Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Level 5

We're participating in the Missouri Wine Passport program these days (and those days past, as it requires lots of travel). I've reached Level 5: 40 visits (and the continuous tally of how much of my salary I've spent at Missouri wineries). To date, I've received a terrific wine key, a cute bar towel, an apron, and a great Neoprene wine carrier that holds two bottles--perfect for white wine drinkers, which I'm not. So,I reached Level 5 with my January 1 visit to Bushwhacker Bend Winery in the charming Missouri River town of Glasgow (on the KATY, fine dining restaurant and coffee shop located downtown).

The reward for Level 5, for those of you unaware, is a private wine tasting and food pairing for ten friends at the winery of your choice. "This is not a dinner, but a food pairing," the website explains to those unfamiliar with the term. Don't go there hungry, but expect small morsels of food and small tastes of wine wherein the food will highlight the wine, bring out certain characteristics. Some wineries offer small food items with their tastings on a regular basis--among the stranger ones are wineries that serve malted milk balls with Norton, or a Milky Way with a Chardonel.

Thinking of all the wineries in Missouri, I decided on my top three choices: River Ridge (Crowley's Ridge, where I worked briefly and adore the place and the food), Augusta (great wine choices, Norton Reidel glasses for tasting), and Chaumette (great food, enough good wine to make it worth the trip for the fifteenth time). Oh, it's easy to choose wineries to visit in Missouri. They all have their own merits and qualities. The hard part is the "for ten."

I don't have ten friends in Missouri. I don't know ten people who would be willing to drive to Crowley's Ridge for a morsel of food, good wine, and surely an afternoon meal in my company. Ten friends don't even respond to my emails, much less send Christmas cards or call. So I told the Missouri Wine and Grape Board that the winery should only expect about 5 at the most: me, Doug, maybe three more. Yup, 5 or 6 at the most.

Earlier tonight, looking for an email from Audubon regarding their crazy mixed up Christmas Bird Count data entry page, I accidentally hit the way back browser button on my email that incidentally took me back to July 2005, a month before the storm when I was living in a small cottage on a creek in the Ozarks among a pair of eagles that perched on a white oak snag out the window every morning. My true friends kept in touch with me then by writing letters to my outpost in the Ozarks, sending long emails that I read from the public library on 12K dialup. I found emails from my graduate advisor, my Greek professor, fellow natural historian, and very dear friend, Dr. Ross. He introduced me to Moominvalley, reintroduced me to Pogo (which was always squirreled away in my grandpa's bookshelf that the rats eventually ate when grandpa went crazy), we camped together, drank lots of wine together, wrote voluminous letters to one another, had a true friendship for many years until misfortune met his wife and our friendship came to an end. I miss Dr. Ross and his brownstone in Chicago's Hyde Park, our visits to the Lyric in the cheap seats, the Cafe des Artistes on Grand? where we'd go for cappuccino after the opera. I know he'd make it to the food and wine pairing, upping the bill to 6. He'd probably ask me for directions to a campground between here and Chicago where there aren't those damned loud generators running all over the place. I'd have to send him to a Forest Service site.

The epistolary relationships I maintain with friends in far flung places tend to be the stronger ones, but they're diminishing. Even among my closest summer camp friends at a recent reunion, more were tuned into their iPhones and BlackBerry than were present, there and then, at the table, looking face to face. I don't think I had a meaningful conversation with but three of them. Raising a glass to hope that at the food and wine pairing, I'll at least have some good conversations, even if it's with a Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pie as a pairing item.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Westphalia's Gem: The Norton Room at Westphalia Inn

Driving off the Central Plateau into the Gasconade River Hills, gentle undulations in the landscape make way to dangerous curves in the road. Traffic signs warn drivers speeding out of Rolla or Jefferson City: 45 mph ahead. 35 mph ahead. The German Catholic towns of Vienna, Freeburg, and Westphalia represent the breadbasket of this part of the Ozarks with deep soils, gently rolling terrain, widely spaced oaks and meandering streams and rivers -many filled with cattle- coursing through the landscape. Coming to Osage County from the peaks and vales of Missouri River country, Cole County, Westphalia is reminiscent of Hermann, a nice quiet town far away from the capitol. Turn onto Hwy 133 off Hwy 63 and you're on the main drag through town, passing by charming 19th century homes, the local watering hole, the beautiful St. Joseph's Catholic church with that tall steeple that can be seen for miles, and an old hotel, the Westphalia Inn, home to Westphalia Vineyards and the restaurant that serves traditional Osage County fare (ham and beans, pot roast, fried chicken).

I'm grateful, in a way, that the Norton Room isn't open during the work week, or I'd likely be there several evenings of the work week. Walk up the stairs of the historic hotel-gift store (across the street from the church, park on the road, look closely for the small winery sign or the big HOTEL at the top of the two story brick building)and you'll find a well-appointed dining room with gentle lighting, high ceilings, a warm and inviting environment with ample seating. If you're lucky, you'll be there when Westphalia Vineyard's owner, Terry Neuner, is behind the bar.

What a delight to finally meet the man behind one of my favorite Nortons. I think it may have been the first thing I asked him, if he had any of his 06 Norton left. A few years ago, the 06 vintage was available in stores, but no more, only the 08 and 09 vintages. "Only here" can one find the 06 vintage, at the Westphalia Inn. Lucky day, this supple, sulfite free, unfiltered Norton pours out of the glass onto the palate with body unmatched by so many other 06s, many of which have fallen flat despite the Norton grape's propensity to age so well. Terry explained that he pulled the 06s from the shelves because of the sediment it left behind. I appreciate the sediment, reminiscent as it is of my days in Greece when we'd throw the sediment against the wall of the local tavern, a tradition as old as the 5th c. (with stains in archaeological sites to prove it). The Westphalia 06 unfiltered Norton is as close as one can get to tasting the soil, to understanding the delicate balance involved in growing grapes in the Gasconade River Hills--the cool spring nights, the cold winters, the droughty summers...the 06 Norton breathes it all. Knowing this vintage is still available at the winery will bring me back to Hwy 133 time and again.

When I spoke to Terry about my love of Norton, how I chase and collect Norton, he mentioned his friendship with one of Virginia's premier Norton producers, the woman behind the esteemed Locksley Reserve Norton, Jenny, a main character in Todd Kliman's book about the history and culture of Norton, The Wild Vine. The famed Jenny, passionate about Norton, an incredible vintner, grew up in Westphalia. When Terry mentioned that she came to town and spent time with him and his vines, I could have only wished to have been in the company among two great Norton wine producers, one based in Missouri, one based in Virginia. Oh, they swapped bottles, of course, and had a fine time together.

Missouri's wine heritage is steeped in German Catholic culture, and Westphalia is at the heart of it. The whitewashing of the story of Prohibition, that it was promulgated by the Temperance League is only part of the story behind the end of Missouri's reign as a great wine producer in the 1900s. The jingoistic culture that came hand in hand with World War I and the hatred of all things German had a lot to do with it, too. Today, Terry continues the fine tradition of handcrafting great wines, and mentions that he exports most of it to California. Missouri Norton in Cabernet country. Rumblings abound that California winemakers are trying their hand at growing Norton, but Missourians, especially those of German heritage, have been doing it quite well for over 100 years.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Winter forage

With the problem of deer overpopulation in Ozark woodlands ever burgeoning, snow covered landscapes tend to be desirable for the simple fact of allowing for aerial deer counts. In the absence of snow, and often in consort with the aerial census, another method to measure deer impacts to biodiversity can be employed. This time intensive process tracks deer browse on woody stems, both the desirable species and those normally less palatable to deer.

Winter twig browse surveys usually begin in mid-February in the Ozarks, before leaf on and yet still winter when deer begin browsing on small shrubs and trees. Ice cream twigs for deer include dogwood, white oaks, sassafras, aromatic sumac, winged sumac. In my experience running long transects for winter twig browse surveys, these are often the first shrubs and trees deer will browse in late winter months. The less favorable plants include black oaks, buckeye, bitternut hickory, vaccinium--when these are browsed intensely, it probably indicates deer overpopulation.

Here's the drill: Walk along transects that harbor enough small woody species to fill a page with each species of 50 spaces; clones on each plant are grasped and the number of browsed twigs and unbrowsed twigs are recorded. So, grab a stem on a sassafras and you may have three browsed twigs and one unbrowsed, recorded as 3/1 in one of the spaces. Find another sassafras and another and so forth until the page is filled with browsed/unbrowsed numbers. This is accomplished for about 10-15 species and at least 10 transects scattered across the landscape. Time consuming, yes, but valuable information results when the browsed/unbrowsed are calculated into percentages. In woodlands with high deer numbers, dogwood gets hit on the nose, and even black oak buds are clipped off. When this happens repeatedly, erect trees and shrubs take on a multibranching habit or, under intense pressure, they never leaf out and subsequently die.

The deer problem in the Ozarks is growing at an alarming rate, leading us to homogenized ecosystems full of plants unpalatable to deer. Measuring the impacts of deer overpopulation to biodiversity is a top priority for me. Spending the days running twig browse transects each February-March gathering valuable data are indeed days well spent.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Winter's Stillness?

I went to the woods today hoping to see bluebirds and flickers. I was expecting a quiet day on a little trail through a small nature preserve with a fellow birder to discuss management issues--where to place a trail, what to do now that all the bush honeysuckle has been removed? (Kill deer, burn, in that order) Rather than a peaceful afternoon on the trail with the long winter shadows, clear skies, and bird activity, we met other hikers--kids in shorts, a couple with binoculars, families, elderly, young, lots of others. (I didn't know anyone even knew this place existed, frankly.) It was an active day on the trail --lots of great bird activity from bluebirds, sparrows, woodpeckers, along with the sweet high pitched voices of children hiking on the muddy trail. Today was very unlike winter 2011 when we were socked in with 16 degree weather and snowbanks higher than my raised porch and no one else left their homes for a week. Cross country skiers took over the main road through my neighborhood.

For my friends in far flung places, I'll report what I failed to mention in my Christmas card: we haven't really seen winter weather here in Missouri. There have been a few "Arctic blasts," some bitterly cold and windy days, lousy road conditions that come with ice and snow, but fall weather lasted forever, allowing me to burn my entire yard before December (and for lots of folks in the the Ozarks to check off target rx fire units. 16 of 27 of mine are done. Record breaking. What am I supposed to do in February-March? Set out more kale! Still harvesting kale from August.)

Combing through my winter woodland photos, I see the same landscape as in November when the leaves had fallen and the late asters were still in bloom. The only snow photo I've taken all winter is from my backyard after the last fire, little tiny patches of snow that remain on a 40 degree day in January.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Streamers on the Springfield Plateau

As the temperatures plummeted throughout the Ozarks last night (from a clement high of low 40s down to the teens with blustery North winds), you also probably tuned in to Springfield NOAA to watch the long band of baby blue snow march eastward, offering us the first appreciable snow event of winter.

Folks around Springfield may have noticed on their local NOAA radar a pale khaki blanket preceding the snow front, a sheet of sheer tan coloration covering the entire Springfield Plateau. I've written before of the plateau's impact on weather conditions around Springfield, how they tend to have devastating ice storms when the low, undulating hills below are spared. Driving down I-44, one wouldn't imagine that an agricultural field outside of Springfield is approximately 40 ft. shy of being the highest point in Missouri. Thankfully, the scenic, rugged, romantic Taum Sauk Mountain remains the highest point in Missouri, rising up to 1,772 ft. in the undeveloped St. Francois Mountains. But the broad flat plain of the Springfield Plateau is only a few feet short of that, and it impacts weather there. (So, really, if some guy wanted to bulldoze a pile of dirt into a huge heap, why, THAT could be the highest point in Missouri! Scenic! Let's go backpacking!)

Anyway, last night's snow band included a weather event that seldom occurs but on uplifts like the plateau; as the front moved eastward, lateral bands of snow shot out across the plateau ahead of the front (the khaki blanket). On the radar it looked like an outflow boundary of some sort, a bowing wind of snow, but it wasn't that, it was what I believe is called a streamer. Regardless, the uplift of the Springfield Plateau influences local weather patterns just as large bodies of water do with such impacts as lake effect snow. If you ever have an opportunity to hear one of the fine forecasters from Springfield NOAA speak about weather, I urge you to attend. Springfield weather, dictated by its very landform, is truly fascinating.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

In Red headed Woodpecker Country

January 4 marked the last day of the 112th Christmas Bird Count. Since 2004, I have conducted winter bird surveys outside of an official Christmas Bird Count circle in an area of high natural integrity, the terrific managed woodlands in the Niangua Basin. Last year I wrote about the disappearance of the red headed woodpeckers here, not a gradual decline but an abrupt absence of them in the winter bird survey results. In 2004, I counted no fewer than 100, and by 2010, I didn’t detect one.

In 2012, they’re back, and in droves. The chuckling call of red headed woodpeckers surrounded me yesterday morning, so many I had to write quickly to record all of them and the rest of the suite of wintering birds—chickadees, red bellied woodpeckers, tufted titmice, brown creepers, and 17, no, 20, and then 3 more red headeds…they were everywhere. Flying from white oak to post oak through the woodlands, their chuckling undoubtedly masked the high-pitched “zeep!” of tiny golden-crowed kinglets that may have been around.

The goal of my survey was to cover as much ground as humanly possible in one full day, and to beat my last year’s count total of 36 species for one 3,700 acre area. I normally don’t spend time birding in old fields with cedars and blackberry brambles, but I did yesterday knowing that I can always find sparrows there: Song, Lincoln’s, and Field Sparrows congregated in a little island of sericea stalks, 5 ft tall cedars, and scraggly little bluestem. Field sparrows were also hanging out in a shrubby area of a big dolomite glade, one of the few glades that haven’t been burned this year. On Christmas Bird Counts, it’s a common practice to count birds that visit bird feeders, so my non-natural community birding in the old field counts, even though I normally don’t go birding in old fields. The intact natural communities should provide sufficient food, water, shelter for birds that in this heterogeneous landscape, they don’t need old fields. But the sparrows hang out there anyway.

High winds picked up in the afternoon, and I never picked up either ruby crowned or golden crowned kinglet or a hermit thrush, darn it, but the gadwalls and wood ducks in the spring pushed my list to 38 species. Of course, spring birding is only a few months away, that magical time of year when the migrants travel through the Ozarks to their breeding grounds in Canada, allowing us to see boreal forest species in all their brilliant spring plumage without having to fly there ourselves.