Sonoma County and Wine Tourism: A Love Affair

By Wine No Comments

We at Taste Vacations and Zephyr Adventures have had a love affair with Sonoma County for 17 years.

Believe it or not, our first-ever tour in the area was a 1998 inline skating tour of “San Francisco and the Wine Country” that included, among other routes, a beautiful loop in the Dry Creek Valley of Sonoma County. We then expanded to include biking tours that combined Napa and Sonoma and this naturally led to us choosing Sonoma County for the first-ever Wine Bloggers Conference.

We have since run a number of Sonoma Hiking Tours focused on the wine country and continually offer one-day Sonoma Vineyard Walks.

So it is no mystery why we think Sonoma County is the perfect place for our new Sonoma County Wine Tour. Here are a few reasons why we love the area:

  • Sonoma County has vast, varied, beautiful terrain ranging from the Pacific Ocean on the west to the Mayacama mountains on the east.
  • The county has 16 distinct grape growing areas such as the Russian River, Alexander Valley, and Sonoma Valley, all of which produce amazing fruit for delicious wines.
  • The Sonoma County Airport is super convenient, in the middle of the county and such a time saver. But you also have options to fly in through San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, and Oakland.
  • Santa Rosa, the county’s largest town, is hip and fun. If you get tired of wine, you can visit the acclaimed Russian River Brewing Company to taste their famous Pliny the Elder beer.
  • Cute small wine towns are a must for a good wine vacation and Sonoma County has three gems: the towns of Sonoma, Healdsburg, and Geyserville.
  • The people in Sonoma County are extremely welcoming and warm. For the most part they are genuinely happy to have visitors and to take the time to pour wines and explain their county.

Our Sonoma County Wine Tour is October 27 -29 and we welcome you to join us! You can also plan your own private Sonoma wine tour with a group size as small as four people.

Busy City Street

Travel Items You Can’t Live Without – A Taste Vacations Team Dish

By Taste Vacations One Comment

For this month’s Taste Vacations Team Dish, we asked “What travel item can you not live without?”  As frequent travelers, there seem to be a few items that begin to become essential to our packing lists for our various journeys. Once you get past the toothbrushes and clean underwear, it’s interesting to hear what makes the list.

Here’s what the team had to say:

Reno Walsh Reno Walsh

Some of the most fascinating aspects of travel are the people we meet, the new sounds we hear and sometimes the new languages we interact with along the way. For me, however there are also certain times tuning out from these new sounds and conversations and tuning in to my own musical accompaniment enhances the journey. Watching the world go by from a window seat, walking through streets filled with color and history, watching waves reach their final destination or kicking back with a drink at a local café, these are times a cool soundtrack can help me transcend the now. Travel is an experience that gives us an opportunity to think a little bit about what we believe, about where we came from and about where we are going. Music helps me appreciate those opportunities for perspective.

Kris Thomas Keys Kris Thomas Keys

I have two things I don’t travel without, and apologies if these sound like product commercials, but I love them so much!

  1. My Patagonia down shirt. Temps on flights (or even car trips) can vary, so I always have it with me in my backpack or purse (it can crumple down to the size of a grapefruit). Even when I travel to where it is “summer,” there are places that turn on the AC or get cooler when the sun goes down. This lightweight item provides a layer of insulation that ensures that I am always the right temperature. Because it is black, it also doubles as a dinner jacket when necessary and looks classy with a dress or jeans. Bonus: every one of Patagonia’s down products come from birds that were not live-plucked or force-fed.
  2. My Oofos sandals. I don’t love to wear shoes and always prefer sandals or bare feet whenever possible. These babies are super comfortable to wear when pounding the pavement of a new city or taking a hike, especially when it’s hot out. And I’m kind of funny about having my bare feet touch carpeting or showers in some hotel rooms, so these are handy to have since they are waterproof. They are very lightweight and easy to pack, plus they are also black so can pull double duty as my dress-up shoes (if you know me, you know what a fancy dresser I am…not) when going out to dinner. When I get home, I can throw them in the washer, too! Bonus: they are designed to revitalize your feet!

Sarah Wolcott Sarah Wolcott

They aren’t sexy travel items…in fact, they are just rectangular in shape. Typically the color white. And really flimsy. But I can not live without (drumroll, please…) ENVELOPES!

Letter sized envelopes are handy to travel with for a number of reasons: to stuff receipts into and organize (especially if there are any write-offs!); use as bookmarks in your travel books; and to house a “kitty”. Two of my girlfriends and I travel to a new, international destination every year and the kitty makes splitting up expenses so easy. The idea behind the kitty is to make paying for common expenses like gas, transportation, groceries, hotel and f & b as easy as possible. Everyone traveling together contributes the same amount of cash every time the kitty needs to be replenished, one person is in charge of holding onto the kitty and handling each bill, and as a result, the haggling over who owes who what is eliminated. Voila! Envelopes are necessary for housing the kitty which has become a staple way for me to travel with friends.

Beth Peluse Beth Peluse

I always try to pack a comfortable, yet versatile dress that can either be dressed up or down depending on our plans for the day or night.  Usually a LBD (Little Black Dress) does the trick – I can wear it over a bathing suit as a cover up at the beach or I can pair it with heels and a colorful necklace to go out to dinner. Another travel essential for me is a wine opener that can also open beer bottles (though when flying, I’ll bring it only if I have a checked bag). Nothing’s worse than packing up a picnic, getting to a beautiful, peaceful spot, and realizing that you have no way to open your delicious bottle of wine!

Kerry Dopler Kerry Dopler

Other than dental floss (which is a pretty boring topic), the one thing that takes precedence over all other items, the one thing that I think about for weeks before a trip, the one thing that is always with me, that I look forward to almost as much as the vacation itself, is a paperback classic. It has to be one I haven’t read before and a lot of it depends on the destination.

If it’s a winter trip, Russian Literature: Turgenev, Tolstoy, Pasternak or of course the safest way to avoid disappointment, Dostoevsky. Now if it’s a beach trip, Latin American Literature all the way. They are by far the best storytellers in the world. I have burned through thousands of pages sitting by the most beautiful beaches in the world. When I think back to Koh Phi Phi in Thailand, yes I think of the beautiful water and the fresh coconuts and the amazing mangrove tree that provided so much welcome shade, but mostly I think of my dear friend Maqroll the Gaviero and his Adventures and Misadventures by Alvaro Mutis. While in Malaysia I got to know Isabel Allende and have never been taken to such far away places in so few words. During my treks through the Himalayas, I began to relish classic English Lit from Charles Dickens to Virginia Woolf, even straying to Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.

I love history, and perhaps the journeys I was taking with my fictional friends created a richer context for the wild and ancient lands I was exploring. I find my memories of travel are woven into the fabric of a collective imagination, both dreamed and historically grounded, that found its most perfect expression in those beautifully rounded soft pages of so many paperback classics.

The Wine Wrangler header

Wine Touring in Paso Robles

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I was recently in Paso Robles, California running our Wine Tourism Conference. This conference, now in its fifth year, gathers approximately 200 wine and tourism industry leaders from throughout North America and beyond to learn about the current state of wine tourism.

Meeting industry leaders at this conference is one of the many ways the events side of our business contributes to the tours side of our companies – for both Taste Vacations and Zephyr Adventures. Not only do we learn about what is hot and new in the world of wine (and food and beer) tourism but we meet people who help us provide unique, intimate experiences on our wine tours or help us create brand new tour itineraries.

Paso Robles is one of the cutest small wine towns in the country. The town of 30,000 is situated between LA and San Francisco, about 30 minutes from the Pacific Ocean, and is considered part of the Central Coast region of California. Paso (as many locals call it) has a cute main plaza, excellent restaurants, and fantastic wineries in the area.

We don’t yet run a tour in the Central Coast region but if you find yourself in the Paso Robles area, I can strongly recommend doing a little wine touring with The Wine Wrangler. Coy Barnes, the owner, is an ex-teacher turned wine educator who is competent, organized, and friendly – just want you want from a tour company.

Coy spoke at the Wine Tourism Conference and I had a chance to sit down to lunch with him. It is always a pleasure meeting attendees at our conferences but Coy and I, naturally, had a lot in common. The beauty of taking a day tour with Coy or one of his guides is they select the wineries to visit – with 170 in the region, it helps to have expert advice – and handle all the driving.

So until we at Taste Vacations create a Central Coast trip, look to Coy and The Wine Wrangler for your wine touring in the Paso Robles area!

Talking Washington Wine with Sarah Wolcott

By Taste Vacations No Comments

Washington Wine Country

Talking Washington Wine with Sarah Wolcott

Q & A with Taste Vacations Founder, Allan Wright

Sarah Wolcott

Sarah Wolcott is Zephyr Adventures’ Marketing Manager for our conferences and events and a frequent guide on our Taste Vacations wine tours around the world. She grew up in SE Washington State, went to college in Walla Walla, and has strong experience in the Washington wine industry, all of which she used to create our new Washington Wine Tour.

 

 

Q:  You are from West Richland, Washington.  What was it like to grow up in the agriculturally driven east side of the Cascade mountains?

A:  West Richland is part of the greater Tri-Cities area of Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick.  The region is a major national producer of wheat, potatoes, corn, asparagus, apples, cherries and winegrapes.  The other major economic driver in SE Washington is Hanford – the top-secret government site that produced plutonium in the 1940’s for use in WWII.  Over 200,000 people make up the metropolitan area and its definitely a mix of proverbial small-town USA and a more mid-sized town. I grew up with farm kids and friends whose parents had PhDs in all disciplines of the sciences.  My family grew Fuji apples and Bing cherries commercially.  My first job was running cherry picking crews during harvest in June when I was 15 years old.  When I could drive I sold apples and cherries at farmer’s markets in the Tri-Cities and Pike Place Market in Seattle.  Growing up in SE Washington was awesome!

Q:  How did you come to include Prosser in the new Washington Wine Tour?

A:  My parents moved from West Richland to Prosser, WA about 10 years ago.  It’s only 25 minutes NW of where I grew up.  I have spent a lot of time in Prosser, getting to know the area and the wine industry and am part of the Prosser Wine Network, a group of wineries and wine businesses that have banded together to focus their collective efforts on the area.

Q:  When did you first come in contact with the wine world and what made you decide to make this a career?

A:  Growing up on a farm, I was naturally predisposed to the fundamentals of the wine world which is agriculture.  I led a few wine tours in Walla Walla in the late 90’s when I was in college and when there were only 16 wineries in the area!  There are well over 100 now.  Wine is truly “farm to table”, or more accurately, “farm to bottle to mouth”.  I am a social person by nature and am interested in what makes people tick….there are so many personalities in the wine industry and I just love getting to know the “schtick” behind the winegrape grower, vineyard manager, winemaker, tasting room staff, and sales people involved in getting a bottle of wine to market.  Everyone has a different story to tell!  It’s always fascinating, entertaining, and educational to seek out this information.

Q:  In addition to Prosser, our Washington Wine Tour spends two nights in Walla Walla, where you went to school and now sort of the center of the Washington wine tourism industry. What is your take on Walla Walla?

A: Walla Walla is esthetically stunning and yes, definitely a hub of wine tourism in Washington state.  It is naturally set up for the wine tourist:  nestled in the Walla Walla Valley and with the backdrop of the Blue Mountains, summer evenings are beautiful…the temperatures are conducive to sitting outside and enjoying a glass of wine while taking in the beauty of the wheat fields and vineyards that dot the landscape below the rising mountain elevations.  Walla Walla is an old and historic town.  It was incorporated in the 1860’s, at one point was the largest town in the Territory (before it became a state) and has a robust Native American history.  Downtown is charming and full of personality (and wine!).  The entire valley is full of varied dining options, accommodations, bike trails, tasting rooms that each have a different take on wine tourism. I graduated from Whitman College, one of the three colleges in the area.  Because of the college influence, there is a lot of other cultural influence in the form of art, theater, music that comes to Walla Walla.  The WWCC has its own enology and viticulture program and teaching winery.  Walla Walla is buzzing with activity in a very authentic Washington wine industry way.

A:  What are your views of the wines coming out of Washington State?

I think you probably can already guess my answer to this question 🙂

Sure, it’s impossible for absolutely every single bottle of wine from any area to be amazing.  But the quality to price ratio of Washington wines is proven to be outstanding.  You can statistically obtain higher quality wines at lower prices in WA.  More importantly, Washington state has the ability to produce a breadth and depth of wines that is outstanding.  Because of Washington’s growing conditions, the state can grow so many different types of wines.  Cabernet, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne…the list goes on and on.

The vast majority of grapes grown in WA state are grown on the much warmer, arid climate east side of the Cascades.  This is the opposite of Oregon where the majority (with the exception of parts of the Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley dip into Oregon) of grapes are grown on the west side of the state where it is considered a cool climate growing area (with another exception…most parts of southern Oregon are warmer and more arid).  Oregon has a (fabulous) connection and history with Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley.  I think it’s all about educating the current and future Washington wine consumer about Washington’s ability to produce a wide variety of many different types of wine really, really well.  The Washington wine industry is just going to continue to be recognized for excellence.  It’s an exciting time to be a part of the wine world!

Q:  You live now in Bend, Oregon, only four hours from Prosser. How often do you get back to Washington state?

A:  My parents now live in Prosser.  I’m an only child (lucky me???!!) and I visit them and Prosser, every month for a minimum of 2 days and sometimes up to 2 weeks!  My husband is a fly-fishing guide and operates a guide service based in Bend.  Whenever he is on the river (which is ALL the time in the summer!) I typically head up to Prosser to spend time with my family which, of course, involves drinking Prosser wine every afternoon on the back patio!

Group Dinner in Italy

Your Last Great Meal – A Taste Vacations’ Team Dish

By Taste Vacations No Comments

At Taste Vacations, we love to discuss anything and everything to do with food and drinks – from the newest cocktail trends and unique recipes we’ve tested to the different beers and wines we’ve tasted.  It’s not only fun to hear about new experiences to add to our list of things to try, but it’s interesting to hear why a certain dish or drink was so memorable to that person, whether it is due the ingredients used, the atmosphere or setting you’re in, or the company you’re with.

Because of this, we thought we would share the Taste Vacations’ team’s answers to the question:

What was the last great meal you had?

Allan Wright  Allan Wright

As a family with a young child, getting opportunities for great meals outside the home is limited! The best meal I have eaten recently was at Watercourse Foods, a vegetarian restaurant in Denver. My wife Devon, our 18-month old daughter Sydney, and I joined two of our good friends and their daughter who was born exactly one week before Sydney. The four adults each ordered a different “hash” dish, a vegetarian version of the traditional Corned Beef Hash. All four of us loved our dish. I ordered the Toulouse Hash with “smoky marinated portobello, artichoke hearts and a fresh broccoli with home fries, scrambled tofu and blue cheese.” Sydney loved her pancake.

Kris Thomas Keys Kris Thomas Keys

I’m sure that Billings, Montana is not at the top of the list when one thinks of culinary greatness.  However, it is the nearest “big city” to my little town of Red Lodge and can provide some good options for occasionally eating somewhere different than our handful of home restaurants.  

After work on Friday night, my husband and I drove an hour to Billings to treat our friend (to celebrate her birthday) and my mother-in-law (to celebrate her new job) to dinner at a new restaurant called Commons 1882.  They had fun drinks on the menu (for only $6!), plus a bunch of great tapas dishes that we ordered and shared (every last bite!): Mushrooms in Sriracha Sauce, hand-cut French fries, fresh mussels in a garlic wine sauce served with crispy baguettes, and panko-dusted calamari.  I also had one of the best and freshest salads I have had in long time (and I make great salads, if I may say so), tossed with a white balsamic vinaigrette dressing.  My husband ordered Korean tacos, which were also delicious. 

It was one of those meals that made me want to come back the very next night and try everything on the menu!

Sarah Wolcott Sarah Wolcott

One of the last great meals I ‘ve had was after the recent Winter Yellowstone Zephyr Adventures tour I met up with a small handful of friends.  They all live in Montana and we convened at our mutual friend’s house outside of Bozeman. The group has known each other for many years; we met while teaching skiing in Germany almost 15 years ago. 

My buddy, Michael, is a commercial fisherman in Alaska for part of the year.  He is also the one who gave me the nickname, “Tractor”, and, more importantly, always has a freezer full of seafood.  After a day of soaking up the hot water at Chico Hot Springs at the end of February, we went back to Michael’s cabin and feasted on baked, smoked black cod (also called Sablefish); pan seared Alaska scallops from the waters of Kodiak; roasted red potatoes from a winter CSA (brought from Oregon); and a simple green salad.  We drank Pinot Blanc from St. Innocent Winery outside of Salem, OR and King Estate Pinot Noir from the southern Willamette Valley.  

Black cod is hard to come by in the US.  It has a dead sexy mouthfeel after just a few minutes in a hot oven (think: luxurious, naturally buttery, and separating in perfect mouthsize bites) and sells, primarily, on the Japanese market.  Black cod is an expensive item in the retail market and I am privileged to have been able to feast on such an exquisite and hard to come by fruit de la mer.  

It is hard to go wrong with salt and pepper and a quick sear in a cast iron skillet with sea scallops.  Like the black cod, the sea scallops we ate had a naturally silky mouthfeel to them.  There is nothing stringy or unrefined about great quality scallops that have been cooked to perfection.  Their almost sweet tasting meat, in combination with the plumpness, makes them a great creature of the sea to pair with a number of different wines.  The Pinot Blanc had enough viscosity to enhance the scallops and also just enough zip of acidity to balance out the two, rich, seafood selections.  

It’s hard to tell what really made the dinner….the amazing food?  The warmth from the wood stove that filled my friend’s cabin in the woods beyond Bridger Bowl ski area?  The smiles and laughter and stories that were told that evening that absolutely filled the tree house to the brim?  I went to bed  with a full belly and a heart warmed by being surrounded by the best of friends.  

Beth Peluse Beth Peluse

My last great meal was when my husband and I went out to celebrate my birthday. We had decided to start the night at a new cocktail bar we had been dying to try called The Betty in Chicago.  The decor is like stepping into the set of Mad Men – classic dark wood, mid-century modern furniture and fixtures, and a whole wall of interesting memorabilia and artifacts. Kind of like being in a really cool antique store.  Their cocktail menu was creative and fun.  I had an interesting and colorful cognac and gin cocktail while my husband had a deconstructed gin and tonic where he got to play mixologist with interesting bitters choices.  While sipping our tasty concoctions, we had fun chatting about the past year and planning out our next big vacation.

After that we headed to my old neighborhood, Lincoln Square, where I had my first apartment in the city.  We had dinner at a little BYOB brick oven pizza place where Mark and I used to go when we first started dating, called Pizza Art Cafe.  They have amazing pizzas – but the pièce de résistance is their bruschetta.  It’s hands down my favorite bruschetta I’ve ever had. They take a pita-like dough, add olive oil, tomatoes, basil and feta cheese, and fire it in the brick oven.  I could eat an entire order of it all by myself!

The combination of fun new cocktails, a nostalgic eatery, and conversation with my favorite person really made the night one to remember.

Sonya Mapp Sonya Mapp

A great meal that comes to mind was a breakfast I had last fall. Breakfast happens to be my favorite meal, and although this breakfast did not consist of a fancy, or even creative, it was memorable because of the location.  

My husband and I enjoyed a camping trip in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. It rained all of the first night, but we stayed toasty and dry in our tent-trailer. The next morning, as we made our breakfast of whole grain, hearty pancakes topped with butter, maple syrup and heaps of Idaho huckleberries, the clouds began to clear, and as we sat down at our tiny table we were treated to a sunrise reflecting off the jagged peaks. We ate our pancakes and leisurely sipped on French-pressed coffee as we enjoyed the view and planned our day.

Sawtooth Breakfast

 I’ve had many pancake breakfasts since then, but they never seem to “stack up” to that camping trip!

Reno Walsh Reno Walsh

After a cold day of skiing and snowboarding there’s nothing quite like refueling with homemade chili served with good bread for dipping, plenty of cheese and a few glasses of a favorite local brew. 

Of course, the chili ingredients are muy importante. I was fortunate enough to harvest a White Tail Deer last year and we made some of the venison into sausage with lots of spice and flavor. Heather (Reno’s wife) and I also had a good growing season in the garden and had put away lots of frozen, dried and canned tomatoes that we use in the chili. We also added peppers, onions, cilantro and garlic. Then we throw in a few cans of organic black, pinto and kidney beans, add a few secret ingredients, grate lots of extra sharp aged white cheddar from Wisconsin, cut a few limes and the meal is almost complete.

The next step is to bike down to the local Blackbird Bakery to get a loaf of fresh bread and then stop into the Bozeman Brewery on the way home to fill a couple of growlers with a refreshing Pinhead Pilsner and Hopzone IPA. Sometimes we run into a few friends and have to stay for a pint which is fine because we already have the bread and the chili is simmering. When we get home, its time to put on some vinyl, pour a few pints, crack the bread, fill a few bowls with some of that delicious homemade chili and top it off with a handful of Wisco cheese.

Buen Provecho!

Feel free to join the conversation, what was your last great meal?