Sonoma (Aug 24)

Our last day  here.  Packing was a bitch because I had to cram 2 bottles of wine, 2 bottles of olive oil, 1 bottle of vinegar and 3 tasting kits (1 wine, 2 oil/vinegar) into our suitcases.  Which were pretty full when we left.  About the tasting kits – Tim Bucher has a 3rd business (www.tastingroom.com) that sells sample size kits from multiple wineries so you can do your own tasting at home.  It’s a pretty brilliant idea.  Most of his business is B2B.  The wineries sell the kits in their tasting rooms and use them as giveaways.  But if you can’t get to Sonoma and want to bring home a little tasting of your own, it’s a great concept.  The winery we loved was Papapietro Perry if you want to give it a try.  Yes, I know I sound like a shill now and no, I’m not getting any kickbacks for this.  I just think it’s really cool and I like to spread the word on anything I considered an undiscovered treasure.  So there.

We spent our last day cruising the coastline.  The temperature really shot up the last few days in Sonoma, so it was good to stay close to the ocean and get a little relief from the heat.  We ended up in Half Moon Bay for dinner.  We returned to the airport way too early for our red-eye flight but we didn’t really know what the traffic would be like and we’ve had a few close calls in the past so we didn’t want to push it.

Here’s my final obligatory landscape photo from our drive.

Sonoma (Aug 23)

Normally we head home right after a race, so it was nice to have some extra time to unwind and enjoy Sonoma.  After yesterday’s caloric excess, we decided to give breakfast a miss and just get coffee.  We drove to Petaluma for lunch and ate at a tiny restaurant called the Wild Goat.   It was a totally random choice but it turned out to be awesome.  I’m starting to think it’s impossible to get a bad meal in Sonoma.

We stopped at Kendall-Jackson for a wine tasting after lunch.  It was on our route, it’s a big name vineyard and they have a very impressive facility, so I figured it was worth a stop.  They comped the tasting and it included some pretty pricey wines ($50 and $80) but I wasn’t really impressed with any of them.  The $25 wine we tried at Ravenswood was better.  Tim did send an oversized (3 L) bottle to his sister for her birthday, so it was a worthwhile stop from that perspective.

Our main objective for the afternoon was a personal tour of the Dry Creek Olive Co. and Trattore winery.  Tim Bucher called my cell just as we arrived to say he was running 15 minutes late but that we should check out a tasting room right across the parking lot.  Awsome Pinot Noir, according to him.  Hell, yeah!  We tried 2 Pinots and 2 Zinfandels and they were all outstanding.  Not cheap, but they blew away the even more expensive wines we tried at K-J.  We ordered 6 bottles each of the two we liked the most and they will be shipped to Phoenix in November.  So if you come to visit this winter, you might be lucky enough to get a glass or two.

Tim gave us a great tour of his olive milling facility and did an olive oil tasting with us.  You can use bread but we drank it straight.  It’s not as gross as it sounds.  We also tasted the vinegar by soaking a sugar cube and sucking the vinegar out.  It gives you the flavor without killing you with the vinegar taste.  Then he drove us out to the vineyard and took us through the vines in an ATV.  It was an amazing and highly educational experience.  It was a rare opportunity to get an inside look at the wine business from someone who has lived it for his entire adult life.  (He bought his first two acres of vines at age 16)

We finished off the day with dinner in Healdsburg.  I swear I could taste Dry Creek olive oil in the sauce with my sea bass.

Sonoma (Aug 22)

Race day!  Always exciting and a little nerve-wracking.  Since we had failed to demonstrate the ability to arise before 8 AM unaided, I had set the alarm for 7.  I was convinced I heard it go off at 6:30.  One thing I’ve noticed since I stopped working is that on the rare occasion when I have to set an alarm clock, I tend to get lousy sleep and always wake up before the alarm goes off.

We had scoped out a diner close to the square that opened early, so we headed there for breakfast.  Tim had a short stack – 2 pancakes that were each larger than a dinner plate.  I ordered cinnamon roll french toast, naively believing that it would be cinnamon bread made into french toast.  It was 4 actual cinnamon rolls that had been prepared as french toast (buttered and fried) and covered with frosting.  Probably the highest calorie count I’ve ever had for breakfast.  (Yes, it tasted great but I’m not sure it was worth the guilt factor)

By the time we got to the track around 9:30 there was already a group of Target people there, including my TTS buddies.  It was great to see everyone and get caught up.  The race started with a very scary moment when Dan Wheldon flipped his car right after the green flag.  He was fine, but it always scares the hell out of me when a car gets upside down.  Especially when you know and really like the driver.

There was a lot of great passing and it was a fun race to watch except for one small problem.  Will Power won, again.  We are now 59 points out of the lead with only 4 races to go.

Race results – Scott 2nd, Dario 3rd.

Sonoma (Aug 21)

We decided to go a little more upscale for breakfast and eat at a place where they actually wait on you and refill your coffee.  This required a bit of stalling, since the one place we found on the square didn’t open until 10 AM (Sat & Sun only).  The food was awesome, but the host had an incredible unibrow and it was really hard not to stare at it.  We arrived at the track just before morning practice and took the long shuttle ride from the parking lot to the pits.  The great food trend continued with an outstanding lunch at hospitality.  We have an ongoing joke that we only go to races for the food.

We were able to bum a ride back to the pits for qualifying with our new friend Tim Bucher, who was test driving an electric ATV for the weekend.  This is definitely a track that requires a personal transportation device for getting around efficiently.  We qualified okay – Dario 3rd and Scott 6th.  Unfortunately Will Power got the pole AGAIN!  Curse him!

On the plus side, Tim loaded us up with olive oil and vinegar from his other business – Dry Creek Olive Company.  It helped ease the sting.  I will be making some kick butt salad dressing when we get home.

I ran out and took a few photos of the lane and vineyards right around our cottage after we got back from dinner.  Here are two of my favorites.

Sonoma (Aug 20)

Today was our first day at the track.  It’s a pretty amazing facility.  It’s set in an area of rolling hills so the course has a lot of elevation changes and no real straightaway, which makes it extremely demanding to drive.  The Target hospitality was set up at the top of the Turn 7 Terrace and overlooked most of the track.  The only disadvantage was the long shuttle ride to get there.  We watched afternoon practice from the pits and Chip stopped by and invited us to stay for dinner.  Since we hadn’t found a restaurant on the way to the track, our lunch consisted of overpriced fast food so it was a pretty compelling offer.

Since security around the parking areas seemed pretty lax, we decided to take a chance on driving up to Turn 7 and parking next to hospitality.  Since we were early, we had the advantage of meeting a few people at a time as they arrived.  I actually managed to retain the names of 12 new people, which is probably a personal record for me.  Before the dinner started, Chip asked everyone introduce themselves and talk about their connection to him.  It was cool to meet so many interesting people, some of them dating back to grade school or high school.  We were the relative newcomers, only having known Chip for 15 years.

But the real highlight of the evening was a personal wine tasting given by the owner of Trattore wines, Tim Bucher.  He brought 4 wines from the 2008 harvest – Roussanne, Viognier, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel.  I’ve never even heard of the first two varietals (both whites).  All of them were outstanding and besides enjoying the tasting and having the wines with dinner, we were given two bottles of the Zinfandel to take with us.  SCORE!  A totally awesome evening all around.

Our cottage has a hummingbird feeder on the patio and I have been tormenting myself every morning trying to get some decent photos.  Actually I have been trying for about 10 years to get that perfect hummingbird photo, at this point I should concede that it’s an impossible quest.  Here’s one of the better ones.


Sonoma (Aug 19)

Sonoma has a cute little town center around a square.  It’s sort of an upscale version of Prescott, AZ.  Unfortunately, most of the restaurants around the square didn’t open until lunch.  We were only able to find 2 that served breakfast – both were the order at a counter and they bring it to the table variety.  Both were tiny.  Both were packed.  We were able to grab a table at one by having Tim sit while I waited in line to order.  We were hungry and dying for caffeine, the restaurant did not disappoint.

The day started with a heavy overcast that gradually burned off.  Since we didn’t really have a plan, we just drove to the coast and headed north up Pacific Coast Highway 1.  The first few stops we made were sunny but then we kept running into large patches of fog that obscured our view of the ocean.  It got to be a joke after a while.  Every time we went a little inland it would be sunny and every time we got close to the ocean it would be foggy.  So Tim entertained us by driving really fast (meaning doing the speed limit) for most of the drive.  PCH 1 is one of those incredibly twisty, curvy highways with lots of blind corners and a speed limit of 55.  It takes both the right car and the right driver to pull off 55 for the majority of the drive.  This would not be me.  Most of the other drivers were polite enough to pull over and let the General pass when we started looming large in their rear view mirror.

These two photos were taken at our first (sunny) stop – Bodega Bay.  The pink and white stripe building is Patrick’s Salt Water Taffy.  (Yes, it’s delicious)

Sonoma (Aug 18)

There are race weekends where it’s all about the race (Texas, Iowa) and then there are race weekends where the location just screams for a race/vacation combo.  Sonoma is definitely in the second category.  Since this was our first trip together to the area, we decided to blow it out into a full week.  After enduring the econobox rental in Edmonton, we wanted something a little more fun to drive.  This turned out to be a Dodge Challenger.  For you non-car buffs, think General Lee in the Dukes of Hazzard.  In order to get a reasonable rate, we used a nondescript rental company.  I started getting a little nervous as Tim waited in line at the service counter because there seemed to be a lot of unhappy people there.  One older couple stormed off in a huff complaining about rate increases and another couple had an issue when returning a vehicle.  The second couple got into some pretty nasty words with a woman who showed up and tried to cut in line, stating that she had waited in line for an hour previously and was “in the middle of the transaction.”  Not their problem, clearly.  Turns out her credit card had been declined when she first tried to complete the transaction.

I am continually astonished at the amount of time it takes some people to conduct a simple business transaction.  After waiting in line for about 15 minutes, Tim went up to the desk and was ready to go in 5 minutes.  Meanwhile two young women who had been at the counter when we arrived were still there when we left.  Really?  What is so fricking hard about renting a car?

Our flight had landed at 4:30, so by the time we had collected the rental car it was after 5:00.  This violated our second cardinal rule about flights – don’t arrive in a major city at rush hour.  Unfortunately, our only other reasonable option violated our primary cardinal rule about flights – don’t arrive so late that you are navigating to an unfamiliar location in the dark.  We made it to the VRBO cottage just before full dark and just before the battery on our portable GPS died.  Turns out the lighter in the General Lee didn’t work, so we couldn’t power our trusty Garmin off the car battery.  Fortunately we had brought a map of the area so I navigated old school style and we kept the GPS off as long as possible, until we really needed it.  Sent us down the wrong dam street anyway.

The cottage was a lovely little studio with a sitting area, comfy bed and kitchenette.  Unfortunately it also had NO A/C, a tiny shower, a huge fake tree that threatened to take over the bathroom, and no dresser for clothing.  A big closet with lots of hangers is great but it doesn’t do much for socks and underwear.  Plus we had to kill a HUGE spider in the bathroom.

So, it was lovely, but we won’t be staying there again.

And yes, the drive out of San Francisco sucked.

Off to Sonoma

We are heading out to Sonoma this afternoon.  I booked a VRBO cottage in a vineyard just outside of Sonoma.  It seemed like a better bet than paying $165 a night for a Comfort Inn.  This will be our first VRBO experience.  I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback from people who have booked accommodations through VRBO, so I’m hopeful.  This race is a huge Target event with 400 people expected on race day.  That’s actually the main reason we’ve never gone to this race before.  There is a big contingency coming from TTS, so I may sneak into the tent and say hi to a few people.

I’m not taking my laptop.  It’s pretty big and doesn’t fit into my rolling carry-on bag, so it’s staying home.  I expect to experience some withdrawal from going offline for a week.  But I’m bringing the fancy notebook my husband bought me for Christmas to take notes for my blog.  So I’ll be doing some catch-up posting from Chicago.  (We are only home for 24 hours between these two trips and I’m afraid that laundry needs to take priority over blogging for that day)

Here’s a random photo for the day.  This is from the Phoenix zoo trip that convinced me to switch to digital.  It looks like some exotic little tropical village, but it’s just fake scenery for the Costa Rica exhibit at the zoo.  For some reason that makes me like it more that if it were real.

Shooting People

For many years I believed that I wasn’t good at shooting people (photographically speaking).  I was never happy with the results when I took photos of people and so I concentrated even more on landscapes.  With landscapes, it’s all about composition and lighting.  Except for rare exceptions, like those fleeting moments around sunrise and sunset, you can take your time and get the perfect shot.  People move and they frequently change expression.  Plus I have found that most adults don’t really like to be photographed, making them even more troublesome.  Landscapes just are – you can zoom with your lens or with your feet to change your relative perspective, but you don’t have to worry about the mountains shifting around or making a fake smile for the camera.  Kids are a little less problematic, mostly because they get bored quickly and start ignoring you, which automatically makes them easier to photograph.

I first started to realize that I might not be such a terrible people photographer when I switched from a manual to an auto-focus camera.  It seems incredibly stupid in retrospect, but I just wasn’t that fast at focusing and so I never really got the shot I wanted.  (refer back to the comment about movement and expression)  Most of my early “serious” work with people was centered around racing.  Pit crews and drivers are pretty focused on their work and they are used to photographers constantly buzzing around, so they completely ignore you.  I have some pretty decent images from the late 1990’s, which I’m sure I’ll get around to scanning in someday so I can share them.  But don’t hold your breath, it’s pretty low on my list and you know what happens to low priority requirements.

My second revelation in regards to photographing people came when I switched to digital.  When I would shoot a 36 exposure roll of film, I would be pretty happy if 2 or 3 of the images were really good.  I threw away about 70% of the prints that came back as being unworthy to keep even for my own amusement.  I only showed about 10% of what I shot.  With digital I can get nearly 300 images on one flash card using my 20 megapixel camera.  So it’s a numbers game.  If I can get 10-20 really great photos out of that 300 I’m happy.  It costs nothing to discard the others.  Or consign them to purgatory on my computer, which is more often the case.  Photo snobs will argue “real” photographers don’t shoot 1000’s of images, hoping for a few good ones.  Screw ’em.  Digital has freed me to be more experimental and try a lot of stuff that I wouldn’t have when every photo had a cost associated with it.  As a result, I’ve become a better photographer.  Even with people.

This photo was taken in 2005 out of the window of a van while stopped for traffic in Beijing.  I would never have tried something like this using film.  I had enough time while the van was motionless to take this one shot. 

What’s My Style?

When I tell people I’m a photographer, they frequently ask about my “style” of photography.  This used to be a really easy question for me to answer – landscape.  I took this photo of a stand of trees dusted with snow  almost 20 years ago with my old Minolta.  It’s one of only a handful of film images I deemed worthy of scanning.  The original is color, but it works better in black and white, so I desaturated the scanned copy.  It’s still one of my all-time favorite images.

This classic shot of autumn trees reflected in a pond was taken 6 years ago, a little more than a year after I switched to digital.  These types of images dominated my photographic style for the 20+ years I used film.  Most people call them postcard photos.  They mean this in a complimentary way – they are the type of photos that most people want to be able to take.  Nicely composed, exposed correctly, in focus and “pretty.”  I have taken thousands of photos of like this, it’s something I can almost do on autopilot now.

This reflex comes in pretty handy when I’m on vacation, I always come back with lots of great photos that make entertaining slide shows.  It impresses people.  But over the last few years it’s become sort of boring.  So I’ve been trying to evolve my “style,” for lack of a better word.  If you look at the photos in the “Random” folder on my website photo album, you’ll get some sense of what I mean.  I also have a few sprinkled in with the conventional travel photos.  My husband likes to say that my favorite photo from any given trip is the one that looks like it could have been taken anywhere.  An old bike leaning against a building in Amsterdam, for example.  I think it’s because the photo with the recognizable icon (like a windmill) is always tinged by the postcard or snapshot feeling, no matter how good it is.

This doesn’t mean I’ll stop taking the postcard shots.  Just that I’ll keep trying to go beyond them.