California Wine Country 2019

2019 marks 30 years Claudine and I have been married. To celebrate, we decided to take a couple of vacations this year. The first was a trip out to California wine country (Napa and Sonoma). We’ve visited both a few times but only as daily jaunts up from San Francisco. We also share our anniversary date with some friends (Vic and Kim) who visit wine country more often than we do so we booked a trip together letting Victor coordinate the lion’s share of the trip.

The following are the highlights of our trip along with some tips and suggestions should you find yourself out in wine country.

Historically we’ve stayed in San Francisco, San Jose, or some other part of the state, usually extending a business trip. Staying in wine country is the way to go. For this trip we opted for a luxury boutique hotel. The olea hotel to be precise. Vic found this hotel, and while it was pricey, it’s right in line for what it offers and have no buyers remorse from staying there. Future trips will likely be at a VRBO or something less hotel like, but I would absolutely stay at the olea again if the price and conditions were right.

The Olea Hotel

If you’re looking for a private boutique hotel with; gourmet breakfast, a good view, fabulous staff, great outdoor places to relax, wonderful pool and hot tub, on-site spa services, crazy comfy rooms with heated bathroom floors look no further.

The Olea was our home Monday – Thursday for our trip. Claudine and I actually came out to California two days earlier and spent those days in a nondescript Marriott in Walnut Creek. We stayed there on points because we thought we’d be bums and hangout by the pool. Turned out the hotel wasn’t all that great so we ventured out on Saturday to Mt. Diablo and the surrounding area and a trip up to Glass Beach in Ft. Bragg and some shopping in Mendocino on Sunday.

Downtown Walnut Creek was nice, lots of great restaurants including http://kaiwasushi.com/ for awesome “hole in the wall’ sushi. We also rolled the dice for an off-airport rental car through Sixt. While our experience was great; there was no line to get our car, and we returned it late at night on Friday. It turns out that’s usually not the case. Our car, a full size Chevy Tahoe was great, even though it was a Chevy.

Wine Country 101

If you’ve never been to wine country, or are new to wines and winemaking do take a tour or two. After that, all the stories are the same, the wine making process is the same and usually goes something like this:

Our winery was founded in the <late 1800’s, early 1900’s> we have always made wine here in some form or fashion. We survived prohibition by making wine for the Catholic church or for pharmaceutical use, or we turned into an orchard, and back into a vineyard after prohibition. In 1976 it was <our wine, or one of our closely related wines, vines, winemaker, father or grandfather of our winemaker> who was responsible for beating the french at their own game and putting California wines on the map. We still have those vines today, in a corner of our vineyard.

We <insert winery name> are focused on making world class <insert wine type>. Our micro climate here in (Napa/Sonoma) is the best for <insert one type of grape> because of our unique soil/sun/fog/coastal breeze/non-coastal breeze> and our <flat/hillside/north/south/east/west> facing vineyard is the best for <insert wine type>. We use only the finest barrels from a cooperage in the <USA/France/some other location> and only use <new/old/american/french> oak. We tightly control the char in the barrel better than anyone else and age the wine in our <warehouse/cave> and bottle it at exactly the right time every year. As you explore our wines through this tasting you’ll discover why we are the very best at what we do.

While a little tongue in cheek, it’s not far from the truth. There are, depending who you ask, between 400 wineries in Napa (600 if you include Sonoma) with tasting rooms and upwards of 2000 different wine producers in the region. Even google doesn’t have a solid count.

Over the course of our trip we visited (10) wineries for tastings or tours. Which is a lot over 4 days, as almost all involved a tour or considerable tasting time. 3 per day is a lot unless you’re going to taste and spit, or have a dedicated driver.

Day 1:
Clod Du Val
We didn’t have a scheduled tour or tasting. We dropped in and they were able to accommodate us for a tasting. Newly remodeled or added tasting room was fabulous as were the wines. We liked it enough to join their wine club. They do distribute some wines although the story is always “What you get here is not what we distribute”

Trefethen
We were set up with a tasting here by a co-worker. We opted to taste the red flight in their recently renovated barn tasting area. Trefethen is known for their Pinots and whites that we didn’t taste. Their reds weren’t our favorites but I did like the Dragon’s Tooth Blend quite a bit.

Dinner: Glen Ellen Star
This place was amazing, pricing was steep but amazing 5 Star food.

Day 2:
Del Dotto Cave Tour (Historic), the have 3 different locations and tasting options. We chose the cave experience with barrel tasting and it was excellent. They have a certain reputation but we enjoyed their wines and bought some. I also bought a checkable wine case for the trip back home from Del Dotto.

Favero
Fred Favero winery. Fred’s estate is also his home. Our friends met Fred back in 2009 and insisted we return on this visit. They weren’t wrong. Favero winery is perched atop a ridge that straddles the Sonoma and Napa borders. He makes 3 reds, an estate Sangiovese, a Monte Di Sassi, and an Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. He only produces around 500 cases a year and you must buy direct. His prices are very fair for the wine quality, in fact, he could charge 65% more just by labeling them Napa wines but he chooses not too. If presented with an opportunity, don’t miss a private tasting at Favero on his patio overlooking the valley.

Dinner: The Girl and Fig
Excellent food, great service.

Day 3:
B. Wise
B. Wise was a recommendation from Olea, in fact it’s one of the wineries that has an agreement with Olea and promotes a free tasting. The story is unique, there isn’t a winery visit, but there is a tasting room just north of Sonoma. We had the place to our self, they have some really powerful and unique reds. Highly recommend a tasting here. We bought a few bottles and will likely order more from B. Wise.

Kunde Mountain Top
We had pre-booked the Kunde mountain top tasting before we came out to California and we thought it was pre-paid. Had we realized it wasn’t pre-paid we would have cancelled it simply because it made getting to Repris on time a bit tough. The mountain top tasting was OK, not horrible, not great, just OK. You start in the main tasting house, board a shuttle to a perch at the top of the winery overlooking the winery for a handful of tastings, then ride the shuttle back down. Maybe 45 minutes at the top. It is a beautiful view, no question. The wines though were not to our liking. I did enjoy the reserve wine at the end. Same spiel as most, join our wine club for exclusive deals you can’t get in distribution. We didn’t join, nor did we purchase wine. Wade our tour guide was fine, a little too Mr. Rodgers like and they are living off the view and the fact that parts of Bottle Shock were filmed there.

Repris
Repris was a recommendation from Fred (Favero). He called Repris and set up the appointment for us. This was my second favorite private tour behind the time with spent at Favero. We beat feet from Kunde and got there just in the nick of time. It is also up on a mountain and takes time to get there. We arrived were greeted with a white wine for tasting, then another for our ride in a 4×4 side-by-side for a ride up to the top of the vineyard for a spectacular view. We stayed up top for a while getting the backstory for the winery then taken back to the caves for more tastings. We bought wine here, their reds were amazing as well. They too only sell direct.

Dinner: The Salt and Stone
Good food, great service. Likely our most forgettable meal though. Steaks were overpowered by the sauce or all would have been excellent. Mac-n-cheese with mushrooms and truffle oil was amazing.

Day 4:
Napa Wine Train:
This was a vacation check-box item. We’ve done it, we’ve checked the box, and that’s that. We are not group tour people. We don’t do cruise ship excursions we book on our own, direct and private (usually for less). So why in the world would we do a group train tour to take group wine tours and tastings? Because trains are cool that’s why. The wine train isn’t cheap initially, the Estate tour itself is about $375 per person, but when you break it down, 3 tastings at say $60 each is $180, the meal is a $75 meal, that gets you to $280, a driver for the day at $120 bucks is a deal. The train is nice, fairly cozy and thankfully for our tour only half full. I probably would have lost my mind if it was 100% at capacity as it was the tours seemed crowded.

The food was good, but not awesome. Portions were smaller than I expected and we got stuck with one winery that no one in our group would have chosen to visit. But again, box checked. I just wouldn’t do it again.

The wineries we visited from the train:
Domaine Chandon
Bubbles, nobody in our group cared for bubbles. I did enjoy a mixer and the grounds are spectacular. If you like bubbles, this is a no brainer stop for you.

Louis M. Martini
We entered this winery with low hopes. Their wines are average, and we think we’ve visited here before the renovation when the grounds were quite plain. The renovation is amazing, and the wines were surprisingly better than expected. I would visit here again, for a private tasting or tour, but not for a group tour.

Inglenook
Francis Ford Coppola makes Inglenook great again! We visited this estate many years ago and had, honestly a not great experience. The wines were good but the tasting server just didn’t want to be there that day. This time we took a broader tour, got the story of the winery from inception in the 1800’s to now. We even bought a bottle. Well worth the trip!

Dinner: Glen Ellen Inn (late evening dinner after the train)
This might have been my favorite meal, certainly right behind the Glen Ellen Star if not the favorite. Killer Cucumber Martini, and a great Salmon filet. The fact that I had just come from a couples massage at the Olea has nothing to do with my assessment ūüėČ don’t hesitate to eat here or the Glen Ellen Star.

Day 5:
We wrapped up our wine country time after breakfast at the Olea we checked out and headed south for a day in San Francisco with a mildly successful whale watching tour, dinner at Alioto’s, and a sunset cruise around the bay. The latter was my favorite. Awesome new boat in the Red/White fleet, all electric, very clean and quiet.

I loved every moment of this trip with good friends as phase 1 to celebrate our 30 years of marriage. I’ll post more photos later when I have time.

Diving Cozumel

Diving Cozumel

Our 2nd Dive trip, so we’re still newbies by all counts.

Prior to the trip we did invest in our own gear.  We already had good masks/snorkels/fins.

We shopped around and ended up with Aqualung gear.¬† I opted for the travel-light Aqualung Zuma BCD, Aqualung Legend Regulator with ABS Octo, and basic console with i300 dive computer.¬† We chose to purchase locally over ordering on the internet. Pricing was about the same and we get lifetime free parts for the Aqualung stuff if we have our service performed there.¬† Oh, and the first service is free as in beer.¬† Claudine initially wanted a Zeagle Covert, but when it arrived she did not like how it fit.¬† Fortunately with our trip less than 2 weeks away they had an Aqualung Pearl in her size.¬† Not as ‘travel light’ as I would like but it fits her well, is made for women, and she has more pockets so she gets to carry all the stuff ūüôā

We stayed for a week at Cozumel Palace Resort, and dove with the on-site dive operator (Aqua Safari) and did all dives off of their boat Ocean Three.

We got picked up at the dock on site at the resort.  Ocean Three is a larger boat, holds up to 16 divers, and it was full most of the trips.  For whatever reason we always got the spots on the back of the boat which worked out well.

The resort is just south of town, and most of the dive sites are on the south west side of the island.  Each morning started with about an hour boat ride to the south western tip, to a deeper wall/drift dive.  We then headed back north for a shallower reef dive closer towards the city but still south of the cruise ports.

This was our first drift dive experience and at times was pretty crazy.¬† Like hopping on the freeway, straight into the fast lane.¬† It took a couple of these dives before we got comfortable enough to just settle in and enjoy the show.¬† The first couple dives we spent way to much time fighting to keep oriented and trying to stay off the coral.¬† TIP: generally speaking, the current isn’t going to smash you into anything, you’ll flow around, up and over with the current.¬† Until that sinks in you end up trying to avoid things you don’t need to avoid.¬† Kicking with the current zooms you right along and away from everyone, turning and kicking into the current is exhausting.¬† Just go with the flow.

Our first dive trip was in Grand Cayman so that was our frame of reference.  If Grand Cayman is a 10 on a 10 scale, Cozumel is 8, 9, and in some slow spots 10 as well.

The wild life was amazing, we saw quite a few turtles, eals and spotted eagle rays that were huge.

There was a photographer on all but one dive day and captured most of what we saw.

Having been spoiled by Neptune Divers in Grand Cayman, who keeps the dive group smaller (Max 8 Divers), I’m not a fan of a full boat of 16 divers plus a photographer and two dive masters (19 people in the water).¬† Especially when half of those divers don’t realize that it’s a big freaking ocean you don’t need to be on top of other people.¬† When the dive master would try to draw your attention to something it was like 12 moths to a flame and half of them had no sense of “space”.¬† I had more fun just hanging out around the perimeter and got to see a lot of things like eagle rays just off in the distance that they didn’t get to see.

Because we could use the resort credits with Aqua Safari we did, and in the same situation I’d do it again.¬† But if I have a choice I’ll use a smaller operator next time like the highly recommended Scuba Tony in Cozumel.

We will definitely be back!

 

Scuba Trip #2 – Cozumel Palace [All Inclusive Style]

After getting certified in 2017 and doing our first Scuba trip in Grand Cayman we were ready to go again.  We added Nitrox/Enriched Air diver to our certifications last fall and looked forward to going to Cozumel with the couple that we went to Grand Cayman with.

They organized group trip to take advantage of a third room free deal at Cozumel Palace.  So after spreading the cost of the two rooms across 3 couples, our out of pocket was less than $2000.00

That included 7 nights of all inclusive goodness, meals and alcohol.¬† It also came with $1500 worth of resort credits, which we used primarily for scuba, and a couple’s massage and still left the resort with almost 300 credits for the next visit.

Our other out of pocket expenses were:

  • $450 each for the flights.
  • $350 for a baby sitter for Matthew while we did the morning dives (coverage from roughly 8am to 1-2pm each day).¬† We were initially told they had a kids program for Matthew to be in while we dove.¬† Turns out that wasn’t accurate. They do, sort of have a kids club, and Sonya who runs it was great, but it’s only available in the afternoons and you cannot leave the resort while your kids are in there.¬† Meaning you cannot leave your kid(s) there and go dive.¬† We were forced to hire a babysitter which they set up for us for $10/hour.¬† Mrs. Martha (the sitter) was amazing and worth every penny.
  • Tips for Scuba, spa, occasional exceptional service plus the required dive T-shirt.
  • We also rented a Jeep ($99) to run around the island including a visit to Chankanaab marine park (admission was free and provided by the resort), a little beach time looking for sea glass, visit to Coconuts for lunch and then downtown for some shopping.
  • $72 for parking at the Airport (economy)
  • The on-site dive shop/operation is run by Aqua Safari. We were able to use the resort credits for our morning two tank dives.¬† The out of pocket expenses you have to pay were $16 per person for taxes plus $2 per person for the daily marine park fees ($36 total).¬† They picked us up every morning at the dock on site.¬† We also had a $14 daily up-charge for Nitrox, optional, but it was completely worth it.
  • We also completely avoided the time-share/membership sales pitch. Though if you could get through it, you could score a free jeep rental, and/or other freebies.

Resort Review

Outside of cruise ships we had not previously stayed at an all-inclusive resort. Given the ‘value’ our expectation weren’t very high.

First, the resort is small, some might say ‘intimate’.¬† I think there are only 169 rooms? There are 3 onsite restaurants, which really means there is only one, but it’s divided up into 3 sections; the fancier higher-end, dress code required Italian restaurant, as well as a Mexican and Oriental themed restaurant.¬† There is an additional buffet outside, so I guess, technically 4 places to get some food as well as room service 24/7.

Drinks were also included, beer, wine, and mixed drinks.¬† The¬† liquor was weaker, so you needed to get two of what ever it is you wanted.¬† Seems that’s run of the mill for all-inclusives though.

The resort was nice, very clean overall.¬† The rooms were exactly like what is pictured on the web-site.¬† We had two double beds, an in-room Jacuzzi tub, nice sitting area, and balcony with hammock. Read that again, two double beds. Had it just been Claudine and I we’d been good.¬† Claudine drew the short straw and shared a bed with Matthew and didn’t sleep well the entire trip.¬† The rooms could have easily held two queen beds.¬† We wanted to get one of the loft rooms with a king and two doubles but they didn’t include those in the buy two get one free special that we were part of.

The outdoor pool area was clean and nice, again exactly as pictured, not a lot of marketing magic going on.

Note: there is no beach, but you are on the ocean.¬† There’s a great area for swimming and snorkeling and at times there is a life guard on duty.¬† They have snorkel gear on-site and paddle boards for kids 14 and older.¬† Matthew and I spent two long afternoons snorkeling.¬† Lots of good wild life to be seen in their little area.

Food quality: On a scale of 1 to 10, and I’d put Royal Caribbean meals about about an 8/9 on average.¬† I’d put the Cozumel Palace food in the 5-8 categories. Some stuff was pretty good.¬† Breakfast, with made to order omelettes was well above average.¬† Most other meal items were average to above average.¬† Nothing was really exceptional though.

Service:¬†Service was spotty, when you got service it was good, but there were too many times when we had to go to the bar (while sitting at an outside table) to get a drink or get someone’s attention.¬† Same with food at the outside bistro.¬† Once you ordered food it got there fairly quickly, but you had to work to get it sometimes.

One of the couples did the $300 romantic dinner which included Surf/Turf Steak/Lobster which they said was excellent.

At the end of the day the value was still amazing.¬† Once we back out our scuba costs which we used credits for the bulk of it, it was a great deal and we’d gladly stay there again.¬† We know how to work the system now. We know when we need to be at dinner to not have to be on a wait list, and how to get someone’s attention.¬† Every one of the staff that we interacted with was great.¬† Martha the sitter took good care of Matthew and he eventually knew . just about everyone that worked there.

The Diving:  I would rate the actual dive staff a 10 out of 10.  They really took care of you on the boat.  From helping with your gear to the dive masters being super attentive.  The went out of their way to help Tammy who was 6 weeks from having a knee replaced.  From making her transition to and from the boat as easy as possible to getting her in and out of the boat after dives.

The boat itself was very clean and well maintained.  They provided towels, bottled water, and fruit between dives during the surface interval.

Some of the drift dives were a bit ‘exciting’, like hopping in the fast lane of the freeway with no way to get off.¬† We’ll eventually get used to it but some of the currents were pretty aggressive for our newbie dive status.

Palancar Caves, Palancar Reef, Paradise Reef, Chankanaab Reef were all amazing calm dives.

While we will look at other options on the island, we’d would definitely stay at Cozumel Palace again if the right opportunity were to present itself.

Our return to the 8th wonder of the world.

Almost 8 years ago to the day was our first trip to West Baden. Can’t believe it’s taken us 8 years to get back.

I really don’t want to ruin it, but the days after Thanksgiving, well the place is empty. We did the Saturday/Sunday/Monday thing and had the place to ourselves again. There probably weren’t a dozen other guests at the hotel on Sunday. What a great way to spend a long weekend.

This trip we didn’t spend any time at the casino.¬† Instead we ran around antiquing and checking out the French Lick Winery.

I did skip the massage this time and let Claudine use all of the spa credit for herself.

West Baden 11/27/2017

 

Scuba Cayman – May 2017 Trip

Claudine and I had been planning to get our SCUBA certification for a while.  In the fall of 2016 we booked our classes with Scuba Unlimited.  Our plan was to do all the prerequisite work here but do the open water certification somewhere warm.  Grand Cayman to be exact.

So basically, for my 50th birthday that’s exactly what we did. We did the classwork and pool work in November and December of 2016 and the open water work over the week of May 13th through 20th, 2017.

We booked a condo for a week in Grand Cayman at Seven Mile Beach Resort with some friends (the same one’s who recommended Scuba Unlimited) who have a time share there and who has been spending a week on Grand Cayman since the early 90’s.

The flight down was anti-climactic. ¬†Since we’re staying for a week and everything is expensive on Cayman we brought a suitcase full of food at the suggestion of the folks we’re going with. ¬†(Sandwich fixings, meat, some steaks to grill, etc, etc.) So that we can cook our own breakfast and lunch, and have a cookout once or twice. ¬†We also brought 4 bottles of wine (4x 750ml). ¬†We also each brought a liter of liquor from the Duty Free. ¬†Claudine a bottle of Vodka, and I opted for a bottle of Kraken rum. ¬†For those doing the math, you can see that’s too much. ¬†You’re allowed 1 liter of liquor per person, or 5 liters of wine, but not both which was a misunderstanding on our part at the time.

During the immigration/customs shakedown we disclosed that we had some FDA approved meat, which they wanted to see. Upon inspecting the meats they discovered the wine. ¬†We had declared the 2 liters of Vodka and Rum but totally disregarded the wine. ¬†Customs wasn’t happy with that and we were now treated like world class smugglers. In the end it cost us $12 duty. ¬†Not the end of the world[tm].

We rented a car from Andy’s Car Rental who matched a budget price, it was $89 US for the whole week. ¬†The car was a midsize, which in the US is a sub-compact. ¬†I’d do that again, I’d think.

On the way to check in we stopped at the grocery and picked up all the other things we needed but didn’t bring. ¬†Condiments and the like, we also discovered, outside of alcohol, food prices weren’t all that outrageous so we’ll not be bringing a suitcase full of food next time.

The condo was great, two bedrooms, nice living area, on the first floor, thanks to our Hosts.  About a half a block walk to the beach.

We arrived on a Saturday, with time to settle in and get a little beach time.  We would spend the next 6 days diving and enjoying the Cayman life.

Basic Dive Log details for each of the dives:

Sunday: Dives 1 and 2 of our 4 Certification Dives.
At the Aquarium (46 ft /41 mins) and Victoria’s Secret (48 ft / 44 mins) Dive sites. ¬†At each of these sites we did skills for the first 20 mins in a sand spot and got to spend the rest of the time enjoying the dive.

Monday: Dives 3 and 4 of our 4 Certification Dives.
At Darvin’s Theory¬†(60 ft / 38 mins) and Spanish Anchor (50 ft / ¬†40 mins) Dive sites.¬†At each of these sites we did skills for the first 20 mins in a sand spot and got to spend the rest of the time enjoying the dive.

(Yea! we’re now certified)

Tuesday: Dives 5, 6, and 7
At Sentinel Rock (80 ft / 28 mins) and Turtle Schooner (39 ft / 42 mins) Dive sites and afternoon at Stingray City (14ft /32 mins).
Sentinel Rock was a little deeper than expected, with our first swim through, completely awesome.  Turtle Schooner was a sweet shallow reef dive.  Our afternoon dive was a shallow dive at Stingray City west where our give master spent time feeding the rays.

Wednesday: Dives 8 and 9
Two short dives at Turtle Reef (60 ft /  45 mins) and (58 ft / 39 mins).
Our first real experience with significant current.  Dive one was a bit tough, dive 2 was better despite the shorter down time.  Spent some time working on buoyancy.

Thursday: Dives 10 and 11
At Slaughterhouse (104 ft / 35 mins) and Anglefish Reef (52 ft / 52 mins) Dive sites. ¬†Slaughterhouse was awesome, deep wall dive with swim through, Anglefish Reef was also amazing, we’re hitting our dive stride now.

Friday: Dives 12 and 13
At Round Rock (100 ft / 35 mins) and Kittewake (61ft / 44 mins) Dive sites. Claudine and I coming through the 100 foot swim through. ¬†I’m behind and below.

We had an amazing week, 2 dives a day on average, looking forward to buying our own regulators and BCD’s. ¬†We ate at some amazing restaurants while we were there. ¬†We also had excellent Snorkeling at the beach at the resort.

Other photos from our trip.