A few weeks ago, I met Joe Nagan of Toad Hollow Vineyards at Costeaux French Bakery & Cafe for a morning chat over cups of coffee just a few doors down from the Healdsburg tasting room undergoing renovation.

Toad Hollow World Headquarters on Westside Road, Healdsburg, CA

Joe is the National Sales Manager for Toad Hollow Vineyards and had kindly invited me to meet with him and ask any questions I might have about the winery and wines I might taste for review. Personable, passionate, and knowledgeable, Joe generously fleshed out the history and mission of Toad Hollow.

Cover crop in bloom between the vine rows, lush between rains

Founded by two retirees, Todd Williams and Rodney Strong. Todd Hollow was an opportunity for both to make one more lasting mark in the wine world.

The main office, with porch for serious thinking

Todd Williams, half brother to comedian Robin Williams, worked for Whitehall Lane Winery, as the sales manager for Shafer Vineyards, and honed his wine view at the many bars and restaurants he was involved with.

A view from the office down toward the Russian River

Rodney Strong had sold the winery that bears his name to Tom Klein, but retained the beautiful and bountiful sloping vineyards that ran from his house down to the Russian River.

Mustard in bloom in the vineyards

Together, using Rod’s grapes and winemaking know how and Todd’s national wine sales ability and hospitality industry tested tasting room welcome, the pair created wines of incredible quality and at an unbelievably affordable price that are readily available in 48 states. Toad Hollow Vineyards is just about as Sonoma County as a winery can get.

Green and yellow abounds in the vineyards, but the vines are empty

The idea that great wine can’t be utterly approachable, and even fun, clearly never occurred to Todd and Rod. Wine labels and winery iconography feature Toads (Todd) and Badgers (Rod) from Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book The Wind in the Willows, while wine names include Eye of the Toad and Amplexus, the latter a reference to amphibian “whoopee making.”

The path to the World HQ office door

Sadly, both Todd Williams and Rodney strong have passed away, but Frankie Williams, Todd’s wife, continues to helm the winery.

Frankie Williams has been described to me by more than one person as the “heart” of Toad Hollow. Frankie has had offers and opportunities to sell the winery, she could have sold and retired, but she didn’t. Frankie Williams is the reason that Toad Hollow continues to maintain the feeling of being a family business instead of feeling like just another interchangeable cog in a larger winery conglomerate’s operations.

The sign helps visitors find the tasting room on Healdsburg Avenue

Recently, I stopped by the beautifully renovated tasting room in Healdsburg just one block north of the downtown Plaza at 409A Healdsburg Avenue, and tasted wines with the tasting room team of Jim Costa and Debra Rickards. Two years in a row, the Press Democrat sent reporters undercover to all of the over 150 winery tasting rooms in and around Healdsburg, and for two consecutive years Toad Hollow was named the “friendliest tasting room in Healdsburg.” Together, Jim and Debra (it would be horribly unToadian and stuffy to refer to them as Costa and Rickards) provide the first class, friendly, inclusive and fun wine tasting experience that epitomize Todd Williams’ influence from his days providing customer service in the hospitality industry.

Prices already low, lowered, then end of vintage wines put on further sale.

During my visit, another taster visiting from out of state, remarked that, “the quality high and price low is a unique relief,” before purchasing two cases of mixed bottles.

Todd Williams

As I tasted the wines of Toad Hollow Vineyards, either at home with food, family and friends, or by themselves at the tasting room I kept noting that the wines were soft, drinkable, approachable, fruit forward, delicious; over and over the word “soft” appears in my notes. As a group, the wines of Toad Hollow Vineyards are without pretension, they are just simply delicious.

With the opportunity to choose beautiful wood like this, why would anyone choose stone for a bar?

You don’t have to try to understand these wines, you just need to taste them and marvel at what the Toad and Badger have wrought.

2008 Chardonnay, Mendocino, Francine’s Selection UnOaked – $12.99


Accounting for nearly 40% of all sales, this wine is made from grapes grown near Boonville in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, an area known for high quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit.

Pale straw in color, with aromas of fruit, apple and grapefruit.

The wine undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation and is held in stainless steel tanks, no wood; the result is a round, soft, deliciously drinkable wine with flavors of apple, pear, and citrus. Crisp and sweet, nice acidity and medium long mineral finish.

A nice alternative to oaken and over-oaked Chardonnays, it has been described as Todd’s response to 1990 Chardonnay.

The crisp fruit expression makes me want to pair this wine with some shellfish more typically paired with a Sauvignon Blanc. Nice weight, body, taste and texture. A really terrific food Chardonnay.

2008 Dry Pinot Noir Rosé, Sonoma, Eye Of The Toad – $8.99


A French Bandol styled dry rosé wine, beautiful rich purpley pink, nose of rose petal and fruitless directly to crushed strawberry over ice flavors with good acidity.

Wonderful blush wine for those who want a rosé that isn’t cloyingly sweet – this wine isn’t sweet at all, it is bone dry which makes the fruit expression all the more notably clear.

This wine and a sesame crusted seared tuna, perfect Summer evening. Oh, and a date, I forgot the date.

2007 Pinot Noir, Russian River, Goldie’s Vineyard – $19.99


Goldie’s Vineyard is named for Rod’s mom Goldie.

Nice acidity making you want another taste.

Great, round, smooth, soft, delicious rose and soft cherry flavors making you want another taste.

Face it, you’re going to want another taste.

2007 Zinfandel, Paso Robles, Cacophony – $13.99

Soft. Unbelievably approachable. I love Zinfandel, but many folks who don’t love Zinfandel will love this one.

Juicy raspberry jam fruit on a soft tannin background. All the fruit with just the right notes of spice, cocoa, and pepper.

Lushly drinkable.

I would love to pair this with some of the wild north coast venison or boar I hunted in my youth. Lamb would also provide the right wildness to pair with this wine.

2005 Merlot, Russian River, Richard McDowell Vineyard – $17.99


I opened up the 2005 Merlot Reserve, Richard McDowell Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 14.5% alc, to pair with a hearty beef stroganoff I was cooking. It was a beautiful rich purpley burgundy color. I used a cup of the Merlot in the recipe in place of water, and I served the stroganoff with the wine.

My first thought, putting nose to glass was “WOW, that’s a nose!”

The nose is just full of big, bold, juicy, ripe fruit. Deeply floral, plum, rose, dark stone fruit, black cherry, black berry and cassis.

The mouth is incredible smooth and drinkable, open, and ready (I forgot it was a 2005) to drink. Black cherry and black berry, anise. Nice balance of acid and tannin.

A really soft wine with a nice lingering tapering finish.

The wine is gorgeously elegant, loaded with lush fruit through and through.

Thoroughly delicious and a QPR (quality to price ratioo) steal at $16, the 2005 Toad Hollow Merlot reserve is made from 100% Merlot grapes grown on a sandy bench three miles south of Healdsburg and Toad Hollow proudly claims a wine that demonstrates a sense of place, or terroir.

I poured myself a second glass about an hour after dinner, for dessert, and as I put my nose to the glass, again my first thought was “WOW!”

Translated, that means I loved this wine and was just completely impressed and delighted with it.

Several weeks after first tasting this wine at home, I was delighted to hear some visitors attempt to pass over this wine at the tasting room, Jim and Debra’s cries of “noooo” were joined by my own. This is another wine where the result is so much better than the boring offerings of so many other wineries. The folks who didn’t want to taste Merlot ended up buying a bottle.

2006 Rod’s Pride, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Reserve – $39.99


Four clone, single vineyard, 100% Pinot Noir.

Darker, richer fruit tones of black cherry, blackberry, and brambly raspberry, elegantly balanced acid and tannin. Soft and smooth. Weightier body.

A special meal for a special wine; I paired this Pinot Noir with grilled teriyaki marinated fresh wild salmon, served on a Thai Som Tom inspired salad of shredded green papaya, orange carrot, purple cabbage, and red grape tomatoes dressed with passionfruit mango salsa that I buy at the Island Deli at Lucas Wharf in Bodega Bay.

2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, California, Concinnity – $15.99


Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch of Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc, the grapes coming from Napa, Paso Robles and Lake County.

This wine is a joy, one of those wines you can happily sniff forever before even tasting.

Soft tannings that you can drink right through to flavors of lush blackberry and blueberry fruit.

Juicy and delicious. While it pairs with a glass just fine, I would love to taste this wine with a good steak.

Amplexus Crémant Brut Sparkling Wine, Limoux, France – $15.99


Light yeast, lightly streaming bubbles and crisp apple and cream flavors mark this blended sparkling wine of Chardonnay, Mauzac, and Chenin Blanc grapes.

Completely drinkable, and lovely flavored. Perfect balance of crispness and fruit.

Risqué, Methode Ancestrale, Sparkling Wine, Limoux, France – $13.99

I poured Toad Hollow’s Risqué, a low alcohol, good sweetness, 100% Mauzac bubbly with boneless chicken wings for Superbowl snacking and drinking.

This sparkler has great tart green apple and pear fruit, nice bubbles, and non cloying sweetness. Crispness of fruit cuts through bbq sauces on boneless wings, and is balanced by light sweetness.

Perfect pairing.

A note about prices: many of these wines are less than indicated, on sale, at my local store, one example is the $15.99 Merlot officially being listed at $2 more.

Erik the Red, an 18 varietal proprietary blend Toad Hollow wine, explains the Viking helmet on the back bar.

I write about wine, hoping to influence regular folks to try wine with a meal instead of iced tea or soda, trying to demystify wine, looking for great wines at affordable prices. In the wines of Toad Hollow Vineyards, all of my goals are met.

Debra Rickards pouring Toad Hollow wines for tasting room visitors

A perfect winery would eschew pretension, focusing on drinkably delicious fruit forward wines that taste great by themselves but pair well with foods, treat their customer well, and would remember to inject some fun and joy in what they do – all at prices that folks can afford to be able to make wine enjoyment an integral part of daily life. By that definition, mine, Toad Hollow Vineyards is a perfect winery.

Debra Rickards and Jim Costa of Toad Hollow Vineyards’ tasting room

DISCLOSURE: I received 5 bottles of Toad Hollow wines to sample – the others reviewed above were tasted at the tasting room

Okay, last night I watched Showtime’s Dexter say he was thankful for yams when sharing Thanksgiving dinner with the Trinity killer’s family; then I watched Lauren say she was thankful for canned yams when sharing Thanksgiving dinner with the Bennet family on NBC’s Heroes.

I am a foodie, but I don’t like yams. I am thankful that I do the cooking most every year at Thanksgiving so that I don’t have to eat around the yam dish on my plate.

As a foodie, I am thankful I am not Andrew Zimmern who has eaten bull’s rectum and testicles soup in the Philippines; bull testicles in Spain;  chicken uterus, black-bone chicken testicles in Taiwan; goose intestine in New York City; civet feces coffee, bull penis in Vietnam; snake penis, fried deer penis, yak penis in China; boar’s testicles in Minnesota; bull penis soup in Bolivia; and braided intestines, cow’s butt sandwich, fresh bull testicle and scrotum stew in Chile.

At least Anthony Bourdain can wash down the occasional freakish menu offering with a drink or twelve, but Zimmern is a recovering addict/alcoholic and is making the choice to swallow so much shaft, balls and ass sober.

I am not really one of those, “let’s all say what we are thankful for,” kind of Thanksgiving dinner Dads. I love to cook. I love that there is a holiday all about cooking and family. I love that people eat my food. I love trying new recipes. I am not a traditionalist. I love the insanity of 5-7 dishes all coming up at the same time for 12-16 people, the high-wire risk of having no repeat dishes year to year.

This year I am cooking for just my son and myself. We will have more than enough food for his mom, my ex-wife. Most importantly, we will have plenty of left over turkey for sandwiches on Friday. Note to self: buy sandwich fixings tomorrow for the long holiday weekend.

I am using an Alton Brown brine on our turkey, then cooking it in my Popeil Showtime rotisserie (set-it-and-forget-it) grill. I am doing a Rachael Ray gratin potato dish and Paula Deen cornbread stuffing. Instead of my own delicious pies, I am doing a Nancy Iannios pumpkin creme brulee.

I worked for Tom Klein years ago when he owned both Rodney Strong and Windsor Vineyards. I will be enjoying a 2007 Russian River Valley Rodney Strong Pinot Noir with Thanksgiving dinner. Wine Spectator gave the Russian River Valley appellation, 2007 Pinot Noir vintage a 98/100 rating. I am thankful that Tom and Rick Sayre make consistently delicious and affordable wines, and that having worked with them, I have the confidence to choose their wines in any, not just this classic best ever, vintage.

All around me is change. I have a good friend up north who has left her job rather than complain about it, and is in search of a better job. I have an old girlfriend out east who has left her job and will be starting a new one. I am looking at changing my job. I am good at what I do, I make money for my business, for myself, but I would like to travel less often and spend more time with my son. I will be trying to find a job where I can use my wealth of real world experience, the education behind my marketing degree, and my newfound web 2.0 skills to help a winery in the north coast (Sonoma, Napa, Lake or Mendocino county) of California. I would love a hybrid position involving social media marketing, traditional marketing, tasting room and/or wine club work, trade show marketing, and more.

I write without thinking about someone reading what I write, and I usually disable comment leaving for my blog, so I am always surprised when I read a comment left on facebook, twitter, a forum or e-mail about my writing. I know people read what I write, usually 100 people, but sometimes as many as 300 and more. Knowing you are out there, having you write back to me, does influence my writing a touch. I am thankful anyone finds my writing at all; more thankful some of you like my writing.

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My son is 12 years old. He is 5′ 9 1/2″ tall and 170 pounds on a lanky muscular frame. I knew dating sasquatch would produce a tall child. Charlie has been at basketball tryouts the last two days, trying to make his school’s 7th grade team. As the tallest boy at the tryouts, and with a year of league play, we are reasonably confident he will make the team. I am thankful that my son has such an affinity for a game I never played, or was interested in playing; it is good for him to be good at something that is his own.

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I had an Apple iMac screen damaged by careless family while I was away at work about a year ago. I found a used flat screen monitor and have used it to mirror what would have been viewable on my iMac screen. This last weekend, I bought a used iMac with more guts, a perfect screen, and the newest Apple OS. I was able to move all of the info in my old computer to my new one effortlessly using migration assistant, and now I have both screens viewable to spread my work over. An extra 750 GB hard drive, for a 1 TB total, speakers, and high speed internet access completes the coolest computer system I’ve ever had. Better than I could have imagined, I am thankful for my totally cool and powerful home work and play space.

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I will be writing more, perhaps much more with a business slant, but certainly more on a personal basis as I travel less. I will probably move my personal writing to a dedicated website, and I’ll certainly let you know if I do make that change. I plan to write more about wine and food from the perspective of an industry professional with real world experience and as a born and raised resident of California’s premier wine growing area. I also want to give reviews of wine accessories and wine books. I want to make more use of video entries as well. Look for a more wow experience sometime early in 2010. I’ll be thankful if you follow me with my writing. Thanks.

Early this year, I thought I would be in Ohio in October. Later, I had hoped to take advantage of incredible discount airfare offers and take an October vacation to Melbourne Australia; but my decision to attend my 30 year year high school class reunion, combined with next year’s Pokemon World Championship returning to Kona, Hawaii a year earlier than anticipated, caused me to postpone my Melbourne trip.

With time on my calendar blocked out for the trips that I wasn’t taking, I chose to travel to Oregon for another trip that I had wanted to take, and call it a mini vacation. My Oregon trip would run from Wednesday, October 7 through Tuesday, October 13.

Rather than drive my 207,000 mile Ford Aerostar work purposed van for the trip, I rented a Kia Rio. The money saved from improved gas mileage would pay for the rental, and I would save wear on my van. Most importantly, the Kia had an aux plug so I could play songs from my iPhone/iPod over the car’s stereo system.

I am used to flying. I fly often for work. Driving made me more aware that I was not working, and the drive from my home in Ukiah to my first stop in Newport, OR took 11 hours and covered 600 miles.

I used to follow the Grateful Dead, I built my work, my show schedule, around the show schedule of the Grateful Dead. I used to be able to squeeze a 2 week vacation into a 4 hour show; my batteries completely recharged.

On the drive to Oregon, I was listening to the Grateful Dead as I passed through the town of Weed, CA. I found my funny bone tickled by the serendipity of the moment.

Other driving fun came as I drove my tiny car through the curves and twists in the mountainous areas of Hwy 20 and the I-5. I pushed my little car and imagined myself The Stig as I raced through the passes.

North of Salem, I left the 5, and drove through amazingly beautiful farmland. Christmas tree farms, ornamental tree farms, and sustainably grown produce farms on my right and left as I drove into the Willamette valley, before crossing the Willamette river and driving into Newberg, OR.

I was stunned by the quantity of farmland, the freshness of the ingredients available to the local population.

Just before 6PM, I checked into my room at the Shilo Inn of Newberg. My room on the third (top) floor was completely acceptable, with a big comfortable King size bed, a nice deep tub, and a nice large – but ugly upholstered brown – couch. The couch was ugly enough that it might, in a completely different environment, actually look good. With a mini fridge and microwave oven, I could chill bottled water or pop popcorn. Who could ask for more?

My junior high school friend, Michelle, stopped by after she finished working, and we looked at yearbook pictures and caught up with each other. Let me say that the years have been kind, and Michelle looked great. We talked, while sharing some Rodney Strong Chardonnay that I had picked up, until most every restaurant in Newport was closed.

Hungry, we went to Shari’s, a Denny’s-like restaurant that pushes pie in a huge way. I had a simple breakfast for dinner, and found that all breakfasts come with pie. I tried an Oregon pie, made with marion berries, to my disappointment. In fairness, there was mostly gelatinous colored flavored ooze, and very little whole fruit in the pie, so while saying the pie was terrible, it would be unfair to judge all marion berries by this, my first taste, as equally horrible.

After dinner, not ready to call it a night, we went to a local drinking establishment; sort of a combo bar, pool hall, music venue, downtown. We had a couple of drinks and talked to nearly closing time.

We agreed to meet the next day, and called it a night.

The next day, Thursday, I had a pretty good breakfast with eggs, sausage, sour cream stuffed hash browns, gravy and wheat toast with lots of decent coffee at the restaurant Michelle had recommended to me. Conveniently, the restaurant was right in front of my hotel.

I love to eat alone, and read either a newspaper or whatever book I have at hand. Over breakfast, I finished Dan Brown’s “The Lost Symbol.”

Michelle met me at the hotel early in the afternoon, and we set off in the Kia to explore the greater Newberg area.

Our first stop was back out to the farm land I saw coming into town the day before. We stopped at French Prarie Gardens near St. Paul, where I looked at marion berries, gala apples, yellow and white super sweet corn, pumkins, squash, cucumbers, fingerling potatoes, and green beans. Canned fruits, jams, breads and pies, and pork, delicious, life sustaining pork. I bought some potatoes and beans for Michelle and her family.

I loved the area’s dedication to sustainable farming and winemaking. Having visited a working farm, we set off to visit a working vineyard and winery. We drove back through Newberg to neighboring Dundee and up, up, up into the hills to Domaine Drouhin.

We tasted three wines made by winemaker Véronique Drouhin-Boss:

Arthur: 2006 Drouhin Family Estate Chardonnay, Dundee Hills, Oregon;

Pinot Noir, 2006 Williamette Valley, Oregon; and

Laurène: 2007 Drouhin Family Estate Pinot Noir, Dundee Hills, Oregon

Look, I drink a lot of Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs, and 2007 was perhaps the best vintage for the appellation ever; Wine Spectator is certainly suggesting as much. The 2006 Willamette Valley wines are from a terrible vintage, rain damaged, and the 2007 wine was released too soon and was very closed in the nose and mouth.

Domaine Drouhin’s winery sits high up in the hills, surrounded by beautiful vineyards with an unparalleled view of the countryside below. The winery is handsome, and affords views of the winemaking going on. Caps were being punched, the skins being pushed down into the darkening flavoring juice. I wanted to enjoy the wines. I couldn’t, I didn’t; sadly, the wines I tasted were just not good, or ready.

Michelle and I had a late lunch back in Newberg’s downtown at Cancun, where we enjoyed a fajitas for two special with margaritas. The food was good. So were the drinks. So was the company.

One of the things we talked about was the strange absence of a restaurant in the area taking advantage of all of the amazing food being grown or raised in the lands around the town.

I would love to visit the farms and cook with fresh ingredients and BGH and antibiotic free meat.

After lunch, we crossed the street so I could buy a new book at the combination coffee shop/book store. I found a copy of J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher In The Rye.” Perhaps the most referenced novel in American literature, I had never read it, so I bought it.

I started reading “Catcher” that night, sprawled across my big comfy king size bed. I read until tired, and then went to sleep without an alarm clock set for the next day. When I woke up, I read at breakfast, and then came back to me room and read until there were no words left unread.

What a completely overblown novel “Catcher” is. It has been suggested by a Salinger apologist that the novel is dated and has perhaps not aged as well as other stories. I think it is a plotless whinefest from the point of view of a spoiled brat punk. I really do not “get” whatever I was supposed to get, but I am very much not a fan.

I ate bulgogi with kimchi at the Vineyard Steak House downtown. The food was alright, but the decor was better. This is the location that should be taking advantage of all of the amazing produce and meat from the neighboring farms to make great fresh food, not merely acceptable food.

That Friday night, after dinner, I went to the local drive in movie theater to see Julie and Julia, a lovely film that blends food, blogging, and a little romance. I loved this movie; but really, I’m a foodie, you’re reading my blog, and I am a huge romantic.

The weather for my vacation has been perfect, blue skies, clear air, warm sun, gorgeous.

On my last day in the north part of Oregon, in the morning, I visited Sokol Blosser and tasted another not ready to be tasted 2007 Pinot Noir from the Dundee Hills.

Next I drove the half hour or so into Portland, and drove some of the hoods, crossed back and forth across the river several times using different bridges, and then went to Aloha, another town on the outskirts of Portland just because of the name. On the way, in Beaverton, I saw a farmer’s market I wanted to stop for, but I also saw sign carrying anti abortion activists, so I skipped it.

On my way from Aloha, about which I can only say it is cooly named, back to Newberg, I drove through more farm land, stopped in Scholls to walk some farms, then played The Stig again as I drove to the top of a mountain range in my way.

At one point, I found myself at the entrance to Bald Peak State Park where years before I made love to a Yamhill girl as November snow fell outside my rental car. I was surprised to find myself back in a place I had been directed to years before, kind of time being stapled on itself in this place. Nice unexpected memories.

After a nice and relaxing four days, I went to bed reasonable early; my plan was to arise early and drive to Grants Pass.

Intent wedded to action, I got up early Sunday morning and drove the 4 hours or so to check in early to my room at the Redwood Motel in Grants Pass, and then on to the Applegate Valley and Schmidt Family Vineyards.

I arrived as the vineyard gates were opened by the owner Cal Schmidt and drove up the drive through the vineyards to the tasting room. I was here to taste wines because one of my favorite people, Nancy Howard Cameron Iannios, works as both the tasting room and wine club manager here.

I have to pause to point out the obvious to anyone who reads my writing with any frequency; I don’t say things just to be nice, I am willing to tell the mean truth when warranted, and about wine, I am a bit snobby.

I was prepared to visit Nancy, taste the wines at Schmidt Family Vineyards, and make some vague complimentary comments about the area. I have tasted a lot of wines from Oregon. I travelled to, and tasted wines at, festivals in Astoria, Salem, Newport, and Portland in several successive years. While tasting the occasional palatable wine, and rarer exceptional wine, overall I find the wines of home to be superior.

Cal and Judy Schmidt have built something magical. A trio of lodge styled buildings, crafted with great care and skill, are set in the middle of spectacularly serene and colorful gardens, complete with a lake and gazebo. The grounds have walking paths, shade trees of muti hued foilage, chairs and benches.

I love it here. The Applegate valley is beautiful, surrounded by forested hills with the Applegate river passing through it. It is rural, unspoiled, green, lush. Sustainable winemaking and farming.

Stone, wood, waterfalls, chickens, foods, flowers. Wine.

On top of the external beauty, there is also the lingering memory of the wines made here that I have tasted.

I don’t like the wines of Oregon’s Williamette valley, I find them weak and think that Sonoma County’s Russian River valley produces far superior Pinot Noir.

Southern Oregon’s Applegate valley is clearly not the Williamette valley. Here at Schmidt Family Vineyards, I have tasted wonerfully flavorful Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, and two delightful blends. I generally prefer reds over whites, and am incredibly fond of both the Merlot and Syrah.

This masterpiece of imagination and execution didn’t happen by accident, and I know of few endeavors more risk laden than winemaking; so I can only applaud the courage of Cal and Judy Schmidt for creating everything I am experienced at their winery and vineyards.

I must say that I am envious of Nancy, that she gets to come to such a beautiful place to work.

Nancy arranged for her husband Aris to take me to some other wineries in the Applegate Valley to taste wines.

Without exception, I tasted wines made from grapes yielding enormous, and surprising, flavors. Sadly, I didn’t taste any wines made as well. Often I would find a wine with so much promise in the nose, and feel cheated when the mouth delivered a completely different experience. Disconnect. The area has a ton of potential. Cal is proving the strength of the grapes with the quality of his wines.

I heard more than once a note of bitter jealousy at wineries that did not know I had come from Schmidt Family Vineyards. The other wineries would be better served emulating the successes of Schmidt Family Vineyards rather than sewing discord in the valley.

After a lay down back in town at my motel, I joined Nancy, Aris, and their beautiful four year old daughter Lia at Taprock, a restaurant with an incredible view of the Rogue river. The food was no where as good as the view, and the incredible view paled before the company.

On Monday, Aris picked me up at the motel and took me out to a field to watch Petra, Aris’ perigrine falcon, fly.

Grants Pass, OR is a beautiful place to live. I was impressed to see a downtown intact. So many towns are losing their core independent businesses to big box stores that spring up just outside of the city limits, and outside city tax responsibilities.

For lunch, only because it was directly across the street from my motel, I ate at the Hong Kong Restaurant, even though Aris gave it a bad review. Oh, I should have listened to Aris. Most memorable was the sweet and sour pork: miniscule bits of pork surrounded by deep fried batter, served with a bright red gelatinous sweet, but not sour, sauce – cherry pie filling. Just weird.

After lunch, I went to the movies with Nancy and Lia to watch an animated movie with meatball raining on an island community. It was mostly fun just to watch Lia, a sweet little girl.

My farewell dinner with Nancy, Aris, and Lia was at Wild River Brewing and Pizza where I had a good IPA and fish and chips. Simple and delicious.

I again woke early to start driving, this time home, on Tuesday morning.

In Ashland a neon sign in the darkness beside the 5 proclaimed the “Knights’ Inn Motel, Restaurant” and a vinyl sign “Lounge”.  I pulled off the 5 to find breakfast. The Wild Goose Cafe opens at 6 AM, and I arrived just about then. When ordering I was offered my choice of specials. Chanterelle mushroom with swiss cheese omelet or Pecan Pancakes. I chose the mushroom omelet, a cup of very good coffee, and a marion berry muffin.

It was surprising to me to find my best meal, with the highest quality ingredients, at what looked quite a bit like a converted Denny’s restaurant.

The chanterelles were delicious, the coffee was great, but the nicest surprise of all was to find the previously disrespected marion berry tasting delicious in a beautifully moist and warm fresh muffin.

At the beginning of the year, I expected to be in Ohio the second weekend of October. While I did spend my weekend in a state than begins with the letter “O”; Oregon is very different but was a welcome substitute, and a perfect backdrop for a great mini vacation. Melbourne, Australia is a foodie Heaven; it isn’t fair to compare meals tasted against meals not, but I still thank all that is holy that in Ashland I found a shockingly good meal on this trip. I had a terrific time.

Thanks to my hosts Michelle, Nancy, Aris and Lia.

On Friday, I drove an hour south to Santa Rosa in Sonoma County, picked up my friend Shannon, and together we drove the half hour or so west to the coast.

I love the ocean, and living so close to the Pacific, it is odd that I spend more time on Atlantic ocean beaches each year for work than I do on our own coast for enjoyment.

Note to self: get to the beach more often.

The salty smell of the air, and something more deep yet subtle, the powerful smell of the ocean itself with the water, fish and plant life mixed into a living and dying smell, it always gets to me. I connect with the unseen, but very felt, energy of the ocean…and I get hungry.

Both Shannon and I were hungry, and we turned north at the coast and shortly pulled into Lucas Wharf. Lucas Wharf features a restaurant, an island themed deli, and fresh fish cut up and sold right off boats.

I wanted a crab sandwich, and the restaurant’s menu didn’t offer one so we went to the island deli where years before I bought delicious dungeness crab sandwiches, sliced sourdough bread brimming barely containing a thousand island dressing like cocktail sauced bounty of sweetly delicious fresh dungeness (the best) crab.

The island deli was new to me, replacing the deli that had made the delicious crab sandwich previously, but it too offered a crab sandwich, so I was in.

Shannon ordered shrimp and chips, I ordered the crab sandwich, and we picked up two bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale to wash it all down with.

While waiting for our food, I stepped outside out of habit. Although I haven’t had a cigarette this year, I still have the habit of going outside while waiting for something. Instead of smoking, I breathed in the rich moist air. The smell of fresh fish for sale made me take a small walk to look at the fish. I thought about how nice it would be to cook some of the great looking fish being offered.

Back inside, our food came. The fare was rather pedestrian. The food tasted good, but wasn’t anything remarkably special; Shannon’s shrimp and chips was just that, shrimp and chips. My crab sandwich was nothing like I had in mind when I ordered it, instead of delicious sweet fresh crab between slices of tasty bread, I got what looked like a “crabby patty” cooked by Spongebob Squarepants, a fried crab cake served on a bun, burger like. Honestly, it was disappointing.

Our deli server brought a sauce that was made in house, and recommended that I try it on my burger. A passion-fruit and chili blend, sweet and hot, textured and layered, it was okay on the crab burger, but brought to mind many possible better pairings.

Shannon had recently said that she would like me to cook a meal for her. Earlier in the week, another friend, Bill, had taken Shannon, Linda and me to dinner in Windsor. I asked Shannon if she would like me to cook dinner at Linda’s house, where Shannon is staying, and if she thought Bill and Linda could join us. With a couple of phone calls, Shannon had everything set up.

After lunch, Shannon and I went outside to look at the fish. I was torn between some beautiful Copper River salmon from Alaska  (I last tasted Copper River Salmon at the Original Fish Market when working the Three River Arts Festival in Pittsburgh, and it was flavorfully delicious) and some ling cod fresh off local boats.

I really wanted the salmon, it was what I had in mind, but local and fresh off the boat won out, and we picked up some beautiful ling cod fillets.

Before leaving Lucas Wharf, I also left with the most important purchase of the day, an 8 ounce jar of the passion-fruit chili sauce.

Shannon and I went up the road, found an uncrowded beach, and took a nice walk. The walk might have been longer, but I was anxious to pick up some groceries and get back to Santa Rosa to start prepping dinner.

We stopped at the Fir Crest market in Sebastopol for additional provisions. In short order, we had assembled carrots, two Mexican papayas, green onions, purple cabbage, grape tomatoes, a bottle of quality Teriyaki, and a bottle of 2007 Rick Sayre Rodney Strong Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.

Not much later, I was in Linda’s kitchen and the prep began. I intended to make a Thai style Som Tom shredded green papaya salad. The inspiration was the sauce of passion-fruit and chili from the island deli on the coast. I wanted to plate the salad and rest a piece of Teriyaki marinated salmon on top. Lots of flavors on one plate, all playing beautifully with the dusty rose petal and warm cherry notes of the Pinot.

That was the meal I put together in my head at Lucas Wharf tasting the sauce and smelling the fish. I made some changes, but here’s what I did – so you can do it too.

First, pour one bottle of quality Teriyaki over 4 fresh ling cod fillets as a marinade, put in fridge.

Open the Pinot, pour a glass to swirl and smell, noticing changes as it opens up. Pouring a glass also increases the surface area for the wine to touch air, allowing breathing to hasten. Bring on the nose and mouth treats.

I peeled the papaya, scooped the seeds out, and grated the papaya into a large bowl. The Mexican papayas were not green, were very ripe, and did not grate so much as smoosh wetly through the grater. After smoosh grating the papaya into the bowl, I pressed the moisture out of the papaya by hand and poured the liquid out. To the drier papaya, I added two grated carrots, 3 thinly sliced green onions, and 1/2 of a cored and super thin sliced purple cabbage. I added about 3 ounces of the magic passion-fruit chili sauce, some salt and pepper, and tossed it all to mix and dress the slaw type salad. I moistened a towel, covered the salad, and put it into the fridge to sit and allow the flavors to marry.

Prep done, Linda arrived home and quickly the Pinot I intended for dinner was in three glasses. Bill arrived and the Pinot was in four glasses. The Frasier in me regretted that the wine was going to be gone before dinner, the regular guy in me was thrilled that I was with 3 friends and that the wine was being enjoyed. Some say red with meat, white with fish; I say any wine goes best with friends. Let go, and things work out fine. Letting go means that the Rodney Strong Chardonnay Bill brought was going to be served with dinner and was going to be great.

Linda and Bill were hungry after working all day, so we fired up the oven, and put aluminum foil over a broiling pan (to make clean up easier). With the oven at 350 degrees, we placed the fish skin side down on the foil and baked it for 25 minutes.

Just before the fish was finished, I gave the salad a final toss, then plated the salad evenly on four dishes. I sliced some grape tomatoes in half and used them as edible decoration around the outside of the salad. Then I rested the baked Teriyaki ling cod atop the bed of thai style salad.

Dinner was great. Great food, great wine, great friends. We decided to head over to John Barleycorn’s for dessert, and to see another high school friend who was working as a bartender. We saw our friend John, but there was no chocolate mousse at Barleycorn’s.

Note to self: The Villa will make chocolate mousse even if out. Never ending chocolate mousse.

__________

Saturday morning, I awoke at 3:00 AM to head out and set up my booth so I could sell my handcrafted art topped wine bottle stoppers at the Sunnyvale Art and Wine Festival.

I worked all day without a break and was quite hungry when I was allowed to close up at 6:00 PM.

I had an invitation to a graduation party for the daughter of another friend Rachelle. I had known Rachelle since the 4th grade when we attended Mark West Elementary school in northern Santa Rosa. In addition to Rachelle, I was going to get to see another High School friend, Nancy. Nancy is now the tasting room manager for Schmidt Family Vineyards in Oregon.

Before going to the party and seeing my friends, I needed to get some food, check into my surprisingly wonderful hotel, get a shower and change into a suit. Food was the biggest priority.

Near the Domain hotel, I found a Korean restaurant, pulled in and ordered pork bulgogi to-go. I spent a year in Korea, love Korean food, and knew that my hunger would be sated. I would check in to my room and eat dinner.

Jang Tu restaurant, un-fancy on the outside, tucked into a strip mall, has food was beyond adequate. The pork bulgogi, marinated in soy and sesame, and barbecued with garlic, onions and green peppers, was the best I’ve ever had, the absolutely most delicious. The rice that came with it tasted good. I’ve not smoked in over 5 months, but I was surprised to find the rice delicious. I also enjoyed the accompanying kim chi greatly. Chop-sticking a bit of pork, and rice, and cabbage into my mouth, the flavors all delicious, somehow the sum greater than it’s parts, I achieved a near nirvana experience.

The food was so absolutely delicious that i almost went back and ordered another meal, but I wanted to see my fiends more. Barely. That was some fine Korean grub.

The graduation party was an amazing event. My friends both look beautiful, as did their daughters. Rachelle’s daughter Courtney, the graduate, was lovely, amazingly possed, yet unspoiled. Nancy’s daughter will not graduate from high school for about 15 years, Lia is just 3 years old. Lia is amazingly cute. I am envious of Nancy having a child small enough to hold; my own 12 year old son Charlie is taller than I am, we don’t cuddle much anymore.

I have a 2007 Applegate Valley Merlot from Nancy’s Vineyard that I look forward to sharing with some of Nancy’s other friends. I’ll have to build a dinner around it.

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On Sunday, back working the Art and wine Festival on Murphy Street in Sunnyvale, I was visited by Chris Cesano and Jim Cesano. Chris is roughly my age, Jim is roughly the age my father would be. We must be related somewhere generations back, we must have common ancestors from Italy; although we don’t know how we are related, it is comforting to meet others with my last name. I am the oldest Cesano in my branch of our family. To keep this entry rolling along food-wise, Chris has promised me his grandmother’s recipes foe gnocchi and ravioli.

__________

It is Monday, I am finally back at home and looking forward to seeing my son when he gets home from school.

All is right in my world.

Plans for my week:

Create an application video for my dream job,

Attend my son’s promotion from elementary to middle school on Wednesday,

Go to the island deli at Lucas Wharf on Friday.

That sauce has haunted me all weekend. I want to make another Som Tom salad. I want to toss chicken wings in it (it would be similar but superior to Buffalo Wild Wing’s Asian Zing sauce). I want it on eggs. I must buy more and reverse engineer the recipe.

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