Saturday, April 15, 2017

10 Years of Norton: Stone Hill's Vertical Tasting

About a year ago, my lovely friends from South Carolina, the Norton Wine Travelers, sent me an email and copied fellow Norton enthusiasts from Nebraska inviting us to the 2017 Norton Vertical Tasting Dinner at Stone Hill Winery in Hermann. I had never formally met the couple from Nebraska, and I had only visited the Norton Wine Travelers in person once or twice before though we're frequent correspondents. We all "met" through Catch Wine, a fun website where one can write reviews of local wineries. The Norton Wine Travelers, who are also magnolia scholars and collectors, contacted me years ago after reading my lengthy reviews of Missouri Nortons. With the couple from Nebraska and other Norton fans, the International Norton Wine Society was formed. Our friendship formed because we appreciate Norton. This is not a secret to anyone who knows me.

And so, Saturday, April 8 rolled around and we descended on Hermann along with other magnolia friends and wine enthusiasts from California who were a little unfamiliar with this outstanding grape. While I was working, they all explored the Hermann area's wine country and collected wine. Lots of wine. One may not be aware of this, but South Carolina, very unlike Missouri, is not known for producing supple, palatable dry wines, so trips to Missouri often result in cellar-stocking purchases. They are true ambassadors of the Norton grape; they keep the registry of all the Norton producers and give such fun reviews. They've even shared with me examples from premier Virginia wineries, Texas wineries and too many other to count. At this point, I still prefer many Missouri Nortons over all the others.

The evening of the tasting, we walked up that steep hill to Stone Hill from the city park where the NWTs had set up their camper for the week. Lovely appetizers and Stone Hill's terrific sparkling Blanc du Blanc circulated. I finally met the charming Nebraska couple whose reviews I had read, while showering them with my compliments to Nebraska's wines which I first discovered on my way to Jackson Hole in 2008. As the sun set on the vineyard, we moved inside to be greeted with large farmhouse tables with ten perfectly polished Reidel Norton glasses, all with three ounces of ten years of Norton vintages. At the base of the glass, they had written the year with a small Sharpie marker. "Pong. Pong. Pong" went the glasses while folks surreptitiously began tasting all of this delicious wine while the emcee for the night talked about Norton, the history of Stone Hill Winery, and Missouri wine. It's hard to be quiet when ten crystal glasses are resting next to one another but, you really want to start tasting.

We all had a sheet before us with winemaker's notes on each vintage. 2007, the hard frost year that turned the woodland canopy to black leaves in April, was "leaner in style than the 2008, perhaps more Bordeaux-like with a complex mix of fruit, oak and hints of pencil shavings and dried herbs." Yes, each vintage had its own lengthy descriptors and space for personal notes. Interestingly, lined up side by side, one could note obvious differences in color through the years; the 2007 was a brick red while the barrel tasting of 2015 resembled a Beaujolais Nouveau. My favorite, hands down, was the 2012 vintage, the drought year, a "vintage like no other...producing the softest, lowest acid Norton ever, showing ripe blackberry and cassis with sweet oak notes and ripe tannins." If I could afford it, I would have picked up a case of the 2012. Which brings me to the cynical comment overheard at my table: "I think I see what's going on. They serve a fancy dinner, a lot of wine and a vertical tasting as a way to unload their older vintages."

Yes, maybe the evening was ultimately designed to make money, make lots of money off of Norton enthusiasts, but it was a delicious meal, full of fabulous wine, and the best part was the camaraderie with the society members. And that 2001 vintage served with dinner.

If you've never perused Catch Wine, settle in and be prepared for a treat. You'll learn that a lot of folks are still smitten with sweet wine, but the dry drinkers offer lengthy reviews of wineries. Once while scrolling through the reviews to map a route through Oklahoma, I read an hysterical review of a winery-alpaca operation where the unsuspecting winery guests were being strong-armed into buying not wine, but alpaca. It made for a great story, but the winery had closed so I couldn't visit. Join in on the fun, and when you see that lovely rhododendron photo, you'll know you're reading the review of quite possibly the most knowledgeable Norton enthusiast, the founder of the Norton Wine Society and cherished friend.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Spring comes to the Ozarks

Despite the past week's downright gloomy and cold weather, it's difficult to stay indoors when I know spring wildflowers are in bloom. On March 9, I noted my first-of-the-year blooming hoary puccoon, a flower that normally doesn't bloom until mid-April. However, it was on a glade we burned in January so those warm February days certainly tricked it to come up early.

Morel season and the spring peeper chorus are well underway. Too, areas rich with bush honeysuckle are particularly striking, but in a bad way. This allelopathic exotic shrub is taking over the state, mostly in urban areas but could easily escape into more rural settings. And it simply ruins the spring wildflower display. Without the bright, leaf-off canopy of early spring, socked in under honeysuckle which greens up before everything else, the delicate white petals of anemones and bloodroot have no chance.

Bluebells started blooming a couple of weeks ago, definitely among my favorite of the spring wildflowers. And Dutchman's breeches are coming on strong this week. It's no surprise that many of us are out of the office on a routine basis at this time of year. I have my eyes peeled for the springtime bee that feeds on spring beauty, out for a short time during the bloom cycle then back underground until next spring. The fleeting nature of spring in the Ozarks makes it imperative to get out, hike around, and marvel at these diverse floral displays.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Rally in the 100 Acre Wood

Sidled up next to our friend Dylan last Sunday at Flatbranch, I learned about his weekend activities. He had gone to Salem to visit friends and to take a hike when his local guide suggested they go to the woods to watch a car race. He's not particularly into car racing, but to his surprise, this European-style rally was a big deal. Spectators lined the narrow gravel roads to watch as national and international drivers and their lone map-reading passenger took to the winding roads outside of Salem.

The Rally in the 100 Acre Wood occurred last weekend in not only Salem, but outside of Potosi and Sullivan in what is described as among the most scenic rallies of the National Rally America circuit. From their website, I learned that the races covered "over 120 racing miles that will test rally teams from all across the country (and several foreign countries) on a variety of gravel road surfaces." The event happened March 17-18 and began with a rally car show and opening ceremony. Rally teams competed throughout each day, passing multiple spectator points, and returned to Salem Saturday night. My friend watched from the woods while rally cars with driver and guide names plastered on the side whizzed by. I don't know how much local participation there is for this race, but he mentioned a tricked-out Ford Focus on the circuit that really surprised him with its speed and agility.

Before the race, at the opening ceremonies, spectators were allowed to see the cars and mingle with the drivers, and to take photos with them and their cars. Considering the state of some of our gravel roads in the Ozarks, I would also think that this is probably one of the more harrowing rallies on the national circuit. I drive a 2001 Honda Civic and sometimes have a hard time traversing the roads to wineries, long and winding paths with boulders and potholes. I'm convinced one day I'll lose my oil pan on my way to a winery or going down a Forest Service road in my car. With the amount of preparation and the national status of this Rally in the 100 Acre Wood, I feel confident road crews made this raceway a smooth route. It sure will be nice for all the Dent Co. morel hunters.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Nature of the Unnatural

Earlier last week, I set out for the Ozarks for two days of checking firelines. Driving south on a 30 degree morning in early March, I noticed very little green on the landscape. The roadside fescue was starting to green up, henbit had turned tilled fields into swaths of lavender flowers, but along a long stretch of the 150 mile route, the roadsides were a homogeneous deciduous winter brown. Well, winter brown interspersed with a few cedars and the stark white billowing flowers of Bradford pear trees, trees that stuck out sickly sweet from the otherwise winter landscape.

Around seven years ago, I had heard that Bradford pears, the fast-growing non-native landscape tree that always maintains a perfect lollipop tree stature, were showing up deep in the Ozarks in vegetation sampling plots. Efforts to eradicate them from disturbed areas continue, but landscapers still choose this flowering and fruiting tree for horticultural instant gratification. And now they're spreading everywhere. On March 8, they were the only flowering tree on the landscape barring the early bud break of serviceberry, mostly found in nicer intact woods and certainly not as prevalent as the persistent Bradford pears along the highway. In fact, during two days of hiking through high quality natural areas, I only encountered a couple serviceberries in flower, always among the first of the native spring trees to bloom, usually three to four weeks earlier than dogwood.

Considering that so much of our landcover has been disturbed by logging, grazing, interruption of natural fire regimes and development encroachment, it came as no surprise that I could take this classic photo of what would happen if we stopped managing our native places and allowed homogenization to occur on a landscape scale. Dominant plants to include bush honeysuckle, Bradford pear and cedars with nothing in the understory, and any native flora clipped off by Missouri's ever-burgeoning deer population, maybe some scattered plants like broomsedge, wintercreeper, and the weedier Geum. But this was on a roadside next to a grocery store which I had stopped into for plain Greek yogurt and some peanuts for the field.

Nevertheless, with so much development pressure in the Ozarks, fragmentation, lack of fire, and exotics (and deer overpopulation), many of our native settings are turning into this. Away from the lot next to the grocery and in a 17,000 acre nature preserve to conduct browse surveys, I encountered cedar trees that had been browsed so heavily by deer in the absence of other food that they looked like alien trees. When you encounter a cedar that looks like this, there may be too many damned deer.

Unnatural levels of deer herbivory as a direct result of too many deer on the landscape, the lack of predators and increased biogeographical islands being formed by development pressure will result in serious overbrowsing. At least I only saw serviceberry and some scattered spring ephemerals in flower here rather than a greening out understory of bush honeysuckle and Bradford pear.

So, as is customary of exotics in the Ozarks and elsewhere, the Bradford pears and bush honeysuckle were triggered to break dormancy because of the warm weather. With climate change occurring on our clock, the warm spells in February and the first week of March lasted a lot longer and were warmer than in years past. But the bulk of the natives seem to be smarter than to come out when the threat (and reality) of 15 degree nights are still probable and likely in March, our traditionally snowiest month, with the last frost-free date not until mid-April. The shading out of the woodland floor by bush honeysuckle and the allelopathic nature of the rootstock are the precise reasons landowners in the Ozarks need to be worried about this wave of a closed canopy-thriving exotic shrub. Our spring wildflower displays are usually so incredible because the spring wildflowers are able to break through the leaf litter during early spring because there is no shading from the oak and hickory-dominated canopy. Bush honeysuckle puts an end to that.

This week, when the temperatures plummeted to the teens and highs just barely above freezing, the Bradford pear flowers all burned, straight to brown. Every time I see a browned out Bradford pear, I smile, knowing that now that the flowers are toast, they probably won't be pollinated, which means this year they won't produce fruit, which means birds won't spread the seed at least this one year. Sadly, the bush honeysuckle is still thriving. Passive management just may not cut it anymore if we want to keep natural areas full of native nature.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

In Search of Timberdoodles

The reports of the arrival of woodcocks began a few weeks ago in Missouri. These charismatic birds are a signature sign of early spring, small, brown birds, the size of a quail, with a long, black probing beak that can penetrate the roughest soils to find insects. In the Ozarks and elsewhere, woodcocks are also known as Timberdoodles, birds that hang around old fields near the timber line. They're not the most gracious birds, flitting about as gracefully as a Northern bobwhite quail, but when they arrive, it usually means spring is around the corner so they're always a welcome sight. Their big black eyes and long beak are hard to mistake for any other bird, but their breeding behavior is really quite spectacular.

For the past four years, my Audubon chapter has set out at sunset in perfect timberdoodle habitat to find these birds and to witness their mating dance. In the past four years, we've seen decreasing numbers of these charismatic birds, due to either the habitat being overgrown and without fire or a general decline in their numbers across the board. Missing the timberdoodle isn't likely due to observer error, this bird makes it abundantly clear when present. With a characteristic "peent!" call, the timberdoodle will call from a woodland edge or another scrubby, shrubby area. Our traditional birding site is an old farm field with rank warm season grasses and scattered cedars. The whole area is reverting to woodland with lots of trees moving in, which is good for woodland birds but not so good for the timberdoodles.

We set out at 5:30 and hiked to the junction of the trail where we've traditionally seen these birds flutter high in the sky and then plummet down in accordance with the traditional mating ritual. The shrubby area played host to a lot of lingering white-throated sparrows and the sunset calls of the American robin were definitely part of the evening soundtrack. We saw one song sparrow with that big blotch on his chest, and then started playing a recording of the timberdoodle call: "Peent!" "Peent!" No answer. A barred owl started calling with the customary "Who Cooks for You!" call, but no woodcocks. With so many old fields in the Ozarks these birds should be in good shape from a habitat perspective, but through time, as we're seeing at our traditional birding site, the habitat is disappearing. I think that traditionally these birds used savannas, areas of open grown oaks with a thick grass-forb layer. This landscape type is uncommon now, and for birds, the surrogate is old fields.

There are areas around our traditional timberdoodle stomping grounds that still offer ample woodcock habitat. These areas are managed with regularly occurring prescribed fire to keep the woody brush at bay while stimulating the herbaceous layer. I do love timberdoodles like I adore Chuck will's-widow and Whip-por-wills, signs of the Ozarks and of spring. This ancient breeding ritual continues in shrublands across the Ozark Highlands, so hopefully you'll see it soon. While March is our snowiest month, even the natives have been triggered that spring thaw is near.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

February Fakeout

The abnormally dry and abnormally warm temperatures this week lasted a lot longer than they have in past years. Having a spring-like thaw is traditional, days when mourning cloaks break out and harbinger of spring first puts on its green. But this week's February fakeout of 80 degrees, high winds, and no moisture was different. High fire danger ratings persisted due to low fuel moistures, high temperatures and humidities dipping into the 28% range. It reminded me of April. So did seeing buttercups and bluets in bloom.

Large colonies of blooming harbinger of spring existed along the bottomlands of the Niangua River this week. I wonder if the native bees that feed on the earliest of the wildflowers broke out during the hot days or if, like birds, they are triggered to move by other mechanisms like day length. Garter snakes and basking turtles were also out this week and I'm hearing Eastern phoeobes lately.

The 28 degree night and cooler temperatures are certainly welcome in late February, and we could use a decent snow as well. As Bill McKibben writes in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, nature is no longer predictable. Weather events and fluctuations are more extreme today than in the past. The timberdoodles are right on time and a lot of the native trees like the oaks don't seem to be tricked by the temperature (though I did see an aromatic sumac in full bloom this week, and a morel mushroom was reported from the far southwest county of McDonald this week). The days march on towards spring, and who knows, perhaps in coming years we'll see production of homegrown Tempranillo in North Missouri.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Great Backyard Bird Count: February 17-20

(photo credit John Foster from the GBBC website)The annual Great Backyard Bird Count begins on Friday as the kickoff to the long President's Day weekend. This fun event allows birdwatchers all over the world to submit bird checklists to eBird with real time results posted for everyone to see. One can track the state and county checklists, find out what bird species are being documented in your area or a favorite birding haunt. Sign up here before Friday! This four day event is really enjoyable, watching as checklists pour in.I will be in Louisiana submitting checklists from my dad's house and local wildlife refuges, so I may even log a Vermilion Flycatcher. But I'll be watching what's happening at home and throughout the Ozarks.

This week on the Great Backyard Bird Count website, you can comb through the 2016 results and make yourself familiar with the online platform before Friday when the count begins again. If you haven't signed up for an eBird account, it's a little cumbersome, but once you have an account, the GBBC results submission page will direct you with a simple link.

If you like to take photos of birds, the website also hosts a photo contest with prizes and a section where one can upload photos for everyone to see. Join in!