Brine Your Turkey!

Wild Turkey and Wine Pairing from Travel Writing Classes.
Wild Turkey and Wine Pairing from Travel Writing Classes.

In my travel writing classes for The Writer’s Workshop, I emphasize telling stories about a place through highlighting the key moments, feasts or special occasions. Thanksgiving is clearly such a feast in the U.S.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the advice about cooking a Thanksgiving turkey. Everyone has a favorite recipe, which is great, but sometimes the details become overwhelming, especially if you have to pick up relatives from the airport, buy food and drink before the stores get completely jammed, and make sure you have a chance to take in that great football game.

My advice is to focus on one thing: brining your turkey. This is simple, easy, and will make a huge difference in the success of your meal, yielding a juicy, full-flavored bird. Turkey meat is relatively lean, especially the white meat, which is prone to drying out. Like you, I’ve eaten way too many dry, overcooked turkeys in my life. I don’t need to eat any more.

Brining a turkey ensures the meat will be moist, tender and flavorful. A brine is a solution of water and salt, which allows the meat to absorb moisture as well as salt, which seasons the meat from the inside out. In addition, salt breaks down some of the turkey’s muscle proteins, which makes the meat juicy and tender. I put my turkey in a bucket with cold water and salt the night before. I’m doing this shortly.

Buy a free-range turkey if possible, for maximum flavor. I buy my turkey from B&E Meats in Seattle, which consistently sells flavorful birds. Avoid brining turkeys labeled kosher, enhanced or self-basting. You can brine a frozen or partially frozen bird but you need to allow additional time.

Thanksgiving morning you can take the bird out of the brine and begin cooking. I prefer to smoke my turkey, which adds an additional flavor, and produces a juicy, succulent bird. But you can also cook your turkey in the oven. Be prepared for a pleasant surprise if you’ve never tried brining. The resulting bird will be a big improvement over ones of the past.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Nick O’Connell

Restaurant exemplifies ideal of Travel Writing Classes

Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes
In my Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes I love to visit restaurants like the Sooke Harbour House, where I had the pleasure of dining with my family.

In my Travel Writing Classes, I love to visit restaurants with a strong sense of place.

Though European restaurants often exhibit this connection with place, North American restaurants are making this a priority, too.

Thus, it was a great pleasure to visit Sooke Harbour House on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. It was one of the first restaurants to place a strong emphasis on local foods, a natural outgrowth of its location on a beautiful inlet, with access to abundant local seafood, meats, and an extensive flower and produce garden.

I have been wanting to visit Sooke Harbor for years and finally got the chance this summer with my family. We sat outside in the sunshine at a table overlooking the sea, with the Olympic Mountains in the distance. I ordered the delicious charcuterie plate, which came with a side of wonderful figs and local produce. My children, not easily impressed by fancy food, agreed that the fish, soup and ice cream were some of the best they’d  ever enjoyed. My wife, Lisa, raved about the plum dessert.

Everything was perfectly prepared, with a light touch and the freshest of ingredients. The amiable waiter even made our dog, Stella, feel at home. It was everything I had expected and more. As is the case with the restaurants I visit for the Travel Writing Classes, the place reflects the philosophy and practice of the owners.

The Sooke Harbour House has been owned by Frederique and Sinclair Philip since 1979. Sinclair Philip is the Canadian representative to Slow Food in Italy and some years ago was a Slow Food Vancouver Island Convivium leader. Mr. Philip has a doctorate in political economics from the University of Grenoble in France.

The restaurant reflects this heritage, taking cues from French, Japanese and  Northwest Indian cuisine. If you have a chance to visit, don’t miss it!

Steve Smith: Recommended Travel Guide for Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes

Steve Smith: Recommended Travel Guide for Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes
Steve Smith: Recommended Travel Guide for Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes

One of my favorite places to run Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes is France, one of the most geographically varied countries in the world, with everything from towering alpine peaks like Mont Blanc, sybaritic beaches of the Riviera, and wide swaths of rolling hills covered with vineyards in places like Bordeaux and Burgundy.

Steve Smith,  coauthor with Rick Steves of the Rick Steves France guide, is arguably one of the most knowledgeable experts on the country, one of the reasons I recommend his books to the students in my Travel, Food and Wine Writing Classes.

Smith is an avid Francophile, having visited Europe early on with his family. His father was an English professor and went to France to teach in the Fulbright program. Smith so enjoyed his time in Europe that he eventually went to work for Rick Steves, who at the time was just launching his tours to Europe.

Smith has now worked 24 years with Rick Steves, finding all the best hotels, restaurants, and sights in the amazingly diverse country.

“We’re covering fewer destinations in the country, but in more detail,” he said of the current approach to the guides. “We’re very diligent about checking destinations. We want the guides to bring things to people–restaurant and hotels, and local guides.”

My parents, Nicholas and Marie O’Connell, did several trips to Europe with Smith and enjoyed the trips immensely. My father, who reads widely, engaged in long and spirited conversations with Smith about Europe’s history and culture. Smith’s familiarity with this is evident throughout his guides, which include valuable, up-to-date service info on hotels, restaurants, and sights as well as informed discussions of  the culture of the place.

“We can always work harder to improve and describe the place and what people can take away from it,” he said.

Smith has what many travelers would consider an ideal job, traveling to Europe regularly with his wife and family, leading tours, and researching guidebooks. He now owns a home in France where he can relax between tours and work on updating the guidebooks. “I can write upstairs in the house,” he said, “looking out over the Burgundy canal.” No wonder the guidebooks are inspiring.

Scenic Leads the Key to Suspenseful Storytelling


These leads attempt to grab the reader through use of graphic detail and gripping suspenseful storytelling. These leads do not attempt to tell a complete story as do anecdotal leads, but they give the most appealing, eccentric or dramatic part of the story.

NEW YORK – Caprice Benedetti stared fixedly at herself in the mirror, surveying her beauty, and saw that her color was just not right, so she repaired that deficiency quickly. She daubed on a touch more lipstick. Self-absorption is expected of a model. It was late in the day, and she had already changed clothes and make-up a half-dozen times, piling new look upon new look. “OK,” she said. “I’m the next me.”

She bounced out of her apartment building in Manhattan, the doorman nodding to this latest version of her. Quickly, her long legs propelled her into the humming convoy of pedestrians, those who had uncomplainingly lived with the same look all day long. “Some days, I’m changing my face and changing my clothes 10 times,” she said. “I’m elegant. I’m casual. I’m chic. I’m downtown. I’m sexy. I’m theatrical. I begin to wonder ‘Who am I?’ I’m 10 different people. Where’s the real me? You have an identity crisis. Who is this?”

As she wove through the crowds, there were, as always, covetous stares, but no sense of recognition. For hers was not a face that many would know.

Caprice, as she is known professionally, is an average fashion model. She is not Cindy Crawford or Naomi Campbell or Niki Taylor, and never will be. She is one of “the other girls.” While she makes abundant money, never does her face decorate the covers of Vogue or Elle or Harper’s Bazaar. Never has she been the Clairol girl or the Revlon girl. She wallows in the vast anonymity of fashion, her scrupulously made-up face blurring with thousands of others.

From “Fame Can Elude Models Who Are ‘Just Average’” by N.R. Kleinfeld in The New York Times.

BBC Italia: The Pleasures of Barolo, Chianti and Brunello

Travel Writing in MontalcinoThe Writer’s Workshop Blog highlights my adventures teaching writing classes, writing stories, articles and books, leading travel, food and wine writing classes to France and Italy, traveling the globe, promoting my books including the novel, The Storms of Denali, and other aspects of the wild and crazy world of writing and publishing. Writing and publishing are changing enormously and I hope this blog will help keep you up to date on some of the changes.

The following story is from Alison Holmes, a student in my 2013 Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Montalcino, Italy. I’ll be publishing a number of stories from students my travel writing class on this blog. They provide a vivid picture of the wonderful places, people and experiences encountered on the trip.

BBC Italia: A Newbie Somm Tastes (many) Barolo, Brunello and Chiantis

By Alison Holmes

The end of the tunnel was near. I thought about the upcoming, fresh mountain air, the sensation of wind in my hair through the open window and the taste of Piedmontese wine over lunch just a few hours away. My mind happily wandered as I navigated out of the tunnel and on into Italy, right into the arms of the local carrabineri.

Two grim policemen stood in the rain, blocking my route with a round sign on a stick, the kind used by lollypop ladies. Armed with about three words of Italian, I rolled down the window and raised my eyebrows to indicate surprise. They approached and asked for my license and then for an international version. With my hands, I indicated I only had the one, gleaning from their tone of voice and facial expressions it was the law that I had both versions in Italy. True or not, my misdemeanor resulted in a lengthy reprimand from one. Certo, certo nodded the other, lips turned downwards. I paid the fine, sizeable and in cash, took the receipt and wondered whether driving was the best mode of transport in Italy.

For already, the roughly seven-mile drive through the Mont Blanc tunnel from Chamonix, France to Courmayeur, Italy through the alps proved to be a torment for the not so hearty, namely my travelling companion Jan. She hails from flat-land Australia and had not anticipated, she claimed, that the drive from France to our first stop in the Piedmont would be plagued with steep inclines, tunnels and descents worthy of a ride in a Disney park.

With a recent sommelier’s diploma under my belt, much of my time is spent learning more about wine. Everyone, I always say, can learn something new with every bottle uncorked. And so off to northern Italy I go, to size up the lure of these wines on their own turf. For here, in Northern Italy, the rivalry for ‘King of Wine’ reputation is very real indeed.

This ten-day journey covered a drive through some of the most picture perfect countryside: to the Piedmont, to Barolo, and then to Tuscany, to Fiesole outside Florence and on to Montalcino. Nebbiolo, Chianti and Sangiovese territories, in grape order.

It was raining heavily as we stopped for lunch in destination uno, Bra, the Piedmontese town about fifty kilometers south of Turin. Famous as the birthplace of the slow food movement and a stone’s throw from Barolo, we enjoyed a casual lunch with a delicious glass of a light-bodied Barbera d’Asti, known for flavors and aromas of fresh fruit, at the Slow Food branded (snail logo) l’Osteria del Boccondivino.

Trying to forget the day’s negative start, we chatted about the region’s varietals and their merits over lunch. Behind us a table of local gents with time on their hands enjoyed bottle after bottle of various nebbiolos, each selected from what looked like an old fashioned library shelf, this one replete with bottles of wine. I began to relax and look out the window, letting Italy work its magic.

Satiated, we headed off to Barolo and check into a well-appointed three-room agriturismo where the owner, Germano Angelo, sells his wines including Barbera (a grape) and Barbaresco and Barolo (from nebbiolo grapes). Wandering through town, I am hypnotized by Barolo’s complete dedication to its only craft, winemaking. No one does anything else here it would seem, and with reason. Tasting many of the offerings in the wine shops with open doors and open bottles, fond memories of my other loves, Burgundy, Napa and the Languedoc, start to fade. Could this be the one?

That night we enjoyed a modest bottle of Barolo D’Alba (26 Euros) over dinner at the Osteria la Cantinella with some sumptuous tagiatelle ragu. I asked how the pasta was made. “Daily by my mama,” said the girl waiting tables. “She puts forty egg yolks to every kilo of flour.” At that rate, I calculated, there would have to be more chickens than vines in Barolo. Weighing the delights of small towns versus cities, I head to my room where the pigeons in the rafters had also turned in.
The following morning the church bells rang in the day and we were off, to Fiesole where Chianti reigns supreme. Chianti is a blend made from four grape varieties. Sangiovese (the most prevalent grape in Italy) canaiolo, and two grapes used mainly for white wines, trebbiano and malvasia.

Chianti, depending upon where the grape is grown and the vintage, ranges from light and fruity all the way to a full bodied, dry, tannic and acidic wine. With our dinner that night we selected a Castello di Monsanto Il Poggio, Chianti Classico Riserva (30 Euros). This we enjoyed followed by a cool glass of limoncello outside on the panoramic terrace of the Trattoria Le Cave di Maiano just outside Fiesole in the hills, the surroundings enchanting even in the drizzling rain. Florence down below does not tempt me even remotely. I could stay forever, except for the fact that I now knew I favored Barolo over Chianti.

Yet more varietals beckon and we leave for Montalcino, about three hours south to sample some sangiovese masterpieces. Montalcino, a Tuscan hilltop town, boasts some of the most beautiful views imaginable and ample diversions for wine novices alike. Restaurants, cafes, shops, markets etc make this town a very special destination. And for the wine lover, there are about 250 producers of Brunello di Montalcino wines to work your way through. Made of 100% sangiovese grapes, a Brunello must be aged for four years (five for a riserva), two of those in oak and then four months in bottles. The result is an unforgettable, elegant wine, which sings on your tongue: berries, vanilla and spice. The wine merchant located in the town’s 14th century fortress was happy to offer tastings.

The trunk of the car groaned with the weight of the bottles collected en route as we set off for home, stopping at the Prada outlet outside Florence. For what somm doesn’t need a handbag to carry her Brunello?


Jim Holmes and Ryan Johnson
Jim Holmes and Ryan Johnson

Red Mountain rises above the low, brown sagebrush country outside of Benton City, Washington. Located northwest of the Tri-Cities, Washington’s smallest and most prestigious American Viticulture Area (AVA) looks more like a hill than a mountain, one of a series of rounded basaltic ridges marching southwest along the Yakima River.

The landscape is bare, dry, austere, nothing like the carefully tended gardens of Burgundy or the regal architectural jewel boxes of Bordeaux first growth Chateau Latour. There are no restaurants, hotels or wine trains on Red Mountain, but there likely will be someday. For now, the area is as pure and abstract in its undulating beauty as a landscape in Tuscany.

The road to Red Mountain follows the meanders of the Yakima River. The asphalt climbs past farms and discarded machinery. Unlike the world’s highly developed wine regions, this is still farm country, with an unfinished quality to it. I pass the white chiseled granite sign, Welcome to Red Mountain, the only indication that I’m approaching one of the premier wine growing regions in the world.

Rows of grape vines line the road. Carefully tended clusters of Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah grapes hang from beneath the vines, reflecting the perfectionism of growers like Ciel du Cheval’s Jim Holmes, whose astonishing fruit reveals the power and elegance of the Red Mountain AVA. Wines made from these vineyards earn stratospheric scores from wine critics. Influential wine critic Robert Parker rates Quilceda Creek Vintners wines from this vineyard among the best in the world.

I turn left and head up the road toward Ciel du Cheval Vineyards to meet owner Jim Holmes, one of the pioneers of Washington State wine. In recent years, the industry has experienced staggering growth, from 155 wineries and 28,000 acres of vines in 2000, to 700 wineries and 40,000 acres today. As the industry explodes with growth and innovation, I sought to understand where it’s headed by talking with him, Red Willow Vineyard owner Mike Sauer, Nefarious Cellars of Chelan, Syncline Winery of the Columbia Gorge, Saviah Cellars of Walla Walla and Woodinville Wine Country, the center of the state’s industry.

Though not a winemaker himself, Holmes sells grapes to some of the best wineries in the state: Betz Family Winery, Andrew Will Winery, Delille Cellars, and McCrea Cellars. Red Mountain specializes in red varietals like Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. I park the car and greet Holmes, a sturdy man wearing jeans, a jean jacket and a baseball cap.

“Making great wine is like painting a great picture: you have to have some idea of what you want to paint before you put paint to canvas,” he says, indicating the vine rows. “We’ve got a great site – we’ve got great paint! If you want to make a great bottle of wine, you’ve got to think about what you’re doing in the field. You’ve got to know why you did this, and why you did that, and why one worked and the other didn’t work. You’ve got to keep working at those things because the desire is to put great art on the canvas. “

At 75, Holmes still enjoys the challenge. A systems engineer who grew up in the Bay Area north of San Francisco, he developed an early taste for wine. When he moved up the Tri Cities area in 1958 to work for Hanford, he wanted to drink some decent local wine. So he and partner John Williams eventually bought 80 acres of land on Red Mountain. A short time later, Washington State University professor Walter Clore released his ground-breaking report on Washington wine in 1972. It made the case for growing vinifera grapes in Washington. The rest is history.

“It was a great report,” Holmes says. “He’d done 20 years of research. It turned out to be the start of the whole thing.”

Clore’s data convinced Holmes that growing wine grapes was worth doing, but it wasn’t a sure thing. “It was a high level risk,” he says. “Anyone who planted grapes on Red Mountain back then could qualify as crazy.”

For the rest of the story, read the June issue of Alaska Airlines Magazine. For more on writing classes, please visit

Writing for Story: The Secret Sauce of Compelling Narratives

Entrance to Robert Mondavi WineryWhen I conduct an interview, I never know exactly what I’ll find. Yes, I may have researched the person’s life in detail, perhaps even read their books, but I won’t know exactly what I’m looking for until I conduct the interview itself.

When I sat down with the winemaker Robert Mondavi, I sought to steer the conversation towards good stories. Mondavi, a saavy marketing man, sought to give me the standard PR pitch about his winery, which was interesting, but lacked the drama of a true story. By focusing on the moments of his life that made for good stories–his differences with his brother Peter, early problems with money, and the challenge of taking his business public-I made the profile of him much more intriguing than the PR version of his life.

But to do this, I had to know what I was looking for. Stalking the true short story requires that you understand the patterns of a story and then seek to find them in your subject. In Writing for Story, Jon Franklin defines story as the following:

A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.
Franklin’s definition sounds simple, but it contains the essence of a memorable nonfiction story. Writing is an art, and to succeed at it, you to need to use the artifice and elements of storytelling to enhance your work.

Let’s break down the definition. A sequence of actions. Stories are based on chronology, one of the oldest and most effective ways of organizing a narrative. They are part of a sequence; they are related to each other, not strung together willy-nilly.

Action brings readers into a story more quickly than any other technique. Vivid actions get things moving quickly. Hook the reader with your opening action and then save most of the background and description for when the story is underway.

These actions should lead to reactions, reflections on the action by the main character in the story. This focus on action will provide pulse and momentum. By including both exterior action and interior reflection on it, you’ll have a story that will succeed on two levels. Not only will readers be impelled by the action, they’ll learn something from the person’s reflections and be changed by them.

In every good story, a reader starts in one place and ends up in another place, changed and enlightened in some way.

For a more in-depth look at storytelling, Seattle writing classes and online classes that will help you acheive this in your own work, please take a look at my website,