A Group Tour that Won’t Leave You Whining

Long-time readers know I’m not generally a fan of group tours, but exceptions can and should be made when traveling with friends or those with a common interest. Here’s what I mean:

USC DC-area Alums

USC Alumni Associated members at Gray Ghost Winery

Recently, the USC alumni association in the DC area (Greg is a member) put together its annual group winery tour in Northern Virginia. We’d been on one of these winery tours with this group and enjoyed it enough to actually sign up and do it again We even traveled back to the Nation’s Capital in order to participate!) Group tours of wineries, it turns out, aren’t like “tours” of cities or travel destinations.

This event gets you a designated driver (in a mini-bus) so you can sample the wines without fear of going too far. It gets you behind-the-scenes tours at wineries. It gets you discounted tastings and bottles. It lets you hang out with a small group of fun people who all have something in common – a connection to Southern California.

Gray Ghost Winery

Gray Ghost Winery’s owner shows us the vineyard

In short – it was amazing and fun!

The day started with a stop at Gray Ghost Vineyards. From the moment we arrived we felt like VIPs. The owner took us to the vineyards and shared stories of how the winery got started. 

Gray Ghost Library

The wine library at Gray Ghost Winery

We went through the wine-making process within arms reach of casks and steel tanks where wine was being aged. He took us down a small slope and into a door where we entered a grotto-like, dark, cool space. He turned on the lights and the entire group gasped — he smiled and welcomed us to “The Library.” It was an underground room stocked with hundreds of bottles on beautiful wooden racks. 

Narmada Tasting

Tasting glasses and wine descriptions are lined up for our group.

 

From there we moved on to Narmada Winery. As a reader of this blog, you probably already know Greg and I are members of Narmada’s wine club. We’ve eaten wine dinners in the barrel room. We’ve chatted and become friendly with the owner. On this particular sunny Virginia day, we followed our guides down the stairs to a back patio space to sample wines in the breeze and shade. 

Our final stop is a perennial favorite of wine tours. Barrel Oak Winery is popular among locals and tourists. 

Pizza at Barrel Oak Winery

Fresh from the oven pizza makes for a great afternoon nosh

It’s proximity to DC, expansive views, and picnic-like setting are family (and dog) friendly and festive. Barrel Oak offers stone-fired pizza in the summer. Our visit was perfectly timed for an afternoon nosh.

You’ve seen that Greg and I are wine lovers. We make it a point to stop and try wines almost everywhere we go. We’ve even sampled wines in an old converted church in Oklahoma off Route 66. Wineries can be small, newly-opened, quaint and cozy or huge, professionally-designed and award-winning. You can visit as a couple, with a small group of friends or on a tour. If you keep an open mind, it’s hard not to enjoy yourself. It’s a fool-proof way to have a fun day. 

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored .., grab a glass of wine and toast it with friends.

Here's to wine tastings

Tour members toast the afternoon.

Diversions – Take a Walk!

As a recent convert to the principles espoused in Cal Newport’s breakthrough book Digital Minimalism, (http://www.calnewport.com/books/digital-minimalism/), I’ve been taking long,  contemplative walks daily. They free my mind, focus my energy, and provide solitude in a noisy world. This week, such a walk yielded even more … a treasure trove of fun information just a few paces from my hotel room.

Judy was participating in a VIP event hosted by Brighton, the jewelry and collectibles retailer, at their headquarters just east of Los Angeles. While she was in handbag heaven, I spent my day eating lunch at one of my old aviation stomping grounds, then catching up on some work, hitting the gym, and enjoying the pool at our hotel in Arcadia, near Pasadena. With famed Huntington Drive (part of old Route 66) just a block away, I laced-up my runners and set out for a stroll to see what you can’t see through a car window.

I wasn’t disappointed! Within just a few blocks, I was at the heart of Arcadia’s early 20th Century Business District at the corner of First and Huntington, near where the Santa Fe railroad (now a right of way for the Los Angeles Metro “Gold” line) would drop off horse racing aficionados bound for the “first” Santa Anita racetrack. A historic storyboard at the intersection told the story of the first City Hall, a unique “Drive-In” market, and of course, the city’s horse racing legacy. 

Lining the sidewalks along Huntington were further tributes to that heritage … bronze plaques comprising the Thoroughbred Racing Walk of Champions. While I’m not a huge horse racing fan, I appreciated seeing names like “Seabiscuit” and “Laffit Pincay, Jr.” … names that are familiar even to the uninitiated.

All this was a reminder that there is so much to see and learn when you get off the beaten path, and this was on a 30-minute walk!  There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … often right at your doorstep. Talk a walk and go see it!

 

wine glass and menu

Luck or a Nose for Good Food and Wine?

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you have probably noticed we often seem to find really fun and interesting places to eat and drink. This past weekend was no exception.

Friday afternoon we decided it was time, once again, to jump in the car early Saturday morning and hit the road for a day trip. New to Arizona, we have a long list of places we want to see in a day. This particular Saturday, with the forecast for the Valley of the Sun calling for high temps over 100 ˚F,  we opted to head for the hills.

Prescott is in Arizona’s Bradshaw Mountains and at just over 5300 feet, it tends to be a nice cool getaway on a hot summer day. Saturday was no exception. As our neighbors hid in air-conditioned comfort, we strolled the adorable historic city center under sunny skies at a pleasant 82˚.

Arizona wine region map

A state map shows the wine growing regions of Arizona

While hopes for cool temps helped choose the destination for the day, luck, karma or instinct had us drive right into the town’s celebration of “Territorial Days.”  It turns out Prescott was the capital of Arizona before it became a state and the annual celebration includes dozens of artists selling their crafts  on the town square. Families wandered easily past the displays. Children played in the grass. One vendor offered face painting. Musicians fiddled. It was a fun, festive party!

Wine tasting

Two whites and three reds are featured on the tasting menu

After a bit of shopping and enjoying the scenes unfolding around us, we saw a sign advertising “Wine Tasting. All Arizona Wines” pointing to the Back Alley Wine Bar. What a great find! Lindsay walked us through five wines from our new home state and dazzled us with her knowledge.

wine glass and menu

The menu offers a refill as I near the end of a delicious red blend.

We ordered another glass each and continued to sip and share stories as other customers came and went.

As the time ticked away, our stomachs noisily reminded us we should eat something, so with Lindsay’s suggestion, we headed three blocks away to Farm Provisions. WOW! A robust farm-to-table menu enticed us with mouth-watering choices. We marveled over the fresh burrata on crostini with slow-roasted tomatoes and aged balsamic. 

Farm Provisions scallops

Farm Provisions scrumptious scallops

The farm fettucini with pancetta, wild mushrooms, Arizona-sun-dried tomatoes and aged pecorino was exceptional. The incredible day boat scallops were drizzled with a pomegranate gastrique and Arizona lemon beurre blanc while floating on a bed of butternut squash puree. Roasted Brussel sprouts, roasted baby beets and pomegranate seeds added color and perfect taste pairings. With our taste buds celebrating flavor perfection and our tummies happily full, we made a decision to schedule another trip to Prescott just to try the dessert!

As we drove out of town with the sun setting behind us, we wondered how we always seem to find these food and drink havens. Sure, we typically ask a local for options, but there is more to it than that. We asked each other, “Is it luck or is it some sort of nose for good food and wine that we are lucky enough to be blessed with?” Whatever leads us there, we plan to keep finding these amazing spots.

After all, there’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … follow lady luck or your nose and go see, eat and drink it all in.

Free! There is a Reason to Join.

I’m a joiner. If a store where I shop has a free club, I join it. The same is true for restaurants, fast food places, airlines…the list goes on and on.

Why join, you ask? Here’s why: June is my birthday month. Beginning around the last week of May, my email box begins to include emails from all these companies with “Birthday Special” offerings. In many cases it’s an extra discount on any purchase in June. For a couple of airlines, it’s more than just a few percentage points off or bonus miles for flights booked in June. Hawaiian Airlines is offering me $50 off AND 2500 bonus miles! For several stores, it’s free shipping AND a discount during June. The best birthday specials, though, are the freebies. Yep – you read that right – FREEBIES.

birthday swag 2017

 

I have coupons in my email for a free slice of pizza from Sbarro, a free panty from Victoria’s Secret, free popcorn at Regal Cinemas and a free snack at AMC, a free bagel from Bruegger’s Bagels, a free BOGO offer for ice cream from Cold Stone Creamery, a free coffee and baked good from Au Bon Pain, a free cookie with a sandwich purchase at Potbelly, and a free glass of wine from my favorite winery – Narmada! That list doesn’t include the cash off a purchase offers from at least four stores!

Sure, I get a lot of “junk” email – ads from these companies – every day. Often the ads include some sort of click bait: “Free shipping today only!” “Special offer for valued customers” “20% off all online purchases TODAY ONLY.”  Every once in awhile I click on the ad just to see what’s on sale or to browse the new items. Those emails are deleted more often than they are opened.

So, the next time a cashier asks if you’re a club member, don’t say no! Say, “not yet” and sign up. Fill out the birthday block on the form then sit back and wait until your birthday rolls around and enjoy your gifts!

Happy birthday.

Disclaimer: Other than e-coupons, I have not received ANY compensation from any companies mentioned in this blog.

A roadrunner sits among various trees and plants in an Arizona neighborhood landscape.

Musings – The “Sounds” of Silence

Up at dawn, I lace-up my runners and grab my sunglasses as I head out the door. Even this early, the Arizona sun is blazing; the temperature already hovering around 80 degrees.

This early morning ritual, taking a long, contemplative walk before the world awakes, energizes me. It helps me clear my head so I can think big thoughts, plan my day, or contemplate the meaning of life. I leave the iPhone and the earbuds behind. This is not a time for music to intrude on my well-deserved solitude. I don’t need some app to tell me how far I walked, or the number of calories burned. This is a time for reflection; an opportunity to be outside and savor all the world has to offer.

Often, I encounter several others … neighbors out for their morning stroll, walking their dog, people running or biking, golfers heading to the club in their electric cards, construction workers and landscapers driving to the job in their pickups. Today that traffic, both literally and figuratively, is light.

A roadrunner sits among various trees and plants in an Arizona neighborhood landscape.

A roadrunner, one of the many types of birds in this part of Arizona, tries to hide among the neighbor’s plants. (J. Romano photo)

The man-made silence opens up the landscape to sounds … a variety of birds chirping and singing, bees buzzing, lizards skittering. It’s not unpleasant. In fact, it’s a happy chorus to my thoughts, reminding me that this is good; that nature is truly all around as and we are just a part.

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored … even right outside your front door. Go see it!

 

 

Diversions – Time Travel

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of time travel and love movies like “Back to the Future” and “The Final Countdown” that explore what would happen if someone were to go back in time and mess with the potential future.

But that’s not what this blog is all about.

No, this is about actual travel in the present day to explore a long-lost place, or to bring back memories from the past. This idea struck me a few nights ago when Judy and I watched “Xanadu” starring Olivia Newton John. While panned by critics and a box office flop, the roller disco fantasy movie also starred a place that brought back strong childhood memories … the Pan-Pacific Auditorium in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District.

Pan-Pacific_1956

The Pan-Pacific Auditorium in 1956

Built in 1935 in a Streamline Moderne architectural style, the Pan-Pacific Auditorium lived a long life hosting sports events like hockey and wrestling, radio shows, and political rallies. It pre-dated the much-larger Los Angeles Convention Center downtown. It was also the place that held the first sailboat show I ever went to with my father (we would attend later shows at the Long Beach Convention Center). My dad taught me how to sail and, along with building and flying model airplanes, this is where my dad and I “connected” at a time when his availability to spend time with me was limited. Going to the boat show was a special treat. As kids do, I dragged dad from model to model, firmly deciding that “this” boat was the one to buy so that we could race, cruise, or just hang out in the marina.

That first visit to the Pan-Pacific Auditorium was also special because I was fascinated by the architecture. I still maintain a strong attraction to the Art Nouveau and Streamline Moderne styles of the 30s and 40s. So I wept when the evening news 30 years ago carried live aerial footage as the facility, long in disrepair, burned to the ground.

I want to go back to where the Auditorium once stood, now a park. I want to relive those moments in the past, explore the smaller re-creation of the auditorium built on the grounds as a reminder of its golden age. I want to eat at the famous Farmers Market across the street, bringing back the sights and smells of the food we ate after the show.

Judy and I have done this before, visiting places we’ve read about in history books, seen the old photographs and maps, or simply heard about … places like Gettysburg and Route 66. We’ve visited other places of my youth, like the site of Montreal’s Expo ’67. It was there as a lad of only six, I marveled at the unique cubist Habitat 67 apartments created for the show and which remain residences today. In each instance, I try to transport myself to the past in my mind, remembering what it once was, and what it has become.

They say you can’t go back, but with a healthy imagination, this time travel brings happy memories and a unique perspective, one that makes even day trips fascinating. So the next time you have a some time to kill, hit the road and go see something from the past.

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored. Go see it…and travel back in time.

Diversions – Analog Traveling in a Digital World

One of the advantages of getting off the beaten path is that views, togetherness, and even dining choices vastly improve. Such was the case on a bright and cool Monday in central Ohio.

The back story: When a June wedding just north of Cincinnati called us to Ohio, we booked our tickets to Columbus, which offered direct flights from our Phoenix home base, and lower prices for both the flights and our rental car. After celebrating the nuptials, catching up with old friends, and doing research for some other projects over a couple of days, we had a final, entire day to drive back to Columbus for an evening flight.

With plenty of time to kill, we avoided the Interstates. As regular readers of this blog know, it’s our preferred way to travel. We looked at the map (yes, a paper map) and planned our route northeast on U.S. Highways 42 and 40. We drove through farm fields and small towns enjoying the “middle” at its finest. We stopped to watch an old Aeronca Champ airplane take off from a grass runway at Red Stewart Airfield near Waynesville, an “olden days” reminder that Ohio is the birthplace of aviation.

U.S. 40 takes you right through the heart of Columbus. Crossing the Scioto River, we decided to stop and get lunch. We left the smartphones in the car and walked up Broad Street. Fast food and pizza signs touted lunch specials, but we wanted more. Feeling like we were headed in the right direction, we turned left on High Street, then a right turn onto Gay Street, which looked promising. A sign down the block read “Due Amici” (“Two Friends” in Italian) … Jackpot! Italian always works for us.

We were shown to a table — there were about five other parties in the restaurant on that quiet midday — and perused the cocktail and lunch menus. We ordered a fried ravioli appetizer and split a chicken parmigiana over linguine with a rosé sauce. Both were excellent!  Our only mistake was not ordering wine to go with the entree. It mattered little, as the lunch could not have been better and our server, Josh, swapped smiles and stories. We ate, we drank, we laughed. What could be better?

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored, especially when you leave the devices behind and trust your instincts. Go see it!