Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Marin at sunset

August 28, 2013
The light was beautiful on our ride home from Sonoma a few weeks ago.

- Steph

The economics of wine tastings

August 27, 2013
A few weekends ago we took the motorcycle up to Sonoma and had a very nice time tasting wine and enjoying the sunshine. The only less-than-stellar part of the day was a visit to Ravenswood Winery, which got us thinking about the economics of wine tastings.

We usually stop at wineries with $5 or $10 tasting fees (part of the reason we prefer Sonoma to Napa, where tastings can run $25 or more), and most of the time the fee is waived if you buy a bottle. We've always felt this is a fair and mutually beneficial arrangement. If you don't like the wine enough to buy a bottle, you still pay for the wine you drank. If you do buy a bottle, which we often do, the winery makes money from the sale and potentially earns a repeat customer (and many people join the wine clubs of their favorite wineries).

We were surprised when we arrived at Ravenswood to learn that the cost of a tasting is $15 and that the tasting fee is only waived if you buy three bottles. We ended up getting a pour or two for free and headed out. We weren't impressed at all with the wines we tasted and were glad we hadn't paid the fee. We scribbled some back-of-the-napkin calculations later and realized we were doubly glad we hadn't gotten ripped off. Here's our math:

  • Most of the wines being poured retail for at most $35 per bottle (and retail price obviously already includes a significant markup)
  • Most wine tastings include 5 pours of 1oz each for a total of 5oz
  • A bottle of wine contains 25oz
  • Conclusion: The wine tasting cost $3 per ounce; the retail cost of a bottle is $1.40 per ounce. That's a more than 50% markup, and the fee isn't even waived if you buy a bottle

That's not to say that every $15 tasting isn't worth the money. The tipping point for a $15 tasting using the math above is $75 — that's to say you're more than getting your money's worth for wines that cost more than $75 and you're overpaying for wines that cost less. Given the price of the bottles being poured at Ravenswood, a $7 tasting fee would have been fair.

Wine tasting fee Equivalent bottle price with 1oz pours Equivalent bottle price with 1.5oz pours*
$5 $25 $16
$10 $50 $33
$15 $75 $50
$20 $100 $66
$25 $125 $83

* Some wineries are more generous with their pours, which would change the calculation

Caveat #1: I am ignoring other costs that wineries incur from offering tastings, including paying staff to work the tastings. But there's also a clear marketing and long-term sales value to the tastings not counted in the straight-up fee.

Caveat #2: Some places, like Scribe Winery, sit down and talk to you about their wines for a significant amount of time. That would be a completely different situation. This was not the case at Ravenwood.

- Steph

Photo by Dave Dugdale

High above San Francisco

August 26, 2013
The Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin headlands
At the beginning of the summer, Ben's cousin was nice enough to take us flying in his Piper Saratoga. We flew over the Golden Gate bridge before heading north to Shelter Cove for lunch. On our way home, we flew over Point Reyes, one of our favorite destinations on the coast.

The Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco

Point Reyes National Seashore
Dinner at Shelter Cove
Our transportation: a Piper Saratoga

Ben shot a few videos with his iPhone, which you can watch here:

- Steph

Road trip: Los Angeles

August 23, 2013

Start from the beginning of our road trip.

Day 8: Joshua Tree National Park to Los Angeles (156 miles)

The last leg of our trip. We stopped for two nights to attend Ben's cousin's wedding before booking it home to San Francisco. We didn't have a lot of time for sightseeing, but we did get over to the Getty Center before the wedding.

Opened in 1997, the museum was designed by architect Richard Meier and specializes in pre-20th-century European works of art. We spent most of our time enjoying the free architecture tour (entrance is free too!). A bit of what we learned:

The museum sits on a hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains with views of the Pacific Ocean, San Gabriel Mountains and San Diego freeway. The buildings are positioned along two natural ridges in the hilltop.

Even before building the Getty Center, Meier was famous for his use of the color white, which he said reflects and refracts light, making color more vivid and helping us appreciate changing tones and hues in nature. Meier’s previous work had featured white metal-paneled walls, but the museum's new neighbors thought a bright white, hilltop museum would be a blight on their landscape and fought it. They compromised and the off-white, enamel-clad aluminum panels are only used on interior-facing walls. All exterior-facing walls are made of beige-colored travertine stone from Italy. When split along their natural grain, many of the stones revealed fossilized leaves, feathers, and branches.

A fossilized leaf in a piece of travertine. Meier had 1.2 million square feet, or 16,000 tons, of travertine brought in from Bagni di Tivoli, Italy.
Meier used the two naturally-occurring ridges, which diverge at a 22.5 degree angle, to organize the museum layout. He overlaid a grid along each axis — the galleries lie along one axis and the administrative buildings lie along the other. The helipad in the photo above is aligned along the main north-south axis. The primary structure of the grids is a 30-inch square, which is replicated throughout wall and floor elements.

The museum also features a 134,000-square-foot Central Garden designed by artist Robert Irwin. A walkway gradually descends to a pool with a floating maze of azaleas. New plants are frequently added to maintain Irwin's vision of the garden's ever-changing nature. "Always changing, never twice the same," is carved into the plaza floor.

In addition to the architecture tour, we enjoyed a special exhibit about Los Angeles' growth in the second half of the 20th century. Titled "Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future 1940-1990," the exhibit explored how Los Angeles rapidly evolved into one of the most populous and influential industrial, economic, and creative capitals in the world.

A panorama of the Getty Center. Scroll to the right to see the whole thing.

We met up with Ben's family for the wedding and then drove back to San Francisco the next day. On a bike, 400 miles made for a long day, but we made it.

Longest* motorcycle trip to date: complete.

- Steph

* Longest in terms of length of time; our Argentina trip still wins for distance

Photos: The road to southern California

Road trip: Joshua Tree National Park

August 14, 2013

Start from the beginning of our road trip.

The highlight of our trip was definitely the three nights we camped at Joshua Tree National Park; it was the most out-of-the-ordinary part of the trip and the most unlike other vacations we've taken. We had no running water and it was summer in the desert.

A little background on Joshua Tree National Park: The park is named for the native Yucca brevifolia tree, better known as the Joshua tree; the layman's term comes from Mormon pioneers who thought the tree resembled the outstretched arms of Joshua leading them to the promised land. The park straddles the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado deserts and only became a national park in 1994 as part of the California Desert Protection Act, which also created Death Valley National Park (Yellowstone, the first national park, was established in 1872). And most importantly in this history lesson, the Joshua tree is also often cited as an inspiration for the Truffula trees in the Lorax (though the internet cannot turn up any direct link — just the repeated observations of visitors).
Joshua trees, in the Mojave desert; Cholla cactus, in the Colorado desert
The park is quite popular in the spring, when daytime temperatures hover around 70 degrees; in the summer you don't even need a reservation because only crazy people camp in the desert in the summer apparently. We could have camped at one of the campsites near the park entrances, one of which was described with this rousing endorsement: "Flush toilets and running water make it a hit among half-hearted participants." Half-hearted we are not, and seeking the serenity of the desert, we decided to camp in the park interior. In the 800,000-acre park, however, there isn't a drop of water for drinking; we had to carry in all the water we would need (and on a motorcycle no less). This was complicated by the fact that our waterproof bag leaked, so Ben had to make two trips to town to fill up, but it was well worth it. Our awesome campsite in Hidden Valley:

One of our biggest concerns initially was the heat. We almost planned to only come for a day because Ben was so worried that I wouldn't be able to handle it (he grew up in a desert; I, on the other hand, had never been to a desert before we went to Israel). It wasn't looking good the first night when we arrived and I had such a bad headache that I curled up in the tent and fell asleep while Ben unpacked and cooked. Happily I felt better the next morning and for most of the trip (with the exception of an ill-advised afternoon hike to a dried-up oasis). Surprisingly, I even liked the heat. In Boston, 100 degrees means humidity (in San Francisco, 100 degrees probably means the world has ended) but the dry desert heat was almost refreshing. And it was downright pleasant to curl up with a book in the shade. The best part? Sleeping outside at night when it was about 80 degrees, with no need for a rain cover over the tent.

The biggest problem we didn't anticipate: chipmunks. The park advises storing food in vehicles (not an option for us) or in a secure metal box (how are we supposed to carry one of those on a motorcycle?). The first night we put our food in my backpack, put it on the motorcycle and covered everything. And by the next morning, my backpack had a hole in it, part of our tupperware had been chewed away and our chocolate-covered espresso beans had been thoroughly nibbled. (We hadn't realized chipmunks were the main danger here — most of the time, raccoons and bears are a bigger hazard.) This spurred us into action and we did what we should have done the first night: jury-rigged a bear bag (or I guess a chipmunk bag in this case). Check it out in the photo above, hanging off the rock on the left. Chipmunks vanquished.

We made it to the top.
The first morning we got up with the sun and hiked Ryan Mountain, a 1.5-mile climb to the summit at 5,461 feet. We had great views of the park. We rested for a bit and then tackled the 49 Palms Oasis trail. The hike was supposed to culminate at a fan palm oasis, where palm trees tower over clear pools of water. We arrived to find palm trees but no water; nonetheless, it was a nice place to sit and read (I couldn't put down Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ben was rereading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).

Ben made dinner while I photographed the Joshua trees at sunset (I'm a lucky girl — Ben cooked and did the dishes every meal).

Back to cool history lessons: In the late 1800s, a band of cattle rustlers known as the McHaney Gang found a perfect hiding spot for their stolen herds — a valley in the California desert, surrounded on all sides by impassable granite boulders and filled with lush, green grass. Known today as Hidden Valley, the natural corral houses one of the most interesting walks in the park, which we did on the second morning of our trip.

In 1936, desert pioneer Bill Keys blasted a hole through the valley walls to make it easier for his cattle to reach the green pastures — with the unintended effect of completely altering the valley's climate. Today this serves as Hidden Valley's main access point.

Hidden Valley — the grassy pastures have completely disappeared

The boulders that ring Hidden Valley and that form much of the park's defining landscape are the product of volcanic activity and stark erosion. Millions of years ago, molten liquid pushed its way toward the Earth's surface, where it cooled and solidified. Groundwater erosion weathered the rectangular stones into spheres and flash floods washed away the surrounding soil. The huge boulders settled on top each other, leaving the rock piles that exist today.

Skull Rock is one of the park's most famous examples of that weathering process.

We toured through the park on the bike to check out the different exhibits, before making dinner and driving up to Key's View for our last sunset in the park. On the crest of the Little San Bernardino Mountains, the 5,185-foot lookout offers views of the San Andrea Fault, Mount San Jacinto and the Salton Sea. On clear days, you can see Mexico.

We were sad to pack up the next morning but we'll definitely be back. Joshua Tree turned out to be a much better vacation destination than we ever would have guessed. It was challenging, certainly, with the heat and lack of water. But these weren't downsides; they were essential parts of the experience. They forced us to slow down and take in our environment, to respect and enjoy it. It made for a surprisingly serene few days, a time to unwind, punctuated by our repeated amazement at our surreal surroundings.

- Steph

Unsurprisingly, I found it hard to suppress my urge to take photos constantly. I narrowed down my favorites to the slideshow below (in addition to the ones contained in this post).

Odds and ends about Joshua Tree:
  • The tallest Joshua tree in the park measures 42 feet high, with a crown width of 34 feet and a trunk nearly 9 feet round.
  • The average life span of a Joshua tree is 150 years, but some are believed to live as long as 300 to 500 years.
  • Fan palm oases, like this one, sit atop faults in the Earth's crust. When groundwater hits a fault plane, it rises to the surface and creates conditions for an oasis. 
  • Joshua Tree National Park receives on average 4.06 inches of rain per year; the limited amount of water available in the park is reserved for wildlife.

Road trip: Motorcycling through the desert

Start from the beginning of our road trip.

Day 5: San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park (230 miles)

As we are motorcycle riders, this post is all about roads. Fun curvy roads, and scorchingly hot desert freeways.

I realize it's a cliche to go on about how amazing technology is ... but I'm going to do it anyway because whenever we plan a trip, I can't help but marvel at Google Street View. Try this: Ask Google for driving directions from San Diego to Joshua Tree National Park. It will tell you to take three different interstates: 5, 15, 10. But interstates are the enemy of enjoyable motorcycling. They're straight, windy and lacking in scenery. Now drag the orange man onto Route 79 near Descanso. Trees! Hills! A lake! And that is the marvel of street view. Sitting at home before our trip, I can drag an orange man around a map to test the different routes we might want to take. And in doing so, I can totally change the tenor of our day.

Small-town America: Descanso, Calif.; population 1,423.

Unfortunately Google couldn't save us from the scorching desert heat. It somehow hadn't dawned on me that the desert would extend far beyond Joshua Tree National Park (which I knew was a desert). And riding through 100 degree desert heat is a totally different experience than riding around the San Francisco Bay area.

Happily we found shelter at a closed campground for lunch.
Unhappily the gas station in Descanso had no running water. By the time we reached Route 86 on the Salton Sea we were dead out of water. When we spotted what appeared to be a police station, we didn't hesitate to pull over; except it wasn't a police station but a U.S. border patrol checkpoint. The soldiers with machine guns seemed quite suspicious of passing motorcyclists in need of water. We were instructed to remain in a holding area while they filled our water bottles.

As we continued along the Salton Sea toward Palm Springs, I couldn't help but notice how much the landscape resembled both the Dead Sea in Israel and the desert near Cafayate in Argentina.
On the left, the Dead Sea in Israel; on the right, the Salton Sea in California.
On the left, the drive toward Cafayate in Argentina; on the right, the ride toward Palm Springs.

By this time it was balls to the wall, pedal to the metal; there was nothing to do but get through it and make it to Joshua Tree. We couldn't avoid the interstates any longer. It was 25 miles from Coachella to the park and I counted down every second of it. A sign on the road read: "Turn off AC to avoid overheating" — as if we had that option. We had stripped down every possible layer but it will still 100 degrees and I had on a leather jacket, a full-face helmet, jeans and hiking boots. We stopped at a rest stop and drenched our shirts in water. Ten minutes later they were completely dry. A nice man took pity on us and offered us two bottles of ice cold water. I tried to refuse, saying we were fine and wouldn't have anywhere to put it anyway. He shook his head at me. "Drink it now."

We drank it, we kept driving and finally we saw this sign:

We made it!