Product of the Month: Vinomofo

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When we first moved to Australia, we were shocked by the prices. Coming from NYC, where you can pay $3,000 / month for a shoebox studio, you’d think that moving elsewhere would be like getting a big bonus every year. Not true.  Sydney has a reputation for its prices: skyhigh rents, inflated public transport, exhorbitant food and drink and even a bleed-me-dry coffee culture. The silver lining is that most of the time you do get what you pay for. Sydney’s real estate market offers beautiful, spacious and varied options.  The city itself is clean, green and absolutely stunning and every neighbourhood has its own park(s) or, better still, a beach. The fresh produce is phenomenal, the bar for basic food and drink is extremely high and the coffee is famously delicious. In fact, there are even a few things that are cheaper in Sydney.

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I digress from my complaint: one thing that you pay way more for in Australia is alcohol. A six pack of beer will cost $15-$20 in Australia, vs. $10 in the US. An average bottle of wine will set you back $20. When I saw Yellowtail, the face of mass-produced Australian critter wine selling for $12.99 at my local bottle-o (vs. a paltry $6.99 in the US!), I knew the Aussie rip-off was real. Australians, of course, love their alcohol so it’s fascinating that beer, wine and spirits are taxed so heavily, representing as they do, the “sin goods”.

Australia's Hunter Valley in the spring.

Australia’s Hunter Valley in the spring.

What’s more ironic is that Australia is one of the world’s biggest wine producers, ranking 6th after France, Italy, Spain, the US and Argentina.  From South Australia’s Barossa, Coonawarra and Mclaren Vale to New South Wales’ Hunter Valley and Mudgee and finally to Victoria’s Yarra Valley and Western Australia’s Margaret River — Australia has some of world’s most revered wine regions and Australians have the wine smarts (palettes?) to boot.  So what about these prices?

Screen Shot 2014-09-02 at 10.57.09 pmMy favourite product this month is Vinomofo: an Melbourne-based startup that lets you indulge your wine obsession without breaking the bank. Vinomofo assembles epic deals on award-winning wines, sells them online with a generous serving of quirk, and ships them directly to your doorstep. Each wine carried by Vinomofo is approved by their rigorous tasting panel and the company claims that less than 2% of wines submitted to them are acccepted.  Not happy with what you got? You have 365 days to return it — “the ‘fo” will even pick up it up and cover the cost of return shipping. No annoying emails, no subscription needed, nothing but sweet, delicious wine.

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Everything on Vinomofo is sold by the case; you can choose from a mixed case or go with a single label.  You can also choose from an array of “black market” deals — all you’ll know is the grape, the region and the rating out of 100 (if worth revealing). You might get a witty blurb on why that particular case is awesome and, if it’s a mixed case, you might get a few tasting notes on each of the wines. I bought a black market mixed case recently and have been bowled over by the quality, I’m yet to find a bottle I don’t love and the whole thing cost me no more than $120. You heard me, that’s $10 per bottle.

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My introduction to Vinomofo came from a colleague and fellow wine-lover. Four or five of us have succumbed to ordering a case every so often and splitting the spoils. We’ve poo-poohed the wines on offer at company happy hour and have resorted to bringing our own mofo’s to Friday drinks (BYOM trend? You heard it here first). Needless to say, I have a lot of wine on my desk and even more piling up at home.

Doesn't hold a candle to the 'fo

Doesn’t hold a candle to the ‘fo

Of course, after discovering Vinomofo, I tried to think of the US equivalent and had a hard time. The best I could come up with was Lot18, a New York based company with a hard to pronounce name (“lotta tea”?) and, what looks like more of a traditional ecommerce, “always on” sales model. Aside from the dryness of the website (no pun intended), the thing that’s really offputting about Lot18 is the prices: pretty much every wine featured on the landing page was priced at over $60. If I wanted to pay that much, I wouldn’t order it online. I wouldn’t pay their $12.99 for shipping with no returns (forget about a 365 day guarantee!). And I wouldn’t buy just two bottles.

I’ve been spoiled. For good. And it’s great.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Kay Graham and Moral Leadership

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Nocturnes. I picked it up a few days ago and already it follows me everywhere.  It’s a collection of five stories — intense, intimate, beautiful stories that tell of love and loss and the passage of time.  Ishiguro has an uncanny ability to interweave past and present in a way that evokes feelings of what could have been. It’s not exactly regret, it’s not quite nostalgia. It’s bittersweet.

I read Ishiguro’s magnum opus, The Remains of the Day, in business school.  A beautifully crafted Booker Prize winner, it was on our reading list for a class I took in my second year.  Often described as “a book club on steroids”, The Moral Leader was easily one of the best classes I took at Harvard. Unlike some others, the forty of us in class didn’t share an interest in brand marketing or in real estate. We weren’t trying to squeeze a job out of a classmate or lecturer’s connections or check a box on our resumes.  We were a group of book nerds, there because the idea of learning through literature was hard to turn down.

The Moral Leader is an unconventional (and notoriously oversubscribed) class. It tosses out the HBS case method and instead draws entirely from novels, short stories, plays, biographies and autobiographies.

The readings span 2,000 years and eight continents and delve headfirst into topics like  religion, race, culture, war.  The idea is to go beyond specific business scenarios and explore broader, human situations that have moral or ethical dimensions — situations that inevitably take place and invariably catch us off guard.

It’s easy to convince yourself that logic is universal, principles indisputable and that moral compasses always point in a single, clear direction. Of course none of this is true.  Facts are open to interpretation, logic to perspective and belief to emotion.

Hearing a classmate, a military veteran hailing from a long line of American military veterans, describe why a second atomic bomb was crucial in hastening Japan’s capitulation and ending the war was compelling. The cultural, strategic and economic rationale he laid out was sound.  Yet, as soon as another classmate, a Japanese student who had experienced the aftermath, responded, most of us found ourselves holding back tears.  We were conflicted, in judgement limbo, struggling to move to a new position.

The 3 months I was in the Moral Leader were the most productive of my fiction-reading career. Consuming a book a week certainly took longer than reading cases, but it was almost always more fun. Sometimes our assignments would be limited to a few select chapters rather than a 200-page behemoth.  Most times, I’d read the whole book anyway.

kgrahamOne of the books that really drew me in was Katharine Graham’s Personal History. Our assignment was a couple of chapters on Watergate, the Pentagon Papers and Woodward and Bernstein. Now, most books this long (630 pages to be precise) start slow and spend what seems like forever on buildup. This one had me hooked from the first chapter. Kay Graham spares little detail when it comes to her upbringing, her insecurities and her personal demons but somehow she’s able to share it all with a great deal of self-awareness and perspective. Graham was an amazing, yet somewhat accidental, leader. She was thrust into greatness and was able to deliver, again and again. It was one of my favourite books of the course and I was disappointed to learn that plans for the movie have been shelved.  Hers is a story worth knowing.

While the reading list has changed, you can learn more about the Moral Leader here and here.

Some of the other readings that I especially enjoyed are below. Happy reading!

* Blessed Assurance (Allan Gurganus in White People)

* Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)

* This Child Will Be Great (Ellen Sirleaf Johnson)

* The Sweet Hereafter (Russell Banks)

* A Man for All Seasons (Robert Bolt)

* Antigone (Sophocles)

Getting sick when you’re travelling

I just got back from a week in Singapore and Vietnam.  As excited as I was for my first work trip to Asia since moving down under, I wasn’t prepared for the bout of illness that came with it.  A sore throat grew into a nasty fever, the nasty fever left me with a terrible cold and the cold gave way to one of those coughs that you wouldnt want to be caught dead with in public.  I spent a couple of days cooped up in the hotel room, watching daytime TV and CNN but mostly I slept and ate pho.  Getting sick is never fun.  Getting sick in a foreign country even less so.

The last time I got really sick on a trip was in 2009.  I had quit my job in finance and was spending the summer travelling in South America.  I’d mapped out an itinerary through Ecuador, Peru and Argentina and roped my now husband and two of my future b-school classmates in for parts of the ride.

After a month of backpacking, we were splurging on the Sheraton in Iguazu for our last stop.  All three of us had been feeling under the weather in Buenos Aires so we were looking forward to relaxing in more comfortable digs.  Unfortunately, a fever left me exhausted, so I decided to stay in the room while the other two girls explored.  I was getting out of bed only if I absolutely needed to and it was during one of these times that I collapsed.  When I came to, I was sitting on the cold floor and realised to my relief that I hadn’t hit anything hard.  I sat there a few more minutes, before I could summon the strength to get up and dial the front desk.

Hours later, a nurse showed up.  He was the only qualified “medic” in the area and his professional advice was to “drink lots of fluids, take paracetemol and rest”.  No meds, no antibiotics, nothing.  I don’t think there was a pharmacy for miles.  As the three of us grappled with our individual symptoms and watched the news, it dawned on us that this was no ordinary bug: this was sweeping the world, this was H1N1.

Being taken out by H1N1 in a remote town, in Argentina, a few weeks before business school was scary. We worried that we wouldn’t be able to travel back to the States or worse still that we wouldn’t be able to get the medical attention we needed should we somehow be quarantined.  The only silver lining was that we weren’t on one of the gruelling hikes we’d been ploughing through weeks earlier and that we were scheduled to fly back to civilisation in less than 48 hours.  We survived our long haul flight back to New York (which in retrospect wasn’t the best thing for containing the disease but was the best thing for getting us on the path to recovery) and I personally took another week to get back on on my feet. The other girls ended up taking longer to recover from their symptoms but we all survived. We even made it through business school.

A few lessons from dealing with sickness abroad:

  • Carry a first aid kit: Duh! Throw some throat lozenges in there, make sure you have some advil / paracetamol / panadol, some sort of tums, bandaids, maybe some immodium, some neosporin “the basics”.  As practical as this is, how many people actually travel with a first aid kit? In the hundreds of trips I’ve taken, I’ve found the answer to be something like 1 in 5.  When you’re travelling in a group, there’s always that person with the grab bag of goodies who’ll come to the rescue; when you’re travelling alone, you can only really count on yourself.  Annnd you forget, right?  Getting sick isn’t the first thing we think of when we’re going on vacation or on a business trip.  I’ve decided to leave a ziplock of basic meds in my standard bags as a failsafe.
  • Medicate: Step 2 from above: use your meds (wisely).  If you’ve forgotten your first aid kit and you’re somewhere reasonably “foreign” e.g. you don’t speak the language or you’re in a developing country with unfamiliar medical facilities, it can be very tempting to just lay in bed and hope that whatever you have will pass.  Don’t!  Symptomatic care is valid and can do wonders so take what you need to give yourself some respite.  Leverage the hotel: oftentimes they’ll have basic meds on hand or can send someone to pick up what you need.  Worst case, they can direct you to a nearby pharmacy and do some translating in advance.
  • Know when to escalate: a lot of people and a lot of blogs will recommend that you head to a medical center at the first signs of illness when travelling.  I have to disagree.  Oftentimes, there IS no nearby medical center.  Other times, you already know exactly what you have (“a cold”, “food poisoning”) and you know you don’t need prescription meds.  Or sometimes, you’re alone, don’t speak the language and are just too sick to go and sit in a waiting room for hours on end.  So, what do you do?  In some lucky countries, house calls are still a thing.  Ask your hotel if they can help arrange one.  If not, see if someone from their staff will accompany you to a clinic and act as a translator.  If you’ve been injured, had an unrelenting fever for more than 24 hours, diarrhea for more than 5 days or your symptoms are getting worse, you should seek medical attention.  It’s worth investing your energy and effort to trek out to a hospital and deal with the wait and the unknowns in these cases.  If you have a really bad cold and cough and/or have had a mild or intermittent fever for less than 24 hours, my personal view is to skip it.  You can get everything you need over the counter and there’s a lot of research that suggests antibiotics are not just ineffective against colds and the flu but actually delay recovery.
  • Tea, juice, water, soup: stock up on it, raid the mini bar, order it off room service, do whatever it takes to get those liquids into you. Hydration is key.
  • Keep the phone close: Keep your cellphone charged and the hotel phone handy. Know your emergency numbers.
  • Turn off the AC: nothing makes you sicker than an air conditioner.  (Unless you’ve been taken out by some kind of heat stroke of course, in that case, you should probably bask in it.)  I’m convinced my latest illness was caused by the AC.  Having it on even briefly would exacerbate my symptoms in seconds. I went cold turkey sans AC in 30C Saigon for two full days and I think it really helped my recovery.
  • Get some air: Keep the room well ventillated or, if you feel up to it, go for a short walk, fresh air does wonders.
  • Conserve energy: if you’re feeling weak, running a fever or otherwise having trouble moving, stay put! Make the most of your hotel amenities: use room service, ask for extra pillows / blankets, rent a stack of movies.  Extend your stay or do whatever’s necessary to avoid the additional strain of travelling until you’re recovered.

A week in Colorado

I got back Tuesday morning from 10 days in the US. We’d flown in to Chicago for my brother’s business school graduation and then spent 5 days with the family, hiking and driving through the Colorado Rockies.

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It took us just about four hours to drive over from Denver and we made a brief stop at Independence Pass which, as expected was deathly windy and freezing cold but still worth hopping out for.

Road to Aspen

Aspen is beautiful in the summer.  The town is lively, laid back and disarmingly friendly. We ran into plenty of gregarious Texans, there to escape their sweltering summer heat. We had a fantastic seafood meal at Jimmy’s Bodega and ended the night with ice cream from Paradise Bakery.

The Maroon Bells are fairly quiet in mid-June. I visited nearly 10 years ago and fell in love. The trails were just as beautiful as I remembered and very easy, even in going up to Crater Lake.

Once back in Aspen, Niraj and I embarked upon the Ute trail (or the “Glute trail” as I like to call it, since it will kick your ass).  The climb is steep and unyielding and we were impressed to see quite a few locals using it for their evening run. It’s all worth it when you get to the panoramic views at the top though.  It’s easily amongst the most beautiful summits I’ve seen.

From Aspen, we took the scenic route over to Estes Park, driving 6 hours through winding mountain roads.  Independence Pass was slightly warmer on the way back so we hopped out for a more extended frolic through the snow. Seeing the storm clouds in the distance, breaking over the Rockies, added an other worldly feel to an already spectacular view.

We stopped at several other lookouts and drove through historic mining towns like Leadville. The highlight of the drive though, was indisputably Trail Ridge Road. Winding over 45 miles and climbing to heights of 12,000 feet, Trail Ridge alternately feels like a top of the world moutain tour and a safari in the plains.  We entered Rocky Mountain National Park an hour before dusk, perfect timing to catch grazing herds of elk and even a black bear.

We stayed at River Stone Resort and Bear Paw suites and we were thrilled to wake up each morning to the sounds of the gushing Fall River. RMNP is one of the best US national parks with over 140 miles of hiking trails.  We did a couple of beautiful hikes including the trail up to Mill Lake and the classic Bear Lake.

After more hiking, BBQing and plenty of winter sun, we flew from Denver to Newark and squeezed in a couple more days with family in NJ and of course, Kuku. The trip was wonderful and far too short. As much as I love it here in Sydney, being with my family made me realize how much I miss them and value these trips.

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Best things about Sydney: festival fever

A few months ago I started the first in a series of posts about Sydney, specifically my five favourite things about the city.  Well it’s time to tell you about another one of the city’s highlights — the festivals.

Sydney is a city of festivals.  There’s always something on and there’s always something around the corner.  We’ve kept our ears to the ground and our eyes peeled but really you have to be living under a rock to not take notice. So what counts a festival, anyway? If the word conjures up images of hotdogs, icecream cones and stripy tents, you’re close but probably thinking of a kiddy carnival.  A festival, or at least a Sydney one, usually involves trendy food being eaten, fancy drinks being quaffed and general fun being had by all. Pretty terrible, eh?

Food and wine tents at the annual Pyrmont Festival
Food and wine tents at the Pyrmont Festival in Pirrama Park, Apr ’14

 

 

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Summer sounds in the Domain during Sydney Festival, Jan ’14
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Lanterns at the night noodle markets, Oct ’13

 

Lines for the ramen burger were looong
Long lines for the ramen burger

 

The most recent festival to take the city by storm is Vivid. Spread over two and a half weeks in May and June, the spectacular lightshow has achieved international acclaim, not in small part due to its status as an instagrammer’s paradise. Vivid attracted over 500,000 visitors this year alone, injecting new life into the Sydney winter.

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The festival is best known for large scale projections of colourful, almost psychedelic designs onto historic buildings such as the customs house, the museum of contemporary art and of course the iconic Opera House. But that’s not all that’s on offer.  This year, there were a number of interactive light and sound installations and a series of forums for exchanging creative ideas.

The MLC dome during Vivid

The urban tree project

Bit.fall, an amazing water exhibit we saw earlier this year at Tasmania’s MONA (quite possibly my new favourite museum) was installed right outside my office in Martin Place while the MLC building was transformed into a 3D tree house, complete with a forest canopy, tropical weather and an appropriate number of bugs.  Vivid is a family affair, attracting hordes of both young and old and swarming the CBD. If you missed it this time around, fret not, for the next festival — Sydney’s film festival — has already begun.