Fuhrmantations

Weekend in Sonoma

In Northern California, Sonoma County is Napa's neighbor and is often confused for the illustrious valley where Robert Mondavi and other pioneers put American wine on the map. But they are quite different. Whereas Napa Valley is compact and mostly landlocked, Sonoma has several large wine growing valleys, a long stretch of breathtaking Pacific coastline and a more rural atmosphere. It should not be missed.

Sonoma has more than 400 wineries, among them Ravenswood, Benziger, J Vineyards, Jordan and sterling Pinot Noir producers like Littorai and Paul Hobbs.

You can't visit them all in a weekend, but one good choice is Ravenswood, a Sonoma Zinfandel specialist since the mid 1970s. Ravenswood winery offers an informal atmosphere and a $25 walk-in tasting consists of six specially selected small-lot wines in its recently updated tasting room. At Ravenswood, great care is taken in making the wines as well as sharing them with visitors. You can belly up to the bar or enjoy a tasting at a table on the sunny terrace, perhaps with a pairing of local cheeses ($25 for 2). It's quiet, with a laid-back vibe, and the wines are superior in quality and taste. Some favorites include Ravenswood Rosato, Sangiacomo Chardonnay, Icon Red Blend and Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel.

Ravenswood tastings go even deeper: a barrel tasting, winery and vineyard tour ($30), -- my very first reaction to barrel tastings was "No thanks, I'll wait until its done." but they can be interesting and instructive in how wines evolve -- a personal blending session, and tasting through the private cellar of Ravenswood founder, Joel Peterson.

The winery is a short drive to the center of Sonoma, an eight-acre central town plaza with myriad gift stores, chocolate shops, art galleries, clothing and jewelry boutiques, restaurants, bars and local winery tasting rooms. You could spend a whole afternoon here and not see it all.

On the Sonoma Plaza, the El Dorado Kitchen is a good choice for lunch or dinner with a menu highlighting Sonoma's fresh, stellar ingredients and a wine list heavily bent toward local Sonoma and Napa wineries. Fried green tomatoes ($14) and a crab roll ($19) are especially good.

The restaurant is attached to the El Dorado Hotel, a cozy, stylish boutique inn with rooms starting at $275. If you prefer more room to spread out, the nearby Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa is another choice with spacious rooms, some with balconies, from $305. Watch out for groups, though, as conferences and meetings can make the atmosphere noisy and hectic.

If you're a guest at the Sonoma Mission Inn, you can use the Willow Stream Spa with its pools and "bathing ritual," which includes steam room, sauna, rain showers, hot spas and a fitness room.

If you're not a guest, you can still make some serious R & R part of your visit with a day pass to the spa for $89. This comes with use of all the facilities, robes, towels and an opportunity to lounge the day away, wet or dry, in sun or shade. Pure indulgence.

What’s The Matter with Travelers Today?

On a recent trip to Europe, I was disappointed by the way I saw my fellow travelers comport themselves. My sad realization was this: Not enough, or in some cases, no thought is being given often to the simple notion of decorum. Instead people seem to think they can export the casual lifestyle they’re used to and assume it’s acceptable.

Three examples of this, only anecdotal evidence to be sure, took place on recent Norwegian Air flights to Europe, and in a classic French brasserie in Paris, Julien.

Brasserie Julien (not to be confused with Chez Julien) was a beautiful Art Nouveau space, designated an historic place, and exuding Parisian elegance. But this first impression did not last for long.

My husband and I dressed up for the occasion. We ordered the $70 prix fixe menu, aperitifs, and wine. We did our part.

Our server was nice but not attentive. After the main courses were taken away, the tablecloth was spotted and full of crumbs and empty, dirty glasses. We had to flag him down and ask to have this detritus removed before dessert and coffee.

But the real bummer was the company. Here you are enjoying the wonderful, richly carved moldings, the Art Deco stained glass ceilings the generally refined atmosphere and anticipating the classic French dishes to come. Then come the other customers.

A party of eight or so Americans dressed in the American uniform of T shirts, jeans and scuffed sneakers trooped in and were seated immediately next to us, though the restaurant was vast and relatively empty. This party had three children under the age of six. Just seeing the children raised a red flag -- this was not the appropriate place -- or menu -- for little children. But then their mother started breast feeding the youngest at the table. I'm not against public breast feeding -- I did it myself when I had babies -- but use some common sense about where, please. Please.

Would you like to see a flopped out breast and a squalling infant messily sucking between your sips of Lillet, or your bites of filet Rossini?

The piece de resistance was when the woman and her mother started discussing whether they should change the aforesuckling baby right there on the banquette next to us! My husband was finally moved to speak up.

"I traveled 6,000 miles for this meal, and I do not want my lasting image of it to be a baby being changed."

They got the message, probably thinking he was a terrible person, and used the ladies room to attend to their business.

Meanwhile, a tour of at least 50 foreign tourists led by a man with a flag, marched by our table, one by one, all of them looking like they were headed for McDonalds but stumbled instead to this elegant brasserie. They took up half the previously sparsely populated place. Soon after, the noise level became so elevated, I thought they were readying to break out in songs from their homeland, but my husband observed that the noise was hundreds of snail shells rattling against 50 metal plates.

Brasserie Julien had no dress code, but should have. But are they to monitor customer behavior, too? Short of drunken brawls, of course not. It's up to patrons to act in manner that's considerate of other people

On my Premium Class flights to and from Paris, I also was dismayed by the behavior of the fellow passengers close to me. On the way to Paris, two men, one sitting next to me and one just in back of me, removed their socks and shoes immediately. One was wearing a business suit, the other dressed like a refugee from the 1970s. Whatever. This afforded me a full view of their man feet for the full 11-hour flight. Thanks guys. Much appreciated.

On the way home to San Francisco, across the aisle from me, a mother of two children (also on the flight) hit her seat and immediately set out to erect a fortress around her. Out came her own pillows, blankets, eye shades, snacks, off came the shoes and socks (again). She wanted to be comfortable, something we all share on long flights, and we all have a right to be as comfortable as possible. Within limits. She then slunk down as far as she could in her reclined seat and stretched out her straightened legs into the air. She rested her bare feet on the head of the seat in front of her -- inches away from that seat occupant's head! No Norwegian Air steward said anything to her. An amusing sight, perhaps, if it were a 12-year-old boy. A pretty sad one when it's a middle aged woman setting an example for her kids.

When you're on an airplane, in a restaurant, or other public space, it's not your man cave; it's not your home spa. Be respectful of others traveling with you in an enclosed space. You’ll appreciate it when they return the favor.

So I ask you: What's the matter with travelers today?

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La Cuisine Paris

 

There's a cornucopia of culinary teaching, tasting and shopping available to the casual tourist in Paris in La Cuisine Paris. In central Paris across the street from the Seine, the school is set up for tourists -- it's not a place to pursue a certificate or degree to launch your professional chef career, such as the Cordon Bleu, but it's ideal for short term exposure to the much-admired French culinary art. There is a variety of classes and tours, all of them two to four hours. Bake fougasse and delicate pastries, whip up sauces, conjure crepes and prepare poultry, whatever appeals to you the most.

All classes are taught in English (my two chefs were both affable Americans married to French women). You can take a morning class, as I did, in Mastering French Sauces ($117), then cap off your cooking with a casual lunch centered around those sauces, or a crepes class ($81),  as I also did, and afterwards join your classmates for a lunch of salad, crepes and wine in a lovely upstairs dining room overlooking the Seine. (Claustrophobes beware of the downstairs kitchen; your class may be held in a cave-like environment).

 Or, you can combine dining, cooking and shopping on the Ile Saint Louis, an island in the Seine across from the school, with the "Ile St. Louis a la Table" culinary experience ($195): you shop with your chef on the island, visit small cheese, bread, and specialty food stores, then cook and enjoy the meal back at the school. All recipes are yours to take home.

 La Cuisine Paris also has popular gastronomy walking tours, a good way to check out neighborhoods you might want to see, pastry tours ($81), cheese and wine tours ($117), and others. All of them involve tasting the delicacies you are introduced to while you walk. 

www.lacuisineparis.com

Norwegian Air

The hot airline to Europe is Norwegian Air -- hot because it's cheap. For an extended stay in Paris, I bought a "Premium Class" ticket from San Francisco for $2,200. Normally, I wouldn't purchase anything above Premium Economy, which I have always found to be reasonably comfortable. But this trip was a special one and I was prepared to splurge.

Was it worth it? I'd have to say no for a couple of reasons. Some of the reviews I'd read online said Norwegian's "Premium class" was analogous to First Class within the U.S., which at the time sounded reasonable to me. But I failed to consider that no flight within the U.S. lasts for 11 hours. When you are flying for anything past six hours, you are going to need to recline in reasonable comfort. This is not the case in Norwegian's Premium class. Yes, the seats recline but not enough to lie flat or anything near flat. In fact there was something about the design of the seat that was uncomfortable for my back when fully reclined. So for the long flight to Paris, I didn't sleep at all. 

There were other disappointments: Limited and less than desirable entertainment choices: few movies, and network TV shows you could easily watch at home if you were interested. The food was some of the worst I have ever had on an airline. It came in a box with plastic utensils. The vegetarian meal I ordered was unseasoned mushy pasta with a round of semi-melted cheese placed in the middle of it -- it was inedible. The only good part of the meal service was Haagen-Dazs. 

I haven't yet taken a transatlantic flight on Norwegian in  a more inexpensive class, and that may well be worth the cost since the price to Paris was about 1/3 the premium class fare. For that big a savings, it's worth it to me to put up with bad food and entertainment choices. But at $2,200, Premium Class just didn't cut it for me.

Norwegian's fleet has an average age of just 3.6 years -- one of the youngest and greenest fleets in the world, and the plane, a Boeing 737-800 Dreamliner, was quite nice. Also, in 2015 Norwegian was named the most fuel-efficient airline on transatlantic routes, a reason to appreciate this airline.

Posted August 14, 2018

 

Art, Culture, Architecture -- and Drinks

A visit to the Louvre in Paris is daunting. Not a single building but a series of joined buildings, all former palaces and government offices, one of the greatest museums in the world is always packed with visitors, and has so much to see and appreciate one could spend a week there and probably not get to it all. There is a full exhibit just on the architecture of the Louvre, plus the symbol of the museum, Winged Victory, a marble statue once on the prow of a great ship, and of course Spanish, Italian, Egyptian and many other examples of the world's great painting and sculpture. And don't forget DaVinci's Mona Lisa, where the crowds tend to collect.

Of course, one needs a respite, even if only spending a day or part of a day here. There are other cafes in the Louvre complex, but the most stunning, and expensive, is Cafe Marly. This long, narrow space affords great views of I.M. Pei's pyramid and the thousands of visitors swarming the museum. It's a great place to slow down and observe the courtyard without being in the hot, frantic, buzzy middle of it all.  

I wouldn't recommend eating here since prices don't compare favorably with what you pay nearly everywhere else -- a single scoop of chocolate ice cream in a bowl cost 12 Euros ($14.28), and wasn't even that good, but drinks in general are not as similarly overpriced. The glamour of the space, the view, the break from the crowds all make it a place to try, perhaps even splurge.

Cafe Marly, 93 Rue de Rivoli, 75001, Paris. 

Posted May 28, 2018.    

Variety in Geneva

Switzerland is not all fondue and raclette. And Chasselas, the pleasant white wine.

Geneva, second most populous city in Switzerland located in the French-speaking part of the country, is home to the second largest United Nations office in the world with 193 member nations. It's a global city, financial center, and worldwide center for diplomacy with in the headquarters of many organizations,  including those of many of the agencies of the United Nations and Red Cross.  Maybe that's why I saw such a striking variety of restaurants within only a couple of blocks of my hotel (and Lake Geneva) there recently. There was a Korean pub, an Indian restaurant, a cafeteria offering an "Orientale ambiance" and a cafe featuring organic and local foods.

I didn't eat at any because when in Switzerland ... Yes, I ate fondue. And drank Chasselas.

 

Posted: 06.24.14

Wine Aboard

A Viking River Cruise along Germany's Rhine River in December visiting Christmas Markets was an opportunity to journey from one place to another enjoying quality wine, food and service. Viking smartly highlights the wines of the regions it travels in -- easy to do when you are in one of the world's great wine regions with arguably the world's most noble white wine, Riesling.

On that 8-day journey, I enjoyed a 2012 Horst Sauer Silvaner, a 2012 Dr. L Riesling from Winery Dr. Loosen and a 2012 Riesling from Winery Johannes Ohlig. But with a mostly American and Canadian customer base, Viking also serves wines that might be less exotic and more comfortable -- Chardonnay, Soave, Chianti and Cabernet Sauvignon. Viking also has cruises within France and its wine regions that include wine education.

In flight, fluid dynamics takes on a new meaning when wine experts are hired to shape the wine lists on board.  Clara Yip of Cathay Pacific Airways is catering manager for the Hong Kong-based carrier, presiding over a "tasting lab" at the airline's headquarters near the Hong Kong International Airport. Here,  she and two wine consultants choose the 1.6 million bottles of wine passengers imbibe each year.

"Our premium passengers in Business and First class expect very good wines on board and that expectation has risen as passengers have learned more about wine,." She maintains these passengers are open to exploring new labels.  At United Airlines, consultant Doug Frost tastes about 1200 wines a year in pursuit of the right bottles for passengers. He tries to cover customer preferences with several basic wine styles – lighter to richer whites and fruity to powerful reds from both the New World and the Old World.

Now, what about trains? I've always wanted to travel on Canada's Rocky Mountaineer, where its "GoldLeaf Service" transports you through the beauty of British Columbia and the Canadian Rockies, with local fare and delicate Okanagan Valley wines. Stay tuned.

Posted April, 2015

Holiday in Wine Country

I enjoyed two festive holiday experiences in the Northern California wine country last week, one in Healdsburg, the chic Sonoma county town near Dry Creek Valley, and the other at Napa Valley’s Meadowood resort, the home of Auction Napa Valley. 

Holidays in Healdsburg is a month of planned activities starting the day after Thanksgiving that includes parties, “Toyland” exhibits, winery open houses, even caroling in convertibles. My favorite is the three-hour “Strolling Dine-Around,” held at 18 restaurants all within easy walking distance of the historic and picturesque Healdsburg Plaza. This is a progressive dinner with four courses served every 45 minutes. So my friend Pauline and I had appetizers at Café Gratitude, which serves organic raw vegan food (we ate a delicious guacamole and sunflower seed pate with flaxseed chips that did not make me miss the more conventional dish); a second course, scrumptious tempura green beans and a green salad at Zin Restaurant & Wine Bar; a main course of risotto and prawns at A Divine Affair and dessert (lemon pot de crème) at Restaurant Charcuterie. It’s a lot of food, so strolling in the winter air (of course, I’m talking about a California winter), was invigorating and whetted the appetite for what was next.

Naturally all these restaurants are wine savvy and have a rich and varied selection of wines by the glass or bottle. You can even bring your own bottle(s). But I wouldn’t recommend it because the corkage policy is complicated. Although the fees are not high, you have to pay anew for the same bottle each time you enter a restaurant, the charge varies from place to place and according to whether it’s a Sonoma wine or not – too cumbersome in my opinion. Once we ran out of the “J” sparkling wine I had brought with me, we ordered Navarro Edelzwicker (an aromatic blend of Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat) to go with the risotto-and-prawn dish, and it was a sublime combination. Next year, when the city of Healdsburg sponsors this event again, I recommend the restaurants either abolish all corkage charges for the night (while encouraging Sonoma County wines) or ban bringing your own bottles. When you are meant to enjoy yourself, simplicity is the key!

So walking between courses is a great idea, but when that’s not feasible, there is an appealing alternative. Pauline and I were driven from Café Gratitude to Zin Restaurant and Wine Bar in a restored vintage Chevy by former NASCAR driver Bryan Germone aka Hot Rod Tours. Bryan was fun, the car was nifty and there was a warm lap blanket in the back seat. Hot Rod Tours also provides a novel alternative to limo tours of the wine country.

The night before, “The Twelve Days of Christmas” at the bucolic Meadowood resort in Napa Valley held a benefit for Share Our Strength, a popular charity for chefs because it feeds hungry children, The resort invites 12 chefs from around the country and pairs their artisanal meals with Napa wines. 

The night I attended, Paul Liebrandt of Corton in New York was the chef. His “modern French” cuisine contained a lot of foie gras, so it could not go wrong with me and the exceptional wines were from Napa’s PlumpJack and CADE wineries.  PlumpJack is the Oakville winery owned by billionaire Gordon Getty and Gavin Newsom, the mayor of San Francisco, and wine lovers are probably familiar with its intense Cabernet Sauvignon. CADE is their newest venture, a Howell Mountain winery built for its time -- LEED certified and built with the environment in mind. John Conover, partner with Getty and Newsom in the winery, introduced CADE’s Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon bottlings, which were intense and fruity. Winemaker Anthony Biagi found a way to tame the tannins of his hillside Cab vineyards and bring out some spice in the 2006 Cabernet, which was paired interestingly with a wedge of Brillat-Savarin and a white chocolate coin. 

Meadowood is pricey but also one of a kind in Northern California’s wine country: there are only 85 quietly elegant rooms (think Martha Stewart) scattered throughout 250 forested acres with a croquet lawn, tennis courts, spa, pools and a two-star Michelin restaurant. Wine fans couldn’t be in better hands – the owner is Bill Harlan of a little winery you may have heard about, Harlan Estate, and the resort employs a wine director primarily occupied with wine education and events centered around the elixir of Napa Valley.

Posted 12.23.09

A Sense of Place

I lived in the Napa Valley for five years from 1998 to 2003 and entered wine writing there so it’s the wine region I know best and write about most often. Recently I wrote a story for Decanter, the British wine magazine, about how Napa is attempting to stay relevant and attractive not only in a weak economy but in an increasingly competitive world wine market.

It’s not the first time Napa has faced hard times, it happens cyclically, in fact, and this time it comes when American wine drinking is at an all time high. In the past, high-end wines like Napa and Sonoma were relatively unaffected. But as we all know by now, consumers are looking for value wines to help salve their financial wounds these days. Napa makes a plethora of very good wines, as well as some incredible wines, but they have not been particularly known for good value for some time now. I don’t know what the average price of a Napa bottle would be (I tried to find out, but found no one who was anxious to say), but I would guess it is $40 or more, with many Cabernets in the $100-and-up-range.

I’m sure the present fall-off in sales is causing some discomfort at the ultra-premium or luxury brand levels, but Napa, the centerpiece of U.S. wine production, is not about to go out of business. So what are Napa producers doing to stay in the game?
Emphasizing terrior, or Napa’s unique sense of place, has always been both a strength and a selling point, and it is no less so today. After all, Napa cannot be duplicated anywhere else. It’s micro-climates, great variety of soil types and other growing conditions make Napa the high-quality wine growing region it is. Thirty or so years of good publicity hasn’t hurt either and for the last decade, making a point of Napa’s unique terrior and its steadily growing army of expertly trained and talented winemakers and viticulturalists has been a big part of that publicity campaign.

For more on what Napa is doing to stay fresh and vital in the wine marketplace, see my story in Decanter magazine’s California supplement, which comes with the September issue, out now.

(Posted 08.23.09)

When in New York

I recently had the pleasure of visiting several wine bars around the country, and one that particularly stood out to me for its innovative spirit is Clo in New York’s Time Warner Center. The fun factor is high here, and it’s a great place to drop by for tastes of old favorites or new discoveries (I had never heard of Gelber Muskateller from Austria, for instance, but I liked it) before or after savoring some jazz at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola -- which is what I did on a recent trip to New York.

What makes it novel is that guests sit at a communal, interactive table with a multi-touch projection menu allowing you to explore wine regions, grapes, flavor profiles and producers for all the wines on offer. Andrew Bradbury, Clo’s creator, developed the eWinebook, an electronic touch screen wine menu at Aureole Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas and in Clo he has fused his love of wine, technology and design into one impressive space. I say “space” specifically because Clo is not even a room with walls that reach the ceiling; rather it has curved walls that create an intimate space in the middle of the 4th floor at Time Warner Center.

From what I was able to piece together from talking to two young French women who work in the wine industry in London and were visiting Clo the same night I was, “clos” means an enclosed space in French. A server then told me that the owners dropped the “s” so people wouldn’t be worried about how to pronounce it. See my story on Clo and four other wine bars around the country (in San Francisco, Seattle and Atlanta) in the October issue of Cheers, the beverage magazine.

(Posted 08.18.09)

Eastern Townships, Quebec

I had never heard of the quiet, rural area east of Montreal known as the Eastern Townships before I visited in late June, but I went there in search of the local wine. 

 What I found was much more.

 The farm-to-table and locavore ethos is very strong in the Eastern Townships, or Cantons-de-l'Est, an area sprinkled with lakes, mountains and hamlets that serves as a convenient getaway for harried Montrealers.

  Everywhere I visited, from a chocolate shop and museum, the Musée du Chocolat de Bromont, to Bleu Lavande,  a picturesque lavendar farm, a commitment to local products was evident. Even cheese made by resident Benedictine monks from the Abbaye de St-Benoît-du-Lac, was incorporated in dishes at local restaurants, such as Le Hatley, the fine dining room at the Estrimont Suites & Spa.

 One of the greatest commitments of all is being made by the vintners establishing wineries and growing estate wine grapes in the Eastern Townships. I had the pleasure of visiting Domaine Les Brome, situated on a hillside of Mount Brome with views of Lake Brome and the Eastern Townships. European-styled wines are made from a variety of grapes the vintners here are still experimenting with to see what grows best in the local climate and soils. Domaine Les Brome's dry Vidal, Seyval Blanc/Chardonnay blend and Baco Noir were especially good.

 With more vineyards than any other area in Québec Province,  the Eastern Townships area even has an official wine route that links 16 vineyards in Brome-Missisquoi with five in Dunham, where Québec's first vineyards were established in the early 1980s. The small towns brim with antique shops, artists' studios, French-style cafes and Victorian architecture, so there is plenty to do and see.
 A recently established network of cafes, The Cafés de Village des Cantons-de-l’Est, akin to the cafés de pays in France, requires members to emphasize local products, such as produce, coffee, beers and wine.

(Posted 07.20.12)

Merry Christmas Markets

Touring several Christmas Markets in France and Germany earlier this month was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I hope to repeat! Although my own mother is from Berlin, I never knew about these markets until recently. Christmas markets started in Germany and many cities and towns put up temporary villages of gaily-decorated wooden booths selling Christmas decorations, gifts and delicious treats. But they are not just gift markets. From Cologne, Germany, to Strasbourg, France, I saw people of all ages enjoying themselves in the invigorating winter air glugging down Glühwein (hot, spiced mulled wine, red or white) and generally making merry with friends and family.

I was on a "Rhine Getaway" river boat tour with Viking River Cruises that traveled from Amsterdam to Switzerland so I was able to stop each day to experience a different Christmas market. There was a charming one in Rudesheim am Rhein, a  small wine-producing town that's a huge tourist draw in the  Rheingau area of Germany, where Riesling and some Pinot Noir (known as Spätburgunder) grow on insanely steep slopes overlooking the Rhine river.

I doubt the Christmas markets were ladling out the high-quality wines this region produces and exports around the world, but the warm Glühwein steeped with fruit and spices like cinnamon and cloves tasted great nonetheless.

The highlight of the markets for me since I wasn't looking for any more holiday decorations or gifts -- was the plentiful food options. All kinds and sizes of wurst were being grilled and placed on brochen (hard rolls), or atop sauerkraut,  potatoes or spätzle noodles, and just as food tastes better when you are camping or hiking so did these simple dishes taste especially satisfying in the mid-40s daytime temperatures and perhaps even better in the colder night air.

Another especially interesting visit was to the several Christmas markets in Strasbourg, a city that has passed between France and Germany five times in its political history and therefore has strong influences of both in its cuisines and culture. In the Strasbourg markets, there were cookies, pastries and crepes (as in all the other Christmas markets I visited) but also beignets and these beautiful chocolate-covered fruit kebabs.

The food was such a draw that I even passed up a couple of excellent meals on my boat, the Viking Jarl, just to graze at the Christmas markets. All-in-all, a culinary treat.

(Posted 12.18.13)

Napa Valley Wine Train

I used to live in the Napa Valley and the Napa Valley Wine Train was a familiar sight chugging through the vineyards along the valley's main artery, Highway 29. 

I had not been on the train for about a dozen years, so I was pleased to revisit late last month for the 3-hour lunch excursion that begins in the city of Napa and travels north to St. Helena before reversing course and returning to Napa.

I rode in the elevated Vista Dome, a 1952 Pullman dining car with gleaming Mahogany paneling and brass accents. A glass of Domaine Chandon sparkling wine was poured as we sat  and menus for a four-course lunch were presented with at least two choices in each category and five choices of entrees (beef, salmon cooked two ways, duck and a vegetable plate). Chef Kelly Macdonald prepared the food for the Vista Dome car in a kitchen located in the car itself. Price per person for lunch or dinner in this car is $144 -- not inexpensive, but there are other cars with their own menus at lower prices.

Someone asked me to report back on whether the wine train was too "touristy." It certainly attracts plenty of tourists who were enjoying themselves -- this is not a commuter train used by anyone for reasons other than viewing the valley's vineyards while eating, drinking and soaking in the Napa experience. But is it artificial, gaudy, inauthentic, rowdy or otherwise obnoxious? Hardly. Service is friendly and helpful (kudos to Gerald, our server), the food and wine high quality, the views serene and colorful, and it's a fun ride.

Train, culinary, or wine purists may find fault that it's not a real train, or that the food or wine menus are more limited than you would get in a local restaurant or wine bar, but the whole package adds up to a special experience you can't get anywhere else in California wine country.

(Posted 11.06.13)

St. Emilion's Jurade

On Sept. 15, I stepped into the magical world of the Jurade in the medieval village of St. Emilion in Bordeaux. It was approaching harvest time, so it was the perfect time to visit the world’s most renowned wine region.

St. Emilion’s Jurade is today an official brotherhood of wine lovers, investors and producers, all admitted to promote the Merlot-based wines of the right bank’s picturesque village. It used to be the local government and stretches back to 1199. Twice a year, at harvest time and in the spring, its members hold a formal ceremony -- complete with flowing red robes, banners and a procession through town -- to induct new members. In the fall ceremony, the Bans des Vendanges, or harvest proclamation, the new harvest is officially declared by releasing clusters of black balloons, resembling grape bunches, into the air.

This year, a record group of 21 Asian wine lovers and investors were inducted into St. Emilion's Jurade to take on the role of ambassadors to the rest of the world for the village's wines. Five of them, from Singapore, China and Hong Kong, were inducted Sept. 15 paralleling recent increased investment in St. Emilion in the past few years.

Amid pomp and pageantry, and against the backdrop of the fairytale village and a gorgeous blue sky, the new members were welcomed into the exclusive group during a day-long event that included a 90-minute mass, an induction ceremony in the Monolithic church and a formal luncheon lasting several hours. For someone from the California suburbs, it was like falling asleep and waking up in another, more charming, era.

The actual 2013 harvest was about two weeks late this year, due to cool weather in the growing season and hail in August, but has just gotten underway.

(Posted 09.27.13)