Wines From “The Grade”

 

In his 1883 memoir, “The Silverado Squatters,” Robert Louis Stevenson describes traveling through north Napa Valley. Commenting on Mount Saint Helena, he said,”it looks down on much green, intricate country.  It feeds in the spring-time many splashing brooks.  Its naked peak sits four thousand five hundred feet above the sea; its sides are fringed with forest; and the soil, where it is bare, glows warm with cinnabar.”

In those days, traveling to desirable Lake County resorts required passage over the mountain via Calistoga and the Old Toll Road operated by businessman John Lawley. Arriving by coach, Stevenson wrote, “we entered the toll road, or to be more local, entered on “the grade”…”

The Silverado Squatters 

Tom Thornton

Stevenson’s book served as the inspiration and motivation for Tom Thornton and Brenda Mixson to purchase, in 1997, an old vineyard along “the grade” and re-plant it with fine cabernet sauvignon stock.

Wine is a second career for both Tom and Brenda, who actually met on a blind date.  Moving past their expertise in architecture and commercial real estate, they re-located from the East Coast to pursue a passion for cabernet sauvignon.

As newcomers to this prestigious area, Tom and Brenda have managed to attach themselves to a known star. After a time at Turley

Thomas Rivers Brown

Cellars, Thomas Rivers Brown worked for Shraeder Cellars where he developed a reputation for crafting fine cabernet sauvignon. Of note, his initial 2012 vintages of The Grade “Kingly Project” and “Winfield Estate” cabs received 99-pt and 97-pt ratings from Robert
Parker

The 12-acre Winfield Vineyard, using Tom’s middle name and part of a 32-acre ranch site, sits on a shelf above the old toll road

Winfield Vineyard

leading into Calistoga.  It is said to be at the confluence of the volcanic mountain soils and the alluvial valley floor. It is here that the team has created three distinct cabernets and a complex sauvignon blanc, all named from chapters of the “Silverado Squatters” memoir.

The tasting room sits among many other businesses on Lincoln Ave. in downtown Calistoga.  While located in a quaint old, well-appointed California cottage, it’s easy to walk by their stylish sign that blends in with many others.  However, there is a unique story here at The Grade Cellars and, for those seeking fine small-production cabernet sauvignon from an authentic boutique producer, a reservation to taste their current releases is recommended. The tasting fee is $35 which includes a cheese pairing;  everything is served in “The Library,”  a private space with comfortable chairs.

The Grade Cellars produces about 900 cases per vintage including 215 cases of The Grade 2016 “Sea Fog” Sauvignon Blanc ($28), the only white varietal. From volcanic soils, the “Sea Fog” is barrel-fermented in all neutral oak to produce melon, white peach flavors, balanced acidity and a mineral elements through the finish. Give the wine a few minutes in the glass to open up.

The Grade Winfield Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

The biggest yield at 530 cases is The Grade 2015 “Winfield Estate” Cabernet Sauvignon ($100), aged for 20 months. Perfumed aromas of licorice and baked fruit precede full-bodied, rich and integrated flavors of red fruit, berries and cassis. Again, I found a nice minerality throughout.  The 2014 vintage of this wine was named by California Wine and Wineries among the “top five exceptional wines of 2017.” 

With floral and chocolate aromas, The Grade 2014 “Kingly Project” Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) would make a nice Valentine’s Day gift for that special wine connoisseur. I found earthy, slate elements on the nose and palate with red stone fruit flavors, demonstrative and balanced.  Additional time in the bottle will soften the tannins and allow these complex flavors to integrate. 

The exceptional releases are at a price point that’s not for everyone. However, if you are serious about cabernet sauvignon, you owe it to yourselves to try The Grade wines on your next visit to Calistoga. For the enhanced experience, read “Silverado Squatters” and stop by the Winfield Vineyard along the old toll road before you taste.

   

  

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Purple Heart Wines

 

 

Memorial Day is when we honor and remember veterans, especially those who have given the ultimate sacrifice for their country.  To honor and support veterans and to pay homage to patriarch Peter Mondavi, Sr., a WWII veteran, the Mondavi Family has challenged winemaker John Moynier to create a wine that salutes the Purple Heart medal, a high symbol of unselfishness among our military

Winemaker John Moynier

men and women.

We had the pleasure, years ago, of meeting Peter Mondavi Sr.,at his winery. I could sense Napa Valley history just by being in the same room with him.

The wine is the Purple Heart Red Wine Sonoma County 2015 ($19.99), a Left Bank-style Bordeaux blend with 19% California zinfandel added.  The production and availability of Purple Heart wines is the result of a collaboration between the Mondavi Family and the Purple Heart Foundation whose mission includes support, outreach and advocacy for combat wounded veterans and their families. Much of the focus of the Foundation’s work centers on employment for people with disabilities, homelessness and women veteran’s issues.

The Purple Heart wines, along with other efforts, will hopefully increase awareness and funding needed to continue and expand services. A noble cause, but let’s talk about the wine.

Purple Heart is not head winemaker John Moynier’s first rodeo, he has made wine for the Mondavi family nearly 33 years.  It’s the only place he has worked since earning a degree in Fermentation Science from UC Davis.

It is hard to imagine telling my parents in the late 1960s that I was majoring in fermentation science.  They would have seen it as a metaphor for everything but studying.  Things have changed.  Today, it is an honorable profession that balances brains with brawn. 

Moynier, a US Air Force veteran, was inspired enough by the project to return from his retirement.  He felt up to the challenge to create a wine worthy of the cause it would support.

The 2015 Purple Heart Wine is a merlot dominant blend that includes zinfandel, petit verdot and cabernet franc.  There is a reason merlot is the third most planted grape globally.  Early to ripen, it is intended to be a good blender and flourishes with the support of the other Bordeaux grapes.  

If zinfandel was grown in Bordeaux, it would be a good addition as long as its bold flavors were held in check. Here, the 19% zinfandel adds, for the most part, to the flavor profile, not a high alcohol level (14.2%) or an imbalanced pH. 

In contrast to the merlot, petit verdot is late-ripening and, although it can add dynamics to the wine, it definitely influenced the deep color here. The cabernet franc is evident in the spice hints.

I tasted the 2015 Purple Heart three times, once after twenty minutes in the glass, hours later and, finally, the next day when the flavors were fully integrated.  Each time, after much swirling, it expressed nice texture with balanced, accessible flavors. If your budget is under twenty dollars per bottle and you enjoy red wine, I recommend this one without hesitation.

2015 Purple Heart Wine

Dark and opaque in the glass, the medium-bodied release offered dark plum and a hint of licorice on the nose, a rich mouthfeel with more red fruit flavors and some spice on the finish. The added zinfandel grape was clear, but did not dominate. With healthy balanced tannins, Purple Heart will cellar well, but is very drinkable now.

The task of creating a complex red blend, using Sonoma County fruit, for under twenty dollars cannot be a simple one. Kudos to John Moynier for an effort to be proud of.

It would be appropriate and symbolic for those enjoying wine with friends on Memorial Day, or at any time, to include a bottle of Purple Heart wine to toast and remember our heroes.  I knew and know a few who would appreciate it.  

Purple Heart wines are available in some outlets and, with a little research, can be easily located throughout the Bay Area.


Changes At The Hop

 

Though not included in any dictionary at the time, the word “hop”, during the late 1950s, was a term used by young people to describe a place to gather and begin the pre sexual revolution, innocent pubescent introduction to intimate contact called dancing.

Danny and the Juniors

 

At this stage, you are immediately cast into another teeny-bopper comparison.  Even while on the floor, I would question my

dance skills.  Was I good or just average?  I looked around and surmised that I didn’t have the graceful swagger of Stephen, but was better than the kid with flaying arms who missed every other beat. I had just enough confidence to ask someone to dance, knowing I could never be as bad as that guy.

Danny and the Juniors with their one and only hit, “At The Hop,” helped cement the term into our middle school vocabularies with their somewhat racy lyrics:

 

“Well, you can swing it you can groove it

You can really start to move it at the hop

Where the jockey is the smoothest

And the music is the coolest at the hop

All the cats and chicks can get their kicks at the hop

Let’s go!”

I was more than ready to go. When I would hear my parents complain that they couldn’t understand the words to our modern music, I thought that was the plan.

By high school in 1962, “the hop” began to lose its luster.  It didn’t sound like this new decade.  Unable to settle on a name, our weekly summer dance night in the high school multi-purpose room became the What’s It club.

By twelfth grade, I was still small.  Six foot would come two years later, after a fairly rapid growth spurt. My legs were so skinny that after sitting in a hot bath with my new jeans on, they still didn’t fit tight. My hair had turned from straight to wavy to coarse and curly in a span of three years, leaving me with fewer options than I preferred.

In the end, I could handle my myself socially.  I was less shy about interacting with girls than many of my friends.  Something about not being seen as serious gives you limited access and I had all the dancing I could handle.  To use a baseball metaphor for intimate progression, I was a prime candidate to slide safely into second base.

She said, “Hey, Lyle, you wanna dance? 

Yes, at times they came to me.  Whether on the dance floor or in a phone booth, a girl making the first move was usually better than my plan, no move at all.   

The What’s It was mostly about hanging out and dancing to records, but twice a month we had a live band that immediately turned the atmosphere from teen club to nightclub. 

By 1962, Elvis Presley had already made twelve films and his days of producing good rock ’n roll were behind him.  The music of many of the black musicians who inspired Elvis surfaced and, thanks in some part to Barry Gordy’s Motown Records in Detroit,

James Brown

became mainstream.  One of those performers who appealed to young people was James Brown, the King of Soul. His sparkling costumes, wavy processed hair and rapid footwork in his dance moves appealed to crowds from the Apollo Theater in Harlem to the Hollywood Bowl.  The  rhythms were relentless and the lyrics insignificant, all that was needed was an intermittent, “I feel good,” followed in the next riff by, “I knew that I would.” 

Brown’s music inspired local bands to cover his style and they were presented throughout the summer at  What’s It. The Jaguars with Richie Jackson performed twice, adding a small brass section for the danceable beginning numbers before introducing Jackson, who entertained with his voice and his soft feet. Another soul band, The Young Starlighters with Mitch and Cherie, delivered much of the same with harmonized vocals and some knock-off James Brown choreography. 

On records-only nights, we danced to Brown, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, and later to the Supremes and Smokey Robinson.  These were innocent, soulful times that we thought would last forever.

In 1964, the Beatles, a new group from Liverpool, England began to dominate AM radio airplay with the juvenile phase of their music.  For many of us, their songs were short and silly, nothing that signaled legendary. However, the album, “Rubber Soul,” released in December 1965, began their ascent into creative brilliance that has not been matched since.

By the end of 1964, the California-sound of the Beach Boys, could no longer compete with the Beatles invasion in the annual Battle of the Bands call-in survey sponsored by KLIV-1590 AM Radio in San Jose.

We were raised by on the music of Little Richard, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Motown, but now we were listening to bands called The Rolling Stones and the Kinks. 

The British had taken our black music, respectfully filtered it through their culture and voice, and fed it back to us. To say that we

The Chocolate Watchband

hailed it as groundbreaking is an understatement. How many potentially great live Beatles albums were ruined by the screamers? 

   The Jaguars and the Young Starlighters were gone from Thursday nights at the What’s It, replaced by bands like The Chocolate Watchband, mostly covered Rolling Stones tunes. Another band, Stained Glass, whose recording of the Beatle’s “If I Needed Someone” was number one on the 1965 Buffalo, New York top hit list, were always idiosyncratic and our high school classmate Dennis was the drummer. Then there was the Gollywogs who, a few years later, changed the band’s name to Credence Clearwater Revival and went global.   

For a time, I missed Little Richie Jackson and hoped he would catch on with a new band, even if it meant performing on Friday nights in the lounge of a local bowling alley. 

We danced nostalgically to Johnny B.  Goode by Chuck Berry or Marvin Gayes’s “I Be Doggone,” but most of the new stuff was British.  In 1965, “(I Can’t Get No)Satisfaction” became number one as we stepped our way to commencement.  Soon, we were off to college and what happened over the next five years will be discussed by historians and sociologists for centuries.

Stained Glass

As I look back, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, early beginnings of the women’s movement, the protests, the whole damn cultural revolution, happened in the face of the previous generation who had saved and protected our way of life.

I wish I could re-do some of those tense conversations and get my point across in a more sensitive way.  I regret that courtesy and understanding were, at times, overshadowed by the cause, or what was perceived as such. 

Songwriter Jackson Browne in a musical analogy, wrote, “Make room for my 45s along beside your 78s, nothing survives but the way we live our lives.” 

We stopped dancing and started listening.  The role of dance as an introduction to intimate contact became obsolete. With the dawn of birth control and a new open-mindedness, such encounters resulted from nothing more than a simple twist of fate. 

American black music inspired the first British invasion which, in turn, inspired a new generation of British and American bands like Cream, Jefferson Airplane and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, as well as singer songwriters like Fred Neil, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan.

In 1969, using a firmly planted, powerful position in student politics, the Black Student Union at my university secured comedian/activist Dick Gregory as a Scholar-in-Residence and brought in a series of jazz artists like Charles Lloyd, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet and Bobby Hutcherson to celebrate the black experience.

My musical horizons exploded.  I once heard Reverend Jesse Jackson introduce the Cannonball Adderley Quintet at an Operation Breadbasket event in Chicago, referring to the role of music in the black movement.  

He said, “The musician often tries to capture the new thing that gives us melody and rhythm as we do our thing.”

The Cannonball Adderley Quintet at Operation Breadbasket

I became a sponge for the rhythms and the messages of the time. As Jackson urged those in the audience to stand up straight, the Quintet launched into their new inspiring anthem, “Walk Tall.”

There it was, the identical rhythms of James Brown, The Jaguars with Richie Jackson, and The Young Starlighters, disguised in a new package with a new meaning.  As it all evolved musically and spiritually, I have never forgotten, not for one minute that, for me, it all started at the hop.


Good News for Ernest Vineyards

 

While they are partners in the development of Grand Cru Custom Crush in Windsor, Erin Brooks and Todd Gottula are also member winemakers who work closely with many of the finest Sonoma County vineyards and growers to produce pinot noir, chardonnay and other varietals under their Ernest Vineyards, Edaphos and Eugenia labels. With extensive resumes in technology and sales,  both have

Erin Brooks and Todd Gottula

married their agricultural roots on second careers in winemaking.

A small producer, Ernest has stayed focused on relationships with growers and on making the wines they like.  However, it’s always nice to be appreciated.  Last week, they received word that Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate awarded four 2015 pinot noir releases with 90+-point ratings, including 95-points to the Ernest “Cleary Ranch Vineyard” Pinot Noir 2015, aka “The Settler.”

“The Settler” is sourced from a vineyard in Freestone, located in the coastal portion of the expansive Sonoma Coast appellation.  Relentless fog and no wind to burn it off pushes temperatures lower, extending the ripening period. The result here is expressive, spicy aromatics and flavors with low alcohol (12.5%).

2015 Cleary Ranch Vineyard

I recently had an opportunity to sit down with Erin Brooks as she curated a tasting of her current releases, including a single-vineyard pinot noir with a distinct profile. To begin, she poured a 2016 Aligoté from their more experimental Edaphos label, sourced from a vineyard near my home in Bennett Valley, south of Santa Rosa.  I knew nothing of the aligoté grape other than it was a rare Burgundian varietal that produced dry wines. My interest was heightened.

Dave McIntyre, in a Washington Post article, called aligoté, “an explorer’s wine,” there only for those willingly to look past chardonnay in Burgundy.  Everyone should try an aligoté once in their lifetime and this one is nearby.

Having previously enjoyed a bottle of the Ernest Black Emerald Vineyard Chardonnay Russian River 2014, today we tasted the final vintage Ernest Green Valley Ranch Chardonnay 2015, aka “The Farmer,” and the Ernest Fallenleaf Vineyard Chardonnay 2015, aka “The Jester,”  two very different releases.

“The Farmer” is sourced from a Russian River Valley vineyard near the town of Graton.  Aged in equal parts stainless steel, neutral and new oak, the result is a crisp, more austere wine.  “The Jester” originates from a warmer inland vineyard near the town of Sonoma.  With full malolactic fermentation and aging in 60% new French oak, it expresses more stone fruit flavors with mineral notes, all soft on the palate.

The fog is a real influence on the organically farmed Rayhill Vineyard that sits 500-ft. above it in the Sebastopol Hills. I found that the Ernest Rayhill Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014, aka “The Grandfather,” was the most unique pinot noir of the four we tasted.  Herba

Ernest Pinot Noir Romanini Vineyard 2016

l and wet stone hints in the bouquet continued with a rich mouthfeel and eloquent dark fruit and white pepper flavors. Erin suggested that it was bold enough to pair with beef.

Two other single-vineyard pinot noir releases were tasted, both with 90+ scores from Robert Parker.  Green Valley is known as “the coolest, foggiest region in the Russian River Valley” and is the source of the nicely defined Ernest App Road (Bush) Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, aka “The Artist.”  From a tiny vineyard blocks from the Sonoma Plaza, the Ernest Romanini Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 aka “The Engineer” parlays warm days and cool nights into intense fruit flavors.

My first introduction to Ernest Vineyards came by enjoying a bottle of the Edaphos Grenache 2014 from the Steel Plow Vineyard in the Sonoma Valley.  I discovered that grapes in the vintage 2014 and the current Edaphos Grenache 2015 are carbonically fermented, exposing the uncrushed grapes to carbon dioxide before being transferred to a concrete amphora for aging. This process pushes the fruit forward and lowers the tannins. The layered flavors and rich texture of this wine defy its price.

Another fine value is the Edaphos Barbera 2015 sourced from the Madhaven Vineyard in Glen Ellen.  The winemaker feels that barbera has enough tannins, so there is no oak in this one.  It is hatched from a concrete egg and has a rich, soft texture.

Ernest Vineyards currently produces 3,000 cases per year.  Their growth depends upon building more relationships with quality vineyards and growers and they seem to be moving in the right direction.

 


Launching BACA Wines

 

We entered Hall Wines in Saint Helena on a gorgeous May evening, looking forward to a walk through the sculpture garden as the sun set over the vineyards. However, the focus of the evening was HALL/WALT Wines announcement for the launching of their newest brand.  It had been such a secret that the attendees were asked to guess the new varietal by putting a marble in one of four glasses marked riesling, zinfandel, syrah and merlot.  I incorrectly guessed syrah.

Soon, Kathryn Hall, amid blue and orange balloons, stood by the symbolic large blue door and introduced her daughter Jennifer Brown who will be spearheading, with winemaker Alison Frichtl Hollister, the new BACA Wines brand that features zinfandel from vineyards in four prime California AVAs.  BACA, latin for “berry” honors the fruit from which it all begins.

Jennifer Brown and winemaker Alison Frichtl Hollister launch BACA

BACA will follow the WALT platform by sourcing grapes from established and proven zinfandel vineyards instead of pinot noir. The Paso Robles, Russian River Valley, Howell Mountain and Rockpile AVAs are among the finest growing regions for California zinfandel and each enhances BACA’s goal of making nuanced wines.

The origins of zinfandel are not totally clear, although the Wine Institute states that the primitivo in Italy and something called Crljenak Kastelanski from Croatia are an identical match to zinfandel in California. The grape, according to the California Department of Agriculture, is grown in 45 of our 58 counties.  American zinfandel comes from California soil and the diversity of our terroir is on display with the BACA releases.

I am very familiar with the Dante Dusi Vineyard, adjacent to Highway 101 between Templeton and Paso Robles, having enjoyed their zinfandel through several producers in the local region.  A few years ago, I had the pleasure to walk through the vineyard with the late Mr. Dusi, a WWII veteran and seasoned fsrmer.

As with other wines from this vineyard, the full-bodied BACA Zinfandel Dusi Vineyard ($50) aka

BACA Releases

“Double Dutch” is bold with concentrated fruit and spice on the palate and a classic licorice finish.  It is aged for ten months in French oak, 35% new.

The Rockpile Vineyard, in the northeast corner of Sonoma County, sits at high elevations above Lake Sonoma with soils and climate described as “wild and rugged.”  Higher heat, less fog and rocky, somewhat stressed soils are what zinfandel vines thrive on. The medium-bodied BACA Zinfandel Rockpile Vineyard 2016 ($50) aka “Cat’s Cradle” is quite complex with floral hints on the nose, a pleasant minerality that combines with the red fruit flavors and spicy finish.  It is aged for ten months in French oak, 35% new.

The historic Maffei Vineyard has produced zinfandel grapes in the flat, easterly portion of the Russian River Valley for nearly 100 years. Over the past few decades they have sourced their crop to many highly recognized wineries.  The loamy soils and foggy marine layer can stress the vines, resulting in fruit-forward wines.  The healthy tannins and acidity of the full-bodied BACA Zinfandel Maffei Vineyard 2016 ($50) aka “Tug O’War are offset by layered flavors of strawberry and blueberry. It is aged ten months in French oak, 30% new.

In a dry-farmed vineyard high above the valley floor, rich with volcanic soil, the BACA Zinfandel Howell Mountain Napa Valley

BACA Launch Party

2016 ($50) aka “I, Spy” was born. A perfume quality on the bouquet precedes softer tannins and full-bodied dark berry flavors with herbal, floral and spice hints through the finish.

The BACA zinfandels are each nicknamed after games that require agility, dexterity, mental acuity and brut strength. The assorted skills seem to be metaphors for the distinctive four releases.

Due to very limited production, BACA will distribute their wines primarily through a membership list that enables members to purchase up to a case of each, compared to a three-bottle limit for the public.  Options include shipments of two, four or six bottles twice a year.  BACA will also host a variety of events at the HALL winery site, a benefit of its own.

Among it advantages, BACA Wines offer, for zinfandel lovers, an opportunity for one-stop comparisons of the grape’s expression in different terroir. My first choice is still the Dusi Vineyard, but I can always be convinced otherwise.


A Sense of Galapagos

 

 

In 2010, as we lifted off the runway in Guayaquil, Ecuador and banked toward Baltra in the Galápagos Islands, some six hundred miles away, I still didn’t know what to expect.  I had dreamt of this moment for decades, but wondered if reality would match presumption.

Karen patted my knee.

“This is your “leg” of the journey,” she said.

She was referencing a promise made to ourselves forty years earlier, when the relationship was new.  We had spent the last eight days in the Peruvian Andes fulfilling her dream of walking in Macchu Picchu and the Sacred Valley.

“What’s on your mind?” she asked.

“Sally Lightfoot crabs,” I said.

“What?”

“That’s what was on my mind. They only exist here and I’m hoping to see some.”

“Well, good luck, honey, I’m sure you’ll manage to find one or two.”

To my surprise, the first natural vegetation we encountered, after stepping onto Galápagos soil, looked like a large grove of Saguaro

Prickly Pear

cacti.

Proceeding through customs with no lines in a building without walls and a thatch roof was a near stress-free beginning. On the bus for the two-mile trek to the ferry, I got my first glimpse of the prickly pear tree, with large, flat “prickly” pads that resemble the shape of a Saguaro cactus.  An abundant and vital part of the Galápagos landscape, the flowers of the prickly pear feed the giant saddle tortoises,

and the pads, after falling to the ground are devoured by the large land iguanas.

The first ferry ride was less than one mile, the distance between Baltra and Santa Rosa Islands.  The initial arid landscape quickly became a translucent turquoise blue bay inlet with visible sea life, surrounded by coal-black volcanic rocks.

Stepping off the second ferry to Santa Cruz Island, one of the largest in the archipelago, I watched a Sally Lightfoot crab scurry across the rocks.  We hoped to see a few of these colorful, animated creatures, but estimated that more than one hundred thousand crossed our paths.  They  were everywhere, their vibrant color pigments contrasting with the black background.  The infant Sally Lightfoot crabs are black for natural camouflage, the adolescents go through a

Sally Lightfoot Crab

red period before assuming, as adults, gleaming red legs and a dazzling yellow shell with piercing sky blue trim.

Santa Cruz Island was more tropical than the others.  It is also home to the giant domed tortoise that thrives inland from the water that bears its name.  Baie Tortuga is along the route to Puerto Isidro Ayora, where “Carmina,” our nautical home for the next five days, was “anchor down,” awaiting our arrival. An opportunity to observe these gentle giants was enough to delay the rendezvous.

A short hike off the road into a large, lush meadow led to our earliest glimpse of a huge  tortoise.  Everyone’s eyes locked on the first creature, but within seconds we were watching fifteen or so quietly grazing on the grasses.  A few withdrew into their shells as we passed by, but most continued their normal routine of ingesting without chewing, beginning a three-month digestive process.  They often measure six feet in length and their shells reach the height of a tall human adult’s waist.  It’s hard to comprehend these

Giant Domed Tortoise

stupendous creatures once being slaughtered for fresh meat on pirate ships.

The giant tortoises were mesmerizing. We could have watched all day but needed to be in port soon.  As the bus was departing down a dirt road, it suddenly stopped as Pauli, our naturalist, stood up.

“Well, my friends. It seems that one of the tortoises has decided to rest in the middle of the road,” she said.

“What happens next?” John asked.

“We wait.”

Any physical contact with the tortoises is strictly forbidden and closely observed.  We waited for fifteen minutes before Pauli stood once again.

“I need volunteers,” she said.

With limited visitations closely monitored by the Conservancy, she understood the need to remain on schedule.

“I’ll do it,” I said, my arm already raised like a fifth grader who knows the right answer.

Seconds later, six of us carefully surrounded and, with near perfect precision, lifted the giant domed tortoise and moved it several feet off the muddy road. It remained quiet and still during the process but, once on the ground, became the fastest slow-mover of the day.

Other islands are home to the saddle tortoise whose shell is arched to provide more neck reach to the prickly pear flower, food that hangs three to four feet above the ground.

Carmina

Puerto Isidro Ayora, Galapagos’s largest town with a population of thirty-thousand, is the main port for all cruise vessels. As our group of fifteen boarded two rubber Zodiacs for the half-mile journey to the small cruise ship, a discussion ensued regarding people’s diverse expectations.  Some were fulfilling lifelong dreams, others were being dragged along by their partners.  I tuned out, put aside any perceptions and immersed myself in the moment. I was sitting in a rubber raft with a motor attached, in the sea of the archipelago, at the confluence of the three oceanic currents that created this ecosystem.

Settled in on Carmina, we enjoyed a welcome toast with pina coladas and a wonderful dinner prepared by chef Raoul, our new favorite crew member.  We all went to bed early, hoping to sleep through our first night of sailing. The last sound I heard was the anchor lifting through the water as we departed for Bartolome’ Island, a volcanic rock with minimal plant or animal life.

On the Zodiacs by early morning, we left for the island and a challenging hike up four hundred steps through lava rock to the highest

Bartolome Island, Sullivan Bay, Pinnacle Rock

peak, later snorkeling a small cove in Sullivan Bay, directly below the majestic, wind-carved Pinnacle Rock.  Views from the top of the island and below the ocean’s surface were equally stunning, the latter courtesy of a huge school of yellowtail surgeonfish. We

Galapagos penguin

would see many more fish along with sea lions, marine iguanas, eels, rays and sea turtles during our daily snorkeling adventures.

After lunch on the boat, we were back on the Zodiacs, patrolling the volcanic cliffs in search of the shy Galápagos penguins, hiding among the fluorescent Sally Lightfoot crabs and a few Blue-footed Boobies.  Measuring twenty-four inches high, these rare docile penguins are the second smallest of the species that, once in the water, become quick and agile.

Day Two began with a dry landing on Puerto Egas, a lava beach on Santiago Island, and a hike where we encountered large colonies of sea lions, marine iguanas and, of course, more Sally Lightfoot crabs.  The volcanic cliffs led us to a flat plateau filled with tide pools and ledges near the surf, providing protected water access for various species.

With marine iguanas on Puerto Egas Beach

Hundreds of prehistoric looking marine iguanas appeared as we reached the ledge, lying side-by-side and on top of each other, oblivious  to our invasion.  Aside from the occasional snort, ejecting the salt acquired on their latest ocean sojourn to eat red and green algae and cool their bodies, they seemed lifeless.  Over the next hour, we observed the lethargic creatures sunning themselves until the necessity to repeat the cycle drove them to the sea.

I’ve watched the California sea lion, the Galapagos variety’s closest relative, for most of my life, but never studied their daily activities or parenting habits as well as the chauvinistic attitudes of the alpha male.  Pauli consistently identified red-billed tropic birds, brown pelicans, flightless cormorants, Galapagos hawks, lava lemons, and many of

Marine iguana

the fourteen species of finches found on the islands.

After snorkeling in a small bay abundant with sea turtles and rays, we returned to the boat for lunch as it navigated toward Rabida Island for our first deep-water snorkeling off the Zodiac.  The timing for this jaunt was perfect for observing the last lunch call for hundreds of Blue-footed Boobies, innocent-looking, lumbering birds with iridescent turquoise duck-feet that, once in the air, became missiles, diving into the surf with the force and synchronization of the Blue Angels air acrobatic team. Gathering and hovering high above for several minutes, there was a “caw” to action from the leader and suddenly they released, hitting the water like bullets from a semi-automatic rifle.  None of them went back to the cliffs hungry.

Using a backflip off the Zodiac like a scuba diver, Rod was the first in the water.  Before I entered, he reappeared, emphatically pointing to a specific location.

“Look down now,” he said.

Off the boat, after adjusting my mask, I put my face in the water in time to see two marine iguanas feeding on algae.  Watching them smoothly sway back and forth through the water as they swam to the surface was hypnotic, the spell broken only by a large sea turtle passing within arm’s reach.

The five of us who chose to join the first deep water snorkeling were rewarded well beyond our expectations.  Back to the boat to remove our wetsuits, we quickly re-boarded the Zodiac dinghies and crossed the inlet for a wet landing on Rabida Island that promised red sand beaches and large colonies of sea lions.

Beach on Rabida Island

With uniquely gorgeous beaches, the small Rabida Island revealed a landscape of low to medium shrubs and prickly pear trees that vibrantly contrasted with the red sand and soil.  It was there that we first observed the dictatorial alpha male sea lions rule their harems with an iron flipper, lashing out against other interested males or females with a wandering eye.  Thrusting out one’s chest and yelling stridently is, apparently, required to maintain their power or overcome the fear of losing it. I have heard recent rumors that the females have initiated a  #MeToo! movement that is wreaking havoc on the entire eco-system.

On the return trip to Carmina, the drivers meticulously maneuvered the Zodiacs close to the rocks of the minute Nameless Island for close observation of calmer Blue-Footed Boobies.  The docile nesting birds did not seem to match the air-acrobatic profile on

Blue-footed Boobie

display when they were hunting fish.

After dinner on the boat, we set sail to South Plaza Island, a small patch of land, that unlike Bartolome Island, promised distinctive terrain and wildlife.

The early morning rumpling of a dropping anchor signaled that we were close to land.  South Plaza Island required a wet landing because the minuscule strips of sand immediately ascended to steep rocks that were carefully crossed to reach the effervescent scarlet and yellow Sesuvium, a succulent ground cover that surrounded a dirt trail.  A short walk led us to steep, vivid cliffs that afforded close-up views of fierce blue-green surf and Elliot’s storm petrel, a long-legged bird that flies close to the rocks with uncomprehending speed and agility.

The male land iguana that resides on South Plaza Island is also unique, displaying lurid colors to attract females during  mating season. The ones we encountered were two to three feet long with bright yellow scales that resembled an ear of corn.

Quality time for land iguanas

Karen carefully photographed them from all angles and was rewarded when a female arrived for some companionship.

“Give them a minute, Karen,” said Ginny, smiling, “they probably don’t get enough quality time together.”

“They’re iguanas, Karen said,“They have nothing but time.”

Aware of this rare opportunity, she continued to shoot, mindful of the purity and dignity of the moment.

A lasting memory from this small island, thriving with  life, was watching the birth of a baby sea lion and what followed.  A large sea lion was lying on the rocks a few yards away.  Pauli pointed skyward to a large flock of frigate birds that hovered above like hawks over their prey.

“That sea lion is about to give birth,” she said, “and those frigates know it.”

Baby sea lion

Minutes later, the pup was born.  The mother immediately nudged it away from the afterbirth toward the sea, anticipating that the frigates would soon dive in numbers for the unusual meal.

The dynamics of the scene were astonishing.  The acrobatic, hungry frigates, the protective sea lion mother and the pup, trying to comprehend “womb to water,” was mind-boggling to watch.

Something else mind-boggling happened that evening on the boat during dinner.  We sat with another couple, Tom and Carol who, although we had snorkeled together in the group, we had not spoken to.

As a conversation ensued, Tom asked the question, “Where did you guys grow up?”

“I was born in Santa Monica, but I grew up in Sunnyvale,” said Karen.

Tom said, “You’re kidding, so did I.  What high school did you attend?”

On the Zodiacs

“Homestead.”

“Oh my god, so did I.  What year did you graduate?”

“1966.”

“Me too.”  “What was your maiden name?”

“Raven.”

“You’re Karen Raven, my god, I remember you as far back as junior high.  Your brother Kerry was on the high school basketball team.”

Once again, I slipped into the moment.  What were the odds?  We were sitting in the galley of a small cruising ship, somewhere in the Galápagos Islands, and Karen was talking to a new friend who happened to be very old friend.

Months later, Tom and Carol traveled down from Oregon and we attended a Homestead High School reunion together, days after the death of its most famous alumni, Steve Jobs.

Karen at Darwin’s Bay

As the sun rose, we found ourselves near unfamiliar land.  Our time on Santa Fe Island, one of the oldest, began as the Zodiacs entered

the pellucid waters of Darwin’s Bay. A wet landing was required on a beach alive with sea lion activity, which nearly caught one of our group in a compromising position between an angry alpha male and an unwelcome intruder. Amid some loud barking and a few aggressive gestures, the situation was soon peaceably resolved. It seems that the alpha male will defend his harem against outsiders of any species.

The snorkeling group

The other memories of Santa Fe Island came from below the  ocean’s surface.  After a deep-water entry off the Zodiac, we snorkeled the bay, identifying three rays—spotted eagle, diamond and sting—more sea lions, eels, multitudes of fish and graceful sea turtles methodically swimming by. Plants and sea life created a striking visual underwater panorama that has remained a vivid memory.

Chef Raoul outdid himself with a sublime farewell dinner.  Afterwards, we all enjoyed an aperitif and talked about our experiences and our expectations.  Most were met, some not. The few people that chose not to get into the water or the Zodiacs would have enjoyed a luxury cruise more.

Atypically, I mostly remained silent during our discussion, choosing to maintain the purity of my personal insights.  Although I detest the term “bucket list,” exploring the Galápagos Islands was something that I always planned to do during my lifetime and I had a sense of fulfillment.

We toasted Pauli, thanking her for carefully curating the excursion.  We joked that leading small groups through the islands for a living

Pauli leads the landing

was a dream job.  Truly, we all appreciated how hard she worked.  Her patience and knowledge enhanced the adventure more than we could have imagined.

There was a light storm during the final sail to Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island.  Needing the help of the guide rails to get our clothes from the dresser to the suitcase, choppy waters made us wish that we had completed packing before dinner. Our bags managed to get outside the door by the 6 am deadline and soon we were on the Zodiacs for our final ride to enjoy the village before departing for the Ecuadorian coast.

At the dock, we observed several locals waiting for a water  taxi, standing while two small sea lions slept on the provided

siesta time for sea lions

benches.  It was a metaphor for the way of life on the islands where an “everything matters” viewpoint is engrained into the culture.

Few have had the opportunity to experience Galápagos and fewer are capable of grasping it the way Charles Darwin did. My resolve to stay in the moment helped me immerse myself into it and take what it was giving.  The memories, and the way it enhanced my perspective of the world, will last forever.

 

 

 


Grand Cru in Windsor

 

At its core, Grand Cru Custom Crush founded by Robert and Erin Morris and Todd and Erin Gottula, is a great idea, one that reflects modern day business and lifestyle trends.  It provides state-of-the-art technology and production equipment as well as individualized tasting rooms to be shared by small, boutique winemakers. The co-operative concept itself is clean and efficient and opens doors for producers who work under the premise that “less is better” to pursue their passion and connect with the consumer.  Grand Cruprojects t

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Co-op production facilities

hat, in 2018, 25,000 cases will be produced by a baker’s dozen local winemakers who are current members.

As we toured the production facilities, Morris and Erin Brooks(Gottula) discussed the attention to detail that would accommodate multiple winemakers and reduce common problems. By providing the best crush equipment, a variety of small fermentation tanks, barrel rooms and an on-site lab, all designed to match the needs of their “target client production,” the Grand Cru Custom Crush plan optimizes success and sustainability.

Although the exterior design was inspired by the Boradorri Garage, a 1932 historical building overlooking the ocean in Cayucos, CA, the modern-day, aesthetically pleasing interior includes several individual spaces where guests can sample specific wineries or hand-pick a variety among all member releases.

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Grand Cru Custom Crush in Windsor

Another advantage for Grand Cru Custom Crush is that they are part of the growing Windsor Beverage District that currently houses DuMol and Marcassin wineries with others on the horizon.  Participating businesses also include the Sonoma Brothers Distillery, local fire captain Aron Levin’s St. Florian’s Brewery and Tilted Shed Ciderworks, makers of local specialty ciders.  A 22,000 square foot restaurant and tasting center, currently under construction by the popular, Santa Rosa-based Russian River Brewing Company, promises to add another attraction.

Robert and Erin could not say enough about their experience in dealing with the Town of Windsor, calling them a role model for other government entities seeking to be business friendly and creating public-private partnerships. The beverage district concept, in my opinion, will flourish, building on the wine and spirits tourism that exists in the region.

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One of the many tasting rooms

The current member wineries of Grand Cru Custom Crush are Black Kite Cellars, Bruliam Wines, Bydand, Cleary Ranch Vineyard, Ernest Wines, Eric Kent, Flambeaux, Kesner Wines, Lando, Magnolia Blossom, Mila Family Vineyards, Mueller Wines and Smith and Story Wine Cellars.  Some have received accolades for pinot noir, chardonnay and rose’ while others offer rarer varietals to the region like grenache, sémillon, and cabernet sauvignon.

Reservations can be made to taste wines from any of the members or one can experience an eclectic sampling from a hand-picked menu. I had the opportunity to sit down with Erin Brooks to sample all the current releases from Ernest Wines, which she owns with

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Mila Family Vineyards Prima Grenache

her husband Todd.  They will be featured in a future column.  However, if I returned to Grand Cru tomorrow, I would hand-select the following wines.

Produced by Ernest Wines under their Eugenia label, a little known Rhone grape is showcased in the 2017 San Lucas Vineyard Rosé of Cinsault 2017 Central Coast “The Country Wife,” providing a unique beginning.  The 2016 Smith and Story Lakota’s View Sémillon Sonoma Mountain gives us an alternative white varietal and the whole-cluster pressed Mila Family Vineyards Prima Grenache an alternative red from their 54 acre wine farm in northeast Sonoma County.

We would continue by comparing two pinot noir releases:  the 2014 Mueller “Tempi” Pinot Noir that has received good reviews and the 2014 Bruliam Pinot Noir Soberanes Vineyard from a Central Coast vineyard that has sourced grapes to many fine producers.

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2014 Bruliam Pinot Noir Soberanes Vineyard

My tasting would end with the 2014 Flambeaux Dry Creek Cabernet Sauvignon that has received consistent 90+plus ratings.  It’s not everyday that cinsault, semillon,

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Mueller Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

grenache, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon would be together in one tasting. The quality and variety of member produced wines affords opportunities to sample new ones for many future visits.

The Grand Cru Custom Crush is an ambitious effort that seems to be a win-win situation for all aspects of the wine experience.  It promotes the expanded production of fine boutique wines and one stop shopping for the consumer.  The evolution of Grand Cru and the entire Windsor Beverage District is something to watch.