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August 28, 2006

Field of (Sweet) Dreams

By M.L. Hilton

(FORT BRAGG, CA) -- I try and make two pilgrimages – at least – to Mendocino County each year. One always comes at the end of August, and its purpose is to reconnect (where possible) with my tribe of women and celebrate the efforts of the body.

Okay, it’s only a soccer tournament. It happens the last weekend in August in Fort Bragg and it brings together a handful of women’s teams ranging in age from teenagers to AARP members.

The weather is usually sparkling in this old lumber town, now Redwood forest haven for tourists and residents, alike. Saturday morning as I walked on to the field, my compatriot remarked that they smelled something sweet and bitter in the air. I turned surprised, flared my nose and sniffed the morning ocean air without picking up the same. When I looked enquiringly, I was offered the punch line: estrogen.

Fort Bragg, named for a long-gone military outpost, tends to be a sleepy little town even in the midst of tourist season.

But this weekend – at least for me – it is turned into a both a field of battle, and a place where I intimately connect with the failings of my aging body – and frequently get yelled at for those same failings. Over the years, I have met with both victory, and defeat, nail-biting comebacks, and on-the-edge-of-your seat losses.

The trinkets I bring home don’t tell the whole story of adult women from dispirit backgrounds and philosophies who come together for two days to try and best a field of competition.

This year, the triumph was oh-so sweet. We came home with second place, but it was a second place lost in an overtime shoot out. Something to be proud of – especially considering we were playing in the “younger” over 30-league, instead of the over-40, where our roster showed we belonged.

On the way home, through the beautiful Anderson Valley, we stopped at Roederer Estate (which if you are not familiar, produces wonderful sparkling wines). Overlooking their lawn rimmed with a riot of blooming flowers and harboring a mother quail with her chicks, we tasted through five sparkling wines. I came home with three: the multi-vintage Brut MV (though the magnum aged a year longer in the bottle was hard to not purchase); the Brut Rose; and the Extra Dry Brut. I picked this one because it was created originally for the White House specifically as an after dinner toasting wine. And I had things to toast that day.

As the sun, freed from the ocean fog, bounced off the harvest fields turning to golden; as I re-lived my little wins and errors from the games; as I enjoyed the glow from the glass of champagne, the car droned down the country road toward home.

There came to me a lingering appreciation that it was another good day living in wine country; another good day in a relatively good life.

If you are interested in visiting (with or without your cleats):
The City of Fort Bragg sits amongst once dense timber lands and the lush fishing fields of the Pacific Ocean. Its weathered homes now house residents that more likely participate in the tourist trade than logging or deep sea fishing. It’s a great, low-key and connect-with-nature getaway.

Look for lodging tips, and dining ideas on Mendocino.WineCountry.com.

August 25, 2006

Mystic and Magical Bodega Bay

By M.L. Hilton

(BODEGA BAY, CA) -- Just yesterday I found myself sitting on the warm deck of Gourmet Au Bay with three tastes of wine waiting to be explored beside me and the edge of the Pacific Ocean in front of me. I zoned off (for like three hours) looking into the horizon. The bay was glassy and grey blending almost seamlessly into the light layer of clouds that colored the sky.

It was a monochrome world, interspersed with black birds and dark grey-green trees that display the nature of this sometimes harsh environment in their gnarled branches and tight small leaves. The trees have learned a balance, a symbiosis that we as humans mimic on our best days and flout on our worst.

Briefly the clouds attempted to burn off, giving glimpses of a warm blue sky that made the already calm ocean seem even more benevolent.

Sitting Thursday afternoon (sans hordes of tourists) and rolling my wine slowly around my tongue, the day was definitely a guilty pleasure . . . just hanging out on the deck, listening to the snippets of conversations between the locals coming in for a moment of gossip and a glass of wine, or dipping deeply into my own thoughts.

That was the afternoon; the morning hadn’t started out too badly either.

I rolled out of bed (Bodega Bay Lodge and Spa) spent a few minutes with the newspaper, grabbed a bottle of water and did the sweat lodge thing in the sauna for 20 minutes before ordering breakfast to be brought up to the room, after a shower, and a salt scrub (the Bodega Bay Salt Glow), I bit the bullet, pulled on the blue jeans over my freshly oiled skin, and headed for an afternoon watching sea birds and trying local wines.

It was a recipe for relief. Bodega Bay and its surrounds are a respite from urban sprawl and time pressures. If you are going to be pampered, you may want to pick a resort to visit. Here the locals are happy to share, and give you the tools to help you make yourself content.

Gourmet Au Bay, 913 Highway One, Bodega Bay, CA 94923. 707.875.9875

August 20, 2006

A Night to Celebrate: Mike Grgich, Forward from the Paris Tasting

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) -- It was an evening of official acknowledgment for a man already well recognized. On Friday, August 18, a discrete crowd of handsome tuxedo-garbed men and sparkling-attired women – many luminaries in their own rights, came to pay homage to Mijenko Grgich.

Titled: An American Dream Come True, the evening’s program paid tribute to the life and achievements of this Croatian-born immigrant. Mike rose to international prominence in 1976 as the winemaker for Chateau Montelena after their 1973 Chardonnay was chosen as the winning white wine in the now historic Paris Tasting.

As with most auspicious events, this overnight success story was years in the making, and few of its participants have been content to rest upon those laurels. It is upon the world’s wine stage that Mike has continued to shine.

The festivities on Friday started with Fume Blanc and oysters on the Herb Terrace at Greystone in St. Helena. The late afternoon weather achieved perfect pitch and the view over vineyards held the glow of the sun’s fading rays. A small group of dancing children, in traditional Croatian costumes marched and weaved and bobbed. They were younger by half than most of the wines sitting on display for the silent auction.

This year coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Paris Tasting, and Mike opened his cellars to help commemorate Napa’s entrée into the exclusive clan of fine wine producing regions, and to raise money for a scholarship program funding professional wine studies at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).

The silent auction included wines from:
Beaulieu Vineyard: 1951, 1954, 1960, 1961, 1964, and 1965 Georges de Latour Private Reserve;
Chateau Montelena: 1973 and 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon;
And a 1943 Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon.

It was the live auction and dinner where the party picked up. Celebrated auctioneer Ursula Hermacinski quickly dispatched the three live auction items, with the most interest in the last known remaining full case of 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay.

Ursula induced all to stand, and to take a step forward at every increment of $100 per bottle, or to sit when your bidding level had been reached. I had to opt out of this adult’s game of Simon Says before it started. Approximately 12 bidders reached the stage pledging to pay around $550 a bottle (as yet unconfirmed by the winery). Ursula would not allow collusion among the bidders and there was no pooling of resources to play, or actually to pay. But everyone seemed happy with their prize.

Stellar guests in attendance were Robert and Margrit Biever Mondavi, along with son Tim. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger sent a letter of official recognition along with Ed Heidig, general counsel for Secretary Sunny Wright McPeak, to represent the State. Local media was well in attendance, and most tables were seated with admiring members of the Grgich Hills wine clubs.

My lively table included a handsome doctor from Dallas (yes, he wore boots), the Prices from Fresno (who will soon be celebrating a scandalously long marriage), and two Bodega Bay movers and shakers – Chris Wedel from Inn at the Tides, and her guest, Charlene Schnall.

No matter how much fun I had, the night belonged to Mike and his family and while the focus was on the famous Paris Tasting and the notable survival of a full case of ’73 Montelena Chard, many rose to the podium to speak about Mike’s continued contributions, his successes, his charity, and of course, Grgich Hill’s current wines and farming practices.

During a recent interview I had with Mike, I asked him if, 30 years ago, he was surprised by the results of the Paris Tasting. Melodie, he told me, I was prepared to make world class wines.

August 12, 2006

Napa Valley Celebrity Sighting: Bill Gates at The Grill

By M.L. Hilton

(NAPA, CA) – I was enjoying my huevos rancheros at The Grill at Meadowood earlier this week. I am a connoisseur of this breakfast specialty, as my friends will attest, and ferret out the most delicious servings, but that is another story and I am getting off track.

It was a typically beautiful summer morning, not too early and not late. The temperature had not reached scalding yet (as has happened a couple of times this summer) and I was really liking the view and not reading my copy of the paper.

So, it was easy to be distracted by the conversation around me and to “accidentally” eavesdrop upon my neighbors. Yes, this is how rumors get started and I am about to repeat something heard on the Napa Valley grapevine.

The lively woman sitting one table down was chatting with a young couple across from her on the deck. She was recounting her lunch the day before (also at The Grill) when she and her lunch companions had a close encounter with a very important personage.

While this is clearly unconfirmed by the very discrete Meadowood staff, the woman was quite sure that it was Bill Gates and his wife who had dined al fresco overlooking the golf course. She definitely gave me the impression of someone in the know and I was intrigued by her account.

But not as much as the diner who apparently shared the same seat as the mogul. “Perhaps,” she said, as she finished her lunch and left her seat, “I will buy a lotto ticket today.”