Destination – Refuge Day Spa in Carmel Valley California

I’m afraid this blog falls between the categories of ‘places I love’, and ‘miscellaneous carping’. I’m sorry for that. Mainly I’m writing so that if you go to Refuge in Carmel Valley, CA for a day of soaking and massage, you can have a better experience than I had. Not that it was a bad experience, but it would have been faaaabulous if I had been better prepared. I think of this as a bit of a public service blog.

Despite the fact that Northern California is full of natural hot springs and people who love to get spoiled with a day of hot soaks, cool plunges, steam rooms and massages, there is a surprising lack of day spas in California’s Central Valley. I say this in the hopes that someone with deep pockets or ambition will get the hint and build one.

Both the heavy hitters in the hot springs game, Esalen and Harbin Hot Springs have suffered some serious bad luck in the past four years and are just now reliably open. More importantly, both places are a 3-5 hour drive (depending on traffic) away from our home in Modesto, CA. [more hints]

So I went hunting for a reasonable substitute. The best I could do was Refuge… a day spa complete with a ‘thermal circuit’ of pools, steam rooms, dry saunas, and relaxation rooms. I would post pictures but they don’t allow you to take them, and there are no public domain images available on Bing – which is silly. But there you have it. If you really want to see what the place looks like go to their website at

Refuge is located an easy drive south of Monterey, CA – which puts it about a 2 hour drive from the San Francisco airport, and 2 1/2 hours from where we live. It’s the best we could find. Having lived in LA for years with the fabulous Olympic Spa just fifteen minutes away, I’m feeling the hardship.

Anyhow, about Refuge. Plan to spend at least three hours enjoying the various pools, steam and sauna, and a bit of leisurely reading in between. Allow extra time for a massage. Also, don’t be surprised when you drive up to the address only to see a large athletic complex. You’re in the right place. I know it doesn’t look like the home of a zen relaxation experience, but it is.

Now on to the preparations.

  1. Wear as small a suit as possible (I’ll explain)
  2. Bring extra towels
  3. Eat lightly just before you arrive
  4. Bring sunglasses and/or a sun hat
  5. Bring a book or magazine to read
  6. Book a massage… definitely
  7. Bring a pair of flip flops (thanks Kim!)
  1. Wear a small suit. By this I mean one that has as little fabric as possible. The suit absorbs water every time you get in a pool, and that water is soaked up by your towel (you get 2) or your robe (also included). The less fabric, the less water you’ll transfer to both. I wore a pair of water shorts with a lining, and a top with lots of floofy extras designed to persuade you that I still have the body of a thirty-year old. BIG mistake. My robe and the towel I allowed myself to use in the thermal cycle (because I was saving one for when I took a shower at the end and got dressed)… was totally soaked in the first twenty minutes. Unfortunately we went in February, so despite the sun, it was chilly. I spent more time than was probably healthy in the hot pool just to stay warm. (I found the sauna too hot to stay for long, and the steam room’s eucalyptus oil was a bit heavy for my tastes). Being February the “cool” pool was as frigid as the “cold” pool and despite my best intentions I never put more than a foot in either.
  2. Bring extra towels. See above. Even if I had been wearing a bikini, getting in and out of various pools for three hours is a damp business. If you want the robe to stay soft and fluffy, you need to dry off before you sit down to read or relax. Every time. Two towels is just not enough.
  3. Eat lightly before you come. There is no food for sale. There are no beverages for sale. They give you a large-ish bottle of water because otherwise many people would pass out or get sick from dehydration. Reasonably enough, they don’t want glass or food by the pools. I’m not sure why there is no restaurant or other place to fuel up, but there isn’t. Don’t eat a heavy meal because all the hot, cold, hot cycle will make it feel like you ate a brick. Soup and salad. Half a sandwich. You get the idea.
  4. Bring sunglasses and/or a sun hat. If the day is bright and sunny, as it was when we visited, the glare off the water is pretty brutal. There are some pools with shady places to rest, but they’re in demand. Sunscreen for your face is also probably a good idea. At least I got that right.
  5. Bring a book or magazine. No photos, right? Ergo, no smart phones, pads, eReaders with a camera, etc… So if your library is electronic, you’re stuck. Also, sitting next to a steamy pool with an electronic device is probably not great for its lifespan. Go old school. Bring a magazine or a book you’ve been planning to read but never got around to because you have so may books on your eReader.
  6. (added thanks to my wife’s good memory) – footwear. Yes! Flipflops or something equivalent. After all the soaking your feet get tender. There are all kinds of drain mats around the property that are brutal if you don’t have something to protect your feet… in the shower, in the meditation room, not to mention the rock paths. Flip flops. A must.

I know all this makes it sound like I had a terrible time. Admittedly, I was wet and cold too much to seriously get my zen on, and I really needed my sunglasses, but overall I’d give Refuge an 8 out of 10 as a place to go and relax. Part of the high score is because of the massages.

I strongly suspect that Refuge has poached more than one massage school instructor from Esalen (which as I mentioned has had a tough time due to access issues with the road washing out in 2015 and 2017… seriously crimping their revenue stream and resulting in layoffs and people being forced to leave their homes on campus).

Although I had requested a female massage therapist for my wife, she got a man. If he is who I suspect he is, she got one of the best Esalen massage therapists around, CJ. So she lucked out. I was about to say something about her preferring a male therapist but she was already trotting off and my own therapist had arrived… looking for Linky… or Limdy… eventually I realized she was asking for me. Lindley. It’s a tricky name. I know that.

Despite that slight bump in the beginning, this woman proceeded to give me the best massage of my life. And I’ve had a lot of them. I had paid for a “Swedish” massage because the “Deep Tissue” was more expensive. What can I say, I’m saving for retirement. I’m not sure why the one is more expensive because there was plenty of deep tissue work involved in my massage. I would have tipped her more than $20 if I’d brought it with me. Seriously. The skies opened up and the angels wept… or maybe that was me. Either way I left that room feeling twenty years younger, and if you don’t know it yet, when you’ve hit your junior senior years, that is a big deal.

So that’s what to expect from Refuge in the Carmel Valley. Do go. It’s a lovely experience and the massages are stellar. You deserve it!  And if you know of other day spas in the Central Valley where we can soak and get a great massage, do tell! Drop me a comment. 

Destination – The Paso Robles Wine Festival

I’ve given you a broad brush idea of all the different wine regions in California in Beyond Napa part I and part II, Way Beyond Napa.

In this blog I want to bring your wine-loving attention to the Paso Robles annual Wine Festival. This four day long celebration of all things red, white and bubbly in Paso Robles, California and the surrounding region is a perfect opportunity to get acquainted with the various wineries in order to decide which ones you might want to visit for a more intimate and extensive tasting.

Of course, you must pace yourself. Even with four days to spread out your imbibing, it’s easy to over-indulge and dull your palate. I don’t know about you, but I get really sad when I open a bottle of wine I’ve been looking forward to for months, if not years… only to discover that it doesn’t marry up with my memory of the tasting experience at the winery. For this reason I practice the age-old technique of disposing of (pouring out) most of my wine from a tasting.

No, this isn’t rude. In fact, the folks at wine tasting counters everywhere recognize that a person who throws out most of their wine pours is serious about enjoying wine. Tastings should be small to begin with, an ounce or less… but five or six of those at every winery you visit in a day can lead to you drinking three or four glasses of wine in a couple of hours. At this point everything is rose colored and the nice people at the last winery make the most spectacular wine ever. Or not.

So don’t hesitate to pour the wine out into the bucket every booth or wine tasting counter will provide for just this purpose. Never drink the entire pour unless the wine is SO spectacular that throwing it out would be a crime against oenophile tastebuds. (that’s you, an oenophile… which is to say, a lover of wine)

Anyhow, if you’re planning a trip to California to enjoy the wine, the Paso Robles Wine Festival is a terrific place to start. It’s held on the downtown green, and there are a large number of excellent restaurants and shops within two blocks of each side of the rectangle. So when you’re ready for a break, there is plenty to see and enjoy. In fact, if you miss the festival, there are a number of wineries with tasting rooms in the eight blocks surrounding downtown, along with a fun shop (oddly named We Olive,) that has dozens of flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars for the tasting. Go through the back and you’ll find one of my favorite Paso eateries, Thomas Hill Organics where you can savor small plates, creative fresh salads, perfectly prepared fish and steak, and exquisite deserts and enjoy a glass or two of local wine while you take the load off your feet.

Another spectacular Paso Robles sunset
Not all wineries are plush and polished. Some of the best grapes can be found at the end of a long dirt road like this one in Templeton, CA – just south of the town of Paso Robles

Destination – California Wine Country: Way Beyond Napa

There are five (possibly 6) wine regions in California, each of which contain many ‘American Vinicultural Area’s (commonly called‘AVA’s).  For anyone who is familiar with Napa, bear in mind that Napa is part of one region.  California has so much more to offer oenophiles.

In case you didn’t catch Part I,  where I talk about the North Coast, the Sierra Foothills, and Southern California, an AVA is a geographical area in California that is recognized for growing grapes with a terroir (climate, soil, elevation) that is clearly distinguishable from other areas.   California contains over one hundred.  Bring your comfortable walking shoes (and possibly, a driver).  Plan to stay a while… or come back – often. 

There are 5 wine regions in California, defined as follows (North to South):  

  • North Coast (Mendocino, Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Marin counties)
  • Sierra Foothills (Amador county)
  • Central Valley (Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Madera, Yolo, and Fresno counties) 
  • Central Coast (sometimes split into the North Central Coast and the South Central Coast, and including some of my favorite wineries. This region includes the Livermore Valley, Monterey County, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara county) 
  • Southern California (including the Malibu area, the Temecula Valley, and San Diego county)

As you can see, there’s a lot of tasting to do if you’re serious about learning more about wine… and don’t get me started on those wine club pyramid schemes with the scattershot approach to ‘educating’ people about wine.  If you want to understand wine, you need to get out there and talk to the experts in the tasting rooms and the vineyards. Corral yourself a half-way experienced wine maker, and you’ll learn more in twenty minutes than a decade of getting sloshed on mediocre wine. Admit it, those parties are just a way to get to know people, and for a few people to make a few bucks. Nothing wrong with that; but the real deal is out here in the countryside.  

In Part One I did a light brush over the North Coast, the Sierra Foothills, and Southern California.  Each of these areas is worth a much deeper exploration, but this is a blog, designed to give people who don’t live here a some idea of what else California wineries have to offer in case they were thinking of making the trip. If you live in California, and are just now realizing there may be more on offer than Napa, all the better.  (I don’t hate Napa, seriously… there’s just SO MUCH more)  

This segment is dedicated to the Central Valley (where I presently live), and the Central Coast.  In other words, the middle of California.  If you want to put it into perspective, that means we’re south/southeast of the Bay Area, and north/northeast of Los Angeles. 

Central Valley

Despite being virtually invisible as far as wine connoisseurs are concerned, the Central Valley is massive, producing nearly three-quarters of the state’s grapes and 90% of the wine sold in the US.  This area includes Sacramento, Yolo, San Joaquin, Madera, Stanislaus, and Fresno counties.  This is where most table wine sold in the United States is grown, fermented, bottled, and shipped.  E&J Gallo is headquartered in Modesto, California.  Gallo owns most of the brands you pick up at the grocery store, drug store, or drive thru liquor store.  Yep.  Barefoot Wine.  Apothic. Boons Farm.  Carnivor. Columbia.  Copper Ridge.  You can check out the Gallo site for a full list of their portfolio of wineries. It’s seriously impressive. 

Just north of Modesto, in Manteca, California you will find Delicato Family Vineyard’s tasting room.  Odds are good if the wine you just bought for the holiday table wasn’t produced by Gallo, it was produced by Delicato.  You can find their list of brands here.    Gnarly Head.  Bota Box.  Noble Vines.  Twisted… and more.  

In addition to the wine power houses of Gallo and Delicato, the Central Valley includes Lodi , which according to a recent count, is home to a whopping 85 wineries.  A lot of grapes are grown up there, but they take special pride in their Zins.  Easy driving distance from Sacramento and the Bay Area, Lodi is an area coming into its own in the last few decades.  If you dream of owning a vineyard and making great wine, Lodi still has some good deals on land.   

Sadly underestimated are some Central Valley wineries that should be on any wine lover’s map.  Mark Lucchesi, from a multi-generational family of peach growers, took on wine making as a later in life career and has been making some absolutely phenomenal wines at Lucca Winery in Ripon, California. 

He sources his grapes from many areas, including Napa where his brother has been growing fruit in the family tradition, and it shows in the complexity and variety of his product.  The tasting room is homey and the staff is friendly and knowledgeable. If you love fancy marble counters and lots of gift shop stuff… go elsewhere.  If you are looking for some terrific wine, a relaxed atmosphere, great values, and a labor of love, stop on by. 

Then head a few minutes down the road to downtown Modesto for a terrific meal.  My wife and I love the Divine Swine in the College area (about 3 minutes from downtown)… but Ralston’s Goat, Fuzio Universal Bistro, Concetta’s, Monsoon, and Harvest Moon have all made us very happy.  

Central Coast

Aaaaand THIS is where it all comes together.

The NORTH CENTRAL COAST includes the Livermore Valley (south-east of the Bay Area), the Santa Cruz Mountains (just north of the Bay Area), Monterey (south of the bay area) and Carmel Valley… with a dotting of other AVAs in that general vicinity.

The Santa Cruz area is eclectic in many ways, and the wineries there are no exception. If you enjoy a side of soul searching and spirituality with whatever else you might want to do on a trip (biking, hiking, ecstatic dance, dining, yoga, and of course wine tasting), this might be a destination for you.

The Livermore Valley has a historic tradition starting from the early 1880’s. This region hosts a number of varietals but Chardonnay grapes have the oldest lineage, and in fact most of California Chardonnays can be traced genetically to this area. This area is also close to the Winchester Mansion, which is well worth the visit, and a great deal of shopping including a sizeable outlet mall.

Monterey, right on the coastline, wasn’t taken seriously in the wine industry until the 1950’s when Bay Area housing demand began chewing up the winery real estate in the Livermore and Santa Clara Valleys. Because of the cooler coastal terroir, this area is known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. If you love wine, seafood, and deep sea fishing, this might be an area to explore.

The SOUTH CENTRAL COAST contains the area of San Luis Obispo County, the Paso Robles area, and Santa Barbara County.

I won’t lie. I have favorites. I’ve found the wines from the Edna Valley (north of Los Angeles) to be unpredictable because this is chock full of micro-climates. This makes it hard to predict how a particular bottle of wine is going to taste based on the location. However the ocean breezes in Edna Valley and the cool foggy hills of Arroyo Grande pretty much guarantee some decent Rhone blends, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noirs.

Santa Barbara County (also up the coast from Los Angeles) is a fabulous place to come eat, shop at boutiques, and enjoy a stroll along the coastline. Made famous by the 2004 movie, ‘Sideways’, it reminds me of the San Louis Obispo county wines with its many micro climates and unpredictable products.

If you’re looking for some serious wine making with quality grapes and interesting wines, my pick is the Paso Robles area. This is one of California’s oldest wine growing areas with plenty of hills and valleys for gorgeous vistas, photogenic ancient oak trees dripping with Spanish Moss, and tons of impressive wine tasting facilities. This is where you go for the wine tchotchkes and fancy tasting rooms. Check out EOS for the best views around. Because of these hills, the area is protected from the coastal winds and marine fog, making the grape harvest more consistent. Another factor is ‘dry farming’. Paso Robles, in the middle of a state that frequently suffers from drought, hosts a great many vineyards with established vines acclimated to very little water, in the French tradition. This creates denser flavor in the grapes, producing what is sometimes know as the “fruit forward” taste. Between the agricultural demands and the climate, Paso Robles wines are distinctive.

The wine tasting fees are often waived with the purchase of a bottle, and the bottles are reliably well-worth the price. The area remains a bit casual – which means friendly, not terribly expensive, and seriously focused on what they want to be known for… which is wine. Their annual Zin Fest on the square is an event not to be missed. There is a fabulous art cooperative and a number of terrific restaurants around the downtown (old town) square, and a store (We Olive) that specializes in flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars that is well worth the stop. While you can get a room at a Marriott Courtyard, my bet is on one of the local AirBnBs (etc) which tend to be more personal and interesting.

If you’re in this area to taste wine, I highly recommend J&J Wineries, J. Lohr (you will find them in the grocery store, but the tasting room offers a much broader and intriguing range), Chronic (developed and run by the sons of the owner of Peachy Canyon), Opolo, Cypher, Hug Cellars, and Starr Ranch. I can’t begin to cover all the amazing wineries there, so be prepared to discover a broad range of wine makers from Peachy Canyon on one end of the price range, to Turley and Justin on the other. The tasting rooms vary significantly, but the quality of the wines and passion of the wine makers is consistent.

California wines, so full of surprises that it would be impossible to cover them all. So pick an area, think of other activities that would make your trip memorable, and stay for a while.

What about you? Where have you been that you can’t forget? What wine club is your favorite, and why? Teach me something!

Destination – California Wine Country Part I (beyond Napa)

Leoness Cellars, Temecula, CA

California is home to some of the most creative winemakers, productive vineyards, wildly varying terroir,  and demanding wine club members in the world.  

If you love wine and you want an excuse to travel to the United States, California is your destination. 

Let’s break it down a bit.  There are five general regions, each of which contain many ‘American Vinicultural Area’s (commonly called‘AVA’s).

An AVA is a geographical area recognized for growing grapes that has terroir (climate, soil, elevation) distinguishable from other areas.   Overall, the state of California contains over 100.  Yeah

So… Napa.  Just the tip of iceberg.  Nothing against that region.  Some fine wines coming out of there, but it’s not where the great deals in wine are going to be found, and certainly not where I’d point you first for a terrific wine tasting (and buying) experience. 

You will need a car.  A driver would also be excellent, or you might bring one of those special friends who likes to travel but doesn’t like wine.  I pity them, but I treasure their value to the friendship circle.  There are some wine country tours that allow you to ride a train, but if you really want to explore, you’ll need to bear in mind that California is big.  Really. Really. Big.  You might have to come more than once. It’s a sacrifice, I know.  But California… just saying.

Not to sound like the California Tourist Bureau, but there’s a lot going on in this state.    I could write a book about California, so I need to stay focused.

This blog is about the various wine regions in California.  What I consider the five important wine regions in California can be broken down as follows (running from the top of the state to the south)

  • North Coast (Mendocino, Lake, Napa, Sonoma, Solano and Marin counties)
  • Sierra Foothills (Amador county)
  • Central Valley (Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Madera, Yolo, and Fresno counties) 
  • Central Coast (sometimes broken into the North Central Coast and the South Central Coast, and (spoiler alert) including some of my favorite wineries. This includes the Livermore Valley, Monterey County, the Santa Cruz Mountains, Paso Robles, and Santa Barbara county) 
  • Southern California (including the Malibu area, the Temecula Valley, and San Diego county)

I could (and still might) write a blog about various California wine trips I’ve taken in the more than eighteen years I’ve lived here.  For now though, I’m working on an overview, including my impressions of the wine, the wine tasting experience, and the local food.  I’ll throw in a little trivia just to spice things up and get your travel juices flowing.  

The North Coast

Mendocino County is the northernmost area.  You’ll get a lot of great Pinot Noir there and some average Chardonnay (my opinion, YMMV).  It’s damp, foggy, and cool – a climate that is excellent for growing a number of grape varietals, less so for vacationing.   There are 10 distinct AVAs there, including Anderson Valley which produces some lovely sparkling wines  – if that’s your thing. 

Slightly east of Mendocino is Lake County, one of the first California grape growing areas to acquire wine fame. It’s hilly, temperate, and full of lush forests, sweeping vistas, tranquil drives, and lots of nature.  The actress Lillie Langtry actually purchased a large swath of land there and imported grapes from France to start the Langtry winery – which I highly recommend.  Guenoc is the grocery store brand, but the Langtry label wines are far superior, and should definitely be tasted if you’re in that neck of the woods.  My all time favorite Viognier came from Langtry.  Also in that area is Harbin Hot Springs, which I hope will soon recover enough from the brutal 2015 Valley Fire to take in guests.  

I have spent time in Napa Valley.  It’s beautiful, well-groomed, and the delightful tourist destination everyone dreams of visiting.  The town of Callistoga has natural hot springs on offer, and some sweet little restaurants that I’d return to in a heart beat. If you’re in the mood for pizza or italian, you can’t go wrong with Bosko’s Trattoria.  The wine in Napa is varied, and well developed… but it should be.  It’s Napa.   With fame come responsibilities, and customers… and customers bring financial success. There are restaurants in Napa where you can drop a house payment on a meal for two.  If that’s your thing, go for it.  For some great food that doesn’t break the bank, try just about anything in the towns of Saint Helena and Napa.   The wine tasting experience varies widely, from the studied elegance of Chateau Montelena (of “Bottle Shock” fame) to the educational tour of Sterling (which is fun just for the tram ride to get up to the winery).  

A little AVA that rides the boundary between Napa and Sonoma, is Los Carneros which is similar in climate to Mendocino County.  I’m not familiar (yet) so if you can tell me more about the wines, the wine tasting experience, etc… drop me a comment. 

Sierra Foothills (Amador County)

Amador County, in the Sierra Foothills, is a new favorite of ours.  With a history of local wine making (for locals), it’s been a pretty well kept secret for generations.  With that history come some spectacular vineyards and a tendancy toward a rather piquant (they call it “spicy”) Old Vine Zinfandel.  Italian varietals like Sangiovese and Barbera, and Rhone vines like Syrah and Viognier, also flourish and find their way into various bottles of note.  Amador is generally a quiet, unassuming area, although now that it’s on the ‘wine map’ things are starting to change and the tasting rooms are getting dressed up to reflect that.  In Amador, people take their food seriously, so you can expect to eat very well. This is also home to the Amador Flower Farm where you can see hundreds of Daylily varietals in bloom if you’re there in May and early June.  Amador County is also home to a deliciously dilapidated little town called Fiddletown, (because of its annual-ish Fiddler’s Jam),  chock full of historical buildings that I personally covet.  If I won the Lottery, I could see pouring a lot of money into the main street. 

Southern California

I’m going to drop in a bit about Southern California because this is long enough, and the Central Coast and the Central Valley merit their own blog (Part II). 

Despite the fact that I adored Milan Vineyards near Malibu,  I used to think that the bulk of great California wine was produced in Paso Robles and northward.  Then I moved out to the Coachella Valley (think Palm Springs, CA) for a bit, and discovered the Temecula Valley.  Wineries like Doffo, Leoness, and even the delicious wines of Disney-esque Monte de Oro, soon changed my mind.  If you are in the southern half of the state, don’t despair.  There is a great deal of sophisticated wine to be enjoyed in that area. 

I’ve been told that San Diego also hosts a few credible wineries but haven’t encountered them yet.  Any favorites there?  Drop me a comment. 

More to come.  Hope this has gotten your oenophile sensibilities all a-buzz.  Any favorite wineries you want to vote for?  Where else do you travel just to taste wine?  Share!