Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tidbits: RIP--Helen Frankenthaler (December 27, 2011)

I saw today that artist Helen Frankenthaler died yesterday. I always liked her work. In the lobby of the Winters National Bank, in Dayton, Ohio, there used to be a very large weaving based on one of her paintings that I always liked very much (this would have been back in the 1970s, when I was in high school, or younger). I wonder if it's still there? I wonder if Winters National Bank still exists? Funny the way the Internet has changed the weight of such musings. There's no longer any need to wonder about much of anything, is there? If I really want to know, I can just Google it....*

Frankenthaler was known for the style that came to be called "color field painting"--using large washes of color, sometimes poured directly on bare canvas. I wonder how those paintings have held up--physically, I mean. I wonder if the paint and thinner has damaged the unprimed canvas over the years? Reminds me of one of Kurt Vonnegut's books--Bluebeard. Anyway, tonight I will raise a glass to Ms. Frankenthaler. RIP.

*And so I did. It seems Winters National Bank is now part of JPMorgan Chase. I learned a few other things. I had known that the bank was associated with the family of comedian Jonathan Winters, who was from the Dayton area. I didn't know that Winters studied cartooning at the Dayton Art Institute. Hmmm.... Now you know, too.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Wines I'm Making: Bottled the 2011 Sangiovese Rosé (December 23, 2011)

Between bouts of late Christmas shopping and food shopping yesterday I found the time to bottle the 2011 Sangiovese rosé from our backyard grapes. I'm quite pleased. It's come out a nice medium-deep orange-pink and, based on some quick sampling while siphoning, it has good flavors and length. It will be a big improvement from last year's thin wine, made from grapes that just never ripened fully--even if it's not as good as the excellent (as good as any rosé I've ever tasted, if I say so myself) rosé I made in 2009. Just in time to open the first bottle tonight, on Christmas Eve, with friends and family. Now I need to design a label....

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Miscellaneous: New Cocktail (December 21, 2011)

Cocktails have never been my thing, really. I've always been a wine drinker, but recently I've become curious and done a little research (the seed was planted several years ago when, driving on a whim across the country, I spent two nights at the ancestral Ohio farm of a college associate. He made us martinis on the porch. Then, this summer, I met up with my first college roommate for the first time in decades, in Seattle. He introduced me to the Zig-Zag Café and the wonderful and mysterious concoctions made there).

So far, a classic Manhattan is my favorite mixed drink, although I can appreciate a classic Martini as well (sorry, Mr. Bond--stirred, not shaken--and made using a good, distinctively flavored domestic gin--about one part gin to 1/2 part dry vermouth--none of that silly I'm-so-manly-I-need-no-vermouth routine; if you want straight gin, don't call it a Martini). When I say a "classic Manhattan," I mean a Manhattan made with rye (not bourbon), red vermouth, and Angostura bitters--nothing else--garnished with a real Marasca cherry (expensive, but tasty--the cherries, that is).

There are so many cocktails, though.... It becomes fascinating (and daunting) rather quickly. I wish I weren't such a lightweight. My experimenting is, of necessity, going at a measured pace. Tonight, trying a little alchemy, though, I hit upon a combination I rather liked. Try this: I call it a "Fertile Eve" (Eve because of the Calvados and apple connection, fertile because of the Grenadine, derived from pomegranates, traditionally considered a symbol of fertility).

Fertile Eve (by Colin Talcroft)
1.5 oz Calvados
3/4 oz Red Vermouth
1/2 teaspoon Grenadine
2 dashes Angostura Orange Bitters
Juice of a quarter lemon

Place ingredients in an ice-filled mixing glass. Stir well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lemon slice (squeeze the juice into the drink and drop the slice in the glass). You can adjust the sweetness of this drink. If it's too sweet for your taste made according to the recipe, use a little less Grenadine, a little more Calvados, and a add a little more lemon juice.

Try it. You might like it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Wines I'm Drinking: 2007 Albino Armani "Incontro" Soave

Tonight I tasted the 2007 Albino Armani "Incontro" Soave. I'm a fan of Soave. It's among my favorite Italian wines--when it's at its best--but the quality of Soave is highly variable. Sadly, most US consumers seem to know only the least interesting types.

The traditional growing zone, near Verona, in northern Italy, gets the designation "Soave Classico." "Soave Superiore" wines are theoretically better still. Areas around the Classico zone (not necessarily of the highest quality) were allowed to use the name "Soave" starting in 1968. Then, in the late 1980s, the rules for Soave were modified to allow the grape mix to be up to 30% Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, or Trebbiano di Soave (the traditional Soave grape is Garganega). The expansion of the Soave zone and the changes in the rules seem to have caused Soave to polarize into the more common, simple, mass-produced wines usually made from overcropped Garganega delivered to local cooperatives on the one hand, and wines made in the Classico zone (or outside it) from carefully tended, low-yield Garganega vineyards, often with additions of other grapes. Anselmi, Gini,  and Inama are among my favorite producers in the latter category. There are surely many more that I've not yet had the opportunity to taste. This maker, Albino Armani, was new to me. Although this is not Soave Classico or Superiore, it has presence and it's significantly more interesting than the (ridiculously) low Grocery Outlet price would suggest. This wine in fresher vintages seems to retail at around $18. Tasting notes follow.

A very pretty, medium straw color with a hint of green in it. Hawthorne flowers, wood, and apples, on the nose--or is it pears?. Good concentration on the palate--not at all in the light, throw-away style of poorly made Soave. Delicate at first but with a wave of mid-palate fruity sweetness and a mild bite after the sweetness, followed by a hint of sweetness again. The wine then lingers long on the tongue with slightly bitter, woody hints that I liked very much. A bit low in acidity (most likely a trifle tired because of storage issues--the Grocery Outlet effect) but still in decent condition. As I say, I'd like this better if it were a bit crisper, but it's still quite enjoyable and a true bargain at only $2.99 a bottle at Grocery Outlet in Santa Rosa. If you buy this, however, don't sit on it; drink it up over the holidays. A good aperitif wine. Paired well with Miyagi oysters and, after dinner, a soft goat cheese.

Rain: First Rain Since Thanksgiving (December 15, 2011)

Last night we had a little rain finally--although not enough. We got about 0.3 inches. It was the firs rain since around Thanksgiving. It brings our total for the 2011-2012 rainy season to 5.05 inches, which is well below average. Average for this day in Santa Rosa is 9.7 inches.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Music I'm Listening to: The San Francisco Symphony with Esa-Pekka Salonen and Leila Josefowicz

I attended the Thursday, December 8 performance of the San Francisco Symphony with guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and soloist Leila Josefowicz. The program opened with Pohjola's Daughter, by Sibelius, followed by Violin Concerto, by conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen himself. After intermission, soprano Christene Brewer joined the symphony in excerpts from Wagner's Götterdämmerung. I enjoyed the Sibelius and even liked the Wagner, but the main reason I wanted to attend this concert was to hear the Violin Concerto and see Salonen conduct, particularly as he was conducting a composition of his own--and what a thrilling performance it was. Salonen is dynamic on the podium, using broad gestures with both hands to communicate.

It would be difficult to try to describe something so complex as Salonen's Violin Concerto in detail, but I can start by saying how impressed I was that Josefowicz played it from memory. The more abstract music becomes and the less dependent on devices such as themes and variations and development of themes, the more difficult it must be to remember. They say muscle memory takes over, but the feat of recall involved here was nearly as impressive as Josefowicz's playing, which was impressive indeed.

The Violin Concerto opens with the soloist unaccompanied and it starts as if already in progress. The intensity is high from the get-go and the music feels relentless until the more pensive middle sections. Josefowicz played the early portions with a look of fierce determination on her face, at times seeming possessed, at other times looking somewhat more relaxed--even smiling--but there was a palpable tension even in the quietest passages. Particularly interesting was the use of a very rich percussion session that included numerous gongs and much else that was hard to see seated in the concert hall.

The music seemed highly original--modern without being modern in the sense of being stylistically linked to what we think of as modern music when the word "modern" brings the early 20th century to mind. Surely this music has antecedents. Some sections reminded me of Khatchaturian's violin concerto. Some sections had the portentous feel of a dramatic film score. Some sections put me in mind of Shostakovich. In the later movements, there are passages that introduce the feel of pop music. Yet, the overall impression was of music new and different.When I hear stories about Mahler conducting early performances of his own symphonies or of Beethoven premiering a new piano concerto, I wish I could have been present. What's more exciting than the thought of being in the presence of genius as it presents new ideas to the world? I had the feeling that I witnessed a bit of history on Thursday--that I was present at the sort of performance that will be talked about in the future by people looking back, wishing they'd been able to see Salonen himself at the podium conducting his own compositions. The music seemed like a cantilevered beam reaching into the future, even if it's too soon to know exactly what might lie beyond the reach of that beam--what it might be creating a bridge to. This was one of the best concerts I've attended in a long time.

Doing a little research, I see that Salonen's Violin Concerto had its premiere in April 2009, with Josefowicz as the soloist, and that it was written for her. I won't be surprised to see it enter the standard violin repertoire; it's likely to be played for many, many years to come. I was also able to confirm that Josefowicz is about four months pregnant, as she appeared to be--what it must sound like to the baby in there....

Photo of Esa-Pekka Salonen by Sonja Werner. Photo of Leila Josefowicz by Henry Fair. Photos Courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Wines I'm Making: 2011 Cabernet Racked Again

Yesterday, I racked the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc off the sediment following the copper sulfate treatment I gave the wine on December 2. I had noticed a hydrogen sulfide smell, which apparently can result from a low level of yeast nutrients during fermentation, a function of the weather's effects on the grapes. It's not a problem I've had before, but it turned out to be easily cured. The treatment works virtually immediately. The copper sulfate binds other sulfur compounds and creates copper sulfide, which is insoluble in wine. It drops to the bottom of the container and is left behind by a subsequent racking. Apparently it's a common practice. I had planned to do a follow-up treatment with yeast hulls that is designed to remove more, but after consulting with my wine advisers (the people at our local wine supply store), I decided it won't be necessary.

I don't like to add anything to the wine, but tiny amounts of residual copper are much better than sulfur stink. Also, I figure that we are exposed to small amounts of copper all the time anyway--as most modern water pipe is copper. I took the opportunity also to add the oak staves that will give the wine its oak exposure through to bottling at around this time next year. The wine tastes a little light--probably a consequence of the cool summer and the late rains, this year but it's too early to know for sure. In other winemaking chores, it's about time to start designing a label for our 2011 Sangiovese rosé. I'll be bottling that ahead of Christmas. The photo above shows a 6-gallon carboy cleaned and rinsed, awaiting a wine transfer.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Found Art: Drain Cover and Green and White Paint (December 6, 2011)

Walking along a street in Healdsburg recently, I came across this little composition. I love the splash of green paint on the iron drain cover, the splash of white paint on the sidewalk beside it. Found art.

For more found art, see my blog Serendipitous Art.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Birds I'm Watching: Lake Ralphine (December 3, 2011)

I took a walk around Lake Ralphine this morning--around the lake at the water's edge and then along the ridge trail that connects the lake with Spring Lake. There were a couple of unusual birds. I saw my first Varied Thrush in about four years. There was a nice Fox Sparrow on one of the trails. There was a Horned Grebe on the water, which is very unusual at this location--the Horned Grebes usually stay out at the coast. Among the gulls (mostly Ring-billed Gulls and California Gulls) there were four Mew Gulls, which don't usually show up at Lake Ralphine. One is pictured above.

For more information about Lake Ralphine and bird watching in Sonoma County generally, see my Website Sonoma County Bird Watching Spots.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Wines I'm Making: 2011 Malolactic Fermentation Finished (November 29, 2011)

Today I racked and sulfited (to 55ppm) our 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc. The wine was undergoing malolactic fermentation, which may or may not have gone to completion after three weeks. The only way to know for sure would be to do a paper chromatography test, which I may get around to eventually. I decided to go ahead and rack the wine despite the uncertainty because it was beginning to get a hydrogen sulfide smell, and all the books recommend getting the wine off the lees sooner rather than later if that happens (separation from the lees and aeration usually solves the problem). So, to be safe, I did. In the photo above, you can see the pink layer of dead yeast and other solid matter that had settled to the bottom of the container. Now the wine is mostly free of sediment. Tomorrow I will add oak staves, and then all that remains to be done is to wait for a couple of months until it's time to rack the wine off any new sediment that forms. Tasting the wine today, it seemed a little low in acidity, which may need some adjusting.

[Update: On December 2 I treated the wine with 5ml of 1 copper sulfate solution, as advised by the people at The Beverage People, our local winemaking supply store. Copper sulfate reacts with the sulfur compounds that create the smell I was noticing to produce copper sulfide, which is insoluble in wine. It drops to the bottom of the container where it can be left behind by another racking, which I'll take care of in the next day or two. After that, I will add yeast hulls, which absorb any residual copper--although there should be very little and the initial dose was just under the legal limit--not that that matters; I don't sell my wine, but I'm assuming the legal limit is based on safety factors. After about two weeks with the yeast hulls in, I'll rack again. The copper treatment works wonders. In about five minutes, the hydrogen sulfide smell was entirely gone.]

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Food I'm Eating: The Farmhouse Inn, Santa Rosa (November 26, 2011)

My son went to a friend's house today and ended up getting invited to stay the night. It seemed like a sudden opportunity for a rare night out for good food and wine with my wife. I called Terrapin Creek Café, in Bodega Bay, a restaurant I've enjoyed several times in the past, but no reservations were available--probably the result of its recent gaining of a Michelin star. I decided to try the Farmhouse Inn, another Michelin-starred restaurant in the area (technically, in Forestville), and was offered a table that someone had just cancelled. I've been to the Farmhouse Inn only once before--about eight years ago--and it was wonderful. I had high expectations. I decided to take along an old bottle of Burgundy from my cellar, a 1986 Vosne Romanée 1er Cru "Les Suchots" from Moillard.

I have to say I was disappointed. The meal generally was good. The service was good. But the food really should have been great--it should have been the sort of meal that keeps you saying "Wow!" to yourself as you eat. Isn't that what Michelin stars (and the prices that go with them) are all about? As it turned out, fairly ordinary appetizers and main courses--neither served quite as warm as I would have liked--were book-ended by what turned out to be the highlights of the meal--the amuse-gueule and the desserts. The former was a tiny cup of frothed "soup" made from jerusalem artichokes that had a wonderful earthiness enhanced by smoky bacon flavors. It was served with mushroom paste-garnished crostini. The desserts were wonderful, particularly a pumpkin cheesecake that somehow managed to taste like cheesecake and a good pumpkin pie at the same time. The coffee was excellent.

The wine, although 25 years old, was fresh and delicious--classic Burgundy. Wonderfully fragrant, it suggested violets, cumin, and celery seed, and it was nicely balanced on the palate between fruity sweetness and smooth, mature tannins. I will say that the wine server did an admirable job decanting the wine, which must have been challenging because the drive to the restaurant stirred up a deposit in the bottom of the bottle that had formed over decades. I bought the wine in Tokyo, probably around 1990.

We had the Grilled Mediterranean Octopus and House-smoked Duck Breast Salad for appetizers, the Roasted Breast of Guinea Hen and Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit for main dishes. The Octopus was tender and nicely seasoned, and I enjoyed the accents provided by tiny chunks of chorizo and the olive tapenade spread under the meat, but the duck salad was very disappointing. The duck slices were tiny and not very flavorful. The salad was mostly a pile of the same sort of greens I can pick any day from my own garden (frisée, arugula, and mizuna). The greens were fresh and in no way bad--but as a whole, the salad struck me as uninspired and uninspiring and somewhat skimpy (and I stress that I'm not a big eater).

The rabbit is called Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit because it's a trio of rabbit dishes in one--rabbit loin wrapped in bacon; a roasted, Frenched rib rack (looking like a miniature rack of lamb); and rabbit leg confit in a mustard sauce. The loin seemed the most successful of the three--the meat was tender and infused with bacon flavors--but the tiny ribs, although fun, were not very flavorful. The leg confit was mostly interesting for the whole-grain mustard sauce that was on it. The meat, however, seemed lacking in character. It had a washed-out flavor that reminded me of the disappointment of oysters shucked and washed so carefully that all the scent and flavor of the ocean is gone from them. The meat tasted somehow sanitized (although I don't mean to suggest anything unwholesome). The food was simply not as good as it seems it should have been given the prices and the reputation of The Farmhouse Inn. Game should be gamey. This was not. I felt much the same way about the guinea hen. Good enough, but not exciting.

Finally, I have to say that $35 for corkage is well over the line between reasonable and excessive.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Rain: 1.15 inches around Thanksgiving (November 24, 2011)

Overnight on the 23rd and into Thanksgiving Day we got another 1.15 inches of rain. That brings our 2011-2012 total to 4.75 inches. As 6.08 inches is normal for this day of the year (November 25), we're somewhat behind, and no rain is in the forecast for the next few days.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wines I'm Making: Sangiovese Rosé Finished Fermenting (November 20, 2011)

Tiny bubbles continue to rise from the fermenting Sangiovese rosé, but a quick hydrometer test showed the specific gravity at 0.992, which indicates the fermentation is over (after a very long 26 days). I racked the wine off the lees today and sulfited it very lightly, using two Campden tablets in the three-gallon carboy, which should put it at about 43ppm. Now all that's left to do is wait a little longer for the wine to completely clear. I'll keep it in the garage now, where it's cool. In the past, a fine layer of tartaric acid crystals has always formed over whatever yeast was left at the bottom of the container, which makes the final racking a breeze (with all the remaining loose matter encapsulated under the crystals). It'll be ready to check again in a couple of weeks. So far, so good. Time to start thinking about a new label design.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rain: 0.15 inches Overnight (November 18-19, 2011)

We had a little rain overnight last night (0.15 inches). Today, the 19th was cold but clear--although by early evening it was raining again. Last night's rain brings our 2011-2012 total to 3.1 inches, a little behind normal rainfall for this time of year, but we'll see where we are tomorrow.

[Update: We got another half inch last night (the night of the 19th). That brings the total to 3.6 inches. Average rainfall in Santa Rosa for November 20 is more than five inches, so we are well below normal at the moment.]

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wines I'm Drinking: Pedroncelli 2010 Dry Creek Valley Dry Rosé of Zinfandel

Rosé of Zinfandel? If those words bring "White Zinfandel" to mind and make you cringe, you're probably not alone, but that's an unfortunate effect of the huge commercial success in the 1980s--mostly among unsophisticated wine drinkers--of White Zinfandel, a wine that was usually blandly flavored and cloyingly sweet, and thus a travesty of Zinfandel. From a marketing perspective, it was a stroke of genius, however: it provided an outlet for large quantities of (red) Zinfandel grapes in the US, where demand at the time was mostly for white wines. But relax: White Zinfandel has largely disappeared from the shelves, and few seem to lament its demise.

Setting aside the White Zinfandel association, why not rosé of Zinfandel? Any good red grape ought to make a good dry rosé, and I've often wondered why we don't see more dry rosé wines from Zinfandel or from Cabernet or many other grapes. I suppose, the answer is purely one of economics. No commercial winery will make such wines if they believe they won't sell, and few Americans appreciate rosé. No winery will use grapes to make rosé if they know a fully red wine from the same grapes will sell better and at a higher price. So, I was pleasantly surprised to see this wine. I decided to try it because the label emphatically calls it a "Dry Rosé of Zinfandel." A dry Zinfandel rosé is a fairly rare beast.Tasting notes follow.  

A pretty pink--somewhere between coral and watermelon with something of the scent of strawberries and suggestions of honey or honeysuckle on the nose. Unfortunately, this is not bone dry. To my palate, it's sweet (although it's not White Zinfandel). The sweetness is moderate and offset by decent acidity, and there's even a hint of tannic bite. The fruit flavors suggest very ripe strawberries rather than the dark, brambly flavors I usually associate with Zinfandel. Moderate length on the palate.

I suspect I'd have liked this if it had been truly dry. It's got just enough sweetness that it tires the palate quickly, however, and I find it hard to think what food it might go with--spicy foods or garlic-laden foods, perhaps? Probably best on its own as a sipping wine. This may appeal to some, but I'd call it fruity, uncomplicated, and easy to drink, but with no attributes to give it any special interest, and I won't be buying it again. $9.49 at Oliver's Market, in Santa Rosa.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Wines I'm Making: Sangiovese Rosé Still Fermenting--Day 19 (November 13, 2011)

We picked our Sangiovese grapes on October 24, 2011 and I pressed them the following day. The juice has been fermenting--very slowly--since the 25th. Today is day 19 and tiny bubbles are still rising in the carboy. The main activity is finished, though. CO2 is no longer keeping the spent yeast and other solids suspended, so the wine has mostly cleared and the true color is becoming apparent. I transferred the new wine to a smaller (3 gal.) container on the 11th to minimize air contact. In the next day or two it'll be time to rack it off the remaining lees and lightly sulfite it. Normally there's time for two rackings to completely clear the wine before Thanksgiving, but this year we picked so late that we'll probably have to wait until around Christmas for new rosé.

Birds I'm Watching: Spring Lake (November 12, 2011)

I've been very busy with work the past few days and have had little time to write anything. Sitting at a computer all day gets tedious rather quickly--but work is work.

Yesterday, feeling the need for a break and some exercise, I took a brisk walk around Spring Lake in Santa Rosa, which is just down the road from me. I didn't see anything unusual, but got to watch this very pretty Townsend's Warbler picking insects out of the willows along the shore. Below is an inquisitive Ruby-crowned Kinglet that was with the warbler, along with Chestnut-backed Chickadees and Bushtits.

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

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Wines I'm Making: 2010 Cabernet Bottled/2011 Cabernet Pressed

Yesterday (November 7) I put capsules and labels on the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc wine I bottled yesterday. The day before, I pressed the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc and transferred it to glass carboys. Yesterday, Monday, I inoculated the new wine with malolactic bacteria to start the malolactic fermentation. Malolactic fermentation converts malic to lactic acid, a routine procedure in making red wines. Malolactic fermentation is a bacterial fermentation that requires a little more warmth than the yeast-based primary fermentation. So, the carboys are wrapped in blankets in the living room with a small electric blanket between them to keep the temperature up. Malolactic fermentation is somewhat mysterious. It can take anywhere from three weeks to two months and it doesn't always show outward signs. The only way to really know what's going on is to do a paper chromatography test that shows the levels of tartaric, malic, and lactic acid in the wine. Sometimes tiny bubbles form at the top of the wine, indicating that some sort of activity is going on, but not always. I tend to take it on faith that the process is under way, but I'll be looking for signs the next couple of days.

The Sangiovese rosé fermentation is just about finished. I'll need to rack that wine off the gross lees soon--probably tomorrow. The wine is beginning to clear. Less carbon dioxide production means the suspended material is beginning to fall out of the wine. I think we'll end up with a very pretty pink. The harvest was so late this year, though, that I don't think the wine will be ready by Thanksgiving, as it usually is. We'll have some for Christmas though.

The 2010 Cabernet is finished now. I put the back labels on today. I'm pleased with the labels I designed for both the front and rear of the bottle. I decided red capsules would look best with the deep red of the front label. The capsules are on. The wine is ready to drink. The samples I tried while bottling and with dinner after bottling was done suggest the wine is good despite the cool summer last year. It seems a little soft compared with other years, which suggests it may not age as well as other vintages, but only time will tell.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Books I'm Reading: The Bird (November 7, 2011)

I've just finished Colin Tudge's  The Bird (Crown, 2008). The full title gives a little of the book's flavor--The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came from, and How They Live. I imagine Mr. Tudge is an interesting man to talk with--about virtually any subject. Evidence of deep curiosity and subtle thinking is on every page of the book. I have no doubt that millions of people ask themselves from time to time things like "How do birds fly?" or "Are birds really dinosaurs?" or "Why don't woodpeckers get headaches?" Mr. Tudge has considered questions such as these, and many, many more, and he offers answers.

Having not long ago read this author's book The Tree (Crown, 2006), I had an idea of what to expect. The books are organized in the same way. Following a discussion of how birds are believed to have evolved (and, yes, birds do appear to be the descendants of a particular group of dinosaurs), Tudge lays out the entire world of birds as they survive today. Much of the book is a catalog of all the birds in the world, family by family, with discussions of where the birds in each family live, how they relate to each other within groups, and how the various families interrelate. While some families are very small--the peculiar remnants of once much larger groups, many are very broad and astonishingly diverse, with members finding their way into nearly all ecological niches available. It's impressive to see how frequently animals (in this case birds) have evolved independently along similar lines.

Tudge points out many examples of convergent evolution--for example, the case of swifts and swallows, which are not at all closely related. Swallows are passerines, or perching birds, with feet adapted to automatically cling to what they alight on--a twig or a wire fence--with a long back toe and a locking mechanism that allows them to hold on without using their muscles (one reason passerines don't fall out of trees at night when they roost). The swifts (family Apodidae) can barely perch at all (the root of the family name means "footless"). They roost by clinging to rocks, trees or buildings, and one or two species of swift spend almost their entire lives in the air. Yet, swifts and swallows have the same sickle-shaped wings, similar forked tails for maneuverability, and their feeding strategies are virtually identical--they hunt for insects at high speed on the wing.

The latter part of the book is more expansive, covering topics such as: how birds eat (and there are many strategies and adaptations for each strategy); the endlessly fascinating phenomenon of migration, with much attention to what makes arduous and dangerous journeys worth the effort; the sex lives of birds; the social relationships of birds; and the intelligence and modes of thinking of birds. On this last subject, the feats of memory of the Clark's Nutcracker and the Western Scrub-jay (both birds that cache food in the autumn for winter use) are particularly impressive--Clark's Nutcracker can hide and remember the hiding places of thousands of seeds each season. The final, somewhat melancholy chapter touches on the relationship between birds and humans and what the future is likely to hold for the birds of the world. There is much to lament. Many species are in rapid decline. He emphasizes that much more and better science is needed and that awareness built on good science will be essential to helping birds survive. Tudge ends on an only slightly hopeful note in an epilogue called "A Matter of Attitude," pointing out that attitudes about birds (and about animals and conservation in general), have long been dismally unappreciative. However, he believes that approaches are beginning to change, at least in some quarters, with scientists and others seeing birds as more intelligent, more socially complex, more thoughtful creatures than in the past. Let us hope Mr. Tudge is right, for birds are fabulously diverse and beautiful. We have lost too many already.

Found Art: Glass and Shadow (November 7, 2011)

A few weeks ago I went wine tasting in Napa with a guest from Japan. At Opus One there is a covered balcony that overlooks the vineyards. The shadows of the lattice overhead and my empty glass looked like art to me. Found Art.

For more found art, see my blog Serendipitous Art.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Rain: 0.6 Inches Overnight (November 5, 2011)

We had 0.6 inches of rain overnight. It was supposed to rain today (November 6) as well, but it's bright, clear, and sunny. Today I will be pressing wine and also bottling last year's wine. I was afraid I was going to have to do it in the rain. The new precipitation brings our total for the 2011-2012 season to 2.9 inches. That's slightly below the average for November 6 (3.23 inches). Average annual rainfall in Santa Rosa is 31.91 inches.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Wines I'm Making: 2011 Fermentation (November 5, 2011)

The 2011 Cabernet is mostly done fermenting. The cap is no longer rising, my punch-down tool has started sinking into the liquid (rather than riding on the cap), and the liquid tastes like wine--there is no longer any trace of sweetness. Just to be sure, I tested the wine using my hydrometer and got a specific gravity reading of 0.996, which indicates fermentation is mostly finished. I will probably press the wine tomorrow, although I had planned to bottle the 2010 Cabernet tomorrow. We'll see if there's time to do both.

I crushed the Cabernet grapes on October 24 and inoculated them with yeast on October 28, so the fermentation took only eight days, although the wine has been on the skins for 12 days now. Eight days is faster than some fermentations I've done, and usually at warmer temperatures (because earlier in the year). I'm not sure why this cooler fermentation was shorter, but every fermentation is different.

The Sangiovese rosé continues to bubble gently. Fermentation appears to be continuing. The intense red of the liquid just after pressing has softened considerably. The wine is now a nice medium pink, but it's hard to  know exactly what color the wine will be until the CO2 gas stops rising and the suspended matter begins to fall out of the wine. So far, the rosé has been fermenting for 12 days.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Birds I'm Watching: Lake Ralphine, Santa Rosa (October 31, 2011)

I took a quick walk around Lake Ralphine today, in Santa Rosa's Howarth Park. The winter ducks haven't arrived yet, although there were about 100 Coots on the water. I watched a Belted Kingfisher dive for fish and got to see a pretty Townsend's Warbler, but the highlight was this handsome Great Blue Heron fixated enough on his fishing to let me get rather close.

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

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Wines I'm Making: 2011 Wines

Our Sangiovese rosé is now in its fifth day of fermentation. The container is fizzing lightly and a great deal of the deep color present initially has already disappeared to leave behind a pretty pink. The color of the finished wine won't be apparent for another week or two, but so far it looks good. The fermentation is proceeding slowly (by design). I expect it to last another seven or eight days at least.

The Cabernet Sauvignon/Franc is also undergoing fermentation, soon to enter its third day. I added the yeast on the morning of Friday, the 28th. I'm punching down the cap of skins that rises on the surface four times a day, as I usually do. The liquid is a deep, inky purple. As I did a four-day soak before adding yeast, the skins have been giving up color for nearly a week. Fermentation will probably last another eight days or so. The 2011 wines are moving along nicely.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Wines I'm Making: 2011 Sangiovese Pressed and Inoculated

Yesterday at around noon I pressed the Sangiovese grapes  we picked and crushed the day before. The grapes were crushed at around 5:00PM, which means the juice was on the skins for about 19 hours. That yielded rather more color than the same amount of time has in the past, probably because the berries this year were much further along toward full ripeness than they ever have been. I hope the wine doesn't come out too deeply colored--but it's early. Some of the pigment in the liquid will fall out during fermentation.

I inoculated the must shortly after pressing, using the Epernay II yeast. This morning the yeast was not very active, probably because it was cold in the garage overnight, but moving the container into the darkroom and then later in the day into the living room, the usual foam is beginning to develop on the surface of the liquid and the airlock has begun to bubble. The trick will be to keep the fermentation going without letting it become too vigorous. A fermentation of about 10-12 days should be about right. Last year it took 14 days. In the first couple of years I made rosé, I didn't understand that a fast fermentation can allow a lot of good flavor and aroma components to escape, and I let things move too quickly. At the extreme short end, one fermentation went to completion in about four days--which is too fast. So far, everything is going smoothly this year. The Cabernet is pressed and in its second day soaking. I like to give the Cabernet a pre-soak of about four days before inoculating, as that seems to result in better color and more flavor extraction.

At left is a photo of our 2010 Sangiovese Rosé--I finally got around to designing a label and getting it on the wine, although there are now only 11 eleven bottles of it left. It was a very light, pale wine (the deep red-orange carpet behind the bottles in the photograph make it look much deeper in color than it actually is). It's pleasant but doesn't have the depth of the 2009, which is the best I've made so far. I have one bottle of the 2009 left. It needs to be consumed, but I hate to see the last of it disappear....

Monday, October 24, 2011

Wines I'm Making: Harvest 2011

I decided today was the day to pick our grapes. The somewhat warmer weather of the past few days seemed to be doing little to raise sugar levels and I was beginning to see signs of mildew in a few clusters, so there seemed little reason to wait further. It was a small harvest--having lost a great deal to animals this year. We picked 20kg of Sangiovese, or 44lbs and 43kg of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, or 94.6lbs. This is the latest we've ever picked. I waited in the hopes of getting the sugars up, but it just wasn't warm enough. The unfortunate timing of the rain we had in October complicated things. Some berries swelled with water and split, allowing mold to begin to form. All in all, the grapes look pretty healthy, but mold can take hold very quickly if left unchecked, so better to get the fruit in.

After crushing and de-stemming the grapes, we ended up with 4.75 gallons of Sangiovese must, which I sulfited lightly with three Campden tablets to add about 41ppm of sulfite. The must tested at 20.7 Brix by refractometer and a specific gravity of 1.084 by hydrometer. The pH tested at 3.35. pH squared times Brix equals 232--not at all bad for making a rosé. I took the measurements at 63 degrees F, so I didn't bother to adjust the hydrometer reading for temperature (according to my books, hydrometers are usually calibrated at 59 degrees F, or 15 degrees C).

We got about 10.5 gallons of Cabernet must, which I sulfited lightly with seven Campden tablets (about 43ppm). The must tested at 22.6 Brix by refractometer--somewhat lower than I was hoping for, but respectable, and at a specific gravity of 1.094 by hydrometer. The pH was 3.42. pH squared times Brix yielded 263, which is right about where it ought to be.

I will press the Sangiovese already late tomorrow morning, after about 18 hours on the skins, which has seemed about right in the past. I will then inoculate the pressed juice with yeast and set it aside in a chilly place (either in the garage or outside) for a cool, slow fermentation. The Cabernet will get a soak for a day or two or three before inoculation. And so our 2011 wines start their journey.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Found Art: Battered Trash Can, Sebastopol, October 23, 2011

Even a battered trash can be beautiful. I saw this black plastic trash can at Analy High School, in Sebastopol. Painted white, an interesting pattern has been etched away through use. Found art.

For more found art, see my blog Serendipitous Art.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Miscellaneous: Colonel Gaddafi Never Gave Himself a Promotion

Gaddafi is dead. His 42-year rule of Libya has come to a definitive close. Following his death, we've heard a great deal about his quirky personality and his flamboyant sense of style (his clothing choices were nothing if not original) in addition to much about the atrocities of his dictatorship, but one thing has always struck me as most peculiar about the man: He never thought to promote himself, despite his megalomaniacal tendencies. He started his rule as Colonel Gadaffi, he ended it, dead, as Colonel Gadaffi. He may have thought about giving himself higher rank, but he never chose to. Napolean made himself Emperor. Gadaffi could have declared himself King after deposing King Idris of Libya in a coup, in 1969. He may have had a distaste for royalty, but he never even gave himself a higher military rank. He could have been General Gaddafi. He could have been 4-star general Gadaffi. He could have had as many stars on his epaulets as he saw fit to put there. His decision to remain Colonel Gadaffi seems an odd bit of restraint from a man that had little to restrain him.

Photo of Colonel Gadaffi by Jesse B. Awalt, from the Wikipedia page on Gaddafi, is in the public domain

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wines I'm Drinking: 2000 Caparone Winery Paso Robles Nebbiolo

Tonight I opened my last bottle of the 2000 Caparone Winery Paso Robles Nebbiolo, a wine I used to buy regularly for $9.99, at Trader Joe's. Trader Joe's stopped carrying the Caparone wines about four years ago and I haven't purchased any since, but I see that you can order them directly from the winery.

The wine looks like a fine Darjeeling in my glass beside me as I write--pale, pretty, and deeply tinged with brandy-like hues. The wine, in short, is showing its age, but it remains vibrant on the palate. It still has everything I always liked it for--although it has softened and taken on a tasty liquorous quality, it remains nicely balanced with a core of fruity sweetness, delicate acidity, and fine tannins also reminiscent of a very good tea. This wine was always a remarkable bargain at $9.99. I see that all the Caparone wines are now $14 at the winery. That's more expensive than they used to be, but still extremely reasonable for wines this solid. I liked the Caparone Nebbiolo enough to visit the winery once, years ago. It was a simple metal shed-like building surrounded by gravel and a driveway. Nothing pretentious. The emphasis was on the wine, not on a needlessly fancy tasting room. I like wineries that don't ask me to pay for their excesses. I liked Caparone the moment I saw the place.

Recommended. If you buy any of the Caparone Nebbiolo from more recent vintages, don't be afraid to let it age.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Wines I'm Making: Waiting to Harvest 2011 Grapes

I did a proper test of a representative sample of grapes in our small backyard vineyard today. It seems we still need to wait. I'm nervous only because I'm afraid whatever has been stealing grapes will steal too many before I get a chance to pick. Yesterday I checked the nets carefully again and closed a few small holes. I don't know if they were new holes or holes I'd missed before.

The Cabernet grapes tested at 22 brix and a pH of 3.13. The Sangiovese, from which we will make a rosé, as usual, tested at 20 brix and a pH of 3.10. One school of thought says grapes for red wine should be picked when the square of the pH times the brix reading is around 260 and that whites grapes (or red grapes for rosé) are optimally ready when that formula yields 200. Using this method, the Cabernet grapes are at 215.5, the Sangiovese at  192. If the grapes were at the targets I usually use (the Cabernet at 24.5 brix, the Sangiovese at 22 brix), the Cabernet would be about right if by that time the pH had risen a little--say, to around 3.3. The Sangiovese grapes are closer. In any case, I think waiting is the right decision for both. So far, there is no sign of mold or other damage to the grapes, although I did notice a yellow jacket in a grape with a broken skin. Vigilance is in order. What we really need is a few days of temperatures in the upper 80s (which may be wishful thinking--the 10-day outlook is for cloudy skies and temperatures mostly in the mid-70s). The past four days of dry warmth have done little to raise sugar levels. The waiting game continues.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Places I'm Visiting: Napa and Sonoma Winery Visits (October 2011)

Last weekend I accompanied a visitor from Japan on visits to a number of wineries in Napa County (on Saturday) and in Sonoma County (on Sunday). I rarely visit the Napa wineries on my own because the tasting rooms are generally expensive tourist traps, but it's interesting to see what's going on from time to time (the Sonoma-side tasting rooms tend to be smaller, more personal, and friendlier--not to mention much cheaper, often free). In Napa, we visited Rubicon Estate in the morning (the historical Inglenook winery, until recently the Niebaum-Coppola winery; not long ago the high-end Rubicon Estate wines were brought together at the Inglenook property, while the mass-produced Coppola wines were transferred to a new location in Geyserville). We moved on to Opus One (pictured above), where we tasted the 2006 and 2008 wines before an excellent lunch at Domaine Chandon, in Yountville, that began with raw oysters with a yuzu, cucumber, and fennel garnish. I generally like raw oysters with nothing more than freshly-squeezed lemon, but yuzu, cucumber, and fennel was tasty and subtle enough that it didn't detract from the delicate flavors of the oysters. I had a duck confit main dish with a fig-based sauce that was delicious, washed down with a glass of the Étoile Brut. After lunch we stopped at Étude, in the Carneros region, which is one of my favorite Carneros producers of Pinot Noir. We tasted Pinot Noir but also a delicious Pinot Blanc in the very friendly tasting room.

On Sunday, we began the day at Wellington, where we tasted the entire range of available wines, which included some interesting port-style dessert wines. A newly released 2009 Chardonnay was a standout along with the current vintage of the Morhardt Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon. I like this winery for its high-quality wines, reasonable prices, and unpretentious tasting room staffed by genuinely friendly people. The 1920s Carignane vines in front of the tasting room were heavy with fruit and beginning to show autumn color in the leaves. We tasted next at Enkidu before having lunch at Café Citti. After lunch we tasted at Chateau St. Jean. On the way back to the airport, we detoured to do some quick shopping at Dean and Deluca (a small part of the cheese selection is shown below) and then stopped briefly at Gloria Ferrer just to take in the view (bottom photo). The deck was packed with visitors taking in the same view along with some sparkling wine. It's always a pleasure to show visitors our beautiful wine country.

Wines I'm Making: Still Waiting to Harvest 2011 Grapes

It's sunny and warm today. It was sunny yesterday. If this weather holds, we may make some decent wine after all. In 2010, we harvested grapes on the 12th (Cabernet) and the 16th (Sangiovese) of October at rather low sugar levels (only 17 brix in the case of the Sangiovese, at a better 23.5 brix in the case of the Cabernet; ideally, I like to pick the former at about 22, the latter at about 24.5). The rosé in 2010 was light and without the rich flavors that made the 2009 so good. Happily, sugar levels are already higher than they were last year (the Sangiovese is at about 20 brix, the ripest Cabernet berries today tested as high as 24 brix). Now that I seem to have foiled the critters for the time being, I'm content to wait and let the grapes fully ripen. If it rains and turns cold again this weekend, I may have to think again, but early next week may be the right time to harvest anyway.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Birds I'm Watching: Sharp-tailed Sandpiper at Shollenberger Park, Petaluma, (October 12, 2011)

A Sharp-tailed Sandpiper has been out at Shollenberger Park for the last few days--a rare bird for Sonoma County. I finally got out there when the tides were right to find it. I not only saw the bird today but also got some good photographs of it. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper (Calidris acuminata) is an Old-World species closely related to our Pectoral Sandpiper (Calidris melanatos). It breeds in the Russian Far East and winters in Australasia. It's considered a fairly common fall migrant in Western Alaska and a rare fall migrant all along the Pacific Coast. It's only once in a long while that one shows up in northern California. These coastal strays are almost always juvenile birds, like the one pictured above. This bird was first reported on October 4. It's stayed more than a week now. Another new bird for my life list, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper brings my Sonoma County list to 210 species.

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Found Art: Smeared Paint (October 11, 2011)

I photograph all kinds of things that interest me visually. Occasionally, I forget where. I'm not sure where I saw this paint-smeared surface, but I was attracted to its unintended rhythms and its subtle colors. Found art.

For more found art, see my blog Serendipitous Art.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Rain: Unexpected Rain Adds 0.6 inches to Our Total

I hadn't been expecting rain again today, but it was raining when I got up and it's been drizzling on and off all day. Not good for the grapes, but it's supposed to be warm and sunny for the rest of the week. We'll see. An additional 0.6 inches fell, bringing our 2011-2102 rainy season total now to 2.3 inches, which is well ahead of the historical average for October 10 in Santa Rosa, which is 0.69 inches. So, we're off to a wet start.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Music I'm Listening to: Joshua Bell with Vasily Petrenko Conducting the San Francisco Symphony (October 6, 2011)

Last night I attended a concert featuring Joshua Bell with Vasily Petrenko conducting the San Francisco Symphony. The concert opened with Shostakovich's Festival Overture. According to the program, that was to be followed by Tchaikovsky's Méditation from Souvenir d'un lieu cher, and then Glazunov's Violin Concerto in A minor, both featuring Joshua Bell on violin, but the order of these two pieces was reversed--which was a good thing given that the short, romantic Méditation probably would have sounded anti-climactic following the Glazunov. After intermission, the Symphony performed Elgar's Symphony No. 1.

Vasily Petrenko was new to me, but I very much enjoyed his readings of the Shostakovich and the Glazunov pieces. Tall, thin, and with very long, expressive arms and hands, Petrenko looked sometimes like a large ocean-going bird gesturing with wings. At other times, during slow or delicate passages, his indications became something quite the opposite--minimalist (a slight nod of the head, a subtle gesture with one finger, or simply a look), but the performers seemed highly engaged and in top form throughout the concert. Petrenko--young, confident (almost cocky) was a pleasure to watch. According to the program notes, Petrenko has studied with Mariss Jansons, Yuri Temirkanoff, and Esa-Pekka Salonen, among others. He will become the Chief Conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra starting in the 2013-2014 season, but is currently Principal Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orcehstra.

Shostakovich's Festival Overture is not one of my favorite pieces by that composer, but it's familiar and fun and rousing. It's not a bad way to open a concert, as it gets both the audience and the performers warmed up. Actually, it was a lot of fun to hear, even if it's not very challenging music to listen to (I'm not sure how the orchestra feels about playing it). The Tchaikovsky piece was not exactly my style either, but it was a lovely selection to show off the sound of Joshua Bell's violin, which is the 1713 Stradivarius known as "The Gibson."* This is the second time I've heard Bell play in person. It's almost enough just to listen to the tone of his instrument.... Also in the Glazunov, much of the pleasure was hearing the violin with the clarity of a live performance. I'm used to this concerto in the form of two rather old LPs in my collection, a Nathan Milstein record on Capitol, with William Steinberg conducting the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (Captiol SP8382) and an RCA Gold Seal Heifetz recording (RCA Gold Seal AGL1-4929). The latter is rather worn and fuzzy. Petrenko seemed particularly good at accentuating the various accents in the orchestral part, especially toward the end of the final movement. His reading gave the whole thing a very attractive sparkle. I recently happened to hear what seemed to me a rather idiosyncratic but highly persuasive  performance of this concerto on the radio, with Gil Shaham playing the violin (it appears to be a Deutsche Grammophon recording with Mikhail Pletnev conducting the Russian National Orchestra). I suppose it's time to acquire this concerto on CD. The Gil Shaham interpretation may be a good choice. Bell was given a warm standing ovation for both of his performances, but he wasn't sufficiently moved to play an encore.

After intermission, the Sympony played the Elgar piece, which I can't say I enjoyed a great deal. Petrenko succeeded in eliciting a crisp, energetic performance, but the music itself is rather repetitive and much longer than I'd say it needs to be to explore the ideas it presents. Simply put, it was dull and taxing. This is not Elgar at his best. I can't understand why the piece was chosen for a program of music that was otherwise Russian. Something Russian (and shorter) would have been more appropriate. Several people near me fell asleep. The audience was palpably restless by the end of the performance. That said, I very much enjoyed the evening just to hear Joshua Bell play the Glazunov concerto.

*For more about the violin, see my thoughts on one of Joshua Bell's 2010 performances with the San Francisco Symphony here.

[Update: I happened upon an online review of this concert today (November 26, 2011) by Jeff Dunn in "San Francisco Classical Voice." Dunn suggests the Elgar sounded so ponderous because of Petrenko's too-rigid tempos. While the work is undoubtedly rather long, it may have been unsuccessful in this case more because of the conducting than because of any fault in the music itself. I'll have to listen to this piece again....]

Photo of Vasily Petrenko by Mark McNulty, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Tidbits: RIP--Steve Jobs

I was surprised and saddened to hear this afternoon that Steve Jobs has died. We all knew he wasn't well, but I hadn't believed him so close to death. I still vividly remember the first time I saw a Macintosh in action. My best friend at the time worked for a company that used Apple computers in its publications department. In my own work, I had been stuck using computers running DOS (this would have been around 1987). I remember the thrill of watching my friend select a group of icons on the screen with a flourish of his mouse. No text commands with meaningless abstract elements like " *.*" were required. That was all I needed to see. Although it was another three years before I bought my own Apple computer, I was hooked. Since then I have purchased 12 Apple computers, including gifts--not to mention my iPhone. Thank you, Mr. Jobs, for all you did. You will be missed. RIP

Monday, October 3, 2011

Rain: 0.65 Inches (October 3, 2011)

Real rain today. We got 0.65 inches, which is good for the garden but bad for people growing grapes, like me. It's supposed to be cool and dry tomorrow but another storm is forecast for Wednesday the 5th and that's to be followed by cool temperatures. The grapes will not ripen much in such cool weather. Raccoons have been stealing grapes again--having made a big new hole in the nets. If any grapes survive, they'll need another week or two to ripen..... Very frustrating.

[Update: Overnight, another 0.25 inches fell and we had about that much a couple of weeks back, so I'd say the total for the current season so far is about 0.70 inches.]

[Update: On the night of the 4th, we got another 0.85 inches of rain, bringing the total so far for the 2011-2012 rainy season to 1.55 inches. Average annual rainfall for Santa Rosa, California is 31.91 inches. On the 5th we got an additional 0.15 inches, bringing the total to 1.70 inches so far this season.]

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Places I'm Visiting: Chico, California--National Yo-Yo Championships

I spent the day yesterday in Chico, California, which is the home of the National Yo-Yo Museum (a modest affair in the back of a toy store, but interesting nonetheless) and since 1993 has been the site of the National Yo-Yo Championships. My son, an avid yo-yo fan, wanted to go. All the sport's celebrities were there. He collected many autographs, learned new tricks, and got to hang out with about 200 kids that spoke the language. He was in yo-yo heaven. I hadn't been looking forward to the long (about three hours) drive to Chico and back. I brought a book with me and even my camera and binoculars, thinking I might slip away and do some bird watching if things got tedious, but I ended up watching all the qualifying rounds and the finals.

The yo-yo has come a long way since I was fooling with them in the mid-1970s--about the time when plastic Duncan butterfly-style yo-yos were something new (butterfly designs have the traditional rounded halves mounted backwards to create a large, flared opening for the string rather than a thin slot). Today, that butterfly shape is the norm, yo-yos are mostly made of metal rather than wood or plastic (sometimes very fancy metals, but usually aluminum), and they have sophisticated bearings around the axle; they are mostly designed not to return to the hand, but rather to spin free as long as possible, allowing a variety of tricks--sometimes quite spectacular tricks.

About 50 contestants, winners and strong placers at regional championships, competed in five classes. The most popular 1A class is also called "freestyle," where anything goes (this is what most of us think of when fancy yo-yo work comes to mind). The 2A class involves looping tricks with two yo-yos. The 3A class uses two yo-yos at the same time to do freestyle tricks. The 4A class is called "off-string," because the yo-yo is free to leave the string. The 5A class uses yo-yos with a counterweight on the end of the string that's usually tied to the players finger. The counterweight allows a unique range of tricks and effects.

I'm no expert, but it's easy to appreciate the skill of the best performers, to see their individual quirks on the one hand, and stylistic trends on the other that suggest schools within the official classes. Some performers seemed to excel at speed and daring, willing to risk misses in the hope of landing something spectacular, like getting the yo-yo to land back on its string after shooting it up into the air and doing a backwards somersault on the ground. Others focused on precision--doing rapid series of string tricks mostly standing in one spot. The off-string yo-yoers give the impression of jugglers. The work of the counterweight yo-yoers is slower and more liquid and sometimes seemingly animated; as momentum is transferred back and forth between the yo-yo and the counterweight, the string can appear to be moving on its own. The performers using two yo-yos simultaneously, one in each hand, put me in mind of wild west gunslingers twirling their guns. All in all, there was a lot to watch. Pictured here is a proud Harold Owens III, of Indiana, the 2011 1A Champion. In the first shot above, Tyler Goldenburg, of Phoenix, Arizona competes in the finals. The yo-yos are some of the historical examples preserved at The Yo-Yo Museum.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Monday, September 26, 2011

Birds I'm Watching: Shollenberger Park, Petaluma, (September 26, 2011)

I went out to Shollenberger Park this morning to look for a rare sparrow that had been spotted there--a Clay-colored Sparrow--and found it fairly quickly, with the help of another bird watcher who had come for the same reason. Clay-colored Sparrow is a rare bird around here. It usually spends its summers well north of us in the middle of the North American continent, migrating to Mexico for the winter, passing through the mid-section of the country. Occasionally migrating birds get lost....

In addition to the sparrow, there were many Northern Shovelers, Black-necked Stilts (below), White Pelicans, Dowitchers, and other water-loving birds. There was a particularly pretty Lesser Scaup and four Wilson's Phalaropes--another fairly uncommon bird around here. The Clay-colored Sparrow was life bird number 339 for me and Sonoma County bird number 206.

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

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Rain: First Rain of the 2011-2012 Season Today

Rain was predicted overnight and for this morning. I was skeptical (although the first day of rain last year was about a week earlier), but it did rain last night and it's raining now. This is the first rain of the 2011-2102 rainy season, which officially began on July 1. Last year we had around 41 inches--10 inches more than in an average year. I wonder how much we'll get this year?

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Wines I'm Drinking: Sicilian Wine Tasting at Traverso's in Santa Rosa (September 24, 2011)

Traverso's in Santa Rosa--one of the North Bay's best places to shop for Italian and other wines--hosts wine tastings in the store on most Saturdays. Today the tasting featured two white wines and three reds (one of which was a dessert wine) from Sicily. I especially enjoyed the 2010 Donnafugato "Anthilia" Sicilia Bianco, a blend of 51% Catarratto with other indigenous grapes, mostly Grillo. It smelled of hazelnuts and tasted of citrus fruits. It had a remarkably fresh balance of crisp acidity and fruity sweetness. Something on the rather long finish reminded me of intensely ripe white nectarines--sour and sweet at the same time. I liked this wine enough to take home a bottle and to go by three grocery stores on the way home to pick up foods that I thought would complement it--raw oysters, prosciutto and pears, mushrooms, truffle-stuffed brie....

I also tasted the 2009 Tasca D'Almerita "Leone" Sicilia Bianco, a white again made mostly of Catarratto, but with 20% Chardonnay--another tasty wine, but without the zip and zing of the Donnafugato wine. The dry reds, also from Donnafugato, were a mainly Nero d'Avola wine with some Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, and other grapes (the 2009 "Sedara" bottling), a fairly tannic, somewhat rustic offering with an interesting hint of bitterness on the finish, and the "Tancredi" bottling, 70% Nero d'Avola, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, a very nicely balanced, much more sophisticated wine that I enjoyed very much. The tasting finished with the 2007 Donnafugato "Ben Rye" Passito di Pantelleria, a passito wine (wine with raisined grapes added to the fermentation to boost the sugar and alcohol content of the finished wine) from the little island of Pantelleria, off the southwest coast of Sicily, a wine that tasted like bottled apricots. The "Anthilia" wine was excellent with raw oysters, and with the cheeses I bought. These Saturday tastings at Traverso's are well worth attending.

[Update: Traverso's has gone out of business since this was written.]

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Wines I'm Making: Grapes Coming Along Nicely (2011)

Having recently added nets and raised the level of the electric fence around our grape vines, it's now been about a week without any further damage or losses to the raccoons or possums or whatever it is that eats them at night.

It's the time of year that grape growers sit back and wait, periodically checking sugar and acid levels, looking also at the visible signs of ripeness in their grapes. This morning and yesterday I tested a couple of berries for ripeness. I was a little surprised to find the Sangiovese at 19 brix, the Cabernet Sauvignon already at 20.5 brix. The berries are deeply colored. The Cabernet seeds are uniformly brown and they are crunchy. In other words, the Cabernet fruit is looking rather more ripe than I was expecting. I think it will still be two to three weeks to harvest (I try to pick at about 24.5 brix), but the grapes appear to be coming along nicely, aided by uniformly warm weather in the past week or so. The forecast is for temperatures into the low 90s for the coming week, which should keep sugar levels rising.
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