Friday, August 24, 2012

The Piedras Blancas Lighthouse

 "Inside my empty bottle I was constructing a lighthouse while all the others were making ships"  ~Charles Simic
The Piedras Blancas (White Rocks)
       We generally don’t pass a lighthouse without stopping in to meet the keepers and learn a bit about the local history.  How is it then that despite years of numerous adventures along the California coast we had never stopped to explore the Piedras Blancas lighthouse?  Perhaps we had been in a delightful rut. After visits to our favorite beaches, quaint towns, wildlife sanctuaries and wineries the time move on invariably arrives. We tend to head north en route to Big Sur, Monterey and Carmel enjoying the spectacular views as we time after time pass the lighthouse. 

     While researching our Memorial Day road trip I happened upon the lighthouse website and discovered that docent led tours of the historic buildings and the nature preserve were being offered by the bureau of Land Management three day per week. I immediately decided to make time to explore this landmark. 

The fog signal house assists ships when the lighthouse is difficult to see

        We met our guide on a cool central coast Saturday morning at the old abandoned Piedras Blancas hotel about a mile and a half north of the lighthouse property. We checked in and formed a convoy of about ten cars that followed the ranger’s lead car through the gate. A faint foggy marine layer still clung to coast as we assembled but, the sun quickly burned it off and left us with a crisp clear morning for our tour. As we were led to the parking area it became clear that there was more to see here than just a lone building. This was a complete compound featuring several out buildings, a nature walk and wildlife preserve.

The Spiral Staircase leading up to the top of the lighthouse was off limits and therefore quite tempting  

     The lighthouse was built in the late 1800’s and sits on 19 acres along the pacific ocean about six miles north of Hearst Castle.  It has recently been painted and refurbished and is even more impressive up close than it was from a distance.  Our guide entertained us with tales of what life was like for longtime lighthouse keeper Captain Lorin Thorndike. We were encouraged  to examine the many displays of Thorndike's personal items which gave us a glimpse of lighthouse life. We went on to learn about how Fresnel lights work and discovered that the original light has been replaced but, can now be seen on the main street of the neighboring town of Cambria. The tour continued with a stop at the fog house and finally a short talk on efforts being made to replenish the local otter and seal population.

The Fresnel light is now located in nearby Cambria

       After the first portion of the tour ended we set off on our nature walk. Tremendous efforts have been made to remove invasive nonnative plants from the acreage. They were installed with good intentions but their proliferation had a ripple effect and soon native birds and animals left the area. They have been successful in reinstalling native plants and are now seeing a rebound in native fauna as well.

     The waters off the craggy coast are teeming with wildlife and we stopped often along the trail to enjoy their beauty. The abundance of kelp provides a haven for sea otters and we were able to see quite a few playing in the morning sun. It is impossible to miss the scores of elephant seals and harbor seals that have since the early nineties established their rookery along theses protected shores. They are massive sometimes weighing upwards of 5000 pounds.   

      I was impressed at just how informative this tour was. The volunteers really seek to give visitors a comprehensive overview and instill an understanding about the importance of preserving the history, wildlife and natural plants of the central coast.  If you ever find yourself exploring this part of California plan a morning to discover the Piedras Blancas lighthouse for yourself. Take the tour; watch the waves break against the rocks and marvel at the animals that call the coast home. It made me wonder just how many hidden treasures we overlook on familiar routes because we are focused on something else. It's exciting to imagine all that is yet to be discovered in even the most familiar places.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Twisted Oak: Meeting El Jefe On Our Calaveras County Wine March

     Exploring Calaveras county on the road from Angels camp to Murphys one could sneeze while driving along Hwy 4 and bypass the historical town of Vallecito California. That would be a mistake because it might cause you to miss visiting the Twisted Oak winery on Red Hill Road.  

A sign on this building guides you up Red Hill Road to Twisted Oak

     A few weeks ago we traveled to Vallecito to meet with Twisted Oak Winery owner Jeff Stai, see his vineyards and taste his wine. The private road that led us up to the tasting room wound through the property taking us ever higher and afforded us a bird’s eye view of the surrounding countryside. As our car rounded the first turn up the hillside we found ourselves in what Jeff Stai refers to as the “Rubber Chicken” national forest and we knew immediately that we would be very fond of Jeff. At each bend in the road clever whimsical road signs marked our journey making us laugh and giving us some insight as to the unique wine tasting experience we were about to encounter.

     The Twisted oak tasting room is like no other I have seen. It is not the sterile, modern, minimalist, yearning to be chic style and it is not the cottage, homespun but elegant grape logo encrusted style either. It’s the comfortable, barn like, rustic, rubber chicken, pirate style and proud of it. There are rubber chickens everywhere, for sale, as décor and as a catalyst for conversation and laughter. I believe Jeff got it right; wine, conversation and laughter are a natural pairing. While it is impossible miss the rubber chickens that grace the tasting room, it is also impossible to miss the wall displaying the ribbons, awards and accolades bestowed on Twisted Oak wines. Jeff seems to place a high value on the whimsical lighthearted joy of not taking life too seriously but make no mistake; he takes the art of producing top quality fine wines very seriously. He is true to his values and I respect that he honors all of who he is in making his business a success. 

Rubber chicken and award winning wines find a home at Twisted Oak

      The tasting began, as all tastings should, with head pats, ear scratches and belly rubs. Before the first sip of viognier touched our lips we paused to visit with the beautiful and charming wine dog, Garnacha Blanca (Nacha for short). Nacha took to us right away, as we looked to be the type of people who rub dog bellies and might accidentally drop a cracker on the floor.

      The relaxed atmosphere of the tasting room encouraged us to take time with each pouring. Discussing the agricultural aspects of the wines with Jeff helped us to appreciate the subtleties of the terroir that make these wines their own. A few of my favorite selections were the crisp dry Grenache Blanc with fruit and citrus notes that I knew would be a perfect summer wine. I also enjoyed the potty Mouth Red a beautiful Rhône style blend of Grenache syrah and mourvedre. I thought it had a nice spiciness combined with rich plum and berry flavors. I found the Tempernillo bold and rich with elements of cherry, tobacco and a bit of spice. I remember thinking how good this wine would be with John’s pork tenderloin recipe.

     Our first introduction to the wines of Calaveras County was a smashing success. We found beautifully crafted wines offered at what we considered to be extremely reasonable prices. If you ever find yourself driving through Vallecito California stop in to Twisted Oak Winery, pet the dog, check out the rubber chickens, taste the excellent wine and say hello to Jeff (El Jefe) Stai. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Michel-Schlumberger: My New Home In The Dry Creek Valley

 A steady and slow rain fell as we drove along Wine Creek Road passing homes and wineries neatly tucked into the quiet corners of the Dry Creek valley. So often when we visit the Healdsburg area our time and hearts are occupied with wineries we have loved in the past. On this trip we were determined to plot a new course and try some new selections.

     In the early afternoon we approached the Michel - Schlumberger winery excited to learn more about their wines and vineyards. I spotted the property and imagined how lovely it would be to live there and enjoy of glass wine on an evening walk through the vineyard.We were immediately enchanted at how this beautiful old estate incorporates a reverence for nature, the business of winemaking and a spirit of relaxation one rarely sees these days. We were also amazed to discover this old elegant estate was actually built in 1979. It was evident that Jean-Jacques Michel chose to share the flavor of his European roots with his guests,and we are grateful. 

     The centerpiece of the property is a long reflecting pond filled with lily pads and frogs that croak a robust greeting. Were they greeting us or insuring the future frog population? I like to think both are true. As we entered into the atrium surrounding the pond, the big open arms of the winery walls seemed to embrace us and welcome us home.     

     To us, our host Jim is the face and heart of Michel-Schlumberger wines. If you have ever met someone and felt an instant kinship you will understand how we felt upon meeting Jim. It is evident he loves people, enjoys talking about wine and feels proud to promote a company he feels passionate about. 

     We began our visit on the back terrace over looking the organic garden. We watched finches and bluebirds dance on and off their feeders while learning a bit of winery history. Seeing the barrel room and the production facility is always a fun prelude to a tasting and we welcomed the opportunity accompany Jim as he led a tour. The winery has the feel of an elegant country home, sophisticated yet very comfortable. Every area invites you to linger a while, take it all in and have a glass of wine.  

      It was time to begin our tasting and Jim could not have picked a better place for us to enjoy it than seated at the round table in the spacious yet cozy kitchen of the estate.To have friends gather in the kitchen sharing stories and sipping wine is one of life’s great joys. French doors allowed us to look out over the terrace and beautiful property as we relaxed and got reacquainted with the wines of Michel Schlumberger.

      I thoroughly enjoyed the 07 La Brume Chardonnay with it’s crisp citrus and floral notes. I generally gravitate more to Sauvignon Blanc because I find many chardonnays are too heavily oaked and buttery for my taste The La Brume is not and therefore perfect for me. I’m a big fan of malbec and the dark berry richness of the Humanitas malbec did not disappoint. My favorite taste of the day was the 1991 Cabernet, which was even more delicious than you are imagining it was.   This tasting will spoil you for the rushed impersonal crowded affairs that often pass for tastings. This is the way wine was meant to be enjoyed.

     Imagine being invited to the country home of a dear friend. You are welcomed and given a tour; after which you share wine and good conversation. You leave smiling, having made new friends and having tasted some extraordinarily good wine made by a socially conscious producer. If this sounds like heaven to you make an appointment to pay a visit to Michel-Schlumberger and say hello to Jim for us.