Posts filed under Adventures

First Impression: Wineries in Fallbrook

Our terrible photography skills are on display outside The Rib Shack in Fallbrook.

It started with a quest for barbecue. 

Our friends Alisa and Ken told us about a great place in Fallbrook called The Rib Shack. Another couple we're friends with, Karin and Jeff, recently went there too and confirmed it was legit.

So Sally and I decided to take a Sunday drive to Fallbrook for some barbecue. Fallbrook is an unincorporated community in northern San Diego County, so we thought it might make for a nice ride. And hey, while we were up there, why not check out a few wineries?

First, we're happy to report the barbecue at The Rib Shack is outstanding. Sally is a Texan with a pretty high barbecue standard, and she enthusiastically declared it barbecue she could stand behind.

On to the wine.

There are only a few wineries that are open for public tastings on the weekend. (A few others do tastings by appointment only.) Our new friend, Marcia, at Toasted Oak Winery gave us this cool hand drawn "Almost a Wine Trail" map of wineries that are open for walk-in tastings on the weekend. Most are open 12pm-5pm.

Fallbrook Almost a Wine Trail Map

You can download a PDF of the map here. The Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce also has a more extensive list of wineries available on its website. 


Toasted Oak Winery

There's a cool story behind the name. The entire property was burned by the 2007 Rice Canyon Fire and only one oak tree survived. That's the toasted oak you see here.

The surviving oak tree at Toasted Oak Winery.

Owners Marcia and Roger bought the property in 2008, but just opened their tasting room in April, 2017. The winery consists of two acres and they produce approximately 200 cases per year.

Marcia was our host in the tasting room and she was a lot of fun! It's clear that she enjoys sharing wine, just like us.

One thing I really appreciated is Marcia didn't try to give us tasting notes before we actually tried the wine. (Huge pet peeve!) In fact, she asked us what tastes and smells we were getting from the wines and compared them to her own notes. That's truly the way to taste wine since there's no right answer, and it made for a great experience.

We also enjoyed listening to Marcia's stories about running a small winery. She explained how the high price of oak barrels has made them rethink their oak program and even consider using flex tanks for future vintages in an effort to keep costs down. Winemakers will often add barrel staves or oak chips to impart oak flavor despite not using oak barrels.

Sally and I generally aren't fans of this winemaking style, but you can easily understand why a winemaker would choose to do this. The wines were all priced at either $25 or $28 per bottle and its hard to keep those price points at a small production winery.

It was also fun to hear how she and Roger navigated a lot of ups and downs that come with running a small winery, such as a bought of a grape fungus called botrytis that wiped out 75 percent of their crop one year and the scare of a big fire last fall.

This winery is definitely worth a visit if you decide to tour the region!


Estate d'Iacobelli Vineyards and Winery

This experience could not have been more different than our visit to Toasted Oak Winery. 

Our host didn't know much about the wines she was pouring and didn't seem to care. We tried asking a few questions, such as how the wines were aged and were consistently met with a flat "I don't know."

It's okay to not know. We never expect anyone to be an expert and it's perfectly fine to look something up or ask someone. But it's a huge bummer when the person pouring your wine doesn't even care and can't be bothered to try.

Strangely, many of the current releases were from the 2010 vintage, which is unusually old wine for a winery to be pouring for tastings right now. You expect a little brick coloring on wines as they age, but the 2010 Sangiovese was extremely brick in color. It had a distinct raisin taste, which usually suggests the wine may have been "cooked" or overheated at some point.

We asked our host if the brick color was normal and she again replied, "I don't know," before adding, "I don't really pay attention to the color of the wine." Yay.

The lack of any enthusiasm was a little disappointing. The good news is there are more wineries in Fallbrook for us to try the next time we go on a barbecue run!

Posted on February 25, 2018 and filed under Tasting Experiences, Adventures.

A Visit to Napa Valley After the Fires

Note: This post was originally published on the Inside Customer Service blog.

"I didn't know if I'd have a job to go back to."

That's something Sally and I heard over and over from winery employees, restaurant servers, and other customer service professionals we encountered in Napa Valley.

We visited during the first week in November. By then, the multiple wildfires that spread throughout the valley in October had been extinguished. The loss of life and property was terrible.

Now locals faced another potential disaster—job losses.

An estimated 9,000 people lost their jobs due to the October fires throughout Northern California, including Napa Valley. Many are worried that job losses are yet to come as the local economy deals with the aftermath.

My wife and I consistently heard one message while we were in Napa. "We're open for business. Please come to visit."

The view outside  Benessere Vineyards , makers of incredible Italian varietal wines. Photo credit: Jeff Toister

The view outside Benessere Vineyards, makers of incredible Italian varietal wines. Photo credit: Jeff Toister

What Actually Burned

It's tough to follow a disaster on the news. Print and television media often confused the basic geography of the area when reporting on the fires.

As a result, people I've spoken to from around the country saw coverage of the fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties and assumed everything was burning. In reality, there were multiple fires that were large and devastating, though the majority of Napa Valley emerged unscathed.

That's not to say the damage wasn't extensive.

Lives and homes were lost, which is the most tragic consequence. We saw images like these throughout certain parts of the valley.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

The hills surrounding parts of the valley were also extensively burned as the fire raged unchecked through the backcountry. For those who haven't visited the area, Napa Valley is quite rural in places.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

One stroke of luck was the grapevines themselves acted as a natural firebreak. Many wineries were saved when the fire was stopped at the edge of the vineyard. At William Hill Estate Winery, one of our favorites, the signed was burned and the flames crept up to the side of the winery.

Photo credit: Sally Toister

Photo credit: Sally Toister

Images like this might discourage you from visiting, though the wine was flowing, the wine room and surrounding garden were still intact, and the hospitality was still warm and friendly.

Even parts of the area that didn't burn were impacted by a thick cloud of ash and smoke that hung over the valley for several days. Some wineries lost grapes not from fire but from the air. Wine made from grapes exposed to smokey air can develop a distinctly unpleasant smoke taste.

Everywhere we looked there were remnants of soot from the fire. Workers at the Soda Canyon Store told us it took them three days to clean the store before they could reopen. I'm happy to report the store is now clean and the sandwiches are as delicious as ever.


The Economic Impact

Sally and I rented a house in downtown Napa for a week-long working vacation.

We secured the rental months earlier. A week or so before our trip we weren't sure if it was still a good idea to go. I emailed the property manager and asked.

She quickly replied and asked us to please come. The house had experienced a number of cancellations during one of the busiest times of the year. Her business, like so many others in the valley, could really use the revenue.

The valley is still sorting out the long-term economic impact of the fires. There will be costs to rebuild houses and businesses as well as replace burned out vehicles. 

We consistently heard about cancellations. The upside is we often had personalized tasting experiences like this one at Saintsbury.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

That was good for us, though not so great for the winery. The Napa Valley Register shared a recent story indicating many wineries have seen the number of visitors decline considerably over this same time last year.


How to Help

The best thing you can do is plan a trip to Napa.

The area is beautiful. Most of the wine and wineries are perfectly fine. The fall can be a special time of year as the leaves on the vines change. Some places are just magical.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

You can also buy Napa wine if a trip is not in the works. Your local wine shop is sure to have some great selections. You can also buy directly from a favorite winery and have it shipped directly to you.

Finally, consider a donation to the Napa Valley Community Foundation. This is an organization that works closely with other local nonprofits to funnel money to areas where there's the greatest need such as food, shelter, childcare, and transportation.

The area will recover. This is a close-knit community that became even closer in the wake of a disaster. One of our winery hosts told us, "We're farmers. Farmers help each other."

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Posted on December 3, 2017 and filed under Adventures.

A Short Guide to Wine Tasting in Los Olivos

Sally and I recently enjoyed wine tasting in the town of Los Olivos with some friends. If you've tasted wine from Santa Barbara County, you know it well. 

If you haven't yet visited Los Olivos, you should. Here's an overview to help you plan your visit.


The Town

Los Olivos is a tiny town of just over a thousand people located in Santa Barbara County. The town is near famous AVAs such as the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills. You can get a good overview of the region on the Santa Barbara Vintners website.

The main section of Los Olivos is the intersection of Grand and Alamo Pintado avenues that form a central hub of tasting rooms, casual eateries, and small shops.

A look down Grand Avenue shows a few of our favorites clustered together: E11EVEN (a sub-label of Andrew Murray), Evan's Ranch (a sub-label of Gainey Ranch), and Olive Hill Farm, which is a purveyor of awesome olive and balsamic oils.

A fun quirk about this town is the public restrooms are located in the St. Marks In-the-Valley Episcopal Church. I think that officially makes Los Olivos a small town.

Los Olivos was also featured in the movie, Sideways. One of the most iconic scenes was filmed at the Los Olivos Cafe where Myles epically refused to drink Merlot..

Two Great Tasting Rooms

You can taste your way through several great tasting rooms without walking more than a block. There are a few other tasting rooms in the immediate vicinity that we'll have to try on a future visit.

Here are our picks:


Alta Maria

They specialize in Pinot Noir.

We tasted six different Pinot Noirs. Our favorites were the 2012 Santa Maria Valley Pinot Noir, the 2013 Garey Vineyard Pinot Noir, and the 2013 Bien Nacido Block G Pinot Noir. Doing a side-by-side tasting of wines made by the same winemaker from the same grape really gives you an idea of how the location where the grapes are grown can influence flavor.



They specialize in Grenache. Our favorite here was the 2013 Tierra Alta Vineyard Grenache. We ended up buying two bottles, which waived the tasting fees.

This is a very dog friendly tasting room. The dogs almost outnumbered the humans when we visited with four or five dogs crowded into a small space. 



There are a few cool cafes in Los Olivos, but we opted to pick up tri-tip sandwiches as the R Country Market. One block away, there are picnic tables in the park adjacent to the town square, which was a relaxing place to enjoy our meal.

We've enjoyed some nice sandwiches from Panino on previous visits. Our friends recommended a newer place called Sides, but there was a pretty long wait by the time we got over there. Maybe next time!


Bonus Stop

There are quite a few wineries that are a short drive from the main section of Los Olivos. We've visited several on trips in 2011 and 2012.

On this trip, we decided to return to Rusack. It was a good decision.

Rusack is a short drive from the main section of Los Olivos. They have a spacious tasting room with a patio overlooking rolling, vineyard-covered hills.

The wines are very good. They were out of their Anacapa Cabernet Franc (a favorite of ours), but we enjoyed some very nice wines including their 2015 Rose and 2014 Sauvignon Blanc. Don't tell Rusack this, but their 2013 Ballard Canyon Estate Syrah is a steal at $29 per bottle.



We've stayed at The Hadsten House in Solvang on previous trips and it's been a very nice place for the money. There are more dining options near here, and it's just a short drive to the Los Olivos tasting rooms.

On this trip, we stayed at The Montecito Inn. It's in Montecito, an unincorporated community adjacent to Santa Barbara that's about an hour's drive from Los Olivos. I had been staying there all week because I had been on a business trip, so we decided to extend our stay.

It offers small, but nice guest rooms and is a short walk to the beach and a lot of restaurants. It's also in a very wealthy part of town. On one half-mile walk to dinner we saw seven Porsches, an Aston Martin, and a Bentley!

Posted on April 23, 2016 and filed under Adventures.

First Impression: The North Mountain Wine Trail

Sally and I are always looking for good wine made in San Diego County. 

Most of what we’ve tried hasn’t been too great. A lot of these wineries resemble a bar more than they do purveyors of fine wine. You know you have a problem when bedazzled t-shirts, wine-scented candles, and “Wine a Bit” posters outsell the wine.

There are a few gems.

A trip to Ramona revealed a few wineries to watch, including Kohill. There are a few urban wineries that show promise too, most notably Carruth Cellars in Solana Beach. Urban winery Vinavanti even produced the surprise winner in our Cabernet Franc blind tasting.

Yesterday, we discovered another hidden gem that’s far off the beaten path.

The North Mountain Wine Trail is a collection of four wineries near Warner Springs. This is a small community on Highway 79 in the most northern part of the county, about a 30 minute drive from Julian.

Hawk Watch

Our first stop was Hawk Watch Winery. A narrow dirt driveway took us from the road to the winery. The patio outside their wine room offered sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.


Inside we met Lisa Schnell, who owns and operates the winery with her husband Mike. They opened the winery in 2008 and focus on making high-quality, fruit driven wine. All of the production is done in-house with an output of about 1,700 cases per year.

We were both pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wine. Almost everything we tasted was pleasing to our palate and the $20 - $30 price points were reasonable. 

The two standouts for us were the 2011 Syrah and the 2011 Zentangle. The Syrah had a nice smokey nose with a hint of cinnamon, good dark fruit and spice on the body, and a black pepper finish.

The Zentangle is a Meritage blend consisting of 64% Cabernet Franc, 27% Merlot, and 9% Petit Verdot. The nose smelled like blueberries and oak with eucalyptus, cherry, and dark fruit flavors on the palate that gave way to a nice tannin finish. 


La Serenissima

You need an appointment to visit La Serenissima. Schnell suggested we make one as we left Hawk Watch. We’re glad we did.

Getting to La Serenissima requires a short trip down a dusty dirt road. There’s no sign to tell you you’re there. Only the address confirms you’ve made it. Fortunately, owner and winemaker Tony Tiso was there to greet us as we pulled in.


Two and a half hours somehow evaporated as Tiso poured his wine, shared his wine-making philosophies, and gave us a tour of the operation. 

One highlight was tasting the 2010 Claret from three different barrels. The Claret consists of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, and 15% Cabernet Franc. It’s known as a field blend because the wines are all aged together in the same cask. Tiso uses French, American, and Hungarian oak casks to bring out different qualities in the wine before blending them all together just before bottling. It was fun to experience different notes from the same wine coming out of different barrels.

The wines are all estate grown and they produce around 800 cases per year. Tiso makes some well-known varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah along with some lesser-known grapes like Arneis.

His 2013 Arneis was really distinctive. It’s a white wine that originates from Italy. The wine is bright and refreshing with a floral nose that gives way to stone fruit tastes and light minerality. It felt like a good deal at $20 per bottle.


More Wineries to Visit

The long drive and leisurely tastings didn’t leave us time for any other stops. The other two wineries in the area are Shadow Mountain and Sierra Roble.

We’ll have to come back soon.

The Napa Valley Give 'Em Another Chance Tour

We sometimes select a theme to make our trips to Napa Valley even more fun.

In 2009, we visited the wineries made famous in the 1976 Paris tasting. In 2012, we celebrated our tenth trip by visiting our 10 favorite wineries

This year, our theme was “Give ‘Em Another Chance.”

The itinerary included wineries we had previously visited that somehow missed the mark. Some weren’t quite right, but had potential. Others were a little pricey for our budget at the time. A few more were good but were forgotten as we explored still more wineries.

There were a couple of pleasant surprises, one big dud, and a lot of great wine.


Surprise #1: St. Supery

Here’s how we’d typically hit a wine room the first time we went to St. Supery:

  1. Sidle up to the bar
  2. Ask to split a standard tasting
  3. Knock back whatever they poured
  4. Take off to the next winery

This clearly isn’t a recipe for wine enjoyment. Here’s how we taste now:

  1. Sidle up to the bar
  2. Ask to split a reserve tasting
  3. Make small talk with our host
  4. Ask lots of questions
  5. Enjoy the wine and linger

Our new and improved approach paid big dividends at St. Supery. Their wine was very, very good. We favored their Petit Verdot, Malbec, Merlot, and their Cabernet Sauvignon, although everything was tasty.

Big, purple smiles at St. Supery!


Surprise #2: Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Their 1973 Cabernet Sauvignon put Napa Valley on the map when a panel of French judges named it the winner in a 1976 blind tasting that featured some of the top French wines of the day.

We first visited this winery in 2003 when we stuck to the standard list and didn’t ask many questions. That’s a surefire way to avoid tasting the good stuff like their world famous Cabernet.

Not this time.

We went straight to the reserve list. Our reward was tasting some of the most delicious Cabernet Sauvignon’s you can imagine. The 2010 Cask 23 Cabernet Sauvignon was absolutely amazing. The only reason we didn’t take home a case of it was the $225 per bottle price tag. At least we got to try it!

Very good wine, though very expensive.


The Dud: Trefethen

One winery that really disappointed was Trefethen.

The first impression of their limo and party-bus infested parking lot was uninviting. They clearly wanted to get ‘em in and get ‘em out.

They really rolled out the unwelcome wagon.

It’s a common practice for wineries to charge tasting fees. They’re often refunded with purchase. Not so at Trefethen, where they charge the tasting fee up front. 

The wine itself was the final straw. It just wasn’t very good. I asked our host to check on one bottle because the wine tasted corked. (He insisted that the wine tasted the way it usually does.) 

Even a wine club member tasting next to us remarked that she was surprised by the poor quality of the wine. 

We didn’t leave Trefethen with a smile.


The Verdict

There was one more curious thing that happened on our trip. We stopped in at Odette, which is the new sister winery to Cade and PlumpJack

The new winery showed a lot of promise. They also let us taste selections from their other wineries, which made for a one-stop shop. We ended up purchasing a half-case assortment of Cade and wine from Odette's sub-label, Adaptation.

What we didn't purchase was the PlumpJack Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. We've been collecting a vertical of this higher-end Cab for several years and have even written glowingly about their 2006 vintage among others. The current release 2011 was very good, but we no longer felt it was good enough to justify the whopping $98 per bottle price tag.

The trip reminded us that our tastebuds, not our memories, were the best way to judge a wine. 

Posted on May 11, 2014 and filed under Adventures, Tasting Experiences.