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SFO: Wine And Cows

June 22, 2006

Every vacation has to have a low point. A good attitude and perseverance ensured that our low point wasn’t even that low … we’re cool like that.

We headed out of SF yesterday with an upbeat attitude, but much redder than we’d arrived. Tuesday’s excursion to Alcatraz pushed us over the solar saturation line, and we were both suffering from a little sunburn come morning. Despite a little discomfort we made good time to Healdsburg, a town dead center in the Sonoma Wine Country. We’d been told to do lunch at the Oak Valley Grocery Store, and our first order of business when we pulled into town was to do just that.

Actually, our first order of business was to feel the heat. While it had been in the low 70s for much of the week in San Francisco, the Italian climate in Sonoma was approaching 100 degrees. Undaunted (initially) we found the grocery and grabbed a bite. I’m duly impressed; I’ve been to some froofy grocers in my time but this was probably the most froof I’d ever seen. I had a turkey and pancetta sandwich, Katie had a small order of a potato salad, and we shared a cold corn salad that was very refreshing in the heat. Fed, we headed back out into the sun. In order to ensure that our limited en-reddening stayed limited, we purchased some sunscreen from the Safeway just off of Main Street. The looks from the locals as we gooed ourselves up were pretty priceless.

Protected, refreshed, with water in hand, we took in the sights on the main street in Healdsburg. A bunch of interesting boutiques line the street … with some being questionably useful. The Hand Fan museum was closed when we went past, as was the Japanese cloth store, and the cheese shop. We did stop in at Susan’s Basement, where Katie picked out a really cute t-shirt cloth dress for a birthday present. We also went through a really crappy kitchen supply store, and I marveled at the uselessness of most kitchen devices. Lame.

After a few hours of window shopping, we checked into our hotel. A Best Western, just off the freeway. You can smelly the Klassy. The room was clean enough, but we had a devil of a time getting the internet connection working. It involved several visits from the bellhop and a lot of annoyed phone calls on my part. We ditched our stuff in the room, and began the winery portion of our day.

Despite the heat, despite the not-so-great hotel, seeing the wineries and tasting the wine was a good bit of fun. We hit the Bella wine caves, which are nice to look at but didn’t offer much in the way of taste. They were also kinda snobby. All they do is red, and when I asked where a good place to try white might be one of the employees said ‘Is white even really wine?’ One of his fellows was more helpful, and we tried whites at the hippy-dippy wine tasting room of Preston. Despite the vegan, anti-meat, anti-food-industry propaganda all around, the wine was more than a little tasty. We were hoping to check out Foppiano too, but they were closed by the time we made it into that neck of the woods. Instead, we tasted wine at Armida, a great place with friendly tasting bar attendants. Their award-winning Poizin was as good as advertised, and we ended up buying two bottles (with coffins) as gifts for friends.

By that point it was getting late in the day, and we began the search for food. We actually stopped in at several fairly expensive places, each time determining that we really weren’t in the mood. We decided on a beer and burgers joint just off of the main street, Bear Republic Brewery. My only complaint was the heavy smell of malt hanging in the air, and the annoying table of tourists nearby. The pulled pork and bread pudding made up for small annoyances, and the whole bill was as much as one of us would have cost at the other restaurants we explored.

So, for a day that had a number of setbacks and disappointments, things ended fairly well.

Today we woke early, for a slightly longer jaunt into the farmland of Northern California. Ferndale is a … I won’t call it picturesque because I like my in-laws. Let’s just say it’s a slice of America that I’ve not had the chance to experience very often. It’s set in a very beautiful valley just a few miles from places that would remind any Sci-Fi fan very strongly of Endor. Rolling farmlands, lots of cows. It’s always an experience for someone who did most of his growing up in suburbs of Chicago.

Once in the valley, we headed to the Giacomini farm and caught up with the relatives. Katie’s grandparents very kindly offered to play tourist with us on our one day in town, and we decided to take them up on it right away. We headed up to one of the hills around the valley, where the town’s Catholic cemetary has a commanding view of the entire area. The Giacominis maintain the cemetery, and know every story there is to tell about the inhabitants and history. Besides the interesting stories about relations, we got a lot of the gorey details on horrible things insensitive people have done to the sanctified ground. It was enlightening to know that there were veterans of the revolutionary war in the cemetery. I could have done without the knowledge that someone once took a 4×4 up the central staircase, and used a headstone to pry his vehicle loose when he got stuck. Despite failing batteries I still took some breathtaking pictures, and the natural and historic significance of our surroundings was really wonderful to experience.

We continued our tourist gig in town, where the Giacominis walked us down the main street. Information was less forthcoming … I’m not sure that I would be that great a host on State Street either. Just the same, it was fun to take in the slower pace of the Ferndale downtown. What was interesting to see was the touristification of that slower pace. Many stores have become ‘antique mall’ style odds and ends storefronts. There were lots of people walking the street that obviously didn’t live there. It was hard for the Giacominis to understand, and a challenge for me as well.

After our downtown tour, we took our leave to go visit Wendy, a talented writer and friend to the Giacomini family. We were instructed, strenuously, to meet up with the woman by Katie’s brother Don. When Don was out here working on the farm, he fell in with a project Wendy was running. The valley was flooded in a spot of harsh rain many years ago, and the project was an interview heavy recollection of the events surrounding the flood. Wendy recently had another book published, and Katie was actually reading it (When I Grow Up I Want To Be 60) as we drove up to the Ferndale valley. At Wendy’s, we chatted and talked for over an hour; the issues of the day discussed on the edge of the Pacific. We had a lovely time talking, and agreed to meet up again the next time we were in town.

Instead of heading back to town right away, Katie and I went down to the Ferndale beach to enjoy the wind and water. I don’t want to waste a lot of words on describing the ‘standing around and looking at the water’ we did. For me, a person who’s never lived near an ocean for any length of time, it will never get old to do that.

We met back up with the Giacominis in town, for dinner at the Ivanhoe hotel. Heading back into the dining room we passed through the hotel bar, where a trio of local folks were playing songs on the guitar, singing, and drinking. Tourists packed the place, thinking they’d found a great taste of local culture. Except, not so much. One of the guys was, in fact, a gent from the richest family in town. The downhome songs they sing are super simple because, in all honesty, they’re too drunk to remember new tunes. Dinner was enjoyed by everyone but me. I chose poorly; the chicken piccata was a saucy boney mess.

Despite the lackluster cuisine, we had a wonderful time in Ferndale. My suburban/urban mentality buckles under the imagery in this valley: mountains, trees, and endless fields of cattle. It’s so completely removed from everything I’ve experienced during my life; beautiful, natural, and breezily cool. I know they’re used to it … I imagine that they don’t even notice it anymore. I just know that every time I come here it’s like coming to another planet.

The take-away today: my father-in-law is from the cow planet.

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