Somm Thoughts on Napa


I first visited wine country in October of 2005. My family and I had moved to Southern California a year earlier and going to Napa seemed like a very West Coast thing to do. This was a short trip that my husband and I took with another couple. The four of us spent time enjoying our digs at Auberge du Soleil, touring wineries via bicycle and dining at restaurants such as Thomas Keller’s Bouchon.

I think we spent two nights in Napa, but to be honest I don’t remember much of the details. Wine country has a way of erasing details. The highlight of that visit, beside bonding with another couple from our new hometown, was the bike tour. But that was because: drinking wine — while riding a bike — in a group of people! The tour guide wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about wine, or if he was, I don’t remember him sharing that knowledge. And the wineries we visited were for the most part not memorable. In a nutshell, my inaugural Napa vista was mostly about drinking wine and having fun. I left loving Stag’s Leap Winery cabernets, but knowing nothing about the reason why.

It took 10 years, but this past December I finally returned to Napa. And this time the visit, which I shared with my immediate family, in addition to being about drinking wine and having fun — was all about education.


Here’s a bit of what we learned while touring wineries:

  • When it comes to certain wine-related topics (the virtue of viscosity comes to mind), opinions vary.
  • When it comes to using descriptive language to illustrate the smell, taste or finish of a wine — anything goes. Is the finish like sandpaper? Do you like wines that “rip your face off”? Do you smell grass? Say it!

Which brings me to:

  • According to the wine experts we met, what you smell, what you taste, what you like — it is all just fine. They say that there is no right answer (I feel like there probably is) and that there are no stupid questions.


  • You can swirl your wine glass too much.
  • You can kill the smell of your wine, if you swirl your wine glass before smelling it.
  • You shouldn’t say that you don’t like a specific varietal. According to the folks we spoke with, that would be like saying you don’t like pizza, when it reality, you don’t like Pizza Hut pizza. You might LOVE New York pizza or pizza that was prepared to your tastes, if given the opportunity to taste it. (If you don’t like pizza, I am okay with that. I am also okay if you don’t like specific varietals.) (I am just the messenger.)
  • Take a sip (or six) of wine before you take a bite of your food. Wine-coated tastebuds neutralize the sugar in your saliva, which makes the taste of the food come through.


  • The soil in which the grape is grown is the secret sauce. And the consistency and composition of Napa soil can vary greatly. That’s why some Napa wines will rip your face off while others are shy. (I am going to be sure to describe a wine as being “shy” the next time I go.)  Somehow, I missed this lesson completely the first time we visited the region. But I left this time understanding that I am more of a Rutherford gal than anything else.

I also learned:

  • Visiting Napa in the winter, in the slow season, is great! We were the only guests in our Winemaker for a Day program and we were able to get reservations at some very good restaurants . Additionally, when taking vineyard tours/going on tastings, the groups in late December were small. This was especially nice because it meant we were able to ask a lot of questions.
  • While touring a vineyard (if you have paid for a tasting), you can usually order wine at the wine club price without actually joining the club. And if you do join the club, you can drop out before any additional wine is sent.
  • Staying in Yountville, during the off-season, is smart. It is probably also smart to stay there during the peak season. But you will pay more.

Three full days of wine tasting and vineyard touring was about my limit, but I am glad that I live a short plane ride away. I’ll be back, Napa. And in the meantime, I’ll slowly work my way through the bottles of wonderful wine that we bought while there.



How to Properly Say Thank You and Other Lessons Learned in Italy.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.

–Mark Twain

Mark Twain got that right.

I’ve just returned from Italy. And as is the case every time I travel somewhere outside of my zip code, I learned a lot about myself.

On this trip, I also learned that:

~Italians get a kick out of the fact that Americans (some of them, anyway) willingly eat Prego.

~In Italy, demonstrations are common. We witnessed at least three in the course of one day. Personally, I think that is a great thing. It was refreshing and inspiring to be around people who do more than just “talk the talk.”

~It is possible to have terrible (I am talking shockingly bad!) pizza in Italy.

~You should never agree to have your photo taken with someone dressed as a Roman soldier. They will curse and threaten you with bodily harm when you don’t want to pay for the opportunity.

~Even though you ask (beg, really) the hotel’s concierge to recommend a restaurant that locals frequent, there’s a very good chance you will wind up dining with other Americans.

~Not all gelato is created equally. I know this because my family made it their mission to sample different versions at least three times a day. (Don’t judge.)

~The Italian polizia are, as my 14-year-old son would say, badass. The polizia (even the word is testosterone-laden) are everywhere. Some of them carry uzis and more than a few drive Fiats. And their unis? I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they were designed by Prada. The police we met were very friendly. And, quite handsome…

~And while on the topic of 14-year-old boys…(we weren’t, but stick with me) those from Italy seem to make the same sounds and facial expressions as their American counterparts.

~Milan is highly underrated.

~Lake Como, probably because of George Clooney (way to screw things up for the rest of us, George), is probably overrated.

~The word grazie is pronounced: grazee-ah. Saying it without the “ah” on the end is equal to saying thank yo. Thought you might like to know.

~Depeche Mode was correct. People are people. Some are nice, some are not. Personally, I don’t believe the place you come from, or where you choose to live, has a lot to do with which category you fall into. I did not meet or encounter one unpleasant person (the exception being the aforementioned Roman soldiers) while in Italy. Doesn’t mean they aren’t there, just means it was my good fortune to avoid them this go round.

And finally,

~Speaking of people… (this time I was!) they can make or break a vacation. It was wonderful to photograph, smile at and converse with the locals. The interactions I had on this trip made me feel like the world is a smaller and friendlier place. I’ll try to  remember that the next time I encounter a tourist in my community.

I took a lot of photographs while away. If you are so inclined, you can view them here and here.

Photo: ©TheWorldAccordingtoJennifer

London Calling

Updated with winners below

My family and I just returned from a trip to three unbelievably wonderful cities: London, Venice and Paris. I have traveled to Italy before, but prior to this trip, had not visited any other European countries. We had a fantastic time.

My London highlights:

On the beaten path: The Tower of London. I highly recommend taking the Beefeater’s tour. Learned a lot about executions (both the public and private variety) and saw the famed crown jewels.

Off the beaten path: World’s End boutique. This shop is Vivienne Westwood’s and contains some of her really cool (albeit expensive) clothing/accessories. That’s not why I loved it though. It is also the former site of the store, SEX, which was opened by Westwood and the recently deceased, Malcolm McLaren in 1971. It was in this store that John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) auditioned for the Sex Pistols and where rock icons such as Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders and Sid Vicious of the aforementioned Sex Pistols worked as sales clerks. We spent a good 30 minutes in the store chatting with the store manager–who liked to gossip. The building and decor has changed very little in the past 39 years which made imagining what it must have been like back in the early days of punk rock, very easy.

Food: We really didn’t go out of our way to find good food in London and as a result didn’t. Next time.

Accomodations: Loved the Lanesborough Hotel. Conveniently located on Hyde Park Corner, it was the perfect place to stay. When on vacation, we prefer to walk and much of what we wanted to visit was within walking distance of the hotel. The staff, including Colin the concierge who sounded just like Bob Hoskins, were friendly and informative. My only complaint? They didn’t tell us it was the Queen who was coming to dinner.

The only real downside to London was the weather. We had rain almost every day. Cold rain.

I brought back some uniquely British treats to share with a few lucky blog readers.

It is difficult to tell in this photo, but I am giving away the following: Three tea caddies from London’s Finest Teas–English Breakfast, Afternoon and Earl Grey, Toffee from the British Collection, Wilkins & Sons preserves– strawberry, orange marmalade and black currant and a really fun Tea Towel that features her highness herself as shown on the 20 pound note.

Here’s what you have to do to be eligible for the random drawing:

Leave a comment on which of these items you’d like to win and why. Or leave a tip about travel to London. Or, if you really want to be creative, leave the name of a song that contains the word “London” in the title.

Tweet a link to this post and then come back here and leave a comment letting me know about your Tweet.

You don’t have to do all of the above but if you do, you’ll be entered four times. I am going to select four winners using the random number generator and will give the items out as they are listed above–teas first, tea towel last. Good luck!

Updated I usually respond to comments that are made on my blog but did not want my posts to mess this up, so I tried to refrain–it was tough! The one comment I made was removed from the count. Without further ado…

Random Integer Generator

Here are your random numbers:

6 1 9 10
Timestamp: 2010-04-15 12:12:20 UTC

Which means: Whaletraveled (6) got the tea, Tommy F. (1) won the toffee, connie tolentino (9) will be getting the preserves and San Diego Momma (10) your are the owner of the highly coveted tea towel! Please e-mail, send me message on FB, or Tweet me your addresses! Congrats!

Dinner with …

(London) Interesting thing happened last night. My family and I were sitting in the lobby of our hotel waiting for a car to pick us up when we noticed that two police officers were conducting what appeared to be a security sweep of the front of the building. Being both nosy and curious we asked what was going on and were told (in a very nonchalant way) that they were readying the hotel for a guest. That was the only information we were given. The speculation among my group was that said guest must be a politician because the police were involved, we figured no celebrity warranted that type of attention. Tony Blair was one of the names we seriously considered because he was in town earlier in the day to have a meeting with British PM Gordon Brown.

When we returned to the hotel a few hours later a bobby was stationed out front. We hadn’t had dinner so we decided to eat in the hotel’s bar. While inside we noticed a group of well-dressed men seated behind a partition. My son thought that perhaps they were the mystery guests, he felt they looked important and therefore fit the bill. After much discussion, we realized that probably wasn’t the case because we could easily hear their conversation.

After dinner, we walked outside of the bar and saw four or five butlers standing on the other side of a door that was to our left, just off of the lobby. Still being both nosy and curious, we stopped by the concierge desk to ask if the person, who was now only the length of a small room away from us, was indeed a politician. We were told yes. We asked if this politician was British, and again, the answer was–yes. At this point we were all convinced that Tony Blair was the mystery VIP, yet we were puzzled as to why we didn’t see more security.

This morning, able to contain our nosiness and curiosity no longer, we stopped by the front desk to inquire once more. Turns out, Tony Blair was not the guest. And technically, the person isn’t a politician. British, they most certainly are. After spending the day touring the Tower of London, we (okay, big stretch here) spent the night with royalty.

We were closer to Queen Elizabeth than most people will ever get. The fact that we never saw her doesn’t really matter. I am, however, supremely (royally?) bummed that our timing was so poor. The Queen apparently entered and exited through the hotel’s front door which meant she walked the length of the lobby–the very spot we occupied–just prior to her arrival and departure. Everyone who met her said she was very gracious and friendly.

Oh, and the security wasn’t light. We just didn’t see most of it, guess that’s the way it’s supposed to work.

The Gift of Fear

My goal when writing blog posts is to keep the subject matter light and airy.  And 99.95% of the time that’s just what I’ll do–I promise.  This morning, however, I am feeling neither light nor airy, and this post, while not easy to write or maybe read, is what I feel I need to say today.

As local readers know, a 17-year old high school senior went missing this past Thursday.  The young woman, a long distance runner, disappeared while running alone outside on a trail.  Yesterday afternoon, a 30-year old convicted sex offender was arrested in the case, he was charged with first degree murder and rape.

I grew up in Richmond, Virginia.  I have mentioned this in the past.  What I haven’t mentioned is that I grew up in the city of Richmond, not the suburbs.  There was a lot of crime in the city of Richmond in the 1970’s and 1980’s.  Some of it violent. Some of it directed towards women.  I remember learning at a very young age what the word rapist meant.  I learned this because the neighborhood rapist decided to target my mother.  He was watching her you see, and she saw him doing so.  As a result, we had a police stake out at my house. I wasn’t there at the time, but somehow my brother and I found out what was going on. My mother was not a victim because she was very smart when it came to personal safety. She was observant and always on guard and she wasn’t afraid to call the police when she thought she was being targeted.

It is not nice to know that the neighborhood rapist exists, even worse to know he is after your mother.  Not terrible either.  I learned at an early age to have a healthy fear of bad guys.  I learned that bad guys didn’t necessarily look like they did on TV.  I was taught never to put myself in dangerous situations.  I was told (repeatedly) what a dangerous situation was. I was raised to call my parents to check in, and often (before cell phones). All of that being the case, I still did stupid things! Nothing that ended in a bad or dire result–thankfully.

My children have been raised with the same type of instruction.  Yet, upon learning that the young local woman was missing, the first response from my 16-year old daughter was something like, “This is La Jolla, that kind of thing doesn’t happen here.” Groan.

I cannot stress enough how important I think it is to prepare our kids for the real world.  Even if that means frightening them a bit.  I was frightened, yes, but I never have lived my life in fear.  There is a difference. Gavin De Becker, a world-renowned security expert and the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Gift of Fear, believes that we all come equipped with the one tool needed to avoid putting ourselves in harm’s way.  He says we are all security experts because of this tool.  He points out that while we all possess it, most of us don’t use it.  The tool I am referring to?  Intuition.

Here is a link to the first part of a special that Prime Time Live aired on De Becker,  his theories about fear, safety and the importance of cultivating intuition.  I understand if you can only take so much of the these kinds of stories and realities and don’t want to watch.  I feel compelled though to share.

Lessons from Havana

The images coming out of Haiti are horrifying and heartbreaking. I cannot imagine how a country that is so poor, so fragile in everything from infrastructure to food and water supply can survive such an unimaginable tragedy. I am grateful and proud that the U.S. will take the lead in the world’s recovery effort —  that is how it should be. Events such as these, though rare, remind me of a trip I made to Cuba in 2003 and what I learned on that trip about human spirit, ingenuity and the power of family and faith.

I traveled to Cuba, Havana specifically, legally as part of a cultural exchange program that was at the time still encouraged and allowed. I am not going to get political and go into great detail about why I think these programs should still exist but suffice it to say, I do.  I went on the trip because I was working as a professional photographer and had heard that the opportunities from a photographic and artistic perspective were unmatched. For several days after I returned to the U.S., I was unable to sleep. I had been deeply touched by all that I had seen and by those whom I had met; I could not close my eyes without revisiting those experiences.

We visited a school as part of our tour. The purpose of this stop was to show us how great Cuba’s educational system is. What stuck with me, however, was that children, regardless of what type of structure they grow up in, thrive or don’t thrive primarily because of who they live in that structure with. They also universally want to laugh, play and enjoy childhood.

Cubans, for obvious reasons, don’t have a lot of stuff. No iPhones for them. 

I cannot emphasize enough how moved I was (inspired too!) by the spirit and ingenuity displayed by the people that I met. This woman, an entrepreneur, charged me for the right take her photo.  I had no problem with that.

It bothered me to no end that the Cuban people are not allowed to do the things I was allowed to do while visiting their country. They can work in hotels and bars, but cannot be patrons. This photo was taken at the famed Tropicana Club, one of the few institutions to survive Castro’s revolution.

Cubans are not allowed to travel freely, not even around Cuba.  As a result, they often live with extended family or nearby. There is a generational closeness that you rarely see in the U.S. From what I could tell, grandparents in Cuba are revered. 

 Cubans, as most of us are aware, don’t have easy access to medicine and food. Yet, they share what little they have with their pets. Says something about how much happiness a pet can and does add to our daily lives.

The boys in Cuba are passionate about baseball. While there, I saw numerous pick-up games being played without the benefit of equipment. Bats were made out of wooden planks and balls were tattered. That didn’t seem to matter.

The infrastructure in Cuba looked to me to be one really bad hurricane away from crumbling into the ocean.  I hope that the next time the U.S. has to take the lead in rescue and rebuilding efforts it will not be because this is what has happened.

It is easy, as it should be, to feel grateful to be an American citizen living freely (though ironically, I am not allowed to travel to Cuba anymore) and well in this country. Sometimes, it takes events such as the tragedy in Haiti to remind me that not everyone lives the way I do. My trip to Cuba taught me a lesson I doubt I will ever forget–my family, my faith and my freedom matter most. Not my stuff. My heart breaks for the people of Haiti.