By wine critic standards, James is young.  Young enough to know that millennials are changing the way the world treats wine, and young enough to know to listen to them.  His small staff is all under age 30, and he relies on them heavily to influence the look and feel of his brand.  These days, the James Suckling brand means not just writing wine reviews, but producing wine-related documentaries, putting on international wine events, and collaborating with luxury designers to create new products for the wine industry.  And he’s moving the dial towards the younger crowd and towards Asia.  He’s got his sights set on expanding the US market worldwide.

James lives in Napa Valley, Hong Kong, and Tuscany.  He’s American, and Napa Valley is the premier wine location in the US, so it makes sense that he has a base here.  He lived in Tuscany for so long that it is now like a second home to him, so that also makes sense.  But Asia? He finds it to be the most dynamic place right now for wine, and so it’s the place where he spends the most time.  He’s now holding his signature events like “Great Wines of the World” in Hong Kong and Beijing.  He’s working on [an undisclosed] deal with the Ministry of Agriculture in China.  And he’s possibly their best wine ambassador when he says things to journalists like, “The future is in Asia.”

I suppose it’s not surprising when you realize the conglomerate luxury brand owner LVMH is now making wine on the border of Tibet.  In fact, their wine, a Cabernet, Cabernet-Franc, and Merlot blend – is the first Chinese wine that James liked.   

And Suckling is no stranger to the luxury world.  He not only lives on the Ferragamo Estate in Tuscany but collaborated with the family to create a leather wine briefcase to hold wine bottles and wine glasses.  Then he partnered with Lalique to make the “The 100 Points Collection” of crystal wine glasses.  The handmade briefcase and Lalique glasses combo can run up to $8,500.

But these are sidelines and not his mainstay.  He’s focused on sharing his wine knowledge.  “I didn’t spend 25 years in the business not to share it,” he says.  He began his post-Wine Spectator career with a website designed to provide wine education and to review wines. 

He quickly found that because so much information on the internet is free, people are reluctant to pay for content, and he struggled with the rampant copyright infringement he battled. Mike D. Diamond (Beastie Boys) once told him that it was because of copyright infringement that his iconic band went on tour instead of selling music, and so Suckling did the same and launched his wine events.  “My goal is to do the best wine events and to attract younger consumers who are interested in having fun and tasting interesting wines.”

His events are not your typical stuffy wine tastings.  He has a traveling DJ, Australia’s Surahn Sidhu, who was with Empire of the Sun for several years.  His music lends a fresh vibe to the events and crowds have been known to start impromptu dance parties, which is not exactly your average wine-tasting. 

His event business seems to take up the greatest proportion of his time.  This year alone there will be “The Great Wines of Italy” event in four US cities, and the “Bordeaux Confidential” in Hong Kong, where barrels will ship overnight from Paris to Hong Kong for barrel tastings.

Other than global wine events, he’s keen on Napa.  “I’d like to taste more [Napa] wines and pinpoint some more of the [best] new producers.  And, I’d like to do an event called ‘Great Wines of Napa Valley’” either this year or next – in either NYC or Hong Kong.” 

Suckling believes there is an exciting movement happening with American wines.  He’s working on a documentary titled “American Wine Revolution,” which looks at “how wine began in America, all the way back to the pilgrims.”  It will be his third documentary.

American winemakers tend to cater to the American market, which can be different than the global market.  “American palates tend to like super fruity, big, muscular wines,” he says, “Which are less popular outside the US.”

“I left the US in 1985, then I started tasting American wines again in 2005-2006, and it was crazy how the style had changed.  [In 1985] people were picking at such high potential ripeness, and the wines were so alcoholic, but now people are more concerned with drinkability.”

The trend to the non-jammy, lower alcohol wines is promising for Suckling.  He notes that “internationally those wines aren’t as coveted as they are in the US, they’re just too heavy.”  But he says that many of the top American winemakers are now making wine in the European-style. 

In fact, he’s so pro-American these days that he named the 2013 Opus One the global wine of the year in 2016.  “I gave it a perfect score.  2013 was a great vintage, the wine is great, and you can buy it around the world.  That was exciting as an American to have an American wine as Wine of the Year for”

Asked about other California wine regions, he mentions Northern Sonoma County as a highlight. “I tend to like stuff made on the coast, like the Fort Ross area,” but he wants to expand and explore other California wines.    

Layne Randolph, Inside Napa Valley, Summer 2017

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Lambert Bridge Winery | Roma to Sonoma


Established in 1975, Lambert Bridge is one of the oldest wineries in Dry Creek Valley.   

Cruising through the vineyards on narrow, curved roads, we come to a sudden stop in front of Lambert Bridge. It’s only wide enough for one lane so we have to wait for the car coming from the opposite direction to pass through.  Once over the Lambert Bridge straddling Dry Creek, we arrive at Lambert Bridge Winery.  The winery, named after the original owner, Jerry Lambert, is also a reference to the iconic bridge that marks its 100 year anniversary this year.

The Lambert Bridge | Roma to Sonoma The Lambert Bridge

Established in 1975, Lambert Bridge is one of the oldest wineries in Dry Creek Valley.  The winemaker Jennifer Higgins, one of the few female winemakers in the world, did her Masters in Enology in Bordeaux and focuses on Bordeaux varietals at Lambert Bridge, even though the Dry Creek Valley is known for its Zinfandel.  The five noble grapes of Bordeaux include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot.  Lambert Bridge has always focused on Bordeaux varietals, and especially Merlot.

Lambert Bridge | Roma to Sonoma

It’s a small production winery, producing only 7000 cases a year in 600 case bottlings.  They don’t distribute to the public, so to buy you’ll need to join their wine club or visit the tasting room.  The tasting room is definitely worth the trip – you can choose to have a private tasting in the barrel room or in the cellar room if you are truly VIP.  My personal favorite thing is to take my own little picnic and sit outside in the garden with friends and my newly purchased Crane Creek Cuvee – a blend of all the Bordeaux varietals (except for Cabernet Franc).  Now that’s living.

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You Say Rosato, I say Rosé | Roma to Sonoma

Tormaresca by Antinori, in Puglia, Italy

Layne Randolph, Napa Valley Register, August 2017

Technically, it’s the French who say Rosé; the rest of us have adopted their usage of the word. And it’s right that we use the French word because France is the indisputable king of Rosé wine. From Côtes du Rhône to Provence, Rosé has been a French favorite since long before the recent international boom in popularity.

Scoffed at for decades in the U.S. due to its distant cousin, white Zinfandel, Rosé hasn’t gotten a lot of respect from the typical wine drinker since it went out of fashion in the 1990s. That’s why, when I lived in the Salento region of Puglia, Italy almost ten years ago, everyone was drinking the pink stuff. “They’re drinking pink wine,” I thought, “Is that White Zin? How gauche.”

They called it “Rosato,” but I knew what it was—cheap, sweet swill.

Boy, was I wrong.

Rosato from Puglia, and especially Salento, is often raspberry pink, which suggests “sugar bomb.” But much of the Rosato comes from the Negro Amaro grape, which translates as “dark and bitter.” Instead of a sweet flavor profile, these Rosé are surprisingly savory, dry and full-bodied. My favorite thing about the Salento Rosato is the minerality contributed by the saline air, water, and soil of the peninsula.

Although the color of Puglian Rosato connotes a lesser quality rosé to many, the bright or darker rosés can be more interesting than the pale Rosé of Provence that are the current It-Girls of the wine world. There is room for every type of pink wine; the preference largely depends on the cuisine, climate, and taste of the drinker.

Some producers make Rosé by literally blending red and white wines to create a pink one, but this is not common, and it’s illegal in some places. Many producers us the saignée method to bleed-off juices during red wine production; it’s a common practice and can produce some delicious Rosé.
Purpose-made Rosé involves the direct pressing of dark-skinned grapes, leaving the skins in contact with the juice for a few hours to a few days. The longer they are in contact, the more intense the color of the final wine.

My opinion on Rosato has evolved in the years since I’ve left Salento. Now when I see someone drinking Rosato/Rosé, my reaction is, “They’re drinking pink wine? Where’s mine?”

Try These Rosato from Puglia, Italy
Leone di Castris in Salice Salentino makes “Five Roses,” the first Rosè produced and bottled in Italy, and according to the estate, the first to be sold in the U.S. Bright cherry-red with notes of strawberry and rose, Five Roses is made primarily of Negro Amaro with 10 percent Malvasia Nera di Lecce. Its name comes from the odd fact that several generations of the de Castris family had five children.
Cantele Wine’s Rosato Rohesia, made from the winery’s flagship Salice Salentino Riserva of Negro Amaro, is a robust, fresh and flavorful wine with hints of pomegranate and flint.
Tomaresca in northern Puglia makes Calafuria, a crisp and elegant Rosato of Negroamaro grown on their vineyards along the Adriatic Coast. The Tuscan wine dynasty Antinori owns Tormaresca and other wineries around the world, including two in Napa Valley (Stag’s Leap and Antica).


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The Nerellos of Sicily | Roma to Sonoma

“Cabernet is to John Wayne as [Nerello Mascalese] is to Marcello Mastroianni.” Alberto Graci, Graci Winery, Passopisciaro, Sicily

The windshield wipers could barely keep up with the pummeling rain, and I could hardly see through the glass as I slowly inched my rented car along the deserted road at dusk. Finally, I made out a small arrow-shaped sign on the right side of the road and came to a complete stop in front of it, trying to read it between wiper strokes. I was almost sure that it said “Firriato,” and so I followed the arrow’s direction and turned onto a long narrow road, through an open gate, and eventually climbed a steep natural stone drive up to what looked to be a small village.

Firriato Tasting on Mt. Etna

Firriato Tasting on Mt. Etna

Etna DOC

My mission here: To explore the Etna DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wine region and to find out what was percolating on Mt. Etna, other than the still-active volcano.

I could see a courtyard and a ground-lit path on the other side of it, leading through vineyards to an elevated spaceship-like structure, glass walls proudly displaying the inside of a streamlined tasting room begging for my approach. Comfortable in the warmth of the tasting room, I ordered a flight of their wines: Firriato’s Etna Bianco DOC, Etna Rosato DOC and Etna Rosso DOC. It was my first tasting of the local wines, and I had waited to try them until I was on Mt. Etna.

I’ll skip right to my favorite part of the tasting: Etna Rosso DOC. The Etna DOC correlates to a region in the northeast of Sicily, a crescent-shaped area that wraps itself halfway around Mt. Etna. Etna Rosso consists of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes indigenous to the area and often grown on vines that are 100-plus years old, vines miraculously saved from the Italian phylloxera of the late 1800s to which so many Italian vineyards fell victim.

The small, round grapes with thick, almost black skins, make unmistakable Burgundian-style wines often compared to pinot noir. On Etna, they are grown at high altitudes and cultivated with the alberello (“small tree”) training system to keep each vine’s grape yield minimal for maximum flavor expression.

One might assume that the roots of these vines would need to be exceptionally hearty to grow in the hardened lava of Mt. Etna, but the opposite is the case. The porosity of the lava rock and soil make it easy for vines to penetrate. And vines grown in this lava earth give their grapes a definitive mineral flavor unique to volcanic regions.

Minerals, climate, and the Nerello grapes combine to produce wine that has wine critics cheering. Three of the winemakers best utilizing the ancient vines and indigenous grapes of Etna DOC are Graci, Cantina Benanti, and Tenuta Delle Terre Nere.

Nerello Mascalese

At the Graci Winery in Passopisciaro, Sicily, I spent some time with the owner, Alberto Graci, walking his Contrada Arcuria vineyards and touring the old wine-making apparatus still on display but unused, at his newly modernized winery.

Graci is so enthusiastic about the potential for Mt. Etna indigenous grapes that he became the vice president of the Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini Etna that covers 300 hectares of Etna DOC. He shares challenges and new ideas with his fellow Consorzio members so that they can — as a group — produce higher-quality wines. He tends and nourishes this local association of Etna wine makers with the same sort of care that he heaps upon his grapes. And that care should bear fruit; Graci’s wines have won acclaim from the world’s top wine connoisseurs (93 points. Wine Enthusiast, Graci Etna Rosso DOC, 2014).

The Nerellos growing together in the Graci vineyards

The Nerellos growing together in the Graci vineyards

During my visit, Graci described the Nerello Mascalese aptly when he laughingly quoted Piedmont winemaker Angelo Gaja, replacing Gaja’s “Nebbiolo” reference with “Nerello Mascalese”:

“Cabernet is to John Wayne as [Nerello Mascalese] is to Marcello Mastroianni. Cabernet has a strong personality, open, easily understood and dominating. If cabernet were a man, he would do his duty every night in the bedroom, but always in the same way. [Nerello Mascalese], however, would be the brooding, quiet man in the corner, harder to understand but infinitely more complex.”

While the Etna DOC fan focuses on the Marcello Mastroianni grape, most wine makers combine it with its cousin, the Nerello Cappuccio. Nerello Mascalese is the wine’s dominant partner since it must be at least 80 percent of the blend to qualify as Etna DOC. Wines made with Nerello Mascalese have a dark red fruit character with herbal and mineral notes. Full-bodied and sweet, Nerello Cappuccio adds a bright ruby color to the blend. The combination produces wine with structure and elegance, the hallmark of Etna DOC wines.

Nerello Cappuccio

But if Nerello Mascalese is the Marcello Mastroianni, the Nerello Cappuccio is his oft-overlooked understudy. Cantina Benanti owns most of the roughly 20 hectares of Nerello Capuccio in Sicily and is one of the wineries producing straight up Nerello Cappuccio as well as straight up Nerello Mascalese. Because Etna Rosso DOC requires a minimum of 80 percent Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio is not Etna Rosso DOC, but Sicilia Rosso IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica).

Benanti Tasting in the Vineyard

Benanti Vineyard Tasting

If you visit the Benanti vineyards in Viagrande, Sicily,  the first part of the wine tasting takes place at a wooden table set in the middle of the vineyards. The final tasting is set inside the main house at a dining table filled with cheese, olives, honey, and charcuterie as a fantastic backdrop to the highly acclaimed wines.

And, let’s not forget about the vineyards. Throughout the Etna region, Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio grapes grow interspersed together in non-linear vineyards. This growing structure makes for breathtakingly beautiful terrain, like Benanti’s vineyard on an old Roman cemetery and Tenuta Delle Terre Nere’s untamed hillsides. Now when I think of Etna vineyards, what comes to mind are the Nerellos, with their little black grapes hanging like jewels from ancient, gnarled vines, growing in the shadow of a percolating volcano.


Tenuta delle Terre Nere’s Etna Rosso DOC 2014 “Santo Spirito” $58 available at Backroom Wines, 1000 Main St., Napa, (707) 226-1378.

Benanti Il Monovitigno Nerello Cappuccio Sicilia IGT 2013, $33.99, available at Flatiron San Francisco, 2 New Montgomery St., San Francisco, (415) 780-1405.

Layne Randolph,  Napa Valley Register, February 2017 

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Graci | Roma to Sonoma

“We only cultivate traditional varieties indigenous to Mount Etna” – Graci

Alberto Graci of Graci Winery in Passopisciaro, Sicily, focuses his winery’s production on only six Etna DOC wines:  Etna Bianco, Etna Rosso, Etna Rosato, Etna Bianco Arcuria, Etna Rosso Arcuria, and Quota 1000 Contrada Barbabecchi.   He refuses to add non-indigenous varietals to his collection and insists that grapes “must be grown where they are born.”  It’s essentially the farm-to-table concept that promotes using food products sourced locally – but this is vineyard to table – and Graci is fully committed to it. 

It’s not uncommon for winemakers to grow grapes originating from other places.   But Graci is so enthusiastic about the potential for Mt. Etna indigenous grapes that he became the Vice President of the Consorzio that covers 300 hectares of Etna DOC.  He’s now more preoccupied than ever with making high quality Mt. Etna wines.   He shares his challenges and ideas with his fellow Consorzio members so that they can – as a group – produce higher quality wines.  He tends and nourishes this local association of Mt. Etna wine makers with the same sort of care that he heaps upon his own grapes.  And Graci’s wines have won acclaim from the world’s top wine connoisseurs.

Grapes for Graci rosato coming in from harvest.

Graci grapes coming in from harvest.

Twelve years ago, he purchased the current Graci property and set about to restore it not only for wine making but also in honor of its history.  The place was once used for communal wine making, where local growers used to come to make their own wine with the communal equipment.

But that’s far from what’s happening there these days.   Since he purchased the property and began devoting himself to his work as a wine maker, Graci has focused on experimenting with the best indigenous grapes in both traditional and unique ways to find what works best. 


The alberelli of Graci vineyards.

His star grape is the Nerello Mascalese, a small round grape with thick, almost black skins, which produces unmistakably elegant wines that are often compared to Pinot Noir.  Perhaps its style is better explained when Graci laughingly quotes Piedmont winemaker Angelo Gaja, replacing “Nebbiolo” with “Nerello Mascalese”:

“Cabernet is to John Wayne as [Nerello Mascalese] is to Marcello Mastroianni. Cabernet has a strong personality, open, easily understood and dominating. If Cabernet were a man, he would do his duty every night in the bedroom, but always in the same way.  [Nerello Mascalese], on the other hand, would be the brooding, quiet man in the corner, harder to understand but infinitely more complex.

Graci uses the ancient ‘alberello’ (“little tree”) method of growing his Marcello Mastroianni – using smaller and lower vine groupings to maximize the grape’s expression, producing low yields in a natural way.  He’s also playing around with mascerating the grapes longer than tradition provides, and mixing Nerello Mascalese with other local grapes, most commonly the Nerello Cappuccio.  And with all he is doing with those volcanic vineyards in the middle of Sicily, this young, modern winemaker is making not only a name for his own Graci winery, but also helping to make Mt. Etna the hottest new wine-producing region in Europe.

Alberto Graci proudly shows his vineyard in Passopisciato.

Alberto Graci stands proudly in front of his vineyard.


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Sonoma Events | Roma to Sonoma

Sign up for a chance to win two free tickets to Sonoma Extra Virgin Festival! 

I’m wiping my tears as I accept that summer is officially over.  To console myself, I’m going to focus on the great fall events happening in Sonoma.  There are two in particular that I’m excited about and they focus on two of my favorite things: Food & Wine.

Two Great Fall Events for Food & Wine Lovers in Sonoma

I was bummed when I first saw that there were two great Sonoma events on the same weekend of November 5-6.  But because they each occur on both days, you can do as I do and hit one on Saturday and the other on Sunday.  It’s imperative because I simply can’t miss either event.  Details follow.

Wine Road “Food & Wine AFFAIR”   

November 5-6,  11am – 4 pm

Wine Road

What’s interesting about the Wine Road’s Food and Wine Affair is that the almost 100 participating wineries have paired their wines with their own dishes – they even provide their recipes online.  Wines from the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys open their doors for two days and with one pass you can visit as many as you wish.

Kudos to Wine Road for offering a greatly discounted “Designated Driver” ticket – a great idea if you plan to cover some ground on your personal wine road. 

Advance Ticket Prices:
Weekend: $80 + $7.00 (tax) + $5.34 (service fee) = $92.34
Sunday: $60 + $5.25 (tax) + $4.26 (service fee) = $69.51
Designated Driver: $30 + 2.63 (tax) + 2.62 (service fee) = $35.25

Purchase tickets online here

  B.R. Cohn Winery & Olive Oil Company
Sonoma Extra Virgin Festival

Sonoma Extra Virgin Festival – Olive Oil!  November 5-6,  11am – 4 pm

img_7698B.R. Cohn Winery hosts olive oil and olive food producers at its Sonoma Extre Virgin Festival to celebrate the olive harvest.  There will be cooking demonstrations, food trucks, music and wine, as well as a hand harvest and blessing of the olives on Saturday at 11:00 am.  Come out and help harvest and bless the olives!

$15, which includes a delicious glass of wine
Wine Club members receive two complimentary tickets. Please call 707-938-4064 ext. 139

Enter for a chance to win two free tickets to Sonoma Extra Virgin Festival!




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Tormaresca | Roma to Sonoma

img_7325“The Tormaresca project began with the dream, now a reality, to discover and enhance the precious native varietals of Puglia, leading the wine renaissance of the region.”  Tormaresca Website

We actually cheered when we finally saw a building in the distance.  We had been driving for hours across Italy from Rome and in the last half hour, we had seen very few signs and only one indicator of our goal: Tormaresca Winery, in the Castel del Monte DOC in the southeastern tip of Italy known as Puglia.

I would put Tormaresca up there with Tasca D’Almerita’s Regaleali in central Sicily as one of the most remote and hidden wineries that I’ve visited – and both were well worth the trip.  We parked in what we later found out was the back of the winery, and searched on foot for five minutes to find the entrance.

Wines of Tormaresca

Wines of Tormaresca

Tormaresca is owned by the centuries-old Cantinetta Antinori in Tuscany, Italy which has been in business since 1385.  Antinori bought this property in 1998 to add to its stable of properties and to add new varietals to its arsenal.  In 2009 Antinori added Masseria Maìme in Salento to the Tormaresca family.  We decided to visit the original Bocca di Lupo estate in Minervino Murge for a tasting.

There are certain wines from Tormaresca that are renowned throughout Italy.  Among these is Tormaresca’s Masseria Maìme 2012, a pure Negroamaro awarded Tre Bicchiere by Gambero Rosso; Fichimori, a flavorful Negroamaro meant to be served cold; and Tormaresca’s Aglianico 2010 which garnered a 93+ from The Wine Advocate.

Our degustation had some real standouts: the 2015 Calafuria Rosé made from 100% Negroamaro – which I loved because it had a slight salinity which is so prevalent in Salento rosatos, a gorgeous peach-pink color, and peachy aromatics.  The Masseria Maìme was the star of the show with its rich, dark cherry and anise aromatics and smooth, elegant finish.

Tormaresca Degustazione

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Nel Blu Dipinto Di Blu | Roma to Sonoma

Traveling from Sonoma to Roma

Traveling from Sonoma to Roma

The taxi arrived right on time before dawn.   After I said a last sad goodbye to my 5-pound muppet, Rocco, I pulled my well-packed luggage down the long, dark drive to the waiting car and loaded myself inside.  The next stop is Lila’s house on the Old Redwood Highway before we zoom off to Sonoma County Airport, then San Francisco Airport, then Atlanta Airport, then Rome. We are off on another wine & food travel adventure.

We’ve dubbed this one “The Magnificent Food & Wine Tour of Puglia and Sicily“.

Lila scoping out a wine bar in Rome, Italy during her travels a few years ago

Lila, scoping out a wine bar in Rome during her travels a few years ago.

Lila is putting together her first food & wine travel vacation to these regions and I’m writing several articles on Southern Italian wine for some Napa Valley publications.  And there’s also the need for more research for that book I’m writing which is based in Sicily, so there are lots of things to accomplish.  To quote Winnie the Pooh, “It’s so much friendlier with two.” So we organized our schedules in order to take the two-week adventure together.  Neither Rocco nor Lila’s husband seem to be as excited as we are about it, but what can we do? We are les papillons. 

We’ve got a packed travel itinerary of wine tastings, restaurant tastings, cooking classes, olive oil tastings, and a sprinkling of beach days for fun.  I’ve lived in both regions and love them so much that I’m brimming over with excitement to return.  Stay tuned for insights into these amazing, less-traveled regions of Italia.

The Muppet

The Muppet, Rocco

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Global Travel Basics – Packing | Roma to Sonoma

Travel Basics

I’ve been traveling between the US and Europe for over a decade and have learned the hard way what works for me on long international trips.  IMG_6759The first time I traveled to Europe I had two checked bags, a rolling carry-on, and an overflowing tote bag.  I should never say this out loud, but I was so clueless that I even packed…hot rollers.  I dumped the hot rollers in the trash after my first country (Switzerland) and then two pairs of shoes were intentionally left in a hotel room in Rome.  Slowly but surely through my six-week trip, I dropped thirty pounds of baggage – twenty from my luggage reduction and ten from schlepping my enormous luggage up stairs, through train stations, and down cobblestone streets.

I’ve come a long way over the years.  Now I hardly ever lose weight when traveling – ba-dum-dum!  But I’ve also learned a lot about packing for a long international trip.  Now when I travel I check one bag that is only 50% full, including a smaller foldable bag inside in which I can pack my treasures to check on the way home.  Yes, now I acquire more than I throw away – oops.  Somehow it all balances out at home but my new system makes for a MUCH more enjoyable trip.

Ten Things to Consider When Traveling Internationally.

Some of the things I’ve learned over the years are pretty well known by world travelers: Roll your clothes instead of folding them, reduce your toiletries to the little fill-up bottles as much as possible, and keep at least one day of essentials with you on the plane.  But then there are the secret tidbits that only a girly-girl who has traveled to almost 50 countries would know.  Let me share a few of those with you:

  • What to Pack: Clothing.   Pack monochromatically.  Black is a good basic but you could use white, cream, tan, or chocolate as a base.  Color should be used as accents – scarves, a jacket, a pair of shoes, jewelry.
    Travel tips: Typical travel outfit.

    Typical travel outfit: black sleeveless dress, nude duster, crossbody bag, black tights and ankle boots.

    Try to pack things that can be layered and that can dress up or down.  This doesn’t mean that your look should be boring.  No.  It should be curated.

    Travel Basics: Black halter jumpsuit, that hat with black/white scarf, funky sunglasses. The dog does not coordinate with the outfit and he knows it.

    Black halter jumpsuit, hat with black and white scarf, funky sunglasses. The dog doesn’t coordinate with the outfit, and he knows it.

    A sample fall wardrobe might include some of my standbys for traveling, pictured here:

    Black boots, black open toe sandal boots, black sneakers.  Mid-calf sleeveless black dress, knee-length black shift dress, and knee-length black/white long sleeve dress.  Denim jeans, black leggings, black halter jumpsuit, and 2 pairs of black tights.  One workout outfit in which the pieces could double as layers under other clothes (long black tights and black tank, for example), long lightweight duster coat, leather jacket, two large scarves, 2 pairs of sunglasses (black and funky), black long sleeve t-shirt, and white tank top.

    Travel tips, travel basics, packing, Roma to Sonoma.

    The black sleeveless dress and nude duster, out on the town.

  • What to pack: Necessities.  Pack a mini bottle of Woolite to hand wash undergarments and use samples of moisturizer, cleanser etc. as much as possible.  Get a portable luggage scale to make sure you are meeting airline guidelines especially if you are taking small planes with varying requirements.  Buy TSA locks and use them on both checked and carry-on luggage.   I also pack a small travel candle and matches, flip-flops to wear in hotels, a corkscrew, an emergency protein bar, hand wipes, tape to tape down bottles (so that they don’t open and spill with air pressure on planes), a laundry bag to separate dirty clothes, shoe bags, lingerie bags, plastic zip bags for delicate things, and band aids/moleskin.
  • What not to bring.  Bags are my downfall and I will admit that I bring too many. Always.  Don’t be like me and instead only bring three: 1) a tote large enough to carry toiletries, an iPad or laptop, and basics on the plane, 2)  Bring a crossbody for daytime, and 3) a clutch for night.  This should be all you need! I, however, usually bring 2-3 more bags that I never use.  But, I tell myself this helps me avoid making purchases of bags on the trip.  It does not.  but if you must pack extra bags, make the use of the space.  Put jewelry rolls, socks, toiletries and other small items inside bags and shoes to save space.
  • What to Wear on the Plane.  Personally, I would never wear jeans on a long flight because they are too constricting. I wear leggings with a loose top/t-shirt and a great jacket and shoes, with a large scarf.  The jacket and shoes come off on the plane and the scarf goes from tied loosely around my neck to turning into a light blanket that I put around me like a shawl.  If you bring a hat, you will have to wear it on the plane unless it is crushable.  Sample airplane outfit from the above: black leggings and black ankle boots, black t-shirt, leather jacket, big colorful scarf, and hat.
  • What Not to Do on the Plane.  Even though my shoes come off and my socks go on immediately upon boarding  – please do not – I repeat do not – go barefoot on the plane.  I don’t want to see anyone’s disgusting hooves and I’m sure they don’t want to see mine.  Plus, unsanitary.  I literally remember every person I ever saw with their feet out, it scarred me that much.  Keep your feet to yourself.  And don’t bring smelly food.  I just had to get that in.
  • Wear your Best Stuff on the Plane.  If you bring them, wear your designer bag, expensive jewelry, sunglasses, best jacket, etc. instead of packing them. You will feel better if these things are on you.  But don’t bring a lot of expensive jewelry – you will just worry when you leave it at the hotel.
  • Books/magazines/other things “to-do”.  Leave them at home.  I’ve found they are a total waste of space.  You will have plenty to do, including on the plane – I use international flights to catch up on the latest movies since the airlines offer so many onboard.  If you must have your own entertainment, download an audiobook – which takes no extra space – to listen to as you fall off to sleep on the plane.  Which brings me to…
  • Sleep.  There is nothing more important than sleeping on the plane.  Go with this goal foremost in your mind and prep for it before you go so that you aren’t sitting on the plane wishing you had brought something that you didn’t know you would need.   Sleeping meds are essential for me (I order a prescription from my doctor for flying, but I think OTC will work too).  I would also get a sleep mask because even though the lights will go out at some point, there are always a few people reading with the overhead light on instead of sleeping.  Usually, that person is seated next to me.  Bring a sleep mask.  The scarf that you wore on the plane can double as a blanket while using the airport blankets around your legs and feet.  I like having my comfy, personal fabric around my face, but maybe that’s just me.  Also, I don’t care if you are flying first class or not, buy a big bottle of water in the airport because you will want to hydrate constantly without trying to flag down a flight attendant for a baby cup of water in the middle of the night.
  • Save time and space.  Packing a hair dryer, curling irons, or god forbid hot rollers, takes a lot of space.  You simply can’t travel with every comfort that you have at home.  If you are like me, you think you need shampoo, conditioner, mousse or gel, oil/serum, maybe a hair mask, straightening or volume products – the list can go on and on.  Even minimizing the products to travel size and bringing a tiny dryer still take a lot of space and you always risk those little bottles popping open and making a huge mess in the luggage (it’s always been a pesky hair product that has caused me consternation in the past).  But my best and favorite tip of all is this:  Plan to get blow-outs once or twice a week and save yourself from bringing hair appliances and products entirely. This is easier than it sounds.  It won’t be difficult to find local salons in almost any place you travel,.  I would suggest that you keep the services as basic as possible, like just a shampoo and dry.  This is not the time to go for a whole new look, trust me on this.
  • Bring gifts.  This is something I started  doing in the beginning because I was planning to visit friends during the trip.  But since then I’ve found it useful to always have a couple of things to give away to friends, newfound friends, or as a thank you to especially gracious people I meet along the way.  I usually bring something like American candy or peanut butter, which are not super easy to get everywhere outside the US.  It’s best to bring things that are small or light like t-shirts or tank tops with cool graphics or a pair of earrings, for example.  This may seem counter-intuitive to the “pack light” mantra, but remember that these items will be leaving your luggage along the way.  That said, this list is not meant as a mandate but as a list of things I’ve learned and from which you can pick what works for you.  Buon viaggio!!
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Healdsburg | Roma to Sonoma

Healdsburg's "The Shed"

Healdsburg’s “The Shed”

Healdsburg, California

Most famous for its authentic small town charm, Healdsburg is a requisite stop as you wind your way through Sonoma wine country.

“I grew up near here and I’ve watched Healdsburg go from just a tiny town to a top destination spot in Sonoma. It’s not as well-known as something like Napa, but that only makes it more special to me,” says Lila Brown, a concierge travel expert based in Healdsburg.

Healdsburg Native

Lila, a sommelier and culinary school graduate, focuses on food and wine tours and events.  She returned to Healdsburg after stints in Italy, Greece, and Spain.  We asked Lila if she could put together a casual Healdsburg day plan, and she graciously obliged us with an eight-step plan to a perfect day in (and not far from) Healdsburg.

Eight Steps to a Perfect Day in Healdsburg
  1. The Shed.  Start off with breakfast or brunch at the morning hot spot in Healdsburg, The Shed. It’s as much a meeting place as it is a restaurant, and it offers a gourmet market inside too. This is where the beautiful people come to prop open laptops in the sun while sipping a cup of joe or a fresh green juice.
  2. Unti Vineyards.  After breakfast, drive north-west into the Dry Creek Valley, known as one of the oldest growing areas for Zinfandels in California. First stop, Unti Vineyards, famous for their Italian and Rhone varietals, especially rosè. They were one of the pioneers that brought rosè back to the wine world’s good graces.
  3. Dry Creek General Store.  Continue on to the Dry Creek General Store to stock up for your picnic (unless Lila is touring you, in which case she comes prepared and pre-shopped).


    Lila Brown shopping for a picnic at the Dry Creek General Store.

  4. Lambert Bridge Winery.  Head west onto Lambert Bridge Road over the single lane old bridge to Lambert Bridge Winery. The picnic grounds are gorgeous and they have three wood fired ovens making pizzas on the weekends. Lambert Bridge is famous for their Bordeaux varietals, especially Merlot and Zinfandel. Here we meet Jennifer Higgins, one of the few female winemakers in the world. Her wines tend to be more delicate instead of the bold zinfandels for which Dry Creek is known. These are food friendly wines, old world style. After a tasting, sit outside with a bottle of their Burgundian-style Chardonnay and have a picnic.


    Entrance to Lambert Bridge Winery.

  5. Arista Winery.  After a relaxing picnic, head south onto West Side Road in the Russian River AVA for world-class Pinot Noir at Arista Winery.  After a tasting, enjoy a glass of Pinot Noir as you wander through Arista’s peaceful Japanese inspired gardens with a wonderful view of Mount St. Helens.
  6. Barn Diva.  Loop back to Healdsburg to the Barn Diva gallery for a classic cocktail.
  7. Bravas.  Housed in an old craftsman house they have a great patio with twinkle lights. Tapas and an entire menu of Gin and Tonics. Lila recommends the one with Saffron and cardamom.
  8. Additional Options.  If you want to spend more than one day in the area, Lila has several options for Day Two and/or Three.  One option is a walking tour of Healdsburg itself including food and wine tastings around the square.  Or, if you want to enjoy the local nature, she can arrange kayaking down the Russian River, hiking trails above the Pacific Coastline, or biking through the vineyards on the Sonoma Wine Road.   Contact Lila at for more information or to book a tour.
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