Wine Barrel Full of Laughs

“The best wines are the ones we drink with friends.”

My alarm went off at 4:15am. This was not a normal thing, especially for a Saturday, but it wasn’t a normal day. I got up, pulled on jeans and a T, eyed the stack of stuff I laid out the night before, and began packing it strategically into my suitcase. I let my husband sleep until the last possible moment when I kissed his cheek and whispered in his ear that it was time for him to take me to the airport.

Two flights and a long layover later, I arrived at Oakland airport. I made my way to First and Last Chance, the airport bar at which my best friend N had already jumpstarted our girls trip. She had arrived an hour earlier than me, having flown in from a different state. I hugged her fiercely and we chuckled at the bartender’s advice to stay out of trouble as we headed off to pick up our rental car. N turned up pop music on the radio as we wound our way out of Oakland, across the bridge, and into the wine country of Napa Valley.

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After we settled into our hotel and darkness fell, we walked the mile to downtown Napa. Our route took us through quaint neighborhoods into a charming area full of boutiques, restaurants, and bars. It was hard to choose a restaurant but we finally settled on Velo, a pizza place with local wine on tap. Having our first official glasses of wine in Napa fueled our excitement, so after dinner we went to a wine and tapas bar.  The festive atmosphere was a pleasant surprise. Groups of friends silly with drunkenness competitively guzzled wine from Spanish carafes, sometimes spilling it down their faces and clothes. A girl sitting next to us slurred her speech as she pined for the attention of the bartenders. N and I giggled relentlessly, entertained by the liveliness of the place and the people, periodically pausing to stare at the tattooed eye candy in the kitchen and then giggling some more. We stayed until close to closing time.

Most people would spend their first day in Napa visiting wineries. Not us! We had a few days to fill, so we decided to do something we hadn’t done together since junior high. We went to the Six Flags theme park! It was a day of thrill rides, long lines, head rushes, img_8631delirium, and boisterous laughter to the point that my stomach muscles ached in protest. The Joker ride was the best! At first glance it appears to be a straightforward wooden rollercoaster. By the time you realize the wooden façade is hiding a steel track that flips you upside down time after time, it’s too late. One of the tough guys riding in the seat behind us struggled not to throw up once it was over. It was fantastic. At dinner that night at the hotel, we shared the day’s activity with our server. He reacted by gasping and bringing his hand to his mouth in near shock at our scandalous lack of Napa refinement. He tried to recover himself but ended up mostly laughing instead, making us laugh, too.  I think he was secretly jealous.

The next day our winery adventures began. Wine tasting excursions in other places had converted me into a true wine lover. This was N’s first wine tasting experience, and I hoped it would have the same effect on her as it did me. We joined a day tour along with a handful of strangers from all over the U.S., England, and Australia. Of course, they would no longer feel like strangers after a day of wine tasting. By the end we were cracking jokes and laughing together like good friends.

Late summer is harvest season in Napa, and at our first winery tour, we wandered the rows img_8649of grapevines, plucking plump, ripe grapes from their bushels and eating them. We studied the difference in taste, texture, and tartness between the varietals, sipping wine in between. Throughout our excursion we experienced buttery chardonnays, peppery cabernets, velvety pinots, and many more, including some new to me entirely. Our tour guide advised us to drink a full bottle of water after each winery, and we obliged. It was our saving grace along with the mounds of cheese and crackers we devoured as if we hadn’t eaten for days.

Though I had been wine tasting before and already knew quite a bit, I learned some new things such as:

  • An easy way to tell when grapes are ready for harvest is to check their seeds. They start out green and gradually change to brown. Once the seeds are fully brown, they are good to go.
  • Heat and light are wine’s mortal enemies. Therefore, you should not store your wine in the kitchen or living room where heat and light are common factors. If you do not have a wine fridge, the best place to store your bottles is under your bed.
  • The primary difference between corked bottles and screw top bottles is that bottles with screw tops are meant to age only 1-3 years. Corked bottles can age gracefully for much longer.

On our last full day, N and I slept in and then took our time getting ready for the day. We img_8699ventured to the opposite end of the valley, enjoying the sights along the way. We had only hit boutique wineries and wanted the experience of something big and ostentatious, so we ended up at Castello di Amorosa, a castle and winery inspired by 13th century Tuscan architecture. We toured the impressive structure, enjoying the views of sprawling Napa Valley and momentarily forgetting we weren’t at a “real” castle. We shopped for souvenirs, and of course tasted plenty of delicious wines.

It is truly challenging to day drink and keep up the energy into the night. We were tired but ventured back to downtown Napa for a nice Italian dinner at Ca’Momi. The restaurant prides itself on its old world authentic menu and does not make dish substitutions or changes. It was not exactly the Italian fare to which I am accustomed, but my mushroom pasta dish was bold and creamy and delish.

Eventually it was time for N and I to travel home and part ways. I missed my husband and furry kids back home, but I didn’t want the adventure with my best friend to end. After four days of talking and laughing, we reluctantly said our goodbyes at the airport as I headed towards Terminal 1, she towards Terminal 2. After multiple flight delays, I finally made it home around midnight.

My hopes for N and her wine country experience panned out. She discovered a newfound appreciation for wine and even took home more bottles than I did! Napa is the enchanted land of big red wines, buttery chardonnays, and some sweet surprises in between, made even sweeter by sharing it all with my best friend.

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Summer in the Land of Lakes

Before the plane even landed, I was intrigued. As we slowly descended into MSP airport, I stared out the tiny window at the landscape below scattered with blue bodies of water surrounded by charming houses and lush greenery. I knew almost nothing about Minneapolis/St. Paul before my visit, but by the time I left, the city had won me over whole-heartedly.

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My first introduction to the culture of the Twin Cities was via one of my favorite things – food! My friend D took me to a local dive called Matt’s, which is the home of the Juicy Lucy. It is a hamburger infused with cheese that melts as the burger cooks. An endless flow of warm gooey cheese enhances every bite from the first to the last.  It was intensely satisfying. Paired with a local beer, I was in food heaven.IMG_8356

A few other foodie favorites from my twin cities experience included a flaky lobster pot pie, organic breakfast quesadillas, single-source coffee, a salted caramel rice krispie treat the size of my face, and a pint of Leinenkugel Summer Shandy beer on tap.

Minneapolis/St. Paul is a broad metropolitan area, but it only takes about 20 minutes to get anywhere, which makes me envious considering my own sprawling metropolis. Pockets of urban areas are interspersed with neighborhoods full of “city homes.” Many are Victorian, Bungalow, and Prairie Square styles dripping with character and unique design dating back to the first half of the 1900s. The homes by the lakes are even more charming. As my friends and I wandered the neighborhoods by Harriett Lake, I daydreamed about living there. In the same neighborhood, be still my heart, I came across a little free library.

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Walking the streets of downtown and the urban pockets of the city, the unique identity of the city is clearly visible. Nature and architecture exist cohesively among flour factories, waterfalls, hike and bike trails, and bridges. The music scene is vast. Murals pay homage Prince and his once strong presence in his hometown, where he used to frequently perform for free. Show-goers clad in black attend the free Avenged Sevenfold rock concert downtown. Families gather together in the park for a free contemporary music concert by the lake.

There are unique eateries and shops all over the city. My friend D and I had the nerdy pleasure of visiting a specialty bookstore called Once Upon a Crime. I indulged in the
purchase of two mystery novels, both written and signed by Minnesota authors.
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Little Girl Gone unravels the mystery of a missing baby and takes place in the Twin Cities during the deepest part of winter. The weather, which is iconic in the Minnesota, plays a major roll in both the imagery and plot of the book. It is a fast-paced fun read.

 

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Windigo Island unravels the mystery of a missing teenage girl. It takes place in a more rural northern part of Minnesota but uniquely incorporates the culture and folklore of Native Americans in the region. It is full of interesting characters both gritty and wise.

One of my absolute favorite things about Minneapolis though was the fairy trees. Throughout the city including in neighborhoods and along the lakes, at the base of some trees sit tiny painted doors. Locals indulge the idea that fairies live in the trees.  They make doors for the fairy houses and kids often leave gifts and ornaments for the fairies at the bases of the trees. In a world where we can all use a little more magic and enchantment in our lives, these fairy trees made my heart shimmer.

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No trip to Minneapolis is complete without visiting the Mall of America. My friends and I spent a half-day wandering the endless shops and then indulging in thrill rides at the indoor amusement park. We anxiously waited in line for the Sponge Bob ride, and at the height of the first drop, we happily screamed at the exact same time and laughed all the way to end.

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The summers in Minnesota are misleadingly beautiful. The sun and warm breeze cast a spell on you, and you quickly forget the other side of the season in which wind chills create a real threat of frostbite and snow threatens to hold you hostage wherever you are.

Minneapolis/St. Paul definitely cast its spell of enchantment on me, and I cannot wait to go back.