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.