A tour of west coast wines + 4 things I learned at wine tastings

vineyard

A sunny vineyard in the Napa Valley—beautiful.

Can you ever have too much wine?

Yes, actually, you can. You can have too much wine when you’re traveling in an RV, storing all the favorites you’ve collected during your travels, and you nearly break a slide-out.

Yup.

That’s us.

Definitely over the limit.

The average bottle of wine weighs nearly three and half pounds, so our 29 treasured bottles purchased in California and Washington state would weigh 100 pounds. When we left the campsite in Washington state, where we purchased the most wine, the slide-out where we were storing our vino was behaving badly. A little detective work revealed we should not be storing our bottles in the slide-out.

Don’t you worry. They’ve been moved. Not destroyed.

wine in total

29 of the best wines on the west coast: For want of a rack, use a picnic table.

That’s what happens, I guess, when you’re traveling for weeks through the West Coast and one of your favorite pastimes is wine tasting. The wine is good. Great even. So you pick up souvenirs of your experiences, and pretty soon you’ve got 29 bottles.

But let’s begin our story in Texas, where we tasted wine in early February at three vineyards just outside of Fredricksburg. More than 50 vineyards are located in the area called Texas Hill Country, and the scenery is spectacular. The wines? Not so much. One place was charging $99.50 for a bottle of cabernet sauvignon. It was neither our flavor nor our price range. But still, a fabulous way to while away a winter afternoon (especially Grape Creek Vineyards—dazzling locale on a sun-drenched day).

Then we spent nearly two weeks in April in the Napa Valley. Why? Because Napa. Duh. There are more than 500 vineyards and tasting rooms in the valley; one could spend a lifetime there tasting wine. But we found two weeks was actually too much time. Much of the wine there comes with an attitude. We must have heard a dozen times about the Judgement of Paris, a wine competition in 1976 in which French judges did a blind tasting and named a Napa cabernet sauvignon the winner. The attitude comes with a price tag. But there were a few refreshing exceptions:

  • hess tour

    Hess boasts some of the oldest vines in the valley.

    Miner Family: This place was sincerely welcoming, and their wine was mighty tasty, the syrah in particular.

  • Hess Collection: We enjoyed a thorough tour of the grounds and some extra special wines here. Hess’ cabernet sauvignon measures up to the hype and is lip-smacking good.
  • V. Sattui Winery: The wines were modestly priced, the on-site deli had a thousand cheeses, salamis and crackers, and the grounds were mesmerizing. Buy a bottle there and have lunch on site after your tasting.
  • CRU @ the Annex: This little tasting room off the beaten path is worth a stop for their perfectly curated charcuterie boards (or popcorn!) and their smooth (if a bit pricy) wines.

Our favorite place to winery hop on the West Coast turned out to be southeast Washington, where we spent some time last May. These vintners were our people, and their wines are a tasty as they are affordable.

Our favorite wine by far was Maryhill Winery’s albariño. Never heard of it? Neither had we. It’s a crisp fruity white with no oak (I hate oaky chardonnays). Maryhill is known for its outdoor amphitheater overlooking its vineyards and the Columbia River where marque bands like Santana, ZZ Top and Steve Winwood play. I only wish I lived nearby to take in one of these summer concerts.

We Loved-with-a-capital-L Longship Cellars tasting room in Richland, and the young proprietor there suggested we visit the Walter Clore Center in Prosser, where 50 up-and-coming wine makers were doing a tasting event the next day. We enjoyed ourselves so much we left with a case of wine (this is where we probably started getting ourselves into trouble with weight).

zerba

Medals AND the bottles to put them on.

And then we paid a visit to Zerba Cellars in the Walla Walla Valley (technically we were in Oregon at the time, but we could have tossed a coin into Washington state). This winery has won innumerable awards, all deserving. We liked their offerings so much we joined the club. After hearing the wine club pitches of more than a dozen other wineries on our travels, it says something that we took Zerba up on the offer.

After spending several afternoons drinking vino in various wineries, here are four things I learned:

  1. More expensive doesn’t mean better. An expensive wine might only mean it’s more scarce (Exhibits A & B: Texas wines and the cabernet sauvignons from Napa), but that albariño I mentioned? Only $20 a bottle.
  2. Red wine tastes better aged. Duh. I’ve heard this before but never really paid attention to the year on the label. We tried different years of the same varietal at a couple of wineries, and the older wines tasted smoother and more nuanced. If you’re going to sit on anything, let it be one of those tanniny cabernet sauvignons.
  3. The glass matters. The wineries in the Yakima Valley of Washington exclusively use Riedel stemware in tastings (a girl traveling in an RV with only plastic stemware notices such things). At Zerba Cellars, we tried wines using both a syrah glass and a cabernet glass, and the difference in flavor was stunning.
  4. Many bottles of wine are not just one varietal, even if that’s what the label indicates. A wine labeled as cabernet sauvignon is only required to be 75 percent cabernet sauvignon grapes. My Beloved and I have learned we’re fans of blends, and I’m not gonna feel like a rube about it anymore.

Now we’re slowly consuming our bounty (let’s be reasonable, no reason to hurry through paradise), and here’s my bottomline. If it’s the setting you’re after, try Fredricksburg in winter; if you grew up in Minnesota, nothing beats sunshine in February. If it’s California wines you want to taste, go to a well-appointed liquor store and buy yourself a case or two of different California wines. I can assure you, you’ll spend a lot less than you might in Napa (where tasting can run you $50 a person for five swallows of wine). And if you’re planning a wine vacation, seriously consider visiting Washington state, where you’ll find some tasty wines and some mighty nice people.

Paul Bunyan put down roots in Cali, too

Where do you think Paul Bunyan is from?

I grew up in Minnesota, and I thought Paul was a member of my tribe. There’s a statue of him in Bemidji, only 60 miles north of where I learned the legends of the state in grade school.

But a drive through California will quickly dissuade you from believing Paul Bunyan belongs only to Minnesota.

Wait, who’s Paul Bunyan again?

If you’re not sure, you didn’t grow up near a forest harvested by loggers.

Paul Bunyan is a legendary lumberjack who eats miles-high piles of flapjacks and hangs with his trusty friend, Babe the Big Blue Ox. He wears suspenders over his red plaid shirt and carries an ax over his shoulder. He’s jolly about hard work, as any good Minnesotan ought to be.

But California has hardwood forests populated with hard-working loggers, too, and Californians also lays claim to the legend of Paul Bunyan.

Paul Bunyan Three Rivers

The sign below Paul says: Carved 1941-42 Single log, 2,000-year-old giant sequoia, 40 tons heavy before carved, 16’6″ high – 9’wide, Carroll Barnes, Sculptor

A statue of Paul carrying Babe, appropriately carved in wood, stands near the entrance to Sequoia National Park in Three Rivers, California. It’s no wonder Paul has forearms as thick as tree trunks if he’s logging giant sequoia.

Paul Bunyan Fort Bragg

This notation appears on a beach sign in Fort Bragg.

Paul Bunyan is celebrated annually in Fort Bragg, California, where the forest meets the Pacific Ocean. Hundreds of thousands of trees once covered the coast there.

paul-bunyan-salt-and-pepper.jpgAnd he and Babe are memorialized in wooden beams, wire and cement stucco in Klamath, California, near the Oregon border. Here Paul weighs 30,000 pounds and he’s 49-feet-2-inches tall; that’s some chest hair, huh? I chose a discreet angle on Babe, who is portrayed with all a bull’s parts intact. If you’d prefer your Bunyan & Babe in a more manageable size, you can buy salt and peppers shakers at the gift shop for only $12.95. Ain’t that cuter than a puppy licking a baby?

A little research reveals Paul was born in Maine, where I can only assume the forests are as evident as they are in northern Minnesota and the Pacific Northwest (he was such a big baby, it took five storks to deliver him).

So I guess he was only visiting when he was in Minnesota.

Trashy, novel beach

Before we get totally freaked out by climate change and the United States bowing out of the Paris Agreement, let the glass beach near Fort Bragg remind us of unexpected consequences and Mother Nature’s novel solutions to humankind’s poor treatment.

Surely, some unexpected consequences of man intervention’s in nature are negative, I’m not arguing that, but this one is a positive.

Fort Bragg, Calif., sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, and for decades up until 1967, the city’s trash–everything from cars to batteries to bottles, cans and appliances–was unceremoniously dumped over the cliffs into the ocean. This was common practice in many seaside cities for centuries.

Over the next several decades, the biodegradables, well, degraded, and the metal and other items were eventually removed and sold as scrap or used in art. Mother Nature’s pounding waves broke down the glass and pottery and tumbled those pieces into the small, smooth, colored pieces–a rainbow of sea glass.

glass beach far

The beach looks like most other beaches from far away. A beautiful and wild place with waves crashing unendingly on the shore.

glass beach closeup

But close up, the sand is glass–glass smooth enough to walk upon.

If you find the beach interesting, you must check out the International Sea Glass Museum on the south edge of Fort Bragg.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

stump

Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

Even ashes and dust–and beheaded trees–create the raw material for new life. Tree stumps look like the end to a life, but they are sometimes able to regenerate into new trees. Even the enormous log that must have resulted from this tree can provide the fuel for new life; as I’ve read on many a interpretive displays about trees felled by wind or varmints, wildfires are actually a creative force in the forest. What we first see as death is in reality setting the scene for life.

Mushrooms and moss were celebrating life on this stump I found at my campsite in Cascade Locks, Ore. Isn’t it beautiful? For a stump?

Heaven-sent dinner tonight: Pork chops with roasted tomatoes and polenta

I have waxed poetic in this space before about my Beloved’s fabulous pork chops. I feel compelled to share his secrets because they are truly divine (if pork can be divine).

His trick is the cut. He specifically requests the butcher cut inch-and-half pork chops. When the butcher holds up his “thick cut” chops from the case and says, “will these do?” my Beloved always rejects them. Even an inch-and-a-quarter cut is not enough.

The pork chops must be cut thick enough to stand up on the grill by themselves (and if they don’t, then he spears them with a kabob stick, thusly):

roasted-cherries-on-grill.jpg

This cooking method is crucial for maintaining moisture in the chop; the fat on the edges drips through the meat, and the thickness maintains the moisture. You’ve probably eaten potato-chip pork chops — those thin, dried out, overdone things you have to chew forever, even when doused with Heinz 57? That’s the cheap way to feed a lot of hungry mouths, but it’s not the indulgent way–cook ’em sideways.

To make them even more delicious, use your favorite barbecue seasoning. Dry rub that delicious mix on every surface of the pork chop–especially the sides–before grilling. If you’re doing it right, it adds a salty, sweet BBQ flavor with a little kick.

These pork chops are almost better than steak (I mean, it would be heresy to say they’re better than steak, wouldn’t it?).

You see those cherry tomatoes roasting next door? There’s a secret to those, too, that I just discovered: They’re not only tomatoes.

I had a few leftover Ranier cherries that I pitted, halved and added to the mix. I know, right? Red and yellow heirloom cherry tomatoes and Ranier cherries. A match made in, well, heaven. Just add a little olive oil and salt and pepper, and you’re set. Roast in a 400-degree oven or on the grill with the chops for about 30 minutes.

roasted cherries closeup

Dinner tonight?

Serve the chops over cheesy polenta, topped with the tomato-cherry mix. You’ll be in heaven.

As for leftovers, well, I almost always finish my near-pound of pork (it’s that good). But if you’re not as much of a pig as I am and you have some leftover, just cube it and freeze it for chili later.

Wait a minute, Mr. Postman

After writing a long post about tall trees in a post yesterday, I thought I’d write a short post about a small place today.

worlds-smallest-post-office.jpg

Kaweah is home to the country’s smallest continually operating post office.

The Kaweah Post Office was established just up the road in 1890, and relocated twice. It’s been there on North Fork Drive near Three Rivers, California, since 1910. In 1948, California officially designated the Kaweah Post Office as state registered landmark.

My Beloved and I drove by it twice before we discovered it on the windy and forested road. It can’t be more than 36 square feet. But it’s the real deal: I mailed two letters from there, and I know they arrived some days later at their destination.

Menacing, big and tall: California’s trees

A Midwesterner can’t drive through California without being impressed with its trees.

I grew up in an area of Minnesota between the corn belt plains and the northern forest, populated mostly with pine trees, though my little town had a wide variety of deciduous trees which dropped their leaves annually. I remember because in seventh grade, I collected leaves and pressed them between sheets of wax paper for a science project.

But not until I drove through California did I see trees of amazement and worthy of collection, at least in memory. Trees in California loom large, but you may have to travel a bit to see them. I spent a number of weekends on vacation or business in California’s cosmopolitan cities without ever seeing the state’s trees, which can only be described as impressive.

tree joshua

As we drove through the desert from Arizona, we encountered the strange and fascinating Joshua tree. The Mormons named it for what looks like its hands raised in prayer; those “fingers” are almost like Christmas lights. But maybe the Spanish name for the tree is more apt. Izote de desierto means “desert dagger.”

tree joshua in scene

The Joshua tree grows in the Mojave Desert, and once it establishes a foothold among the creosote bushes, it can live for hundreds of years.

tree sequoia forest

But the Joshua tree is only a speck on the landscape after one encounters a great sequoia tree. Giant sequoia grow naturally in only one place in the world — on western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, primarily between 5,000 and 7,000 feet in elevation. You’ll drive over an hour through narrow, windy roads in Sequoia National Park to get to these trees, but it’s worth every second. If an enchanted forest exists outside of fairy tales, it’s here.

tree-general-sherman-with-us.jpg

The trees even have names. A sequoia named for the famed American Civil War general in the Union Army, William Tecumseh Sherman, General Sherman is the world’s largest tree, based on the volume of the trunk, not including the branches. Pictures alone cannot capture the immensity of this tree and its nearby sisters (and brothers, I suppose), but here’s a shot of General Sherman from bottom to top.

tree general sherman

General Sherman is in the center, and those microscopic people at the base are taking pictures like the one we took above. If you belted General Sherman near the ground, you’d have to have more than 100 feet of leather, and it’s nearly as tall as a football field is long.

Those who should know estimate General Sherman to be 2,000 years old, which means it was a little sprout when Jesus walked the earth. Other giant sequoia are estimated to be older than 3,200 years.

Related, but not the same, are California’s coastal redwoods, which grow on the northern coast (the scientific name is sequoia sempervirens while the giant sequoia are sequoiadendron giganteum; one more sequoia species exists on earth, in the remote mountain valleys of China’s Sichuan and Hubei provinces (metasequoia glyptostroboides).

You may have sung the lyrics to “This Land is Your Land” when you were a youngster, but a walk through the forest hear will have them ringing in your head for days: “From the Redwood forest to the Gulf Steam water, this land is made for you and me.”

The coastal redwoods are not as big around at the giant sequoias, but they can be much taller, up to 377 feet tall, the tallest living things on earth. Like the sequoia, they are long lived, due in part to their bark, which can be up to a foot thick. That bark protects a tree from cold and from forest fire.

immortal tree close

That fish on the tree represents the water level in the 1964 flood.

When we stayed at the Ancient Redwood RV Park near Redcrest, California, we were introduced to the Immortal Tree, a 1,000-year-old redwood that has survived a lightning strike (which removed its top), logger’s axe, a 1908 forest fire and the incredible 1964 flood, which wiped out whole towns up and down the coast.

tree immortal long off

The Immortal Tree is now 248 feet tall, but it was nearly 300 feet tall before the lightning strike.

tree redwood forest

Our last stop in California included a drive and walk through the Redwood National and State Parks, an experience I can’t recommend highly enough. Being there, breathing in the piney air and feeling the silence as much as hearing it, one is reminded of dinosaurs and is tempted to believe in dryads and wood nymphs. The trees are alive, and they might be smiling or frowning or about to reach out and touch you. No wonder one of California’s stereotypes is of tree huggers. Even a logger’s gotta love a tree like that.

Standing among those majestic trees reminded me I am nothing, and my life, however long it is, passes in a blink. Erasing one’s self-importance and inflated problems is comforting. If nature is a place of worship, the sequoia and redwood forests are cathedrals.