Visiting Biltmore: The French Connection

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During my quest to find a house, Lookie Lou was the nicest name realtors gave me. In four years, I saw 70+ properties and worked with 5+ realtors before buying my current house. After seeing that many homes, I’m certain realtors have a poster with my face and a red line through it. If I combined viewing all the bedrooms, all the bathrooms and all the basements of those properties, it doesn’t come close to matching the grandiosity of the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

Before diving into our House Hunters: Biltmore Edition, there are a few things you should keep in perspective. Calling it a house is like saying New York is quaint. If there are “You are here” maps, it ceased being a house long ago. When it has wings, it is no longer a house.

If you don’t know of the Biltmore house, it is the largest private residence in America (and that includes the combination of all homes on my block). Calling it a residence or estate seems more appropriate to me. It’s staggering when you look at the stats: Continue reading Visiting Biltmore: The French Connection

Tastes of Barcelona at Home

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In Barcelona, they eat dinner late. That’s what all the guide books advised. Fearing that we wouldn’t be able to eat when our stomachs expected food, we shifted our lunch to later in the day during our exploration of Barcelona-by-foot last December.

One of my supreme joys when traveling is experiencing new food and flavors, the museums and cultural attractions are an added bonus. That joy is a stark contrast to my frugality and indecisiveness. Unlike some travelers, I don’t travel for the food, willing to spend whatever it costs to have the finest meal in each city. Instead, I wander the streets looking for restaurants that have the perfect balance of star ratings and dollar signs.

The Barcelona nightlife in December may not have been the zenith of the summer club scene, but the streets were still full of people enjoying food, drink and temperate weather. We stuck out as tourists largely for our sporting short sleeve shirts while locals donned winter coats and scarves to brave the frigid evening winter temps in the low 60s.

Early this summer I received a bottle of Beronia wine from the Rioja region. The Rioja region is a major wine producing region in Spain and worth exploring. The bottle sat on my shelf as I debated what to pair it with. After a few weekends of uninspired dinner creations, it was time to revisit the tastes of Barcelona and uncork the Crianza. That varietal was not one I knew. Continue reading Tastes of Barcelona at Home

Wednesday Wanderings – Van Gogh Museum

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Mondays can be difficult, but I always found Wednesdays to be more of a hurdle. Starting today I will be sharing stories from my wandering.

Our first Wednesday diversion takes us to the city with more canals than Venice, Amsterdam!

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I know what you’re thinking. Amsterdam is so high…in the volume of art by the Dutch masters. My girlfriend and I visited in December and booked our tickets for the Van Gogh Museum shortly after arranging flights and hotels. For my local readers, the Art Institute of Chicago just opened an exhibit on the Dutch phenom. The exhibit highlights Vincent’s Bedrooms.

The more I travel, the more I combat sounding like a snob when sharing stories. Continue reading Wednesday Wanderings – Van Gogh Museum

France in December | Vive La France

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It’s day one in France and I don’t know how long I have been awake, what day it is, what day/time it is back home or how to form sentences in either English or French.

Flying in economy is painful if you are any bigger than a pomme de terre. I wished I were a Mr. Potato Head so I could detach my arms and shoes, stuff them in my trap back door and slump myself against the cabin wall for eight hours. Once the wheels were down, someone could kindly kick me towards the front of the plane and I’d reattach my limbs and go about our trip once out of the fun house. Sadly that wasn’t a realistic option, so I tried sleeping upright, a task that has recently been achieved both at my desk and home. With minimal beauty sleep success, we landed safely in Paris and navigated our way to the RER train. We asked at least quatre information booth attendants and each got us closer to our train.

Team Leandrew’s return to France (affectionately known as unfinished business) has a few goals:

  1. Eat all the foods. Especially the carbs.
  2. See père lachais and Opera Garnier.
  3. See all things Christmas.
  4. Drink toutes les champagnes.

Least common denominator, we are trying to live up to American stereotypes. Continue reading France in December | Vive La France

3 Tips to Find Your Wine Spirit Guide in Napa

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For all those not blessed to live in California, this place exists.

This place is Frog’s Leap Winery in Rutherford, just north of Napa.

Currently looking out at a vista of gray snow, I write this about one week after visiting their scenic grounds and I still regret not exploring and staying longer, which only means I will have to go back…permanently. Full disclosure: I did offer to stay and help pick grapes. That offer might have been more valued if there were grapes to be picked.

If you’ve never been to wine country, it should be on your list. Whether you like two buck chuck or are an expert on tannins and terroir, there is always something to be learned from a visit. Plus, the weather is relatively stable all year, making every time a great time to visit. Renting a car is the cheapest option to get to Sonoma and Napa, but if you plan on visiting more than two vineyards, it will be safer to get an Uber or limo for your chariot.

There are two ways to visit wine country:

  1. Responsibly, like a civilized person
  2. Chugging samples like it’s Welch’s and you’re next in line for a liver transplant

My preference is for the former, but I recognize the appeal of wildin’ among the wines.

Much like Walmart bingo, you can modify the game for Napa and Sonoma. Here are six things you’re guaranteed to see while sightseeing and sampling:

  1. Symmetrical rows of vines that disappear in the horizon
  2. Gorgeous vistas of hazy hills
  3. Party buses
  4. Limos
  5. People who have no clue how loud they are talking
  6. People who have no clue they have purple lips

If you are like me and are interested in savoring the experience and the wine, I have one simple tip:

Go early, before the bachelorette buses descend on wine country.

My girlfriend joined me for the trip and we aimed to arrive at Frog’s Leap at 10AM for our tasting. Be sure to setup a tasting beforehand to reserve a spot on their porch. We had a bit of a delay at the car rental place and arrived closer to 10:20. Arriving early ensures tasters aren’t fully tanked when you’re there. Plus, you can aim to avoid the exodus of limos and caravans leaving the wineries as they close for the day.

We called to notify Frog’s Leap we were running a bit behind and they said it wasn’t an issue. Driving to Sonoma or Napa is a scenic drive. Similar to the rolling hills in Florence, you look around and just marvel at the difference in topography from the flat Midwest.

Our GPS guided us along Route 29 to the gravel parking lot at Frog’s Leap. With minimal traffic, you can make the drive in about an hour from downtown San Francisco. Since it was early in the day, the parking lot was devoid of limos and party buses. But Frog’s Leap is also a more intimate winery catering to smaller groups. We walked into the Welcome Center, which looked like a page from a West Elm or Pottery Barn catalog, and were greeted by one of the staff members. She directed us to a table on the back porch and offered my girlfriend a blanket. We came from Chicago, a land of black ice and broken thermometers. The chilly morning on the porch was comparatively an ocean-side resort in the tropics.

Kevin was our wine spirit guide for the morning. He inquired if we had previously been to Frog’s Leap and if we ever had their wine. Potentially making us the worst visitors ever, neither of us had done either. A college friend highly recommended visiting and that’s all I needed. One of my trepidations prior to my first vineyard visit a few years ago was not knowing much about wine. I knew some of my preferences, but not much beyond that as to what makes a wine more full bodied or what sort of weather grapes love.

I feared vineyards would be pretentious. While I’m sure some of them give off that vibe, Frog’s Leap definitely does not. Kevin was approachable and happy to share the story behind their wines. He detailed the four wines we would be sampling as he poured them in the four glasses in front of us. Kevin also acknowledged that people sample at different paces, so he presented and poured the wines, allowing us to drink at our leisure. There was a petite snack plate of cheese, dried fruit and nuts to nimble on as we sipped and swished.

Cabernet sauvignon is my standard choice when selecting a wine to drink, cook with or bring as a gift. Each of the wines sampled was distinct. At other wine tastings, different varietals tend to blur or don’t stand out. Frog’s Leaps offerings all had a different taste and mouth feel. Frog’s Leap uses organic growing methods and is part of the California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF). Their Vineyard House was the first Silver LEED certified winery in California. So, not only is the wine delicious, the vista breathtaking, but the end product is organic.

I seldom drink chardonnay, but theirs was different than others I have had. They don’t age it in oak, preferring to let the flavor of the grapes shine, versus the barrel’s. The zinfandel was again distinct and enjoyable from others I have swished. Kevin suggested that the mild flavors of the zin made it well suited for multiple foods, including spicier options. The merlot was a step up from the zin, as far as body, and led well to the the cabernet.

After we ran out of questions for Kevin, he left us to enjoy the wines and the view. Leann and I looked at each other, gently clinked our glasses together and toasted to the good life. I walked around the garden and took a few pictures.

Come harvest season, if they need another set of hands or someone to supervise, they know who to call.

Visitor’s Guide to San Francisco Food Trucks

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Yesterday, I ate food from my first food truck. The truck was named Curry Up Now. Four hours later, I discovered it should’ve been called “curry me later.”

I don’t often burp vomit, but when I do, it’s memorable. Such was the case with my lunch experience. I suspect the good Lord was aware of my forgetting to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and thusly smite me. In fairness, the thought occurred to me as I walked back to the office. Maybe God doesn’t follow me on Yelp or Twitter. Maybe God isn’t omniscient. Maybe God didn’t see I’m away from home and am two hours off my feeding times.

The vomit burp lingered for an hour. For that entire hour, I was aware that my suffering was nothing compared to Jesus’. That didn’t diminish my anguish, but I was cognizant of the plight. Thankfully, a sales manager had some gum to override the burning in my larynx.

After work, with a contrite heart and singed esophagus, I walked to mass, kneeled and asked for forgiveness of my sins, firstly the whole meat thing. St. Patrick’s is a pretty church in the SOMA area. Their site says they are popular with tourists and several Asian groups in the Bay Area. The 5:15 service was a full mass that closed with ashes. No speed-up round, corner ashes for me this year. About halfway through mass I realized I had the extreme need to urinate. After the puke burp, I chugged water trying to alleviate the taste of tikka vomit from my mouth. As a result, what goes in, must come out. After communion, I booked it downstairs for the bathroom. Today was a day of sensations. First the delight of a burrito stuffed with Indian flavors, then the Catholic guilt, then the vomitous burp, then the urge to urinate. How could I possibly top the experiences of the day?

Coworkers invited me to happy hour. I walked back toward the office to fraternize and get to know the west coasters. Happy hour turned into hours and a harrowing drive through Russian Hill to Bullitt.

Shots were ordered. Drinks were drank. Wings got inhaled. Then, the tater tots topped with the innards of a burrito came out. There was another plate of “all things fried,” which reminded me of a SuperBowl party at my buddy’s.

As the night wound down, the game of liver Survivor came to a close.

“Drink some coconut water and you’ll be fine,” the waitress advised.

Night One in San Francisco | Uber, Tacos & Fashion

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Flying to San Francisco for work reminded me of the strains of business travel. Looking around the full flight, there were a few people tapping away on their laptops, two guys bookended me in the cramped row. As a moderately tall person, I suspect the seats are shrinking.

Other than first class, is there a way to fly without requiring a chiropractor to untwist your spine?

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As the landing gear came down, I looked out the window and started a conversation with the man in the window seat. He grew up in Evanston and is now in the IT cloud sphere. Thankfully, my background in marketing allowed me to quasi understand and converse about his work. It’s all about knowing the buzzwords. “Agile” is your friend.

Before today, I’d been in an uber car once. Today, I took two: one from my house and one from SFO. San Francisco has a few more options than suburban Chicago. Uber Pool lets you share a ride with someone else heading to the same area. I shared my uber with Katie and we both paid $15 for the ride. Her catch phrase was “right on,” so I’m pretty sure she’s not from Chicago.

Seven hours after leaving for the airport, I was at my hotel. I checked in and promptly switched rooms for one with a shower that was higher than my navel. I rinsed my face with cool water and popped a Tylenol.

I got restaurant recommendations from Jenn at the front desk. Then, I headed into the brisk evening air. SF is strange in that it always feels chilly. Compare that to Chicago which can best be described bone chilling. Thursday’s high is one degree. One.

Armed with Yelp, personal recommendations and a fleece, I started out into Union Square. Chicago has its weirdos, but California is an entire different level. The city smells strongly of marijuana and it’s as though the entire city is attempting to be discovered on some talent show. There was a guy with a full drum kit on the sidewalk. Take that bucket boys. Outside of an art museum there was a man standing with his head down and legs spread wide, not moving. I prefer sleeping laying down, but different strokes. He was still there after I left the restaurant.

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I ended up at Tropisueño. There were several groups waiting for a table. I’ve previously said traveling is better with others. The first few days of this trip will expose the other side: traveling solo.

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Tonight, I was able to grab a spot at their communal table. Within five minutes I had chips and three salsas.

I am the Gollum of salsas.

Then, an entree and drink. While I ate my chile verde, pork braised in salsa verde with rice, beans and warm, pillowy corn tortillas, two men and one lady were sat opposite me.

As I ate, I listened to the trio discuss who the best dressed were in their office. They all agreed Gallway seems to be in “top 10 percentile.”

“But he’s married to someone in fashion,” one of the guys said.

They continued on as I had a love affair with my dinner wondering how poorly I’d fare in their fashion police. I started thinking of excuses.

“I came straight from the airport.”

“My luggage was stollen.”

“I only buy things for less than $20.”

Then, as I spoke with the waiter about how the pork was braised, I realized fashion isn’t my game, tacos are.

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