Monday, August 21, 2006

it takes a castle

When I was a kid growing up in New York, one of my favorite things to do on family outings was to visit the stately homes and mansions built by the Astors, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts and assorted other robber barons of the Gilded Age, now turned over to the public in the form of state parks and private endowments.

One of my favorites was the old Westbury House in Babylon, and I would constantly nag my parents to take me there. The room I loved the most was the one I thought of as the 'garden room'. It seemed huge to me then and beautiful, with tremendous, overstuffed chintz sofas and lounges and wide, floor to ceiling windows that looked out over the vast gardens, including a pool that was home to white swans and ducklings. I would stand in that room consciously willing myself into the picture. Someday, I thought, if I can just live in a place like this, then I know I could be happy.

We left friendly little Los Olivos after an overnight stop at Solvang, a tourist-happy town of Danish inspired buildings, shops and restaurants (Solvang- So vat?) and set off bright and early for San Simeon, home of the 127 acre estate of newspaper publisher Willlian Randolph Hearst.

We were milling around the base of a magnificent stairway, listening as our docent, a stern faced woman with a wickedly dry sense of humor paused in her history of the estate and gestured toward the elegant mediterranean mansion before us.

"Impressed?" she asked the group of about 20 or so before her, oohing and ahhing and snapping many identical pictures.

We nodded in several languages. Hell yeah, we were impressed.

"That's one of the guest houses," she said.

Oh, my. That is impressive. On those occasions when I am invited to stay with friends and family (and even on those when I just kind of show up) I'm usually lucky to get a couch, a blanket and a bag of Doritos. Clearly, my people need to step up their game.

The 'Castle' consists of 165 rooms, including 115 in the main house and three guesthouses. No less than four separate daytime and one evening tour are offered to fully appreciate the entire estate. We took 'The Experience Tour" for first-time visitors, which took us through the gardens, one guesthouse (Casa del Sol) and the ground floor of the main building. Frankly, I lost track of the pools.

Unfortunately, all my interior shots came out dark and blurry, probably because I had yet to manage the settings on my new camera and was just sort of waving it around, crazed papparazzo-style and snapping pictures pretty much at random: fresh flowers overflowing the urns that graced medieval mantlepieces; beautiful burnished woods, lovely and rare examples of European art; the myriad exhuberant details that filled every room.

It is truly an astonishing place.

The gardens are exquisite, the art stunning; the bedrooms and living quarters surprisingly livable for all their opulence. My inner scold, always quick to admonish, kept insisting that I be appalled at the hubris, the greed, the sad, rampant materialism; the Citizen Kane-iness of it all, but I wasn't in the mood. I longed to wake up in the morning to the view from that wisteria-draped balcony; to paint in the Egyptian garden; to meditate by the lotus pond. I wanted to swim naked by moonlight in that gold and azure pool.

And as I stood in the shadows of a sitting room; not much more than a den really, albeit a den decorated with handwoven tapestries, a Ming vase or two and one of those deliciously overstuffed sofas that I have always found so irresistible, I couldn't help thinking, if I could just live in this guesthouse, then I know I could be happy...

Monday, August 07, 2006

wine tasting in a small town

If it's a warm and breezy afternoon in late May and you find yourself in one of the tasting rooms in the tiny town of Los Olivos, chances are it's your birthday.

At least that's the way it seemed on the afternoon we arrived for our very first official wine tasting experience. Of course, we've been drinking wine since Bacchus first donned a toga, but don't really know much about it and had never been to a tasting per se. Everywhere we went, groups and couples were coming or going from tasting room to tasting room accompanied by the cheerful sounds of birthday wishes.

We started at the pretty little family run Longoria ( where we were pleased to let the friendly woman behind the bar guide us. We ordered a flight of whites and sipped slowly, trying to look savvy as a party of a dozen or so revelers enjoyed their glasses, the jazz paintings on the wall and needling the birthday boy in their midst. It was a scene that repeated itself everywhere we went that day ~ as if everyone were having a birthday and the entire town wanted to celebrate. Very much like a cozy little garden party, people drifted in and out, winding from house to patio and patio to garden, acknowledging friends and strangers with each passing encounter, full of good spirits of and some very nice wine.

As it happened it was also the estimable Turk's birthday, which was partly the reason we were following the Sideways trail, which was of late one of his favorite movies. Normally he is a reticent guy and adamant that we never let on to anyone in public on such occasions; he's afraid they'll sing at him in restaurants or much, much worse. He's shy that way.

Me, I'm just the opposite; they can sing, they can shout, they can shoot me out of a cannon for all I care, just as long as it gets me a free mud pie and maybe a candle or two. I love candles. Bring on the dancing waiters.

But Turk is emphatically not that guy, so it was with some surprise and delight that, as we wandered along the half a dozen or so blocks of art galleries, quirky cafes, and classic California style bungalows he started announcing his birthday somewhere around our third tasting stop.

"Today's my birthday, too," he said, by way of conversation.

"Happy birthday, man," said the barman. We chatted for a while, the barman telling us about the history of the town and the surprising fact that the predominant field of employment for the locals was not the wineries but the growing construction business. It seems there is much new wealth in the area and quite a few new estates being built. We joked about being able to afford one, and wondered about the loss of such a bucolic lifestyle.

"Happy birthday, man!" our new friend said again on our way out, handing the Hubs a bottle of a Starwood Sauvignon Blanc .

"Thanks!" he hollered, grinning from ear to ear.

I don't know why. But it made me quite proud.