I pinch myself every day living in Sonoma County. Then there are the days when a pinch is not enough. Those are the times I say to myself, "Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore". Coming from the midwest, this is particularly apt.
Yesterday was one of those magical days where everything coalesced into a perfect storm of perfection.
A group of us from the Golden Gate Wine Society, which generally convenes for food and imbibement in San Francisco, took a departure to Sebastopol for a 50 mile cycling tour. Eleven of us headed from the Russian River Valley, in Sebastopol, north through Healdsburg. We continued up to Geyserville, back down through Anderson Valley, then circled back to Sebastopol to settle in for wine and burgers at the home of one of our esteemed members, Paul O'Neill. It was a strong group of cyclists, including Dallas, his lovely wife, Melissa, Paul, Jeff, Brett, Bruce, Mike, Brian, George, Kevin and myself.
We convened at 9:30am at Paul's house, where he generously "carbed us up" with bagles, lox, cream cheese and tomatoes. This traditional breakfast fare was complemented by stacks of Cliff Bars, Cliff Goo, and electrolyte powder for our water bottles. The consumate engineer, Paul could not resist sharing his latest gadget: a mini "pump" that can blow up a tire in seconds from a CO2 cartridge. Paul turned out to be the only one requiring it during our ride. Not sure he didn't plan it that way :-)
We anticipated a chance of showers from the forecast, but we arrived to a sky of puffy clouds with temperatures hovering around 70 degrees. They were perfect cycling conditions and by 10:15, were were geared up and raring to go.
The initial stretch along Vine Hill Road took us from Trenton to the newly paved East Side Road, lined with vineyards bordering Russian River. Brett, not yet a GGWS member, set the pace, which was to be consistent throughout the ride. He was an Australean ringer that Paul invited to join us. We made it the first seven miles to Healdsburg almost effortlessly, in relatively flat terrain, as we were burning off the day's first calories.
The Healdsburg Avenue Bridge, closed for construction, allowed our careful crossing, threading through a maze of cyclone fencing. Then we meandered along Healdsburg's quaint streets, a throw-back to gentler times. With little traffic, our pelaton commanded the residential neighborhoods as we headed north, then west into Dry Creek Valley.
We headed out of Healdsburg northwest on Dry Creek Road, stopping for a quick gathering of riders in front of the Dry Creek Store. We kept up momentum, turning right onto Canyon Road for our first climb of the day. We were passed by at least 100 motorcycles at that turn, blasting their presence for all to heed, as they proceeded up Dry Creek Road. Then on the climb up Canyon, another 30-40 passed us, begging the question whether they took the wrong turn from their group.
After almost 25 years in Sonoma County, I had never been on Canyon Road. This gorgeous venule carried us up several hundred feet, to descend into the northern reaches of Geyserville. We turned south into town, then east along Hwy 128 where we were engulfed in the vineyards of Alexander Valley in all directions. This is a breathtaking stretch of rolling pavement. Our first 30 miles came up quickly, the entire group gathering in close cluster at the Jimtown Store for a lunch break.
With only 20 miles to go, everyone made short work of a snack and hydration. We continued on Hwy 128, heading toward Chalk Hill. We hung right onto Chalk Hill Road. This is another rolling portion; but nestled along the Mayacamas on the eastern borders of Alexander Valley, the ups and downs were becoming more pronounced. The group hung together for a short spell, but the time-in-the-saddle and distance were starting to take their toll on a few of us and we separated by ability.
At about mile 40, we were confronted by the biggest climb of the day. It was about two miles up with grades hovering at 12-13%. This is not atypical of the climbs in my neighborhood, so I am used to them. But I did not eat enough for lunch and I could feel my energy dropping precipitously. Some of the slower riders were catching up and I was falling to the back of the pack. My spirits were good as I simply recalibrated to the new pace. My legs felt strong, though my butt hurt.
The group gathered at the junction of Pleasant Avenue. Then we continued up Faught Road, hugging the hills with vineyards to our right to the west. I was slowing, so I enjoyed the views and watched my fellow riders disappear around the twisting curves of the road.
But then the road started looking unfamiliar and getting particularly rough. I had taken this ride a year back with Paul and Dick, so I got a keen sense that something was amiss. I took out my phone and gave Paul a ring. Fortunately, he pulled out his phone at just that time, so he saw my call come in. We compared notes and I had missed a turn about a half mile back. So I turned around and resigned myself to being alone the balance of the trip. I was now back in familiar territory, so I was fine.
After turning left on Shiloh Road to follow the group, I crossed Hwy 101 and was picking up speed. I blasted through a green light, but noticed a familiar orange t-shirt on a cyclist sitting on the corner. I yelled as I passed, "George?". He was buried in his phone, and I wasn't sure, so I circled back to check. Sure enough, our most recent Society member was standing on the corner, uncertain where to go or where he was. I instructed him to follow my lead and we continued enroute and sparked up a friendly conversation about wine making.
We had only a few miles to go and I knew the route, so George and I shared pleasant company heading back into the Russian River Valley. Paul, our leader, intersected us in a circle-back to be sure we were OK. Upon confirming our whereabouts and good standing, he blasted back ahead to meet the group at his house. George and I maintained a comfortable pace along Shiloh, turning left onto Windsor, then left again onto Stusser. We took a short hesitation at Saralee's Vineyard where I shared our warm relationship with the late Saralee Kunde and the source of our Dry Gewurztraminer fruit, now in the stewardship of Kendall Jackson.
Stusser T-d at River Road, where we turned right along a smooth shoulder amid lots of fast moving cars. We had to endure this for only a mile before turning onto Trenton and back to Paul's home on Vine Hill. Gatorades and beer were chilled and waiting as we dismounted from a fantastic ride.
After bit of stretching and changing from sweaty clothes, we all gathered next to the swimming pool adjacent to Paul's stunning hillside vineyard. Paul went to work at the grill making burgers. We all enjoyed a selection of wines under the glorious crisp afternoon sunshine beneath his trellised dining patio.
Did I mention another pinch?
Our Halleck Vineyard Dog Club has taken a monumental jump this month. It has grown by 250%.
I don’t mean this to sound hyperbolic. It is easy to grow by triple digits when the content is in the single digits. In real terms, we have displayed two dogs for many months. These include our vineyard Basenji, Franki, and his good friend from Aspen, Bella. Now we have 7 dogs gracing our Halleck Vineyard. Buddah, Lulu, Elwood, Gabby and Murphy have joined ranks.
So why do we have a Halleck Vineyard Dog Club? The answer speaks to the heart of our mission: to build community. We love our dogs! Some love dogs more than children. And this is not unusual.
I watched a 60 Minutes episode this past week entitled: “The smartest dog in the world”. It documents the amazing work of John Pilley and his Australian Shepherd, Chaser.
Human beings have lived with dogs for thousands of years. You'd think that after all that time we'd have discovered all there is to know about them. But it turns out that until recently scientists didn't pay much attention to dogs. Dolphins have been studied for decades, apes and chimps as well, but dogs, with whom we share our lives, were never thought to be worthy of serious study. As a result, we know very little about what actually goes on inside dogs' brains. Do they really love us, or are dogs just licking us so they can get fed? How much of our language can they understand?
Eighty-six-year-old retired psychology professor John Pilley and his border collie Chaser are inseparable.
During the 9 years of Chaser’s life, John has taught Chaser thousands of words. That’s right, thousands. And Chaser knows the difference between nouns and verbs. This is something that has not been replicated amongst any in the species of animals. We had thought that chimps were the closest to our level of intelligence, but they don’t hold a candle to what a dog can learn.
Further, it has recently been proven that dogs REALLY love us. We know that when dogs and humans make eye contact, actually released is what's known as the love hormone, oxytocin, in both the dog and the human.
It turns out oxytocin, the same hormone that helps new mothers bond with their babies, is released in both dogs and humans when they play, touch or look into one another's eyes. So dogs are hugging us with their eyes.
So our Halleck Vineyard Dog Club is an extension of our family. It represents the dogs we love and who love us back. They are an integral and intimate part of our lives and community. They are there when we need them, comforting and supporting us with unconditional love. Who can say that about our kids or spouses ;-))
Every autumn we enjoy the annual harvest of our vineyards, as well as the spectacular beauty of the fall colors. My recent trip to Aspen punctuated this season for me. The mixture of reds, umbers, and yellow result from chemical processes that take place in the vines as the seasons change from summer to winter. It is similarly reflected in the Aspen trees and this connection marked me this year.
Three leaf pigments in grape vines responsible for color and its changes in the autumn are: chlorophylls, carotenoids, and tannins.
Chlorophyll absorbs the sun's radiant energy and is necessary for photosynthesis, the chemical reaction in which carbon dioxide and water are transformed to sugars, used for food by vines and trees. During the growing season, chlorophyll is continually being produced and leaves appear green.
As days get shorter and temperatures cooler in the autumn, the leaves stop their food-making process. This is called senescense. Nitrogen and phosphorus are slowly withdrawn from the leaves to be stored in twigs and branches during the dormant winter period. The loss of these nutrients, due to reduced exposure to sunlight with shorter days, gradually stops the production of chlorophyll. The green leaf color fades and other pigments are unmasked to show their colors. The timing of chlorophyll loss varies among different species, thus some leaves will remain green longer than others.
It seems that aspen trees at 10,000 feet in Colorado and Pinot Noir grown at 1000 feet in west Sonoma County hold a common thread. Did you know that enormous groves of aspen trees are all one organism, sharing a common root system?!
Carotenoid pigments are responsible for the yellow and orange colors in leaves. They are also located in the chloroplasts and assist chlorophyll in the capture of sunlight for photosynthesis. Caratenoids are always present in the leaves, but are not visible for most of the year because of greater amounts of chlorophyll. The yellowish colors are unmasked as chlorophyll degrades. Carotenoids are also responsible for the yellowing of leaves at any time during the year if there is a deficiency in nutrients or disease that reduces normal chlorophyll production.
Tannins are responsible for brown hues in the leaves. The golden yellow in some leaves are a result of tannins along with the yellow carotenoid pigments. These compounds are always present in the leaves, but only become visible as chlorophyll and carotenoids disappear. I did not realize that tannins are present in both the leaves and the fruit. Tannins are bitter substances responsible for the color and flavor of tea. They are waste products of plant metabolism, deposited in the cell walls. They often accumulate in dead tissue.
Leaves that fall decompose and restock the soil with nutrients that make up part of the spongy humus layer of the vineyard and forest floors. These absorb and hold rainfall. Fallen leaves also become food for numerous soil organisms that are critical to the health of the ecosystem.
Now in the seventh decade, I have a wealth of destinations behind me. The highlights are too numerous to mention:
And on and on; I am grateful beyond measure for this ceaseless wanderlust.
So it is time to add another: Aspen in the fall!
With harvest behind and juice in barrel or tank, I decided to take 5 days and head to visit a friend in Aspen.
Although I have been to Aspen before, enjoying the summer for its hiking and cultural events and the winter for skiing, I have never been in the autumn. This is considered a shoulder season, devoid of tourists, the streets quiet but alive, and the eateries full of locals.
What is unsung that puts Aspen on my list is color. They call the place Aspen (duh) for a reason:-)
I was brought to tears by the beauty around every curve.
I am here as the guest of a dear friend, Nancy, who has taken it upon herself to introduce her friends to Halleck Vineyard. Athough I am taking a break, she has organized informal tastings and gatherings to build community for me and us.
It has been a stunning week, starting with an evening of friends around a table of Halleck Vineyard wines. Pete, Lori, Eddy, Wendi, Nancy and I enjoyed a convivial conversation preparing for dinner at Wild Fig.
What a surprise to discover that you cannot bring wine to a restaurant in Colorado. How is that for irony! You can go down to the local dispensary and buy a jar of cannibis like its a jelly donut, but it is against the law to bring your own wine to a restaurant. So we drank at home before a delightful meal at a signature Aspen haunt.
The following day, we started early to beat the weather. We were out at 8:30 to begin a 7 mile hike up to American Lake at 11,400 feet. This was a "breathtaker" for a sea-level guy like me. What Nancy described as an hour and a half up took us 2 hours and 20 minutes of beauty, up. Then another hour and a half down. Big hike for a first day. But I was wholly indoctrinated by then.
We were graced that afternoon with the first snowfall of the season. I swear: the snowflakes were an inch across or more. The mountain tops were dusted white and the grass in town was covered, but the temperature held the streets from any accumulation.
Another treasure during this season is the Aspen Film Festival. We enjoyed several movies, not all great, but all interesting and worthy of our time.
The evening was another gathering of friends around some bottles. Paula, Judi, Alan, and Jill were indoctrinated into our family of friends.
Every day, however has been spent outdoors. Today we climbed Tiehack, one of the peaks of Buttermilk Mountain Ski Area. Joined by Leonard, Marie, Jill, and Lisa, the views were spectacular of Aspen. Walking up in the snow was an added treat.
We finished at Maroon Bells. Viewing them in crystalline white above Maroon Lake, I ask, "Why Maroon Bells?". I only needed to look to my right for the answer. In their shadow, the neighboring peaks were sheilded from the early snows. They were as maroon as a crayon. Quite a place.