Thursday, July 22, 2010

Toogood Winery is too good to Resist

For months I’ve been hearing how Fairplay is the new Napa. And you know what? I checked it out this week and is – except it’s much cheaper and cuter. I know you are saying that's impossible as Napa is pretty darn, it's famous.

I say Napa, Schnapa...If you are looking for an intimate wine experience, then I definitely suggest taking a drive to the Fairfield/Somerset area. It’s about an hour away from Sacramento and hidden in the midst of rolling hills. In fact, the drive there is kind of nice and relaxing. I took this winding route from Buckeye Flat (yes, it really is called that) to Diamond Springs, and then onto Mount Aukum Road. It’s scenic, fun to drive and a nice change from the generic highway stuff you see if going to Napa or Sonoma.

But here’s the thing…because it’s so scenic you might start feeling that you’re lost. At least, I did. There are no signs that grapes and wine would even be growing in the area as it all trees and hills. I wasn’t even sure I was going in the right direction until I was two miles from my destination – which was the amazing Toogood Winery.


I found out about the Toogood winery from the News Director at News10. Tim Geraghty has been talking about this place for months and because I know he has good taste in wine (and food), I had to check it out. And I wasn’t disappointed.

I went on a Monday afternoon and had the entire place to myself, which is the way I like it because then I can chat up everyone and get a really good tour of the place. And you may want to do this too, because for your $5 tasting fee, you get to taste about six different types of bottled wine, two barrel tastings and a couple of their ports – from the barrel and from the bottle. Plus you get to keep your tasting glass as a souvenir. Bonus!

Sadly even though I love the stuff, I'm a wine lightweight and had to do the sip and spit thing towards the end.  There were just so many wines to taste for me. Yes, it's embarrassing, but I'm sure you'll do better than I did and won't waste a drop.

Oh and did I mention that this particular winery is located inside a cave? Yup, Toogood Winery is cool figuratively and literally.

“The cave keeps the barrels at an optimal temperature naturally. There is no air conditioning in here. The earth keeps it consistent,” said Joel, my wine guide.


Now I’ve been to a lot of vineyards in the US, Canada, France, Germany…and well, the list can go on. I love wine, I love the whole experience of seeing where it comes from and I love talking to the wine makers. It’s like talking artists about their work and sharing a common passion.

But, in all these years of visiting vineyards, I’ve never had a barrel tasting and wasn’t even sure what it was. It turns out a barrel tasting is exactly what it sounds like – you drink from the barrel. The thing is wine from a barrel tastes completely different from drinking from a bottle.

First of all, the wine is not quite done – so it can taste a little of what I like to call “green”. You get a sense of what it may taste like when it's done a few months from now, but it’s not quite as smooth as the finished product.

“The wines you’ll be sampling will be bottled in late August/early September,” said Joel. “You’ll also sample a couple of our ports that will ready in late November.”

Tasting the wine from the barrel was interesting and if you are wine lover I recommend you give it a try. It's almost like you get to experience how the master winemaker monitors the wine as it matures. In fact, you may even notice that the nuances of the wine are a little more pronounced. Depending on the wine, you may actually taste the fruity flavors, the peppery tastes and the other flavors those famous wine guys always talk about. One of the wines I tasted definitely had a green pepper after taste which was kind of interesting, but my absolute favorite tastings were the ports.

Toogood is currently aging this citrus port that would make an excellent addition to holiday dinners and their traditional tawny port had this caramel after taste that was to die for. Yum!!

Also, there is another bonus to the checking out the barrel wines and ports. If you like them and order them now, you can get them at a discounted rate when they actually mature.  The catch is you have to order six or twelve bottles. Tempting. Very tempting.


Needless to say, my wine experience was fabulous, but if you go to Fairplay, you must go on Monday and you must go to Bocconato’s.

You see, Monday is their no menu and no corkage night, and for $20 you get two courses of incredible Italian food. Don’t worry if you are a picky eater, they let you choose from a bunch of different things, but I recommend experimenting.

I had risotto with a mascarpone cheese sauce as my appetizer, followed by this scrumptious blueberry lasagna. Who would have thought blueberries would go with lasagna, but believe me, when I tell you it was excellent. In fact, I would drive all the way there again just for this Monday night meal.

But while the food was worth the drive, what makes Monday nights really special is the company. Many of the vineyard owners and wine lovers in the area show up and sit at the community table (so sit there). They each bring their own bottles of wine and the conversation begins.

You know how I love to talk to vineyard owners and farmers about their work? Well, sharing a bottle of vino with them is even more fun. Now you don’t get that if you go to Napa.

So what vineyards do the locals recommend I try on my next trip? Charles Mitchell, Oakstone and Sierra Oaks were a few that came up.  But really, they said you can't go wrong at any of them.

So am I banning Napa forever? Not exactly.  I still like checking out that region and will still bring my out-out-town guests there if they want to go. But for the times when I want a more intimate experience, I'll take the drive to Fairplay.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Returning to my 'Happy Place'

Don't bother denying it, because we all have one whether we admit it or not.  What I'm talking about is a “happy” place. It’s that place where you go to forget about everything and take the time to simply be in the moment.

My brother’s happy place is his ice fishing shack on the lake. It’s basically a couple of plywood boards hinged together into the shape of a box that he places in the middle of the frozen lake. If the fish aren’t biting in that particular area, he gets in his pickup truck and pushes it to another location.

It’s dark, cozy, and for him, the best way to spend a weekend. I think it’s torture.

My California happy place is the Ritz at Half Moon Bay – and my brother wouldn’t be caught dead there as it's too frou-frou and girlie. But I don’t care. I love it. It’s got a great view of the ocean, the food is good, it’s pretty and people leave you to yourself (maybe it’s their happy place too). And today, I totally deserve to be there.

You see, yesterday I finally did my first triathlon and I rocked. Really. I did. I ran, cycled and kayaked my heart out coming in at 2 hours and 31 minutes and placing 16th in my ironwoman division. Pretty darn good for a newbie.

But now, 24 hours later, I hurt. No, let me rephrase that – I hurt A LOT.

I swear, after the race, I felt great. I was on an adrenaline high and ready to do it all again. Today, I have bruises on the side of my knees from the kayak, bruises on my forearms from who knows what, my quads hurt, my gluts ache and my shins feel like someone hit them with a stick. Even my ankles hurt – but that’s probably not because of the race, but because I was wearing heels last night during our post-race celebration. Did I mention I was on an adrenaline high?


So what better place to recover from a race than at the Ritz? But here’s the thing. While I LOVE it there, I really can’t afford the $400 to stay the night during the high season. Instead, I cheat by spending the day and then driving back in the evening.

Some of you are probably wondering why I would drive two hours to a hotel and then not stay the night. I mean, isn’t that the point of going to a hotel? But let me tell you, this isn’t just any hotel. This is a Ritz Carlton and there’s nothing like it.

I usually arrive around 1:00 in the afteroon and leave my car with the valet. Then I take a walk along the shoreline and look at the waves. I admit I’m all about the water and can stare at the surf for hours. It completely relaxes me and puts me in my mellow zone. You can ask people who have been there with me. I'm in my own little world where no one else exists -- which kind of sucks for them, but oh well.

By mid-afternoon I figure it’s time to walk back to the hotel for a late lunch at their Conservatory Restaurant – where the food is fabulous. And, it’s not as expensive as you may think. My lunch bill (including my glass of wine) is usually around the $20 mark. I also get my parking validated so it’s a double bonus. Not bad for a nice relaxing day.

Oh and here's a tip: If you do happen to go with someone and want to be cheap like me (oops, I mean 'thirfty'), order the turkey club. It's gigantic and you can easily share it which makes it a super good deal for $14


While I’m happy just looking out at the surf and sipping a glass of wine, there are more things to do at the Ritz – especially if you decide to stay until the evening.

Thursday is Burgers and Jazz night. It’s $19 per person, but you get the chef’s selection of burgers (and these are not bland McDonald’s style burgers, but the good stuff), a number of different brews to choose from and you get to listen to live jazz from local musicians – and you know if they are playing at the Ritz, they are top notch.

And you can't forget the wine, because hey, this is Northern California and I'm learning it's all about the wine.  Anyway, the hotel also does these incredible wine flights between 4 and 6 p.m. in their ENO wine bar. These are around $20 per person too. They serve them with great bread and nuts.

And if you are really into luxury, you can check out what they call ENO-Versity. I haven’t done this yet as I would not be able to drive home after, but from 4 to 6 p.m. every Saturday, you can do a wine/food tasting for $45. This includes six to 10 wines, appetizers and interactive wine instruction. They limit it to 12 people so it’s very intimate.


Like I mentioned, this particular weekend I couldn’t stay the night, but I have stayed at the hotel before in the fall when the prices are a little lower. It’s heaven. Really. There are fireplaces in the rooms, the beds are super comfortable and if you want, they will even draw you a bath (not with crayons, but the old English way).

But while the Ritz is beautiful, it’s the feeling of being taken of when I’m there that has me coming back. I mean, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels over the years, but this place is special.

It all starts with the complimentary glass of wine you get when you check in, followed by slipping into the cushy slippers in your room and the plush bathrobe.

I swear, every step of the way, the stress of the real world slips farther and farther away and you enter this alternate universe where e-mail and deadlines no longer matter. In fact, the only decision you have to make you want turndown service or not. Now that’s nice.

Monday, July 12, 2010

No more Texas chick. I'm a Cali girl now

It’s always a little sad whenever it’s time for me to change my license plates over to a new state. Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE living in California. The weather is great and I’m loving the scenery (and the vineyards). I’ve even embraced the whole California lifestyle by buying a road bike and riding through the countryside.

Of course, it's not like I'm leisurely biking and smelling the flowers along the way. I cycle like I'm in some imaginery race and I have Lance Armstrong behind me, but whatever. I'm having fun.

Yup, life in Sacramento is good. But I admit taking off my Texas plates is like saying a goodbye to an old friend - or like finally throwing out an ex-lover's toothbrush.

It's over. I’m no longer Texan, but officially a California Girl.


Everywhere I go, I leave a little piece of my heart behind -- and believe me, I've lived in a lot of places. In fact, in the last four years I’ve lived in three very distinctive cities and I have a soft spot for each of them.

In Memphis, I miss the vibe of the city. If you haven’t been, you need to check it out. The whole place has this gritty charm you won't find anywhere else, and once you embrace it, you love it.

And how can you not? The blues on Beale Street are always incredible and so is running along the Mississippi River on Mud Island (which must be  followed up with a treat from Miss Cordelia’s) .

Then there’s Gus’s Fried Chicken which comes complete with the slice of white bread to soak up the oil. I know, it doesn’t sound yummy, but this hole in wall dive really does serve the best fried chicken in the US –maybe all of North America.

Yeah, Memphis is the south at its best, but I’m warning you -- between the fried chicken, the sweet potato pancakes from Arcade Restaurant and the award-winning BBQ, you better come hungry and leave your diet at home. Because, just like they told me when I asked if they had anything not fried, “you’s in the south now, Sugar” and that’s the way it is.

Tampa was my next destination, and it too had its own charm. But instead of feeling like you're living in city filled with history, it’s all about the beach, flip flops and eating light. I mean, there is no way a sushi/pool hall like The Rack off Howard would ever survive in a fried-food haven like Memphis. But in Tampa, this was one of THE places to hang.

But the little piece of my heart that is still there is with the palm trees and blue water. There was nothing like running along Bayshore Blvd. early in the morning and seeing dolphins jump in the gulf beside you. Pure heaven.

And yes, that pastel yellow building in the photo above was my home during my stay in Tampa. I admit I was lucky girl to find this place. Believe me, no matter what they say, you never get tired of watching the boats sail by.


I confess I wasn’t sure if I was going to like Houston, but there is something to be said about Texas-pride. That whole “don’t mess with Texas” motto kind of grows on you, and the longer you live there, the more you’re proud to be a part of the state – especially after you live through Hurricane Ike hell and see what troopers these people are .

I mean, Texans are tough. First you have the headstrong ones that decided they were going down with their house during the storm like the captain of a ship. And then you've got the people that left and came back to nothing. Their entire houses had washed away. Really. All they had left was a couple of posts in the ground.

I had a lot of "firsts" in Houston. I went to my first rodeo, my first country music concert (didn't know one song), rode my first mechanical bull, had my first ride in a lambourghini on a race track (that was fast) and interviewed a lot of celebrities including Beyonce and Gloria Gaynor.

I never could get away with saying “y’all” or “do what” or “hunker”, but I did love showing off my Texas ID in California bars -- because, you know, they just don't mess with you.

Sadly, now I have to take off my Texas plates and put on my Cali ones, and I’m feeling a little nostalgic. So in honor of my last day of being a Texas-chick, I'm going to play some Sugar Land when I get home and do a little two-step.


But don’t worry. I'm doing a lot of "firsts" here in California, too. I just attended my first Zombie Walk last weekend and am doing my first triathlon on July 17. I've already got plans to climb Mount Whitney in the fall and am trying white water rafting later this month.

I've already bonded with California and am not planning on going anywhere for a little while.

Besides, all this moving around isn't good for my heart. I have to stop leaving it places:-)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

It’s time to panic. Only eight days until race day

Me on my bike.
 In college, were you one of those people who used to cram before exams? I was.

I wasn't a bad student. I would actually attend every class and take notes, but here's a secret you shouldn't tell my professors...I really didn’t do any work until it came time for exams. I know...that's bad.

Instead, the day before the test I would boil a pot of Earl Gray tea, pop a big bowl of popcorn and stay up all night cramming as much information into my head as possible. Surprisingly, I always got good grades and was an honor student so I never really worried. Yes, my friends used to hate me for this, but whatever.

So why am I in panic-mode today? Well, apparently my bad study skills have morphed into my curent life because today I realized that I’m doing the exact same thing with my triathlon training. Aaah!!
Don’t get me wrong. Just like I used to go to class every day in school, I do workout – but I’m only doing the stuff I did before I decided to Eppies Great Race as an iron person. I do my three days of weights and then run or bike on the other three days. I’ve also done a couple of kayaking classes to make sure I can make it through the rapids.

Yeah, on paper this sounds like a lot, but it’s not really because basically I’m only working out 30 to 60 minutes a day – which is what I normally do. Okay, I have done a couple of long 50 mile bike rides, but that was more fun than working out so it doesn’t count.

In reality I should be doing more if I want to actually survive the triathlon, especially after I talked to a couple other people training for the race. Do you think they are only working out 30 minutes a day?  Nope, nope, nope..they are working out like real athletes. They are running 6 miles every other day, cycling like crazy and using professional triathlon coaches to get them results.

Yeah… I’m feeling like maybe I’ve been taking this challenge a little too lightly, but it’s too late to get into the groove now. The race is only eight days away. I know - IT'S PANIC TIME.

So now I’m cramming. I’m running 6 miles every second day this week and on the weekend I’m going to try to do the run, followed by a 12 mile bike ride. I only hope my body will respond as easily as my mind did during college.

Wish me luck!

PS. I did complete the Eppies Great Race on July 17 in 1 hour and 31 minutes -- coming in 16th for my ironwoman division. Yay!!!

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A night of ghosts and romance in the Old City Cemetery

In honor of the latest Twilight movie, I decided to do something a little supernatural and checked out "Spirits with the Spirits" tour at Sacramento's Old City Cemetery. It was pretty cool and not a bad deal for $15.  I mean, where else can you listen to ghost stories in a moonlit cemetery while drinking wine?

 I wasn't the only one who thought this. Hundreds of history buffs and ghost lovers gathered at the graveyard on Saturday night -- but sadly, this was a one time thing.

“This is the first time we’ve done a tour like this in June,” said Dr. Bob LaPerriere, Director of the Old City Cemetery Committee. “We usually do daytime ones every second Saturday of the month.”

Too bad, because I would recommend it. Not only did we get wine (which I love), but along the way, we encountered actors dressed up in period costumes who shared their stories about how their characters  lived their lives…and how they died.

There was Simon, who was shot back during the gold rush days, a woman who ran the temperance movement, an alleged prostitute from British Columbia who blew pepper in a woman’s face and was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, and a bartender who got hammered –literally. He was killed when a couple of thugs hit him in the back of the head with a blacksmith’s hammer. Now that had to hurt.


I'm not really a romantic. In fact, roses and candles are completely wasted on me, but I do like a good love story -- and the finale of the "Spirits with the Spirits" tour was just that.

The final guest of the night was Maria. Dressed in a long gown complete with a little parasol, Maria told her tale while standing by her gravestone.  She was a 25-year-old woman who was killed by another man just two months before her wedding.

While that's pretty tragic in itself, the most romantic part of the story has to do with her fiancĂ©. Apparently, he never got over losing the love of his life.  According to Maria's story, he lived in San Francisco and died a few years after her murder. Upon his death, he donated all of his body parts to science – except for his heart.  This was buried beside Maria in the Sacramento cemetery so that they could be united in death. sweet.

Of course, the moral of the story was that he truly did not leave his heart in San Francisco.


Establishment in 1849, the Old City Cemetery is the resting place of many Sacramento mayors, California governors and other historical figures. If you check it out, you'll see the grounds are immaculately landscaped, but according to LaPerriere, they weren’t always like this.

“Back in 1971, it was all weeds and twigs,” said LaPerriere. “I first came with a group who were looking for physicians of the past. Back then, it was in disarray.”

LaPerriere, along with a number of concerned citizens, stared the Old City Cemetery Committee to restore the site to its original glory in 1987. They love giving tours and sharing the history of the place with people.

“Our next tour will be this tour held on July 17 at 10 a.m. and will be about baseball and beer,” said LaPerrier. “It will feature baseball players who played ball on the West Coast and back East in the Major Leagues.”

For more information, visit