Archive for April, 2008

Notes from CA, part VI: Wine

April 25, 2008

Our real goal on this trip was beer, which we did as well as we could. I can’t imagine going through Sonoma and Mendocino county without some wine drinking as well. We tried a few of the wineries in the Healdsburg area and unfortunately the experience didn’t do a whole lot for us. I guess I’m partial to the beer “sampling” in which one gets a sampler of they want, sit and enjoy, and maybe drink a pint to go with it. It all felt rather stuffy to me with wine and the first place we went I felt inadequate if I was not tasting the flavors I was told I would clearly taste. So, we didn’t do many. Although after a pleasant enough tasting at a winery called Lambert Bridge, we had a really nice picnic in their gardens with a view of a nice hillside and that california spring sunshine. But shhhh, we had local beers in our cooler, not wine.

That said, we did go to the Cline winery the day we headed back in to San Francisco whose wines we know pretty well. This really changed my perspective and made me think we had just gone to wineries that I didn’t really like. The folks at Cline were really pleasant and unpretentious and the wines were really good and I felt like I was hanging out at a knowledgable bar rather than the stuffy wine-tasting feel I’d gotten elsewhere. And the wines were excellent. I also found that most of the flavors they said were in the wines were flavors I got. The surprising one was a wine that said it had eucalyptus flavors in it. I thought, either I won’t taste what they’re saying or I won’t like it (I mean, eucalyptus as a wine flavor?) but I was absolutely wrong. I got the flavor they meant immediately and it was quite unique and enjoyable. So, OK, maybe I was wrong about the wine thing. I don’t feel a need to go back for a california wine trek (I do for the beer, though), but at least I get it now.

We also had a really nice bottle of a local winery with an Italian meal in North Beach. I guess it worked out as we’d imagined: mostly beer hunting with at least a sampling of the local wines.

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Notes from CA, Part V: And even more beer

April 24, 2008

Beer notes below are reversed, as somehow I missed publishing part III earlier.  Oh well, it’s posted now, just out of order.

Part III, though, shows us not starting off that well in our beer tasting. Part IV was getting better. And now we get to the highlights. We spent a night in Healdsburg so that we could drink quite freely at Bear Republic. They’ve got a nice patio and we had dinner and samplers and several pints and quite enjoyed ourself. The place itself is a bit bright and overdone for my tastes, but ooooh boy the beers. Of course the Hop Rod and the Racer 5 are well-known classics. They also have an amazing stout and a solid porter. We also tried their “Rebellion” that I really enjoyed. The rebel part is their liberal use of a newer hop variety, Simcoe, and it really works. Both malt and hop flavors are dense and rich with a creamy finish. Well done!

The next day we went through Santa Rosa so we spent happy hour at the Russian River brewpub. This, my friends, is nirvana. They are masters at IPAs and Belgians of all varieties. Why we didn’t stay in Santa Rosa so that I could have drunk more carefreely I don’t know, but as it was we did pretty well. They do a variety of incredibly sour, funky Belgian ales, a really wonderful, spicy tripel, and a rich, yeasty Dubbel. And then there were three IPAs on tap, all of them superb, but rising above them all was Pliny the Elder. These are all beers that make beer hunting the joy that it is. This place alone would make Santa Rosa a place to live.

One other beer note, while I’m listing. Our last night back in San Francisco, we had a few beers at Magnolia in the Haight district (not very good–seems to me those hippie, dead-head brewers need to clean their tap lines a little more), had some good Italian in North Beach, and ended up for some beers at the Rogue Pub which was just around the corner from our hotel. I know it’s not California beer and I’m somewhat mixed on Rogue’s brews (some are really solid, some less so), but I hadn’t had their imperial ipa or their imperial porter before. These wound up being great ways to end our beer adventures. Very well-crafted, thick beers (but I was then quite saddened to realize what the imperial ipa costs at retail–not too sure it’s worth that!).

I feel like we really ended up sampling a range of california beers, from the very marginal Magnolia and so-so Thirsty Bear to the superb Bear Republic and Lagunitas and the downright heavenly Russian River. All in all, a good drinking excursion. Oh yea, the wine…. I’ll get to that next post.

Notes from CA, Part III: Beers

April 24, 2008

So I am sad to say that our first drinking experiences in San Francisco were not all that we were dreaming of. Our first adventures in town (yes, of course, after a day of hiking through the Golden Gate Park and down along the Coast Trail–in rare low 90s temps for San Francisco even) were at Thirsty Bear Brewing. The place was nice enough although a bit more upscale than we were really in the mood for. The “tapas” menu was a bit ridiculous–I really wish I had taken pictures. The two-cheese appetizer for instance, was four incredibly small, thin sliced of unremarkable cheese with about a quarter teaspoon of marmalade and even less of a non-descript fruit sauce (what fruit was that anyway?). We did have a beet salad appetizer that was pretty nice but then we had a veggie “paella” that could barely be described as such. Some risotto in a puddle of chicken stock (so much for the vegetarian part, and so much for the delicious crunchy rice bottom that makes a paella) with no saffron, a few small pieces of asparagus and a few olives. Hmmmm. The beers did better, but not a whole lot. I did have the Golden Hallucination that was a pretty nice belgian ale, but otherwise everything was fairly bland (and the Golden Vanilla was fairly undrinkable in my opinion). This did not bode well for our California drinking adventures.

I had no real intention of going to Gordon Biersch, but it was close to our hotel so we thought we’d at least try a few more beers (and we were too exhausted by that point to hunt down better bars). It was pretty much as I expected: solid beers that were quite drinkable but nothing to go to California for. I had a Maerzen that was decent but that was about it.

Fortunately, I knew that we were just beginning and the good stuff was coming soon enough. And except for another disappointing experience at North Coast a few nights later, everything else proved to be all that we’d gone to CA for. But that’s a story for the next posting.

Notes from CA, Part IV: More Beer

April 22, 2008

So yesterday I posted a less-than-hoped-for start to our california beering, but things got much better shortly.  We spent one night in Sebastopol which is a sleepy little town without much going on (although there is a brewpub called Hopmonk in the works which is not quite open yet–as Maxwell Smart would say, “missed it by that much”).  We did, however, do some shopping for picnic supplies at a whole foods and were thrilled with the amazing beer selection they had.  We started out with a good supply of Lagunitas brews.  Found ourselves late that night drinking Lagunitas’ “Lumpy Gravy” (happy to say that we got word that Lagunitas will be doing a celebration beer for each of Zappa’s albums in succession) in a hot tub under cold stars.  Two folks from San Francisco joined us and sang several Wilco/Billy Bragg tunes from “Mermaid Avenue” in incredible harmony.  Their slightly drunken version of “California Stars” was a real treat.  Lagunitas quickly became one of our favorite breweries on this trip.

The next day, after hiking in the redwoods at Anderson Grove, we worked our way up the coast to Fort Bragg (the place we discovered to stay is worth a posting all on its own–I’ll get to it later).  We did have a semi-sad experience at North Coast.  I was really looking forward to some Brother Thelonious on tap but the place was less-than-inviting.  There was no music and not much service.  We even asked if they had any music, and the waitress (MB ventured to say that the staff had all smoked a bit too much of the mendocino “medicinal” marijuana–not that we have any problem with that, at least if they’re fun about it which wasn’t really the case) said, “no, just the background music.”  Really, folks, there was no music anywhere, so I don’t know what she was hearing, but it sure made us listen a little differently.  Anyway, we had some fairly gross garlic fries and a sampler.  About half the beers were mediocre and half were pretty good.  I like the Rasputin, the Thelonious, and a saison La Merle.  I would have stayed and drank more, but really I felt like they wanted us out of there (perhaps if we all left, they could close early which, when we went back after dinner, we learned they had).

Their loss; our gain.  We went down the street to Piaci’s which I mentioned in an earlier post.  This place was amazing.  A cramped little packed place with great pizza and an amazing list.  We had Arrogant Bastard, Bear Republics, Lagunitas and others on tap and then we had a selection of Russian River belgians in bottles.   Oh, man, the Perdition was fabulous; nice and yeasty and malty sweet with a kick-ass pizza and friendly, beer-loving staff.  A little slice of heaven, indeed.

Notes from CA, part II: New Birds

April 21, 2008

MB’s and my bird lists grew a bit while we were in California. New species included Cinnamon Teal, Acorn Woodpecker, Golden Eagle, Black-headed Grosbeak, Golden-crowned Sparrow, Wilson’s Warbler, Surf Scoter, and Western Grebe. Though not new for us, we also enjoyed seeing the Stellar’s Jays and Scrub Jays again.

On birding notes in Iowa, the Red-headed Woodpecker and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet have returned to our yard. Spring keeps pushing forward!

Notes from CA, part I: MPLS

April 21, 2008

Just back from a fabulous trip to California. Amazing scenery, great hiking, and some outrageous–and I mean outrageous–beers. Too much I’m still thinking about for a good update, so I’ll be posting my thoughts and experiences in little snippets as I go, working somewhat chronologically, but who knows. So oddly, my first note won’t actually deal with California at all, but Minneapolis.

As a twenty-some-year vegetarian, I’ll say that airports are pretty much the bane of my food life. Sure, it’s at least getting easier to find the veggie and/or black bean burger in airports, but at airport prices it’s pretty pathetic. Our flight out took us through our old stomping grounds in Minnesota, and I was happy to see that the airport has really gotten a facelift and one of our old bakeries, the New French Cafe, has put several restaurants into the airport. Friday evening, thirsty and hungry, we stumbled onto it like a beacon of hope. Tempeh Reubens among other veggie friendly dishes. Tempeh and airports are an oxymoron. A great salad on the side, Summit on tap, all at pretty reasonable fare (reasonable as airports go, of course). Is this a sign of things to come? We loved Minneapolis, but we never really thought of it as cutting edge, but for veggie airport food it sure felt like it. It seemed a good sign of food and drink experiences to come on our adventures and that proved true indeed. California beer and food reviews to come soon enough.

More music tidbits

April 5, 2008

Back when “The Street Parade” was my radio show and not a blog, I planned my shows around birthdays, deaths, historical anniversaries etc. I have, then, a great big “book of days” that I still use to plan my day’s listening pleasures. Since I recently added a few posts concerning such dates, just thought I’d add another important one: yesterday was the great McKinley Morganfield’s birthday. Morganfield, best known as Muddy Waters, was born April 4, 1915. Seeing him late in his life, at a small theater in Maryland–backed by Pinetop Perkins and steady-rollin Bob Margoline–was one of the great thrills of my life. I certainly love that electric Chicago sound that Muddy defined, but for listening tribute, I actually recommend an acoustic album, “Folksinger.” The acoustic album actually lets you hear more of his vocal dynamics and range–it’s a classic:

Muddy Waters\' Folksinger

On another note, I’m far behind the times on this one–since it’s already a grammy–but I thought I’d put a plug in for Levon Helm’s latest CD “Dirt Farmer.” I have always been a huge Band fan. In fact, their self-titled album is in my top-five all time list. I was never too thrilled, though, with their post “Last Waltz” material; after the split, things just never came back together to my mind. I did see a Robbie Robertson-less version of the Band play with the Dead in ’85, though, and the late-night duel-group jam was quite wonderful. The albums, though, just never did it. The loss of Richard Manuel and more recently of Rick Danko really signified the end–no more classic Band material. I was wrong, though. It’s not a Band album, but Levon’s recent work is up to par with some of the best. The sound is more acoustic, a bit more country and gospel, but it’s got the same sense of American amalgamation at the core. And his voice, while strained by his ongoing battle with throat cancer, sounds remarkably fresh. This is a fabulous album and I feel bad I was hesitant to listen.

And a Richard Thompson correction

April 4, 2008

Oops, turns out I had a wrong date for Richard Thompson’s birthday. He turned 59 yesterday, not 61–my apologies!

Happy Birthday Richard

April 3, 2008

Today is one of my favorite guitarists Richard Thompson’s 61st Birthday. He’s come a long way from the early days of Fairport Convention for sure:

richard-thompson-2.jpg

Thompson has long been recognized as a great songwriter, but I think for too long he’s been underrated as a guitar player. His finger picking style on acoustic is technically brilliant, and his electric style is inimitable. I recently saw him at the Englert in Iowa City and it was one of the finest shows I’ve seen in a long time. Several times he played to such a fever pitch that I was sure that the show was done–how could he go on? Yet, he would settle back into a ballad and work the house slowly back to an amazing crescendo. Absolutely amazing. In fact, I think the best show I’d previously seen would probably have to go to him as well, a solo acoustic show in the streets of Iowa City, with a twilight rendition of Gethsemane that still gives me chills to think about.

Thompson has had at least four separate careers: Fairport Convention, a duet with Linda Thompson, an 80s pop singer, and finally the 90s/00s guitarist extraordinaire. I love them all (well, OK, the 80s pop Thompson got a bit saccharine there for awhile), but I think he’s at his best now. For my birthday toast, I’ve got Fairport’s “On the Ledge” disc 2, and Thompson’s “Live at Austin City Limits,” and “Old Kit Bag” queued up. Here’s a little snippet of recent Thompson:

On another note, I recently missed Emmylou Harris’s birthday. She, too, has just turned 61. I’d suggest “Live at the Ryman” for some classic traditional pickin’ with Sam Bush and others, or the haunting strains of Daniel Lanois-produced “Wrecking Ball.” You can’t go wrong.


But I Should Be Fair

April 2, 2008

So, a friend of mine quickly pointed out that my last post was really starting to give the Street Parade and anti-iowa attitude. I can certainly see that’s true, but it’s not really my intent. He correctly pointed out that if I lived elsewhere and were going to visit Iowa I would be raving and excited about The Sanctuary in Iowa City. And it’s true. I love the Sanctuary and it certainly has a better beer list than Piacci’s I mentioned below. But it didn’t even warrant a mention in my last post. All of it’s true; I plead guilty to suffering from a case of glass-half-empty mentality here.

Then again, I guess my point wasn’t really that there was a good beer drinking establishment in California, but I was thinking of it as an example of how they’re everywhere. Not to mention that, well, there’s the ocean and the redwoods, and mountains, blahblahblah. But I know that such thinking risks romanticizing a place (I have many such places in my mind). I mean wildfires and earthquakes scare the hell out of me. And more important, even if I really wanted to live in California, I don’t know how anyone freaking affords it. There’s one nice thing about Iowa: it’s really affordable. We have a beautiful house here with a nice plot of wooded land that I can’t even imagine what it would cost on either coast. A few years back, I had the glimmer of a possibility of a job at UC Santa Cruz; I was pretty excited but I also knew if I got it we’d barely be able to afford the move out there, let alone actually afford a place to live. Even when I imagine moving back to Minneapolis, which is probably our most realistic dream, I feel daunted by the increasing housing costs there. I’m not blind to such realities, I’m just having fun thinking about our upcoming trip and always keeping an eye fixed on the horizon.

Pretty soon after we moved to Iowa from Florida (admittedly a place that took quite awhile for me to fully appreciate, but I got there–now, MB, I’m not sure she ever did so it was good we moved on) I realized that Iowa would not be for us for the long haul. And at times I feel guilty about this desire to move on. I mean, I know the academic market realities (which is an added reason that the brewpub dream hangs on). I have a job that many would kill for; who am I to think I can strike gold twice? But when I’ve shared this feeling with friends over the years, fortunately I keep being reminded of two things: 1) knowing you have it good and imagining other possibilities are not mutually exclusive (wanting something more or different does not mean I’m not grateful for what I have) and 2) as one friend put it, “you’re always going to be restless, Glenn. It’s just who you are.” So, indeed, just pardon that eye that’s always roving; it’s not a blind eye, but sometimes it can be a bit myopic.