Turley Wine Cellars: A Profile of Diversity

 

In September 2003, I wrote my first wine article for the inaugural edition of AV Lifestyle magazine.  It was titled:  “A California Zinfandel Tour,” featuring good zinfandel wines from Paso Robles, Sonoma County, the Napa Valley, Lodi,

Mendocino County and others.  Today, you can almost go on a 2017 California zinfandel tour just by tasting wines at the acclaimed Turley Wine Cellars in Templeton, near Paso Robles.

From their menu of thirty-one wines, Turley produces twenty-five different zinfandel releases, twenty-three vineyard designated, all organic and sourced from some of the oldest and finest vineyards throughout the state. That many wines may seem a bit ostentatious, but, according to winery representative Steve O’Brien, they are all unique and different.

Turley has placed a different release on Wine Spectator magazine’s Top 100 list in the past five years including single-vineyard zinfandel from Ueberroth, Dusi and Pesenti, a blend of young vineyards called “Juvenile” and a Petit Syrah from Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley.

“With such a broad range of soils and terroir, how could the wines not be different?” said O’Brien, as he led me through some current releases.

Larry Turley was an emergency room physician in Santa Rosa for over twenty years before purchasing property north of St. Helena in the Napa Valley and beginning

Larry Turley

Frog’s Leap Winery with a partner.

In 1993, he followed a dream to focus on zinfandel and began to secure grapes from some of the oldest vineyards throughout California.  One such vineyard was the Pesenti Vineyard in Templeton, which was actually founded in the 1920s during Prohibition.  During negotiations, the Pesenti Family expressed a desire to sell and Turley bought the entire winery and re-located to the Paso Robles area.

His grapes are sourced from the oldest and finest zinfandel vineyards in California from Dogtown in Lodi to Whitney Tennessee in the Alexander Valley and Dragon atop Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley. The same élevage(everything between fermentation and bottling) and viticultural practices are used for each, yet they are all different like the sandy loam, volcanic, clay or gravel soils that produce them.

Among all the single-vineyard designate releases, our tasting began with a unique blend, using eighteen different vineyards. When it is necessary to replace old vines with new ones, they are tagged and used in a wine Turley calls, “Juvenile.”  The Turley Zinfandel “Juvenile” California 2015 ($20), while not considered a “fruit bomb,” has nice red fruit flavors with complex herbal and savory notes.  The young vines vary in age up to a quarter century.

The 2102 vintage of “Juvenile” was designated #46 in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2014.  They were impressed by the 91-point rating and $20. price tag.

A proprietary blend from two vineyards high atop Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley, the Turley Zinfandel “Cedarman” Howell Mountain Napa Valley 2014($45) is sourced from heavy volcanic soils with grapes that ripen later due to the cooler average temperatures at higher elevations.

The “Cedarman” has a savory, “garrique” feel with herbal influences. Garrique is a

Rattlesnake Ridge Vineyard on Howell Mountain

term used to describe when the flavors of the wine take on those of the natural flora and vegetation. Zinfandel vines, grown among cabernet sauvignon in the prestigious Howell Mountain appellation, combined with a pinch of petit syrah, results in one of Turley’s biggest and boldest wines.  It has robust, expressive flavors, but is accessible to most palates.

The petite syrah added to the “Cedarman” zinfandel comes from the

Rattlesnake Ridge Vineyard on Howell Mountain in the northeastern slopes of the Napa Valley.  The grapes for the acclaimed Turley Petite Syrah Howell Mountain Rattlesnake Ridge Vineyard 2013 (95-pt./$45), designated as #17 on Wine Spectator’s 2015 list, also come from that vineyard. The deep inky color and balanced bold flavors make it one of the best of the varietal in California.

Cities and towns have grown up around many of the surviving vineyards in places like Antioch and Martinez, east of San Francisco.  These are pure stock, old vines that produce such varietals as carignane, mourvedre and zinfandel.

Comprised of fruit from three historic vineyards in the area, the 2015 Turley Zinfandel “Duarte Vineyard” Contra Costa County ($20), is a tribute to local patriarchal grower, Joe Duarte. A distinctive creamy mouthfeel and soft

Evangehlo Vineyard in Contra Costa County

tannins are the result, according to O’Brien, of the deep sandy soils that have built up over time.  For rich texture and a long, soft finish, I selected this wine as one to take home to my cellar.

Less than a mile from the intersection of Vineyard Drive and Highway 46 inn Templeton, the Pesenti Vineyard soils are filled with fossil matter and limestone, like the appellations in Burgundy and the Rhone Valley in France.

The Turley Zinfandel “Pesenti Vineyard” Paso Robles 2010 ($38), awarded 93-points, was placed among Wine Spectator magazine’s Top 100 Wines of 2012.  The current release, the Turley Zinfandel “Pesenti Vineyard” Paso Robles 2014 ($40) expresses red fruit flavors, not the typical dark fruit.  There is a sweet tartness to this wine, like red licorice.

The nearby Dusi Vineyard next to Highway 101 in Templeton, has produced

Turley Wine Cellars

premium zinfandel grapes for several wineries for over half a century.. I had an opportunity to meet Dante Dusi at a 2012 Father’s Day tasting hosted by his granddaughter, Janelle Dusi. He passed away in 2014 but his legendary vineyard continues to support great wines like the rich, luscious Turley Zinfandel “Dante Dusi Vineyard” Paso Robles 2010(95-pt./$42), the #12 wine on the Top 100 Wine list of 2013.

Years ago, the now-defunct Martin-Weyrich Winery’s annual zinfandel release from the Ueberroth Vineyard was my favorite.

Families have been growing grapes in this vineyard since 1885 and they are the oldest vines used by Turley. Now owned by the family of Peter Ueberroth, former 1984 L.A. Olympics chief and Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Turley

secured a partnership years ago and produces the same luscious, concentrated flavors and rich mouthfeel that I remember.

The Turley Zinfandel “Ueberroth Vineyard” Paso Robles 2013($48)

caught the attention of the critics and Wine Spectator named it the #20 Top Wine of 2016 with a 94-point rating. We tasted the current release, the Turley Zinfandel

Ueborroth Vineyard in Paso Robles

“Ueberroth Vineyard” Paso Robles 2014 ($52) and it lived up to its reputation for rich mouthfeel and deep flavors.  It was the second bottle that I purchased for my cellar.

I would love to continue my Turley zinfandel tour at a later time, whether at the Templeton or Amador tasting room.  There are many remaining releases to taste from Alexander Valley’s “Vineyard 101” in north Sonoma County, the Kirschenmann Vineyard in Lodi or the century-old Rinaldi Vineyard, available in the Amador County tasting room on Shenandoah Road in the town of Plymouth.

Wine is about stories and Turley’s is a good one that involves passion, experience and the will to pair great stock with the perfect terroir.  The zinfandel grape is native to California and it continues to showcase the state’s bountiful diversity.

Advertisements

The Future of Grüner Veltliner

 

Site and yield are essential to the success of grüner veltliner (grew-ner velt-LEENER) or green veltliner, the most indigenous and abundant wine grape planted in Austria.  Site, because the finicky grape needs deep, loose soils that maintain moisture and climate than protects it from numerous diseases.  Yield because the vines are extremely fertile and abundant and their growth requires closely regulated pruning.

There is constant debate regarding grüner veltliner.  Some see it as trendy, not sustainable worldwide. It emerged in US markets at the turn of the century, mostly as a food-friendly, popular alternative on restaurant wine lists.  Since that time, popularity in this country has waned.  However, still their national grape, it represents over one-third of all vineyards in Austria, nearly 43,000 acres with another 5,200 acres in the Czech Republic.

Wachau wine region along the Danube River

Miles outside of Vienna, in regions like Wachau, Kamptal and Kremstal within the broader Lower Austria or Nierderosterreich region, gruner veltliner vines grow, side by side with riesling on terraced slopes above the Danube River.  This terroir and traditional winemaking practices make rich, concentrated wines with expression.  Austrians are always willing to have their wines “blind tasted” with fine chardonnay and riesling.  Their grüner veltliner has always competed very well.

Much of the skepticism with grüner veltliner is over its ability or inability to age and some actually believe that it peaks during its youth.  The whites of Burgundy France, Rioja Spain and some in California are now designed to age up to five years or more.  To prove itself worthy and enhance its competitive nature, producers are hosting tastings of aged gruner veltliner as proof of balanced maturity. For me, it’s about taste and texture, regardless of the wine’s age and the good releases I have recently tasted deliver my

Carlisle “Steiner Vineyard” Gruner Veltliner

preference for that soft, creamy minerality on the finish.  They also pair well with grilled fish or chicken.

A recent peak in my interest in grüner veltliner was sparked by the 2011 Carlisle Grüner Veltliner Steiner Vineyard ($25/92-pt), from a mountain vineyard in southeast Sonoma County.  It began a tasting of zinfandel and syrah and I found the texture and balanced acidity impressive.  It delivers an unusual combination of spice and floral aromas followed by diverse citrus, tropical and stone fruit flavors on the palate.

Fermented solely in stainless steel with no softening malolactic fermentation, winemaker Mike Officer has proven that great skill can transcend both red and white varietals.  This could be the best grüner veltliner in California.

The following wines include some I have tasted and others that have been highly reviewed and are accessible. They are all available in wine shops and on-line.

The terroir in Santa Barbara County is so diverse that I am always looking for small, unique releases, red or white.

2015 Tatomer Grüner Veltliner Meeresboden Vineyard

Graham Tatomer grew up working at wineries, developing both a passion for winemaking and an understanding of the breath of options available in cool, marine-influenced climates.  Focusing primarily on riesling and pinot noir, Tatomer produces two grüner veltliner including the 2015 Tatomer Grüner Veltliner Meeresboden Vineyard ($27/90-pt) near Lompoc.  The vineyard’s name translates to “ocean soil” and, in this case, is a combination of sand, diatomaceous earth and loam.

The wine offers nice stone fruit(peach, apricot) and citrus flavors with a unique minerality, described as “kelp-like,” throughout the finish.  On the argument of preference between young and aged gruner veltliner, both the Meeresboden and the 2015 Tatomer Grüner Veltliner John Sebastiano Vineyard ($35) were designed to age with grace developing more honeyed flavors.

 

Wine Spectator magazine described the Austrian 2015 Birgit Eichinger Hasel Grüner Veltliner Kamptal ($15/91-92-pt)as “a powerful and savory white, with concentrated green peach, apple and white cherry flavors, accented by sage and white pepper notes.”  They also predicted the wine’s drinkability will peak in two or three years. A savory wine from the Kamptal region along the banks of the Danube in northern Austria, it is a very good risk at fifteen dollars.

Chehalem Winery is located in Oregon’s northern Willamette Valley near Newberg.  Focusing mainly on single-vineyard pinot noir, I enjoyed, during my last visit, a very

2008 Chehalem Gruner Veltliner

good grüner veltliner from the Ribbon Ridge appellation.  Their current release, the 2015 Chehalem Grüner Veltliner Wind Ridge Block ($24) uses both stainless steel and neutral oak barrel for fermenting which produces a balance of herbal and stone fruit flavors and a healthy minerality through the finish.

Monterey County and the Central Coast region is home to many accessible grüner veltliner releases including the Zocker Paragon Vineyard Grüner Veltliner 2015 ($20) from the Edna Valley near San Luis Obispo.  Rich concentrated flavors ranging from white pepper to ripe melon drive more mineral notes on the finish.

The makers of Monterey County’s Vollendet Grüner Veltliner 2016 ($24) strive to replicate a true Austrian-style wine like those from the Wachau region.  The grapes are picked early and fermented in stainless steel, but stirred on lees to add richness and texture. Whole cluster pressing adds an herbal

Vollendet Gruner Veltliner 2016

flavors to match those of stone and tropical fruits.  This wine is reputed to be food friendly for fish, goat cheese, Thai food and even fried chicken.

The best American riesling does not come from California or the Pacific Northwest.  It is produced in the Finger Lakes region in New York State and Herman J. Wiemer is one of the finest.  He recently began developing a “gruner”  and the Herman J.

Herman J, Wiemer Gruner Veltliner 2014

Wiemer Grüner Veltliner 2014 ($27), his second release, is getting nice reviews.  Integrated and concentrated herbal, floral, melon and stone fruit flavors are described as “balanced and long.”

Domäne Wachau is the largest winery is the esteemed Wachau region and well known throughout Austria. They produce various styles of riesling and gruner veltliner from steeply sloped vineyards. Their current releases are available on-line and include the Domäne Wachau Federspiel Terrassen Gruner Veltliner 2015 ($16-20/91-pt) that is defined as a light, crisp wine that is best enjoyed now, while it is young.  It has been reviewed well with particular acclaim for balance.

Domane Wachau Federspiel Terrassen Gruner Veltliner 2015

The Domäne Wachau Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Terrassen 2016 ($24/92-9t) is described as one of the “complex, full-bodied wines of the Wachau with aging potential.”  It is their top release, using only the best grapes.

In an article debating the merits of grüner veltliner, the author described a friend who was skeptical until he shared “an F.X.” with him. Afterward, as its told, his friend was hooked forever on the varietal.

After some quick research, I discovered that F.X. Pichler, from Austria’s famed Wachau region, is arguably the world’s finest producer of grüner veltliner. Much of the aged F.X. Pichler wines are only available through auction. However, I found that the 2010 F.X. Pichler Grüner Veltliner Smaragd ‘M’ Wachau ($80/91-pt) was available through a few of the major on-line outlets.

Sourced from five different terroir within Wachau, the “M” is fermented and aged in twelve hundred liter casks.  They repeated the batonnage (sur lie) process for a few months to give the wine its signature creaminess. I prefer integration of the dead yeast

F.X. Pichler Gruner Veltliner Smaragd “M”

back into the juice because I prefer rich, creamy wines.

Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate lauded all aspects of the wine, but their report that “ green bean, apple and white peach are dusted with brown spices and Szechuan pepper” was engaging enough to consider purchasing a bottle.

The review ended, declaring “the fascinating interplay of fruit and mineral that characterizes the very best F.X. Pichler wines is missing in their “M.”  This tells me that the best F.X. is still out there.  I then found the 2015 F.X. Pichler Steinertal Grüner Veltliner Smaragd Wachau ($80-100/93-pt).  Wine Advocate, after glowing reviews, detailed complexity and a balance of “richness with tension and invigoration.”

Beyond my reach in price and accessibility, it’s nice to dream of enjoying a glass of F.X. on a fall afternoon outside of Vienna, overlooking the Danube River.

To my mind, grüner veltliner wine is more than a passing fad. It has many fine qualities and can be a pleasant, food-friendly alternative to chardonnay and other white wines.  With heightened awareness, I will now look for the varietal and, when the opportunity presents itself, enjoy a glass to discover what a “balance of richness and tension” tastes like.


Sonoma wines and a great beer

 

Montafi Ranch Vineyard

Our friends were coming into town and wanted to taste some of Sonoma County’s finest.  After a brief glimpse at my wine notes, Carlisle Winery popped out.  Over the past few years, they have placed wines, both zinfandel, on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list, including the Carlisle Zinfandel Russian River Valley Montafi Ranch 2014 96pt/$47, #14 on the 2016 list.  I contacted Sarah Weese at the winery and arranged a tasting of their new releases in the barrel room.

Ironically, a few days before our tasting, my friend, John, shared a bottle of 2014 Carlisle Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley ($37)that blends 11% petite sirah with zinfandel from two vineyards in this northern Sonoma County appellation.  The dark fruit and concentrated flavors that I had read about were there and the presence of petite sirah was clear on the finish.  Now, I was excited to learn more.

Carlisle Vineyard

We also planned to make our traditional stop at Merry Edwards Winery near Sebastopol to taste their new sauvignon blanc and pinot noir releases.  Owner/winemaker Merry Edwards is a true icon in the world wine industry.  Her Hall of Fame credentials are impeccable and, after a storied career, she has settled into the Russian River Valley to produce high quality wines from her estate and other prominent vineyards.

Our last stop at the Russian River Brewing Company in downtown Santa Rosa was the pleasant surprise of the day.

To quote someone else, it was “a long and winding road” to the remote Carlisle Winery production facility, north in the town of Windsor.  No fancy tasting facility, just a small barrel room and production patio where a few staff, led by owner/winemaker Mike Officer, concentrate on creating fine wines with fruit from prominent Sonoma vineyards.

Entrenched in a software development career, Mike Officer’e true passion since college was winemaking.  What began as a hobby, Mike, along with his wife, Kendall, were soon producing 300 cases in their garage,  This evolved into the establishment of Carlisle Winery and Vineyards, where they could focus their attention on small lot releases of old-vine zinfandel and Rhone varietals like syrah and petite sirah.  Today, after adding winemaker Jay Maddox to the team, Carlisle produces 9,000 cases annually, twenty different wines which are nearly all distributed to loyal members of their mailing list.

We joined Weese in the barrel room and began our tasting with Grüner Veltliner, a white Austrian varietal. With only 159 cases, the 2015 Carlisle Sonoma Mountain

Carlisle “Steiner Vineyard” Gruner Veltliner

“Steiner Vineyard” Grüner Veltliner ($30) comes from the only such vines in the county. It is pressed whole cluster and fermented in stainless steel tanks. There is no oak or malolactic fermentation, just natural flavors.

With a medium-bodied mouthfeel, the nice aromas and flavors of grapefruit and lime evolve into honeydew melon on the finish. It is rare to find Grüner Veltliner in California and one this good belongs in my cellar.

2015 Carlisle “Mancini Ranch Vineyard” Zinfandel

Next up was a comparison of two current old-vine zinfandel releases from prominent vineyards, one in the Russian River Valley and the other in the eastern Sonoma Valley appellation.  My friends preferred the 2015 Carlisle Russian River Valley “Mancini Ranch” Zinfandel ($47) which adds 15% of mixed varietals including Carignane, Abouriou, Valdiguié, Alicante Bouschet, Grand Noir, Petite Sirah.  Favoring red fruit flavors of cherry and raspberry, this wine is more austere, a wonderful food zinfandel.

I was partial to the 2014 Carlisle Sonoma Valley “Bedrock Vineyard” Zinfandel ($47) for its richness and intensity. Tucked away in the southeast region, this old-vine vineyard is wonderfully farmed and soaks up as much heat as any in Sonoma County. Adding bits of old-vine mourvedre, petite sirah and alicante bouschet, this release is well-structured with deep flavors of dark fruit, licorice and a hint of chocolate.

2015 Carlisle Palisades Vineyard Petite Sirah

From two lots in a Napa Valley vineyard, the 2015 Carlisle Napa Valley “Palisades Vineyard” Petite Sirah ($50) lives up to its reputation for delivering great flavors, vintage to vintage. The opposite of whole-clustered, the grapes are de-stemmed and crushed, but continue to lie with the skins for a few months to soften the tannins and enhance the deep purple color

Still young for a petite sirah, we decanted the wine which softened the tannins and exposed the balanced dark berry flavors and rich mouthfeel.

I am always curious of good syrah releases, those of complete balance when the fruit, spice and herbal flavors act as one. I found a good one in the 2015 Carlisle Russian River Valley “Papa’s Block Syrah ($44).  The grapes were fully ripened at harvest and about thirty percent were crushed whole-cluster to enhance the herbal flavors while fermenting in new French oak barrels, adding to the complexity of the dark berry flavors. Expect refined intensity and decanter if you plan to drink within the next year.

The group left with six bottles and all willingly joined the mailing list.  If you are seeking obscure, small lot wines whose reputation is on the rise, the list is your only option to hopefully secure future Carlisle releases.

Although she produces, vintage to vintage, fine single-vineyard pinot noir and chardonnay, everyone knows about Merry Edwards highly acclaimed Russian River Valley sauvignon blanc.  The nearly sold out 2015 Merry Edwards Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc 93pt/$32 placed #17 on Wine Spectator’s list of 2016 top 100 wines.  It is expected to be included each year.

2015 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley

On the nose, this wine has intense floral hints of jasmine and honeysuckle along with tropical fruit and crème brûlée.  The flavors result from the addition of sauvignon musque and six-months aging, sur lee, in French oak.  This softens the tart grapefruit and tangerine flavors with a rich, creamy texture.

We completed the tasting by comparing three new pinot noir releases, two very different single-vineyards and the last representing eight vineyards within the cool, higher elevated and marine influenced Sonoma Coast appellation

The 2014 Merry Edwards “Meredith Estate” Vineyard Pinot Noir ($63) is from the flagship estate vineyard, planted eighteen years ago. This full-bodied wine

2014 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir Meredith Estate Vineyard

expresses ripened fruit through the nose and rich, concentrated red berry flavors with hints of vanilla and cinnamon on the finish

The Georganne Vineyard is the most northerly and warmest in the Russian River Valley, producing the 2015 Merry Edwards “Georgeanne Vineyard” Pinot Noir ($63), a very accessible, fruit-forward wine with signs of spice and coffee on a long finish.

I am drawn to the consistent quality of many pinot noir releases from the designated Sonoma coast appellation. To this point, the 2014 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($45) is moderately priced, but like previous vintages, offers approachable complex fruit and spice flavors.  This new release has a healthy

2014 Merry Edwards Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

acidity, concluding with a wonderful layer of cherry and caramel.  Whatever you prefer, Merry Edwards delivers tremendous quality from all her wines.

On the drive home, our friends asked if we had heard of the Russian River Brewing Company.

“Of course,” I said, “It’s located on 4th Street, but there is always a line around the block.”  It seems that this brewing company is known worldwide for their limited production of two beers: Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger.  Our guests son, knowing that they would be in the area, had requested some. We have also stopped by several times when my son is in town but were always met with extensive lines.

Pliny the Elder

Today, on a Monday afternoon, there were no lines.  We parked and went in. Pliny The Elder, the rare American Double/Imperial IPA was available by case or bottle.  We scored some and soon will be cool parents again

The group celebrated a wonderfully productive day with a glass of this unique Russian River release, one with a foamy head and complex pale ale flavors.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The Wines of Saratoga

 

Growing up in Silicon Valley, I am familiar with the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Many times, I have driven the back roads that connect Saratoga with Santa Cruz, through towns like Ben Lomond, Boulder Creek and Felton.  Today, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is a large wine appellation that extends through San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz

Montebello Vineyard

counties. It has many diverse micro-climates that are all, in some way, influenced by the Pacific Ocean, the mountains and San Francisco Bay.  The region is often overlooked, but produces well-rated wines, vintage to vintage.

The Santa Cruz Mountain appellation is forever steeped in wine lore. The Ridge Montebello Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1971, from the hills above Cupertino and the Apple campus, was rated fifth among ten cabernet sauvignon wines, five French and five California, competing in the original 1976 Paris Tasting that put us on the world stage.

Ridge Montebello Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

In a 2006 reprise blind tasting of the original aged red vintages, the 1971 Montebello Vineyard was ranked at the top.  Current releases are priced near $150 per bottle and still sought after by wine collector’s.

The original destiny of the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation was supposed to be pinot noir.  The coastal influences and cool evenings were thought to offer the perfect terroir.  Although there is still plenty of pinot noir grown here, the grape struggles to reach full expression in many of the micro-climates.  Winemakers like Merry Edwards, left for the Russian River Valley, where she produces excellent pinot noir and sauvignon blanc.  Others, like Randall Grahm from Bonny Doon Cellars, stayed and changed his business model to Rhone blends, becoming an original Rhone Ranger. In a region that has been described as too hot for pinot noir and too cool for cabernet sauvignon, the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation wineries are comfortable in their own skins and celebrate their size and diverse micro-climates with many varietals.

On the far west end of the Silicon Valley, at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains, is the quaint, upscale village of Saratoga, in the middle of the appellation.  It is the last stop

the village of Saratoga

before entering the remote backwoods that take you through the giant redwoods of Big Basin State Park and, eventually, to the beach at Santa Cruz.  More vineyards are appearing in the hills outside of town and exploring their wines and other local attractions makes for a fun weekend mini-vacation.

The flagship Saratoga winery, Mount Eden Vineyards, is also one of the oldest and finest producers in the United States, growing pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon for over seventy years, under the leadership of proprietor Martin Ray for the first thirty years. For me, there is no better white wine, vintage to vintage, in California than the Mount Eden RESERVE Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains ($75). It is consistently named

2013 Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Bottled Chardonnay

to Wine Spectator magazine’s annual Top 100 list.  Ratings are generally in the mid-nineties and the 2012 vintage was named to the No. 5 slot among 2015 releases.

The RESERVE consists of the same chardonnay grapes used for the Mount Eden Estate Bottled Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains ($64) release, planted in half of the wineries forty acres. The difference is a viticulture practice that ages the wine in French barrels for ten months, then transfers it, with “gross lees,” to stainless steel tanks for several months of additional aging.

The lees consist of dead yeast that remain, like some soap cake, on the sides and bottom of the barrel.  Under a process known as racking, the wine is temporarily transferred to another barrel and dead yeast is removed.  Another process, sur lee, mixes the build up

Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains

into the wine, creating a rich, silky texture.  The result is a Burgundian Grand Cru- style chardonnay with an earthiness and mineral nuances to enhance the rich fruit and finish.  There are many great chardonnay releases out there, but my palate puts Mount Eden RESERVE and the Foley Estate “Barrel-Select Chardonnay ($55) at the top of the list.

Different from most white wines, the Mount Eden chardonnay releases can continue to mature in the bottle for several years, a tribute to the vine stock, terroir and wine-making practices that have evolved over decades.

One that does not display heavy fruit influences, the Mount Eden Estate-bottled Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains ($62) is a medium-bodied Burgundian-style wine, austere, balanced and elegant.

Their current release, the 2012 Mount Eden Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains ($70) adds merlot (22%) and cabernet franc (3%) in a typical Bordeaux blend from cuttings originally obtained from Chateau Margaux in France by viticulturist Emmett Rixford.

Mount Eden Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

There is no doubt that these hillside vineyards are cooler, with more coastal influences than cabernet sauvignon is used to, preferring warmer days.  Expect more acidity, but not soon.  the winery declares that “fine integrated tannins buttress characteristic flavors of red currant, blackberry and earth, adding, “Recommend cellaring is ten to fifteen years.”  After all, it is Chateau Margaux stock.

There is a non-tasting, historical tour of the wine cellar, available by reservation only and a mailing list that allows for early notifications of new releases.  Mount Eden is an iconic California winery, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Saratoga’s Savannah-Chanelle Vineyards, three miles from town, was founded in 1996 by Mike and Kellie Ballard, but the land was serving as a functioning winery well before Prohibition.  They produce pinot noir but, for me, the attraction is three unique releases.

Admittedly, my knowledge of port is limited.  I am always interested in the reviews of those from Portugal and a few California releases that get away with using the word,

2004 Savannah-Chanelle Tawny Port

“port” on the label. The 2004 Savannah-Chanelle Syrah, Tawny Port ($99) is from the same wine as the earlier released 2004 Ruby Port, but aged another nine years. A characteristic of aged port is the enhanced aromas that must be enjoyed for the complete experience.  A special wine for port aficionados.

Cabernet franc is a major component of France’s famous Bordeaux blends, partnering with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and others. Lighter than cabernet sauvignon, it adds spice and herbal flavors to the mix and is a respected member of the team.

California winemakers are obsessed with single-varietal releases and I have tasted many pure cabernet franc wines, some from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Savannah-Chanelle claims to have the oldest cabernet franc vines in the state, dating back to 1923.  An end result from these old vines, The 2013 Savannah-Chanelle Cabernet Franc Estate ($65), has crisp cranberry flavors with definite herbal influences, almost like menthol.

2013 Savannah-Chanelle Monmartre blend

Lastly, and probably their most unusual wine is the 2013 Savannah-Chanelle “Montmartre” ($60), an eclectic blend of cabernet franc (45%) zinfandel (32%), carignane (9%), and syrah (14%) that displays an array of berry flavors, courtesy of the two dominant grapes. Some extra aging has resulted in a nice, rich mouthfeel.

A WWII pilot in Europe and, later, chief research test pilot at NASA, George Cooper founded Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyards in 1973 and spent the rest of his life making wine.  Cooper died in 2016 at the age of ninety-nine, but his legacy continues at

2010 Cooper-Garrod “Test Pilot” Red Wine Blend

the winery today.  They offer a full palate of wines including the highly rated 2010

2010 Cooper-Garrod Cabernet Sauvignon George’s Vineyard

Cooper-Garrod Georges Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($41) and several blends named after famous fighter planes.  Their tasting room is always open, making it a must stop.

Of Spanish origin, “Ser” means “expressing identity.”  Ser is also an “artisanal” winery, the identity of Nicole Walsh.  She has an array of experience, including local Bonny Doon Cellars  and as far away as Marlborough, New Zealand.  She now specializes in creative old world-style wines from vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Distinctive wines from Ser that caught my attention were the dry, creamy 2015 Ser

Nicole Walsh of Ser

Sparkling Rose’ of Nebbiolo ($34), an Italian varietal, the 2016 Ser Rose’ of Cabernet Franc ($22) and the rare 2014 Ser Cabernet Pfeffer ($45) from the Enz vineyard in San Benito County.  Ser shares an accessible tasting room with


Ser

Silvertip Vineyards on Big Basin Way, the main street of Saratoga.  Checking out Cinnabar and Mountain Winery are other options along the Saratoga wine trail.

For the most charm, the towns of Los Gatos and Saratoga are good, convenient bases and lodging and restaurants are available at all levels. Strolling both towns is part of the experience.

Between tastings, visitors should not miss the breathtaking Villa Montalvo Estate and

Hakone Gardens outside of Saratoga

Arboretum (where we married 47 years ago) and the eighteen-acre Hakone Gardens, one of the oldest and most impressive Japanese gardens outside of Japan. Also, many of the wineries have concert venues and their music series schedule is posted online.

Exploring the entire Santa Cruz appellation will take some time, although it could be fun.  The wines of Saratoga can be a great introduction to the elegantly charming side of the Silicon Valley.


The Wines of Corbières

 

During each of our two nights in Castelnaudary in southern France, we dined with friends at Chez David, a restaurant owned by Chef David Campigotto, a son of chefs, who prepares his renown cassoulet throughout the world.  Both evenings, based on the recommendation of our waiter, we selected a local 2013 Celliers d’ Orfee Corbières Cuvee

Chef David Campigotto

Sextant and were intrigued. Aside from the cassoulet, it also paired well with fresh cod on the second night. This newly discovered wine had a great nose, rich, fruity flavors and, most appealing, it was inexpensive.  While it sold for

2013 Celliers d’Orfee Corbieres Cuvee Sextant

twenty euros in the restaurant, we consistently found other wines from Corbières priced at ten euros. What else could we learn about these wines?

Corbières is the largest appellation in the Lanquedoc-Rousillon region, producing nearly fifty percent of its wine production on over thirty thousand acres.  Nearly all the wines are red blends, leaving about five percent for white and rose’ production.  They are similar to Rhone blends with one exception.  Among the five major grapes used in Corbières blends, carignan, also known as carignane or mazuelo, is often the main varietal.

Blended with grenache, mourvedre, the grenache-related liedener pelut, syrah and, at times, the more obscure piquepoul blanc and tenet noir, carignan clearly dominates.  During the late 1980s, carignan was the most widely produced grape in all of France, with over 400,000

Corbieres vineyard

acres under vine.  Then, in a comprehensive approach to improve the overall quality of  wines, the European Union hatched a “vine pull” program, offering subsidies to growers for pulling up their vines. As a result, production of Carignan dropped over forty percent and was replaced by merlot as the most abundant varietal.

Outside of the appellation, single-varietal carignane is produced by several California winemakers including the 2013 Carol Shelton Carignane “Oat Valley” ($28), from 60-year old vines in north Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley.  I recently paired this Santa Rosa-based wine with fresh salmon and found the creamy texture and smokey flavors complimentary, not overpowering.

We left Castelnaudary by boat, cruising down the Canal du Midi. In the villages and towns along the route, including Bram, Carcassonne and Trebes, the shops and restaurants proudly showcased their local wines, including the Cuvee Sextant.  Enjoying locals wines enhanced the cultural experience of the canal, especially at these low prices.

Vineyards in Corbieres

The Corbières appellation is so large and diverse that it has eleven identified terrors within its boundaries. Wikipedia defines terroir as a “set of all environmental factors that affect a crop‘s phenotype, unique environment contexts and farming practices, when the crop is grown in a specific habitat.”  This is a complicated way of saying that when factors like climate, sun exposure, soil types and conditions are matched with the proper varietal, stock and farming practices, a harmonious relationship ensues that creates a unique characteristic to the wine. The term “terroir” is not exclusive to wine.  It is used in growing coffee, chocolate, chili peppers, agave and others.

Still intrigued with this new-found region and what is has to offer, I began, upon my return, to research what was available in California.  Surprisingly, Corbières wines are readily accessible in wine shops and on-line.  It helps to know what you are asking for.  I have not tasted any of the Corbières wines described below.  However, based upon a recommendation or something in the wineries background that caught my attention, these are releases from the region that I have targeted.

From a small, organic winery described as a “true one-woman show,” the carignan-dominant 2014 Clos de l’Anhel

2014 Clos de l’Angel “Lolo de l”Anhel Corbieres

“Lolo de l’Anhel” Corbières($13) is a blend from limestone-laden soils, enhanced with small amounts of syrah, grenache and mourvedre. The low price reflects its profile as a great everyday wine. The Clos de l’Anhel winery also offers, at a higher price, the 2014 Clos de l’Anhel “Les Dimanches” Corbières ($23), that blends carignan (60%), from 80-year old vines, syrah (30%) and grenache (10%), boasting rich fruit and minerality, both welcome to my palate.  Les Dimanches translates to “Sundays.”  This is meant to be a special wine, reserved for special occasions.

From twenty-three different organic and biodynamically grown grape varietals that are field blended and harvested together, then co-fermented, the 2015 Domaine Tour Boisée “Plantation 1905” ($12) is as unique a wine that can be found within the region, from vineyards in the village of Minervois, near Carcassonne.  One of the newer producers in the region, dating back to 1826, the array of varietals in the Plantation vineyard were first planted in 1905.  I did not recognized the names of fourteen varietals used in this all-embracing blend, but, at $12 per bottle, I am very curious.

Domaine Tour Boisee “Plantation 1905”

Michel Gassier Corbieres de Nimes Nostre Pais

My interest in the Michel Gassier Corbières de Nimes Nostre Pais Red 2013 ($22) rose because the vineyards are in the AOC Corbières- Nimes appellation, located between the cities of Montpellier, Nimes and Arles, all places that we recently visited.  Secondly, it is grenache dominant.  Because the Corbières appellation is so large, these vineyards are within an hour of the Rhone Valley and share deep beds of limestone that influences the flavor.

Aside from grenache (40%), this blend includes equal parts carignan, syrah and mourvedre.  Awarding it 90-92 points, Wine Advocate described a wine that “exhibits pretty, perfumed notes of raspberry and passion fruit intermixed with subtle leather, violets and spice.”  With the history, unique terroir and reviews, this is the one that I will pursue first.

On the surface, the Chateau d’Aussieres Corbières 2013 ($30) is a typical Rhone blend.  Syrah-dominant and supported by grenache and mourvedre, this blend mirrors those produced in Chateaunef-du-Pape, Gigondas and other appellations in the southern Rhone Valley.  A wine that consists mostly of syrah, the tasting notes described fair amounts of typical spice (pepper), herbs and toasted flavors.  Of this vintage, Wine Advocate states, “Domaine d’Aussières has turned out an incredibly classy, elegant 2013 Corbières that checks in with the top wines of the appellation.”

For those who follow French rugby, apparently, Gerard Bertrand is a household name.  After 17 years as a star in the French leagues, he returned to the family wine business in Corbières and, recently, saw his Gerard Bertrand

Gerard Bertrand Corbieres

Corbières 2012 ($20), a blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre, land on the #55 spot of Wine Spectator’s 2016 Top 100 wines

Since his retirement from professional rugby, Bertrand has focused on acquiring regional vineyards and refining his organic and biodynamic practices. Wine Spectator describes the 2012 vintage as “Full-bodied and powerful, with decadent layers of raspberry compote, kirsch and red plum notes that are met with savory details of herb and cured meat.”  The release price of the wine was under $20, but I found that wholesalers are seeking higher sums since its recent recognition.

The Lanquedoc-Rousillon wine region extends from the Pyrenees Mountains to the Mediterranean Sea.  The Corbières appellation, bordered by Carcassonne, Narbonne and Perpignan is large and assorted enough to offer a range of styles and terroir. These wine are made to pair with duck, pork and other meats in the region’s rich cassoulet, but are also complimentary to chicken and seafood.

There is a “new age” renaissance emerging from Corbières wines.  The number of wineries has expanded in recent years and there is a strong desire to improve the quality of the wine and vineyards in a responsible, sustainable way.  We discovered and explored this region via the Canal du Midi, but their local industry is expanding to welcome tourists of all types.  Of course, you no longer have to travel to Corbières to enjoy these finely blended wines. I expect that awareness among US wine consumers will swell as they expand their presence in our market.


Wine and Cheese 2017

 

At a recent visit to the Sonoma County Artisan Cheese Festival, we were strolling through the books section.  Pointing to a book entitled, “Cheese and Wine: A Guide to Selecting, Pairing and Enjoying”, by Janet Fletcher, I declared it as the best book of its kind on the market.

“So you like that book’” a woman said, as she approached us, “well, I wrote it.”

Janet Fletcher has written for several magazines including Bon Appetit and Food and Wine. She is a food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written

“Wine and Cheese” by Janet Fletcher

several books such as the aforementioned.  “Cheese and Wine” lists cheeses throughout the world, in alphabetical order.  For each, it provides pronunciation, type of cheese (cow, goat, sheep), country of origin, information about the cheese’s history, taste, and texture and, finally, wines that work.   It was a pleasure to meet Ms. Fletcher and tell her firsthand how much I appreciate her writing.

Her book was in full use as I prepared for another cheese and wine tasting to support ArtStart, a local Santa Rosa-based non-

Janet Fletcher

profit that supports high school artists by providing work opportunities in creating public murals and other projects.  There would be repeat donors participating, so this year’s event must be unique and different than earlier years. The following menu highlights the adventure in store for this years guests.

#1: 2014 Bollig Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese (Mosel/Germany)

Comte – France (raw cow’s milk)

During a recent visit, I discovered that Comte’ is the largest selling cheese in France.  Made from co-operative diaries using milk exclusively from large Montbeliard cows,

Comte’

I enjoyed the smooth texture and brown butter flavors.  Comte’ is a perfect balance between sweet, salty and tart.

I chose a reliable favorite, the 2014 Bollig Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese, to pair with the Comte’.  Don’t let the long, fancy name intimidate you.  This rich riesling, from the Mosel region of Germany, is available at some wine shops and on-line for about twenty dollars.  My first taste of this wine, over a decade ago, served as an introduction to the mineral/metallic/petrol/wet stone flavor of a fine German riesling.

Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese 2012

The German word spatlese (spat-LAY-see) literally translates to “late harvest,” but should not be confused with the late harvest dessert wines produced in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Montbeliard cows

With regard to flavor and richness, Spatlese riesling sits between the more austere Kabinett (ca-bin-net) and sweeter Auslese (aus-LAY-see) styles, the later equal to our late harvest wines.  The Bollig Lehnert is always distinctive, but never overpowering.

#2: Auteur Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2013 (Sonoma)

   “Mount Tam” – Cowgirl Cheese Co. (pasteurized cow milk)

This is an all-Sonoma County pairing that features a complex, non malolactically

Auteur Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2013

fermented California chardonnay from respected winemaker Ken Juhasz, with an elegant, buttery triple-creme cheese with earthy mushroom flavors. Cowgirl Cheese Company, maker of the popular “Red Hawk,” dedicates this cheese to Mount Tamalpias in Marin County, a popular place to harvest fresh, wild mushrooms, abundant this year due to heavy rainfall.

Many of the vineyards within the Sonoma Coast appellation are located at higher elevations, above the fog line, producing

Cowgirl Creamery “Mt. Tam” triple-cream cheese

distinctive flavors.  This chardonnay is austere with mineral elements that did not compete with the creamy cheese, but added hints of orange peel and honeysuckle to the mix.

#3:  2013 Seasmoke “Southing” Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills/Santa Barbara County)

#4:  2012 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Yamhill Cuvee (Willamette Valley, Oregon)

Monte Enebro – Spain (pasteurized goat milk)

Point Reyes Toma -Sonoma County (pasteurized cow milk)

When it comes to pairing cheese with pinot noir, the opportunities are so abundant that

Sea Smoke Pinot Noir “Soutwihing” 2013

I can’t restrain myself.  To show the range of pinot noir, I selected one from the southernmost appellation, the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County and the Yamhill appellation in the most northern region of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, both premier releases awarded 92-points from Wine Spectator magazine.

Sea smoke Cellars produces three low-yield pinot noir releases

Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Yamhill Cuvee’ 2012

each year, available to a few select restaurants in southern California and allocation list members only.  The 2013 “Southing” expresses smokey flavors of red fruit, cinnamon and vanilla that pairs well with both cheeses, especially the dense, buttery and herbaceous flavors of the Monte Enebro.

Monte Enebro cheese

Equally creamy and buttery, the Point Reyes Toma was new to my palate and a good fit with the caramel and mocha notes expressed on the finish of the Domaine Serene Pinot Noir.  The Monte Enebro is available on-line through sites like “Igourmet,” while the Toma is seasonally available at fine cheese shops.

Known primarily for fine pinot noir releases, Domaine Serene

Toma

recently received accolades by placing a new chardonnay in the third spot in Wine Spectator’s list of the most exciting wines of 2016.

#5:  Tablas Creek Vineyard Tannat Paso Robles 2010

Rogue River Creamery “Smokey Blue” – southern Oregon (certified sustainable cow’s milk)

This was, by far, the most difficult pairing of the event. Tannat is a rare French grape

Rogue River Creamery “Smokey Blue”

that is generally used to give texture and deep earthy flavors when blended with other, more fruity varietals.  Tablas Creek of Paso Robles, arguably the finest producer of Rhone wines outside of the Rhone Valley, released this 100% tannat that has been in my cellar for five years, softening its harsh tannins. Luckily, I found this seasonal, gluten-free “Smokey

Tablas Creek Tannat 2010

Blue” with with deep earthy flavors of hazelnuts, caramel and candied bacon, one of the few cheeses that could stand up to this aged tannat

#6:  Hall “Eighteen Seventy-Three Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (Napa Valley)

Abbaye de Belloc – France/Basque (pasteurized sheep’s milk)

Rutherford-based Hall Wines, in the Napa Valley, annually produce some of the highest rated cabernet sauvignon in California.  I knew this wine had been given a 93-point

HALL Cabernet Sauvignon Eighteen Seventy-Three 2103

rating by Wine Spectator, but did not expect that it would be included in their top 100 list of 2106 releases.  The “1873” retails for $80 per bottle, a moderate price for Hall Wines whose other cabernets range from $100 to $280 per bottle.

Surprisingly, my research of Abbaye de Belloc, a sheep’s cheese from the Basque region of the French Pyrenees Mountains,

Abbaye de Belloc

described it to be a good pair with cabernet sauvignon.  It is made in the Abbaye de Notre Dame de Belloc by monks and contains milk exclusively from the red-nosed Manech sheep, who look like a round bowl of fuzzy wool with skinny legs protruding out the bottom.  This cheese has a rich, buttery, fine texture with caramelized brown sugar flavor.  It is

Red-nosed Manech sheep

dense with a creamy, off-white color and the wine seems to have a “liquefaction effect” that breaks it down, nicely coating your tongue and throat.  It is somewhat difficult to find, but the effort is rewarding.

Thanks, again Janet Fletcher.  A desire to support ArtStart is my motivation and “Wine and Cheese,” among other books, gave me the choices to assemble another pairing event.  We will do it again next year.  Meanwhile, I have discovered some new and unique cheeses to enjoy with my wines throughout the next year.

 

 


Face of Five

 

“Damnit!,”

“What did you forget this time,” said Karen, responding to a familiar tone in my voice.

“My phone,”  I answered, tightening my grip on the steering wheel.

“Well, I’ve got mine, she said, reassuring us both that we would not be completely off the grid of modern life during the next few days.

It was 2009 and having celebrated our recent retirements with season ski passes to Mammoth Mountain Resort, we relished the concept of mid-week skiing and the availability of a nearby cabin, courtesy of friends, Cindy and Ross.  For us, the season passes were a metaphor for our new-found freedom and the ability to be spontaneous, to load the car on a whim and, within hours, be on a sparsely populated mountain.  Cautiously dipping our toes in the sea of invincibility that once dominated our early lives, we were happy, healthy and wanted to remain as young as we could for as long as we could.

Our plan was to ski Wednesday through Friday noon, have a quick lunch, then get out of Dodge before the weekenders arrived.  Today, there would be no standing in line to buy a lift ticket.  They were already around our necks, with photos, encased in plastic.  Season passes make you feel élite and special.

It had been awhile since Karen skied Mammoth and I was anxious to show her some new runs that I had discovered in a recent trip with some colleagues from work.

“Ross recommended a great warm-up run for me.  It’s called Mambo,” I said as we put on our ski’s at the bottom of Stump Alley.

Karen answered, “Sounds good, as long as they have already groomed it.”  To find her “ski legs,” she preferred that the first few runs of the day be free of moguls, chunky snow or ice.  Mambo is a series of plateaus, creating alternating degrees of steepness from the top to the bottom before merging with Escape, a chute that allowed us to build up enough speed to make it back to the Stump Alley Express Chair.  From there, we did it again, and once more until we realized we were falling into our comfort zones.  A very nice, cozy comfort zone where the challenge of the slope fluidly matched the skill level of the skier.   Feeling more confident, we were ready to push ourselves.

“Let’s go higher,”  Karen said.

So we did.  We ascended the mountain, Stump Alley to Chair #3 to a higher ridge line.

“This chute feeds into St Anton, follow me,” I pointed down the slope. From the back side, we could ski the St. Anton run which provided access to numerous opportunities on the northern side of the mountain.  There we were, me in my helmet and goggles and Karen, sporting a cute beret and designer shades, embracing the sense of freedom and euphoria that the mountain gave us.

On Thursday, I suggested we explore it’s back side.  The old two-person Chair #9  had been replaced with the new six-person Cloud Nine Express Chair which made many more skiers aware of these once-remote runs.  Off the chair to the right, Goldhill could be intimidating, but soon merged with great runs like  Haven’t The Foggiest and Quicksilver.  The calmness of this area, with the muted sun, struggling to penetrated the thick, grey-rust sky, painted a very heavenly portrait.  Nearly Nirvana but for the packs of helter-skelter snowboarders, passing through the silence like some Mad Max movie.

“Karen, do you remember Face of Five? I inquired. “We’ve skied it several times together.”

“Tell me about it,” she asked, signaling that her memory of it was, at best, foggy.

“The face is steep, right off the chair, sometimes chunky in the morning,” I said, “but it soon becomes Solitude, which you loved.”

“Where is it?”  expressing due diligence on my recommendation.

“Actually, it’s just around this ridge, follow me,” I responded.  And she did.

We skied Face of Five many times, benefitting by another new express chair until our legs began to tire.  On our last run, we would stay on Solitude, past the express chair, to connect with lower trails that would eventually bring us back to Stump Alley, where a beverage of our choice was waiting.   During this last run, it was important that we stay together.  My intelligent, educated wife is severely directionally challenged and I would like to think that she needs me to get down the hill.  Honestly, if we got separated, she would probably flag down a skier and ask directions.

We decided to spend our last morning on the back side, continuing to relish the challenge.  Skiing better than we had on our first day, we wanted more, but the early weekenders were arriving and clearly visible against the backdrop of the white snow.

“Let’s do one more, then go in,” Karen said, as noon was approaching.

Pointing to a narrow trail, I said, “This will take us back to Face Of Five and we can go down from there.”

“Great.”  There was an enthusiast tone to her voice.  She was feeling good and we would probably boast to each other throughout the drive home.

The trail merged directly into the traffic on Face of Five.  We pulled up to get our bearings and discuss a plan for the last descent.  Suggesting our usual route, I said, “Ski down to the sign, we can meet up there and then go down the rest of the way together.”

The sign is a large billboard-sized ski trail map that is located at the apex of the lower and upper slopes.  All the primary chair lifts coming from the various lodges dump skiers nearby and it is highly recognizable and helpful to those without pocket maps.

“You go first and I’ll meet you at the sign,” said Karen.

So I did.  I set the edges of my ski’s into the snow and stopped at the base of the gigantic trail map, listening to what my thighs were telling me.  I kept close watch for my partner for the next several minutes.  She didn’t come.  After another fifteen minutes, I became worried.   At the least, she had taken a wrong turn, descended to another area and, without my phone, it could take hours for us to connect.   This was the option that I was hoping for.

Polling slowly, I made my way back to the chair lift and rode to the top of Face of Five, looking off for signs of her.  I skied back down and still saw none. Beginning to feel helpless, I decided to ski down to Stump Alley, near where our car was parked.   Again, I waited and paced.  My mind was running out of good scenario’s and I decided to check the places that I was avoiding.

Neither of the two emergency first aids stations reported an accident involving a woman.  They recommended I check back later.  Thinking that Karen may have called the cabin land-line, I drove there and found Ross, an early weekender,  just arriving.  He is part of the volunteer ski patrol and has contacts and can ski areas most people can’t. Before immediately leaving for the mountain, Ross gave me his phone.  I called Karen’s phone and, for the first time in hours, heard her voice.

“Hi, you’ve reached Karen’s cell.  Your call is important to me, at the beep….”

Another hour passed and I found myself driving back to the places where she might be, including both first aid stations.  At 3:30 PM, the phone rang.

“Hello, Ross James please,” the voice on the line said.

“This is Ross’ phone, but my name is Lyle Norton,” I answered.

“Oh, Mr. Norton,  the voice answered back, “you’re the person I am trying to contact.  This is Dr. Siena at Mammoth Community Hospital.”

The scratches along the right side of her face and the broken clavicle would heal soon, but they were mostly concerned about the concussion.  Karen was resting, not so comfortably.  Dr. Siena explained that she had arrived in an ambulance sometime after 12:30 PM in a semi-conscious state.  She later regained full consciousness and he had spoken to her.  She recalled from an instant glimpse before the collision that it was a skier wearing a helmet.  She remembered parts of a bumpy, headfirst basket ride down the slope, briefly worrying about throwing up, then actually doing so as she was being placed in the ambulance.

Within seconds after I started down the slope, she was hit.  I was probably no more than fifty yards away and heard nothing.   Ironically, although it was a tragic event in our lives, neither of us have any recollection of what really happened or witnessed it. The resort accident report that I requested revealed nothing:  “woman found unconscious on Face of Five, evacuated at 12:18 PM and transported to Community Hospital.  No witnesses.”  The other skier apparently fled the scene and she was discovered, lying alone in the snow.  You really do ski at your own risk and radio communication between those on the mountain and the first aid centers is not always reliable.

Karen continued to rest.  After a few weeks, the facial scratches were gone and the fog in her brain was beginning to lift.  In April, two months from the accident, she was much better and, feeling the need to “get back on the horse,” we returned to Mammoth to finish the run on Face Of Five.  We skied for two days, mostly the back side (a reprise on Haven’t The Foggiest).  We were back, both skiing with helmets, one a bit worn and the other, new and shiny, still living the dream, day-by-day, acutely aware of our mortality.