Thursday, February 23, 2012

Black & White Travel Photos

I'm not a professional photographer, I do not have a black and white camera and yes, I may have enhanced some of these with Photoshop. But sometimes color just doesn't capture the drama of scene; and sometimes draining out the RGBs and CMYKs just looks cooler. For cities like London and San Fran, where a gray day is as common as a gawking tourist, it's almost natural to view the cityscape through fog-colored lenses. 


Broken Down Chevy
Turquoise Trail, New Mexico - October, 2011

Hanging Race Car
Munich, Germany - February, 2012

A Game of Chess
Salzburg, Austria - March, 2012

Gargoyle's View
Paris, France - September, 2010

Munich, Germany - March, 2012

Eiffel Tower Evening
Paris, France - September, 2010

Portland Head Lighthouse
Cape Elizabeth, ME - September, 2011

Golden Gate Fog
San Francisco, CA - June, 2011

Who Needs a Cell Phone?
London, UK - March, 2011

Tower Bridge
London, UK - March, 2011

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Laugh & Drink - Finding Paradise in Napa Valley

The Napa Valley you dream of is not in California, at least for those of us who don't own a boutique vineyard. The Napa you dream of exists halfway across the world, slightly north of Rome, nestled quietly on an Etruscan hillside where grape vines stretch as big as Yountville, strung across undulating greenery from one ancient castle to the next. Don't go to California expecting the Napa of your dreams; because that's Tuscany.

Napa is something else altogether. The bits and pieces from movies, bottle labels and intoxicating anecdotes are ground up, pressed, packed and clearly labeled Made In America. At first glance, Napa is a highway. An American highway, with slightly more aesthetic scenery and a handful of recognizable names like Sutter Home and Mondavi, whose road signs are typically blocked by the tour bus convoy. Winery tours end in souvenir shops, one step away from selling mouse ears. But shy of that one step, Napa is special; big and small, theme park and playground, grande and boutique, commercial and memorable, top-shelf and table wine alike.

Just because Napa is far from what you dream of, does not mean Napa is far from paradise.

When I started down the St. Helena Highway (Route 29), the main thoroughfare that strings together the Valley’s towns and vineyards, I felt a tinge of disappointment. The Autobahn it is not, but neither is it a quaint, country dirt road. No bicycle baskets filled with bottles and baguettes here.

But beyond the asphalt hum, offshoot roads spider-web up into the adjacent hills or cross perpendicular over the valley, connecting with the somewhat parallel-running Silverado Trail. Along these tendrils you’ll find the juicy fruit.

The simple rule for the bolder traveler is to avoid the mega-mart vineyards in exchange for the family-owned, couple-acre, creatively-named boutique winery. The philosophy is certainly advantageous. You avoid the large tourist busses, tasting pours tend to be more generous and you may just pick up some knowledge from the owners/operators. Plus, you can very easily find yourself in a quiet corner of California with a private picnic lunch and a delicious view. Some tactic is necessary to divide and conquer your fair share of the Valley, what with so many ducks, frogs, horns and Italian phrases scribbled over your guide map. Some good advice? Ask advice. B&B proprietors are a good start.

Up into the hills off of Route 29 hides Hendry Ranch Wines. They offer perhaps the best tour around, or at least the most distinctive, but nevertheless they uncork an array of luscious vintages. Like any smaller operation, the Hendry vintners take pride in each grape and they pour passion into every glass. Owner George Hendry began as a scientist, creating the cyclotron, a particle accelerator that is used in medical imaging. He still lives in the white house at the edge of the property. But our tour was given by George's cyclotron partner, Jeff Miller, who described the inner workings of the winery in an exquisitely scientific way. Jeff provided interesting perspective, one that proved wine-making is just as much science as it is art. The oak-aged vintage, with its dominant and smoky whisky finish, is creative but precise. No frills but truly unique, for a truly unique winery.

To explore more of the Valley we utilized a limo tour, Beau Wine Tours. It was effortless and extravagant and by the time we arrived back at our B&B, we had become fast friends with the other family sharing our car.

As my wife and I stumbled from the limo at our Best Western Elm House, I made sure to cross the B&B's small courtyard. The multitude of rose bushes let off a distinct aroma, adding to the afternoon haze (half sun and half grape induced). We stopped in the lobby and snatched a few fresh-baked cookies and I began to understand the paradise of Napa.

This collection of villages is complex but simple. It is American highway and American countryside. It is arrogant but altogether quirky. Part of Napa’s charm lies in her ability to honor Janus as much as Bacchus. One moment you’re standing in a gleaming steel distillery with thousands of bottles rattling to completion and in the next, the sun is melting behind the far-off ridges while you enjoy a glass of Cabernet at a picnic table along a silent hillside vineyard.

Let’s be honest, a stigma of haughty finery has always wafted around in-the-know winos. Blend that with the sometimes-elitist nature of the indie traveler, and you’ve distilled a full-bodied arrogant bouquet that goes down smooth but leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

But in a way, that's part of the fun. Napa offers the finest sommeliers or Two Buck Chuck on a picnic table. Either way, you laugh and you drink. Then you laugh some more because you're drinking and you drink more because you're laughing.

Many of these vineyards are famous for one reason or another. Some because of quality, some because of quantity. Napa leaves it up to you to decide which reason to indulge.

Mumm Napa is one of the larger, more frequented stops along most tour bus itineraries. This vineyard, known for its sparkling wine selection, houses a spectacular patio that overlooks its grapevines. Around sunset, when the Greyhounds and Peter Pans rolled out, we caught Mumm exhaling. All it took was a bistro table and a flight of sparkling wine and we found it, right there - paradise in Napa.