Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ozark witch hazel


"Ah! Wait! Stop!" I rudely yelled at my friend driving the enormous truck down the rutted out road. I didn't go to the White River Hills this week to look for Hamamelis vernalis because I've missed seeing it in flower for the past five years. It was utter lagnaippe that my friend drove me along a beautiful bottomland woodland rich with cane and scouring rush alongside an in tact waterway in this highly altered landscape. But I spotted it, immediately, and per la prima volta saw it in bloom. Ozark witch hazel is in bloom down there in the land of calamint, Baptisia australis and enormous smoke trees.

Head into the St. Francois Mountains and you'll find two species of witch hazel: Ozark witch hazel and Hamamelis virginiana, a red-flowering shrub that blooms in late fall into winter. The latter is restricted to the St. Francois Mountains while the lovely one I encountered can be found scattered throughout the Ozarks, though is absent from the far northwestern Ozarks. Check out in tact riparian zones and gravel bars for this harbinger of spring!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Snowbird

The bluebird skies and brilliant sun in the morning betrayed us all. I thought the five degree morning would magically turn into a forty degree afternoon with all that bright heat beaming down into my bleary eyes during my chicken o'clock commute. But no, instead, after fording a creek, walking through an ankle deep cave stream for four hours, fording the creek again, my jeans, fire boots, and socks literally froze, thick ice forming on my clothing as soon as the eighteen degree air hit it. The warmth of the fifty six degree cave never reached my little feet; I honestly thought I was going to lose a toe to hypothermia, but I didn't. They didn't know the flowing creek was going to be so high this week, you see, but it was, so before entering the cave I was already soaked.

A small surface water stream courses through this Burlington-Keokuk limestone cave, one packed to the gills with crinoid fossils. The surrounding watershed includes a hog farm, a cattle farm, not a few septic systems, several homes, and a network of roads. My guide instructed me to "take a hot bath with lots of soap" to wash off the e.coli when I returned home, and warned us all to "take precautions" if we have open sores that have "made contact" with the cave stream water. Ick. My poor fire boots.

But forget about the bone-chilling cold, and the persistent dismay I maintained regarding the loud, disruptive noise level in the cave, I chalked up several new cave species to my life list. For what it's worth, I don't spend a lot of time in caves because I prefer sunlight to darkness, but I remain fascinated by their ecology and geology. Unlike some of our woodlands and glades, every cave is different, distinctive, no two caves are alike. They're fascinating places with often highly divergent faunal populations based on geography, hydrology, chemistry and other factors that contribute to distribution. For a crude example, some caves are devoid of salamanders while another cave located a mere 20 miles away is loaded with several species of the little amphibians.

But in recent weeks I've been introduced to a few species I've not encountered before. For example, the cave orb weaver, a relatively large olive and khaki spider, is one of the more common troglobitic species in the cave I visited this week. We even found a few pendant spun egg sacks belonging to these handsome spiders hanging from the cave walls. Hanging out with the spiders were small black flies with big red eyes, Heleomyzid cave flies. I suspect the latter provide necessary food to the vertebrates in caves like this one.

Of the species I've not seen in a Missouri cave before this week, the herald moth ranks as the most charismatic. A rather common moth, the herald moth feeds on willows and poplars as a caterpillar, but as an adult, they feed primarily on fruit (blackberries in particular). Beautiful, colorful moths, they were seen throughout the cave hanging onto the limestone walls. Herald moths have been recorded from caves in five counties in Missouri during winter months. I can't share a photo with you of my own because I don't take photos in caves. To see a lovely, colorful guide to Missouri cave fauna, see this guide that includes our esteemed cave biologist's photos and brief descriptions. Scroll to page 36 for photos of the stunning herald moth and red eyed flies.

Walking up slope (and breathing more heavily than I ever have before in an effort to warm myself) I wondered if the hog farmer and cattle farmer knew that their farming practices were undoubtedly negatively impacting the aquatic invertebrate populations in the cave stream. I felt confident that the noise caused by the rest of the party disrupted the hibernating bats, causing them to lose approximately 20% of their body weight because these novices didn't know how to shut up when they're in a cave. But the herald moths don't really care about the watershed, about the bats, about the fossils on the cave walls, or even about the countless people taking their photos. They're there for the warmth, for the constant temperature and shelter from the very cold weather that is hopefully on the way out to make way for fire season.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Happy Dimanche, Samedi, Lundi and Mardi Gras!


Listen here for live streaming music from New Orleans' fine community radio station, WWOZ. "Go out and hear some live local music...it's what makes New Orleans great!", they say. Yeah, you right.

Toasting Alyssa: from Hermann to Berger

In a wine-loving family such as mine, it's challenging when, upon hearing of a sister's good fortune, I am not allowed to quickly ship out a nice bottle of wine for congratulatory purposes. During my walk to the gym on Friday, Alyssa announced that she is officially with child, a clump of rapidly dividing cells that she says "looks like a shrimp" on the sonogram. Alyssa is positively ecstatic about this recent development, as is the rest of the family.

With this news from my sister, and the impending responsibility of being a normal, non-stress-inducing aunt (which precludes turning into someone with clunky wooden necklaces and long, flowing purple chenille skirts who sends used stuffed animals covered in cat hair, clocks powered by Russet potatoes, or the same weird religious coloring books year after year), I decided to toast her from Missouri. Since she can't drink wine for 9 months, Daddy and I will have to pick up her slack; so, to continue my exploratory mission of finding Missouri's best Norton wines, I went back to the German settlement located in the lovely Missouri River hills of Hermann.

I ruled out going back to Adam Puchta and Stone Hill Wineries because I've been there several times before. Today I decided to leave the pedestrian-friendly town of Hermann ipse and head towards Berger east on Highway 100 to visit Bias Vineyards and Winery and Oak Glenn Vineyards and Winery.

The narrow, winding, tree-lined road that leads to the low-lying wood-sided Bias Winery is reminiscent of Crowley's Ridge. Bias is a small, family-owned winery offering a wide variety of dry and sweet wines with limited production (and not available in Columbia). When we arrived around 11 am, the barista was still opening for the day, setting the mop aside in the large dining room to pour for me the only three wines I was interested in tasting: "dry reds only, please."

The first, DeChaunac, is an American wine, which means the grapes are not grown in Missouri. Nevertheless, the beautiful deep amber hues and big bouquet offer a savory overtone reminiscent of fresh figs. The Chambourcin, aged in steel, favored cranberries. The Norton was interesting, but didn't taste like the freshly sawed green white oak that I prefer.

While this may sound strange, I particularly appreciated the barista's knowledge of wine. Having been to other wineries in Missouri where the server may not actually drink wine (but prefers Stag, Hamm's or PBR) and therefore can't tell you anything about what you're drinking, I liked that she offered her opinions of the overtones, the finish, and the nose before she even poured the taste. To boot, she was clad in green, purple and gold Mardi Gras beads decked out with a plastic fleur de lis. I liked her instantly. Also at the tasting bar, find a wide variety of microbrewed beers the family produces.

Head back towards Hermann from Berger on Hwy. 100, turn right at the enormous Oak Glenn Winery sign to visit a small winery with ample outdoor seating and a killer view of the Missouri River. Located snugly in a nice little degraded woodland (just needs a little fire), Oak Glenn must pack in the crowds during the growing season. Tiers of picnic tables and chairs, a large wooden stage, an entire pavilion with "Beer" and "Food" painted on the eaves, and an upstairs room that seats about 100 people, this place must be a madhouse in the summer. Offering live music and beer (alongside their wines), Oak Glenn is set up for large crowds. The sign out front explained that no, you can't bring your own booze to Oak Glenn, and that you will not be served unless you're in shoes and a shirt. I really didn't think these were issues at wineries? But I guess they are. I think Bias had the same signs.

The small tasting room is located in a building reminiscent of a newer Willamette Valley winery--modern architecture, wide, dark wood siding, a few circular windows, a California inspiration. None of Oak Glenn's dry reds are aged in oak, except the port (which I don't drink). Their steel-aged 2004 Norton was remarkably smooth--if you normally don't like Nortons, try Oak Glenn's. Imagine a solid aged Walla Walla cabernet. Unlike other wineries in the area, Oak Glenn offers wine by the glass.

So the barista cracked open a new bottle of the 04 Norton for me, and we hiked upstairs for the commanding view of the Missouri River and the vineyards planted all the way downslope. An added bonus, lining the walls in the party room upstairs are old German farm tools and professionally produced interpretive panels about Georg Hussman, the original 19th century owner of the vines at Oak Glenn, about Hermann, and about German settlements in Missouri. I felt like I was in a state historic site. I learned that the grapes used for the port are harvested from the original 19th century vines that survived Prohibition. But that 04 Norton...though I've never gulped melted butter, I almost felt like I was with the big pour of the 04 Norton. It had none of the bite that many folks hate about Nortons; it was too easy to drink for me to have around the house.

After Oak Glenn, drive into Hermann on Hwy. 100 and park next to the little German Vernacular buildings on the right to visit Hermannhof Winery. Don't be alarmed by the peculiar new sign touting California wines; evidently, the owner of Hermannhof lives between St. Louis and California, so the old brick building behind Hermannhof Winery now offers tastings from three California wineries. I don't like the spirit of it, frankly, and my dislike of most California wines (because they lack character and interest and seem to be really simple and mass produced) doesn't help matters. I wouldn't like Willamette Valley vintners selling their wines in downtown Hermann, either, for what it's worth.

Walking into Hermannhof Winery, the nice old building that I've been to countless times, I was dismayed to see the large tasting room essentially split in half: on one side, visitors could try Hermannhof wines, and on the other side, visitors were offered California wines. I suspect a lot of people don't know the difference, or care (they just like wine), but it made me uncomfortable to see California wines being sold in one of the hometowns of Missouri wine.

I met knowledgeable barista #2 today, an elderly lady with a machine embroidered jacket with hearts all over it who has worked at Hermannhof for four years. I offered my initial "dry reds only" to her, and she grabbed a pink wine and started to pour. Before I could argue that I don't drink white or pink wine, she sort of shushed me, telling me that I would "be surprised" by the vin-gris--made with California grapes. It's nice, like a good pinot gris, very dry, but it's not a lip-staining red. So, I complimented the pink wine, asked for a Chambourcin or a Norton, and she poured me a dry white--a lovely, crisp Vidal Blanc, but I explained that I can't drink white wines...even if they don't have any sugar. She wasn't in autopilot pouring me white wine, just trying to prove that Hermannhof's dry whites aren't sweet. I conceded, and complimented the Vidal Blanc.

Hermannhof Winery ages their wines for at least four years before making them available to the public; this practice has resulted in consistently mellow, classy, and beautiful wine. The mildly oaked 2004 Chambourcin was typically bright, but the 2004 Norton blew me away. If you like the big spiciness of a good Norton, try this one. Like a good Oregon pinot noir, this one had layers, ending with a big finish. Also for sale at Hermannhof is the 2002 Norton, aged in French oak. Benchmark Norton, I found it at Hermannhof.

The final dry red the barista offered was a blend of Malbec and Syrah, a wine produced in California "for Hermannhof," which means it has a Hermannhof label, though it's neither made with Missouri grapes or in Missouri. It's fine, I guess, a decent California blend, a little like a Bogle Petite Syrah, which is fine, it's nice, I guess. But when you create a Norton as competent and brilliant as the one I just tasted, why waste my money on a California blend? Maybe Missouri wineries are losing money, maybe the Missouri grapes aren't selling as well as boring little California grapes sell. I left Hermannhof a little sad for the future of Missouri's wineries, knowing that some have closed in the past year for lack of revenue. Here's to hoping that Missouri's grapes will earn a larger fan base and that California doesn't move in altogether and homogenize viticulture in Missouri with their big buildings and grapes. I left Hermann with a brown paper bag full of the 04 Norton with the faint glimmer of expectation that I may save a bottle for Alyssa if I hide it well enough from myself.