Sunday, May 29, 2011

Joplin tornado cleanup

Work crew
Matt, an Americorps leader

The young Americorps leaders told us to move debris from front yards and heap it into separate piles at the curb: lumber, timber and metal. To assure the integrity of insurance assessments, they told us not to disturb any debris that was touching a dwelling or a slab. A FEMA-certified volunteer told me that one reason for the yard-clearing work was to keep debris from being thrown into the air again “if we had another blow.” Another reason offered by an Americorps person was to clear the way for bulldozers that would be coming in next. So, the operation was proceeding in little increments over many stages.
Moving from one house to the next, I often felt overwhelmed by the massive clutter of splinters, limbs, crumpled metal and soggy, pulpy shingles and plywood. But, after just 15-30 minutes or so of work by a half-dozen people, the lawn became reasonably clear.

In another chore, we cleared an alleyway in similar fashion. Shortly thereafter, a pickup drove down the alley — the passage made possible by us and whoever came before us to move whatever else was there. The fruits of our labor were always immediately apparent.

Anyone who has a day to donate may show up at Missouri Southern State University around 8-9 a.m., fill out paperwork, and be assigned to work. Heavy work gloves and shoes are essential. Food and water are provided by countless volunteers. Chainsaws and chainsaw skills are badly needed.

A typical debris scene, with St. John's Hospital in the background.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The best Norton ever

We stopped for tasting and lunch at Native Stone Winery, about 10 miles northwest of Jefferson City. Cara and Larry Stauffer maintain a concise menu of wines, including some wines that aren’t theirs to fill gaps in the taste range. Their Norton stood out, carrying forth the theme of our mid-Missouri wine tour.

I ordered a glass of Estate Bottled Norton for lunch and sat down at a table in the restaurant. The wine came as I studied the menu for something to go with it.

Feeling a little sluggish, I pushed my chair away from the table and slumped into the seat, staring blankly toward the glass of Norton. My nose was about 36 inches from the glass. In the still air of the nearly empty room, a comforting aroma reached me, steadily mounting in intensity. For a moment, in my relaxed state, I thought I might have been reliving the tasting experience of minutes earlier. The aroma felt as strong as if I had swirled Norton in a glass, stuck my nose in it, and sucked the essence into my nostrils, face, head, and depths of my viscera. Clearly, it was the glass of wine three feet from my nose, the one at which I was staring — releasing millions of molecules of Norton aggressively populating my space, overwhelming my olfactory capacity with the benevolent force of a sizzling steak or a freshly baked pie.

I have written recently about the need to create Nortons that attain a median between the extreme foxy-spicy characteristics of the untamed grape and, at the other pole, a wine oaked so mellow that the distinctive Norton-ness is lost. Native Stone Estate achieves this goal and exceeds it with the largest nose I’ve ever experienced.

For these reasons, I consider Native Stone Estate Bottled Norton the best Norton ever.

Have I sampled all the other Nortons in the state? No, though I have tried many.

Am I qualified to make this judgment? Of course not.

So, why am I going out on this limb? Because somebody has to.

If you think I’m wrong, I’m sure you’ll let me know.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sunday Funday! at Summit Lake

From many viewpoints, you can't see much of the highway, if any,
but you can hear it. And yet, so what? It's a winery. Just go there.

Sundays at Summit Lake Winery, just two miles across the river from Jefferson City, are known as Sunday Funday! On the Sunday of our visit, the day was living up to its designation. The restaurant was packed, and the staff was swamped, but one friendly woman, whose name I neglected to write down, paused to pour for us.

Buy one appetizer on Sunday Funday! and get a second one at half price, the winery’s website says. Even better reasons exist for a stop — the Norton, for starters. It was typically astonishing, living up to expectations set on our central Missouri tour of top-notch wineries. Maybe I had become jaded with this embarrassment of riches; in any case, I was Nortoned out. I went for two lighter reds: St. Martin, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Chambourcin; and Ideal With Friends, a semi-dry St. Vincent that will be perfect for a summer evening.

The winery is on a bluff overlooking U.S. 54. You can hear the roar of the trucks and sport utilities barreling down the highway. Still, it’s a great resource for the Jeff City area. I wish we had a winery on a bluff overlooking Springfield — a winery that had Sunday Fundays!, that dispensed a richly complex Norton and a pleasant summer red. How about that hill southeast of town where the KWTO sign used to be? Perfectly situated for the view and the traffic roar. Just add Norton.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Cooper’s Oak Winery: Elegant aging

Among the oaked reds, Tasting Room Manager Jennifer Ukutegbe poured a distinctive Vignoles:
“It has a big, bold start, and then it just kinda, almost disappears.”

Cooper’s Oak Winery is a spin-off of A&K Cooperage, based in Higbee, Mo. The winery has a retail outlet on a prominent corner of Main Street in Boonville, Mo. The winery uses the company’s French and American oak barrels to age its red wines, and it’s clear that the coopers and the vintners know what they’re doing. Like a jazz piano trio supporting the singer, the oak underscores the wine and never tries to become the main event. The hospitality at Cooper’s Oak was first-rate. The gracious tasting room manager, Jennifer Ukutegbe, created a warm, friendly vibe on a cold and wet afternoon as she led us through the lengthy menu of wines (the more the merrier …). I was skeptical of a winery named for barrel making. My only similar experience is with Independent Stave in Lebanon, Mo., which highlights wines that have been suffocated in the company’s oak barrels. A few tastes at Cooper’s Oak relieved my concerns. Highlights: 
  • An earthy Merlot with a taste-of-Missouri finish. We couldn’t nail down the “Missouri effect,” but it made a strong impression. The grapes are from vines in Sturgeon, Mo.
  • Missouri-California grape combinations: 
  • Barrel Boy Blend (half-and-half Syrah and Merlot).
  • Triple Oak Bliss, which refers to the number of wines in the blend (Missouri Norton and California Merlot and Cab).
  • Toasted Oak (50-50 Cab and Merlot). I chose this one because it seemed to achieve the best effect of oak as a mellowing yet enriching agent.
  • Teal Lake Sweet Vignoles: One of many white selections, this one didn’t feel as sweet as its name suggests, due to its clean finish. Our host described it this way: “It has a big, bold start, and then it just kinda, almost disappears.” 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Les Bourgeois: Great views, great wine

The restaurant at Les Bourgeois overlooks the Missouri River.
Les Bourgeois Vineyards markets a wide selection of affordable wines in wine shops and supermarkets across the state. The winery at Rocheport on the Missouri River also makes many premium wines that don’t typically show up in stores. Visiting the winery is a great way to sample these wines by the taste or the glass, especially if they’re beyond your price range.

We tasted a 2008 Chardonnel followed by a Winemaker’s Select of the same vintage, which was decidedly livelier.

We tried the 2007 Premium Claret, a Norton that I’ve seen in shops, then we tasted the Reserve version, which went over really well, though I thought it had too much oak.

Over the years, Missouri winemakers have gradually refined Nortons so that everybody seems to have a good one to offer. The challenge has always been how to tame the foxy-spicy characteristics of the grape. Two decades ago, winemakers didn’t know how to do that, other than to doom the wine to an endless oak soak. The result was vintage after vintage of bizarre, widely despised wines. Over the past 10 years, this problem has disappeared as winemakers have applied more sophisticated chemistry and mellower oak to the process. Now I see a new challenge emerging: Nortons now are nearly as smooth as Cabs, but they are losing the distinctive Norton qualities. The goal should be to achieve a median between bizarre and ordinary. Les Bourgeois achieves this goal, as do many other wineries.

Monday, May 16, 2011

More shameless promotion for an old friend

Rashida Clendening, AKA Audio Angel, and I worked together for a short time many years ago at a newspaper. It was a place of semi-dysfunction that seemed very funny to both of us. Since then, she has used her voice in artistic and professional ways in San Francisco. Now she is trying to finance her first album using Kickstarter. The audio clip above shows off the expressive yet understated quality of her voice but does not necessarily reflect the music she plans to record. I don’t really know what she’s planning, other than what I have gathered in the promotional video below. I have pledged a modest sum to support her effort, and I am sharing information about her project at Kickstarter. If you want to pledge, do so soon …

Sunday, May 15, 2011

No Grey Bear exists except as a winery, but for how long?

"People seek out wineries. We're a target market," says Marschall Fansler.

In a recent winery tour through central Missouri, we stopped at Grey Bear Winery in Stover, owned by David and Marschall Fansler.

Marschall said her husband, who studied viticulture and oenology at University of California at Davis, makes wine with a consumer-friendly goal: “soft and drinkable now.”

Their location in well off the main highways of U.S. 65 and U.S. 54 in Morgan County does not bother them, she said. "People seek out wineries. We're a target market."

The highlight of the tasting was Smoke Mountain, a Norton with a touch of Cabernet. It flashed the typical Norton spiciness that was slightly softened, perhaps due to the Cabernet.

The Fanslers moved the winery David started in 1993, Rocky Hill, from Montrose, Colo., to Stover, Mo., in 2003 and opened Grey Bear in 2005. They were looking for a more business-friendly environment for expansion, according to the Grey Bear website. There’s no such thing as a gray bear, Marschall acknowledged; the color in the winery’s name is just for fun. But the bear part of the name refers to the powerful force the animal represents in Navajo myth, she said.

The Fanslers still buy some grapes from Western regions and have just about run out of reserves from the Rocky Hill operation. On the four acres at Grey Bear, they grow Marechal Foch, Vignoles, Chambourcin, Concord, Seyval, and a Cabernet-native root stock hybrid.

Due to David’s recent health problems, the Fanslers want to sell the winery and retire. In addition to the vines and equipment, the property includes a residence and a winery-brewery-restaurant building in a distinctive round design, shown below. The structure consists of 20 panels each eight feet long, their website says. The structure is designed to withstand hurricane force winds, but the effect is to create a large open interior space.

Interested? Call the Fanslers at 573-377-4269 or

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The days of wine and chord substitutions

As promised in my May 5 post, here is the bottle of 1999 Reichsrat von Buhl Pfalz Riesling halbtrocken that was part of the promotion for Maria Schneider’s album, Live at the Jazz Standard: Days of Wine and Roses. The back label states (proudly with dangling modifier):
Schneider helped select the grapes for this wonderful, medium-dry Riesling which tastes of peaches and minerals. She is one of the leading composers and arrangers in jazz today. A protegé of Gil Evans, both her CD’s were nominated for Grammies.

As I recall, it was a good Riesling that lived up to its back-label description. It was one of the first Rieslings I tasted that made me understand that this variety need not be sickly sweet. Even so, having a band leader help select grapes is kind of like having a winemaker help select the trumpet section.

The "Days of Wine and Roses" is a wonderful song, but it carries a gloomy connotation from its connection to the movie by the same name, which carries a scolding message about the evils of alky-haul. Wine drinkers, it goes without saying, are far too civilized to fall prey to such corruption.

I can’t find a video of Schneider’s band playing this song, but you can listen to an audio version provided by 4shared. Saxophonists Tim Ries on soprano and Rich Perry on tenor are featured.

Plus, Azusa Pacific University’s Jazz Ensemble performs her arrangement in the video below. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

News from Whispering Oaks — and a surprise encounter

Larry Green pours Vignoles at his tasting bar.

Larry and Miriam Green, owners of Whispering Oaks Vineyard and Winery just east of Seymour, let us taste their final formulation of their first Traminette vintage, which they plan to release next year. Traminette is a cross between Seyval and Gewürztraminer. Larry, who likes to experiment with different prototypes before selling a wine, tried different levels of sweetness, he said. First he went all the way dry, then maximally sweet, and settled on a median level with just enough sugar to bring out the fruit and floral essences.

This year’s Catawba represents another chapter in the refinement of the wine over several years — less sugar (4 percent, down from 5-6 percent last year), and less alcohol (10.9 percent from 12.4 percent). Last year’s Catawba was a real breakthrough in smoothing out the strong fruit, achieved by taking the wine off the skins earlier.

As we departed, we chatted with a couple on the deck. The woman said she was from Lake County, Illinois, which is where I grew up — north of Chicago. Her hometown is Round Lake Beach, and she went to Carmel High School, a Catholic institution in Mundelein, which is my hometown. We discussed the suburban and exurban sprawl in that area, once populated with prosperous farms, which we now find unrecognizably tangled in streets, highways, strip malls, apartments, condos, big box stores and McMansions. I hadn’t thought much lately about Lake County, except for the fact that I now get lost whenever I go there. However my newfound homey clearly had urgent thoughts simmering and seeking an outlet.

“They took farmland more fertile that any place other than the Nile River Valley — and paved it,” she said.

“Paved it!”

I reminded her that neither of us lives there anymore.

She swept her arm in the direction of the vines and said, “That’s why we live in the Ozarks.”

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Four Missouri wineries under one roof

417 Magazine celebrated its 10th anniversary with a bash at 319 on Friday night. I learned that Les Bourgeois was going to be pouring there and thoroughly enjoyed the surprise of finding three more wineries on hand. Highlights:

Les Bourgeois 2010 Labelle, a Vignoles with 2 percent residual sugar: Really well balanced with intense fruit. I thought their Chambourcin was overly smoothed out, its typical spicy nature tamed.

7C's Stagecoach, a dry Vidal — a spirited varietal. 

Crown Valley 2004 Off-Dry Chardonnel, aged in French and American oak. This is the first oaked white wine I've ever liked. Not just tolerated, but actively enjoyed. I suppose I responded to the smooth nature of the oak effect. 

St. James winery: Their varietal Chardonnel was typically crisp with a little citrus. On a different note, I can't overlook the Norton — this massively oaked wine delivered a devastating lumber-yard effect. Bring your chainsaw.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The jazz-wine nexus

After blogging about jazz based on the excuse of the Smithsonian's Jazz Appreciation Month, I am returning this month to wine and viticulture, mixing these subjects with jazz.

Jazz and wine go together, up to a point. Wineries program jazz as long as it doesn't upset the gentile vibe of the audience: upscale, relaxed sophisticates. Quiet piano trios are typical. Would a winery ever book Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton to play on the lawn against a backdrop of vines and sherbet sunset colors? If so, what wine would you pair with such outbound tangles and skronks? 

In my experience, any wine I like will pair perfectly with any music I like. I remember listening to John Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard with my college roommate, a 3-liter bottle of Almaden Rhine wine between us. Now I would go for an unoaked chardonnay or dry riesling — or anything else on hand.

I know of one jazz recording that intersects with wine in a literal way: Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, Live at the Jazz Standard: Days of Wine and Roses. The album was promoted in a package that included a bottle of 1999 Reichsrat von Buhl Pfalz Riesling halbtrocken, with grapes that Schneider helped select at the vineyard in Germany.

I will update this post with images of the Schneider's wine-jazz package. Right now, I'm installing a new version of iPhoto and will have to wait until that's done to post photos.