Category Archives: Vinetopia

Quirkutopia’s history is steeped in getting steeped. Grapes and hops both have a formidable presence in history and at the table. There is hardly a town without both a ring of wineries, big and small, and a brewery proudly bubbling up award-winning specialty ales, stouts and barley wines. Adding to the heady mix of options are a multitude of craft distillers bottling up vodkas, rums, gins, brandies, whiskey, liqueurs and grappas.

For those living an alcohol free life, there are copious cafes with artisan roasting of the magic bean, some of the most prominent and humble tea crafters and farmers squeezing fresh juices that can be picked up at the local farm stands and markets and brought along on picnics and tasting tours. We’ll be sharing the favorites with all you sippers. The only thirst in Quirkutopia is the thirst for life!

Update: Crabs Sould NOT Do Acid

Winter in these parts is often punctuated by Dungeness crab dinners – in homes over the holidays and at the numerous benefits touting “Crab Feed” on handpainted signs along every byway.


A crab feed in readiness last year. This year benefits lean more to carb feeds (spaghetti dinners).

The winter of 2015-16 has been proving a rough one for crab consumers and worse, for crab-fishing families along our dramatic Northwest coastline.


Idled crab pots in Bodega Bay. Photo:

Why? The crabs are all on acid. Domoic acid, that is. Domoic acid is a kainic acid analog neurotoxin that causes amnesic shellfish poisoning, which does not cause one to forget what one just ate – but rather a fatal biotoxin that if consumed by sea-dwellers and then humans and other mammals can cause seizures, paralysis and death. It concentrates up the food chain, targeting the brain’s hippocampus. It shrinks and destroys this essential (and wonderfully named) part of the brain. Really a very clever and efficient microscopic diatom is the wee Pseudonitzschia australis. (We love science here at Quirkutopia).


The clever and deadly Domoic Acid can send you on your last trip. Photo by Dr. Rozalind Jester

Understandably, the crabbing season has been delayed by California State officials until this dissipates. Domoic acid (DA) is known as the “Red Tide” and is triggered by a harmful overbloom of algae. That in turn is fostered by warmer ocean waters – a sure sign that this is an EL Nino year. Sea lions and other creatures are sadly  “canaries” in the coal mine of our changing ocean conditions and have been affected by the algal blooms in recent years.


They aren’t yellow and feathery but they are the canaries of our California Coastline. Photo by Misuzu Toyama, see more here.

Here at Quirkutopia we do NOT love the environmental harm humans do the oceans, and are famous for fighting those who would plunder our coast (more on that later)! This year, we are doing what we can to assist the fisher-families who are devastated by the halt in crabbing, which you can join in by donating here. Meanwhile we are making supporting local farmers who are having their first rains after many drought-stricken seasons, our feasts from local seasonal veggies. Wasn’t that one of our resolutions anyway?


The Spore Recovery Of New Orleans

The fernhangers are returning, spore-sourcing the green recovery. The ferns of Nola have been sporely missed indeed.                                                                                                                     Photo by Heather Granahan

Once upon a time there was a city steeped in tropical decadence and modern strife of life, a city wreathed in ferns that literally stitched each old building to the next. The green curls graced all corners of New Orleans alike; the corners where inebriated tourists donated their Sex On The Beach drinks back to the sidewalk, where locals bought their groceries and ones where little kids stayed up too late dancing with taps screwed into their basketball shoes to earn a few bucks. Ferns hung in drooping enormous baskets from the multilayer porches of the weathered old hotels and apartments.

Gettin in the fern spirit…more sources of all things good and ferny.  Photo by Heather Granahan

As many of us quirks who frequent New Orleans regularly have noticed, the city was scoured of its fantastic green fern garnish during Katrina, and as the renewal of the city involves a lot of new paint downtown, the place has looked pretty unusually shiny in parts.

Shiny new paint isn’t stopping these brave fluffy fronds          Photo by Heather Granahan

We are here to report after a visit a couple weeks ago that along with the recovery of the heartbeat of the city, the ferns are slowly but surely finding their way back. More and more folks are hanging back up the huge fern baskets and the re-sporing of Nola has commenced. Witness these determined Nephrolepis exaltata  spotted this trip and smile with us over another tiny recovery step.

Right amongst the relentless street life of New Orleans, the spores march on looking for likely crevices.  Photo by Heather Granahan

The old and the new meet eternally in this truly quirky city. Photo by Heather Granahan

Gracing a doorway as no intended decor could.             Photo by Heather Granahan

Purty in pink. Welcome back, girls.  Photo by Heather Granahan

Pretty as a mess of fried catfish, I say.   Photo by Heather Granahan

Trained for Poshness

Enjoy the riveting perspective a good old train can give you.
Photo by Andrea Granahan

There are various ways to tour wine country ­that will not have frustrated locals piled up behind your weaving rental, each personally transforming the place into Whine Country. You can bring along a DD (designated driver) and drive it safely, you can hire a limo, ride in a tour bus (please no), you can ride a bike if you really space out your tastings. One of us has even tasted on horseback, until the horse decided it was closing time and lit out for home through the vineyards. But the quirkiest way is to take a train.

Yes, you can do that in Quirkutopia, just not to commute anywhere – just to drink wine. In 1984 the railroads was ready to abandon the only rail line in Napa County, one that dated to 1865. The valley organized and went searching for wealthy investors, not in shortage in that inland valley. The result was the Napa Wine Train.

Park your dogs on this pretty puppy for a spell. The Napa Wine Train in mid-switch.
Photo by Andrea Granahan

The train was lovingly restored using historical cars from 1915 to 1917. Honduran mahogany, polished brass, velvet and etched glass make you think you are on the Orient Express.

Hoo, baby – you had us at velvet. And check out that ceiling!
Photo by Andrea Granahan

Most rides are three hours long, starting in the city of Napa, switching back at St. Helena. You move at a leisurely 12 miles per hour, so photography is easy. Dessert is served in the comfortable lounge cars where every swiveled chair has a window. 

Before you leave the station you will be taught the art of wine tasting; sip-gurgle-spit or swallow. Then as you board you can profess your love on the Love Lock Bridge. You bring your own lock or buy one there, write your and your love’s names on it or have them engraved at the station, then fasten it to the bridge.  There are love locks appearing on famous bridges throughout Europe and more recently in Asia. Ones near trains are supposed to magnetically interact with the fields generated by the trains passing. If you feel a certain magnetic frisson as you seal your lock, attribute it to your love or the lock.

Lock your love on, then allaboard. Photo by Andrea Granahan

You can get really quirky, and forego the gourmet, multi-course meals made from local organic goodies and ride with the engineer in the locomotive and have a brown bag lunch instead.

Get on up there with the engineer and chow some sandwiches (it’ll cost ya, but hey: wind in the teeth – priceless).
Photo by Andrea Granahan

The Napa Wine Train offers a variety of excursions through the vineyards. You can enjoy a meal, then sip wine as the train reveals the beautiful valley, and then be dropped off at a vineyard for a tour and tasting ­ a motor coach returns you to the station. On one special journey, you can solve a murder mystery that takes place as you dine on a gourmet meal in the elegant Pullman cars (think Orient Express and Agatha Christi). You can do it sipping champagne by moonlight from one of the first glass-domed observation cars ever made.

Dome car? Did you say dome car? We’re there.

Whoa, Nellie – oh. It’s the push-me-pull-you engine switch, not a head-on.
Startled photo by Andrea Granahan

At the switchback stop, the locomotive is moved from one end of the train to the other for the return trip. The viewing platforms at the ends of the trains may lure you into making an election speech ­ and creating your own whistle stop. Or at least a wet-your-whistle stop.

No-whine zone – enjoy the moment. It ain’t world peace and/or freedom, ok, but it’s gotta help…right??
Photo by Andrea Granahan

It’s not a cheap ride, but the $129 on up includes the posh lunch and for a sentimental, romantic outing starting with a love lock, its reasonable in an unreasonable way.

Thirst Parlor #1The Old Western Saloon

The Old Western Saloon in Point Reyes Station, CA

            We love to get our quirk on in the local cowboy saloons – “thirst parlors” as they were known in their heyday. We have some great ones that have successfully repelled gentrification, yuppification, county regulations and other attacks. One is the Western Saloon in the town of Point Reyes Station which dates back to 1860.

Patrons have been known to ride their horses right into the saloon to get them a drink. The saloon uses a cash register from a remodel done in 1906. It’s got a couple paintings of nudes hanging up, one called Trashy and one called Trixie by locals.

A horse leaves the thirst parlor. Photo from old Western Saloon blog

             It has a colorful history. It once served as a brothel and when the current owner Judith Borello took over 39 years ago she found old transom widows from the rooms labeled with the girls’ nicknames – they all took floral names like Daisy, Rose, Lily. Judith is retired from active management now but she rides in to check on things in her golf cart with a Rolls Royce grill.

            There was a room used by bootleggers during the Prohibition years. Booze was smuggled in at the nearby coast and stored in the windowless lockable place. The Liquor Room also served as a temporary jail for the local sheriff’s deputy in later years since there’s no real jail in town.

            There’s wood stove with some comfy chairs, and a dance floor which patrons attempt to wear out when live music is brought in, like The Lost River Cavemen, who are allegedly a mix resembling Gogol Bordello, Tom Waits, Johnny Cash and the Old Crow Medicine Show. Sounds good to us!

Prince Charles, the Lady Camilla and Fred the (girl) dog at the Old Western Saloon

            Not only horses but notables have stepped into the Western Saloon to slake their thirst. Among them are Prince Charles and the lovely Camilla. The Prince even shared a single mug of beer with owner Judy and gave ol’ Fred the dog a pat on the head. What a sport. Bit of a twist from the parlors back home, eh, your majesty?

No Gnomes?

Pink flamingos? I think not.

Quirkutopian yards are anything but a uniform march of hedges and lawn gnomes. Or at least not your Grandma’s gnomes. Is the art just spilling out of the houses and into the yards? Are these gestures of exuberant expression or just clever happenstance? It’s helpless trying to figure out a quirk’s yard. Just enjoy.

Patrick Amiot's street art. Photo Scott Beale / Laughing Squid,

Of course, some are getting rather well-known and even finding a living creating some serious found-object creations. Patrick Amiot of Sebastopol, CA is one such playful soul. His family has been spotted biking to school with helmets adorned with strainers and scrub-brush Mohawks. One street famously sports his figures that mimic the residents or their favorite things in front of every house. A mermaid with can-top scales lounges in front of one house while down the street 7-foot Owl and Pussycat with tail-light eyes sail happily in a pea-green boat. Next door a fireman enjoys a tiny red engine complete with little metal found-art dude driving it. His pieces appear in yards, cattlefields and in front of schools and businesses; some in unexpected places, some in unexpected sizes!

10 foot hen with a windvent comb and metal pan chicks. So metallic and yet maternal. We suspect Mr. Amiot's hand in these.

Some find inspiration in objects both fun and ..well, a little creepy..and some are both. One quirk’s African Baby Garden Princess  is another’s…oogling sprite?

Guarding the lushness: Babydoll bit re-purposed into garden "votives"

In a land where your home might front a forest, a rocky coastal meadow, or just maybe an actual yard, HOAs are in the minority and joyful yard interpretation is spreading like Bermuda grass!

A Mushrooming Interest

Black Trumpet mushrooms tooting about the feast to come...

The rains finally arrive in dusty Wine Country and a certain quirky contingent gets on their boots. Rather than bemoaning the drizzle or using it as an excuse to hibernate, these adventurers happily brave the chilly rains to follow the mycelium trail to search for the gourmet mushrooms that abound in the region.

A recent opening of a nature preserve for a mushroom hike brought a sell-out crowd, and they returned with enormous fragrant bouquets of Golden Chanterelles ($18.00 a lb at the store!). Hikes on the coast turn up gigantic Porcinis, the majestic Boletus Edulis. Chefs, local families and European emigrants exchange hellos in the undergrowth, warily bragging about their finds without revealing exact locales. Craterellus Fallax, better appreciated as Black Trumpets  which they resemble, herald  a feast on the way. Black Elven Saddles abound in the grass with early rains. And Clitocybe Nuda is not an exotic film actress, but a tasty mushroom with a lovely lavender underbelly known as the Blewit. Which is exactly what you did if you walked on by a growth of these tasty morsels!

Da Crush!

Da Crush!

Fall in Quirkutopia means it’s crush time. When the grapes are ripe forget about the rest of life. If you need to move or haul something during the crush, you had better have locked in your transport rental at least three months in advance because come the crush, it is claimed by the  vines.

The viticulturists (the guys that grow the stuff) prowl the vines with their little sugar measuring thingies. OK, it’s called a saccharimeter, and we wonder if it can be also used to measure falsely sweet social platitudes…but we digress. When the sugar level or “brix” (pronounced “bree”) is exactly right, all hell breaks loose. Grapes are grabbed as fast as they can be by anyone willing to work for minimum wage, or for free – vineyard owners are quick to enlist friends into their labor force. The grapes are driven at top speed to the crushers at the wineries where the oenologists (the guys who make the stuff) begin their work.

Every winery begins to reek so aromatically you just have to breathe to become inebriated. It’s intense work for everyone involved. But once the sacred must (that’s the raw stuff) starts fermenting its way to wine, everyone can sit back except the winemaker, and it’s time for the Cellar Rats Ball.