Author Archives: Lyle W. Norton

About Lyle W. Norton

Free-lance writer specializing if wine, food, travel and jazz reviews.

Wine Spectator’s Top Wines of 2016

 

Envelopes, please. ’Tis the season for Wine Spectator magazine to release their Top 100 Exciting Wines Of 2016, an annual tradition since 1988.  Although there are other reputable lists, the Spectator’s Top 100 is like the Oscars, much suspense, but if one reads the monthly, many of them are not surprises.  Differing from their standard reviews, this list has a criteria, one that needs to be understood for the whole thing to make sense.  Wines are ranked by the editors based upon quality (wines with 90-point

Lewis Cellars and vineyard

Lewis Cellars and vineyard

or above ratings only), value (cost), availability and excitement, the last criteria rumored to generate the most spirited discussions. This may explain why the Hartford Family Zinfandel Russian River Valley Old Vine 2014 (93-pt/$38) was ranked #10 on the list and the A. Clape Cornas (96-pt/$120) number 87.  I can go to nearby Healdsburg to taste and purchase our local zinfandel while the French Rhone blend is more expensive, more difficult to find and won’t be ready for drinking until 2020.

With the criteria in mind, the magazine has selected the Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon

Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013

Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013

Napa Valley 2013 (95pt/$90) as the seventh Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon to be named Wine Of The Year in its nearly three decade history. The Lewis’ cabernets have been on the radar of wine experts since their inaugural vintage, the best ones deemed and recognized as special.  This wine has been named to Wine Spectator and other periodicals Top 100 and Top 10 lists on many occasions.

Randy Lewis was a former Formula One and Indy 500 race car driver

Randy, Debbie and Dennis Lewis

Randy, Debbie and Dennis Lewis

.  A crash into the wall during trials in the early nineties helped channel racing partners Randy and Debbie Lewis into winemaking partners, releasing their first vintage in 1994. Lewis is known for being patient with the vines, preferring the grapes fully ripened.  The result has been rich, elegant, lengthy wines and the 2013 vintage, described by Senior Editor James Laube as “a hedonistic wine experience from a spectacular vintage,” apparently, is one of their best.

The other top ten wines are equally interesting featuring two Oregon releases in the top five, whites from Bordeaux, a more obscure Italian region, a historic vineyard, a history family and a consistently good blend from California.

I am quite familiar with the Domaine Serene Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, especially their 2012 vintage pinot noir releases.  Owners Ken and Grace Evenstad, who have produced fine pinot noir grapes for years, began in 2010 to combine choice barrels

Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Rserve 2014

Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Rserve 2014

from single vineyards to create the Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Reserve 2014 (95-pt/$55), Wine Spectator’s #2 wine. I am intrigued by descriptions of minerality with layered and lengthy flavors, all pointing to elements of a Burgundian white. From a terrific winery, this wine will soon be in my search engine. It is back to back Oregon releases with the #3 Beaux Frères Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge The Beaux Frères Vineyard 2014 (95-pt/$90)from a respected producer, also from the northern

Evenstad Vineyard

Evenstad Vineyard

Willamette Valley.  Senior Editor Harvey Steiman’s characterization of “supple, expressive and multilayered flavors” is enough to peak my interest.

That two Bordeaux wines placed in the Top 10 is somewhat normal, the fact that they are both white wines is anything but.

The #4 Château Climens Barsac 2013 (97-pt/$68) is a sweet wine made from

Chateau Climens Barsac 2103

Chateau Climens Barsac 2103

semillon grapes, produced at a biodynamically farmed, certified organic winery located south of Bordeaux along the left bank of the Gironde River, north of the famous Sauternes region.  The first Barsac named to the Top 10, this wine used only sémillon grapes infected with Botrytis cinerea, the “noble rot” and is described as balanced, with ample stone and tropical fruit flavors and a creamy mouthfeel.

A few miles south of Bordeaux lies the Pessac-Léognan appellation, the home of the #9 Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte Pessac-Léognan White 2013 (96-pt/$106), a highly rated, expensive blend of sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris and sémillon. Senior editor James Molesworth’s descriptive words like “gorgeous,” “opulent,” “shortbread,” “white peach,” and “tarragon-laced” are, indeed, exciting.

In the late 1950s, four Stanford Research Institute scientists purchased an old winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, 2300 feet on Monte Bello Ridge high above the current technologies of Cupertino. Years later, the Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz

Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2012

Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2012

Mountains 1971 helped re-shape the wine industry by placing fifth in the 1976 Paris tasting, then ranking first in the 2006 Reprise Tasting, judging the aged versions of the original vintages.  Described as an old-school cabernet, the Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2012 (94-pt/$175) adds merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot to take its place among our finest meritage blends.

From the Piedmont region, produced with a co-operative managed by Aldo Vacca, the #5 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011 (96-pt/$59) comes from an appellation that is

Produttori del Barbaresco Asili Reserve 2011

Produttori del Barbaresco Asili Reserve 2011

smaller than Barolo and the wines are accessible sooner. Asili is one of nine single vineyards that lies atop the hills where it’s generally cooler. Fermented in stainless steel after the malolactic process, it is highly reviewed for concentrated, elegantly balanced flavors and is the best value within the Top

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Asili Vineyard, Barbaresco, Italy

10. The sangiovese-dominant #8 Antinori Toscana Tignanello 2013(95-pt/$105) comes from a pioneering winery who was a leader in introducing French varietals to the Tuscan varietals, labeling them “Super Tuscans.”  The addition of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc is said to add ”power, depth and structure.”  Always consisting of the same blend, this is the highest rated vintage from IGT Toscana designated Tignanello Vineyard, over one hundred acres high above sea level.

The Orin Swift Winery, founded in 1998 is derived from winemaker Dave Phinney,s fathers middle and mother’s maiden names.  I have enjoyed his zinfandel-based “The Prisoner” wine for years, a brand he sold in 2010 to concentrate on new blends with

Orin Swift "Machete" 2013

Orin Swift “Machete” 2013

names that include “Papillon,” “Machete” and “Abstract.”  I was pleased when the #6 Orin Swift Machete California 2014 (94-pt/$48) received such lofty recognition.  Having tasted previous vintages, this is a big, earthy wine with ample tannins and rich flavors.  A good value, but now harder to find.

California dominated the list with 21 wines and after the addition of ten more from the Pacific Northwest (Oregon-4, Washington-6) and one from the Fingerlakes region of New York, the #70 Ravines Riesling Fingerlakes dry 2014 (90-pt/$18), the US contributed 32 wines.  France provided 16 releases, divided evenly throughout their diverse regions and Italy placed 18 wines, mostly from Tuscany. Spain was the only other country in double figures with 10 wines, including two standards from the Haro wine loop in northern Rioja that we visited in 2010. Returning to the list are the #22 Cune Rioja Gran Reserva 2010 (94-pt/$33), after the vintage 2004 Imperial Gran Reserva was named the 2013 Wine of the Year and the #65 La Rioja Alta Rioja 904 Gran Reserva 2007 (93-pt/$55), both good values.

Tzora Judean Hills White 2014

Tzora Judean Hills White 2014

Israeli winemakers are beginning to show their diversity by setting two wines, a red and a white, into the fold.  A kosher chardonnay-sauvignon blanc blend, the #79 Tzora Judean Hills White 2014 (92-pt/$30)relies on winemaker Eran Pick and his world of experience for the complex flavors and and the north region #93 Galil Mountain Yiron Galilee 2013 (92-pt/$32), the winery’s flagship release,  blending cabernet

Yiron Vineyard, Galil Mountain

Yiron Vineyard, Galil Mountain

sauvignon, merlot, syrah and petit verdot.

The 2016 list is filled with old veterans, a few grace or have graced my cellar.  Having long described it as my favorite food-pairing sauvignon blanc, the #17 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley 2014 (93-pt/$32) signals an extraordinary vintage.  I have enjoyed single-vineyard zinfandel from Paso Robles’ Ueberroth Vineyard since the mid-1990s when grapes were

2013 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley

2013 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley

sourced to the now defunct Martin Weyrich Winery. Turley has continued to honor it with the #20 Turley Zinfandel Paso Robles Ueberroth Vineyard 2013 (94-pt/$48).  Ancient vines and limestone slopes are the key to the vineyard’s rich expressions.

I savor each vintage of the Sojourn Cellars pinot noir from Gap’s Crown Vineyard in the cold, breezy Petaluma Gap. The #35 Sojourn Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Gap’s Crown Vineyard 2014 (94-pt/$59) caught the Spectator’s attention with a high rating and moderate price.  We recently shared a bottle of the #47 Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eighteen Seventy-Three 2013 (94-pt/$80) with friends,

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eighteen Seventy-Three 2013

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eighteen Seventy-Three 2013

pairing it with an Abbaye de Belloc cheese from southern France.  It has the depth, balance and richness expected from Hall, but this one is their most moderately priced.

I am actively searching for the #31 Tenshen White Central Coast 2015 (92-pt/$20), celebrating its second appearance on the list. In fact, the wine has appeared in

Tenshen White Central Coast 2015

Tenshen White Central Coast 2015

periodicals and is generating excitement for winemakers Joey Tensley and Alex Guarachi.  From a white Rhone blend of viognier, roussanne,grenache blanc with a touch of chardonnay, we expect it all:  body, texture and expressive, balanced flavors.

South America was well represented with seven wines total from Chile and Argentina, including a wine that meets all the criteria and I feel compelled to mention, the #74 Bodega Norton Malbec Mendoza Reserva 2014 (90-pt/$19).  Retailing for less than $20, each vintage of this nicely structured wine from the Mendoza region of Argentina seems to be readily available in most wine outlets and, in the best years, extolled as an exciting wine.

Finally. a special mention goes to Sonoma County, especially the Russian River Valley appellation that contributed six wines.  Known for pinot noir and cool climate chardonnay, the 2016 releases expressed more diversity than normal with two zinfandels and a sauvignon blanc in the top 20 and one each of syrah, chardonnay and pinot noir. The Russian River Valley appellation is a leader among leaders.


A Tasting in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

 

The opportunity to experience the extraordinary blends in France’s Chateauneuf-du-

vineyard in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

vineyard in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Pape is a rare treat for anyone serious about wine.  Blessed with near perfect terroir and climate, the area is always in the discussion of the world’s best appellation.  Nearly all the 280 wineries in Chateauneuf-du-Pape are owned by small families, not the case in Bordeaux or Burgundy.  There are thirteen grapes approved for the appellation by the governing AOC, which also requires that they are all hand-pruned, hand-picked and essentially dry-farmed, allowing two irrigations per season during drought years.  The famous “La Mistral” winds blow 100 days per year, a benefit during wet vintages and a challenge in dry ones.  The production of rose’ or sparkling wine is also prohibited in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, allowing winemakers to focus on the best blend of grapes that most align with the terroir.

Translated “the Pope’s new castle” or “Chateau of the Popes,” Chateauneuf-du-Pape became a significant winemaking region in the 14th Century after the papacy was relocated to the town of Avignon.  The “Avignon Popes” appreciated their

Chateau de Vaudieu

Chateau de Vaudieu

wine and were first to promote viticulture in this area, 10 miles northeast of their palace residence.  It’s esteemed terroir has continued to produce superb local wines for eight centuries and is still revered today. With all the acclaim that Chateauneuf-du-Pape gets, one would expect them to be promoting tourism.  They do not. It is authentic, a relatively small area with family farmers doing what they have done for centuries, create near perfect wines.

October was a busy month for winemakers, following up on the recent harvest.  It was off-season and our time was limited, so we chose Saint Charles Cave,in the heart of the village, for our first tasting. Located in a 13th Century cave, Saint Charles represents

Tasting in Saint Charles Cave

Tasting in Saint Charles Cave

many of the producers and offers selections of the best the region has to offer.  In addition, it also houses the La Cour Des Papes Restaurant that could extend our experience through mid-afternoon. Sitting on wooden benches in the cave, our young, knowledgeable host began to take us through his selection of wines from the region.

The Château de Vaudieu is one of the genuine 18th Century castles left in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, operated by the Brechet Family since the mid-1980s.  Described as “a real mosaic of terroirs,” the vast vineyards of the Chateau represent very distinct micro-climates and elevations. Our tasting at Saint 3efcc0ec2827a487028818f55a178c90Charles Cave began with the Chateau de Vaudieu Blanc 2012 ($32), a mostly grenache blanc and roussanne blend that expressed a complex bouquet and rich citrus and mineral notes on the palate.  The varietals were fermented separately in oak and stainless steel to form a dry wine that would be a perfect pair with seafood or shellfish.

The grenache dominant 2011 Clos Saint Jean Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($35-40), our second pour, is a classic wine from the region, full-bodied, dry, herbal with deep fruit and savory flavors. The grenache is aged in cement tanks while the syrah, clos-saint-jean-chateauneuf-du-pape-rhone-france-10675487mourvedre and bits of other varietals get the benefit of oak.  Brothers Vincent and Pascal Maurel took over the winery from their father in 2003 and have produced very good vintages since.  Robert Parker awarded this one, that I found online at klwines.com, with a 92-point score.

Covered by the famous diluvial red pebbles that protect them from the dry climate and La Mistral winds, the vineyards at Chateau Maucoil are said to consist of all chateau-maucoil-chateauneuf-du-pape-rhone-france-10293833tChateauneuf-du-Pape soil types.  The 2011 Chateau Maucoil Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($30-40) is an old vine grenache dominant blend that adds 20% syrah, 10% mourvedre and cinsault, very fruit forward and balanced.  This wine is produced only when the vintage is good and the 2011 was a very good one.

Our next wine was a big, earthy release, the only one created by the Barrot Family, long-standing growers producing 5,000 cases annually on 16 hectares in the appellation, divided among 24 different parcels.  The 2011 Domaine Lucien Barrot et Fils Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($50), with 80% grenache, 10% syrah and five percent each cinsault and mourvedre, is made whole cluster, fermenting in large cement vats before aging up to 36 months in oak. Significant aromas of spices, herbs and earth are followed by deep, dried cherries and anise flavors of great length.

Their family has farmed the land since the 17th Century, but Domaine du Pegau was 160164lformed in 1987 by father, daughter team, Paul and Laurence Ferard. The grenache dominant Domaine du Pegau Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reservee 2013 ($70), our next wine,is produced whole cluster and was the most masculine wine that we tasted. Aromas of ripe fruits and pepper precede rich, earthy flavors with soft tannins on the finish.  All the major periodicals rate this wine in the 90-95 point range.

From another family with local roots dating back to the 17th Century, the Chateau de la Gardine was established in 1945 by Gaston Brunel, producing great red Rhone blends and a special roussanne-dominant white, the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Château de la Gardine Cuvée des Générations Marie-Léoncie 2013 ($30).  The 60-year old

The "Gardine Bottle"

The “Gardine Bottle”

vines lay atop limestone soil and, with early rains followed by a warm 2013 summer, the roussanne was allowed to fully ripen, creating a rich, buttery texture and full flavors. Although there is no malolactic fermentation, the wine is fermented and aged in new French oak. Many wineries in Chateauneuf-Du-Pape can be identified by the shape of their unique bottles and this wine is exclusively released in the “Gardine bottle,” broad at the bottom with long, narrow neck. Counter to tasting wine in the States, it is tradition in Chateauneuf-du-Pape to end with a white blend and this one was memorable.  Approximately 70% of the Chateau’s wine is exported, so these wines can probably be found with a little effort.  The group was enamored by all six wines and immediately discussed shipping a case home to the US. Soon, our practical sensibilities prevailed and we settled on a 2011 Chateau Maurcoil Chateauneuf-du-Pape to accompany our lunch.

Lunch at La Cour Des Papes was both distinct and memorable. Firstly, the large dining table is in the chef’s kitchen and guests are welcome to stand, roam and question the chef while he is cooking. The partly set menu in French was intriguing with dishes described as “filet de Canette e au marine au soja et champignons” or “Hachis parmentier d’epaule d’agneau et sa sauce de Chateauneuf-du-Pape” that were translated fullsizerenderto “Filet of female duckling, pickled and raw with soy beans and mushrooms” and “Shepherd’s Pie with lamb and Chateauneuf-du-Pape sauce.” I opted for the raw duckling entree and “Cabillau” or codfish with butter and saffron as my “plat” or main course.  Our chef, Julien, was not only patient with our questions, but serenaded us with song and entertained us with his humor throughout the entire meal that included a rich crème brûlée’ dessert.

La Cour Des Papes also offer cooking classes where patrons can learn new dishes that they prepare for their own meal. Our once in a lifetime luncheon was a bit extravagant but the Browns Valley Fork and Cork Society, six people strong, saved their pennies and were ready.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape and other nearby towns located between the cities of Avignon andimg_3780 Orange boasts nearly 8,000 acres of vineyards and produces as much wine as any other region in France.  Those lucky enough to visit the area will be rewarded with beauty, history and the ability to purchase these remarkable wines at local prices.  They are a bargain as long as you drink them locally.


Chateau de Beaucastel

 

Two-hundred forty-thousand contiguous vines, dry-farmed, hand pruned and picked, in the middle of France’s famed Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation is what defines the family owned Chateau de Beaucastel, the region’s largest.  Eighty-percent of the

270,000 bottles produced annually are exported to the United States and Canada and

Chateau de Beaucastel

Chateau de Beaucastel

they contain iconic French Rhone wines for discerning palates.  Traveling through the region in October, we had the opportunity to visit Chateau de Beaucastel to tour their vineyards and production facility before tasting current and past releases.

The estate includes a quarter of a million vines that, aside from being cultivated by hand, are all organically grown and de-stemmed before fermentation.  The Chateau produce and use all thirteen grapes permitted by the governing AOC, seven white and six red.  The white grapes, namely roussanne, picpoul, muscardin, picardan, clairette and bourboulenc, are fermented in separate rooms from the red grapes, mostly in large concrete tanks with

Diluvial deposits (stones) in the vineyards

Diluvial deposits (stones) in the vineyards

tile floors.  Among the red grapes, syrah and mourvedre are aged in oak, grenache, vaccarese, terret noir, cinsault and couniose in similar concrete tanks. All varietals are fermented separately and blended only after the malolactic fermentation process is completed for each, giving the wine a softer, more balanced mouthfeel.

While visiting the estate, we soon understood that we were visiting French Rhone royalty, one that has been a force among the world’s magnificent Rhone blends for the past

barrel room at Chateau de Beaucastel

barrel room at Chateau de Beaucastel

107 years.  The bottles in the cellars are enigmatic, the huge, meticulous barrel rooms look like they belong in Architectural Digest and each of the tall concrete vats had beautiful tile flooring. After seeing the immaculate grounds, we were assured there were no shortcuts at Chateau de Beaucastel.

In 1687, the land where the Chateau exists today was given to Pierre Beaucastel by Louis XIV after he converted to Catholicism. In 1909, Pierre Tramier transferred ownership of the property to his son-in-law, Pierre Perrin who established the Chateau de Beaucastel.  Pierre’s son Jacque

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin 2012

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin 2012

Perrin took over operations shortly after and spearheaded its growth and reputation until 1978 when it was transferred to his children who collaboratively operate the estate today. The recently released Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin 2012 ($617), is a very serious wine produced only during great vintages, that pays respect to the long-time winemaker and innovator.  The experts have rated this wine in the high nineties and I will just have to take their word for it.

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Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2015

We began the tasting with the Chateau’s only white release, using all permitted varietals.  The Chateau de Beaucastel Chateaunuef-du-Pape Blanc 2015 ($70) will be released in January 2017, ready for consumption and peaking within the first two years. They had experienced more heat and less rain in 2015 that allowed the roussanne, 80% of the blend, to fully ripen.  Small amounts of grenache blanc, picardan, clairette and bourboulenc help add a beautiful golden color with the stone fruits and spice on the nose and nice mineral notes on the finish.  The estate describes the terroir as “molasses seabed of the Miocene period covered by diluvial deposits (rolled pebbles)”.  The diluvial deposits are actually medium reddish stones, two-inches in diameter, that covered the soils throughout the vineyard. Representing the limited plantings of the white varietals, the nicely structured, balanced “Blanc” is not excitable, but subtle and elegant.

Out to the west, the vineyards are dissected by a small, but significant road. Any vines located outside the road are not within the Chateauneuf-du-Pape boundaries and cannot, according to AOC regulations, be identified with the name.  Therefore, the

Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cotes du rhone

Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cotes du rhone

Chateau created the Condoulet de Beaucastel Cote du Rhone blend to give these grapes a home.  A grenache, mourvedre, syrah (GSM) blend with 20% cinsault added, the Condoulet de Beaucastel Cote du Rhone Rouge 2013 was rich with wild berry flavors and hints of pepper and herbs. This was another refined and balanced release.

The white varietals across the road produce the Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cote du Rhone Blanc 2014 with a zesty, citrus quality, revealing apples flavors mid-palate. A blend of marsanne, viognier, clairette and bourboulenc, aged half in oak, half in steel, this is one for the patio on a summer evening. Bourboulenc is a white grape grown in southern France, primarily the Rhone, Provence and Lanquedoc. Its challenge is that it is a late-ripening grape that must be fully ripened to achieve full body, citrus aromas and smoky flavors it is known for.

The flagship release of the estate is the Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, considered an adolescent until it is aged 20 years or more. Today we tasted a flight of the 2013, 2007 and 2001 vintages, each with very distinctive structure and flavors.

101438lThe young Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2013 ($60), mostly grenache and mourvedre has concentrated berry flavors with some nice spice throughout. Our host said that it would take another 4-5 years before the wine is taken seriously, but the balance and structure was already evident. The vintage 2007 was a great one for the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation and the Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2007 ($90-100), awarded 96-pt by Wine Spectator, expressed a deep ruby color and delivered loads of spice, licorice and burnt wood flavors on the palate, more earthy than the recent release. We missed the 2005 vintage that was #8 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines of 2008 with a 98-pt rating.

Although still described as a young wine, the Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2001 ($60-75) was balanced with a very earthy quality that set it apart from the other two. With an aromatic nose, the wine was complex and spicy with flavors of licorice, roasted herbs and, what was described as “cigar box”. Aside from the main three varietals, the 2001 vintage adds counoise, cinsault and a small percentage of other red and white grapes.  This wine began to express what an aged Chateau de Beaucastel wine could taste like and it was for serious consumers.

The presence of the Chateau de Beaucastel in the United States goes far beyond importing their wines. The well-respected Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles,

perrin_la_route_menant_au_chateau_de_beaucastel_2_jpg_11453 producer of terrific Rhone-style wines is a 30-year partnership between the Perrin and Haas families.  Attracted to the limestone laden soils and similar climate to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the partnership purchased land in 1989 and imported clones from the French estate.  Today, Tablas Creek, similar to the patriarch, produces Rhone blends from their “Espirit de Beaucastel” and “Cotes de Tablas” labels. Tablas Creek Winery is organic and sustainable and their wines are well-rated, best represented by the 2006 Tablas Creek Espirit de Beaucastel Paso Robles (93-pt/$45) that was named #50 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2008.  The Mourvedre, grenache, syrah and counoise blend is full-bodied with earthy flavors of ripened berries and nutmeg.  The best example of Rhone-style wines outside of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is Paso Robles, centrally located for access by all Californians.

Another partnership with the Miraval estate in Provence, owned by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, produces the Jolie-Pitt and Perrin Cotes de Provence Rose’ Miraval

Chateau Miraval 2015

Chateau Miraval 2015

2012 ($25)that landed the 84th spot on the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines of 2013 list, leading their marketing staff to hail it as the world’s best. There is a bit of uncertainty about future vintages but we were told that Brad is mostly involved.

Visiting the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation in southern

The vines are manicured by hand

The vines are manicured by hand

France is a special treat for anyone serious about wine.  But, the opportunity to spend time at a historical and refined producer like Chateau de Beaucastel, to observe their methods and facilities, is truly a memorable learning experience.


“Zen for Zin”: The Wines of Carol Shelton

 

Speaking with an iconic winemaker, one that strives to create a zinfandel for every palate, I asked her to describe her wines in one word. In the small lunch room at her northwest Santa Rosa production facility, Carol Shelton responded, “Balance.”  Within a few minutes I would agree with her answer after tasting a zinfandel flight, each from distinct vineyards throughout the state.  With Wine Spectator magazine including her 2011 Carol Shelton “Wild Thing” Zinfandel (90pt/$19)on their 2014 Top 100 wines list, there has been increase attention to her releases.

Carol Shelton "Wild Thing" Zinfandel

Carol Shelton “Wild Thing” Zinfandel

Carol Shelton believes that the long journey to becoming a

Carol Shelton

Carol Shelton

winemaker and owning a winery began with an “identify the scent” game her mother played when she was a young girl.  Later, as an English student at UC Davis, the scent of a Sonoma County barrel room persuaded her to change career goals and complete a degree in Enology.

Her early career began working with winemakers in California and Australia, later returning to Sonoma County where she worked at Rodney Strong and 19 years with Windsor, honing her style and concentrating on the zinfandel varietal.  Carol has not missed a harvest since 1978 and in 2000, she and her husband founded Carol Shelton Wines, selling barrel futures to finance the bottles for the first vintage.

Like other successful winemakers, one of the main factors in her success is the ability to discover and partner with exceptional vineyards throughout the state.  She sources grapes from Mendocino County, the Alexander Valley, Lodi and Paso Robles. In

Florence Vineyard

Florence Vineyard

addition to the premier Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys in Sonoma County, she has discovered vineyards in the Fountaingrove District in north Santa Rosa and as far south as the old vines of the Lopez Vineyard, located where Highways 210 and 15 intersect in Rancho Cucamonga, south of Los Angeles.

Rancho Cucamonga’s dry-farmed Jose Lopez Vineyard, sourcing grapes for the 2014 Carol Shelton “Monga” Old Vine Zinfandel Cucamonga Valley ($19) was established nearly

2013 Carol Shelton "Monga Zin" Zinfandel Cucamonga Valley

2013 Carol Shelton “Monga Zin” Zinfandel Cucamonga Valley

a Century ago and is currently certified organic. Located adjacent to two major freeways, these vines define the tough conditions that zinfandel can thrive in.  From the Florence Vineyard in the Rockpile AVA, high above Lake Sonoma, the 2013 Carol Shelton “Rocky Reserve” Zinfandel ($35) is a fragrant wine with rich earth and mineral elements and nicely balanced fruit and spice throughout. The addition of petite sirah (14%) adds depth to this wine.  The last of our zinfandel flight peaked my interest because the grapes were sourced from a vineyard in the new Fountaingrove District AVA in north Santa Rosa, minutes from my home. The PeaceLand Vineyard, a translation of the German owners name, Friedland, sits in a fairly wild setting, overlooking at city of 160,000 people.  With seven-percent petite sirah added, I found the 2013 Carol Shelton “Peaceland” Zinfandel($30) to be the richest, most jammy of the three.  Spice flavors and hints of chocolate enhance the complexity of this wine that will age gracefully.

We actually began our tasting with three current white wines including a wonderful

Rhone blend.  Known for craft zinfandel, Carol has created a complex, layered white wine that will pair well with shellfish, scallops, fish and even some chicken dishes. A blend of grenache blanc, roussane, viognier and marsanne, sourced from Paso Robles

2013 Carol Shelton "Coquille Blanc"

2013 Carol Shelton “Coquille Blanc”

vineyards, the 2014 Carol Shelton Coquille Blanc ($24) delivers floral, stone fruit aromas and tart, but creamy, balanced flavors.  This “coquille” is deserving of its consistent 90-point ratings.

Shelton’s quest for obscure vineyards led her Auburn, CA in Placer County where the Damiano Vineyard is burrowed into the heat and elevation of the foothills.  The 2014 Carol Shelton Viognier ($20) delivers a full expression of fruit, both mango and grapefruit, soft and tart. Produced in both oak barrels and stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation, it is regularly stirred sur lee to add a creamy texture. Part of her wild yeast selections, the 2014 Carol Shelton “Wild Thing” Chardonnay ($18), with small amounts of viognier, muscadelle, sauvignon blanc and roussane, fermented equally in oak and stainless steel, is a crisp and balanced wine, sourced from Mendocino County.  Carol recommends Thai food as a nice pairing.

In addition to the numerous accolades and awards for her wines, Carol has been personally recognized as the San Francisco Chronicle 2005 Winemaker of the Year and is one of eight designated Pioneer Women of Winemaking in Sonoma County, a list that includes iconic names like Merry Edwards and Helen Turley.

2014 Crol Shelton "Wild Thing" Rendezvous Rose'

2014 Crol Shelton “Wild Thing” Rendezvous Rose’

Carol also dabbles in red varietals other than zinfandel and the best way to begin tasting them is the 2014 Carol Shelton “Wild Thing” Rendezvous Rose’ ($15), a blend of mostly old vine carignane with a little viognier. A full-bodied, food friendly, dark pink wine, the “Rendezvous” is crisp and dry with cranberry, strawberry and watermelon on the nose and palate.

No one is certain, but it is common belief that the first carignane vines were planted at the dry-farmed Oat Valley

Oat Valley Vineyard

Oat Valley Vineyard

Vineyard in the Alexander Valley around 1890.  Carol used these grapes when she was making wine at Windsor and now has them back to craft her own style. In winemaking, “brix” measures the concentration of sucrose by percentage of the mass.  Shelton feels that the brix in carignane must reach 25% to unleash the complex flavors which explains why her 2012 Carol Shelton Old Vine Carignane Oat Valley Vineyard ($28) is at 25.7%.  With two-percent each of petite sirah and

2012 Carol Shelton Old Vine Carignane

2012 Carol Shelton Old Vine Carignane

alicante bouschet added for good measure, the flavors are creamy and smoky with spice, fruit and at bit of chocolate at the end.  This is a bold wine with multi-layered flavors and is a good value for the price.

The well-known Rockpile Vineyard has been the source of grapes for many fine wines throughout the region.  A unique micro-climate and hard work from many people resulted in a recent AVA designation for the area.  The Rockpile AVA vineyards are at 1,000-2,000 foot elevation above Lake Sonoma.  They enjoy full morning sun and cool afternoon breezes off the lake, the opposite of the nearby Russian River Valley AVA.  As one of my favorite varietals that combines

Rockpile Vineyard

Rockpile Vineyard

complexity and accessibility, the 100% 2012 Carol Shelton Petite Sirah, Rockpile Vineyard ($40) does not disappoint with black pepper spice, concentrated, aromatic blue and black berry flavors and heavy oak influences.  The flavors are intricate, but balanced after 20 months aging in the barrel.

Describing the opportunity to obtain a ton of cabernet sauvignon grapes from the esteemed Showket Vineyard in Napa valley’s Oakville District, Carol poured a taste of her 2009 Carol Shelton Napa Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($50), a 100% cabernet sauvignon, all from a specific vineyard, aged 26 months in 100% new French oak. The depth and flavors of this wine seem to be ever ending and include herbs, currants, tobacco with some vanilla creme at the finish.

Zinfandel grapes seem to adapt well to late harvest, maintaining some structure before they begin to rot and turn to sugar.  Once again, Carol has achieved balance and complexity in her 2014 Carol

2014 Carol Shelton "Black Magic" Late Harvest Zinfandel

2014 Carol Shelton “Black Magic” Late Harvest Zinfandel

Shelton “Black Magic” Late Harvest Zinfandel ($20), even with a brix of 31.7%, six-percent residual sugar and 15.4% alcohol. After admiring the deep color, I enjoyed the jammy flavors and texture, the not too sweetness and more vanilla at the finish.  The wine is a perfect pair with savory cheeses or the most decadent chocolate dessert imaginable. The “Black Magic” label replicates the “Wild Thing” image in purple, black and white and glows in the dark.  It is an impressive gift for someone who enjoys late harvest wines.

I thoroughly enjoyed Carol Shelton’s wines and she was true to her word that balance is what best defines them.  Her focus is zinfandel and unique vineyard partnerships throughout California, but the white and other red varietal wines deserve equal attention from wine consumers.  There are hundreds, maybe thousands of good wineries in California.  If one were to drink Carol Shelton Wines exclusively, they would have a well-rounded experience.  I don’t often recommend joining wine clubs, but would make an exception because of her diverse releases.

Carol feels that “wine has a responsibility to be entertaining” as she strives to create a zinfandel for every palate. Her wines emerge from distinct vineyards and a small production facility in Santa Rosa, but her reputation is expanding and worth exploring on your own.


The Holland House

Eastern view

Eastern view

It’s quiet in the house on the hill.  We can look down on a busier part of town, but only when we walk out onto the deck in the evening can we hear the sounds of far off traffic and sirens.  We also hear the sounds of wild turkeys, taking a dinner stroll with their poults, the crackle as their feet crush the leaves fallen from the majestic California oak trees

Each day, the ever present view is more stunning as the morning fog lifts to reveal the valley below, the Annadel Ridge and the Mayacama Mountains above. Mount Bennett rises to the Southeast exposing the seasonal green on green or green  on brown of the oaks and grasses, a signature northern California landscape.  It is panoramic, the flagship of our decor.

To us, the Holland House, named after our road, is like living in a tree, looking down upon the world or a terrarium, observing the daily changes to the local landscape IMG_2901through glass walls.  We have awoken to pinkish-red skies contrasting the deep blue dawn off to the East.  The afternoon sun illuminates the mountains, highlighting the portrait as a museum piece and the evenings, especially during a full moon, need no description.

The front of the mid-century house faces the Taylor Mountain Preserve with the IMG_3231stunning natural vegetation flowing downward, looking like it is about to devour us.  During the spring, fresh peaches, picked from a tree outside the front door are added to a breakfast menu.  Beneath the peach tree, ferns, fuchsias and rhododendrons are soaking up the shade, adding texture and color.  Up the adjacent steep entry steps where the black lizards sun themselves, is a natural path that separates the front garden. Through the ivy archway, golden heather is interspersed with spikes of lavender, staring across the path at ghost lady ferns, Japanese painted ferns, azaleas and more rhododendrons.   Natural vegetation lifts above the garden like a breaking wave.

Today, I came upon a grey and orange fox, laying on the gravel driveway, seemingly unbothered by my presence.  Any sudden movement could startle him so I stood IMG_2656motionless as we watched each other closely for several minutes.  He sat like a dog, with front paws extended and crossed, his rear legs protruding backwards.  For a moment, he began to crawl forward on his belly, leading me instinctively to talk to him.  “ Come here,” I said softly, “I won’t hurt you.”  It didn’t work.  Just as I thought we were about to bond, he stood and jumped through the old fence, running off through the dense natural vegetation on our lower property.  This was my second encounter with a fox since we acquired the Holland House.

IMG_1218

1960s kitchen

In December 2014, we purchased a view and this home with great potential, originally built in 1950,  Initially, we saw a 1960s kitchen, divided rooms and small doorways that all needed to be opened up and modernized.  Fearing to become too comfortable and complacent with the existing decor, we immediately consulted a young designer and began the process of truly making it our own.  In April 2015, our  kitchen

2015 kitchen

2015 kitchen

moved into a spare bedroom and bathroom,  most of our furniture was put on consignment, the washing machine was relocated and re-

attached to the rear garden and, with the exception of the master bedroom, the house was emptied days before leaving on a pre-scheduled sixteen-day trip to Kyoto Provence in Japan.  Shortly after our arrival in Kyoto, we received photos by text from our contractor displaying openings where walls once stood and exposed sub-flooring that was supporting worn linoleum.  One photo showed a large pile of wood and trash with the caption:  “This is your old kitchen.”

For the next three months, my desk was a makeshift counter, a hot plate was our stove, a IMG_2509microwave our only oven, and an old love seat gave us somewhere to sit.  The kitchen sink was across the hall in the main bathroom.  My outdoor laundromat was functional and the air-dry system involved draping our clothes over the deck railing.  I hadn’t worn air-dried clothes since those that my mother hung on our backyard line during the 1950s. The clothes were naturally fresh and stiff.  This new living arrangement was reminiscent of our early marriage and our college days.

Warned to expect delays and overruns, each one became less tolerable,  especially the closer we were to completion.  Perseverance and patience came easier with the completed design sketches, knowing that there was a pot-of-gold at the end of this huge, colorful, costly and time-consuming rainbow.  The near completion of construction also reminded us that we did not have any furniture.  In a crazy “start anew” moment, we sold it. However, the computer-generated sketches from our designer, Lauren, fresh from  celebrating her 27th birthday, gave us a starting point to collaborate on the last furnishing decisions.  Following our instincts while allowing Lauren to push us where we had never gone before, the final plan was approved and I began searching, not for another rainbow, but, literally, a pot of gold.  The last furnishings were delivered inIMG_2552 October 2015 and the first phase was complete.   The new design fits our lifestyle and gives us, arguably, the best view from any laundry folding counter anywhere in the  world.

The Holland House has given us a renewed sense of community, one that was much less evident in our Southern California neighborhood.  There are 116 homes on the hill, connected through a mutual water district and an email alert system, warning of nearby thefts or occasional mountain lion sightings.  Neighbors, immediate and nearby, have come to greet us and introduce themselves.  Today, a bag of fresh vegetables arrived at our door, from a neighbor’s garden.  We like the people on the hill.  They make us feel we belong here.  We do.

With the exception of our friendly neighbors, the Holland House is about privacy and serenity that connects us to the land.  Completely private, our master bath and shower is open to the outside through a large glass window.  Numerous times this season, while showering, I have observed an adult doe with her fawn during early survival training.  Deer use our property as a connector path to the preserve and they jump a short, old country fence before loping up the hill.   Instinctively aware that the fawn could not make the leap without practice, the doe would cross the fence, face away from the young fawn and wait patiently for the trial and error process to evolve.  When the IMG_2544fawn would panic after failing time after time, the doe jumped back for comfort, then repeated the process.  Today, the fawn, larger and more stable on its feet, conquers the fence, usually after a brief contemplative pause.

One hour away from San Francisco, our favorite city in the world, the birds are noisy and the squirrels are busy, leaping from tree to tree on a warm afternoon.  The hawks are circling above while the hummingbirds hover at eye level.  It is all ours to enjoy, breaking from the routine of the day, a continual reminder that we share this planet with many beautiful creatures and natural landscapes.  The Holland House has brought us back to the land and re-energized our commitment to preserve and protect it for future generations.


Change and Hope

 

The year 2008 was an election year and before it was over, I would step away from a thirty-six-year career in public administration.   Looking forward to doing many new things, I occasionally  questioned the timing of my retirement and had some trepidation about adapting to the significant changes that lie ahead, fearful it would change who I am.  We were deep into the Presidential election process and, in late spring, the economy was becoming a concern to most people in the country.  After eight years of George Bush and Dick Cheney, the public seemed ready for a change and I assumed it would be Hillary Clinton.  She had history and now Senatorial experience where she seemed adept at reaching across the aisle.  Many people saw her as the smartest and most committed Clinton in the White House and there was no doubt in my mind that she would be elected our next President.  Also, electing the first female president is still an important milestone for my generation.  Then came the 2008 Iowa Caucus, not something that I gave much credence to.   It was still not significant in the overall scheme of things until Barack Obama, a young senator from Illinois won the caucus, which afforded him the opportunity to speak on a national stage.  From that point and throughout the next few months, my personal and political experiences would be about change.

I have heard political speeches for decades.  They all cover the usual issues and hit upon the partisan biases of the day.  They also provide a platform for politicians to inject the most powerful tools at their disposal:  hope and fear.  Hope is hit or miss, difficult to effectively pull off, but fear works every time.  It gets their attention quickly and is welcomed justification for the anger some feel, trying to survive in a difficult, stressful society.  Hope, on the other hand, is more risky, but when it works it can drive people to change.   For any leader, hope can bestow reverent power, the kind given by the people because they believe in you.  We went to the moon and back in 1969 because John Kennedy, years earlier, told us that we could do it and we believed him.  Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt led us through difficult times because people believed in them.   I admired that Barack Obama was following the path of change and hope, but also remembered that it can be an obstacle for most people. Electing the first African-American president was still a milestone for my generation.  So I thought.

Words are just words, but I saw something in Barack Obama during his Iowa victory speech that I hadn’t seen in forty years, someone who could unite our country and, maybe, the world.  I had thought that a relatively inexperienced  African-American man named Barack Hussein Obama could not be elected as President of the United States, but from the 2008 Iowa speech, I began to comprehend what the excitement was all about.  He truly had the power of hope and the potential to make Americans and the world believe in America again. Our household was politically divided during the primaries, my wife, sticking with Hillary and me defecting to Obama.  “I like him,” Karen said, “but Hillary is more electable and she’s a woman.”   I responded, “I know, I will vote for her in November, but this guy could be one in a generation.”  Karen was retiring in June 2008 from a teaching career and was beginning to worry about her 401K.  She protested, “Greed always overcomes reason.”

Daily reports about the evolving economic crisis in the national housing market seemed to coincide with the announcement of my October retirement in April 2008.  We had some big and significant projects ahead of us and some colleagues suggested that I reconsider and “work until the storm clears.”  They still hadn’t realized that the merry-go-round never stops and it’s up to each of us to decide when to step off.  With college expenses behind us, I had hope that the country would eventually fix our economic ills.  The world was counting on it.

Karen and I had talked about going somewhere fairly soon after my last day in the office.  We talked about Paris or London, somewhere to celebrate and to de-compress.  At dinner one evening, we discussed our options and the words of a speech that resonated with us forty years prior somehow came up.   The basis of the speakers remarks were that the two things most difficult for people were accepting change and maintaining hope. Karen suggested that we include them as our retirement model.  “Ya’ know,” she said, “the dollar sucks right now, we should stay U.S. and go see some history or to places that inspire us.”    “Good idea, but we don’t have much time to pull it together,” I responded, giving praise but evoking a sense of urgency.  I was not in retirement mode yet, but maybe planning this trip would help with the transition.  We both soon knew where it would begin.

The economy was bad and would get much worse before it would start to get better.  The commonly used phase of the day was “too big to fail.”  It had to change or we were going to experience the difficult childhood of our parents.  In late August, an apparent act of desperation, John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate announced the nomination of Sarah Palin for Vice-President and within a few weeks, it was over.   We would most likely elect the first African-American president, an act that, in itself, represented both change and hope.

Feeling nostalgic, I was drawn back to JFK,  listening repeatedly to his January 1961 Inaugural address from an old CD that I purchased at the Dallas Book Depository gift shop, ironically on the same day JFK, Jr. was killed in a small plane crash.  The speech began, “We observe today, not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom, symbolizing an end as well as a beginning, signifying renewal as well as change.”    They were appropriate and comforting words for all that was happening in my life.

Our calendar was clear.  Less than forty-eight hours after I left my office for the last time on October 1, we were on a plane bound for JFK airport in New York City and after a brief layover, boarded a short flight to Logan International Airport in Boston, where we spent our first night.  The next morning, we picked up a rental car and headed north on Highway 91 toward  Vermont; there was no time to waste.  Connecting to Highway 89 in Woodstock, we headed northwest and would be in Stowe within a few hours.  We arrived just as the leaves were turning, vividly painted across the horizon, a natural, magnificently depicted metaphor for change.  Color was everywhere, covering the mountainsides like bright tie-dye covers a T-shirt. Individual trees were extraordinary and the hiking paths were covered with newly fallen leaves looking like multi-colored cobblestone.  The rest of our trip would be a celebration of this moment in time.  Change was inevitable and it was good.

We left Stowe four days later, driving past mountain lakes surrounded by rich Impressionistic slopes, through New Hampshire to a historic inn on Walker Point in Kennebunkport, Maine, across the cove from the Bush Family estate.  All the local seaside inns display flags whenever the President or Barbara Bush were in town.

A flat in Boston was next where we walked the Freedom Trail and spent a day in the JFK Museum at the University of Massachusetts, a prelude to our next stop, Hyannisport,  Camelot of the 1960s.  After visiting another small, more localized JFK museum, we were on the fast ferry to Nantucket Island for a slower pace, leaving our car on the mainland.  Back on the road days later, we headed to New York City via New Haven, Connecticut and Yale University.   New York didn’t have any special significance except that it was New York and we had an apartment on the Upper East Side for our last week.

Revitalized, we returned to watch Barack Obama make it official on the second Tuesday in November.  Change was here as well as a national crisis that was testing people’s hope.  Whatever the first-term agenda was intended to be, it was now about facing the most dangerous economic quagmire since the Great Depression.  I felt the weight on his shoulders.  I thought about Jackie Robinson and all he went through, but that was 1947.  This was the year 2008 and I was energized to stay engaged in how the next few years would unfold.  Somehow I felt primed to confront it all.  Those life changes that consumed my thoughts over the past few months were not as significant as I imagined.  My spirit was renewed and they hadn’t changed who I am.


Coyote Cardio

 

Ed Ruscha's Cyotoe

Ed Ruscha’s “Coyote”

As the Wednesday morning management meeting was breaking up and, after determining that there was no further business, Jim inquired, “Any stories from our little snow bunnies?”  He was referring to Dennis and I, who had just returned from a four-day ski trip at Mammoth Mountain with some colleagues from other parts of the state. Sunburned faces after a two-day absence from the grind always left the door open to facetious references like “snow bunny.” Amid the noise of rustling papers and squeaky chairs as people transitioned out of the room, Dennis proclaimed, “Well, Lyle got chased by a coyote and he has witnesses.” Laughter ensued and chairs began to squeak once again, this time from returning butts, waiting for a juicy story.

Our ski trip to Mammoth Mountain resort had become an annual event and, over a ten-year span beginning in the 1990s, had grown to six skiers. George, most active in keeping it going year to year, knew the mountain well and was always looking for an excuse to be out of the office. He and a few others in the group wanted to be on the mountain early each morning when the lifts start running and used their late afternoon shut down as the only reason to stop. I preferred the 10:00am to 3:00pm window but my legs were strong and I felt up to the task.

After a twenty-minute lunch break, we exited Mid-Chalet to put on our skis and traverse to Chair Three.  George wanted to show us some new runs that we could access from the top. They were called “Critters” and “New Critters” which, within the hour, would be the irony of the day. Assembling at the top of Chair Three, we started down the backside of St. Anton where we could pick up enough speed to traverse past Bristlecone to the top of the new runs that would ultimately provide a long path down to Chair One. George’s plan connected many runs to give us one very long one, interrupted only by our need to catch a breath.  Somewhere near the top of Bristlecone, Gary caught an edge and fell, landing softly onto the new snow. While the others kept going, worried about having enough speed to finish  the traverse without excessive poling, I stopped to make sure that Gary was OK. “I’m fine, dammit,” he snorted, so I left, reminding him that we were all meeting at the bottom of Critters.

Poling, a consequence of not having enough speed, is defined by burning arm muscles and lack of rhythm, not the true exhilaration of skiing. Relieved to reach the top, I turned right and began my descent down the hill. Moving fluidly, I was relaxed, letting my ski’s do the work just before the chaos began. Suddenly, through my tinted goggles, I saw movement flash by, peripherally, on my right side. Within an instant I realized that it wasn’t another skier or snowboarder because it was staying with me.

Still startled, I planted my pole for a sharp left turn and it followed, head down, like its nose was glued to my boot, fortunately made of hard composite material. Planting my pole, I thrust my knees quickly to the right and glanced down to see breath streaming through its nostrils.   I was not only trying to shed the beast but concentrate on getting to the bottom without falling. Another quick turn to the left, then to the right and I could sense the commotion stop. Needing to regain my balance and composure, I forced my knees, once again into the slope and, quickly stopped, pushing up a small trail of snow. My heart was still pounding when I looked up and tried to make some sense of what just happened.

Fifteen feet up this slope named “Critter,” stood a large, skinny coyote with a long pink tongue drooping below its jowl. We shared a terse stare before he turned and loped through the white snow to some nearby bushes.  Turning toward the bottom of the hill I gazed at my friends. Still attached to their ski’s, they were rolling in the snow, consumed with belly laughter.  Then Gary came over the horizon and pulled up, “What’s going on?”  Not certain how to answer his question, I just said, “I’ll tell you when we get to the bottom.”  His questions continued after he looked down the hill, inquiring, “What’s up with them?” I left without responding, ready to confront my audience.

Theories abounded at the bottom of the hill, each attempting to justify what occurred. Dennis surmised, “I think he’s been waiting all day and he finally found the weak one of the herd.”  I reminded him that the coyote was still hungry and I was at the bottom of the hill. “Ya’know, in my old neighborhood,” George chimed in, “there was this dog, I think it was a black lab, who chased everything that moved, cars, motorcycles, even bicycles. He never hurt anyone, he just loved to run after moving things.  This coyote was the same as that dog, except this neighborhood has skiers instead of cars.”  Gary, who missed it all, added his opinion. “Maybe he’s rabid, we should report him to the lodge. Don’t these things hibernate?”

Coyotes do not hibernate or migrate during the winter. They survive on berries, bushes and very rare natural prey, a  segue way to my theory.  For my canid friend to be competitive for the occasional meaty morsels, he must stay in shape and maintain his edge.  Like duck hunters who hone their skills during the off-season by shooting at clay pigeons, this coyote used me and, maybe others, to exercise his instincts and remain sharp.  It was a collaboration.  I was pushed, through fear, to turn my ski’s as crisply and quickly as I had in years while the coyote worked on his cardio and learned to anticipate the moves of another frightened creature.

Ed Ruscha's Coyote #2

Ed Ruscha’s “Coyote #2”

As we gathered to ski down to Chair One, George, pointing up the slope, yelled, “Look!”  There was a female skier with a coyote’s snout at the back of her boot. Suddenly she fell and he immediately retreated into his hiding spot, presumingly feeling bad about being too aggressive.  We checked in on the latest victim. “I’m okay,” she responded, “did you guys see that?” I yelled back, “Know him well.”

Months later at a conference, I joined a friend and some of his colleagues for coffee. After being introduced, one of them said, “Your name sounds familiar, did you once get chased by a coyotes while skiing?”  “That was me,” I nodded. The diverse demographics of our ski group had taken the story statewide. I have fond memories and feel fortunate to have been chased by a coyote.  Only a handful of people, skiing this small area of Mammoth Mountain on this cold, white February day, will have a great tale to tell for the rest of their lives.

 

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