Monday, July 29, 2013

Bubbles that Remind You of Stars

Our last morning in the Napa Valley was spent at the Domaine Chandon winery. They make sparkling wines (the technical name for champagne not made in the Champagne region of France) but still wines as well.

We arrive and see the beautiful grapevines that are at the heart of every vineyard.

We got there bright and early for a wine tasting and were almost the first people there. The gardens on the way into the facility were beautiful.

We ended up on a tour with just the two of us. How much better does it get than a private tour?

We make our way up from the wine tasting area to the winery where the real action takes place. Look at the huge vats for the mixing of juice, sugar and yeast. Each one holds 14,000 gallons!!! Now that's a lot of grape juice!

Our guide tells us about the unique process of creating a sparkling wine as opposed to a still wine. It is a process that was discovered by accident in the Champagne region of France by a monk. 

You might recognize his name - Dom Pierre Perignon (1639-1715). He was among the first to deliberately cause the second fermentation that creates the bubbles in a sparkling wine. When the first fermentation is over, more yeast is added back to the bottle along with a liquor, and the result is the fine bubbles distinctive of sparkling wines.

Knowing that a second fermentation would cause a residue from the yeast in the bottom of the bottle, I asked what process was used to get rid of that.

The riddler was key to the process. He was the highest paid person in the winery next to the master brewer. During the second fermentation process, the bottles were placed in a rack that held them at a 45 degree angle with the neck facing down. Once a day, the riddler came at a predetermined time and turned each bottle a 1/4 turn. The bottles back then were not as strong as today and sometimes the bottle would explode under the pressure of the bubbles that had formed. One broken bottle could lead to many others. It was a dangerous job to be the riddler.  

Today, the position of riddler is obsolete. The process is carried out with large machines that turn and tap many bottles at once. This process of remuage or riddling has been used in the making sparkling wines from their first discovery. It ensures that all the yeast added to the bottle for the second fermentation makes its way to the top of the neck to be easily removed during the process of disgorgement. 

This turning plus gravity pull the yeast into a neat and tidy package right at the lip of the bottle, ready to be removed. So, once the residue is in the neck of the bottle, how do you get it out? You freeze the neck of the bottle, pop out the liquid with the residue with the little plug made just for that purpose.

Now it is time for dosage - adding a little extra wine to make up for the volume lost from the disgorgement. The amount of sugar in the dosage determines the ultimate sweetness of the sparkling wine. Sparkling wine is corked with a cage to keep the cork in place because of the pressure inside the bottle. The sparkling wine at Domaine Chandon is called Etoile, the tiny bubbles being reminiscent of stars. Their best bubbly is $100 a bottle!

Barrels of wine are aged below ground. Now this looks like a winery!

Wine tasting, anyone? Finally! LOL Our guide showed us the easiest way to safely open a bottle of sparkling wine. We tasted each one in order of price. The best was reserved for last and served with a raw oyster with hollandaise sauce. Yum! Never thought I'd ever say that oysters were delicious, but they are. It will be nice to have the expensive Etoile for our wedding anniversary coming up soon. Maybe we will have oysters too.

We left with at least 4 bottles of sparkling wine that day and more to come to our house on a regular basis. Then we headed toward our overnight stay at Lake Tahoe.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Napa Wine Train

It was a sad farewell to Yosemite National Park and the Sequoias, but we continued our adventure by driving to the Napa Valley. We checked into the Old World Inn and then headed over a few blocks to a wine tasting before getting on the wine train for dinner. 

I am not a wine connoisseur by any means, but know a little something about wines from my dad. When we were growing up, we picked mustang grapes from the vines that grew over the trees on our farm. After crushing them to get the juice, my dad added yeast to make wine. I remember the 5 gallon jugs he used for the fermenting process. They had a valve in the top to release the gas produced by the yeast. Anyway, I have fond memories of my dad making mustang grape wine and fig wine. Yes! I said fig wine. It made a fruity dessert wine that was out of this world. 

But, I'm side-tracking here. My point is that I can appreciate a good wine and it doesn't have to be sweet. We hit 2 establishments for wine tastings. 5 bottles of wine later, we headed back to the Bread and Breakfast to get ready for dinner on the wine train.

The train left Napa and headed north along Highway 29 up to St. Helena about 22 miles away. The trip took about an hour and a half each way. On the way up, David and I were aboard the restaurant car. We were served 4 courses out of five along with several other couples. 


We started of with an alcoholic punch that was similar to a Mai Tai . . .

. . . and an appetizer of grapes, shrimp with sea weed, pickled beats, a tasty bruschetta, and two different kinds of cheese. The green strip of cheese was unbelievably good.

Next came our salad - a combination of mixed greens, shredded carrots, bacon, candied walnuts and cheese with a lovely vinegrette dressing. The candied walnuts were awesome and we even found out how to make them. Hint: the walnuts are fried before rolling in a mixture that includes sugar and spices. I will have to try this at home.

The salad was followed by three melon ball size scoops of sorbet - one each of  black cherry, coconut and mango. These were to "cleanse the palate" before the main course. My, but I had no idea how little of a connoisseur I am. This was ultra fancy and all I knew was to use the silverware from the outside in. LOL I didn't get a photo because I was too busy trying to figure all this out, but I did get a picture of the empty mini-parfait glass.

The main course came next and it was so worth waiting for. It included beef, carrots and potatoes. It wasn't just any old beef or carrots or mashed potatoes. It was the wine train's beef, carrots and mashed potatoes. And the gravy was out of this world. Was it really that good or was it the train that did it? I can't be sure, but maybe it was a little of both.

By this time, we had been on the train for an hour and a half and had reached the "end of the line" as they say. We had arrived at St. Helena. This is where we moved to the dessert car and this is where the train stops, the engines move to the other end of the train and we start the hour and a half trip back to Napa.

Although I failed to take pictures of my Creme Brulee and cappuccino I made sure I got a few pictures of the activity outside.

Evidently, the house at the vineyard at the end of the line belongs to someone on the food network. Or so I was told. So, of course I was all over that one. Unfortunately, I didn't get the chef's name, so I wasn't as all over it as I thought. Oh well.

Of course the wine train is not just about the food. It is also about the scenery. 

We were on the sunny side of the train on the way up so there was a glare out the window but I managed to get a few pics of the vineyards.

The pictures on the way back were much better, but by that time, it was already getting towards dark. I managed a few though.

The scenery was wonderful! and by this time, we had finished out dessert and moved to the lounge car.

These were actually taken through the window as well, but since the sun was below the horizon, there was no glare.

My last outdoor scenes were of the Mondavi winery. You might say the sky was the color of a blush or rose'. Luscious! The last hour of the train ride was in the dark.

So we ordered a glass of Riesling and propped up our feet to enjoy the ride. I sported my July 4th pedicure and David rubbed my feet. Who could top this trip on the wine train?

We arrived back at train station around 9:30 and returned to the B&B with 2 more bottles of wine and some other souvenirs. Happy wine tasting!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Yosemite National Park

After leaving Kings Canyon National Park, we drove about 4 hours to Oakhurst, CA. A stop at the grocery store there prepared us for 3 nights in a condo just outside Yosemite National Park. We got settled in just before dark and relaxed the rest of the evening. I wrote in my journal and listened to a CD on my kindle by Audrey Assad. The album is "The House You're Building." I love her music. Poor David has had to listen to it over and over, but he's being a good sport. He even says that he likes Audrey Assad as a singer. I first heard her voice at a silent retreat at the Montserrat retreat center in Lake Dallas, TX. Her song, "Love Is Slow" from her album "Heart" was played at the retreat at the end of one of the conferences. I bought both her albums after the retreat.

Back to our road trip . . . On the morning of July 13, we got up and eased into the day. We were on the road into the park by around 9:00 am. We had a 10:00 tour of the valley floor in an open air car. It was a beautiful day, so we really enjoyed the fresh air.

Our ranger was Eric. True to his name, his heritage is probably the same as mine or close. He was Scandinavian for sure. His red beard was sprinkled with gray. He was a great guide through Yosemite Valley. For two hours he kept us on our toes, asking and answering questions, and making jokes.

Once in a while we got off the tram to take pictures. Eric called us back the tram with music from Rawhide.

It was great fun. Not only was Eric funny, he was quite knowledgeable!

I took great advantage of every opportunity to take photographs even handing my camera to a nice lady who took our picture at the tunnel overlook which gives a great view up the valley.  I took over 300 pictures that day! But that's not so many. I took over 400 the day before! LOL Of course, some of the pics went into the computer waste basket but there are still plenty of good ones left.

After the Yosemite Valley tour, we ate a bit of lunch. then we boarded an air conditioned bus that took us up to Glacier Point. It took an hour to get to the top. I was so tired, I fell asleep while Karen, our bus driver, talked about the park. I tried so hard to stay awake, but these physically demanding days are taking their toll. I'm just not as young as I used to be.

But back to Glacier Point, . . . It was another super photo op. I pulled out my telephoto lens and snapped a few pictures. The falls to the right in the picture above is better seen in the photo taken with this lens.

Glacier Point is 3,200 feet above the valley floor.

From there, you can see for miles. Across the valley is Half Dome, a landmark that cannot be missed. It looks as if someone sheered off half of it. There is a trail that leads to the top of Half Dome. You could not see them from Glacier Point with the naked eye. But I took a picture with my telephoto lens and blew it up even more for you to see the people up there.

There are two people off to the left, behind what looks like a sign. I bet the sign would say that it is hazardous to step beyond that point. But everywhere we've been, people are doing crazy things that are very risky. It happened at the Grand Canyon too.

People like to take risks for some reason. A number of people die from risk taking in the park every year. A couple of months ago a teenage boy went over Vernal Falls after he went too close to the river. There is even a book in the book store in Yosemite that is periodically updated. It listed every fatal accident in the park. How sad to be one of those because you like to gamble with your life!

But back to Glacier Point again . . . we spent a good while there taking pictures and just soaking in the breathtaking scenery. You could see the visitor parking lot where you pick up the tram to various destinations. The parking lot is the small grayish spot in the upper left corner of the picture about the same distance from both edges of the photo.

With my telephoto lens, I was able to get a closer look and after blowing it up, you can actually pick out my Chevy Equinox.  Its the 9th car from the top facing west in the row that begins with a small white SUV.

I bought this car in January and it has been great for our July road trip! Lots of space for all our stuff and great mileage too!

The next day, we did some shopping and hiked to some of the falls.

This is Yosemite falls. It was a short hike and we even climbed across some of the rocks to get a better view.

On the way back to the tram we spotted a volunteer who was tracking a bear that was trying to cross the road. I hung around with my telephoto lens and captured the bear as it was getting ready to do just that.

As the bear raced across the road, it was almost hit by a car, but thankfully, the car stopped in time. What a tale to tell by the driver and passengers in that vehicle!

One last short walk to Bridal Veil falls to take the last photos of Yosemite and we were on our way back to the condo for a good night's rest. The next day, we would leave for the Napa Valley.