Monday, January 19, 2015

Winter woods and a January Fakeout

It's tempting, it really is, to break ground on my garden to set out lettuce and kale seeds during these warm days in January. We have yet to see the brunt of winter, but we're experiencing what is, in some states with highly regular patterns like this one, called a January Fakeout. Winter has only just begun, but this week is proving to be ideal for hauling all of my tropical houseplants to the porch for a good, thorough soaking. And the short spate of warmer temperatures and sunshine has made for ideal hiking weather.

Winter hiking in the Ozarks tends to allow for the viewing of all of the incredible geologic formations: Gasconade dolomite boulders perched on a ledge, limestone cliffs covered in ice forming veritable swords, sandstone benches that wrap around a contour line, invisible during leaf on.

Winter botany is also fun, seeing all the desiccated flower heads and the Echinaceas with all the seeds picked clean by goldfinches throughout the season. We may have come across a wood rat midden that day, seeds and twigs and debris all packed under a dolomite shelf on the glade. There are plenty of seeds in fire-mediated landscapes, a forb-dominant world with suites of flowering plants for pollinators and birds alike. The cedar waxwings and Eastern bluebirds were thick that day, mobbing the stray cedars and picking them clean of bright blue berries. But it was the red-headed woodpecker population-- every sunny slope, every post oak and white oak and black oak filled with the chattering calls of this charismatic woodpecker. Hooray for acorns on the landscape, and for the brilliant sunshine that makes the male bluebird feathers look almost neon.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

January is Norton Month

Among the stars of my wine collection are multiple examples of the finest Nortons that Missouri offers. I began collecting Nortons in 2005 when I lived close to my favorite Missouri winery, River Ridge, located on the wooded hillside of Crowley's Ridge. River Ridge Nortons are inky, beautiful, heavily oaked expressions of this sumptuous grape. Since 2005, I've traipsed all over our fair state tasting and collecting Nortons. To date, Missouri harbors over 200 acres of Norton grapevines, and our winemakers are making terrific wines from them ranging from dessert wines to light bodied blends and single varietal bottles.

In the past ten years, Norton has come a long way in the wine world, garnering the attention of wine writers and securing its own Reidel stemware (a must-have if you really want to learn Nortons and the subtleties of the wine). Todd Kliman's book A Wild Vine is a fun read that traces the history of the varietal and takes on the tone of a travelogue through Norton territory in America. Kliman conducted significant research in Missouri and sets the stage for a local author to expand on this lead to cover the grape's rich history in Missouri.

The Missouri Wine Passport program inspired thousands of Missourians to visit wineries all over the state in a terrific incentive program. Wineries popped up all over the place, cashing in on what came to be a continuous flow of visitors. The program ended a couple of years ago, and while visiting Missouri wineries remains a pastime for interstate and intrastate traffic, I've talked to winemakers from several of the lesser known, smaller, and off-the-beaten-path wineries who have felt the direct result of this lost guaranteed audience. I've met some very earnest folks trying to make ends meet while producing a wide range of quality wine, from dry fruit wines to sugary grape wines to Nortons and other dry varietals, winemakers who have noted ratcheting back production of the dry wines to increase their bread-winning sweet wines which serve as gateway wines for many Missourians. But convince the sweet wine lovers to taste the dry wines and often they'll make the switch, slowly, slowly phasing out their ordering of Concord-based wines and opting instead for a Chambourcin...which can lead to an appreciation of Norton.

As president of the International Norton Wine Society (because we have a member from England), I have great hopes this year for more well-deserved acclaim for Missouri Nortons. While there exist a couple of websites that are promoting the Norton grape, I will be working on developing a site for the society which will include a notes section for members to post their comments on new discoveries, on the ageability of Nortons, and all things Norton. In the meantime, especially with Oregon pinot noir now virtually out of my price range, I have hopes of bolstering my dwindling Norton collection. What better time to start than Norton Month!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

In St. James Country

Back in the sunny month of May, at the suggestion of my daily Organic Gardening newsletter, I turned my thoughts to cold, cloudy days in December. In an early May newsletter, the author wrote an article about an old German recipe that calls for seasonal ripe fruit and rum: Rumtopf. The recipe requires a bottle of nice dark rum poured into a crock or Mason jar and, when available, cut up fresh fruit-- the best of the season--sprinkled with brown sugar and then thrown into the rum. So, since May I've been adding fresh Missouri fruit (tossed with only a marginal amount of sugar) into a gallon Mason jar full of rum that I have kept in a cool, dark place. My Rumtopf includes: raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, peaches, tart cherries, pears and apples, all soaked in a good 3-yr. dark rum. I pulled the Mason jar out of cold storage last week and started packing it into much smaller jars with ribbon around the rim to hand out as gifts. One recipient thought that I had given him a bloodied liver soaked in juice (peach taking on the color of cherries). Others were scared to try it over ice cream, which is the German tradition and quite exceptional. So I went to St. James to give it to my old German friend, Heinrich.

I last saw Heinrich in August when I brought my Dad, who is fascinated by German culture, to meet him and to taste his absolutely supple wines which he has been producing for well over 20 years on the Ozarks' Central Plateau. As is customary, we rang the bell at the door and waited for a few minutes that day for Heinrich to amble to his winery that now houses a big fluffy cat, the sweet German Shepherd having recently died. My dad knows some pidgen German and has spent a bit of time over there, and he really loved spending the afternoon talking to Heinrich about wine, Germany, the horrible state of affairs we're in now, customary conversation for old timers whose "good old days" took place during World War II. At this point in my Rumtopf experiment, I had already thrown in a ton of fruit. Maybe not a full ton, but enough to leave only a few inches of headspace in my gallon Mason jar. I told Heinrich I would bring him some. He had never made it since moving to Missouri 30 years ago, always tied up in the winemaking business during fruit season. I told him that I would cover the Rumtopf if he continued making wine. By late December, we had both kept up with both ends of the deal.

And so, setting out this week to visit some typical dry chert woods in winter after a long visit from a New Orleans friend, I stopped into St. James to deliver Rumtopf. Just as in August, I rang the bell and waited. Heinrich came out from his residence with a whole mess of firewood to stoke the coals in his potbellied stove, and some newspaper advertisements to get the fire going. My old German winemaker friend, named the King of Chambourcin by not just a few experts in the subject, is also one of the only other owners of U.P. Hedrick's original botanical prints of the Cynthiana and Norton grapes. The lovely Norton Wine Travelers secured these prints for me, knowing that I will one day own a winery and will, like every dry red enthusiast who visits Heinrich, debate the differences between Cynthiana and Norton. Are they the same grape? Is there a real difference? Oh, it's now an age-old debate that Heinrich really enjoys discussing. Heinrich's grape prints are yellowed and fading, and propped up over a small plaque a visitor brought to him that reads "Wine doesn't make you fat, it makes you lean...on tables, on couches, on the floor, on your wife..."

Heinrich was so happy about his jar of Rumtopf (which may not pass muster, but, like myself, he doesn't like sweet things, so I encouraged him to put it over walnut ice cream) that he parted with a 1999 vintage of his Cynthiana, a collector's bottle. He really didn't have to, of course, so there was some arguing about this--not a trade, but a gift, but I'm happy to have this old bottle in my collection. I sure hope he likes my Rumtopf....

Back out on County Road 1000 outside of St. James, it's incumbent to take the sharp right to stop into the recently opened outpost of Rolla's Public House, a really great brewpub that now inhabits part of the parking space at St. James Winery. I hadn't visited the Public House in Rolla for a few years now, but it was always a standard meeting place, located in a strange little strip mall sort of location downtown near the public library. This brewpub is the brainchild of fancy beer and scotch people, but they recognize that St. James Winery's Norton should be on every menu in the state, so it's on theirs. Today, with the opening of the Public House, travelers along I-44 can pull off at St. James and visit several wineries, with lunch options at Meramec Vineyards (next door to St. James Winery) and a brewpub menu with fancy beer at The Public House. Life in St. James country has never been sweeter!Ice cream at Ruby's, fancy dinner at Sybil's, wineries, hiking to the glades and sandstone shut-ins at the Phelps Co. park, St. James is turning into a very serious destination!

Monday, December 08, 2014

Chilly Day in the Elk River Hills

On a normal late fall day in the Ozarks, frost flowers are ephemeral as the temperatures rise to above freezing by noon. In the farthest reaches of southwest Missouri last week, the northwest winds and thick cloud cover never allowed for enough warmth to melt these delicate ice structures.

Battling horrible holiday traffic for four hours, I drove down after Thanksgiving with the intent of flagging firelines around four separate tracts, altogether comprising roughly 2,000 acres. The cherty, rugged terrain and slippery oak leaf litter proved more difficult to traverse than expected; by the end of the first day, one unit flagged, I was truly exhausted, but excited by the beautiful country and 379 acre unit.

It's black bear country down there, with plenty of territorial evidence of scat on logs and much grubbing. In this fire-mediated landscape, food opportunities for wildlife abound, from acorns to the bright berries of Rusty Blackhaw, American Wahoo, and multiple species of wild grapes.

Development pressure is significant in this region, with bedrooom communities for Bentonville popping up all over the place. My hopes are high for the health and sustainability of the black bears, red-headed woodpeckers, and this rich landscape that today is virtually free from all the onslaught of homogenization.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Missouri Wine and Grape Board's Cookies and Wine Pairing

Every month, I receive really fun email newsletters from a whole mess of Missouri and Oregon wineries. In recent months, the Missouri Wine and Grape Board's monthly email newsletters have been so engaging, visually appealing, and fun to read that I generally think that I must be working for them in some parallel universe, one in which I have kickin' graphic design skills. See below a fantastic graphic illustrating which Missouri wines pair with a variety of Christmas cookies. These people in the Department of Agriculture speak to me, and I listen.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Augusta's Candlelight Christmas Walks

If you haven't been to Augusta (that darling wine-producing region near Hermann) during Christmas, you're missing out on a gem of an experience. On Friday, December 5 and December 12, the town will be lit up with hundreds of luminaries, chestnut roasting in the town square, and Christmas decorations abound for their 32nd annual Candlelight Christmas Walk. While you're there, stop into Augusta Winery for their perfectly supple wines, perfect for gift giving, and a taste of their Christmas specialty, mulled wine warmed by the tasting bar.

Monday, November 24, 2014

"Emulating natural disturbance factors?"

The leaves on my backyard chinquapin oak have only recently started to fall. In a matter of days and weeks, Missouri’s 31 year old woodland prescribed fire season will begin in earnest. Sadly, and due primarily to reckless and/or under-educated practitioners who are not well versed in the power of this natural process, prescribed fire may be implemented not as a means of responsibly emulating a natural disturbance, but as a destructive tool that few should be allowed to use. Much as one would not willingly allow a 2 year old to hold a scalpel in an operating room, one should be cautious of the power of fire and the person behind the torch.

Most unfortunate (from my perspective) is that much of the fire-related damage I’ve seen in recent years is preventable, and largely due to improper fireline placement and timing. Fireline installation is underway all over the state, so I'd like to reiterate this basic fact, an integral part of any responsible burn plan: roads and trails do not make appropriate firelines. To truly emulate a historic fire regime (which is challenging in itself in the Ozarks due to dominant out-of-historic-context fuel types resulting from years of abuse by logging, grazing, and fire suppression), a responsible practitioner will allow fire to move naturally across the landscape, will allow fire to follow topography, aspect, slope with properly designed burn units that include appropriate fuels and historic fire-mediated systems. Old logging roads and hiking trails were not designed with fire behavior in mind. Too many times in recent years I’ve noted highly destructive forces at work from improperly placed firelines, and it’s giving responsible fire a bad name, along with burning out of historic prescription and burning areas that likely never saw fire on a frequent return interval.

So, I’ve repeatedly written for years that significant woodland acreage across the Missouri Ozarks no longer resembles its historic character, that of large diameter oaks mantled in grasses, sedges and forbs. I’ve reiterated that high quality sites are hard to come by, that I seek them out, but it’s becoming harder to find them thanks to mismanagement -the human element-, deer overpopulation, and continued development. Our scattered nice sites exist today as vignettes, not largescale landscapes. I spend time in nice woods, and I help develop really nice burn units in appropriate settings for fires that follow a cogent prescription with restoration or maintenance in mind. I do hate to cast stones, but just as the vitriolic Westboro Baptist Church does not accurately portray religion, irresponsible practitioners do not represent all of fire management in the state.

If you'd like to follow along with fire season, to check in with Spot Weather Forecasts so carefully forecast by our wonderful folks at the Springfield NOAA office, go here. May others listen and learn from the ongoing discussions, and may we carry fire forward responsibly to help restore fire-mediated systems across Missouri this winter.