Camino de Santiago

21 01 2018

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Barmen on the Bayou

10 10 2013

IMG_2863 IMG_2864

A group of Russian bartenders, Italian bartenders, American bartenders and one Japanese spirits writer walk out of a bar and onto an alligator farm…   And one nearly loses  a very important appendage.

I had met the amazing Harvey Kliebert before at Julio Bermejo’s home base, close to my home in the outer Richmond of SF, Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant.  For some reason it did not surprise me that Julio would know an alligator farmer, Julio knows everyone, and everyone loves Julio and his family’s great restaurant (and margaritas).  When Harvey showed up with a large skull of a gator in hand I was not that surprised.  For sure impressed, but not surprised!

Harvey is not small of stature and his attire is certainly straight out of central casting for Swamp People with his overalls and hat.  That said his son Mike Kliebert and grandson T-Mike (for Petit Mike) were on season one of Swamp People show.  Most of the Kliebert family has actually left the reality TV business to continue to focus on doing what they love to do… raising alligators and turtles for restaurants.  There was some familial dissent and debates amongst the family between the sides that want to capture the public eye and the 15 minutes of fame and those that want to just continue to raise turtles and alligators for food.

We were in New Orleans in July during the Tales of the Cocktail event to benefit from the sheer number of cool bartenders and spirits professionals who were in town from all over the world.  Julio and our friend Vince must have asked me twenty times if I was coming to New Orleans.  I kept declining since I had a big event (SF Chefs) looming on the horizon so could not justify it, but the promise of visiting the Kliebert alligator farm has always held great allure for me.  Then one night Julio came up with, “Well I could buy you a ticket with my United miles?”  And of course I said, “Well why didn’t you say that weeks ago?”  So at the very last minute we booked a 48 hour trip from SF to NOLA.  I love ANY excuse to get out to New Orleans but knowing that I could visit the farm with my friends was an added plus. Accommodations had been secured by Julio who had opted to find us a swank Airbnb place online that unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute.  While I was inclined to get a room at a local hotel or stay at my friend Andrew’s awesome Airbnb place in the Lower Garden (not big enough for the whole group), Julio was convinced that it would be most fun if we were all together, so me, Julio, Vince, Michael and Dave opted to rent a spot in the Bywater.  These guys are like brothers to me, so I wasn’t concerned until I showed up at 8:30am after my redeye flight to see Julio at the door saying, “This place is a XXXX-hole.”  Granted, I am a bit picky and my standards are somewhat high, but wow, it was a really special spot.  A shotgun house with three rooms, no doors at all mind you and matresses covering all open parts of the floor except where the bunkbeds were or where the one rickety army issue bed frame was next to a window with bars across it.  Julio left to shower (the bathroom luckily had a door but there wasn’t so much as a closet in the place), and within minutes I had secured a room at the Hotel Monteleone with early check in to boot.  I was out of the house in less than 20 minutes (only that long because I waited to tell Julio I was leaving.)  My luxurious room was well worth the money…

Soon after getting to the French Quarter I met up with Vince who had yet to see his accommodations, and we had some beignets and New Orleans style iced coffee at Cafe du Monde followed by a bloody mary. We met up with our crew to have not one but two lunches at Parkway Bakery & Tavern (po boys) and Willie Mae’s (fried chicken).  Then we headed off to Frenchmen Street to d.b.a. where we luckily ran into the Bon Vivants from San Francisco, Scott Baird and Josh Harris, who were just about to start a sangrita competition with Ocho tequila.  It was a fortunate coincidence since I had judged a regional round for them in San Francisco earlier in the year, so it was great to have a chance to taste the entries from the rest of the U.S.  After some really amazing and innovative sangritas and few cans of Tecate we headed back to the quarter to crash an Amaro party with the Italian bar folk including Francesco Lafranconi, Mauro Mahjoub (Germany’s Campari ambassador), as well as Salvatore Calabrese, The Maestro, known as Italy’s most famous bartender.  We hit Arnaud’s for a party with Absolut and a quick hug from Chris Hanna, famed barman at the French 75 bar, who had a few Chris Hanna impersonators working with him that night and then we made a quick dash to the Candlelight Lounge.  Salvatore and his wife were able to join us and we enjoyed the amazing music of the Treme Brass Band as well as some red beans and rice included in the cover charge.  Watermelon Abitas and some fun conversation with owner Leona (who by the way remembered me) made my night.  If you read previous blogs you may remember that Leona gave me a Zulu coconut the day after my first ever Mardi Gras!  If you go to the Candlelight be prepared to dance as the waitress will require it…   Still hungry and thirsty we headed back into the quarter for a burger and some tequila at Yo Ma Ma’s, which was my first ever peanut butter burger experience, and quite good I may add, but the baked potato stole the show.  An early evening, I was back at the Monteleone in bed by about 3 am. IMG_2733

The next day we were “scheduled” to leave NOLA by 9 am so that we could go to the farm, we had rented a car that would fit our group, but in typical Julio fashion the more the merrier.  Suddenly our international group was huddling outside the Monteleone Hotel interrupting the flow of traffic down the sidewalk.  The international contingent of bartenders, writers, etc. was amazingly chatty for being so hung over, or maybe they had never sobered up, but at any rate with a lot of back and forth logistics (it’s really expensive to rent a car apparently if you are from Russia, Italy or Japan) we got two more cars rented and planned to meet the rest of the group out at Harrah’s Casino.  Vince was put on patrol to try to herd the folks to the main valet entrance which as you can imagine was close to impossible what with the language barriers and large personalities.  With a few trips to Walgreens (for ice for the beers), numerous bottles, limes, avocados  and cups being moved in and out of vehicles and rearranging and distribution of tequila bottles and Trumer Pils between each vehicle and me handwriting directions for everyone we finally got all the participants close to ready by 10:30.  The caravan left Harrahs and headed toward the swamp in Hammond, LA.  In all the times I have been to New Orleans I’d never visited the swamp, and wow, the scenery was immediately different than anything I have ever seen.  I was immediately struck by how incredible it was, made me feel like the first time I had been to Arizona…  a sense of a uniquely wild part of our country with treacherous animals but completely the opposite, all about water and damp heat rather than desert dry heat…  The scenery was beautiful but there was a great level of distraction as we attempted to communicate with the three Russian barmen who were in our car.  One spoke English which was helpful, one was shy and understood most English but didn’t talk much and the third spoke no English, barely understood and was out of control talkative.  And of course he was sitting next to my friend Michael who was attempting to drive.  Vince and I in the far back cringed as the stories flowed faster as he drank more Tapatio Anejo and he became increasingly  animated.  He would speak in Russian and then hit his friend to translate and also hit Michael’s shoulder impoloring him to look at him.  Then a bit of sign language to which Michael would try to glance and smile while keeping one eye on the road.  This became particularly interesting as we entered a total downpour and began weaving back and forth over the lane markers…  Luckily Michael was sober and able to keep us on the road, but it was harrowing to say the least, and at the same time amusing. When we thankfully got to the farm we piled out and met T-Mike, grandson of Harvey.

Harvey was brought out to see us soon after and Julio introduced us all to him, and to each other.  Some of the greats of the bar world internationally were in our midst, and to Harvey it was a huge surprise that he would have visitors in town from as far away as Japan and Russia.  Julio would say, “Harvey, this is Salvatore Calabrese, from Italy,” to which Harvey would reply incredulously, “Italy?”  Julio presented Harvey with an amazing bottle etched with a note to him as well as a set of hot sauces that had their wooden crate branded with the names of all of the attendees.  All of us were also wearing shirts that listed the best things to do in New Orleans which included “Wrestle Alligator @ Harvey’s.”  We drank more Trumer and finally got hard at work making margaritas to take on the gator tour.  The Italians and my buddy Michael cut and squeezed all the limes in the classic Tommy’s fashion, the butts of the limes have to be removed so as to prevent bitter oils from the ends getting into the margarita.  With some expert shaking by Salvatore Calabrese and Mauro Mahjoub of Italy we had Tommy’s margaritas in the bayou.  We also whipped up some guacamole also after sending some of the gator farm team to the store for additional ingredients.  As a team we had muled the case of limes and some avocados with us from California. IMG_2748IMG_2774IMG_2768IMG_2783

After some more shenanigans and a recreation of a famous Russian statue (Worker and Kolkhoz Woman) by myself and Marat Saddarov of Noor Bar in Russia we headed out on our tour.  The farm houses a great number of turtles 100,000 in one pond alone along with the main attraction, the alligators.  T-Mike explained that Paw-Paw (Harvey) started this farm and it has been sustainable since he first brought the batch of eggs (about 250) there many years ago.  That means they do not have to go back into the swamp to steal eggs and the entire place is self contained.  We fed the turtles a bit of dry chow which they came at swimming vigorously, but T-Mike said they prefer spoilt meat and will lay more eggs when they get meat. IMG_2795

The gators were just incredible.  We went over to their pens but luckily stayed mostly behind the fences.  T-Mike brings them over by slapping a stick against the water at the edge of the ponds and they come very quickly through the weeds growing on the pond surface.  He and some of the other attendees threw marshmallows to them as well as some raw chicken.  The bravery that T-Mike shows when handling them is incredible.  We watched in awe as he neared a huge female who was guarding her eggs as well as one of the “Big Boys” whose name was Crush and who has a ridiculous amount of pressure, about 3,000 pounds worth, when he bites down.  T-Mike explained that gators can’t see right in front of their faces and demonstrated by putting his hand in their mouths, which was extremely unnerving, but they don’t snap down until he touched the tips of their snouts.  The sound of that impact was amazing though.


After the demos with the bigger gators we had an opportunity to hold a smaller one whose mouth was taped.  At a certain size and weight they become difficult to hold since they can writhe their bodies in a rolling motion and have an incredible amount of strength as they grow to a certain size.  This gator was really sweet and really felt incredible in my arms.  His skin was bumpy but had a strong smoothness to it and was surprisingly enjoyable to hold.  After I was forced to give the gator back I also met a cute pot-belly pig named, of course, Glitzy.

You might think, wow things have gotten pretty tame by this point, our margaritas were mostly consumed and our very animated Russian friend from our ride was surprisingly missing.  Earlier in the day while waiting to go on tour he had been adamant that he wanted to actually wrestle a big gator.  A very interesting exchange occurred between him and Harvey with our friend Dave Stoop (from the US) who happens to be able to speak Russian.  Watching Dave learn how to wrestle a gator from Harvey and then translate that into Russian was quite amusing to say the least.  But until we made it to the snapping turtle pond our gregarious and fearless Russian was missing.  He had gone on ahead with Harvey so we just assumed he was back at the picnic tables probably drinking more…  We were in for a surprise when we hit the snapping turtle pond.  As I was watching T-Mike hold a medium sized snapping turtle out to the crowd I also saw out of the corner of my eye the Russian present the turtle with a small object which I quickly recognized…  As a turned away quickly in awe that he had just presented this important appendage to the animal, according to reports from the rest, the turtle reached its neck out significantly and took a big lunge and snap to try to get the object, missing by mere inches.  Pretty amazing, it would have been interesting to see what would have transpired had the turtle made its mark, but it would have probably resulted in some of us missing the amazing shrimp boil and gator that we had for lunch.


After some more drinking, eating, some pickled quail eggs and a visit to the rotting meat truck we had pretty much expended all our energy and it was time to bid the farm farewell.  Their hospitality was just incredible and it was really a magical day.  I promptly fell asleep on the ride home to be reinvigorated and be able to go out again once we hit New Orleans.  We headed back to the French 75 bar to see Chris and have a cocktail and then on to Vaughan’s to see Kermit Ruffins perform after grabbing some shrimp po boys (undressed with butter and pickles) from Verti Marte.  I also enjoyed watching the tambourine lady.  With trips back and forth from BJ’s (where there’s air conditioning) and Vaughan’s we enjoyed the show and even got a chance to meet up with my friend Desier who saw me checking in on Foursquare!  Ended the night with slushy mudslides at Erin Rose and another stop to grab some food at Yo Ma Ma’s, all in all an amazing day.


Vince and finished off the trip by feeding our tired bodies at the Bon Ton Cafe where we met up with my friend Kristian, what could be more appropriate and satisfying than turtle soup?  And we had Sno-Balls on Piety Street, I had to have two, one natural Kaffir Limeade and one totally unnatural, Wedding Cake which tastes like almond and vanilla and is extremely decadent especially as I had it topped with condensed milk, but yummy.  Kristian dropped me and Vince off in the quarter where we made the most of our last hours in NOLA with a few Pimm’s Cups at the famous Napoleon Bar so we could ease our way out of the city.  New Orleans is always incredibly generous with me and offers me some of the greatest experiences I could dream up.  Thank you to everyone that lives there for your welcome and I can’t wait to get back there!

To visit go to 


A Sanctuary across the Golden Gate, The Marine Mammal Center & Headlands

2 07 2013

Some of the items found in sea lions and seals


Docents show pelts of seal (left) and sea lions to exhibit the differences


Netting from a sperm whale, The Ghost Below


Volunteers use wood boards to control seals while teaching feeding behaviors

Most summer tourists visiting SF set out on the Golden Gate bridge wearing shorts and t-shirts and only make it halfway across due to the whipping wind and fog that blows in off the ocean in the summertime. That is a shame because they never get to experience the incredible Marin Headlands just a little further across.

Taking a car is recommended as you will have the opportunity to explore this incredible area of California. The Marin Headlands is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and has its own incredible history. Known for the Miwok Indian tribe that inhabited the area, military activity and a NIKE missile site created to protect the United States from attacks from the west, the history is rich, but the history goes back well before humans discovered this beautiful pocket on the coast. This incredible area was formed millions of years ago. The beauty of the California coast was created by violent earth movements. Millions of years ago this area was where the Pacific Ocean plate and the North American plate connected in a process called subduction. The heavier Pacific plate ended up being pushed below the continental plate and creating an area of geothermal activity further inland. While this was happening layers of ocean sediments were sheared off of the oceanic plate and deposited on top of the continental plate leaving the remnants that created this incredible land mass. If you drive up the headlands just next to the Golden Gate Bridge you will start to climb quickly until you are at a height above the bridge. To your right along the road you will see amazing orange/red striated layers of rock. This is radiolarian chert, the deposits that were once at the bottom of the ocean. Pretty incredible to imagine as you look down the cliff. There are also deposits in the area of pillow basalt that was created by the volcanic activity of underwater vents.

Driving around the headlands you will see great places to stop and have a picnic, gorgeous vistas of the bay and San Francisco and unparalleled views of the Golden Gate Bridge.  It’s worth taking the time to visit the 15o year old Point Bonita Lighthouse, take a hike and hunt (but don’t pick!) wildflowers and view the annual raptor migrations.  A great friend of mine, Peter Palmer, has a website called the Headlands Report, check out his site for some fun hikes and advice on hiking.

Another great activity to pursue is a visit to The Marine Mammal Center.  I can’t believe that I have been in San Francisco since 1996 and only recently made my first visit to this amazing site!  The Marine Mammal Center exists to care for ill, abandoned or injured seals and sea lions.  When animals are brought to the center they are cared for by an incredible crew of 1,000 volunteers that spend time doing everything to rehab these animals.

One of the more pungent jobs is in the fish kitchen where meals are prepped for the animals almost constantly.  Visitors have the opportunity to learn about the perils that humans pose to sea life (such as nets, plastic bottles, and trash), view the seals and sea lions and watch volunteers teach feeding to juvenile animals, there is even an autopsy room (it is an optional area of the center and protected so that if it’s not your thing you don’t have to visit).  I was very intrigued and was able to watch an actual autopsy live.  Visits to the center are free, but I recommend a docent lead tour, the docents have a wealth of knowledge to share.

Support of the center with donations is very important, this year there has been an incredible increase in injured and abandoned animals along the California coast.  The center has had a large influx of animals brought in his year.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported a “unusual morbidity event is occurring for California sea lions in Southern California”.  Over 1,000 malnourished weak sea lions were rescued this year off the California coast, but in 2012 the number was 100.  This year the Marine Mammal Center has twice its normal tenants, 165 seals and sea lions.  Animals are often malnourished or emaciated (stranded by their mothers for reasons unknown),  or suffer from human interaction such as ocean entanglement or even gunshot wounds.  Sadly cancer is also rampant among the population of sea lions autopsied here.  Amazingly the studies conducted at the Marine Mammal Center can help the world investigate marine mammal health, effectively a harbinger for our own health.  The center holds more than 25 years of tissue samples and cells in a deep freeze bunker with a back up generator to ensure that this information is not lost.

Many of the displays at the center help raise awareness as to how fragile the marine environment is, and how easily humans can harm marine mammals.  Packing straps can confuse animals as they play with them, possibly eat them or become strangled in them, and plastic bottles and discarded bags can easily injure or strangle seals and sea lions.  A very striking exhibit called The Ghost Below shows how ghost netting discarded or lost in our oceans can injure sea life.  These nets can float for years.  Richard & Judith Lang created the exhibit with just part of 450 pounds of ghost net and trash that were found inside a dead sperm whale.  Their new interactive exhibit, Indra’s Net, was recently installed and allows messages of hope to be left for animals in distress.

Seals and sea lions are considered the canaries of the ocean, meaning that when we affect their subtle ocean ecosystem they show us very clearly a lot about the health of the ocean…  The hope is that through education we can better care for our oceans, learn more about recycling and restricting our use of plastics that can harm animals, and change our eating habits.  These small steps can make a huge impact.  With our help we may have a chance to save some of these very important animals.

How to help:

Visit the center, leave a donation and buy something (a shirt, a tour, a magnet!)

Volunteer at the center

Adopt a Seal or Sea Lion

Run for the Seals August 17

Support America’s Cup Healthy Ocean Project by dining at one of their recommended restaurants that supports sustainable seafood

Think about what you eat and download the Seafood Watch app

If you find a mammal in distress call 415 289- SEAL (7325)


A Night On the Rock-Alcatraz Overnight

31 01 2013

While most people that were sent to Alcatraz wanted nothing more than to get off “The Rock” surprisingly when I was offered the chance to actually be stranded there overnight I jumped at it!  I first heard about the trip when I was working the annual Make-A-Wish® Wine and Wishes® event last year and thought it sounded amazing.  I remembered that the first time I’d heard the auction lot announced I remarked to Amy Currens how much I’d give to be able to spend a night on the ROCK.  It just goes to show what a simple intention can accomplish!

I have always loved Alcatraz from afar.  I went once as a child, but hardly remember, and ever since moving to San Francisco in 1996 I’d been meaning to visit.  It took until May of 2012 for me to do so when my brother Omar and his girlfriend Jess were in town.  We took off on a Wednesday to visit and really enjoyed a gorgeous sunny day on the rock visiting the sites and even taking what I thought was an amazing audio tour of the cell house.  I entered cell #9 in D Block, an isolation cell and said to my brother, “Oh my God, can you imagine spending the night in here?”  Clearly fueled by my addictive viewing of shows such as “Ghost Adventures” and formerly what was one of my favorites, “Fear” from MTV, all I wanted to do was head out and perform my own investigation.

Later in the year I was out and about visiting accounts trying to collect some information for Wines of Chile when I saw on Facebook that my buddy Hoss Zaré, Chef of Zaré at Fly Trap was around the corner from where I was enjoying a glass of wine (Bin 38) so I zipped on over to A16 and busted in on his dinner to enjoy some delicious wine and pasta.  At the end of dinner he said, “You wouldn’t want to be my sous chef for a dinner on Alcatraz would you?  It’s for Make a Wish®!  We get to stay the night!”

I could not believe my good fortune!

I rushed home from A16 completely elated to wake my husband tell him the great news!  His immediate reaction was, “Why?  Why would you want to do that?  Oh my God I would never do that!”  It had never even crossed my mind that someone would decline this once in a lifetime opportunity!  So although I was still extremely excited there was of course a bit of fear and nervous anticipation involved as well…

The next few weeks were spent bragging about my upcoming journey and doing some research!  I never knew how little I actually knew about the island I see so often from San Francisco’s many vantage points.  I found a great signed copy of Eyewitness on Alcatraz by Jolene Babyak all about Life on the Rock as told by the Guards, Families and Prisoners.  It gave me some great perspective on the prison and a unique vantage point.  As a fun picture book I bought Alcatraz History and Design of a Landmark by Donald MacDonald and Ira Nadel.  I also read and re-read the instructions from the National Park Service.  No alcohol (WHAT!?), no Sharpies (HELLO?  Two of my favorite things?!), bring a sleeping bag, no power, bring a headlamp.  Also Hoss told me to bring my guitar so I could play a song!

So the day of the journey I was scheduled to judge wine at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, but I zipped out early to be sure I wasn’t going to miss the boat.  Alcatraz Cruises does not wait on anyone whether you have reserved regular tickets or are on a special event.  Best parking for Alcatraz is Pier 29 next door (but the pier suffered a fire less than a week after our event, so check to make sure it’s operational again…)  I got to the dock in time to meet a fun group of the three chefs, Hoss and co-chefs Peter McNee from Poggio and Eric Arnold Wong of E&O Asian Kitchen and their sous chefs (actually legit sous chefs unlike me…although I can set a table and pour soup and whatnot).  Also attending were a group of mostly families and their kids, kids had to be at least nine to come and the families were all really excited with all their gear and sleeping bags and such.

Soon after we gathered we were met by Ranger John Cantwell.  Google the guy and you’ll find out how important he is, he’s worked on the island since he was a teen.  He rolled up on a bicycle relatively sweaty and boasting that he’d just rolled in from Monterey.  In our nervousness we believed him for about a half hour.  He immediately straightened us out by telling us he wasn’t there to offer up ghost stories, my impression is that he knows way to well how miserable it could be dealing with scared kids and adults overnight on the island, he likes his sleep.

There was quite a bit of loading onto a private ferry out to the rock.  We headed out and the day was sunny and gorgeous with some light wind, but overall a very warm day for June in San Francisco.  The journey was a short 10-15 minutes after which there was an equal amount of off-loading.  When we arrived the last daytime guests were leaving the island, there were about 600 more guests on the way for the night tours, but we felt special as they commented on our gear and sleeping bags.  We stored all the food at the dock area under the “Indians Welcome” sign and headed indoors for a short movie about the island.  As soon as it was over we loaded our sleeping gear into the Ranger’s truck, there’s no food allowed in your gear due to rats and mice that they’re careful to keep out of the cell house.  We started the long walk up the rock’s steep paths to the area by the lighthouse.  Our gear was taken into the cell house D Block, the area known for the worst prisoners, where we were told we would spend the night but choose cells later.  I expressed that I wanted #9, an isolation chamber aloud, just sayin’!  We hid our stuff on the upper levels of the block so as not to have it visible to the night guests and the group set out on our community service project to clean up the yard (originally the overnights started as a Boy Scouts program).  We picked up little pieces of paper and tried to avoid all the gull feathers (they gave us gloves luckily) and then John gave us a tour of the gardens and viewed some of the bird sanctuaries.  After our walk the group headed out for the audio tour of the cell block while the chefs and sous chefs ran down the hill to try to get the charcoal started so we would have dinner ready for them when they returned.

You can’t tell three ambitious top chefs from San Francisco to grill hot dogs and burgers, so for the group of 35 the chefs had some pretty extensive dishes planned, thinking we had something a bit bigger than the teeny grill we were presented with.  The grill was made by the last group of prisoners on the Rock.  Luckily the team are professionals and made it work, but it wasn’t the ideal condition to make an extensive meal!  Peter McNee made “Jail Birds” (quail in little cages grilled over the charcoal) served with fresh red cherries, arugula and almonds, and he even went on to make an amazing hot chocolate with whipped cream and a zabaglione atop strawberries for dessert!  A huge challenge and a lot of effort to do over a charcoal fire.  Arnold Eric Wong had amazing pulled pork with a selection of great sauces and fresh herbs served in traditional steamed Chinese buns.  The amazing thing is that they were steamed on location, once again over the open fire.  He also made a great Kombucha that paired perfectly with all the dishes and provided a great alternative to sodas.  Chef Hoss provided a selection of amazing pickles, white strawberries, fiddleheads, etc. and then presented a cold yogurt soup with raisins, nuts, rose and herbs.  The kids in the group were eager sous chefs asking for jobs at every turn, and even tray serving soups!  Then Hoss brought out his lamb shank meatballs, aka the “Ball and Chain” and he had dressed the part in black and white stripes!

While we enjoyed dinner we noticed the last boat leaving, all the workers, every last one, except for the one security guard and John were gone…  When dinner was done I grabbed my guitar and was invited to perform my “Pork Song” and then an encore of “You Gotta Go to Sea”, which was so fun, the Ranger held up a microphone for me and said, “Live from Alcatraz, Rebecca Chapa!”  Hoss provided cheesecake and then everyone milled about until we could clean up.  The greatest part was that the entire group cleaned up together, such an amazing group, we were all in this together, rather than workers and guests.  In a way, we had become a family!

Ranger John gathered us together and we set off on our special tour of the island and it’s normally off limits areas.  We visited the tunnel, industries area, the Morgue, Officer’s Club, Theatre, I think we really saw everything.  He had us traipsing all over the entire property on what was a pretty rigorous journey.  We ended at the Hospital where we were able to go into the isolation areas, rooms with floor to ceiling tiles and not much else but an observation window and a hole in the floor.  We also saw the Birdman of Alcatraz’s cell.  It seemed quite spacious in fact.  By this time we were all totally exhausted, I realized I hadn’t sat down for more than twenty minutes all day.  We gathered up our sleeping bags and gear and each of us took possession of a thin foam mattress pad to sleep on top of…  Folks began scrambling into the cells on the second and third floors of the cell block complete with lights, metal bunks that came out from the walls and in close proximity to each other.  I still had my sights on cell number 9 but was starting to reconsider, after all the talk of rats and mice and god knows what other creepy crawlies I didn’t love the idea of setting myself down on the floor in a room that was wall to wall metal with nothing to protect me and my foam mattress placed directly on the floor.  I edged over to cell number 1, still a floor away from the others but with a bunk and a light switch and also right next to the spiral stairs that lead to my friends in case I freaked out.  I was about to place my foam mattress down on the metal bunk when I noticed a puddle of water.  It seemed weird to me considering we were the only folks on the island since about 9 and it was 2 am, and it hadn’t rained in weeks.  So I took it as a sign that I was meant to stay in cell #9.  As I was arranging my bed on the floor of my cell a few of my cohorts came by to take my photo and tell me how crazy I was to want to stay there.  Ranger John came by and was really surprised that I had taken up residence there and so I told him about the water.  He was a bit flabbergasted when he saw it and then he just said, “Well someone must have spilled water and tried to dry it with his boot and walked away.”

Despite all my intentions to go roaming the cellblock and the island (which John said we had carte blanche to do) I got a bit freaked.  I imagined running into that security guard and losing my mind.  I was also totally exhausted physically from the strenuous day, so I lay down and asked the spirits to just let me stay there without being bothered.  It was weird because it really wasn’t a slumber party type atmosphere when we hit our cells despite all the kids, no laughing or boisterous talking, and all of a sudden just a lot of LOUD snoring.  I’d heard reports of this on the accounts of others who had stayed there, it just seemed to permeate the entire place, there is a ton of echo in there, but it was hard to tell if it was just our group’s snores.  The gulls are also really loud and make really weird sounds and then there is a constant drafty rattling of the windows and weird hisses, clicks, scratches and creaks continuously.  I ran my tape recorder for a quick bit and asked the spirits to let me know they were there if they wanted.  I told them I wasn’t going to listen to the recording now and to please not visit me that night.  I listened to it the next day and found that there was a loud laugh audible just after I said that.  And then nothing else.

Falling asleep after getting used to the noises was pretty fast due to my level of exhaustion, but I did awake at about 4 in the morning with terrible agonizing stomach pain.  I willed it away as I was not about to get up and go anywhere and was pretty much laying there petrified in what was almost total darkness, the reflection from the lights in the cells above providing only limited light at the front of my isolation cell’s open door.  After about a half hour of trying to calm my body and work through the pain I was able to get back to sleep.  7 am came quickly without any more interruptions and I was surprised to see the sun already well up in the sky, I had wanted to wake early to see it rise  We quickly went  through our morning routines and got ourselves gathered at the base of the lighthouse where John had told us to meet.  He did a once over of the cells (apparently there are occasions when overnight guests are too scared to use the restrooms outside of the cell block and dirty their cells, in which case he makes them clean them…)  All was AOK and John announced our special surprise which was that we could walk to the top of the lighthouse!  We had to take turns at the very top as it is really small and John was sure to warn us that the railing was pretty much rusted through so not to touch it. He didn’t have to warn me as I had my back plastered to the wall of the lighthouse the entire time and sidestepped my way around…  I was honestly more frightened up there than I was in cell #9!  They convinced me to climb a small ladder so I could touch the red light at the pinnacle of the island on top of the lighthouse and then I gladly scrambled back down to terra firma.

After a quick breakfast we were presented with our badges that commemorated our overnight on Alcatraz!  As we prepared to get on the ferry back to the mainland we saw an elderly gentleman being guided off the boat to the dock.  It was clear that he was someone special, both from the way that people reacted to his presence but also just from a great energy that he had.  Ranger John introduced us to Frank Heaney.  Heaney was hired in 1943 and was the youngest correctional officer ever on Alcatraz.  He worked for the infamous Warden Swope and during his watch no one ever tried to escape the rock.  His watch on the island ended during a stint in the Korean conflict as well as time spent working for the Albany Fire Department but the allure of the island would not leave him and he ended up returning as a National Park Ranger in 1974.  You can meet Heaney the third Saturday of each month in the bookstore where he is present for book signings of his book “Inside the Walls of Alcatraz”.

The entire journey was incredible and I returned to the wine judging somewhat filthy and pretty tired from my night on the rock but with fun stories for everyone.  Now when I look across the bay I feel a sense of recognition for the magical island that is so close yet so distant at the same time.  Alcatraz is a fun place to visit but I sure wouldn’t want to live there.

A Grateful Harvest: Scalloping in Nantucket

14 11 2012

So here I am in San Francisco waiting for Dungeness crab season to start tomorrow, but I really wish I was out east, in Nantucket to be precise.

I would like to call myself a scalloper… HA!  I have been scalloping exactly twice on what were sure to be the two nicest and warmest days of the season, so although I do appreciate the grueling nature of the industry there is no way I really understand the extent of the cold days with freezing icy wind gusting as the loyal scallopers trudge away to get scallops on your table.

My mother loves scallops, but as a kid I was never a fan, I found them chewy and mostly flavorless.  Most of the time you see scallops in a restaurant they are breaded, overcooked and way too big.  I was not intrigued by them until I worked at Rubicon and Jardiniere with Traci Des Jardins.  Des Jardins is famous for her truffled scallop dish, a heap of creamy and buttery mashed potatoes in the center, that relies on some amazingly flavorful tubers, surrounded in a delicate yet hauntingly flavorful truffle nage and finally garnished with a ring of golden seared scallops.  A “nage” by the way means “in the swim” how amazingly appropriate right?  Anyway the dish was and is absolutely delicious.  Another thing I learned about scallops around the same time was the term day boat, meaning that the boats harvesting the scallops return each day to port to offload them.  It’s a pretty important distinction as scallops do not live as long as clams or other shellfish once caught.  They must be shucked while live and either kept on ice of flash frozen which of course changes their delicate texture.  Having quality scallops as an ingredient of course makes the dish that much better.

Fast forward to last year, December 2011, when I had the opportunity to scallop with my friend Bruce, a commercial scalloper on Nantucket!  Nantucket Bay Scallops are famous internationally due to their very delicate texture and pure sweet flavor.  I find other scallops to be more neutral in flavor and with less of that fresh salty tang of the ocean.  With wine we talk about terroir, but oyster and shellfish purveyors and writer have now coined the word (not sure who to attribute it to, but it’s clever!) “merroir” meaning that oysters, clams and of course scallops taste distinctly different depending on where they originate.  Just like wine the maritime “weather” and climate have a lot to do with how the shellfish grows, the microorganisms, sea life and micro-elements and minerals in the water also affect the flavor in ways hard to define.  Since bivalves filter water to eat they are conduits of flavor even more than grapevines.  They really are made of the fine mixture of what the sea diffuses into them more than any creature I can think of!  As a result of the unique characteristics of Nantucket, Nantucket Bay Scallops garner a higher price per pound due to the limited supply.  The price varies annually but this year’s season opened paying scallopers $10/lb with retail prices ranging from $14-$17.95.

Nantucket regulates scallop fishing in order to preserve the next year’s harvest.  Many consumers actually scallop with their families but there are strict guidelines as to days allowed, quantities and permits are needed.  Also every scallop harvested either commercially or recreationally must have a raised annual growth ring to show it is one year minimum in age or fit a size requirement.  This ensures a healthy population to spawn for the next season.  Recreational scalloping starts October 1 annually.  During the season you will see entire families in their waders working the shallows with inter tubes that suspend wire baskets, raking in up to a bushel a week.  The commercial season begins November 1 and runs until March 31.  Scallopers can harvest up to five cases per day, which can bring in about $400 for that type of haul.  That said, the scallop season is what many commercial scallopers rely on as their only source of winter income, and there are days that are easy and scallops are plentiful, but there are days that are rough both in terms of weather and the catch.

Our day began very early as I was picked up before dawn to get out on the water.  It was unseasonably warm for December 2, which was also the first day of the annual Christmas Stroll.  We headed out in a truck with a big rusted out flatbed, no stranger to seawater.  I was outfitted in Grunden’s orange pants and some waterproof boots, a heavy sweater and Carhaart jacket, orange waterproof slicker, glove liners and large orange gloves and a warm hat as we set off from Nantucket harbor just before dawn.  Scallopers have to wait until 6:30am to start scalloping, so most like to be at the area they plan to dredge by then.  The cue to start is the horn of the first Steamship ferry as it leaves Nantucket for Hyannis at 6:30am.  The whistle blew and we started working.  The process is relatively simple but time consuming and takes a good deal of strength.  The dredges are released behind the boat in groups so as not to get tangled up and the boat moves slowly along as these weighted nets scrape the bottom of the harbor.   When it seems enough time has passed they are cranked up onto a sorting table and emptied of hopefully scallops.  When the first heaping dredge full of the sea came up and was dumped on the table it included everything imaginable, sea stars, eelgrass, rocks, clams, fish, mud all writhing around and soaking wet.  And the most amazing thing, as the first haul was emptied onto the sorting area, a heap of scallops chattered away as they snapped open and shut repeatedly in the early light of dawn.  It was my job to help sort through the mess and retrieve the scallops, all at the same time while checking to be sure they had the growth ring and were old enough.  I had trouble believing that normally Bruce does all of this solo, it’s a lot of work, and quite honestly having me there was more of a hindrance than help as he had to coach me quite a bit.  “Is this one old enough?  How about this one?”, I’d say to which he’d reply, “Make a decision!”  Master of efficiency, he commented that I should never have to touch one scallop twice, it either goes in the basket or over the side.  We took a pause after we had reset the dredges and he shucked one for me.   He turned the scallop smooth side down.  The smooth side is the one normally resting on the bottom on the sand, so it’s clean of algae or muck.  Grabbing the scallop knife from in between some of the worn wooden boards on the boat, he stuck the scallop knife between the hinges of the shells, slipped the knife all the way around while pressing it up on the top of the shell to unhinge the muscle as cleanly as possible, popped up the shell and discarded the ring of eyes around the edge, scraped off the internal organs and finally removed the bottom part of the muscle.  It was amazingly fresh and delicious, almost magical.  It could not have been a more perfect bite and moment.

We scalloped until about 9:30 which was not that long considering we were able to fill our 5 permitted boxes.  We headed back to the dock, unloaded and then headed to get a coffee and deliver the scallops to Nantucket Seafoods.  They have a small market but generally the scallops we harvested would be shucked that day and sent next day air to restaurants around the country.  Part of our batch was actually going to San Francisco!  I got home exhausted, took a nap, showered and headed into town for the festivities of Christmas Stroll.  The streets were aglow with lighted trees and every store was decked out for the holidays.  Scallop shell lights were hung all over the town and strands of them were for sale for about $100-$199 a strand!  I sat down at a wonderful upscale restaurant called The Pearl to get some dinner in the midst of a boisterous crowd of adults on a Santa crawl wearing hideous holiday sweaters.  On the menu there was a local Nantucket bay scallop trio of ceviche/crudo.  Remembering my first sweet taste of scallop that morning, I was mesmerized.  These could very well be the same scallops that Bruce and I had harvested just a few hours ago!  So I had to order them although they price made me cringe with a pang of guilt.  They arrived and had been handled in the most delicate way, taking care in all three preparations not to overshadow their texture or flavor.  I savored every morsel of what at most must have been four or five good sized scallops.  As I sat there fully engaged with the meal, I was struck by my incredible day, full circle from harvesting scallops that morning to sitting here with my glass of Gruner Veltliner and enjoying these delightful morsels in elegance.  $10 a pound and a lot of exhausting work for Bruce who was just at the beginning of a long and arduous winter of scalloping with many cold days ahead.  And here I was savoring a small dish costing if I recall correctly about $22-25, but crafted with the utmost respect and care.  I could not have been more thankful to enjoy both sides of the spectrum.  After I was warm with wine and my palate sated by scallops and other delicacies, I asked for the check.  After all my concern about the money I was spending after on my first humbling day harvesting scallops, I was told that some revelers I had befriended (not in ugly sweaters) had secretly paid for my entire meal and had already left.  So this Thanksgiving I will be toasting the fisherman and farmers who work tirelessly to bring food to our tables, all of those chefs and cooks who respectfully prepare those ingredients to give us great pleasure, and all of those who understand and remind me when I least expect it, that every moment of life is a gift.

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To watch a video of scallops snapping

To watch a video how scallops are harvested

To order Nantucket Bay Scallops  

More info on scallops

What to drink with scallops?  With lighter preparations scallops are great with crisp whites.  I would love something like a Gruner Veltliner from Austria for a scallop crudo or ceviche, or a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc if you are making something spicy or citrusy.  If the scallops are caramelized with a slightly sweet preparation try an off dry aromatic white like the Schlossgut Diel Riesling Classic from the Nahe in Germany.  The great thing is with richer preparations (think mushrooms, truffle, red wine beurre rouge, etc, you can even pair scallops with Pinot Noir.  I am hoping to find some good options this Friday at Farallon’s Pinot Fest!  The consumer tasting is Saturday for tickets and information

A Very Different Mardi Gras

13 05 2011

My first visit to New Orleans was in November 2006, just about a year after the 2005 hurricane season changed the landscape, literally and figuratively, forever. I am not sure if that is why, or perhaps there’s another deeper reason, but I have always held a very special place in my heart for this city. I never knew the completely carefree New Orleans of bachelorette parties, Bourbon Street and what I thought Mardi Gras was all about, drinking to excess and lots of gratuitous nudity. Instead the New Orleans I found was wounded but fiercely proud, still fragile but resilient.

On my first visit I was struck by how amazingly open people were. Many had just returned to the city and I quickly found that if you asked about the hurricane they would willingly share their story, and EVERYONE had a story. I heard from restaurateurs about the temperatures that soared without power, food liquefying and destroying the walk-in refrigerators to the point that the entire ground beneath had to be irradiated and removed. I heard about a man whose family works for a large luxury hotel as a manager. He expected that it would be fun time staying in the hotel during the hurricane with family, but when the windows began to blow in they were evacuated to the ballroom, only to be at the last minute pulled away from her colleagues and sent to the Superdome. There he witnessed things he could not talk about. I sat in awe as story after story flowed from them with sincerity and a matter of fact candor that was surprising to me. There were moments of anger, tales of unresponsiveness and unfair circumstances, FEMA trailers, poverty and incredible loss. Hair whitened by trauma, souls forever scarred by pure terror, and the worst, the sense of abandonment, that they were the forgotten by this nation. I always like to dig deeply into anyplace I visit, but I was timid when I asked the oyster shucker at Destiny if he thought I should go and see the damage, I did not want to treat this disaster as if it were an attraction to go and see, but I truly wanted to understand. I was stunned at how quickly he answered, saying emphatically that I should go. On the way to the airport before I left New Orleans that first time I arranged for the taxi to take me to see what had happened.

Lenox Chatmon picked me up at my hotel and opened the door for me, but instead I got in the front seat of his taxi. I once again checked to see if this journey of mine was an acceptable request and Lenox began his explanation of all that had happened in the days of Hurricane Katrina, the days following and the subsequent Hurricane Rita. We first descended on the 9th Ward where I was absolutely stunned to see that a year later most of the destruction was still very much visible. Stairs to nowhere, cars underneath houses, fences twisted like tin foil scraps and throughout the area spray paint that very bluntly described what had happened here. Everywhere a sense of desolation, an incredible sense of quiet laid heavy in the air, even though the heat of November is less oppressive than normal. It was hard not to cry as complete and utter disbelief grabbed a hold of me. The amazing thing was as we wrapped up our short tour of the 9th Ward I expected we were headed to the airport, but in fact there was more. Much more. Over the next hour and a half Lenox showed me more and more neighborhoods, some with worse wind damage, others with damage from water, and water lines visible on the sides of the buildings. Every now and then you would see life, a family or two on their porch in the midst of abandoned houses for what seemed (and likely was) like miles.

Upon arriving at the airport I broke down, and from then on New Orleans has been stuck firmly in my heart. Every time I return I feel a stronger connection, but who would have thought that what seems to be its most flashy, showy, touristy festival would hit me with such power and intensity that I would once again be moved to tears (actually multiple times) by the incredible connection and love that New Orleans has shown me.

Flights for Mardi Gras book up fast, so I had to fly in later than I had hoped. All my friends, and even my brother who had opted to come, had already arrived. They were busy grabbing beads at the Bacchus parade as I landed at Louis Armstrong International with way too much luggage and a bag housing a huge tail of purple feathers for my purple peacock costume. Amazing how nice people are to you when you have a crazy feathered tail as part of your carry-on luggage. Luckily the cab line was short and traffic was semi-manageable as I made my way towards the Wyndham Baronne Plaza Hotel, just outside the French Quarter. There would have been no way to get my luggage to my place with the hoards of crowds on Canal Street, even still the cab had to drop me a few blocks away. As I was on the way to meet up with my friends for pizza at Sugar Park I figured it would be imperative for me to check out the festivities just a block or so away from my hotel, maybe just peek around the corner to see the parade. I quickly found that the crowds are insane, my quick foray becoming about a half hour trip to walk one block where at times my feet were barely in contact with the ground, which was slick with alcohol, slippery beads and some other unsavory and thankfully unidentifiable substances. As I rounded the bend and began a long search for a taxi I was beginning to worry that we had made a very bad decision to come during Mardi Gras. Thousands of people gathering to grab a few plastic beads?

I was relieved when I walked into Sugar Park, a cozy little building in what seemed like the middle of nowhere that offers pizza and is BYOB. My friends Andrew, a local and Julie, my roomie for the weekend from SF, and a new friend visiting, Krista, were there in good spirits, dripping in beads. Our other SF contingent, Kimberly and Killian had opted to save their energy for the next day, brother Omar and friend Katie from SF and her cousin Marissa were impossible to contact (phone service is very difficult during Mardi Gras, texts don’t work either) so it was just four of us. Food was waiting, but they had finished most of the wine that they’d brought so I headed to the small market across the street to grab some Abita Amber, and was starting to feel human again as I ate and tried to catch up and listened to their accounts of the parade. I went to Mardi Gras with very little of an agenda, only to dress as Sagittarius for the Society of St. Anne’s parade, and also to join in on the purple party on Lundi Gras, as a purple peacock. I had heard about the purple party from both a friend of a friend and a very close friend, Jane, thinking that the two parties were one in the same, but I had very little information.

“So what’s the deal with this purple party anyway?” Andrew said just a little loudly for the tiny restaurant and its 10 diners…
“Well I know it’s some time tomorrow but I really do not have any information about it, I figure I will hear something about it soon, don’t worry we will figure it out.” I replied.

Within seconds a woman from the next table hopped up and said, “In most places there’s six degrees of separation, but here in New Orleans it’s one, my friend Stuart is the one that runs the purple party! He’s sitting right over there.” She pointed…

I think I must have blushed wondering, jeez here I am coming to a city I am not a part of and claiming I am going to this party that I wasn’t really invited to and I have invited all my friends and now look what happens. I think I stammered something of an apology and asked if it was ok if a few of my friends came to the party. She immediately demanded that we go and called over to Stuart to tell him we were coming. We chatted a bit and she asked me where I had heard about the party, I mentioned the acquaintance that had told me about it but it didn’t ring a bell with her (who knew that was a different party) and so she was about to depart back to her table when I introduced myself and asked her name. As she said Tracy… it struck me, my friend Jane, an avid fan of New Orleans, had told me about the purple party and told me I absolutely must meet Tracy. She said, if you don’t run into her you have to go to her shop Kabuki Hats.. And of course here she was standing in front of me… I was in town no more than an hour and a half and had all the information I needed provided to me. Uncanny and for one of many times this trip I heard that if you are open, in New Orleans things like this happen all the time.

We finished up and were joined by another friend of the group, Kevin, who I met for the first time and we decided on his recommendation to head over to where he was staying to meet up with Emery and Kristian. We were greeted by a grand staircase edged with Jurassic ferns leading to two rocking chairs and as we walked into the quiet house we saw a Christmas tree with presents around it all lit up. A gorgeous place, it was fun to see the little details such as well-placed coffee cans conveniently nailed to the walls where they can most easily be filled with beer caps. Back and forth we nestled in little areas where we could enjoy some guitar and banjo playing and eventually a fire at a fire pit. Their group came home to find us free-loading in their house, my friend Julie and I uninvited and making ourselves at home, doing our best to drain their keg of Abita (with iced pint glasses), a freshie with each pour, and they could not have been more hospitable, even though they both had to get up very early the next day. Emery filled the house with the home-cooked smell of red beans and rice as we played guitar out by the smoky fire. Every now and then we would see the lights dim and hear the wheeze of the circular saw as either Kevin or Kristian would chop up some more wood (claimed from a neighbors dumpster) for the fire. There are moments that just cannot be described, and this was one, a feeling of complete happiness filled every cell of my being as they humored me and let me play some of my songs for them, I felt the glow from the fire and a glow of supreme content within my heart. I could not have had a better introduction to the weekend.

At the end of the night Julie and I headed to our hotel, an interior room with a teeny window that looked out onto an atrium filled with the echoes of revelers throughout the night, but we slept pretty well.

Excitement filled us as we woke and prepped our costumes for the purple party. We headed to Napoleon House for a classic cocktail, the Pimm’s Cup, and some lunch and then zipped back to the hotel to prepare to meet up with the “Flash Mob” outside of Harrah’s. With a lot of struggle (cell service was still spotty) we managed to connect with my brother, Katie and Marissa, who I had yet to see. We had to of course stop by The Roosevelt for a Ramos Fizz along the way. The “Flash Mob” started out to be a couple of purple people milling around while a DJ spun tunes for some interesting dancers, not affiliated with our group… one woman moving her ass like nothing I have ever seen. It was a pretty interesting scene. Slowly the group started to meld and get to know each other, not really by name save for a few asking who the hell we were and how we knew Stuart, but not in an adversarial way, just in a curious way. As we gathered people asked to take our photos and I enjoyed being the subject in all my peacock finery. Finally our fearless leader Stuart arrived with a scepter of ribbons and we started our procession along the streetcar tracks to Chickie Wah Wah, a bar up Canal Street. Along route we chatted and one woman asked how we had ended up here. When we told her of our chance encounter at Sugar Park she said, “Lady NOLA either loves you or hates you, and if she loves you she takes care of those types of things.” She said very matter-of-factly, “She must love you.” It was a pretty long walk before we were able to get on a street car that was mostly full, but it was so fun to see the reactions of the riders as we filled the red car with purple plumes, sequins and satin. Dripping feathers and sequins, we got off the streetcar to cheers as we met up with the rest of the Purple People and entered the bar where Tribe Nunzio was playing for us. Purple punch was available and my first King’s Cake was presented, made by Stuart himself. Kimberly and Killian arrived, rejuvenated from the previous night, with purple eyelashes for us. A gender illusionist named Pickles gave Tracy, my new friend Desier and me a makeup lesson in the ladies room and we drank lots of beer.

Happily drunk we made our way to a neighborhood bar called Pal’s which has burlesque drawings on the walls and about three cases of Miller High Life cold and ready to go on the bar. Go in the back and you can play air hockey and see the swinging saloon doors that offer very little protection as they lead into the men’s room covered with nude photos of women. Upon seeing this we immediately ran into the ladies room to see if it had similar décor, only to find Burt Reynolds in a very interesting pose. At this point food became imperative and we hit Santa Fe for some food outside since there was a long wait for a table. My brother was chilly, so a waiter who was actually just finishing his shift loaned him his sweater to wear on the condition that he leave it with the host after. Food came a bit too late for me, we hit dba to see Little Freddie King, he was amazing, but I was done. After a few head nods, my feathers a bit droopy, time to go.

I was glad to get a bit of sleep since Mardi Gras day was full of activity which started by getting up at 5:30am to head over to Emery and Kristian’s house. As we drove there we saw the first groups setting up everything from barbecues to smokers along the parade route. We had to get up early to try to find the Skeletons and the Indians, which was all new to me. The Skeletons drag huge chains through the streets of the Bywater to wake the living, reminding them that life is precious and you should get up and live it. This was especially poignant to me considering that I lost a great friend, Tommy Bermejo, just a week before. The Mardi Gras Indians represent different tribes of local native Americans, it was said that when slaves were able to escape that they were often taken in by the local tribes as their own and to honor this safe harbor they gave tribute to their tribes at Mardi Gras, they work tirelessly to make elaborate costumes. We all piled into a huge Suburban and began our journey with a quick stop back to Pal’s for Bloody Mary’s.

Rolling through the streets we listened to WWOZ 90.7 who gave reports on Mardi Gras filled with the classic Mardi Gras tunes that I was sad I did not know yet. Round and round we went trying to avoid getting stuck in traffic and looking for Skeletons and Indians. This tradition really struck me, amazing that you could experience such pain and suffering as slavery, something so negative, but in the same instant find something so positive as the open arms of those tribes for those runaway slaves.

We hit the Bywater Cultural Center but unfortunately there were not yet any Indians there. We had to pick up another part of our group Susanne, and right where we grabbed her there they were, the Skeletons. Amazing with the enormous chains behind them, said to be a relic from a slave ship.

We aborted the mission to put on costumes and shared space in the mirror as we primped and preened (especially their group, they were birds!). We left Emery’s house a wreck of glitter and feathers and it was back into the car and it off to Marcus’ house. Apparently Marcus throws the party every year to kick off the Society of St. Anne parade. St. Anne’s is a group of highly creative people that have some of the most incredible costumes. Some mini-krewes like the birds exist but generally anything goes. My half horse/half human costume wasn’t that great compared to my peacock, which I should have worn again in restrospect, but it was really comfortable which is key. When we parked the car and arrived close to Marcus’ house we were greeted by a bull that had crazy dark techno punk music coming from it and a crazy seemingly very “touched” guy who was rolling it around a parking lot.

As we got closer to Marcus’ we saw throngs of people all gathering together, the colors and the excitement building until someone said, “We are rolling! ROLLING!” and the groups started to march. The parade weaved through the tiny streets of the Bywater for quite a while, it was amazing to see the various outfits, sometimes you would see the same groups over and over, but then you would see a totally new group as people peeled on and off the route, some stopping in bars along the way to the French Quarter. The excitement of the parade shifted as we entered the Quarter and we saw that now it was not really the mutual adoration of each others costumes but now the tourists were watching us, we became the spectacle.  As we were rolling down Royal street a very finely dressed gentleman said, “What are YOU doing here?!” It was Chris Hannah of Arnaud’s French 75 bar, one of the greatest bartenders in the world, in my opinion. With him was my dear friend Vince from San Francisco.

Luckily our group knew a gracious woman who owned a gorgeous apartment overlooking Royal Street in the heart of everything where we had a chance to take a break, throw some beads and eat some hot dogs. When we arrived she was excited to see us even though, once again we showed up without “an invite”. “Sagittarius and Leo! Let me take a picture!” She said smiling as we posed. We got a much different perspective from the balcony!  After some more hot dogs we got back on the route and headed to Constantine’s house.  Susanne and Krista had met him during a previous Mardi Gras, so there we were in one of the most gorgeous apartments (historic of course) overlooking Jackson Square. On the way we luckily ran into Chris and Vince again who had a shopping cart full of a Pago Pago cocktail, thank goodness as we were very thirsty again by then. There was red beans and rice to give us some extra energy and we enjoyed just hanging out there. I never met Constantine but I thank him for his hospitality, I was getting good at this uninvited thing…

As we left the rain came down a bit and we figured we should shoot up to Tonique for a cocktail and start heading home to the house. Walking the streets we crossed Bourbon, a much different type of mood than where we had been, I barely noticed it. We crossed through into an area of gay bars which offered some new and interesting scenery and I had a chance to check in with some gay bouncers at a club while one of our group got cigarettes there (I wanted to make sure he came out unscathed!) They were sweet and funny and it made me think how lucky I am to also live in a city that is as open as San Francisco and New Orleans are. In fact it made my think of the Mint, my favorite karaoke Bar in SF.

Tonique makes delicious cocktails! Two Aviations and a couple chicken dances and we were feeling well-oiled and it was off to hit the Backstreet Cultural Center once again in search of Indians. When we arrived there was a ceremony going on, a green tribe member was in a gorgeous beaded and feathered costume. We stayed for quite a while watching as the blue tribe children danced played and then saw a peach colored tribe member approach but then retreat. The whole scene was surreal, and very beautiful, and I found myself crying as I now knew a bit more about the incredible significance of some of the Mardi Gras traditions, to know the backstory was huge.

We decided our best option was to keep on walking so we continued on foot, a LONG walk but filled with amazing opportunities to talk to folks in the area. We soon hit the Treme neighborhood and entered the Candlelight Lounge. This place was a definite neighborhood bar/hangout. Here things get a bit hazy, not because of alcohol, but more because as I started to enjoy a sense of amazing peace… The scene seemed to be full of locals, I think there was a band, I think I remember some food being grilled. It was a scene no less, and we enjoyed being a part of it. Katie and my brother were still not with us, communications become really difficult due to lack of cell service and the overall craziness of Mardi Gras day, but she was calling so I ran over to a little area where there was an opening to outside to talk to her. I heard some of the worst news. For those that do not know, I have been a regular at The Mint Karaoke Lounge for many years, ok, perhaps you may laugh, but it’s a great spot, and as anyone who has a regular hangout knows you get to know your fellow bar flys intimately. It seemed to me that Katie was telling me that one of our closest friends from the Mint, B, had passed away. In disbelief I ran from the bar. I cannot begin to tell you the surreal nature of this statement, given to me by a mutual friend of his who also happened to be there with me in New Orleans at the same time but not exactly with me, just insanity. I cried, I screamed. I kicked boxes outside the Candle Light but I was helpless. What could I possibly do, save make the rest of my old and newfound friends absolutely miserable. B would never have wanted that, he was a partier… He would not have wanted things to be any different… So I went back inside, told my friends why my face was tear-stained and told them that we must continue on. Another reminder that life should be lived, no remorse, no waiting, no stopping. Wake up and live before you die. Moments of intense joy are right there next to deep sadness. That is living. It became more clear to me than ever.

We continued on after the Candle Light on to where we saw the Zulu parade was ending and happened upon the celebration at the end… We were right in front of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. As we stood there deciding what to do, our friends decided to grab a beer and walked in, so we followed. We were received in a polite yet indifferent attitude. I was so honored to have been allowed entry into this special place. We continued on our journey, and I offered my little bow and arrow to a child along the way.  We found that many wanted to have their photos taken with us as we passed their door steps. We also heard a young girl say, “Where are your beads!?!?” in horror, and I realized that after all this time I had not yet received one strand.  As I grabbed the one she tossed me I enjoyed a pulse of exhilaration upon catching it. We finally made it to the wonderful and comforting Emery/Kristian compound where Emery had crafted the MOST AMAZING GUMBO I have ever had. They let me invite Katie and my brother over to enjoy it with us, and we simmered down to a low boil in terms of inebriation, ending the day with a little more music on the guitar but trying not to overdo it. I even got the baby in the King’s Cake which I think means I have to make the next cake or host the next event.  We watched the creepy Rex celebration on TV where the young girl and really old Rex hang out at this gala thing, totally surreal. I really wanted to see the French Quarter shut down at midnight on the dot, but once Julie and I got back to our room-cave of darkness it was lights out literally and figuratively.

Amazingly we went to sleep so early that we were up early ready to enjoy one last day of relaxation (or so we thought) in New Orleans. Julie and I played tourists eating beignets and iced coffee, and of course I got my favorite the Verti Marte shrimp po-boy undressed with pickles and butter. We actually toured the Katrina exhibit at the museum which was very moving, and then viewed the Mardi Gras exhibit. Having experienced it the day before the museum seemed weird as of course it could not possibly do it justice. Before we knew it we had to head out to meet the group for one last time (although half had already headed home that morning) for dinner at a really cool Lebanese restaurant, then off to Arnaud’s for a Ramos Fizz from the esteemed Chris Hannah. While there my buddy Vince happened to be there (not really surprising actually by this point) and told us that very soon the Treme Brass Band would be playing at a bar not too far away. He said, “It’s this place called the Candlelight” to which I replied, “Oh yeah, I’ve been there…” (He was a bit surprised!)

Texts back and forth that they were playing and to get there soon helped us peel ourselves away from the delicious cocktails.  There was a cover, and a more diverse crowd than the day before, so we paid our $5 and found a spot up front around a table and started to ease into the amazing vibe that the band created. Vince told me that his heart was wounded hearing about Katrina until the first time he returned and saw Uncle Lionel, band leader. “When I saw that Uncle Lionel was okay I knew that New Orleans was going to be okay.” he told me while wiping a tear from his eye. He too was missing our friend Tommy Bermejo dearly, so I told him about B from the Mint and we cried a few tears, just a very emotional time, all the while the band played on. Funny that the Candle Light had become such a special place to me all in the matter of a day.

Uncle Lionel likes the ladies so was available for a few photo opportunities and the entire group at the Candlelight was in great spirits. I watched as a man walked in, a lady on one hand and a cigarette in the other. He accidentally touched it to the arm of the woman working there as they hugged, she hollered at him jokingly and he walked to the bar smiling. I smiled at her good nature and offered my icy MGD bottle to soothe her arm where he’d burned her. She said to me, “You know who that is? That’s Kermit Ruffins! He’s my ex-husband! I told him he can add some money to the alimony check!” For those not in the know Kermit is one of the most amazing jazz trumpeters and musicians. After a bit more sitting the Woman Whose Ex was Kermit demanded that we get our asses out of the chairs and get up and dance, so we did, and I saw a woman give the most amazing tambourine performance ever. I am not sure who she was but she joined the band for just one song and was hitting the tambourine on every possible surface of her body, each time getting a different sound, all the while with the most exhilarating beat. The whole scene just brought pure joy, vibrancy and an electric feeling of being alive. It was really amazing. As the night wound down I headed to the restroom while my friends began to chat with the owner of the Candlelight. I had heard rumors of the importance of the Zulu Coconuts and had secretly thought how amazing it would be to get one, but tried not to be so needy, so wanting, and since Mardi Gras was over I thought I would have to wait for next year. Much to my dismay as I exited the restroom I watched in awe as the proprietor of the Candlelight handed coconuts to Vince and Julie. I headed out front to meet my other friends, trying not to be jealous and finally just coming to terms with it. I have learned recently that wanting is not a way to get something, but to be grateful and happy with what you have is much more productive. So although it was hard for a second, I decided that this was not my time to get my coconut and to be happy for my friends who did. The minute my mind was set on this path the door of the Candlelight opened, and one of the staff came up to me.  She said, “They want you in there.” and turned around.  I followed her back into the bar and she led me to Leona Grandison, the proprietor. Leona asked me a few questions, I guess to gauge my sincerity and worthiness.  I can’t remember exactly what she said I was in a very intense state.  I think it was something like, “Do you like it here in New Orleans? Where you from?”  I explained to her how special her bar had become to me, I told her that I was at the same time filled with joy and remembrance of my friends lost, just basically feeling alive, I think I tried to explain how I felt in the City of New Orleans. She motioned to a woman, who I think was her daughter, and pointed to a shelf behind the bar.  She brought a coconut over to Leona and placed it in her hands. It was a surreal moment as she transferred it to mine, almost as if for safe keeping. I was almost on a different plane, but I think that as she gave it to me she said something like, “You come back now, I expect to see you back here.” And that was it. The most amazing end to my Mardi Gras.

A usual celebration continued that evening, we stayed up all night to prevent missing our 6am flight, drinking at various places, hanging with each other, enjoying the company, basically just being. I headed home and straight to my dear friend Tommy’s wake.

White/Black, Light/Dark, Rich/Poor, Young/Old, Gay/Straight, Happy/Sad, Living/Dead, they are all one. New Orleans reminds me of this. She is so special to me.  I am so grateful to her for reassuring me that I am on the right path, that each step of this journey is meaningful even when I don’t know exactly where I am going.  I never really understood the concept of a parade.  I always thought, “What’s the point?  Where are these people going?”  Now I think I get it.

SF Jaunts-My Favorite Things

29 12 2010

It’s the last stretch of the holiday season, and some of you may still have family coming to town. Its always great to be together but sometimes the stress of the holidays can build up and you just may want to get some peace an quiet and find something to occupy the brood while you regroup. Here are a few tips for some of my favorite things to do in San Francisco, year round and at the holidays. The best part of this list is that you can join in and become a tourist for a day or just print it for them and let them go their merry way.

Journey One: Downtown
How Wine Became Modern at SF Moma: A new exhibit opened up recently at SF MOMA, How Wine Became Modern, focusing on design and wine from 1976, the year of the Paris Tasting until now. This is apparently unusual for the museum as it is a more experiential installation. Henry Urbach the gentleman who helped create the exhibit calls himself “not a wine geek”, and “interloper” so it should be interesting for even not so savvy wine types. The idea was “to allow the world of wine to become a mirror to a cultural condition that is ours”. They have some really creative galleries that focus on art, design, glassware, labels, soil, additives and media. Concurrently the museum has other interesting installations including a bridge of sound (Sonic Shadows) by Bill Fontana, an interactive auditory sculpture. They also have a great gift shop to browse through and pick up what you really wanted for Christmas.

Dim Sum at Yank Sing: Yank Sing has some of the greatest dim sum in the city. It may not be as good of a value as more traditional places, and some find it a little bit “fancy” but there is no question that it is delicious. I especially love their black bean oil that you can use to add some zip to some of the dishes. Designate one person at the table to monitor what you get so you do not overdo it. Take small “drops” of dumplings rather than multiple containers at the same time so that they do not get cold. Let the Shanghai dumplings cool a bit before eating. A great way to monitor yourselves and stay in budget it to ask for a price list, some items are surprisingly good value (Har Gow are about $5 for four while the shredded cabbage salad is $10!)

Tour Ferry Plaza Farmers Market: Whether it’s a market day or not the Ferry Plaza is a great place to visit to either sample our local products, get a coffee or do some shopping. The Ferry Plaza Wine Merchant is a great place to grab a glass of wine!

Pier 39: From the Ferry Plaza it’s really easy to jump on one of the vintage streetcars and head towards Pier 39. It’s a bit touristy but kids really enjoy watching the sea lions and riding the carousel.

Fishermans Wharf: Stroll down towards Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghriradelli Square and if you get chilly grab a hot chocolate or stop into the Buena Vista Bar for an Irish Coffee.

Journey Two: SF Parks
Conservatory of Flowers:
Golden Gate Park has a plethora of things to keep your family busy, easily accessible by public transportation.

California Academy of Sciences Museum:This is an experience which could easily take all day. The planetarium show is fun but maybe a bit complex for rowdy children. Definitely walk through the rainforest dome which shows the different levels of the rainforest and the creatures in each (dress in layers because it’s hot and steamy in there!). Then take the elevator to the aquarium. Don’t miss the leafy sea dragons and jellies. Be sure to visit the penguins and the living roof and there are currently a pair of reindeer on site for the holidays. If you haven’t exhausted yourself the de Young Museum is just across the plaza. Also if you are local it’s worth buying a membership, it gets you a discount in the store and the basic one allows unlimited visits for you and a guest!

From the park you can head one of two directions…

East Bound Route:Haight Ashbury
If you opt to head East you can walk towards the Haight Ashbury district where there is tons of shopping, fun bars and of course would not be complete without a stop at Amoeba Records a treasure trove for music. Just nearby is Alembic, a necessary stop for a great cocktail and if you go further East hit the Toronado where you can grab an amazing microbrew, I especially love Pliny the Elder, but beware, it packs a punch. If you tour on a Tuesday you can get a burger at Rosamunde or try one of their great sausages and bring it into the T to enjoy with your beer.

Westbound Route:Outer Richmond
A walk through the park on a nice day is a great way to work off your big holiday meals. You can stop by a number of the park’s lakes and check out the wildlife, visit the Buffalo Paddock and stop by the Park Chalet (or the Beach Chalet upstairs) for a beer ending at Ocean Beach. This journey may be easier with a car, and if you have one then you could head up the hill past the Cliff House and get a scenic look at the coastline and stop at the Sutro Parking Lot where you can get a view of the Sutro Bath Ruins. If you are feeling particularly inspired you can walk down into the ruins where a tunnel leads to the water on the other side and you can hear the waves crashing into the bedrock. From here you can drive up Point Lobos and make a left at 48th Avenue, stay towards the left to wind around through the Presidio and up to the Palace of Legion of Honor. As you keep winding around you will find some amazing views of the Golden Gate Bridge and can even take a jaunt on the Lands End Trail which is full of tons of great vistas, there is even a “secret” labyrinth made by Eduardo Aguilera, it’s pretty magical actually with a gorgeous view. The whole trail in fact ends at the Sutro Parking Lot but it’s a long walk. If you are driving and feeling a bit parched take a right at 25th Avenue and head to either Pizzetta 211 (23rd and California) or Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant, home of the best margarita in SF and I think in the US.

Journey Three: The Mission
The Mission district is full of fun places to graze and shop. While you can explore on your own, a better idea is to take a food tour. I took one a few weeks ago from In The Kitchen with Lisa The tour is more cultural than just culinary, but be sure to come hungry! We started out at Mission Minis and my growling stomach was immediately tamed by a red velvet mini cupcake. The day was gorgeous as we strolled around the sunniest part of San Francisco without even a jacket on, in November! Along the way our guide would stop and give us some information about local businesses that we did not get to stop off at and some details about the history of the neighborhood. We had tacos, coffee and Mexican pastry, sandwiches, Mission pies, donuts, ice cream, it was intense but great. At each spot we learned a bit about the history of the location, their mission, it was more than just eating. We also walked down Balmy Alley, a small side street famous for its murals. We were met by Patricia Rose of Precita Eyes Mural Arts and Visitors Center who gave us some history on the various murals as we strolled along. Precita Eyes also does more extensive mural tours.

photo by Kimberly Charles

At the end of your Mission tour you may be stuffed, so it’s a pretty good time to exercise, your vocal chords that is, with a stop to The Mint Karaoke Lounge. While the Mint has a reputation for being a very professional karaoke joint show up at 3pm and the calm regular crew is very supportive, you will get a chance to sing more often and it may not be as daunting as a busy Saturday night crowd! If karaoke isn’t your thing and it’s a nice day you could end up at Zeitgeist and enjoy the outdoor area.

Wherever your travels take you there is plenty to do in this great city, these are just a couple of my favorites. Happy New Year!

A Legendary Day in Napa Valley

24 09 2010

September 11, 2010 was the Staglin Music Festival for Mental Health, an event I work annually that focuses on finding solutions to combat mental health issues as well as to address the stigma often associated with mental illness.  The event was fantastic.  Highlights were a tasting of “cult” wines, a concert by Dwight Yoakam (he and his band were amazing!) and a dinner prepared by Jon Bonnell from Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine.  The event was also attended by Glenn Close, her sister Jessie and her nephew Calen Pick, Rusty Staub, comedian Bob Sarlatte and other celebs who you may not have heard of but should know, for example author of The Female Brain, Dr. Louann Brizendine.  (Her latest, The Male Brain has also just come out.)  To learn more about the benefit and mental illness go to and to see the amazing public service announcement filmed at Grand Central Station go to

Me and Dwight's band, Mitch Marine (drums), Josh Grange (pedal steel) and Jonathan Clark (bass)

Dwight Yoakam

It’s always fun to volunteer to work the event, partly because it’s for a great cause but also the Staglin’s really host us to an amazing weekend.

Alicia Towns Franken, Me, Rusty Staub and April Gargiulo

This year was truly legendary.  Shannon Staglin created a day that was really memorable.  I have to admit I did not know all the producers on the itinerary but I was excited to see some spots in the valley I was less familiar with.  Although I teach for the Napa Valley Vintners and the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena and spend a good deal of time in Napa it still amazes me when I see there are still so many unexplored corners and folds, despite being a very small area there is so much diversity.

My friends and I arrived the night before the event and enjoyed a glass of wine at the Oxbow Market in downtown Napa at Oxbow Wine Merchant before heading over to Zuzu, my absolute favorite restaurant in Napa Valley.  Owner Mick Salyer was on hand to be sure we had enough Vina Tondonia Rioja Rose, we knew there were lots of big reds in our future, but we did also enjoy a nice half bottle of Revana courtesy of Natalie Vache.  It was delicious!

Beau Wine Tours donated a very comfortable bus for the group of sommeliers so no one had to drive, this is KEY to having a good time in Napa, always be sure you have a designated driver.  The bus picked us up at Saintsbury’s gorgeous Brown Ranch where some of us were staying, a really comfortable country house in the middle of the vineyards of Carneros with gorgeous gardens.  With a quick stop for coffee at Bouchon which was a bit of a madhouse we collected the rest of the team. Alicia Towns Franken from Boston formerly of Grill 23, Peter Hiers from the Monterey Peninsula, formerly of the Highlands but now Rising Star Wine Group, Patrick Mullane from Forbes Mill in Los Gatos, Mark Buzan from Pebble Beach, The DC crew Cesar Varela, David (Charlie Palmer Steak) and Maria Denton (Ruth’s Chris), and the NY crew Brian and Crystl Friedman (DelFrisco’s) and our host Shannon.

NOTE: Some of these locations are sadly not open to the public, Shannon traded in some big favors to create this experience for us!   It’s always ok to ask though so you can check the websites listed and see if they do tastings or try to add yourself to the mailing list (or mailing list wait list!)

First stop was Dana Estates.  On the western side of the valley in the Rutherford appellation this property is located at the former Livingston Moffett property and upon driving up you can see it is absolutely stunning.  We were greeted in a beautiful courtyard with some Schramsberg sparkling (the perfect breakfast wine!) and learned a bit about the property from Daniel Ha.  Dana is Sanskrit meaning “Spirit of Generosity” and the fact that they were willing to share this special experience with us was just a bit of evidence of that!  Perfect for the theme of the weekend really.  The first winery was built on the site in 1883 by H.W. Helms and the courtyard and parts of the winery are built around these original ghost winery walls.  Dana Estates purchased the property in 2005 and since then has built the most amazing facility.  Clearly high end yet it has an air of comfort and the use of the old and new design elements really melds together, seems like it’s been there forever.  They make wine from three sites, Helms, Hershey and Lotus vineyards.  Philippe Melka consults on the project and the wines are stunning as can be expected.  And what would a cult wine be without an amazing package, the label features a dozen lotuses cut into the label for the twelve months of the year, life, rebirth, it’s really GORGEOUS.  Unfortunately quantities are extremely limited and in 2009 they decided not to use the fruit from the Helms vineyard so production will be even less, but they want to be sure the wines are always amazing.  We tasted Helms and Lotus 2007 (about 300 cases of each made!).  They only made 42 cases of Hershey so there was none to taste!  I preferred the Lotus, really rich and powerful, more reticent than the Helms but had an incredible chocolate mocha coffee thing going on.  Lots of power and really an infant, it’s going to be amazing.

Next stop was to see Scarecrow also in Rutherford.  This is the JJ Cohn property on what I believe to be possibly the most prime piece of Rutherford.  Right next to Rubicon Estate firmly on the Rutherford Bench this is land that cannot be duplicated.  It creates wines that just scream of the Rutherford Dust quality that Andre Tchelistcheff talked about.  We were greeted by proprietors Mimi DeBlasio and Bret Antonio Lopez, Nancy Andrus of The Duck Blind who markets the wines, and consulting winemaker Celia Masyczek who also has her own wine, Corra and two cheerful white Bichon Frisees.  The group quickly derailed the planned agenda by asking about the ancient vines on the property and we traipsed into a vineyard of giants.  Head trained in the old style they were like stalwart little trees.  While walking back to the house Mimi and I exchanged tequila tips and she promptly ran off to get me a mini bottle of Corzo Reposado which I will add was VERY useful at a recent Willie Nelson concert at Wente Vineyards where I traded a shot of said tequila with Karl Wente for three bottles of wine!  Although I think we could have convinced him to give us the wine anyway finding the tequila in the middle of the show when we had sucked down the first few bottles was very welcome.  But I digress… Celia led us through a tasting of her wine, Corra and Scarecrow both 2007.  Amazing wines.  I won’t say who said it but after tasting the Corra one of our group whispered to his neighbor, “This wine keeps pumping and pumping and pumping.”  And it did.  It was dense and concentrated yet elegant and full of flavor and passion.  Celia makes wines that are really unique in Napa.  Then we tasted the Scarecrow, just amazing.  Dusty and earthy yet rich and flavorful.  And enjoying these wines in the home of Mimi and Bret, such a beautiful and historic place was truly amazing.  Bret told stories of “Aunt Bessie” and how she selected every piece of furniture.  He even took us on a tour of the home which has really interesting twists and turns, the original wallpaper, beautiful and pristine despite its stains.  It was such a cool amalgamation of these old elements that were carefully selected with the new treasures that Mimi and Bret have added, amazingly they meld seamlessly.  It’s a gorgeous and very special place and imbued with the spirit of their ancestors.  Before we left we got a tour of the old barn replete with an inchworm ride toy that actually brought a tear to my eyes, as did the barn itself.  Memories of childhood flooded back, summers at my great grandfather’s farm in Pennsylvania.  Knowing that Bret spent summers here and was now living here completed the moment.  Truly a unique visit.  Bret took a shot of us in the barn, he is primarily a photographer, and we headed back to the bus (kicking and screaming because we didn’t want to go) but luckily our lunch from La Luna, a Mexican market in Rutherford, was waiting for us and Mimi sent us off with chocolates too.

Just as we were digging into our food Nancy warned us that there would be snacks at the next two stops, but we could not resist the juicy burritos and the amazing chips.  The next stop, Checkerboard, does not even have any wine to taste yet, but they wanted us to see the site which was way up valley in the Diamond Mountain appellation near Calistoga.  Although we did not get to taste it was a refreshing and needed break after the big wines of the morning and we took ATVs through forests all the way to the top of their property where we got an amazing view of the northern part of the valley.  When we arrived there was an amazing spread for us, Calistoga waters (of course), gazpacho, shrimp skewers, cheeses, we enjoyed the picnic and the fact that we were their first tour EVER!

Alicia, Shannon and I at Checkerboard, Diamond Mountain

We headed back down the mountain and zipped all the way over to Ovid Vineyards where we were greeted by Janet Pagano and Assistant Winemaker Austin Peterson.  Winemaker Andy Erickson was busy at his home making us dinner and actually building a table for our meal from reclaimed wood.


Ovid is situated at the top of the slopes of the Vaca range in the Oakville appellation high above the valley floor.  It’s almost as far as you can get from where we were at Checkerboard and on the opposite side of the valley.  High above even Oakville Ranch this site faces West so they receive a great deal of afternoon sunlight up there.  The winery perched on this hillside takes advantage of the sun with huge windows that soak in the amazing view.  They have a gravity flow system of tanks and everything is all clean and compartmentalized yet very comfortable.  I immediately gravitated


towards the long cozy benches in the main room where I could have easily laid down to read a book and napped like a cat in the sun, but they had other plans for us.  The tanks of concrete were selected by visits to numerous producers in Bordeaux and all the research resulted in a winery that is really efficient in all aspects.  They also have an orchard and bees so although the place looked very modern and high tech there’s a soft side to it.  The wines were also incredible.  We tasted a comparison of a wine that was fermented in barrel versus one fermented in concrete (I was wrong I will admit it this once).  They were definitely different but it was really hard to discern exactly how.  Guess that’s why I am not a winemaker!  Then we tasted the finished wine from 2006, just amazing.  It was so concentrated that when we swirled the glass the legs just sat there suspended above the wine.  Dense black fruits, blackberry, cassis, really powerful but with very balanced tannin.  Possibly my favorite Cabernet of the day.  And of course they pulled out two huge platters of berries and cheeses (an amazing aged Comte that with the wine was just perfect) and their own olive oil, breadsticks.  The works.  Again Shannon had to pry us away and back into the bus as we were keeping vineyard guru Larry Hyde waiting all the way down in Carneros!

We arrived at Hyde Vineyards a bit late but Larry was very patient with us, and although we had to cut the tour of the vineyard in half we had a chance to walk out to where he has both Chardonnay and Syrah planted.  He puts the Syrah near the riparian areas near the river since the sharpshooters aren’t as attracted to its leaves.  Larry Hyde is legend.  His own wine Hyde de Villaine (HdV) is a joint project with the also legendary Aubert de Villaine from Domaine de La Romanee Conti in Burgundy and his own domaine in Bouzeron.  Despite this Larry almost gets more notoriety for wines from the wineries he sells grapes to.  His client list reads like a who’s who of the top wines produced in the valley, some of my favorites being Patz & Hall, Ramey and Kongsgaard. His Chardonnay is tough to beat and as such those that get their hands on his fruit usually vineyard designate it as Hyde.  He is at heart a vineyard guy so we discussed the trellising, row direction, soil types, terroir.  My kind of visit, very intellectual.  Then he invited us into the guest house on the property where his wife Beta presented us with yet more delicious cheese and crackers (it would have been rude to pass it up!).  We tasted pretty much the entire line of wines and sat and enjoyed the company of Larry and his wife and their new German Shepherd whom I (and the cheese) helped train to sit.  As the sun started to set over the hills of Carneros we boarded the bus again to head to Annie Favia and Andrew Erickson’s house for dinner.

To cap off a day that couldn’t seem more perfect we arrived at the home of Annie and Andy to find a scene straight out of Martha Stewart Living.  In the expansive back yard the light was dimming over Annie’s outrageous garden filled with vegetables and flowers and the chickens were safely in their coop.  There spread before us was the most gorgeous table and an entire kitchen island set under the trees.  Electric lamps, flowers, plates of food, a tire swing, a roaring campfire off to the side and even better some Leroy Bourgogne Blanc that Annie’s sister Brigit was kind enough to bring for us.  One of the wines she sells, it really hit the spot as a palate cleanser after a day of heavy Cabernets (although Larry Hyde’s Chardonnays were similarly refreshing).  While we snacked on olives and almonds and a squash soup from the garden Andy pulled out a bag of padron peppers not to be believed.  Those peppers, to which I am addicted, are about $6 for a bag of about ten at the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market.  And I pay it gladly!  He sauteed them up and we all dove in (and I again could NOT stop.)  They are fun little things, you can eat ten and just enjoy their nuttiness and then one will just wallop you with intense fiery flavor!  It’s fantastic and very much a pleasure/pain thing.  Dinner accompanied by Favia wines continued with short ribs, a fantastic tomato salad and an amazing nibble: a piece of watermelon with an herb puree and a bit of Serrano all eaten in one bite.  Salt, sweet, herbal, fruity, great combination!  And all you can eat padrons.  The Favia Cerro Sur and Magdalena were both incredible but by that time I was not taking notes…  While we were dining Annie and Andy’s young girls made us cupcakes with ground coffee in the icing (their idea, and really delicious).  We retired to the fire pit and I broke out a guitar and we sang and played as the fire popped and burned. The tequila and the tequila horn also made a cameo.  Annie and Andy sent us home (to our guest house) with fresh eggs from their chickens.  And more padrons!  It was truly a magical ending to a magical day.  Food, friends, great wine and spirit and the most gracious hospitality.

If you’re planning a trip to Napa Valley go to to search wineries to visit!

Italy Day Six: Montefalco and Bevagna Redux

30 05 2010

May 30, 2010

Today we were greeted for our tour of Montefalco by an amazing tour guide, Annalita Pollicchia.  To explain how amazing she was I would have to add that I am currently eating traditional cookies from her hometown of Bevagna and her mother’s bakery.  Despite the rivalry between the towns of Bevagna and Montefalco, Annalita was still very fair in representing both cities fairly and in fact we spent a bit more time in Montefalco than Bevagna.

Bevagna (the city we visited earlier in the week, home to the Nocineria and Bottega Assu, was the second town on the Flaminia Road built after Spello and as such is considered a Roman town while Montefalco, built later in the Middle Ages, is from that time period.  Annalita described Montefalco as the “Balcony of Umbria” and spectacular views can be seen from all angles along the ramparts of this walled in town.

We got to town around 10 and the museum opened around 10:30 (i.e. 10:45 Italian time, add 15 minutes) so we grabbed an espresso and sat in the town square (unusual for a town square since it is round!) to see what life is like in the town on a Sunday morning. In fact it was rather quiet, but the coffees were great (four espressos and a plate of Italian style cookies for less than 4 Euros).  Then off to the 14th century church of St. Francis (San Francesco) where you can see the amazing frescoes painted by Benozzo Gozzoli as well as the “Nativity” by Perugino.  Apparently this cycle of frescoes was comparable only to Assisi but contains twelve images only.  The colors of these frescoes are really amazing and some criticize their restoration saying that they cleaned them too much and that the green colors are exaggerated, but the impact is significant.  Gozzoli was painting these in a much different style than the frescoes painted at the Basilica of St. Francis and so the figures are much more attractive and often blond and fair skinned which was the trend at the time.  The museum that houses these gorgeous paintings also houses the ancient monk’s wine cellar with channels cut into the stone to catch the wine as it comes out of the presses and collect it into a trough.  We strolled through the medieval town noticing the incredible pride people have in their flower pots that surround the entryways of their homes.

Off it was to Bevagna, where the two Roman churches face each other across the square.  Bevagna was a border town between the empire and the papacy and as such there are thirty-five churches within the town walls.  While the population has grown to 5,000 the space within the town has not really expanded, so these churches have been reused as supermarkets and cinemas over the years.  The church of San Silvestro built in 1197 was consecrated at the time by an emperor, which was a challenge and an insult to the papacy, so they basically abandoned it and used it as storage.  This luckily means that it is in very good condition.  It also features very unique architecture thought to be brought by the Benedictines as they travelled on their pilgrimages.

The area of Bevagna is fortunate to be at the confluence of multiple rivers and was able to sell their production of hemp, eggs, and bricks to neighboring towns.  Within the town there is an amazing excavation of the Coliseum area.  This former stadium was in ancient times closed and divided and turned into what we would today call work lofts, craftsman’s shops on the ground floor and living quarters above where they were safer from attack.  We visited this Casa Medioevalle with our guide Annalita who helped restore one of these ancient work residences with a friend.  Amazingly they have recreated a water wheel machine that would have either pounded materials to make mortar, felt or paper or run a wheel that would grind flour or olive oil (here the machine does both just to show us, but this would not have been the case back then).  Upstairs you can visit a traditional Roman home where the kitchen it attached to the rest of the room in order to conserve heat.  Hearty stews were made with small pieces of lard that hung from the rafters, in fact everything was hung, meats, cheeses, etc.  Bedrooms were painted bright colors in the spring since throughout the whole winter they burned animal fats for warmth, you can imagine the smell, and most had tuberculosis so they actually had a tiny bed where they slept sitting upright in order to prevent suffocation.  These structures actually date back to the 2nd century AD, it was really interesting to try to imagine life back then.

After our tours it was off to a picnic at Arnaldo Caprai to celebrate the day of Cantine Aperte for Umbria (May 30, 2010)www.movimentoturismovinoit  The winery was bustling with lots of people there to taste and eat and overall the crowd was very young and seemed very excited to be there.  It apparently happens around Italy offering a chance for tasters to visit wineries for the day.  We enjoyed some amazing super fresh mozzarella, like Burrata, but small, super orange and sweet yet firm melon and some amazing prosciutto.  Lunch was of course a repeat of these items plus a pasta with tomato and chicken livers, super al dente in texture and delicious, then grilled local lamb and sausages from Bevagna, and Chianina beef.  We tried some of the experimental trials at the winery, a Syrah, Petit Verdot and Tannat, all 100% and all really amazing.  I was a real fan of the Petit Verdot which although tannic was really delicious and not as herbaceous as you might imagine.

Lunch was followed by a jaunt through the vineyards, and then some time spent relaxing and investigating the local style as we spent some time watching the attendees and enjoying some Grecante.   Arnaldo Caprai winery also hosted a jazz concert with Marco Marconi which was a great endcap to the day as the sun set behind us.  A quick saber of some Billecart Salmon by Marco and then our journey was basically, and sadly, over.  We had a quick bite in Foligno and an interesting beer (!) called 32 Audace and now it’s off to the airport for the grueling journey home.

Hotel Villa dei Platani Viale Mezzetti, 29- 06034 Foligno 39 0742 355839 f 39 3281654025

Bottega di Assu Via Gabriele Crescimbeni, 3- 06031 Bevagna, 39 0742 360059

Arnaldo Caprai Loc. Torre- 06036 Montefalco 39 0742 378802, imported by Folio Fine Wine Partners

Transportation in Umbria: Gianni 347 3236404

Journey to Italy Day Five: Perugia, Assisi and Montefalco

30 05 2010

A leisurely morning was spent at the hotel before we embarked to Perugia and met up with a tour guide who showed us the local sights there.  Sylvia, our guide showed us the sites and commented on the town that benefited from their proximity to the Flaminia Road, a Roman road and major connector between the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Adriatic over the Apennine mountains.  A unique sight within the town is a gorgeous fountain with carvings that depict the daily life of man at the base of the fountain.  To represent each month of the year there is a carving showing the activities such as pruning vines and tending sheep along to more intellectual pursuits towards the end of the year.  The idea is that over the course of the year through daily life humans move from action to intellect and eventually to spiritual enlightenment represented by the more saintly beings at the next level of the fountain.   The town church is modest compared to richer towns, with only faux marble columns and their one relic is the ring said to be that given from Joseph to Mary.  The town was so lacking in relics back in the day that they tried to actually steal the bodies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, but were unsuccessful.  Apparently relics were vital as they were a source of tourism, so without them your town suffered.

Perugia was a source of some of the best painters in Italy as home to both Perugino, Raphael and Pinturrichio.  The history of the town is rather violent as f conflict between the popes and emperor creating a great deal of turmoil over its history.  One leading family of the town, the Baglioni.  The Baglione family lived in this town but opposed the pope and as such he destroyed the towers that housed their family.  In its place a fortress was built where he sent delegates to control the town, but of course the locals of Perugia hated this as it was an insult and eventually also destroyed most of the fortress and in the process destroying much of their history.  We were shown the ruins of the ancient town that lie under the Piazza Italia as well as the escape route these delegates would take to leave town.  The weirdest thing is that you reach these ruins through a series of escalators, it feels like you are going into the NY Subway, but you are surrounded by ancient stonework.  Nowadays this leads to the underground parking structure (weird!).  One of the folks in our group got her dress caught in the escalator and luckily survived unscathed, but we joked that maybe this was the miracle the town was waiting for and she should sell them the pink shroud of life as their new relic.  We left the town hearing nothing about the chocolates that are named for the town but someone did ask Sylvia about the “Baci” made by Perugino, she said that basically the Baci was a great marketing idea since they used to call the little chocolates “fists”.  Really?

Off we headed for a quick jaunt to Assisi.  I could have stayed in that town all day.  While it seems a bit touristy it was really amazing to see all the incredibly narrow streets running throughout the town.  Our van driver expertly navigated some really tight turns, I wouldn’t even drive a Smart car through this town, it was crazy tight.  We visited the main Roman square where columns of the Minerva temple still sit.  Built in about 100 BC this site has always been a religious site despite the fact that the religion changed over time.  The city of Assisi was a bit smarter than Perugia and never adversarial towards Rome, which means that much of it is preserved.  This square also housed the market and the old metal measures used for silk and bricks can be seen on the wall next to the temple.  Assisi is famous of course for St. Francis, and also St. Clare, and the whole town’s names really resonate to me considering I am so familiar with California and the names of cities inspired by these saints, San Francisco, Santa Clara and even Los Angeles named for the church where Assisi found his inspiration, Santa Maria dei Angeli.  St. Francis was born at the end of the 12th century to an upper class family.  He had an easy life and was given the benefits of education and financial comfort.  He determined that he wanted to go to war at the age of 19 but was captured and imprisoned and his father bailed him out.  Then he decided to follow the Crusades, but got ill not far from home and again had to regroup.  It was at this time that he discovered his path and decided to live by the Gospel.  He had the benefit of being able to address the nobles as well as all levels of society and received entree to talk with the Pope due to his status.  The Pope was being challenged by the Emperor at the time and so the new Franciscan movement that St. Francis proposed seemed like a good option so he actually gave it his blessing.  The tenets of the religion 1. Poverty 2. Chastity and 3. Obedience to the Church, the last two are the longer lasting ideals…  St. Francis was of course also famous for his respect for animals and the environment, he spoke to all creatures calling them all brothers and sisters.  The Basilica of St. Francis is pretty incredible.  The top story is where the public would attend mass, the next level down you find a more spiritual chapel and at the bottom level is the area in which St. Francis is interred.  You can make an offering an buy a candle to be burned at a later time.  It was really moving.  Amazing also to think that here is the birthplace of a religion that ultimately spread across the world and brought winemaking to California with the Franciscan missionaries.  While they were apparently from Spain they evolved from the teachings of St. Francis, and as our guide said, really a missionary has no home but the figurative home of the church.

Off we went to lunch at Hotel La Bastiglia in Spello, a gorgeous restaurant with an incredible view where we dined on a panzanella salad, fresh ricotta, free range pork prosciutto, herbed pecorino cheese and those were just the starters!  I am getting used to this.  These were of course followed by Tagliatelle with Chianina beef as well as a “mixed grill” of pork, beef and sausage.  Just when I thought I could take no more in comes a molten chocolate cake that was incredibly decadent with strawberry sorbet.  We also met Marco’s amazing family including Arnaldo Caprai, he seems ready to take over now…

A quick jaunt through our local town of Foligno and a 20 minute power nap and it was back to work at Arnaldo Caprai where Paolo Biccheri led through a tasting of Montefalco Rosso and Sagrantino de Montefalco from numerous local producers.  My highlights were Tabarrini and of course Arnaldo Caprai.  Then we tasted seven of the latest new wines from Arnaldo Caprai and were met with a gorgeous sunset over the vineyards while we discussed their latest clonal trials.  They are working both with the traditional propagation of Sagrantino as well as using seeds to breed new clones in order to get the best vine material possible.

We headed off to the gorgeous town of Montefalco as the bats were coming out and the sky was a deep indigo and were greeted by Sylvia Santificetur and her husband Achille, who just happen to be parents of Maria Assunta’s grandson, the couple we met at lunch the day before.  They own Spiritodivino, a gorgeous restaurant that has been getting incredible press lately  It was another one of those nights when the food and company were so wonderful it was hard to take notes, but highlights were an artichoke served with cauliflower puree and a poached egg as well as a 1996 Sagrantino de Montefalco.

Now it’s off to Montefalco and back to Bevagna for a tour and then onto the winery where they are having an open house and concert!