Sunday, April 29, 2007

Grand Opening of the Wine Cellar

Last night, we hosted a "grand opening" of our wine cellar. As with most construction projects, this one took longer than expected. It's still only 99% complete - there are about half a dozen small items that still need attention.

Here is a now complete photo album of the cellar construction, from start to finish:

About 16 people showed up for tapas and a sampling of four different wines. We put out a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a Pinot Noir from Oregon, a Petite Sirah from Sonoma, and a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Coonawara area in Australia.

Caren worked for several days preparing all the food - she did a fantastic job. Jordan opened the wine bottles - very tiring work.

Our guests brought us gifts - wine to stock the cellar. We received a nice bottle of Caymus Cabernet (from Cinde - Caren's trainer), a Clos du Val Cabernet (from Bryan), a Beaux Freres Pinot Noir (from Ed and Elyn), a bottle of Justin Isoceles (from Joanna), a Stag's Leap Petite Sirah (from Ted and Amber), two French wines (from the Ammons), and a nice Sangiovese (from the D'Amicos of course).

We've been methodically stocking the cellar. We're up to about 400 bottles. And we keep getting shipments from the six different wine clubs we're enrolled in.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Today is Sunday and we have arrived in the town of Ouarzazate. This town is called "the door of the desert" because from here we will venture out to the Draa River Valley and then into the Sahara Desert.

We arose well before dawn in Fes to catch a 6AM flight to Casablanca where we connected with a regional flight to Ouarzazate. Our driver Mohammed was waiting at the door to Dar Seffarine at 4:30AM. He brought his son along to help shlep our luggage and to keep him company. It was so early that we were up before the first blaring call to prayer at the mosque down the street.

Ouarzazate is about 120km south and east of Marrakech. We will be headed further southeast to the town of Zagora in the next few days, then into the Sahara Desert.

While in Ouarzazate, we are staying at Le Berbere Palace Hotel. This is where we will meet up with our B&R tour group and begin our biking and hiking expedition.

The hotel seems to be overrun with vacationers from France. This is the high season and I suppose people from France want a few days in the desert just like people from LA flock to Palm Springs or Las Vegas. Morocco has not yet implemented non-smoking ordinances. Every French tourist seems to be a chain smoker.

We sampled more Moroccan wine at lunch. Not bad, but it tastes very young. Considering that Muslims don't drink alcohol, they seem to have several wineries in this country. Probably to serve the hoards of tourists from Europe and avoid having to accept imports from France and Spain.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Does the Information Superhighway Run Thru Morocco?

On our first day in Morocco we noticed another startling difference with the developing nations of Asia - internet access in Morocco is almost non-existent. We saw several internet cafes, but they only had a few older computers and they were tied up all day by young boys playing computer games.

In Asia, internet cafes with high speed access are on virtually every street corner. People of all ages use computers in Asia and they access the internet for email, blogging, news, IM, Skype calls, and education. I think there is a huge education and cultural gap in Morocco.

Perhaps we'll have better access to the internet at some of the hotels on our bicycle tour, but for now, it's apparent why the economy here still operates the way it did a hundred years ago. I imagine that increasing tourism from Europe, a construction boom, and an influx of young people from rural areas to the cities will pressure Maroc Telecom to provide faster, less expensive, and more pervasive internet access.
Doing Our Part to Help the Economy in Fes

We experienced several startling moments during our first day in Morocco. We awoke to the call to prayer from the loudspeaker of the nearby mosque. At 4:30AM!!!! Caren says it sounds like someone trying to milk the wrong sex cow.

Mohammed (yes, another Mohammed) cooked a fabulous breakfast for us and the other guests. From the roof terrace at Dar Seffarine, the first thing that struck me was the sea of satellite television dishes. It seems like every rooftop has a satellite dish, presumably all tuned to Al-Jazeera.

After breakfast, our guide for the day, Idriss, picked us up and we started a day long tour of Fes and its medina. Idriss was born in the medina so we trusted that he knew his way around the maze.

Guess what was one of our first stops---a carpet showroom. What trip to Morocco would be complete without at least one visit to a rug merchant. The salesmen are masters at their craft. IBM should have hired a bunch of these guys many years ago. They would have wound up crushing their sales quota and earning Golden Circle sales recognition.

After saying for weeks that there was "no f__king way we are going to buy a rug", Jordan wound up negotiating for TWO rugs. Hey, we couldn't decide between two rugs, they included "free" shipping (by DHL), and the price for the second rug was about half the price of the first rug. I guess these guys know the sales promotion of "Buy One, Get The Second at Half Price."

We kept telling ourselves it was worth it to have the experience (we laughed a lot during the negotiation). The sales process had all the earmarks of buying a car in the U.S. - they offer you a seat and mint tea, then they show you dozens of carpets and ask what you like (a lot of features and benefits selling), and then they narrow down your preferences and start negotiating price. After a while, the Finance Manager (i.e. Sales Manager) comes in to play "good guy" and inquire how you are doing. When we finally agree on a price, there's the usual handshake and hug, followed by the rapid appearance of the accounting clerk to process your credit card payment. Doesn't this sound like your local Honda or Toyota dealership? I was waiting for them to offer me an extended warranty and chrome wheels.

All kidding aside, Idriss was a marvelous guide. He took us all over the medina and the new city. We saw the tanneries, the food stalls, the street where furniture is built, jewelry shops, a ceramics factory, mosques (the outside only - non-Muslims not allowed inside), the King's palace (when he visits Fes), and all the historic sites. He even took us to "Chinese street" where all the cheap goods imported from China are sold - kinda like shopping at 99 Cent Stores here in the U.S. We felt compelled to teach Idriss the Yiddish word "Khazeray" (junk).

Along one street they build huge wedding chairs for use at Muslim weddings and on the next street over they sold (rented) wedding garments. Caren picked up a handful of business cards from the vendors to send to Erin.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

We've Landed in Fes

Yesterday, we arrived in the ancient city of Fes, Morocco. Toto - we are not in Kansas (or California) anymore. This is definitely a Muslim country and definitely in North Africa.

The Air France flight to Paris was actually very good. However, Charles de Gaulle Airport must be the worst designed airport on the planet. To get between terminals takes an eternity. I always thought London Heathrow was bad, but CDG is ten times worse. We were amazed that our luggage actually showed up in Fes.

We are staying at Dar Seffarine - a gorgeous riad (i.e. guesthouse) inside the medina of Fes. 350,000 of the 1.5M inhabitants of Fes live in the medina. It is the largest in North Africa.

Dar Seffarine was an old building that has been magnificently restored by Alaa, an architect originally from Iraq, and his wife Kate (from Norway). It took 2 years for the reconstruction. They have been open for business since July 2006. I had to make our booking back in November. All six rooms are fully booked as a result of its growing reputation from travellers to Fes.

We were picked up at the airport by Mohammed (everyone seems to be named Mohammed) and driven to the Bab Rcif Gate to the medina. From there, a porter took our luggage in a cart and we weaved thru the narrow streets to our riad (no cars, only donkeys and foot traffic). It will be a miracle if we can ever find our way around the maze of pathways in the medina.

We'll try to post some more pictures in the next few days.