Monday, December 28, 2009

Domaine Chandon: Sparkling Wine Comes Alive

Yountville, CA – The French describe champagne like the laugh of a pretty girl. At 48-years-old, I’m past the pretty girl phase, but boy do I love me some champagne! Or should I correctly say sparkling wine—the elixir of life. At Napa Valley’s Domaine Chandon’s tasting salon, it’s always New Year’s Eve as bottles of their signature war horse Brut Classic are uncorked and poured to a thirsty, wine tasting crowd—me at the front of the line. Let the celebration begin.

Kristin Brott, our purveyor of the liquid nectar, has been with Chandon as a wine educator for three years. She moved to this fertile valley from Southern California on a whim. I ask her what it’s like working there, and she quickly tells me it’s the best job in the world. “Everyone’s in a good mood. I love to talk about food and wine.” This reminds me of the 30’s Gershwin song "…nice work if you can get it…"

My favorite tasting is the more exclusive 90 point etoile—French for star, Brut. It’s a lighter, more delicate sparkling wine with a bouquet of Fuji apple, Meyers lemon, and toasted almonds. The tiny bubbles give me an instant lift—as if I need it; I’m already filled to the brim with mirth and merry-making. Being at this first French-owned sparkling wine venture in the United States, established in 1973, makes me feel giddy—so much bouncy history. Plus, I’m right next to an advertisement that makes me giggle. It’s for Saavy Sippers, a gadget you place inside a champagne bottle that allows you to “drink out of the bottle in a classy way.” Kristin, our hookup, tells me “You never know when you need an emergency bit of bubbly, like at the movies.” I believe she’s on to something, so I buy one.

The coup de grâce of the tasting is a sensual cocktail called the Hibiscus Royale—a combination of Blanc de Noir sparkling wine, wild hibiscus flower in syrup, and rose water. The flower sits in the bottom of the champagne flute and slowly opens up over three to four minutes, creating a piece of art I can both admire and drink. Along for this adventure is my pleasure-seeking friend Charlene, a connoisseur of all things hedonistic, who just got back from her honeymoon in Bermuda and indulged in this almost immoral love potion and claimed it as “an aphrodisiac; you eat the flower and it’s got lots of Vitamin C.” Indeed. Decadent, divine and oh-so-Napa classy, just like our Domaine Chandon experience. Cheers!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sierra Nevada Adventure: Miracle on the Mountain

Truckee, CA – Executing a 360-degree spinout in a snowstorm while entering Highway 80 seemed effortless with Rachel behind the wheel—like a trained ballerina twirling a pirouette—only we were doing it in four-wheel drive with snow chains on the front tires. My heart went into my throat. Rachel—fresh from celebrating her 40th birthday—quickly got us back on the road. “Okay, that was the first time I ever did a complete spinout,” she said. “Glad that’s over.” She pointed the white Acura SUV due west toward Sacramento. Like the Donner Party who made this crossing in the winter of 1846-47, on this same exact pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains, we were trying to make our way home. Pioneers! O Pioneers!

This was our second attempt at getting off the Sierra. The snowstorm came in earlier than expected the day before and Caltrans closed the highway, ending any wide-eyed hopes of watching 60 Minutes from the comfort of our own homes. The dream of a St. Bernard dog with a barrel of brandy around his neck coming to our Alpine rescue was just that—a fantasy, much like watching Carrie Bradshaw trying to marry Mr. Big in a lavish wedding in Sex and the City on the tiny television in Rachel’s car. Beth, the doe-eyed beauty of the group called a friend of a friend, of a friend, who owned a second home in Truckee and our base camp for the night was secured—we were ready to hunker down for the evening.

There are times in life when the kindness of newfound friends is so profound that the opportunity for repayment is not possible, and so it was with our hosts: Tanya and her mother and father in-law, Nonni and Nonna, affectionately known as the Italians. Their generosity embodied the biblical “water into wine, two fish into a feast” story. We drank ample bottles of Nonni’s homemade red wine. We watched in amazement as Nonna’s pasta dish grew from an original serving of five, to fill the bellies of ten. It was a glorious rigatoni concoction of spicy tomato sauce, diced chicken, and mozzarella cheese. A spinach and romaine lettuce salad with olive oil and vinegar dressing filled in the gaps along with two pizzas: one cheese, the other a meat and veggie combo. Where this freshly delivered pizza came from remained a mystery. File it under the “Marriage of Cana” miracle. For desert, we dined on Nonna’s pie made with homegrown apples from their Napa Valley trees.

Nonni told us stories of his hometown near Naples, Italy; and learned about the family restaurant that they owned for 40 years in Napa; and watched as their three grandchildren, all under the age of seven, showered them with affection by tearing up pieces of tissue paper and sprinkling their heads with it. Let it snow. Let it snow. Let it snow.

In the morning, two feet of snow covered our cars and the driveway. The world looked like a freshly shaken snow globe. Highway 80, the main artery to our deliverance from this snow covered paradise was finally open and we were ready for adventure. Our hands and feet were frozen from shoveling snow and putting on tire chains, but our hearts were warm from the memory of our unexpected evening of international camaraderie including a rousing game of Scrabble, tossing the grandkids on the coach and the gift of newfound friendships.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Crab Season: Dining Santa Cruz Style

Santa Cruz, CA – There are some meals that taste better when eaten at home. Last night I feasted on the first-of the season Dungeness Crab with my good friends Bob and Laurie. Why the home-cooked meal? First of all, you have to consider where my generous friends live, in the mountains of Santa Cruz, in a little berg called Bonny Doon. Picture yourself surrounded by mist hanging on redwood trees, smelling the Earth after a rainstorm, and then reveling in that clean air. Their artisan’s home reflects 20 years of loving care. On their grounds is a hand made yurt that Bob built, a herb garden that Laurie tends, and a Japanese Maple in it’s full autumn glory – red and gold.

Once inside their home, I never wanted to leave. The wood burning stove warmed my bones. Books everywhere I looked. Their furniture is the color of liquid peace and tranquility; a Turkish rug framing the hardwood floors. And then the sweet aroma of Laurie’s Cinderella Pumpkin Soup brought me to the kitchen table. Earthenware style plates fired in a Finnish kiln were waiting to service our meal.

We cracked and ate fresh crab, caught that day off the Santa Cruz coast. Complimenting the star crustacean attraction was an aromatic Arugula green salad picked that evening from the garden, and corn muffins topped with Bob’s homegrown dark honey, thanks to his productive beehive. I shared the story of my first-ever crab-eating epiphany at the virginal age of 22 as a college student at Humboldt State University in Arcata. Laurie talked about her San Francisco roots including her family’s tradition of eating crab, complete with the now non-PC Campbell’s tomato soup with cheese melted at the bottom in a cup. Gentle conversation, warm feelings and a simple, Epicurean meal made this Santa Cruz evening a night to treasure. Thanks Bob and Laurie, for opening up your home and heart to this grateful soul.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Crocker Art Museum: Living in the Gilded Age

SACRAMENTO, CA – The letter arrived in 2008 and began, “I am the great-granddaughter of Jennie Crocker Fassett…” This is the story of how Margaret Crocker’s diamond and opal brooch made its way back to the Crocker Art Museum after 125 years. The result is a new exhibit: Treasures, Curiosities and Secrets: The Crockers and the Gilded Age on display until May 2010.

Margaret Langford, the great-granddaughter of museum founder Margaret Crocker and her brother inherited three jeweled brooches and donated them to the Crocker Art Museum. The younger Margaret carried the three brooches in her purse from Atlanta--an audacious act, given their value and worth. As they were touring the museum, they were shown a portrait of their great-grandmother circa 1877 when she was 55-years-old. They noticed in the portrait, the matriarch was wearing the actual brooch they were donating. “Margaret’s brooch seemed to encapsulate in one object, the importance and social standing of the Crockers,” said Scott A. Shields, Museum Chief Curator, “plus it’s my favorite piece in this collection.”

“It was a lot of fun to put this exhibit together,” said Shields. “The Crockers are a fascinating family.” Indeed. Case-in-point: daughter Aimee Crocker. She was an international social success, receiving widespread press for her clothing, travels, tattoos and five marriages, each to a man in his 20’s—the original cougar. Her exploits strike a Paris Hilton chord. In her 1936 autobiography I’d Do It Again she writes: “And if I could live it again, this very long life on mine, I would love to do so. And the only difference would be that I would try to crowd in still more…more places, more things, more women, more men, more love, more excitement.”

Look for more than 75 objects on display in this collection including gowns, china, furniture, personal letters, paintings and photographs. A standout is the hat collection which features an actual head of a bird of paradise, not the Hawaiian flower. A curious note is that this late 1800 fashion trend wiped out the entire population of this now-extinct bird. The result of this devastating action gave birth to the environmental group Audubon Society.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Do Something With Your Life: Strategic Planning

BERKELEY, CA – “If you want change, the first thing you have to change is yourself,” said political strategist and organizer Larry Tramultola. “Don’t be afraid to take an unconventional path—do something with your life.” Larry is a guest speaker at my daughter’s Political Science class at Berkeley’s venerated Wheeler Hall, sharing with 350 eager students his sage wisdom on living a life of joy and purpose.

Larry is the CEO and founder of Oakland firm Tramultola, and has helped clients win over 400 elections including 247 tax elections that have produced more than $25 billion in community improvements. He is also the author of Sidewalk Strategies – Seven Winning Steps for Candidates, Causes and Communities. He worked alongside United Farm Workers' Union icon Cesar Chavez for 11 years as an organizer, a job that began at $5 a month and ended at the same pay scale. “I did it because I was committed to the cause and it gave me joy,” said the ever-youthful, salt-and-pepper-haired Stanford graduate. “There is a safe path to security and an unsafe path to change,” he said. Here are some of his insights:

• Work for what you believe in—find the thing you love. Have passion for what you do.
• Develop the ability to listen—people who are successful listen and observe.
• Look for ways to make others effective—you can’t succeed without others. Find a way to inspire.
• Never give up—most people lose before they win. The most interesting places are off the beaten path. You learn more when you fail.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

A Taste of Ireland: In San Francisco

SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- Mary Gleeson, an Irish proprietor on business in San Francisco, is giddy with excitement. She's waiting for a group of 136 neighbors and friends to fly in from her rural hometown of Roscommon, Ireland (population 5,000) -- 61 one of which are dancers ages 6 - 20, competing in the North American Irish Dancers Championship in downtown San Francisco. Her townhouse and restaurant Gleeson's is a sponsor for
this event. "We are so happy to offer this experience to the youngsters," said the ebullient hostess, "it's an adventure they'll always remember."

Gleeson's is part of a culinary revolution putting Ireland on the foodie map by offering local, seasonal and organic faire. The burgeoning Good Food Ireland campaign promotes artisan food producers. Mary is quick to point out that people associate Ireland with a certain he-who-must-not be-named meal, "we don't eat corned beef at all," she said laughing at the idea. Instead, her specialty is a traditional Irish Lamb Stew. At the Flavor of Ireland event sponsored by Tourism Ireland in San Francisco, I sampled Gleeson’s Irish Whiskey Marmalade with homemade soda bread and white cheddar cheese – authentic and hearty. Here’s to Mary’s group of Irish dancers, Erin Go Bragh!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

S.F. Museum of Modern Art: Avedon Exhibit

SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- "There is nothing more fascinating on Earth than the face," said photographer Richard Avedon, whose exhibit at the S.F. Museum of Modern Art runs through November 29. Featuring nearly 200 of his black and white photos, this exhibit is a testament of intense communication between artist and subject. Stark. Raw. Emotive.

Look for the Andy Warhol and Factory ensemble portrait taken in 1969. This provocative piece of art stands 12 feet high and 50 feet wide. It delivers the double take that both shocks and delights with wry humor and compelling insight into the human condition --a hallmark of an artist's connection to divine flow.

Noticeably missing at this exhibit is the iconic portrait of German actress Nastassia Kinski posing with a snake gently kissing her ear. This early 80's Vogue magazine image became a sensation. Nearly two million posters were sold, rivaling the vintage Farrah Fawcett red bathing suit poster.
Go to the second floor and watch the 87-minute documentary film featuring Avedon's life, it will offer context into this successful artist's career.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Monterey Bay -- Have Pumpkin, Will Kayak

MONTEREY BAY, CA – Karen let out a shriek and I quickly turned around to see an elephant seal practically dive-bomb her kayak. A little too close for her comfort, she sighs with relief and then laughs, yet another story to tell about paddling magical Monterey Bay.

I am here with the Crazy Cayak Krew (CCK), a group of 14 raucous, fun-loving kayakers, hell-bent on adventure. We are paddling outside of the Monterey Bay Aquarium among sea otters, pelicans, and a wayward white egret who sits atop the kelp bed staring intently on what could be his breakfast. Bob, our leader, has a pumpkin strapped on the front of his kayak and if you think that’s weird, listen to this, the pumpkin is wearing a child’s life vest and has a name: Mr. Wilson. We hoop and holler on the undulating sea—as the swell surges us into a hypnotic trance, then silence.

We finish our day by paddling through the harbor and marveling at pelicans sunning themselves next to restaurant diners. Life is good on the water.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Duarte's Tavern -- Stepping Back In Time

PESCADERO – The locals call it “Doo-ertz.” I call it “Doo-ar-taze.” We all call it rockin’ good-cookin’. I am at the historic, one-of-a-kind, 1890’s Duarte’s Tavern with my friend Shirish for lunch. This award-winning James Beard Foundation “American Classic” restaurant is the ideal place to take a break if you are traveling the California coast between Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz. It’s two miles inland through fertile farmlands and unspoiled wetlands.

We sat in the back where the nostalgic original bar from 1894 offers a more authentic old-world experience. We tried the house specialty—artichoke soup, in deference to the thistle-like plant that grows in volume on the coast. I sampled the sautéed halibut—right out of nearby Monterey Bay, served with mushrooms, green and red peppers, and onion. Shirish noshed on the grilled shrimp and cheese sandwich, rich and decadent. The wine d’jour is a School House Cabernet 2006 from the Paso Robles region. If you can, try and make it on a weekday, otherwise expect to wait, this place is hoppin.’

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Farm to Fork: Enjoying nature’s bounty

MADERA, CA -- Fresh. Local. Organic. That’s the motto of T & D Willey Farms. I’m sitting in the passenger’s seat of Tom Willey’s electric cart as we drive the 75 acres of his and wife Denesse’s Madera farm. There are rows of French Breakfast radishes, Rosa Bianca eggplants, Russian kale and more than 50 varieties of crops—all organic, a Garden of Eden. At this farm, there is no mechanized harvest. In fact, the yellow crookneck squash are picked with white cotton gloves to protect their sensitive skins. Talk about a labor of love.

Every part of this productive farm radiates health and vitality. In large part because of the Willey’s commitment to old-fashioned farming, “We do not use any toxic pesticides,” said Tom pointing to a stand of sunflowers—a habitat strip that attracts beneficial insects for pest control, “we focus on plant nutrient and soil quality. That’s the best possible protection.”

The Willey’s send me home with a box of fruits and vegetables similar to what their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) customers receive. “I can’t just show you this produce, you have to taste it” said Tom, loading the box into my trunk. I pop a firm red grape into my mouth and marvel at the flavor, complex yet simple. Divine. The rest of the grapes sit on my lap for the journey back to Sacramento. Farm to Fork? Uh-ah…these babies are farm to mouth—thanks Tom!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Journalism’s Future: Carrying the Fire

BERKELEY, CA -- “Real journalism gives you news that you didn’t know that you needed,” said Professor Neil Henry, Dean of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. “The challenge in this digital era is how do we monetize it, so our students can get paid for their work?” Henry said that 50 percent of all reporters have lost their jobs in the last ten years. “You can advertise for free on Craig’s List. The revenue stream supporting newspapers is diminishing.”

Henry remains optimistic that the future of journalism will eventually transform into something viable. He uses the movie Quest for Fire as the metaphor, “we’re carrying the fire into the new age—we are carrying the values of balance and fairness.” He cites a collaborative project between public broadcasting station KQED and the Graduate School of Journalism that’s getting a lot of press in the journalism circle. “It’s called the Bay Area News Project and it’s devoted to news delivery for the Bay Area,” said Henry. “Warren Hellman, a descendent of the Wells Fargo family gave us $5 million in seed money to develop this project. He told us ‘this is what my great-great grandfather would have done.’ ”

Friday, October 2, 2009

Farm to Fork: What’s an omnivore to do?

BERKELEY, CA -- Michael Pollan holds up a box of Fruit Loops, calls it an “edible food-like substance” and asks the audience: “How about a new label that says, ‘better than donuts?’” The crowd breaks out into raucous laughter at the sheer audacity that Fruit Loops has a check mark next to healthy choice—courtesy of the industrial agriculture marketing machinery. “We’re no longer growing food,” said Pollan “we’re growing food for manufacturing.”

I am at UC Berkeley, where wildly successful food-guru author Pollan “Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food” is a journalism professor. The six-foot Pollan looks Berkeley-cool with his sports coat and wire-frame glasses. The near-capacity crowd of 1800 at Zellerbach Hall is a combination of gray hair seekers and hip, with-it students—all trying to get a grip on the best way to approach the unscientific pleasure of eating. Pollan claims we’ve undergone 150 years of diet change and it has taken a tremendous toll on our health.

“How do we escape the western diet without leaving civilization?” He offered a few rules to help guide the omnivore’s dilemma:
--If it has more than five ingredients, don’t eat it.
--Avoid any foods you’ve seen advertised on television.
--Don’t get your fuel at the same place your car does.
--Avoid foods that never rot—like Twinkies.

My personal favorite tip is the seven words on the "In Defense of Food" book cover. Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Farm to Fork: Dining at the Ahwahnee

YOSEMITE, CA -- The first meal I ever ate in Yosemite National Park was lentil soup cooked on a wood burning stove by my college roommate Elida, a seasonal employee in the summer of 1983. The earthy, heart-warming concoction was divine after a full-day’s hike near Yosemite’s iconic Half-Dome. Yet we still dreamed of a time when our cash flow would allow us a full-course meal at the historic Ahwahnee Hotel. Twenty-five years later, we dined on halibut, hand-harvested scallops and organic greens in the jewelry box-like dining room, framed by Yosemite Falls and Glacier Point with head of the restaurant Chef Percy. (l to r: Ingrid, Elida and Chef Percy)

The element of surprise in this long-awaited dining experience is that almost all menu items come from within a 150 mile radius of Yosemite National Park: call it the “farm-to-fork” concept. “Sustainable agriculture is cornerstone to the slow food movement,” said Executive Chef Percy Whatley, a 20-year cooking veteran of Yosemite. “We live near the San Joaquin Valley, California’s breadbasket. We are committed to local resources for organic produce, free-range chickens, and grains. In Yosemite, it’s easier to think about the environment. We are on the cutting edge of this movement.”

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Rafting -- South Fork of the American River

LOTUS, CA -- “This next rapid is called Hospital Bar. You either end up in the hospital or you want to be in a bar, drinking,” said our river guide Peter “Mac” MacLaren from the back of the raft. Before I could even say margarita, we dive headlong into a Class Three rapid – 1,350 cubic feet per second of ice-cold Sierra Nevada snowmelt funneling through a rocky channel of pure exhilaration, soaking us to the bone. Woo-hoo! Now this is what I call living.

I am on the 12-mile “Gorge” stretch on the South Fork of the American River aboard the raft affectionately called “Ship of Fools.” It is near the historic site of Coloma, where gold was first discovered in California. “Eureka, I’ve found it” has given way to “show me some plastic,” as our boatload of six, high-five our paddles together after surviving the likes of Satan’s Cesspool and the Recovery Room.

River Runners, our adventure host, has been running trips on this stretch of the American River for over 25 years. According to Peter Mac, who’s been guiding since 1993, today there are over 100 boats on this river—a traffic jam of thrill seekers, hell bent on adventure. There are college students with water guns and helmet-wearing kayakers zipping through the rapids. Watching on the sidelines from the comfort of their lawn chairs are sunbathers on sandy beaches. A blowtorch wind hurls through the canyon as we make our way down river. I spy a weathered pirate flag with “surrender your booty” written in white. The countryside is divided: pastoral Chaparral, low-land Manzanita shrubs; to the more alpine-looking Ponderosa, Live Oak and Alder. Yonder on the hill is the Lollipop Tree. We all break out into obnoxious songs.

My beloved friends Rose and Shirish are with me on this 100 degree day as we advance through more than ten, Class two and three rapids. Bouncing Rock, Son of Satan, Lost Hat, each offer its own level of excitement. As we advanced through Midgets with Golf Clubs and were tossed from our seats to the raft bottom Shirish yells, “your husband picked a great day to get married.” I smiled to myself, looked at him and said, “former – my former husband.” We all laughed, then hung on for dear life as the next E-ticket Disney ride slammed our boat.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Chappell Vineyard and Winery

MARIPOSA, CA -- If you are looking for an earthy, premium blend of wines that are homegrown and family owned, look no further than Mariposa's Chappell Vineyard and Winery. Owners Dave and Kathy Chappell, former schoolteachers, maintain all aspects of production ‘cept for prunin’ and pickin.’ I recommend the 2005 Kylie’s Syrah, named after their 22-year-old daughter Kylie. The rich and full berry flavor will have you wishing you were a bon vivant in the Sierra Foothills, soaking up that glorious sunshine and breathing in that wholesome clean air. Charming.

Tenaya Lodge

YOSEMITE, CA -- Tenaya is a swanktastic rustic lodge that offers a rugged sensuality in which to indulge your inner child in lots of outdoor play. Visit this über-cool lodge and find a perfect place to springboard to Yosemite National Park’s southern entrance—a scant two-miles away. Although once you arrive at this 244-room abode, you may want to stick around, there is so much to do. Summertime offers campfire sing-a-longs, barbecues, train rides and even a chuck wagon. Holidays are big at the Tenaya, with gingerbread house making parties, dinner with Santa, and horse-drawn sleigh rides. There are plenty of great dining options at this lodge. Ask Chef Freddy to cook some of his fabulous pasta for you—creativity at its finest.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Do the crime, spend the time: traffic school

SACRAMENTO, CA -- I am in the the pokey, or Great Comedians traffic school in a Sacramento strip mall. Our teacher is Bob Webb, a 72-year-old, self-proclaimed farmer from the red-neck town of Harold, California. Helping to teach the 400-minute, 9-5 course is Oscar, Bob’s diminutive Yorkie Terrier. There are 26 traffic violators with me on this Saturday. Half are here for speeding, the other for stop lights, one for crossing a double yellow line and the other for an unsafe lane change. “If we added up all the fines for everyone in this class, we could have one hell of a party,” Bob laughs. He ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie I think to myself. To support the County of Lake Tahoe, I contribute $364 for my speeding ticket; $64 for the promise of attending traffic school; and $38 in cash to Bob for a fun-filled day with 26 of my new criminal friends. At $466 per person, we collectively contribute over $12,000 to our down-trodden economy. Who said crime doesn’t pay?