Saturday, November 25, 2006

Tipsy Roadtripping: Wine-Tasting in Solvang For Only $75.25!

I recently acquired a fulltime job. So, naturally, the first I thing I did after celebrating the return of a regular weekly paycheck--and mourning the end of my immensely enjoyable 15 month ride of my non 9-6pm freelance writing lifestyle--was look into a quick pre-"start of work" vacation.

With limited time to plan and limited resources (unfortunately, I still have to work for two weeks first before getting paid), I decided on a quickie wine-tasting roadtrip to Solvang. This was also my first roadtrip with Ugly Shoe Boy so hopefully any potentially awkward 'first roadtrip together' moments would be softened--or forgotten--under the tipsy haze of a trip dedicated to the consumption of alcohol...because, let's face it, isn't 'wine-tasting' just a sophisticated and more acceptable form of day drinking? (For those who missed reading about my first encounter with him, Ugly Shoe Boy is not ugly, but in fact quite enough to distract me into buying a pair of ugly running shoes--and consequently, go out on dates--with him.)

Solvang is an almost creepily quaint Disneyland-esque Danish town filled with tudor architecture, fudge shops, Danish pastry bakeries, wine-tasting rooms and a Best Western adorned with a giant windmill facade, as seen in the movie Sideways. Solvang's helpful official website, lists a bunch of hotels, including Wine Valley Inn, which had rooms for $120 but let me book their manager's special for $62 which I found on directly with them instead; making the Dutch-style Inn cheaper than even the chain motels in the area (Vagabond Inn and Best Western are in the $80's range). Plus, they include free breakfast and about $30 worth of free wine-tasting coupons when you check in! Score! Our 'clock tower' suite with a queen was really spacious and came with a cozy wood-burning fireplace. (Each room is different with different amenities and sizes so make sure to ask for exactly what you want; our room was #216.)

Although there's not too much to do in Solvang except wine taste, eat Danish pastries to absorb some of the alcohol and then wine taste some more, so you feel better about doing another activity which doesn't involve consuming vino, it's worth it to wake up a little earlier to check out the nearby Nojoqui waterfalls (about a picturesque 10 minute drive along Alisal Rd and then an easy 10 minute stroll to get to the falls.)

There are 12 tasting rooms within Solvang's 4 block radius town ($5-7.50 per tasting). Our game-plan was to hit up the ones we had coupons for free tastings first.

Our first one, Royal Oaks on Copenhagen Drive, was so-so, but they had a fun strawberry/cotton-candy tasting Rose and our wine pourer had great recommendations for which other tasting rooms to hit and also her preferred wineries in nearby Santa Ynez (Rideau for it's historic tasting room and English gardens, Galney Vineyards for their in-depth winery tour, Buttonwood for Sauvignon Blanc and Sunstone for its 'Under the Tuscan Sun' gardens and setting.)

We got side-tracked by our original free-only drinking tour when we came across the Olive House, a wine & olive tasting spot. It was $7.50 to sample both but you're allowed to share one tasting between two. The wines, which included a selection of Pinot, Merlot and Syrahs, were good but our palettes were clearly more fine-tuned for olive tasting; ("Ooh, this pepperjack cheese stuffed olive has some kick and I like how that almond-stuffed olives give a good unexpected crunch". "I thought the blue-cheese stuffed one would be my favorite but the garlic-stuffed spicy cajun was way tastier don't you think?" ). Despite the stingy, light-handed pours, the wine-tasting stop was well worth it just for the olives.

We took full advantage of the tasting rooms opening right at 10am so were already quite tipsy at 10:45am. Our last stop before lunch was Presidio Winery, which ended up being our favorite tasting room; there were snacks and our wine-pourer had a way with words to describe the wines to the non-wine savvy ("yes, so many layers in this wine, it's a party in your mouth! It's a party in your mouth!") and was informative with what food each wine should be paired with. Both Ugly Shoe Boy and I liked their slightly sweet white wine, Gewurztraminer--which really was a party in your mouth. ($12)

We stumbled into the Solvang Restaurant to sample their hyped-up Aebleskivers (Danish versions of beignets covered with raspberry jam) and wait out our growing tipsyness so we could drive to the nearby wineries. The Abelskivers were ok and a good deal at $2.50, but I was expecting more of a crispy coating and doughy beigney consistency inside than its soft, bready texture.

Back on the road and taking our own mini-Sideways tour, our first stop was the Fess Parker Winery. We were still too buzzed to taste any wine so just checked out the pretty picnic grounds and stately looking wine-tasting room filled with bottles and Daniel Boone/Davy Crockett paraphenalia.

Next up was the Firestone Winery, which felt very commercial and impersonal. Our pourer was on auto-pilot with his recited info that really wasn't that informative at all "2002 Syrah: aged 14 months in French and American oak barrels" and would walk off between each pouring to repeat the same info to other wine-tasters before returning to ask if we wanted to purchase the bottle. Maybe the Firestone wines are also more fullbodied, which I'm not a big fan of, but their slightly harsh-tasting wines were also my least favorite of the trip. For the $10 tasting fee, we also got a Firestone souvenir glass and complimentary wine-tasting at the winery next door.

Solvang is perfect if you're looking for a quick and affordable LA getaway on the fly. We planned it only a few days advance, spent minimal $$, had plenty of time to stop off to walk around and eat at Santa Barbara's downtown State Street and UCSB's Isla Vista on our way back to LA and we were pleasantly drunk for about 80% of the trip--all for less than $100!

And, I didn't even get a hangover on my first day of work the next day.
Do the math:
Wine Valley Inn for two: $68 inc. tax
Wine-tasting for two: $17.50
Royal Oaks, Presidio ($0), Olive House ($7.50), Firestone ($10)
Solvang Restaurant: Abelskivers & lunch $15
Dinner at Joe's Cafe in S.B.: $35
Burritos at Freebirds in Isla Vista: $15
Total: $75.25 each

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Santee Alley: Designer Knockoff Shopping Spree

Last Saturday, Chaya and I made the pilgrammage to downtown LA's discount shopping mecca; Santee Alley--literally an alleyway crammed with shops pandering super-cheap knockoff designer handbags, Melrose Ave-esque apparel and cute & surprisingly comfy $20 shoes. Personally, I find the scene too hectic to hit up more than twice a year but late fall is a good time to go since they have great bargain boots (my tan faux ultra-suede knee high moccasins purchase ($25) from last year are still getting compliments, ditto my $40 Melie Bianco velvet heart hobo knockoff) and you also need to allow about a month's lag time between the current season's fashions hitting mainstream stores and the cheaper versions showing up at Santee Alley.
(Previous Purchases)

Located in the Fashion District with hectic parking and even more hectic crowded streets, the slightly seedy Santee Alley isn't for the casual shopper--but the bargains are worth braving the questionably legal shopping experience and the even more questionable parking options. There are plenty of area lots available for a flat rate of $6-8; all are sketchy looking but, for what it's worth, so far, each time I've returned from my shopping excursions to find my car fully intact and not stolen, which is all you can really ask for.

It definitely helps to go with an agenda so you don't get sidetracked along the alleyway's more random bargains ($1 CD's & DVD's, pet turtles, luggage sets). Today, mine was shoes and Chaya's was jeans and boots.

On our first stop, Chaya found some knee-high chocolate brown suede mocassins ($30) while I picked up a pair of wedges for $20 and authentic Converse sneakers for $25, half the regular retail price.

We then went next door and a vendor immediately came over and started mumbling "True Religions? Sevens? $55". We had entered a designer denim haven! The key is not to question if the jeans are fakes (or stolen) but just bask in the glow of finding greatly discounted designer denims. They didn't have any in my size (I guess the box of 27"'s didn't fall of the truck that morning) but Chaya scored a pair of rockin' Rock & Republics for $55. The only downside is that they don't have dressing rooms, but if the store next door has a changing room so you can try them on and come back for an exchange if it's not the right size. For those who couldn't care less about Citizens of Humanity vs. Antiks, they also have a plethora of no-name booty-enhancing jeans for only $10.

Buoyed by our morning bargains, we bypassed some of the outdoor clothing stalls and went into the alley's more expensive "real stores" (as in, they have dressing rooms, don't bargain and take credit card); more expensive still means $20 jersey dresses, $12 yoga pants, $5 red pleather belts and $11 tops.

After hour 5 of our shopping day, we entered a shoe store so we could pretend to try on shoes for an excuse to sit and rest. After "trying on" a pair of red suede flats for 45 mins, we were asked if we were going to buy them "otherwise no-one else wil lwant to try on a pair of shoes you've worn for such a long time". I figured $20 was a pretty good deal for a pair of whimsical new red shoes and an nearly an hour of rest-time in their store.

Although handbags are Santee Alley's main draw, this time we left empty handbag handed. However, we did have fun bargaining down a Chloe replica for $30 and sifting through the vendor's "catalog" of inventory: a binder with pages of photos of celebs carrying prized designer bags ripped out of In Touch and Star Magazine.

I got a full days exercise (walking from store to store for 6hrs) and shopping bags full of non-cheaplooking purchases (3 pairs of shoes, a top and belt) for less than $80.

Some tips before you go:
Bring Cash!
Spanish-speaking skills helps during the bargaining process.
Ladies: Wear flip flops, a tank/tube top and a skirt so you can try on stuff over your clothes since dressing rooms are rare.
The second jean store on the right handside is the one that carries the designer denims; the brand jeans may be hidden in boxes behind the cheaper no-name brands so make sure to ask for them.
Pleather replica bags shouldn't cost much more than $30, and designer fakes with real leather no more than $70.
If you need a mid-shopping snack, the fruit cart by the scary-sounding 'Alley Hotdogs' actually has healthy and hygenic-looking fresh fruit cups $2 and granola parfaits for only $2.50

Santee Alley
Alleyway between Olympic and 11th, Downtown L.A.