A Toast to Champagne and Sparkling Wines

In December, we travel across the ocean to discuss one of nature’s gifts, Champagne! Champagne is a wine region in France, so only wines from this area may be properly called Champagne. Any “champagne” produced outside this region in France should be referred to as Sparkling Wine.

No other beverage in the world symbolizes a celebration better than Champagne/Sparkling wine. These beverages help usher in the New Year as well as weddings, birthdays, promotions and any other special occasions. This time of year is when approximately 80 percent of this beverage is consumed. At holiday parties, my catering company likes to set up a sparkling station near the front door, greeting guests with a festive glass of bubbly.

Wine speak

The Champagne region in France is located about 90 miles northeast of Paris. In the late 17th century, French Champagnes were formally recognized as a new style of wine. Champagne’s unique effervescence came about due to the cooler climate of northern France. Grapes from this region generally had not fully ripened nor totally fermented in the Fall when wines are traditionally placed in barrels. Over the winter, the champagne was dormant, then began fermenting once again in the Spring. This led to a fizzy beverage that was cloudy, due to the spent yeast floating in the barrels. At the time, this was considered an inferior product.

The French in the Champagne region created a new process to clarify their beverage. Instead of traditional barrel aging and storage, champagne was the first wine to be stored and aged in individual bottles with corks. This new process, Methode Champenois, (still in use today) involves inverting the bottles in racks and gently turning the bottles (riddling), to help the yeast collect in the neck of the bottle.

Next, the neck of the bottle is submerged in a brine solution that freezes the yeast section. The bottle is popped to expel the plug of yeast (disgorgement), resulting in a clear beverage. The champagne is then topped off with still (non-fermented) wine held in reserve for this purpose. A small amount of yeast and sugar are added to the bottle, then corked. This starts the second fermentation process. As the yeast consumes the sugar, a small amount of alcohol is created, as well as carbon dioxide. This allows the bottle to regain its fizz.

Today there are about 100 Champagne Houses in the Champagne region that are supplied with grapes or grape juice from over 15,000 local growers. Given the cooler climate, faster ripening grape varietals are used exclusively in this region; Chardonnay (used exclusively in Blanc de Blancs), Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (used with Chardonnay in Blanc de Noirs and Roses). There are three different methods to produce Champagne; the traditional Methode Champenois where wines ferment in individual bottles, the Charmat Process where wines are fermented in large steel vats and, third, the Artificial Carbonation process where wine is injected with carbon dioxide – which is the most inexpensive approach (and can lead to headaches). Quality Champagnes cost more due to the winery’s use of higher quality grapes, the blending of aged, still wines and the cost of storing the bottled Champagne for years before release.

There are three different styles of Champagne or Sparkling wines, ranging from light to medium to full body (based on the amount of time the yeast is left in contact with the wine). Also, sparkling wine’s sweetness levels ranges from Brut (dry) to Extra Dry (semi-sweet) to Doux (sweet).

Food and wine pairings

As discussed, the holidays are when the majority of Sparkling wines are consumed. They tend to be food friendly due to their higher acidity levels. This refreshing beverage is an ideal aperitif (lighter style is best) or can be used throughout a meal (heavier, more yeasty styles). They tend to match well with spicy and salty dishes. When served as an aperitif, my catering company tends to pair the lighter style Sparklings with sushi, smoked salmon canap├ęs, garlicky shrimp crostini, spicy chicken sate and grilled ahi tuna skewers with a wasabi aioli. They also pair well with goat cheese and semi-soft white cheeses that offer mild flavors.

Sparkling wines have been a house favorite for years. Personal favorites from California that I recommend include Schramsberg and Domaine Carneros, which we just visited this past October. On the French side, a smaller House that is receiving great accolades is Charles Ellner, whose Brut Champagne Seduction ($65) and Brut Reserve ($40) offer tremendous value for the money. Included in the following are suggestions from local merchants of Champagnes and Sparkling wines and their retail prices, which may vary:

Picks

$10 range

Pierre Delize Non-Vintage (NV) Blanc de Blancs – France – $7

Domaine Ste. Michelle (NV) Brut Columbia Valley – Washington State – $12

Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Nature – Spanish Sparkler – $10

Rotari Brut – Italian Sparkling (not from the Asti region) – $12

Daniel Pardiac Brut Blanc de Blancs – France – $12

$25 – 40 ranges

Roederer Estate (NV) Brut – Anderson Valley, CA – $22

Domaine Carneros Brut Carneros – Napa Valley, CA – $25

Schramsberg Brut Blanc de Noir – Napa/Sonoma Counties, CA – $30

Joseph Perrier Brut – France – $26

Bollinger NV Brut – France – $40

Charles Ellner Brut Reserve – France – $40

Bob Kovacs of The Wine Seller in Geneva reminded me of Winston Churchill’s famous quote, “Champagne, in defeat you need it – in victory you deserve it!”

Happy Holidays and Cheers!

Single Mom Traveling: Central Valley, Costa Rica

The phrase ‘single mom traveling’ does have a lovely ring to it, but upon my daughter’s birth, I was utterly devastated by the thought that it would be impossible to continue my traveling ways with my child. But like the seasons- thoughts, possibilities and people change. After a year and a half of settling into motherhood, I discovered that traveling as a single mom with my nineteen month old by my side, was not impossible after all. Our very first trip was to Costa Rica for 35 days. We visited five different locations starting with the Central Valley, then on to the Caribbean Coast, the Northern Central Valley and finally to the Pacific Coast. We encountered many hours of travel, new places to adapt to and unforgettable memories.

I think that traveling remains in a child’s psyche and shapes their character in a conscientious and positive way. I saw it first-hand how truly positive the experience was for my daughter Natalia and I plan to continue traveling as much as we can. Natalia was ecstatic when we would finally arrive to our new destination after hours of travel. She would check out our new home and say “Natalia’s house” and we would both gracefully ease into every new destination and travel situation that we encountered.

The Central Valley was the first place we settled for seven days. I wanted to see where in Costa Rica we would possibly like to settle down for a year or two in the future. I would be teaching and dabbling in real estate and Natalia would be getting a bilingual education and basking in the sun. I was pining for the beach, but I did not want to limit my options to just the beach. Most of the jobs in Costa Rica are in the Central Valley and I wanted to get to know the Central Valley first hand so that I could compare my experiences once I ventured out to the coasts. I also wanted to see what would be more enjoyable as well as practical for the both of us, with a good job market, good schools and a kid-friendly atmosphere. I would then decide on the best option for my toddler daughter- discovering life and growing, and for me- a teacher, world traveler and fun-loving single mother.

The Central Valley is a massive area with many cities including San Jose, Heredia and Alajuela. When I was researching these cities, I was getting advice from people and from the internet to avoid them. I have never been to Central or South America. I did not want to overwhelm myself with a big Central American city, while I would already be overwhelmed with my small travel companion. If I were traveling single or with friends, I would gladly check out the big sprawling cities, but with a child, I felt that I should be more low-key. I wanted a homey small town feel with a two bedroom place and a kitchen so that Natalia and I would get acclimated to living daily life in the Central Valley like the locals.

We chose a small village in the country hills called Pan de Azucar which means ‘sugar bread’ in Spanish. Pan de Azucar is in the outskirts of a cozy little town called Atenas. Atenas has a central park in the center and is surrounded by quaint family run businesses and restaurants called Sodas. Atenas has a simple cathedral, Tico-style residential homes and rolling mountain ranges in the background. It is a mellow town, with kid-friendly shops, including a candy shop, toy shop and a delicious bakery right across from the park. It had treats that Natalia loved to eat, like the carrot bread. Atenas also boasts that it has “the best climate in the world”, which was the deal breaker for me. There is something very wholesome and exclusive about the “best climate in the world” and I wanted me and my baby girl to experience it.

After many dedicated nights of research, I found a cozy two-bedroom house on-line through a comprehensive website that rents vacation homes by owner. In my opinion, when staying for longer periods of time and traveling with children, a home type of environment is the best option. The property where we rented our house is Japanese owned and is called ‘Casa de Megumi’. In Spanish and Japanese, it means ‘House of Blessing’. ‘Casa’ means house in Spanish and ‘megumi’ means blessing in Japanese. Finding a Japanese run vacation rental in Costa Rica was a great coincidence for me because of my recent Japanese-oriented past. I lived in Japan for a year and a half, was pregnant in Japan for five months, and it was the last place I traveled to before going to Costa Rica. Since I have a profound fascination with all things Japanese, Casa de Megumi was automatically kindred to me. Moreover, once I got to know the earnestly helpful owner of the property, Hisano Bell, a Japanese woman from Yokohama, I knew in my gut that Casa de Megumi was the right place for us to start our Costa Rica adventure.

Hisano became like a travel guardian-angel for us in the Central Valley. Even before we arrived to Costa Rica, Hisano and I were in constant contact. She had all sorts of provisions made for us, like getting our groceries before we landed. When I sent Hisano my gorcery list, I forgot to put coffee on the list but Hisano provides local Costa Rican coffee for her guests; I did not even have to worry about that. On the evening we arrived, we enjoyed a traditional Tico meal that Hisano arranged for us with the cook at Casa de Megumi. Hisano’s thoughtfulness was endless. She would even drive us into town occasionally and offer knowledgeable travel tips, like where to exchange money for the best rate. That is what I call Japanese service and hospitality. The Japanese people pride themselves on how well they serve others. When I was living in Japan, I learned a lot about providing sincere quality services to my clients, students and anyone I chose to help, paid or not. These same qualities of good service that I observed in Japan were the same qualities that Hisano shared with us. The coincidence of Casa de Megumi was a true blessing.

Come to think of it, more coincidences followed at our stay at Casa de Megumi. I view these coincidences as omens or as indications that even though I was traveling to an unknown land with a child all alone, these omens were like familiarities along our journey, to make us feel secure and like we were on the right path. I am a huge fan of Paolo Coehlo’s philosophies and I am spiritual, so for me the pleasant coincidences at Casa de Megumi were magical and welcomed at every step.

On the Casa de Megumi property we stayed at Casa Verde, a pristinely clean and newly remodeled two bedroom house with all the amenities, access to fertile gardens with avocado trees, magnificent central valley views and a sparkling pool. Hisano lives in Casa Grande, the other house on the property with her family. I was totally enamored by Hisano’s mother. She is an elderly woman with graceful mannerisms and always dressed in traditional Japanese regalia. Natalia and Hisano’s dog, Jon-Jon were pretty much inseparable during our entire stay at Casa de Megumi. It felt like we had an automatic pet upon arrival and it was heartwarming to see my daughter creating a bond and caring for an animal. She had many more opportunities to be in contact and care for animals throughout our trip in Costa Rica. Animals and pets are part of an integrated and populated mix in Costa Rica. Kids love animals and that is one major reason that makes Costa Rica so kid-appropriate and fun.

One of the perks of staying at Casa de Megumi was getting to know Hisano’s family and having the traditional Japanese dinner at Hisano’s house. Hisano prepared an array of tempura, miso soup and mochi for dessert. Hisano offers this unique hospitality to guests who stay at Casa de Megumi for three nights or longer. It was a an exquisite treat to be in Costa Rica in the tropical mountains, having a traditional Japanese meal with a Japanese family, overlooking the vistas of the lush central valley- an experience of a life time really.

Another striking coincidence at Casa de Megumi was when I was looking for a trustworthy and good- hearted babysitter to care for Natalia, while I would be out interviewing or working at home. Hisano introduced me to Stella. As soon as she said the name ‘Stella’, again it brought up Japan in my mind. My delightfully dynamic Australian roommate in Japan was named Stella. Stella took great care of me when I was pregnant for the first five months. She went with me to every doctor’s appointment and to emergency rooms in the middle of the night if I thought there was something wrong. She was always watching out for me, buying delicious food and always being there for me and my little bump during our fun and crazy times in Tokyo. It was a striking coincidence to hear that Natalia’s potential babysitter in the Central Valley would be named Stella.

The Costa Rican Stella was not only Natalia’s babysitter but also the cook at Casa de Megumi. Stella makes traditional Tico meals with rice, beans, salad and a protein and an incredible vegetable soup. When guests at Casa de Megumi don’t feel like cooking, they can order a casado from Stella. Her food was fresh, authentic and made with love. After eating Stella’s homemade food, meeting her and spending some time with her, I knew she would be great with Natalia. She conveniently lived across the street and she would come over with her grand-daughters and care for Natalia while I was out interviewing or busy working at home. When Stella was unavailable, her daughter who was also coincidentally named Natalia and who was also a single mom, came to help out. Having Stella and her family over and getting to know them, instantly made me feel part of the community in Pan de Azucar. We were getting to know the locals and it made the adapting process familiar and easy.

Natalia and I would go out for long walks along the country road and we would meet the local farmers and spend time with them while they grazed their cows. At first we would get timid waves but eventually the locals got used to us taking walks, snapping pictures at every turn and going to the few markets in the village. We also took the 80 cent local bus on occasion down to the town of Atenas. After a while the faces on the bus became more familiar and friendly, and easy to converse with. Everyone was extremely helpful on the bus. If I had too many bags, Natalia and the stroller, people would carry my stroller in for me so that I could settle us in quickly and be on our way. On the whole, people in the Central Valley love children and are extremely respectful, helpful and tolerant of mothers and their children. I would have to say, the majority of venues in Central Valley that we visited were child-friendly. In my experience and from what I have read, mothers traveling with children are a priority in Costa Rica. Natalia and I felt very welcomed and cherished in all the parts of Costa Rica and particularly the Central Valley.

I had one great concern before going to the Central Valley with Natalia and that was, should I rent a car? I did a lot of research that said a car is not necessary. This may be true if you want to stay in one location, like the beach town Samara, where everything is accessible by foot or by a bike ride, but in Atenas, a car was definitely necessary. I was a little weary of this because of the serpentine roads that are at times unpaved or inches from cascading cliffs. For a single mom with a 19 month old in the back, it did leave a little lump in my throat. After all my research, I decided to ask Hisano about whether I should rent a car. Renting a car in Costa Rica can be quite expensive because of the insurance, which is usually as much as the car rental itself. Hisano said that maybe the better and more economical option would be to just hire a driver; and she recommended her driver Carlos. Carlos was extremely reliable and a total blast to chat and tour with. It was actually more economical to hire Carlos and his car than to rent a car and it was an ideally comfortable situation for us. Carlos took us everywhere our hearts desired, equipped with a safe car seat for Natalia. I spoke both Spanish and English with Carlos because he is bilingual. He is a local and has immense knowledge of the area. He gave us impromptu tours and treated us to some very good ginger candy.

The places that Natalia and I both enjoyed in the Central Valley were the Doka Estate Coffee Plantation and Butterfly Garden, and the renowned Zoo Ave. At the coffee plantation we took a tour, learned about coffee production, ate a delicious traditional Tico lunch and after lunch we visited the butterfly garden, all for under thirty dollars. Natalia loved the Butterfly Garden and she was very well-behaved and attentive when mommy was indulging in all the coffee knowledge and in all the coffee. Carlos even gave Natalia chocolate covered coffee beans. I know this is not as tolerable in the US, but in Costa Rica I have spoken to people who mix a small amount of coffee with milk and give it to their toddlers on occasion. I thought ‘when in Rome…’ and allowed Natalia to enjoy some coffee treats. I associate it with allowing Natalia to drink chocolate milk once in a while. She experienced no adverse reactions just a purely good time.

Zoo Ave is another place that fascinated us both. It is not a traditional zoo but a very large refuge for local rescued animals. Zoo Ave is high in the mountains with exotic animals like pumas, monkeys and sloths and thousands of exotic plants. Natalia took a long nap after discovering all the animals while I sat and took in the sights and jungle sounds. Across the street from Zoo Ave is a well-renowned resort called Resort Martino. I researched and visited the resort and it seemed pristine. Resort Martino is kid friendly, fifteen minutes away from the airport and another great option to consider when staying in the Central Valley with kids.

The Central Valley of Costa Rica was truly a picture-perfect first destination to settle in before hitting the beaches. The Central Valley had many fun activities that kept us busy discovering, but in a relaxed atmosphere at Casa de Megumi, which was safe and perfect for my daughter. In the afternoon, I would go on a few interviews in Heredia and Alajuela or we would take an excursion with Carlos or we would play at the pool. In the evenings, we would have our neighbors over or settle in for the night having dinner, skyping with our loved ones, bath time, story time and bed time; just like at home. We would wake up in the early morning and go straight to the hammock to take our time waking up and to take in the sounds of exotic birds and roosters, to be enveloped in pure nature and to enjoy the best climate in the world. Pura vida.

Our next stop was Manzanillo de Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast. This was the second part of our Costa Rica journey. A kindred spirit of mine came to join us on that leg of the trip and I will get more into that in the upcoming third part of this article series called Single Mom Traveling: Manzanillo de Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica.

Buying a Travel Trailer – The Pros and Cons of New and Used Travel Trailers

Are you thinking about buying a travel trailer? There are so many decisions to make.

* Do you want a new or used trailer?

* Is this going to be a cash purchase or financed?

* What are you willing to spend?

* Should you get a 5th wheel, toy hauler or tongue pull travel trailer?

* What manufacturer are you interested in?

* What floor plan is best for your requirements?

If you are undecided, you should start out by considering the pros and the cons of buying used vs. buying new. Take your time when buying your travel trailer. Do your research and avoid spontaneous buys.

PROS of Buying a Used Travel Trailer

* More Bang for Your Buck. A used travel trailer will hold it’s worth longer than a new trailer. A used trailer is the way to go if you are on a looking to save money or don’t want to be stuck with making payments for 10 years. You could get a used 252 with all the bells and whistles cheaper than a NEW 202 plain jane travel trailer.

* Do Your Research. Visit travel trailer forums and read what owners are saying about particular travel trailers, both good and bad, this information could save you a bunch of future headaches. Remember the greater part of travel trailers that are purchased new rarely see any camping action, a large amount of trailers are either put in storage or parked at peoples houses. Its not unregular to find a used travel trailer in showroom condition, even older travel trailers from the 70’s can be found in great condition.

* Second-hand travel trailers hold their value! If you get a good quality bargain on a used travel trailer and decide to sell it a few years later you have a great chance of getting all your money back.

CONS of Purchasing a Used Travel

* Potential Problems. Buying a used travel trailer is a bit of a gamble, there could be minor problems or major problems and if you are lucky – no problems with the trailer. In most cases the warranty will have long ago expired, so expenses will be out of your pocket. Do your homework right so problems won’t be a surprise.

* Elbow Grease. You will need to give your new used trailer a good cleaning, no matter what condition it’s in.

* Less selection of ideal floor plans. Floor plans are limited by what’s currently for sale.

PROS of Buying a New Travel Trailer

* Nice & Sparkling. It’s new, fresh and all yours!

* Warranty. If there are problems, take the trailer back to your dealer and they’ll have to repair them for free!

* Maintenance Free. You do not have to be bothered with purchasing new tires, new battery, or any other part for at least a year or until the warranty has expired.

* Floor Plans. Lots of floor plans and interior colors to choose from.

CONS of Buying a New Travel Trailer

* New Trailers Depreciate Fast. A new travel trailer loses it’s value the moment you pull out of the dealers lot. If you financed with little or nothing down, you will be “upside down” owing more that the trailer is worth, for years! If you have to sell your travel trailer you will most likely owe more than what it’s worth and have to come up with the difference in cash.

* The Cost. If you are budget minded you almost certainly do not want to be trapped making monthly payments for the next 10 years on a travel trailer you will use at the most 8 months out of the year. Do the math, and figure out how much each camping trip will actually cost you per year, just factoring in the monthly payments. Ouch! If your payments are $350 a month x 12 months = $4,200. $4,200 can buy a fantastic used travel trailer and you won’t be stuck with payments!