The rolling hills in the Livermore Valley glimmered under the sun on a warm Saturday morning, the hills unfolded before us as my husband and I turned right onto Tesla Road. Green and purple grapes hung from the vines, waiting to be picked. The air was filled with the smell of grapes fermenting, the smell of vinegar and sugar mixed together.
Tesla, a two-lane road in the Livermore Valley lined with wineries, was abuzz with visitors. Cars were either going into a winery or going to the next one. I could barely conceal my delight as we approached one of my favorite wineries, Concannon.
The Livermore Wine Country is young but holds a lot of potential, some wines are already comparable with, if not better than, the wines of Napa. It is less crowded, a visitor gets better service, and the wine prices are more attractive to people like me who believe that price alone does not mean that the wine is superior.
The Livermore terroir is different than in the Napa Valley, meaning the factors that ultimately define the wine, such as soil, weather, wind, orientation of the grapes with respect to the sun are unique.It is hotter, making it a good region to grow, in my opinion, varietals such as Grenache, Malbec and some Cabernet. Having said that, I have tasted good Sauvignon Blanc, Petite Sirah and Merlot as well.
Wine tasting is always a treat but I also forward to barrel tastings. Usually done in March, tickets can be purchased for $25 if you buy early and $30 on the day of. Hop on a chartered bus and be swept away by the view. Some wineries offer information sessions such as the types of barrels used, the varietals grown in the vineyards, and food and wine pairings. Others offer complimentary appetizers, discounted wines and merchandise, and live music.
I once purchased an outstanding case of Syrah for $60 (or $5 per bottle) and asked the winery to directly ship a case of wine to my friends in the mid-West. Several days later, wonderful thank you notes arrived with a request that I continue to send wines their way, which they are happy to pay for.
In the fall, when most grapes are ready (also called veraison) for picking, the Harvest Festival is in full swing. Around this time of the year, the grapes that will be transformed into wines have already been picked unless they are the ones that mature late into the season. For oenophiles, the small window of opportunity to participate in the wine making process is open. Some wineries will allow visitors to help remove the stems from the grapes and crush them. Crushing the grapes with the feet is still the best way to make wine although the wineries, for pragmatic and probably hygiene reasons, use stemmer-crusher equipments. Still, I think the experience of treading on freshly picked grapes and the exhilaration one gets from being part of a wine making tradition is well worth the grape juice stains.
My husband turned left onto the driveway of our favorite winery and found a parking spot. Our picnic basket was in the backseat, replete with two wine glasses, cheese, crackers, olives, and dark chocolate. I take one more look at the hills, breathed in deeply and smiled at my husband.
Some of the best memories in life are created in the wine country: weddings, picnics, birthday celebrations, wedding anniversaries, to name a few. And sometimes, the best memories come from the unplanned and spontaneous moments, a visit to a new winery on a whim, the spontaneous drive along the wineries, the chance encounter with strangers who turn into lifelong friends, the last minute picnic.--- CB
Celia Baula is a life science management consultant who loves to travel. She believes in living life to the fullest everyday, responsibly. She writes regularly for allnewsnoblues.com. Reach her at
Last Updated (Monday, 29 November 2010 22:05)
You might not expect to see women in bonnets and hoop skirts or horse-drawn carriages moving through the single main road into town, but you will step back in time when you walk down the classic "Main Street USA" of Sutter Creek, the historic city on Highway 49, known as "Jewel of the Mother Lode."
Named after John Sutter of gold-discovery fame in 1848, by the fall of 1849, gold fever had spread worldwide, setting off the gold rush. Now California is proudly proclaimed "The Golden State" for more than a single reason. Known for year-round sunshine and a rich and colorful history of gold-mining, the beginning came with the serendipitous finding of a few nuggets in the American River where a saw-mill was being built for John Sutter near Colma. Over the years, an estimated $2 billion in gold was mined.
Nestled in Amador County, amid the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, between Yosemite National Park and Lake Tahoe, the quaint hamlet of Sutter Creek and the delightful surrounding rural towns take pride in having maintained their original authentic presence.
Below the snow line and above the fog line at 1,200 feet elevation, many attractions draw the interest of year-round visitors. From the awesome oak-studded hillsides and back road trails for hiking and bicycle rides, to the city’s rich history, a tapestry of early American culture has been woven and preserved for residents and guests alike.
Here are ten things to do and see in Sutter Creek:
1. Take a walking tour: Becoming acquainted with the veritable "treasure trove" of places to go and things to see, is easy on the free, self-guided walking tour. This includes visits to 62 historic buildings and sites, including the Knight Foundry on the Register of Historic Places. Built in 1873, it is the last remaining water-powered foundry machine shop in the U.S. crafting specialty mining tools and machinery. Pick up a map at the Sutter Creek Visitor’s Center.
2. Snoop through the Sutter Creek Gold Mine: Daily one-hour tours depart for a trip underground on the Boss Buggy shuttle, with hard hats provided. Troughs are embellished with gold sprinkles for treasure seekers to try their luck at panning. A video provides the history of mining and geology of the area and a find in the gift shop may add a keepsake to your souvenir collection. The cost is $17.50 for adults and $11.50 for children.
3. Check out the Caverns: If you’re into even more adventure, you may want to check out the California Cavern State Historic Park or Black Chasm Cavern, where hourly guided tours take you into complete darkness, still coolness, a chance to try spelunking (the adventure of studying and researching caves and caverns, sleuthing for stalagmites and stalactites) and finally views of quartz rock walls threaded with brilliant veins of real gold.
4. Go Antique Shopping: I'm always looking for that stray piece of Adam pattern pink depression glass dinnerware, and did find the sugar bowl, to my delight. Some of my favorite places to ship are: Old West Antiques, Cozy Collectibles and Columbian Lady. Replete with fabulous finds, from the smallest of treasures, coins, hatpins or ink bottles, to fine vintage furniture, the possibilities are prolific.
5. Sleep tight at the Sutter Creek Inn: The first bed and breakfast in the West, the Sutter Creek Inn was built in 1859 before the Civil War. It’s a 17 -room, New England style paradigm of relaxed hospitality. Owned since 1966 by the Way family, matriarch, Jane resides on the property as well as her daughter, Lindsay, the property manager. My personal experience over the years has been genuinely "enchanted." The lush gardens, arbors, hidden alcoves, hammocks and myriad resting retreats outdoors are matched with an interior ambiance of complete relaxation and consideration for creature comforts.
Every room has a sitting area, outdoor patio or hideaway. Fireplaces, filled bookcases and swinging beds are some of the many options. Wake up hungry and ready for a breakfast of mouth-watering, hearty creations at 9 a.m. The menu is varied each day, including a bounty of fresh fruit platters, omelets, meats and home-baked breads and muffins. Requests in advance are always considered, such as chili eggs, artichoke casserole or berry bread. Robert Burdette, a returning guest over 40 years, reports "It’s like coming home, when I walk in the back porch.
6. Stop for ice cream: The Sutter Creek Ice Cream Emporium features fresh fudge and live ragtime piano in the ambiance of retro, small-town charm. Complete with a squeaky front screen door, counter stools, small table sets and memorabilia of a simpler by-gone era, the single-scoop waffle cone will surpass your greatest expectation.
7. Visit Amador City: A short drive away is Amador City, population 1200, where you will find an old-fashioned soda-fountain shop within view of an outdoor, miniature railroad display. On the corner of the diminutive street is an eclectic garden/decorative-finds shop, Bellflower. My finds have included a stained glass hanging, antique drawer knobs, a wooden bench and an iron plant stand.
8. Peruse the Monteverde General Store. A typical turn of the century emporium, the store that was built in 1898 houses a free museum staffed by volunteers, stocks vintage goods of a by-gone era and even has a pot-belly stove.
9. Enjoy some good food and wine: . There are 21 wineries in the area and the Shenandoah Valley Wine Country is within an 8-minute drive from Sutter Creek, offering many opportunities for tasting.
If you’ve worked up an appetite, consider an Italian-themed gourmet meal at Twisted Fork restaurant, located on Main Street in Sutter Creek in the historic American Exchange Hotel. The place has a classy, but casual atmosphere. On the lighter side, Back Roads Coffee Shop and Deli serves sumptuous salads, sandwiches, desserts and more. This is a friendly meeting place where I first encountered a dear 99 year old lady. This is a true story. She was with a group of younger "girls" discussing the quiche she had made that day. She drove up in a Mini Cooper convertible.
10. Take in the theater: The only remaining original former silent movie house in the region hosting live performances, concerts, film and dance events is the Sutter Creek Theatre. In the very heart of Main Street, featuring Caffe Intermezzo, as the name reflects, aficionados of the event may avail themselves of espresso, meals, delicacies and gelato. A wine bar is located adjacent to the theater.
Worth every minute of the short journeys to neighboring towns are the unique attractions each has to offer. Amador City, Jackson, Volcano, Plymouth, Fiddletown and Ione are all within a few minutes drive. A castle, a casino, historic churches and cemeteries, river rafting, skiing, golf, fishing, and many seasonal events offer adventure for every preference. –KRB
Karen Balch is a San Ramon writer, traveler and retired nurse. She writes about travel, health and community events for allnewsnoblues.com.
Last Updated (Wednesday, 22 December 2010 03:47)
Take Highway 1 south all the way to Cambria and you will not miss San Simeon. My husband and I stumbled upon this majestic place one summer afternoon when we decided to be spontaneous and just head down to Point Sur. When we went back to our car after a half-day hike, there was still daylight so we kept driving. Three hours later, the Hearst Castle was visible and it was breathtaking.
The castle opens as early as 8 a.m. for those wanting to avoid the crowd, the last tour is 8 p.m. during the summer months. A complimentary bus ride to and from the hilltop gives one a sweeping view of the vastness of Hearst’s property.
Five tours are offered, of these here are the ones I recommend:
If it is your first time visiting, take the Experience Tour which gives an overview of the main castle. The tour is about an hour and forty-five minutes, the easiest to follow and it includes a free ticket to the screening of “Hearst Castle Building the Dream,” a wonderfully crafted and informative video recounting Hearst’s early life and rise to fortune. Hearst and Julia Morgan spent countless hours trying to get everything right.
If the specifications or the results were not to Hearst’s liking, he would have it torn down and redone. He had one area of the castle rebuilt because he was not satisfied with the way it looked after it was finished. The builders tore everything down costing Hearst to pay twice the original amount but he didn’t care, he wanted the castle to look exactly the way he wanted it to.
The Casa Grande reminds me of Spain while the interior was pretty much of Italian and French influence. One of the things that impressed me were the gold plated windows. They were very ornately decorated and it reminded me of Versailles.
But for me, the highlight was the Neptune pool, where one can see the coastline and if it’s a clear day, all you need to do is close your eyes and take a minute or two to imagine what it must have been like to live in that era…And for a moment, you get to live in a dream world.
If you have time, take Tour 2. A visit to the upper floor will leave you amazed and in awe. It includes some of the most opulent and historical pieces, such as the tapestries that hung in the rooms and an impressive art collection. The Hearst Castle is a convergence of Hearst’s favorites from his travels to Europe. Since I am partial to books, I think the library is a wonderful addition to the castle.
And if you want to be teleported to a different era, take Tour 5 – the Evening Tour. The tour lasts a little more than 2 hours and the docents dress up in 1930s fashion, women wore coats with fur collars, hats and gloves. Being on this tour is like being in the 1930’s, mingling with Hearst and his guests. This is only offered about six out of twelve months and the months they hold the tours vary, so check before you go.
Not very many castles can be found in the US, this one is definitely an accomplishment. A castle that’s tastefully put together by someone with extensive travel experience, good breeding, and excellent taste.
Hearst accumulated the things in the castle with patience, he believed in saving and right timing to buy better quality materials, equipments, and art work that distinguish him from others. Luxury at its best.
My husband and I could not get enough of the castle; we were very happy that it was opened to the public, although Patty Hearst (Hearst’s granddaughter) still uses some parts of the castle.
To visit or learn more, their website is www.hearstcastle.org.
Celia Baula is a life science management consultant who loves to travel. She believes in living life to the fullest everyday, responsibly. This is her first story for allnewsnoblues.com. Reach her at
Last Updated (Friday, 03 June 2011 23:57)
Maui has been the top island on Conde Nast Traveler's list of reader favorites 15 out of the last 16 years, and for good reason. Maui is steeped in history, beauty and possesses the best beaches to be found anywhere. Think you can't afford all this? Think again.With new, well priced direct flights from the Bay Area and a little creative planning, you can have it all. So give up the cheesy luaus, the packed tour buses and all the things that break the bank and experience the Maui of your dreams these ten ways:Rent a condoAfter staying in hotels for years all over the island, we rented a condo. Our hosts, Leon and Gail own four units in Wailea and treat you like family. At ours, "Treetop", we were greeted with an Aloha note on the door and were serenaded each morning by tropical birds. It was bliss from there on out. The condo not only supplied a kitchenette where we could enjoy our own breakfast and Kona coffee, but was stocked with beach chairs, umbrellas and a cooler. Every day we packed a lunch with treats from a local farmers market and saved enough money to enjoy great dinners every night.www.waileaescape.comVisit UpcountryA trifecta of Upcountry towns, Makawao, Pukalani and Kula offer ocean breezes, unbelievable views and a feeling like being in Napa or Santa Barbara. The main street in Makawao, once a cowboy town, is home to art galleries, restaurants and a bakery right out of the 1930s. We watched a glass blower at work and strolled with home made lemonade. Situated on the slopes of Haleakala, this area is the Maui of days gone by.Enjoy a cocktail at a Wailea resortWith all the money that could be saved by not having to pay for breakfast and lunch, put on your best Aloha shirt and splurge for a Mai Tai and appetizers at the Four Seasons or Grand Wailea Resort. The service is top notch and for one evening you'll live like the other half lives. There is nothing more romantic than sunset here.Go with Pacific Whale Foundation's Eco AdventuresThis organization's snorkel dives and whale watching are the best on the island. Not your typical outing where you may see more flippers than fish, their environmental guides are knowledgeable and they can take you to locations off limits to other companies. All profits are donated to local environmental groups, so not only do you have fun; you help preserve the underwater beauty for future generations.www.pacificwhale.orgFeel the manaTo Hawaiians, mana describes all manner of the supernatural or divine power. Iao Valley is the place in Maui where this is most apparent. Once a place of political importance and a site to honor the gods with sacrifices, the name means "supreme light" and is named in honor of the god Iao. One of the most beautiful spots on the island, Iao Valley is four miles west of Wailuku. Come very early or very late in the day as the light hitting the pinnacles at these hours give it an ethereal glow.Volunteer on vacationAn idea that's catching on worldwide, this is the most rewarding way to vacation. It doesn't cost you a penny and you'll go home with great memories. Volunteers may work with locals and visit off the beaten track locations. Whether picking up trash on the beach or pulling invasive weeds, you'll see areas off limits to the general public. A typical day consists of a one hour orientation and about three hours of work. Call (808) 249-8811 (ext 1).Go stand up paddlingEasier and less taxing than surfing, stand up paddling has gained a huge following since it was invented about 60 years ago. It's not complicated and in the early mornings when the wind is down, the sea is like glass. Keep an eye out for sea turtles, colorful fish and the occasional monk seal while you enjoy this peaceful sport. Instruction and rentals are available all over the island.Learn about MolokaiMaui is unique of all the Hawaiian Islands in that other islands are very close by and accessible. A day trip to Molokai is an adventure you won't soon forget. There are no stop lights and you can drive for miles without seeing a soul. Take a mule ride to Kalaupapa National Historical Park, separated from the rest of the island by a 2,000 foot wall of green mountains. In the late 1800s Father Damian treated victims of Hansen's disease (leprosy) here and in 2009 was canonized for his work. The park contains over 300 historical buildings and 1000 grave markers.Head for a wineryTodeschi Winery is Maui's only vineyard and one of only two in the whole state. Located 2,000 feet up the slopes of Haleakala, the main cottage dates from 1874. There are wine tastings and you'll have the chance to bring home a very special Maui souvenir.Life's a beachWith over 80 beaches, Maui has one tailor made for you. From sunning to sitting under a palm tree with a book, from snorkeling to body surfing, there is a beach that's just right. Walk along the stretch of sand at Kaanapali or Big Beach, or climb over lava flows to a pristine hidden cove. There are beaches for kids and sandcastles or secret areas that are clothing optional. Just don't forget the sunscreen.For more great ideas on Maui:www.101thingstodo.comwww.visitmaui.comwww.maui-info.com-SEW
Last Updated (Friday, 14 June 2013 22:05)
At one time, street walkers, circus men, and ghosts lived in the hills above Danville, as characters from the mind of Eugene O’Neill, considered by many to be one of the greatest playwrights of all time.
O’Neill spent nearly his entire adult life looking for a home for his restless spirit where he could bring his elaborate characters to life. In 1937 he and his second wife, Carlotta, were living in a San Francisco hotel when they discovered a 158-acre ranch in Danville. Drawn to the hillside covered with native oak trees, the couple built their dream house. A long-time devotee of Eastern thought and concepts, and interested in Oriental art and furnishings, they called the house Tao, which means “the way” in Chinese.
O’Neill declared this his final home and refuge and it is here that he wrote his last six and most well known plays, including The Iceman Cometh, Long Days Journey Into Night and A Moon For The Misbegotten.
The only American playwright to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature, O’Neill also received four Pulitzer Prizes for his work. Tao became his muse, where he often locked himself away for days, creating his legendary and timeless masterpieces. The couple spent time by the pool and with family dog, Blemie, and the author enjoyed walking the hills and the isolation and peace the home brought him.
Carlotta was in charge of decorating the house. Built in the Spanish Colonial architectural style, the residence featured blue ceilings, red doors and black tile floors. Having sensitivity to bright lights, Carlotta kept the drapes drawn, which gave the house a mysterious and shadowy aura. Although they entertained family and friends often, most visitors found the house gloomy and foreboding. It was, in fact, the perfect haven for a playwright to create the unforgettable characters and emotional situations he brought to life on the stage.
The O’Neill’s lived in Tao until 1944, when his worsening depression and alcohol abuse forced them to return back east.
Due to severe hand tremors brought on by his alcoholism and his continuing struggle with depression, O’Neill never completed another play after leaving his beloved Danville home. He died in a hotel room in Boston at age 65 in 1950.
In 1974, due to the efforts of Senator Alan Cranston and others, The Eugene O’Neill Foundation, Tao House, was formed. The property was in danger of being torn down by a builder and with the help of many, the ranch became the Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site in 1976, and the home has been restored to its original state. It’s now run by the National Park Service, whose mission is to perpetuate the writer’s vision, to provide programs for future artists and to keep alive the contribution to theater in America that O’Neill made.
Tours are available through the National Park. In May, the park service announced No Reservations Saturdays, which includes tours at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. Reservations are required for tours on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays & Sundays at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The tour takes a little more than 2 hours and is free.
Access to Tao House is via a private, gated road. The park service provides a free shuttle van at the Museum of San Ramon Valley (Railroad Avenue at Prospect Street) for the short ride to the site.
For more information, call 925-838-0249 or go to www.eugeneoneill.org. - SEW
Last Updated (Thursday, 27 January 2011 04:16)