Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

My first trip to Napa Valley

June 21, 2010

Napa Valley is the place for wine.  If you’re a wino like me, you know what I’m talking about.  Just like skiers have the Swiss Alps, political junkies have Washington D.C., and geeks have Comic Con—we have Napa Valley.  I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to visit Napa for the very first time on a recent family mini-vacation up to San Francisco.

On the recommendation of my wine instructor, I visited The Hess Collection Winery.  The winery was started by Donald Hess, a Swiss-born entrepreneur who came to the States looking for business opportunities.  During his stay he fell in love with Napa Valley and eventually started his own winery in 1989.

The building where the Estate lives today was originally built in 1903 as a winery.  When prohibition came about in the 1920s, the winery was overtaken by The Christian Brothers who were permitted to make sacramental wine.  Up to this day, Mr. Hess continues to rent the property from The Christian Brothers.

First thing’s first, we headed to the tasting room!

For ten dollars, I tried four wines.

I began with the 2007 Mount Veeder 19 Block Cuvée, a delicious blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 17% Malbec, 4% Syrah, 4% Merlot, and 1% Petit Verdot.  This complex wine has aromas of black currant and plum.  Intense dark fruit flavors and medium plus tannins interact on the tongue to produce a strong finish.

Next I tried their 2007 Artezin Petite Sirah.  Not to be confused with Syrah, Petite Sirah is a varietal whose namesake came from early planters who mistook the variety for Syrah when it was first being introduced to Californian vineyards, but because it’s grapes are much smaller it was deemed “Petite Sirah”.  Black fruit character, high tannins and high acidity intertwine to create a highly drinkable wine.

Hess produces two characteristically different Chardonnays—think of it as French vs. Californian.  Their 2007 Su’Skol Vineyard Chardonnay is more reminiscent of a traditional, French-style Chardonnay because of it’s time spent in 30% new French oak barrels, adding flavors of toast and vanilla to the mix.  In stark contract, their 2007 Hess Collection Mount Veeder Chardonnay reflects a crisper, more fruit-forward style with flavors like nectarine and apricot—a trend that is becoming increasingly popular with Californian Chardonnays.

Surprisingly the Mount Veeder Chard was aged in four-to-five-year-old French oak, not stainless steel like one might assume.  Because the oak is older it only gives off neutral flavors, no oak.  I favored the Mount Veeder Chard, which is saying a lot for someone like me who is slightly obsessed with buttery and oaky French-style Chardonnays.  Wine Spectator gave it a 90 point rating out of 100, so you know it must be good!

The best part about The Hess Collection Winery is the winery itself.  Like something straight out of a fairy tale, the property is breathtakingly beautiful.  In the garden they have a lovely outdoor seating area reserved for food and wine tastings.  Luckily it was a slow day so we were able to secure a nice table beneath the trellis.

We ordered a sampling of three cheeses for $14.00 which came with Manchego cheese, blue cheese, and a triple-cream cheese made from organic cow’s milk.  On the side they included a bowl of candied walnuts and the best dried Michigan cherries you’ve ever tasted.

During our visit to the winery, we took advantage of the free tour where I learned a lot about the history of the winery and the owner, Donald Hess.  The tour also included a visit to the vineyards, where they harvest grapes for their Mount Veeder wines, and is followed by a short-film in the theater.  The film goes into depth about the land they harvest the grapes on and the specific opportunities and challenges they face with growing wine on mountain terrain.

The tour finally ended with a stop in their wine barrel room.  Here the wine ages for a chosen period of time in oak barrels, allowing it to develop new flavors and complexities.

If The Hess Collection Winery is any indication of what Napa Valley has to offer, then I’m ready to dive in feet first!  Even though I only had time to visit one winery, I definitely maximized my visit by taking advantage of the free tour, enjoying a wine tasting, and noshing on tasty cheeses.

If that isn’t the quintessential Napa experience, I don’t know what is.  What I am sure of, however, is that I want to return someday in the near future.  In the words of my Govenator, “I’ll be back.”




Jazz & my Californian Adventure

June 4, 2010

Yesterday I took my friend Jazz up to California Adventure to celebrate her birthday!  She had been dying to go to Disneyland for awhile now and finally settled on her birthday for the date.  Looking back now I wish we had gotten the “park hopper” pass so we could have go back and forth between Cali Adventure and Disney, but I was attempting to be frugal.  I think it worked out though because we got to see all the attractions that mattered and now I have something to look forward to next time I go!

Did you know Cali residents can get an annual pass for just $8 a month?!  All you have to do is purchase one ticket for the day, tell them you want the annual pass, and they’ll withdrawal it from your bank account automatically.

As soon as we entered the park we came across a vineyard!  Turns out you can’t go anywhere in California without tripping over grape vines.  The sign said Golden Vine Winery.  I didn’t get to do any wine tasting, but perhaps next time?

First we rode Mickey’s Ferris Wheel of Impending Doom where they lock you up in steel cages and force you to go round and round until you become nauseous!  This is the “before” picture, clearly…

Thankfully we recovered and managed to see the rest of the park!  I finally got the ca-hones to ride the Tower of Terror appropriately named the Hollywood Tower Hotel in California.  I still ended up screaming my head off!

While waiting in line we encountered Master Yoda.  I wanted to say hi but he looked like he had his hands full training the next Luke Skywalker…

We also managed to visit Muppet Vision, one of my favorite attractions as a kid and we didn’t even have to wait in line!  I love being able to go to Disneyland during the middle of the week when we can avoid the crowds.

After the park, we walked around Downtown Disney and ate dinner at the Rainforest Cafe.  Cool place, great food, baaaad wine.  I guess I should have known better being in a tropical paradise and all, but I’m a wino at heart—can you blame me?  Next time I’ll go for the Paradise Punch.

All & all it was SO MUCH FUN and I cannot wait to go back!  I also want to hit up the French Cafe in Downtown Disney where they serve fresh made benets!  Mmm… my favorite!  Reminds me of New Orleans, but that’s another story. 🙂



Santa Monica!

May 30, 2010

This past week I drove my friend Jasmine up to Los Angeles

Jasmine is a writer and soon-to-be publisher author!  She runs her own blog called Eat Move Write and is currently in the works of writing her FIRST book!  I hung out at a local Starbucks while she met with her agent up in West Beverly Hills.  Her meeting didn’t take long and afterward we decided to check out Santa Monica since we were about 10 minutes away.

We ended up walking around downtown Santa Monica.  I was enamored by all the cute shops and loved how the streets were completely closed off from cars, leaving pedestrians free to walk in the middle.  Although they had your staple expensive clothing and high-end stores you would expect from L.A., my favorite stores were a toys and games shop called the Puzzle Zoo and Ye Olde King’s Head, a shop that carried imports from Great Britain.  I bought a t-shirt at the games shop for $5!

We also stopped to eat at this wonderful French country-style cafe called Le Pain Quotidien (The Daily Bread).

All of their coffees were Peruvian organic! *so proud*

I ordered the Chicken Curry Salad Tartine with side of harissa-cranberry chutney.  De-Lish!  I ate about 3/4s because I wanted to save room for…

You guessed it… dessert!  It was a lemon custard made with fat free yogurt.  It was ok.

After lunch, we walked around some more and then headed down to the boardwalk where there were ride, shops, and more restaurants (though I didn’t get any pictures of that… whoops!).

The ocean was absolutely beautiful.  Even though we were freezing cold, we were determined to walk down the entire boardwalk!  When we finally made it to the end, we were in for a big surprise…

Mr. Seal was waiting to greet us!  Say cheese!

It was a fun little trip to L.A., but I’m glad to call San Diego “home” for now at least!



A weekend gettaway at Hearst Castle Part III

May 15, 2010

The last leg of our trip involved a short drive North of our hotel to see the elephant seals!  Just off of Highway 1, we were able to see the seals up-close and in person since this time of the year happens to be their molting season.  The seals return to the shore to shed their coats once a year, and are also land-bound during their breeding and birthing seasons.  Apparently it can get quite ugly during breeding season where a lot of fights go down between the males!  Too bad we just missed it.

What are those gray dots?  Those are the seals!  Here’s a better look at the seals:

I know they look like they’re dying, but really their just being lazy!  See the one in the back with his back arched and his head pointed up at the sky?  That proves they are alive 😉

There had to be hundreds of these guys along the beach.  Amazing when you think about it.  Coming from Indiana, I’m not too familiar with marine life and the wonders it brings.  The closest comparison I have is seeing a live skunk!

Also the views here were absolutely amazing!  I really fell in love that weekend with the Central Coast.

Afterwards, we went on a hike nearby in an area that made me feel like I was no-where near California.  The forest was like something out of Hans and Gretel or Little Red Riding Hood.  It felt like a magical forest full of wonder and surprises…  and there were definitely surprises!  On our hike, we came upon this…

No, it’s not a twig… it’s a SNAKE!  He was blocking our one and only path.  Rather than disturb him from his nap (since yelling and stomping didn’t seem to wake him) we made a path through the grass and went around him.

The rest of the hike was very peaceful—no rabid squirrels or anything jumping out at us 😀  It was a nice end to our trip before we had to pack our bags and head back down South.  Anyway, I am literally counting the days until I head back up that way.  It’s definitely worth the 5-6 hour drive and if you get a chance, drive along Highway 1.  It’s breathtaking!



A weekend gettaway at Hearst Castle Part II

May 14, 2010

Last weekend, I went with a couple girlfriends up to visit Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California.  Even with the trip being so short, we managed to cram a lot into those 2 1/2 days which is why I’ve broken this trip into 3 different blog posts!  I like to give all the deets!

One of the things I didn’t realize until only a couple days before our trip was how close we were going to be to wine country!  Paso Robles, a huge wine hot spot in Central California, was only 45 mins – 1 hour from our motel!  They have somewhere around 180-odd wineries.

After touring Hearst Castle, I really really wanted to visit a winery but since most of them closed by 5pm, we decided just to go out to dinner.  We found a brochure at the motel and were sold on a little restaurant called Matthew’s that promised to deliver local wine, local ingredients, and “wine country cuisine”.

We started out with some local wine from Dancing Stallion.  We decided to try their 2006 Syrah which was absolutely amazing!  Very rich and full bodied with high tannins and a lush mouth-feel.  You could definitely smell the dark cherry and blackberry aromas!  Some of the best Syrah I have had to date.

The food was just as delicious!  I ordered the pumpkin ravioli.  I love anything with pumpkin.  Fall is my favorite season, so it shouldn’t be any surprise.

Pumpkin ravioli

I also split a salad with Julie.  I love fruit salads!  This one had pears and oranges and was topped with walnuts, Gorgonzola cheese, and a champagne and citrus vinaigrette.  It was très magnifique!

Fruit salad with Gorgonzola, walnuts, and champagne vingarette!

I love that the portions here were so small.  One, it makes you feel less guilty for indulging!  Two, the food is very rich and satisfying so you don’t need much.  Three, it leaves more room for DESSERT(s)!  We happened to order three.  What?!  There was three of us… 😉

Chocolate martini

Chocolate pave with pistachio

Apple caramel bread pudding

My favorite was the apple caramel bread pudding.  I’m not a huge chocolate fan—definitely not into the rich chocolates unless they are mixed with something a little more mellow to balance out the flavors.  For that reason, I didn’t love the chocolate pave which was pretty much like a supper rich, dense chocolate brownie with berries on top.   The chocolate martini on the other hand wasn’t bad with its layers of cream, ice cream, strawberries, and drizzle on top.

We each paid about $50 for the meal (ouch!) but it was totally worth it.  Sometimes you need to allow yourself to indulge in a wonderful meal that you know you can’t get anywhere else 🙂

I’m currently plotting my next adventure up to the Central Coast so I can finally visit their wineries!



A weekend gettaway at Hearst Castle Part I

May 6, 2010

Hearst Castle

This past weekend, a couple girlfriends and I headed on a weekend gettaway to the lovely Hearst Castle!  The famed castle, referred to affectionately as “the ranch” by Mr. William Randolph Hearst, began as a short project for a modest bungalow that quickly got out of hand.  Designed by architect Julia Morgan, the project spanned 28-years and was never officially completed due to the failing health of Mr. Hearst.

Hearst Castle


Me & the Girls in front of Casa Grande

Me & the Girls in front of Casa Grande

Today the 165 room castle takes up more than 90,000 square feet and is open to the public for tours.  Hearst was a collector of fine art who had a love for the historical architectural styles of Europe and that passion is deeply conveyed in his home.

The Neptune Pool

The Neptune Pool

Me in front of the Neptune Pool!

One of my favorite parts of the property was the awe-inspiring outdoor Neptune pool.  Inspired by the ancient architecture of Rome, the columns used in the pool actually date back to early Roman times and were one of the “collectibles” Hearst acquired.  Doesn’t the water look inviting?

Apparently the Hearst family still throws barbecues here.  I wonder how I could go about getting on the guest list. 😉

Fireplace in the Main House

The Main House

Hearst collected a lot of things, fireplaces included!  I wish I could remember all the dates on these, but as far as I know they are very, very old.  Everything in Hearst’s home is part of his collection.  It’s quite a site to see.  As I walked around the property, I felt like I was in Europe.  It was a small taste of something I someday look forward to!

The Dining Room

Place setting

The dining room was a gathering space where Hearst would share meals with the famous guests he invited to stay with him.  Breakfast and lunch were optional, but when the dinner bells rang everyone knew it was time to head into the dining room.  Although everything else was very formal, Hearst’s place setting was surprisingly casual because he wanted to make his guests feel at home.

I also included a picture of the dishes for my mom to see because she loves dishes and it’s in her colors!  I wish I could have brought a set home! 🙂

Here are some more random pictures of the interior of Hearst’s property:

Guest room

Beautiful ceilings

Ancient vases

As you can see Hearst collected everything from ceilings, doors, lamps, books, tapestries, and ancient vases.

Also, I had to snap a photo of the old wine bottles in Hearst’s kitchen. 🙂 Some of these bottles date back to the 1820s!  I can see that Hearst definitely had good taste in wine simply by reading the name of the region indicated on the bottle like Bordeaux and Chablis.

The Roman Pool

Gold tiles

The tour ended with a stop to the beautiful indoor Roman Pool.  It’s the perfect spot for a romantic, evening swim and probably one of the most expensive rooms in the estate due to the gold tiles used in the walls, floors, and pool!  This room was breathtaking and probably my favorite stop on the entire tour.

Special Events & Weddings!

Breathtaking views

Hold your special event or wedding right here!

One of the cool things I did discover is that you can hold events at Hearst’s Castle!  Yes, your wedding or special event could actually be held there.  Not to say it won’t cost you an arm and a leg because the price begins anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 to rent the space on top of a $1,000 – $2,000 non-refundable deposit.  Insurance up to 1 million dollars is also required.  So… you may want to consider your options unless you are like my friend Julie who plans on marrying a rich doctor! 🙂

Well, our photo tour is coming to an end!  The pictures don’t do ANY justice to the sheer magnificence that is Hearst Castle.  It’s really one of those things you have to see with your own eyes!  Hopefully this gives you a little teaser of what you have to look forward to because I HIGHLY recommend that you go see it if you get the chance.