The land of chocolate, cheese, horses, and buggies

To celebrate the end of my master’s program and my mom’s birthday (November 11), Mom and I went to Amish Country last Sunday and stayed through Wednesday morning. We only live two hours away from that area of Ohio, but neither of us had ever visited. We would occasionally pass through areas of Amish settlements on our way to somewhere else, so we’ve seen the Amish buggies on the roads. But never in the numbers we saw them on this trip. 

Now … a brief review of the places we visited.

Guggisberg Swiss Inn: I booked three nights at this inn just outside Charm, which is also the home of Doughty Glen Winery and Amish Country Riding Stables. Horses roam free on the property. The price was extremely reasonable and included a hearty breakfast each morning (eggs, hash browns, and sausage – sometimes pancakes – along with yogurt, cereal, toast, pastries, etc.) 

The grounds are beautiful, with views of rolling hills, farmland, and vineyards. One of the main attractions is the duck pond, and you can bring quarters to buy corn out of a dispenser to feed them. Mom and I were quite popular with the ducks … we had a lot of quarters! 

As quiet and relaxing as this bucolic setting is, there is much to see and do in the area. Here are some of our highlights (in no particular order): 

Guggisberg Cheese: Yes, this is owned by the same people who own the inn, and the cheese factory is just a stone’s throw away. Stop here to buy the Premium Swiss and/or Baby Swiss, which are both ranked best in the U.S. Of course, they also sell a variety of other cheeses, as well as things that go great with cheese. 

Hershberger’s Farm and Bakery: They have a petting zoo here, if you’re into that sort of thing. But mainly it’s a small market/bakery and a place to buy crafts, antiques, and gifts. We got there too early for the petting zoo, unfortunately. They also offer buggy rides for a fee. 

Coblentz Chocolates: We stopped in Walnut Creek, mainly because we were passing by there anyway on our way to Sugarcreek. The Der Dutchman restaurant is probably one of the main draws to Walnut Creek. It seems to always be packed. If you happen to stop in Walnut Creek, this is a great place to buy chocolates, fudge, and candies. It smells heavenly inside. 

Also in Walnut Creek: Carlisle Gifts (across the street from Der Dutchman and part of the group that runs the restaurant – a beautiful shop with a great selection of gifts). Rebecca’s Bistro is a great alternative for breakfast or lunch if you can’t deal with the crowds at Der Dutchman. It’s small, but quaint. I highly recommend the blackberry bacon grilled cheese.

I was curious about Sugarcreek, the “Little Switzerland” of Ohio – home of the World’s Largest Cuckoo Clock. Naturally, this piqued my curiosity, since I lived in Germany for 4 years and I’ve seen some pretty large cuckoo clocks. It’s a fun little detour. Make sure to get there on the half hour or the hour. (There is ample on-street parking and a public lot just across the street.) 

You can see video of the clock here (I changed from vertical to horizontal mid-recording … we sat too close.)

We didn’t stay in Sugarcreek long. Some of the places were closed, and there were some shops we weren’t interested in seeing. But we did go into a shop near the cuckoo clock called Secret Garden. It’s a feast for the senses – almost overwhelmingly so. 

Breitenbach Wine Cellars: There are quite a few wineries in the area, but we found ourselves here. And I’m glad we did. We had unseasonably warm weather (mid-70s!) for November, and they have a very nice patio. After we did a tasting (so many wines to choose from!), we decided on the plum wine. We ordered a chilled bottle to drink there and purchased a cheese plate (local cheeses, of course). This was probably the highlight of my day, just relaxing on the patio with some lovely wine and cheese.  

All of the above were places we visited on the first full day, with the exception of Rebecca’s Bistro, which was a second-day stop. We ended the evening sharing a bottle of Doughty Glen’s White Catawba on the patio back at the inn.  

My aunt joined us on our second (and last) full day to celebrate Mom’s birthday. We concentrated on the nearby town of Berlin, since there are a huge number of shops there. We stopped at Sol’s in Berlin, which is Ohio’s largest craft mall. Just down the street from there is Sheiyah Market, where we spent quite a bit of time also. (We stopped at Buggy Brew Coffee Co. inside the market – great pumpkin spice iced coffee!) Berlin Village Antique Mall was also right there, so we browsed in there, too. 

After summer-like weather for our entire trip, it turned the morning we left. It was rainy and chilly. But we were up early and drove to nearby Miller’s Bakery so we could get there when they opened. OH. MY. GOD. Their cheese tarts! I got a cherry cheese tart. And I got a creamstick to take home for my husband. (Though I ate about a quarter of it. Sooooo goooood.) 

One last recommendation – if you’re in the mood for pizza while you’re in that area, order from East of Chicago. That was our dinner the night we arrived (mostly because it was one of only a few places open on Sunday in the area, and the Berlin location was a short drive from the inn). We each ordered a medium pizza and had enough leftover for dinner the next day.  

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.