Monthly Archives: February 2013

Relatively Unknown Santa Clara Wines


Napa. Sonoma. Every California wine country traveler knows about these. But what about Santa Clara? Even the winery owners there agree that they’re not a destination wine region.

South of Silicon Valley between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range, Santa Clara Valley has a Mediterranean climate perfectly suited to viticulture. Grapes love the temperature difference, warm days and cold evenings, and thrive.

Native Americans called Santa Clara the valley of the heart’s delight. Casa de Fruta in Hollister, CA, planted its first vineyard in 1908 to make fruit wines, like plum and pomegranate.

In Gilroy, the scene of most current Valley wine production, locals planted apricot trees in the 1930s and sold prunes. Now 18 of Santa Clara’s 23 wineries are here. The 2nd one we visited, Fortino, was the 1st winery here in 1970. The family had been producing wines in Calabria, Italy, since the early 19th century and is now in its 4th generation of passionate Gilroy wine-makers.

As Ruth & I talked to Lee Rodrigues behind the crowded bar as we sampled Fortino’s uniformly excellent wines, I asked Lee which one we should make sure we tasted and he said Charbono. That I had never heard of this grape was understandable since less than 100 acres in the entire state of California are planted with it. The standard practice in the SCV is that wine tasting is free if you buy a bottle. We bought a Charbono.

Ruth & I were lucky that we got lost and accidentally visited Thomas Kruse Winery before finding Fortino. While Fortino has a restaurant, hosts weddings, etc., Kruse is a far more modest operation founded in 1971. Its tasting room was full of wine barrels instead of couples from Cupertino down for a Sunday afternoon outing. Using sustainable farming practices, Kruse quietly produces dependable wines of limited production where we learned that some of the Santa Clara winemakers came from Croatia.

We asked volunteer server Lee at Fortino the name of the “other” great winery in Gilroy and went straight to Satori where after a 5 minute conversation I really admired Tom Moller, the TO in Satori. A self-described Silicon Valley brat, Tom told his wife that he was thinking of buying 20 acres in the Gilroy area and completely upending life-as-they-knew-it. “Only if it’s fun,” was SAndy’s only stipulation. Now bearded, long haired, and happy, Tom told me that 2004 was his first good year and that now he’s earning gold medals. I asked him which wine he was most proud of and he said, “my 2009 Jubilee Cabernet Sauvignon.” CS, he explained, is the trickiest wine to get right. We bought a bottle.

Three days later we stopped at Solis and talked to owner/grower Vic Vanni who told us that his very traditional looking 46 acres had been part of an old Mexican land grant, Rancho de Solis. He taught us how to pronounce Solis correctly (So-lease), told us that his family has been involved since 1980, and mentioned that his Zin won Double Gold at a recent wine competition. We bought a bottle.

Closer to San Jose but still in the Valley, the towns of Saratoga, Morgan Hill, and San Martin also have wineries. You might find Santa Clara wines in Santa Clara Safeways, but not in your local supermarket. You still have to go there to experience them. For now.


Kingman’s Fun Route 66 Museum


As the 19th century westward migration following the discovery of gold became a rush, the need for an all-weather road, a southern route to California, increased.  President Buchanan hired Navy Lieutenant Beale to survey and develop a road following the 35th parallel as closely as possible. The assembled team included 25 camels from Egypt &/or India.  Part of Ed Beale’s instructions was to test them for military use.

The Beale Wagon Road that resulted was the “first federally funded wagon road in America” according to one display in Arizona’s Route 66 Museum. Like the further-north Oregon Trail, sections of it are still visible to travelers trying to see what’s left of 66.

Next the railroad came through.  The Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe connected to the Southern Pacific and  hotels and restaurants with Harvey girls sprang up along the route.  All of this is very well covered in Kingman’s Route 66 Museum in the Powerhouse,  a visitor center that also includes Kingman’s Chamber of Commerce, 2 model trains, etc.  Begun in 1907, the Powerhouse was supposed to supply power for mines, a trolley system, etc.  But now it entertains tourists.

What this Museum is good at is telling stories, like the one about C.C. Pyle, winner of the 1928 Los Angeles to New York footrace that used Route 66 as far as Chicago, its terminus.  With his $25,000 prize, Pyle bought a car and drove back to Oklahoma.

What it’s not especially good at is reducing clutter, refreshing its exhibits, and creating a watchable film.  The prairie schooner and its migrating mannikin family looks like it has been untouched since installation, and the current film as one exits is like watching Grandpa Jones old films of his heyday trips to the West Coast 2 or 3 generations ago.

I did, however, love the Burma Shave Tribute.  These fun and funny signs accompanied many roads from 1925 to 1963 when Phillip Morris bought BS. “The chick he wed-let out a whoop-felt his chin-and flew the coop-Burma Shave”.

I also was impressed by the 1950 Studebaker on display and its historical significance.  The only company that spanned the era from wagons to cars, South Bend, Indiana’s Studebaker Corporation lasted for 114 years.

Route 66 was totally paved by 1938.  Folks with foresight realized its importance to the coming war effort, and many training bases popped in the West, especially in California, because of Route 66.  Convoys were not an unusual sight for travelers from 1941 until World War II’s end and beyond. Fifteen years after Pearl Harbor the Interstate Highway System was proposed and 66 began its slide toward nostalgia.


Get Your Museum Fix on Route 66


On our way from Phoenix to Las Vegas earlier this month (February, 2013), Ruth & I stopped in Kingman, Arizona, to check out the Route 66 Museum in the town’s old Powerhouse.  After we exited, I asked the man behind the counter if he knew of other Route 66 museums.   “There’s one in California,” he said.  “I have a brochure here somewhere.”   He proceeded to track it down and give it to me.  It’s in Old Town Victorville.

I told the Kingman man that there was one in Illinois too that I planned to visit the next time I drove from St. Louis, my hometown, to Chicago, a city that Ruth & I consider our second Midwest home.

“I believe there’s a museum in every state Route 66 passed through,” he said vaguely.

I thought this over, did some research and, indeed, Route 66 memorial museums & attractions are everywhere along it length.

Illinois’ Route 66 Hall of Fame & Museum is in Pontiac, home also to the Pontiac Correctional Center, the medium & maximum security prison that Rod Blagojevich tried to shut down when he was Governor.  Ironically, Rod’s current address is the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado.  But that’s another story.  After seeing Kingman’s, I’m looking forward to visiting Pontiac’s.

Missouri doesn’t have a stand-alone 66 museum, but there’s a Route 66 Tourist Information Center on the 1st level of the Jordan Valley Car Park in Springfield and a museum in Lebanon’s Laclede County Library.

People getting their travel fix on Route 66 until the Interstate replaced it spent their shortest time in Kansas, which had only 13 miles of this iconic highway.  What’s left is reportedly among the best preserved beginning with the town of Galena that’s just across the Missouri/Kansas border.

Oklahoma has the longest, still drivable section of the original highway and a major museum in Clinton–the aptly named Oklahoma Route 66 Museum. Its website calls it “the ultimate Route 66 experience” and notes that its galleries have been recently redesigned.   That Oklahoma has a major 66 focus became understandable when I recalled that many Okies left Dust Bowl OK and headed for CA.   John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, still the best book I’ve ever read, tells what 66 was like in the 1930s.

The Texas Route 66 Museum in McLean opened in 1991.   It was the first of its kind and boasts that its “modest collection of artifacts” is authentic because all items on display came from original 66 businesses with no replicas.

New Mexico has a Route 66 Auto Museum in Santa Rosa that reliable tripadvisor gives four green dots out of 5.  Its specialty appears to be classic cars.

I’ll tell you about Kingman’s Route 66 museum tomorrow.


Our Downton Abbey–Filoli


Want to visit Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle)?  You don’t have to go to England.  Just go to San Francisco, travel 30 miles south, and turn right into Filoli.

Strange name?  It’s actually an acronym created by William Bourn, owner of the Empire Gold Mine and Spring Valley Water Company that now supplies the city water as the San Francisco Water Company.  Fi stands for Fight (for a just cause), lo (love your fellow man–women were excluded because this estate’s name was created in the early 20th century, by a man), li–live the good life).

You would think that, having survived the 1906 earthquake, San Franciscans like William and Agnes would build their singular, Irish inspired estate between 1915 to 1917 in a shake free zone.  However, Filoli, a 43 room Georgian influenced mansion with 17 bathrooms, was constructed 275 yards from the San Andreas Fault according to excellent tour guide Donna Mollenhauer.   The Bourns, however, made it as earthquake-proof as possible so it survived the severe 1989 quake with only one cracked chimney.

My favorite story about Filoli’s history had to do with its second owners, the Roths, owners of the Matson Navigation Company, who bought Filoli in 1937.  Getting ready to sign sale documents in 1975, Lurline Matson Roth was appalled to realize that Filoli would subsequently be torn down.  She immediately called off the sale and, instead, donated the house and gardens to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  We benefit.  The estate is now about 600 acres and hiking is popular beyond the house.

And what gardens!  They rival any I’ve seen, anywhere in the world. After the house tour, I couldn’t imagine anything grander until Donna took us through the gardenS.   To describe them would exhaust my adjective supply, so, let me just say, 250 types of apple trees and an entire section recreating a Chartres stained-glass window.

And then there’s the house that, many times, had me thinking I was actually touring Downton Abbey, especially in the kitchen, hallways, below the Belgian marble stairs (Belgian Congo, the source), and the Reception Room, my favorite. Ruth’s was a dollhouse sized miniature (maquette) of the sumptuous ballroom that rivals, or outdoes, any palace ballroom I’ve seen in Europe.  One hallway is a 148 feet long transverse tunnel that could accommodate the entire Downton Abbey cast with much space left over. Donna’s favorite is Mr. Bourn’s comfortable office which could be a Downton Abbey set without a single modification.  As I stood admiring the kitchen’s enormous work table, I wouldn’t have been a bit surprised to have Mrs. Patmore bustle in and offer tea.

It takes a battalion+ of 1,300 volunteers like Donna to keep Filoli a 5 Compass attraction.   When opened to the public from some time in February until October, flower arrangers, for example, appear every Monday to create the floral masterpieces like the one above that are seen throughout the house.

Hollywood has noticed Filoli.  12 films have been made here, the first being Heaven Can Wait.  One of the J C Penney commercials on the 2013 Oscar broadcast was shot at Filoli.

Lurline provided some of the house’s current decor but what visitors mostly see is Melville Martin’s superb collection of multi-period furnishings.

I checked Highclere Castle’s visitation schedule to find that March, April, and May are sold out.  There are only 3 dates available in July and 8 in September.   August is currently your best shot, but surely not for long.  So do yourself a big favor and save a fortune by going instead to our very own Downton Abbey–Filoli.


The Sonoran’s Organ Pipes


In the visitor center of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Sonoran is called the “patient” desert.  Some of its animal residents wait all day for the sun to go to become active,  and flora & fauna thrive during two intense periods of rain.  That the Sonoran has 2 periods of rain each year makes it unique among U.S. deserts.   In July and August it averages three and a half inches of monsoon-like precipitation, and about another inch and a half falls more gently in November and December.  This makes it the richest desert in vegetation and earns it a second nickname, the Green Desert.

A distinct species of cacti, the organ pipe for which OPCNM is named (see photo above) is similar to yet different from the saguaro, which also thrives in OPCNM.   Both grow in columns but the organ pipe can produce 20 or more over a normal 150 year lifetime.  If you want to stay in the U.S. and see organ pipes in relative abundance, you have to go to OPCNM.  Because they’re especially sensitive to frost, they only grow here.  Far more common in Mexico, they only made it north to Arizona about 3,500 years ago.  Also not fond of heat, the patient organ pipe’s first flowers appear around age 35 and bloom only at night.  Is it worth the trip to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to see them?  Yes.  Overall, it’s a 4 Compass experience.

Outside the Kris Eggle Visitor Center 17 miles into the Monument is a tribute to Park Ranger Kris.  It describes him as”…gunned down while pursuing members of an alleged drug cartel who illegally crossed the border after committing a string of murders in Mexico.”  At the time of our visit, one of the center’s doors had been broken by intruders and part of the park was closed for security reasons.  As Ruth & I took the Ajo Mountain Drive, helicopters circled overhead and rangers were in evidence.  A number of allegedly drug filled bags waiting to be picked up had been found in the area.  We were stopped and questioned by border control agents both entering and leaving the Monument.  Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument shares a 30 mile border with Mexico and contain 150 miles of illegal roads. Did we feel unsafe? Never.

A UN designated International Biosphere Reserve for almost 40 years, Organ Pipe today means 312,000 acres of well-protected (in every way) Sonoran Desert and an excellent visitor center.  OPCNM’s non-human residents include exceedingly rare pupfish which swim in a small pond on a well-tended, informative trail behind the center.  The patient kangaroo rat in this one-of-a-kind dessert never drinks water.  All its moisture is provided by a diet of mesquite beans and grass seeds.

The border town of Lukeville 5 miles south of the vc isn’t worth driving to unless you’re going into Mexico, need gas, etc. but the mining town of Ajo north of the Monument is stop-worthy.  The Ajo Mountain Drive, a 21 mile, one-way journey on a well-maintained dirt road is a Best-of-Monument, 5 Compass stunner.  Allow at least 2 hours.