California

I returned yesterday from a week in California – a vacation that was part solo adventuring, part family visit. My brother lives in Vacaville, near Sacramento. I flew in on Saturday the 16th and rented a car. (My layover was in Phoenix, and the flight from Phoenix to Sacramento took us over Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe. Luckily, I had a window seat.)

I didn’t go sightseeing every day I was there. It rained steadily for a couple of days, so I stayed in and streamed movies and TV (something I rarely do, so it was a luxury in and of itself). I went on a couple hikes with my brother and nieces at local parks. Our hike last Sunday at Rockville Hills Regional Park in Fairfield (4 miles total) was pretty challenging, especially due to some pretty serious erosion of the trails from all the recent rain. But we soldiered through and awarded ourselves with ice cream from Fosters Freeze afterwards.

Mostly, I want to talk about my solo adventures, which took place Tuesday and Thursday.

Tuesday

On Tuesday morning, I drove to Suisun Marsh and visited Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. It’s a dream destination for birdwatchers and/or photographers. They also have a population of Tule Elk there, which are somewhat elusive, from my understanding. It was a happy accident that I was scanning the landscape through my camera’s zoom lens and spotted one. Unfortunately, it was too far away for my camera to get a decent shot. I took photos, but they’re not the best – only enough to prove that I saw one.

Here are a few other shots I took that day. (Note that I generally only do some cropping and maybe slight color correction. I rarely do heavy photo editing.)

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The driving tour of Grizzly Island took about two hours (with photo stops at almost every parking lot). It was lunchtime as I finished up my adventuring there, so I drove back into Suisun City to find something to eat. I ended up at Ohana Hawaiian Barbecue. I was lame and ordered the barbecue chicken bowl, which was basically just marinated chicken, vegetables, and rice. It was good but kind of boring. I bet I would have enjoyed it more if I had ordered something different. (They had Spam on their menu, but I had to draw the line somewhere. I don’t think there is any possible way to cook it that would make it taste good to me.)

Since I was in wine country (not Napa, which is nearby – been there, done that), I thought I should go to one of the less touristy wineries in Suisun Valley. Several of them were closed (on a Tuesday?), so I set my Google Map directions toward the first one I came across in Google that had Tuesday hours. It just so happened to be Wooden Valley Winery, which has excellent reviews. I was not disappointed. I thought the Riesling was particularly good, and I was informed that if I purchased a bottle for $16, the tasting fee ($15) would be waived. That’s a no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned.

I also bought a glass of Riesling so I could relax on their beautiful patio and enjoy the perfect weather. I was given a free wine glass with their logo on it, which is actually one of those shatterproof stemless ones made out of plastic. That’s sort of perfect because I need a wine glass for our travel trailer anyway. (I collect wine glasses and I don’t have room for any more in my kitchen cabinets.)

So, if you happen to be in Suisun Valley and you want some wine, this place gets a big thumbs up from me. And I’m not a wine novice, for what it’s worth.

Thursday

I set my sights on the UC Davis Arboretum and Public Garden for Thursday. Gardens are a particular passion of mine, especially for photography. I’ve visited many public gardens across the U.S. and Europe. I was pleasantly surprised by my visit. This is one of the finest public gardens I’ve seen, full stop. And yes, it is California, but even so, I was amazed at everything that was blooming so early in the spring.

I’ll let my photos do most of the talking here. This place was unbelievable.

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Trust me, these photos don’t even do it justice.

This was my first trip out to California in six years, and I don’t want that much time to pass before going out there again. My nieces are growing so fast.

Fruit Forward

The Craigslist ad beckoned to me – pouring and selling wine as an independent contractor around Southern Maryland? I’ve never been much of a salesperson, but how hard can that be? Wine practically sells itself. All I had to do was invite people to taste.

I responded to the ad and received a request days later for a Skype interview. Weird, but I did it, and the job was mine.

I had to buy some supplies before my first assignment: an ice bucket, plastic sample-sized cups, and a particular type of corkscrew – they were very particular about the corkscrew, and it wasn’t the type I normally used. I had to dress a certain way: all black, professional. And I needed to learn more about wine, so I bought a massive book detailing all the wine regions, vintages, terminology, etc.

I never gave much thought before to descriptors such as fruit forward, mouthfeel, soft tannins, hints of leather, buttery finish. I had to learn all this stuff so I could talk about the wines that I poured in a way that made people feel that I knew what I was doing, a true professional.

My first tasting was on an October evening at a liquor store in Prince Frederick. Italian wines. I was unfamiliar with the winery, and I absolutely had never heard of Montepulciano. I remember looking it up on Wikipedia so I could listen to a recording on the pronunciation.

Then there was the day, shortly before Christmas, when I was sent to a specialty grocery store in Waldorf to sell Amarula, which isn’t even wine. It’s a liqueur, similar to Irish cream in flavor, that’s made from the Amarula fruit that grows in Africa. That was my best sales day. Even better, I had a nearly full bottle afterwards that I took home with me.

Whatever I was selling, I never had much of a problem making the quota. Sure, there were people who were only interested in the samples. They would sip, thank me, throw away their cup, and leave. I’ve done my fair share of that, too. And even I didn’t completely love all the wine I sold. (I was encouraged to take the first tastes from each bottle to make sure they didn’t have cork taint.) But there is an audience for every wine, and I never had a problem finding my audience.

One night, at a liquor store in Dunkirk, I was featuring Chilean wines. The very first customer bought an entire case. Later that same night, two women walked in, already drunk, and made a beeline for my display.

“What are you pouring?” One asked.

“Wine from Chile,” I responded. “Would you like to try some?”

“Oooooh! I love chili cheese fries!” She said. She looked at her friend, and they laughed hysterically.

Naturally, I tried to convince her that wine from Chile was absolutely made to go with chili cheese fries. Anything to make a sale.

I remember the woman who complained that I was pouring wine from the wrong country. “I won’t buy your wine,” she said. “It’s not from California.” And then there was the guy who tried to correct my pronunciation of “Chee-leh,” insisting that it is “Chill-ee.”

Wine people can be the best people, but they can also be kind of weird.

My short-lived career in wine sales ended about six months after it began, after a night that yielded zero sales. That was a first, and it was the company’s policy that a night of no sales resulted in termination. Had I been determined to keep doing it, I would have bought a couple of bottles myself to make the quota.

So, I said goodbye to being on the pouring side of the tasting table. It’s more fun being the taster, anyway.