More Culture Than Shock

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I’m not a good alone person. As a result, I am passionate about sharing my experiences, whether that be watching a good movie, eating a delicious meal, or traveling. These are things I enjoy doing with friends and loved ones. When I do such things alone, the experiences hold less meaning for me unless and until I can find a way to share them. This is in part why I have befriended social media and why I have embraced blogging for years.

I have had the good fortune to visit Baja California in Mexico a couple of times in the last two years. I was there on business both times but what I want to share with you here are some of the experiences I had while I wasn’t conducting business. I want to tell you about some of the cool places I visited and the wonderful people I encountered. Making these visits has changed the way I look at Mexico and sharing this with you makes it all more meaningful to me.

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My travel companions and I crossed the border from San Diego into Tijuana and vice versa. Before taking the first of these trips, my only experience with Mexico had been a brief excursion into Tijuana in 1975. I was 14 years old at the time and a San Diego bus tour that I was on took us across the border for a couple of hours. The bus tour had been pretty awesome but I didn’t think much of Mexico based on what I had seen. At the time, unemployment in Mexico was around 30%. To put that into perspective, 10% has long been considered the threshold for an economic depression. So there I was, a sheltered, white bread, chicken shit, suburban boy witnessing real poverty for the first time. I saw small children as well as extremely old people begging in the streets — and largely being ignored by passers-by as if they didn’t even exist. That bothered me greatly in 1975. It still bothers me today.

We weren’t ever in Tijuana long but I did see more of the city than I had in 1974. Yes, I did encounter a few beggars but very few. In fact, I regularly see more widespread begging in Chicago than I saw there. Once out of the city, I was at once impressed by the vast surrounding terrain, which can best be described as rugged. Very hilly, almost mountainous, with lots of immense boulders everywhere. And since we were still near the border, there was the ever-present steel barrier, none of which looked new. In fact, everybody seemed oblivious to it. In the city, we drove right alongside it at times. Out in the country, I could see the barrier off in the distance from the highway we were on. Many people from both sides cross the border between Mexico and California daily, many of them commuting to and from work, from both sides. I saw nothing sensational about it.

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What I did find sensational, in Tijuana and elsewhere, was the fantastic food being served up by local street vendors. A few of my associates, those who visit Mexico with some regularity, seem to know which vendors offer the best fare. I was never disappointed. In fact, I was usually blown away by the fresh ingredients and awesome flavors these vendors serve up. One cannot overlook the value, either. We often ate like kings for the equivalent of relatively few American dollars.

One day I was riding along with the eldest of my company’s founders, the only one who was born in Mexico, and I learned a lot about him, the area we were traveling through, and the people who live there. “Today you are seeing real Mexico,” Ruben told me, “not what the tourists see.” He pointed to some people selling goods at one intersection and to others who were performing at another. At one point the company elder asked, “Do you see anybody begging?”

“No,” I replied. “I see people selling things. I see people performing on some corners.”

“People do what they can to make a little money. They don’t need much. They aren’t rich, but everybody seems happy.” I nodded in acknowledgment.

We talked about our respective heritages for a while. After a momentary hesitation, Ruben asked me a question that made me pause: “Do you… I don’t know… Do you mind working for Mexicans?”

I smiled at the question and gave the most honest answer I could. “No. Do you mind having an Italian working for your company?” We looked at each other and laughed out loud. It was genuine laughter and that made me feel good.

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Here is something else I hadn’t known before I started making these trips: Baja California is home to Mexico’s wine country. In all candor, I hadn’t even known Mexico has a wine country. Well, they do and some of their wines are quite excellent. If you’re interested in such things, google “Ruta del Vino, Baja California.” We drove part of Ruta del Vino, flanked on both sides by vineyards and olive groves, to visit a wonderful little winery called Cava Mora. I was positively enchanted from the moment I set foot on the property.

As I understand it, Señor Mora was born in Mexico but spent a great deal of his life living in California and for a while was a competitive surfer. The man speaks fluent Spanish but when he spoke to me, in perfect English, I could hear Southern California in his voice. His wines are exquisite red blends, quite full-bodied with a delightful nose and deep flavor. During our last visit, after tasting wine in the cave, we went to the sipping room up above and enjoyed a bottle of wine along with a plate of cheeses, bread, olives, and spreads. There was music playing in the background and the sun was shining outside. I’m telling you, a man could get used to a place like that.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk a little bit about the people I’ve met and hung out with during our visits, some of whom originate from the same part of Mexico as the elder of whom I spoke earlier. They are a genuinely welcoming sort. Some speak perfect English, others speak it more like my Italian parents did. A few spoke little English at all, yet we communicated effortlessly. And at some point during each visit, there was a feast featuring way too much food, ample drink, music, laughter, and a certain closeness that mere words cannot quite capture.

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During such a feast, I was also introduced to a locally distilled spirit called mezcal. Like its distant cousin tequila, mezcal is made from agave but with far fewer geographic and botanical restrictions. My first taste of mezcal was poured from a recycled 2-liter soda bottle. That’s right, moonshine. The flavor was intense, to say nothing of the burn that followed. As I finished my double shot, one of the women uttered a remark from the kitchen that caused everybody to erupt in laughter. Turning to my mentor, I asked, “What did the woman say?”

“She said, ‘If you drink enough of this, you won’t need any blankets tonight.'” I looked at him and smiled as I finished my drink. He added, “By the way, you’re impressing the hell out of these people right now.”

In the end, there is always much hugging and well-wishing when the time comes to say goodbye and none of this is shallow courtesy. After only two visits, I get it. We are genuinely glad to see one another. We are genuinely sorry to say goodbye so soon. And we genuinely look forward to seeing each other again. To understand that dynamic is to get a glimpse of the organizational culture in which I work every day.

I am not a good alone person. That’s why if you have read all of this and looked at the photos and video clips along the way, I’m grateful. It all means more to me because you came along, at least for this little bit. Thanks for hanging with me.

Ten Wines to Enjoy Without Going Broke

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Before we dive into this subject, I need to disclose that I am literally a lifelong wine drinker. My father, grandfather, uncles, and cousins — all Italian immigrants — all made their own wine. In our culture, vino (pronounced WEE-no) is more than a mere drink. To the Italians, wine is an integral part of the family table, a thing to be enjoyed daily with friends and family. In all likelihood, I probably tasted my first drop of wine (literally a drop of it) long before I spoke my first word. In America today, that may be considered a crime. In my time and place, it was not. Indeed, my ascent into manhood was measured by how much wine I was allowed to have with my supper. As soon as I was big enough, I was allowed to help my father make the wine and on one autumn day sometime during my teens, I was finally allowed to go into the city with “the men” to buy grapes. That was a big deal!

Once I reached legal age, it may seem only natural that I began to explore “other people’s wines” and expand my horizons. And that’s exactly what I did. Just understand that while I am no wine expert by any means, I do understand and appreciate wine. Over the years, I have tasted some exceptionally good wines and quite a few that were fair at best. Being a man of less than wealthy means, I have long focused my attention on good-but-affordable wines. Which brings us to my topic of the day. Alright? Let’s talk about ten of my favorite “everyday” wines worth drinking that will not break the bank.

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1. Sobon Estate — Old Vine Zinfandel
It seems only appropriate that I start with California Zinfandel, as my father made his wine primarily from Zinfandel grapes transported to Chicago from California. Why? Because when my dad first began making his own wine, after he had established himself in the US and bought a house of his own, the older paisani  (people from the same part of Italy as him) advised him that the Zinfandel grape was most similar to the grapes grown in their region of Italy. Sobon Estate is a fantastic find for under $15 a bottle. It has an exceptional fruit-forward palate and pretty smooth tannins for a dry red in this price range.

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2. Cline Family Cellars — Old Vine Zinfandel
Cline is a well-respected name in the California wine country. A cousin of mine used to live not far from their winery and has vouched for the quality of their wines. This is another good Zin for the money. More earthy than the Sobon Estate brand I just mentioned, this wine is also a bit heavier on the tannins. That’s not a bad thing by any means but we should talk about it. I do not hesitate to recommend this wine to those who typically enjoy dry reds.

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Tannins are naturally occurring compounds that exist inside grape skins, seeds, and stems. This is the stuff that causes the “dry” feeling in your mouth when you drink certain red wines. You don’t find the same qualities in white wines, even dry whites, because most white wines are fermented in the absence of skins, seeds, and stems. In some reds, the tannins can cause a harsh, astringent effect and this is not always a matter of how much the wine cost. One way to smooth out that effect is to let the wine “breathe.” Either open the bottle and set it aside or decant it into a secondary container and wait. Thirty minutes is long enough for some but two hours is not unheard of.

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3. Santa Christina — Toscana
As the name implies, this wine comes from the Tuscan region of Italy. I discovered this one quite by accident, while dining at a favorite Italian restaurant near my home. When I discovered just how affordable this stuff was, I began buying it regularly. The predominant grape in this wine is Sangiovese, the most widely planted grape variety in Italy and the base grape of many Italian varieties, including Chianti. Let this wine breathe a bit and you will appreciate its ripe nose, fruity/spicy notes, and smooth finish.

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4. Antale — Veneto Rosso
This wine, from the Veneto region of Italy, is just a bit different from anything else on this list. The color of this red wine borders on purple. The flavor is deep in fruit, yet quite dry. At 14% ABV, this is definitely a full-bodied wine. Let it breathe and you will be impressed with this unique yet affordable find. Not exactly a casual sipper, though I have used it as such.

5. Domaine Chantepierre — Tavel
Before we come stateside again, I need to point out this amazing rosé wine from Tavel, a region of France renowned for its relatively strong rosé wines. Clocking in at 14% alcohol by volume, Domaine Chantepierre Tavel is indeed a full-bodied rosé, which has no counterpart here in the states. The flavor profile is extraordinary, the texture silky smooth. If you can find this wine for $20 or less, buy it.

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6. The Guide — Pinot Noir
Pinot Noir, literally “black pine cone,” is a dark red grape variety that is grown (with difficulty) in various parts of the world, including the United States. Pinot Noir wines are typically light/medium-bodied, fruity, and delightful. This particular brand is very good and pairs well with a variety of foods, especially chicken and pork. My friend Ann and I enjoyed a bottle of The Guide, an Oregon Pinot Noir, with our first attempt at chicken marsala and were bowled over by both. Good stuff!

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7. Castle Rock — California Cuveé Pinot Noir
Here is a super-affordable Pinot Noir from California that offers a smooth, medium texture, pleasant fruit flavors, and light tannins… and can be found for less than $10! I found California Cuveé, one of several Castle Rock Pinot Noirs, on sale at my favorite local wine store and have been buying it ever since. Trust me, you could do a whole lot worse for under ten bucks.

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8. Wente — Morning Fog Chardonnay
The first of the whites on my list, this is also the only Chardonnay I’ll tell you about here. I include it for good reason. Morning Fog, one of several Chards offered by Wente, combines some interesting qualities that make it an absolute delight to drink. First, it’s an oaked Chardonnay, but not overly so. As I understand it, half of the wine is oaked and the other half is aged in stainless steel tanks. Then the two batches are combined. The result is complex, a lightly oaked wine with a delightful fruit-forward flavor profile.

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9. Ecco Domani — Pinot Grigio
Pinot Grigio translates to “gray pine cone,” a reference to the appearance of the grape clusters of this variety. Pinot Grigio wines (Pinot Gris in French, same grape) are typically bright, crisp, and fruity. These dry white wines are fantastic summer sippers, best served chilled. Ecco Domani is a mass-market brand that can be found in most supermarkets as well as broad-spectrum wine stores. Usually sold for $10 or less per bottle, you could do a lot worse for this Venetian delight.

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10. Grigio Luna — Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie
If you are fortunate enough to have a Trader Joe’s store within driving distance, go there and buy some of this wine. Grigio Luna has many characteristics of Italian Pinot Grigio wines costing at least twice as much. Priced at well below $10 per bottle, if you really like Pinot Grigio, you may want to buy this one by the case.

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And there you have it, my current top ten of everyday drinkers. I consider wine to be something special, something wonderful to be shared with family, friends, and loved ones. I like wine and hope you have enjoyed reading this post as much as I have enjoyed writing it. As always, thanks for hanging with me.