Friday, July 31, 2015

Visiting Wine Country - A Wine Buyer's Manifesto


Take a shot glass. Put half an ounce of water in it. Pour it in a wine glass. That tiny bit of liquid is what you usually get when you get a taste of wine in a tasting room. 
No problem…wineries aren’t bars and they don’t want their patrons getting drunk and driving around on the rural roads that usually appear in wine country (by the way, you’re not supposed to swallow it...you’re supposed to taste it and spit it out into the bucket provided so the alcohol doesn’t erode your sense of taste).
We love wine here at The World on Wheels. We love that, in our biased opinion, we live in the greatest wine producing area in the world.
Many of our trips involve wine tasting and drinking. Some are even taken just to taste the wine and we usually come home with at least two cases of wine in our trunk.
Winery owners…take note of that last sentence above…at least two cases, a lot of the time, even more.  Now, let me tell you how you’re killing the golden goose…wine buyers like me.
Here are the reasons that I’m really starting to sour on going to wineries for tasting and wine buying…



Exorbitant tasting fees.  Wine tasting used to be free. This perk is fast diminishing.  Then it became a token fee, to dissuade from getting plastered and driving down those narrow country lanes.
Let’s face it, a $5 fee isn’t going to break the bank and, if you let me apply that price to my purchase, not a problem.  The problem comes when I go to a winery, they charge $12 to $20, or more,for 5 small sips (the minimum going rate in many wine destinations these days) and then tell me I can’t apply that amount to my purchase.  First, I’ll probably look you in the eye, say “are you serious?”, and turn around and walk out when I find you are. Second, I won't be back and I won't be buying your wine.
I usually visit 5 or more wineries a day. I’m not going to pay $24 or more (for at least my wife and myself) at each stop for the “privilege” of sampling wine (see the first paragraph for how much of a taste you get) at each one, especially if I can’t use that amount for my purchase.
High Wine Prices.  I realize that some wines are so good, so lovingly had crafted with great care by the winemaker that they justify quite a premium. However, I just paid for the gas to drive my butt up to your vineyard, to (probably) pay for the “experience” of tasting your wine. I just saved you plenty in shipping costs alone. I don’t want to pay $25 a bottle for your wine, then drive down the hill and see it on the shelf of Albertson’s for $6.99.  If they can sell it to me for that price, you sure can too.



Wine Clubs. The latest lame excuse to extract more money from winery customers to get them to buy more.  I don’t know of any winery that doesn’t have a wine club these days.  The come on is “join our wine club and you’ll get free perks” like free tasting, discounts on wine, and other special promotions. The catch is that you’ll have to buy at least a couple of bottles of wine that they select for club members that are not cheap, and pay for shipping if you don’t live nearby, several times a year. On average, with shipping, this will cost you at least $60 for each two bottle shipment.
At many wineries, this is the only way you’ll get a discount and that is usually measley…something on the order of 10% per case. Hell, my local Ralph’s offers me a 30% discount on 6 bottles now, how is this supposed to entice me – especially if you just have a few selections of wine that I’ll get over and over?  And am I expected to join every winery’s club?  All 3,300+ in California?
Give me a meaningful case discount without having to join an expensive club. Give me a club where I don’t have to pay (Sobon Estate, for example, only asks for your e-mail address to join the club and get a 20% case discount).


Or if you absolutely must have a club, why don’t you join forces with other wineries in your area and have a regional wine club? Can you imagine what a wine club featuring selections from all the Sonoma wineries would be like?
(NOTE: There are several independent wine clubs that get wine from all over the world and not charge you an arm and a leg for the privilege – one I’m a member of and highly recommend is The Wine of the Month Club in Monrovia, California.)
Nightclub Atmosphere. Recently, on a wine tasting adventure, we stepped into a winery tasting room. It was like entering a disco. Loud live band, crowded, dancing, complete with bartender wiping down a spot saying “twelve dollars each, what’ll you have?” Turned around and walked out. If you’re going to foster that kind of atmosphere, just stop calling yourself a winery and say you’re a bar or nightclub.



Okay, now that I’ve listed my biggest pet peeves, know that I still find some outstanding examples of wineries that mostly do it right. Props go to the wineries of Amador County – home of some of the best red wines on earth – for scoffing at the idea of charging for tasting, at least for now (though a couple of pretentious newcomers are trying to change that); Galleano for hanging on by a thread, charging a modest fee ($5) that can be applied to their very inexpensive and delicious selections (they’ll even give you a coupon to have a glass of their wine at a local Basque restaurant); and the increasingly hard to find, honest winemakers of California that prefer to let their wine to the talking before you open your wallet.
For the rest of you, please take some of this commentary to heart. I’d like to enjoy trips to the wine country again.
-Darryl
Copyright 2012 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Monday, July 27, 2015

CALIFORNIA'S HIDDEN WINE COUNTRY

 

CALIFORNIA’S HIDDEN WINE COUNTRY
California has 100 American Viticultural Areas (AVA).  An AVA is a distinct wine grape growing region with boundaries set by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF).  Some you’ve heard of…Napa Valley, Paso Robles, Sonoma Valley, Mendocino, Russian River…others may have escaped notice such as North Yuba, Seiad Valley, or Covelo.
Once, the MAJOR wine producing area of the state was 40 miles east of Los Angeles in the Cucamonga Valley, better known today as the Inland Empire.  With commercial vineyards dating back to 1838, it is among the oldest wine grape growing areas in the state.  At over 20,000 acres at the start of Prohibition, it was also the largest.  At that time, it had more vineyard acreage than Sonoma and Napa Counties combined.


Watch the Video!

With the booming expansion of the Los Angeles metro area, development pressures hit this area hard.  Skyrocketing land prices found many vineyards being sold, plowed under, and becoming housing tracts, shopping centers, highways, factories, and warehouses.  Little is left of the wide-open countryside I enjoyed as a youth.
Still, the old, historic vines have not completely disappeared but they still face enormous pressure.  Now, two larger producers and a couple of very small boutique wine makers are all that are left.  Sitting beneath the snow-covered peak of Mt. Baldy, this is California’s most endangered wine producing region.
It’s a Saturday with rain off and on, mostly on.  We start our day at the Original Pancake House in Orange County’s Yorba Linda.  After a filling breakfast of 49’r Flapjacks, we head over one of the last rural roads in the area, Carbon Canyon Road, which connects the area to the Inland Empire community of Chino Hills.  From there, we make our way over to our first stop, Galleano Winery in Mira Loma.


My grandmother lived a few blocks away when I was a kid.  We’d ride our motorcycles and horses for miles over the wide-open countryside here.  Now, it’s covered with houses, factories, and warehouses but at the junction of the 15 and 60 freeways, if you look to the east , there’s several acres of grapes being grown in the sandy soil.  On the street, you’ll be surrounded by warehouses.  If you turn at just the right stop sign (at Wineville and Merrill), you’ll enter a time machine and be on a small country lane with barns, farmhouses, animals, and the winery itself. 


This is exactly the way I remember Mira Loma from when I was a child.  It’s also so out of place these days as to be called “historic.”  The area is known for growing big, bold red grapes.  Zinfandel, Grenache, Mission, and Mourvèdre…all good grapes that stand up to the valley’s intensely hot summers.
At the back of the former truck mechanic’s garage is a small house that now serves as the tasting room.  Five tastes are $5 per person, price will be applied to any purchase.  While white wines are available (Galleano sources these grapes from other areas or contracts with other wineries to produce them), the reds are the star of the show here.  Cucamonga Peak Red, Legendary Pioneers Zinfandel, Old Vine Zin, Port, and Sherry are made very well here.
The valley terroir has a strong taste that infuses the wines made here.  Galleano is very good…and also very reasonable in price.  Wines here start at around $5 a bottle…good wine, too.  Many of the wines are also available in 4L jugs which make the price even lower and are great for parties.  We particularly like the haute sauterne, port, and Chianti in the jugs.

Be sure to grab a flyer from Centro Basco, a local Basque restaurant, which includes a coupon for two free glasses of Galleano wine with your dinner.
If you bring a picnic, this is a great place to grab a bottle.  Borrow a couple of glasses from the tasting staff, go outside to their little park, and have a nice relaxing lunch.  Nearby is a small zoo with farm animals such as geese and donkeys.  Hundreds of guinea pigs roam in their enclosure and a few peacocks preen.
I could spend an entire, relaxing day here but we’ve got another stop to make.

A few miles to the north, in the town of Rancho Cucamonga, is the other large wine maker here.  Joseph Fillippi has a winery and tasting room set up on Baseline Road, just east of Day Creek Boulevard off of the 210 freeway and a few blocks north of Route 66.  While there is a very small vineyard here, you can see the houses built right up to the winery’s walls…an eerie reminder that this place may not have too much of a future left.
More businesslike and industrial than Galleano, Filippi’s tasting room is a large retail establishment.  Tasting is not free here…$5 gets you five poker chips.  You trade a chip for a taste of wine.  With over 20 wines available for tasting, those five chips won’t get you very far.  If there are a few of you, share tastes with each other so you can try a larger variety of wines.
We taste several wines starting with the chardonnay and the Alicante rose and ending up with their cab/franc, zinfandels, and a variety of ports.  It’s all good but not quite as good as the wine we had earlier in Mira Loma.  That, and the fact that we just spent our money on tasting, meant that we bought the day’s wines at Galleano…not Filippi.
When will wineries stop being greedy with the tastes?  I always end up buying more where I can at least deduct my tasting fee from my purchase…this is not the case at Fillipi.
Still, they have decent wine and bottles starting at $3.95, which makes them quite a bargain compared to wineries up north and to the south in Temecula.
There is also a small appetizer bar here.  You can buy a bottle to take outside and share an app.  Not a bad way to spend the day.
I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about the area’s other major tasting room, San Antonio Winery off of the 60 freeway in Ontario.  It’s also a nice place with complimentary tasting and they too have a small zoo.  A branch of the main winery in Los Angeles, this winery does not grow or produce wines here in the valley…it is strictly a tasting room.
At the end of the day, we drive back over the Chino Hills to Anaheim and have a nice dinner at the Phoenix Club, a private German club which has a restaurant and pub that is open to the public.  Here we finish the adventure, dining on schnitzel, sausages, and pretzels and wondering how much longer that handful of wine makers over the hill can last.

Darryl
Copyright 2011 – Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

ADVENTURES CLOSE TO HOME: Living In a Disaster Movie


Southern California may be seen as a blessed-by-nature, sunny paradise but there's a darker side to that coin. We are also cursed with a range of natural disasters.

It's summer. Hot, dry, and ready to burn. With little rain in the last four years, we have millions of acres filled with dry brush, dead trees, and even shrubs that will spontaneously combust.

Walking outside and smell smoke? Well, it could be one of my neighbors having a barbecue but I glance up to the mountains behind our house to make sure I don't see any plumes of smoke.

There are plenty of natural or accidental causes to fires but the worst are the people who go up into the wilderness to either start them on purpose or do things that they should know better not to, like the three brain dead cretins who went up to have a campfire and smoke pot. They ended up starting the Colby Fire last year that burned thousands of acres and more than a few homes.



You don't want to look up and see this yellow plane flying low over your house. It's a super scooper, a plane that flys low to scoop up water from a nearby lake then dump it on a fire. This one was snapped from our driveway during one of last year's fires.

While we've been lucky so far, we did have the van loaded up and ready to go for the evacuation order that was coming until our firefighters finally stopped the advance of the Colby fire.

Fire news on our local stations also come in two flavors.  In dry years..."the vegetation is super dry so we need to be very careful not to set in on fire," or in the wet years..."the rain has made everything grow so fast so we have to be very careful not to set it on fire now that it's dry."

Basically, any way you look at it, we're screwed with fire. 



Speaking of wet years, after a big burn, you can bet the next big rain storm will be washing all of that burned off soil into people's homes.  Mudslides are another big disaster we need to deal with on a regular basis.



In the desert, they have to be on the lookout for flash floods. In fact, just a couple of days ago, a flood took out a bridge on the main L.A. to Phoenix freeway.

While we don't usually deal with hurricanes, we do have wind storms.  Every couple of years, there seems to be a major one taking down trees and cutting power in our neighborhoods. We get more damage from this in our area than anything else. In fact, my mother lost the roof to her garage several years ago to a small tornado.



And last, but certainly not least, earthquakes are our claim to disaster fame.  We tend to shake 'em off...slight pun intended...because, what else are you going to do?  They only last a minute or so and for the most part, people aren't really hurt by them. There are a few in concentrated areas that can make it scary if you dwell on it but it's kind of like flying. You know people crash and die but the odds are extremely long that it will happen to you.

So, living here, you need to know that you can easily get shaken, burned, blown away, or flooded but you'll get over it.

At least we don't have hurricanes.





Darryl
Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 17, 2015

TRIP REPORT: Southern California - Inland Empire Wines

Continuing with our Inland Empire (IE) theme, did you know that it's the home to one of the state's oldest wine producing regions? Granted AVA status in 1995, the Cucamonga Valley is home to acres of zinfandel, mission, grenache, and Carignane...all red wine grapes that do well in the areas very hot summers and sandy soil.  They've been at it here since 1838.
Massive ongoing construction has uprooted many farms and ranches here.

It's also one of the state's most endangered wine countries.  The IE has long played the role of relief valve to the exploding population of the region.  What was mostly empty stretches of vineyards, citrus groves, farms, and ranches 40 years ago is now full of homes, freeways, factories, and warehouses.  Most of the area's grape plantings have been ripped up, paved over, and built upon.

Two major wine producers plus a couple of smaller wineries still make a go of it in the area, however. J. Filippi and Galleano are the majors.  Rancho de Philo and Hofer are the smaller producers.

You can visit Filippi and Galleano wineries almost daily.  Fillipi is in Rancho Cucamonga, Galleano is in Mira Loma near the junction of Interstate 15 and the 60 freeways.

The Galleano farm is a step back in time.  Exiting off of the Etiwanda exit of the 60 freeway, you might think you've taken a wrong turn.  You're immediately in the heart of factories and warehouses...not a grape in sight.  Follow the signs and you'll soon find this slice of old California tucked in between.

The old farm buildings house the tasting room, the winery itself, and the residences of the Galleano family and their workers.  A nice lawn is on your left.  Beyond that, many farm animals in a small zoo.  It's peaceful, pretty, and looks just like the whole area did when I used to visit my grandmother here back in the 1970's.

Past the old motor bays and the antique gas pumps, a banging, wooden screen door guards the entrance to the small tasting room.  The staff will be happy to pour you several complimentary tastes.  If Don Galleano is there, odds are that he'll try to sell you a membership in their wine club.  He's a great talker...odds are that you'll join and receive two of their wines every few months.

Get a little cheese, buy a bottle (hint, the same good wines come in large jug sizes with different names at a huge discount), and have a little picnic on the lawn.  Especially good are the local zinfandels...a highly endangered and rare grape...and their fortified ports and sherries.


I don't know how to describe it, but the terroir here imparts a strong, unique taste to the wines.  If you taste 
a Cucamonga Valley wine and taste it again years later, you'll recognize it.


Another hint for Galleano.  A great, local Basque restaurant...Centro Basco in nearby Chino...proudly pours Galleano as their house wine.  Pick up a coupon here at the winery and have a free glass with dinner at this historic and great restaurant.  If you want more, the Galleano Claret is only $8 a bottle at the restaurant.


Darryl
Copyright 2010 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

ADVENTURES CLOSE TO HOME: Traffic Woes


Our traffic is legendary here in Los Angeles and the surrounding metro area. I've seen worse around the world but it is pretty stifling here. Depending on who's calculating, there are 17 to 18 million people here.

That's 44% of the entire state of California's population.

It sometimes seems like every one of those 17 million souls are on your freeway sometimes.  As residents, we create strategies to minimize our time on those roads.



For example, we won't travel west of Interstate 110 more than a couple of times a year. I haven't seen the beach in Santa Monica in over a decade.  Malibu? Might as well be in another state.  It takes less time for me to drive to Bakersfield than Marina del Rey most of the time.

The biggest curse is to have to navigate that traffic every day. The biggest blessing is to be 'going against' traffic on your commute.  Even driving to our church on a Saturday evening is a car-filled slog across the San Gabriel Valley.



One big disadvantage we have in the valley is it is bisected from north to south by a river. That the 'river' is nothing but dry dirt 90% of the time is of no consequence.  There are still only nine bridges in the 12 miles from the bottom of the valley to the mountains. Three of those are freeway.  Block one, and the rest are hopelessly gridlocked.

I've heard of people begging off of family wedding invitations because the 15 miles they'd have to drive would take a maddening 90 minutes or more.

Our beach drive is usually to Seal Beach because it's not only among the closest beaches to our house but there's also a carpool lane on the 605, giving us a slight advantage in travel time.  



I commute to my job in downtown Los Angeles by driving not into L.A., but over to El Monte to catch an express bus that goes in it's own reserved lane on the middle of the freeway. Soon, when the next light rail expansion is finished, I can dispense with that and take a trolley from a station five blocks from my house.

When we're not cooking dinner and my wife wants me to go and get takeout, our dinner choice is limited to what is in the local area that I don't have to sit in traffic to get to. 

Even our narrow, two lane street get's clogged at rush hour because it has a dubious distinction of running east to west from one end of our city to the other.



Of course, the real culprits are drivers who value a few seconds shaved over the safety of others on the road, get into accidents, and clog everything up. Even the president can get traffic snarled here, woe to those who get stuck in Obamajams.

True, we do get to live in a good climate but I admit, I get tired of the headaches we have to deal with to live here at times and this is one of the biggest.





Darryl
Copyright 2015 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved

Friday, July 3, 2015

Seattle, Washington - Part 2



Previously on Seattle, Part 1...



We'd saw some overpriced baseball, met some TV stars, watched big fish swimming underwater, and just missed having to be evacuated from a monorail.






The next morning, we decide to walk downtown. A bit of a mistake when we pass a rough section where drug deals are taking place out in the open and a couple of guys start to fight because one thinks the other shorted him out of a couple of rocks of crack. It’s just a short strip down the wrong street but next time we’ll get back on the bus instead.







At the ferry terminal, we buy our tickets and take a 30 minute trip across the sound to
Bainbridge Island. It’s about a half mile walk from the ferry terminal to the middle of town…there are also buses if you can’t walk that far…where we find a delightful little farmers market going on with some unusual fruit and vegetables. We buy some to make a picnic with later. Down at the waterfront, we find a boardwalk and dirt trail along the water that allows us to hike about half a mile up an inlet where we see some old ferries being mothballed, many blooming flowers, birds, and some beautiful houses.






Back in town, we buy some burgers to go with our fruit for a waterfront picnic.

After spending the morning in Bainbridge, it’s back on the boat. My wife wants some seafood, which curiously, we cannot find a whole lot of here. Some guides suggest Ivar’s, near the ferry terminal, so we head to an outdoor counter there where you can buy food to eat in a nearby dining area.



Ordering here is unique…basically there is no line, no system. Everybody crowds in and when the order taker is ready, everybody just kind of shouts their orders in at the same time. I’m told this is just the traditional way to do it here. We do eventually get our food but it is very chaotic and confusing…not really my cup of tea. The food is good, but it is heavy on the “deep fried” variety of seafood.



Earlier in the week, we walked through the Seattle Center where the Space Needle is located. We had learned that it would be $16 just to take a ride up in the elevator. That’s quite steep. I also learned there are a couple of alternatives.






The circa 1914 Smith tower (of Smith/Corona typewriter fame) near Pioneer Square is one of them. Just a bit shorter than the Space Needle (522 feet vs. 605 feet), the observation deck is actually 2 feet higher than the Space Needle, which has a deck at 520 feet. It’s only $7.50 to go up here to the famous Chinese room and to step out into the fresh air.



It’s very beautiful up there, and it’s not just the view. The owners have amassed a collection
of Chinese antiques and furnishings to enhance the surroundings. A chair up there is supposed to grant magical powers to single women that sit in it…they are to find their groom after doing so.



It is at this point where I’d usually say we went back, had another nice night in the hotel, and went back home but there is one more adventure that would await us. I called the same taxi company that brought us from the airport and reserved an accessible cab for noon the next day to take us back.



At noon, waiting in the rain in front of the hotel…nothing. At 12:20, I called the cab company and asked where the cab was. The man on the phone said, quote, “just because you reserved a cab doesn’t mean one will show up.” When I asked for an ETA, he hung up the phone somewhere between the letters T and A.




Where I come from a reservation means they will set aside the item to be reserved. Also, when a paying customer calls and…politely I might add…asks where the item to be reserved is and when it will be there, you don’t hang up on them.




We had a problem; the airport is 15 miles away on the other side of town. We had no idea when, or even if, our ride would get there. We had one slim chance to get out of town in time to make our 2:40 flight.



Grabbing our bags, we hoofed it to the busiest bus corner about two blocks away. When a bus pulled up, we ask the driver the quickest route to get to the airport. She said, “hop on.”


At Pioneer Square, she dropped us off at the Downtown Transit Tunnel and told us to catch a bus down there (the transit tunnel is like a subway, only used by buses instead). We find the bus, get on, and make it to the airport about an hour before departure. Indeed, Seattle transit workers are the nicest and most accommodating we’ve ever encountered…they really saved the day, and our vacation, by their actions.



As I’m waiting in the departure lounge, my cell phone rings. It’s the taxi driver. He’s in front of the hotel, wondering where the hell I am. I said to him “do you know what your dispatcher did to me when I called?” He said no. I pressed the disconnect button.



Darryl
Copyright 2009 - Darryl Musick
All Rights Reserved