A Star Child Suffers Winter Blues

I am trapped inside a fishbowl which, in turn, is trapped inside a snow globe. Before moving to the Syracuse, NY area some 25 years ago, I never considered myself a son of “the south”. Having been born and raised in Baltimore, MD, we considered ourselves as a north-southern city if there is such a thing. But southern is now how I see myself. The further north I go, the more southern I become.

Winter is traditionally a tough time for me. I was a child of the outdoors, an explorer, experimenter, and a menace. During the calendar’s coldest month of January, the average high temperature in Baltimore is 41 degrees Fahrenheit. In Syracuse the average high is 32 degrees. When you add windchill and lake effect snow on top of that, the affects of winter are a harsher assault on my genetic code. And these winters are long. Much longer than my soul can bear.

“Take up skiing,” they say. “Try ice skating or snowshoeing,” recommend others. For a Star Child born in May who believes the Universe’s greatest gift to mankind is the summer sun, you might as well suggest I swim with alligators. I remain obdurate in my refusal to embrace wonderland.

The deep cold of winter here has a profound affect on my psyche. It’s pretty enough; the snow that is. Postcard pretty even. But a 1 degree morning like this very morning in January is as equally disabling as it is beautiful. The near back-breaking snow shoveling and frozen limbs limit my exposure to 20 minuets of outdoor time. Enough time to shovel a path for my short-legged dogs to handle their business and enough time to create a trail leading to the bird feeders to care for my winged, wild pets.

Crestfallen with each snowflake settling on the ground, I’ve come to accept that I suffer from more than just “cabin fever”. That it is, more clinically speaking, Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. I didn’t need to spend money on a shrink to come up with that one either. The associated symptoms of depression, social withdrawal, hopelessness, and fatigue align closely with my personal experience. The noticeable mood swings, the desire to opt out of holidays, the crawling out of bed when I’d rather stay hidden beneath the blanket all point to SAD. And the only thing guaranteed to bring me true joy is a sunny day with temps above 70. The kind of day that I can wander about, soaking in views, receiving all that my environment has to offer. A seat on a park bench. A songbird composing notes. Wind rustling leaves. A walk around the lake. These are spirit lifting experiences for me.

Treatment options for SAD include exercise (it helps a bit); medications (which I refuse); and therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy chronotherapy, and light therapy (none of which soothes my inner skeptic). Instead I chose a far more expensive treatment option. My wife Angela and I purchased a ocean-side condo in Florida. And while the holiday spent there this year was nothing short of magical, here I sit in Syracuse in January on a 1 degree day lamenting winter.

I plan to hit the gym at some point today for a pick-me-up, watch a soccer match later for mid-day entertainment, and begin planning for my next 2 therapy sessions in Florida this coming March and April. All in an effort to devise a plan to survive my 25th winter in the Winterfell of North America.

There is no real purpose to this post other than for me to finally, after 25 years, give voice to my sadness and acknowledge my difficulties.

My wife is inviting me now to get a manicure and pedicure and, at this point, I’m willing to try something new. If you also suffer from SAD and have words of wisdom to share, I’m all ears.

Thanks for listening.

Socially Awkward AF

Surveying the room with dread. Identifying traps and looking for opportunities. Safe zones in the corners. Land mines around the bar. I walk smiling and nodding. Looking for a hack. Crtl + Alt + Del. I need a reboot. Intercepted by man. I recognize him from the elevator ride up. “Wamp Wamp Waa”. He sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher. I nod, feigning amusement. I chuckle with a sound I’ve been perfecting for years for these very moments. Another man touches his shoulder. Crtl + Alt + Del. Esc Esc. Just the hack I need to exit. Dipping in and out of uncomfortable spaces. Crtl + Alt + Del. Esc Esc. Made it to the bar. I sip bad wine and pretend it’s good. “Wamp Wamp Waa”. He found me using the same network pathway. We are joined by a woman. Small talk ensues. The man remarks on the extraordinary beauty of a young woman entangle in conversation among a pod of people next to us. He gives a foreboding glance and I wonder if he is conscious of #MeToo. “Wamp Wamp Waa”, they say to me. Reciprocity is expected. Crtl + Alt + Del. I need to hack this conversation. Esc Esc. A familiar face peers in my direction from a different pod of people and I make my way. Crtl + Alt + Del Dipping in and out of uncomfortable spaces. In familiar face, I’ve found a safe zone. Small talk ensues and again I am trapped.

Circuiting the room like a signal with no receiver. Page loading indicator just churning. That’s me in most social situations. Socially awkward as fuck. Conferences, fundraisers, meetings, it doesn’t matter. I tend to view the world through economic lenses. Inputs vs outputs. Risk vs reward. Investments vs returns. Gains vs losses. Over time, I have determined that the amount of energy expended during “small talk” is not worth the return on investment. For me…small talk is exhausting. I now know what the weather is like outside. The amount of traffic you traversed to get here. Your child’s school district. What’s my gain?

If nothing else, I am self-aware. I recognize this character deficiency. And I recognize the benefits of social capital. Yet still, social gatherings without my “wingwoman” are soul-crushing events without measurable personal benefit. This will come as a bit of a surprise for those who know me through my social media persona. The gregarious, opinionated person from Facebook is simply a personality construct for social media. A bit of personal branding if you will. The truth of the matter is that I am most comfortable sitting in a recliner with a glass of red wine reading a book or watching Netflix. Or getting caught up on the days events with my wife.

But I’m trying, friends. I’ve committed to getting out more in hopes of developing a set of skills that will help me survive social events. But the struggle is real.

The weather “Wamp Wamp Waa”. “How are things”? “What do you do”? Crtl + Alt + Del. Esc Esc….

Everyday Wines for Everyday People


The holidays are upon us and that means plenty of wine for sipping, socializing, and gift-giving.  There’s a way that you can enjoy the grape and give the grape without breaking the bank.  Simply buy tasty, inexpensive wine.  Easier said than done though, right?  No worries because I have you covered.

Understanding that taste is subjective and is as unique as the individuals doing the tasting, I hesitate to make recommendations to people based solely on what I like.  So I reached out to a couple of friends to join me in making some wine recommendations for the holidays.  I asked each to give me 3 wines under $30 per bottle that they enjoy and to tell me why they enjoy them in hopes of passing along some everyday gems to you.

First up is Joe Rustad.  Joe is a technologist from California now living in Toronto.  My wife Angela and I met Joe and his wife at a tasting at Nickel and Nickel Winery during a recent trip to Napa, CA.  He learned to love wine around his in-laws’ kitchen table, adjacent to the vineyards deep in Niagara wine country.

Here are three wines that Joe enjoys without stressing his wallet:


Napa Cellars Cabernet – Joe says this is everything that he wants out of a Napa cab.  It’s big and smooth, without too much fruit or oak.  “It’s a great example of Napa wine and taste like it costs twice as much.  Cost is about $24.

Hitching Post Gen Red – Joe says. “I normally associate Hitching Post with Pinots (because of the movie Sideways), but the amazing St. Rita Earth is rarely available under $30.  The Gen Red is a medium bodied blend under $20 and has a great balance and is just plain tasty.”

CMS Columbia Valley Red – According to Joe, CMS is a blend with a bit more oak and tannins that the other two he’s listed.  It’s a great wine for blind tastings, or to introduce to people who think that you are a wine snob.  The blend emphasizes the differences of Washington state from California.  You can score this tasty vino for about $19 a bottle.

Next is my longtime friend Rita Roane Blackwell.  I’ve know Rita since I was a teenager and her husband, Bobby, since elementary school.  Rita’s  bona fides run deep.  She is a Wine Consultant, Speaker and Planner who spends much of her time tasting wine.  For business and pleasure I assure you.  Referred to by her friends as “That Wine Girl”, Rita earned her Certification for Wine Studies from the French Culinary Institute in New York City.

Rita has tasted everything from “plunk” to the sublime.  Here are 3 wines that she enjoys without jeopardizing her son’s college fund:

2011 Bulgariana Cabernet Syrah Blend – For $17 a bottle, Rita claims that it is a super value without tasting like it.  This wine from Bulgaria has nice intense flavors of black current, cocoa and coffee with a smokey tobacco intensity.  It pairs well with a Gaucho Chili Coffee rubbed steak or a juicy burger with caramelized onions and smoked Gouda cheese. (I’m going to side-eye Rita here because she’s showing off).

Bailey Lapierre Cremant, Brut, Blanc de Noirs – A sparkling wine from Burgundy, France, Rita says, “It’s a bottle you can enjoy everyday that you want.  It’s made with all Pinot Noir grapes, and is fresh with lush fruit and a full-mouth feel.”  Average price is $24.

2015  Mouton Noir, O.P.P. –  The O.P.P. (Other Peoples Pinot Gris) from Willamette, Oregon is a Pinot Gris that Rita loves to drink during the holidays.  It’s fruit forward and well balanced.  Notes include apples and pears, and it has a tart and slightly creamy finish.  The average price is around $18.

Those who really know me know that I am a big fan of California Cabernet Sauvignon.  But I enjoy other wines too.  When I don’t want to tap into my collectibles, I turn to tasty, affordable wines that I can sip guilt-free. But first, a little about me.  I’m a drunk.  You know that.  End of story.

My 3 under $30:

2014 Conundrum  Red Blend – From the Wagner Family of Wines, the inky 2014 Conundrum is surprisingly bold.  This full-bodied wine is my everyday go-to wine.  Made of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah, Conundrum offers layers of rich flavor that include dark fruit, vanilla, burnt sugar, and cocoa.  It can stand up to a good steak or juicy burger. I had it last night while snacking on some Korean BBQ flavored beef jerky.  ‘Twas very good.  Enjoy, slightly chilled, for about $22.

2013 If You See Kay – Originally attracted by the funky label, this quickly became one of my favorite Italian wines.  It’s rich, deep purple, full-bodied and great for cold winter nights.  Notes of blackberry jam, plumb, and spice grab me by the collar and yell, “drink me”! When entertaining, I enjoy it with a homemade lamb bolognese and pasta dish or a plate of cheese and olives while watching Netflix.  80% Cab, 10% Petit Verdot, 5% Syrah, and 5% Primitivo.  It’s a steal at $20 a bottle.

Owera Vineyards Semi-Dry Riesling – For my third wine, I’m going to stay local.  Owera Vineyards is a lovely little winery located in Cazenovia, NY just a few short miles from my home.  It’s beautifully decorated and the food that they serve is outstanding.  And so is their semi-dry Riesling.  Not too sweet, this Riesling is crisp with notes of grapefruit and peaches.  It’s a good representation of New York State Riesling.  It averages around $17.  Hopefully you can find it in a shop that features a New York State wine section.  If you live in Central New York, put it on your “must visit” list.

So there you have it.  9 different wines from 3 distinctly different wine enthusiasts.  I’m sure there are dozens and dozens of wines that could be on our lists, but we want to preserve opportunity for you to go out and find some gems of your own.  I know that my future wine procurement activity will begin in earnest starting with the recommendations from Joe and Rita.  I can’t wait to discover what they enjoy about those wines.

What’s your 3 go-to wines for under $30?  Please feel free to share them here and I’ll pass along to my wine-drinking friends.

A very special thanks to Joe Rustad and Rita Roane Blackwell for generously sharing their passion for wine with us.

Thoughts on a President-elect Trump

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The mood on the morning of Wednesday November 9, 2016 was not what I expected or hoped it would be.  The results of the 2016 Presidential election brought immediate heartache; though the tossing and turning in the wee hours served as a harbinger of dark news.

The result brought about a profound depression that I won’t shake for sometime.  A depression, not rooted in the flip side of contested ideology, but one rooted in the selection of what I believe to be a truly vile human being.  A person who is not morally fit to hold the highest office in the land.

I’ve been on the downside of ideological contests before.  Reagan and both Bushes have bested my guys in the past but the choice was always between  differing political ideologies. You take your lumps and move on. But 2016 was very different.  2016 offered a referendum on good vs evil.

Donald Trump’s movement reached into the deepest crevasses, darkest corners, and jaded hearts to coalesce around fear, hate and ego.

Great disappointment comes when high expectations and delicately placed faith are not met. I put my faith in the American electorate. I believed that good people, fine Americans, when put to the test, would set aside party politics to prevent a misogynistic, petty and vindictive man from occupying our most sacred public office. The gut-punch on Wednesday morning was all too visceral.

Yes my friends, this one will linger for sometime.  When your oldest daughter tells you that she cried on the subway, it alters your psyche. When your youngest daughter spends a sleepless night thinking that she will inherit the potential harmful impact of this presidency, your heart withers.  These young women’s visceral fears have rocked my foundation.

This one will sting for a while.  There are those that are celebrating the Trump victory.  Celebrating like their team just won the Super Bowl.  Only there won’t be parades down Main Street and championship rings to gawk at. It will be an oppressive Supreme Court, harmful immigration policies, and global isolationism sitting on a shelf in the championship case. And no checks and balances to protect any of us.

I’ve had to sever connections with people in my life, both real and virtual, who supported Trump.  Men that I know with daughters.  Men who put a “pussy-grabbing” mental midget and party politics before the interest of their own children. People who voted for a man who considers his daughter “a piece of ass.”  Evangelicals who inked a deal with the devil.  People, who with a single vote, invited racist hate to saunter from the shadows and into the light of day.

Most times, I am generally tolerant of the differing views of others. This just can’t be one of those times.

I don’t like this choice but I will abide by it out of respect for our democracy and the office of the President of the United States.  I suspect, though, that this nauseous feeling will continue for four long years.  I invite Mr Trump to prove me wrong.

Death and Wood: An East-Coast Urbanite’s Foray in the Mid-West


Ahhh…the mid-west. I’ve been here thrice before but the visits were to major urban areas like Kansas City and Denver, and a more culturally diverse college town in Greeley, CO. But this is my first time in the sparsely populated heartland.

I made the trip to visit my dad and his wife, Erika, in Bloomfield, Nebraska where they relocated to some years ago. I got my first taste of mid-west flavor while people watching as I awaited my flight to Sioux Falls, SD in Chicago Ohare airport the day after the Cubs won the World Series. If I had a dollar for every dude that I saw sporting “dad jeans” and hiking shoes, I’d be Mark Zuckerberg rich.

Big agriculture is the name of the game in Nebraska. The landscape is gold and tan hued peppered with brown and black cows and accented with sprinkles of modernity in the form of giant white propellers.

 

Dry fields stretch as far as the eye can see and trees are small islands of green that pool around homes or separate property lines. It would be fair to say that I did not come across a true forrest the entire time that I visited.  And it is dusty. Extremely dusty. Tractors kick up clouds of dust so thick that it lingers still in the air if the wind isn’t blowing and the cutting down of end-of-season crops delivers pestilence to the doorstep of man. The flies, beetles and grasshoppers overwhelmed me. Acreages and acreages of trees and grassy plains displaced by crops of corn grown to fuel ethanol production and grazing cattle to satisfy Americas demand for beef unveils miles of barren vista. A sad sight for my urban eyes.


Bloomfield is a town with a population of 1,126 and it is what you would expect of a small Mid-western town. The pace is slow, the people are friendly, and the opportunities for fun and employment are scarce. Quaint is the adjective I used most often to describe the place. The convenience store owner, the real estate agent, and newspaper publisher that I met were all so friendly and accommodating. And they all seemed to have a great deal of respect for my dad and Erika.


Trips like these are often moments of self-discovery for me. The things that I frequently complain about, like crowds and traffic, are among the things that I miss the most about the east. You can drive for miles without seeing another car and move about the day missing human interaction as long stretches of road separate residential properties. The isolation is as depressing as the failing economy here.

The emerald green of the east with its tree covered hills, sparkling lakes, and massive traffic jams call to the urbanite in me. There are many reasons why the left and right coasts are so heavily populated. Buzzing restaurants, live music, walkable cities and communities, public art, the diversity of life itself…these things matter to many.  And yet there were some pleasurable discoveries and experiences in Nebraska. I ate an elk burger full of flavor. I shot a gun in an open field without fear of disturbing the neighbors or risk of being shot by the police for possession of a weapon. I discovered a winery that rivaled many on the Seneca Lake wine trail. These things I will long remember.  Still, my values won’t play well out here. A pair of Ferragamo shoes would be as useless as tits on a bull as they say.

My dad is nearing 78 and is as obdurate as you would expect a 78 year-old to be. He and his wife have settled in nicely in Nebraska and have become an integral part of the social fabric of Bloomfield. I amused myself, during this visit, with his obsession with wood and death. Not long ago they lived on a farm and partially heated their home by burning firewood. During this period, he collected a lot of fire wood. And although that is no longer the case, his tour of the area included areas where he collected the fire wood. Private property where he was given permission (and sometimes not) to remove fallen trees. A drive by of the old farm house revealed where he chopped the tonnage of wood collected over time.  Passing other homes I learned of the families fates including who died. Collecting and burning wood was a significant part of his life for such a long time that he now suffers from “wood envy”. He showed me properties where the homeowners had enviable stacks of wood. Piles of wood gathered in anticipation of the winter to come. The irony of a man’s obsession with collecting wood in a woodless land was not lost on me.

I am happy that they have settled into a place that they can call home. A place where neighborly connections are meaningful even in a place where people are scattered like sand in the wind. This place is good for them. It was a pleasure visiting the two of them, but the east calls to me now…and I must answer.

An Open Letter to My Daughters

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President Barack Obama and Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton wave together during the third day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

My two loves. I come to you in this forum because, as you well know, my fingers are often far more eloquent than my tongue. I want you to realize that you are living in extraordinary times.

You have witnessed the election and presidency of our nation’s first African-American president and the selection of the first woman to receive the presidential nomination of a major political party and potentially the first woman President of the United States. These are extraordinary accomplishments that should not be taken for granted.

I am very happy that you two watched Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech as well as the speech given by the nation’s first African-American First Lady of the United States. These are not ordinary women.

If you follow this presidential election, you will undoubtedly hear a range of opinions on Hillary Clinton. You will hear that she is just another politician. You will hear that she cannot be trusted. You will hear that she is self-serving. These are not your father’s beliefs.

The truth of the matter is that Hillary Clinton (just like our First Lady) is a phenomenal woman. A woman who devoted her life to public service because of early childhood experiences and the political climate of her youth. Both of these women have achieved greatness and I want you to know that you do not rise to this level without waking your inner phenomenal woman.

As a girl, Hillary Rodham was profoundly affected by the stories of her mother being abandoned as a child. A child often left to fend for herself. Who was there to protect this child? Who was there to shield her from harm? Or coach her potential? And if this could happen to her mother, how many other children in our society must suffer from similar circumstances and neglect? A phenomenal woman takes that kind of experience and internal dialogue and turns it into a calling. Ask yourself, why was Hillary Rodham selected to be the first student in Wellesley College history to deliver a commencement address? She was not of privileged stock. It is because she was identified as an extraordinary, passionate individual… a phenomenal woman.

I am here to tell you that there is nothing particularly special about Hillary Clinton. The phenomenal woman exists in every girl. You just have to wake her up. And I see her in you two already. Imani, you have been identified by your employer as a woman worth investing in. It is because you show promise and rise above expectations. You are awakening the phenomenal woman. Hadiya, you are driven by your desire to exceed as a student. Your being singled out in your summer program as the student who showed the most promise in your major is an awakening of your phenomenal woman. The two of you must recognize her, nurture her and bring her to life.

Being extraordinary is not inherent to special people. It is an individual choice. It requires effort and discipline. It is conscious action. Most of all, it requires belief in yourself and the belief that you can transcend the obstacles that would consign you to mediocrity. It is summoning your phenomenal woman.

I mention our First Lady and Hillary Clinton as examples of extraordinary women and there are hundreds of others. But you need not look any further than your own home for the greatest example of all. Your mother is exemplary. A black girl from a small Virginia town and a non-traditional educational path does not become a Vice President of major company without awakening her inner phenomenal woman. At home, we jokingly say that we know when mom has taken her BB pill. It is just a different way of saying that her phenomenal woman is in action. Just know that when she pushes you, she pokes your dormant phenomenal woman. When she challenges you, she challenges the phenomenal woman in you. She knows, as do I, that you have the ability to be extraordinary in whatever you do. You need only breathe life into your phenomenal woman.

You both have asked me at different times in your life if I was ever disappointed that I did not have a son. I understand the question because I understand the value that our society places on male children.  But my response has always been the same. I have who I am supposed to have. The lives that I helped bring into this world are the lives that I have been entrusted to shape and mold. You are my destiny and my purpose in life. You are beautiful, talented young women who can be and do anything that you want to do. You need only exercise your imagination, remove your limitations, and awaken your phenomenal woman. And always remember that our love for you knows no boundaries.

Dad

Thoughts on Napa


With the recent trip to California wine country, I have successfully checked off another item on the bucket list. It is certainly a must visit spot for lovers of food and wine.

In lieu of boring you to death with a chronological narrative of the getaway, I thought I’d rank the experiences to give you an idea of the highlights and lowlights. 

First…we eat!


Given that Napa is one of the leading wine producing regions in the world, it stands to reason that the culinary scene would be just as competitive.  While Napa is home to the French Laundry, one of the best restaurants in the country and perhaps the world, it also boast a number of fine eateries that are far easier to get a table in. Running through the alphabet and not getting far beyon the “b’s”, we dined at the following: Botega, Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, Bistro Jeanty, Brix, Gott’s Roadside, The Grill at Silverado, Lucy’s, and Morimoto.  And our favorite dining experience was…

#1 – Actually not a restaurant at all.  It was the Delicacies and Cave tour offered by Del Dotto winery. It’s not something that they do often but when they do…oh boy! The post cave tour delicacies pairing was prepared by Del Dotto’s head chef, Joshua Schwartz, in their state-of-the-art kitchen. The chef brought considerable culinary skills to the party as he is a former chef at the French Laundry. The small bites included a lobster roll on toasted Brioche, caviar and sweet corn egg mousse (pictured lower left), pasta with collard greens and pork shank Pastrami, and an American Wagyu Beef and Black Truffle slider all perfectly paired with delicious wine. There were two other food and wine-loving couples in our tour group which added to the positive experience. Our Del Dotto wine ambassador was knowledgeable about the wine, wine making process, company history and the food. Del Dotto surpassed all of our restaurant experiences. The total cost was $190 for the two of us.

#2 – For me it was the French centric Bistro Jeanty and their succulent Coq Au Vin (pictured upper left). Angela was less than pleased with her menu choice which happened to be sole. In her words, “it was extraordinarily bland.” Her second favorite was the chic Bardessono hotel’s restaurant Lucy. I had the lobster risotto (pictured upper right) and it was fabulous. Super chef Michael Chiarello’s Bottega restaurant was also excellent  and ranks pretty high but the meals were a bit heavy for us after a day of wine tasting.

#3 – Morimoto located in downtown Napa had tasty food and offered more than the chef’s famed sushi. Angela’s porkchop (pictured lower right) was huge and delicious and I was more than happy to help her finish it. The restaurant was large and energetic which made it a poor choice for an intimate evening.

Special mention goes out to Gott’s Roadside. Their California burger is one of the best burgers I’ve ever had.  Thanks to my friend Matt Martucci for pulling my coattail on that one.

Thumbs down goes to the Grill at The Silverado resort. The food was fair, the service lousy and the clientele…were mostly in polo shirts, golf shorts and in their 70’s. Honestly though, I blame myself for coming up short on the research.

Best Wine Tasting Experience


The experience offered by a winery is a very important part of the overall wine country vacation experience. Seeing a bit of how the wine is made, understanding the variety of soils used, distinctions in growing areas, wine-making philosophy, and even the history of the vineyard and personality of the owner help inform the wine-tasting experience.  The best experiences were those that offered tours of the facility, seated tastings, and education. These are of course at additional cost and most require advanced reservations. My least favorite are the ones where you plop down $25 bucks on the counter, get your 4 or 5 pours and a little conversation with the staff as they flutter between customers. With so many wineries and vineyards in the Napa Valley, it is impossible to visit them all even on a week-long holiday. We visited Charles Krug, Joseph Phelps, Plumpjack, Stags Leap, Cliff Lede, Opus One, Caymus, Silver Oak, Chateau Montelena, Hall Wineries, Del Dotto, and Nickel & Nickel. Here are our top 3 favorite experiences:

1# Del Dotto Estate Winery & Caves (St Helena) – Founded by infomercial king, Dave Del Dotto, Del Dotto Estate Winery offers the kind of Vegas-styled production one would expect from a media and entertainment savvy owner. Del Dotto attacks the senses with aggression upon approach. You immediately get the not-so-subtle nod to Dave’s Italian heritage. And it’s more of the same as you enter the lower level of the building. All of the decor including tile, lighting fixtures etc. are imported from Italy. The tour starts with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc and an introduction from your assigned Wine Ambassador. And with the yank of a velvet curtain, you are ushered into the “wine cave” (more of a basement than a hill-side cave). Here is where our experience gets elevated. Unlike other tours that we booked, every taste of wine (about 5 in total) was directly drawn from the barrels. You get to taste the differences in vintages, types of oak, barrel toasting grades, and regions.  For example, we were able to compare the exact same wine aged in two different barrels – one in French oak and one in American oak from Minnesota. The French oak offered sweet vanilla and burnt sugar flavors while the American oak delivered smokey bacon notes. Once done with the cave tour, our group was escorted to the private dining area for sensory overload with the delicious delicacies previously described in the dining section (pictured upper left)…and another 5 pours of wine! Overall, the wine was very good, the tour entertaining and the food/wine pairing exceptional. And that’s why it gets our top spot. If you sign up for the Delicacies and Cave tour at Del Dotto, make it your only stop that day. The tasting pours are larger than average and 10 of them pretty much knocked us on our asses. 

#2 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar – Located in the Stag’s Leap district, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar is a gorgeous facility with knowledgeable staff. Our tour started with a taste of Sauvingnon Blanc and an introduction to the facility, types of soil Stag’s Leap’s grapes are grown in, and their wine making methods including how the wine gets moved around the facility. The tour proceeds with a stroll through the vineyard’s hill-side wine cave. It was a gorgeous facility, beautifully decorated with touches that indicate the founder’s interest in the cosmos (pictured lower left). The cave temperature was cool and full of fresh oak aromas. The tour ended back in the main building’s tasting room with beautiful stone-covered walls and floor-to-ceiling windows behind the tasting bar that overlooked grape vines and mountain vistas.  And of course the wine was exceptional. The Estate Wine Tasting and Cave Tour is $60 per person and well worth the money.

#3 Hall Wines – Hall Wines in St Helena pays as much attention to pleasing your sense of sight as is does your sense of taste.  Founders Kathryn and Craig Hall blend their love of contemporary architecture, art, and wine-making to create one dynamic experience. After a quick trip to Hall Wines red bathroom (Kathryn’s favorite color) the HALLmark tour, like others, started with a refreshing Sauvignon Blanc. The $40 per person 45 minute tour exposes you to some eclectic modern art (pictured upper right),  contemporary architecture, and advanced wine-making techniques. A stop in one of the temperature controlled barrel rooms allowed us to taste a remarkable Cabernet Sauvignon straight from the barrel. After passing a beautiful infinity reflecting pool where club members can enjoy a glass of wine and extraordinary vistas, the tour ends with a seated group tasting of 4 outstanding wines (6 total taste from start to finish). Some of our favorite experiences occurred when we were grouped with other wine enthusiasts as was the case here. Good conversation and a shared love of wine is always a recipe for a good time.

Notables – Joseph Phelps Terrace tasting was awesome. The tour was minimal (pictured lower right) but the outstanding wine tasting on a terrace overlooking the vineyard and conversation with a fellow wine-loving couple made for a terrific first day in Napa.  Also, the tasting at Caymus deserves mention. While you don’t need reservations for a tastings, the vineyard doesn’t leave you sipping at a counter. We were seated at a private table for two nestled in their stunning garden and served 5 wines from the Wagner family of wines…including Caymus.  And you can’t go wrong with Caymus.

Least Favorite – Silver Oak – sure it was only a walk-in tasting but I somehow expected more from this reputable wine producer. There wasn’t much interaction with the server and no real history or information offered. The experience lasted  only about 15 minutes but we did purchase some nice swag from the vineyard store. Additionally, Chateau Montelena (also a walk-in tasting) was underwhelming. Located in Calistoga on beautiful grounds with a pond full of crawfish, the landmark winery failed to deliver a meaningful experience worth the drive up RT 29.

Best Tasting Wines 


This a a tough one because the taste and enjoyment of wine is rooted in personal preference. It’s all subjective. Angela and I happen to love full-bodied reds that burst with jammy fruit and because the Napa Valley is one of the best regions on earth to grow Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, the competition to be king of cabs is fierce. Whether you prefer Bordeaux styled blends, wines that are 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, or something in between chances are that if you throw a rock while blindfolded, you’ll likely strike a good one.  While we were visiting Napa for a relaxing, flavor-filled holiday, Angela and I were also on a mission to find some unique wines to add to our wine room. Here are some of our favorites:

#1 Nickel & Nickel – Located in Oakville, Nickel & Nickel was designed to produce single-vineyard wines, and as such, a relative small number of cases are produced annually. The Cabs take on the personality of the different districts that the vineyards are cultivated in. These cabs are full-bodied and inky in color, and burst with ripe, dark fruit with long finishes and smooth tannins.  We loved all the wines that were a part of the tasting but purchased the 2013 Beatty Ranch Cab from Howell Mountain – exquisite! We also bought the 2013 Quarry Cab from Rutherford and their Darien Vineyard Syrah that our host was kind enough to introduce us to but was not a part of the official tasting.  All wine was served with 3 different cheeses in a private dining room in Nickel & Nickel’s charming late 19th century, historic farmstead.

#2 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellar – Many know of Chateau Montelena’s historic 1976 win for white wine at the Judgment of Paris primarily from the movie Bottle Shock. The movie’s focus was Chateau Montelena’s story but it also highlights Stag’s Leap’s historic win for Cabernet Sauvingnon at the same international competition. The excellence in wine making continues today. We enjoyed several pours of outstanding wine including Winery Exclusive 2014 Arcadia Vineyard Chardonnay, and 2012 & 2013 Estate Collection Fay Cabernet Sauvignon.  We bought them all and joined their club.

#3 Hall Wines – Hall produces some outstanding wines and, quite frankly, this list could easily be rearranged with Hall going #1 or #2. It’s that tight of a ranking. There wasn’t one wine at Hall that I didn’t love. The 2013 Bergfeld was rich and inky with super smooth tannins and tons of ripe fruit. We snagged a bottle for the wine room and joined their club.

#4 Joseph Phelps, Plumjack, Caymus, Del Dotto- all of them easy top 3 candidates and all of them represent some of our fondest wine tasting moments. Joseph Phelps has one of the most drinkable Pinot Noirs (we snagged it) and their 2012 Backus Cab could be my favorite wine of the trip (snagged that too).  Plumjack wines are fantastic as are the wines of its sister label, Cade. We grabbed 6 bottles in all including the 2013 Plumpjack Estate Cab and 2014 Syrah. Del Dotto also offers outstanding wine and I can say I’ve never seen a bottle in a store in NY state. Most of their wine is sold to club members and visitors. We bought a Sauvignon Blanc, a fantastic red blend, and a Cab aged in American oak. It will be interesting to see if the wines are as good coming out of the bottle as they were straight from the barrels.

Disappointments – Silver Oak and Chateau Montelena. The wines were just OK and neither were worthy of the price points that you typically have to pay for them.


A final note on the Hotel Yountville and the town of Yountville, CA. The room, grounds and services at the Hotel Yountville made for a perfect holiday. From the public art on the grounds to the relaxing pool to the nightly chocolates that Angela hoarded, bagged up, and brought home, the Hotel Yountville served as the perfect base camp for our daily excursions. I remarked on several occasions to Angela that Yountville has to be the most fragrant town I’ve ever visited. Bushes of rosemary serve as landscaping and olive trees line the streets. Mix that with the aromas of fresh baked goods emanating from Bouchon Bakery and savory delights coming from Bottega and Bouchon restaurant and you create a truly happy place.  The public art spoke to the area’s unique place in the wine and culinary universe. We are counting the days until we return.

If you’ve visited Napa and have experiences to share, I’d love to hear them.

51 Introspection

 

51 Selfie
51 Selfie

Dear friends, let me first apologize for the blatant blog neglect perpetrated by your’s truly over the last few months.  Work and everyday life has gotten in the way of “me time.”  Now that I have spent the better part of the day reflecting on 51, I’d like to share some thoughts with you.  Again, I offer an apology in advance for the tone of this post. It can best be described as a jaded, self-conscious peek into the psyche of a man struggling with mortality. What can I say, I’ve never been a “glass half full” kind of guy.

If you read my post leading up to my 50th birthday, you’ll know that it was quite a struggle. I thought 50 was a hump to get over and that once over the hump, life would get smoother.  In many ways it has and in some ways it hasn’t.

Here are some observations, discoveries, and realizations that I share for your amusement and pity:

Obsessive Compulsive Behavior Won’t Slow Down – I find that there is an alarming increase in my obsessive behavior.  I spent the better part of the day washing my hands after having touched a dead baby bird while cleaning the pool skimmer.  Dead-baby-bird cooties is not the way that you want to start your 51st birthday. No amount of scented lotion can convince me that I’m not smelling dead baby bird. I now have a laser like focus on creating or acquiring some tool to pull the skimmer basket out without inserting my hand into a soup of dead baby bird and chipmunk.

Things Hurt More – I hurt from sitting. Did you hear me? I said I HURT FROM SITTING. Rising from a chair after sitting for a while should not result in aches and pains. I’m an active guy. I work out 5 days a week. Why is there such rapid deterioration? There are times when sitting still, in the quiet of the night, quiescent in a room devoid of light, that I can literally hear the decay as it’s happening.  Muscle tearing down. Ligaments weakening. Fragility attacking bones. Neurons misfiring like failing spark plugs.

Fashion Relevancy – The realization that I will never succumb to dull fashion has set in. I am destined to sacrifice comfort for style. Yes, there will be times, later in life, that I will undoubtedly look like an old man trying to cling to the glory days, but so be it.  There will be no “dad jeans” in my future. You shouldn’t spend a good portion of your life building your personal brand only to abandon it because you stop caring. If you don’t remember me for anything else, remember this…SWAGGER MATTERS.

I’d rather look like this guy:

Oldmanswag

Than this guy:

OldJeans Music Relevancy – Music discovery will always be a part of my DNA. A recent study suggested that the average person stops listening to and discovering new music around the age of 33. I find that rather depressing. I might be an old man listening to Byonce “Twirl on her haters in albino alligators” or Drake fluttering between being hard-core and a ladies man, but if it has a funky beat, and interesting lyric, a conscious message, I’m going to be on it. I’ll rock a band like Tao and the Get Down Stay Down when I’m 80. “Yes, I love Earth, Wind & Fire and Al Green, and Miles Davis, but I choose to honor the past while celebrating the present. So pass the Depends underpants and my Beats headphones because I’m gonna drop it like it’s hot…old…but hot. The goal is to counter some of the regression with progression.

Fuck It – It’s slipping out of my mouth more and more these days. Indeed, it is liberating. Not giving a shit is like a new right of passage. To my expanding waist line, I say fuck it. To my painful left pinkie toe, I say fuck it. To overpriced restaurant food, I say fuck it. Curling 60 pounds instead of 70 I say fuck it. Letting things go and not sweating the small stuff is finally sinking in at age 51.

New Obsessions – I’ve had passions and interests come and go and I suppose they speak to various life stages. Today’s obsession is retirement and, more specifically, planning for retirement. Not surprising for this stage in my life. I find the whole thing rather fascinating and highly educational. I’m collecting EFTs and mutual funds like I use to collect socks and underwear. Educating myself on asset acquisition, asset allocation and portfolio management with a glass of wine now defines most evenings at home. Recent news stories highlighting how unprepared for retirement most Americans are is disturbing. While It’s never to early to start saving, it can be too late. Assess your portfolio, assess your retirement needs, and seek help from a financial planner. I’ve been very fortunate to spend the majority of my career with an employer that has generous retirement benefits. For that, I am thankful.

Number-51I Am Loved – This is not a new revelation but I will take every opportunity to acknowledge how fortunate I am in the love department. I am rich in social capital. While, at 51, my daughters often look at me like I’m eating jello, sitting in a rocking chair with a blanket on my lap, I know that they love and respect me. They get currency from making me proud. And I am…very proud. I look forward to watching them develop and grow into strong, intelligent women.

And no man is more fortunate in the pair bonding department than me. My wife loves me more with each passing year when logic dictates it should be the opposite. She’s a tough coach, uncompromising supporter, and fantastic partner. Every day with her  represents a new day of discovery; new dreams developed; new passions uncovered; and life made new with every awakening. I am loved. And that’s what makes 51 and beyond worth living and enjoying.

 

I Found Love On A MTA Bus…

BusI never saw her get on the bus.  It just rolled on down North Ave on its way to Harford Rd. The fumes irritated my nose and the shoddy suspension made my empty stomach queasy. The bus was packed tight on a Monday morning and I stared out of the window thinking only of how much I hated public transportation; its smells and passengers.

It was 1986; a transition period in my life and I was in the midst of an existential crisis. My mind fluttered back and forth between how and why I was occupying space and time and contemplating my few but significant shortcomings.

The carriage stopped around Greenmount Ave where most of its riders exited.  And as the bus thinned,  its then nearly hollow shell revealed a curious creature. She wore a tight short skirt and off-white boots decorated with paisley – a subtle nod to her favorite artist.

Her hair was tight, lips painted red, makeup neatly, tastefully applied. Her shit was together. The fitted skirt revealed womanly curves though one could easily tell that she was just a girl.  Legs smooth as frog skin.  Her plump, sweet lips clung to a face far too serious for her age and framed by dangling gold hoops.  She looked out-of-place on the MTA bus and nothing about her spoke of Baltimore. I peeped that from the start.

I wish that this was the part of the story where I could offer a tale of love-at-first-sight. One where we looked into each other’s eyes and saw our future. A story of rapid pulses and beating hearts. But I can not. The truth of the matter is that I saw chocolate thighs and she…well, she saw nothing.

I moved closer. Perhaps to get a better look, a whiff of perfume. I didn’t talk to strangers then. Not usually. I had no pick up lines at the ready. Two seats away I sat innocuously; eyes fixed firmly on her paisley ankle boots. My eyes worked their way up from ankle to leg to thigh and hip. And at the risk of sounding crude…noticed that she had a nice ass. A really nice ass.

Now normally, that would be the extent of my mental escapade. I’d admire a pretty girl and entertain a fantasy or two. Shyness was always difficult for me to overcome. But I noticed an “in”…a gateway to introduction. She and I happened to be gripping the same text-book. And I thought, “Surely it can’t get any easier than this.” So I spoke, “Excuse me. Did we have assignments to complete from that book”? Her reply was a cold, “yes.”  There was no look of “oh are we in the same class” or “I’m glad to make a new acquaintance.” “Yes” was all she said and she continued her blank stare out of the aquarium-like window of the MTA bus. I swung, I missed, I felt dejected.

I thought myself a charming fellow but she remained immune to my charms for a while. Yet I remained obdurate in my backdoor approach. Overtime, in class, I earned her trust and friendship. I finally smashed it half-way through the semester.

I still remember the first kiss. The sound of her voice when she first said my name. Walks to the corner store. The first time she used profanity. Me showing her my small slice of Baltimore. Getting off the bus at Lexington Market. Extravagant lunches at Burger King. Late night phone calls when one of us would eventually fall as sleep. Not wanting to be the first to hang up the phone. Painful times.  Fun times. Confusing times. Events and emotions that proved to be the genetic code of love and the foundation of our union.

Me and the girl from the bus played house. We made babies. We were the architects of dreams. But there never was a love-at-first-sight moment. No fantasy tale to tell. No eyes meeting and locking among the throngs of miserable faces on the MTA bus. Love is what you make of it and we chose to make something special.

I tricked MTA girl into loving me. Taught her how to love me, really, as she taught me to love her. 26 Valentine’s Days have come and gone. 26 Valentine’s Days have added 26 strong blocks to our foundation. And now, in retrospect, these 26 Valentine’s Days have given me a newfound appreciation for public transportation.

 

What Happens To A Dream Deferred?

FullSizeRenderIt wasn’t long after I arrived on the campus of Syracuse University as the newly appointed Program Director for the University’s public radio station that I received a highly anticipated telephone call from my hometown of Baltimore, MD. The voice on the other end of the line informed me that my submission to the annual WMAR TV Arena Players Black History Month new playwright contest was selected as the winning script. The screams of excitement were heard throughout the studios and offices I assure you.

You see, there was a time when I fancied myself a writer. I had dreams of creating great works of poetry and fiction. Maybe even becoming a screenwriter. My best bud, Sean Yoes, and I would put a pen to paper transferring thought to pad as we itched to create the next great work. We’d hit the open mics and spin tales of urban woe; oppressed warriors shaking the shackles of modern slavery; and even tales of love and lust. In truth, our shit might have stunk, but we couldn’t smell it. Creativity was our drug and the Jones kicked in every day.

You should have seen us two knuckleheads from Walbrook High fumbling around the Mid-Atlantic Writer’s Conference back in the late 80’s. It was a conference full of academia and professional writers. We were the second coming of Arna Bontemps and Countee Cullen. The Harlem Renaissance would be reborn in us on that day…or so we thought.

The conference concluded and our resolve strengthened. We had dreams. Dreams of being writers. Dreams of being film makers. We would be integral parts of the creative class come hell or high water.

During that period, a local television station sponsored an annual contest for up and coming playwrights. The station, WMAR TV, partnered with the Arena Players, a local African-American community theater organization, to host the contest in celebration of Black History Month. The chosen playwright would receive a $1,000 cash prize and his/her play would be produced by the Arena Players and aired in the Baltimore metropolitan area on WMAR TV. It was a big freaking deal.

Twice before I attempted to submit a competed script and twice I failed to realize a finished product. Writer’s block got the best of me as did a lack of technology.1992 was a different year. 1992 would be my year. I was arrogant enough to condemn prior contest winners to the dung heap. Yet, as arrogant and cocky as I was, I still needed permission from my new bride to buy a word processor. Handwriting a complete script proved to be daunting.

$500 is what I needed to prove myself worthy of the dream. It might as well have been $5,000. $500 was a lot for us to consider spending. Having just jumped the broom three years prior and  adding a new addition to the family, every penny was needed for daily necessities. Yet there I stood before Angela Lee breaking down my simple plan – buy a $500 word processor on credit (a personal computer for us in the early 1990’s was unthinkable), write and submit the script, and win $1,000 for a net gain of $500.

It didn’t take much convincing. I could see the concern on her face but it quickly turned to a smile and a “yes”. Angela has always believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself. Her confidence in me fueled my creativity as I banged away at the word processor keyboard. It’s why I continue to be in love with her today.

I submitted the script to WMAR TV and accepted a new job in Syracuse, NY simultaneously. So much was happening at the time and it was overwhelming.

Flanked by my bride and 1-year-old daughter, mother and mother-in-law, I stood in the crowded Arena Players theatre listening to the buzz around me, anticipating the moment that my work would come to life on stage. Announcements made, lights dimmed, and there it was; a cheap imitation of Zora Neale Hurston and influences of every Harlem Renaissance writer I had ever read appeared on stage. The work wasn’t very good; it was just unique enough to win. The actors breathed life into my play which, ironically, was about fulfilling dreams.

I was buoyed by my family and good friends like Sean Yoes and Tony Perkins. Yet despite the kind words and praise of the actors and theatre attendees, I knew as I stood there that the dream had come to an end. I held my squirming 1-year-old and looked at my beaming bride and knew that the work that was ahead of me was not as a dramaturg, but as a husband, a father, and a radio guy. And with no regrets.

I think about Hughes’ question all the time. What happens to a dream deferred? We all have dreams. Fruition is the end game for all but only the lucky few get to see their biggest dreams unfold on the grand stage. For the rest of us, those dreams go through a metamorphosis of sorts. It doesn’t have to dry up or fester like a sore. And it needn’t sag like a heavy load. A dream deferred merely becomes a different dream and the dreaming itself is what sustains and drives us, isn’t it? Today my dreams are simpler and  they change from day-to-day; but always centered around my girls.

My friend Sean parlayed his dream of becoming a writer into a career as a journalist. Between the two of us, he was the far more talented scribe.  As for me, I just needed some sort of creative outlet. My dreaming is never-ending. There is no tragedy in unfulfilled dreams. Tragedy exist when we stop dreaming altogether.

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

Langston Hughes