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Sonoma’s Rockpile Ridge – Hot Terroir

April 15, 2014

An hour north of San Francisco sprawls Sonoma County – with a million agriculturally rich and beautiful rolling acres, seventy miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean – and 14 wine appellations.

Spring in Sonoma County

Spring in Sonoma County

North of the cities of Napa and Sonoma is Healdsburg -  similar to the city of Sonoma, with a main square surrounded by restaurants and small retail outlets, though partially surrounded by massive Redwood trees.


Healdsburg mural of wine country

Healdsburg mural of agricultural heritage

Healdsburg is where the Russian River merges with Dry Creek, both waters flowing south. Stand in Healdsburg and look south – and you face the territory of the Russian River Appellation – known for lean Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. Turn north and slightly to the right and you’ll face the Alexander Valley (and wine appellation), while the Dry Creek valley (and appellation) is forward and to the left.

Dry Creek typically receives cool foggy mornings and warm afternoons. Vines were first planted here in the 1870s when French immigrants settled. Later, Italian immigrants considered the land reminiscent of Tuscany and Piedmont and planted their own vines (I spotted vineyard signs for Montepulciano and Sangiovese grapes). Steep slopes, stony soils, and a moderate climate here favor Zinfandel for red wines and Sauvignon Blanc for whites.


Gateway to Northern Sonoma wines

Drive up Dry Creek past the last of a dozen roadside wineries, cross a bridge over Lake Sonoma, then climb and wind into the Rockpile Ridge sub-appellation (‘sub’ because part of the territory also lies within acres of the Dry Creek appellation). Established in 2002, the Rockpile appellation only includes vines grown at over 800 feet elevation – where they are unaffected by fog (Zinfandel is prone to rot from excessive moisture).


High and dry







A total of eleven growers now plant vines along Rockpile Ridge. Mauritson has grown grapes here for six generations and the winery owns 90 of the region’s 200 planted acres. Mauritson produces eight Zinfandels, seven made from Rockpile Ridge grapes. They also grow Syrah, as well as Petit Sirah – which they add to Zinfandels to impact the color and tannin structure.

In the tasting room up Dry Creek valley, Carrie Mauritson explained how bunches of Zinfandel grapes tend to ripen unevenly, resulting in them being kept on the vine longer to eliminate the unripe. But On Rockpile Ridge, bunches ripen relatively evenly, meaning they can be picked earlier – often resulting in a lower than typical alcohol content for a Zin (thought not tame, at 14.75 percent).

Rockpile Road

Rockpile Road

....and the Cab Franc is decent too

….and the Cab Franc is decent too

Mauritson Zins from Rockpile Ridge are subdued, not brash. Other winemakers (including Rosenblum) now source grapes from Rockpile, apparently a hot terroir at the moment in northern Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley.

Rosenblum's Rockpile Zin

Rosenblum’s Rockpile Zin



Fresh Chilean Wine Appellation for the Maule Valley

April 1, 2014

Winemaker Andrés Sánchez just wrote from Chile. He shared news about a new appellation in the Maule Valley that applies to wines based on the Carignan grape (Andrés and I met years ago during my research for the book Wine and Work).

Click here to read about this new Chilean wine appellation.


Gilmore Winery in Chile’s Loncomilla Valley


Andrés, together with his wife Daniela and her father Francisco – the winery owner – live in Chile’s Loncomilla Valley, which is part of the Maule Valley. I wrote a post about their Gilmore Winery years ago. They are an inspiring trio because they live off the beaten path, grow their own vegetables, and created the design of their own winery and guest house buildings – which are spacious and flooded with light. All have traveled the world and worked in many countries, and now love their chosen home in the Chilean countryside.

Chapel on the winery grounds

Chapel on winery grounds

Andrés told me -

“We live together here. Our house is there in the corner. It’s a quality lifestyle. We use spring water so we can take showers. We grow all the vegetables that we eat today. We cultivate an organic yard and we eat organic. We try to find the balance. We are really connected with some of our clients in Germany, Switzerland, Finland. But it’s kind of a luxury to live in this way. Probably more and more people will try to get this lifestyle, the natural way. With space, with an environment, with less real cost of food. Real food.”

Sounds ideal.


Onsite aviary





Happy Fourth Anniversary – Vino Expressions!

March 17, 2014

Green from the Emerald Isle

Today – St. Patrick’s Day – marks the fourth anniversary of the launching of the web log – Wine and Work. The site was originally titled Vino Expressions – to match the book title this blog promotes. When I changed the book name to Wine and Work, this blog name changed with it.

The original Vino Expressions book

The original Vino Expressions book

The modified version - Wine and Work

The modified version – Wine and Work

Four years? That’s wild. Particularly as for three of those years I’ve assembled posts from a country where it can be a challenge to obtain wine. Most posts (and all photos) are based on travels, research, and interviews with others. For the first few years, this post simply included excerpts from the book Wine and Work.

A years ago came the sister website – Roundwood Press – which is both an online bookstore and a blog related to a dozen books, written during the past twenty-one years.


Also from misty Ireland – name of the sister website

This has been a busy month: an emergency plane landing, two neighborhood suicide bombs, lockdowns for days – all punctuated by a few splendid parties and dinners. Each event provided the essential reminder that life is brief, and should be – as much as possible – celebrated. To celebrate this anniversary of this web log, I am ‘re-blogging’ the first full wine-related post – from March, 2010. It is about a wine maker who works on a hilltop in the piemonte region of Italy and who loves crafting Barolo wine. Flavio Fenocchio was the first person interviewed for Wine and Work, a strong soul who not only graciously treated us to a mid-morning tasting of excellent Barolo wines, but who shared stories about his passions: photography, geology, and exploring the hills and riversides of Italian wine country. He is one of the people this site is dedicated to – those who choose (whether for vocation or avocation) to do what they love, and to share the best of it with others.

Thanks for tuning in during these past years.


Here is the original post titled Flavio Fenocchio – Master on the Hill Top

A tough job. Flavio's the man for it.

“We don’t have a recipe,” said Flavio Fenocchio, winemaker for the Marchesi di Barolo winery in the Italian hilltop village of Barolo. “You say, I can’t.  Then you say, well, yes, I can.  You say, I couldn’t, but then you say, I’m going to see whether I can.  It gives you enthusiasm.  When you find that you can, then you say, today, I love my job.”

We sat together on a spring afternoon, tasting a half-dozen bottles of Barolo wine made during the past ten years.  The winery sits in Italy’s northwestern region known as Piemonte, named after the Italian words meaning foot (piede) and mountains (montagne).  Located south and east of the Alps, this region basks in summer sunshine.  Piemonte is a decadent find for those who love good food and wine.

Few people drink Barolo because production is small and the price is high.  The region produces eight million bottles each year, compared to 200 million bottles generated from the Bordeaux region of France alone.   Barolo comes from the Nebbiolo grape, which the Romans enjoyed, and which US President Thomas Jefferson considered as sweet and heavy.  Today, Barolo has a reputation as a distinct and excellent red.

Flavio compared himself to both an artist and scientist, admitting that an artist moves by inspiration, while the force that guides a winemaker is the question – ‘why not?’

“Making wine is a matter of trying to tell the future from the present.  It’s similar to a cook trying a new recipe, trying to understand the cooking time, the temperature.  You only have results when the meal is prepared, or when wine is aged.”

“What I am aiming at is to find surprise.  To give emotion.  It’s like photography.  You have to impress, to do something people remember.  If you can put a little of your personality not only in your wine, but in your job, it’s more interesting.  Doesn’t always happen,” he added, laughing.  “The worst and best thing about this job is that we are never bored,” he said.

“You have to ride the horse,” he added, referring to the process of making wine.  “It’s not always a quiet horse.  But with a good one, you can win the race.”

Before the tasting, I managed to visit the underground cellars, guided by Alessandra Minetti

“The first bottle of Barolo came from this cellar,” Alessandra explained as we toured through dank and musty pathways.

“Probably from one of these big traditional barrels,” she said, pointing at rows of huge oaken casks.

“These barrels are about 180 years old.  We still use them to make wine.”

She then showed me the Barolo ‘library’ – a room controlled for temperature, humidity and light and storing 36,000 bottles of wine.

“One of the biggest collections of Barolo in the world.”

She pointed at the oldest bottle behind a glass case.  The pale label read Barolo Cannubio 1859.

“Dusty,” I said.

“We want the dust,” said Alessandra, laughing.  “We never clean them.”

Words and Wine – Best Wine Writing

March 3, 2014

Researching and writing a book about people who work with wine changed my life. I plunged into stories about grapes and geography, filled the fridge with quirky and classic vintages, and marveled when the world’s geography of taste expanded. I sipped wine made by colorful characters in locations odder than any pea green boat ever aimed for: a countryside resembling Hawaii in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean; a land where people mount wooden phallus symbols over their doors; an unexpected locale in rural farmland Missouri producing wine that would make you marvel.


Smiling in anticipation of Bubbly

During the past six years I’ve read ample books and articles on wine, and found that the quality of some literary ‘vintages’ surpasses others. I enjoyed Wall Street Journal pieces written by Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher because their approach is simple – decide for yourself what you like, experiment with new wines, and scrap decanting to let wines ‘breathe’ in the glass instead, changing character while they do.

It’s a challenge to write about wine and hold readers’ attention. Writers can only prattle on so much about the taste of cherries or chalky soil, or the whiff of Montecristo cigar smoke or leather saddles they sniff in a glass. Sure, readers want delight and descriptions they can relate to, but also need hard facts and edgy anecdotes to keep them turning pages. Reading about winery dogs and chateau owners and the rise of prices in Burgundy will only holds readers attention if – like good wine – the elements of each essay are fresh, memorable, and coherent.


Colorful winery of Château du Clos de Vougeot, Burgundy

Wine books cover several genres. These include relocation tales about those who shucked professions and moved to France or California or New Mexico to try their hand at producing wine. There are wine detective stories – fiction and non-fiction – about thieves and looters and swindlers seeking fortunes, usually through deceit related to labels or provenance. There are compendiums and atlases and instruction manuals about how to swirl and taste and purchase wine.

My favorite wine author is Gerald Asher. The writing in his books A Vineyard in My Glass, or A Carafe of Red, is rich and fluid, and his grasp of subtleties associated with interplays between geology, geography, climate, and grapes is immense. Asher can drop a casual sentence that encapsulates assessment and analysis garnered during decades of personal experience exploring the wine world, but which also includes essentially the distillate of an entire college course on viticulture or wine making.


Good friends, food, and wine

Choose any of Asher’s essays and select random paragraphs. He recounts slivers of medieval and ancient history with ease in writing that, like good wine, is complex yet intimate and enjoyable.


Waiting in a wine garden in Bergamo, Italy

Asher, who never indulges himself to be a privileged bon vivant, is – above all - optimistic. In his essay titled Roussillon – Sunlight in a Bottle [from the book A Vineyard in My Glass; 2011], he writes:

“Those are the colors of Roussillon’s wines, too…sunlight preserved in a form most likely to be of comfort to us at this time of year. In fact, a rib roast and a carafe of Côtes du Roussillon Villages followed by mince pie with a glass of old Rivesaltes should be reassurance enough for even the most skeptical that the world will indeed go on turning and that the sun will go on shining.”

I enjoy wine writings from Eric Asimov, Lettie Teague, Jay McInerney, and even the dynamic confidence Robert Parker injects in his tasting notes. Choose whoever you like, but for less than the cost of a decent bottle of wine, I suggest you invest in a book by Asher.

Hong Kong’s Dynamic Wine Scene

February 11, 2014

My friend Kathy Fu who works in Hong Kong provided photographs for this post, as well as information about Hong Kong itself – basic but intriguing stuff I simply never knew. Kathy also introduced me to Roddy Ropner, interviewed below.

Hong Kong was under British rule for most of 150 years before 1997, when governance transferred to the People’s Republic of China. It then became known as a Special Administrative Region of China. A constitutional document ensures that the existing political situation in Hong Kong will exist for 50 years after this transfer.


The famed Hong Kong night skyline (courtesy K. Fu)

The land includes Hong Kong island, as well as more than 260 outlying islands. Renowned deep water Victoria Harbour lies between Honk Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula. I always imagined the place as a small pocket of highly developed land, teeming with skyscrapers. The truth is that 40 percent of the country includes parks and nature reserves. Most – over 90 percent – of all inhabitants are of Chinese descent, though English and Chinese are both official languages.

In 2008, Hong Kong’s 80 percent wine import tax was eliminated. Overnight, the location poised itself as the gateway to the growing interest for wine for Asia, particularly for wealthy Chinese buyers. The demand for more expensive wines has focused on French labels, mostly Bordeaux, although in recent years demand has grown for Burgundian wines.

Roddy Ropner from Wellspring Wines in Hong Kong provided insight into current trends in the Hong Kong wine scene.

Have you seen any noticeable difference in trends in purchasing fine wines during the past 12 – 24 months – especially for Australian / New Zealand wines in comparison to European wines? Increased or decreased attention / sales?

I don’t see much Australian and NZ wines in the auctions but it seems to me that AUZ in particular, and NZ to a lesser extent, are trying to position themselves in the Fine Wine category. Australia’s Barossa Valley master class in wine was launched in HK so they clearly see that as a key market. I think that there was a backlash against Australian Chardonnay (overoaked) and Shiraz (too alcoholic, over extracted) and both the wineries and promoting bodies have taken this on board and are now trying to promote their premier wine regions. NZ is doing something similar and trying to let consumers know that there is more to NZ wine that Sauvignon Blanc. There is a lot of interest in NZ Pinot Noir and this is probably connected to the love of Burgundy that we are seeing in HK and other parts of Asia.


Deep water Victoria Harbour (courtesy K. Fu)

From conversations with clients, can you sense any growing interest in selecting particular wines for matching with Asian foods – such as Rieslings?

As a huge generalization you can say that people in this part of the world LOVE their food. If you sit down to a dinner with Hong Kong friends the most common topic of conversation is FOOD!  So I think it is quite normal that they will then think about food and wine pairing. Also Jeannie Cho Lee MW, first Asian Master of Wine and HK resident, is one of the most prominent wine critics / writers and she has very much promoted the pairing of wine with Asian food.  That being said when talking about pairing wine with Asian food people finally realize that there are so many styles that it is impossible to generalize. The cuisine in HK and south China is different to that in Shanghai and that in Beijing. Also, each meal comes with some many courses that its hard to pick one wine – say Riesling – that will par with everything.

On the subject of Riesling I still seldom see people drinking this although the dry styles from Clare and Eden Valleys [Australia] seem in demand in the wine shops. More traditional older wine drinkers might prefer a Mosel Kabinett but as I say I seldom see this being drunk here. What a shame! I think that many people also find that Pinot Noir / Burgundy pairs well with Hong Kong food as it does not overpower the dishes in the way that a Bordeaux might.  

Hong Kong is now considered a ‘fine wine capital’ – regarding sales / auctions. Are you aware of any particular measures / legislation that Hong Kong is actively pursuing to maintain or strengthen this reputation?

Good question. I have just been asked to join the Hong Kong Wine Merchants Association – I have not had time to reply yet.

They say that one of their roles is to lobby the government but I have not yet found out which areas they are concerned about!

The government has introduced some standards for warehousing etc.

But this is a pretty “laissez-faire” society and the government on the whole does not get too involved. Of course the great coup was to drop import duty on wine – that created the conditions for the current boom in wine. And it’s probably fair to say that most of the demand for fine wine, especially at the auctions, was coming from Chinese buyers. The reality is that there are comparatively few collectors and regular drinkers of fine wine in HK. The population here is 7 million – the size of a 2nd tier city in China!

That being said when I first came to HK in the late 80’s I attended a lot of Chinese dinners and we were always served tea and beer. Now there is almost always wine on offer. Either from the wine list or guests bringing their own wine – which is very common.

Has there been any increase or notable added attention / sales related to wines made in Hong Kong using imported grapes from France / the U.S.?

I understand that there are a couple of wineries making wine in HK. I did hear that they were set up as a way of getting round the import duty when that was still in place. However now that the import duty as been dropped there is no particular reason to buy / drink them. There are so many wines and wine merchants in HK and I think wine lovers love the idea of drinking wine from a special place or region. I don’t feel particularly excited about the thought of drinking a wine made in a factory in Hong Kong from grapes grown by another party.


Kathy Fu

Thanks for the background information on wine Roddy, and thanks Kathy for photographs and general background on Hong Kong. One day I hope to visit. Sooner rather than later.

Beauty in Wine Regulations?

January 28, 2014

For this bottle – grape varieties are not listed, while the appelation and vintage are

The title of this post is misleading. Regulations concerning wine are rarely beautiful, but associated grape names can be. You’ll see.

Below are some basic and bedrock regulations concerning how wine producers can label their bottles in the U.S. Because the universe of wine laws and regulations is often labyrinthine, this post focuses just on a few colorful aspects of U.S. labeling rules. Future posts may peek at those from other wine producing countries. Why? Because regulations force wine makers to consider a wider world beyond fields and cellars.

First – which grape varieties should be listed on a wine label? None, if a producer chooses. But if any are listed, rules apply.

Wines sold in the U.S.(which are not imported) can list on bottle labels only grape varieties recognized by the federal government. Imported wines receive more lee way: they can include any grape names, as long as each is officially recognized by the government of the exporting country.


Rules and regulations? Not now – it’s cocktail hour.

Inspecting a list from the government’s guidance on including grape variety names on wine labels (courtesty of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau; part of the Treasury), I counted over 310 ‘acceptable’ grape varieties for making wine in the U.S. These include some darlings: Watergate, Captivator, Blue Eye, Edelweiss, Iona, Melody, Noah, St. Croix, and Freedom. Ever heard of these? Just seeing ‘St. Croix’ and ‘Freedom’ on a label could entice me to buy the bottle. And there are more. Additional approved grape varieties (pending the next official rule-making) include: Geneva Red, King of the North, Bluebell, and Rose of Peru – which sound like characters from a child’s storybook.

Second – what percentage of grape(s) named on the label must be included in the wine?


More stringent than the U.S. – for Argentinian wines, at least 80% of the wine must come from the single variety named on the label

Per U.S. regulations, a single grape variety can be written on the label if at least 75 percent of that bottle’s wine is made from that grape. There are exceptions. First, if the grape is of the vitis labrusca vine variety rather than the more widely used vitis vinifera, only 51 percent (or more) of the wine needs to come from that grape. Second (though I suspect this is rarely used), if a TTB officer finds that the wine made from the 75 percent minimum of one grape still tastes too strongly, he or she can drop the minimum to 51 percent. In both cases, the front or back label will have to include specific language telling that story.

If a producer wants to list two or more grape varieties, they must include the names of all included varieties, as well as their contributing percentages (each within a range of plus or minus two percent).

The state of Oregon has a reputation for applying more stringent requirements - requiring that 90 percent of any single variety must be in the wine if the label names just that grape. But there are eighteen exceptions to this rule, including all component grapes used for red Bordeaux and red Rhone blends, as well as Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, and others. What is notable is that this rule does impact both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Considering these two grape varieties constitute the sole components of renowned red and white wines from Burgundy, it’s likely the Oregon legislator who crafted this rule was influenced by Oregon wine producers who are true lovers of pure Burgundian wines. Perhaps beauty does seep into regulations.


Only 75% of contents contains Pinot? Burgundian wine pickers would be horrified.

Third, what year were the grapes grown?

Stating the ‘vintage’ – the year that the included grapes were harvested – is not required in the U.S. But if a producer chooses to list the vintage, at least 95 percent of grapes included in the bottle must have been harvested during that year. This applies to grapes listed as coming from any designated American Viticultural Area, or AVA. If a state or county is instead listed as the appellation (rather than an AVA), only 85 percent of grapes need come from that labeled vintage.


Less stringent than the U.S. – for Chilean wines 75% of grapes need to come from the listed vintage for domestic wines, but 85% for exports

Fourth – how much alcohol is in the wine?

A friend was recently pulled over by the police, tested, and charged for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). Because she drank only wine that night, she suspected someone might have spiked her drink. I suggested another probable cause. During the past two decades, alcohol content has been creeping upward in U.S. wines. Whereas fifteen to twenty years ago most bottles typically used to include between 12 and 13.5 percent alcohol by volume, that number has been ascending upward to as high as 16 percent. Why? Due to improvements in viticulture and the popularity of fruit forward, high alcohol wines, grapes spend longer time on the vine, increasing sugar levels, requiring more prolonged fermentation periods, and resulting in higher alcohol levels.

What does this mean for a cocktail drinker?


Is this enough food before my first glass?

If a wine contains 14 percent of alcohol – or less – the label is not required to show the percentage, and can include the words ‘table wine,’ or ‘light wine.’  If it does include the percentage, there is an allowed variance to that stated number of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points. For wines that include greater than 14 percent alcohol, however, the rules are slightly different. First, the percentage must be shown on the label; second, the variance must be only plus or minus one percent.


Partygoers Beware: pouring into a wide, hand-held glass = faster road to cloudy minds

Let’s say my friend who received the DUI had arrived at the party in the early evening. She had an empty stomach and poured herself a glass of wine. She did not read the alcohol content on the label, which showed, let’s say, 15.5 percent. That means the wine could actually contain 16.5 percent alcohol, which means each glass she consumed contained over 37 percent more alcohol than the usual bottle of wine she drinks at home with dinner, a Bordeaux with 12 percent alcohol. Also, if her host went with the current trend of using larger and wider wine glasses, her single pour to the mid-point of the glass provided, say, fifteen percent more liquid than she was used to drinking at home. The human brain has difficulty gauging the volume in a container, and people generally pour themselves more if a glass is wider. Also, people generally pour themselves more when they hold a glass in their hand rather than set it on a table. She drank two glasses on an empty stomach (which provided the same amount of alcohol as three glasses of her usual wine poured at home). Even after subsequent dining (during which she may have enjoyed another glass or a few) her bloodstream was swimming with a greater chance for getting a DUI than she would have suspected.

Want to stay buzzed but not toasted at a party? Check the wine label for alcohol percentage next time you reach for a wine bottle. Otherwise, regulations you break could cost you your driving license. Here’s to safe drinking.

Searching for Wine in Bhutan

January 7, 2014

The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small nation tucked into the mountains north of India and east of Nepal. It has a population of less than 700,000 people and no traffic lights. It is illegal to sell tobacco or engage in mountaineering in Bhutan (one is bad for health; the other might disturb mountain gods). Forbidden also are fishing and hunting.


The ‘dzong’ in Punakha, at the confluence of the Mochu (mother) and Phochu (father) rivers

This small country produces two excellent beers – Druk 11000 (which comes in a big – 650 millilitre – bottle, contains 8 percent alcohol, and packs a smooth punch), as well as the weaker, yeastier, Red Panda.

And wine? Bhutanese produce ara, made predominantly from wheat, although rice or barley are also used. This ‘wine’ might be what we call ‘moonshine lite’ in the United States, and is produced on the sly in villages.

Is it really wine? Technically, no. But that’s no reason to stop a good story.

Before telling of the satisfying hunt for ara, here’s a little background skivvy on wine made from wheat. Technically, wine is produced from grapes or other fruits. Sure, you can add wheat as a clarifying agent to white wine, or add wheat to provide additional tannins in red wine. But wine without fruit? The Japanese drink Sake, which is made from rice and sometimes referred to as wine. But most definitions of wine state that the basis is fruit. I found an internet recipe for ‘wheat wine’ that includes taking one pound of wheat and adding sultanas, potatoes, and grapefruits – but the sultanas and grapefruits are fruit, so their contribution makes this ‘wheat’ beverage a wine.

However, since locals and visitors to Bhutan refer to wheat based ara as wine, I’ll do alike for this piece.

In order to travel within Bhutan as a foreigner, you are required to have a guide. This is supposed to help enhance visitors’ experience. I told my guide, Mr. Tshering, that I wanted to discover more about Bhutanese ara.


Lively and colorful market day in Punakha

And so our adventure began.

First, we visited the local market within the city of Punakha. Very colorful.

After this visit, we drove fifteen minutes, parked along a roadside, and began hiking.


Mr. Tshering (left) and driver Mr. Sonma lead the way

We soon passed a store selling wooden phalluses. Apparently an ancient and deified hero of Bhutan known as the Divine Mad Man came from Tibet. His sexual prowess and reputation for philandering were legendary. So when four spirits were found to be maligning the people who crossed Dochula mountain pass, the Divine Mad Man was summoned to solve the problem. He used his powers to rid the pass of demons. Today, in a show of apparent gratitude, images of penises riddle the countryside: over store fronts, poking above bar doors, painted on buildings.


Legacy of the Divine Madman


Unique souvenirs

After passing the Phallus Handicraft store, we walked past a water powered prayer wheel – sending prayers to the heavens.

When I asked Mr. Tshering whether a site for wine making was ahead, he told me no, that we were going to the Temple of Fertility instead.

Apparently both Mr. Tshering and our driver, Mr. Sonma, considered my bachelorhood as a condition they needed to help rectify. Although, considering that both men are bachelors, I suspected they sought a little temple magic themselves to change their own personal situations. So we ascended a mild hillside toward the temple, all the while passing multiple Bhutanese couples also en route, dressed in traditional long robe clothing – khera for women, and gho for men.


A monk headed for the fertility temple?

Once there, we spun multiple prayer wheels with our hands, took off our shoes, entered the temple, bowed and said prayers before an image of Buddha, received a blessing from a monk, and returned to the car. On the way we passed laughing and gracious children.


Taking a break from gardening


Traditional Bhutanese dress


School girls pointing out the trail

But what about the ara, I asked Mr. Tshering.

“Oh, yes,” he said. “We will go.”

Days later, in the town of Chamkhar in the central province of Bumthang, I told Mr. Tshering we should skip the planned afternoon trip to monasteries and instead just wander through town on foot, which we did. When we paced down one street we spotted Mr. Sonma, standing outside a tea shop and sipping a mug of chai. It turned out that the store belongs to Mr. Tshering’s brother.


Nothing but goodness at the Karma General Shop


Fresh groceries, colorful shoppers, and ara wine

“Ara!” called Mr. Tshering. A woman drinking it laughed. She then asked for another mug and poured me a full helping. It was only 11.30 in the morning but, hey, I couldn’t refuse Bhutanese hospitality. So I took a few sips in the same time it took this woman to finish her glass and pour herself another. And then she burst into song and dance at this random wonderful little tea house/general store we happened across.

The ara had the taste of mildly bitter lemonade.


Hours before New Year 2014 rang in


Ara is carried in this container from a mountain village

This mother of seven, wearing a nose ring made from gold, told us how the wine in the store is made at a local mountain village, and carried to the store in a big plastic container (Mr. Sonma fetched the empty container from the kitchen to display). Apparently ara is drunk by villagers at any time of day – the sugar helps keep them warm while working in mountain fields, and the alcohol dilates their capillaries, flooding their extremities with warm blood.

This woman rapidly downed two glasses, after which the shopkeeper topped up her bottles free of charge. He told me this was to keep her husband from asking whether she had already sampled the wares while on her way home.

Buzzed and happy by the encounter, my Bhutanese friends and I set off walking again. They insisted that I get some rest. After all, they said, that night was New Year’s Eve, and we would be going out drinking and dancing.

Days later, while hiking through the wide, beautiful Phobjikha valley at 10,000 feet above sea level (carved into a U-shape by glaciers long ago), we spied and photographed rare black necked cranes, watched locals practice archery, then met a farmer who invited us into his home.


Flight of Black Necked Cranes


Local archery contest

After ascending steep wooden stairs, we sat. Our host, Mr. Dau, poured us his homemade wheat-based ara, likely 16 to 20 percent alcohol and particularly smooth to drink.


Mr. Dau serving ara wine in his home


Glacially carved Phobjikha valley

Although technically ara might not be wine, the alcohol content brings it into a range above beer but lower than more potent alcohols. As a lunch time drink for workers who are toiling in the field, it’s delicious, nutritious, and always seems to help strike up camaraderie between the easygoing, peaceful Bhutanese.

In Bhutan, the drink is used for celebrations, to seal deals, and also for courtship. In her book Married to Bhutan [Hay House, 2011], author Linda Leaming tells about encounters with her future Bhutanese husband. She wrote:

“We taught each other English and Dzongkha. Namgay also brought me walnuts, rice, eggs, and butter. He brought me weavings by his sisters, and ara, a locally brewed wine that tastes a little like sake. This meant we were courting.”

Ara can also be stronger than the variety I tasted in Chamkhar. In her book Radio Shangri-La [Crown Publishing, 2011], Lisa Napoli wrote:

“Ara is a clear wine, distilled from rice. A Bhutanese friend plied me with several large glasses one night. It left my head thick and cloudy. It was delicious, but it wasn’t something you’d drink if you were hoping to do anything productive the next day.”

Ara is not only a daily drink for field working villagers, but also a national beverage with pedigree. On request, I was served a helping of ara in a handsome mason bowl within a Thimphu city hotel owned by the royal family. Ara is also the name of the bar at one of the pricier resorts in Thimphu.


That little bowl to the right? Particularly potent ara

Of course, fortified or not by ara, any visitor to Bhutan will want to view or hike to the Tiger’s Nest, built after the original Guru Rimpoche – spiritual leader of Bhutan – received a vision for building the monastery in the seventeenth century (after transforming himself into a flying tiger and cruising through the air to the location from the east). This spectacular monastery was built in the late 1600′s. Magnificent.

Here’s to trying new wines and experiences in 2014.


Tiger’s Nest


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