About online reviews

CLEARWATER, Fla. – A strong case can be made that Google Reviews, Trip Advisor and more can be strong research tools when planning a trip.

I read them and I write them. But they need to be taken with a grain of salt, or in this case maybe a pebble of sand.

I used a booker, as I often to for this last minute relaxation trip to Clearwater. A booker is simply one of those online aggregators which can book your flight, hotel, and even car rental. I’ve had great success with them.

I had one book this trip I got a round-trip flight for under $200 booked on Spirit Airlines. The AIRBUS jet was new, great smooth flight – had to pay for a bottle of water. The 300-plus seat aircraft only had 100 passengers so that was comfort in avoiding COVID, etc. But stewardes said a morning flight wa sold out.

The booker found a couple motels in Clearwater on special wih too-good-to-be true prices. (Yes, I know better.) I avoided the beach and jus wanted located in the city. The beach hotels are rightfully costly $300-$400 a night. So we booked this older smaller motel near the Philadelpia Phillies’ spring training complex. The booker’ best deal on a car was $100 a day. So I used a different booker and found a car for half that cost.

But the night before this trip I got curious about my motel booking. So I read a ton of online reviews and best characterization might be ‘Ahh-oh.” The reviews were mostly all terrible to horrible.

I called the booker Tuesday morning, hours from departure, and learned they could cancel but no refund on a pre-paid six-night stay. So there is one useful tip – check the cancellation policy dammit if someone else is booking your room.

And read the reviews anyway. Here is how it played out – I went to the motel and checked it out, epecting to find what I had read. It could use a coat of paint outside.

I was honest with the young man at a regrettable check in window. He checked and the reservation was canceled but no refund. The young man showed me what would be my room. It smelled fine, linens looked new, and bathroom was spotess. The room was okay for less than $100.

I stayed and next morning (today, Wed.) found the manager, who could only roll her eyes when asked about the online reviews.

“You know people book us because of price and get here and see we’r not on the beach,” she said with a smirk. “And then if one little thing is wrong they trash us. We’re not the Ritz-Carlton but we do our best for the rate.”

I also talked to some guests at the pool last night and none had anyhing bad to say about their room one woman said she and husband switched rooms because of noise in parking lot betweenn here and another value motel next door.

I had a quiet night – a little bit of a noisy air conditioner. Bed was fine even if bit too soft for my personal preference.

I checked out the free continental breakfast which did not appeal. But went next door to one of Clearwater’ iconic breakfast joint Lenny’s. More on Lenny’s later in week. The ladies waiting tables oozed southern charm. My greeter had a huge Dolly Parton-style blonde hairdo. I knew I was in the right place.

So on day one I was reminded to read online reviews skeptically. I told the manager that if my stay remainder of my stay is as good as first impression and first night, I’d write her a good review – not from guilt but because it would be earned.

Off this morning to checkout path to beach… it’s crazy out there … maybe grab a Ron-Jon shirt or hat and a grouper sandwich. Then it’ back to motel pool with my wine stash and a book.

All that matters – it’s not here

INDIANAPOLIS – I write a lot (brfly) about wine, food I make and food I visit restaurants to enjoy. I also have written through the years when I travel, usually wine related.

I’m about to make a short trip south for pure relaxation and to soak in the “get away from it all” mindset. And I’ve decided to write a bit. I thought upon retirement I might pursue travel writing but that would really have required connecting with some travel magazine or blog. I just like doing it sporadically. I figure lots of people travel to Clearwater, Florida for the white-sand beaches and ocean. I’m headed there for relaxation and mind-clearing boredom

My agenda: reading at pool side with a funny hat I’ll buy at one of the famous Ron-Jon Surf shops, and a bottle of white wine, maybe rose’. Then I’ll get crazy and actually walk the beach in the afternoon a time or two – maybe – it’s hot, smelly, and packed. And to get to the real beach, Clearwater beach, you have to navigate a highway from Clearwater. I’m not sure that’s walkable – especially for a retired guy with a touch of plantar’s fasciitis.  An left leg mushiness from a mild stroke three week ago.

But there’ always the rental car!

I like an amuthentic experience. Anyone who has ever visited Clearwater knows it still has an abundance of old Mom-n-Pop motels. I’’ve booked one for five nights. It’s rated three stars so I’m hopeful. I just think it’ a less sterile, not literally, than he big chain knockoffs for three times the price closer to the beach.

The other thing i like to do is research the old restaurants which have served smelly and loud midwesterners for decades.

I’ve already located several eating spots and two wine shops. For good measure I’m near a Costco too – but having to go there seems like failure.

I remember going to Clearwater a time of two as a kid with family, several times since and 2-3 years in row around 2000 – to sit and do nothing. And, that’ how I’ve described this trip to friend.

I’m hoping the motel has a hot tub or whirlpool which will probably be closest I come to getting in the water, other than my shower.

So I’ll pen a few odes to tourism …. The pure joy of not being at home, the smell of the sea, the disgust of what some people wear to the beach and the unbridled enjoyment of lots of grouper and mahi mahi.

I’ll post a few photos here probably more on Facebook and Instagram.

I’ll do my best to keep it anything but serious – factual observation, a bit of whimsy and snark. It’s what I do.

People teach you about wine

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You can learn a lot about wine by reading. Read Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast, in print or online. There are hundreds of wine blogs though many seem to be disappearing.

You can visit wine country – any region and talk to tasting room people or even winemakers and you’ll learn about wine. Better yet, try lots of wines and you’ll learn about them and google them while discovering your personal tastes.

I can’t say that Jill Ditimire was the driving force in getting me started on my wine journey. There were others with a bigger impact. What I can say about Indy-based wine enthusiast and arts reporter is she made wine cool. Now that’s no flippant or cutsie remark. Jill, intentionally or unintentionally, was a living embodiement of Robert Mondavi’s philosophy that wine should be served with your evening meal and served in every home.

She didn’t talk about wine or sell wine in geeky terms and wine gobbledegook. Sure, Jill could talk about wine with anyone. She had visited many of the wine world’s great regions and had significant knowledge. But her warmth and charming smile stripped wine sales of its pretentious snobbery. You didn’t have to feel like a walking and talking wine encyclopedia to understand Jill or buy wine from her Indy Mass. Ave. shop.

I met Jill when she was a teenager. She was bright and engaging, smart and driven. She broadened her career into television and then covering the arts in Indianapolis. We often toss around the term “Renaissance man” describing someone quite worldly and well-rounded.

We all lost a Renaissance woman this week in Jill Ditmire.

The Garage welcome, risky addition

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Food courts seem like such an 80s – 90s thing but a new one in Indy seems to have a great mix.

Entrance is midway down between the two main buildings

The Garage Food Hall at Bottleworks opened today, Jan. 5. I’m retired, I had nothing to do today so I checked it out. They’ve done amazing work inside and outside on this historic old Coca-Cola Bottling plant. When near Mass Ave, check out The Garage and at least walk through the hotel’s lobby. The art deco look and Coca-Cola nostaliga is really welcoming to this new high-end hotel.

The garage is about 50 percent occupied for the opening week. There were plenty of signs for “opening soon” other eateries. I saw a working barber shop and casual clothing store. The area is certainly set up for live entertainment as well.

The big hit on opening day, well most of the food stands were busy, at 1:30 was J’s Lobster – lobster rolls anyonoe? Afterall this is landlocked Indiana. Plenty of ethnic choices and one old friend. Clancy’s hamburgers – something of an icon from the 50s and 60s in the Hoosier state.

Another busy spot was Herculean Meal Prep – frozen, high-quality, single-serving meals normally selling for $9.99. I bought a couple and will have to report back.

There were lots of spots for adult beverages with more to come. Besides the hotel, the complex will feature a theater. It’s wonderfull to see that beautiful building brought back to life. I must admit I had flashbacks of horror to the Union Station food court on its second floor. But that place didn’t have near the quality of food I saw here. A new food court for a new decade – a welcome addition to this corner of downtown.

Clancy’s burger

For journalistic integrity and thorough reporting I took a trip down memory lane with a Clancy’s burger. Maybe next time I’ll have Poke.

How About Some Soup, Friends?

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Baby it’s cold out side and the soup is steeping in the pot.

I used to post occasional recipes in the second-half of my previous wine writing career, 2007-2017. Most, but not all, of those recipes were wine relatedI stumbled accross a good one a few weeks ago and finally made it today. There is more than a good chance you have most of these ingredients in the kitchen already.

How about a little Hambuger/Macaroni soup?

Ingredients

1 lb ground beef
2 teaspoon onion powder
2 teaspoon minced garlic (I used powder)
4 14.5-oz cans of beef broth
2 28-oz cans of diced tomatoes
1/2 cup ketchup
2 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 cups dry macaroni
Garlic salt and pepper to taste
Cheddar cheese (optional)

Preparation

In large sauepan, add ground beef, garlic and onion
Cook until the beef is browned, drain fat
Add broth, canned tomatoes, Worcestershie sauce, brown sugar, ketchup and Italian seasonings
Add the dry macaroni
Cook for 15 minutes
Garnish with cheddar cheesse, if desired

It’s like meatloaf and mashed potatoes, simple and comforting. I made a bunch to freeze for quick easy meals. One note, be sure to have plenty of beef broth – the macaroni really soaks it up duing the 15 minute cook. And I use salt-free broths – a cleaner taste. It’s easy to over-salt. It’s simply yummy.

(Update 01/3/21) ) Now that I’ve made the soup, I’d back off a little on the macaroni and use perhaps a pound-and-a-half or maybe even two pounds of ground beef.

It’s soup kids, dig in!

** Recipe from tipsandcrafts.net

#KrogerLinwood: A Virus Nest

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Wear the damn mask! (stock image)

A quick run to the nearest grocery, Kroger at Linwood,(#KrogerLinwood) was alarming this New Year’s morning. There was a combination of 19 employees and customers not wearing a mask at all or improperly. The store was just modestly busy.

I complained to Kroger corporate a few weeks ago. For whatever reason, it did seem to be better for a few weeks. There still were a few folks not covering up but the numbers were substantially reduced. This morning things were back to previous examples of bad mask etiquette and worse.

Why raise such hell? Who made me the mask police? Well, there are five seriously contributing factors for developing Covid-19. One, over the age of 65? Check! Second, a pre-existing condition? Check, I have a compromised immune system from a stem cell transplant.

Sadly, this store seems to be most frequented by low-income citizens and senior citizens. – certainly among the vulnerable.

Mask wearing should no longer be a debate. Those not cooperating should be pulled aside. Kroger hires off duty cops to stand at the door. I’d think a reminder from one of these officers would motivate most people. Of course, the same officers never seem to take a stroll through the parking lot either where I’ve been approached by panhandles numerous times. And I do occasionally give people a buck or two. You just never know another’s situation.

But some people need to read again the seriousness of wearing a mask. These guidelines from the Mayo Clinic should clear up any doubt.

As a former journalist, I’m observant. I do the mask count almost every visit. This morning, Jan. 1, was appalling.

Kroger workers: Four employees were not wearing a mask properly. All four had masks covering their face but not nose. Perhaps the most reckless was a bakery employee leaning over food products with who know’s what germs or matter decorating the baked goods.

Customers: And this was the worst-ever example. I counted 14 people without or not wearing a mask properly. Incredibly half had no mask at all. That’s by far the worst I’ve found it. I was astounded when leaving the store, strictly with pre-packaged products, to watch an older gentleman select a cart, wipe down the handle with a sanitary wipe and proceed into the store with no mask in sight.

I heard back from Kroger corp in December and appreciated its pledge to talk to the store management team. But this isn’t brain surgery here – it’s a management issue. The store manager says you wear your mask throughout the day and you do not remove it unless you’re on break or in a private space. If you cannot follow that work place rule you’re unemployed.

Admittedly, customers are tougher. Should they turn their security cops into the mask police? Well the hire-a-cops seldom seem to move from the front exit door or take their glance away from their cellphones. I’m not suggesting cuffing the offenders. But a polite reminder from a police officer would probably go a long way.

And, maybe a sign on the door that masks are required? Customers without a mask will not be given service.

And a personal note, I work in a small retail shop and we have the Indiana guidelines on the door. Anyone coming through the door without a mask is told they must wear one. We keep surgical masks on hand to give anyone without. I think during my average 15-18 hours a week since March I’ve had to remind a customer a handful of times and everyone quickly complied. We have a policy we have not yet had to implement, but if no mask we will not sell product to that customer.

This isn’t complicated friends. Wear the damn mask!

Looking for good in 2020

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When writing regularly for more than 20 newspapers and additional websites, I always did the traditional Top 10 wines of the year. It wasn’t always much fun but felt necessary or something like an obligation.

Yes, I’m trying to re-start my occasional musings on wine and thoughts of life, Covid, and whatever else occupies the mind of a retired journalist, marketer, and wanna be bon vivant. I just use bon vivant because who wouldln’t like that label?

2020 sucked on many levels – there it’s been said and now we can reflect. So far I’ve managed to avoid the bug. I’m all in on mask wearing, social distancing (for the most part), and becoming a germophobe. I get an A on mask wearing. I worked through the summer and continue to work now. I am thinking hard about January if predictions come through about a huge outbreak.

I’m retired and if I don’t work I sit at home alone. That’s not a plea for empathy it’s just reality for many seniors. Cold weather means I can’t ride my bike and it’s tougher to even walk the dog, though he doesn’t seem to care about temperatures much.

So I push ahead.

A few real bright spots from 2020:

  • In December, I had my 3.5-year visit with my oncologist and remain cancer free from a two-round bout with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma which started in 2015. I’m humble and thankful for the treatment I recieved, particularly an autogolous stem-cell transplant.
  • I continue to meet, at least on a superficial basis, really great people through my work at The Wine Shop. Our customers are interesting people who are living life to the fullest. New faces, old friendly faces, and daily adventures like a week in December with no furnace.
  • My job obviously affords me the opportunity to taste a lot of great wine. No Top 10 List – I swear – but how about two standouts? I’m not going to say these two are best I had but they are darn near close.
  • A 2017 Joseph Drouhin Vosne Romanee was a great glass somewhat by accident, or nagging. It’s about $80 a bottle at full retail. Most of our Wine Shop staff was working Christmas Eve. The boss was opening a few bottles and we suggested, maybe more than once, that the Vosne Romanee might be a delightful choice. Well before leaving the shop to the old guy and young guy, he popped one open. It was one of the best examples of Burgundy I’ve ever enjoyed. I have a couple bottles of that wine, different producers, at home and look forward to the day I open them.
  • Chateau Landereau Entre Deux Mers 2019. I’ve always enjoyed the Entre Deux Mers region since a brief visit about seven years ago. A wonderful and flavorful blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon – tropical fruits, wonderful mouthfeel and lingering finish. Great taste and great value (about $15) can be found if you just look hard enough.
  • Yard work. I know, how boring. But I rediscovered the pleasure of mowing my yard as needed – something I hadn’t done for years. Always joked I had a Lawn Boy ……….. a nice kid. With a little young muscle, I also did some planting with more to come. I’ve jumped on the lawn care madness and fertilized and worked on having a beautiful lawn in a few years. Thank goodness, it’s small.
  • Finally, I’ll be at The Wine Shop New Year’s Eve and probably get to see a lot of those customers. I really look forward to it. Stop by if you’re in Indy. We have a wide selection of bubbles at all price points. And, you won’t feel like you’re at Wal-Mart. (Obvious dig at new competitor! :-O)
  • One of the biggest downers was no travel this past year. I’m hoping that changes in the new year. I need to visit a friend in Napa, a tough chore obviously. I’ve thought of putting together a group trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley for the fall (something I’ve done before). Who’s interested? And, I’d always go back to Burgundy with a few hours notice.
  • Happy New Year. No, REALLY – Happy New Year

We all should drink more bubbles

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It’s time to celebrate the new year – perhaps it’s ring in the new year and chase out the old one.

Bubbles, of course, is the traditional beverage of choice for most revelers. Having now worked in retail wine sales, I’ve developed more of a love for sparkling wines. There really is something for everyone and at all price points.

As opposed to recommending specific bottles, perhaps dropping a few names, let’s cover the choices that will work for you and what you might expect to pay.

Bubbles start with champagne. The area of Champagne in France isn’t particularly large but nearly 360 Champagne houses produce more than 300 million bottles annually. True champagne is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Meunier. A blanc de blanc is 100% Chardonnay while a Blanc de Noir is Pinot Noir.

Lots of inexpensive bubbles’ options!

True champagne starts around $30-$50 a bottle. The U.S. is the second largest importer of French Champagne, Britain takes the top spot. The best-selling champagnes in the world are widely available in the US. If you want to go where the crowd goes look for Moet-Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Nicolas Feuillatte, Laurent-Perrier, Taittinger, Pommery. And Piper-Heidsieck – and of course, Dom Perignon.

Ask your wine shop clerk to make recommendations from small houses and you might just find better wines. One specific: Nomine Renard for around $40. Or try US made Schramsberg producers of Blanc and Noir at $30-$40.

There are also regional standout producers like Mawby from Northern Michigan.

A lesser known option is grower champagnes. If you like the farm-to-fork concept in restaurants, a grower champagne is for you. Many of the big houses buy their grapes from growers – nothing wrong with that. The grower champagnes are grown and produced by a single producer. These champagnes sell generally from $70 to $125. This is my best bet for outstanding quality and drinkability over the big houses.

If you want something more affordable look for an Italian Prosecco, Spanish Cava, US champagnes and French Cremant. The Cremants are a particularly good value made like champagne. Great Cremant is produced in Burgundy, Alsace, Loire Valley and Southern France. Average cost for great Cremant bubbles runs around $20. They are also a bit more drinkable if you’re not used to true champagne.

Another entry to not overlook is Italy, yes the land of tannic dark red wines and pasta. La Spinetta and Ferrari are a couple of names to look for.

Bubbles should be enjoyed year round. It’s not just for New Year’s. Try bubbles with a salad of mild flavored food. Drink bubbles on the porch or patio on a hot summer day.

Grab a bottle of sparkle, and let’s toast 2021 – and kick 2020 to the back of our collective memory.

Happy New Year!

Holiday Wine Shopping Tips

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At times I forget the comfort and carthisis of writing. I halted my every-other-week wine column in 2017 after 10 years of writing.

So I thought I’d do a quick bit on Christmas shopping for wine. It’s the kind of column I frankly got tired of every year but after three years working in retail wine sales I’ve gained a considerable amount of perspective.

This is my fourth Christmas at the shop and this busy week of sales reminds me of many suggestions I’ve made in the past and perhaps a few new ones.

First, if you’re going to gift wine go to a shop specializing in wine. Yes, you can get a bottle in lots of places but at most shops you’re going to get sales people who have a serious interest in vino and a willingness to help you.

The night before writing this column I put in six hours at the shop. I helped several customers, with limited knowledge, pick out gifts. That is probably the most rewarding part of the job – helping others gift and enjoy a good bottle.

First, do you have any idea what the person you’re buying for enjoys? Does the person like red, white? Do they like bold wines? Perhaps they like all sorts of wines and enjoy exploring.

You might be surprised that more than 5,000 grape varietals around the world can be made into wine. Now, no shop carries that many but good shopping spots will have lots of choices.

The wine sales person is there to help you navigate, let them. It does not matter at all what you know about wine just trust the sales person and insist on choices.

If you take nothing from these few words take this – know what you want to spend. It really surprises me the people who come in our shop and haven’t given it much thought. We have Cab that starts in the low to mid teens and goes up. We have Napa Cab, some including me, which many consider the best in the world. We carry Napa Cab ranging from $24.99 to more than $300 a bottle. Know what you want to spend!

There are shops and sales people, unfortunately, who will try to sell you above what you might want to spend. How do you deal with them? Easy. Tell them what you are comfortable spending and ask them to show you one at that price along with their best at a little higher and a little lower price.

I’d also encourage you to try something new for your friend or relative. If they like Cabernet, try a bold Zinfandel, Tannat, Merlot, or many others. And yes, Merlot! The wine has improved ten-fold since the 90s and early part of this decade. If your friend like Chardonnay try a French Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc. Explore the world of Italian whites – Vermentino is a great lemony wine.

But let the pros help you. And, there is always gift cards.

Merry Christmas!

Don’t pair just for the turkey

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WRITER’S NOTE: This was my last Thanksgiving wine column before discontinuing its regular distribution. It’s the same recommendations I’d make today. Maybe it will help someone with their pics.

During many years as a newspaper editor, young reporters constantly had to be reminded that not all readers had read every story they’d ever written. It’s not a stretch to feel the same way about the obligatory holiday dinner wine column about pairing wine and turkey.

Actually, you are not pairing wine and turkey. Rule number-two is match your wine to all the dishes best you can and not just the protein.

What, no rule number one? Guilty again of assuming readers have read all previous columns about wine and food pairing. Drink what you like. If you want big California cabernet with your holiday turkey or ham, then have Cabernet and enjoy. Drink what you like!

But readers do come here for suggestions. Start your holiday with some bubbly. Get to your closest wine shop and look for some Italian Prosecco and Spanish Cava. Both are pretty inexpensive and add to festive holiday atmosphere. You want something a bit fancier and from the USA, try a bottle of Mumm Cuvee Napa Brut for under $20.

On to the turkey, stuffing, potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie and wine for dinner. Safe white choices start with the traditional big, oaky, California chardonnay. If you like the idea of a Chard but not the heavy traditional choice look for an unoaked Chardonnay and everyone will be happy.

An Oregon Pinot Gris would also be a good white wine choice. The Gris will give you nice citrus fruit and acidity. Another good pick would be a rich Rhone white blend of Rousanne and Marsanne white grapes – rich, good mouthfeel and will definitely hold up to food.

Many people prefer a light-weight red wine. Around Thanksgiving time many recommend Beaujolais. Do not but the tacky Nouveau wines you’ll hear about. Go to your wine shop and fine a Beaujolais Cru wine from Morgon or Fleurie. Good Beaujolais will remind you of Pinot Noir with a bit more earthiness. They can be fascinating wines and often cost less than $20.

Pinot Noir is always a great holiday meal choice. If you like your red holiday wine on the lighter side, go with an Oregon Pinot. If you want more body and full mouth feel in your holiday beverage pick of a Pinot from California.

Now let’s get a little crazy. You like big reds and you cannot lie? Try a California Zinfandel but look at the alcohol content carefully. Look for a Zin at 14.5 or less and you should have a lighter version that will give you big fruit with less kick. Too much kick and those family arguments might turn into pie fights.

A Washington state red blend would be another full-flavor choice. Look for a blend from Walla Walla or a red with grapes from Horse Heaven Hills and you’ll have a great red blend with your dinner.

These are solid choices for your holiday meal. Pick your wines early and grab a couple of extra bottles for those unexpected guests during the holidays.