Monday, July 15, 2013

Nature Preserve, Key West

Let's face it, a sleeper lying alongside his bicycle is par for the course even in summer. He was conscious, more or less and was delighted to find Cheyenne's snout probing his extremities. Delighted may be an exaggeration but he was civil to my Labrador before he slipped back beneath the surface of alcohol induced unconsciousness.
I come by the Nature Preserve occasionally and take pictures and nothing much changes on the little mud trail leading to the beach. The city made heroic efforts to clean it up a few years ago with signage and handrails and so forth but the passage of time makes itself felt here too.
You can learn all sorts of extremely useful stuff out here if you take the time to stop. This includes a brief explanation of the three kinds of mangroves, known as red black and white with reds closest to saltwater and whites furthest. Mangroves are critical to sustaining the cycle of life in the ocean and are now protected even in developer friendly Florida.
I love the informality and accessibility of this place. It's here, there's some street parking nearby, especially in summer and there is essentially no oversight, no user fees and a simple reliance on the common sense and good manners of visitors. And I'll tell you what this place is remarkably trash free, and left in its natural state.
Interestingly this little corner of naturalness in Key West is overlooked by the giant Atlantic Condo complex, so called as it was built in defiance of Key West's particular style of architecture, on Atlantic Avenue. There is also massive construction going on at the building, which is a good thing this time of year when occupancy is way down.
Cheyenne lost no time in getting comfortable. I was doing well; there were no mosquitoes. Amazing.
Looking east toward Smathers Beach. Tropical Storm Chantal dropping rain on Hispaniola and the Bahamas in biblical quantities has produced strong southeast winds which are keeping temperatures and humidity to reasonable levels.
After a warm winter with just a clutch of mostly very mild cold fronts we have had a slow start to summer's heat. Around here a cool summer is not cause for misery but delight. August and Spetember are traditionally hottest and stickiest and most hurricane prone so we are approaching the zenith, but I have to say, sitting out on the porch with a powerful southeast breeze blowing is quite lovely at a time when it should be hot enough to cause human pores te explode in a stream of sweat.
Looking west toward the White Street Pier barely visible as a black line against the horizon.
Let's not get too romantic about this place, it is after all a narrow strip of sand on a rock in the fabulous Florida Keys and by virtue of that fact it means the sand has a healthy portion of dried seaweed washed up on it. This stuff frequently comes as a disappointment to visitors not prepared for the dismal reality that are the narrow little beaches of te Florida Keys. The best among them, as modest as they are, are human made with sand imported by barge from the Bahamas.
I like using clumps of the stuff as a rather comfortable cushion from which to meditate upon the meaning of life in all it's complexity and occasional disappointments and sadnesses. Everything gets better when you sit back and think how lucky you are to live here, seaweed and all.
Check it out, the water may only be two foot deep for hundreds of yards but as a summer mirror this place is just lovely.
The reefs keep wave action at bay and allow these low lyingislamds to survive storms that wash away sandy barrier islands. Ask the Outer Banks people who watch new islets come and go in violent hurricane seasons. The have lovely beaches but they pay for them with natural instability.

All alone. It may not be much of a beach it was all mine for a little while. Mine and Cheyenne's, my constant companion, my side kick, my best friend. She doesn't care about the beach as long as she was sitting at my side. God that dog makes me sentimental.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

North Carolina Wine Country

There  was  a time in my young life when I  used to marvel that there were wineries outside the fabled grape fields of Northern California's fabled Napa and Sonoma Counties, and less fabled Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. Since those na├»ve days I have come to understand that grape growing goes on everywhere in this amazingly diverse country and excellent wines are being produced all over the place. If you have been reading this blog for a while you will have read of wines tasted everywhere from New Mexico to Virginia, and also previously here in the Yadkin Valley of North Carolina. 

Today is Bastille Day in France, that country which prides itself on producing the best and most famous wines in the world, so I suppose that today when the fall of the infamous prison is celebrated it is a good day to celebrate the wines of North Carolina, an up and coming source of the grape.

We left Geeta and Bob's home in Celo, near Burnsville, in two cars and made our way across the state for an hour or more winding down the foothills and away from the incessant rain for a little while. Cheyenne is not much of a wine drinker but she likes grass and vineyards have grass so this was for her a last day in the cooler air Up North before my wife and I started our two day trek back to South Florida. Cheyenne enjoyed her time in the cooler air Up North and I was glad of her company for she is the quintessential Good Dog, always patient and no trouble at all. I never cease to be amazed by the callous fools who dumped her at the pound.
Geeta had planned a very military  circling maneuver around the Yadkin area taking in five of her favorite wineries. That was quite a feat as there are 43 such wine makers listed in North Carolina and they are scattered across miles of rolling hills. My brother-in-law Bob pointed out this wine making region is far less compact than Napa Valley.  

Stony Knoll is a smaller operation much revered by Geeta and Bob who take pleasure in talking to the owners and discussing wines in dizzying depth and detail. My style of tasting is to belly up to the bar, figure what I like, order a few bottles and move on. Its a bit the way I do all my shopping. All this "hail fellow  well met!" stuff is for the birds...
My wife and I had pretty much run our wine cooler dry so we were looking for decent modestly priced reds and a few whites to get us back on track. we like wine with a meal every now and again and we enjoy opening a bottle that reminds us of an occasion or place. It's easy enough to get decent wine at the supermarket (in Florida, some states have old fashioned bans on "liquor" in supermarkets!)  but opening a bottle with a memory attached adds to the pleasure. We got a mixed case of this lot most of them with prices around twelve bucks.
The nattering went on for a while. The owner was actually quite interesting. He got a career in banking "Nothing more boring than approving loans," he said while he ached to return to his native land.  Instead of growing tobacco as used to be the norm around here he got into wine making which he loves. He has a real businessman's instinct, pricing his small vineyard correctly and working on the quality of his wines. Bob loves this place and he has a good nose for wine.

The light was crappy and I hate taking pictures of people as poses look so stiff but here he is, Van Coe running his place, Stony Knoll.

Outside the storm clouds were barely visible in the distance as Cheyenne, my wife and I took in some fresh country air and marveled at the greenery. You do get to miss this stuff sometimes when surrounded by salt water and mangroves,  amber waves of grain are hard to come by in  the Keys:

 From Stony Knoll our precise itinerary landed us here for lunch:

This bottle of white came in at $24 so we treated ourselves for lunch as they charge tasting room prices in the restaurant but we didn't take any of their wine home.

As usual Geeta was making friends with the help and apparently the old chef at the winery had gone since their last visit so we were waiting to see what the new man could whip up.

The dining room was quite busy and no surprise as this was the day after the Fourth and the holiday mood was upon a nation not used to taking an extra day when the holiday falls on a Thursday. I am not much of an adherent to the puritan work ethic as advertised by corporate America (hence this weeks' vacation!) but I am not in the majority on that. I like my time off and away from even thinking about 911 calls. this was a great way to do that.

Fried artichokes were not enticing to me on the menu but they were amazing. Crispy batter filled with flavor and I couldn't get enough of them.

Geeta hovered over the crab and shrimp dip which was also perfectly delicious without being salty. Naturally I dived into the friend green tomatoes and they were  a horrid disappointment. Sliced thick and with flavor-free coating it  was  odd considering how  good the other appetizers were..

The dining room is built with timber harvested at the vineyard and it imparts the air of dining in a Viking hall which is okay, especially when the risotto main dish my wife and I shared was perfect. I forgave them the fried tomato fiasco and took another glass of wine while checking out the joinerwork.

I went out to take a walk while the others tasted the plonk, but my dog was tired already and had no desire to get out of the car so I deployed my Kermit chair and took twenty winks in the shade of the magnificent oak trees. This was turning into a splendid end of vacation tour.
This lot call themselves "Chianti in the Carolinas" and  Raffaldini is my brother-in-law's favorite. Certainly the place looks lovely and all Italian and everything but there is something rather over the top about the forced Italian-ness of the place. 
The landscaping is lovely, the vioews are tremendous as the winery sits on a slight hill overlooking an endless valley...

...and the winery  takes advantage of their excellent location to put on a show. I saw a calendar of events and they celebrate Italian food and wine in the italian-American way with pizza and sausage and funicoli music and tarantella dancing and all the sort of folksy stuff that makes my skin crawl. we sat out for a while and lsitened to the jazz duo inbetween wine tasting.
I played with my camera for a while and fiddled with the settings. Bob bought an ice cream, hereabouts called a gelato to stsay in keeping with the theme and we admired the scenery.

I guess the wine is good if it gets Bob's seal of approval. I left the tasting to my wife who made the decision that the wines were too expensive to be worth buying especially as we had one more winery to visit before we split. One more...and we had only seen five out of 43...I was flagging. 
Dobbins Creek was more my speed. Here we found a building at the end of a dirt road on a little knoll and there were no signs forbidding walking here or there as the Raffaldini crowd likes to do. We could walk on the grass cheyenne and I so we did and we inspected the grapes and admired the view after we ambled down a quiet lane through the fields. Sometimes I need peace and quiet to recharge my internal batteries.
Cheyenne was a good companion, wandering with me almost as though she had figured her mountain vacation was about to end and she wanted tot ake advantage of every minute. Perhaps she was just sick of the car.

I liked the winery, unpretentious and quiet, so much so a visitor had bought a glass of wine and was sitting on the proch reading a Ken Follett novel, and he even admitted to not minding my dog who sniffed his ankles and curled up next to his chair, not mine! 

Bob and Geeta struck a gothic pose and tasting began.
My wife liked these wines so much she inveigled me into giving my seal of approval to a few of them and we ended up taking half a case home. Thats part of the fun of travel by car instead of travel by plane- you can load the trunk at will with no interference from anyone least of all "security" inspections. 
The owner was happy to chat and so I listened as he told Bob about his encounter with a california wine writer who was astonished by the quality of wines not originating in California. The vintner told his story with some quiet pride and Bob got all North Carolina proud in turn as he listened to his adopted home state get the kudos.

It was agood last stop as the Geeta pulled out picnic fixings and we sat on the porch unmolested and wathced a storm brew to the south of us. Clearly it was headed our way and though the owner who by now had gone home, had invited us to stay as long as we liked, it was obvious it was time to go.

I could have stayed for quite a while longer. Cheyenne had had her water and was quite content to sit as was I, feet up, idly listening to conversation that boded the end of our North Carolina vacation.
As the big cold drops of water splattered we ran for our cars, the Prius returned to the mountains and more rain while we headed south on I-77 for a night in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina and then on home to south Florida. Loaded with wine.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Craft Beer By Wicked Weed

They are proud of a saying attributed to King Henry the Eighth, who reputedly announced that in his opinion hops are a  wicked and pernicious weed destined to ruin beer. Frankly I'm not completely sure I disagree with him. My glass of Lil Heresy brown ale at the Wicked Weed was not as sweet and as smooth as I  might like though it was entirely drinkable and at less than 6% alcohol it was quite the wussy beer on offer.
This place opened last Fall and became an instant success according to my nephew Jacob, an Asheville native immensely proud of his city and its growing reputation as a home to craft beer. "We are the east coast rivals to Portland Oregon," he said with a smile as we pushed our way into the huge brick warehouse dominated by a portrait of the old hops hater himself.

Jacob prides himself on being able to take down a Freak Double IPA and a triple IPA was also on offer that night. I am not a fan of India Pale Ales as brewed in the US  this century. originally they were brewed to be exported to India from England in sailing ships to supply the white rulers in the colonies. However nowadays when there is no need to protect from spoilage  brewers seem to feel the need to create beer from battery acid. I am no great fan of "Super Tuscan" gut rot wines, nor of Starbucks's brand of battery acid black coffee nor yet do I enjoy bitter beer. I seek solace in wine coffee and beer and I enjoy smooth sweet flavors. That said the double IPA really wasn't as bitter as some I have tasted.

Downstairs you can sample beer from barrels, Wicked Weed Barrel beers which sounds like fun and watch the brewing process, but we had plenty to deal with upstairs at the bar sampling Wicked Weed Beers.

Jacob told me it was the very strength of those beers that attracted patrons and when word go out the lines to get a seat in the bar were up to an hour long. In winter. I cannot imagine that.

The list is massive as you can see and the bar tenders are quite willing to let you taste before buying and you can also get beers in ten ounce sizes as well as the more usual 16 ounce pints. I was quite tempted by the Cucumber beer and I saw a lot of them being sold, but I wanted to try something stronger and went with the brown ale.

Jacob had brought his young family home early from a Fourth of July camping trip, thanks to the insistent downpour that washed everything out the first week of July. Bad for them, good for me as we got to hang out and even the brats were silenced by fried tilapia fish tacos prepared by their mother, Jacob's wife Bevin. Consequently we had no room to try any of the food that is reputed to be quite good.

I'm not sure my photographs do a very good job of showing how busy the bar was on a weeknight before the  holiday. It was hopping. 

I guess I'm a bit of an old  fart because this place is quite the magnet for youngsters. I liked how people were out having a good time without having o get roaring or falling down drunk.  

They were enjoying their beer, as strong as it might have been, and enjoying a warm night out. I won't envy them come December but it was a nice place to be in July in between biblical downpours. 
It made me quite nostalgic for Key West's own modest little Porch, and it also made me hopeful for the new brew pub that is supposed to be completed later this year at the old Waterfront market. Perhaps hops aren't so diabolical after all.