across An International Border.

10.  Last but not least.  Our trip to Croatia was a major revelation in terms of our understanding and appreciation of wines from that region.  Prior to the trip we had little exposure to Balkan wines, varietals and wine regions.  We got a major education on Croatian wines during our visit to Basement Wine Bar in the capital, Zagreb.  Based on what we learned at Basement, we structured some of our days in the rest of Croatia around tasting the local wines and even visiting one of Croatia’s most well-known regions, the Peljesac Peninsula.  While there, we were able to visit Mike Grigich’s Croatian winery (Grgic Vina) which was a nice tie-in to our Father’s Day visit discussed above.  Our Croatia adventure can be accessed here:  I’ve a feeling we’re not in Croatia anymore.

Crafting this list was difficult as we have visited several dozen wineries this past year and consumed bottles from many more.  Easily, we could have done a top 50 or maybe even a top 100, but we thought ten was a manageable number.  We hope you enjoyed reminiscing about 2016 with us.

John & Irene Ingersoll

January 4, 2017

 

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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.

giorgione

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