Thing to do in Vegas (When you don’t gamble)

We go to Vegas quite a bit, thanks to the generosity of my parents and their timeshare, but we don’t gamble, and we usually take our daughter. So why go so much? There’s a whole lot to Vegas both on and off the famous Strip that is worth checking out.

1. Hit the Buffet of Buffets – We covered this before, but seriously, this is a great deal for families with picky eaters or who want to introduce their kids to new foods without shelling out for a whole dinner they might end up not eating.

In the Fall...

Or summer.

2. Mt. Charleston – You cannot get farther from the neon lights of Vegas than to find yourself surrounded by miles of beautiful wilderness to explore. Although the mountain does have a ski resort, I’d recommend taking a break from the heat of summer to enjoy the trails – the mountain is often about 10 degrees cooler than the valley. Or go in fall and enjoy the snow like we did on our recent trip. At only about an hour drive from the Strip, it’s a great day trip.

3. Hit the fair or a sporting event – There is much more happening in Las Vegas than just what’s playing at the casinos. Take the time to look up local events before you go, and you might find an expected game or event going on that is right up your alley. The last time we went to Vegas we got to visit a Renaissance Faire being held the park across from Sam Boyd. Way more fun and educational than wandering around the Excalibur Hotel.

5. See a show – Although many shows in Vegas are Adult Oriented Content, a little homework can reveal more than a few magic shows or Broadway style musicals that are perfectly kid friendly. Like “V, the Variety Show” at Planet Hollywood. Just remember, never pay full price. “Family friendly” shows tend to be afternoon shows with light attendance, and discount tickets can usually be easily found in one of the many, many Vegas coupons books you are likely to be handed during your trip.

6. Visit a museum – Vegas is actually home to more than a few museums, some of which are on the educational end and some of which are just fun. We visiting the Museum of Natural History a couple of years ago – while small compared to the one in LA, it had plenty of rooms to explore including some cool hands on exhibits. Or you could get in a game or two or two hundred of pinball at the Pinball Museum.

7.  Meet a furry friend – Nevada is much more exotic pet friendly than California, and as such, it also has some pretty awesome pet stores with much more to check out than your usual kittens and puppies. Visit Pet Kingdom and you might find yourself being nuzzled by a piglet, quietly observing sugar gliders while they sleep, or getting ready to write the governor about repealing California’s ban on ferrets after they climb all over you in the most adorably aggressive way possible. Or if you prefer something you won’t be tempted to smuggle over the border, you could just visit the Las Vegas Zoo. Which also has exotic animals, but in a less up close and personal way.

 

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Three Musketeers: the (newest) movie review

Well, by luck and happenstance we ended up seeing a screening of the Three Musketeers today.

Now, I am going to disclaim my feelings about this movie a little.

I am a big fan of the Milla Jovovich / Paul W S Anderson Resident Evil movies, which this basically serves as the steampunk version of. If you’ve seen those movies, you know of what I speak – wild technology, slow motion fighting, action that every once in a while is actually really good but can also get really campy, etc. If you like that, you will like this.

Also, if you’ve ever hummed Abney Park’s “Airship Pirates”, you’ll find some goodness in here. I don’t want to get spoiler-ish but there is some really, really great fan service in here for those who like airships.

Paul W S Anderson has a habit of making movies that look like the exact movies my inner 13 year old would film if he could. This is definitely one of those movies.

I am a bit sad about the PG13 rating – other than a bit of language here and there the movie was almost kid-oriented, with a very high wacky factor, relatively nonviolent fights (especially compared to the R rated Resident Evil movies). There are some quite funny character / comic relief characters.

Another important note – the movie was shot in 3D and the 3D was quite good, unlike quite a bit of bad 3D I saw this summer. Pirates 4 comes to mind – the 3D was super disappointing in that one in particular (and they both had a lot of 3D swords, so I think it is a fair comparison).  I’m not thinking I’ll see any oscar noms for the effects, but they were really pretty good and not entirely dependent on CGI.

So, in summary – if you like Steampunk, slightly westernized martial arts movies, slow motion fight scenes, Milla Jovovich, airships, anachronistic technology, or any of the Resident Evil movies you should catch this one for sure! If not… maybe not? It did have a bit of a B movie vibe, just one that I happened to really like.

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This is Halloween… Haunt.

Growing up in northern Orange County, Knott’s annual Halloween Haunt isn’t just something fun to do in October, it’s an institution. You didn’t just go to Haunt, you went with friends, you made plans around it, when you were older you would work there, or you would at least know a bunch of people that worked there, then eventually, like all teenage obsessions, you would get over it, then not go for a few years until nostalgia began nipping at your heels and some friend of yours says “Hey, you know what we should do? We should go to Haunt!” And filled with memories of your glory days, you figure out babysitting for the kids, realize you are stuck going on a Saturday because you don’t want to leave early from work for haunt, but you don’t want to go to work after being up until 2am either. Or maybe that’s just us. But it WAS us, and for the first time in a decade we made our return to the land of mazes and mayhem.

First off, it may have been worth it to try to pull off Haunt on a weekday. We dropped off our daughter with my parents at Beach and Main at 6:45. Knott’s, for those unfamiliar with OC, is about a 15 minute drive up Beach from there. Usually. Or it might be 8:30pm before we are FINALLY pulling into the parking lot. And it might then be another half hour braving a line to get in the gates and searching through wall to wall obnoxious teenagers to find our friends. (Cell service, at least for us, was quite spotty throughout the night.)

Once that nightmare was over we were more than ready to hit the mazes. Killer clowns have nothing on a gaggle of teen girls looking like they got lost on the way to a Ke$ha concert and squealing about every roving monster they come across. (Must… restrain… fist of death.)

*Ahem* So, the mazes. Lines were pretty long here, unsurprising at this point, so we didn’t get to hit every maze. We visited Dia De Los Muertos (in 3D!!! Which is weird because isn’t EVERY maze in 3D? WTH Knott’s?), which was pretty fun, if not particularly scary. The sets were drenched in every color of glow in the dark paint, and the halls were actually really roomy, so the whole thing had more the effect of visiting a Hispanic museum in October while seriously tripping on acid than a frightening maze. The sugar skull decorated pole dancer in the “cantina” set was more hot than fright inducing, although she didn’t seem to appreciate this assessment. (Dude, I didn’t put the pole there. I’m just calling them as I see them.)

Working our way clockwise around the park, we next visited the Big Top maze. Apparently the killer clowns did not get the memo they are supposed to be IN the maze. More clowns seemed to be running around outside menacing people around the “Carnevil” scare zone than were actually working the maze. My sister, who once upon a time worked Haunt tells me this is unusual, but it seriously undermined the maze when it became just walking from one goofy room to another, constantly seeing spots where, clearly, someone was supposed to be pretending to be scenery before jumping out at us. Not cool guys. We waited freakin’ 45 minutes to get into the maze, I expect more than just some attempts at off color humor of the circus variety. And again – HUGE hallways. Where were the claustrophobia inducing mazes I remembered from my ill spent youth?

We wandered over towards the Necropolis scare zone, lured by tales of vampire steampunk monsters, and discover some of the best mazes of the night – Virus Z and Fallout Shelter were both very well done, and very old school mazes. Lots of monsters, some surprisingly good special effect, and really detailed set pieces. While most of the monsters so far had managed to do little more than be boring or downright piss me off, the guys and gals working the two zombie themed mazes got us good more than once and by the time I was near the end of the Fallout maze I was getting that fun but creepy paranoid feeling any good maze should give you. Honestly, there were some moments in the Fallout shelter maze that actually felt like some kind of Resident Evil LARP (so much so I had to remind myself that if you punch these zombies, it gets you kicked out of the park), and I consider that high praise . If there was any downside, it was that we were shuffled along so fast by the crowd we didn’t get as good a look at the awesome sets as we wanted to.

Rounding out the night – Cornstalkers was fun, although a couple of the monsters were a little too aggressive, and our friends had high praise for Dollhouse and Delirium, although we did not get to experience them ourselves. Invasion (in the mine ride) was just… lame. Just skip that one.

Highlight of the night was not actually a maze at all – if you go to Haunt, you MUST check out Ed Alonzo’s Psycho Circus show in the far corner of the park – it was a ton of fun. Great magic, funny jokes, and some neat dance numbers with hottie girls, topped off by a topless (male) fire dancer. Really awesome show. Much higher production values than I was expecting after wandering the mazes. (Some of which are populated by costumes that appear to be nothing more than thrift store clothing and a cheap mask.) Very Vegas-ish. Well worth checking out and not a bad way to get off your feet after walking what must be miles of mazes.

So, there you go. Haunt from a middle aged perspective. It was fun, but maybe aimed at a younger audience than me. But, you know, it’s TRADITION!

(I’ll fix this later, but for now, visit their pretty awesome website here: http://haunt.knotts.com/

and if you are going to go, I’d recommend getting discount tix from AAA online if you have a membership – it was the best deal going when we got ours.)

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The new 52 – DC Comics Reboot

The background – Burgandy and I decided to get pulled in by a publicity stunt and pick up some of the DC reboot. See, we used to read comics back in the day, mostly stopping after the mid 2000s when DC finished one Infinite Crisis whilst raring up for another one. We did, actually, miss them and were not entirely happy with only seeing comics through the prism of movies and cartoons, so when we heard DC was cutting some of the crud and aiming for a more newbie friendly event we signed up!

Due to the huge number of comics released (52, plus some #2s by now, some of which we have read and some of which have not) I will probably be posting impressions over a few different posts. So, here are some quick takes.

Good–

Stormwatch. I mostly missed this title the first time through and so I enjoyed the reboot, especially with a meaner-than-before Martian Manhunter grounding things a bit. Fair disclaimer – I know almost nothing about this title, save a vague familiarity with the main characters left over from reading one of their trade paperbacks ages ago, so as far as I know this whole issue was a complete rehash. Still, liked the art and the story seemed super-epic without being too confusing.

Action Comics. This was great! Grant Morrison brings it – we have a Superman who is younger, a bit weaker, but still super fun to read. Unlike some of the other comics, I genuinely got the feeling that something new and exciting was being created – it didn’t seem at all like a rehash. The first meeting of Superman and Lex was especially fun. The character was contemporized a bit but nothing too jarring – plus a more populist / less law and order friendly Superman is both a new idea and a return to the character’s roots. Lois and Jimmy seemed fun, too.

Demon Knights – This was pretty much the comic book of the ultimate DND game – Conan mixed with Superheroes! I didn’t expect anything at all of this but ended up totally loving it. I am a bit of an Etrigan fan, but it was actually the little things that I liked – a part where a bunch of marauders invade the city thinking they’re going to overthrow it only to run into five very annoyed superhero / warriors who just wanted a drink was one of my favorite comic moments of the whole set.

Eh–

Green Lantern. For all that this issue has a #1 stamped on it, it seemed to just be another Green Lantern story, no hint of a reboot whatsoever. (Internet research shows that they did not, actually, reboot this comic… why the new #1, then?). I actually enjoyed it, given the premise – Hal losing the Ring, the Guardians deciding to reinstate Sinestro for some reason – but Burgandy, who is less familiar with the Green Lantern Mythos, was completely checked out.

JLA / Justice League – Uh. This seemed like the first third or maybe even fourth of what would actually be a pretty good comic. But as it is, two characters meeting, and debating a bit, then running into a third character, who is only in a splash and has one line of dialogue, isn’t too exciting. Especially with no particular overarching threat or villain – it’s literally one guy visiting another guy and then the two of them deciding to take a road trip and see a third guy. Not too epic so far – nothing was bad about it, but nothing really happened, either.

Bad –

Red Lantern Corps. I think this probably made sense to someone, but to me (who is not familiar with Red Lanterns beyond an understanding that they are the embodiment of rage) it carried basically no information whatsoever. Just a lot of weird looking creatures and critters foaming at the mouth and sometimes punching each other. Considering the implied promise of slapping a #1 on a cover to make a story a new person could actually read, I was super disappointed.

Batman – Detective Comics #1. Think it would be fun to see a new take on Batman? What about if it was his first fight with the Joker? Great, right? Well… unless Joker is basically a sideline to some weirdo family take on Texas Chainsaw Massacre who likes to cut people’s faces off (probably for some fiendish reason or another). Oh, and Joker gets his face cut off. Which of course is obviously some sort of weird stunt and also bizarrely out of place in one of the theoretically non-dark books.

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When in Vegas – Buffet of Buffets review

Harrah’s is apparently trying to corner the market on the “All You Can” Vegas experience. Since the last time we were out they appear to have added a deal that includes all the shows you can watch and all the clubs you can handle, but the one we took advantage of was the Buffet of Buffets. After 10 minutes of signing up for Harrah’s rewards program, we were able to get the buffet deal for $44.99 each. Signing up for the card has the added advantage in that the card becomes your buffet pass, instead of having to wear a plastic bracelet for 24 hours.

For our first buffet, we went to the Rio, which in times past was our favorite buffet, where we have at times spent more than $45 just for that buffet alone. Alas, the lowering of the price seems to have taken it’s toll on our beloved buffet. Although Rio still has a multicultural station theme going on, with each section of the buffet representing a different type of cuisine, most of it was not very appetizing looking. The simple food was okay – BBQ, burgers, and shrimp were all passable, but not much better than what you’d expect to get at a Sizzler. The roast beef was downright tough and inedible. Luckily their awesome gelato bar was there to save the day. Was it worth the approximately $10 to $15 we paid to get in the door? Sure, but just barely.

Not bad, but not great either.

Although they do have many flavors of gelato - clockwise from left: vanilla, tiramisu, orange cream

You get what you pay for?

I thought that, but then later that day we hit Lago at Caesar’s Palace for dinner. Thanks to a certain famous comedy, Caesar’s is now the most famous hotel on the strip, so I expect good things from them. Several good reviews of Lago on Yelp pushed the bar up even further. I was not disappointed. Lago was the antithesis of our experience at Rio. Unlike Rio the selection is very small, but what it lacks in variety, it more than makes up in quality. Everything we got was terrific, and the attention to detail was really neat. Salads and fruit came in little glass cups, which, besides being cute, kept the line moving nicely. My plate of prime rib, snow crab legs, and sweet potatoes would have been worth dropping $15 by itself. In fact, we loved the food so much, I didn’t even get any pictures. But that’s okay, because where Lago really shines is its desserts. They are tiny, they are ADORABLE, and they are DIVINE. Seriously, you have to eat them to understand. The Oreos covered in chocolate ganache and dipped in more chocolate? Insane. And the gelato even comes in a waffle cone. The little mini lemon meringue was light and brilliant. It’s completely nuts.I would go to Lago just for the desserts.

So many tiny desserts! And they were all heavenly!

Death by chocolate!

Calories? Diabetes? LALALALALALALALA I can't hear you!

The next day, we hit Le Village at the Paris for an early lunch. I announced the last time we ate here that this was my new favorite buffet in Vegas and despite the sheer nirvana that is Lago’s dessert bar, it still is my overall favorite. BUT you have to like what they are serving. We’re talking a heavy European influence here – French and Greek staples rule here, but if you like things like freshly made pitas, lamb straight off the grill, ratatouille, mac n’ cheese made with brie and bacon, and made to order crepes this is the place for you. Heck, all you can eat freshly made crepes is worth the price alone. It could only be better if they had savory crepes (right now they only seem to have fruit and nutella based ones, but my goodness are they awesome). This is also one of the only buffets that does veggies right. I found myself loading up one plate with asparagus and candied sweet potatoes. Based on some of the reviews I’ve seen, it’s kind of an acquired taste, but if you like French or Greek food, this is a great deal. (And I do.)

Now this is food. Good food. So yum.

Caramel apple crepe with fresh whipped cream. Apple pie has got NOTHING on this.

Other buffets available are the ones at Planet Hollywood (was unimpressed the last time we went, but it has good reviews on Yelp), Imperial Palace, Harrah’s (naturally), and the Flamingo.

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RIP Steve Jobs

Regardless of my frustrations with Apple over the years, without Steve Jobs our world would, quite literally, not look remotely the same. Computers might never have been cool, music wouldn’t be available in a nifty MP3 format and readily available on said computer, Pixar would never have taken over Disney’s reign as the summer animation king (Ok, they were bought by Disney, but only because Disney realized they were beaten at their own game), people wouldn’t be reading this on their “phones” (which are more little hand held computers these days), we wouldn’t have tablets! Our whole LIVES would be completely different. Jobs may not have invented the computer, but he certainly found a way to make them accessible to the average person, and as a result, push us into this crazy future we’re in.

So, thank you, Steve Jobs. Enjoy your rest. You’ve earned it.

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Round Table Pizza Buffet

I had the Round Table Pizza Buffet last week. Now, Round Table is one of my favorite pizza places, but due to it being about twice as much as, say, Shakey’s, I do not eat there too often. I think they have some of the best crust around and they have great cheese and breadsticks, but Mojo Potatoes make a decent substitute and there’s no fried chicken available at Round Table. Now, I don’t eat Shakey’s chicken that much (except at their buffet), but it is good.

However, there is a great alternative to playing a bunch of money for Round Table, which is the pizza buffet! For about $7 you get a full pizza buffet and a drink. Compare this, mind, to the $40 plus it tends to cost to feed out little family of three with a limited quantity of pizza. Thus it is an infinitely more valuable deal, though I think you will probably realistically cap out at maybe ten pieces, which cuts down the amount of value some.

The positives – compared to Shakey’s buffet, Round Table is equivalently or slightly cheaper priced despite the fact that the pizza usually costs about twice as much. I am not a big salad eater but the salad bar looked very well stocked, had chilled plates, and even had some pretty fresh boiled eggs. Unlike at Shakey’s where you will possibly have to camp out to get a single piece of desert pizza (last time I went we ended up splitting 3 pieces among 2 of us thanks to the demand) Round Table has a whole station of ooey-gooey cinnamon sticks.

The negatives – the pizza does seem a bit less delicious than usual – I don’t notice any step down on the Shakey’s pizza, but it was not as good to start with. Probably pound for pound the Round Table Pizza is still better pizza overall, but I still noticed. There was less variety in the food available – Shakey’s has some pizza, mojo’s, chicken, salad, and some pasta but Round Table was just pizza and salad. And, though the dessert was easier to get, it was not nearly as delicious or decadent as Smore’s Pizza. It’s also not open on weekends, so I can only go there at work-lunch, when I tend to diet or at the very least not have ten pieces of pizza. Still definitely worth trying if you can time it right!

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Hiking Tahquitz Canyon

One of the things I love about vacationing in Palm Springs is the many, many hidden gems you can find when you explore the area. For example, when most people go out to Palm Springs with the intention of hiking, they are headed out to Joshua Tree, or some other desert trail.  But you might want to consider checking out a neat canyon we discovered this last summer called Tahquitz Canyon.

Tahquitz Canyon is very visitor friendly and located just a little over a mile from the bustling down town area. We parked in the small parking lot, got our hiking passes at the cute little visitor center, and even borrowed a couple of the walking sticks they have available near the exit.

This turned out to be a good call, because we ended up taking the left trail up the canyon to the waterfall that was promised to be at the end of our hike. As we would discover later, this was the longer and steeper hike, sporting more than a few natural staircases and lots of ants. Lots of ants.

But that was okay, because there were some really interesting historical locations to check out, and it made us all the more grateful when we began to hear an unmistakable gurgling water sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The area around the waterfall is beautiful. We spent a good amount of time splashing around the cool lagoon, watching the waterfall, and just enjoying the refreshing oasis.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The hike back was much easier and little more scenic. Not only was it all downhill, but there were less steps, not that many ants, and way more flora to gush over. And we could pick out our downtown hotel from our terrific view of the valley, which was pretty awesome in and of itself.

Then it was back to nice big lunch after our amazing two mile hike. If you like hiking, or just think oasis’ are awesome, this would be a great side jaunt to add to your trip to Palm Springs.

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Steampunk Trifecta – Sherlock Holmes, LXG, and Van Helsing

These are three mainstream movies that say “Steampunk” to Burgandy and I. I am sure there are purists who (possibly angrily) disagree. But, for the sake of argument, I am going to say that we had a steampunk marathon this weekend and watched Sherlock Holmes, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen / LXG, and Van Helsing. It was a chance to introduce the little one to a few properties that we hope to get her actually reading soon.

I greatly enjoyed all three of these movies upon first viewing, and even saw Van Helsing and LXG in the theater twice (I let myself get scared away from Sherlock Holmes by bad word of mouth / the zany trailer, which is quite unfortunate). So, with that in mind, the immediate judgment – how did they hold up? Well, I thought Van Helsing and Sherlock Holmes both held up – this is somewhat unfair, almost, because Van Helsing is definitely a special effects blockbuster type and Sherlock Holmes is not as ambitious, but they both looked great. LXG, on the other hand, aged horribly – the Nautilus looked almost Roger Rabbit-esque, way too big for what it was supposed to be and not at all real. Likewise with the somewhat choppy action sequences.

I think Sherlock Holmes had the best acting – I loved the Holmes, Watson, and Adler here. They were a bit modernized (though, as Burgandy’s post pointed out, not as much as you may think) but still evocative of the characters. Van Helsing was a bit more questionable  Hugh Jackman wasn’t super-engaging at first (though he doesn’t have a lot to work with, as Van Helsing starts with basically no personality and gradually gets better). Kate Beckinsale’s Anna has a silly accent and some horrible lines (“I have never been to the sea”) but the character is a lot of fun and you get used to it (it doesn’t hurt that she looks great in this movie). David Wenham is actually quite hilarious as Carl, the friar. Both Dracula (VH) and Blackwood (SH) are great villains, too.

LXG is not so good – the first time I watched it I was just so amused by the ‘JLA of Victorian England’ schtick that I missed how much Sean Connery is phoning it in, or how silly Nemo’s beard looks. The smaller roles are better – I still really liked the foppish-but-deadly Dorian and generally enjoyed the more-vampiric-than-the-comic Mina. Dr. Jekyll / Hyde was a great performance, actually, really enjoyed it. As you watch this movie, you see the actors trying to progress things (Jekyll’s personalities integrate, Mina is less repressed, Nemo and Quartermain are nicer) but with the big cast and the movie’s lack of focus it all sort of ends up being out of nowhere. The bad guy, the Phantom, is a bit of a dud. Silly costume, sillier accent.

Plot-wise, I thought Sherlock Holmes had a great mystery and good interaction between the characters. Van Helsing had a sweeping, sometimes confusing story that added to a video-game-like feel the movie had at times (I love video games, so this isn’t necessarily something awful, but it did seem a bit strange). LXG was just plain weird – things happen that really don’t make sense if you think about them too much like outracing an earthquake in a car, then stopping with a missile or Mr. Hyde somehow knowing exactly how to drain the Nautilus when it is taking on water.

So, the verdict. The best movie has to be Sherlock Holmes, I think – everything just comes together, albeit in a way that sends rage through the minds of traditionalists. Second best – Van Helsing. I can forgive a lot of incoherency and video-game-ness when it’s helped along by Hugh Jackman in superhero mode, a scenery-chewing Dracula, a hilarious sidekick, and a badass Kate Beckinsale in a corset and leather pants. Third – LXG. My only thought on this one is that my brain was so blown by the premise the first time that I just forgave everything. Now it barely seemed to make sense, the effects looked awful, and the action sequences were choppy and nonsensical. It was still sort of fun, though, and I think it will prompt the little one to read Invisible Man and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (and me to read King Solomon’s Mines) so it can not be all bad!

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An Epic Tale of Wine and Chocolate

Or at least it seemed pretty epic.

A few weeks ago we visited Sonoma and did some wine tasting, returning with a bottle of Sweet Sunset Red Chocolate wine, which turned out to be perfect for sipping while watching the Coppola restoration of The Godfather on my birthday. But by the end of the movie we had only an empty bottle. Online searches failed to turn up any place to easily procure more of this excellent dessert drink. But I did find the website for the home winery, ADS Wines, and it had a little “contact us” page, so I shipped off an email.

More than a few emails and phone calls later, ADS had put me in touch with a local distributor, San Antonio Winery, who in turn was able to arrange to have our very small order of five bottles shipped to us at the Wine Club, which is on my home. For less per bottle than we paid in Sonoma. Brilliant.

I was just looking for someone to tell me where we would go pick it up, and many companies would just tell you it’s not available in your area. But ADS and San Antonio went out of their way to help us out. That’s old fashioned customer service. Really classy. More companies should take their sales this seriously, even the small ones. I already planning on introducing other fellow wine and chocolate lovers to this great wine, but now I really want to give a general shout out to ADS wines, because they really went above and beyond the call of duty.

And I think I know what I’m having for dessert on Friday.

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