Friday, January 24, 2014

Two Affordable Wines from Spain and Italy

Bodegas Franco Espanolas Rioja Bordon Reserva
     Many people know that red wines are a great match for beef, lamb, pasta and game, but they are equally enjoyable when sipped with chocolate. With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, you might want to add a little something extra to that box of chocolates by uncorking a bottle of "vino tinto" as the Spanish call it as an accompaniment.
    Two wines that recently crossed my path seem a good fit not only the for traditional red wine mates but for chocolate as well. Bodegas Franco Espanolas Rioja Bordon Reserva may seem a mouthful to say but it goes down with a soft and rich texture that’s long on the palate and robust enough to stand up to chocolate.
    A blend of 80% Tempranillo, 15% Garnacha and 5% Moscato, the Rioja Bordon is a dark ruby red color with a touch of spice, balsamic and black pepper on the nose. The most famous of Spain’s native grapes, Tempranillo, although full-bodied, has an almost neutral profile. Hence the need for blending it with grapes such as Garnacha (Grenache in French) and, in this case, Moscato.
    Produced in the Rioja district of northeastern Spain, the Bordon Reserva is aged two years in American oak, then matured in the bottle an additional two years. In a recent tasting I caught aromas like black raspberry, cherry, minerality, leather with a touch of cedar. Suggested retail price: $15.

2010 Jacopo Biondi Santi Braccale
    Hailing from Tuscany, Italy, the 2010 Jacopo Biondi Santi Braccale is a fruit forward red with a dark burgundy color and an initial burst of intense berry and cherry flavors that linger with a spice-driven finish. The wine is a blend of nicely balanced 80% Sangiovese Grosso (80%) and Merlot (20%) grapes.
    This medium bodied wine goes well with pastas, cheese, red meats and chocolate and, while it can be drunk right now, will mature even more with age. The alcohol content is 13%, and the Wine Advocate gives it a score of 88 points. The Braccale is available in Pennsylvania for $18.99.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Ringing in the New Year in DC

Outside the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC Photo credit Bill Rockwell

    Traveling anywhere on the East Coast in January can be iffy and weather dependent. In the past, I’ve visited the nation’s capital just after the new year when it was pleasantly warm. This time around, DC was moderately cold, but, since I spent most of my time in museums, I couldn’t care less about the weather outside.
    One attraction high on my list of places to visit was the Phillips Collection, dubbed America’s First Museum of Modern Art. Being from the Pittsburgh area, I wanted to see the museum developed by Duncan Phillips, grandson of James H. Laughlin, co-founder of Jones and Laughlin Steel, a Pittsburgh-based company.
    Phillips moved to Washington in 1895, and he and his mother opened a gallery with 237 paintings in one room of their 1897 Georgian Revival home, located in the Dupont Circle neighborhood just off embassy row. When their collection of art grew substantially greater, Phillips moved to a new residence and opened his entire former home to the public for viewing the art he and his wife, painter Marjorie Acker, amassed.
    Over the years, the museum saw several new additions, but somehow it’s managed to retain the building’s original domestic intimacy. Nevertheless, Phillips’ permanent collection now totals nearly 3,000 works by Impressionist and modern European and American artists.
    During my visit, a special traveling exhibit of 30 or so of Van Gogh’s paintings, 13 of which are repetitions mounted side by side along with related works on paper. These give the viewer insights into how the artist sometimes created different versions of the same work and how his process and techniques developed. The paired paintings include such masterpieces as "The Road Menders" (1889) and "L’Arlesienne" (1890). The exhibit is up through February 2.
    Besides the permanent collection of paintings by artists like Renoir, Manet, El Greco, Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Rothko and O’Keefe, the Phillips also stages concerts, gallery talks and tours and video presentations.

    For those wanting a stimulating walk, a stroll down nearby Massachusetts Avenue will take you past some stunning architecture and imposing embassies which line both sides of the street. Two that especially caught my eye on the way to and from the Dupont Metro stop were the Indian and Indonesian embassies, unique camera worthy edifices

Courtyard of the Freer Gallery Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    Another quick Metro ride took me to the Freer Gallery, which joins the physically connected Sackler as the Smithsonian Institution’s museum of Asian art. While there are 26,000 objects art housed at the Freer, my main objective was to see the world-famous Peacock Room, designed by artist James Whistler for Frederick Leyland, a wealthy London shipbuilder.
    Leyland initially employed a celebrated interior architect to design the room so as to display his prized collection of Chinese porcelain to its best advantage. However, he allowed Whistler to add some "finishing touches" to the room during his absence. Whistler, however, went far beyond Leyland’s intent and made numerous changes and additions, much to Leyland’s consternation.
    Twelve years after Leyland’s death in 1892, the room was dismantled and put on display in a London art gallery. Freer purchased the room in 1904, then shipped it across the Atlantic to his home in Detroit. After Freer’s death in 1919, the room moved a fourth time to the Freer Gallery in Washington, where it remains, arranged much like its former installation in Freer’s Detroit home.
    At the moment, the room includes displays of ancient Biblical manuscripts Freer acquired in Egypt, then exhibited in the room. Because of their light sensitive nature, the practice of opening the Peacock Room’s shutters to flood the room with natural light the third Thursday of each month has been put on hold until February 20. A 360-degree panoramic view of the room can be accessed online at by clicking on the Panorama: Peacock Room link under the Explore heading.

    While I have seen many of the capital’s major monuments and buildings on previous visits offered by Old Town Trolley Tours, I was intrigued by the notion of taking a Monuments by Moonlight Tour. The three-hour long narrated excursion by motorized trolley begins at Union Station and takes in most of the biggest attractions, floodlit against a darkened sky.
One of the things that made the tour so enjoyable was our guide, "Uncle Dave" Parker, who doubled as our driver. It was great to be able to sit back, soak in the sights, listen to his informed and often witty chatter and not have to worry about traffic. Washington streets can be tricky to maneuver, and it was a relief not to have to map out a trek around town to catch the major attractions.

    Included on the tour are stops at the U.S. Capitol Building, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the FDR Memorial, The Iwo Jima Memorial, officially known as the Marine Corps War Memorial, and the Vietnam, Korean War and Lincoln Memorials. (All of the latter three are located in walking distance of one another).

Jefferson Memorial on the DC by Night Tour Photo Credit Bill Rockwell

    I had been to the FDR Memorial in the past, but while strolling along the banks of the Potomac to get a riparian view of the area, the Jefferson Memorial came into view across the Tidal Basin. Gleaming white, its floodlit, rounded dome emitted an almost sacrosanct aura and the quintessence of architectural beauty.
    A short walk away, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is equally inspiring with its gigantic portrayal of King emerging from a block of stone and gazing intently straight ahead at Jefferson’s neoclassical, pantheon-like shrine. The enveloping wall is inscribed by some of King’s quotes, some so beautifully and poignantly written that they brought tears to my eyes.
    The tour also gave me my first up close look at the Iwo Jima Memorial, across the Memorial Bridge in Virginia. The 32-foot high bronze sculpture atop its stone base was inspired by the iconic photograph that shows five Marines and a navy hospital corpsman raising the American flag over the small island located 660 miles south of Tokyo during World War Two. The massive size of the statue as well as its location next to Arlington National Cemetery made for an unforgettably moving night time experience.
    A final stop at the Lincoln Memorial gave me a chance to climb to the stairway to the massive white statue of Lincoln seated and gazing serenely out onto the Reflecting Pool of the National Mall.

The Lincoln Memorial on the DC by Night Tour Photo Credit Bill Rockwell
    Across the street, the wreaths friends and relatives placed along the Vietnam Memorial were very moving. Some had messages attached such as we’ll never forget; others bore Christmas ornaments that lingered a week or two after December 25.

    Rounding a corner, I walked through the outdoor Korean War Veterans Memorial, unnerved by the eerie assembly of 19 larger than life statues representing a squad of soldiers on patrol. In the darkness, they were dimly illuminated, casting a ghostly moodiness of apprehension and angst-ridden expectation. The feeling lingered even as far as our drop-off point back at Union Station. In summation, the tour proved an intense, emotion-packed, three hour long immersion in history and our nation’s grandeur. Phone 888-910-8687 or
    For more information on Washington, DC, phone 800-422-8644 or

    From now through March 2, Destination DC is encouraging travelers within driving distance of Washington to spend a weekend, romantic or otherwise, by assembling 58-and-counting deals from hotels, restaurants and attractions to reward spontaneous travelers. A complete list of Date Nights DC deals is available at
    For a place to stay, the Harrington Hotel, 436 11th Street in Washington, opened on March 1, 1914 making it the nation’s oldest continuously operating hotel. Just a half block from Pennsylvania and two blocks from the White House, the Harrington is within walking distance to many DC attractions and the Metro.
    While not in the luxury class of DC hotels, the Harrington is clean, tidy and has some excellent family-friendly room rates, although the decor is a bit outdated. The hotel, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, also houses a full service restaurant and pub. Phone 202-628-8140 or