The art of wine tasting

As a researcher, my personal experience in tasting wines has been somewhat high jacked by the studies I have read about wine tasting. Evaluating wines is a practice done by professionals, who inform us, amateurs, about the quality of the variety of wines available in the markets.

There are usually two sides in wine tasting – that of the professional evaluator and that of the layman consumer – that somehow, peculiarly, could not be experientially more far away from each other.

For the regular consumer, the main thing is to consume the wine. And here, I use the term consumption in as neutral way as one possibly can: it may be that wine is drunk with different purposes in mind but no matter what the aim is, eventually the wine gets drunk. The quality of wine gets evaluated through the practices of consumption.

For the expert evaluator, the main thing is to spit the wine. There is only one purpose in mind: to be able to perform professional assessment of variety of wines and rate them according to appropriate measures. Here, eventually, the quality of wine gets evaluated through the practice of wine tasting.

So how do 94 points, four stars, or 12 dollars inform the regular consumer? They inform that the wine is worth 94 points, four stars, or 12 dollars, but say nothing about how the wine tastes on a rainy day spent with a good novel, at a dinner party with bunch of friends, in a restaurant accompanying a lunch salad, or in a funeral filled with emotions hard to describe. The practice of evaluating wine as an expert is very far away from the practice of evaluating wine as a layman, or a woman.

To me this does not make any sense. When the expert assesses the shades of the colour, the type of the grape, the time the wine spent in a barrel, and the nuances of the smell and taste, I assess how wine looks in the glass it is poured into, how the wine fits the atmosphere and my feelings in the moment, what my co drinkers think about the wine, the headache or the lack of it the next morning.

We had the pleasure to do some wine tasting while celebrating my husband’s birthday. And this tasting was by far the best I have ever experienced. It made me also re think how we assess the quality of wines.

We spend a night at a lovely bed & breakfast in northern Sonoma. The reason I chose Kelley & Young Wine Garden Inn was because it was one of the few places which had wine tasting and  provided accommodation. Mostly tasting rooms, vineyards, and accommodation are separate places in Sonoma and Napa valleys. I learned that visiting winery does not mean that one gets to visit actual vineyards; it may be that a winery makes wine but does not produce grapes, it buys them. Apparently buying grapes is a common practice for wine makers.

I must admit that it had not even occurred to me that the people who produce grapes don’t make wine, or the other way around.

I learned all this and much more during our tasting at Kelley & Young. The tasting included six wines with six small finger food plates. We did the tasting with two other couples. Our host of the night was lovely Madeline, who not only knew about wines and their production but was also an amazing cook. She toured us around a two-hour, lovely tasting session after which I felt that I knew so much more about not only wine production but also about the life of a wine maker.

What was unique about this tasting was that Madeline made us feel special; she did not rise above as an expert telling what the wine should taste like. She described why she liked the wines, what was the process of wine making like, what kind of blends and combinations of grapes were used and why in that particular way, where did the grapes come from, and what was the history of that particular wine and the name that the wine was carrying.

When someone gives you so much embodied and personified information, it is very hard to assess wine based on the mere qualities invented by the experts.

The Kelley & Young Garden Inn B&B was lovely, and the three course breakfast the next day, cooked by Madeline and served to our table was delicious. Even though the location was somewhat far north from the central Sonoma valley, it was definitely worth a visit.

On the next day we had a tour at Benziger’s biodynamic vineyards. The air was fresh, and the vineyards beautiful. We got to know much about the Benziger family and their story of wine making. The tastings were more traditional, and after our wine tasting with Madeline, it was a rather typical wine tasting experience with description of the qualities that we should be tasting in the wines. The cave tasting room, where our tour took us was beautiful, though there was so little wine in the glasses that I could not turn the wine properly around in my mouth.

The experience we had at Kelley & Young wine tasting changed the way I have started to evaluate and relate to wines. For me, now, the art of wine tasting is all about people who make the wine, places where the wine is grown, and stories about how the wine is made and named.

Exploring California, Disneyland

I’m holding a two-hundred-dollar ticket in my hand, which says: “the happiest place on earth”. In the background, I hear how a TV reporter explains about an armed robbery that happened just a few blocks away from my workplace, announces Donald Trump’s budget plan, goes through the ongoing roadworks that have blocked the traffic due to flooding.

Somewhere in my mind, I can still hear the music accompanying the miraculous light parade with all the disney characters and their vehicles you can imagine. The music is getting louder and louder in my head. Ti-tididididiii-didi-diidii-ti-tididididiii-dididi-diii..!

We had a possibility to experience one of the American dreams, Disneyland, and there are a few things I thought I might share about the worlds’ biggest amusement park.

First, practicalities. As a family of four, with kids aged 3 and 6 we needed to buy tickets to everyone, even the youngest child. We did do some research before purchasing the tickets, but ended up buying our two-day tickets online from Disney’s own shop since it seemed the most reliable site, and was the most convenient in terms of working together with the App.

One may occasionally find discounts from big grocery stores such like Costco, or when doing groceries at some of the big shops near Disneyland. The discounts however, seemed to be only a few dollars, and we found it was not worth of loosing a lot of time and energy in hunting them around. Thus, we ended up paying some 750 dollars for two-day access for four people to Disneyland.

We were very lucky and got practical guidance from my husbands cousin (million thanks Melissa!), who is an experienced Disneyland visitor, so we had considered beforehand many questions that, if not thought of, could have made our trip quite challenging.

We stayed at a hotel located perfectly within a walking distance from Disneyland. Since the distances in Disneyland parks are quite huge, and you end up walking several kilometres per day anyway, and we didn’t want to end up spending a lot of time in commuting from the hotel.

We were also advised to familiarize ourselves with the map, the attractions, and entertainment offered by the park(s), and received a thorough list of attractions in each of the ‘lands’. We studied the map and the attractions, and it was very helpful to know beforehand which attractions the kids could go to, which were the most popular ones, and what kind of shows took place, what day, and at what time. Disneyland app was extremely helpful in letting us know about the queue times, fast passes, and locations of restaurants and restrooms.

Second, experiencing the fantasyland. For us, Disneyland turned to be everything it promised. We spend two days in the Disneyland Park, the original part of the land. It was truly impressive to experience attractions made with such an effort. The village was picturesque, characters authentic, rides and attractions so fun and exciting.

To be able to hug the Mickey Mouse, ride a rollercoaster with Indiana Jones, go on a boat ride around the world, watch the magical electrical parade with all the characters you can imagine, or fly in the hyperspace mountain of the Star Wars was breathtaking, even for an adult.

Our oldest son walked basically whole days from morning ’till evening. For the younger one, we had a stroller. The six-year-old could basically enter all the attractions, which, despite their rough rides were extremely safe. There were also plenty of rides that a three-year-old could take – maybe even more that he could digest!

Our weekend trip ended with seeing amazing fireworks on the final night.

If I would characterise Disneyland and my experience with one sentence, I would say: the moment you think you’ve seen it all, comes another slide, another song, another firework.

Imperfect people on a perfect planet

Every time I walk to my work place, I encounter homeless people. There is this one older man, in his 70ies I would guess, who inhabits the porch of Urban Outfitters, a store selling fashionable clothing to trend-consicous consumers. During the day the man moves all his possessions on a street nearby. He is oftentimes surrounded by students asking questions and making notes in their Moleskine notebooks.

Then there is the People’s park. It is located right next to my workplace, the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues. People’s park accommodates some tens of homeless people all year round. During the day, these people hang their mattresses on the trees, put their stuffed animals and other stuff into plastic bags, and turn sleeping places into living spaces. Everyone walks pass the park, but no one enters it.

Every time I walk pass these homeless people – the woman pushing a shopping cart, or the young guy talking to himself – I dare not look them into eyes. I keep thinking, how intrinsically wrong it is that people are living under these conditions. Severe income inequality keeps hitting me in the face, and yet, I feel there’s nothing I can do about it.

Ironically, the focus of much of sociological research at UC Berkeley has been on inequality or racial issues. Indeed, a lot of data wandering around the streets. Makes you want to pose questions about the impact and role of research within the society.

And then, there is this indescribable beauty of nature that you experience, here in Berkeley or back in Finland, and never forget. Like the fresh breeze of air with a smell of eucalyptus on your face in the morning. Or like the feeling of cold water around your naked body when you jump into a lake. The smell of mowed grass, or pine trees in the Spring. Touch of snow flakes on your cheeks. Sunset. Sound of an ocean, or wind. Watching leaves turn into red and yellow when the Autumn comes, or flowers blossom in the Spring.

Or the feeling of warm sand against your feet.

It has been raining hard lately here in Berkeley. Now the rain seems to have stopped fo a while, but coldness arrived. Sky is clear, and you can see thousands of stars. The view is so stunning that it takes your breath away. It takes you all the way down to the basics, asking the ancient and most primitive questions about why are we here, and who designed this all. How come such beauty exists?

Then you go inside. It’s warm and nice. You take a glass of wine, and light up some candles. And you can’t stop thinking about the man, who sleeps in front of Urban Outfitters.

The best and worst of settling in

For me, every place has had its own particular smell and sound landscape.

I remember the smell of early mornings, or late nights on the streets of Moscow, Helsinki, New York, Washington DC, Barcelona, Madrid, and Rovaniemi – all the cities I’ve lived in so far. I can almost here the creak of snow under my feet, traffic echoing beside me, sound of water hitting the streets when all the dirt from yesterday is being washed away, sudden whiffs of coffee coming from cafés that you barely notice, or sound of a metro coming from the tunnel with such a powerful noise that it feels you’re gonna fly away.

Experienced from the Hills, Berkeley smells of trees and plants, it smells of the heat of the sun coming out during the day, of morning dew, and of cold soil. Its sound landscape is characterised by foghorns of the ships, sirens of the emergency vehicles, birds – and a mix of constant background noise (note: of my kids) including screaming, laughing, arguing, commenting, imitating farting, and singing tunes from the crazy frog.

Coming to new places and settling in takes time. The hardest part is not the enormous amount of things to do and the related bureaucracy that we’ve encountered here – when applying for drivers licence, enrolling our older kid into school, making enquiries about day care, dealing with the paper work of visiting scholarship, figuring out the health care system, trying to optimise best deals for renting a car – but the most difficult thing in a new place is to find friends and establish a social network.

Usually this happens exactly when you are about to leave and move back to your home town, or to some other new place. At least this has been my experience.

But now we have the Facebook. It is amazing how you can find local peer-(help-)groups, most commonly under the name ‘mothers of’ a particular area or neighbourhood. How did we survive before this kind of communities existed? This is the best innovation ever. Better than Wikipedia, or Google – though they know a lot, they are never able to share personal experiences. When we think of the robots coming, and the fear of them taking our jobs, or becoming our best friends, or lovers, one of the arguments against considering robots equal to human beings has been that they will never have the moral or empathetic character as humans do. I say, they will never be able to share their experiences the way a mother shares with another one, the way a teenagers shares with another one, the way a homeless shares with another one.

And then, besides the social media, there is the thing called ‘the American character’. The one which I just started to fell in love with.

I remember being so confused about mundane small talk, about ‘hi how are you-s’, about Stepford wife -characters, about ‘mams and sirs’ in grocery stores and at customer service. I thought I preferred a more ‘authentic’ way of being. The kind of way, when you need to seek for an eye contact and even then it is uncertain that the fellow human being would greet you. But that’s not true for me, at least not now, not for the time being.

I love how everyone says hello, when I pass them on the street in my neighbourhood. I love how people greet each other in the parks and play grounds, or start spontaneusly speaking at the cashier. Or when you sit at a diner with your family, and an old couple walks by, stops and says: you have a beautiful family! How can you not love this amazing social character? How can you not want to learn from this kind of attitude?

The best of arrivals and settling ins is that you get to do and experience things for the first time. You get to be the tourist that doesn’t need to leave. The worst of arrivals and settling ins is the feeling of ‘if I only knew this before’. But the good news is that you will know better the next time.

Oregon, the state of beer, mountains, and Nike

After spending a wonderful week at my husband’s cousin’s house in Saratoga – where we got to recover from the jet lag, take walks in the local neighbourhood and marvel its houses, and start taking care of the countless practicalities we would need to deal with in the near future – we headed up North to Oregon state.

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I must admit that I really didn’t know anything about Oregon state, and very little of its capital city Portland (which we didn’t visit on this trip). Oregon has a population of 4 million people, most of which voting for the democratic party, and beautiful nature including the coastal area, and the inner land with mountains, creeks, and pine forests. The biggest mountains are not just any mountains, but they are part of number of volcanoes, called the Cascades Volcanoes extending from British Columbia to California.

Oregon is also a home to one of the worlds biggest apparel companies, Nike.

We visited just a small part of Oregon, namely the village of Sunriver. Sunriver is known as a ski and summer leisure activity resort. It is located nearby the city of Bend, which is known for its vibrant brewery culture.

We had a privilege to experience the best of brewing and barbecuing in Bend. We were taken to a restaurant called Baldy’s by my husband’s cousin (he has many of cousins all together, and some of them happen to live in the West Coast of the US) and her husband (who happens to be a self learned barbecue specialist) where we tried a platter with four different sorts of barbecued meat and four side dishes, which were all very tasty.The traditional coleslaw salad included some celery, and was very refreshing. Potato salad was a bit spicy, different kind of potato salad from that of the Finnish one, and very tasty as well. Ribs were juicy, and the meet basically fell into your mouth when you touched it. I noticed myself using a lot of hot barbecue sauce, which I really liked (and was thinking whether it could be used for veggies as well).


I managed well, despite the fact that I rarely eat meat and have never tried a proper barbecue before.

We were told that barbecuing is actually a very social thing; the main idea in barbecuing is to share. Thus, barbecuing connects people – neighbours, amateurs, specialists, meet lovers, and travellers – from all over the country in festivals, in yards, and in picnic places. (There are special areas for barbecuing in many rest and a picnic areas).

Sunriver treated us well with a lovely wintery weather, and extremely hospitable hosts. My husband got a chance to go up to Mount Bachelor and spend a day skiing. I visited the lodge area with our kids, and experienced the after ski atmosphere staring at the Mountain.

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There were surprisingly many things to do at Sunriver, even in winter time (the resort is especially well known for its summer activities, such like cycling, playing tennis, or golf, visiting the water park, the nature center, or observatorium, and hiking). We went sledging, visited the gingerbread exhibition, visited the wonderful High Desert Museum, and took nice walks in the beautiful scenery.

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As a cherry on the top of our stay, we got to experience a dance of Tesla.
Click to see video. Password tesla.
After spending a week in good company and the lovely Sunriver village, we headed to our new home in Berkeley.

Four hours of US health care

On the next day we arrived to California, I got an eye infection. Thus, I got to test my health insurance immediately. The insurance worked perfectly, Urgent Care not so urgently.

It took me four hours of waiting in order to se e a doctor for five minutes. My trip to see a doctor taught me something about how the local medical system works. I learned that most of the health care centres are basically owned by private sector. Despite this fact, many of the organizations called ‘urgent care’ operate just like the public health care in Finland.

I learned that in order for you to make an appointment directly with a doctor, you need to book a double time, if you a first time patient. So if you are a first timer, and want to visit a doctor in urgent matters, it is almost impossible to book a direct appointment with a doctor (this due to the fact that there are no double times available for the same day). This means that you need to check yourself into the queue in a counter for ‘urgent care’, and wait for your turn.

In my case, there were seven patients before me, and only one doctor to treat them. Emergency patients – there happened to be two of them during my waiting time – were treated without queuing.

What surprised me most was that before I got to meet a doctor, I was called in by a nurse. She measured my weight and hight, and took me into a room. She took my blood pressure, and asked me a few personal questions (of which some seemed quite irrelevant), and then she asked me to explain why did I come to see a doctor. (At this point I still thought she was the doctor). Then the nurse told me that the doctor will be attending to me in just 5 to 10 minutes and left me sitting in the room.

The doctor came, and asked me exactly the same questions as the nurse had asked ten minutes ago. Then she took a look at my eye and wrote me a prescription to an ointment, which I needed to fetch from an assigned pharmacy. Everything was over in five minutes.

I hopped in an Uber, had a chat with the driver, who had many opinions about the US health care, about medical insurance, about doctors’ salaries and their expertise.

After visiting Target, where you put your shopping cart in a separate escalator designed specifically to take the carts up, and after buying bagels and Philadelphia cheese for breakfast I felt like I had experienced much of America in one day.

Let the journey begin.

On my way to Trumpland

“It feels like when it was 9/11. Oh wait, but it is 9/11” – Facebook post of a colleague

I did not expect to be waking up to the news that I encountered that morning. Disbelief, sadness, anxiety. For the first time in a while the kids did not watch their morning cartoons, but we, the parents, watched the morning TV program. It was an early morning, and still dark outside. Snowstorm didn’t show signs of calming down. Even my kids felt that something exceptional was going on – they didn’t fight with each other, shout, or protest for dressing up to be taken to day care and pre-school.

“Mummy, what are you watching?”, asked my older son.

“We’re watching this broadcasting on who is going to be the next president of America (as we say here in Finland when referring to the USA)”, I answered.

“Oh my god, it’s going to be Trump!”, I called my husband.

“Mommy, why is this Trump man chosen to be the next President of America?”, my older son asked. “Is he a bad man? What’s going to happen now?”, he continued, before I had a chance to reply.

“I don’t know what is going to happen, honey, but you don’t have to worry, ok?”, I said and felt this huge responsibility as a shadow hanging somewhere over me that I could not explain.

Now, only three weeks after the election day, it seems that “Trump’s normalisation”, as Zoe Williams put it in the Guardian, is indeed something that has been happening. While there have been – and it would be fare to say, still are – many reasons to worry about the result of the elections, it seems that at the same time the ’softened’ and evidently more diplomatic approach of the new president leaves much interpretations to be made by the media and the general public about what was said before the elections and how much of this was merely a strategy without a real content for implementation.

Trump’s victory (though I’m not sure whether this can be called a victory in the sense that the fairness of the democratic practice based on the electoral vote is debated about, and moreover, the popular vote was some two million more for Hillary Clinton) has brought some interesting topics into a broader discussion, which I think is not bad at all.

In this sense, I think it is as interesting to ask, why Donald Trump won than to ask, why Hillary Clinton didn’t win – and I do believe these are different types of questions that require separate attention. At the moment I do not, however, feel having enough expertise to start answering these questions properly. I wish that my stay in the US, will give me some perspective to start addressing them in a meaningful way.

“It’s not a surprise that Trump won. And, anyway, you’re not going to notice anything. It’s not like it’s going to influence your everyday life, or anything”, commented a professor to me right after the results were clear. These words have stuck in my mind. What he said felt so definitive, and yet, I felt he could not be more wrong.

The elections have already influenced me, and many other people – who can be considered as outsiders by not living in the US – and continue to do so. Maybe the influence is not so concrete in a way of me not being banned a J1 visa to the country, but  the effect can be felt in a very profound way. These elections have made me and millions of other people not only start finding answers to the questions of why the final votes were as they were, but also, the elections may have opened up a path to start questioning the prevailing ideology of neoliberal and capitalist market order, and the clash between liberal and conservative values, which have been taken for granted without really stopping to think about their meanings – maybe for too long time.

Today, there remains less than two weeks left before our departure. My family and I will be spending the next eight months in California, where I will be working as a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues in UC, Berkeley.

I could not be more excited about this opportunity that I have been given. This blog will be a forum for sharing my experiences and thoughts during our stay in the US.

How will America be made great again?

Osa 9: Last stop, Lefkas

Mies lähestyi varovasti pöytää, jolle oli pinottu kasa servettejä. Hänen naamansa vääntyi hetkeksi asentoon, jota on vaikea kuvailla. Ilme oli yhdistelmä pelästyneisyyttä, inhotusta, ihmetystä, ja näyttelemistä. Mies vavahti taaksepäin ja naurahti. Kaksi nuorta naista katsoivat taka-alalla. Leidi Luovan selkä katosi näkyvistä, ja minä jatkoin matkaa ohi ravintolan, missä kyseinen kohtaus oli käynnissä. Kävelin pöydän ohi kuin hidastetussa filmissä ja katsoin sen reunalla seisovaa jättimäistä torakkaa. Aamu oli viileä, kiedoin kaulalla olevaa pyyhettä tiukemmin ympärilleni ja jatkoin matkaa suihkuhuoneeeseen. Kohta istuisimme bussissa matkalla Ateenan lentokentälle; oli kotiin paluun aika.

image Continue reading “Osa 9: Last stop, Lefkas”

Osa 8: Kun voit nukahtaa linnunrata kattonasi

Viimeinen legimme, eli matkaosuus, on tähän asti tehdyistä osuuksista pisin, noin 300 nm (nautic miles). Olemme tulleet tätä osuutta nyt kaksi vuorokautta, ja arvioitu saapumisaikamme Lefkasiin on iltapäivällä. Aika on edessä päin pidempi, kuin takana päin; kun Kreikan saaristo tuli tänä aamuna esiin, niin yli vuorokauden kestänyt avomeripurjehdus tuntui enää vain lyhyeltä hetkeltä. Nyt katselemme ihastellen lukuisia horisontissa näkyviä purjeita ja saarien muotoja, analysoimme kasvillisuuden koostumusta ja kukkuloiden väriskaaloja. Jopa Kapteeni, joka kuunteli reissun alussa huvittuneena Huvikummun ja Leidi Luovan hurmioitumista muodoista ja harmaasävyistä, alkoi osoitella innoissaan vierekkäin seisovia, vihreän puukasvillisuuden peitossa olevan ja harmaan kiven peittämän, vuorten rinteitä. Yhtäkkiä oli paljon katseltavaa ja tutkittavaa. Continue reading “Osa 8: Kun voit nukahtaa linnunrata kattonasi”

Osa 7: Turistina Etnalla ja Taorminassa

Tänään oli se päivä, kun Kapteeni vei meidät Etnalle. Leidi Luova pääsi näyttämään ajotaitojaan (ja myöhemmin myös kehittyneitä tööttäystaitojaan), ja Huvikumpu koitti parhaansa mukaan käyttää dialogitaitojaan Kapteenin navigaattorin ymmärtämiseksi. Seurasimme letkassa turistibussia lähes tulivuoren huipun kupeeseen, mistä jatkoimme köysiradalla seuraavalle etapille, josta lähti kuljetus minibussijeepillä (tämä ei varmasti ole virallinen nimitys kyseiselle ajoneuvolle, mutta Huvikummun mielestä ajokki oli isompi kuin jeeppi ja katu-uskottavampi kuin pelkkä minibussi) huipulla sijaitsevien kraatereiden luokse. Continue reading “Osa 7: Turistina Etnalla ja Taorminassa”