Grape Expectations — Napa and Sonoma, CA

Having dreamt of northern California’s wine country for so long meant I’d given the area an almost mythical quality. I’d envisioned driving on a dirt track of a quaint town, past rows of gnarled vines backed by undulating hills haloed under a golden sun; stopping at the first winery spotted along the way to sample glasses of red while chatting with the vintner. And so, finally prompted to action, last week my husband and I set off on the 6-hour long drive from Los Angeles to Napa and Sonoma.

Our first morning delivered a low fog that hovered over rolling hills lined with hibernating vines, which looked like the spikes of hair drawn on a bald cartoon head. By mid-morning, the mist had fizzled away, replaced with a soft glow from the winter sun. We followed highways and paved roads navigated by tall signposts with multiple arrows pointing this way to that winery, and that way to those wineries, which only reinforced the sheer size of the region. Sometimes we drove distances of 15 minutes between spots on Napa’s Silverado Trail; on another day, we climbed a sinuous road for just under an hour to reach a cluster of wineries located farther north, in Sonoma county.

Dropping in and chatting with the winemaker really was the stuff of my dreams. Wine samplings ranged from one-on-one tastings with reps (in the less touristy areas of Sonoma), to sharing the tasting bar with a dozen visitors (in better known Napa wineries), to comparing tasting notes in a group after a tour, which turned out to be one of my favourite experiences. HALL Wines in St Helena does a beautiful job of marrying their wine tasting experience with a walk through its “cellar” and indoor-outdoor public areas that are interspersed with modern artworks – sculptures, an LED installation, and Patrick Dougherty’s whimsical wood huts — before heading up to the second-story glass tasting rooms to sample one of the smoothest Pinot Noirs amongst other varietals. (At one point, one of the ladies was so overcome with the Pinot that she was dreaming of steak… at 11 in the morning.)

My anticipatory visions weren’t too far off, yet a new set of stills plays a different story in my mind. The wine country is a myth no more. NB: The photos were taken with my new SAMSUNG NX 300 camera. The auto focus via a touch screen performs at lightning speed.

Chateau Montelena, Napa

Chateau Montelena, Napa

Reflections in the lake at the Japanese garden, Chateau Montelena

Reflections in the lake at the Japanese garden, Chateau Montelena

At MUMM, Napa

At MUMM, Napa

MUMM tasting

MUMM tasting

Patrick Doherty's art installation at HALL Wines

Patrick Dougherty’s art installation at HALL Wines

Vineyards at Hall Wines

Vineyards at Hall Wines in St. Helena

HALL wine tasting

HALL wine tasting

Vines and palms, at HALL Wines

Vines and palms, at HALL Wines

Treetops at Ferrari-Carano winery, Sonoma

Treetops at Ferrari-Carano winery, Sonoma

Vineyards at Ferrari-Carano

Vineyards at Ferrari-Carano

Passing vines at Kenwood, Sonoma

Passing vines at Kenwood, Sonoma

The gardens at Chateau St Jean, Kenwood

The gardens at Chateau St Jean, Kenwood

Wine country Christmas

Wine country Christmas

Distance… Sydney to LA

Living so far away from home persistently tests me. When the recent tragic event was unfolding over too-long hours in Martin Place, Sydney, I scrolled social media, emailed family and friends, and checked on Facebook posts so I could keep up-to-date with the latest news. During these times you feel helpless, living thousands of miles away; digital technology gives you a feeling of control in a situation you’re far removed from. In an instant, I knew where my mum and dad were, where my sisters were; that my brothers and close friends were ok. That’s something a phone call could never do, especially when the lines used to be so jammed that many times I couldn’t ever get through.

Most of all, such events show us that we’re in this together, no matter what part of the world we live in. We may not agree on everything but we come from the same place. A good place.

The same sunsets in Los Angeles and in Sydney. December 15 2014.

The same sun sets in Los Angeles and in Sydney. December 15 2014.

The Sun Sets in Tucson, Arizona

“I hold on to my adopted shore, chanting private vows: wherever I am, let me never forget to distinguish want from need. Let me be a good animal today. Let me dance in the waves of my private tide, the habits of survival and love.”
Barbara Kingsolver, High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never

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The Gardens of Southern California

For me, public gardens are pockets of beautiful stillness. While the rest of the city toils and sweats, these green spaces provide a glorious escape. I remember one unbelievably hot day in NY’s East Village. I must have been either hazy under an excess of sun or spellbound by beauty, because when I stumbled into the shady surrounds of the 9th Street Community Garden Park, I was entranced. The dreamscape  conjured up scenes from Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree; I was walking through my very own Wonderland.

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In the 9th Street Community Garden. More from this set of photos here --

In the 9th Street Community Garden. More from this dreamy set of photos here — http://marinachetner.com/2012/07/07/dreamy-gardenscapes-in-alphabet-city-east-village-nyc/

That said, Southern California’s lush gardens have a similar effect on me. It is always sunny here after all, so perhaps I’m in a permanent state of bliss. I am known to drag whoever is willing to stroll with me through the manicured gardens of The Getty Villa, Malibu. I even ventured two hours away by train to tour Ganna Walska’s Lotusland in Santa Barbara. Interested to understand their beginnings, I researched and wrote about Southern California’s gardens for this month’s issue of Qantas Australian Way magazine. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:

“During the golden age of American gardens (1890-1940), Southern California looked to the rest of the world for horticultural inspiration, especially the latitude-sharing Mediterranean. Landowners were lured to the booming region and its magnificent climate, their bold displays of wealth immortalised in magnificent manses and cultivated gardens that were grand expressions of their personalities. Oil magnate John Paul Getty’s passion for classical design is reflected in The Getty Villa; socialite Ganna Walska’s Santa Barbara-based wonderland exudes extravagance; while George Fox Steedman’s painstaking attention to detail is evident in the architecturally pleasing garden at Casa Del Herrero.

Egos aside, a turn-of-the-century interest in plant collecting bestowed upon Southern California an array of natural wonders. Gilded Age railroad and real estate mogul Henry Edwards Huntington transformed hundreds of his green acres into a microcosm of the global botanical landscape and sought not only to preserve native and unusual species, but to maintain the grounds in perpetuity for the enjoyment of generations to come.”

Gardens are treasure chests of history and botany, and Southern California is one of the top sources of inspiration for ” the enthusiastic green thumb, serious botanist and pure philocalist.” If you have time to visit some in California, these are my top 10 recommendations:

Magazine: December 2014 Botanical Tour of California Gardens (Qantas)

Online:

http://travelinsider.qantas.com.au/usa/california/things-to-do/southern-california-blooming-public-gardens (read this from bottom up — the introduction is written after the top 10 list)

Dream onward!

The Getty Villa Malibu

The Getty Villa Malibu

The Land of Sun and Clouds, Los Angeles

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday I was pounding the pavement under the warm sun, elbow to elbow with Angelenos out for a post-Thangsgiving breather. Today, the sky is moody and dropping rain in intermittent bursts. Outside, overflowing gutters are spluttering from disbelief and exhaustion. The gardens, however, seem to be rejoicing. Goodbye 70 and sunny; hello wintry December.

Santa Monica Beach

Santa Monica Beach, Nov 29

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