Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Sweet and hot

In my ongoing efforts to visit every Missouri winery (at least once), I've amassed quite a collection of wine. Granted, I usually only taste dry reds and the occasional Chardonel or Vignoles, but not every Missouri winery makes my favored suite, and it is unlikely that I would visit a winery without tasting and buying their wine. During this adventure, I've visited a handful of fruit wine wineries; yes, I realize grapes are also fruit, but there are Missouri wineries experimenting with apple, raspberry, blueberry and other fruit wines.

I tend to avoid sweet wines as a rule, but visiting some of these fruit wine wineries allows for pretty curious tastings. Because I always buy a bottle at each winery I visit, I've expanded my wine rack to include wines other than my favorite Nortons, Chambourcins and Oregon pinot noirs. In fact, sitting behind me now in the handmade rack that holds 60 bottles are two of the more interesting fruit wines I've encountered in the past year. I have two bottles of jalapeno wine, one with an apple base and the other made with raisin wine. If someone had told me upon my move to Missouri that I would spend money on jalapeno wine, I wouldn't have believed it. Alas, that's what I did in 2012. Heading towards Hermann, the land of fine Nortons and exceptional dry reds, I stopped into Endless Summer Winery with the sign out front sporting a cheery sunflower on top of a brilliant blue sky background. The winemakers/owners here are a very kind and earnest husband and wife team making fruit and nut wines, a vast departure from the traditional Hermann offerings. One of the more curious wines they make at Endless Summer is a delightful pecan wine with a buttery finish that seriously complements Christmas cookies. Their sweet fruit wine offerings aren't sticky sweet, and certainly palatable. I really enjoy the experimentation that is taking place in a lot of Missouri wineries these days; rather than sticking to the tried-and-true combination of Chambourcin+Norton, many winemakers throughout the state are testing the waters with St. Vincent blends, Norton+Cabernet Franc, and other permutations of grapes. But the fruit wineries like Oovda Winery around Springfield are taking fruit winemaking to a new level with wines ranging from dry to semi-dry to sweet with a panoply of fruits. (For the record, Oovda's Norton is very nice and ages well for about 4 years.)

But back at Endless Summer Winery, we took our time and went through the whole list which includes a blackberry wine of great freshness and depth. At the end of the tasting, the wife poured me a jalapeno-raisin wine in my little tasting glass. It has all of the great flavor of a well-grown jalapeno, quite a bit of the heat, and a cooling and crisp aftertaste. The jalapeno wine is particularly dry and bright on the nose. I left with two bottles. While it makes a great cooking wine, especially for curry or South American dishes calling for cumin and turmeric, the winery reports that some patrons sit down in the ample seating here and drink it, straight up.

And that's exactly how patrons enjoyed Odessa Country Winery's jalapeno wine, called Tornado Spotter. Located in the Central Dissected Till Plains in Lafayette Co., this charming little winery also specializes in fruit wines. As part of the tour of Lafayette Co. wineries wherein I met some fantastic winemakers and stocked up on some great dry reds, Odessa Country Winery is situated right on the designated wine route, and well worth the visit. The winemaker here is a charming young man who likes to hunt and has created a great hangout for hunters in his winery--deer heads on the wall, camouflage decorations, and so forth. And he makes semi-sweet fruit wines including their award-winning Country Concord, a cherry wine and a traditional elderberry wine. Their Tornado Spotter was made with home grown jalapenos and a crisp green apple. I don't know how long apple wines are to age, but I have a bottle in my refrigerator waiting for a night of burritos and salsa and someone with whom to drink it since it takes me a long time to finish a bottle of white wine, regardless of the fruit (or vegetable).

This has been a fascinating few years of visiting Missouri wineries. I realize this may read like a marketing pamphlet, but with the diversity of grapes, winemaking talent, available Missouri fruit, and experimentation, most wine drinkers of all sorts will find some sort of wine to enjoy on their own travels throughout Missouri.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Deer, we have a problem

Aromatic sumac doesn't stand a chance of survival in the deer infested woods I visited earlier this week. For the past four years, with increased urbanization and a changing demographic in the area, the deer problem in these woods has escalated to mind-boggling levels, such as it has throughout the Ozarks in similar settings.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, we conducted our winter twig browse surveys a few weeks earlier than normal, in mid-February rather than March, because, in the absence of snow, helicopter deer counts could not occur. Since moving to the Ozarks, every summer I've sampled deer exclosures to measure the impacts of deer herbivory on herbaceous vegetation. The winter twig counts are simply another way of measuring the ever burgeoning pressure deer have on biodiversity. Granted, I know a deer problem when I see it, but I fly by data collection to guide decisions rather than anecdotal evidence.

So, in a feverish 8 hour period, I tallied all of the multiple thousands of browsed twigs and unbrowsed twigs on preferred and unpalatable winter stems. Ice cream plants for deer include sassafras (72% browsed), all of the sumacs, dogwood, white oaks, hazelnut and bitternut hickory, with its tender orange buds. In years past, I didn't detect a lot of browsing on buckeyes, but this year, 68% of the buckeyes I sampled had their big bulging buds snipped off. Only 15% of the black oaks showed signs of browse (which is high for an unpalatable species), and deer are apparently not very interested in the green stems on box elder. Alarming is the amount of winter twig browse this early in the season. I suspect that if we resample in early March, the percentages of browsed twigs will be even greater. If there is substantial browsing going on in mid February, it bolsters my data collected from the deer exclosures that illustrates significant browsing occurring on herbaceous flora as well.

In the past few years, I've amassed quite a list of ice cream plants, those tender (usually high C value species) perennial forbs that form a rich matrix of heterogeneity in nice, restored Ozark woodlands. In one 5,000 acre tract I sample every year, the only place in the whole acreage one can find Triosteum perfoliatum is inside a deer exclosure; undoubtedly it existed throughout the area historically but the deer have extirpated its population everywhere else. Deer love the asters, especially Aster patens, Aster anomalus, and Aster drummondii. They're not crazy about Verbesina helianthoides, so much so that in one 854 acre tract I sample, it is the sole forb in the woodland understory. It's not very fun to botanize in deer problem woods. Deer also browse heavily on the juicy stalks of jewelweed and the flowering heads of Ratibida pinnata, Ohio horsemint, and even the stickery heads of the Echinaceas.

The deer problem began in the Ozarks like a wave from the east, quickly and resolutely. Biotic homogenization is taking its toll on once healthy woodlands and there seems to be no end in sight until the woodland understory is a carpet of sedges and fragile fern.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Great Backyard Bird Count Begins!

From my inbox:
The 16th annual Great Backyard Bird Count has officially begun! We're on a record-breaking pace with 928 species already reported by mid-day on the first day. The previous species record for the entire four-day count was just over 600! Today through Monday, February 18, we invite you to be part of this massive citizen-science effort. Join tens of thousands of fellow bird watchers from around the world by counting birds and submitting your checklists to www.birdcount.org. Simply watch birds for at least 15 minutes at any location and tally the number of each bird species you see. Submit a new checklist for each day and for each new location. You can count in as many locations as you like. Just be sure to enter a new list for each site.
Into day three of the bird count, and I'm seeing that some lucky folks in the Ozarks are seeing Greater roadrunners! Check in here to see updated Missouri lists. You can also sort by county....

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Classic Limestone Glade

For the past few years, I've been assisting a colleague with a fun project to map all of the glades in Missouri. Part of the mapping process involves field verification, driving down Hwy 7, Hwy 5, CR V, all over the place to check out what I think are glades to make sure they're glades and not overgrazed pastures. So far, most of the glades I've mapped have not turned out to be overgrazed horse pastures, but the propensity is there to do so as the signature for a glade is shallow bedrock and overgrazed pastures show up in infrared as shallow bedrock communities (because, of course, they've been grazed to hell).

Visiting a nice high quality limestone glade in the Warsaw country means seeing a thick thatch layer, ready for fire, Mentzelia, Isanthus, and good limestone glade signatures, including maples. Maples are so misunderstood in the Ozarks; sure, they're often a sign of fire suppression, meant to be cut and stump treated, but in certain limestone communities, they are a natural part of the landscape, especially in dry woodlands and limestone glades. They're keystone.

I especially appreciate visiting glades in the maintenance phase, after the cedar removal and burning, with successive fires at a 2-4 year interval. The slabs of rock with crinoid fossils avail themselves, the warm season grasses peak, the ruderal species sort themselves out among the signature plants that define this high quality natural community.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

High and Dry

KOSHKONONG, MO. Early settler accounts from the central Ozarks are always so fascinating, usually offering great descriptions of the landscape before the age of extraction began, before 5 million passenger pigeons were killed in a day and our virgin oak woodlands were clearcut and then riddled with livestock in the name of industry. Our State Historical Society has recently made their catalog holdings digitized, which means you can search for Missouri-related historic documents by county or region. A very fast search for documents pertaining to lower Oregon County, located down south of West Plains (a historic Ozark prairie plain, hence the name), revealed a rich history that my old friend at the former Western Manuscripts thought "wouldn't be of interest." This old friend printed off the photostat of H.E. Starlin's "An Early History of Oregon County, Missouri" which includes a compendium of historic accounts from the late 1800s and early 1900s. It has proven to be of great interest, and I don't know how to repay my old friend besides buying him a pint of KATY Trail Pale Ale next weekend. I realize it's his job to help patrons to the library, but his expediency in the matter was pretty impressive. This document is exactly what I wanted.

I've read Schoolcraft's journals, Theodore Pease Russell's journals from the St. Francois Mountains, Wilhelm's journals, countless GLO surveyors' notes and a lot of highly localized historic accounts. But I seldom spend time down here, a stone's throw from Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, so it's a real treat to have a document in hand while here that offers a glimpse of what the country looked like 200 years ago. Combined with the witness tree map that shows widely spaced blackjack oaks, randomly spaced post oaks and a few, a very few black oaks, the notes about "thinly timbered" and "mantled in bluegrass" appear as a great departure from the current landscape. One of my colleagues called this country "beater land," rugged and heavily abused by anthropogenic forces like grazing. While much of the county is currently in pasture and other development, the few wooded tracts are damaged by grazing. This country is so dry, almost xeric, that "dry chert woodlands" takes on a variation captured in the book that is not seen in much of the Ozarks. These variations capture the essence of repeatable patterns across the landscape, but even the author of the book would say that this Oregon Co. country is exceedingly dry, resulting in spare vegetation and short, stunted post oaks and blackjack oaks.

Well-drained soils based on Ordovician Jefferson City-Cotter dolomite dominate the site that is best characterized as historic savanna--not savanna in the 1980s political term, but true savanna with a 10-30% canopy cover. Of course, today, like most of the Ozarks, this area is out of context with its historic character with densely stocked red oak-black oak and thick layers of leaf litter mantling the woodland floor. But look past all those little whips of 80 year old relicts of grazing, those red oak-black oaks and you'll see massive old blackjack oaks and post oaks. Little glade openings avail themselves on the bluffs, thickly coated in grass cover and scattered forbs (and a few cedars, of course). From a 1919 document submitted by an Uncle Dick Smith: "In the fertile bottoms, the settlers built homes and barricades to guard against wandering Indians, bears and wolves. They cleaned the bottomlands of timber and put in crops of corn, cotton, tobacco, and garden vegetables. There was plenty of timber along the streams but the hills were bare and because of this tall stands of blue and prairie grass stood a yard high on the hills and plains...." I hope to work to bring back all that blue and prairie grass to compliment all those old witness trees that still exist in their full glory in Oregon County.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

In and Around Ste. Genevieve

Among my favorite towns in the Ozarks are the two culturally distinctive historic locations of Hermann and Ste. Genevieve. The historic fabric is alive in well in these two towns, one steeped in German tradition and the other in French Colonial heritage. When offered the opportunity to stay in a bed and breakfast gratis the Missouri Wine and Grape Board as a reward for visiting almost 100 Missouri wineries, I investigated the options in both of these places, opting for St. Gemme Beauvais in downtown Ste. Genevieve, walking distance to historic sites, restaurants, coffeshops and a fantastic museum. (The only offering in Hermann was Adam Puchta Winery which is located a drive away from downtown with her coffeeshops, bookstores and museums).
The 50 degree sunny weekend couldn't have been better suited for being in town, for visiting nearby wineries on Saturday and the stunning pine woodlands on Sunday. Gratefully, friends from nearby places joined us for the weekend, for wine at The Old Brick, a fantastic little restaurant/old school bar located in the place of the first brick building west of the Mississippi River. Wine offerings by the glass consisted of sweeter wines here, but on the top shelf on display at the stately old dark stained wooded bar were bottles of Chaumette's 2009 Norton. The visible surprise of our bartender upon ordering the Norton conjured thoughts that perhaps guests to the Old Brick don't really order it very often.
We took dinner both nights at a terrific little cafe, the Big Field, which only recently began offering nightly supper. This window lined room is well appointed, and the menu includes Creole staples such as their fantastic gumbo, among the best I've had since leaving Louisiana. Wines by the glass include California basics, and no Missouri wines (which was pretty surprising, actually). Nice staff, great service, and a diverse and interesting menu. Around the corner is Station 2 Cafe, a coffeeshop with a vibe (and coffee) that rivals our great coffeeshops in New Orleans. Located in a former fire station, Nomex and other fire gear line the walls. For my wine getaway weekend, the best wine I had in the course of three days was splitting the bottle of Chaumette Norton at The Old Brick. I grabbed a few bottles for my rack, but they won't be ready to drink for a few years...