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It’s locals that are key to travels

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This is my entry in the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge 12. For more info go to the challenge’s blog!

Being challenged to get out of my writing hiatus by no lesser than Anatoli and Jeff, encouraged by Linda, and having felt the drag of not writing for a while, I checked out this month’s wine writing challenge’s theme: The Armchair Sommelier won the last challenge, and picked the topic “local”.

While I have mixed feelings relating to the word “local”, and tried to write a diatribe fueled by these, I decided to spare you my anti-hipster and local does not equate good rant, and instead use this theme to sing an ode to locals, the people that make my travels awesome. After all, I like to be positive and upbeat.

One of the reasons I love traveling so much is the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, travelers and locals alike. I am keen on meeting people who have been living in a city for all their lives, or have intimate knowledge of the region (whether they are from there or just happen to live there or have spent a lot of time there). Our travels mostly revolve around where we can visit friends and tap into their local knowledge. Because it is locals that truly understand what is local and what should be part of our experience. Locals have a keen interest in you getting to know a region through their eyes, so that you can see why they love where they live.

This summer, we stayed in Tuscany for a week, in a small hamlet on a hill, about 10 miles from Siena. The next village was a couple of miles away, and it had an insanely typical tiny Italian grocery store which was our main source for fresh veggies, cheese, and meats. The store owner and I hit it off in Italian (I speak some), and one morning as I was there, a Belgian older man asked for a restaurant in English. The owner asked me to translate his directions to the Belgian and I did. As the man left, I told the owner that this was a great coincidence, because i had meant to ask him where we could eat well. He looked at me, horrified, and exclaimed: “No, no, no! Don’t go where I told him to go!! Let me think, there are no good restaurants here, but there is one, a couple of villages down the road.” He told me because he realized that I cared, and because we had a relationship with each other. It is always worth building up a relationship.

Sunset over Siena

Sunset over Siena

Last year, when we were in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, we stayed at a small guesthouse in the university part of town run by a young couple. The first morning when we came down the stairs, our host Tee asked whether we wanted western or Thai breakfast. When we said Thai (of course), he walked us to a tiny place in a side street, run by three women. The breakfast consisted of chopped chicken breast over rice cooked in chicken stock, and you added your own blend of ginger, chilis and soy sauce over it. It was divine. The ladies spoke no English, and when it was time to pay, we realized it was under a dollar. We went back every day, and our excitement about the place was only matched by the ladies’ excitement that we kept coming back. We communicated with hand and feet, as we say in German, and it was awesome. While I have no photo of the stall, I do have a photo of these local mushrooms, that our host’s mom had collected. They were delicious.

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Local food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

This summer, we also went to Le Marche, a region in Eastern Italy around Ancona, and visited Tenuta San Marcello, a young biodynamic estate, at the owner’s invitation. We had met Pascale and Massimo at VinItaly in New York this spring, and they invited us. When we arrived, we were floored by their hospitality (more on that in a separate post). However, one of the most amazing things was that Massimo wanted us to use one of our two days with them to visit other wineries in the region. He set up a whole itinerary for us, we visited an olive oil maker (a retired RAI journalist who gave us a two and a half hour tour) and several winemakers. It was a stunning show of what locals can do for you, and how their love of their region can make you fall in love as well. We fell in love so hard that we changed our plans and returned for another three days with my mother in law after our stay in Tuscany.

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

With Massimo at Tenuta San Marcello, Le Marche

Staying at Majeka House in Stellenbosch, we had a long conversation with the reception staff. After Nina had convinced them that she is outright crazy when it comes to adventures, they told her that the world’s highest commercial bungee jump was six or seven hours away on the Garden Route. We changed our itinerary to make a detour there, and while I was so scared I had zero body control anymore, the result was this awesome photo, and the knowledge that I don’t ever have to do a bungee jump again. Needless to say, Nina jumped twice.

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

Jumping down 709 feet at Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa

During our second visit to Le Marche, Jonathan Zeiger of ZGR Imports (I wrote about his awesome business here), arranged for us to visit another winery. Jonathan is considered a local by many of the people we met, including the owner of Vignamato, Maurizio, the estate we visited with Jonathan’s help. The owner had received Jonathan’s email Saturday morning, after hosting his birthday party on Friday night for over 100 people. We spent a good three hours with him that same Saturday evening, had tons of fun, and when I asked him “dove si mangia bene” (where does one eat well? – remember that sentence when in Italy!), he thought for a while, made a phone call, and then sent us to the most enchanted little husband and wife restaurant in an old Palazzo: Osteria sotto le Mura. At first, we missed the place, because there were no signs, but another local, a cute rotund septuagenarian walked us to the restaurant once I asked.

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

With Maurizio of Vignamato, Le Marche

While we visited my host family in Burgundy (my host brother and I have known each other for 25 years this year!), they went on a mission to make me try true local foods. Everyone knows boeuf bourguignon (Beef Burgundy) and mustards, and some might be familiar with Dijon’s spice bread pain d’epices, but there is so much more! I tried jambon persillé for the first time, which is chunks of ham in a gelée of parsley, like a terrine. It was wonderful, and the genius idea of throwing it in scrambled eggs was Nina’s. Speaking of eggs, I also had my first oefs en meurette, poached eggs covered in a red wine sauce that is similar to a bouef bourguignon sauce, just without the beef. It was eye opening in its deliciousness. I had spent significant time in Burgundy before, but these were still firsts for me. Locals have an immense trove of treasures to share, and it never gets old.

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

After trying about 25 different liqueurs with my host brother at the Cassisium, Burgundy

I could go and on (like our friend in Milan making sure I have the most extensive restaurant list for Rome, where he had lived for a couple of years or the random Boer at a rural gas station who sent us to the most amazing guesthouse that was on no internet list), but my main message is this: When you travel, go find locals and talk to them, in bars, in restaurants, in shops. You don’t need to pay a fortune to get a “guided” tour by someone. I have never contemplated this as an option, because these tours don’t allow you to do whatever you please, and go wherever the wind or local advice takes you. Even if you find yourself in a bind, there are usually tours offered directly in a town or region and this cuts out the middleman. Locals are the true heroes of my travels, and I am thrilled to meet more on my next trip. So, thank you, locals, for making my travels awesome.

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Monthly Wine Writing Challenge #9: Fear

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This is my entry in the ninth installment of the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (short MWWC) competition. You can find more information about the challenge here (I am just now realizing its About page needs a bio badly!). Last month’s winner, Jeff aka The Drunken Cyclist gave us the topic “fear”

Fear is an all too common emotion associated with wine. Sometimes it marks itself as a certain uneasiness when you feel like you have no clue what to look for. Sometimes it is the horror of staring at row after row after row of wines in a wine store. Sometimes it shows itself in frustration when you look at a wine label and wish you understood what these things meant, and then you just give up. Sometimes it is this terrifying feeling of being invited to a wine party and you wonder what to bring…the list is endless. A wine culture and culture of wine writing that clouds itself in mystery in order to be needed to “enlighten” the few and the many has done its part in keeping this fear alive.

Having grown up with wine and surrounded by vines, although my family does not own any vineyards, might have prevented me from ever feeling this way. Also, being a native speaker that can understand the world’s most confusing wine labels, Germany’s, has made me confident that I can figure out any wine label…

So let “fearless me” share my manifesto (hey, I lived in Karl Marx’ city of birth for almost 10 years…that’s gotta have some influence on me) that I live by when it comes to wine that might help alleviate a fear you might have:

1) YOU are what matters when it comes to wine. Wine is a tasting experience, and we all have different taste buds, different likes and not so much likes, preferences and bring certain experience to the table. Don’t let anyone tell you what you have to like or what you should avoid. After all, what does a 100 point rated wine do for you if you don’t like it?

2) If something is normal, fear usually subsides. So take this: Wine is just a drink. Some might disagree, and while there is definitely an art and craft going into it, what it boils down to is that it is a drink. Just like beer or cocktails.

3) For me, wine is also a grocery, a staple food (in German we have this great term for staple foods and drinks: “Lebensmittel” aka “goods of/for life”). That means I incorporate wine into my daily (ok, perhaps not every day, but most day) routines. Making wine a normal part of your life makes you feel easier around it.

4) Regularity and routine gives us the strength to go further and overcome fear. For me, having wine for dinner regularly gives me the possibility to explore more, which is the true fun of wine: Drinking Riesling or Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese every night of the year would soon be boring (on second thought, maybe not Riesling for me…sigh). But still: Go ahead and try new wines. Try to pair them with your food. Be creative. If you don’t like the wine, that’s unfortunate but also good because:

5) How do you know what your favorite beer is? How do you know what your favorite cocktail is? You must try different drinks to find that out. Take the grapes as the starting base because they are, after all, the key ingredient in wine. Seek out new grapes that you have not heard of before. The Wine Century Club, which provides lists of different grape varieties, might be a good helper in that regard.

6) Not being alone is a good way to overcome fear (we remember that from early childhood, right?). Ask around, there might be friends that are interested in trying wines with you. Or sharing their experiences with wine. Wine is a social drink, and it is best appreciated with others.

7) Knowledge is a great way of overcoming fear. I don’t want to force anyone to read wine books (although I love them, with a glass of wine by my side), but why not talk about what you experience when you try a wine. If you have no one to talk to (I feel for you!), take some notes: What do you like about the wine? Is it the flavors? Is it how it feels in your mouth? Does it smell good? Is it sweet or dry? Do you like how it tastes after you swallowed it? This way you will build a sort of database that helps you remember what you liked. From that base, you will soon find out what types of wines you like: drier or sweeter, younger or older, fruitier or dirtier. You work out a matrix of what works for you and you might find that you are expanding from it over time.

8) When fear is too strong, find allies. I was just at a huge wine store in Eastern New York state the other day. The selection was overwhelming. So I went and asked one of the salespeople to show me some wines I was looking for. They steered me into a wine direction, and the talk was fun and educating. They knew a lot about the wines (which is how it should be, they make a living from it!), so I gained a lot from talking with them. Don’t be afraid to seek help. While it is a plus if you have an idea if you like fruity wines or dry wines, a good salesperson in a wine store will help you find something for you.

9) When fear kicks in, trick it. There is an easy to remember rule of thumb when it comes to picking a wine in a wine store and you don’t want help or help is not available: The lower the alcohol level, the sweeter the wine. An alcohol level under 10% ABV usually tastes sweet, between 10% and 11.5% somewhere in the middle, and over 12% is usually a dry tasting. This sets the base line for whether you will like the wine or not.

10) Be adventurous! It is all too easy to go back to a wine you liked, and often that will be just what you need and that is fine. But I strongly encourage you to take wine as a vehicle to get to know the world. I am a traveler at heart, and those many days that I cannot be on the road, I can let a wine bring a distant region or an exotic grape into my day. It makes for awesome stay at home travel.

 

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