Thursday, March 29, 2012

Amore & Franklin Hills -- The Final Two

            Time was running short on our whirlwind day.  The clock was quickly closing in on 5:00.  We scooted down the highway, through some mall traffic, and back on to the winding single lanes.  We arrived at Amore with an hour left until closing.  Amore is a strange little place, sort of out of the way but not in the same cute manner as the rest of the trail.  They are lost in a growing development meets industrial area, a no-man's land type of neighborhood.  The building is villa-like with a small vineyard alongside the parking lot plunked right on the side of the road.  There is not much in the way of scenery or seating.  This might be the least favorite stop for me but my wife never lets me skip it.  She loves the friendly folks that reside there and loves the wine even more.  Another chicken dish, another white wine and we're off, with another pair of bottles to add to the growing stock in the back of the truck.
            The last stop is the entire family's favorite.  A little gem tucked away off the beaten path.  It is not very easy to find.   And we make it with only 15 minutes to spare. You could miss the driveway if you're not paying close attention.  It is the quintessential Lehigh Valley winery.  It has views, a deck to take in the views, plenty of parking, excellent hosts, a great variety of wines, plenty of relaxing atmosphere, and a peacock.  If you don't miss the entrance, take the mile long, one lane, dirt driveway through the crop fields past the woodlot, stay to the left, and, as you get to the downhill slope, find parking on the grass across from the welcoming doors of the tasting room.  As always, the final weekend is for desserts and sweet wines, both of which my wife lugs back to the truck in armfuls.  Her stash for the year has now overwhelmed the back of the truck and some of the bottles need to be tucked under the seats.  She has just enough to get her through until next March when she has an excuse to do it all over again.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Clover Hill & Vynecrest

             A picturesque estate setting is the best description for Clover Hill.  The perfect place for a wedding or special event is another good description.  A wonderful venue to enjoy meatloaf and mac n cheese is the description I would use for the time we spent at the winery.  The hall is large, the patio inviting, the tasting room welcoming (and chock full of gifts for the oenophile), the only thing missing, to the disappointment of the children, were the antique cars that adorned the grounds last year.  The atmosphere here is a little more sophisticated than the other wineries on the trail.  The staff is knowledgeable and courteous but there is definitely an "air" to the place.  They have a great place and great wines and they know it.

            A quick run down the road, literally five minutes, brings us to Vynecrest.  It is the opposite of Clover Hill, cozy, down to earth, less formal.  The views from the parking area look down over the valley almost to the Clover Hill property.  The outdoor seating is minimal and the downstairs tasting room is distinctly more compact than the previous stop.  The chocolate cake pops were to die for and paired nicely with Cherry DeVyne, as does almost anything or nothing at all.  This was one of my favorite parts of the tour.  It depicts the wide swing between vineyard settings, how different the approaches to wine making can be, and how those differences come out in the types of wines that are produced.  Both are wonderful stops on the trail while being distinctly different with only a mile between them.  Their close proximity to each other coupled with their accessibility to the highway make these two wineries the must-sees of the Lehigh Valley.  They highlight everything that the trail represents.  Yet, there are two more left, so down the road we head.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Blue Mountain & Pinnacle Ridge

            The two longest drives of the tour were behind us.  The weather had taken a most pleasant turn.  And we were turning into the Blue Mountain driveway.  Sipping wine from their large deck looking down at their twin ponds, one can only want to find a comfortable place to put your feet up and enjoy the day.  A chocolate fountain is always a hit with the kids and the mango chutney chicken skewers were just the thing for a light lunch (the portions were more than a sampling).  As much as we could spend the afternoon soaking in the relaxing atmosphere, we needed to continue down the trail and complete our tour.  On the way out, the kids remembered to say their goodbyes to the wineries mascot and "guard dog", a large, hulking beast about as intimidating as a kitten.
            A short run out of the mountains brought us into the farm country of Pennsylvania.  The steep roads filled with switchbacks and hidden homesteads gave way to rolling fields, endless horizons, and old stone farmhouses.  It is in one of these old farm buildings that Pinnacle Ridge makes its home.  The red barn is covered in hex signs and the lower level has been converted into a tasting room.  The room is cool and dark even in summer and the rough hewn exposed beams lend a rustic feel to the "sophisticated" endeavor of wine tasting.  The kids loved the Moo Shoo chicken and plum sauce and I had the unenviable task of pulling my three girls back into the sunny day, and the truck, to seek out our next destination.  The miles between our stops may be getting shorter but so is the day and we have only made it half way to our goal.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Big Creek & Galen Glen

            Easily reachable from the Poconos, just a short ride down Rt.209, hidden in the woods at the top of a gravel driveway, Big Creek was the first winery on a single day, whirlwind wine tour of the Lehigh Valley.  The parking and scenery are both sparing but the hospitality is overwhelming.  From the moment you walk in the door, everyone makes you feel right at home (a theme that would continue through the rest of the tour).  They offered Lisa Marie's Red Velvet Cake as an ending to the month-long March Madness wine pairings weekends.  Our trip was to be based on sweet wines, dessert wines, and fruit wines but their sommelier offered a rose that could not be left on the bar.  My wife returned to our truck with a new found "favorite" wine and the kids wore red velvet smiles.
            As we followed the twisting back roads that traced a path through the southern part of the Pocono Mountains, the wind began to blow the dim gray of our rainy day eastward.  The sun tried to sneak short peeks through the blowing clouds.  The trip from Big Creek to Galen Glen is one of the longer ones, consuming nearly half an hour, but it does not seem that long as the conversation moves from the recently tasted wines to passing views of the countryside to the slowly, grudgingly changing weather.  We twisted our way to the top a local hillside, overlooking neighboring farms and arrived at Galen Glen.
            Parking and visiting the winery offers substantially longer views than the initial stop but the hospitality was the same.  They have an outdoor pavilion for taking in the views while taking in the samples of their wines.  Bamboo's satay chicken was the day's offering (a favorite of my oldest daughter) with a spicy peanut sauce and a taste of white wine.  You could spend an afternoon just sipping wines and watching the clouds drift by on the hilltop.   Driving down from the top of the glen, the clouds began to part in earnest.  Our trip was already a pleasant venture and could have ended with only two checkpoints but there were more stops on the map and plenty of grapes yet to be sampled.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Pain Management

2012's Second Road Trip

              For the last few weeks, my wife has been fighting through physical therapy and the recovery process of back surgery.  She has given up on the pain medication prescribed by the doctors and has simply dealt with most of the days' discomforts.  About halfway through the rehab time frame, the long road back to full strength has been, at times, frustrating.  Yesterday's chore of receiving and dividing 3000 cases of Girl Scout cookies to be distributed to the troop was demanding even in good health.
             The alarm clock did little to budge us from the bed.  The decision of what to do today was as painful as a root canal, knowing we had to leave the comfort of the bed on this rainy morning.  In the clouds outside the window I saw inspiration and maybe a way to break out of "recovery frustration", a spur of the moment road trip.  A ride to the farm country of Pennsylvania and the wineries there was in order.  Hopefully the rain would hold a lot of the crowd at bay and the wineries open late enough on Sundays to allow for our tardy start.
            The highway route to the our first stop had little traffic and we were able to reach the beginning of the wine trail before the opening.  With time to spare, we were able to visit Country Junction, an odd mix of a store filled with hardware, furniture, knick-knacks, old-time candy, a pet store, a petting zoo, antiques, and a country diner.  The kids loved all the interactive displays and the samples.  It is truly a piece of roadside America.  The place held enough, and lots more, to kill the half hour before the winery was ready to receive guests.
            The Lehigh Valley Wine Trail consists of eight local wineries.  It used to have more, but for whatever reasons some places have decided to no longer participate in the trail's events.  Each place bottles their own selection of wines.  They are spaced, for the most part, approximately ten minutes apart and each has its own special scenery, from soaring, expansive views to cozy farmhouses nestled within plush green valleys.  During the month of March, they host a wine pairing event in which each place pairs a popular wine with a favorite homegrown recipe.  After the pairing, a visitor can try the rest of the wines offered by the vintners.
            This was just the ticket to forget the previous weeks filled with soreness and back pain.  It was a welcome change of scenery and pace.  The day was filled with back roads and smiling people.  After that first winery, the sky would brush away the clouds and the sun would warm our faces.  We could open the sunroof and feel the wind.  The second winery was just around the corner and the day was just beginning.  The third place stood tall above the valleys of the other wineries.  It was our first photo op and my kids' first Thai peanut chicken.  We dropped down out of the mountains and into the farmland.  The old brick homes and stone Amish farmhouses were mixed with new developments but both seemed to respect the other and gave respectful spacing.  The wineries were closer together than the first half of the trail but the hospitality was the same.
            By 4:30 we had arrived at our last vineyard, a hidden little spot on the backside of a cornfield, only accessible by a dirt road right down the middle of the field.  Their fruit wines are sweet and delicious.  It was a fitting end to the wine trail.  Now, all there was to do was find a good brewery for the designated driver to have a beer and wash the day's dust from his throat.  The GPS found a nice place not too far away, down by the river (in all honesty, I secretly made reservations as the rest of the family ambled out of the house in the morning).  It is customary for us to end a wine road trip with a stop at a craft beer restaurant.  It only seems fair to have a beer and buy a few to keep all the new wines company in the back of the truck.
            With full bellies, a wife fuzzy-headed from a day of wines, kids food drunk from generous tastings and larger desserts, and the air cooling, I head for home.  The highway traffic again is light.  The sun has given way to the moon and I am surrounded by contented snores and the hum of the tires.  After shepherding the groggy bunch into the house and their beds, I am left to write about the day's success at relieving some pain, if only for a little while until the healing can finish.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The End of Sugaring

            We ended maple sugaring season with a Spring road trip.  It was only a day trip but it felt good to open the windows and feel the wind on the face.  After a couple of too short weekends spent tapping, boiling, bottling, and tasting the syrup my daughters and Grandpa had created, it was time for a break.  So we piled into the truck, map in hand, and headed down the dirt roads surrounding our farm.  The map contained the directions to participating sugar houses throughout the countryside and the truck contained my family and a tank of gas.  I thought meeting farmers and other folks that shared our hobby, some on a much larger scale, would be an educational and enjoyable trip, and the scenery would be a bonus.
             Our trip was met with foggy skies that covered the farms and drifted through the trees.  As we neared our first stop the sun was just burning off the last of the hovering cloud.  The farm was small and the sugar house was right along the road.  The old farmer's wife met us in the mud of the driveway and accompanied our group inside.  We were greeted by the smell of wood burning away the damp of the old barn and the old implements of sugaring past.  The rooms that followed were filled with evaporators and holding tanks and more modern machinery to help quicken the process.  The woman was more than happy to share secrets and methods.  We took pictures of everything, comparing our basic set-up to their large scale operation.  Her family had been making maple syrup for years but she was still grounded in the old ways.  Her kindness extended past explaining their work to sharing their products with our children.  The kids left with pockets full of maple candy, hands full of manuals covering every aspect of sugaring, and mouths full of maple cotton candy.  Neighborly would be an understatement.
            The next two stops, though scenic and inviting, were more concerned with selling goods and attracting touristy, out-of-town types than talking trade secrets with local hobbyists.  The sugar shacks were worthy of a few snapshots and their methodologies were definitely much larger scale than buckets on trees.  There were blue vacuum tubes running for acres, criss-crossing through the woods for what seemed like miles.  There were machines for every step of the process, expense was nothing, traditions gone.  The whole goal was to make as many gallons and dollars as possible.  They were businesses, but lacked personality.  We learned some useful techniques and found a few new tools to perfect our product, but were turned off by the coldness of it all.
            By now lunch was on everyone's mind and the local fire department was having a pancake and maple syrup brunch to accompany the sugar shack tour.  The syrup was donated by a local producer and all the food was scratch made in the fire hall kitchen.  The sausage hinted at venison origins and the eggs were fresh.  The milk was local and the coffee hot.  The firemen and friends flung flapjacks as fast as the small crowd could pile them on their plates.  This was one of the highlights of the trip, as down home as it gets.  Folding tables filled with overalls and talk of hay to come and winter that didn't.  The food was like eating at home and all the faces were friendly.  With our bellies full, we headed across the county to find an operation very similar to ours.
            Our last stop brought us to a young farm, with a young family, trying their hand at maple syrup for the first time.  Their operation was nearly identical to ours.  We may have even had a little more knowledge than these beginning folks.  In the procurement of facts, this stop was a bit of a bust, but in the gaining of confidence, it helped tremendously.  In fact, the entire road trip was a huge success.  We found we were making high quality syrup while still following the old traditional methods, a source of pride if not ease.  We saw that our time was not wasted and that the kids and Grandpa were on their way to being true craftsmen.  We learned that next year, our farm may be a stop on the sugar shack tour.  And we greeted Spring with an open sunroof, smiling into the warm sun.  The warm breeze blew the dismal gray of winter out the truck's windows and brought the blossoming promise of a growing season in bloom.
            As we returned home that same sun shone through an open window to highlight the amber bottle resting on the kitchen counter.  The bottle of homemade syrup was like a trophy showcased there.  The season of running sap was over but the goodness garnered from that season will keep us through the year to come, as will the pride of craftsmanship each time that bottle is lifted to taste its contents.

Friday, March 16, 2012


            Some thoughts on friends and friendship...

Friends give because they want to.
Friends give because they can.
Friends give sometimes even if they can't.
Friends never expect anything in return.  They never give with expectations.  They give with anticipation.  The anticipation of a smile or a laugh or the happiness of a moment. 
There is no price on friends, some things are priceless. 
Pride is not a part of friendship, unless it is the pride in the worth of the friend.
Friends stand by and wait with patience.
There is no why in friends, just a "What can I do?"
There is no time limit on friendship, years may pass but good friends don't.
You can't pick family but friends are a choice, choose wisely.
In the end, true friends are honest.  They can hurt.  They can heal.  But they are always there.  Sometimes we need a good, swift kick in the ass.  That's what a friend is for.

To my friends tonight, it is not the price but the time and the moments shared.  Do not forget there may be tomorrow but there will never be another today.  Grab it, hold it, share it with a friend.

That's why beer is sold in even numbers, they are meant to be shared.
(or double-fisted to forget the loneliness).

Monday, March 12, 2012

Maple Syrup

            The magic potion that makes pancakes so sweet.  The liquid gold that French toast loves to soak up.  Waffles catch it in their little nooks and bacon, if it's possible, gets better when slathered in it.  Maple sugar helps applesauce escape boredom.  Maple cream turns toast into breakfast.  And maple candy is just a super sweet sin.
             I am in a maple syrup-induced craze as of late.  It was probably brought on by cabin fever, but I'm not sure, because I have been spending plenty of time outside in the non-winter.  The skies have been a persistent gray, though, so maybe the appearance of the warming sun brought it on.  Work has been a tedious grind in need of some sweetening, too.  And, finally, my daughter has shown an interest in making syrup both for fun and a school project.  So maple syrup has become a focal point, more so than before.
            We have always loved maple products.  I have been known to drag the family on 14 hour drives through Hell or high water across upstate NY and into the Green Mountains of Vermont for the sole purpose of picking up several gallons in different grades of real maple syrup.  We have ventured from sugar shack to visitor center and on to countless roadside farm stands in search of the stuff.  My wife uses it as a breakfast gravy, flooding her plate in a sea of sugary happiness.  The kids devour it in smaller increments, splashing little puddles on their food and then diving in before it can soak in, only to repeat the process a few seconds later.  I use it for everything from BBQ sauce to cocktails, smoking dinner with the wood to flavoring my ice cream.  We have planned vacations around the procurement of the sticky stuff and now we make it ourselves.
            Grandpa sugars with pride.  His creations will keep our mornings happy for months to come.  The kids thrill at tree tapping time.  They escape from the house while the snow still dusts the ground to traipse through the early spring mud and drill holes in our maple trees.  The buckets are hung like Christmas stockings awaiting their treasure.  The smell of boiling sap transforming into syrup is divine.  The family moments that are shared now last throughout year, each time we gather for breakfast and open our syrup bottles.  Somewhere in that dark golden hue is held the love that went into making it or the journey we took to buy it.  Whichever it is, maple syrup sits at the center of our family's table, glowing darkly in the morning sun.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The In-Between Season

Part II

             We need freezing nights and bright, warm days.  We need the ground to thaw during the day but harden in the cold dark.  We need a power drill or an old fashioned hand crank.  We need a hammer and spiles.  We need buckets and covers.  We need a little patience and alot of time.  We need to set the evaporator out of the wind and prepare for action.
            Every year as the seasons change from winter to spring, Grandpa takes out the drill and tapping equipment.  He sets out on a quick journey of long days checking buckets and watching water boil.  He conquers cabin fever by the non-stop action of boiling and filtering and boiling and bottling and getting it all done before Spring truly arrives.  His is the action of the In-between season.  He loves to tap the maples and create syrup.
            The sweet taste of maple syrup fills the air in the kitchen.  All the windows in the house are fogged from all the boiling going on.  There are glass bottles strewn everywhere, and jars and funnels and pots.  Outside, as the sun warms the world and the snow melts away, a trail of steam leads to the shed turned sugar shack.  For the next couple of weeks, the shed will be filled with the hum of the propane burner keeping the evaporator hot.  The collected sap boiling away will eventually be brought inside and transformed into the amber elixir of pancake bliss. Further down the muddy trails of the farm, buckets hang from several maple trees.  Checking them for content is a favorite chore of the kids, as they prance through the muddy snow from bucket to bucket.
            It is quite a bit of work and the product is protected like some liquid treasure.  Grandpa grumbles along as he makes the syrup, but he never misses a season.  Each year he says it will be his last, until cabin fever comes a callin' again.  And when it is all over, and the bottles are stashed away, he parts with a bottle only when a truly special guest comes to visit, his face beaming with pride.  Pancakes will be smothered in it.  French toast will be doused with it.  Waffles will catch it.  The bottles will have a place of honor on the table.  And when the breakfast bell has rung, Grandpa will stack his plate with warm, fresh thick-cut bacon, a couple of eggs, the main course of choice, and then he will reach across the table and grab the EGGO syrup he bought yesterday.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Lonely Beers

            The wind was howling, furiously chasing bands of ominous clouds across the grim sky.  With those bands of dark clouds came flakes the size of dandelions, clinging to tree branches and coating the ground, and as quick as they came, they were gone again.  Then the wind resumed trying to push yet another squall past the mountain.  Invisible, icy fingers stung my ears and face but being outside was still a blessing, feeling the cold touch of the passing snow, those intense moments of white out followed by clear, empty sky.  It was the in-between time where spring and winter battle for the day, sap begins to run from the maples, and mud colors the snow a reddish brown as fast as it falls from the sky.  I had chores to do, trees to tap, and a family walk in the woods to our little cabin.
            It was at that cabin that I began to notice the quiet reminders.  I was retrieving water from the dark pantry of the winterized cabin when I saw the first couple.  I was reaching for a dry towel to wipe some snow from everyone's hands and faces when the next few peaked out from atop the cabinet.  Rehydrated and rested, we tromped back down to the barn to continue our daily chore routine.  Another two were hiding in the barn when I grabbed the hay rake.  With the chores complete, I fired up the grill and caught another in the closet next to the steak sauce.  A belly filled with meat and potatoes, a body chilled by the wind, I quietly reclined by the fire to watch the embers glow.  It was in that glow that the final one caught me.
             I had pulled my favorite beer pint from the cabinet and was about to fill it.  A short walk to the fridge and I noticed there were only a few candidates left, the perfect beer for the moment at hand.  And hiding just behind that cold beer was that final special one, a Christmas brew, bottled and corked goodness, given to me as a Christmas present.  I had made a promise to myself to keep that one in the back of the fridge until the person that gave it to me visited and we could both enjoy it together, as it should be.  That is when it all came rushing in, right there in the dim half-light of the refrigerator light.  They were stalking me all day, tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the farm, the bottles of special craft beer I had stashed for when friends came to visit.  Some of them had been put away years ago in anticipation of deer season or a camping trip or fishing weekend.  Each waiting for the right moment to be opened and savored.  And each filled with not only good beer but good memories, heavy with the thought of friends.
             Maybe those anticipated moments will never come.  Maybe the politics of family and work has separated us.  Maybe it is just too easy to keep in touch by phone or computer.  Maybe life has caught us all and there is no time to slow down and savor a sip and a fire.  Maybe those hidden bottles will never be opened.  And, yet again, maybe there will be a day when a knock on the door brings a reason to dust off the bottles.  Who knows?  But right then, I pushed the Christmas brew deeper into the fridge and closed the door.  That bottle would wait for it's moment.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The In-Between Season

Part 1

           Although winter has mostly forgotten about us, it has left some of the white stuff on the ground.  There was enough of it for the kids to get in at least a few weekends of sleigh riding.  The temperatures never really bottomed out and so the winter could be called mild.  The days of numbing cold and shiver-inducing winds could be counted on one hand, a rarity.  The snowmobile remained in hibernation to sleep until next year, hopefully.  It was still a winter, but a tame one.
            And so, as March hardly roars, the in-between season comes early.  It is a season of cold nights and warming days.  It is not uncommon to still find 20's at night and 50's as the sun tries to melt the gray skies away.  The little snow there is melts into the ground and when precipitation is in the forecast, rain begins to dominate.  The ground becomes overwhelmed with moisture.  Water seeps from the earth everywhere.  The areas of snowy crust hide the mire beneath.  Mud Season has come to our mountain.
            Grandmothers and mothers dread it's coming.  Grandfathers just grin.  Fathers can not wait to be a kid again.  And the kids are more excited now than a school snow day.  The ATVs spin and slide and throw brown confetti.  Clothes are spotted and soaked through with chocolate milk.  Exposed skin is treated to extremely expensive spa packages, applied with rubber and acceleration.  Hair is clumped and matted.  And the tub does not look forward to the ring that is surely coming. The snow sleds gain a few more days of sunshine before be put away, but beneath them snowy white gives way to reddish-brown goodness.  It is Mud Season.
            I love Mud Season.  I carry an axe and shovel on the roof of the family SUV to deal with the rutted roads and fallen trees.  I carve through the trails on the quads, splashing through the puddles, smiling all the way.  Getting stuck, be it truck, ATV, sled, or by foot if one is lucky enough to find a mud puddle deep enough, is not only a rite of passage but a goal to constantly strive for.  There is something liberating, something refreshing, about the flinging of mud patties.  It is almost as if youth can be recaptured within the short period before Spring and the warmer planting season takes hold.  To be a kid again, and not held in check by the constraints of wiser adulthood.  To not care about the washing machine or the stained clothes or the potatoes growing beneath dirty fingernails.  To play in the dirt.
             Maybe more people should try playing in the mud more often, the world would be a happier place.  And definitely a lot less up tight, if only for the brief in-between season.