Tag: outdoor

Why Is Your Blog So Damn Positive?

We have been blogging for about five months now; in total, we have twenty-two posts about our experiences living in and traveling around Northern California wine country.  Aside from a post about a Napa Valley Golf course and one about a rare sighting in Napa (a brewery!), all of our posts are focused on wineries and restaurants.  Readers of our reviews will quickly conclude that we enjoyed every winery, restaurant, brewery and other activity written about in this blog.  In fact, we did enjoy them.  All of them.  Yes, 100% of our blogs reflect positive experiences with the establishments that we visited.

Grumpy Cat

The lack of any negative blog posts has led several readers to post questions in our comment section more or less on the same theme: “How is it possible that you like every place you visit?  Are you working for the companies that you profile?  Do you have some incentive to always be positive?  Wasn’t there something, anything that you didn’t like about the winery or restaurant?”  We love getting comments from readers, including these comments, as we believe feedback is a gift.  These reader questions helped us think more deeply about why we blog and what we are hoping to accomplish.

5-Star Reviews  …Everywhere?

What is the purpose of a blog like ours?  Is it to be a chronicle of everywhere we have been? Is it to present our opinions, both good and bad, on the wines and food that we taste?  Is it to provide a “fair and balanced” analysis of the places we go and the experiences that we have?

We would be curious to hear from other bloggers on this topic, as there are certainly reasonable opinions and different approaches.  When we started our blog, though, we had a very specific purpose in mind:  having a great time visiting new, out-of-the-way places and sharing them with people who may not have experienced them yet.  Living in Napa Valley, we have plenty of places to choose from, not only in Napa but also Sonoma County and the newer wine regions that are starting to gain notoriety for their wines (Mendocino, Lake County, Lodi, Sacramento-area wineries, Solano County, etc.).  Our goal was not to use our blog as a glorified Tripadvisor or Yelp review (although many people do, and we enjoy many of those blogs).  Do we sometimes leave a winery disappointed, either with the service, the quality of the wine, or the ambience? Yes, just as frequently as everyone else does.  Do we like every restaurant? Of course not!  Like everyone else, we sometimes have to ask for a new fork multiple times and it annoys the hell out of us. Or our server takes forever to take our order; or, our order takes forever to come out of the kitchen.  Every once in a while, the food just isn’t that good – or not good enough to justify the steep prices.  So why wouldn’t we blog about negative experiences and let people who read our blog know that we had a bad time?

Sometimes we hate our food too

For one thing, negative experiences have such a subjective quality to them; writing about them as fact, as many people do, does not feel right to us.  Was the food bad, or were we in a bad mood?  Was the waiter a jerk, or did we come into the restaurant with some baggage that caused us to obsess about the seconds ticking by as we waited for someone or something to come to the table?  If we have a bad experience, is that useful for someone considering going to that same restaurant or winery?  Does it make it any less likely that you will enjoy your time there?  No!  The best establishments in the world have Yelp reviews that make you wonder how their authors could have been at the same places as the authors that gave 5-stars.

How does my 1-star review help you?

When we have a negative experience somewhere, the first thing we do is discuss whether or not we want to address our concerns with the establishment when we are there.  Most people do not, and then write scathing reviews when they are in the comfort of their home and in the safety and anonymity of their computer keyboard.  Repeatedly, we have been told that the best way to help an establishment improve on bad food or service is to say something during the visit.  On some occasions, we do say something, but not if the problem seems isolated to our visit, or driven by specific circumstances on that day (packed restaurant that was caught understaffed, for instance).  Once we leave the winery or restaurant, we lose our interest in chronicling, in writing, the terrible time we had.

When we write a blog, it is not to tell you what places to avoid. As we have already established, we like to write about places at which we had a special time.  But we don’t tell you what to order, or what to drink; we just share what we had, our interactions with the business and its staff, try and tell a little about their unique story and their approach to food, or wine, or whatever they are selling. The fact that we liked the short rib is no guarantee that you will.  We may tell you that we liked it, in passing, but our interest is more in describing the food, the wine, the service, the decor, and the atmosphere.  One of the reasons we share so many pictures is that it enables the reader to see for themselves how the spaces are laid out, how the food was presented, etc.  Rather than talk about “like” or “don’t like,” we focus more on the establishment’s approach.  If we are blogging about a restaurant, what is it trying to achieve?  What genre of food is it trying to carve out (pun intended)?  Where do they get their ingredients?

If we are blogging about a winery, we want to emphasize their winemaking style – are they making big “California” or “Napa” wines or following a more European approach?  Is the wine sweet or acidic, or somewhere in between?  Those are the things we think people care about more than our ratings or personal opinions.  If you like a high-alcohol, super-fermented buttery Napa Chardonnay (think Rombauer), then you should know the place we are blogging about makes a crisp Chard with zero residual sugar.  If you like red wines that jump out of the glass and punch you in the face, it will be helpful for you to know that the wines we tasted were only 12-13% alcohol and had a more subtle flavor profile.

We are not sure that our approach is correct, but for us, it just feels right.  If we blog about a place, that means we think it’s worth visiting.  If we go somewhere we hate, it’s not worth blogging about.  We do have opinions, of course, and if you ask us “hey what about XX Winery,” we’ll tell you what we think if we’ve been there. Even if we hated it.

Let us know how you think about blogging and if your approach is different.

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 5, 2016



O, Oregon!

We spent nearly a week in Oregon at the end of September, a trip motivated by the need to drop our son off at the U of O. We decided to add a couple of days to the trip and visit some wineries and wine regions we have not been to before.  One of the benefits of writing a wine blog and having an active presence on Twitter (@topochinesvino) is the connection to new friends across the United States and around the world.  Over the past six months or so, we have developed friendships in the Twittersphere with a number of winemakers and winery managers up and down the state of Oregon.  We built our non-campus activities around in-person visits to their wineries to learn more about their wines and what led them to this often challenging way of life.  We think we’ve made some lasting friendships from our visits in addition to tasting some of Oregon’s top-notch wines.

Over the course of our 6 days in Oregon, we had a wide range of adventures and experiences:

  1.  We saw an Oregon football game (our first together) in the very impressive Autzen stadium in Eugene.
  2.  We stayed at two very different but lovely B&B’s, both of which have vineyards and are producing their own wines.
  3.  Despite having visited Oregon multiple times, we discovered a part of the Willamette Valley (the southern region) that was new to us.
  4.  In between winery visits and campus activities, we were able to enjoy some superb restaurants.
  5.  On the drive home, we encountered two wine regions that until recently we did not know existed:  Umpqua Valley and Rogue Valley.

We will be posting about all of these experiences over the next several days, with of course lots of photos to accompany our stories.  For now, we leave you with a few pictures to whet the appetite for what is to come.

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 3, 2016

Oregon-Colorado Football Game
Irene Rocking Her Duck Hat In the Vineyard
Oregon Pinot Noir
Enviously Eying the Barrels
Ready for Harvest
Spanish Platter and Tempranillo
Enjoying Rose in Rogue Valley

A Restaurant Too Cool For A Name

Great Food

“Diner.” That’s all it says on the road sign.  “Diner.”  What else do you need to know, right?  Situated along Highway 121 in the Carneros wine region that straddles Napa and Sonoma, the diner’s aromas waft across its parking lot and onto the Highway as cars drive by, either coming into or out of Napa Valley.  It would be easy – and a mistake – to judge this book by its cover.  The modest signage might lead you to conclude that the advertised joint is not worth any additional words, or a proper name.  This “diner,” however, is simply too good to need to waste its time on fancy signs or worrying about getting its name out there.

For the record, the diner does have a name:  the Fremont Diner.  Open since 2009, it has become a virtual cult favorite for local Napa and Sonoma residents as well as visitors from the Bay Area and beyond.  When we stopped by last week, there was a 40-minute wait to be seated.  What’s the attraction?  The Fremont diner meets all of the expectations of a place called “diner” – deep-fried foods on the menu, a dedication to a variety of pork dishes, and traditional Southern staples owner Chad Harris refers to as “Grandma” food. In other words, comfort food made the old-fashioned way, with little concern for low-calorie, low-carb, low-fat or, frankly, any other diet plan you might conjure up.  Unlike many traditional diners, however, the Fremont diner also has a commitment to locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients.  The result is delicious food that will make Southerners reminisce about their favorite hometown diner.

For the past 18 months or so, we have been on a mostly carb-free diet.  For our visit to the Fremont Diner, we agreed to throw that out of the window and have one of our infrequent “cheat” meals.  This menu is simply too tantalizing to attempt to work around carbs.  It might be possible to just eat meat and veggies, but why?  One of the first menu items that caught our eye was the Nashville Style Chicken, a fried chicken platter “so hot it’ll set a cheatin’ man straight.”  We haven’t been able to validate this claim, but it was in fact very spicy and delicious.  We opted to have the chicken served on a waffle for a classic chicken and waffle breakfast plate.

Nashville Style Chicken at The Fremont Diner in Sonoma, California

In addition, we ordered the chilaquiles plate, which comes with smoked pork, with a side of the house-made Fremont bacon.  We opted to sit outside as it was a sunny day and were able to check out what people at the other picnic tables were ordering.  The variety of food at Fremont Diner is impressive, ranging from traditional breakfast items such as pancakes and French toast to Southern staples like biscuits and gravy and shrimp and grits.  Other menu items include a po-boy-style oyster sandwich, hush puppies, cracklin (fried pig skin) and the Hangtown Fry (scrambled eggs, fried oysters, arugula, potatoes with remoulade, and bacon).  Now that the season has turned to Autumn, we’re looking forward to more brunches and lunches at the Fremont Diner’s outside patio.

Outside Patio at Fremont Diner

For those that don’t have the time or desire to wait 40 minutes or more for a table, the Fremont Diner has a takeout option. At the far end of the patio, there is an airstream-style trailer where a range of drinks (beer ,wine, coffee, tea, juices, and horchata) can be ordered, along with food items from the regular menu.  This was a popular option the day we visited due to the lengthy wait times.

Drinks and Food To Go at Fremont Diner

Since our first trip to the Fremont diner, we have frequented it once more for takeout from the trailer, and ordered food to go twice more to feed an army of guests staying at our house.  As a result, we’ve made our way through much of the menu.  The verdict:  a gourmet greasy spoon – and we mean that as a compliment.

John & Irene Ingersoll

October 1, 2016

Sign inside Fremont Diner
Owner Chad Davis’ Old Pick-up
Example of homey decor at Fremont Diner

Out of the Glass And Into the Cup

Chardonnay Golf Club, Napa County

Visitors to Napa and Sonoma counties usually pack their days full of visits to wineries and restaurants and leave very little time for other activities.  After all, why come all the way to wine country and carve out time for non-wine-related activities?  The truth is, sometimes you get “wined out.”  While this may not be a medical or scientific term, it is one that will resonate with anyone who has visited wine country and packed in one winery or one restaurant wine bottle too many.  We have found an excellent compromise that allows visitors to stay in the vines while trading their glasses for cups – golf cups that is.

Visible from the scenic Jameson Canyon Road that leads into Napa (also known as Highway 12) are two side-by-side golf courses, Eagle Vines and Chardonnay Golf Club.  Twice a day – going to and coming back from work – we pass these clubs and look jealously and longingly at the players lucky enough to be hitting the little white ball instead of solving the world’s problems at the office.  This past Friday, though, a friend was coming to town and suggested a round of golf.  One vacation day later, we joined this friend for a round at Chardonnay Golf Club, one of the prettiest courses that we have ever played.  Previously a 27-hole layout, Chardonnay now has 18 holes creatively architected around 150 acres of chardonnay grape vines.  Between the lakes, creeks, elevated tee boxes, abundantly visible wildlife and, of course, the chardonnay grapes, it was a stunning experience.  When we got to the tee box at the first hole, I could tell that we were in for a real wine country round of golf.

Tee box Marker, Chardonnay Golf Club, Napa Valley

If anyone is interested, we played mostly from the Magnum distance – the white tees.  Our game is sufficiently poor that we do not need to heroically play the longer tees; this would just balloon our scores even higher.  Some courses play tight because of narrow fairways and punishing high rough.  Others play tight because of natural hazards, such as imposing tree lines along the fairway, or water hazards.  While Chardonnay Golf Club has some of both, the element that shrunk the course the most for us was ….the vines.  One of us in the group had what I gently refer to as an extreme fade (think “wild slice”) while the other of us has an extreme draw (think “snap hook”).  On more holes than we are willing to count, our drives (and subsequent approach shots) landed in the middle of rows of chardonnay grape vines.  Some balls we were able to track and retrieve, others are still in the vineyard adding to the overall growing experience for the grapes.  On a net basis, though, we probably found as many balls among the grapes as we lost, so we don’t feel too bad.

Vineyards at Chardonnay Golf Club

Breathtaking courses are often an excellent distraction from the dismal level of play; the 135 we shot at Pebble Beach several years back hardly stings as we remember the stroll around the iconic course and the views of the Pacific Ocean from holes such as #7 and #18.  Chardonnay Golf Club was no different as we often said “wow” as we stepped up to the tee box and looked across the vines and the rolling hills of the valley. Several times we also said “wow” after one of our drives, regrettably not once in admiration and always out of despair.  About 4 hours and 15 minutes after we started the round, we arrived at our last tee marker.

Tee marker Chardonnay Golf Club, Napa Valley

After the round, we ate lunch at the clubhouse, which has a nice selection of wines and beers on the menu as well as a variety of food options.  If you do not get enough of the view during the round, get a window table, like we did, with a view of vines and course.

The staff at Chardonnay, from the pro shop to the restaurant to the cart crew to the drink cart girl is excellent.  Everyone was friendly and positive and helped make the day a great one.  Because of the beauty and serenity of the course, we will be back again soon when either we or one of our out-of-town guests has gotten “wined out.”

John & Irene Ingersoll

July 12, 2016

To make a reservation at Chardonnay Golf Club, click here: http://chardonnay.w5golf.com/

To learn more about the club, click here:  http://www.chardonnaygolfclub.com/index.htm