Thursday, April 23, 2015

Do You Know Where the Only Sparkling Meadery in the World is Located?

First of all, you may be wondering what a "Meadery" is.  The actual definition of "Meadery" is a winery that produces wine made from honey.  This is an ancient technique, and mead can be found in many countries of the world.  It is often a sweet thick wine, or can be made thinner with the addition of water, and take on the taste of a sweet beer.

The Location: Heidrun Winery in Point Reyes, California

However, hidden in the coastal hills of Marin County, California in the small town of Point Reyes is the home of the only sparkling meadery in the world. Here the owners, make a still wine from honey diluted with 4 parts water, and then use the "methode Champenoise -- or traditionale method" to create sparkling mead.  It is called Heidrun Meadery, and is located less than a mile from the waters of the Pacific Ocean along Tamales Bay,.

Heidrun, from Norse mythology, is the name of a special goat that would produce mead in her udder. Mead was the only beverage that the Norwegian god Odin would drink, and it had to be from Heidrun. In keeping with the Norse mythology theme, the symbol of the winery is Odin's 8-legged horse, Sleipnir.

Process of Crafting Sparkling Mead

Arriving at the tiny winery, established on the outskirts of the small town of Point Reyes, you will find a tasting room built into a green house, a small garden, and a barn-like building to produce the mead.  Behind the barn are bee hives and a special flower garden to attract bees.  Production is quite small at 900 cases, and everything is done by hand.

The winery uses their own honey, but also buys honey from around California and Hawaii. It arrives in large sealed steel barrels that look like oil drums. First they soften the honey in the drum, then transfer to small stainless steel tanks for fermentation.  They add 4 parts water, Champagne yeast, food for the yeast, and tartaric acid (though they won't say how much).

Primary fermentation takes 7 to 10 days, then the wine is racked, boiled for clarification and to remove any wax build-up, and transferred into Champagne bottles for secondary fermentation.  More yeast and sugar is added.  Secondary fermentation in bottle takes 2 months.  The bottles are then riddled on a large gyro-palate for 4 days until the yeast sediment moves to the mouth of the bottle.

Next the wine is disgorged in the traditional process, but all by hand!  The tip of the bottle is frozen, the bottle cap opened so the frozen yeast plug shoots out.  Then the bottle is immediately corked, and the wire cage is applied.  No dosage is added, so they have to be careful not to lose too much wine from the bottle when they disgorge.

Next the sparkling mead is labeled, receives a foil and is ready for sale in several months.  It is designed to be consumed in 1 to 3 years.

Tasting Sparkling Mead

We were allowed to taste 6 different sparkling meads.  They were all quite unique tasting, depending on the type of honey used.  Most were very dry, and some actually taste like beer.  The nose was floral on a few, especially the California Orange Blossom which sells for $20 per bottle.  Quite a good deal after seeing how much work is involved in the process of crafting the sparkling mead.

Visiting Cowgirl Creamy  and Tamales Bay Oyster Company for Lunch

After our tour  and tasting at Heidrun Meadery, we drove about 5 minutes back into town to taste cheese at the Cowgirl Creamery.  We then brought cheese sandwiches from their deli, along with a bottle of chilled rose and sauvignon blanc to have a picnic in the sun at their outdoor picnic tables.  After lunch we wandered around town for a bit, peeking into shops, before driving back along Tamales Bay to stop for oysters.

We were not actually sure we would be able to get a table to buy and eat oysters because the several places to stop for fresh oysters along Tamales Bay can be quite crowed.  We were in luck, however, because Tomales Bay Oyster Company had some open picnic tables.  Therefore we bought 2 dozen oysters, watched the lesson on how to shuck them, then proceeded to open and eat every last one!  Delicious, but we wished our Heidrun Sparkling Mead had been chilled, because it would have been fabulous with the fresh oysters.

A perfectly lovely day in Marin County!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Shopping in Panama City’s Casco Antiguo, Albrook Mall, and Visiting the Frank Gehry Biodiversity Museum

Old Section of Panama City
March 2015 - On our last full day in Panama we drove to the old city to do the walking tour and some shopping. Again it was a bit challenging traversing the slums and one-way streets, but easier in the daylight than in the nighttime as we had done previously. Using a tourist map, we managed to find the paid parking lot at the end of the peninsula on which the old city is situated.  It only costs 30 cents per half hour, so 90 cents for our total visit.

We wandered the streets and felt like we had gone back in time. Built in the 1600’s, this section of Panama City is currently being restored and is a Unesco World Heritage site. It reminded me of New Orleans, with ornate two-story buildings with balconies, beautiful old grill work, and huge carved doors.  It is still only half restored and there is much construction going on, but the charm is apparent. I would like to come back in 5 to 10 years to see the complete renovation.

Gold Altar of San Jose Church
We visited the historic plazas and 3 churches, including Igelsia San Jose that has the famous golden altar. We stopped in several shops where local artists were selling carvings, embroidery, leather bags, and jewelry. We also stopped by the president’s palace, but weren’t allowed to go in. It was very hot walking the streets, and we were dripping with sweat by the time we got back to our very hot car.

Next we drove to Albrook Mall, which is the largest mall in Central America. It has all of the shops we have in the US, plus many more. I found the prices very good and bought some sandals and clothes.  It is an inside mall and air-conditioned, which is nice.

Amazing Architecture of BioDiversity Musuem
Later we headed to the Frank Gehry Biodiversity Museum, which took 10 year to build, but just opened 5 months ago. The exhibits are not yet complete, so the current $22 price tag is a bit of a rip off. I opted for the $5 temporary exhibits, which I felt were a good deal, but my friends who paid the $22 felt disappointed. I’m not sure why they are charging so much when the museum is not yet completed. The best part is the architecture, which is an amazing display of bright primary colored slanted roofs in red, blue, yellow, orange, and green. It looks like a giant child’s toy, but is apparently modeled after all of the bright colors in the Panamanian jungles, ocean and cities. Its location on the Amador Causeway, balanced between two bodies of water, is visually stunning. Plus the views of the skyscrapers of Panama City are excellent.

Beach at Playa Bonita Resort
Back at the hotel, we spent a couple of hours relaxing by the pool and walking the beach, before showering and heading out to dinner. Our last evening we had been planning on having dinner at one of the many restaurants just north of our resort, but they are all closed on Mondays. The concierge suggested Alberto’s, so we headed back to the Amador Causeway – only a 15 minutes drive – to enjoy a last meal of fresh seafood (see post on Wine & Food of Panama).

Monday, April 13, 2015

Visiting the Soberania National Park and Gamboa Rainforest Resort, Panama

March 2015 - Another day we drove from our resort to the Soberania National Park.  It took about 35 minutes from the Intercontinental Playa Bonita Resort and was not that difficult.  What was challenging was trying to figure out where the park started. There is no visitor center, but instead small signs listing the name of the hiking trails.  Therefore, you must check the names of the hiking trails first.

We stopped at the El Charco Nature Trail (Sendero Natural El Charco) and parked in the dirt parking lot. As we approached the trailhead, a smiling young man stepped out and told us it was $5 to hike the trail. At first we thought we had to pay $5 for each trail, but it turns out that you receive a receipt and can hike all of the trails in the park for that price.  This trail is short and only takes about 20 minutes to complete the loop.

We were given a map and started along the trail. It was a beautiful rainforest, complete with waterfall, stream, pond, swaying bridges, and signs that listed the names of the trees and plants in both Spanish and English. Kids would probably enjoy it, as you have to ford the stream in a few places, and one of the bridges was broken. In the US it would not pass any safety standards, but it was fun in Panama.  We saw several birds, but no monkeys or sloths.  We were hoping that there were be guides we could hire to explain everything to us, as there were in Costa Rica, but this was not the case.

Hiking in the Panama Rainforest
Next we drove to the Pipeline Trail (Camino del Oleoducto), which is quite famous for animal sightings, and about 20 minutes drive from the first trail. To get there you must cross a rickety railroad bridge over the canal and through the ghost town of Gamboa. Then you must drive on a very bumpy dirt road until the trail entrance. We hiked 2 km along the trail (which is a road), but only saw a few birds. We did hear the howler monkeys screaming, but couldn’t see them.

Eventually we arrived at the Gamboa Rainforest Center where we bought some water. It was a $30 entrance fee, so we decided to pass. After that we hiked back, and saw a few more birds along the way, but didn’t know what they were. It would be nice if Panama trained guides the way Costa Rica does so that we could easily find a naturalist, rather than try to do it yourself.

View of Marsh with Crocodiles at Los Largatos Restaurant
For a late lunch we went to the Los Largatos Restaurant in the Gamboa Rainforest Resort. At first we drove to the resort and walked around, but were told we could catch the buffet at the lower restaurant situated on the marshy part of the canal. This was a great tip and not to be missed. The restaurant sits on the edge of the marsh and we saw hundreds of birds, plus crocodiles and turtles. The Sunday buffet was only $25, and was excellent. Since it was so hot, we had Panamanian beer with lunch.  My vegetarian friends were thrilled with the many vegetable and pasta options.  As for me, I went to for the spicy Panamanian chicken soup and pork in gravy dishes.

It is also possible to go boating from the restaurant, as well as hike on nature trails and bird watch.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Renting a Car in Panama City and Visiting the Panama Canal

Simulation Room at Panama Canal
March 2015 - Renting a car in Panama City was an unusual experience.  We reserved with Hertz and the check-in at the airport was normal, but the nice touch was they brought the car to the curb for us to climb in. No need to get on a rental car bus. The downside was that when we returned the car to the airport, there are no signs about where to return it, and we had to circle 3 times. Eventually, after asking several police officers, we were told that we should bring the car to the departure level and park it at the curb – but still no signs. Rather anxiety producing.  If you rent a car, be prepared for this, and definitely be able to speak Spanish.

The nice aspect of a rental car was that we were able to drive all over without many problems. We had GPS on our phones and this worked most of the time. The freeways are fine in Panama City, but the signage is lacking at times. People drive a bit haphazardly – more like being in Italy. I read there are good taxis and tours, but they are not cheap. The taxi from our hotel to town was $25 each way, and tours were all over $100 per person.

Observation Deck of Panama Canal
So we drove to the Panama Canal Visitor’s Center quite easily and parked close by in their free parking lot. It was about a 30-minute drive from the Intercontinental Playa Bonita Resort. Entrance is $15, and this includes a 20-minute 3D movie about how the canal was built, as well as the opportunity to view the canal and walk through the 4-story museum. I felt it was worth it. We also went to the Pacific –Atlantic Restaurant and had a Panamanian beer with lime while we watched the ships come through the locks.  It was an enjoyable 3 hours.
Wynton Marsalis in Panama City

That afternoon, we rested at the hotel near the pool and took a walk on the beach.  That evening we drove the 15 minutes into the old city to have dinner at the Jazz Club in the American Trade Hotel and listen to Wynton Marsalis play a mean horn (see post on Wine & Food of Panama). A truly great day!

I should mention that driving in the old part (Casco Antiguo) of Panama City could be a bit daunting. The roads are one way; there are many slums; and parking is challenging. Driving from Playa Bonita over the bridge and into the old town requires that you pass through the slums. The poverty and garbage are a bit scary.  Though reports say Panama only has 25% of its citizens living in poverty, driving through this part of town makes you believe it is much higher.

Short Video on Panama Canal Simulation

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Relaxing at Playa Bonita and Watching Panamanian Dancing

Beach & Pool at Playa Bonita Resort
March 2015 – In between attending conference sessions, we managed to explore several parts of Panama City. The first full day we enjoyed the beauty of the Intercontinental Playa Bonita Resort, which is located 15 minutes north of Panama City just over the impressive Bridge of Americas.  The resort is situated on a beautiful blond sand beach on the Pacific, with a view of the massive ships lining up on the horizon to wait their turn to enter the Panama Canal. There are many different types of seabirds that come to the resort during low tides, and brown pelicans and cormorants roost on the rocky formations offshore. Behind the resort are nature trails where we saw sloths playing in the trees. The Westin is also located along this beach.

Spa at Playa Bonita Resort
The swimming pools and beach beckoned to us, and we spent several relaxing hours swimming, reading, and wading in the ocean. The first afternoon we checked into the spa where I had a 50-minute hot stone massage and bath during their March special price of $95. There is also a great gym, as well as salsa dance and stretching classes each day near the pool. The resort has three restaurants, including the gourmet Light House Restaurant (see post on Wine & Food of Panama).

I stayed in the Executive Club Level, and would highly recommend it.  For only a few dollars more, I was given a 5th floor room - the top floor with excellent view.  However, I should mention that all of the rooms have ocean views, but the lower ones are not as good, and the bugs can be worse. Mosquitos are an issue in the evening, but the resort provides free wipes.

The other nice aspect of the Executive Club was the free breakfast every morning that was always changing, and including many local dishes, such as cheese empanadas and green enchiladas, as well as egg dishes. It also has very fast Wi-Fi, which the rest of the hotel did not. In the evenings, the club offered multiple appetizers and a free open bar with red and white wines from Chile, as well as a variety of spirits, including Tangeray (my favorite gin), and local rums and spirits.  It was definitely worth it.

Traditional Dance of Panama with Pollera Dress

Panamanian Dancers in Pollera Dress
Another positive of the resort was the free show featuring the national folkloric dances of Panama.  These were held in the disco on Friday evening.  The traditional “pollera” costume is beautiful – similar to a Spanish dancer, where the dancers whirl and stomp their feet. The musicians played drums, tambourine, and accordion, and the beat was lively and contagious. (See short video here)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Wine and Food in Panama

Empty Red Wine Glasses in Panama
March 2015 – There are no wineries in Panama, but there are plenty of wines in the restaurants, bars, grocery stores and occasional liquor store. Due to its location, linking Central America to South America, it is not surprising that the majority of the wine is from Chile and Argentina. However, we also found a large selection from Spain, and a few bottles from Australia and California – primarily Yellow Tail and Gallo brands, such as Barefoot and Apothic.

A positive is that the price for wine in Panama seemed quite reasonable, and you could purchase a basic glass of white or red wine from South America in most restaurants and bars for $5 to $7. There were also some more premium selections priced at $10 - $14 per glass. The currency is the US dollar, even though Panama has its own money called the “balboa.” However since this is matched to the US dollar, the majority of establishments use the dollar, but occasionally they will give you change in balboas. Credit cards are accepted in most restaurants.

I was in Panama with friends to attend a business conference and present a research paper.  The temperatures in March average in the mid 90’s everyday, and for this reason we focused on drinking chilled white wines.  However, I did see many people drinking red wine in the evenings around the bar and at restaurants. Of course the local Panamanian beer, Balboa, was always present as well as a plethora of mojitos and other tropical cocktails.

Three Bottles of Wine in Three Restaurants

We ended up buying three bottles of wines in different restaurants over the five days we were there.  The first was an Argentinian sparkling rose called Bodega Norton Cosecha Especial for $40. We had this with sea bass in the Light House Restaurant at our hotel, the Intercontinental Playa Bonita. Both the service and the food was excellent, in a lovely setting overlooking the ocean, with white tablecloths, candlelight, and beautifully presented plates. Surprisingly the wine was not chilled though, so we had to wait about 15 minutes for it to rest in an ice bucket near our table. As I had tasted this wine previously, I was familiar with the fruity medium-bodied bubbly, which was clearly New World in style. Later I was given a tour of the restaurant’s impressive wine cellar that proudly featured Concho Y Toro’s top of the line wine, Don Melchor.

The second bottle was at The Jazz Club in the old section of Panama City. The club is located inside the American Trade Hotel, and we ended up having dinner outside in a small alley next to the club. The reason for this was because when we arrived, we discovered that Wynton Marsalis was scheduled to play there in two hours.  Since the club was small there were no tickets left to purchase, but we were told if we wanted to sit in the patio for dinner, we could still listen to him play. Obviously we jumped at the chance and ended up having an excellent dinner. This time I had local prawns served in a red sauce that reminded me a bit of a New Orleans dish. We ordered a bottle of 2013 Masi Tupengato Paslo Blanco from the Uco Valley of Argentina for $36. It was a strange blend of Pinot Grigio and Torrentes that was rather heavy on the palate and minerally in character – more like a Semillon. It lacked the floral notes we were expecting from those two varietals.

The third bottle was a 2013 Marques de Riscal Blanco from Spain for $26, that was a blend of Verdejo and Viura.  It was crisp, lemony and very refreshing – perfect for the sea bass with prawns I had on our last evening at Alberto Restaurant on the Amador
Somm at Alberto's
Causeway.  Sea bass and prawns are both local in Panama, and therefore very fresh – so I found myself ordering these dishes frequently. The restaurant smothered it in a white cream sauce however, which I wish they had not. Otherwise, the service was fine, and we especially enjoyed meeting the sommelier from the Dominican Republic who gave us a tour of their wine cellar. The only strange note was that the white wine was, once again, not chilled, and we had to wait 15 minutes to open it while it sat in an ice bucket near our table.  We wondered if perhaps the cost of chilling white wine is too expensive in Panama and this is why we encountered this situation twice.

Cuisine of Panama

Sea Bass With Plaintain & Sparkling Rose
In addition to fresh seafood, Panama has some excellent local dishes, which I had a chance to try at our hotel as well as at local restaurants and food stands.  I found the food much more interesting here than in Costa Rica, where they don’t use any spices. Panama has some spicy food, and a compelling blend of cultures that has allowed them to develop a national cuisine. From the many native tribes that still reside in Panama, to the Spanish explorers settling here in the 1500’s, and the West Indians who came to build the Panama Canal, some delicious dishes have evolved. Following are several examples:

·         Empanadas: made of pie dough and stuffed with cheese, meats, and/or vegetables.  May be baked or fried.
·         Bollos: made with corn dough and wrapped in plantain leaves.  May also be stuffed with beef.
·         Patacones – sliced green plantains that are fried as small disks; similar to potato chips.
·         Ceviche: raw fish cooked in lime juice with herbs, garlic and onion.

They also eat many dishes which are similar to those found in Mexico, such as tamales, rice, refried beans, enchiladas, and tres leches cake.  Fresh seafood and fruit is abundant, and chicken, beef, and pork are common.

Short Video Highlighting My Time in Panama

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Tasting of Wines from Yarimada Winery in Azerbaijan

Wine Tasting at Art Garden Restaurant
January 2015 - Several days after arriving in Baku, I received an email invitation from Ibrahim Abdulrahimov, the Commercial Director of Yarimada Winery. He invited me to a private wine tasting and lunch at the Art Garden Restaurant in the Old City of Baku.

Ibrahim was kind enough to pick me up from my hotel, and as we drove to the restaurant, he explained more about the winery. The name, “Yarimada” means “peninsula” in Azerbaijani. The winery is named this because it is located 40 minutes from Baku on the Absheron peninsula in the village of Nardaran, where summer houses and beaches that attract many tourists can be found. The peninsula is also known for its migratory birds, and they are using the symbol of the Hoopoe bird on their labels. They have plans to open a tasting room there because it a great tourist location, but still close to the city.

Drawing of Hoopoe Bird on Label
The company was recently started in 2012 and is part of a holding company with many other products, including construction, juice, and water manufacturing. They own and operate 500 hectares of vineyards and buy grapes from another 500 hectares across the country. Though they have a small demonstration vineyard at the winery, they primarily source from Gabala, which they report the best grapes come from.  Their winemaker is David Maisuradze, who is quite famous in Georgia. He is a consulting winemaker for Yarimada.

They currently produce around 60,000 bottles per year, with plans to expand. With a luxury focus, the sales strategy is to place the wine in high-end restaurants and fine wine shops in Baku, and then slowly expand across Europe. They don’t want to be seen in grocery stores, and their price points range from $30 to $50 manats (1 manat = $1.26 US dollar), which is quite high for wine in Azerbaijan (in fact the highest prices I saw).

Currently they produce 6 wines, and I was able to taste them all, along with a delicious meal of Azerbaijani grilled lamb, fresh vegetables, and local cheese and breads. A truly delightful tasting, which showed off the wines to great advantage.

2012 Yarimada Matrasa – A dry red wine with a dark ruby color. Nose of subdued cassis, black plum, and earth. Complex notes of minerality and metal on palate with softy bushy tannins. Slightly reminiscent of Chinon or Bourgueil cab franc. Intriguing, fared better with food. Made from a 1934 Matrasa vineyard -one of the few remaining old vineyard that were not torn out by the Soviets.  Aged 9 months on French oak.  Medium to long finish.  Matrasa is considered to be one of the signature red grapes of Azerbaijan, and is also spelled as Madrasa. 89 points

2012 Yarimada Cabernet Sauvignon – A dry red wine with fresh ripe fruit, made in a modern style. Nose of dark berry with faint mineral note. Very approachable with soft well integrated tannins with 9 months in new French oak.  Moderate acid. Thinner body, and medium to long finish.  Simple and enjoyable, but lacks complexity and ability to age well.  Drink and enjoy sooner.  88 points

2012 Yarimada Saperavi – this wine was my favorite of the tasting with a dark opaque black/purple color and a big velvety mixed berry nose with soft spice. Made from the Saperavi red grape, which is claimed as the signature grape of Georgia, it still performs very well in Azerbaijan. Made in a full-bodied, heavier style, the wine flows across the palate with big velvety tannins and concentrated spiced berry fruit with a touch of minerality and some warm milk chocolate on the finish. Very fulfilling, and reminiscent of a well-made Argentinian Malbec. Aged 16 months in French oak, this wine is not shy and also supports a 14.5% alcohol, though the bottle reads 12%.  92 points

2012 Yarimada Shiraz –a dry dark red wine with a hint of tar, spice, and mixed black berry on the nose.  Larger firm tannins, moderate oak aging, and more of an old world style with some savory meaty notes and the distinctive touch of metal minerality I found in almost every Azerbaijan wine I tasted.  Is it in the soil, the water?  The wine is a little high in alcohol and finishes a bit thin.  87 points.

Fortress Walls of Old City of Baku, Azerbaijan
2012 Yarimida Rkatsiteli – a dry white wine with floral and lemon nose. On the palate, medium-bodied with pear and crisp acidity. Textured with mineral notes and a bit of a hot finish. Unique, complex, and invites you to taste it again to pick up new nuances.  91 points; drink within next year

2014 Yarimida Rkatsiteli  - a much more vibrant nose on this younger wine, with fresh perfumed flowers and ripe citrus. Heavier texture on palate with some subdued pear and minerality, though acid not as high as the 2012 version, so less refreshing finish. Not released yet. 90 points; drink in 1 to 3 years