Food, travel, Wine/Cocktails

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.
Alexandria, Food, Road Trip, travel, Wine/Cocktails

We Double Dog Dare You

Sometimes an adventure or an idea pops into my head and it’s so “out there” that I actually hear a voice in my head daring myself to go for it.

It could be the idea of bungee jumping (not gonna happen) or going on a grand hike somewhere. It could be the idea of a new phase of my life that involves quitting my job. It could be deciding to finish that book I started writing years ago. The list goes on and on.

We are in the midst of a HUGE change … moving to the desert Southwest from Virginia. Both of us have lived in Virginia for more that 15 years. In fact, I’ve been here for more than 20 years. So … this move is a little of a personal dare for me.

The act of moving isn’t all that adventurous for me. I counted the places I’ve lived in my life today and came up with 36. I kept track. Many of the places I lived are due to my military past – both as a “brat” whose Dad was a career Air Force Officer and as an active duty Airman. As for Greg, the desert Southwest isn’t much of an adventure. He grew up in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley so it’s a bit of returning home for him.

But moving across country after so many years is an adventure. We like to think of it as the great American couple on a great American adventure. We will load a few things into our car (the rest is being shipped out) and make the cross-country drive into a road trip. We’re excited to take this step, but a little sad to be saying goodbye to friends we’ve made and places we’ve come to know.

CK SmilesSo we’ve decided to have one final fling in the home we’ve come to love, but that we’re ready to leave. We’ve invited all our East Coast friends to join us at one of our favorite haunts, Fat City Kitchen in Alexandria. It is here, steps from our Alexandria home, where we made dozens of new friends and created a whole new family. It is here where we were inspired, where our ideas were discussed, and decided upon. It is here where we’ll end one adventure and start a new one. Whether you’ve been a fan of our blog, a casual reader or a newcomer, we double dog dare you to come out Saturday, March 30 to say hello and good luck, and wish us well as we head west. We’re not going to stop doing what we do … we’re just starting from a new headquarters … one that will introduce us – and you – to new places.

There’s a whole world out there waiting to be explored … we double dog dare you to see it!

Diversion, Trains

Diversions – There’s Something About a Train

There’s something about a train …

I started a new routine this morning that involves commuting from a town 50 miles from my office in the Washington, DC metro area. On the well-appointed Virginia Railway Express train, I felt a bit like Don Draper or any other of the executives who made their way from their homes in Scarsdale or Ossining to Manhattan, minus the blue pall of cigarette smoke. This seemed appropriate given that the house where we moved was built in 1958 and has a decidedly mid-century feel.

As I sat back and viewed the rising sun over the Potomac and beyond the overgrown trees and vines of Northern Virginia, I was reminded about the joys of train travel both on this continent and in Europe. From a comfortable seat, you speed by traffic while viewing the sights.

Potomac Sunrise
Sunrise over the Potomac River near Quantico

You hear the wail of the horn as the train approaches a station or grade crossing over the muted conversations of families and friends (or the silence of early morning commuters).

Trains have been a staple of our travels. We booked a sleeper on the overnight Amtrak Auto Train from DC to Florida so that we could have a car with us when we were married in Key West and for the honeymoon return trip. Fall colors dazzled along the Hudson River and Lake Champlain on our journey to Montreal.

In Europe, we’ve taken commuter trains from Frankfurt to Wiesbaden, high speed ICE trains from Munich to Nuremberg, and walked from the train station to the ski slopes in Switzerland. In Venice, we boarded the Frecciarossa for a day trip to Florence. In an earlier life, an English girlfriend and I took the Eurostar from London to Paris … a must-do trip for any train aficionado.

Train travel is not without its pitfalls. In the states, much of the track is owned by the freight lines which can cause some delays as you wait on a side track for a long-running freight to pass. In Europe, drunk passengers can get a bit unruly, but we usually book first class (which isn’t all that much more expensive), which helps keep you away from the riff-raff.

But the benefits certainly outweigh the cons, especially in Germany and Switzerland where timetables are strictly adhered to, and particularly over shorter distances. When you consider suggested check-in times and commutes to and from airports, it is almost faster to take a train from DC to New York than to fly.

Union Station 2
Washington Union Station’s Soaring Great Hall

My morning train entered sprawling Union Station, with its soaring Great Hall and the hustle and bustle of commuters scurrying to grab a cab, Uber, or a Metro ride to their offices. Some waited in line for the many Amtrak Northeast Regional and Acela trains headed north. Once again, my mind drifted to scenes from the heyday of the passenger diesels, such as when Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint met and made small talk over Diner-car coffee in “North by Northwest” only to later marry and embrace as the the train suggestively entered a tunnel.

Yep, there’s something about a train.

There’s a whole world out there, waiting to be explored. Go see it … by train.

Union Station 1
Passengers disembark one of VRE’s morning trains

 

Diversion, Food

Diversion – Getting to Know You, Part 2

A reader responded to my recent post about talking up servers and bartenders with a simple question, “Why?”  I’m not really sure where she was going with this question … “Why travel?”  “Why enjoy yourself?”  “Why talk to people?”  But if ever there was any doubt about the last question, it was answered this past weekend…again.

As often happens, Judy and I needed to spend a night in Fredericksburg, Va., about an hour south of our Alexandria home.  In a few previous instances, we’ve enjoyed the food and vibe of Fahrenheit 132, located in the heart of historic downtown Fredericksburg. Fahrenheit 132 In all our previous visits, we’ve sat at the bar, enjoying fine cocktails (their French Martini is always a hit), excellent appetizers, and even one of the best Filet Mignons we’ve ever tasted.  But this time, I wanted to make it a bit special, so I booked a table (through Open Table…one of my favorite apps) for 8:30.  We arrived scandalously early to the crowded restaurant, so we checked in an ordered a drink at the bar.  We were only halfway into our first cocktail when we were shown to our table.

Two things stuck out about this visit.  First, we had never seen the wine list before.  It was extensive…the selection of Italian reds, alone, took up the better part of a page!  We chose a 2006 Villa Gemma Montepulciano D’Abruzzo (one of our favorite varietals) and to say we were pleased is an understatement. Villa Gemma The legs were longer than Cyd Charisse’s and the color was an incredibly deep, inky maroon.  If you held the glass to the light, you couldn’t see through it.  The nose took you away to some other place, and the first taste on the tongue was captivating.  THIS is why you spend good money on good wine.

Second, our server, Jessica, was everything you could hope for.  Like Araceli in our previous post, Jess was sweet, beautiful, and like our wine, captivating.  In our two hours together, we learned much about this lovely young lady and her zest for life in between bites of the best pork chops you will ever taste.  As a server, she was there before we needed her, suggested brilliant accompaniments to our entree, and instantly recognized and appreciated our desire to take our time enjoying our meal. As a new friend, we learned that she has tackled hardship and heartache in a way that is truly inspiring.  She truly made our evening joyful and we cannot wait to see her…and Fahrenheit 132…again.

There’s a whole world out there just waiting to be explored. Go see it…and take the time to get to know those around you along the way.

Here’s to you!

Greg & Judy

Diversion

Diversion – Scenic Overlook: Worth the Stop

One of the things we have discovered (as you have read in previous posts), is staying off the beaten track and taking the road less traveled leads to unexpected delights. We recently hopped in the car and headed for a visit with family in the tiny town of Hillsville, Virginia. While much of the trip was spent relaxing around the house and enjoying my young grandsons, there was a diversion as we headed into Radford. Since we were visiting locals, we were able to take the back roads and ended up on a winding, narrow section of US 11 up and over a mountain.

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At the top, a pair of scenic overlooks called out to us to stop and check out the view. On one side, a dazzling view of the New River Valley (or so we think since it was not marked or labeled).

 

IMG_3811On the other side, there was an expansive vista overlooking the Draper Valley.

A roadside marker tells the story of a 1755 Shawnee Indian raid. According to the marker, the Shawnee traveled from the Ohio River Valley to raid the Western Virginia Frontier along the New River.

The result of one of those raids, Bettie Draper and her sister-in-law Mary Draper Ingalls were taken captive and taken back to the Shawnee Camp in the Ohio River Valley. Mary Draper Ingalls soon escaped and traveled more than 850 miles back to the New River Valley. Bettie Draper lived with the family of an Indian Chief for the next six years before her husband John Draper found her and bartered for her return. They returned to the New River Valley and settled in 1765 in what is known today as Draper Valley in Pulaski County.

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The fascinating tale on the marker doesn’t mention the ruins of a small home up a flight of stone steps from the overlook, but we imagined it had been the home of an earlier settler to the valley as we made our way up to the ruins.  Whoever lived here certainly had an amazing view … in BOTH directions.

It was a short stop, but worth it for the views, the diversion, and the insight into one of the many tales of American history that are so local they are rarely published in textbooks, instead taught just in the areas where they happened.

 

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From there we passed through Pulaski with its interesting blend of old Victorian homes, small Cape Cod style cottages and newer construction. It’s pretty off-the-beaten-track, but that’s the sort of fun you can have when you choose to get off the interstate, slow down and enjoy whatever happens.