Monday, September 17, 2012

Daroca, La Rioja, Spain: A Pilgrimage of the Culinary Kind

Chef Ignacio Echapresto, and his brother Carlos, sommelier from Venta Moncavillo Restaurant.

The town of Daroca would not be very well known even in La Rioja were it not for the fact that its population doubles and often triples twice daily. The pilgrimage is not on the Camino de Santiago. The experience these devotees are seeking is much more hedonistic and self-indulgent. It occurs at mealtimes.

Daroca is a very small village off the A-12, about 20 minutes south of the capital, Logroño. There are exactly 24 people who live there. It is an unlikely spot for a Michelin Star restaurant, but defying the odds is Venta Moncavillo. Here, chef Ignacio Echapresto and his sommelier brother, Carlos receive the world in Daroca.

So rooted in their village, and proud of their Riojan rural heritage and cuisine, Chef Ignacio decided to turn his back on the capital city, and chose to open his restaurant where it suited him. He describes it as a “lifestyle choice”.

Carlos and his mother

The restaurant is a family business with their mother working on site daily keeping the kitchen clean and running. It may sound like a menial job, but there was no doubt in my mind that she is the matriarch of the Echapresto family.

The hands of Chef Ignacio and his sous-chef Pablo from Argentina, skillfully prepare the food for the restaurant, with a seating of 60.

Chef Ignacio Echapresto

Chef Ignacio explained that his inspiration for his seasonal menus comes from the foods that he grew up with, but the style is not at all rustic. It is as refined as any urban Michelin Star restaurant. The food is as fresh as it gets. The produce comes directly from a large Huerta located behind the restaurant. Local farmers and hunters bring their catch to him.
I was allowed unusual access to the inner sanctum of this restaurant not as a client, but as a participant. It was agreed that I would spend two days working at the restaurant in order to see the chef, the sommelier, and the staff in action. I was assigned to an Italian waitress, Valentina, a veteran in fine dining, who spoke Spanish, Italian and English fluently and to my great relief I could communicate with her in two of those languages.
Just before opening, Chef Ignacio surveyed the dining hall (for large groups), straightened a few napkins, much as a director would do before the opening of a show. I quickly realized that every night in this restaurant is like opening night and Ignacio expects perfection from everyone. He told me, “Don’t do anything unless Valentina or myself tell you to do it.” My reply, “Yes chef.” It was clear that my presence caused a little bit of stress for staff— I was an extra, but one with not much experience. If I were to mess up, it would negatively impact the whole production. Valentina reviewed the rules: “Serve from the right, start at the end of the table and work your way to the door. I’ll take the other side. Do you know how to serve bread rolls with just the fork and the spoon?” “No, but if you show me, I could probably do it.” “Never mind, I’ll do it, you serve the water.”

The first to arrive was a group of 12 foreigners all driving rather expensive fast cars. They were escorted to the wine cellar for aperitifs and appetizers. Carlos proudly displayed his 600 bottles for selection from the best vineyards, from the best years from wine areas worldwide.

Up in the kitchen, I expected more noise, more confusion as twelve people needed to be served at once. There was no rushing, no banging of pots, not even any talking. It was orchestration at its finest. Ignacio and Pablo worked in tandem---they remained calm but focused, attentive. Each plate was replicated with exactness, with the plate’s design in the top right hand corner, and the wait staff presenting each masterpiece to the customer in exactly the same way.

Course after course was served; wine after wine and I became cognizant of all the decisions that had to have been made, all the rehearsals that preceded the delivery of the plate to the customer. In this restaurant it began almost 3 months before this night when Master chef Ignacio reviewed the seasonal foods that would be available to him for the new coming season. He re-created a new seasonal symphony, harmonizing tastes, and designing a presentation that could not but visually delight.

On my second day, before the guests arrived Carlos asked me to arrive an hour early for a wine tasting. He treated me to 14 different Spanish wines described at the end of this entry. Carlos enjoyed sharing his knowledge of the Riojan wines until his brother the Master Chef told us it was time to get ready for the next round of guests. It was showtime again, and the brothers Echapresto would not disappoint.

My only regret (other than not wearing comfortable shoes) is that I did not get to try the food. The staff does get to eat, but they eat the rustic cuisine that Ignacio and Carlos grew up with: the staff eats what Mamma cooks.

I wish there were some way that I could meaningfully thank the Echapresto family and their staff, for giving me a front row seat where taste and smell are the artists palette, the canvas a simple white dish and service is a carefully orchestrated ballet. Perhaps you can help me in this regard. If you happen to find yourself in La Rioja, will you go and have a meal at Venta Moncavillo? Please tell them I sent you.

Venta Moncalvillo Restaurante
Ctra. Medrano 6
Daroca de Rioja
26373 La Rioja
to reserve: +34 941 44 48 32
GPS: N 42° 22' 20" W 2° 34' 50"

The first 3 wines were given to him to taste in unmarked bottles from "a" winery. The most interesting of the wines we tasted that day were from Finca Antigua, their wine called Clavis, 2004 from their vineyard Pico Garbanzo in La Mancha: deep purple with ruby rim, ripe red berries, herbaceous, sweet oak, clarified with egg whites. There were hints of green pepper. Carlos said he detected an aroma of burlap, which I guess is much like the smell of hay. There was no indication on this bottle what the varietals might be, but their Crianza 2007 listed Tempranillo, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah so I’m guessing it was some variety of these. Another highlight was a wine from Bodegas Ramòn Bilbao and their Edición Limitada 2009. This wine is 100% Tempranillo. The wine was a deep red. The first aroma to arise was a smoky, charred toastiness followed by ripe red berries, and prune. This wine had bright acidity and the aromas and flavors presented themselves in complete harmony. I have one more favorite: LZ from Compañia de Vinos de Telmo Rodriguez. This wine set itself apart by adopting a modern, intriguing label, but more importantly it offers good value for money. This is a young (joven) wine and sells in Spain for about 6 euros. It is made of a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha and Graciano—the 3 classic varietals of La Rioja. I loved the earthiness of this wine and it is truly reminiscent of French wines. (I know that people say that La Rioja is the Bordeaux of Spain, but the earthiness of some of the wines that I tasted bring me back to some Burgundy Pinot’s): damp earth, mushroomy. I know this was not the most expensive wine that I tasted that day, but it was my favorite. Other wines that I had the pleasure of tasting were Distercio, by Florentino Martinez aged in Riojan Oak, a Roda Riserva 2006, once again with a comfy earthiness wafting from the glass.

Monday, May 28, 2012

What is it Like to Own a Small Vineyard in Italy? The Reality.

This is a question that I often get asked.  What people really want to know is how is it done, what is it like living there, how did you figure out what to do, and is it feasible (can you make a living from it).
I'll answer the last question first.  We are in the fortunate position to have my husband's career in Naples which supports us.  Some people (many people), do make a living off of their vineyard and also sell their grapes to the local cooperative, but the difference is that they own a lot of land.  One local vineyard owner told me that you need at least 10 hectares(we own 1ha which is the equivalent of 2.5 acres) in order to make money from your vineyard if you choose to sell your grapes to the local cooperative (Cantina Sociale di Solopaca) as we do.  
Had we known then, what we know now. Our vineyard is a hobby, but it costs us at least €4 000 more to maintain than the small revenue which we derive from it.  It doesn't make sense does it?  Had we understood things better when we first purchased the vineyard, we wouldn't have to pay the
€4 000/year as a coltivatrice diretta, one form of registered farmer in Italy ( scroll down to coldiretti on the link sited). The CD is also a person who can derive no more than 40% of their income from other sources.  It is set up to protect farmers with large tracts of land, not for people like myself.  However, a well-meaning geometra advised us to go this route in case we decided to rebuild the falling down, small stone structure on the property, as this would give us access to funds. The yearly fees are paid to the INPS (Italian Social Security).  There are, as we understand now, other ways to go:  we should have chosen the "impreditore agricolo" designation which is more for weekend farmers such as ourselves, and allows you to have other income but no access to any extra funding.  Had we known then that we wouldn't want to live on our land, as it is too far out of town and no one lives out there, had we known then how little we would make from this vineyard, we wouldn't have set it up in this manner.  When we bought it, no one could tell us what type of revenue we could expect to make from it. The owner had died, his wife had no idea what her husband had taken in years before, and we knew no one in town at that point.   To illustrate how ridiculous a situation we are in, and to point out to you that this is really a passion and a hobby I will disclose that last year we took in under €600 from a 1 hectare vineyard by selling 5, 120kg grapes to the local cooperative.  I would make at least double that amount had I chosen to take the grapes to market, however, that is too risky for us.  We wanted to be sure to sell them, and we pay a price for that security. So at the moment we are paying for the privilege of owning and operating a vineyard, but if done properly, it doesn't have to be so.

What is it like living in a small town in rural Southern Italy?  We don't.  We live in Naples and travel back and forth to the vineyard on weekends when we we have work to do.  We have thought about building a place there, because it is so beautiful, and the idea of waking up and looking out at the land that we have cultivated and at the surrounding panorama is what draws us back to ponder the idea time and time again. But small rural towns like Solopaca in the South of Italy have their own sets of rules to live by.  I don't know what they all are, I just know that when I have attended meetings at the local cooperative I have felt very much out of my comfort zone.  It is a man's world.  My perception of how I might be perceived is the following: I am a rich outsider who is doing this as a lark, when these farmers are serious farmers trying to eek out a living, as their families have done for decades if not centuries.  I am tolerated.  But that is okay...I have entered their world, and I recognize my place, and as long as I stay there and show respect I can be happy delivering my grapes once a year to the Cantina.  I don't believe I will ever be invited to be part of the board, nor will I ever be asked my opinion on anything, nor can I ever be confident in my Italian language skills to be able to do so. There are some that are curious, but cautious, and others just don't want to have anything to do with us, and a few who are just rude.  Our friend from the neighbouring vineyard and his family give us the companionship and the help that we so appreciate. That is enough and we don't ask for more.  This is of course, my perspective,  and I have been accused in the past of being overly sensitive.  I hope I'm wrong.

Figuring out how to take care of the grapes does require some prior knowledge.  We had planted a row of vines in Canada before we moved mainly for aesthetics, but it gave us a bit of a basis.  We took distance education courses, my husband from U.C. Davis, and I studied to become a sommelier with Associazione Italiana di Sommelier before we bought our vineyard.  We also apprenticed on vineyards in order to learn more about pruning. Lastly, we are lucky enough to have a vineyard beside someone who saw our passion and really wanted to help us out.  We are forever grateful for his good council.

The answer to the first question I posed"How is it done?", requires some careful, honest introspection.  You really have to do away with romantic notions and take a realistic look at what you want, what you can afford, how much income you will need, what you can live with, and live without.  All of the obvious things.  Vineyards for sale abound in southern Italy, at very affordable prices.  They are well-kept, some with a building, some without. Some are lucrative, but if they are, you will pay more than the €45 000 that we paid for ours.  The safest bet is to take it on as a retirement project, whereby you have another income to rely on.
This is an ongoing adventure for us.  Overall, and without hesitation I can say that it continues to deliver tremendous satisfaction.  Looking back at our work at the end of a day, and seeing all of our vines tucked in neatly, because we trained them to do so, watching and hoping that the flowers will turn to berries, monitoring bugs, weeding, and pruning, watching them change from hard green berries to ripe, succulent, quenching fruit and finally delivering them with our friends and family to the cantina is something that we have to keep reminding ourselves is fact not fiction. When we tell a new acquaintance about it, they always have an incredulous look on their face which I don't think they would have if we told them we were growing cabbages. There is a skill to growing grapes and there is an art to growing good grapes.  We are striving for the latter, learning as we go, and enjoying all the while.
Yesterday was hard, back-breaking work in the hot sun.  But at the end of the day when I climbed upon my perch (red ledge in the olive tree in the photo top right - inset) and  this was the view that I beheld, I couldn't help but feel satisfied and I still have to remind myself that this is my life and this little vineyard in southern Italy is part of it.  The white lilies in the photo had not sprouted before in the 3 years that we have owned the vineyard.  They were there to greet us yesterday, and I'm not sure why, but I could find great meaning and comfort from their presence.  Here they are in our living room and the sign on the wall above them is what our vineyard brings to us:  Bonheur - happiness.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

En passant par l'Alsace

On a recent trip to Germany, I convinced my husband to return to Naples by way of Alsace.  It is described by Karen MacNeil in The Wine Bible as ""a wine region so charming it may as well have emerged straight out of a fairy tale.  The vineyards are sun dappled, the half-timbered houses are cheerfully adorned with flower boxes, the 118 villages - centuries old - are immaculate.  All are set against the grand backdrop of the Vosges Mountains." Her descriptions of the white wines with their bracing acidity was equally compelling.  
Alsace is an area that is situated close to the German border whose ownership has flip-flopped at various times between Germany and France.  It has been part of France again since 1945.  The region has retained the language customs, foods and winemaking techniques of both areas...kind of the best of both worlds.
The jaunt was going to take us out of our way, and we knew that an 11 hour, one-day journey home awaited us, nevertheless we were determined to see and taste.
We crossed over into Germany at Strasbourg and spent the night there before heading to the Routes des Vins.  With only hours to discover, to taste, to tour and to be enchanted by Alsace,  we headed down the E25, which ribbons its way from north to south over hills and valleys for about 170 kilometres .
 We joined the route in Bergheim and these were some of the first fairy tale homes that we set our eyes on.  I had to keep convincing myself that this was not Disneyland...this was real. The figures that came out of the doors and windows were not mechanical, but real people.
With so little time I had to carefully plan our winery visits all the while clicking my camera and smiling at the charm that is part of the daily life of Alsatian wine land.
I chose 3 of the biggest names in the area:  Deiss, Trimbach and Hugel, and we would visit them in that order based on their geographical placement on the map.  We arrived in Bergheim  early afternoon at the Domaine Marcel Deiss where a tasting was already in session.  When the sommelier came to our table the first question he asked is, "Do you know about our wines?"  That is because Deiss is unconventional and somewhat controversial in the area.  He runs biodynamic vineyards, blends wine in an area mostly known for single varietals (the allowance of his blended wines in the Grands Crus classification has not won him any favour amongst his contemporaries), and he is unconventional in his labelling of his wines in that he labels some of them by the name of the vineyard and not the varietal.
Jean-Michel Deiss, the current heir, oversees 14 Premiers Crus vineyards and 2 Grands Crus vineyards.  We only had time to stay for one tasting I'm embarrassed to say, because it was late Saturday afternoon, and we would not otherwise be able to purchase the wines on Sunday.  We were offered the 2010 Riesling you see pictured to your right.  It sells for 20€ locally.  The wine was bright lemon yellow with typical unadulterated Riesling flavours:  bright acidity, heavy and oily on the tongue, aromas and flavours of lemon, flower, yellow peach and pineapple, with a definite minerally aftertaste typical to the area.  We also bought, but haven't tasted yet the Grand Cru Altenberg de Bergheim. It is 100% Alsace Riesling.
What makes Alsace Rieslings different from their German counterpart is that they are mostly dry, full-bodied, high alcohol wines, that speak for themselves and the terroir of the area.  Alsace wine growers and wine makers adhere to the philosophy of non-interference...the wines are very rarely oaked, they don't use commercial yeasts, they avoid malolactic fermentation used to soften the acidity of the wines.  The Grands Crus of this area manage to balance their high acidity and long mineral length and an abundance of  flowers and fruit aromas, offering the consumer pure elegance and complexity in the glass.
  We made our  purchases and continued our way to the  Trimbach Winery in Ribeauvillé.  The winery was closed but as I neared to snap a photo I noticed this sign:  a fine food grocery store that sells their wines.  We were able to purchase two of their signature wines and one of the greatest Rieslings in Alsace and maybe the world:  Clos Ste-Hune.  This is a wine that has accolades anywhere the words Alsace and Riesling appear together.  Serge Dubs, world's best Sommelier winner of 1989 had this to say about it:  "If there is one Riesling in the world which every wine lover dreams of tasting and savoring it is Clos Sainte-Hune."  These are limited quantity wines and we were able to purchase the 2006 vintage--a special occasion wine and we just happen to have two of them coming up this summer. We also bought their Cuvée Frédéric Emile, once again another 100% Riesling which is quickly becoming my favourite white wine.
It was by then getting rather late in the day and I had one more stop to make:  the winery of Hugel et Fils in Riquewihr which also just happened to be in the town where we would spend the night.  While my husband went to get us checked into our hotel, I rushed to the center of town to the Hugel tasting room.  Once again I arrived in the middle of a tasting and was offered Gerwurztraminer (written without the umlaut in Alsace) Sélection de Grains Nobles.  This is a sweet dessert wine, whereby the berries are a affected

by Noble Rot, a fungus, that draws the water from berry, leaving behind a highly concentrated, high sugar grape.  Only the berries that are affected are picked at the time of harvest so it is a time-consuming and therefore expensive process.  The result is intense fragrance and sweetness, balanced by the ever present acidity, so that it is not the least bit cloying.  Because you can't go backwards in a tasting (I came in at the end and was given the most concentrated wine), I bought two of the wines that I had missed:  Riesling Jubilee 2007, and Gewurztraminer Hugel 2010.  The tasting rooms at both the Deiss winery and Hugel are not the least bit intimidating and the staff was happy to instruct and guide.  The tasting at Deiss carries a 13 € charge per person, but because we had to leave, we didn't have to pay.  The tasting at Hugel is free.
We stayed at the Best Western in Riquewihr and our bedroom and balcony looked over the Grand Cru Schoenenberg with walking paths and benches.  Another option we learned about when we bumped into some compatriots from Thunder Bay, is to stay at gites.  These are charming apartments that reflect the style of the area and very affordable. Ed and Brenda met us for breakfast before we left and we were able to have a look at their "gite".  It was the attic floor of a typical Alsatian house in Riquewihr complete with the post and beam roof, cosy lace curtains, fireplace a loft and comfy down comforters. We vowed that the next time we would stay in gites, and we vowed that we would be going back.

I'll leave you with a few more photos of the area.  Really, really worth a visit whether you are interested in wine or not.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Business Soul Sessions

Dear faithful readers, friends and family,
I have not written in a while as I have been busy drawing up a plan to take the vineyard/wine adventure to the next level, the next level being making a profit and climbing out beyond negative numbers.  In order to do this I have been taking courses, (I tell my husband, "you've got to spend it to make it right now"), and haven't had much time to blog, being all consumed with "the idea". The idea stemmed from a need I had when studying for the exams for the Court of Master Sommeliers.  Helping me chart my way to actually realizing the idea is the course Business Soul Sessions by Kelly Rae Roberts, artist, author and possibilitarian, as she calls herself and her business partner for the Business Soul Sessions E-Course, Beth Nicholls of Do What You Love.
The course is for anyone who wants to pursue a business idea, further their business, define their business potential, define themselves and their goals, but the bottom line of the course is always knowing who you are, soul-deep, and choosing a path that doesn't compromise who you are.  Some might think that it's done in an artsy-sort-of way, and while most participants in the course are artists, the same business plan product is materializing for me, but in a way that is so much more authentic, purposeful and meaningful than following a template.  The plan is mine and true to me.   I am also enrolled in two more courses, working part time, tying down the vines,...and arranging tastings too.
You can be sure there are stories to be told, but I have to get some work and thinking out of the way.  I will be back.
Thanks for checking in.

My journal for the Business Soul Sessions.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gli Alici del Nonno Amedeo or My Grandfather Amadeo's Sardines in Spicy Tomato Sauce

I am a true Cancer.  I love tradition, setting up a cozy home, antiques, and yes, I’m a dreamer.  My world for the most part, is a happy, cozy place.  That bowl full of fresh lemons smells as beautiful as it looks and it makes me happy.  They are there to remind me to make a lemon meringue pie from scratch, but I keep putting it off mostly because, they just make me happy to see them and to breathe in their fragrance when I walk by.  I own no shiny furniture.  Everything is pock marked, and old and I always imagine what life was like for those who owned them when they were new.  I wonder how they got their marks and their stains.  My antique glasses remind me of lemonade and Kool Aid, and picnics in baskets and mint julep and verandas.
 Today, I’ve been thinking about my grandfather, Amedeo Temistocles Orazi who lived in our home where I grew up in Sudbury, Ontario.  By the time I was old enough to really study this character, his tall build was burdened by his years, and he couldn’t see or hear very well.  My visits to him in the basement didn’t last long, but they were frequent.  He had a wood stove down there, and I’m sorry to use that adjective again, but it was really "cozy" on a cold winter night, when the only thing to watch on tv was hockey or Don Messer's Jubilee.  He also cooked on that stove, and he only owned 1 pot and 1 pan.  The pan was so seasoned with olive oil and garlic that no matter what he cooked, it smelled good.  Today I’ve tried to re-create one of his concoctions.  I have no idea what his recipe was…I’m going by smell.  Here it is then
Alici del Nonno Amedeo or Nonno(grandfather) Amedeo’s Fresh Sardines in Spicy Tomato Sauce.

I bought some fresh sardines today at the local Pescheria and I asked them to clean them which means cutting of the head and pulling out the entrails.  I bought ½ kilo.  Once home, I rinsed them, and took out the backbone.

I placed them to dry on a paper towel.
Then I added olive oil to cover the pan, two cloves of garlic, 1 diced small onion, and a bunch of flat leafed parsley, 1 hot pepper (should have added two, because I like it spicier) and I simmered for a bit.

I added the fresh, cleaned sardines ( I know my grandfather used canned sardines which would have had a stronger taste and smell), and I mixed everything around now and then.  I put a pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta.
Then I added the passata to the almost cooked sardines.  I would hazard a guess at 1 cup but it was really half a beer bottle. (Passata is slightly cooked, crushed and sieved tomatoes preserved in a beer bottle.  The process is done at the end of June when the southern Italian tomatoes are ripe and sweet and they are bottled in sterilized beer bottles and a crown cap is put on.  You can buy Italian passata in glass bottles in Italian grocery stores.)  In Canada, I used crushed tomatoes.  I added a couple of fresh leaves of basil and a bit of salt to taste (only add salt if using fresh sardines.)  I let simmer and reduce.  

Next, the wine.  My grandfather would add a few glugs of his homemade wine, usually made from Zinfandel.  Instead I opened a white Biancolella, Casa D’Ambra from Ischia 2010.  Fresh sardines are not strong tasting, and I wanted a lighter sauce. I thought the minerality of this wine would go well with my salt-water fish and that it could also stand up to the tomato sauce.  
The first pour went into my glass and on the palate there is no doubt that this wine reflects the terroir of a volcanic island surrounded by the salty sea.  The wine is like a breath of salt sea air.  Biancolella is usually blended with Forastera, 2 indigenous vines of Campania, but the wine is mainly found on  Ischia.  To date, Casa D'Ambra is the best producer of this wine that I have tasted.  It is complex, floral, fruity, and has a lingering mineral aftertaste.

I added a couple of glugs, and I let simmer uncovered while I put the pasta into the salted boiling water. 
I served this dish on pasta, but I realized that once it had reduced it was better suited to a bruschetta.  I could not resist the fresh Italian bread that I bought this morning , so I returned to the pan after my meal was finished and just scooped it on my bread.

This is a dish per fare la scarpetta, or good enough to clean your plate with your bread. 
Grazie Nonno!



Thursday, December 15, 2011


I had reason to be scared of writing the Level 1 exam leading to the 4th level and pinnacle level of Master Sommelier qualification with the Court of Master Sommeliers.  The two days of review before the exam were grueling:  8 to 6pm of one power point after another, one country after another, flipping from old world to new world, districts, zones, individual vineyards, varietals international and indigenous, wine controls, labeling, geography, soil and blind taste tests all followed by studying until 11pm and up at 3am for more review.  If I hadn’t prepared for 3 weeks prior to this, I don’t think I would have stuck it out past day one.  But I passed the first exam, and with a grade over 70%, I was invited to attempt the second level test.  I knew in my heart of hearts that I was not prepared but buoyed by my initial success, I went for it and did not pass the second level exam. 
Although I am a Certified sommelier in Italy, I wanted to know more about International wines.  I couldn’t have picked a more rigorous course of study: the Court of Master Sommelier based in Torquay, England.  It seems that since the Brits don’t have a wine culture of their own, they have taken it upon themselves to maintain an encyclopedic knowledge of everybody else’s wines.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was in a different league.  
When you step out of your comfort zone, you learn a lot about yourself.  This experience ended up being a bit of a revelation for me.  My first epiphany was that I learned that I do not want to work as a restaurant sommelier.  I realized that they go to work at about the time that I start looking longingly at my pajamas and continue ‘til the wee hours of the morning.  I know that I would not be able to maintain that schedule for very long.  But, that does not imply that I don’t want to continue with my studies.  I am as determined as ever to continue with my studies and master this thing called wine, albeit hopefully by a different route.
People were curious as to why I was there.  One person told me I looked too scholarly to be in the “sommelier business”.  Perhaps they were just being kind and “scholarly” was their euphemism for “old”.  I did feel a little out of place, but enjoyed listening to these young people banter about their work, and it caused me to answer a really important question. Why am I doing what I am doing?  It wasn’t easy to answer that right off, and I think I’m still working my way through it.  In order to come up with an answer to that question I had to go back to how I got here.  
Seven years ago, I was a new vice-principal living in Halifax, Nova Scotia with 3 sons and a husband.  We had lived in Halifax for 10 years.  My husband had been in the military and we were used to moving, but it was nice to finally start putting down some roots.  For Christmas 2003 I bought my husband a book called “The Voyage of the Northern Magic:  A Family Odyssey”

This is the true story of a family from Ottawa, Canada with 3 boys about the same age as our boys were at the time, who sold their home, bought a sailboat, left their jobs behind and sailed around the world with their family for 4 years :  65,000 kilometers in 1,145 days.  The book chronicles all that they did to prepare for the voyage (they were not sailors), their reasons, and the details of the trip.  I longed for that sort of sustained time with my family.  Up until then, being together as a family seemed to come in small spurts of time, interrupted by phone calls, sports, lessons, school, work and friends.  Family vacations had allowed us a short period of time together floating in our bubble, undisturbed by our everyday routines.  To make a 7 year story short, we got what we wished for:  our adventure brought us to Japan at the foot of Mount Fuji for 2 years and then to Naples, Italy at the foot of Vesuvius.  We managed to give our family the adventure we were looking for, and then suddenly, our 3 sons were walking out the door seeking fortunes and adventures of their own.  You’ve heard this part of the story before:  our entire married life had revolved around our children and suddenly they were gone. 
Tired of feeling sad and lonely, my husband and I were not satisfied to let the adventure end and we decided to do something useful with the extra hours in the day that you find yourself with in an empty nest.  We had to find comfort in our lives. We had to find something other than the television at the end of the day.  We were not in crisis mode for long before we came up with a plan.  We spelled out how we wanted to live an active life, how we would do it, and what we were going to do to achieve it.  We were faced over and over with the thought of failure, of family and friends laughing at our “mid-life decisions”.  The decisions that we made have taken us in a direction that we would never have imagined 7 years ago.  We thought and we planned out how we wanted to live for the next part of our life.  We were faced with all kinds of fears, but we did exactly that, we faced them and we got busy.  My husband signed up for a certificate course in winemaking and viticulture with UC Davis, and I signed up to be a sommelier and we bought a vineyard, the unfolding of which is all chronicled right here on this blog.  So to answer the question “why”?  What started out as an escape has become a passion.  When you begin to learn something in part 2 of your life, you learn it with zeal.  I am prepared to master it one hour at a time even if it takes me 10,000 hours. 
I have, after 4 years of study become confident enough to say the following:  I am a grape grower and my grapes tell a story and I know how to read that story of weather and soil, of sun and rain.  I can foretell harvest dates.  I know how to winter prune, and green prune and I know why and when to do it.  I know about bugs.  I tend my vines and care for them with the attention that I afforded my children and my students.  I am a sommelier and I not only know what makes good wine, I am able to taste it and describe it to you using all of my senses.  I may have started out unsure, but I know what I know, and I know how to teach you what I know.  I know where I’m going and I know why:  because I want to.