Thursday, December 30, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Sonoma Valley Christmas Bird Count (2010)

I participated in the 2010 Sonoma Valley Christmas Bird Count today. This was the 111th year of Christmas bird counts in the United States. I helped count in seven different locales in the Sonoma Valley, most in the hills above Hwy. 12 in the Glen Ellen area, many of them ordinarily closed to the public (private preserves and ranches) but including three places open to the public--Quarryhill Botanical Garden, the grounds of Imagery Estate winery, and Cavedale Rd. In total, we saw over a thousand birds of 55 species: Canada goose, Bufflehead, Hooded merganser, Common merganser, Pied-billed grebe, Double-crested cormorant, Great blue heron, Great egret, Turkey vulture, White-tailed kite, Cooper's hawk, Red-shouldered hawk, Red-tailed hawk, Kestrel, Merlin, Killdeer (pictured), Wilson's snipe, Mourning dove, Anna's hummingbird, Belted kingfisher, Acorn woodpecker, Red-breasted sapsucker, Hairy woodpecker, Northern flicker, Black phoebe, Steller's jay, Scrub jay, Crow, Raven, Chestnut-backed chickadee, Oak titmouse, Bushtit, White-breasted nuthatch, Bewick's wren, Ruby-crowned kinglet, Western bluebird, Hermit thrush, Robin, Wrentit, Mockingbird, Starling, Cedar waxwing, Yellow-rumped warbler, Townsend's warbler, Spotted towhee, California towhee, Song sparrow, White-crowned sparrow, Golden-crowned sparrow, Dark-eyed junco, Red-winged blackbird, Purple finch, House finch, Lesser goldfinch, and American goldfinch. A very cold but entertaining day.

For more information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Birding Spots

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: 2007 Wellington Vineyards Sonoma Valley Petit Verdot

I opened a bottle of the 2007 Wellington Vineyards Petit Verdot a few nights ago, not expecting too much from it. That is not intended as a reflection on the producer. On the contrary, Wellington is one of my favorite Sonoma County wineries. I say it simply because Petit Verdot  has always seemed to me a grape best used in blends. Most single-variety bottlings I've tasted have been fairly uninteresting. The grape was traditionally planted in Bordeaux for qualities similar to Cabernet Sauvignon, but it appears to have fallen out of favor there because it tends to ripen very late--even later than Cabernet. According to Jancis Robinson, Petit Verdot is at its best only when it's able to fully ripen, and that frequently doesn't happen in Bordeaux. It would seem then to have greater promise in California, and it has increasingly been planted here in the past 20 years or so. If this wine from Wellington is any indication, it deserves more attention than I've been willing to give it in the past.

The wine was an inky, deep, purple-red. Besides red fruit, it had interesting hints of citrus and cinnamon on the nose and even something a little suggestive of curry, along with floral undertones. The nose was complex and it continued to evolve as my evening with the wine progressed. Later, the wine suggested gingerbread. There was something spicy about the flavors as well. The wine was nicely balanced between a solid core of subtle fruit; bright, fine-grained tannins; and good acidity. The tannins suggest this wine will benefit from another two or three years in bottle--although it's certainly drinking well now. With a little air and time in the glass, the wine softened to reveal some chocolatey flavors and it developed a silky, almost creamy mouthfeel. Delicious wine. Highly recommended. Purchased directly from the winery.

I tasted an excellent 2006 Merlot from Wellington Vineyards as well not long ago. Otherwise, I recommend this winery for its white wines made from Rhône grapes such as Rousanne and Marsanne, for its single-vineyard Cabernet wines, and for its Victory bottling--a Bordeaux-style blend made only in superior years. Wellington has also made some truly excellent Grenache. The tasting room is one of the friendliest in the Sonoma Valley, and the wines are very reasonably priced--which is a welcome change from the usual pattern in California--expensive wines that don't deliver. I also like the fact that Wellington Vineyards is a completely solar-powered winery.

[Update: I was in the winery today (April 20, 2010). Jannis behind the counter reminded me that this was a very small single-variety bottling of extra grapes leftover from a batch that went into the Victory--which is to say, there is no more of this wine....]

Wines I'm Drinking: 2009 Girard Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc

I recently tasted the 2009 Girard Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc.  The wine was an attractive pale gold. The nose was fairly closed, but offered hints of toasted grain, and limes. There was little of the typical Sauvignon Blanc gooseberry scent at first, although, with a little time in the glass, the wine began to suggest its origins a little more distinctly. Crisp but with a rush of fruity sweetness on the mid-palate. Good length. Decent acid. The wine seemed fresh and clean, but I wouldn't have objected to a bit more raciness. Not exciting, but decent everyday wine. Not too outrageously priced at $11.89 at Costco.

Found Art: Berkeley Sidewalk (December 29, 2010)

More found art found in Berkeley on a recent visit. Look down. There is art under your feet almost everywhere you go--but especially on city streets.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Found Art: Mannequins, Berkeley (December 28, 2010)

On a recent trip to Berkeley, I snapped a few photos of interesting things I saw. I liked these mannequins in a shop window. I liked the light on them. They seemed like sculptures, or like figures painted by De Chirico.

A few minutes after photographing them and moving on, I walked back down the street, passing the window again. The figures had been dressed and the lights had been moved. Found art of a few minutes' duration.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Miscellaneous: Rain (Christmas Week, 2010)

It's rained off and on the entire past week or so. Today we got something of a respite, but more rain is predicted for tomorrow. We've had another 1.45 inches since last reporting (on the 21st). That brings our total for the 2010-2011 rainy season to 16.85 inches. The historical average accumulated rainfall for this date in Santa Rosa is 11.52 inches, so we remain well ahead of normal.

Found Art: Drying Peppers (December 27, 2010)

Drying bell peppers in the sun for a while seems to intensify their flavors. They're also very pretty to look at when cut up and arrayed in the sun--even if it's feeble late-afternoon sun, in the winter, between showers.... Found art. Beautiful.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Wines I'm Making: 2010 Sangiovee Rosé bottled

On the morning of Christmas Eve, I bottled the 2010 Sangiovese rosé, a simpler process than it often is because I had already racked the wine a couple of weeks earlier and there was no sediment to deal with. We got thirty bottles of rather pale wine--disappointing compared with the lovely 2009 I made. The weather in the past year was some of the worst in memory. A very wet spring, a cold summer, and late rains were all a problem. Some vineyards made no wine at all. We survived the sudden hot spell in late August (I think it was) that ruined many vines (growers pulled leaves earlier in the year to try to prevent mold and encourage ripening, but that left the grapes exposed to the blistering heat and sun, causing many to shrivel). In the end, our Sangiovese grapes never really ripened, and the wine is an expression of the year we had. Quite drinkable, but thin and not very satisfying. One can only hope for better weather next year....

Friday, December 24, 2010

Miscellaneous: Lemons and Christmas

I spent the morning bottling wine again (more on that subject soon). Working out in the driveway, I was admiring the bumper crop of lemons and other citrus fruit we have on the trees this year.

It reminded me of Christmas holidays I've spent in Europe (this being Christmas Eve, it seemed natural to think of such things)--specifically Christmas in Italy. In Italy (at least in Tuscany) it's the custom to decorate with branches of lemons and oranges, which is very pretty (although to someone living in Tokyo at the time--the land of the $3 lemon--it seemed terribly extravagant). Italy is a nice place to spend Christmas, although Paris isn't bad either. I spent most of the summer in France this past year (2010). Wish I were there now--although I hear the weather is wretched at the moment....

Wines I'm drinking: 2005 Bodegas Gran Ducay "Monte Ducay" Cariñena Reserva

I recently tasted the 2005 Bodegas Gran Ducay "Monte Ducay" Cariñena Reserva from Trader Joe's. Although not indicated on the label, I suspect this is made mostly from Tempranillo, probably with some Grenache thrown in. It comes from Cariñena, one of the four Denominación de Origen wine growing regions in Aragon, in northeast Spain. Cariñena was originally known for its native grape of the same name, although we more commonly see the French spelling, Carignan (or Carignane in the US; confusingly, the locals often call it Mazuelo), but today Tempranillo, Grenache, and other grapes appear to be grown more widely here. Traditionally Cariñena made rough, highly alcoholic red wines mostly for blending, but a switch to better grape varieties, lower alcohol levels, and modern equipment has resulted in lighter, fruitier wines more suited to modern palates. This wine is a good example of the modern style. It comes unusually packaged, the entire bottle wrapped in paper. Tasting notes follow.

The wine was a medium blackish-red color, not really showing much age but without any of the purple hues of a young wine either. Bright, cassis-scented nose with hints of vanilla suggestive of aging in American oak. Generally, a fresh, attractive nose, if not highly distinctive in any way. Later there was a hint of cloves. Light but balanced on the palate. Good acidity with a rush of fruity sweetness on the mid-palate, balanced by fine-grained tannins. Overall the impression the wine gave was a trifle rough, but appealing. Light, fruity, tasty, and with a buttery quality on a moderately long finish. Good everyday wine and an excellent value at $5.99 at Trader Joe's.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Plants I'm Growing--First Blooms: Cyclamen Coum (2011)

Although it's still 2010, I count this as the first blossom of 2011 in the yard because this plant usually blooms in the first week of January, and little else will be coming into bloom any time soon, except for candytuft. This tiny little cyclamen has done wonderfully. I planted two or three a few years ago and there is now a thick mat of leaves about two feet square. The plant appears to spread both by underground roots and by seed.

This flower opened on December 21, 2010. Cyclamen coum started to bloom on January 3, 2010 last winter and on January 8 in 2009. Thus, a year according to this plant was 352 days this season, 360 days in the preceding season.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Food I'm Eating: Crab Cakes

I recently got the recipe friends use to make what have consistently been the best crab cakes I've ever tasted--better than any restaurant crab cakes I've had. I have the directions scribbled on the back of a post card. They're certain to get lost. Rather than annoy friends by asking for the recipe again, I record it here. This strategy has the added benefit of passing it on to the rest of the world--not that this recipe is unique; it may be a fairly standard one. All I know is that it works. Enjoy.

  • One pound of crab meat
  • A couple of slices of bread with the crust removed (or, use panko-style bread crumbs)
  • Milk to soak the bread in
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • One teaspoon Old Bay Spice (I found it in the seafood section at Safeway)
  • One tablespoon baking powder
  • One tablespoon mayonnaise
  • One tablespoon chopped parsley
  • One tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • One shallot diced small
  • One beaten egg
Directions: You can soak the bread in the milk to make it soft and then mix this in with the main ingredients as a binder, but I prefer to forget the bread, form the cakes, and then dip these in panko bread crumbs, in which case you get a slightly crunchy outside coating. The drawback is that the cakes don't hold together as well and need to be turned with care. In any case, first, sauté the shallots until just golden, reserve, and allow to cool while following the next steps. Put the crab meat into an appropriately sized bowl, add all the ingredients (including the shallots now and the bread if you've decided to use it) and mix well. Form the mixture into cakes. Dip in the bread crumbs until coated (if you didn't use the bread as a binder). Fry the cakes in a little olive oil and butter until golden brown. Garnish with lemon wedges and sprigs of parsley. Serve immediately. A well-chilled dry white wine is an excellent accompaniment. Champagne is ideal. Otherwise, Chablis (real Chablis), a crisp Marsanne or Rousanne from Wellington Vineyards, or wines like Sancerre, Menetou-Salon, St. Veran, or Pouilly Fuissé would be my choice.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Found Art: Weathered Table (December 20, 2010)

On a recent trip to Berkeley, I found much serendipitous art. This scratched and weathered table top on Fourth St., with its interestingly placed hardware, caught my eye. It reminded me of something by Barcelona-born artist Antoni Tapies. I'll be posting more from Berkeley in the coming days.

Books I'm Reading: Champagne

I've just finished reading Champagne, by Don and Petie Kladstrup (Harper Perennial, 2006). The book is subtitled How the World's Most Glamorous Wine Triumphed over War and Hard Times. The book, as the subtitle suggests, is a brief look at the vicissitudes the Champagne region has suffered over the years--from repeated military invasions to the invasion of phylloxera (the deadly root louse that nearly wiped out all of France's wine production in the late-1800s). This breezy history of the region, the wine, and the people who have made Champagne (especially figures that have had an important influence on its history--including Attila the Hun, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Pérignon, Louis IV, and Napoleon) is an easy page-turner, but entertaining and informative nevertheless. Good light reading for a rainy afternoon. By the same authors as Wine and War.

Rain: Nearly Steady Rain (December 17-21, 2010)

In the past few days, it's rained off and on, and we've had pretty much steady rain since last night (the night of the 20th). So far, we've accumulated another 2.75 inches since last reporting, it continues to rain, and more rain is expected--through Christmas at least. That brings our total to 15.15 inches as of around noon on the 21st, but that will probably rise in the next few days. The historical average for December 20 in Santa Rosa is 9.31 inches, so we remain well ahead of normal rainfall levels.

[Update: On the evening of the 21st, we got another 0.25 inches, bringing the total to 15.4 inches.]

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Spring Lake (December 15, 2010)

I joined a Madrone Audubon Society bird walk around Spring Lake in Santa Rosa today. I saw 45 species, the group about 50. The highlight was a Pacific loon on the water--a very unusual bird for this location. Otherwise, mostly the usual suspects, although Eared grebe is also fairly unusual here and the Goldeneyes were females, making it hard (for me anyway) to tell if any of them was a Barrow's goldeneye (a much less common bird, but one of these has been reported in the past couple of days). Birds sighted were: Canada goose, Mallard, Bufflehead, Common goldeneye, Ruddy duck, Pacific loon, Pied-billed grebe, Horned grebe, Eared grebe, Double-crested cormorant, Great blue heron, Great egret (pictured), Snowy egret, Black-crowned night heron, Green heron, Turkey vulture, Red-shouldered hawk, Sharp-shinned hawk (probable), Virginia rail (heard), Common moorhen, American coot, Ring-billed gull, Anna's hummingbird, Belted kingfisher, Acorn woodpecker, Black phoebe, Steller's jay, Scrub jay, Crow, Raven, Bushtits, Bewick's wren, Ruby-crowned kinglet, Western bluebird, Yellow-rumped warbler, Spotted towhee, California towhee, Song sparrow, White-crowned sparrow, Golden-crowned sparrow, Dark-eyed junco, Slate-colored junco (single bird, probable), House finch, Lesser goldfinch, and American goldfinch.

For more information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Bird Watching Spots

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Miscellaneous: Rain (December 14-16)

Drizzle over the past few days and real rain last night added another 0.50 inches to our 2010-2011 precipitation total. We have now had 12.45 inches of rain this season. The historical average for this date (December 16) is about 8.3 inches in Santa Rosa, so we remain solidly ahead of schedule. Average annual rainfall in Santa Rosa has historically been 31.01 inches.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Wines I'm Making: Bottling 2010 Sangiovese Rosé, 2009 Zinfandel

Yesterday I racked this year's Sangiovese rosé off its lees and a deposit of tartaric acid crystals (shown in the photo). This wine always forms a crust of crystals over the lees, making it very easy to siphon clear. I also did a final racking and sulfiting of the rest of the 2009 Zinfandel we made from the neighbor's grapes. For reasons that aren't clear to me, the wine from this second (five-gallon) container seems to have better flavor and more body than the 2009 Zin I've already bottled (from a three-gallon container).

Today I'll bottle the Zinfandel. I'll let the rosé sit another week or so and then bottle it before Christmas. Tasting the wine yesterday, it seems pleasant, but it's much less flavorful than the excellent rosé we made last year. I expected that. The weather was so cool for so long in the summer of 2010 that the Sangiovese just didn't ripen fully.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Music I'm Listening to: Gil Shaham, The San Francisco Symphony

Heard a moderately disappointing concert in San Francisco last night, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. On the program were Henry Cowell's Synchrony, Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 (Gil Shaham soloist), and Harmonielehre, by John Adams--choices that seemed a rather odd juxtaposition of the modern and the classical. I didn't particularly care for the Cowell, although I'm not sure it got the most sympathetic of readings from MTT. I'm afraid I would have to say the same about the Mozart. Shaham played well, but MTT's direction seemed flat and lifeless, particularly in the middle movement, which had a rather droning effect. The dramatic swelling effects of the third movement seemed stifled, the dynamics all wrong. Was it just me? Also, the sound seemed distant and muffled. I've had that sensation once before at Davies Symphony Hall, when hearing Itzhak Perlman in October 2009. Last night I was in seat Y107. At the Perlman concert I was in AA107--same seat two rows back. I wonder if there's a dead spot there? Still, that doesn't explain MTT's apparent apathy during the Mozart.

The night was saved by hearing what I thought was an excellent performance of Harmonielehre, by modern composer John Adams. To my surprise, Adams (pictured) appeared onstage afterward. He seemed very pleased with the performance, and the audience was very appreciative as well. Harmonielehre, nominally a minimalist composition, doesn't suffer from the monotony the word "minimalist" often conjures up. I felt like I was riding a scintillating wave throughout, but particularly in the rousing first and third movements of this long (40-minute), three-movement composition from 1985. It was almost hypnotizing in places, but never boring. I'm sure it is a taxing piece for the musicians to play (the cellos, for example, have to bow identical patterns over and over again, and the percussion has to maintain the same difficult rhythms for long stretches, although I noticed that the cello section had been divided where possible, so that one group would take over while others rested briefly). The San Francisco Symphony rose to the challenge, and the conductor seemed engaged in this case. Very enjoyable.

Photo of John Adams by Deborah O'Grady, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Books I'm Reading: The Story of Sushi

I've just finished reading Trevor Corson's The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice (Harper Perennial, 2008--originally published 2007 in hardcover as The Zen of Fish).

I was a bit disappointed when I first opened the book. It starts with details of the day of a student at an American sushi school. I had not been expecting a narrative about Americans learning to make sushi in the United States--but that turned out to be only a small part of the book, a core around which author Trevor Corson has wrapped a rich roll of facts about everything from the origins of sushi as a way of preserving fish that developed in parts of southern China, Laos, and Northern Thailand to the extravagances of inside-out sushi roll innovations that developed in Los Angeles. Along the way, there's a great deal about the biology of the fish we eat (and their parasites), about how we perceive flavors, about how this fermented fish dish turned into a cheap snack food in Edo (today Tokyo) in the 19th century, and how Japanese-style sushi was transformed into the trendy international food it is today, mostly by chefs in the US. The stories of students struggling (and ultimately triumphing) at the California Sushi Academy has its own interest. It's not only a vehicle for conveying the wealth of information about sushi this book contains. It helps to give us a look at the future of sushi, and it adds a poignant note. I was left wondering how these young chefs will fare in a world of rapidly growing demand for fresh fish from sources that are already alarmingly overfished in many cases.

Having lived in Japan for nearly 20 years, I know that my experience reading this book will have been somewhat unusual. I suspect people less familiar with Japan and sushi will struggle to fully grasp some of the ideas. How many will be able to immediately visualize a gunkan--the little seaweed-skirted "battleships" that are used to serve soft, loose toppings such as ikura (salmon roe), kaibashira (adductor muscles of various shellfish), and uni (sea urchin), or see in their mind's eye a sushi chef doing katsura-muki? To their credit, the author and publishers have included a useful glossary, a good index, and an impressive bibliography--not that the latter would be immediately helpful. Perhaps it doesn't matter, though: most people today will simply turn to the Internet if they want more on a gunkan (try a Google search on "sushi gunkan").

The author wants the reader to understand what a traditional sushi bar is like in Japan, and what the experience of eating sushi is like with a trusted chef. Much of what passes for sushi in America seems slapdash and overblown to a traditionalist. At the same time the author is not judgmental. He doesn't criticize what sushi has become in the United States. He merely reports on it, in one or two places letting his characters convey their sense of loss stemming from the way sushi has changed (but note that the "characters" are all real people with their real names given; this is not fiction. Their conversations were recorded on the spot or taken down in interviews, sources and dates meticulously noted). The author seems to accept that there is evolution in all things and that there will always be those that celebrate the new and those that treasure the traditional. He seems to say there is room enough for both approaches.

Having said that, Corson's longing to help non-Japanese understand the true ethos of the sushi bar is palpable. The author points out that there are three ways to order sushi in Japan--you can order a set course at a fixed price; you can order favorites by the piece (okonomi); or you can allow the chef to prepare a course of what he (and in Japan it's invariably a he) believes to be the day's best selections and in the order that shows them--and the chef's skills--off best (omakase). Corson suggests that it's only through this last approach that the most sublime of sushi experiences is possible. He is probably right, but there are caveats that I think need to be emphasized.

Because sushi bars in Japan generally don't have menus (beyond indications of daily specials on chalkboards or on handwritten pieces of paper tacked up on the wall), ordering okonomi or omakase is often a gamble--particularly when you're a first-time customer. Not knowing what your meal will cost ahead of time is not entirely unknown in the West (you've probably ordered a "special" before without asking your server its price), but it's a fundamentally alien concept, especially in the US. Trying a new sushi bar can be surprisingly expensive (emphasis on "surprise"). There are unscrupulous chefs that overcharge, charge according to their mood, or charge more or less because they like or dislike the customer. That's unfair and it feels like being taken for an unnecessarily long ride in a taxi in an unfamiliar city. In my view, Corson underplays the potential for abuse in the system, but he is right in saying that by establishing a relationship with an honest and talented sushi chef (becoming a regular customer and being open to new things), there can be a great deal more to the sushi experience than plates of excessively sauced-up rolls full of the fattiest fishes on top of piles of overdressed greens--which is what sushi in America often is. An excellent read. Highly recommended.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Pine Siskins (December 10, 2010)

Another rainy day today. Sitting idly by the window, watching the bird feeder, I noticed a bird that looked unfamiliar. From a distance I think I would have dismissed it as a female House Finch, but the streaking was too strong, the bird was too small for a House Finch (about the size of a Lesser Goldfinch), and I noticed a hint of yellow in the folded wings--all of which said Pine Siskin to me. Eventually five showed up, quite aggressively shooing away other birds that tried to use the feeder.

I suppose Pine Siskins have been in the yard before. I probably simply never bothered to look closely enough to tell. A new feeder closer to the window probably helped. This, however, is the first time I've had a good look at one and known what I was looking at. That brings my Sonoma County total to 200 species, my life total to 325, and makes a 54th yardbird. I got a good photo of one of them, despite shooting through a window. Got a nice shot of an Oak Titmouse as well (below).

For more information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Birding Spots

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Rain: Clear Now After Three Days of Drizzle (December 6-9, 2010)

It's finally cleared this afternoon after nearly three days of rain and drizzle. At this location we got another 0.85 inches of rain, bringing our 2010-2011 precipitation total to 11.95 inches. The historical average for this time of the season is about 7.5 inches, so we remain well ahead of normal for the moment.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: 2006 Bodegas Eguren "Mercedes Eguren" Shiraz/Tempranillo

I picked up the 2006 Bodegas Eguren "Mercedes Eguren" Shiraz/Tempranillo--a wine made in Spain's Castilla region--at Oliver's Market in Santa Rosa a few days ago, not really knowing anything about the wine. I was interested in large part because I have enjoyed a few good Shiraz wines made in this part of Spain recently and thought this one might be worth a try, although it's 50% Tempranillo. I'm glad I decided to try it. I enjoyed this and thought it reasonably priced, at $8.99 a bottle. Tasting notes follow.

The wine had a rather interesting color. It was a fairly pale medium red--not at all the inky purple-black that Shiraz wines often are. Although this is only 50% Shiraz, I still expected the wine to be darker in color. The wine didn't look especially young or old either. The nose was initially suggestive of caramel and cranberries, although rather closed at first. Later there was something of the white pepper scent Shiraz wines often have. On the palate the wine came across as fairly simple but refined and immediately appealing, with a soft, sweet fruitiness. The tannins were restrained, but the wine had enough grip to make it seem at least somewhat substantial. The tannins were delicate and integrated with a woody sweetness, mostly on the mid-palate. Good length. Sweetish, woody, delicately tannic finish. Overall, not a profound wine, but clean, well made, easy to drink, and of sufficient character to keep it interesting for more than just the first glass. Recommended for everyday drinking. 

Found Art: Frosted Leaf (December 7, 2010)

Although it was comparatively warm overnight and in the morning today, last week saw some of the coldest nights we've had so far this season. It's always interesting in the morning afterward to see what temporary paintings and sculptures the frost has made. I particularly liked this frosted gum tree leaf in someone's lawn, looking rather like a starfish, I thought. Found art. Beautiful.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Evening Grosbeaks

I drove over to Apollo Way, in southwestern Santa Rosathis morning pursuing reports that there were migrating Evening grosbeaks to be seen. After a little searching, I found a tree full of them. There were about 30. These are fairly unusual birds in Sonoma County--and very pretty. They look rather like giant goldfinches with oversized beaks.

The birds were eating the red berries of the Chinese pistachio tree (or Chinese pistache), which mostly attracts bluebirds in my neighborhood. This is Pistacia chinensis, not Pistacia vera, the tree that produces the familiar pistachio nut. The upper photo here is a male grosbeak, the lower photo shows a female. This sighting brings my Sonoma County species total to 199, my life total to 324.

For more information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Bird Watching Spots

Miscellaneous: Rain (December 4-6 2010)

Today was the first clear day in several days. It rained throughout the weekend, adding another 1.2 inches of precipitation here. That brings our 2010-2011 total to 11.1 inches. Average historical rainfall in Santa Rosa is about 7.49 inches for December 6, so we are well ahead of normal so far this rainy season.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Music I'm writing: String Quartet No. 6

I've just finished writing my sixth string quartet. I've never heard it (or anything I've written) performed, but the computerized renditions produced by my notation software (Sibelius) appear to be reasonably good facsimiles of what an actual performance would sound like. The following link will allow you to download an Mp4 file of the composition, but the link will be good only through December 9. If you really want to hear it after that, let me know. I'll send you a copy of the file.

String Quartet No 6.m4a

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Miscellaneous: Baby Names

Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
First, to my family: No, there isn't a baby on the way that you don't know about. Now that that's out of the way, a look at popular baby names.

The people who keep track of these things today announced the most popular baby names of 2010--although it seems premature; we still have 29 days to go. I was surprised to see Aiden, a rather British-sounding name at the top of the list of boys' names (is this the Harry Potter effect?)--but I must be out of touch; apparently Aiden has been the leader for six years now. Colin, another rather British-sounding name, came in at 58. Sophia is apparently the most popular moniker to tag a baby girl with, followed by Isabella and Olivia--all rather girly names. I was surprised to see Brooklyn at number 38. Brooklyn? I thought only blues musicians were named after places (although usually states and big Southern cities). Cadence (at no. 70) and Kennedy (at 74) seem odd choices for a girl as well. 

Brooklyn seems to have some sort of international appeal, though, along with Cincinnati--but in this case, not as names. I spent the summer of 2010 in Europe, mostly in southern France. I was surprised to see many T-shirts there with references to Brooklyn and Cincinnati on them. Alas for the Cincinnati boosters, it was always spelled "Cincinati." Why? I have no idea, but there's a story in there somewhere. Is it a coincidence that Cincinnati has its own John Roebling-designed bridge that looks very much like the Brooklyn Bridge?

I was reminded of the antique bronze globe that to this day stands on the grounds of Narita-san, the vast temple complex in Narita, the town that hosts Japan's largest international airport. Important world cities are marked on the globe, including Cincinnati, attesting to that city's stature at the time the globe was made. Unfortunately (again) the name is cast incorrectly as the equivalent of "Cincinna City" (in Japanese, シンシナ市). "Shi," as the final "ti" of Cincinnati is pronounced in Japanese, just happens to mean "city" in that language, so the globe makers assumed the place was called "Cincinna" with "City" on the end, as in Oklahoma City. Oh well, I hear Cincinnati's a fine place to live these days.

Birds I'm Watching: Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

© Colin Talcroft, 2010
Sonoma County's Madrone Audubon Society took a trip to the Sacramento National Wildlife  Refuge yesterday, staying overnight to bird nearby areas today. Because of work obligations, I drove up for the day and came back last night, but still got to see tens of thousands of birds (not an exaggeration) that have come down from the north to use the Sacramento area wetlands to overwinter. There were easily 5,000 pintails alone--very pretty ducks (photo above)--and probably 20,000 snow geese or more. Highlights included a couple of bald eagles--one that caught and ate a large duck--and a beautiful peregrine falcon (the best view I've ever had of this bird, photo below). The majority of the birds were Pintails, Snow geese, Ross's geese, Greater white-fronted geese, Northern shovelers, and Coots, probably.

© Colin Talcroft, 2010
In total, I saw about 45 species. Last year on this trip, I saw seven new species. It's an indication of just how many birds I've seen in the past year that I got nothing new this time around. Still, it was a pleasure to see so many birds--in absolute numbers. Birds sighted were: Western meadowlark, Turkey vulture, Red-winged blackbird, Black phoebe, Red-tailed hawk (about seven in the course of the day), kestrel, American pipit, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Snow goose, Ross's goose, Greater white-fronted goose, Yellow-rumped warbler, Coot, Northern shoveler, Marsh wren, Northern harrier, Cinnamon teal, Blue-winged teal, Horned grebe, Dunlin, Peregrine falcon, Moorhen, Snowy egret, Raven, Great blue heron, Greater scaup, Black-necked stilt, Gadwall, white-crowned sparrow, American wigeon, Eurasian wigeon, Great egret, Bald eagle, California gull, Herring gull, Starling, Ring-necked duck, Ruby-crowned kinglet, Bufflehead, Golden-crowned sparrow, and Ruddy duck (all on the driving tour at the main refuge). At Llano Seco, saw many of the same birds but also Sandhill cranes, a Long-billed curlew, Greater or Lesser yellowlegs (too far to tell which), and Canada geese (surprisingly few of these overall), and, along the road elsewhere, a few groups of Tundra swans.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Miscellaneous: Odd Facade

I walk by this row of houses on the way to my son's school on mornings we get up early enough to walk--it's more than a mile each way. They've always struck me as odd. Here, the garage has completely taken over from the front door. No attempt has been made to create a sense of welcome. Guests aren't a consideration. Even the people who live here have been subordinated to their cars. Practical perhaps, but these houses always make me uncomfortable.

Planted along the street are several tall palm trees. I've always wondered if they were part of the development or leftovers from earlier landscaping. I've heard it was fashionable here in Victorian times to plant a pair of palm trees in front of your house and that the plantings were intended as a sign of welcome. I've never been able to confirm this, but I believe it's true because old houses in the area (especially in towns like Sebastopol and St. Helena, and in the older sections of Santa Rosa and Petaluma) often do have a pair of palms in front, usually straddling the driveway, and because in open country, an old house is sometimes discernible a very long way off because of its paired palms. I've seen a pair of palm trees, or just one, at the head of empty lots in positions that make it easy to imagine where a long-gone house once stood.

And so, I wonder about the palm trees that are planted seemingly haphazardly along the street here. They don't seem to have any relationship to the garage facades that now dominate the view. Perhaps they mark the entrances of a line of older houses that once stood along this street. I don't know. But I wonder about it.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Miscellaneous: Fiverr Continues to Grow

Earlier this year, I discovered Fiverr, an interesting Web site that allows people to post "gigs." These are small jobs that people offer to do for five dollars. That's the gimmick; every job has to be offered for a fiver. I've been watching the site develop. I thought it a great idea from the outset. Evidently, I'm not alone. The site has continued to grow, and there are now too many gigs to count, but at least the Fiverr administrators have added new categories that make it easier to find what you're looking for--or maybe what you didn't know you were looking for. Some of what's on offer is pointless, some is whimsical good  fun, some is more serious. What continues to astound me is that a lot of what people offer for a mere five dollars is clearly a stunningly good value.

To take just one example, Silverz (her screen name) will take any photo you send her and remove the background for you for five dollars (click here). I've been using Photoshop since version 2.0. This is something I could do myself, but it's tedious work, time-consuming, and easy to botch. If you don't know how to do it, your only option is to go to a printer or similar store where they'll charge you a hefty hourly fee to do this sort of thing. Look at the detail in the hair here (photo above). Five dollars? Next-day delivery? Really? Brilliant! I'm very glad to see the Fiverr marketplace thriving.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tidbits: Clear Weather for Travel

Following storms in the past few days, the weather has cleared. Cold, but a beautiful day today. Perfect day for traveling. Perfect day for leaving, for arriving, for taking photos of pretty things along the way.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Miscellaneous: More Autumn Color

Walking today, I looked down to find this pretty leaf at my feet, plastered to the pavement still wet with last night's rain. I looked around but couldn't find the tree, a tulip tree, anywhere. Where did this drop in from?

Miscellaneous: Autumn Color

Not far from my house is a winding, hilly street lined with trees that turn to brilliant red and orange every autumn. The trees have red berries much relished by bluebirds (which otherwise aren't around much). Even wild turkeys fly up into the trees to get these berries. Late in the afternoon, the setting sun can make the whole street seem like it's lined with torches. Beautiful.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Miscellaneous: Rain (November 20-21, 2010)

Another storm passed through yesterday and last night. We got an additional 1.3 inches here. That brings our total for the 2010-2011 rainy season to 8.9 inches, which is well more than two inches ahead of normal for this date and a quarter of the way to the average annual rainfall for Santa Rosa, which is 31.01 inches.

[Update: On the night of the 22nd, another 0.3 inches fell and it looks like more is on the way. Our total is now 9.2 inches.]

[Update: Since then, another 0.7 inches, to bring the total to 9.9 inches.]

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Miscellaneous: 75th Anniversary of Transpacific Airmail

Surprisingly, the US Postal Service has made virtually no effort to commemorate the upcoming 75th anniversary of transpacific airmail service. A 50th anniversary stamp was issued. Call me a nerd, but I would have thought this anniversary (Monday, 22 November 2010) was worth a stamp as well.

The post office at Alameda will use a commemorative cancellation on the 22nd. It was from Alameda in San Francisco Bay (near what is now the Alameda Naval Air Museum) that Pan-Am's clippers left for Manila by way of Honolulu, Midway, Wake, and Guam to deliver commercial mail across the Pacific by air for the first time on 22 November 1935. It took about a week to get to Manila. Remarkably, a letter from the San Francisco Bay Area to Manila still takes about a week (although overnight delivery by courier--a service we take for granted--would have been impossible back then). What is significant though, is that prior to the air service a transpacific letter would have gone by boat, taking 21 days or more just to reach Honolulu.

I first got interested in stamp collecting in grade school, but became more serious about it in high school, in large part because of an envelope my mother gave me that had flown the Pacific on the transpacific route, from Manila to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1937.  It had been given to her by someone in the Dayton Stamp Club--when it would have been only a few years old (photo above). Both my mother and her mother were stamp collectors.

I loved the colorful cover because it was adorned with fancy cachets from Wake and Midway and had been backstamped at all the locations on the route, including Hong Kong and Macau, destinations added in 1937--which doesn't make much sense unless the envelope went from Manila to these last destinations and then made the entire return trip through Manila again, to San Francisco (Alameda) and then on to Nebraska. The cover was probably made as a courtesy for a collector by a Pan-Am employee--it's the only one I've ever seen that appears to have every possible marking from the route on it (the reverse is reproduced above). Considering the history it embodies and the pleasure it's given me over the years, it seems worth the effort to make some commemorative covers of my own for the 75th anniversary for someone else to enjoy someday. I'll be driving down to Alameda on Monday to get the cancellation for the cachet I designed (based on a vintage Pan-Am poster).

[Update: A crew from Chinese-language TV station KTSF showed up while I was getting my cancellations. They interviewed me, as I knew more about the history of the original flights than the Post Office people seemed to. As usual with these things, most of what I said was edited out and what they used seems fairly random, but, there it is.]

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Wines I'm Making: 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc

Following a day of bird watching out at Bodega Bay, I racked, sulfited, and topped up all the 2010 wines and added oak staves to the Cabernet. This year I didn't bother with the rather tedious process of testing using paper chromatography to see if the malolactic fermentation had finished in the Cabernet wines. I'm taking it on faith. All bubbling had stopped and the wines have had enough time, I believe, to complete a malolactic fermentation (I inoculated them on October 25, so they had 24 days).

Everything looks good.  I've moved the wines to a quiet, cool, dark place. Now, begins the waiting that is most of the winemaker's work. The rosé will probably be ready for bottling around Christmas time. The Cabernet will have to be racked two or three more times before bottling, at around this time next year. In sampling the wine as I racked it today, it seemed to have a particularly marked Cabernet spiciness. We'll see if that persists in the finished wine.

2010 marks our seventh vintage. The vines were planted in 2001, first bore fruit in 2003, and we first made wine in 2004 (the bottle on the far right above). There ought to be six bottles in the picture--2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and the just-bottled 2009 (far left)--but we lost nearly all the grapes to raccoons in 2005. I made only six bottles of rather wretched stuff that year and I didn't bother to label it. In every other year, I've designed a new label. The 2008 and 2009 wines have been the best so far, with the 2007 showing the first real promise from the little vineyard. I have high hopes for the 2010, although it's likely to be less ripe than last year's wine because of the strange weather this season. I haven't tasted the 2004 in several years. It's time for a vertical tasting. What a luxury to be able to do a five-year vertical tasting of wines I've made myself.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Books I'm Reading: The Theory of Almost Everything

Periodically, I subject myself to a little reading about physics. It's a difficult subject, but it interests me, and I can't help thinking that an educated person ought to understand how the universe works. Typically, I find it hard to retain the sometimes mind-boggling ideas that modern physics forces us to accept. Each time, though, I feel like I come a little closer to understanding.

I just finished reading Robert Oerter's The Theory of Almost Everything (Plume, 2006) and feel like I've made a quantum leap (pun intended--but the phrase is apt). Perhaps it's just because I've continued to read about physics over the years--it was bound to make more and more sense just by virtue of exposure--, but I feel Oerter's book is exceptionally clear and well written. It puts the whole progression of human thinking about the stuff of the universe into historical perspective, from Newton to string theory (and made it clear to me for the first time how string theory developed out of earlier models). The book talks a great deal about why none of the theories we have today is yet good enough (for example, all current models more or less ignore gravity). At the same time, however, the author makes it clear just how brilliant the currently accepted Standard Model is, despite its deficiencies. The book is something of a celebration of the Standard Model, which Oerter calls the crowning achievement of human thought in the past 100 years. Illuminating, and, given the difficulty of the subject, remarkably easy to follow. Highly recommended--if you like this sort of stuff, that is.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Spring Lake (November 10, 2010)

I joined a group yesterday for a quick morning walk around Spring Lake while waiting for work to come in. It was a warm and misty morning, but quickly cleared and there was a lot of activity. For some reason, there were ruby-crowned kinglets everywhere. I counted more than 20. In total, the group saw more than 30. One was rather cooperative as I took its picture (above). A Great egret was equally cooperative, posed (uncharacteristically) on a very high branch (below). Got excellent views of a sharp-shinned hawk and crow fighting overhead. Two female ring-necked ducks were unusual. There were nine buffleheads on the lake, first of the season for me. Winter is approaching.

Birds I saw were: Canada goose, Mallard (140), Ring-necked duck, Bufflehead, Ruddy duck, California quail, Pied-billed grebe, Eared grebe, Double-crested cormorant, Great blue heron, Great egret, Green heron, Turkey vulture, Sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Red-shouldered hawk, Merlin, Sora (heard only), Coot, Ring-billed gull, Belted kingfisher, Acorn woodpecker, Downy woodpecker, Flicker, Black phoebe, Hutton's vireo, Steller's jay, Scrub jay, Crow, Raven, Chestnut-backed chickadee, Titmouse, bushtits, Bewick's wren, Ruby-crowned kinglet (20+), Hermit thrush, Robin, Cedar waxwing, Yellow-rumped warbler (both Audubon's and Myrtle types), Townsend's warbler, Spotted towhee, California towhee, White-crowned sparrow, Golden-crowned sparrow, Purple finch, House finch, and American goldfinch. Forty-nine species in total.

The merlin was a first for me and the purple finch a first in Sonoma County for me. That brings my Sonoma County total to 190, my life total to 321.

For more information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Bird Watching Spots

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rain: November 6-7, 2010

We had another night of rain on the 6th. The storm added 1.5 inches to our total. The total at this location for the 2010-2011 rainy season now stands at 7.4 inches. That's well ahead of the historical average of 3.26 inches for November 8.

[Update: There was another 0.15 inches on November 8-9, bringing the total so far to 7.55 inches.]

Friday, November 5, 2010

Wines I'm Making: A Busy Time of Year (2010)

This is a busy time of year because of all the winemaking going on--a winery in miniature is in operation here. Yesterday I bottled the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc to make room for the Sangiovese rosé in the only six-gallon containers I have. The rosé appeared to be mostly finished fermenting--on day 18, the longest fermentation I've done so far. But I 'm only the shepherd; the time it takes is the time it takes. Next chore (although a pleasant one) will be to design labels for the 2009 wines--and, before too long, for the 2010 rosé; the rosé should be ready to sample by around Christmas.

The turbid, fermenting rosé was beginning to clear as the action of the yeast slowed, and the wine tasted dry, so I thought it best to limit oxygen exposure by racking the wines into a single big container. I sulfited lightly (four Campden tablets in six gallons plus three fifths, or about 40ppm). Sulfite is supposed to kill any yeast still alive, but I suspect it wasn't enough because the wine continues to send up streams of fine bubbles, and the airlock is still percolating. That's just as well. The new rosé is now protected from oxidation at least to some extent by the sulfites and the lack of air space in the new container, and any ongoing fermentation will make the wine completely dry, the way I like it.

I put the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon/Franc into 30 bottles but left one uncorked. We tasted it last night for the first time. It was in shock from the bottling and the sulfiting, so not at its best, but it was enough to get a first impression. I'm very pleased. I reserved some overnight in a decanter, helping to blow off sulfites and giving the wine air--it had developed some lovely leathery scents, rose-like scents, and cocoa scents. The palate was broader and more generous too, again marked by leather and cocoa. An excellent effort, if I say so myself. The photo shows toasted oak staves that were in the resting wine for a full year and the siphon filling bottles.

The 2010 Cab is still in the front room undergoing malolactic fermentation. Soon that will be done. It's been 11 days since the wine was inoculated. Activity appears to have slowed, but malolactic fermentations can be hard to judge. I will have to test it. I have every reason to hope the 2010 wine will be better even than the wine just bottled--the vines are a year older, I know what I'm doing now, the vines didn't suffer from mold or critter attacks (raccoons) because I've got the sulfur spraying, netting, summer trimming, and electric fence down to a routine now. As long as the weather cooperates. This year, we made good wine despite difficult weather. Should be ready for anything now--except the unexpected.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Miscellaneous: Bird Brains

I have 32 vines in my backyard, about a third Sangiovese, the rest Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. What has that got to do with birds you ask? Read on.

Yesterday, while lazing around the house, on a day free of work, I was stretched out on the sofa, reading The New York Review of Books. I began to hear a metallic scratching noise, but it stopped and I went back to reading. Until I heard it again. I didn't really feel like moving so I tried to ignore the sound, but after about ten minutes of distraction I followed the noise to its source. A California Towhee was valiantly battling its own reflection in the stainless steel sides of the grape crusher I'd washed and left out to dry by the front door (the 2010 grape harvest at my house has recently finished).

Nearly everyone has a story about something amazing crows do. Around here, they're known for cracking the walnuts they forage from the walnut groves by either dropping them from lampposts or leaving them in the street to let cars run over them. I've heard that certain crows in Sweden have learned to cover solar cells that control outdoor lights with their wings in the winter so that the lights come on and provide warmth. At the other end of the scale, I've read that a tom turkey will happily attempt to copulate with empty space if a lightbulb is suspended for it at the right height to suggest the head of a female turkey. Clearly some birds are smarter than others.

Last year for a few weeks a Spotted Towhee perched every morning on one of the side mirrors of my car and attacked its own image, believing the reflection to be an intruder. Is this a towhee thing? They are territorial birds. Where do towhees rank on the scale of bird intelligence? Is it smart to recognize your own image as another bird but not as yourself? I don't know, but I was impressed by the persistence of the California Towhee yesterday. He was at it off and on almost the entire day. I tried to explain the illusion to him. He didn't want to listen. Today I'll put the crusher away, ready for next season. Don't want to tire him out.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: Pinot Egregio?

Last night I tasted all seven of the Pinot Grigio wines currently available at my Trader Joe's (Santa Rosa, CA). I don't normally drink Pinot Grigio much, but I was interested to see the wines were priced between $3.99 and $6.99 a bottle (mostly $3.99) except one--which was $19.99. I wanted to know if the expensive wine, the 2009 Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, was worth the money. I'm the curious sort. As usual, I tasted the wines blind. All seven were from Italy, mostly from the area around Venice. All were from the 2009 vintage. The wines I tasted were:
  • 2009 Gaetano D'Aquino Pinot Grigio delle Venezie
  • 2009 Santa Margherita Valdadige Pinot Grigio 
  • 2009 Contadino "Vivace" Pinot Grigio delle Venezie
  • 2009 Mezzacorona Vigneti delle Dolomiti Pinot Grigio 
  • 2009 Contadino Pinot Grigio delle Venezie
  • 2009 Villa Borghetti "Grigio Luna" Pinot Grigio delle Venezie
  • 2009 Villa Sonia Pinot Grigio Piave
Tasting notes follow:

2009 Gaetano D'Aquino Pinot Grigio delle Venezie ($3.99 at Trader Joe's)
In ripe years, this producer is responsible for some decent, very inexpensive Chianti Classico wines, also available at Trader Joe's. The Gaetano D'Aquino Pinot Grigio was a very pale straw color. The nose offered very little. There was a hint of pears at first but not a lot else. Later the nose seemed simply grapey with nothing distinctive about it. The wine was clean and tart and rather thin. Not a lot of flavor. Although it was a trifle sweeter on the mid-palate, it mostly tasted like water with a few lemon slices thrown in. Perhaps a suggestion of almonds? Not unpleasant, but of no special interest. 

2009 Santa Margherita Valdadige Pinot Grigio ($19.99 at Trader Joe's)
Very pale gold. Distant caramel scents but little else at first. A hint of almonds and some musky scents later. A little more complex than the first wine, but generally similar. Somewhat drier but mostly tastes like lemon water. Only moderate body and flavor. Why does this wine cost so much more than the others? 

2009 Contadino "Vivace" Pinot Grigio delle Venezie ($4.99 at Trader Joe's)
It was obvious from the outset which wine this was because it's made with a little fizz in it and the bubbles were apparent. None of the other wines had any fizz.Very pale gold. Tiny bubbles. Has the scent of grain or toasted grain. Apricots perhaps? A little sweet, so more body than the first two wines, but no more flavor. Somewhat heavy and quickly tires the palate. Otherwise a rather dull wine with little to recommend it. Might be attractive very well chilled on a hot summer day, but there are better wines for that purpose.

2009 Mezzacorona Vigneti delle Dolomiti Pinot Grigio ($6.99 at Trader Joe's)
This was one of the better wines of the bunch. Again, a pale gold. Slightly toasted scent. More fruit than most of the other wines. Citrus flavors. Lemony, but still not very much on the nose or on the palate. Perfectly drinkable and probably my favorite of the group, but probably not sufficiently interesting to make me want to go back for more--although I might. 

2009 Contadino Pinot Grigio delle Venezie ($3.99 at Trader Joe's)
Pale gold. Again suggestive of apricots and roasted grain. Distant suggestion of hazelnuts perhaps? Flat compared with some of the other wines (less acidity). A tad sweeter than the first two wines, but less sweetness than the second pair (above), but all seven of the wines were quite dry, with the Vivace wine  and perhaps the Villa Sonia wine most noticeably with a little residual sugar. Ultimately, just plain, uninspiring wine. Little scent, little flavor.

2009 Villa Borghetti "Grigio Luna" Pinot Grigio delle Venezie ($4.99 at Trader Joe's)
Palest in color of the seven wines. Distant lemon scents. very closed. Almost no scent at all. Seemed more alcoholic than most of the others (but that was an illusion: they were all 12% or 12.5% alcohol). Seemed the driest of the bunch as well. Mineral hints on the palate. Good, peppy acidity. This was one of the better wines, I thought, but still thin and rather bland.

2009 Villa Sonia Pinot Grigio Piave ($5.99 at Trader Joe's)
Pale gold. The only wine in the group that had any sort of a nose to it. Really stood out by comparison. Strong floral scents. Nectarines. Roses? Suggestive of a Viognier wine. Similar on the palate. Some peachy, nectarine, apricot flavors. A bit longer than some of the others. Actually has a little body to it. Slight interesting bitterness on the finish. At least it has a finish. While this stood out, it was mostly by comparison. The wine was a bit sweet, fairly one-dimensional, and thin. This has some immediate appeal but it's the sort of wine that's easy to quickly tire of. If you like an easy, slightly sweet ,very light white wine for sipping, however, it's likely to appeal.

In conclusion, I wouldn't write off Pinot Grigio entirely, as it's sometimes tempting to do. Collio in Italy makes some of the best--notably the wines of Livio Felluga (I noticed recently that the new Santa Rosa Whole Foods has the Livio Felluga Collio Pinot Grigio). There are good examples coming out of Oregon and Washington State. Having said that, none of the wines reviewed here is much of a recommendation for the grape. Not only was the Santa Margherita wine little better than the others, none of the wines was especially interesting. The best I've had recently is probably the 2008 Villa Teresa Pinot Grigio they've been pouring at Café Della Stelle, in San Francisco. Pinot Grigio can, in fact, be excellent.

For more wine reviews, use the Wines I'm Drinking label above. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: 2008 Dancing Coyote Albariño

I recently tasted the 2008 Dancing Coyote Albariño, made from grapes grown in Clarksburg, in Yolo County, California, just south of Sacramento. When I think of Albariño, I think of Galicia, in Spain, and northern Portugal, where this grape makes fresh, light, crisp, but not insubstantial wines of sometimes exotic perfume. I was skeptical, but the Dancing Coyote wine was a pleasant surprise. I'd have to call it quite successful as an expression of Albariño.

The wine was a pale straw color with the faintest hint of green. The nose was characterized mostly by a fresh, light, clean, sappy scent with a suggestion of passion fruit in it. Later there was something peachy, vaguely reminiscent of a Viognier wine. Still later, I was getting brown sugar along with hints of yogurt and cucumbers. On the palate, the wine was clean, crisp, and light with some tropical fruit flavors. While the wine is quite dry and I would pair it with seafood or other foods that go well with crisp, dry white wines, it began to seem somewhat heavy as the evening went on (perhaps needing a little more acidity?). Having said that, this was tasty wine very much in the mold of the European wines that are its roots. I'm very pleased to learn that someone is making good Albariño in California. I think Clarksburg may deserve a visit one of these days. Reasonably priced at $7.95 at Andy's Market, in Sebastopol. Recommended for everyday drinking.

One thing seems odd, though: The label is quite plain considering the evocative name of the winery. Maybe a label re-design is in order? I do that sort of thing....

For more wine reviews, use the Wines I'm Drinking label.

[Update: I did some Internet image searching. I see the brand has used a much more interesting label in the past (and on the 2009). I don't quite understand this label, I'm afraid. Hmmmm..... But it's the wine that counts.]

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Miscellaneous: You Can't Keep Creative People Down

Four men and a theft. According to an interesting little article in the New York Times today (October 26, 2010), these band members had their instruments stolen not long before they performed on a New York subway using their iPhones as virtual instruments. I hope it's a true story. If it is, it's a testament to the indomitable human urge to create. To tell the truth, I'm a bit skeptical. It all looks planned to me, but planned serendipity can still be fun. Very interesting that you can play like this on an iPhone.

Birds I'm Watching: Sierra Arroyo Dr./Strawberry School Park, Santa Rosa (October 26, 2010)

I've done so much bird watching recently--in the past two years. I'm not sure why all of a sudden. Partly it's been because work has been slow; I've had more free time than usual. But that's not the only reason. My parents were occasional bird watchers, and they always pointed out anything interesting that might be flying around when we were traveling or when we visited the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens or Central Park (I lived in Brooklyn until I was seven). Once in a while we made trips specifically to see birds--to places like Greenwich, Connecticut and Jamaica Bay. So, I grew up with a sense that birds were something worth looking at, and these things stick with you.

Not all the associations are pleasant. My father was (and remains) a short-tempered man that was incapable of making concessions to the attention span of a child. The trips at times were excruciating, to tell the truth. My brother and I were always being yelled at for scaring the birds away. We were expected to walk quietly and attentively in a way that we weren't capable of at that age. It was at times frightening to be with my father when he was focused on seeing something and we were in the way. Still, I enjoyed seeing unusual birds even at that age--when everything went right, when we found something worth seeing that my brother and I had managed to keep from scaring away, when my father was in an agreeable mood.

Still, I didn't take much of an interest until years later, in Ohio, during my summers at Glen Helen, in Yellow Springs. Even then, though, I would have been a casual bird watcher at best. But things rub off on a child.

Partly it was the names. I loved the sound of names like "Purple Gallinule" and "Greater Yellowlegs" and "Scarlet Tanager" and "Ruby-crowned Kinglet." What was a tanager? I had no idea, but I loved seeing its flaming red form flitting in the trees in Greenwich--one of the very early sightings I clearly remember. I would have been about six. And then there were the Rand McNally flash cards we played with. I can still see the the red, blue, and yellow box they came in. My parents believed in educational toys, and they were fun--so many fewer things to be distracted by in those days. The names of the birds I could enjoy without having to worry about scaring anything away.

We had a box of bird flash cards and a box of animal cards. Each of the bird cards had a picture on the front with the name of the bird on the back. Again, the names seemed magical. They were mostly exotic birds on the cards that didn't show up in New York City. There was the Roller, a mostly blue European bird (I was thrilled to finally see real Rollers during my two months in France this summer); the Hornbill, with its absurdly big bill; and the Cuckoo, among many others. These birds and birds like the Scarlet Tanager are imprinted in my brain in a peculiarly distinct way. The names even today send me tumbling back in time in a wave of associations that can be momentarily disorienting.

The birds from Glen Helen form another group with strong associations--the Eastern Wood Pewee in particular, for reasons that are obscure to me--again, I think I just liked the name. These were birds pointed out on hikes through the woods with camp friends. I don't know how much I was paying attention, but it was around that time that I began to get a sense of the great diversity of birds, and that's probably what I find most interesting today. It's freshly astonishing to me every time I go out to be able to see 40 or sometimes 50 or 60 distinct species in a single day of walking in the woods or at the ocean's edge, little more than half an hour from home.

And so I have begun to look for birds in the past couple of years, as if remembering a forgotten habit, as if I've been doing it regularly in all the intervening years. This morning I took a walk from Hoen Ave. to Summerfield Rd., along Sierra Creek, the creek that runs alongside Strawberry School Park. It was comparatively quiet, but I saw 26 species in the course of about an hour. Many Western bluebirds were around, attracted by ripe berries (they looked like hawthorne berries to me) and there were quite a few yellow-rumped warblers as well (photo).

Birds I saw today were: Yellow-rumped warbler, Mourning dove, Crow, Western bluebird, California towhee, Black phoebe, Song sparrow, White-throated sparrow (first of the season), Golden-crowned sparrow, Nuttall's woodpecker, Scrub-jay, Northern mockingbird, Chestnut-backed chickadee, Northern flicker, Anna's hummingbird, Ruby-crowned kinglet, Canada goose (about 60 in a beautiful V-formation), Bewick's wren, Bushtit, White-breasted nuthatch, Dark-eyed junco, Robin, Acorn woodpecker, Starling, Spotted towhee, Turkey vulture, and Oak titmouse.

For more information about bird watching in Sonoma County, see my Website Sonoma County Birding Spots

Monday, October 25, 2010

Wines I'm Making: Cabernet Malolactic Fermentation Initiated (2010)

Yesterday (October 24) I introduced an Enopherm Alpha malolactic bacteria culture into the Cabernet Sauvignon. It's often hard to tell whether malolactic fermentation has started or not, but it should be under way. About two weeks of very tiny bubbles at the edge of the wines is usually all you can see. Right now there is a fair amount of foam at the top of the carboys, but I suspect that's the end of the primary fermentation--yeast using up the last traces of sugar--rather than evidence of the malolactic fermentation under way. Molalactic fermentation will convert some of the malic acid in the wine to the softer lactic acid, which is a pretty routine step in making red wines. Once that's done, it will be time to rack the new wine into clean containers to leave behind most of the yeast and other residues still settling into the bottom of the containers. So far, everything continues to look good. The Sangiovese rosé continues its primary fermentation in the garage.

As usual, after finishing the real wine I didn't want to throw out the pressed skins and seeds. It seems such a waste. I decided to make a second-run wine again this year. I tried it last year with poor results, but I made an incorrect acid addition and made the wine artificially sharp, so it doesn't really seem like it was a fair trial. So, I added water back into the spent pressings and enough sugar to bring the soup to 20 Brix again and it has started fermenting spontaneously. Plenty enough yeast is left behind to initiate a new fermentation. This, too, will probably be undrinkable, but, you never know. It looks like wine (below).

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