Sunday, August 30, 2009

One day, three wineries ...

August 6, 2009. Day five, and the last full day of our southwestern wine vacation, is a full one. It's a beautiful day to wake up on the lake, and we enjoy a leisurely breakfast from food we brought along and have been trying to preserve all week. Not too much has spoiled. Except my cocoa. VERY spoiled. Ugh. And Heidi is having to cut away good big bits of once-pretty strawberries.

Then we head out for our day of touring and drinking. Once again, we note the gorgeous Iowa countryside in this part of the state, there is beautiful and striking scenery. And charming small town names: Nodaway, College Spring, Coin, Silver City -- where do these places get their names? WHAT college? What coin? Was there silver? And Nodaway sounds like a child's lullaby. And out here, in the middle of nowhere in particular, close to nothing of any significance, here is a huge old mansion. Why? Who built it and who were they trying to impress out here? And Red Oak, which has a bright ORANGE water tower -- and are there really red oaks there? I am filled with wonderment over Iowa scenes and villages I never knew existed.

Mileage on my sweet little new car continues to creep up as it, too, enjoys the southwest Iowa backroads; it'll edge up to 40 mpg as we arrive back in Corning this evening.

We passed through Clarinda, Home of Glen Miller, and it struck me that Iowa is the childhood home of very many very famous people (this weekend alone, we have been within spitting distance of the homes of Johnny Carson and Glen Miller, but also of note are Buffalo Bill Cody, John Wayne, Mamie Doud Eisenhower, Ann Landers, Henry Wallace, AND, of more recent fame, Elijah Wood and Ashton Kutcher -- famous folks who chose NOT actually to BE famous in Iowa). (Though as an aside, can I just mention that I saw Kutcher play Jem in Washington High School's "To Kill a Mockingbird," back in the day.)

We drove through Villisca, home of the Villisca Axe Murders (if I'd looked at this site first, maybe I would have recognized the house when we drove past it!), and made a half-hearted attempt to find the axe murderer house, but had no luck. (Ah, I see there are at least TWO (count 'em two!) "official" Villisca Axe Murder sites.) Heidi's reference, the Iowa guide book I'd just given her for her birthday (Iowa: An Explorer's Guide, by Lauren R. Rice - KUNI: The Exchange 7/21/09 (2009-07-21)), said there are tours available, but arrangements needed to be made in advance, they take quite a lot of time, and you also have to (um, get to) see a bunch of stuff that neither of us cared much to see. So no axe murderer house for us. Maybe another time. It does seem a shame that a nice little Iowa town has only that as its claim to fame. On the other hand, at least it HAS a claim to fame.

A couple of other axe murder notes to Heidi:
1) That murder I was puzzling over about which I'd read a book? The one where they hung a guy and later figured out it was pretty much a sure thing he wasn't the killer? Well, it wasn't Villisca, though it was a multiple axe murder: The Woolfolk Tragedy, took place in George in 1887.
2) Lizzie Borden. That's the name I could not come up with as we discussed briefly prominent axe murders -- "Lizzie Borden took an axe/Gave her father forty wacks/When she saw what she had done/Gave her mother forty-one" (this site mentions both cases:
3) The OTHER Iowa axe murder I was struggling to come up with while in Villisca -- yes, ANOTHER Iowa axe murder -- was the case of Margaret Hossack, who allegedly killed her prosperous farmer husband.
4) Okay, so it was mostly ME discussing axe murders. Heidi apparently doesn't seek out books about axe murders. Go figure.

But I digress. Seriously.

We stopped in Sidney for a snack and bathroom break and explored their nice little grocery store. I was pretty sure, and commented about it, that Sidney is the home of a quite well-known rodeo. This wasn't familiar to Heidi. So I must just point out now the Sidney Iowa Championship Rodeo Web site ("Rodeo Town USA") -- AND the fact that we actually just missed the thing! The dates for this year's rodeo were July 28-August 1! More's the pity.

Our first official stop today is at the Sugar Clay Winery & Vineyards in Thurman. What a pretty place! Buried in the woods, this neat old restored building has loads of decks and wooden walks leading from one to the other, birdhouses, wildflowers, a lovely setting. At Sugar Clay, we talked with the winery's full-time employee (whose name I neglected to get, sorry!). She was charming. She used to clean house for the owners before being offered this job and says it's a great deal. She is in charge of managing the retail story and buying for the gift shop.

We also met a sweet winery dog, Germand Shepherd Cash (named for Johnny Cash -- NOT from Iowa), who was friendly and obviously right at home in the winery, though he was sure a mightily thin boy! The winery owners are Johnny Cash fans.

I didn't personally care for any of the wines I tasted here and this may have been the only place where I didn't buy a bottle. I believe Heidi did, however. For awhile, I was getting past my sense of obligatory purchasing, but I have sunk back into it now. It just doesn't feel right to take up so much of the winemakers' time, chatting about their wines and their wineries and vineyards, and their backgrounds and what led them to do this, tasting all their wines -- and then to walk out empty-handed. And I'm usually able to find at least one wine at each place that I'm confident I'll enjoy at home with meals. I'll talk a little more in my trip wrap-up post tomorrow about my thoughts on Iowa wines at this point in our voyage.

Our next stop was King's Crossing Vineyard & Winery in Glenwood. I'm glad to say I ended up enjoying this place more than I expected to. The whole medieval/renaissance theme didn't really capture my imagination the way it obviously did the owners'. However, in fact they managed to carry it through pretty well, including the decor of the entire place (indoors and out -- there's even a dragon skull!), the names and labels on their wines, and the wine descriptions on their tasting notes sheet; they also have themed parties and feasts. I enjoyed most their Jester's Quandary (which has a story -- about the quandary -- on the label), and bought a bottle of that.

Our last stop of the day was Prairie Crossing Vineyard & Winery in Treynor. Imagine my surprise when we walked in and the lady behind the counter immediately said "Jo!?" I stumbled and guessed wrong once, but as soon as she said "Diane," I knew it was our old Grinnell High School classmate, Diane Turner (now Forristall)! Does the world get any smaller? We had a great visit with Diane, and learned that in addition to working for Prairie Crossing, she and her husband have their own small vineyard and make wine -- just up the road. The Prairie Crossing wines were very nice; I bought a bottle of Wagon Trail Red -- and I must admit here that this is one of the rare bottles I have finished off as a standalone wine (that being without my customary crackers and cheese). It was that good.

Diane's on Facebook and we're now friends. She must be some sort of wine goddess in southwest Iowa, she works with the Iowa chapter of IWFS (International Wine & Food Society) planning and attending wine dinners that seek to pair just the right wine with each course, works in a winery, OWNS a winery and makes her own wine, is involved in other local vineyard and winery activities, and recommends good wine books (My First Crush, by Linda Kaplan; The House of Mondavi, by Julia Flynn Siler). I'm excited to have re-discovered her. Plus, this is such good timing because as I write this tonight (August 31), Diane is updating her Facebook status with photos of their ongoing grape harvest! So exciting to read about now that we've just been visiting.

After leaving Prairie Crossing, we headed for home, driving past Diane's place (notable for its ISU wind sock) and taking the backroads once again, guided by Heidi, my trusty navigator. We got back to our cabin on the lake in time for a nice dinner -- though we did end up splitting up: too windy and buggy for Heidi out at the picnic table. Another evening without plumbing, feeling the loss ...

The end, day five.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Moving on ...

Today, Wednesday August 5, we pack up and move on to our next home away from home. Last breakfast at Crescent View B&B. Packing up led to new discoveries: odd, that large unusual-looking mirror on the wall near the sliding glass doors? Well, what do you know, it's not a mirror at all! Well, okay, it is a mirror. But it's also a fake fireplace. Wow, wonders never cease -- who knew there were such things? It looked a bit like this. When it was time to leave, hostess Carol took a couple of photos of us -- and emailed them promptly, so I'm able to include one here. Farewell to Crescent, onward and forward, new adventures await!

Enroute to our new digs, we detour to Carson for a visit at Whispering Hills Vineyards. Whispering Hills is in an old restored barn and we talked to Dana; she and her husband Mike run the operation and live on the farmstead. They have about three acres of grapes. Today, she was working with her father-in-law in the shop.

Both Dana and her husband work at other jobs (in Omaha) full-time, and have three kids who range in age from very young to high school - so this couple is hopping busy! We talked a bit about their label design, and about the good cooperation among the Western Iowa Wine Trail wineries. She and her husband have taken classes together, and she says your taste palate becomes more sensitive as you learn and taste more. Neither of them were particularly wine drinkers before getting involved with their own vineyard.

This was a discussion Heidi and I had this weekend, and is a question I'm interested in asking as we continue our voyage: were you a wine drinker before? I completely understand that Iowa wines, made with grapes to which we are largely unaccustomed, will take some getting used to. But isn't it pretentious to become a wine maker if you have no background in wine? Don't you have to know, before you start making your own wine, what good wine tastes like? I admit, I do not know the answer to this, though it seems intuitive.

Dana and Mike used to farm here and in fact farrowed pigs in the barn that they've now restored. They gave up farming for their full-time jobs, but after about five years away, wanted to do something with the land again and so got involved with grapes! I enjoyed my sample of Dana's Catawba, so selected a bottle of that to purchase.

We drove on toward Corning, where we'll visit the Corning Winery and settle into our cabin at Lake Icaria. What beautiful countryside! The Loess Hills, terraced fields of crops, very hilly, colorful wildflowers, large oak trees, a lovely drive!

The Corning Winery was right at the main intersection before we turned toward town. We got to drive beneath a very neat grape vine arbor (the winemaker's Concord grapes, it turns out) and alongside a pond with an enormous (3000 lb.) wine barrel sitting on a deck extending over the water. I've just now discovered that it seems neither Corning (birthplace of Johnny Carson) nor the Corning Winery has a Web site, so no links. That's odd and unfortunate. The winery's Web site as listed in the Iowa Wine & Beer brochure produced an error page. Likewise the Web site listed for Corning at the Johnny Carson Birthplace site.

Though we didn't, you can actually sit inside the giant barrel and relax with a glass of wine as you enjoy the view of the pond and the scenic land beyond. Ron Corey is the winemaker and owner at Corning Winery and was a delightful host. He met us outside as we were getting out of the car and we chatted right there for some time -- he told us all about how he got started, what he used to do (banker, car salesman), how he manages the vineyard (his son helps; he also has a wonderful Mexican couple who are in their 60s and have lived in Corning for many years; they devote many hours to help with pruning and harvesting and are, he says, "good workers").

Ron is planning to build a tasting room ON the pond, possibly by late fall (though he says it would be easier to do when there is ice). Per my previous comments, we learned that Ron was not a wine drinker before starting his vineyard. His current tasting room is obviously a make-do place, basically the room where cases of bottled wine is stored and you use the tops of the boxes as your counter. Hey it works! We used the little plastic tasting glasses, though he offered us the option of using glass wine glass if we were so inclined.

We learned the sad news that his sister had just died the previous weekend; they were obviously close: though we talked about her a fair bit, it did make him sad. She was in Denver. He has a wine named for her and she helped design the labels. He rushed them into production so he could enter a label contest, and was hoping to win so he could tell her before she died. The label didn't win, but several of his wines won medals! So he was able to share that with her. The Corning Winery just opened in December, and at the Mid-American Wine Competition, chief judge and noted wine expert Doug Frost (see also Wine Competition Results press release) commended Ron for his excellent wines.

Ron had a lot of good stories to share! He says he gets a lot of walk-in traffic, being at the intersection of two busy highways; he estimated he gets perhaps 10-30 visitors a day. Heidi and I both enjoyed our visit and his wines. I bought a couple of bottles, including one of St. Croix as a gift for my boss (who later said she liked it!), and a bottle his Edelweiss for myself. This was a really nice wine -- I enjoyed it a lot with several meals, including Chinese hot & sour soup, and a pork meal. The Edelweiss wines are touted as being similar to Rieslings.

We next headed straight through town toward Lake Icaria. Maeve Clark, a friend and colleague of Heidi's and a friend of mine, had pointed us in the direction of Icarian history at this Web site: before we left on our trip.

The lake was lovely and we had no trouble finding Cabin #13, our destination. The cabin was right on the lake and very beautiful; though there was no indoor plumbing, there was a "hydrant" just outside the cabin (water pressure TOO MUCH to be practical, ye gads!). Bathroom facilities were nice and clean, and Heidi reported that the showers were good. Though these things were a good trek from the cabin, particularly in the middle of the night. The cabin was one room with two sets of bunk beds, various benches and shelves, a table, counter, microwave, ceiling fan. A nice front porch, though as I discovered both evenings, a difficult place to enjoy a good book, as the porch light is humming thick with some innocuous little flying insects that seemed intent on suicide -- after annoying the HELL out of me! (They'd fly into my citronella candles and die in the wax, they get through the window screens and dive into the dishpan water to drown, they die in the windowsills, on the chairs, ack!)

I was destined for early bedtimes both nights -- not as early as Heidi, but earlier than was my wont. Inside the cabin, no choice but very bright lights or no lights at all. However, the second night -- and even before Heidi turned lights out (though she was inside to avoid bugs, insofar as that was possible), I was treated to a visit from a tiny little mouse, who was walking all over the blue Coleman chair, across the seat, back and forth, up and over the back; I watched him explore for a minute or two, but then decided I didn't need to have him hiding out in the chair bag, so got up to move that out of his way. He disappeared in a flash.

Not sure how I skipped so quickly to bedtime. I should at least report that we enjoyed a lovely dinner of tortillas with refried beans, tomatoes, cheese, etc.; chips with salsa -- wine, of course. Heidi brought her bottle of Owen Roe -- an expensive investment for her, and purchased after our wonderful wine dinner at Blend in Cedar Rapids earlier this year (co-hosted by 1st Ave Wine House and New Pioneer Co-op -- they brought in the Owen Roe winery guy to do the food pairings). Heidi also brought mega yummy chocolate cake for dessert (which I think was also from New Pi). Though we got to watch many speed boats towing skiers and innertubers before and during dinner, we enjoyed a quiet evening and a lovely sunset on the lake.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Wines & Antiques & Wines

The day dawned sunny and warm. It's August 4, 2009. Our wine adventures in southwest Iowa continue. (Isn't this just too dramatic?)

Breakfast with the newlyweds again. Excellent again. Except for the first morning, breakfasts have been around 9:00, which means lunchtime comes too soon. Or gets skipped.

This morning we head for Exira. Though noted navigator, Heidi, suggests our goal, Danish Countryside Vines & Wines, is really much nearer Elk Horn ("the Heart of Dane Country" -- Heidi, I might just point out, is Danish). Home, as the many many road signs (and their Web site) will tell you, of a real honest-to-goodness Danish Windmill.

And not too far outside town we find the lovely Danish Countryside vineyard. This is where the photo of me with my new car was taken (see post for first day of southwest trip). As we drove up to the restored barn, Carol Petersen, proprietress and one of the winemakers, drove up from the old farm house in her mini-van. Pretty smart: she says there is a camera in the house so she can see when visitors arrive. She also says she was downstairs cleaning out the freezer, which made me wonder where, exactly, the camera is, and does it then require some further form of notification if it is not visible from wherever the household members currently are?

Carol was fun to talk with. She and her husband Al run the entire operation themselves, with some help sometimes from a 13-year-old granddaughter. They are retired farmers. They do hire teens to help with some of the labor, but not with the cluster pruning. She was very savvy about marketing, shared information about vineyard care, talked bout restoring the barn (which was very lovely). They have created a party room on the upper level, though she said as it developed she thought it would be great to make it into an apartment and live there. Apparently, however, it turns out that is illegal. She didn't know exactly why, or if it is a state or federal law. This is an interesting thing of note, about which I have two further comments.

One is that at the Breezy Hills vineyard (later today), the winemaker told me, when I mentioned this, that the distinction is you can't live above the place where the wine is processed. So, for instance, you can live above a bar, but you wouldn't be able to live above a brewery. This makes some sense to me, although the question remains, why?

I fished around very briefly on Google just now to see if I could find anything, but didn't come up with a way to search effectively. However, one of the things that came up in my search was one of my earlier blog posts (!! - yippee!), about the Grape Escape winery in Pleasantville (see post dated 8/23/2008), in which I posted that Karen and her husband Rod live in an apartment adjoining their shop, and in which, I might add, they are most certainly processing wine. Is there a distinction between "above" and "adjoining?"

This all requires more research, which I may or may not do. (I also still need to figure out why there was no water in Lake Darling when we stopped last month. There's not enough time in the world ... )

One thing Carol is excited about is that they have purchased a small house in Elk Horn -- right across the street from the windmill (that marketing savvy again), and will open it as a retail shop selling gifts and their wine. She wants to have more artsy stuff there. Customers will be able to open bottles they purchase (staff wil NOT be able to open bottles), and to drink it in the shop (although not in the bonded area where the wines are sold) or on the patio. She doesn't know if she'll be able to sell crackers and cheese to go with them: she'd apparently need a food license to do that! (Our curiosity piqued, and because we had to drive through Elk Horn again anyway, we searched out the house. It is a pretty little yellow home, and what a great location!)

Oh gosh, I keep forgetting to talk about the wines! (Bizarro cartoon at left is courtesy of Heidi, who handed it over in paper version at the start of our trip.) Carol said "a gal from Kansas City designed our label." We got to choose five wines each to taste. I tried two of their whites: Windmill White (made from the Chardonel grape), Twilight White (made from Brianna), and three reds: Tivoli Celebration (Frontenac), Horse Trader (St Vincent), and Hayford Red (Foch). The Petersens have about three acres of grapes and grow all these varietals. They also have wines made from LaCrosse, Edelweiss, and Catawba. (If nothing else, I am learning about what grapes grow in Iowa -- and all these varietals are familiar, at least in name if not in taste.) I found the Horse Trader to be very tart, but enjoyed the Hayford Red and bought a bottle of that. It was very nice to drink last week (later in August), and I shared it with my good friend Martin.

One of our joys on these trips has become discovering parts of Iowa we haven't seen, and parts you certainly won't see driving across the state on I80. While traveling, we try whenever we can to avoid the major highways, and Heidi truly is a great navigator for finding scenic backroad by-ways for getting where we need to be. After leaving Danish Countryside, we took the backroads to Walnut, Iowa's Antique City (official designation!), marveling at the scenic and hilly countryside -- so many beautiful wildflowers! What a great time to be traveling around Iowa. In Walnut, we visited several antique shops; Heidi made the only purchase, a green-handled metal spatula to add to her collection of green-handled kitchen equipment. We stopped in at the local bakery for coffee and a baked treat in lieu of lunch, since neither of us was yet very hungry after Carol's generous breakfast at the B&B this morning.

Back to the backroads for a lovely drive to Breezy Hills Vineyard & Winery in Minden. (Honestly, who's ever heard of Minden? There are so many PLACES!) At Breezy Hills, Amber, a quite knowledgeable 19 year old employee, was our hostess. (She's too young to taste, so couldn't make a pronouncement about her favorite, but seems to love her job and says she has "learned so much!") Vineyard owners are Darrell and Roberta Morris. At Breezy Hills, we could also select five wines.

My choices here included dry reds Tamarack Red (bronze medal winner), DeChaunac (on sale for $6/bottle!); semi-dry LaCrosse (winner of two bronze medals!); semi-sweet Tres Hermanas (silver medal winner, and a blend of La Crescent, Brianna, and Edelweiss grapes), and sweet red Misbehavin' -- which I felt I really ought to try since it is a double gold medal winner! It was too sweet for my taste, but I bought a bottle, thinking to give it to my neighbor Wendy, who's suggested her front porch swing is a great place to sit and drink wine and that maybe I can educate her. Breezy Hills also produces some fruit wines, though are currently sold out. They will be harvesting peaches, soon -- check out photo of Heidi in front of some of their peach trees.

As an aside here, let me mention that I talked with my friend Amy Ackman, whose cottage business, Photo Prose, was doing a spanking good business at the Downtown Farmers Market when I went last Saturday with my mom, and when she heard I was going on another wine trip, she asked if I would consider taking along one of her WINE words to show off to the wineries as something they might like to add to their gift shops. She loaned me a WINE and gave over a stack of business cards. So I have been diligently showing off her stuff, and most of the winery folks seem interested, some are enthusiastic.

So that having been said, when Heidi and I were done tasting and finished chatting up Amber, Heidi left to take our purchases to the car. I asked Amber if she could get Roberta to come out so I could show her Amy's word. Well, Roberta and Darrell both came out and then, what fun! This is what we enjoy most, talking with the winemakers and winery owners. It was so interesting and I just kept hoping Heidi would come back when I was taking so long.

It was Darrell who told me you can't live above a place where wine/beer/food is processed, that it's the processing part that is key. I didn't think to pursue that to ask why; Heidi did later when we were in the car. Too late. Darrell agrees that Iowans tend to prefer sweeter and white wines, which he is sorry about because he loves to make reds. Roberta commented that she thinks Iowans' tastes will change over time as they get more accustomed to drinking wines. We talked about how fast the industry is maturing in Iowa and how fast the wineries are changing. He says his colleagues will mention something they've learned or are doing and "you can taste it in their wine."

I mentioned that we'd done Tabor Home long before we really started our project and planned to end with them as our finale winery, and he said they have a big advantage over many of the Iowa vineyards because "he's been doing it so much longer." It was a delightful chat, and I was so sorry Heidi wasn't there. When I left, she was sitting just outside the door at a little table, enjoying the day. Alas.

We took the backroads back to Crescent and stopped at the Pink Poodle (recommended by the honeymooning couple at the B&B) for supper. This was a really typical small town steakhouse, but we had good service and pretty decent food. Martha, the bride, had said she had the most awesome dessert ever when they ate here. My question as we ate was, how the heck did tiny Martha manage to eat any of her substantial dinner and still have room for dessert?

And so ends day 3.

Jo Said Everything I Was Going to Say

Heidi here, making my first posting to the blog, other than a snarky comment here and there. I like blogging just about as much as I like riding over rhinoceri on the Skyfari, feet dangling and nothing stationary to hold on to. But if I'm silent much longer, I fear I'll put my friendship and wine travel partnership with Jo at risk, so here goes.

She really did say almost everything I would say. And it would fatally disrupt the narrative if I go back to the first trip and start making comments, so I'll confine my remarks to the past week's adventures.

At Loess (rhymes with bus) Hills Vineyard & Winery, I tried a wine from another grape that I don't think we've had before, the Reliance, in their Rivers Mist selection. The Reliance is possibly better known as a seedless table grape, but their Rivers Mist is a dry white that was not at all sweet. I think both Jo and I are getting a little more conversant with the grape varieties in Iowa, although about the only grape I can consistently recognize by taste is the Concord. I've been trying the Edelweiss at each winery for comparison's sake but doubt I could pick it out in a blind tasting. My favorite white at this stop was the Loess Hills Blanc, a blend of Seyval Blanc, Edelweiss, and LaCrosse grapes, which they describe as a semi-sweet table wine. Very tasty! Also tried their Vignoles, listed among their sweet wines, though I didn't find it much sweeter than the Loess Hills Blanc. They compare it to a Riesling, and accordingly bottle it in a blue bottle for customers to make the association.

For me, the unexpected joys of this adventure have been the explorations of beautiful rural Iowa and the delightful and wide-ranging conversations we've had with the winery owners. They have been generous with their time and their stories and I feel richer for it. I'm getting a little ahead here, but Jo posted the picture of her new Fit at the Danish Countryside winery, so here is a picture of their vineyard, taken from the third story of their renovated barn. Corn and grapes, side by side, in the rolling Iowa countryside.

The Non-Winery Day

Well, you can't drink wine every day. (Why?)

A bit of less-than-great planning on our parts revealed that the truth of western Iowa wineries is, most are not open early in the week, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a place to visit on a Monday. And so, we didn't.

Instead, we were purely tourists on Monday, and after our wonderful breakfast at Crescent View, we headed out for a new site: the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. For which, I might just add, the signage completely sucks (hello, Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau!). We had an awful time getting there, though we were tantalizingly close for quite awhile. Even to the point of driving by within easy walking distance once -- but where to park? Written directions left us stymied. We finally parked in the lot of a yacht club and asked a passing bicyclist dad, out for a jaunt with his two daughters. We walked from there.

There is a Webcam for the bridge! Once again, I say to you, how cool is the internet?! Aren't we all much better people for having it? I raise a glass of SBR (see yesterday) to the Web for meeting every human need, real and imagined.

The bridge connects (as you might guess) Council Bluffs and Omaha and a walk across it takes you over the Missouri River and under some gorgeous Big Sky country (Montana be damned). It was a busy place that day. On the Nebraska side there was also a splash pad filled with hot wet kids and hot dry parents. Mid-way across, you can straddle the state line, as Heidi is doing is this illustrative photo. It was a fine walk, and we managed easily to track the progress of our biker dad advisor and his girls, the younger of which was on a bicycle much too small and consequently was having a miserable time on what must have seemed to her to be a very long bike ride. We'd pass them (Dad waiting for her), they'd pass us, we'd pass them ...

Once we'd had our fill of the Council Bluffs-Omaha camaraderie, we took off for our next destination, the Henry Dorly Zoo. I've been to the zoo in Omaha once before, many many (many) years ago, and have been excited to get back again, as I have very fond memories. Heidi had not visited before. I made it a point NOT to take my camera into the zoo, just didn't see any reason to take photos of zoo animals. But a few highlights included the butterflies, a peacock who was obviously feeling very randy (and had the tail to prove it), penguins, otters (always my favorite -- what fun lives!), an amazing underwater tunnel in the aquarium where you had ocean creatures (notably many good-sized sharks) swimming over your head, really fine. We took a one-way Skyfari right over the zoo thanks to the young couple at the B&B, who'd visited the zoo yesterday but didn't want to wait in the exceedingly long Skyfari line; they offered us their tickets when they heard we were coming. It was Heidi's idea, though that must have been a brief moment of bravery, because she clearly regretted her choice once we were airborne. We tried to take the train around the zoo perimeter before heading for the parking lot at the end of the afternoon, but it was too late. Ate lunch earlier in a zoo restaurant with predictably mediocre and expensive food.

Retired early back to Crescent View where we rustled up salads from our cooler, had a bit o' (non-Iowa) wine, and enjoyed a quiet evening reading in the room and on the terrace (after the sun was down sufficiently so as not be in our eyes).

Fin, day 2.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

On the road again ...

Woo hoo! Five days to travel around southwestern Iowa tasting wines and being tourists. It just doesn't get any better than this. This week we are focusing on the Western Iowa Wine Trail. Unvisited wineries are largely getting to be too far away for day trips now, so vacations together = wineries.

We did learn about a new Web site on our travels; new to us, anyway. How can we have missed Iowa Wines? Anyone interested in exploring Iowa wines, this site is a must-see. Plus, there is a comprehensive list of wineries; Heidi, dare we compare this to the list in the maps we are using?

Most particularly fun this week is that I am the proud new owner of a 2009 Honda Fit Sport, pictured here beneath the entryway to Danish Countryside Vines & Wines, about which more later. Ain't she sweet? (The car, I mean.)

She's a lot smaller than my beloved Cruiser (over which I fear I'll shed tears when I sell it; I do love that car). However, over the course of our trip out "west," all around the west, and then back east, she averaged an exceedingly satisfactory 40.7 mpg. She seemed especially to enjoy those hilly country backroads, county roads, gravel. Okay okay, that's all off the point.

So, we struggled for a couple of weeks over accommodations in southwestern Iowa that would suit our needs and preferences, and finally had to settle for two bases of operations, rather than one. Neither quite meeting our previously set high standards. But both nonetheless fun in their own ways.

For the first three nights, Sunday until Wednesday morning, we settled happily into the Crescent View Bed & Breakfast, and enjoyed the hospitality of Carol and John Meduna. The room's sliding glass doors lead to a lovely terrace atop a bluff overlooking the town of Crescent and the Missouri River Valley, where all trains (and there are many!) run north. (Where do they go? Why do they never come back?) John and Carol have three adorable little Dachshunds, Grace, Elsa, and Honeynut, who were surprisingly a little leery of visitors. I managed to get a few pets in through the course of our stay.

The room in which we were ensconced also had heaters installed along the south wall. We would just like to warn all future summer visitors that, if the room seems warm, it may be more than just that west sun: MAKE SURE THE HEATERS ARE TURNED OFF! Ack. I have to admit, we spent our fist two nights somewhat stymied about why the A/C wasn't really having all that much of an impact. Odd as this seems, our confusion was in part because Carol and John also seemed confused. Breakfasts were delicious all three mornings, and we shared that time with the other B&B guests, a nice young couple named Martha and Austin, who had just been married the previous Friday and were honeymooning in the area.

I've gotten a bit ahead of myself. I should mention that as we arrived in Crescent on Sunday afternoon, our first stop in fact was our first winery of the trip: the Loess Hills Vineyard & Winery (plainly visible, as it turned out, from our lofty accommodations far above). What a delightful place! Here we met proprietors and winemakers Larry and Sheila (pictured) and got to hear not only all about their wines, but about the other wineries on the Western Iowa Wine Trail, the ways they all cooperate, the upcoming wine trail celebration this weekend (which, sadly, we'll just miss), and the history of the place. All this, and the wines were good! I'd promised friends Jayne & Steve, and Laura & Marcus, who are keeping my dogs for me, each a bottle of the best Iowa wine I tasted (their choice, red or white). Perhaps it's a little premature to judge our first winery the best -- but who knows? It's not like we'll be coming back to already visited places if I miss out now! So I got them each a bottle from Loess Hills. Sheila and Larry charge $5.00 to taste eight wines, and you get to keep the glass.

We got to try another varietal that was new to us; here in southwestern Iowa, most of the wineries, it will turn out, have a grape made with the DeChaunac grape. I reallly enjoyed the Loess Hill DeChaunac (di-show-nac); but this is the one that will go to Laura. We talked a bit about the Norton grape, popular, as you'll without doubt recall, from our trip to southeast Iowa. LHV is a little too far north for this one to thrive, so they are doing some grafting -- my confused notes and even more confused memory thinks they are grafting Norton vines to Leon Millot rootstalk to see if they can produce it more successfully. As Larry explains it, the grafting does not affect the grapes; the rootstalk provides the necessary nutrients and should help make it more winter-hardy, but the grapes will be Norton. Larry also mentioned that in Iowa, there are now incentives for farmers to grow alternative crops, which includes grapes.

One of the LHV wines is called SBR (Sneaky Bastard Red) and we were pleased to get to hear Larry's story about how it got its name. It has to do with secret recipes and friendly competition -- when you stop in yourself, be sure to ask. All told, LHV was a really wonderful beginning to our week of wine.

After we had settled in at the B&B, we ventured down the hill again for dinner. Carol had suggested several places in Crescent proper, and we chose Denny's (not the chain). Which was a most interesting choice. Kind of a biker bar, well at least this weekend (but we met a LOT of Harleys enroute to Sturgis on our trip). But anyway, definitely a bar. However, good service and my pizza was very good, though the Diet Coke I ordered was pretty watery. Suppose that's not their specialty.

We ended our evening sitting on the terrace outside our room at the B&B, watching the trains (heading north) and the sunset. The weather was lovely, and cooling down as dusk arrived. What ho! Is that a hummingbird? No, no, it's too late for a hummingbird. It seems to be striped, hummingbirds don't have that color. It is a hummingbird, I can see its beak! No, no, it's got antennae! It's a moth! We bickered back and forth about it until I managed to get this shot, thereby dispelling all doubt. Wow. (Later research revealed it to be a Sphinx moth -- White-Lined Sphinx, to be exact: Hyles lineata.)

End of Day 1. Stay tuned for Day 2, and more Western Iowa Wines!