LA MESA -- The combination of wine and jazz is many things. It can be a relaxing evening, a romantic date, or an enjoyable get together with friends. For two La Mesa wives, it is a dream job.
Gay Johnson and Stephanie Terry, spouses and co-owners of Fine Living Enthusiast, elevate the combination by facilitating and often leading worldwide travel adventures for wine and jazz connoisseurs seeking to combine the best of these passions.
In essence, Johnson and Terry help create dream vacations.
Fine Living Enthusiasts offers a variety of options from cruises to winery tours and group travel packages, to an intimate guide for two. Everything centered on a lifestyle heavily infused with wine, food, jazz and culture.
The “Back 9” of life
Like most dream jobs, Johnson and Terry chose to become specialized travel consultants when they began seriously considering their retirement options.
Johnson, an avid golfer, said the idea for Fine Living Enthusiasts was born only a few years ago. She and Terry were golfing with another couple, and one of them had recently celebrated a 45th birthday.
As they golfed, their conversation turned to the topic of aging and the point at which one becomes “old.”
“My friend said, ‘We’re not old, we’re middle-aged,’” Johnson said with a smirk. “At that point her husband and I exchanged skeptical glances and we both started laughing.”
“I don’t know if people typically live to be 90,” Johnson recalled saying, amusing the group. “Although we all had a good laugh, I did realize though that I had made a turn [in my life].”
Johnson can not help but point out the irony that this realization occurred while the group was on the ninth hole, the point in golf referred to as the “Back 9.” In a typical 18 hole game, it is the halfway point in which players begin their journey back towards the beginning of the course.
“I realized we were both looking forward to winding down our individual careers. But I wasn’t ready to just spend my days just golfing, hanging out or playing bridge,” Johnson said.
For weeks after the golf game, Johnson and Terry discussed ideas on how to incorporate their passions into a business, and finally in 2008 they set out on new journey together.
2008: new beginnings
Two-thousand and eight was a momentous year for Johnson and Terry, not only because they launched Fine Living Enthusiasts in August, but also because after spending 20 years together, they had finally earned the legal right to marry.
Johnson and Terry are one of the lucky 18,000 same-sex couples who wed during the brief window of opportunity in 2008, before passage of California’s divisive Proposition 8.
They credit their bond and devotion to their shared interest in travel, wine, jazz and food, and so it seems natural that Johnson and Terry would eventually decide to combine them.
“Because we’re both Air Force brats, travel is in our blood,” Johnson said. “So at first we were a typical travel agency, but we started too big. We covered such a broad area of travel that we quickly realized the dream job was no fun.”
“So, we narrowed it down to the things we enjoy the most and decided to focus on finding people that share in the same passions. We specialize in spreading the gospel of wine, jazz and travel.”
Building wine and jazz resumes
Johnson said she and Terry grew up listening to their parents’ jazz records. She laughs fondly several times as she recalls the bonding moments with her father over jazz musicians like John Coltrane and Jimmy Smith.
“I was 4 years old and my father would play jazz records for me, break down beats, and teach me the phrases, and I would mimic him,” Johnson said.
“Oooh … my mom didn’t like it,” she said laughing. “My mom would burst into the room and say ‘stop making that baby talk that foolish talk’ and my father and I would crack up with laughter.”
In college, Johnson’s love for jazz flourished on its own as she began to discover artists like Grover Washington and started sneaking into jazz clubs all over Chicago with her older sister.
Today, Johnson insists that jazz has something for everyone, she cannot pin point a favorite jazz style.
“There are so many different genres,” Johnson said. “There’s Latin jazz, smooth jazz, straight up jazz, etc. There’s something out there for everyone and it really depends on the mood and the people you’re with.”
Johnson can regale you with countless jazz-related stories if you have the time, but even more impressive is her wine knowledge.
Her wine introduction began in 1988, when and she and Terry moved into their La Mesa home.
“Stephanie was really into Bordeaux wines,” Johnson said. “Which are thewines if you’re going to be into wine. And I was not into reds, which is a problem, cause if you’re going to be a serious wine drinker you have to like reds.”
One evening, their new neighbors brought over a bottle of gamay Beaujolais, which Johnson calls the intro to red wine for people who do not like red wine. It is a light-bodied wine, which is not as fruity, and does not have as much alcohol.
“I drank the Beaujolais because I didn’t want to be rude,” Johnson said. “I’m always game for something; I always want to like things, so I tried it. Now Stephanie jokes that I crawled over and passed her by on my way to the next level of wine, cause I totally got into enjoying Merlots and other reds from that point on.”
Johnson fully immersed herself into wine culture, and earlier this year decided to take her love of wine to the next level by completing a sommelier diploma program. A sommelier is the wine expert at a fine dining restaurant or wine shop.
To become a certified sommelier takes about a year. Johnson completed her 12th week in September. She says it is like going back to college and realizing that you really did not know much at all about the subject at hand, in this case wine.
“It’s not just about knowing the wine and being able to tell one apart from the other,” Johnson said. “It’s also about knowing the story behind the wine, about knowing the grapes, and about knowing the process of making the wine.”
“Due to this amazing body of coursework, I now know probably 1800% more about wine than I ever dreamed was possible to learn.”
Johnson has so many tidbits and historical facts about wine regions in places like France, Italy, and Spain, that she willingly and enthusiastically shares in detail. If you are a wine lover, her blog is certainly worth reading.
A few things I learned from our discussion:
“I used to be one of those who falsely believed Germans were incapable of making a good wine, but they have a huge wine culture,” Johnson said. “Mostly white cause it’s cold in Germany, but they have a lot of grape growing regions that allow them to get really clean crisp white that can be aged up to 20 years – and it’s expensive.
“There is also region along the border of France and Germany that has for centuries been fought over by both countries,” Johnson said. “At one point it belonged to Germany, then to France, and back and forth. It’s France’s now, but there is still a large German population and influence.”
This type of historical knowledge Johnson says, helps you understand and appreciate the influences that have inspired the different wineries in the region.
Johnson is equipped with this type of knowledge from just about every major wine region in the world. Yet, she is the first to admit that there is always more to learn, and as part of her new job requirement, she is enjoying every bit of it.
The dream trips
The great thing about planning your dream vacation with Fine Living Enthusiasts is that not only are Johnson and Terry well versed on the subject of wine and jazz, they have actually gone on many of the vacations they plan for others.
In 2009, Johnson and Terry went on a couple of cruises, visited Belize and New Zealand, and had several “local” weekend trips to places like Napa, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara and Temecula.
Next year, they are attending another Caribbean jazz-themed cruise, the New Orleans Jazz Festival in April; in June, they are taking a group to Germany for the Gay Berlin festival, and of course, the trip includes winery excursions and jazz club outings at night.
One of their most popular vacation packages is the jazz-themed cruise.
Fine Living Enthusiasts can arrange for either a straight jazz or a smooth jazz cruise with Holland America. Each cruise last a week and sails through the Caribbean in January/February. All the amenities one expects to find on a cruise are the same, but every aspect of entertainment is jazz.
“When you go to dinner the music is jazz, when you go to one of the clubs on the ship you’re going to listen to jazz,” Johnson said enthusiastically. “When you dock on an island, the band hired to entertain is a jazz band.”
“Of course, wine fits in perfectly,” she said. “And cruises are great for groups, because they have something for everyone. Plenty of activities to do together or on your own.”
Reservations for 2012 are currently available; the upcoming 2011 jazz cruise is full.
On an overseas trip, such as to Germany or Italy, Fine Living Enthusiasts will take care of all of the arrangements. It is a about as all inclusive as you can possibly get with fine dining, excursions, and hotel accommodations for roughly $250 to $350 per night. The only thing clients arrange themselves is the flight.
“If we are part of the trip, we treat everyone like our guests,” Johnson said. “People save for years to take vacations like these and we are there to make sure this is truly a dream vacation. We take the hassle out of it and we make sure there’s something for everyone.”
Johnson explains they meet suppliers and contacts from around the world that help to get past language barriers and assist in making proper arrangements in some of the most rural areas.
Fine Living Enthusiasts can also create a custom itinerary for two people that caters to their every whim and desire.
If for example you are visiting New York , Johnson and Terry will put together a summary of the nearest wineries and jazz clubs that includes all the vital contact information, brief descriptions of the ambiance, and price ranges.
It is not just about wine and jazz either.
“The American Jazz Museum is in St. Louise,” Johnson said. “And if you’re going to St. Louise, you have to have BBQ. So naturally, we’re going to find the spot the locals – not the touristy spots – but the ones where the locals eat.
“If you tell me you’re thinking about kayaking on your trip,” Johnson said. “I will find you the three closest places to your hotel with the same detailed information I give you on local jazz clubs and wineries. So it’s also about incorporating local cuisine and activities.”
Although Fine Living Enthusiasts caters to everyone, their target market is the gay and lesbian community.
“Let’s face it, a lot of gays and lesbians like the good life, and that usually means they enjoy traveling and wine,” Johnson said, laughing. “So the wine and jazz hot spots aside, we can also tell you about the gay friendly destinations and dance clubs.”
Everything will depend on the clients’ needs Johnson explains; some itineraries detail only specific requests and are a few pages in length, and some offer a variety of options in over 30 pages that will give you plenty to consider while sitting on the plane to your destination.
Johnson explains that with the worldwide variety of wines today there is a large gambit of flavors and profiles to satisfy everyone’s taste buds.
“If it’s 80 degrees at 1 o’clock and you don’t want a beer but it’s too early for cocktails, you can find a really crisp, low-alcohol white wine,” Johnson said. “Or if it's 4 o’clock and you’re passed the white wine thing but you’re not ready for a big heavy Cabernet, you can find a nice light red.
“You can literally, if you wanted to, start at breakfast and go till midnight,” she said cheerfully.
Johnson offers advice on which temperature certain wines should be served, but insists it is important to remain true to your taste buds.
“If you like you’re wine cold drink it cold. Don’t let some expert tell how to drink your wine or you what you like,” Johnson said. “Stay true, if someone says they taste a hint of pineapple in the wine, don’t say you do too when you really don’t.”
(For the record: red wine should be chilled just a bit; light body wines should be served cooler between 53 to 57 degrees; medium body wines between 56 to 61 degrees; and the heavy body wine, somewhere between 60 to 65 degrees.)
Johnson also wishes to dispel the misconception that white wine is not quality wine, there are plenty of white wines, such as the Germans ones, that have been aged for years.
More importantly, Johnson points out that a good bottle of wine does not have to be expensive bottle, there are just as many good deals at grocery stores like Trader Joe's than there are specialty wine shops.
“Of course for us wine geeks a trip to a specialty shop is a real treat,” Johnson said.
She shares many of her local finds on her blog, but tells San Diego Gay & Lesbian News her three favorite spots in San Diego: 3rd Corner in Ocean Beach; The Wine Bank downtown; and Wine Company on Miramar Road.
Terry’s role within the business is more about the logistics, but she will soon provide an array of recipes online so that Fine Living Enthusiasts fans can make to accompany their wine selections.
Additionally, if you follow Fine Living Enthusiasts on Facebook you will receive the occasional travel tip usually privy only to travel agents. Like changes to airport security rules, and specific airlines specials that are too good to pass up.
Fine Living Enthusiasts goals
“We love what we do,” Johnson said. “It has been a great job choice.”
Antarctica aside, South America is the only continent Johnson and Terry have not visited as part of a wine and/or jazz infused adventure. They had planned one for Chile, but the major earthquake that struck the country earlier this year postponed those plans.
Through Fine Living Excursions, however, Johnson and Terry have taken groups to South Africa, Europe, Australia and dozens of U.S. destinations. Their goal over the next five to 10 years is to lead one large tour a month, so that anytime of the year someone wants to travel they have a trip lined up.
If you want to incorporate wine and/or jazz activities into your dream vacation the one sure way to ensure it does not turn into a nightmare is to have Fine Living Enthusiasts take care of the details.
Johnson and Terry are true travel specialists with a unique niche.
(L to R: Stephanie Terry and Gay Johnson)