Erntedank, Part 1

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Christine Netzl takes a celebratory group selfie after we finish harvest in one of the many vineyards the Netzls tend and nurture throughout the year. Pictured here are family members and personal friends, all of whom have pitched in every free moment to help get the grapes in as quickly as possible, since this year time was of the essence.

(R-L: Maria Windholz—younger sister of Franz Netzl—me, Phillip and his mother Ilsa—nephew and sister of Christine Netzl—Christine Netzl, Bettina Bitterman—wife of one of the best chefs in Carnuntum and co-owner of Bitterman’s, an award-winning restaurant in Goettlesbrunn)

[Ern-te-dank: Gratitude for the harvest]

As so often happens, I am typing this post with a modicum of guilt, simply for not seeming to ever find more time for more updates. But this time around I’m also feeling something else. Something a little more potent. Gratitude.

As some of you who are friends and thus also connected to me via other online outlets (such as Facebook) may know, last week both of my two iPhones were stolen.

The how and where and why aren’t really important. It’s enough to say that it was a fairly devastating realization to make, discovering that both the unlocked phone I’d brought and set up for calling and texting abroad, as well as my main iPhone—the one I use at home, the one I used for internet, for blog posts, for photos, for music, the one with all my information on it—were suddenly just gone, taken right out of my bag.

Did I try calling the phones? Yes, both were turned off. Did I try "find my iPhone?" Yes, that was the next thing I tried, but it looks as though that was an oversight on my part before coming abroad. Note to all you travellers: TURN ON FIND MY IPHONE. I think I must have turned it off at some point to save memory or battery space.

At any rate, I spent my first few hours in the office at Anton Bauer (the winery where I’m currently working) in a frenzy, changing passwords, calling my phone company, feeling pretty sorry for myself. “How could this happen to me?” “There’s no way I can afford another iPhone.” “How will I ever get by for another month and a half without my phones?” “All of my photos were on those phones. How am I supposed to update my blog now?” “Everything is gone.” “It’s just not fair.”

But then I started thinking: I still have my passport. I still have my wallet with all my IDs and cash and credit cards. I still have my laptop and access to internet. I have a safe, warm, friendly place to stay that has been generously provided for me by the winery.

Much more importantly, I have my health. I am safe. I have enough to eat. When I started thinking of how many people are facing truly horrible circumstances in the world, I remembered how genuinely lucky I am. How much I have, with or without a piece of machinery. Yes, technology adds convenience to our lives. But all these gadgets and mini computers that we’ve come to rely on can also distract us quite a bit from the parts of life that are in fact much more lasting, and much more valuable—the things you can’t place a dollar (or Euro) amount on.

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The entire Netzl harvest team, aside from me and the relatives and friends of the Netzls who came out to lend a hand, are from Hungary. Pictured here are the ladies of the group, most of whom speak very little German and virtually no English at all, save for teenage Evelyn who stands above us and is the daughter of Dollie.

(R-L: Maria, Olga, Elizabeth, Henni, Henni’s mother, me, Evelyn, Sandy, Alexandra, Rozie, Maria, Dollie, and Katy. Henni and Dollie are identical twins.)

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Taking a spritzer break with my Austrian harvest peeps. Most of the older Austrian vineyard workers who work for Anton Bauer here in Feuersbrunn are retired and/or personal friends who come out every year consistently.

(R-L: Karl, Rose-Marie—my two harvest partners—Fred, Emmerich)


I have made some truly wonderful new friends here in Austria. I am learning something new—about wine, and myself—every day, and improving my German in the process. I am in an incredibly beautiful country, working with fantastic wine makers who make truly lovely wines.

Side note: If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you look into the wines of Franz and Christine Netzl and Anton Bauer.

I have had the chance to do honest, hard, fall-into-bed-like-a-rock-and-wake-up before-dawn work that makes you feel like you’re really doing something real. I have had the chance to feel and smell and taste every type of grape in the vineyard and to taste the wines as they develop.

And I have been the recipient already of so much warmth and hospitality and generosity. From the Netzl family, from Anton Bauer and his partner Gudrun, from my all new Austrian friends, and from my fellow vineyard workers, too.

I am creating experiences that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

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Celebrating the completion of one of the larger vineyards that contribute to the wines of Franz and Christine Netzl. Pictured here are both the regular Hungarian contingent of vineyard workers as well as relatives and friends who all came out on a Saturday to lend a hand. Normally, wineries give their workers the weekend off, but this year called for a  more intense harvest.


Comparing the loss of a couple of iPhones and what they contained (photos, videos, internet) to what I’ve gained so far (memories, good friends, lasting experiences and a breadth of new knowledge), I can’t help but feel a little humbled and more than a little gratitude. I’m reminded, too, that every day here in Austria (and yes, in life in general) is a new chance for even more awesome experiences, as long as I keep myself open to them and remember that sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you think it will, and that’s ok.

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The sun emerges through the fog over Neider Oesterreich and the vineyards of the Wagram

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*Special thanks to Tina Netzl and Karl Pruekl for replenishing my lost supply of photos with the images above.

After a long, cold, gray-skied foggy morning in the vineyards, the sun finally decided to come out and warm us as we harvested Blaufrankisch.

I’m wondering if it has anything to do with the fact that my new friend Charlie from Vorarlberg has christened me “Sunny Girl” and calls me this every chance he gets.

Either way, the simple pleasure of gentle autumn sun on my fingers and face was definitely the best part my day…so far.

Austria: Harvest 2014
Photo recap
Week Two

Week two here in Austria started with a morning of harvesting Sauvignon Blanc along the steep pebble-covered and highly prized slopes of the Schuttenberg vineyard, one of the Netzls’ highest elevation vineyard sites. This is also where we had been the previous Thursday to harvest Gelber Muskateller for the Netzls’ pretty and super aromatic “MuskatTina.”

Despite trying weather conditions, the Sauvignon Blanc we harvested was beautiful. The grapes tasted fresh, with good acid and a crisp, flowery citrusy note. The Netzls don’t have many rows of Sauvignon Blanc and they use this precious bit to make a special, full bodied, oaked version that truly stands out from the standard lighter, grapefruity grassy fare.

Later we harvested a bit of Chardonnay, but our focus for the entire week was Zweigelt. Zweigelt. And more Zweigelt. The goal was to get every good zweigelt grape off the vine and into tank as quickly as possible before more rain showed up. We did in fact accomplish this goal by the end of the week, though it meant working over the weekend, which is very uncommon and not a popular prospect for the Hungarian vineyard workers, who value their free time.

We lucked out with a few days of sun—some days got downright hot. And let me tell you, after the heavy rains, the mosquitos came out in full force. They filled the air, floating deviously up from the grass and from between the leaves. There must have been a mosquito orgy going on while we worked. And how could they not jump at the chance to try a taste of the American girl?

No joke, I counted over 40 mosquito bites on my legs alone by the end of the week. (I have decided to spare you the discomfort of seeing a photo.)

Each day in the vineyards starts around 7am. That means I get picked up in Hoeflein at 6:45 to get to the round-up site (the barn and machine courtyard across the street from the Netzl winery and home) where the rest of the Hungarian team is waiting. As early as I think I’m getting up, I remind myself that the Hungarian vineyard workers drive 30-40 minutes from Hungary each morning and each evening, so they’re truly getting up at the crack of dawn.

It’s always chilly and misty and sniffle-inducing for the first couple hours of work in the vineyard, even if the sun decides to show up later. And if it does, it’s one of the nicest sensations, feeling the gradual warmth on our faces and in the air. Vineyard attire requires dressing like an onion, since as the sun builds it’s confidence and moves higher in the sky, the layers start coming off. That’s on a good day when the rain clouds don’t stubbornly loom heavy overhead, sprinkling and spurting indecisively. Then, too, you’re glad for the layers.

You can always tell who works with wine here by looking at their hands and fingernails. And since almost everyone in the smaller towns of Hoeflein, Goettlesbrunn and neighboring Arbesthal all grow at least a bit of their own grapes and make a bit of their own wine, even it’s just for private consumption, we all walk around with grubby hands. Even after a good long washing, the grape stains linger in the cracks of your skin and the dirt and sugar and grape skin residue coat the insides and layers of your nails.

It’s almost comforting to see shop keepers and Heuriger servers and to meet people on the street and notice that their hands all look the same as yours. It’s like a common badge that we wear. And no one tries too hard to get rid of it, because really, why bother? Your hands will get just as dirty and stained tomorrow. Rather, we embrace it as something that ties us together and as a reminder of the time and effort and care that we’ve put into the grapes thus far.

Austria: Harvest 2014
Photo recap
Week 1

There are no two ways about; harvest leaves you exhausted. It consumes you. You live, eat, breathe (drink, too, yes) and dream grapes. In a challenging year like this one turned out to be, you are literally racing to get in all the fruit as quickly and as cleanly as humanly possible. And with the Netzls, there’s no machine picking; it’s all careful, painstaking hand harvesting, long nights in the cellar, crack of dawn alarm clocks, and a commitment to quality that permeates everything that’s done inside and outside of the winery.

As tired as I am, I know it’s negligible compared to the state of the winemakers here in Carnuntum (and all over Austria) who stay in the cellar till 2 in the morning some nights and still wake up at 5 am to work another day. Harvest means at least a month of no sleep for them and it’s absolutely humbling to see their dedication.

That being said, with very little extra time on my hands (which are permanently grape-stained), I haven’t had a chance to sit down and really decompress, let alone write a full set of posts. So I’ll leave you with a series of photo recaps covering my time here in Lower Austria so far.

Photos 1-3:

Hoeflein, the town in which I’m staying, is about 5km from Goettlesbrunn, which is where Weingut Franz and Christine Netzl is located. Each day I get picked up at 6:45 am by either Franz or his wife Christine and we go back to the winery in Goettlesbrunn. There, I either meet up with the team of Hungarian vineyard workers and go out to pick grapes or I go to help in the cellar (the latter more so this week than the last, when getting the grapes in and off the vine was the only priority on anyone’s mind).

The winery is also the four generational home for the Netzl family. Oma (grandmother), Franz and his wife Christine, elder daughter Christina (Tina) and her husband Peter, also a winemaker for his own family’s winery, and their two daughters Lena and Anne-Maria all live in the combined home/winery “hof,” or hacienda if you will, with separate but connected apartments all facing a beautifully gardened inner courtyard and protected from the street by a great wooden door. This is the traditional home set up along almost all Austrian streets, with plain outter walls and imposing wooden double doors protecting peaceful, multi-family interiors.

The Netzl vineyards—the ones we’ve been working these last two weeks—span both Goettlesbrunn and Hoeflein. Both towns are known for their wine culture and are home to nationally and internationally recognized family wineries like Netzl.

In both Hoeflein and Goettlesbrunn you can find “alten weinkellern,” the tiny and (sometimes very) old wine cellars that were traditionally built half underground and used by families to make wine from their small portions of vineyard land. I was actually able to visit the interior of one of these family wine cellars, built in 1738 (and taste the wine stored there), but that’s another post.

Photos 4-6:

Having been drenched with an unparalleled amount of unseasonable rain (as has most of Europe), we were barely able to harvest anything the first week I was in Austria. (I arrived on Monday, Sept. 9.) Though we did harvest Gelber Muskateller (see photos 7-10), which is an important grape for this region in that it is something of a cash-cow. Gelber Muskateller produces fresh, fruity, floral, very pretty white wines that are easy to drink, approachable, yet still usually clean and fermented dry on the palate.

Aside from the one clear-ish skied day we had to harvest the small plot of Gelber Muskateller, we occupied ourselves with other tasks. On Thursday that week I accompanied Franz to Vienna to make deliveries. (Yes, Franz the winemaker and owner of the winery personally delivers a good deal of their wines to their various clients around Vienna each week. He and his wife Christine and their daughter Tina, who is just as involved in the winemaking and business side as her parents, are truly some of the hardest working people I’ve met. The term family winery takes on an utterly more real meaning being here and working with the Netzls.

Because of the inexhaustible rain, I was also given the opportunity to take the train to Vienna on my own over my first weekend in Austria. The train from Bruck an die Leitha, which is the “big town,” in this area, claiming about 10,000 inhabitants, takes about 30 minutes, and with an all day subway ticket, the round trip fare is about $25.

While in Vienna I mostly wandered the city without expectations or an itinerary so that I could get lost and explore a bit. Doing this, I found the Naschmarkt, a giant outdoor market covered by awnings that spans about four city blocks and has an incredible variety of food and drink options, as well as tons of fresh produce, spices, nuts, cheese, meats, seafood and so on. It was an unexpected burst of color on a gray and drizzly day and I spent a good 4 hours wandering back and forth, tasting cheese stuffed dates, spiced nuts and olives here and there, and finally stopping for a glass of “sturm” at one of the more traditional Austrian pubs sandwiched between falafel stands and more upscale champagne and cheese counters.

Sturm, pictured above, is a seasonal beverage only available for a short time around harvest, as it’s unfiltered, not quite fully fermented wine. It’s sweet and slightly yeasty and slightly fizzy and man, does it grow on you. Before you know it, you could be four glasses in, and at 4-5% abv with a beverage that drinks more like juice, some people go a little overboard. I’ve also heard too much sturm can create some rather inconvenient digestion issues…One was enough for me to try in the Naschmarkt, but since then I’ve definitely had my share of the cloudy, fizzy almost-wine, though thankfully none of the stomach trouble some people seem to have later.

Photos 7-10:

I mentioned that we were able to harvest the Gelber Muskateller gapes on the first Thursday that I was in Austria. These are for the “Muskat Tina” wine that the Netzls produce, named for Tina, the older of the two Netzl children, who has taken up her family’s profession and is now fully involved in the winemaking and decision making process. Interestingly enough the 2013 vintage of Muskat Tina sold out that same week. Muskateller is a hugely popular white wine all over Austria.

The first thing Franz did that Thursday morning was take me to the hardware store and buy me gloves and pruning clippers, which would become my most trusty and invaluable tools in the vineyard. Christine and Franz were out there picking and tractor driving and wheelbarrow pushing with the rest of us all day, as we raced to beat the heavy gray clouds that hung overhead.

In Photo 8, Christine shows me how when a grape is ripe, the seeds turn brown. She, Franz and Tina often also talk about the flavors and aromas present in the skin of a grape as you chew it, and so we are all often popping grapes into our mouths in the vineyard to check and see how the grapes are doing.

Franz and Christine are pictured in photo 10, as we celebrated a small success, getting their small crop of Gelber Muskateller harvested from the steep slops of the Shuttenberg Vineyard, one of the most special and distinct vineyards the Netzls own.

Tschuss for now. Stay tuned for more updates in the coming week.

Hallo von Oestereich! (Or, “Hello from Austria!” for you non-German speakers.)

It’s been about a week since I arrived here in Carnuntum, which is a small wine region in the eastern part of Austria. All four of Austria’s main wine regions and their sub-regions span the eastern crescent of the country’s border, actually. This map gives a good idea of where Carnuntum is, relative to the rest of the wine areas and to the country at large: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_8UIT9t8gAsk/TFs7V9IzJFI/AAAAAAAACiQ/gHxnBEuYlAQ/s1600/map+austria-wine-region-map.png

While Carnuntum is technically designated as being a part of the Niederoestereich (Lower Austria) wine region, it’s often considered to be more a part of Burgenland, since they are direct neighbors, and while it certainly produces some spectacular white wines, Carnuntum specializes in red wine, as does the whole of Burgenland—the only region of Austria to do so.

The three towns that make up the heart of Carnuntum—at least for wine—are Goettlesbrunn, Hoeflein and Arbesthal. Weingut (i.e. “Winery”) Netzl is located in the town of Goettlesbrunn. I am living in the town of Hoeflein, about 3km down the road. At night, you can tell where Hoeflein is based on the winking red eyes of the hundreds of wind turbines that stand like sentinels over the town. Most locals, including Franz Netzl and his wife Christine, don’t particularly love these modern windmills since they create an eyesore over what would otherwise be pristine and quaint countryside. Franz told me that to him, the blinking red lights remind him of vampires lurking in the blackness.

The whole of Carnuntum is a strange juxtaposition of modernity and urban life with history and tradition. Aside from it’s wine, Carnuntum is famous across Austria for its Roman ruins. In fact, the symbol of Carnuntum, diaplayed on all road signs, town markers, maps and the like is the ancient Pagan Gate, a towering arch that stood as the entrance to ancient Carnuntum’s fortified wall. http://www.best-of-european-union.eu/2011/10/15/open-air-museum-petronell-carnuntum-roman-world-in-austria/ My mom told me that she went on several school field trips to the ruins at Carnuntum when she was a girl growing up in Vienna.

In addition to the connection to it’s ancient Roman history, Carnuntum—especially Goettlesbrunn—is defined by generations of winemaking, farming and crafts. The Netzls have been making wine for over six generations and their home, which currently houses four generations of the Netzl family and also houses the winery, has been in the family for over two hundred years. You don’t have to ask Franz to see how proud he is of this. As he should be. Winemaking is hard. I knew this before, but I am realizing it in a very new light these days, and for each generation to have continued and maintained the legacy is no small feat. Now it’s Franz and Christine’s daughter, Christina, or “Tina,” who is taking on the family legacy, and she and her father make a dynamic pair, though mom Christine helps in the vineyards and the winery to a large extent as well.

I’ve had the chance to explore my little hamlet of Hoeflein little by little, with runs through the vineyards, past rows of traditional half-underground wine cellars, with walks to gather wild flowers and trips to the two local watering holes that are open past six: a bar called Cafe Prinz and the Heuriger right across the street.

Heurigers are privately owned little wine cellar-turned wine taverns, where independent wine growers sell the year’s most recent wines along with an assortment of cold dishes in the evenings. Most of the time, the entire family works the Heuriger and it’s not uncommon for the older children of Heuriger owners to either put their jobs on hold or come right after work to help with the Heuriger as well.

Heurigers are only allowed to be open for a total of six months out of the year, so it’s not always certain there will be a Heuriger open nearby. Of course, autumn is the time of year when it’s more likely to find Heurigers open, but it’s always dependent on the particular schedules of the owners and what they choose to do.

I’m not sure if it’s fortune or not to have a Heuriger open directly across the street from my tiny little attic apartment. It’s literally a matter of feet from my bed. And Heuriger prices are pretty fair, considering there’s no middle man to pay. You’re buying fresh wine right from the farmer. Typically a glass of white wine is 1.60 Euros and a glass of red is 1.90 Euros, while the food/snacks range between 1.50 and 5 Euros. With no grocery stores open past 6 within waking distance, and being left to my own devices normally for dinner time, I’ve already become a familiar face to the family at the Semmlinger Heuriger.

And when I’ve tasted enough wine for the evening, I only need to carry myself a few hundred feet to the door of Frau Springer’s guest house and climb the noisy wooden stairs to my little apartment, of which I’ve included some photos above. If I’m good and have forgone ordering food at the Heuriger, my dinners consist mostly of what you see in the picture: cheese, pickles, tomatoes, fruit, wasa crackers, and maybe a Wieselburger beer.

It’s simple living; no dishwasher and I have to give my laundry to Christine to get washed, but it’s perfect, and I’m so utterly grateful, as this apartment is part of what’s provided for me by the Netzls during my time with them. I have a safe, dry place to live. I have the most traditional and bucolic of all bars possible across the way, I have quiet dirt roads to wander down, with fields of vines and horses and sunflowers (though they’re all brown now) and wine cellars and roman ruins to admire. I hear the bells of the town’s beloved old church toll the hour, and the half hour, and the quarter hour through my window all day, everyday. I can hop on a train and be in Vienna in 30 minutes on my days off. And now, I finally even have internet access! Quick, someone give me your Netflix account info. Just kidding.

Driving in Circles

My three day journey along the Great Ocean Road ended up being a weird loop around the southern tip of Victoria, or rather, a slightly deformed figure-eight, as depicted in the map above. (On a related note, the site goprotravelling.com, while having some functionality setbacks, is so much fun to play around with. It lets you build automated point-by-point travel maps that depict your route on any sort of journey, past, present, or daydream. You can even set the map of your journey to music! But be warned, it can get a tad addictive)

Toll-traps

Navigating my way out of Melbourne initially, and still brand new to the whole driving on the left thing, I ended up taking what I later realized was a tolled highway.

Since everything is automated in Melbourne (the future is now!) and there are no cash or coin booths, toll roads are not easily identifiable to a foreign driver. But I had this strange feeling in my gut as I drove past conspicuous orange signs, slightly frazzled and uncomfortable at the idea of suddenly being on a 100km highway and also possibly having driven through a toll gate without paying.  

To my delight, I discovered upon my return to the city that there is a three day grace period for cars that pass through the toll gates unpaid and that there are signs all along said highway with the phone number through which the toll can still be paid. Thankfully, I returned from my trip on the third and final day of this grace period. I paid my $26 toll (that’s right; $26. No late fees or anything. That’s the normal price) and was able to return my car in West Melbourne with the comfort of knowing that there wouldn’t be any additional charge tacked on to the rental for my ignorance as an American driver. (If I had left the toll unpaid, it would have added an exorbitant fee to my rental total.)

Not so Fast, Sonja

Then I found out that there are speed cameras all over the highways. Oops. 100km doesn’t really seem that fast when you’re on long stretches of empty roads. I did slow down for possible Kangaroos. But after returning the car, my mind recalled countless pedal-pushing moments of speed on the roads once I’d gotten the hang of other-side driving.

Fingers crossed, I haven’t seen any speeding ticket notices in my email inbox or credit card statement yet. It’s been a little over a month since that drive. Maybe I’m okay.

In any case, the loop around the Australian southern tip was liberating in my ability to break out on the road and finally be behind a wheel for the first time since I’d left DC.

More Like a Figure Eight

To be honest, once I mapped out my journey, I realized my trip was more of a figure eight than a single loop. From Melbourne’s clotted, chaotic arterial roads to the start of the scenic Great Ocean Road in the tiny town of Torquay, to the also tiny and scenic beach town of Apollo Bay to the twelve Apostles to Port Campbell, I followed the water and gazed off the edges of countless cliffs to the blue-green and foam-capped waves of the Southern Ocean.

Sadly, I did not have quite enough time to drive the entirety of the highway. Instead, I cut across from Port Campbell through Colac and up into Geelong. From Geelong (where I stayed at that wonderful AirBnB house), I decided to take the ferry across the Port Phillip Bay to the Mornington Peninsula where I enjoyed the sunset and then finally headed back around through the dark to Melbourne. Again, the map above makes it pretty easy to follow my path.

Preview:

In my next posts, I’ll share a little about the wine in Geelong and Mornington, my ferry trip across Port Phillip Bay, the postcard perfect beach scenes and famous stretches of painted bungalow shacks of the Mornington Peninsula and a hidden gem wine bar called the Two Buoys.

Where to sleep when you’re a stranger

Since I’ve been back, many people have asked me about my ability to find sleeping arrangements and accommodations while traveling abroad. The truth is that I originally planned my trip to Australia and New Zealand knowing not a soul in either of those countries and having no solid arrangements for places to stay along the way. With an incredibly meager budget to work with, considering how long I was going to be gone and how much I’d already spent on airfare, I knew I would have to reach out and connect to as many people, as many friends of friends, as many acquaintances and networks as I possibly could in order to get on.

Amazingly, out of the entire two months that I was abroad, I probably ended up spending money on a place to sleep and shower about seven nights in all. I’m absolutely astounded when I think about that. And I’m so immensely grateful for the kindness and hospitality of all the people who let me sleep on their air mattresses, their couches, their floors, their guest beds, their bunk beds, and in their guest cottages. I’m also grateful for having had the presence of mind to borrow a sleeping bag from my cousin in California at the start of my trip, since many of my sleeping situations wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

I guess I should also say that I’m grateful to be the type of person who’s okay with sleeping almost anywhere, whether it’s in the back seat of my rental car, or on the floor of a living room, or on a thrift store air mattress that deflates throughout the night so that I’m back on the floor when I wake up in the morning. (Ok, that last one was in Auckland and though my back wasn’t particularly happy the next morning, I was still grateful to have friendly hosts and a safe, warm place to rest.) Maybe it’s the two years I spent traveling the US doing volunteer work, much of which was spent living on the road. Though I do enjoy creature comforts like anyone else, and I do work in the food and wine industry, so of course I appreciate some of the finer things in life, when it comes down to it, I’m just as used to living simply and being happy with the basics. If I’ve got a safe space, a clean blanket and a warm shower the next morning, I can make do with camping out almost anywhere. And besides, on this trip, what mattered the most to me was experiencing the true character of the places I visited — the geography, the culture, the wine, the cuisine, the people — not the softness of my pillows or comparing the amenities of corporate hotel chains. Turns out my two nights and three days on the Great Ocean Road ended giving me a bit of both.

While in Melbourne, I was incredibly fortunate in having been able to stay with Pete, a friend of a friend — both of whom are in the wine business, albeit on different sides of the world. Pete was more than kind in allowing me to sleep on his pull-out couch for the time I was in the city — a little over a week in all. In fact, between staying with my friends Jessica and Fabricio in Los Angeles, staying at Mieko-San’s apartment in Tokyo, and staying with Pete in Melbourne, I had a place to sleep every night up until my trip down the Great Ocean Road.

But for the nights outside of Melbourne, I was on my own. And so I used this chance to try out two different methods of finding accommodation, which I’d learned about before leaving the US. The first was Couch Surfing and the second was Air B n’ B.

Both of these networks are are brilliant ways for cost-conscious travelers to not only find accommodations all over the world, but also to experience the place they visit on a much more intimate and personal level. The first is free and thus requires a bit more leg work in terms of finding and contacting appropriate, legitimate, available and willing hosts. The second requires payment, like any Bed and Breakfast would. All location searches, reference reviews, reservations and payments are done online through the AirBnb.com website, and oftentimes the prices for cozy, character-filled rooms are much more affordable than hotels, motels or official Bed and Breakfasts.

Couchsurfing
I first learned about the worldwide Couchsurfing community from Lacey, a friend in the DC area who also works in the service industry and has made a point of visiting a new place in the US every month. Through Lacey, I learned that the Couchsurfing network extends all over the world and essentially consists of many open-minded people who
1): have a spare couch, bed, guest room, air mattress, or floor space, etc.
2): have been travelers themselves and understand the preciousness of a place to stay and a friendly local face, and believe in paying it forward (YES, people like this do actually exist in the world!)
3): want to show off their city/country/town to other travelers
4): are interested in intercultural exchanges and meeting and becoming friends with travelers from other (sometimes distant) parts of the world.

It is an idealistic and wonderful system, and when you use basic common sense and a well thought-out personal profile, read each host’s profile carefully and are courteous and thoughtful about the way you write a couch request, it is extremely rewarding. Often you end up making new friends in the process.

When Lacey first told me about Couchsurfing, she had just come back from a trip to Homer, Alaska, during which she had stayed with three or so different Couchsurfing hosts, all of whom were incredibly unique and who enabled her to experience Alaska in a highly personal and special way. She enthusiastically encouraged me to create a profile on Couchsurfing.com and begin to familiarize myself with the system so that I, too, could utilize it during my time abroad.

As it turned out, I had my first official Couchsurfing experience on my first night on the road in Apollo Bay. I had searched for hosts in Apollo Bay with an available “couch” while still in Melbourne, since I knew Apollo Bay was where I wanted to end my first day on the road. Given the tiny size of this beach town, I only two found two hosts who might be able to let me stay with them. I sent personal, detailed requests to both of them, and the person who responded was a young man named Heath.

Heath happened to be from Florida originally. He and his roommate Kevin (also originally from Florida) regularly host Couchsurfing travelers and have both traveled extensively themselves. In fact, after working as a fireman and serving in Iraq for a period of time, Heath spent a while living in Israel, traveled the world, and sailed on a tall ship from Fiji to Vanuatu before coming to Australia to work, explore and enjoy life by the Ocean before heading back out to experience more of the world.

When I got to town I met Heath where he was working at the hotel pub off the main street. Almost every official downtown “hotel,” in any Australian town, large or small, has a pub on its lower level, and this one had an adjacent drive-through “bottle shop” as well, which is where Heath was stationed that evening. Most bottle shops in Australia are glorified liquor stores, with the advantage of the outdoor ones being that people don’t even have to get out of their cars to grab a 24-pack of canned bourbon and ginger or a bottle of Peppertree Shiraz.

After chatting a bit at the chilly outdoor bottle shop counter, Heath closed up shop and we chatted and exchanged travel stories over a couple of Aussie beers. Brews like Carlton Draught and Lion are staples at many hotels and sports bars in Australia, so you’ll often see them at the tap. I tried a “pot” or half pint of the Carlton just for the sake of it, and as expected, it was much like any other mass-produced lager (though not nearly as refreshing as Asahi). Mainly it was crisp and malty, but barely, and that’s about as much as it had going for it. Best drunk icy cold. The second beer was one Heath presented: a bottle of Coopers Sparkling Ale. Coopers is Australia’s only Australian and family-owned large scale brewery, and the beers are mostly seen around South Australia and Victoria. The Sparkling Ale was an English Pale Ale style and had a good hoppy bite, while also being slightly yeasty and fruity in aroma and flavor, though I found the carbonation to be a little too aggressive and thus distracting. Speaking of distracting, I’ll get back to the point.

Heath ended up being a friendly and hospitable host, and though I decided to keep moving the next day due to limited time, he made sure to text me the next day and make sure all was well and to wish me safe travels. I was able to see a side of Apollo Bay that I might not otherwise have seen. Between chatting with Heath and comparing travel notes, learning about his experiences working in Australia and the challenges of a limited work visa, accompanying him to a bawdy live music night at the other local hotel pub, and being invited to a crazy house party before walking back to his and Kevin’s “flat,” I certainly experienced way more than I would have in a lonely disconnected motel room. And though perhaps the crowd was a little more party-hearty than I generally prefer, the experience seems perfectly appropriate for a beach town like Apollo Bay.

What’s more, not only did Heath leave me a wonderful reference for other prospective hosts to see on Couchsurfing.com, he also ended up connecting me to Karin, a friend of his who he met on the tall ship sailing to Vanuatu. Karin and her two friends Hannah and Mattilda, all three of whom are from Sweden, welcomed me into their cozy apartment in Auckland,  where I stayed for three nights, despite their only having moved there three months previous. These girls were truly amazing hostesses and showed me more hospitality and friendship than I could have hoped for. And I never would have met them if it weren’t for my Couchsurfing experience in Apollo Bay. And so it went with so much of my trip. One new friend connected me to another friend, who put me in touch with another person, all of whom had a place for me to stay for one or multiple nights.

Air BnB

My second night on the road was not free and did not involve schmoozing with the locals, but was nonetheless memorable and kind of amazing in its own way.

Having not known exactly where I’d end up along the Great Ocean Road after Port Campbell, I hadn’t made any prior arrangements and I found myself in a bit of a bind as dusk approached and I still had hours to drive before getting to the large city of Geelong. Feeling rather desperate, and having called several hotels and hostels whose offices would already be closed by the time I got into town, I decided to try AirBnB, not thinking I had a great chance of anyone accepting a day-of stay request.

Not only does AirBnB allow you to search based on your GPS location and based on your specified price range, I discovered that the iPhone app also has a function that allows you to search for same day availability. Salvation! Well…at least it offered me some hope. I was beginning to prepare myself for the possibility of sleeping in the car.

I found a nice looking room in an old Victorian home in Geelong, one of the cheapest options I could find at $70 a night. This of course was far more than I would have normally been able to spend on a room, but I told myself it was just one night. Besides, the house looked very nice, and the reviews left from other visitors were all glowing.

To my amazement, I received a reply from the home owner, Polly, within an hour of my sending a request. Soon after, my payment had gone through, and I emailed Polly to make sure all was well, to give her my phone number and to let her know I was on my way.

When I heard back from Polly next, it was a phone call to tell me that she had read the date of my request wrong and had thought it was for the next month (December)! She was happy to let me stay anyway, but she apologized that she couldn’t be there herself to greet me, feed me, and chat with me. I’d have to let myself in with a key hidden by the door in a white sneaker, or “trainer,” as she called it, and I’d have the whole house to myself since she was out of town that night. I could help myself to any “breaky” (breakfast) foods I found and also to the wine in the fridge. Again, she apologized for not being able to be there to greet me, and she hoped I’d be comfortable in any case. Clean towels were in the laundry room.

And so, for the price of one room, I got a whole house to myself for an evening. With wine and breakfast, too. It was pretty much the exact opposite experience to the previous night sleeping on the top bunk of a bunk bed in Apollo Bay, and yet, I wasn’t in a hotel. The house I stayed in on a quiet side street of Geelong city had charm and history and elegance. I could see personal touches everywhere, such as in the quilted bedding and the framed family photos on the hall table. It was almost too surreal to take in, in fact. Having the entire lovely house to myself, I felt enormously spoiled.

This evening in Geelong turned out to be my only experience using AirBnb, and I never spent that much on a room for the rest of my time abroad, but for splurging the $70, it was quite an impressive return on investment.

For those of you not keen on the whole couchsurfing setup and who need more “traditional” accommodations, i.e. a private room and bed, as opposed to a couch, futon or whatever is available, and who like the bed and breakfast experience but are looking for a slightly more affordable and accessible option, I highly recommend checking out AirBnB.com. The site lists available guest rooms, guest cottages, and guest homes — even guest Air Streams and guest house boats! — in all different price ranges, all over the world, both in big cities as well as tiny towns in the middle of nowhere. The site is easy to use and most “hosts” have clearly posted reviews from previous visitors, which make it easy to separate the desirable hosts and homes from the less desirable ones. It’s a little like Craigslist for vacation rooms, but a thousand times better!

Even with setting my price limit at $80, I was able to find a gem. And if you’ve got a slightly more flexible budget, you’re definitely going to find something you love!

It was in large part the personal touches and the constant interaction with locals, the constant glimpse into everyday life and community cultures that made my travels so interesting and so memorable. Whether I was staying with a Buddhist friend’s mother, with the global marketing manager for a major winery, with with three Swedish girls new to the big city, with a fireman turned world traveling, surf-bumming bartender, with an “arbor activist,” or with the friend of a cousin of a cousin of a friend, it was always, always better than just finding a motel room. These are the experiences that make the best stories after a trip is over, and the experiences that have given me more new friends than I can count on both hands.

Blog, Take 2

Hello again, world! I know you think I forgot about you, but I haven’t.

I’ve been aching to have a chance to sit down again and continue to share about my travels and experiences. And now that I’ve gotten the whirlwind that usually accompanies the monthly wine club I’m responsible for at Twisted Vines squarely behind me, I can focus a bit more of my attention on blogging again.

As a matter of fact, something I was really struck by as I poured and spoke about the wines for our wine club this past Sunday was how much I wanted to sit down and talk on a more personal level with so many of the wine club members who stopped in, many of whom are extremely loyal Twisted Vines customers, and who over the years have become friends to me more than anything else. I wanted to share all my travel stories, all my impressions and memories in detail, lots and lots of detail!

But alas, I had just a few hours to pour and introduce some pretty outstanding wines for the hundred or so people who showed up for our once a month wine club tasting. I had precious little time to even scrape the surface of my experiences abroad, although the questions, “How was your trip?” “What was New Zealand like?” and “What were your favorite parts of your travels?” were voiced over and over with each new group of tasters. Rather, I had to focus on giving the wines I was pouring their due. After all, in a way they were a tangible explanation of my trip — a literal taste of my travels. And if you’ve ever poured wines for any kind of tasting, especially one with a constant flow of people, you know what I mean when I say that there really isn’t any time for too much talking.

Ok, yes, it might be true that I do that anyway.  I can’t help it. I love to describe flavors, places, people, smells, stories — all the things that make wine so special. It may be possible that I wax a little poetic. And yet, the wine club grows every month. I must be doing something right…

[In case you’re curious, the wines I featured this month were all wines from wineries and regions that I visited during my two month trip: the 2011 Doctor’s Gruner Veltliner from Forrest winery in Marlborough, NZ, the 2012 Pinot Gris and the 2012 “Sweet Agnes” Late Harvest Riesling from Seifried winery in Nelson, NZ, the 2009 “Are you game?” Shiraz and the 2010 “Stone Dwellers” Pinot Noir from Fowles wine in the Strathbogie Ranges of Australia, and the 2011 Vineyard Selection Cabernet Sauvignon from Eberle winery in Paso Robles, California.]

With all my attention given to talking about the wines, I realized more than ever how grateful I am to have begun this blog. To have a way in which I am in fact able to share my experiences, stories, impressions and memories uninterrupted and in detail.

I realized, too, just how many of my wine club members (and other Twisted Vines customers, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, etc.) had been reading my posts! So many people have come up to me in the three weeks I’ve been back to tell me that they’d been keeping up with my updates and enjoying the glimpses into my journey. It was honestly a bit of a surprise. But inspiring, too. And motivating.

I had really begun to feel a bit overwhelmed by the number of people who were asking me to tell them more about my trip because I wanted to! I wanted to sit down with every single person and tell them everything. I still want to. And that’s just it. I can. It hadn’t really struck me until this weekend. This blog is my way of sitting down with every friend, every patron, every acquaintance and telling them everything they want to know. Every special memory, every smell and sight and experience that might otherwise get washed away by the constant rush of work and daily life. I can share all of it here, to everyone all at once.

And I will. Thank you, Internet.

So stay tuned. Next up: Air BnB, Couchsurfing, and the wines of Geelong and the Mornington Peninsula.