Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Land of 11,842 Lakes (Part 2)

Top 10 from Our Trip to Minnesota (a chronological review)

1. Mo’s parents’ warm Minneapolis welcome. Not only did they prepare a quesadilla buffet spread that would rival some Mission taquerias, but following our dinner they also sent us on our way with fresh-baked cookies for the road and homemade trail mix for the canoe.

2. Duluth! Who knew it was such a cozy, charming city? It was a little confusing, I admit, to see “the ocean” before you and have to remind yourself that it was actually a fresh water lake. But we forgot all about that problem once we settled into a cute littler bar where this adorable hipster twosome was covering country and folk songs and where the bartender served us apricot IPA.

3. Learning everything we could about the great state of Minnesota, down to the fact that the official state muffin is “Blueberry.” As a former resident, Mo felt slightly disgruntled by this discovery never having been presented with the opportunity to vote on such a matter. He would like it to be noted that his vote would have gone the way of Chocolate Chip.

4. Beavers! What a fun surprise to find ourselves in the company of these curious little creatures. Paddling around the lakes, we stopped every so often to examine a new dam, each one with a distinctive arrangement of mud and sticks. In a true National Geographic moment, we watched as a beaver and a loon paddled by our campsite together, an interspecies watersport team on the go. Not surprisingly, The Boundary Waters was voted a Place of a Lifetime by National Geographic.

5. Marisa’s campsite service was nothing short of decadent. An early riser, she would hop out of our tent each morning, get her French press going, and serve Mo and me coffees and breakfast while we remained snuggled in our respective sleeping bags. The routine was that I’d unzip the tent window so we could watch Marisa pour, stir, slice and mix, all with a early morning view of a lake in the backdrop. We called this part of the day “the Minneshowta.”

6. Steering the canoe with finesse. Some people are skilled drivers and others talented artists. Still others are outstanding orators. And me? Well, I’m really good at steering canoes.

7. The view of the Boundary Waters from a canoe was truly something to behold. Paddling around small islands, through beds of Lilly pads, under tree branches and across glistening lakes was simply stunning. In fact, it was so beautiful that I forgot to be upset that it was raining for a lot of the trip. Even the rain was pretty...

8. Mo’s favorite dirty joke. Often, Mo would hold onto the canoe, push off the shore and jump into the boat to give us some starting power. Meanwhile, Marisa and I would be paddling our little hearts out. Since we couldn’t turn around to confirm he had actually made it into the boat, one of us would inevitably yell, “Mo? Are you in?” And his response would always be: “Ladies, no man ever wants to be asked that question.” Hahahaha...

9. Newfound nationalism. It’s true! This trip basically turned the three of us into flag waving torch carriers for the good ole US of A. Anything that George W. did to throw dirt on my American pride fire was undone the minute I saw a bald eagle swoop down from his nest to successfully dive for a fresh water fish.

10.Planning our Minnesota party. Yep, we're throwing a Minnesota party! We even have a planning committee consisting of real locals and people who lived there for at least a few years. So far, all we know is that we're going to play a lot of Prince and Har Mar Superstar..and say "Oh yeah, you betcha" in response to most questions. Perhaps Marisa's Native American bikini will be completed by then?

Check out the Boundary Waters! And if you ever want to take a canoe trip up there, I recommend the outfitter we used, based in Tofte. Not only did they hook us up with a great canoe, but they also rented us a tent, tarp, cooking gear, packs and more.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Land of 11,842 Lakes (Part 1)

I’m not exactly sure when it all started, but I’ve been obsessed with the state of Minnesota for quite some time now. I even own two different books detailing state highlights. You know, Lake Superior, Little House on the Prairie, Prince, the French fur trade, dog sledding, sugar beets, Loon birds and ice fishing…not to mention the butter sculpture competition at the world’s largest state fair (see above butter-Yoda). What’s not to obsess about, really?

Sownas and Hawkey
A few people have pointed out to me that Minnesota isn’t exactly the kind of place that one need long for in the same way that, oh, Uganda or Indonesia might be. Given that 1) I wouldn’t need a passport or special inoculations to travel there, 2) the level of civil unrest and political turmoil is really quite low and 3) the journey would only be a few quick hours, it’s kind of weird that I haven’t just hopped a Continental flight to Minneapolis by now. Fair.

Instead, I’ve just forced everyone I meet from Minnesota—all of whom are notably darling—to tell me every last detail about their experience there. Did you grow up playing hockey? Do your parents canoe? And ice fish?! Have you ever been to the state fair? Did you learn to swim in a lake? Did you buy your prom dress at the Mall of America? Say “sauna” again! (Note: people from Minnesota pronounce the word “sauna” like “sow-nah,” which is the Finnish pronunciation. Fun fact: There are a lot of Scandinavians in Minnesota.)

A Native Guide? You Betcha!
Then a few years ago, I met my friend Mo (of New Mexico ghost town fame). When he told me he was from Minneapolis, spent his childhood vacations canoeing with his family aaaand grew up playing hockey, I knew it was time to act. “Would you take me there sometime?” I begged him, almost desperately. “Sure” he responded, shrugging his shoulders as if this were a casual request. (Bitch, please.) It might have seemed odd that I was seeking a native guide to assist my journey through an English-speaking, U.S. destination known as “the Bread and Butter State” but if he wants to focus on Lauren-related curiosities, he’ll have bigger fish to fry than Minnesota. True.

Mo convinced me that the best time to visit the Land of 10,000 lakes (but really there are 11,842 according to Wikipedia) is in June after the snow has let up and before the mosquitoes outdo the local vampires…and I wasn’t about to question my native guide. It took a few years for our schedules to sync up for a June visit. And then finally, the stars aligned.

To The French Voyagers!
Anxious to lock down our trip, I secured a government camping permit, an outfitter reservation and
an adorable high mobility cooler, recommended by Jen who’s reeeally good at recommending things. I also signed up Miss Marisa, my ever-spirited body double travel partner, for the adventure. Having heard me wax poetic about Minnesota for years now, she figured I must be onto something. Foreshadow: she was right.

Like any good wilderness explorers, we held some serious trip planning meetings at our neighborhood pub re: things like water filters and the pre-trip self-assigned reading list. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to read Last of the Mohicans before we departed, nor did Marisa finish beading her Native American leather bikini. So instead, we just dedicated the trip to the French Voyagers and off we went—Mo, Marisa and I—to North Country.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Purple Lifting Drinks

Remember how I helped my friends Dayle and Larry with their grape harvest back in October*? Well, over Memorial Day I got to experience yet another step of the vine to shelf process: wine bottling. I know that filling 2,000 glass containers with 750 ml of liquid each sounds kind of boring in comparison to sauntering down row after row of glistening grapes, picking the very best ones with love…all with a view of the Sierra Foothills in their full autumnal glory. But I can assure you it was just as satisfying. Here’s why: semi-automated machinery!

Who knew it would be so much fun to operate a bottling machine, a corking machine, a foil wrapping machine and a labeler, not to mention completing the steps in between? A group of us were literally holed up in Larry’s wine chemistry room (aka: the detached, windowless garage) for what felt like 15 hours each day. Yet it never got boring. In part, that’s because a lot of old school Madonna songs were coming on the radio but mostly it was because bottling wine is honestly fascinating.

So, here's how you bottle wine:

Before the actual bottling takes place, Larry and Dayle research, purchase and set-up all sorts of fancy machinery. Then they casually coerce their friends into kickin' it at the vineyard for some “Memorial Day fun.” Then said friends arrive and learn how to operate the machines. Each person gets to pick the one they like best and essentially becomes an expert operator by the end of the day.

Step 1, Break 'em out: Remove empty bottles from boxes and attach to the bottling machine. (Bottling machine video).

Step 2, Fill 'er up: Fill four bottles at a time with vino, making sure each contains the correct amount of liquid.

Note: Of all the machines, I like the bottler best. That's the machine that's connected to a huge vat of wine via a vacuum cleaner-type tube. The wine flows through this tube and into a metal container. Then it's somehow pushed through four separate small, clear tubes that each end in funnel dispenser. The machine operator (me!) snaps one empty bottle into each dispenser and watches the wine flow into the bottles through the clear tubes. There's a trigger that stops the wine from overflowing but occasionally the trigger would fail and it would be my important job to "manage the excess", which I was very good at. And my strategy? Drink it, I Love Lucy-chocolate conveyor belt style.

Step 3, Put a cork in it: Pass the full bottles to the corking machine operator and watch as the cork is smushed right in there. The best part was the Willy Wonka chocolate factory-esque noise that happens as the cork arm descends, plugging the "purple lifting drinks" with the beautiful Tryphon Vineyards cork. Note: Cynthia, in her Rosie the Riveter glory, is pretty much the best corking machine operator of all time. (Corking machine video)

Step 4, Top 'er off: Slide a foil topper onto the corked bottle. Depending on what kind of wine it was, we'd use either orange or green foil. (See green above, pre-smoothing machine).

Step 5, Smooth 'er out: Insert the top of each bottle into the foil smoothing machine. You can't imagine how wholly satisfying it is to see a crinkly, loose foil become smooth and fitted. Or maybe you can? (Smoothing machine video)

Step 6, Make it official: Run the bottles, one by one, through the labeling machine, watching them transform from a cute little pet project into an impressive-looking professional product. (Labeling machine video)

Step 7, Pack 'er up: Load the bottles back into case boxes, stack the boxes on a pallet and wrap the entire collection in plastic to prepare for transportation and storage.

Then all you have to do is wait for bottle shock to pass and it's go time. Let me know if you want to be part of the wine tasting at my house that will take place as soon as Larry says we're not in shock anymore. In the meantime, I'll continue to trip over the case of wine every time I walk into my kitchen.

*Note: the grapes we harvested will likely be ready for bottling 3 years from now. The wine we bottled today was from Dayle and Larry's very first harvest in 2007.