Monday, January 19, 2015

Winter woods and a January Fakeout

It's tempting, it really is, to break ground on my garden to set out lettuce and kale seeds during these warm days in January. We have yet to see the brunt of winter, but we're experiencing what is, in some states with highly regular patterns like this one, called a January Fakeout. Winter has only just begun, but this week is proving to be ideal for hauling all of my tropical houseplants to the porch for a good, thorough soaking. And the short spate of warmer temperatures and sunshine has made for ideal hiking weather.

Winter hiking in the Ozarks tends to allow for the viewing of all of the incredible geologic formations: Gasconade dolomite boulders perched on a ledge, limestone cliffs covered in ice forming veritable swords, sandstone benches that wrap around a contour line, invisible during leaf on.

Winter botany is also fun, seeing all the desiccated flower heads and the Echinaceas with all the seeds picked clean by goldfinches throughout the season. We may have come across a wood rat midden that day, seeds and twigs and debris all packed under a dolomite shelf on the glade. There are plenty of seeds in fire-mediated landscapes, a forb-dominant world with suites of flowering plants for pollinators and birds alike. The cedar waxwings and Eastern bluebirds were thick that day, mobbing the stray cedars and picking them clean of bright blue berries. But it was the red-headed woodpecker population-- every sunny slope, every post oak and white oak and black oak filled with the chattering calls of this charismatic woodpecker. Hooray for acorns on the landscape, and for the brilliant sunshine that makes the male bluebird feathers look almost neon.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

January is Norton Month

Among the stars of my wine collection are multiple examples of the finest Nortons that Missouri offers. I began collecting Nortons in 2005 when I lived close to my favorite Missouri winery, River Ridge, located on the wooded hillside of Crowley's Ridge. River Ridge Nortons are inky, beautiful, heavily oaked expressions of this sumptuous grape. Since 2005, I've traipsed all over our fair state tasting and collecting Nortons. To date, Missouri harbors over 200 acres of Norton grapevines, and our winemakers are making terrific wines from them ranging from dessert wines to light bodied blends and single varietal bottles.

In the past ten years, Norton has come a long way in the wine world, garnering the attention of wine writers and securing its own Reidel stemware (a must-have if you really want to learn Nortons and the subtleties of the wine). Todd Kliman's book A Wild Vine is a fun read that traces the history of the varietal and takes on the tone of a travelogue through Norton territory in America. Kliman conducted significant research in Missouri and sets the stage for a local author to expand on this lead to cover the grape's rich history in Missouri.

The Missouri Wine Passport program inspired thousands of Missourians to visit wineries all over the state in a terrific incentive program. Wineries popped up all over the place, cashing in on what came to be a continuous flow of visitors. The program ended a couple of years ago, and while visiting Missouri wineries remains a pastime for interstate and intrastate traffic, I've talked to winemakers from several of the lesser known, smaller, and off-the-beaten-path wineries who have felt the direct result of this lost guaranteed audience. I've met some very earnest folks trying to make ends meet while producing a wide range of quality wine, from dry fruit wines to sugary grape wines to Nortons and other dry varietals, winemakers who have noted ratcheting back production of the dry wines to increase their bread-winning sweet wines which serve as gateway wines for many Missourians. But convince the sweet wine lovers to taste the dry wines and often they'll make the switch, slowly, slowly phasing out their ordering of Concord-based wines and opting instead for a Chambourcin...which can lead to an appreciation of Norton.

As president of the International Norton Wine Society (because we have a member from England), I have great hopes this year for more well-deserved acclaim for Missouri Nortons. While there exist a couple of websites that are promoting the Norton grape, I will be working on developing a site for the society which will include a notes section for members to post their comments on new discoveries, on the ageability of Nortons, and all things Norton. In the meantime, especially with Oregon pinot noir now virtually out of my price range, I have hopes of bolstering my dwindling Norton collection. What better time to start than Norton Month!