Sonoma Sister Weekend, Part 2

In the Benziger vineyards (Katherine Hart, 2015)

In the Benziger vineyards (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Friday afternoon

Following our spa morning, we began our afternoon at Merry Edwards Winery, just around the corner from our house. It was here that we learned about the Russian River valley, its wines (primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), and more about the history of winemaking in this region. All of this was fascinating, but how were the wines? At ME, we tasted several Pinot Noirs, a couple Chardonnays, and a Sauvignon Blanc. I don’t have the best palate; it’s hard for me to pick up specific notes and nuances of wine. But I know what I like. These wines were refined and elegant, all of them drinkable. We all made purchases. I took home a bottle of Pinot, which is set aside for Thanksgiving.

We drove southeast through rolling hills and farmlands to the Glen Ellen region. One of my sisters was interested in seeing the Benziger Winery, a family-run winery that grows many of its grapes using biodynamic practices, which are even stricter than organic standards.

Barrels in the Benziger caves

Barrels in the Benziger caves (Katherine Hart, 2015)

View of Sonoma Mountain from the vineyards (Katherine Hart, 2015)

View of Sonoma Mountain from the vineyards (Katherine Hart, 2015)

We hopped on a tractor and took a tour of the Benziger estate, learning so much about the wine-making process from vines to bottling. The tour was capped off with an extensive tasting, and this time, I took home two bottles.

We finished off the afternoon at the Mayo Family Winery, which was fun. One of the Mayos poured our wine, and she taught us how to properly taste wine – how to swish the initial sip around our mouths first, how to “feel” the different tastes and textures of each wine.

In the Mayo tasting room (Katherine Hart, 2015)

In the Mayo tasting room (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Most wineries close between 4:30 and 5:00; Mayo remains open until 6:30 PM. Following our tasting, we drove back to Sebastopol and enjoyed a delicious meal at the French Garden restaurant.

Saturday

We anticipated more crowds on the weekend, and indeed, we saw more people out and about. Our plan was to start in the Armstrong Woods, about a half hour north of Sebastopol, then continue northeast towards Healdsburg. Our guide at Benziger had recommended both a winery and a good place for lunch, and we were eager to try both. But first, some redwoods.

#itsaredwood (Katherine Hart, 2015)

#itsaredwood (Katherine Hart, 2015)

IMG_3479

Cross-section of a fallen redwood (Katherine Hart, 2015)

 

These trees were amazing. The forest was simply beautiful – dark, ancient, cedar-scented. If you’re in Sonoma, don’t bother with Muir Woods. Head to Armstrong. Even though the parking lot was about half full when we arrived, there were times when we were the only people on the trail. It was awesome.

Wine, wine, and more wine! (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Wine, wine, and more wine! (Katherine Hart, 2015)

We continued the day trying wines in the Healdsburg area (Russian River, Dry Creek, and Chalk Hill). Rather than try to describe each winery individually, I’ll list them here, along with a few notes or impressions. We ended up going to five wineries that day – probably a few too many, but we had a great afternoon.

  • Mill Creek Vineyards & Winery: Our Benziger guide recommended we stop here. Some lovely wines, including some sweeter white wines, and a cozy tasting room.
  • La Crema: Known for their Chardonnays. They have a tasting room in downtown Healdsburg.
  • Rodney Strong Vineyards: A little bit more commercial than places like Mill Creek or Merry Edwards, but still a great tasting with a friendly and knowledgeable wine pourer. I took home a Sauvignon Blanc.
  • J Vineyards & Winery: Conveniently sharing a parking lot with Rodney Strong, we stopped in to J following our RS tasting. It was busy with end-of-the-day visitors. My sister and I shared a tasting, including one of delicious sparkling wine.
  • Deux Amis Winery/Mutt Lynch: Both wines can be tasted at the Tasting Room on the Green in downtown Windsor. This was a fun way to finish off the day! We had the tasting room to ourselves, and our host was witty and knowledgeable about both wines and Sonoma in general. She even recommended another good day spa for a future visit.
Healdsburg's central plaza (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Healdsburg’s central plaza (Katherine Hart, 2015)

A little peek of downtown Windsor (Katherine Hart, 2015)

A little peek of downtown Windsor (Katherine Hart, 2015)

The Tasting Room on the Green (Katherine Hart, 2015)

The Tasting Room on the Green (Katherine Hart, 2015)

We had lunch at Campo Fina and ice cream at Noble Folk, both in downtown Healdsburg. Dinner was at Zazu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol.

Sunday

It was time for me to return to Florida, but my sisters had one more night in California, which they spent in San Francisco. We departed Sebastopol around 5:00 AM, and I was soon on my way back home. My bottles of wine survived the trip, and it was back to work on Monday.

Final Thoughts, Etc.

It had been years since I was in California, and I had never visited Sonoma before – and I was honestly concerned that five days (travel included) would be not enough time to really savor the experience. It ended up being the perfect get-away, and such a great way to relax with my sisters and also able to do something we all love (eat amazing food and drink good wine). I was surprised by how many wineries there are – I could have spent five weeks exploring our little corner of Sonoma, never mind getting over to nearby Napa. There are a lot of recognizable wineries on the wine trail, but there are so many smaller places whose names you won’t see in your local wine shop. Try those first.

 

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Sonoma Sister Weekend, Part 1

I recently celebrated a milestone birthday (yay, 4-0!), and my two sisters and I decided to meet up on the West Coast for a little relaxation and fun. Good food, good wine, springtime weather – Sonoma seemed like the perfect destination. We departed our East Coast cities (Boston, Washington D.C., and West Palm Beach) on a Wednesday and spent several lovely days in wine country.

Wednesday

I love to travel, but hate the process. Airports, security lines, flying…all of these make me wish for teleportation. Until humans can travel that way, there’s in-flight wine and lots of podcasts. To be honest, my flights from Florida to New York then out to San Francisco were on-time and smooth. The three of us landed within an hour of each other, took an Uber car into the city, and checked into the Marriott Marquis for the night. We had a late dinner across the street at Annabelle’s Bar & Bistro and were soon tucked into bed after some planning for the following day.

Thursday

Good morning, SFO! View from our hotel room. (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Good morning, SFO! View from our hotel room. (Katherine Hart, 2015)

We awoke early and were downstairs by 8:00 AM to enjoy breakfast in the Concierge lounge. Eggs, bacon, fruit, coffee, tea – everything was delicious. We weren’t scheduled to pick up our rental car until after 10:00, so we strolled around the gorgeous Yerba Buena Gardens, just across the street from the hotel. It was a sunny, mild day; flowers bloomed, and we weren’t the only early morning strollers.

We departed the hotel and drove out of the city towards Sonoma. Traffic was light, and we reached Sebastopol within 1.5 hours. We had rented a cottage for our stay via Airbnb, but we couldn’t check in until later that afternoon. After a quick stop to grab some snacks. we continued our drive along the hilly highway to Bodega Bay.

View from Lucas Wharf  Restaurant and Bar at Bodega Bay (Katherine Hart, 2015)

View from Lucas Wharf Restaurant and Bar at Bodega Bay (Katherine Hart, 2015)

We enjoyed a leisurely lunch at Lucas Wharf, took a few pictures, and drove back towards Sebastopol. On our way into town, we stopped at our first winery of the weekend.

Joseph Phelps in Freestone (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Joseph Phelps in Freestone (Katherine Hart, 2015)

At Joseph Phelps, we tasted several Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs and learned a little more about the Sonoma Coast wine region. This part of California is known for its Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, as well as for some other varietals (throughout the weekend, we tasted some lovely Sauvignon Blancs, Cabernets, and even some Zinfandels and Malbecs). Most of the wineries we went to fell into the Russian River designation (called an AVA), and we learned about how the different regional microclimates influenced the production of the wines we tried.

Following our tasting, we headed back into town (one of us – not me! – was the designated driver at all times) and stopped at the Community Market to pick up food for the house. This is a wonderful independent grocery store carrying all sorts of local items: yogurt, bacon, fruit, cheese, and cider. There was also a Whole Foods in downtown Sebastopol, so plenty of opportunities to eat healthy.

Our little cottage was adorable! Two bedrooms, one bath, a fully-equipped kitchen, plenty of living space, and lovely gardens. Our host made us feel very welcome. Indeed, by Saturday, the place truly felt like home.

Living room in our cottage (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Living room in our cottage (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Christmas tree farm across the road (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Christmas tree farm across the road (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Backyard garden (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Backyard garden (Katherine Hart, 2015)

We finished off our first full day in Sonoma with an excellent dinner at the Underwood, about a 10-minute walk from our house.

Friday

Everything, including spa day, is better with bacon! (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Everything, including spa day, is better with bacon! (Katherine Hart, 2015)

There’s something about the Sonoma coast, whether it’s the fresh air, the spring sunshine, the grassy hills, or the natural beauty in general, that makes you want to take care of you, to eat well, to walk a little more, to treat yourself much more nicely. To help with the pampering part of our weekend away, we booked massages and facials at Bliss Organic Day Spa in downtown Sebastopol. I enjoyed a Blueberry Bliss Anti-Aging Facial (I am 40, after all), while my sisters enjoyed massages. We began our treatment relaxing with a cup of organic peppermint tea, enjoyed an hour of relaxation, then met up again in the waiting area. Following our spa morning, we wandered the downtown area. We didn’t linger too long because we had wine tasting plans.

Vineyards at Merry Edwards winery (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Vineyards at Merry Edwards winery (Katherine Hart, 2015)

To be continued in Part 2… (more wine tasting, ice cream sampling, and fine dining)

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Worth Reading #6: Catching Up!

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a Worth Reading post. I have been reading, but not as much as I would like to be. Some good books found their way into my collection over the past few months, however, and here are a few I recommend:

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters  It has been a long time since I’ve stayed up late to read a novel, a long time since I plopped down on the sofa after work and read for several hours straight. This amazing novel drew me in immediately with its gorgeous language and rich descriptions, and it was hard to put down. Set in post-WWI London, The Paying Guests explores a developing romance between two young women, one a spinster seemingly resigned to her fate of living with her mother in a formerly elegant home,  and the other a married woman boarding with the mother and daughter. The build up to the romance is deliciously paced, and just when it appears that the lovers have found happiness, there’s a shocking twist, a crime and its ramifications, that disrupts this sacred, private world that the women have created. Waters upsets the reader’s expectations with this twist, but takes the novel to a new and thrilling place. It’s a must read!

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter Ah, France. Ah, youthful, passionate love. In this novel, published in 1967, Salter captures a love affair between the young American Phillip Dean and the French woman Anne-Marie. The author plays with point-of-view throughout the story: sometimes we see scenes from Dean’s perspective, and other times we realize that we are seeing things (perhaps events that didn’t even happen) from an unnamed, older American narrator’s viewpoint (a fellow visitor to provincial France). The descriptions of the French countryside are marvelous, and Salter writes with a certain Hemingway-esque flair. The novel’s frank sex scenes were considered fairly shocking upon publication, but modern readers would find little surprising, other than that there is a lot of sex, as one would expect from two young people in love/lust. And without giving away too much, it is a tale of love without the happily-ever-after, which I eminently prefer.

The Martian by Andy Weir  The Wall Street Journal listed this book on their Best of 2014 compilation, and the story of this novel is compelling: a self-published author, loyal readers, and a forthcoming movie directed by Ridley Scott. Pretty terrific and inspiring! (Here is an interview with Weir, which tells more of his story.) The technical details in this novel are amazing. Weir crafts a believable tale of an astronaut struggling to survive after being accidentally left behind on Mars. Our hero Mark Watney documents his experiences, and these parts of the novel are fascinating. What I didn’t care for were the scenes off-Mars involving various NASA personnel endeavoring to bring Mark home. The writing at times was clunky, and the dialogue…writers, this is NOT how you write dialogue. That said, this is a compelling story, both on- and off-page, and it’s a fun, quick read.

The Lover by Margeurite Duras  The movie version of this novel caused a buzz back in the 1990s with its torrid and graphic portrayal of a forbidden romance between a young girl and an older man. The novel itself is a languid prose poem that weaves itself through the narrator’s memory of her relationship with a Chinese man in French Indochina (Vietnam) during the 1950s. Sometimes, the narrator returns again and again to a moment in time–she is standing on the boat, wearing a fedora, when her lover first sees her. Other times, the story takes a leap forward–the lovers reconnect, years later. There is so much packed into this slim volume: Western colonization and de-colonization, race, class, abuse, mental illness. Don’t expect a straight-forward, linearly-told romance, but take some time to enjoy the beauty of the prose and imagery.

 

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Orlando Holidays

The schools here shut down for two weeks over Christmas and New Year’s, and my husband works limited hours and enjoys some vacation days. Since we all were home at the same time, we decided to take a mini-vacation over the holidays. At first, I researched cruises, but found them dreadfully expensive and lacking interesting itineraries. Crossed that option off the list. Next choice, use hubby’s hotel points and spend a few nights away. I wanted a beach resort, but all of those dates were blacked out. So, we turned to Orlando, Florida, home of all things crazy-touristy. But there was a desirable hotel with availability, and it took points. Woo hoo! But, what would Orlando be like this time of the year, one of the busiest travel seasons?

We drove north the day after Christmas, and in three hours, we were in downtown Orlando, no traffic. We couldn’t check into the hotel until 3:00 PM, so we first headed to the Orlando Science Center. Yep, we’re the family who likes science museums. Forget the Mouse and the various theme parks—we do science first. (We’ve also been to Disney many, many times since moving to Florida seven years ago.) What a great museum! It wasn’t crowded, and for less than $19 per person (there are many discounts offered), we enjoyed the entire center, plus movie tickets to the films shown in the Dr. Phillips CineDome. We explored the world of bats, learned about dinosaurs, studied weather patterns, and played engineering games. We watched “Hidden Universe” on the massive CineDome screen, and enjoyed lunch at Subway.

On our way to the hotel, we bypassed I-4 (horrible traffic) and drove through the city. Ivanhoe Village is a charming and quirky arts district just outside of downtown Orlando, and the city itself was clean and quiet.

Our hotel, Gaylord Palms Hotel and Convention Center, is located south of Orlando proper, in the Kissimmee area, which is home to most of the attractions. Gaylord Palms is now part of the Marriott Hotels family (yay, points!), and it is definitely worth checking out. We stayed for three nights in a one-bedroom suite overlooking the St. Augustine atrium. There were palm trees, waterfalls, koi, and a replica of the Castillo de San Marcos. Plus, we could see the Christmas lights and the top of the Christmas tree from our balconies.

View from our balcony. (Katherine Hart, 2015)

View from our balcony. (Katherine Hart, 2015)

The Gaylord Palms has a great outdoor pool complete with a small waterpark. There’s also a spa and a large gym. We ate Sunday brunch at the Villa Rosa, which was excellent. (Our Friday night dinner at the poolside restaurant was okay…and not worth what we paid for it. There are plenty of restaurants nearby on International Drive or Osceola Parkway that serve better food for less.)

ICE! is the holiday ice sculpture show, housed in the convention center. Tickets are around $30 per person (we had a Florida resident discount, and if you go before Christmas week, you can expect to pay about $10 less per ticket) and give you access to the sculptures for a certain time of day. We went Friday at 8:00 PM. After watching a short video about the sculptures’ creation, we donned heavy winter jackets provided by the hotel (the temperature is kept at a frosty 9 degrees Fahrenheit), and walked through the display. This year’s theme was the Nutcracker.

Baby! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Baby! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Yes, this is all made out of ice. Gorgeous! (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Yes, this is all made out of ice. Gorgeous! (Katherine Hart, 2015)

The following day we spent at Universal Studios Orlando, a park new to us. We arrived a few minutes before the park opened, purchased one-day, one-park tickets ($96 per person, plus tax), and hit the rides. The park was not crowded that early, and we knocked out most of the attractions within the first three hours. Some amazing rides: Transformers 3-D, The Simpsons Ride, Men-in-Black Alien Attack. Shrek 4-D and the E.T. Adventure ride were also charming. My husband and older kid rode Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster and found it thrilling. The Terminator 2: 3-D show was a little dated but still fun. The Twister attraction was meh, but the lines for that seemed to stay short throughout the day, even during peak hours.

Fire-breathing dragon atop Gringotts. (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Fire-breathing dragon atop Gringotts. (Katherine Hart, 2015)

Of course, we braved the crowds, and a nearly two hour wait—the only significant wait we encountered that day—to experience the new Harry Potter Escape From Gringotts ride. Was it worth it? Absolutely. It’s a 3-D roller coaster, with plenty of scary twists and drops for the thrill-seeker, and also with some awesome special effects and exquisite details to please anyone looking for complete immersion in the world of Harry Potter. This was our last ride of the day, and we emerged from Diagon Alley theme-parked out.

We avoided I-4 and went to one of our favorite restaurants, Sea Dog Brewing Co., for dinner. No wait, good food, and cold beer.

Sunday was our final full day of vacation, and we spent it sleeping in, going to brunch, and lounging by the pool. For dinner, we drove a few miles southwest of the area to get inexpensive gas and enjoy a hearty meal at Bob Evans. Back at the hotel, we sipped wine on the balcony and watched the nightly holiday light show.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when visiting the Orlando area during the holidays. There were crowds, yes, but we also arrived at Universal early and experienced minimum wait times during the morning. I imagine that the Disney parks had similar, if not vaster, crowds, but it’s that time of year. Families have time off from work and school; the weather is decent in Florida (highs in the upper 70s, low humidity). People will flock to Orlando. But there are quiet moments: trying out an experience outside of the theme parks (Orlando has plenty to offer) or enjoying some downtime at the hotel. People-watching is great when you’re stuck in the crowds. It’s fun listening to the different languages spoken and observing the interactions within families…dads telling their kids not to whine; moms exhorting their little ones to use the bathroom before standing in line. Somehow, no fights break out, despite the crowds, the waits, and the heat, and everyone mostly respects what little personal space exists.

It’s not magical—nothing ever is—but spending time in touristy area can be enjoyable and relaxing…even over the winter holidays.

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Embrace That First Draft

From Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life (great writing resource!):

It’s called the vomit draft, too, because it will both stink and be pretty much everything you’ve got inside you. In there is beauty and success and everything you’ve ever dreamed of. So learn to love a vomit draft like it’s your new best gal.

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Phew!

A new project begun!

Fifty-thousand words in about 20 days is taxing on the wrists. But I started a new project, one I’ve hesitated writing for a long time. Now was a good time and NaNo a good reason to write the SFD (“shitty first draft” in Anne Lamott-speak). I probably have another 10K-15K to write, and then I will put it away for a little while to rest before reviewing it and starting the second draft, etc. Fellow writers know how it goes.

In the meantime, I have a historical project to begin researching, a flash piece to revise, and I continue to see rejections from agents for novel #1. Plus, I sent out the last story from my grad school days to five journals. We’ll see where that goes. I’m hoping to find a home for it.

Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends, and happy November to everyone!

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NaNoWriMo 2014: Are you in?

I’m in this year!

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