Santa Cruz

The Passport Experience

Passport Day.  I have been waiting for this for two years.  Every time I’ve tried to attend, something has stood in my way.  Funds.  Work….Work.  But behold!  Finally, I have Saturdays off!  So on November 16th, I trekked my way across the Santa Cruz Mountains in pursuit of excellent wines!

The nicest thing about the Santa Cruz Mountain Wineries Passport is that you don’t have to use it on Passport Day.  It is good for two years at any of the wineries included, any day that they are open.  Ah, but that is the tricky bit:  many are open only once a month, some only on Passport Day.  Thus, I tried to prioritize our Passport schedule based on winery availability, visiting those that are rarely open to the public on Passport Day and saving the others for a normal day.

We began our trek at Dancing Creek Winery, immediately breaking the “only visit wineries that are rarely open” rule.  But here’s why:  this location hosted two other, smaller wineries so that our first stop encompassed three whole wine tastings!  Don’t worry, we ate a large breakfast.

Stepping out of the car was like stepping into a fairy tale.  The sun shone brightly through the tress, alighting on scenic benches and patches of forest floor.  The trees rose majestically around us, evoking a sense of eternity in peace.

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It was the kind of place to make you forget about the wine all together and just enjoy the beautific surroundings.

Of course, we didn’t.  We were here for wine!  Narry a beautiful tree could deter our determination!

Let us just say that Dancing Creek Winery’s offerings did not match its surroundings though it did exceed its fellow winery, Villa Del Monte.  Both wineries produced earthy, bold reds that really just did nothing for me.  Granted, that is exactly the kind of wine in which I find the least pleasure.  There were a few exceptions:  Villa Del Monte’s Cabernet Sauvignon was surprisingly palatable for one who avoids the varietal, and Dancing Creek’s late harvest Zinfandel, Late for the Dance, turned out to be my only purchase for the day.  On the whole however, the wine was hardly noteworthy.  Which is really too bad considering its grounds.

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Dancing Creek’s Wines

But a third winery had set up on the grounds just as we were about to leave, and Clos Tita turned out to be one of the day’s gems.  A new winery, it was only serving three wines and wasn’t even in our passport book, but god was it worth the stop!  Each wine was highly flavorful and completely unique.  The Pinot Noir Cuvee was fruity but not sweet with perfectly balanced flavor.  Yet their Estate Pinot Noir was the real find:  one of the most interesting wines I have ever experienced.  “Pepper” is a word often used to describe bold reds, but it is usually not a literal description, more an indication of spice.  In this wine, you could actually taste pepper.  At the same time, they balanced it with an earthiness, creating perhaps the most unique wine I have ever tasted.

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Once we had finished marveling over Clos Tita, the time came to move on.  The owner of Dancing Creek suggested we head down the road to Bruzzone, and I am very glad we followed her advice because their Chardonnay was exquisite.   Though I prefer whites, I generally do not love Chardonnays.  As I have made my way across the Santa Cruz Mountains, it has become very clear to me that the varietal just isn’t my thing.  I don’t know what exactly Bruzzone does to their Chardonnay, but I really wish everyone else would follow their example.  Their 2010 Estate Chardonnay was so light it was almost carbonated, and while I could not taste the oak, the wine retained a depth of flavor that was just delightful.  Plus, they had food!  And by that time, we were starting to need it.

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By the time we got to Nicholson Vineyards, it was definitely time for lunch.  It may perhaps have been smarter to eat at the beginning  of our time there instead of the end, but my cohorts were determined to get in another tasting before breaking.  I did at least get to sample some of Nicholson’s yummy cheeses before we began.

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Nicholson Vineyards

I must say that after the 20+ wines we had had so far, my taste buds were beginning to complain about overuse, so I can’t say that I was able to fully experience any of the wines from this point on.  That said, most of Nicholson’s wines seemed to me to be pretty standard to the area with the exception of their Old Vine Zinfandel.  They must know they were on to something with this Zin because it is a limited release, and it was a strain not to buy a bottle for this fruity, flavorful wine.

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Instead, we brought our tastings to a picnic table and feasted on cheese, bread, fruit, and cookies in classic wine-tasting fashion.  Nicholson was not as idyllic as Dancing Creek, but surrounded by vines and trees with the sun basking on the walls, it was still a nice place for lunch and a much needed palate cleanser.

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Despite the rest, as we arrived at Martin Ranch, I was done.  I had exceeded my tasting capacity for the day, and I really didn’t want any more.  All my taste buds wanted was water.  This may, just possibly, have contributed to how much I did not care for the wines at Martin Ranch.  Though to be perfectly honest, I doubt I would have enjoyed them anyway.

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Apart from Having Unexciting Wine, Martin Ranch Was Crowded!

Most of the wines they were tasting were pretty standard reds, and by that time, I had had so many of them that all I wanted to taste were the whites.  The really frustrating thing was that Martin Ranch, unlike most Santa Cruz Mountain wineries, actually had whites.  A variety of them even!  But they wouldn’t let me taste them which made me like them even less.  I finally convinced one of the pourers to open a Sauvignon Blanc for me, and it was like a breath of fresh air.  It was light and crisp, a little grassy flavor, but certainly a relief after so many reds.

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The Grounds Were Spacious Though

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And Vast

As we walked away from Martin Ranch, there was still time to visit one more winery, and one of the ones I was most interested in was just around the corner.  But by this time, we were all pretty beat.  There was talk of quitting.  Dare we put our livers through any more trauma today?

Dare we did.  And it was so worth it.

Fernwood was not as flashy as most of the other wineries we visited.  There were no spacious picnic grounds, no vines climbing sun-drenched walls, no sunlight peaking through redwoods.  It was just a metal storeroom in the middle of nowhere.  We drove past it on our first try because it looked so little like a tasting room.

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Fernwood Cellars

But in my experience, the simplest of tasting rooms can bring forth the tastiest wines.  This was certainly the case for Fernwood.

Like I said, I like whites, and my favorite varietal is the Riesling.  Sweet yet light, it complements my taste buds more than any other wine.

Fernwood had more than just a Riesling, it had two!  A dry and a late harvest!  Generally, late harvest whites are a little too sweet for me, but this one was so smooth and sweet without overdoing it.  It was fabulous.  The reds were good too, particularly the Sidecut, a Syrah and Zinfandel blend with a smooth flavor and nicely balanced tannins.  My friend bought an entire case of it.

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We were lucky we persevered and tried Fernwood because it was one of the best wineries of the day!  Proof that you shouldn’t judge a winery by its cover and a fantastic end to our tasting.

Because after that our bodies really were done for the day, we trekked back to Santa Cruz for some Thai food, some chocolate, and lots and lots of water.

I enjoyed the passport experience.  We got to try A LOT  of wine, but the wineries were spread out enough that no one experienced alcohol poisoning.  No one got drunk that day.  Our driver didn’t even need to take a break.  It worked out rather nicely.

It would be helpful if the region had a little more variety, but each winery had at least one wine that was in some way unique, and there were several places we hope to visit again.  In the meantime, I will look forward to using our passports at all of the wineries that are open everyday!

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Categories: Bay Area Day Trips, Local Travel, Northern California, Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Mountains, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sabieng Thai Cuisine: Go, Go Now, and Be Happy

Never have I had such good Thai food in such a nice setting as at Sabieng.  This pleasant sit-down restaurant has amazing food at almost unbelievable prices.

Everything we tried was exceptional.  The curries are abundantly flavorful with a smooth yet hearty texture.  Your meal comes with a coconut milk soup which is surprisingly awesome.  Almost like a curry, you can taste the coconut milk.  It is spiced in a way I would not expect to be delicious, but it really is.  Dessert was fantastic too.  We had fried bananas with coconut ice cream, and the combination was perfect.  We were fighting for the last bite.

Panang Curry
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With such a high food quality, you would expect this place to be expensive.  If not that, you would think it would at least be on par with the average Thai food restaurant.  But it’s not.  It’s cheaper.  You will mostly likely pay $9 for dinner, and their lunch specials are fantastic.  $6.50 will get you any entree plus soup, and these meals are still big.  You will undoubtedly be full when you’re done.  Even drinks and desserts are pretty cheap.  With friend bananas and ice cream at a mere $4, you should definitely save room.  I don’t know how they do it.  Honestly, I’m a little freaked out that they can.  Where are they sacrificing?  It doesn’t seem to be in the quality of the food.

Nor is it the atmosphere.  While the ambience is not as exceptional as everything else about Sabieng, it is still a very pleasant place to sit and eat.  The tables and chairs are comfortable, and the restaurant is decorated by statues and pictures.  You definitely get a nice dining experience.

I am not sure how this restaurant is able to combine spectacular food, pleasant atmosphere, and such low prices, but I’m not going to question it.  Next time you’re in Santa Cruz, I would definitely recommend stopping by.  And then go to Donnelly Chocolates down the street for second dessert.

Categories: Food, Local Travel, Northern California, Restaurants, Santa Cruz | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Storrs Winery: Pleasantly Surprising in Every Way

Whilst in Santa Cruz, the husband suggested we do some wine tasting.  You can perhaps imagine my reaction.  It was somewhere in the vicinity of “OK!”  And so I perused my Santa Cruz Mountains wine guide for a promising-looking tasting room and came upon Storrs.

Storrs is one of those rare local wineries whose products I have seen in abundance in local stores.  In fact, they have their own little section in the World Market next to my work.  Because I always enjoy knowing what I’m buying, I figured I’d give them a try.

I was pleasantly surprised.  Since they are in my local shop, I wasn’t expecting the highest quality, but we liked just about everything we tried.  The Sauvignon Blanc was crisp and clear if a touch too grassy.  We both agreed that the Zinfandel was divine, and I liked the light yet flavorful Santa Cruz Mountain Pinot Noir as well as the Grenache, notable because I’m usually not a Grenache fan.  However, the bottle we went home with was the Riesling which was light yet sweet with a hint of bubbles.  I cannot tell you how exciting it was to get to try a Riesling.  Riesling is probably my favorite varietal, but it just doesn’t grow very well around here, so very few wineries have one, and not only getting to try one but having it be good enough to buy made me almost giddy.

Perhaps the most pleasant part of our wine tasting experience was how reasonably priced the wines were.  Our Riesling was a mere $16, and most of the wines cost around $20 which is low for this region and quality. I would absolutely consider buying several of them at World Market, and with a sale, I could even afford it.

Our pourer was pretty cool too.  She was very nice, easy to chat with, let us try quite a few wines, and let us do both of our tastings free even though we only bought one bottle.  I would definitely go back.

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Categories: Northern California, Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz Mountains, Wine | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Becoming the Fish

Growing up in Southern California, I loved the beach.  My parents used to say I was a fish I spent so much time in the ocean.  I loved the sun and the surf, and as I grew older, that love only grew stronger.  Naturally, I have never lived anywhere as warm since going off to college.

Northern California has beaches.  Some of them even have sand.  But they’re not really what you’d call swimmable.  The water is perfectly all right most places, but it’s cold.  Really cold.  As in “I need a wetsuit” cold.  Sometimes even “I need a dry suit” cold or “let’s call the whole thing off” cold.

So of course I’ve been trying to swim in it ever since arriving in Berkeley at the age of 17 (i.e. a long time ago).  While there, it was basically hopeless.  The only beaches remotely near Berkeley were in San Francisco and Marin, and it was so cold up there I shouldn’t even have bothered.

However, since moving to San Jose, the closest beach has been Santa Cruz, and this is where I pinned my hopes.  It gets sunny in Santa Cruz.  I wouldn’t say it gets warm, but it does at least progress to “not cold” occasionally, and the water is a touch warmer than the surrounding areas.  Thus, I made it my goal to go swimming in these frigid waters if it killed me (which was always a possibility).

Easier said than done.  I could have just donned my wetsuit and gone in that way, but I was determined to swim without it at least once if only to prove it could be done.

I started small, braving the cool air enough to get in a bathing suit and wade in.  It took a whole summer for me to get past my knees, but finally I made it in to the hips.  Alas, there I was stuck.

You see, I could have just plucked up my courage and ran for it, jumped in, then run back out again.  I’ve done that sort of thing before.  Once on a family vacation, my brother and I jumped in a 39 degree hotel pool–in the rain–before running out screaming to the jacuzzi.  This was different.  The most difficult part of my task here was not getting in the ocean, but enjoying it, even if it was just a little bit.

For me, this experiment to see whether I could swim in Northern California became rather a test to see if I could see myself living in Northern California permanently.  That’s not to say I even think that will happen, but it’s certainly possible, and I really just can’t live here forever if I can’t go swimming.  And there is no point to going swimming if you can’t enjoy it.

It took two-and-a-half years for me to get in over my head, but this last Monday, I finally succeeded in actually swimming, sans wetsuit, in the Pacific Ocean off Santa Cruz.  It didn’t last long, but I did get a kind of sick pleasure from finally accomplishing this eight year long goal.

And it actually wasn’t that bad once I was in the water.  It took me a long time to work up to it, going in to my knees, then my thighs, my waist, and finally the whole Nicole.  But once I was under, I managed to swim a bit without wanting to kill myself, and it was all right as long as I kept moving.

Until it wasn’t.  When I got out, I tried to stick around for a bit, but as I huddle in my towel, I realized that wasn’t going to happen.  The cold went bone deep and stayed there until we had driven back to San Jose, and I had spent a long time in a very hot shower.

Still, I did it.  I proved I could swim in Northern California waters and not be completely miserable.  On a day when it’s 90 degrees in San Jose, has been for the past four days, and the ocean has had the entire summer to warm up.  Woot.

Now the real question is can I do it again?

Categories: Bay Area Day Trips, Local Travel, Northern California, Santa Cruz | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Donnelly Chocolates: the Best $5 You’ll Ever Spend on Caramel

It was a dark and stormy night the first time I entered Donnelly Chocolates.  Well, all right, it was a pretty average night.  Probably actually a rather nice night.  But it was night anyway.  I was on my way home from Santa Cruz and definitely not looking for a chocolate shop.  Still, Donnelly caught my eye, and, well, I don’t often say no to chocolate, so I stopped.

Oh how glad I am that I did, for inside this little shop was a whole new world of chocolates.

Immediately upon entering, Richard Donnelly himself offered us some samples.  That was all it took.  My husband summed up the experience rather nicely:  “If you do not want to spend (at least) $5 on a chocolate-covered caramel, WHEN HE OFFERS YOU A TASTE, YOU SHOULD SAY NO!”  Once you’ve tried it, walking away isn’t an option.

I cannot even begin to put into words what makes these chocolates so special.  Obviously, they are made with the finest ingredients by someone very skilled in using them.  But it’s more than that.  The instant the caramel reaches your tongue, you can tell this is something special.  Donnelly has clearly poured his heart and soul into his craft, but even that does not account for the extraordinary perfection of these caramels.  There is a touch of magic in them, too.  Nothing else could explain what makes them so much better than even high quality caramels elsewhere.

As I have said before, I am a connoisseur of fine chocolates and have literally looked for them across the world.  A number of magazines have named Donnelly’s chocolates one of the ten best, including National Geographic which named it one of the ten best chocolate shops in the world.  I believe it, for I have almost certainly never had a better caramel.

Milk Chocolate Caramel

Milk Chocolate Caramel

Categories: Dessert, Food, Local Travel, Northern California, Santa Cruz | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

“Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in the Warm California Sun”

Santa Cruz is like my Northern California Disneyland but with more hippies and less magic (though probably more magic mushrooms).

In fact, Santa Cruz is in many ways similar to Southern California. It’s kind of a beach town, it has a pier even if the Boardwalk is not actually on a pier, and during the summer you are likely to find scantily-clad beach-goers in large quantities. True, it will likely be at least twenty degrees cooler than the average summer day in SoCal, and you will have to be extra lucky to see the sun, but more than anywhere else north of Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz speaks of Southern California beach towns.

So if you, like me, find yourself yearning for the warm sand and surf of Southern California this summer, Santa Cruz can help you feel a little more at home (or more likely, make you miss SoCal even more, but hey, it’s better than nothing…sort of).

Start your Santa Cruz Beach Day at the Boardwalk.  For me, thinking of Southern California without thinking of amusement parks is just missing the point, and with the ocean mere yards away, you are not going to get better scenery for your screams than at the Boardwalk.  Go ahead, buy an All-Day Wristband.  It will likely pay for itself in a couple of hours, and then you don’t have to worry about tickets.  From roller coasters to haunted houses to log rides, the Boardwalk has enough variety in entertainment to keep you happy.

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Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk

For lunch, you have some options.  If you want something easy, there are plenty of restaurants by the Boardwalk that are perfectly good, or you can take a walk down the pier (the actual pier) and eat over the water.  Trekking over to Downtown Santa Cruz will give you a larger variety of options that are less overpriced, but personally, I would bring a picnic and eat on the beach.  This will allow you to maximize your beach time and save some money.

By the time your hunger has been sated, hopefully, if you’re really lucky, the fog will have burned off.  In all likelihood, it never will.  In fact, you should probably check the weather to see when the fog is supposed to dissipate, and if you see cloudy skies after about 1pm, just try a different day.

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But if you’re lucky, you’ll get some clear skies.  Now, if you are planning this beach day because you are in fact from Southern California, you should probably brace yourself.  It’s going to be cold.  Really fucking cold.  At least compared to what you’re used to.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.  Wear a bathing suit but also bring clothes that you can get dirty.  This is not the time to strut in your bikini unless you’re looking for the fun side of hypothermia.  Bring something to do–a book or a frisbee or sandcastle-making materials–because you’re probably not going to want to go swimming (unless you bring a wetsuit).  And most importantly, wear sunscreen even though it’s cold.  Just because you would be comfortable in a coat, doesn’t mean the sun isn’t out to get you.  It’s just sneakier here.

I like to set up camp on the east side of the bay away from the Boardwalk.  It’s a little less crowded and much more beautiful.  Your path to the beach is paved by trees instead of roller coasters, and your relaxation will not be plagued by screaming teenagers.

When you’ve had enough sun/are so cold you can barely move, it’s time to pack it up for dinner (or more likely, an early happy hour).  There are countless great dining options in Santa Cruz, but I am going to recommend Sabieng Thai Cuisine.  Their food is exceptionally good and very reasonably priced.  Or if you need to stay by the beach just a little bit longer, you can drive down to Capitola and visit Margaritaville.  It is definitely touristy, but it has decent variety in its drinks and eats, and it is literally on the water.  The whole place is ocean-themed all the way down to the bathrooms, so it will give you a taste of home just a little longer without making you freeze your ass off (have I mentioned it’s cold up here?).

It’s hard being a Southern California native in NorCal.  You get made fun of all the time for liking your home town, and finding a decent bathing suit is even harder than finding a decent milkshake.  But at least in Santa Cruz you can pretend that the beach you’re visiting is halfway decent.  That is, if you can find a patch of sun to sit in.

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Hmm, I wonder where you’ve seen this before?

Categories: Bay Area Day Trips, Local Travel, Northern California, Santa Cruz | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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