Sunday, 16 November 2008

This and That, Here and There

I am finally getting around to blogging again: today is February 22, 2009, and I have been back home in Melbourne for about 6 weeks. I had 3 draft posts waiting on this blog, of which most of this post is the earliest, but in my final weeks in Berkeley and while in New York for 3 weeks from mid-December to early January, and since returning, I didn't get around to making blog time. As has happened in the past, I was too busy doing blog-worthy stuff to have any time to blog! So I will try to edit and post these drafts in the next few days if I can, and add at least one post about Ben and Lissy's spectacularly wonderful January 3rd wedding and the horrendous bushfires in Victoria in the past few weeks. This will mean that there are some weird mixtures of tenses and time warps in the posts - please forgive me!

The other bit of recent news is that my 8-month-old laptop was stolen from the house in early February, and as a result I have lost a lot of the photos I might have otherwise posted. (I had backed them up on flash drives, but these were stored in my laptop bag, which was stolen at the same time! I will have to see whether some remain in my camera, though I did delete a lot after downloading .)

And so onto the first of the old draft entries, which seems to have been drafted at the end of November...

When I am writing this blog, I spend all my time in Edit or Preview mode, and usually take only a cursory glance at the published blog, and I don't regularly follow many other blogs. So I only just realized that if you click on any photo in the blog, you see it enlarged - I hope you already knew this! I just did this with the photo in the last entry of crowds arriving on campus for the game, and was most impressed with how well it picked up the people!

As the time for me to leave Berkeley for New York is approaching, there is a large rush of activities. We have had theatre at the Berkeley Rep , with another one to come, dinners with friends at their houses, our house or out, 2 winery visits, the upcoming visit of Herzonia, my Mexican friend who transformed my experience in Mexico City in 2007. The Thanksgiving Holiday happens this week, and we will be going down to Santa Clara to celebrate with Jackie and Bob Schwartzer and their extended family - Barry's cousin originally from London, Barbara Levy and husband Larry and Jackie's sister Karen will all be there, plus of course the two small children.

The play we saw last Wednesday evening was "Joe Turner's Come and Gone", which was an excellent play by August Wilson, one of a cycle of plays he has written abut the Black experience in America. The set was outstanding and most of the acting was very good, though we do sometimes have trouble with accents - especially with high pitched children's voices, or when actors don't project well and are conversing with their back to the audience. The way the production handled the mystical visions was very interesting and quite convincing - I now will go out of my way to see more of Wilson's work. I found out a bit more about him at

where you could do the same if you are interested.

Wineries: it seems like years since I last went on a wine tasting trip starting from Melbourne. I have been around Marlborough and Hawkes Bay in New Zealand, and we went to Stellenbosch in South Africa, but it seems the routine when we have foreign visitors to Melbourne is that I take them up to Healesville to the Wildlife Sanctuary, where there is so much to do there now with bird shows and meet the wombats/koalas/platypus etc., as well as just walking around to see all the animals and the different flight aviaries, that we never get to leave early enough to visit any of the Yarra Valley wineries on the way home. Barry is more likely to take guests to winery/eating trips. So our recent trips from here to the Sonoma Valley and Russian River wine regions here have reminded me how very enjoyable it can be.

The first trip was about 2 weeks ago, when Alex Saragoza arranged to go up there with Barry and a couple of other visitors who had been in Berkeley for a symposium on Mexican Tourism. One other of the participants chose to see some friends in the Bay Area rather than go on the trip, so I grabbed the spare seat in the car and we had a lovely day of it. Not weather-wise - it was cool and overcast, with a little rain- but it was still a very enjoyable trip. Alex chose two wineries he knows well, with particular individual histories of particular interest, and where he is a member of their wine clubs. The first we visited, Gundlach Bundschu, was one of the first in the Sonoma region, established by a Bavarian family 150 years ago. It is the oldest family-owned winery in California. They have always valued their labour force, providing picnic facilities which have developed into delightful public areas over time, and in the parking area there is a large mural celebrating the workers and their contributions to the winery. The rattlesnake warning with accompanying sculpture, which I posted at the start of this entry, caught my fancy: it is prominently displayed at the start of a beautiful walk through their grounds! They also value and foster the talents of the local artists who produce their labels, and publish postcards and large posters based on their designs. The wines we tasted were pretty good, and the staff taking care of the tasters were very knowledgeable and extremely affable.

The second place we tasted was Casa Ceja, a winery whose CEO was the first Latina woman CEO of a winery in the USA - a very sharp lady, we discovered when we spoke to her. Her parents had been Mexican grape pickers who had learned their trade as itinerant workers, and who eventually migrated to California and established their own winery. The kids grew up working in the vineyards, and the CEO's brother, who we also met, is the wine maker. The third generation are now also in the family business - with degrees in fields as varied as media and marketing as well as oenology, most of them work in the winery and were very happy to entertain friends of Alex and tell us lots of family history as well as their philosophy of wine making as they walked us through the wines on offer. Again, the wines here were more expensive than the plonk we usually buy and were excellent.

I didn't try everything on offer, and only took a mouthful or two of the ones I did want to taste, but as someone who doesn't drink much at all these days, I was feeling very mellow (and extremely hungry) by the time we got to the restaurant in Sonoma where Alex had booked - it was called "The Girl and The Fig", and featured local produce beautifully prepared and very well put together. We had a platter of local and imported cheeses as a shared starter: it came on a tiered plate with assorted relishes, olives, capers, fruit and breads and was a real treat. We also had several different and interesting salads to share. One with golden and red beets, rocket and some local pecans was particularly good. We passed around tasters of each other's main courses as well, so got to sample a good deal of local produce. But by the time we had eaten dessert and drunk some more local wine, it was too late to get to a third winery after lunch - not that we would have been very discriminating by this time either. Alex, as the designated driver, was very abstemious (he didn't drink that much either!) - and I could have driven home also as I was certainly well below the local limit of .08 - in fact I think I was probably below .05, but given how excellent my sense of direction is, it is as well it wasn't up to me to get us home.

Since then, we have had another 2 winery visits, one to the Russian River district and Healdsburg, the town at its centre, which we did with Alex and this time his wife Juanita. Again, we visited two small wineries and then went to lunch, this time at a restaurant called Ravenous
(ravens seem to be the logo of this district). We met up with a good friend of theirs who has a cottage in Healdsburg, and very much enjoyed the day, which happened to be our wedding anniversary. The food was very unpretentious and very delicious, again featuring local produce. Their policy on corkage was interesting - they charged $25 per bottle, but if you purchased one bottle from their wine list, they waived the corkage on the wine you brought, so we ended up drinking one a good Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc from their list, in the typical Marlborough cat's piss style, and also drank an excellent bottle of local red of our own. Rather than photograph ourselves in the winery garden, I should have thought of capturing the food at the restaurant, but I didn't, so see us instead .

We went for a bit of a wander around Healdsburg, which is a very pretty tourist town full of interesting delis and expensive furniture and homeware stores, and some resort wear stores with classy jewellery and accessories. I admired a really different pair of brass and copper earrings, which Barry promptly bought me as an anniversary present.
Coincidentally, at exactly the time we took this trip to the Russian River winery region, I was in the middle of reading a Paul Erdman financial thriller called Zero Coupon, very appropriate both to our location and to the current financial mess the world is in. The plot includes various financial scams, betting against currencies by short selling, and a lot about high society in San Francisco . Presciently, it was published in 1993, with a protagonist who had been in Pleasanton Jail which is very nearby, who had been jailed for activities during the junk bond scams of the '80's. One blurb says "Erdman is to high finance what John Grisham is to law", a very good analogy.

Healdsburg was a major location in the book, as was the area of San Francisco we had recently visited on our Nob Hill walking tour. I just downloaded all the photos that were still in the camera's memory card to this new PC, but must have deleted all of the photos from this very interesting tour which covered the amazingly lavish buildings in the area. We heard about the robber barons and founders of San Franciso's real estate fortunes and other major figures' contributions to the landscape around Nob Hill, which only became habitable with the advent of the cable car to negotiate the very steep hills. Some of the non-wooden buildings survived both the earthquake, as there is a great deal of bedrock under their foundations, and the fire which swept uphill. There are a few grand mansions and hotels from that early period and many more recent, and the Grace Cathedral , rebuilt three times, is also well worth a look as is the Masonic Temple nearby. We were guided through some lavish features and interesting historical photo displays (lots of diplomats and movie stars!) in several hotels, but were too early to see the Tonga Room at the Fairmont in operation, where apparently there is a simulated thunderstorm that rains around the band playing on an island in the middle of an indoor pool .

We had ended the tour in the Top of the Mark bar atop the Hotel, and the only shots I still have are some of the views from the windows of the bar, which opened at 5. Until then , the elevators don't run to the top floor, so quite a crowd builds up waiting to get up there. Excellent cocktails!

Just to complete the winery visits, our third trip was to the Napa Valley, this time with Herzonia as well as Alex and Juanita, and in two cars rather than one to enable the Saragozas to go on to a special function for wine club members at Casa Ceja while the three of us returned to Berkeley after lunch. This time we took the Silverado Trail. For the wine lovers amongst you who would like to taste as well as read about the delights of the Californian wine trails, you can Google any of these regions and wineries and find out where you can buy their products. Once again, Alex had chosen his vineyards carefully. One of them, Clos du Val, even owns the Taltarni winery here in Victoria - the owner had recognized the terrain here as closely resembling that of the area producing so successfully there and had established Taltarni more than a decade before. Again we were impressed by how knowledgeable and helpful most of the cellar door staff were, and how interested they were in what is happening in Australia and New Zealand. Many of them had travelled here, and those who hadn't yet wanted to get over to Australia and try our wines, especially the smaller labels that don't export so much. More of Herzonia's visit later, meanwhile, see the picture of her with Barry, Alex and Juanita. They knew each other from many years ago, when Alex and Juanita rented a house during his sabbatical leave about halfway between Herzonia's apartment and the one we rent in Coyoacan, in Mexico City, in a gorgeous little lane called Callejon del Toro, marked by a the ceramic head of a bull in Talavera style above a doorway on the corner. Another case of considerably fewer than six degrees of separation! Juanita had recalled that Herzonia likes dried cranberries, so I had got in a stock before she arrived for general nibbles and to supplement the breakfast muesli.

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