Monthly Archives: May 2016

The Earthquake Game


Wow!  Here we were, sitting in section 6, Row 10 seats one and two,  a couple of seasoned baseball fans, ages 41 and 11, taking in the surroundings of Candlestick Park, attending our first World Series game in 1989 between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics.  My son, Ryan and I had tickets to the 1987 World Series games scheduled in San Francisco that never happened  A costly error sent the St. Louis Cardinals there instead.

This year, we broke the hearts of Cubs fans, those who had waited longer than us.  No regrets.  Our team, not the Cubs, had advanced to the World Series for the first time since the 1962 San Francisco Giants were defeated by those damn New York Yankees in the last inning of the last game, missing greatness by only a few inches.  The tickets for tonight’s game came via the friend of the mother of a colleague named Steve.  Ironically, it was friends in Los Angeles who “scored” our tickets for this all San Francisco Bay Area World Series.  The seats were great, upper deck, right behind home plate, a bit high, but we could see everything from here.  Due to strange winds, the jets from SFO were using an alternative flight pattern that took them roaring above the stadium, inciting the crowd of 50,000 people, hungry for blood after a 27-year drought.   At 5:00 pm, the players were finishing their warm-ups and national media was beginning to present our anthem to a national audience, sung a capella by local band, Huey Lewis and the News.  Brief eye contact and a quick smile toward each other reassured us that this was going to a memorable night.

Absorbing all the visual and audible images of this moment, I thought back to when I was selected as one of two mandatory eight-year-olds on the Lions youth baseball team in 1956.  I never played but got to sit in the dug-out with the twelve-year-olds and began to develop a passion for the game.  Then, the large book, The History of Baseball, a birthday gift from my parents, taught me everything I needed to know up until 1957.  With the surprising news that the New York Giants, with young star, Willie Mays, were moving to San Francisco for the 1958 season, I was instantly consumed, spending many of my summer days over the next few years, lying around in the yard listening to the game through a transistor radio held to my ears.

As I do during each memorable baseball experience, I also remembered  Mr. Robert Ishimatsu, our former neighbor and a person responsible for my love of the game.  Amid some neighborhood concern when the Ishimatsu family first moved next door in 1955,  my parents became vocal on the right side of the issue and our families became good friends, me especially with their son, Marty.   Two years later, when I visited Marty in the hospital after he became ill, I fully expected him to come home soon.  He did not, leaving his parents and two young sisters to quietly mourn.

One day, in the early summer of 1958, I had deposited myself on the backyard lawn with transistor radio in hand,  listening to the latest sports news when a soft, clear voice from the other side of the fence, said, “Hey Butch, would you like to go to the game today.”  It was Mr. Ishimatsu.  I was elated.  My transition from radio to a real game was long overdue.   I answered affirmative  and I thanked him until he politely asked me to stop.  Bob Ishimatsu took me to ten or so games over the next few years, all of them great memories, quietly cathartic for both of us.   To this day, I think of him every time I attend a baseball game.

My passion for the game dipped during the ensuing years.  An inability to hit a curve ball rendered it totally a spectator sport and normal distractions in high school and college pushed it back into my subconscious, including meeting and marrying a women who found baseball slow, boring and a temptation to eat junk food, preferring an active soccer match instead.  However, we had two sons together and my suppressed love for the game began to re-emerge.

My wife, Karen and four year-old son Cole stayed home in Los Angeles during this World Series.  Cole was too young to understand, but still a Giants fan in training.  Ryan and I worked together to suppress any influence from his new little friends who would most likely grow up being Dodger fans, something totally intolerable.  Supervising a “play-date” with these new friends,  Karen paused to answer the phone, responding, “Oh, hi Steve, what’s up.”  Hanging up the phone seconds later, she turned on the television and, for the first time in her life, became interested in a baseball game.

The tremor was loud and violent, like an explosion.  At first, it was sheer panic, instinctively reaching to brace myself, totally in the moment.  I reached for Ryan while looking up to see 200-foot light standards waving like the outfield flags.  Surprisingly, my first coherent thought was a recollection that Candlestick Park was built in 1960 on landfill in the San Francisco Bay.  The seemingly endless, muscular vibrations would surely take us down. Then it stopped, everything stopped, for a moment.  There was silence.  Strangely what followed the shaking and the stillness was jubilation.  With San Francisco and Oakland as the competitors, the crowd was mostly Bay Area locals who had lived to tell their past earthquake stories.  The only question was how long the game would be delayed.

Ryan seemed okay, although experiences like this one can linger.  I was still thinking of our vulnerability, sitting atop the saddle of a twenty-nine-year-old stadium built on land that was once water. The fans around us instantly became a community, providing updates, ironically, from transistor radios, the only reliable source of information available at a 1989 baseball game.  For the next hour, the least informed people in the country, regarding this most current event, were the people in the stadium.  At one point, someone shouted that the Bay Bridge had collapsed, later clarified to a section that fell into San Francisco Bay.  Otherwise, local officials were reporting no serious damage or injuries.  I also learned that only the parking lot, not the stadium, was built on landfill and even it did not fall into the bay.

That next thing to occur was the most surrealistic image of the entire experience.  Fifty-thousand baseball fans, calm, patiently waiting for the game to begin, were soon watching chaos on the field.  While the fans were local earthquake veterans, the players, the player’s wives, the New York media broadcasting the game were from various other places throughout the country as well as from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, hotbeds for grooming the game’s future stars.  Uniformed players were hugging their distraught trophy wives or girlfriends, guiding them to safety as they maneuvered their stilettos across manicured turf.  Soon, anyone who was in the catacombs beneath the stadium was on the playing field seeking the safety of open space and local law enforcement officials were responding to what could turn into a significant event.

With no public address system or electricity for the scoreboard, the fans stayed until Huey Lewis exited through the centerfield fence as dozens of police cars entered and surrounded the field.  The game was over before it started.  Soon, after word of mouth from ushers,  disappointed fans stood up and quietly exited the stadium.  We had avoided tragedy, but the night was still young.

After exiting into the parking lot, Ryan and I hovered around an ABC truck that gave us access to the television, covering what we were in the middle of.   We looked up as a small truck, driven by Giants manager Roger Craig, drove by with several players riding in the rear bed, reminding me how Mr. White would transport our team to little league games.  But professional prima donna baseball players, riding in the back of their manager’s truck was not what we had planned to see tonight.   The evening was rapidly moving beyond baseball.

The setting sun injected a new challenge to the situation, darkness.  Tonight, we would not benefit from light of the modern night.  No street lights, no neon, just a glow from the Marina District to the north, becoming visible as we accessed higher ground in our new station wagon.  We were then directed to an alternate route when leaving the stadium.  Expecting to turn right onto the access road to Highway 101, less than a half mile away, we were all forced to turn left and proceed through Hunter’s Point, a neighborhood that had dealt with inadequate street lighting and law enforcement protection for decades.  Soon, we sat in gridlock, in a bad neighborhood during a declared city emergency, the only illumination coming from car headlights,  We were sitting ducks on a pond.

Already feeling uneasy, we began to hear the sounds of breaking glass, Soon, several looters were using baseball bats to shatter store windows, helping themselves to what was inside.   Our worst scenario happened after one of them glanced toward the street and saw targets, unable to run.  First, there was a shattered windshield of the Corvette a few cars ahead of us.   Then, there was another loud and violent explosion.  The rear window of our car was splintered,  our shocked bodies jolted from fear.

For the first time, Ryan’s sounds of distress pushed my adrenaline and anger to the point of giving him bold assurances that no one would enter our car.  Sounding tougher than I was, it was time to find a way out.  Sirens were approaching which would give us some cover and survival instincts seem to be an antidote for traffic congestion.  We were moving again.

We turned left, drove awhile, then turned right because it looked hopeful.  Always boasting of my directional acumen, I had no idea where we were.  Soon, my headlights illuminated a very brave man, standing alone next to a motorcycle, waving his arms off to the right of his body.   “This way,” he yelled. “Turn this way.”   We did, shouting a thanks through our fractured window.  A few hundred feet ahead, the road veered to the left and there it was, a green CalTrans sign that read “San Jose Ave South.”  No longer lost, we would be at our friend’s house in thirty minutes.

Surviving the trauma, we began to feel safe again.  However, after continued assurances of public safety, the radio was now reporting numerous casualties, a collapsed freeway and multiple fires in the Marina District, real tragedies of the day my oldest son and I attended our first World Series game.

The Orchard


As a child, I can remember being awakened by the sound of an irrigation pump, sucking the water from the nearby artesian well to the surface and out to the ditches that I called canals.  I was excited to hear it.  It meant that there was movement in the orchard and things would be changing soon.  The mustard plants were already a few feet tall.  Soon they would be taller than me, providing a bright yellow carpet beneath the prune trees that were blossoming their way out of dormancy.   With the onset of summer, the orchard would become much darker, much cooler from heavy new growth.  This was my first memory of spring, growing up in post WWII Santa Clara Valley.  From my bedroom window, I could look past our new lawn, through a small vacant lot right into the orchard, my personal forest and an ever-changing playground for the kids in this first new neighborhood

Early in Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” he describes “the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley” through the image of “an endless array of outhouses, long grape arbors, green pastures, orchards and berry patches.”   This was still true in 1955, even the old portable toilets that seemed to magically appear just before picking season.  My family was among the thousands that pioneered the growth of suburbia in west San Jose, California, proud, at the time, to be called “the second fastest growing city in America.”  My father installed hardwood floors in new homes, start to finish.  He was harvesting a different crop and the bounty was endless.

I was happy.  I had my orchard,  a place to play with my friends, a place to be alone.  Here, I could become Davy Crockett,  the rugged historical character portrayed by actor Fess Parker on the Mickey Mouse Club television program in vivid black and white.  The coonskin cap was a nice touch but the orchard, along with my imagination, brought him to life.  We built forts or formed multiple room apartments in the mustard plants, adding more space when needed by tucking and rolling our bodies to smash the plants down.  I was small, the perfect size for creating a hallway.

Now that the water from the pump was running, Steve, Eddie and I would curb our boredom by challenging each other to stick races in the canals.  Personalized sticks or whatever would float, were placed in the water near the pump for a boost, then we would all run to a place far upstream and wait for the results that were seldom accepted without argument.   Sometimes we would watch the end of a race from one of the large walnuts trees, dispersed among the rows of blossoming, soon to be fruit-bearing, prune trees.

The walnut trees gave us high ground, a look-out and a place to be inconspicuous.   Climbing up first, I had the element of surprise and ammunition, fresh from the tree.  While young, the hard, wrinkly walnut shell is encased in a soft, green, pulpy husk that fit well into a young hand, good for throwing at others, firm enough to sting, but not damage.  The unripened nuts were perfect projectiles and every kid on the block had survived a walnut fight.   Eddie was the smallest but could throw harder than anyone else.   “C’mon, stop,” I yelled, “didn’t you hear me call truce?”  He would eventually stop, reminding me, once again, not to start a walnut fight unless I could finish it.

Periodically we would hear strange music in the distance and rush to climb another walnut tree to listen to the Colonel play bagpipes.   The Colonel was a short, bald European-looking man who, while sitting on a bench under a small arbor, would unknowingly serenaded us with his unusual, haunting melodies.  We always had a perfect spot, we could see him, but he couldn’t see us.  Steve thought that the Colonel had been in the French Foreign Legion, something he thought of anyone with an accent.  “It’s just what I heard,” he scowled, defending himself against our insistence on proof. We should have introduced ourselves to the Colonel and, hopefully, heard some of his stories from the past.  Maybe we would have been disappointed.  He would forever remain a mystery, but the sound from his bagpipes formed a lasting memory.

While the walnut trees gave us so much, they had a way of consistently taking their pound of flesh, mostly in the form of long, deep, hard wood splinters in our hands and feet.  We could push the small ones out by squeezing our skin together, but the deep ones required a quasi-surgical procedure that involved a sometimes sterilized sewing needle, tweezers and my double-teaming parents, one holding me steady while the other performed the extraction.  My father was ex-Marine and a survivor of two battles in the Pacific.  He only knew one way to remove large splinters and each time he would declare, “This is going to hurt, but I will do it as fast as I can.”   It did hurt and always seemed to last longer than it should.  Splinters were an inevitable consequence of life among the walnut trees, but the fun was worth the pain.

One day in 1957, grading equipment appeared and soon a small paved street separated us from the orchard.  They named the street Forest Avenue, which seemed fitting.  It was installed by the city of Santa Clara which meant that we had lived on the undesignated border between the two cities all along.   The short-term pleasure in playing catch with neighbor Billy, each of us standing in a different city, was short-lived.   The graders didn’t leave and our lives were about to change.

Within a few weeks, large trapezoidal mounds of dirt appeared, the tops as wide as a road.  Still not fully comprehending what was happening, we quickly discovered a thrill in running off the top of the mounds to see how far we would sink into the sloping banks.   One time the dirt was above my knees, making it nearly impossible to escape without some tugging from others.  I joked that little Eddie would surely sink all the way up to his neck.  He jumped anyway, flashing me a familiar hand gesture as he thrusted his legs forward, landing on his butt and sliding quickly to the bottom, tearing his jeans.  From a large family, he had younger brothers waiting for those future hand-me-downs, and his mother would not be happy.

Late in the afternoon, the large earth movers were abandoned by the workers and Steve discovered that, without keys, we could still make them lunge forward a few inches simply by pushing the starter button.  We spent nearly an hour taking turns pushing the button until we had moved the behemoth maybe five feet forward.  That was my last memory of playing in the orchard.   Many more graders and other large equipment appeared, much more activity ensued and the reality set in that Forest Avenue would be a connector street for the new neighborhood, hundreds of six-thousand square-foot parcels replacing one orchard.  Less food, more people.   The pride in being recognized as the nation’s second fast fastest growing city came with some harsh physical truths.  In those days, no one protested or chained themselves to a tree.  Growth was progress.  Safely into my ninth year, maybe it was time for me to move on from the orchard.  Besides, Davy Crockett didn’t make it.  His battles were over.

Everybody went about their business as the new neighborhood progressed from sticks to walls.  Coming upon a fallen walnut tree made me briefly sad and nostalgic, but, for the most part, our lives didn’t change.  Some of the prune trees, those not in the way, were spared to help sell homes.  Buy a house, gain a free fruit tree.  Our orchard had become a sacrificial lamb to the American Dream.

Each spring revealed fewer blossoms.  The beauty of Jack London’s Santa Clara Valley could now mostly be found on postcards.  The new neighborhood unveiled scattered prune plum blossoms, but was now focused on the large production of a new crop that would later be called “baby-boomers.”  At first, they were nicknamed the “orchard kids,” but we welcomed our new friends as seamlessly as we said goodbye to the orchard.  Newbies Cindy, Paul, Budd, Tim, the Long sisters and others integrated with Steve, Eddie, Susan, Jill and Glen from the old gang.  As we progressed through adolescence, it became one community with hardly a memory of what once was.

My sister, born in 1965, grew up, then raised her daughters in that old house, all without any reality of my treasured playground.  A few years ago, I was talking to my youngest niece about the way things once were and she asked, “Where was that orchard you were talking about?”  Getting into the car on our way to the mall, I pointed across Forest Avenue toward the aging homes and  answered,  “Right there.”

Things that never exist to some, survive in the minds of others.

A Garden Of Earthly Delights


It’s near, I can tell by the way the approaching hallway was quickly filling up with people as I walked through.  Hopefully, the crowds won’t be a distraction.  Knowing that I would be spending some days in Madrid in 2012, I made it a point to come to the Musee de Prado to view, among other pieces,  artist Hieronymous Bosch’s, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,”  the controversial 15th Century triptych that formed a college research project and began a lifetime passion for the arts and natural beauty in general.  As my eyes quickly brushed across the piece, left to right, I noticed an attractive, middle-aged woman, her brown eyes also fixated on Bosch’s bold images.

The left panel has been described as depicting Creation,  the serenity and beauty of its namesake forming a blissful scene while God introduces Eve to Adam.  In the large central panel, the artist begins to question our morality with scenes of increasing vice and unheeded warnings of future danger.  Chaos begins to emerge, presented theoretically with images, such as a man struggling to carry a large mussel shell partially encasing naked bodies, a curious metaphor.    Having done some research on the painting, I would have loved to spend an evening with Bosch, picking his fresh brain on details, after he completed the work in 1510.

The Garden of Eathly Delights

The Garden of Eathly Delights

The right panel is clearly Hell and Damnation, represented in an abstractly modern way, a fantasy of grotesque images, even by today’s standards.  We see musical instruments inflicting torture while a large rabbit carries a human corpse on the end of its spear.  Then, there he is, hiding behind some gnarled skeletal remains, Bosch, in self portrait, observing the carnage, looking unsurprised and expressionless.

As the crowd began to dissipate, my mysterious compatriot moved in for a closer look as did I.  Finally approaching her and, putting my hand on her shoulder, I whispered into her ear,  “This may sound corny, but I have observed this painting twice in my life, 43 years apart and, both times, the same woman was standing next to me.”   Smiling, my wife responded,  “I don’t think its corny, it’s kind of romantic.  Forty-three years doesn’t seem like much after looking at this.   And, before I forget,”  she continued,  We must see “Guernica” before we leave, it’s here in Madrid somewhere.”  “Guernica” is a famous Pablo Picasso abstract painting depicting the horror and aftermath of the bombing of a small village in northern Spain by Nazi and Italian planes.  Picasso had controversially submitted it as his contribution to the Spanish Exposition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.  We had learned more about the painting at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and Karen had already labeled it a “must see.”

"Guernica" by Pablo Picasso

“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso

Since that day in 1969, when we both, as undergraduate students, traveled to the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco and selected a piece of art to research for my final paper, our passion  began to grow into what has been has become a major part of our lives over the past 47 years.  Together, we have seen Monet’s “Water Lilies” at the Musee’ de L’Orangerie in Paris,  Chagall’s stained glass “Windows” at the Art Institute of Chicago, Cristo’s “Umbrellas,” Richard Serra’s 100 meter long “Snake” at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, James Turrell’s evening exhibit at the Chichu Museum on Japan’s Naoshima Island and the Impressionists at the d’Orsey, always an aphrodisiac, enhanced during our last trip by a small room on Rue Clare and a cheap bottle of French wine.

The month of April 2012 in Spain was extraordinarily wet.  It was raining, days later when, after visiting “Guernica” at the Reina Sofia Museum, we boarded a train and left Madrid for parts south, Granada, Alhambra and Sevilla.  We were also bound for a cave that Karen had researched, located somewhere near the base of the Andalucia Mountains, containing art of a more primitive form.  She justified her desire to see the Pileta Cave by reminding me that we had a car reserved in Ronda and that we could visit the famous white hill towns nearby.

Karen had done most of the research for our 28-day journey, but the itinerary fluctuated as she immersed herself into each experience that generated new “must sees.”  Our normal paradigm is that I am initially reluctant to her changes and later, as men do, boast about them as if they were always my idea.  This experience was no different as we were about to discover more than Andalucia’s hill towns.

Most images of old Spain are based in Andalucia.  It is the home of bullfights, flamenco, gazpacho and, to our discovery, breathtakingly majestic landscapes and ancient history.  In Ronda, rain pushed us into a taxi from the train station to the hotel.  Curiosity and the need to walk sent us out in the rain, staring directly at Spain’s oldest bullring as we exited out into the street.  A hotel clerk directed us to turn left and keep walking until we came to Plaza de Espana and the new bridge. I am always entertained by the Old World’s  interpretation of time and this “Puente Nuevo”  project dated back to 1751, back when they made them like they used to.  As I asked for clarification, the clerk responded with very good, broken  English, “Don’t worry, you will know it when you see it.”

The walk down to the plaza was pleasant, but unremarkable.   Aside from the old bullfights and being the home of Ernest Hemingway, Ronda was a very charming city, but we anticipated that the true scenic drama would come from the white hill towns at hand.  Walking across the plain stone surface of the plaza, Karen, approached the railing first, looking out across at the bridge and softly muttered, “OK, this is pretty spectacular.”   I turned, responding to her and it appeared, a view so breathtaking, so unforeseen, that fresh words were not necessary. Continuing to stare in silence,  we could not have imagined that this unassuming bridge would span, bothRonda, Spain vertically and horizontally, the gorge locals called “El Tajo,” 400 feet deep, 200 feet wide, connecting us to La Cuidad, the old Moorish district, its ancient structures perched along the cliffs on the other side of the chasm.    As we continued to explore with a new adrenaline rush,  more staggering cliffs appeared and it was soon clear that Ronda was the most magical hill town in Andalucia.

Our month in Spain had left us with enduring memories but these cliffs, “El Tajo” with its bridge and the ancient structures were majestic, as awe-inspiring as the recent visual images by Picasso, Goya, Bosch and others.  Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao were magnificent, but did not overpower the striking natural beauty of Ronda.   Without much discussion, I realized that this was another “Garden of Earthly Delights” moment.  We had, again, "El Tajo"discovered something together that moved us, two very visual people, sharing a moment, locking in a memory.  This rainy afternoon in Ronda was mesmerizing, leaving us wanting more, but we had a “Ford something” reserved the next day and alluring places to be.  Both of us knew that we had not finished exploring Ronda.

The early morning rain made the white-knuckled drive over the steep and winding Cadiz Mountain pass the most quiet of our trip.  Healthy fear always trumps complaints of one’s driving or navigating.  More relaxed to be driving on the gently winding valley road, we soon approached the cozy village of Grazalema with its whitewashed buildings, red roofs and bright floral window boxes.  The extraordinary picturesque town,  Zahara, with white buildings spread out below an old fortified Moorish castle and the cliffs, simmering from the afternoon sun in Arcos were truly indelible images, a consistent theme of

Zahara, Spain

Zahara, Spain

Andalucia.   The evening return to Ronda on a two-lane highway was dry and flat, stimulating more conversation than the unnerving morning jaunt over the mountain.  We discussed our schedule for the next few days but it was difficult for me to think beyond wanting  to explore “El Tajo.”

We started early and the sun was shining.  Crossing the bridge and stealing yet another glance at the gorge, we entered La Cuidad seeking trail access to descend its walls. Passing the old building entrances that innocently faced the street, it is difficult to imagine that they are resting directly upon the top of the cliffs.   “I think this is it,” Karen proclaimed as a small path dissecting two structures appeared.  We followed it and soon were descending down into “El Tajo” with a perspective that seemed to reshape itself with every step.  The surrounding flora changed, the deeper we plunged.  The gorge became a series of unique ecosystems complete with waterfalls, blue ponds and green foliage, rooted in the rocky cliffs.  Our desires to photograph kept us mostly to ourselves but the experience was and will be forever ours.

The walk back up the canyon was equally stupendous, ending with a late lunch in one of those buildings roosted atop the cliffs with a view of the bridge.  It began to rain again and, feeling a bit overwhelmed, I suggested that we

Panoramic of Ronda

Panoramic of Ronda

forgo the Pileta Cave.  With a challenge disguised as an option, Karen replied, “You can do what you want, but I’m going to see what’s in there.”   Soon, I was making the somewhat unpleasant, dark, damp and slippery descent into a cave to view prehistoric finger painting, depicting animals and fish, evidence that the artists were familiar with the sea.  The experience was beyond description and, once again, I was appreciative of the spousalIMG_0391 nudge.

We left Ronda by train, vowing to return.  Although our next few days would be spent in Sevilla, Karen had made arrangements to debark the train for a few hours in Cordoba so that we could visit the Mezquita, an ancient temple with both Moorish and

Karen at the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain

Karen at the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain

Christian influences.  Our time in Ronda and the Andalucia was still very much on my mind.  The experience, days after we revisited a significant piece of art in our lives, was a reminder that there are vast earthly delights to explore and, more significantly,  that we still had the passion to find them.


The Many Faces of Grenache


The grenache grape is many things to many wines.  It is one of the most prolifically planted grapes in the world, a dominant component in some of the most famous blends, yet, individually, it is shy, content to support other grapes in famous blends from the Rhone Valley in southern France, the Rioja region in northern Spain and the “GSM” blends from southern Australia.  It is diverse, known as granacha in Spain, cannonau on the island of

Vineyard in Chateaunef-du-Pape

Vineyard in Chateaunef-du-Pape

Sardinia and grenache in France, each proclaiming it as their own. In fact, for centuries, all of these regions were under the Crown of Aragon which my research shows began in the 10th Century with the marriage of Petronilla of Aragon and Ramon Bereguer of Barcelona.

By the 14th and 15th Centuries, the Crown of Aragon controlled regions of Catalonia (northern Spain), Athens (Greece),Majorca (Spain), Provence (southern France), Naples, Sardinia, Sicily (Italy) and others. With plantings of grenache dating back that far, it is probable that the proliferation of plantings happened during this time period.  It seems that Petronilla and Ramon shared the wealth.  Simply put, grenache was born on both sides of the Pyreness Mountains where it is still grown abundantly today.

Best from low yield vines, grenache is berry-flavored, mostly strawberry and raspberry, peppery, soft on the palate and produces wine with a high alcohol content.  It also lacks acid, tannins and color which is why it most often blended with other varietals that can support its deficiencies. Although, grenache is the most dominant varietal in eighty-percent of the blends from the Chateaunef-du-Pape appellation in southern France, known throughout as one of the world’s best.  In all the southern Rhone Valley appellations, grenache, syrah and mourvedre, sometimes with support from cinsault and counnoise are blended to form, arguably, the finest wines on the planet, with apologies to Burgundy, Bordeaux, Tuscany and California.

E. Guigal is a notable wine producer in the Rhone Valley whose releases range from value to collectible wines and are accessible to the U.Sconsumer.  For those interested in experiencing a good Rhone blend, the grenache dominant 2010 E Guigal Chateaunef-du-Pape($40)is

E. Guigal Chateaunef-du-Papa

available on-line and at many wine shops.  This wine had lengthy bottle aging prior to release and received ratings in the mid-nineties from Wine Spectator and Robert Parker.

In South Australia, grenache is abundantly planted and is, again, a major player in their “GSM” blends or, as I refer to them, Rhone blends on steroids.  The heat and overall warmer climate in the southern hemisphere enhances the fruit flavors of grenache, syrah, mourvedre and Spain’s tempranillo.  The Aussies even call their syrah by a different name to accentuate the difference in styles.  The new name, shiraz, has a flamboyancy that fits its persona.  An Australian “GSM” blend is, generally, a soft, fruit-forward, accessible wine to enjoy with friends, but the more austere Rhone Valley wines are by far the best to pair with food.  One of the San Francisco Bay Area’s top restaurants, Sonoma’s, “The Girl and the Fig,” has an extensive wine list, all from the Rhone Valley.

In Spain, granacha is the common varietal that is blended with tempranillo to create those popular and acclaimed wines from the Rioja region, south of Bilbao.  Cannonau wine from Sardinia is available for very reasonable prices.  Years ago I had to opportunity to taste a vintage of the Cannonau di Sardegna ($16), a wine that Robert Parker proclaimed one of the world’s best wines under $25, and my memory is of floral,

Cannonau de Sardegna from Sardinia

Cannonau de Sardegna from Sardinia

perfumed aromas and a lighter texture.

In California, Rhone Rangers from Paso Robles, the Santa Ynez Valley and other regions are using grenache to produce the best blends outside of the Rhone Valley.  Paso Robles wineries like Linne Colado, Terry Hoague and Tablas Creek produce excellent

Vineyard on the island of Sardinia

Vineyard on the island of Sardinia

blends, using grenache, in varying degrees, as the dominant grape.  The best Rhone blend in California and, possibly the planet comes from west Paso Robles’ Saxum Winery.

Among other highly touted Rhone blends, Justin and Heather Smith have produced a grenache dominant blend for the past ten years that has given them great reviews and notoriety.  Wine Spectator magazine, after placing the 2006 Saxum “Broken Stones”($45/96pt) twelfth of the 2009 list, awarded the rich and layered 2007 Saxum James Berry Vineyard ($68) blend a 98-point rating, naming it their 2010 Wine of the Year. I treat myself to a few bottles of Saxum releases each year and the consistent quality is extraordinary, as good as any blend from Chateaunef-du-Pape.  In addition to the James Berry Vineyards, Saxum produces

Saxum James Berry Vineyard blend

Saxum James Berry Vineyard blend

two other blends:  “Bone Rock” and “Broken Stones,” also exceptional, but there is a downside.  With the accolades, Saxum wines have become difficult to acquire and now cost nearly $100 per bottle.

The signature of many California wineries is releasing single-varietal wines, including grenache.  It has emerged from several regions of the state, but mostly from the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County, Paso Robles, Calaveras County in the gold country and Monterey County.

From one of Paso Robles’ most distinguished producers, The 2013 Adelaida Grenache Anna’s vineyard ($36) is a personal favorite.  I have tasted several vintages of this wine and it alway has classic aromas of strawberry and spice, adding black cherry flavors.

Just blocks off the main square, in an old train depot, the local family owned Anglim Winery produces a variety of wines including the 2012 Anglim Grenache Willow Creek District ($38), boasting wild strawberry on the nose and palate.

Bonny Doon Cellars is a leader in producing California Rhone blends and, has recently added some very fine vineyard designate

2012 Bonny Doon Cuvee' "R" Grenache

2012 Bonny Doon Cuvee’ “R” Grenache

syrah, mourvedre and three all grenache releases from vineyards in Monterey County, all currently in my cellar.  With a 92-point rating, Planet Grape described the 2014 Bonny Doon Grenache Cuvee’“R” ($48) as “pure, expressive, old-vine grenache.” The newly released, limited production 2014 Bonny Doon Grenache ($24) is a nicely balanced wine that was born to accompany grilled seafood like ahi tuna or salmon.  Detailed as a “food and wallet friendly” wine, each vintage, including the 2014 Bonny Doon “Clos du Gilroy” Grenache ($20), with small amounts of syrah and mourvedre added, is consistently listed as a top value wine.

2014 Bonny Doon Grenache

2014 Bonny Doon Grenache

The success of  Santa Ynez Valley’s production of quality grenache releases prompted a “Grenache Wars” event in Los Angeles last year, pitting their wines against Paso Robles releases intended to promote the varietal that has had limited respect over the years. Among the best include the 2010 Tercero Grenache Larner Vineyard ($35)from the Ballard Canyon area near Solvang and the 2012 Jaffurs Grenache ($34), a well rated, supple wine made from grapes in three area vineyards.

Several years ago, I had an opportunity to walk with Ampelos Cellars owner/winemaker Peter Work through his organic/biodynamic Ampelos Vineyard in the renowned Santa Rita Hills appellation near Lompoc.  A rare varietal in this region, the 2012 Ampelos Santa Rita Hills Grenache-Delta ($37) is an exceptional wine that benefits from its extended growing period, great soil and 33 months aging in the barrel.

2012 Jaffurs Grenache Santa Ynez Valley

2012 Jaffurs Grenache Santa Ynez Valley

A lesser known region, Calaveras County has been producing high quality wines for decades, including many Rhone varietals.  I am familiar with two grenache releases from this area that represent very  distinctive styles.  Each year, Twisted Oak Winery, near Angels Camp produces a 100% granacha and the recent 2013 Twisted Oak “Torcido” Granacha ($37) is a bold wine with dark ruby colors that pairs well with meats like spicy sausage.  Grapes from the Dalton Vineyard in San Andreas are sourced for the 2013 Val du Vino “Giselle” Grenache Dalton Vineyard ($27), a lighter wine that pairs well with turkey. Offering Rhone and other varietals at the tasting room in Murphys, CA, I first discovered Val du Vino wines at a private winemakers dinner, hosted by owner/winemakers Jonathan Phillips and Jeannine Hebel, a renowned French chef.

2013 Twisted Oak "Torcido"

2013 Twisted Oak “Torcido”

Grenache is everywhere, a major part of the masterfully woven Rhone blends, the well-aged wines from Rioja, the fruit-forward “GSM” blends from South Australia, the fragrance of cannonau and California, where it is pushed in many different directions.  Its expressions of fruit and spice are always evident but never overbearing.  Grenache has withstood the test of time and continues to prove its worthiness as one of the world’s most significant wine grapes.