From My Archive
Merlot Politics: The Bi-Partisan Grape?
Poor merlot! The disparagement of this much-loved grape and wine started in the movie Sideways and hasn’t let up since.
The latest? A scathing reference by Republican Steve Scalise, Congressman from Louisiana’s 1st district, at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference last week. “John Kerry’s flying around and drinking merlot and saying ‘Let’s be friends,’ and people are laughing at us,” he said, using the consumption of merlot as, well, a smear. I get that he doesn’t like Kerry, but why did he finger merlot?
The grape’s been strongly tied to Democrats since 2005, when Howard Dean, then Democratic National Committee chairman, relied on the catchy phrase “merlot Democrats” to describe the secular, deep-pocketed base of the party.
According to an article published back then in the Washington Post, the person who actually coined the phrase was DNC pollster Cornell Belcher. I guess the moniker “merlot Democrat” was the other-side-of-the-aisle equivalent to “country club Republication.’’
Dean was widely criticized for using it. A New York University professor, Mitchell Moss, thought that instead of referring to a “French grape,” Dean should have opted for a more American comparison. In the article, he’s quoted as suggesting Gallo Hearty Burgundy. I guess Moss, whose specialty is urban planning, didn’t have a clue that Gallo’s familiar red is a tad downscale, much less that Burgundy is a French wine region.
But times are changing. Maybe Scalise should have remembered that the Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, is a merlot fan. When he became Speaker in 2010, and Diane Sawyer asked in an ABC News interview whether he would agree to the “Slurpee summit’’ President Obama jokingly suggested, Boehner countered, “I don’t know about a Slurpee. How about a glass of merlot?”
And Boehner did drink merlot during negotiations with Obama over the debt ceiling, according to Bob Woodward’s recent book The Price of Politics.
So is merlot a political crossover drink? Maybe. A January research report from National Media Research, Planning, and Placement investigating whether drinking habits predict voting behavior, found highly-likely voters of both parties are also highly likely to be wine drinkers. For Republicans, the labels of choice are Kendall-Jackson and Robert Mondavi, both labels with merlot in their lineups, while for Democrats, they’re Chateau Ste. Michelle, Turning Leaf, and Clos du Bois—all merlot producers as well.
But back to Kerry. In December he toured a winery in Moldova, and sampled their wine as part of promoting a trade mission to the US for the country’s winemakers. No word on whether it was a Moldovan merlot, but it does prove Democrats aren’t afraid of diplomacy by the glass.
September 27, 2011 (Zester Daily)– On a warm summer day, I am lost on the winding roads of Canon-Fronsac, an appellation on Bordeaux’s Right Bank. When I finally turn up more than an hour late at Château Moulin-Pey-Labrie, owner Grégoire Hubau makes a few witty digs about wine critics rarely finding their way to this little-known region. We head for his cellar (hung with amusing portraits painted by an artist friend), where I taste my way through a lineup of a half dozen surprisingly delicious, savory, plush vintages from his two chateaux. Their prices? A mere $20 to $30.
His 2006 Chateau Haut Lariveau is everything merlot should be — darkly fruity, soft and round — while the 1988, 2003 and 2008 Moulin-Pey-Labrie (merlot with a dash of malbec) are bigger, richer, more concentrated. I’d happily drink all with dinner.
As we wander out to a grassy area dotted with sculptures overlooking his hillside vineyard, Hubau says, “Here in Bordeaux, you have big-business wine and pleasure wine. I want to make pleasure wine.”
That’s the story of the Other Bordeaux, a world of family-owned properties I explored for two weeks….
January, 2011 (Bloomberg Markets) — In a downtown New York coffee bar, Italian master barista Giorgio Milos is pulling espresso shots from a shiny, $15,000 La Cimbali machine. A thin stream of brown liquid—called a mousetail—fills a small, warm, white ceramic cup. The espresso Milos hands me looks perfect, with a layer of silky crema, or reddish-brown foam, that has tiger-skin streaks on top. A swirl releases aromas of toast, citrus and chocolate, and a sip reveals complex flavors and a smooth balance between sourness and bitterness.
Espresso aficionados are always looking for the perfect cup. But what makes an espresso great? Milos—who won the Italian Barista Championship in 2008 and works for coffee giant Illycaffe SpA— is a traditionalist, following techniques perfected in Italy, where espresso was invented. In the U.S., the U.K. and Scandinavia, a new wave of passionate baristas are using larger doses of coffee and beans from individual estates to create a richer, more syrupy drink with a different taste profile.
Regardless of approach, Milos says, the process of pulling a shot by forcing almost-boiling water through the coffee to extract the essence of the beans requires the proper machine, above, and deft technique, below:
Choose top-quality coffee. Buy 100 percent arabica beans, roasted to the brown of a toasted almond. If the color is too light, the espresso will taste sour; if too dark, bitter.
Spot grind the beans. Ground coffee starts losing aroma and flavor in minutes. to get extrafine particles that don’t clump, a burr grinder is essential. A cheaper one may work, but a top one, such as the baratza Virtuoso, $225, or mazzer mini, $659, will give much better results.
Measure; don’t guess. Use a dose of 7 to 8 grams (0.25 to 0.28 ounces) of ground coffee for an Italian single or 16 to 21 grams for an American-style double. Tap the edge of the portafilter to settle the grounds and then tamp down evenly, so water passes through all of the coffee at the same speed.
Heat water to the correct temperature and preheat the cup. Filtered or spring water heated to 195 to 205 degrees fahrenheit (90 to 96 degrees celsius) is a must. experiment with the machine’s thermostat to find the best precise temperature for each espresso blend.
Watch the time. The pressure of water pumped through the grounds should be 9 to 10 atmospheres, and extraction should take 22 to 30 seconds. if it’s too fast, make the grind finer.
Keep the machine clean. Every surface that coffee touches must be cleaned daily to avoid rancid flavors.
Liquid Assets: Wine funds let you invest in Bordeaux first growths and other top bottlings
November 2010 (Bloomberg Markets) — Global private investor Phokion Potamianos caught the wine- investing bug early. At 17, he spent 20 pounds on a rare cabernet sauvignon from Greek winery Domaine Porto Carras. “I sold it three years later for £350,” he recalls. “I was very pleased with myself.”
This past spring, Potamianos, now 46, put money—he wouldn’t say how much—into the just-launched Bottled Asset Fund, which is directed by Sergio Esposito, co-founder of New York’s Italian Wine Merchants. Along with Citigroup Inc. Chairman Richard Parsons; William R. Benz, head of Pacific Investment Management Co.’s Europe, Middle East and Africa operations; and at least 21 other investors, Potamianos is betting on serious profits from wine. “I’ve found it a fascinating investment vehicle for the last decade, with qualities and economic dynamics akin to the art market and other objects of beauty,” he says.
Potamianos, Parsons and Benz are on the fund’s advisory board. As of mid-September, the fund had raised $10 million. Esposito expects to have raised $15 million more by 2012.
Both Potamianos and Parsons were inspired by the numbers. The Fine Wine 50 Index—a benchmark for prices of Bordeaux first growths that’s compiled by London-based electronic-wine-trading exchange Liv-ex—rose 276 percent in the 10 years ended on June 30. Though prices of investment-grade bottles dipped 20 to 30 percent after the September 2008 stock market crash, many have rebounded, especially from vintages prior to 2005.
Given this kind of growth, it’s no wonder that, in a decade, the number of wine investment funds has gone from a few to more than two dozen. In the U.S., The Wine Trust’s Richard Bakal, who managed private wine investments for his family, is now helping over-see a fund that’s open to other investors. London-based Peter Lunzer is starting the most recent iteration of his Lunzer Wine Fund SPC.
The biggest returns have been for top Bordeaux, especially first-growth Chateau Lafite Rothschild and the estate’s second label, Carruades de Lafite. Driven by Chinese demand, the price of a case of 1982 Lafite climbed 1,137 percent in the 10 years ended on Aug. 31.
“The Bottled Asset Fund’s strategy is to acquire wine direct from a handful of top small estates in Italy, Spain and Champagne, purchasing significant amounts of their production at the lowest price and holding it until optimal marketability,” Esposito said over dinner in the cellar room at Italian Wine Merchants, near Manhattan’s Union Square. He says his target return is 30 percent a year.
Investing in a wine fund isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. Most funds have a lock-in period and tend to be unregulated, based off-shore and structured as private-equity funds. And they may collapse: In June, Singapore- based Assets Wine Management closed up without notice. Currency fluctuations can also offset potential profits.
As in the art market, do-it-yourself investment isn’t always easy. It’s difficult to find investment-grade wines with impeccable provenance, and there’s no instant liquidity if you need to sell.
Unlike shares in a wine fund, though, you can always liquidate your purchases by drinking them. Potamianos never sold a case of Italian icon Sassicaia that he bought in 1992. “We drank it at my wedding nine years later,” he says.
RIPE FOR PICKING? (prices are per case as of September 13)
2000 Ch. Mouton Rothschild ($13,000): Chinese buyers may embrace this undervalued first growth. The price has been slowly rising since September 2009.
2000 Ch. Haut-Brion ($9,500): Cheaper than the 2005 or 2009 and other 2000 first growths—and recently upgraded to 99 points by Robert Parker.
2007 Ch. Lafite Rothschild ($9,000): The least expensive recent vintage of this Chinese favorite has doubled in price from the end of 2009.
2009 Ch. Duhart-Milon ($1,200, futures): Will this Lafite wine rise like stable mate Carruades? Futures have increased 25 percent over the May release price.
Greece’s Isle of White
October, 2010 (Bloomberg Markets) — in his vineyard on the strikingly barren Greek island of Santorini, winemaker Paris Sigalas shows me the strangest-looking grape vines I’ve ever seen. They creep low on the ground in- stead of standing in neat trellised rows. Each is trained into a coiled-basket shape that hides the grapes from the hot sun and the scouring wind off the Aegean Sea.
This tourist mecca—a 50-minute flight from Athens—is known for its black-sand beaches, deep-blue water and romantic sunsets. It’s also a celebrated wine region where vintners are making intense, modestly priced whites with salty, mineral- tinged flavors from the native assyrtiko grape.
“The terroir,” Sigalas says, tilting back his straw hat as he holds out a hunk of reddish volcanic rock for me to inspect, “is what gives the wines their unique taste, and it’s the history of the island itself.” The vines grow in ash, gray-white pumice stones and pieces of lava deposited more than 3,000 years ago by a devastating volcanic eruption that was bigger than the one at Krakatoa. I remark that it’s a miracle the vines can survive where there’s practically no rain. The porous soil, it turns out, absorbs moisture from early-morning mists off the sea.
A mathematician who studied in Paris after being raised on Santorini, Sigalas, 61, is one of the vintners who helped modern- ize the island’s wines. Twenty years ago, following the lead of pio- neering winery Boutari, he began making dry wines from grapes that were picked early to preserve their edgy acidity. As we head to his eponymous winery, he says that about 70 percent of the island’s vines are assyrtiko and most wines made from it are labeled simply Santorini. He’s working to protect the island’s historic vineyards, which are threatened by hotel construction.
On a terrace outside Sigalas’s tasting room, tourists sample typical assyrtiko styles as they watch an apricot-colored sun sink into the sea. I try a floral blend that includes a bit of athiri, another white varietal; classic non-oak-aged Santorini; and heavier, rounder oak- barrel-fermented examples. I’m surprised by how well these wines age, turning creamier and more complex. Like the island’s nine other wineries, Sigalas also makes sweet assyrtiko-based vinsanto, which inspired the Italian dessert wine called vin santo.
Matthew Argyros is the fourth generation to run his family’s winery, Estate Argyros, which, like Sigalas, is among the island’s best. It makes the usual versions of assyrtiko, including a deli- cious, partly barrel-aged wine from 150-year-old vines.
“I got my winemaking start at 5, spreading grapes out in the sun to dry for vinsanto,” Argyros, 30, says as we hike up a road to a 300-year-old cellar to sample his vinsanto from the barrel. The wine’s sharp acidity and amazingly complex flavors prevent its sweetness from cloying.
Not all of the dry whites I tasted during my weeklong stay impressed. Some were toothachingly acidic, and others were too oaky.
With seafood, though, the best assyrtikos can’t be beat. One evening, Sigalas and I headed to Amoudi, a picturesque harbor where we followed cobbled steps to dine at casual Sunset Taverna. Alongside fresh grilled sea bream, deep-fried to- mato fritters and the salad of tomato, cucumber, lettuce, feta and green pepper that’s ubiquitous on the island, I experienced Santorini perfection.
2009 Sigalas Santorini VQPRD ($20) Bone dry, with intense tastes of minerals and tangy lemon zest
2009 Estate Argyros ($20) Balanced and citrusy, with a hint of oak
2009 Gaia Estate Thalassitis ($22) light, edgy, crisp and salty
2009 Boutari Kallisti ($22) Very bright, with a water-over- stone character
2006 Hatzidakis Nikteri ($22) Rich, ripe and intensely earthy 1989 Argyros Vinsanto ($60 to $100) Very intense flavors of salted caramels, sweet espresso and toffee.
November, 2007 (Bloomberg) — Just when I’m fed up with Italian craziness, some unexpected pleasure reminds me why I can’t resist this country.
Recently I fell under Italy’s spell yet again in remote, untouristy Abruzzo, where I was startled to come upon huge wall drawings by the late German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys at Zaccagnini winery, happened on blissfully deserted historic abbeys and, best of all, discovered the unique tradition of trabocchi, where I dined high above the lapping waves of the Adriatic.
One of Italy’s least-visited provinces, Abruzzo is directly east of Rome, bounded on the west by the snow-topped Apennine mountains and on the east by long, sandy beaches. In between are tiny picturesque hill towns, three national parks, olives and grapes, and 1,000 castles — or so they say.
I wasn’t expecting the region to be so beautiful. I’d prepped by reading “Bread and Wine,” Ignazio Silone’s classic 1930s novel set in Abruzzo that paints it as a poverty-stricken place of dark stones, socialist martyrs and heartbreak. Instead it’s more like an earlier rural Tuscany — great food, olive oil, wine and scenery, but no English-speaking hordes.
Still, there were the common Italian frustrations. The hotel’s wireless connection was mysteriously out of order. My room’s broken brand-new TV was never fixed.
But never mind. Then came my trabocco dinner.
Fishing on Stilts
Trabocchi, traditional “fishing machines,” are fragile- looking platforms built on stilts in the water. From a distance they look like giant, long-legged insects, a cross between a dragonfly and a daddy longlegs. The coastline south of Pescara, known as La Costa dei Trabocchi, is dotted with them.
In the old days (some go back more than a century), they were just a unique method of fishing. Their huge nets were lowered to the seabed, then cranked up full of fish by a complex system of pulleys. In recent years owners have put in tiny kitchens and, with the encouragement of the Italian “slow food” movement, have begun showcasing local fish dishes from June through September (dinner is 50-60 euros, or $72-$86, reservations required).
At the end of a long day — mostly late for appointments because of the oft-repeated reassurance that it’s “only a 20- minute drive” — a friend and I followed a barely lit dirt path off the main coastal road to the edge of the sea and a rickety rope-and-wooden footbridge. It swayed slightly as we gingerly trekked out a couple of hundred feet over the water to Trabocco Pesce Palombo, owned by the Bruno Veri family.
A horseshoe of filled tables sat on the open-sided square space, its slanted wooden roof hung with thick ropes, fishnetting and a tarp. A flimsy-looking railing with draped fishnets was all that kept patrons from falling into the sea as they leaned back while chatting on mobile phones. Friends were already drinking the region’s gulpable rose wine, cerasuolo. Conversation was passionate and loud, and platters of stuffed mussels circulated family-style.
No seats. But, hey, no problem. A waiter in black with a silver tastevin around his neck quickly found a hidden table for us, spread a plaid cotton cloth and retrieved chairs. Naturally the Italians have a word for adding more people to a group with minimal fuss: aggiungi.
I briefly wondered whether this structure poised above the sea could hold the 50-odd guests plus tiny shed kitchen complete with stainless refrigerator, 10-burner stove and several cooks.
Then one of them, red-faced from the heat, brought out a shallow earthenware dish called a coccio filled with fragrant, bubbling brodetto di pesce, a local fish stew of the day’s catch simmered with tomatoes, local green olive oil, garlic and chili peppers. I plunged into the sole and mussels, squill and red mullet, along with other fish I couldn’t identify.
“The family coccio is passed from mother to daughter,” a new friend, Luisa, told me.
With lights on shore winking in the distance, a fresh evening breeze and the hum of Italian behind me as people leaned against the railing and flicked cigarette ashes into the tide below, I poured myself another glass of wine. Really, did retrieving e-mail matter all that much?
Ah, Italy, I wish I were there right now.
Grand Cru Coffee
November, 2009 (Bloomberg) — When I arrive at Terroir Coffee outside Boston, owner George Howell is loudly slurping liquid from a round spoon. He’s “cupping” samples from six small El Salvadoran farms and nods with approval at No. 3. “Pecan and beeswax notes,” he says. “No. 4 is too old; it’s developing body odor.”
One of the dedicated coffee hunters who prowl the planet to discover the best beans, Howell, 64, is part of the most- exciting trend in the world of high-quality brew. Like a few dozen other top microroasters, such as Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee and Japan’s Mikatajuku Group, he specializes in roasting and selling tiny lots of single-origin, or estate, coffees and will pay big bucks to get them.
I’d come to his warehouse on a summer day to discover what makes these coffees special and whether beans from Panama’s Hacienda La Esmeralda estate, which fetch the highest prices at auction, have the flavor to justify their cost.
“A great coffee’s unique taste comes from where it’s grown — its terroir — just as a great wine’s does,” Howell says as I eye stacked bags of unroasted green beans and a counter lined with coffee makers in the high-ceilinged space. “But until 10 years ago, it was very hard to find single-origin coffees.”
Most coffee is a commodity, not a luxury product. Millions of farmers around the world grow coffee trees, harvest the fruit (called cherries), process the beans inside and sell them “green” for low prices to big exporters who dump the lots together.
Enter Cup of Excellence, a program of annual coffee competitions held in nine countries that Howell co-founded in 1999. Sponsored by a nonprofit organization, COE connects quality-minded buyers with small estates. Farmers enter their best lots in national blind tastings judged by prestigious juries. In the fiercely competitive online auctions that follow, roasters pay top dollar for the winners.
Some adventurous buyers, like the one from Portland, Oregon- based Stumptown Coffee Roasters, now spend months taking rickety prop planes, dilapidated trucks and even donkeys to remote hillsides to form direct-trade relationships with growers.
Howell’s daughter Jennifer, 30, lines up tumblers filled with coffees from farms in six locations — Sumatra, Brazil, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ethiopia and Kenya — on the waist-high cupping table. Though I recognize familiar wine words such as “balance” and “acidity” on the rating sheet Howell hands me, he says he looks first for two elements: “Sweetness” refers to the natural ripe fruitiness that comes from picking coffee cherries when they and the beans inside are completely ripe. “Clean cup” means the coffee has no off flavors or odors caused by poor processing. Beans must be carefully removed, washed and dried so they’re stable until they’re roasted.
After sniffing the Daterra Farm Special Reserve from Brazil, I scoop up some of the lukewarm coffee. “Slurp in air so you get the full aroma,” Howell says. This coffee is soft and mellow, while the one from higher-altitude La Minita Estate in Guatemala tastes bright and snappy, with a zing of acidity. “If beans are roasted too dark, you can’t taste these subtle differences of terroir,” Howell says. “It’s like having too much oak in a wine. I want people to taste layers of flavor.”
Kenya is regarded as the Bordeaux of coffeedom, and I find a winey depth in the impressive sample from the Mamuto farm in the country’s Kirinyaga region. Howell says part of that character comes from the volcanic soil and part from the type of coffee tree. There are about two dozen interesting varieties of arabica, the coffee species that produces the highest-quality beans. A couple of them have cult followings.
Which brings me to La Esmeralda. When I finally savor its floral, sweet-apricot aroma and complex, long-lasting flavor, I think this may be the most unusual coffee I’ve ever tried.
Purchased in 1964 by Rudolph Peterson, then-chief executive officer of Bank of America, Hacienda La Esmeralda first wowed the world with its beans when it won the Coffee of Panama competition in 2004. They came from a little-known variety of coffee tree called Geisha that originated in Ethiopia and grows at high altitudes on the farm. Instantly famous, the beans put Panama on the world coffee map. During a frenzied, eight-hour online auction in 2007, a group of U.S. roasters snapped up 220 pounds (100 kilograms) for a record price of $130 per pound.
Last year, the estate began separating its Geisha crop by harvest date and location — the latest boutique-coffee trend. Stumptown grabbed pricey North of the Creek Batch #1 bags, while Howell opted for the amazing, less-expensive South of the Creek beans.
Both the Mamuto and the La Esmeralda taste like “grands crus” to me. As I stuff packages of coffees from other estates into my bag to sample later, Howell says: “My dream is to be like a wine store, offering 10 different El Salvador coffees, 8 from Kenya and so on. I want to push this industry as far as it will go.”
Maya Ruins, Mysteriously Lost, Sport Temples, Howler Monkeys
Jan. 8, 2009 (Bloomberg) — As I veer right on the dirt path through the jungle, a howler monkey lets out a spine-chilling roar above me and I spot my first Maya temple. Framed by damp vegetation, towering El Gran Jaguar, also known as Temple I at the Tikal ruins of Guatemala, looks massive and mysterious, gray stone mottled with green moss.
This famous Maya site, on my must-see-before-I-die list for years, doesn’t disappoint.
In light of the financial meltdown in New York, my visit to one of the greatest capitals of the collapsed Maya civilization seems an appropriate end to 2008, a way to put things in perspective. Plus this Central American country, once mired in civil war, is now a tourism hot spot that boasts boutique hotels yet remains a highly affordable destination. Another bonus: One of the world’s best rums, Zacapa, is made here.
So, on my five-day December trip, after learning to cut sugar cane at a rum distillery and exploring Spanish colonial ruins in historic Antigua, I head for Tikal. My 10 a.m. flight from Guatemala City to the northern province of Peten is only 50 minutes, less time than it takes me to navigate the choking Central American traffic on the way to the airport.
Tikal National Park lies in Peten’s jungle lowlands on the edge of the immense Maya Biosphere Reserve, created in 1990 to preserve the largest — though shrinking — rain forest in Central America, its exotic wildlife and a dozen Maya sites.
A bus to the park’s entrance (admission $20) and visitor center 10 miles farther takes an hour. The road skirts vast, crocodile-laden Lake Peten-Itza and is lined with small fruit stands and road signs warning us to beware of jaguars.
Winding jungle paths lead to the huge site, which is blissfully free of commercialism. I spot colorful toucans and spider monkeys swinging from tree to tree as I follow my guide to Tikal’s heart, the Great Plaza, where I’m awestruck by Temple I, a nine-level step pyramid about 20 stories high. Photographs don’t convey its soaring monumentality. Visitors no longer can climb to the tiny room at the top because several died after tumbling down the steep, moss-covered steps.
Guatemalan families picnic on this wide grassy space framed by a sprawling complex of limestone structures — palaces, altars, tombs and Temple I facing Temple II. As kids play hide- and-seek behind carved stone stelae, I try to imagine this as the teeming metropolis it was in 800 A.D. Then, it was a rich and powerful city-state of 100,000 people spread over 25 square miles whose kings pierced their penises with stingray spines before going to war. It had written language, calendars and mathematics. Its priests could predict eclipses, yet a hundred years later the city was silent, abandoned, swallowed up by the jungle.
A wooden stairway leads to the top of Temple II, though I decide to save my energy for Temple IV. At 212 feet (65 meters) it’s the site’s tallest structure, a 10-minute walk along an ancient Mayan causeway. Luckily, today is cool and cloudy, with a few sprinkles of rain. December through February are the best times to come. By March and April, temperatures can hit 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) and the steamy air swarms with mosquitoes.
My guide, Edin, an archaeology student at the University of San Carlos, said an ornithologist checking on falcons nesting on Temple IV noticed a crack through its center last November. Restoration started immediately. I huff and puff my way up the sturdy wooden stairway that leads to the top for knockout views of the jungle, with temple roofs poking above the green sapodilla and mahogany trees. It gives me some idea of how the site’s discoverers must have felt a century and a half ago.
Why Maya civilization collapsed is a question that has long perplexed scholars. Current thinking is that it was a confluence of factors, including drought, deforestation, overuse of land, overpopulation, increased warfare, poor leadership, climate change. Does some of that sound familiar?
I regret that I didn’t plan to stay in one of the modest hotels in the park, even if the electricity goes off at 9 p.m. Yet as I return to my five-star hotel ($190 a night) built in the ruins of a 16th-century monastery in Antigua, I’m delighted all over again.
I wander the Casa Santo Domingo’s courtyard walkways and stone remains of a cathedral lit by votive candles. Gregorian chants playing softly on speakers and splashing fountains create a soothing, meditative atmosphere for reflection on ruins. I jet home tomorrow, but I’m hanging on to the long view for 2009.
Jan. 3, 2008 (Bloomberg) — “The path to Wilyabrup Beach is a little challenging,” concedes Marc Day, my local guide. I shrug off the warning. I’ll go anywhere for a perfect, unspoiled beach.
To get to this remote southwest corner of Western Australia, I’ve already flown 24 hours from New York to Perth, then driven south for another three. Along the way, another full day disappeared. But, hey, winter turned into beach weather.
I’m spending five days in Margaret River, a narrow, 60- mile- long peninsula with a Mediterranean climate that juts out into the Indian Ocean and is known for its world-class surfing and dozens of spectacular beaches. The air has been scoured clean by traveling 8,000 miles from South Africa.
We park the SUV off the main north-south road that runs a mile inland from the coast. The path to the beach follows part of the 84-mile Cape to Cape Track, a trail that winds along the spine of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park containing most of the region’s coastline. It’s a mix of rugged granite headlands, sheer limestone cliffs and — my goal — secluded coves of wild, sandy beaches.
I pick my way down a steep streambed, climbing over rocks and roots of gum and Melaleuca trees. In 45 minutes, standing on rocky ledges with blue ocean swirling far below, I finally see the beach. It looks awfully far away. Then we lose the trail.
Undeterred, we climb back up the slope to Day’s SUV and take an alternate route. The four-wheel drive vehicle bucks like a rodeo bull on the deep sand track. Just as I’m wondering whether I’ll have to get out and push, Day pulls into a small parking area where glum-faced surfers lean against battered vans, their boards still strapped on top.
Clear Water, No People
I happily note clear, azure water worthy of the Caribbean, inviting white sand and no people. All the surfers see are waves not worth talking about. Because of a hovering high pressure system, the water is as flat as it gets. No matter, I’m not planning to hang 10.
The sand is warm, the surf licks my toes and the sun silvers Wilyabrup Brook, which bisects the deserted cove cupped by dunes and ancient rocks.
“See that shadow under the water way out there?” asks Day, pointing. “That’s a shark.” Never mind, the last fatal attack in the region was in 2004, and besides, that was a different beach. I slather on sunscreen — ultraviolet radiation levels are very high in Australia — and wade into cool, refreshing water. This is my idea of a perfect beach.
Other local surfing spots, like Injidup, Cape Clairault and Yallingup, are just as spectacular. They’re largely empty, perfect for walking and swimming, and much easier to get to. Because of the national park, the beaches have no backdrop of McMansions or looming high-rises.
Yet this is no desert island. Within a 10-minute drive of the coast are 100 wineries making first-class wine, five craft breweries, spas, cafes and award-winning restaurants serving local specialties like kangaroo steaks and marron, a freshwater crayfish. The region’s elegant cabernet wines are among the continent’s best, and I spend early evenings at Winos, a busy wine bar and restaurant in the small town of Margaret River, sampling older vintages by the glass.
Near the end of my stay, I sit on dark rocks at flat, wide Margaret River Mouth Beach, so called because the river empties into the ocean here. Sipping a glass of the region’s signature white blend of semillon and sauvignon blanc, I think of my other favorite expanses of sand and waves, like Oregon’s Cannon Beach, where I once watched two horseback riders gallop through the surf.
Lake Michigan Sand
My early lessons in beach appreciation were on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, with dunes as far as the eye can see and an expanse of cold blue water edged with a ribbon of sand so fine that it “sings” under your feet. You can walk for 20 miles and never see a road.
Everyone has a different vision of the perfect beach. Mine adheres to no mathematical formula or measurable factors. It just has soft white sand, a vast horizon, caressing waves and no need to step over bodies basting on brightly colored towels. I always know one when I see it.
Today, the thermometer on my deck in Connecticut reads below freezing, snow coats the trees and I’m dreaming about deserted Wilyabrup Beach. If only it didn’t take so long to get there. In Margaret River, it’s 86 degrees and the surf’s up. I just checked it on the Internet.