Outstanding in the Field, Burgundy, France

Outstanding in the field is a foodie’s dream. Turning the notion of dining out on its head, instead of bringing the farm to a restaurant’s table, they bring the restaurant to the field. Their mission is to “re-connect diners to the land and the origins of their food, and to honor the local farmers and food artisans who cultivate it.”

Sounds enticing, doesn’t it?

Outstanding in the Field, Burgundy, France

Starting out in 1999 in California by artist and chef Jim Denevan, Outstanding in the Field was one of the early pioneers to try a such a crazy idea before it was cool for pops ups and food trucks to roam the country. They’re now in their 14th year with 87 events alone this season and have held events in all 50 states as well as 14 countries. My friend Emily has been waiting years for them to come to Europe and I was lucky enough to join them for their first event in Burgundy, France.

Welcome to Outstanding in the Field

We were dropped off in the middle of the vines of Domaine Lebreuil where we were greeted by General Manager Eden before joining the other 80 guests for canapés and generous pours of third-generation winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lebreuil’s selection. I was keenly interested in finding out where everyone was from, there were a few French and English accents I could hear, but the event was overpowered by faithful advocates who traveled all the way over to Europe from the US. That’s some effort!

House-made marbled ham
Salmon gravlax with Fallot mustard
Vegetable tart with a mousse of Fromagerie Delin Delice de Pommard
Beetroot salad with Emmanuelle Bailard Farm back currants and crunchy peanuts
2013 Domaine Lebreuil “Dessus des Gollardes” Blanc
2013 Domaine Lebreuil “Aux Grands Liards” Rouge

Canapes at Outstanding in the field

After Eden shared the history of the program and why we were all standing in the middle of nowhere, 41-year-old Jean-Baptiste followed up with a humble and humorous welcome. “I am so happy we are all here in the earth of Burgundy,” he shared. He was clearly very excited to meet everyone and host his first of this kind, and “for the weather since harvest is next week!” It was a hot day for sure.

Jean-Baptiste Lebreuil

We walked straight through the Grand Cru vines to find a long table set in the middle of the vineyard. You were even welcomed to bring your own plate, but for those of us who hadn’t, we picked through the colorful stack before taking a seat to start our meal prepared by Michelin starred chef David Le Comte of Kook’In.

Domaine Lebreuil

Club sandwich with tomato, hard-boiled egg, cocktail sauce, parmesan, bacon & Truites De L’ube GAEC trout

Club Sandwich

Bourguignon perch with espelette butter with grilled Eric Roy Farm seasonal vegetables
2015 Domaine Lebreuil Premiere Cru “Aux Clous” Blanc


Ligny Farm poultry prepared in the style of Gaston Gerard with roasted Farmer Bruno Grenailles potatoes
2015 Domaine Lebreuil Premiere Cru “Aux Clous” Rouge


Petite Louisette Charolais beef grilled in the style of Bourguignone with ratatouille
2014 Domaine Lebreuil “Les Boutieres” Rouge

Beef with ratatouille

Assortment of Burgundian cheeses with pain d’epices: Brillat Savarin, Epoisses, Comte, Mulot & Petit Jean
Cheesecake with Emmanuelle Baillard Farm black currents


The wine pours were generous and Jean-Baptiste even brought out a magnum to share with his guests. He truly was a pleasure to meet and speak to.

Lisa & Jean-Baptiste

So what did I think? If I’m honest, I was disappointed with the food. It could have been the fact that it was nearly 90F degrees and therefore the fish was overcooked, the chicken undercooked, and steak so fatty I couldn’t even get it down.

But what I will praise is our friendly and fun waiter Percy; Jean-Baptiste and his wines; the carrots and vegetables which accompanied the fish were out of this world; and the cheese, OMG!!! Plus that fact that I was lucky to be in a beautiful vineyard in the middle of Cote de Beaune, Burgandy.

Lisa Vecchio Burgundy France

Lastly, the event was poorly organized from a logistics perspective (except for the excellent porter-loo facilities). When the meal ended at around 10 pm most guests made their way to an after party at Jean-Baptiste’s chateaux. We would have loved to join but weren’t quite sure if were invited, and therefore, stood in the pitch black dark in the field scrambling to figure out how to get the one taxi in town to come get us in the middle of a vineyard, literally. Finally one did, for the price of 30 Euro to go 3 kilometers down the road.

I would consider going again because who doesn’t love drinking copious amounts of wine in a beautiful setting while making new friends and tasting some fantastic local grub. But for the steep cost of $250 USD, I’d give it a proper consideration before forking over the cash again. Thanks Outstanding in the Field for a fun dining experience!


Languedoc wine region

A Rosé Holiday in Montpellier

The student-centric city of Montpellier is not what one assumes when you say you’re jetting off to the south of France. Typically, the exotic beaches of the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez fit the bill but for me and my crew, a short jaunt to the 8th largest city in France to sip rosé in the sun is just what the doctor ordered.

To start, Montpellier is perfectly located to get a quick taste of the fabulous Languedoc wine route. We started off with a half-day tour led by the friendly and knowledgeable Karina from Montpellier Wine Tours to visit two medieval, family-owned estates.

Montpellier Wine TourSet at the base of Pic Saint-Loup, Château La Roque’s entire biodynamic selection was perfect on the palate and we couldn’t escape without two bottles of Château La Roque Rosé 2015 in tow. Followed by Château de Lascaux, sitting amongst the dated stone walls in an old monastery, set the scene perfectly for our second tasting.

Château La Roque VineyardA short train ride from the city is the unpretentious colorful port town of Sète. Narrow canals create a maze around the old town, surprisingly busy for a Sunday when the rest of France shuts down. Families enjoyed ice-creams, as we parked ourselves in front of the foodie mecca Les Halles, to sip more rosé in the sun to the sound of locals playing music in the street out front.

Languedoc coastAfter a scenic walk along the Languedoc coast, we discovered a small, quiet beach. It was an ideal and unsuspecting place to grab a baguette, some cured ham and cheese to picnic, coupled with a light, refreshing rosé in the scorching heat. On our way back to town, it was only necessary to sit along the canal to soak up the last of the day’s sun and try the big fat locally farmed oysters, king prawns and mussels.

Seafood platter in SèteThe best part of Montpellier is not only the short 14k proximity to a stunning coastline but cycling there! A paved path with fit runners, wild horses and fishermen hug the lush green river Lez, topped with Lilly pads and flamingos and lined with bright purple, yellow and white flowers mixed with bright red poppies. We let our skirts flow with the wind as we rode hired bikes along the pathway to its mouth Palavas-les-Flots, and stopped along the way for yet again another indulging picnic and bottle of rosé to reward ourselves for the day’s efforts.

Cycling to Palavas-les-Flots

Montpellier wild horsesMontpellier is an interesting city for sure. A friend asked why go? There’s nothing there, he said. But if you like great wine, fresh seafood and fantastic weather, there’s nothing not to like. It’s a quirky and charming place, tattoo and piercing shops nestle up next to century-old buildings; student friendly cheap eats, kabab and bagel shops rival Michelin recommended bistros while street performers, hippies and homeless dogs roam the streets.

Place de la Comédie“Summer is for tourists, wine country is for locals,” Karina said. And I’d like to pretend just for a weekend I was both. Even better, Montpellier turned Sophie from a rosé sceptic to a convert. Nothing beats a rosé holiday!

We loved:
Glouglou: A cute wine bar with a large range of taste-to-pour varietals. The glouglou platter of oysters, salmon, cured ham, cheese and foie gras was a perfect snack to share post-wine tasting.

glouglouThym Et Romarin: An awesome recommendation from Karina, we had our favorite meal in town here with excellent service by Jean. The confit duck and baked camembert were a dream.

The Beehive Pub: Set in a charming square where local townsfolk enjoy a beer at any time of day, the selection of over 40 whiskies gave us no reason to apologize for enjoying a few post-dinner aperitifs at an English pub in France (gasp!).

Le Pré Vert: This beautiful brunch location has the most enormous, delicious salads. Think goat cheese on toast with orange slices and almonds; smoked salmon and trout with mixed vegetables; or pesto chicken and fresh mozzarella.

Grand Hotel du Midi:  Just on the cusp of the old town, this funky contemporary hotel was perfectly situated in buzzing Place de la Comédie in the heart of the city. Service was great, free-Wi-Fi, a friendly bar with a great selection and small balconies to enjoy the morning sun.

Grand Hotel du Midi


Champagne Tasting in Epernay, Champagne

Champers, bubbly, the good stuff – everyone has their preference for a nickname but no matter what you call it, one thing is plain as day, Champagne is one of the most sophisticated drinks in the world. Luckily for me, getting to Champagne from London isn’t as difficult as one may think.

Keep calm and drink champagne!

Keep calm and drink champagne!

My friend Emily sold it to me very easily. She said it’s as simple as hopping on the one-hour and ten-minute train from Gare de Est in Paris to Epernay, the heart of Champagne production. From there it’s easy enough to spend the afternoon roaming up and down picturesque Avenue de Champagne for a few tastings in the handful of Champagne houses that line the street. After that, it’s a quick cab into the countryside for a multi-course fine dining experience at gastronomic Chateau Etoges, and back onto the train home the next day. As the French would say, walla!

Andy Wahloo cocktail bar, Paris

Andy Wahloo cocktail bar, Paris

To break up the trip, the girls and I modified the plan slightly. We took a late Friday afternoon Eurostar into Paris and spent the short evening in town. It gave us just enough time to chow down at the trendy Moroccan restaurant 404 before a quick cocktail at neighboring Andy Wahloo, easily confused for Andy Warhol with its funky vibe. We went to bed early enough that a croquet monsieur for breakfast did just the trick on the morning train northwest up to the Champagne province.

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay

Aside from the famed Avenue, Epernay itself seemed a bit dated. Historically, Epernay was where the Champagne was produced and up-market Reims was where it was sold. Besides an old-school CD and photocopier shop and a market sourcing fresh fish, meat, vegetables, cheese, and flowers, there wasn’t much else to do. That only meant one thing, we better do what this town does best and get our Champagne tasting on!

Moet & Chandon gift shop

Moet & Chandon gift shop

Moët & Chandon is massive, but it’s one of those places that has to be done at least once. The stark white interior and polished gift shop said it all, but then again the brands are owned by Louis Vuitton, the largest luxury producer in the world. In fact, 10% of Champagne production in the region comes from the Moët & Chandon house.

What’s great about a guided tour is that you really do learn a lot, and it’s even a nice refresher on what you may already know. Yes, sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it’s actually from the region itself, but I always thought it was just Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. There is actually a third grape that sneaks in too, Pinot Meunier.

Pouring bubbles at Moet & Chandon

Pouring bubbles at Moet & Chandon

Even more fascinating is that there is a labyrinth of over 110 kilometers of cellars in Epernay, all running underground the city, some going multiple layers deep. It’s the clay in the terroir which is why Champagne can truly only be called as such if produced in this region alone.

Magnum of Champagne at Moet & Chandon

Magnum of Champagne at Moet & Chandon

There are 3 types of tastings offered at the end of the tour, Traditional (one glass of Moët Impérial, Impérial (one glass of Impérial and one glass of Rosé Impérial), and Grand Vintage (one glass of Vintage 2008 and one glass of Rosé Vintage 2008). We only had the Traditional however I’m so grateful to my friend Jaime who gave me a bottle of their latest, Vintage 2008, for my birthday this year.

Gates of Collard-Picard

Gates of Collard-Picard

The courtyard of Collard-Picard was one of our favorite stops. We were so lucky that the sun was shining and it wasn’t too brisk being the end of October. In fact, the Prestige bottle we shared over gossip and giggles was the best of the day and the only one that made the journey back to London with me. Maybe it’s because the grapes were all derived from prestigious Grand-Cru classified terroirs.

The most special of all was the VIP private tour at de Castellane courtesy of Grape Escapes. Taking a short detour off of the famed Avenue, when I caught sight of the magnificent tower that trademarks the town my mouth did a big drop and I let out a huge “wow.”  Even better, our fast-talking guide Paulina was the best and took us to the top at the close of the tour. She taught us all about the game of champagne making, from deciding when to keep a vintage which you should keep from 10 years onward, or when to blend it into a non-vintage if the taste starts to turn for the worse over time.

If planning a visit to de Castellane, I would recommend doing a guided tour during the week, where you can see the live production line in action. For the four of us however, the underground museum was still very educational and built further on what we learned earlier in the day. What made the tour so special was the visit to the private offices, which housed over 7,000 champagne labels – a marketers dream.

Private VIP tasting room at de Castellane

Private VIP tasting room at de Castellane

We then relaxed in big brown leather chairs for our private tasting of both the Brut and Rosé. We definitely overstayed our welcome but it was the perfect environment to unwind and ask Paulina countless questions about champagne and wine production. In fact, we stayed so long we finished both bottles and Soph left with the hiccups!

Fois gras served in a smile at La Table Kobus, Epernay

Fois gras served in a smile at La Table Kobus, Epernay

After a day long of Champagne tasting there was only one thing left to do, find the perfect bottle from the experts at 520 Champagne et Vins D’auteurs and enjoy it over a classic French meal. La Table Kobus was spot on, Michelin recommended and the menu made our mouths begin to drool before any food was even served. The fois gras was like butter and beautifully presented. The steak and cod were perfectly prepared. Restaurants in town can be limited so book in advance and take advantage of their BYOB policy (corkage fee applies on weekends).

Only one question still remains, should I have tried the frog legs?

For the Love of France

Within my first 6 months living back in London I have ventured over to France 4 times…it really must be love!

From the City of Lights in Paris to craft beer drinking Lille, to the castles of Loire and finally to the capital of gastronomy Lyon, I’m making a serious dent in becoming a Francophile. Who would have thought it?

My recent trip to the Loire Valley was special. My mom made her way over from New Jersey for our first mother/daughter European adventure. What better way to spend the time then to hop on the Eurostar then travel through bright yellow canola fields into the city of Tours at the heart of the Loire Valley.

JoAnn Rose in St. Pancreas International

JoAnn Rose in St. Pancreas International

We trailed the internet in search of the perfect wine tour but it just didn’t appear to exist. In the end we booked with Loire Valley Tours, where we visited some of the famed castles in the valley and tried a few wines. We were joined by two 19-year-old American’s who were studying abroad, and I couldn’t help but smirk at their naivety, something that I swore I didn’t have when I was in their shoes back in my university days abroad in 2003. Even funnier was that the girls were studying French in Toulouse. Our driver Simon kindly pointed out that learning French in the south would be like learning english in Liverpool, the accent is just simply that bad.

Simon of Loire Valley Tours

Simon of Loire Valley Tours

Simon rudely wouldn’t assist us in making a dinner reservation, something that I would have thought is going above and beyond. He wanted to prove a point though, so as I hung up after nervously calling one of the best local restaurants in Tours to book us into dinner, he said, “See, do you now have a reservation?” And after I bashfully responded “Yes”, he said, “I told you so, this is 2016 after all and everyone in France speaks english.”

My favourite castle was Chenonceau, set over River Cher with immaculate gardens and a fascinating story as it was built by different women over the centuries.  I also enjoyed the day in the picturesque town of Amboise, visiting Leonardo de Vinci’s grave and home where he died, and the interesting lunch of pork belly at what one would assume was a tourist trap yet was strangely filled with locals at cave restaurant La Cave aux Fouées.

Our wine tasting at Caves Duhard was like nothing I had ever experienced before. No wine was made there, it simply was storage, but then again that’s what caves in France are perfect for. In fact, one of the oldest bottles they still had was from 1874. As we carefully walked along the dirt floor into the darkness of the depth of the cave, we passed thick green bottles stacked upon bottles, labelless, casually divided by a concrete wall with the name and year scribbled on a piece of wood. As I wiped dust off of a 1983 Vouvray, the year I was born, I contemplated buying it. Prices were very reasonable after all but following the brief tasting we had paired with some amazing local cheese I thought better of it and bought a cheap and cheerful Moutlouis to drink on a warm summers day. Note: I’ve already drank it and it was more delicious the second time around.

It appeared our answer to everything that weekend was “Bonjour”. More wine? Bonjour. Have a good evening. Bonjour. Where are you from? Bonjour. So as we made our way from Michelin-starred restaurants to boutique wine bars and said our bonjours, we took our last stop in Paris before travelling back to London for one more wine, escargot and beef tartare. Oh how French.

The following weekend I was on a flight with my friend Jake back over to France again, but this time to where it is oddly referred to as the stomach of France, Lyon! Oh, how I loved Lyon!

Shamefully I hadn’t done my research well enough in advance, and we arrived late Saturday afternoon on a bank holiday weekend to fly back again on Monday. I had planned it perfectly in my head, only to learn that there are no wine tours on Sunday and we wouldn’t arrive early enough on Saturday! So here I was, traveling to the famed northern Rhone Valley and there wasn’t an opportunity to taste the wine at a vineyard?! So not cool. But then again, if you don’t ask you don’t get and luckily I came across Vincent of Lyon Wine Tours, a young wine tour operator who kindly picked us up at Lyon airport Saturday afternoon and took us through elegant Cote-Rotie to try some perfect Syrah and Viognier. Oh and unlike Simon, he offered to make our dinner reservation. My only regret now was flying with carry on only as we couldn’t bring anything back!

Cot Rotie Condrieu

Cote Rotie Condrieu

But being in France’s foodie capital meant that the rest of the trip was all about eating, of course. From traditional blood sausage, the new superfood apparently, and the best potatoes dauphinoise I’ve ever had at traditional Lyonnaise eatery Chez Mounier. The real star of town however is Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse, a famed gastronomic institution where locals come to gather not only to shop from each little storefront of over 48 merchants for cheese, foie gras, pralines, charcuterie and others but also to make their way from each small restaurant to the next, trying a new dish as each had its own speciality.

We desperately wanted oysters but found ourselves sat at the counter of Les Garcons Bouchers (The Butcher), ordered some of the finest steak and potatoes for breakfast, and had a friendly chat with our French neighbours who poured us bounty of their own wine as we must try it they demanded. Oysters would come next for lunch at L’epicerie before dining at Lyon’s famed chef Paul Bocuse’s brassiere, Le Sud.

Oysters at L’epicerie, Lyon

Oysters at L’epicerie, Lyon

The city itself is picturesque, with an Old Town, cobblestone streets and all, and a huge cathedral, Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourvière,  at the top of the hill which makes for a great afternoon hike in between all the wine and food tasting. There’s also plenty of shopping and nightlife, but who needs that in a culinary haven such as Lyon.

I won the Ultimate Gourmet Escape to Hobart, Tasmania

We’ve all seen those contests on Facebook and Instagram. They’re ever present. But do you ever sit back and think to yourself, who actually wins them? Would you believe it if I told you I won 3 in one week!

It all started with a raffle at artesian brewer Moon Dog. I had a couple of casual beers on a Saturday afternoon and before I knew it I walked away with a complimentary case of their intense annual brew Jumping the Shark. A few days later I had entered a contest on Facebook sponsored by local food guide The Urban List Melbourne and Crown Melbourne. I had won $200 to dine at world acclaimed Japanese restaurant Nobu. It was delicious of course.

But when my Instagram @Leeveca was pinged as the winner of The Ultimate Gourmet Escape presented by finedininglovers.com I couldn’t believe it. The prize included economy flights for two people to Hobart, Tasmania valued at $800, one night’s accommodation at MONA Pavilions valued at $700, MONA Gallery entry valued at $50, and dinner for two at Franklin Restaurant valued at $200.

When my friend Renee planned her visit from the US I gave her the ultimate ultimatum. In addition to adventuring around Melbourne, down the Great Ocean Road and across to Phillip Island, sailing the Whitsundays and snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef, she had to make a hard decision. Visit Australia’s most iconic city Sydney, or go rogue by adventuring to Tasmania to cash in my Ultimate Gourmet Escape prize. It was a no brainer, Tassie won.

After stepping off a 24-hour flight to Melbourne from Philadelphia via LAX and traveling by Sky Bus into Southern Cross Station, I quickly ushered her to my apartment in Richmond to shower, grab a quick bite and pack a small bag. A few hours later we were back at the airport sipping wine in the Qantas Lounge awaiting our flight to Hobart. Jetlag would have to wait.

View from Coal Valley Vineyard

View from Coal Valley Vineyard, Tasmania

Franklin is one of the hottest restaurants in Hobart right now and deservingly so. The kitchen is the epi-center of this simplistic, cement and timber themed eatery. Dining at the bar, our favourite part was observing the chefs expertly prepare each plate individually; taking their time as if it was their first. I envied both their patience and precision as there was definitely no rush to get it wrong.

Periwinkles @ Franklin Restaurant

Periwinkles @ Franklin Restaurant

Everything bar one dish was awesome. We experimented with periwinkles, a small sea snail with a surprisingly long body and questionably mushy finish. Not your typical escargot. We fought over the last oyster, bite of kingfish and wallaby tartare. The gamey wagyu however let us down.  Renee comfortably slept off her jetlag that evening in the picturesque Victorian era-restored hotel Hadley’s Orient.

Boutique Wine Tours Tasmania led us on a journey the next day through the historic town of Richmond and to sample the famed pinot noir of the Coal River Valley. Having been through here a few times prior, David who guided the tour exceeded my expectations as we visited the oldest church, goal and bridge in Australia (just saying the country isn’t that old), sipped quality pinot and sparkling at my favourite family owned winery Pooley Wines, and tasted chilli cheddar and more outstanding cheese at Wicked Cheese. The hospitality at Richmond Tasting House as Renee tried the local whiskies and I sat trying all the food samples on repeat, was a highlight.

Oldest Bridge in Australia, Richmond, Tasmania

Oldest Bridge in Australia, Richmond, Tasmania

That evening we were welcomed into MONA Pavilions, one of 8 uniquely designed apartments that are situated on the museum property facing the River Derwent, each named after a famed Australian architect or artist, going for $700 a night! Luckily it was my birthday at midnight so we celebrated with the complimentary bottle of Moorilla Estate’s Muse Brut while ensuring we made the most out of the place, the Beatles turned up through each modern speaker fitted in the wall units and sipped our sparkling on the veranda overlooking the river. Ours was coincidentally named Robin, which is Renee’s middle name.

MONA Pavilions

MONA Pavilions

The Source, the very upmarket and nationally respected contemporary, French-inspired restaurant at MONA was our biggest and most frustrating disappointment. While our server Alice was spunky and friendly, our sommelier appeared strangely depressed. The atmosphere, which seemed like a dated hotel function room, didn’t compliment the $200pp price tag for the 5-course degustation plus wine pairings. While I finished every bite of the Morton bugs with apple, wasabi and lime and the scallop gnocchi using a golden spork, I commented, “wow that was so interesting!”  And “oooh, this is so weird.” But Renee said it right at the end, as we requested a cheese plate over dessert and found that to be one of the best bits. She said, “For $200 I don’t want an interesting meal, I want a delicious one.” So true, despite us both being very passionate about food, every dish definitely challenged by palette.

Golden spork @ The Source

Golden spork @ The Source

Before flying out we spent the morning nursing our hangovers with Xavier, the fantastic host at the Moorilla Estate cellar door while working through a tasting flight of both the wines and Moo Brew beers.

Lisa & Renee @ Moorilla Cellar Door

Lisa & Renee @ Moorilla Cellar Door

We then entered MONA – the wacky Museum of New Art.  The exhibition featured the works of Marina Abramovic and it was weird and wonderful. Dark spaces contained videos of people screaming at the top of their lungs, of a woman frantically biting her nails, and a rice counting room where we had to leave our phone and watches behind after putting on a lab coat. Once we entered the room of complete silence we were separated, then a scoop full of rice was presented in front of us. We sat there for about 15 minutes and I thought to myself, to work here for hours staring at people staring at rice in silence would be insane. We then ended the day with a tour of Moorilla Estate, yes more wine.

On our journey home we watched the sunset from the airplane window all the way back to Melbourne. It was a memorable birthday with an old friend in a beautiful part of the world. A special thanks to finedininglovers.com for making it all possible.

For more ideas on what to do in Tasmania check out my previous post: My Tasmanian Secrets

Sailing Croatia: Dubrovnik to Split

Prior to sailing the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia I had visions of wild nights dancing on a yacht with drink in hand while lounging in the Adriatic by day, the warm sun on my face and my feet overhanging a round floaty staring out at ancient ruins. The challenge of fulfilling this prophecy, or so I thought, was that I had a hard timeline of pre-35 years old.

I envisioned sunbathing, day drinking, dance parties and rambunctious nights with friendly strangers. But somehow venturing to Croatia got pushed back on my bucket list each year due to Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, America and others. I wasn’t getting any younger but I’m not complaining because this year was going to be my year.

But I also had fears. I read review after review in preparation about Sail CroatiaKatarina Line and group bookings on Busabout and Contiki. It wasn’t just the age cut-off that made me nervous but realistically the demographic for the party boats are 18-year-old gap year students and immature Aussies their first time abroad.  There were rumors of theft, 24-hour raves and claustrophobic, stifling hot cabins below deck with a mere porthole. My dream vacation and what was on offer were seriously disconnected.

But when it came time to prepare, my agenda slowly evolved from dance party to luxury yacht. Traveling with my sister made it easy to compromise as well. At first we said that a private bathroom was a must, of course. Then the cabin must be on the deck, not below. Oh yes, and air-conditioning was a requirement as it will be about 104°F (40°C). So, we unintentionally priced ourselves out of the backpacker options and found ourselves in an A+ cabin on a 5-night Dubrovnik to Split cruise with Katarina Line unknowingly upgraded to the brand new deluxe yacht M.V. Admiral. I didn’t complain.

I then fell in love with Croatia. It’s medieval architecture and passionate culture. The friendliness of the people, their excellent English and hospitality thrive on tourism, which meant that service was exquisite and opportunities to engage endless. “We’re not yelling we’re just Croatian,” explained Miho, our complimentary tour guide who navigated us through the walled city of Dubrovnik, stopping every few minutes to explain the culture, architecture and history, including the horror of the very recent Croatian War of Independence in the early 90’s.

The food and wine was simple but memorable. Each day was an indulgence, getting lost in the local community within the narrow cobblestone streets and stopping every few hours to try another wine and nosh on some bread, cheese or pasta. Italy’s influence was never forgotten. Also was the presence of its other neighbors like Bosnia and Serbia and one of our favorite meals was at Bosnian restaurant Taj Mahal. It was tucked away on a quiet stone street in Old Town, Dubrovnik yet the only sound was the queue to get a table to try the traditional bamija (veal stew simmered with okra, tomatoes and garlic) and the Cheerful Bosnian (veal stuffed with vegetables and cheese.)

Dubrovnik old town steps

Dubrovnik old town steps

The sun-faded terracotta roofs of Dubrovnik overlay the old city within a fortress created by century aged city walls. Everything is stone, the houses, the streets, the walls, the shops. It has seen many battles and yet looks effortlessly rebuilt to maintain its native charm, keeping tradition with every new burnt orange tile replacing a bombed out rooftop. At night the squares come alive with traditional music, as both tourists and locals sip Ožujsko beers and wait for the sun to set late in the evening to escape the scorching summer heat.

We found refuge in D’vino Wine Bar our first night. It’s here that we first learned about Croatian wines, the forefront of every meal. Our tasting flight of reds included the local grape plavac mali, and the 3 variations of plavac, postup, and dingac – each named and uniquely produced based on the position their vines grow, changing from light and fruity to full bodied and sweet as the sun reflects off the rocky coastline and Adriatic sea. After walking the city walls we thankfully relaxed in Buza Bar, a cliffside bar of tourists and locals sipping cocktails amongst the rocky coastal boulders and taking refuge in the accompanying sea.

Buza Bar, Dubrovnik

Buza Bar, Dubrovnik

We stopped off our second night in what is jokingly termed the New York of Croatia. Trstenik is a small fishing village of approximate 56 people, and that’s during the high season. Sadly a local had set fire to the vineyards in the surrounding hillsides and tragically this village will be devastated for tourism for the next 15 or so years. Nik and I stopped in its small, family owned wine store šunj vina to taste their famed plavac mali and purchased a few mementos to contribute to the economic disaster.

The piping hot sun would slowly roast our bodies while relaxing on the boat’s top deck, my skin darkening a new shade as each new day passed. After lunch we would pull into a new quiet alcove, the turquoise water so crystal clear you could see the dead coral and black sea urchins on the bottom while taking a welcome relief from the fiery heat. When it came time to dock in a new port midafternoon the Captain would park his shiny toy, carefully maneuvering next to the last ship to arrive, creating a massive obstacle course. Guests were expected to, what I termed “walk the plank,” or scarily step over the massive gap from ship to ship to reach the port. There were stories confirmed that people from time to time have missed the gap (likely due to being heavily intoxicated) but regardless, it was always a bit nerve racking and frankly not disabled friendly.

In the small, fishbone-shaped town of Korčula, the much disputed birth place of Marco Polo, we were introduced to the island’s native white wine varieties pošip and grk, in which the latter’s vines are so unique being all female it can’t replicate itself. We climbed the narrow, wooden ladder to the top of an ancient tower to sip cocktails at Massimo, attended an unimpressive (due to the lack of wine education involved) sit down wine tasting at an upmarket hotel, and then attempted to party with the backpackers at a disco leaving disappointed with a Croatian pita kebab in hand. I uncovered then that my favorite pastime from this trip so far was just aimlessly wondering and getting lost amongst the antiquated streets by day.

Beyonce put Hvar on the map with her visit in 2011 making this small seaside town the “it” holiday destination for jetsetters. Private luxury yachts, world class cuisine and nightlife and a view from the top of the Spanish Fortica would make any friend ooze with jealousy. We found haven in Wine Bar Pršuta 3 to the sound of rock music and free wifi while dabbling in their best pošip and later nibbling on Dalmatian prosciutto, olives and fresh seafood.

Our journey ended in Split, the second largest city in Croatia where we were told by a stout 9-year-old boy that we could not pass through while navigating the ancient rubble of Diocletian’s Palace as a casual game of soccer amongst the local boys was being held. We devoured cone after cone of gelato, tasted variations of olive oil at Uje Oil Bar, had the best pistachio gnocchi of my life at modern bistro Bokeria and then mingled amongst the ivy and graffiti with regulars at the funky bar Academia Club Ghetto. The service, cheese selection and wine list at Paradox Wine & Cheese Bar was unparalleled.

Cute puppies, Split, Croatia

Cute puppies, Split, Croatia

Our boutique accommodation, a 25-minute stroll from the port, at Divota Apartment Hotel was the quiet serenity we needed to close out the trip. We rented eco bikes for the day, and squealed with glee as we peddled a few rounds then zoomed off on our motorized cycle, speeding up hills as we wove through the thick trees of Marjan Forest Park and passed renaissance hermitage caves built into the seaside cliffs. Far from modest sunbathers were scattered along the rocky coast, resting on any flat surface to embrace the warm summer sun and refreshing pools along the bay.

Departing from Split airport, the carnage of the party boats was present in every corner of the small international terminal, as hungover bodies were strewn across the terminal gate floors and the line to purchase a simple bottle of water was a 25 minute wait. It was then that I reflected back on the M.V. Admiral and smiled with no regrets.

Bordeaux, My Gastronomic Adventure

But why Bordeaux? This was the response I received when going over my itinerary for #Eurotrip2015. London was a no brainer and Croatia has been on my bucket list for years. But as more and more people questioned my French destination of choice I was starting to get nervous that I had overlooked something obvious. Was Bordeaux no good? I mean sure, I much prefer Burgundy wines but then again I’m sure Bordeaux won’t be that hard for me to swallow.

Katrina Miranda in Bordeaux

Katrina Miranda in Bordeaux

Is it an oxymoron to say the city is both medieval and young at the same time? It’s active, vibrant and lively contrasted against dark ancient stoned walls, gothic churches and quiet narrow alleyways. Katrina described it as monotone: brown river, cream buildings, grey cobblestones. But it’s 9 pm in the summer and there is no sign of dusk. University students quickly scoot by on skateboards and sit outside smoking cigarettes while drinking espresso at cafes next to tattoo parlours, vintage shops and guitar stores.

Rue Sainte-Catherine, one of the largest pedestrian-only shopping streets in all of Europe is its main artery running through its centre. Cheap city bikes can be rented from all corners of the architectural haven and are used by both locals and tourists to navigate the shadowy historic maze. It’s a very liveable place for sure.

Both a city and a region, Bordeaux provides fresh, delectable food and well-produced wine to every doorstep. On the Garonne River’s left bank sits Medoc, it’s gravel and clay producing deep, full bodied cabernet sauvignons while on it’s right the clay and limestone in St. Emilion produce juicy, fruit-forward merlot. My glass is never empty and then I understand. Bordeaux is my gastronomic adventure.

Garonne River Bordeaux

Garonne River Bordeaux

The oysters are so fresh you order them by size – medium, large or extra-large. There is only one option: raw. The seabass comes with its head intact but with the right movement the flesh softly falls from the bone while the salmon carpaccio melts on my tongue. The cheese is aged and my monsieur croquet strong and heavy, the traditional way. The pate is thick and rich and the generous sliced baguettes are endless. There is no Maille mustard to accompany it. That’s only for Paris and we’re in Bordeaux after all. My favourite meals were the chevre salad with honey and walnuts while dining al fresco at Karl and beef tartare with watermelon and roasted tomatoes at the modern French bistro Le Chien De Pavlov.

The only way to truly experience it was to aimlessly wonder and get lost amongst the streets, stopping every few hours to try a new delicacy and to sip a new wine while watching the locals carry on with their lives. The second day we rented bikes, which gave us the same freedom to explore but allowed us to delve deeper into the city streets, to the botanical gardens, and over the bridge to the city outskirts.

Isabel from Bordeaux Tourism was friendly and helpful and booked us on a wine river cruise later that evening. It was like a disorganized frat party for old people – chaos to consume as much wine as possible while Jerome the wine maker from Chateau Madran rambled on in French and we sat observing with our crusty bread and orange cheese just taking it all in, not understanding a word.

Jerome from Chateau Madran

Jerome from Chateau Madran

And then there was the highlight, Rustic Vines and the Famous Monk Tour the following day. Run by two Kiwi’s, Scottie the hottie educated us on the 60 appellations of Bordeaux, the rigid rules on how to blend the wine and the 10,000 plus chateaus in the region. We visited the picturesque medieval town of St. Emilion, mingled with Hugo in the cellar of Chateau La Gaffeliere to learn about French oak and sampled Grand Cru Classe from Aussie Gregg at Bordeaux Classique wine store. Richard, the only Australian chateau owner in Bordeaux confirmed that the French don’t believe in ghosts so he wasn’t concerned for his 15th century property Chateau Melliac. In his garden we picnicked on melon, jamon, cheese and macaroons. Richard told us he used think that Australian wine was everything until the French showed him their art and he had never looked back. I now feel way more confident knowing what to look for when choosing French wine.

I almost could have had one more day. Eating my croissant while waiting for my flight to London I realised then that Bordeaux was it, the grown up Europe I had been envisioning. Bordeaux left me with a smile. It’s safe, I felt confident, people were friendly, there was no crime or begging plus it is a foodie paradise. I would recommend to anyone to have a visit.

Lisa Vecchio, St. Emilion

Lisa Vecchio, St. Emilion; Courtesy of Katrina Miranda

Top 5 New Wine Learning’s From the WSET Level 1 Course

In my effort to become a professional wine drinker I’ve decided I’ll need to step up my game. I’ve been to nearly every major wine region in Australia and New Zealand, have visited vineyards in the US and South Africa, and next month I’ll tackle the ever famous Bordeaux and often overlooked vineyards of coastal Croatia.

But recently I accepted, with increased encouragement (i.e. nagging) from my mother, that a wine qualification outside of the many wine festivals and events I attend throughout the year, in addition to my far too regular consumption within my own apartment, would really provide the deeper understanding that I need – both as an enthusiast and one with interest in working with the industry.

Last weekend I completed the internationally recognized Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 1 Award in Wines (QCF). I walked away reassured of my pre-existing knowledge of wine varietals, tasting, pouring, storing and food pairing. However, there were definitely a few new things I learned as well. And while I’m pretty confident that I passed the exam, I’m still eagerly waiting for my old-school pencil-filled-in-scantron test to be sent to the UK, then the results mailed back to Australia, so that I can receive an email notifying me that I have passed and then I will go to the Wine House to pick up my certificate and lapel pin.

WSET: Level 1 Course

WSET: Level 1 Course @ The Wine House: Melbourne

Top 5 new wine learning’s from the WSET Level 1 Course:

  1. A Champagne bottle should be tilted at a 30-degree angle and you should twist the bottle, not the cork when opening.
  1. Rinse my wine glasses thoroughly before pouring wine. I’ve never previously considered the affects of detergent on the wine flavors.
  1. I don’t quite have the whole food/wine-pairing thing down as well as I thought and should practice more on how acid, sweetness, spiciness, salt and bitterness affect the taste of wine.
  1. Confusion between Burgundy (pinot noir) and Bordeaux (cabernet sauvignon and merlot) is now clarified. Great timing since I had already booked my trip to Bordeaux.
  1. Sauternes is a sweet white wine I’ve never heard of but will likely try while in Bordeaux very soon.

Next up on my list is completing WSET® Level 2 Award Wines and Spirits (QCF) to learn more in depth knowledge on wine making, wine regions, varietals and food pairing. The challenge here is the astronomical cost associated with it so you could say I’m open to sponsorship. Wink wink. If you’re interested in where classes are offered in your region, visit the WSET website. And if you’re ever looking to share a great vintage, you know who to turn to!

Twelve Apostles

Adventuring the Great Ocean Road

“Iconic Australia,” they say. “Car stopping scenery,” they’ve boasted. “Breathtaking natural wonders,” I read.

And it’s all true. The 243-kilometer stretch of road along Victoria’s Southeast coast is certainly to be admired. Even better, as a first timer I learned that what I like to lazily refer to as the GOR (Great Ocean Road) is the world’s longest war memorial; built from 1919 to 1932 in remembrance of those who died in WWI by it’s own returning soldiers.

Just like them we had a plan. Luckily though we averaged more than 3 kilometers a month. Leaving early on a Saturday morning we took the highway coupled with some back roads and traveled inland for about 4 hours directly to Warrnambool, the largest city along the Road just near its start. From there, we slowly made our way along the coast back toward Melbourne while seeing what was on offer.

Great Ocean Roadtrip

Great Ocean Roadtrip

And as far as Warrnambool is concerned I’ll tell you what’s on offer. Kermond’s Hamburgers is its biggest claim to fame and rightfully so! This old-school joint, still serving thick malted milkshakes in white aprons, was packed to the rafters. They keep the menu simple: burger, fried onions and bun. Customize it with normal stuff: tomatoes, lettuce, cheese or Aussie add-ons i.e. fried egg, beetroot, mayo. “Every bite of that vinegar jalapeno was like heaven in my mouth,” my Aussie travel companion slash foodie Nidya, slurred with her last bite.

We left excited to officially start our GOR journey but were quickly disappointed once we entered Allansford Cheese World. With a name such as Cheese World they set pretty high expectations. I mean, we practically did a 180 to get there as one would assume according to their advertising that there would be a monumental amount of cheese coupled with delicate wine tasting. What we experienced though was a service station, fast-food restaurant, Yellowtail retailer and tourist shop rolled into one. In the back, in the small room labeled Cheese, we were resurrected by delectable aged cheddars and somehow walked away with a varietal of 5 hefty wedges to consume over the weekend.

Cheese World

Cheese World

We traveled on and just as we began to smell the salty sea air and the coast came into view the sky turned overcast and it began to drizzle. We pulled off at the first few scenic lookouts to get some early snaps in a foggy view of the cerulean ocean contrasted against amazing limestone formations. I was starting to panic that my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to snap the much anticipated – the whole reason we drove for hours and hours – this is not really happening I’m sure it will clear up any second – no really, is it seriously raining – iconic rock formations would be ruined by fowl weather.

Finally we reached the holy grail of Port Campbell, home to the famed Twelve Apostles (now actually ten) and “heart of the Great Ocean Road”. The tourist buses lined the parking lot and the selfie sticks were endless. I was thankful that I canceled the tour I booked six months ago and was here on my terms, or at least in a small group of intimate friends thanks to Wes’ amazing patience and driving skills.

But we were fast about it while still taking it all in. My head unknowingly blocked endless selfies and my hair whipped against my face causing a uni-brow in nearly every picture. Just as we were about to depart and began walking away the clouds cleared and the sun shimmered causing the right light on the striking water. It was stunning. Camera out, I finally got my shots. We could conclusively rest for the evening.

In Apollo Bay, our 4-bed lofted studio at Coastal Motel offered the right mix of comfort and location just across from the beach and walking distance to all of the charming restaurants and shops in town. Even better, we had a heap of cheese to consume along with boutique wine and beers we brought with us. In fact, the week prior I had just won a case of 14% (ABV) Jumping the Shark (Hungarian oak barrel-aged saffron’d imperial red ale aka intense) from Melbourne craft brewers Moon Dog and needed a team to consume them with. The Fonz couldn’t have done it alone either.

Sunday morning we were back on the road heading inland to explore Great Otway National Park and the Otway Fly Treetop Adventures. Word to the wise, the winding, twisting, I-was-near-vomiting curves of the road to get there are to be cautioned about. But for real, my window was rolled down and my head was hanging out like a fatigued dog. $25 is a steep fare to walk on steel structures at the top of some trees and better value if you opted for their zip lining tours albeit for a much heftier price. We proudly boasted that between four of us we had zip lined in South Africa, Peru, and Laos so gave that a pass. But at 25 meters above the ground, the lush rainforest and distinct natural fauna made for a unique walk and we had no regrets for the experience, despite us nauseatingly needing to snake back the way we came once in the car.

Further along the coast sat the most amazing pub in the small town of Wye River. Wye Beach Hotel is more than just a charismatic beachfront bar and restaurant. Its exquisite food, coupled with an unexpected local beer selection and epicurean wine list was remarkable. For a true quiet holiday off the grid I’d recommend staying at one of the small hillside lodges. We closed our evening off with a curry back at local yet upmarket Apollo Bay Hotel before our final stretch home the following day.

Some of the best and curviest parts of the drive are around the quintessential beach town of Lorne. Shopping, restaurants, bars and beach – this popular spot with Melbournians was very busy on the sunny Monday. Luckily we were able to snag a table for breakfast at Lorne Beach Pavilion overlooking the beautiful sea to the sweet sound of children running and crying everywhere. Full on avocado smash, we parked ourselves at the edge of the sand and took in a few rays before continuing on and passing under the famed Great Ocean Road sign.

Now here’s the best part of coming home. We missed out, or actually intentionally avoided the popular seaside towns of Anglesea, Torquay, Jan Juc and others on our way back to the city in order to side track to the Bellarine Peninsula just outside of Geelong.

Terindah Estate and Jack Rabbit Vineyard share both a driveway and the coastline offering picturesque backdrops of vine against sea to sip against yet are two separate wineries. Applause to Will at Terindah for an exquisite presentation of their wines and scoring us a seat in the fully booked out restaurant to taste beautiful kangaroo, dory and lamb. Terindah was an all around standout! Their Chardonnay soft and buttery, Pinot Gris and Sauv Blanc surprisingly untraditional and their Shiraz/Viognier and Pinot Noir no brainers. I bought them all and want to come back again and again and again. So I will…

Terindah Estate Group Shot

Terindah Estate Group Shot

Cycling Marlborough

Cycling the Vineyards of Marlborough, New Zealand

Two of my favorite things include sunshine and wine. Throw me on a bike on a cloudless day and give me a map of the boutique vineyards in the heart of the Marlborough wine region and honestly, it was one of the best tasting experiences I’ve ever had.

Lisa in Marlborough

Lisa in Marlborough

Tasting in Marlborough has long been on my list of wine regions to conquer. In fact, considering its remoteness in a quiet northeast corner of the South Island, New Zealand, I was starting to fear I would never get an opportunity to go. Partially because I think my appreciation for its world-renowned Sauvignon Blanc grape outwore its welcome on my pallet years ago. Secondly, it’s just not super convenient to get to.

I have a special fondness for New Zealand. I’d even go as far to say I love it. If you asked me to live there for a short while I’d be hard pressed to say no. Another reason it was crucial that I get myself to Marlborough. My favorite part about New Zealand is flying over it. With the terrain ever changing, lush green contrasted against snowy mountain peaks and azure water, it’s absolutely breathtaking. Every time, I’m reminded again of my first time, looking out of the airplane window in 2011, and it’s always equally as majestic.

North Island Volcano

North Island Volcano

In terms of getting to Marlborough my friends took the Interislander Ferry across from Wellington to Picton. At the same time I witnessed from above the stunning alcoves of the tiny islands their boat wove between while flying down from Auckland to Blenheim. Knee deep in my inflight magazine I took a quick break to gaze out of the window and my mouth involuntarily dropped. Just below the clouds sat a volcano. This was just before I passed from the North Island down to the South Island. Shortly afterward the striking coastline came into view.

South Island Northern Coast

South Island Northern Coast

My three Australian friends greeted me at the Blenheim airport with a big “Welcome to New Zealand” as if they were locals. And while Blenheim isn’t much to offer up socially, it is just on the cusp of the vineyards and has a range of accommodation and a few noteworthy bars and restaurants, such as Scotch. We stayed in a small cottage in the back of a B&B called Tresco. The owner Ian and adorable terrier Dudley were friendly and accommodating and it was only a short 10-minute walk to town. At night, the residential streets were quiet and the stars shone bright. It is true the Milky Way can be seen on this side of the world.

Drinks at Scotch: Blenheim

Drinks at Scotch: Blenheim

But enough of Blenheim (jokingly termed phlegm-em). Let’s talk wine.

Wine Tours By Bike have a great thing going. Family run by Steve and Jo Hill, they made it all so easy. That’s the thing; the day was more or less completely on our own terms. We booked in advance to be picked up from one of the three 5-hour long timeslots and were greeted with a big smile and handshake from Fred, Jo’s dad who drove us to the bike shed in Renwick. Set on a beautiful B&B property Hillsfield House, we were instantly asked to pick a bike from the lot parked out front. Told that just like a person no bike is the same, we tested them for height and seat comfortableness before analyzing how large each of our heads actually was during a helmet fitting. The award went to Rob.

Wine Tours by Bike Crew

Wine Tours by Bike Crew: Courtesy of Ceri

Steve gave us an amazingly detailed, yet brief overview of the vineyards in the vicinity of Renwick while we, along with some locals which are always a good sign, observed as he pointed them out against a white map pinned against the wall. My group then huddled together, our paper copies in hand and highlighter at the ready, mapping out how to tackle the afternoon and fit in all of our top spots. Water bottle, check. Lunch reservation, check. Social media post, check. And we were off!

Wine Tour Group Selfie

Wine Tour Group Selfie: Courtesy of Wes

Wobbling a bit when we set out, we eagerly headed to our farthest destination first, yet the most boutique. Te Whare Ra’s small quiet property impressed us with both their Riesling D (dry) and M (medium) so much that none of us left empty handed. In fact, it was my most favored tasting of the day and my only regret is not purchasing a case.

I traveled on, steadied on my African cruiser bike, with a smile from ear to ear. We dashed through the back of a vineyard on our way to another, taking shortcuts on dirt paths as we were hugged by the vines and the monstrous mountain peaks at the perimeter towered over us. The sun was hot, but in a good way. Then, the wind picked up and it was so strong, peddling against it turned our leisurely cruise into a battle of resistance.

Cycling Marlborough

Cycling Marlborough

At Giesen we had a delicious vintage platter for lunch yet an offensive wine host ruined the experience unfortunately, so much in fact I wouldn’t recommend a visit.  At Hans Herzog it was worth the cost of a tasting to be blown away with their exquisite presentation. It was the only Sauv Blanc I purchased in Marlborough, and for the cost it’s a keeper. Framingham won our hearts with free shipping to Australia so of course we bought a case between the four of us, but not without Mary Jo’s amazing attentiveness in pouring our Riesling flights.  We finished the day lounging on bean bags on the lawn at Forrest, where fellow American Katrina won me over with their 2011 Chenin Blanc.

Peddling back at the end of the day, still smiling while taking in the landscape, the pureness of the area and of the wineries really took hold. In fact, while I had a general distaste for what I had assumed was the mass production of sauvignon blanc, biking through the region and seeing the smaller farms and family vineyards gave me a whole other appreciation for it. But also, more impressive was the execution of other varieties likes riesling, pinot gris and pinot noir. I’ve done a lot of wine touring, but cycling and tasting through the vineyards of Marlborough takes the cake! Settling in around the picnic table back at Tresco later that evening we barbequed local fish and vegetables while sipping some of our favorite wins from the day.

Wine Tours by Bike

Wine Tours by Bike