Thursday, November 29, 2012

10 wineries, 2 days

When I took the fly off of my North Face backpacking tent on that 20 degree morning last week, Doug pointed out the significant accumulation of ice crystals that rested on top of the tent: critters breathing all night in a warm tent, all under a Marmot 20 below sleeping bag and all the wool Pendleton blankets from the beds back home. We were on a mission last week as we set out to the Southeast Missouri Lowlands and into the Ozarks, into the Poplar Bluff Ranger District of the Mark Twain NF, to visit all these wineries that have blossomed in the area since I left the Bootheel in December 2007.

Back then, there was River Ridge Winery in Commerce. I went there every weekend: I picked grapes for their harvest, I manned the tasting bar (where I heard the most colorful tasting notes! My favorite was of the Traminette, Missouri's version of Gewurtztraminer: "it's sort of like bees gorging on a lilac bush...but they're not mad, just excited."), I washed dishes for the restaurant, I loved the vibe, the food, staff at River Ridge, which is located at the beginning of Crowley's Ridge and next to the only section of the Mississippi River without a levee for many miles. The charming town of Commerce floods every few years, so the homes are on stilts, built with breathable materials, or up on Crowley's Ridge, which is generally immuned from floodwaters. So the barre was set high moving northward in late 07. I thought every Missouri winery should be as distinctive, as interesting, as amiable, as fun and inviting with fantastic, collectible dry red wines as those found at River Ridge.

I've learned a lot since then, and I've seen the wine industry literally explode in Missouri since I first lived here part-time in 2003. Dozens of earnest winemakers are spread out across the Ozark Highlands making delightful, supple wines, wines to suit every palate, all the while creating an atmosphere that is enjoyable and appropriate to the landscape. Conversely, there are the wineries that buy juice from California and bottle it here in an effort to "grow a financial portfolio." Diversify! In the past two years, I've visited over 90 wineries in Missouri, and even the overtly commercial operations produce something palatable. However, I tend to spend time and money at wineries that Linus' Great Pumpkin would visit; I like to meet the winemaker, I like to talk about the harvest, I like to hear about challenges and successes, hopes for the future. And I love a good Norton. (Right now, the 08s are drinking very, very well.)

In the middle of Marquand, nestled in the midst of the Mark Twain around its borders in a refurbished general store downtown is any Norton-chasers dream winery, Durso Hills Winery and Bistro. That day, the restaurant had just opened for prime rib night (Fridays, 4-9pm)when we arrived, and the winemaker himself was manning the tasting bar. I said what I always say at a winery: "I'd like to try your dry reds, please." When he proffered a long list of dry reds, including three vintages of Norton, I knew we'd be there a while. Locals began trickling in asking for bottles of homemade sangria (made with Norton) and some of their sweeter wines, but at that time I could have crawled into my glass of 06 Norton and stayed there all night. Each vintage had its own character and distinct notes, a testament that Durso Hills knows how to grow grapes as well as make great wine. In fact, the winemaker here is so capable that he's making truly fantastic wines for one of those big multimillionaire commercial operations around Ste. Genevieve country, a winery outfitted with plush chairs the likes of which I couldn't afford with an entire year's salary. "Aha!" I shouted, telling him how much I enjoyed the wine at the posh Ste. Gen location, I especially loved the Norton, but could only afford a glass and no food. I hoped he was being paid well for making such stellar wines out of his beautiful grapes for them, and I think he is.

Moving towards Bollinger County, the last known location in Missouri of the orchid Isotria medeloides (documented from an unknown hill around Marble Hill), stop into Thousand Oaks Winery -closer to Patton than Marble Hill- for a brick oven-fired pizza and a wide array of interesting wines ranging from sweet (which I didn't taste) to a good, dry Norton. Another earnest endeavor with the winemaker behind the tasting bar that day, she was busy making gift baskets, tying up baskets of crackers and peanuts and little treats with a bottle of wine with raffia and glitter-coated ribbon. The winemaker can tell you the story behind each wine, and Thousand Oaks  produces a significant amount of varietals. For a small winery, I was impressed with the amount of wine they're producing, and all of the dry reds are very palatable. I especially appreciated being waited upon by the winemaker who told us the story behind each blend, and the story of each photo on the different varietal labels. I left there with a bottle of their "Decompression Norton" and will stop in again soon. The brick oven is enviable.

A very new kid on the block, Eagle Pass Winery located ten miles north of Poplar Bluff, opened its doors a few months ago. I didn't even know about Eagle Pass until I called directory assistance asking about the now-defunct Bonanza Spring Winery (formerly located on Westwood in Poplar?). While the AT&T folks couldn't connect me to Bonanza Spring, they offered the number to Eagle Pass, "a similar business". At 9:30 am on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a cheery barista answered the phone and gave me terrific directions to their charming cabin on the hill. The drive to the winery is a first-gear sort of drive over a rutted road (in parts), but it's worth the slow drive to arrive at a beautiful pitched roof wooden building unlike anything in the surrounding area. The winemaker works closely with Mr. Durso Hills up in Marquand, and is making great dry wines as a result. Friendly atmosphere, with ample seating, I hope Eagle Pass becomes a destination like Commerce's River Ridge for the Poplar Bluff community. Located in a beautiful setting with truly genuine, friendly staff, with great wine on their side, Eagle Pass has the potential to succeed in the industry.

So many fantastic wineries in the southeastern Missouri Ozarks, I may have to return to my campsite under the spreading canopy of white oak- black oak and deep soils and vegetation unlike the Western Ozarks, unlike the St. Francois Mountains country, but distinct, and possibly harboring a dormant population of Isotria medeloides somewhere on a hillside in Marble Hill.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

In Sandstone Woods

Unlike in the Arkansas Ozarks, sandstone is not the dominant substrate in the Missouri Ozarks. In fact, it's difficult to find a high quality, reference condition sandstone glade in Missouri; most of them have been beat to hell by grazing and are now mantled in lichen and moss rather than the rich assortment of perennial forbs and grasses that exist on some of Arkansas' better quality sandstone glades. Even in The Terrestrial Natural Communities of Missouri, Nelson (2010) chose Bona Glade to represent this natural community, and, even though it harbors a population of Geocarpon minimum, Bona Glade is pretty damaged. Lots of lichen, moss, a scattering of Aristidas and some Sporobolus, but not enough fuel to carry fire through the areas that are not exposed sandstone bedrock.

So it is exciting to visit a Gunther Sandstone woodland and glade complex that is quietly asking for restoration. Large, gnarled chinquapin oaks reach through the canopy, all surrounded by Eastern red cedars and 80-100 years old red oaks and black oaks. Considering that this area is bound on one side by fancy homes and the other side by a state highway, it has been almost mothballed, lacking the same rigorous level of ecosystem restoration attention that the rest of the 2,995 acres of dolomite, limestone and chert woods have received in the past thirty years. Like the rest of the area, the sandstone woods possess great potential for restoration.

The prescription? It's easy when you're starting with nice woods and glades to begin with: cut and burn the cedars, but not in massive mounds and heaps or you'll sterilize the soil for about ten years or more. Massive burn heaps are usually colonized by mullein, fireweed, Crotons, other exotics like sweet clover. Send a fire through the woods and glades (but not with red needle cedar slash on the ground--potential for spot fires), not a super hot and shocking fire, not a fire in the middle of April or you'll damage the already sensitive system. A good November fire within prescription seems to work well. And thinning the out of context red oak/black oak?  Don't drop the trees all over the place or you'll be dealing with the mess for years. I wouldn't recommend logging them out of there, either, or you'll damage the fragile understory and soils. Girdling a select few, not all at once or you'll be fighting shrubs for years, but girdle a few at a time and keep up with the fire on a 3 to 4 year rotation in the early stages of restoration. When girdling, or when applying herbicide of any type to any plants, use the mixture dosage as indicated on the product's label. In one sandstone woods I visited this year, I saw the results of a girdling project wherein the person applying Garlon made the mixture stronger than indicated on the label. The Garlon certainly worked on the trees, but the herbicide went into the roots and sterilized the soil surrounding the trees--the area looked like a nuclear holocaust had occurred with lots of mullein and fireweed and nothing else. This is not the desired future condition for an ecosystem restoration project if managing for biodiversity is the goal.

It's unfortunate that we have thousands of acres of restorable woodlands and glades in the Ozarks and certain tracts are being bludgeoned to death by folks wanting to "restore" them for some reason. Is it for biodiversity? Is it for a specific species of wildlife? Is it because some folks like playing with big toys like wood chippers and bulldozers in the name of "savanna restoration"? Most of our damaged systems- damaged by overgrazing by domestic livestock, years of fire suppression, deer overpopulation, logging, other sources- they require kidd gloves during restoration. Be ye good and gentle stewards of the earth and all....

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Fall Fire Season!

It's beginning to feel a lot like fire season, these days of low humidities and the crisp morning air. Springfield NOAA's graphics of sunny days, winds 5-10mph, humidities hovering around the upper 40s to mid 30s, plenty of sunlight to dry the fuels are enticing. News came through the post today that one of my friends will be burning his woods around the Niangua Basin country for the next two days. While many in the Ozarks take time off from work to kill deer (please, do more of that, too), others take good fire weather days to restore ecosystems. 

March 23, 2013 marks the 30th anniversary of the first institutionalized woodland fire in the Ozarks, a very easy fire that took place on a small 40 acre tract in the central Niangua Basin. That site has come a long way since 1983, considering that the fire regime has continued there on a 3 to 5 to 7 year rotation all these thirty years. But in fact, the regularly occurring fires never stopped following European settlement in this part of the Ozarks. Local landowners kept this country burned for the past 100 years or so, as the rich grass-forb mix (fire-dependent) provided "forage for livestock," the fires "kept the ticks down," and landowners here have known all these years that regularly occurring fire is good for wildlife populations. Burn a nice woodland tract and the deer and turkey will migrate there to take advantage of nature's food plot. Today, with increasing urbanization at wildland borders, the overabundant deer populations are penned into these nice woodland tracts, feasting on high quality native forbs and then hitting up surrounding suburban gardens planted in hostas. 

Considering that the Ozarks landscape is fire-adapted and, in fact, fire-mediated, the rich, biodiverse flora that lies dormant in so many thousands of acres of woodlands will only appear again after a fire. To fully restore the heterogeneous matrix of woodland flora that thrives following regularly occurring fire events in high quality systems, one must apply fire. Mechanical treatment alone may offer the structural component of a woodland, the open canopy, for example, but without fire, one cannot restore an ecosystem and all the complex associations that derive from this ancient process.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Shorter days move in

The long shadows stretched through the dry chert woods to the crest of the ridge on Thursday afternoon. I tried to set out early that day to check firelines, to walk through the woods with the constant swooshing of my bedraggled running shoes through the flammable, fluffy oak leaves that curl and bend in a way that accepts fire so willingly (as most oak woodlands are wont to do in the Ozark Highlands in November). It was nearing 3pm and my camera's flash was activated on a barren, an exposed ridgetop that only a few weeks ago was loaded in an explosion of light and color--asters, goldenrods, the last of the Silphiums. Today, white fluffy seed heads are all that remain of the suite of glade composites, and by 3:30, the winter shadows moved in, socking in the landscape in gray and chill. Winter botany in a high quality (frequently burned) landscape, one rich with long-lived perennial forbs, can be challenging with the distinguishing leaves and arrangement desiccated and fallen off a stalk of goldenrod. I'm brushing up on my winter twigs to prepare for deer browse surveys, which are growing increasingly important as a way to track Missouri's destructive, overabundant (and out of historical context) deer populations in light of our lack of 4" snowfalls (which allow for aerial censuses).

Fire season is upon us--you can feel it upon stepping out into the morning air. The crunch of the leaves, the relative humidity that is distinguishable as good fire weather. After this summer's much- politicized wildfire season, many are a little gunshy of rushing into rx fire season again. But it is an ancient process, fire, the results unable to be replicated any other way. It should be implemented carefully, responsibly, within prescription, with the greater goals of ecosystem restoration and the protection of biodiversity as the driving forces, not politics.  

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Now Featuring: More Ozark Seasonal Wines!

On Halloween night, I went to the grocery store for an extra bag of Reese's Snack Size for my trick or treaters. By 6pm on October 31, the Halloween aisle at Gerbes had been dismantled, replaced with red and green signage, red and green Reese's peanut butter minis, red and green party tablecloths, fake potted poinsettias, an inflatable Santa Claus, red and green M&M's. Halloween items, not yet discounted, were heaped up in a cart in the middle of the bakery. At the local craft store, Christmas craft items appeared in late June-- the red and green pompom yarn, Christmas craft idea booklets, crosstitch patterns of candles and holly. It's age-old, apparently, vendors pushing Christmas long before December rolls around. My daddy recalls Woolworth's setting out their Christmas items in August even as far back as the 1940s, so it's not just during my lifetime that Christmas has been crammed down our throat during the late summer and early fall. But, really, who would buy their Christmas candy in October? However, I laud the handmade community members who start cracking on their handmade Christmas presents in August. I stitch until my fingers bleed to finish my Christmas presents by mid-December, never really starting until after Thanksgiving.

Nevertheless, with the coming of the highly celebrated holidays come the specialty Missouri wines that are only available during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Augusta Winery's trustworthy newsletter alerted me this weekend that they're serving hot mugs of their Hot Apple Pie Mulled Wine at the Wine and Beer Garden. This sweet seasonal mulled wine is made with Augusta Winery's River Valley White wine, mulling spices, apple juice, and brown sugar. On a visit to North Missouri this weekend, we encountered Riverwood Winery's mulled wine, made with one of their lighter red wines, a North Missouri take on Gluwein, the German spiced wine intended to be served warm. Any wine with mulling spices is bound to be sweet, so they're good for sipping after indulging in pie. I tend to prefer Sambuca after dessert while others in my world like Norton or tawny port.

Ste. Genevieve Winery, located in charming downtown Ste. Genevieve, rolls out their Christmas Plum Wine each November. This sweet wine is made with plums, and is popular among sweet wine drinkers. At 10$ a bottle (and festooned with festive label art), the Christmas Plum Wine is one of the winery's more popular wines. Even non-wine drinkers like this one during the holidays, and it's available now at the winery. (I personally prefer their Bolduc, which is a nice dry red wine...) I found the Christmas Plum Wine and Ste. Genevieve's Thanksgiving wine for sale at the New Florence/Hermann exit Phillips 66 gas station today.

St. James Winery, located in the post oak savanna Central Plateau, now offers a cranberry wine during the holidays. This sweeter fruit wine is also appropriate for after dinner sipping, only available during the holidays and, like the Christmas Plum Wine, comes with a nice snowflake-themed label (good for gift giving). But St. James' annual offering of Nouveau, a take on Beaujolais Nouveau, is certainly worth the wait. This year it is made with a blend of Rougeon and Chambourcin and has overtones of bright raspberries and a smooth finish reminiscent of the French Beaujolais Nouveau. For the past several years, I've picked up a few bottles (a steal at $10) to bring home to Louisiana for Thanksgiving dinner and the annual taste test where my family and I compare Missouri wine to locally available French wine.

Meramec Vineyards rolled out their two Christmas and Thanksgiving wines recently (I saw them at Schnuck's): Fireglow is a mulled spice wine, and Harvest Moon is a pumpkin spice wine. (Fireglow's label features a big pit fire at night) As my journey on the Missouri Wine Passport Program continues, we took the day off to visit a fruit wine winery outside of Hermann on Hwy K off Hwy 19. Endless Summer Winery offers lots of fantastic fruit wines which would be very appropriate for after dessert sipping, but their semi-dry pecan and raisin wine would be ideal with a tray of Christmas cookies. It's really not very sweet (writes the Norton fan), and the overtones of nut and butter are just fantastic. Both wineries are open during the week as well as weekends.