Roadside America: St. Joseph, Michigan

Growing up in Boston and later Tucson, I grew up going on beach vacations in New England and California. It wasn’t until I started dating my husband a decade ago that I discovered America’s “Third Coast” (the Great Lakes, for our purposes, though some call the Gulf states the Third Coast) in the Midwest. Visiting my in-laws in St. Joseph, Michigan, I was amazed to see that you don’t need to go to the edges of the country to experience sand between your toes, eat an ice cream on the boardwalk, and swim out further than your parents can see you. The Lake Michigan town of St. Joseph is a resort town from way back in the midst of a comeback, striking the rare balance between charming and twee.

Each year that I’ve visited St. Joseph, the town has evolved and improved into a destination worth visiting beyond a quick side trip from Chicago. The waterfront parks have been revitalized in recent years, and the beaches are so wide and sandy, you could forget you aren’t on an ocean. St. Joe and its sister city Benton Harbor are under two hours from Chicago, as well as an easy drive from other Midwestern cities such as Milwaukee and Detroit, in what has been called the “Riviera of the Midwest.”Just across Lake Michigan from Chicago, residents recently had hoped to revive the old Chicago-St. Joseph ferry that carried thousands to the beach in the 1920s heyday, but the venture proved too costly. Land remains the only approach, although there is a trans-Lake Michigan ferry between Milwaukee and Muskegon in the summer season, about 90 miles north of St. Joe. Amtrak makes the trip an hour and forty minutes from Chicago daily if you’d prefer not to get caught in traffic.

This area of Michigan is also famed for its produce, owing to the “lake effect” on the climate, helping to produce what is arguably the world’s best fruit. From June to November, you can taste many varieties at the Benton Harbor Fruit Market, one of the oldest and largest seller-to-buyer produce markets in America. Excellent fruit means excellent wine as well, and you can visit over a dozen wineries within a dozen miles of St. Joseph. You can also sample Michigan flavors at the annual Harvest Festival and regular farmers markets in the summer season.

In addition to the cute shops and a good selection of restaurants, St. Joseph has a budding arts scene anchored by the Krasl Art Center, which holds a major art fair each summer. The new pride of St. Joe is the Silver Beach area just below downtown. The historic Silver Beach Carousel was first opened in 1910 and re-opened 100 years later after the park had deteriorated and closed in the early ’70s. You can ride the carousel year-round, but go in the summer for the optimum effect, when you can finish out a day at the beach with one of Michigan’s famed sunsets and think about how soon you can return.

[flickr image via Molechaser]

Roadside America: Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley

If you were to ask most Americans if they’d heard of the Roaring Fork Valley, you’d get a blank stare. Mention Aspen, however, and the light goes on, regardless of their social or economic standing (blame reality TV, our cultural obsession with celebrity, and 1970s/Reagan-era excess).

Aspen may be the St. Moritz of the U.S., but its location at the upper (southeast) end of the western Colorado’s stunning Roaring Fork Valley is what makes it special. The 50-mile valley runs along the river of the same name (the Frying Pan and Crystal Rivers down-valley are tributaries that provide top-notch fly-fishing and paddling).

It’s a region of meadows, aspen groves and the soaring alpine peaks of the Elk Mountains, as well as stark red cliffs and pine forest. The Ute Indians inhabited the area before the mining boom of the late 19th century. Following the silver crash of 1803, coal mining drove the local economy, through the early 20th century. Today, the valley towns are largely comprised of refurbished original storefronts housing galleries, boutiques, cafes, bakeries, coffee houses and restaurants, but the remnants of ghost towns can be found throughout the valley.

While Aspen is an international destination, the down-valley former mining/ranching towns of Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs are more affordable, low-key options for lovers of outdoor adventure, solitude and a thriving local food scene. And just minutes from Aspen is the lovely, rural hamlet of Woody Creek, home of Hunter S. Thompson in his final years, and a favorite spot for Aspenites to engage in outdoor recreation due to its extensive trail system.While it’s true down-valley is blowing up, real estate-wise, and housing developments are popping up like toadstools in outer Carbondale and neighboring El Jebel (where the August opening of a Whole Foods had the valley in a divisive uproar), the region is still pristine with regard to commercial tourism and most of the ills of urban living. Ranching and farming are still the backbone of the valley economy, and Carbondale has become an epicenter of grassroot organizations dedicated to alternative energy, green living and the local food shed. Indeed, the entire region is very invested in sustainable, low-impact living, and that carries over to tourism.

Come for a visit if you’d like to avoid the exorbitant prices and scene that can make Aspen (a place I love, it bears mentioning) a bit of a bummer during high season. Let me be clear that down-valley accommodations aren’t cheap, but they’re affordable compared to the ski resorts, and provide a different kind of holiday, whether it’s self-catered, or designed for lots of snuggling on the couch in front of the fireplace.

This time of year, the aspens and meadows shimmer like gold, and the mountain peaks are dusted with snow. Starting next month, big-spending skiers will head up to Aspen, but valley locals are more likely to strap on their snowshoes or Nordic skis and avail themselves of the trails and famed 10th Mountain Division Hut system. Follow their lead, then end the day by unwinding in a nearby hot spring or preparing dinner, reading, and enjoying a regional craft beer or wine (the nearby Western Slope, just over the McClure Pass outside of Carbondale, leads to a number of wineries and tasting rooms, open in summer) before a cozy fire.

There’s no shortage B & B’s, inns, cabins, farm stays, and guest ranches in the region, and in summer, camping is also a popular pastime, as is kayaking, rafting, horseback riding, fishing, climbing, hiking, road cycling, and mountain biking. The seasonal farmers markets in Aspen, Basalt, and Carbondale are full of handcrafted foods and beautiful produce from nearby farms. In winter, you’ll still find many menus in the area dominated by locally-grown and -made foods; check out Edible Aspen magazine’s website for more in the way of great local eats and brews.

Getting there
Aspen/Pitkin County Airport has daily non-stop flights from Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver and Chicago. From Denver International Airport, it’s approximately a 3.5-hour drive to Glenwood Springs on I-70. It’s best to have a car for exploration if you’re staying in the valley, although there is a bus system.

[Flickr image via JimLeach89]

Baja California: Mexico’s Up-And-Coming Wine Destination

grapes While many people know Mexico for its amazing tequila, a little known secret is the country also has a thriving wine destination: Baja California, or Baja for short. Although this sounds like it’s on the West Coast of the United States, this is, in fact, an area in Mexico. The Mediterranean climate makes it ideal for producing the libation. In fact, 90 percent of the country’s wine comes from the Ensenada region of Baja.

The Beginning

Mexico is actually the oldest wine-growing region in America, having produced wine since the sixteenth century when the Spaniards arrived to the country with vine clippings from Europe. Soon after, immigrants from other European countries, such as Italy and Russia, arrived to the area with their vine cuttings and planted them in Baja’s Guadalupe Valley. Baja California’s wine is rarely exported, meaning you’ll need to make a trip to the area to sample it for yourself. Some of the popular varieties you’ll find include Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Malbec and Barbera.baja california Road Trips

When visiting Baja California, one great way to explore the different areas of the region is to take a road trip. Some suggested itineraries include:

Ruta del Vino

The “Ruta del Vino,” or “Wine Route,” connects over 50 wineries in the Baja California state. The Valley of Guadalupe, Valley of Llano Colorado, Valley of Santo Tomas and the Valley of San Vincente, as well as the port city of Ensenada and the border cities of Tijuana and Tecate are all included. Along with sipping wine, travelers can indulge in world-class restaurants, stay at luxury hotels and visit interesting museums along the way. Click here for a map of the “Ruta del Vino.” If you need a designated driver, Baja Wine & Sun offers numerous tours through the area’s wine routes.

The Baja Gold Coast

This road trip will take you through a mix of experiences, as you begin at the most visited border in the world, Tijuana, and make your way down to Catavina. You’ll also pass through Rosarito, the world’s lobster capital, Ensenada, the land of wine, and Bahia de San Quintin, the farmland capital of Baja. In Tijuana, make sure to explore the city’s cultural side through the numerous galleries and museums. Moreover, the area is known for its delicious Baja Mediterranean cuisine, so eat up and pair it with some local vino. For more information, click here.

The Path of La Rumorosa

On this road trip, you will begin in Tecate, a small city full of colonial architecture, cattle fields, beautiful mountains and renowned wineries and breweries. Moreover, the area is known for producing excellent artisanal pottery and fresh bread. Next, it’s on to Mexicali, which is historic for its settlement of the Chinese. There are many activities, like enjoying the boiling mud lagoons, learning about Mexican history in the Regional Museum, dancing in trendy nightclubs and hiking and swimming in the beautiful surroundings. You’re last stop on the itinerary will be Algodones, where you can go duck hunting, see the Colorado River’s Morales Dam or just enjoy the warmth of the sun in one of the driest places in North America. For more information, click here.

Annual Events

Every August, the Valle de Guadalupe in the Baja California region hosts their “Fiesta de la Vendimia” to celebrate the year’s harvest. Put on by the Association of Viniculture, the event lasts for about a month and showcases the best wines in the area through tastings and themed events. Additionally, there is art, music and a rodeo. This year’s event will take place from August 2 to August 19, 2012.

wine Top Winery Experiences

In the Baja California area there are many different experiences to be had. Guided tours, wine tastings, markets, boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants, local museums and indigenous communities all help to add to this culturally rich wine destination. When touring the wineries, some top picks include:

  • Adobe Guadalupe– This adobe-style winery and bed and breakfast has been operating since 1998 on 60 acres of vineyards. Their varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo, Shiraz and Viognier. Tour the winery, participate in tastings or horseback ride through the vineyards. For tastings, you can make an appointment by clicking here.
  • Casa Madero– Latin America’s oldest, traditional winery has been around for over 400 years and produces some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay in the country.
  • L.A. Cetto– Established in 1974, L.A. Cetto is one of Mexico’s largest, and their oldest, wine producers. They are open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for guided tours, free wine tastings and strolls through their well-manicured gardens. Their varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Grenache, Petite Verdot, Malbec, Sangivese, Mourvedre, Sirah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Savingnon Blanc and Muscat Canelli. Additionally, they are known throughout the country as being one of the best at what they do, which can be seen through their 132 international awards.
  • Casa de Piedra– Owned by Mexico’s wine legend, Hugo D’Acosta, this winery is uniquely situated near San Antonio de las Minas. At this charming farmhouse-style winery, they make Cabernet Franc, Tampranillo and Chardonnay, and vistors can participate in tours and tastings by making an appointment.
  • Bodegas Santo Tomás– Operating since 1888, they have two locations, Ensenada and San Antonio de las Minas. Both are great for tours and tastings, which take place every hour from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and then again at 3 p.m. Make sure to sample their award-winning 2000 Cabernet, as well as some of their other varietals like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Barbera.
  • Casa Pedro Domecq– Established in 1972, Casa Pedro Domecq is the second largest wine producer after L.A. Cetto. Their many varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Nebbiolo, Tempranillo, Barbera, Grenache, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, French Colombard, Savingnon Blanc and Reisling. Casa Pedro Domecq was the first commercial winery in Valle de Guadalupe, and is well known for producing wine and brandy. They are open daily except Sunday, and offer tastings and tours to visitors.
  • Vinisterra– Vinisterra operates under the idea of interfering in the process of winemaking with technology as little as possible. They officially opened in 2002, and are located in the town of San Antonio de las Minas. The winery building is unique, as it is made of thermal materials and is partially buried to maintain a naturally cool temperature. Varietals include Cabernet Savingnon, Merlot, Syrah, Nebbiolo, Grenache, Chardonnay, Viognier and Rousanne. Make an appointment to participate in tastings.
  • Monte Xanic– The vision of Monte Xanic isn’t to copy what other big name wineries are doing, but to set the standard for the industry themselves. Moreover, they aim for their wines to reflect the pride of the country and its people. Their varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Sirah, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Viognier, Savingnon Blanc and Semillon. You can participate in wine tastings and tours by making an appointment.

[Images via Fir0002, Gabriel Flores Romero, Hungry Girl]

Exploring Western Colorado’s Undiscovered Wine Region

wine While many people know Colorado for its rich beer culture and plethora of breweries across the state, their wine regions have somehow managed to go undetected. The reality is, western Colorado is home to many fertile vineyards, boutique wineries and vino-related events. To help shed some light on the subject, here is a guide to exploring western Colorado’s wine region.

History

Historically, western Colorado was too dry to grow the grapes and fruit necessary to make wine. While the soil was rich and the climate mild, the precipitation was uncertain and the land barren. Then, in 1882, water from the Colorado River was diverted to irrigate orchards and vineyards. Because a reliable water source had been secured, fruits and vegetable crops began to flourish. Although Prohibition in the 1920s halted wine production for a bit, it didn’t stop it forever. Today, there are more 100 wineries, many of which are boutique venues putting an emphasis on quality over quantity.wine Wine Regions

There are two regions in western Colorado that are designated American Viticultural Areas (AVA), The Grand Valley AVA and The West Elks AVA. These areas feature unique geographies and climates that allow for grape growing. The Grand Valley AVA includes Grand Junction and Palisade, residing along the Colorado River. Moreover, the West Elks AVA rests around Paonia and Hotchkiss, along the North Fork of the Gunnison River.

What Makes Western Colorado Wines Unique?

The elevation alone makes western Colorado a unique wine region. The dryness of the area helps vintners to control the water because they’re forced to irrigate. Too much water can actually be detrimental to the fruits, so this gives them a leg up in production. Additionally, the elevation, about 4,700 feet, allows the strong sun to beat on the grapes and fruit, making them more flavorful. And, because the region is new, they barely have to deal with pesticides and diseases many wine regions encounter. The dry and mild climate actually kills many popular crop diseases, so this may never become a problem for the region.

wine Wine Tasting In The Grand Valley AVA

The region makes 70 percent to 80 percent of Colorado’s grapes. They have the longest growing season in the state, thanks to the cooling effect from nearby canyons, and the milding effect from the surrounding Grand Valley. While there are myriad wineries in the area, my top picks include:

Carlson Vineyards– Open since 1988, Carlson Vineyards offers free tastings in a fun environment. While low-key, the staff is extremely knowledgeable about wine and the region. For example, they informed me that wine doesn’t have to have grapes, but can be any fermented fruit, which you can sample with their numerous fruit wines. Make sure to try their cherry wine, described as the original “cherry pie without crust.” They serve it in a small plastic cup with the rim dipped in chocolate. Likewise, their cherry lemonade, which contains Carlson Cherry Wine and frozen lemonade is delicious. If you’re interested in buying a bottle, it’s $12.99 or less.

Colorado Cellars Winery– Open since 1978, Colorado Cellars Winery is the state’s oldest winery and the only one allowed to have Colorado in the name. What’s really nice about tastings at the winery is it’s self-serve, with numerous pull handles to pick and choose from (shown above). They’re also well known for their meads, which are extremely sweet and combine wine and honey. And if you’re hungry for some vino-inspired foods, they sell goodies like garlic riesling mayo, zinfandel orange mustard, merlot chocolate almonds and chardonnay havarti cheese. There are often free samples of these out, as well.

Grande River VineyardsGrand River Vineyards has an extremely charming ambiance, with bottles and knick-knacks set up around an oak room. The winery features numerous wines with quirky labels, for example, their “Havin’ A Cow” features a clothed cow sipping wine and jumping on a pogo stick. Their focus is on French-style wines, using grapes grown from western Colorado. A tasting of three is free, while five will cost $3.50.

terror creek winery Wine Tasting In The West Elks AVA

There are many excellent vineyards and wineries to visit within the West Elks AVA. This is where you’ll find the highest wineries in the northern hemisphere, making the products exceptionally unique. When I visited, my favorites were:

Terror Creek Winery– At 6,400 feet, Terror Creek Winery is the highest estate bottled winery and vineyard in the northern hemisphere. The winemaker, Joan Mathewson, is a woman who studied the craft in Switzerland, and came to Colorado to open her own boutique winery. She makes Alsatian-style wines, featuring a dry riesling, a spicy gewurztraminer, a unique chardonnay vinted without oak, a dry and fruity pinot noir and her own creation, a light red chalet. All grapes used to make wines are from western Colorado. From the tasting room, you’ll be able to look out at the vineyards and West Elk Mountains.

Azura– Another excellent place to stop into is Azura in Paonia, an art gallery and winery combined. The space features contemporary fine art from artists and sailors, Ty and Helen Gillespie. Not only is it beautiful inside, but also outside, as the winery has a relaxing courtyard overlooking the North Fork Valley.

Black Bridge Winery & Orchard Valley Farm Market– Also in Paonia is the Black Bridge Winery & Orchard Valley Farm Market. This place is unique in that it’s a lot more than just a winery. They sell and do tastings of boutique wines, while also being one of western Colorado’s only orchards and vineyards combined. You’ll be able to pick your own produce, while also purchasing homemade jams, honeys, sauces, dried fruits, nuts and meats.

wine Wine Trails

Numerous worthwhile wine trails reside in western Colorado. Some of the best include:

Front Range Wine Trail– This trail contains 24 wineries and tasting rooms from Cañon City, near the Royal Gorge, to Estes Park by Rocky Mountain National Park. You’ll head west on I-70, traversing through Georgetown, Dillon and Winter Park, while sampling wines at high altitude. Additionally, these areas feature opportunities for adventure sports like skiing, snowboarding, rafting and hiking.

Heart Of Colorado Wine Country Trail– Resting between Glenwood Springs’ famous hot springs pool and Fruita’s challenging mountain biking trails, this wine route encompasses both the Grand Valley AVA and the West Elks AVA. Follow I-70 along the Colorado River, from Palisade to the base of the Colorado National Monument, just west of Grand Junction. From there, you’ll be able to drive south on US Highway 50, passing Delta to visit the sweet corn capital of the world, Olathe. Afterwards, you’ll turn east at Delta onto CO Highway 92, veering north on CO Highway 65. Here you’ll find wineries along Surface Creek, on the south slope of Grand Mesa, the largest flattop mountain in the world. You can take the outer loop of the mountain, following the Gunnison River along CO Highway 92 east until you reach Hotchkiss for some tastings, before going to Paonia. The drive is very scenic, and offers many excellent opportunities for the lover of wine and nature.

Four Corners Region– This trail mixes history and scenery with wine. Start at Durango, home to the narrow gauge steam railway, then head west to Cortez and the Four Corners Region near Mesa Verde National Park. You’ll see ancient pottery shards, ancestral puebloan ruins and, of course, vineyards.

wine Upcoming Wine Events In Western Colorado

West Elk Wine Trail (August 4 to 5, 2012)- This event will help you experience wine, food and closeness to the land as you set off to venture the West Elk Wine Trail. The nine participating wineries will feature local food and wine pairings, activities and complimentary vino. Email lisafairbank@gmail.com if interested.

Food, Farm, Film And Wine Festival (August 10 to 12, 2012)- Taking place in Paonia, this event will focus on local foods, wines and films. Click here for more information.

Dinner In The Vineyard At Stone Cottage Cellars (August 18, 2012)- The event begins with barrel tastings with the winemaker at Stone Cottage Cellars, tours of the vineyard and wine making demonstrations. A five-course dinner follows, emphasizing the art of food and wine pairing. Contact info@stonecottagecellars.com if interested.

Colorado Mountain Winefest (September 13 to 16, 2012)- This year will be the event’s 21st anniversary. It is the largest wine festival in Colorado, and will include wine tastings, food, music, art, golf, celebrity chef dinners, demonstrations and winery and vineyard tours. Click here for more information.

Uncorked Wine And Music Festival (September 15, 2012)- Surrounded by the beautiful San Juan Mountains, attendees will listen to live music while sipping wine and sampling delicious local foods. Click here for more information.

Sipping Vino At The Northern Hemisphere’s Highest Winery And Vineyard

terror creek vineyard Terror Creek Winery and Vineyard is located in the West Elks American Viticultural Area of Colorado. The establishment gets its name from the snow-fed stream residing along the property’s edge, called Terror Creek. What makes Terror Creek really special is the fact that, at 6,400 feet, it’s the highest winery and vineyard that’s estate bottled in the northern hemisphere.

The winery sits atop the Garvin Mesa in the Rocky Mountains, allowing visitors to sip boutique vinos while having a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding landscape. It’s run by Joan Mathewson, a Swiss-trained winemaker who takes pride in the fact that she creates unique Alsatian-style wines, know for their fruit flavors and crisp acidities.

When asked how her style differs from other vintners, she responds with a smile, “I don’t know what other wineries do. I know what I do.”

Mathewson offers five varieties of wine, including a dry riesling, a full-flavored and spicy gewurztraminer, a unique chardonnay vinted without oak, a rich and fruity pinot noir and, her signature creation, chalet, a light red blend that can be served chilled. Tastings are free, and bottles start at $10.

For more information, click here.