Armstrong Redwood Grove, Global Climate Action Summit, Golden Eye Vineyard, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gov. Jerry Brown, Guerneville, Healdsburg, Highway 128, Navarro Vineyards, Penny Royal Farms, Rise for Climate March, San Francisco, September, Toulouse Winery
The combination of late summer and early autumn make September a beautiful time of the year. Our ninth calendar month admits seasonal blur by stubbornly retaining its seventh month name (from the ancient Romans, whose year had ten months beginning in our March). A returning temporal and psychological equinox, often both the Rosh Hashanah New Year of the Jewish calendar and the Autumn Moon Festival in Asia occur in September. Mirroring a farmer’s almanac, we journey from one state of mind to another as fruit and leaves ripen and fall.
I’m also thankful to my parents for making September a now indelible part of my year. This month of change includes, within less than ten days of each other, the memorial day of the death of my father and the anniversary day of the birth of my mother.
I’ve been particularly reflective this September, for a number of reasons. Hurricanes in the Carolinas and typhoons in the Philippines, Hong Kong and southern China mirroring tsunami news cycles that contain rays of hope amid portents of incompetent political disruptions and broad moral disintegration. There is resurgent racism in many parts of the globe, heinous continuing sexism, ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, dangerous climate change denial in the United States, refugee crises in Syria and Venezuela, firestorms throughout California, moral corruption in major faiths (I’m looking at you, Catholic enablers and predators), this is a list that could easily spin one’s mind out of control. We are indeed living in a “debacle du jour” era as George Will of the Washington Post recently observed.
However the September of 2018 also contains a foundational personal anchor: the 100th birthday of my mother Louise. Her milestone has given me hope into how to deal with the dizzying external events of our era. I’ve been grounded by her memory, as she taught me the life lesson that humility was the best answer to the complexities of the world. Her motto was “do your homework” and I listened to her loud and clear.
One of the most humbling things I’ve done is walk in a California redwood forest, befriending for a few moments the tallest and oldest living things on earth. The natural inspiration of a long quiet redwood walk in the Armstrong Redwood Grove near Guerneville in honor of my mom’s 100th birthday helped me reflect on my own actions trying to make this earth a better place.
My wife Jan and I were happy to house sit this September for our best friend Katherine Akos in San Francisco when she and her husband were going out of town for a few weeks of vacation. We’ve known Kate for close to forty years and this is the third time we’ve had the advantage of living in San Francisco, taking care of her home above Cole Valley on one side and the Castro area down the impressive hill of 17th Street.
These opportunities house sitting for Kate in San Francisco are times we cherish, allowing us to live short term in a city we love. It also has the additional consequence of putting us closer to the great wine areas of Northern California. With each return trip to the Bay Area Jan and I try to spend a few days in a wine region we’re not close to living in Southern California. I’ve written other posts about both San Francisco and the Napa Valley, some of my most popular blogs, so if you’re interested you can search them out for reference and more ideas.
Truth be known, the best wines in California are consistently found in the Russian River area, with its beautiful Anderson and Alexander Valleys. Fight me if you disagree!
We’d never driven on the winding road that is Highway 128 to Boonville. In honor of my mom’s 100th birthday, Jan and I decided to spend a few days in the Russian River area, a locale we’d not visited in many years.
And search for a celebratory bottle of wine as well!
We based ourselves for a few days in Healdsburg, about one hour above San Francisco off Highway 101. A charming wine town with great restaurants and a beautiful town square, it’s easy to create day trips in many directions with Healdsburg as your base. We’d never driven on Highway 128 towards Mendocino, and kept hearing about its beauty from friends and strangers alike.
The Russian River acts like a giant funnel connected to the Pacific Ocean. The fog literally gets sucked into the Anderson Valley, cooling off the vines and making life easy for the elusive pinot noir grape, which has its best moments in California in this area. And though our drive on Highway 128 began in fog, a twisty turny road easy to negotiate so no worries, a bright blue sky appeared. Then the fog returned, and then the sunshine came back, a distant French echo from Stéphane Mallarmé for our California wine, whose poem Pli selon pli describes the city of Bruges emerging from fog.
Highway 128 leads through the Anderson Valley to the Pacific Ocean and Mendocino. Where nearby Napa Valley is groomed and wealthy, the Anderson Valley is the opposite. If you’re looking for a group of hippie farmers growing wine, you’ve come to the right valley. I’m counting the days until I return to spend more time than our tasting trip allowed us this September.
We tasted at four wineries: Navarro Vineyards, Toulouse, Golden Eye (a type of duck, not a James Bond movie) and Penny Royal Farms (as in both wine and goat cheese). Many wonderful and recommended smaller wineries need appointments, so a return trip sounds like a good idea. The Anderson Valley is mainly a modest yield non-corporate area (though Golden Eye is part of Duck Horn in Napa).
Navarro recommended Toulouse who recommended Golden Eye who recommended Penny Royal Farms. My tried and true way to wander wine country is to ask at each winery where they’d go to taste on a day off. Once a winery gets multiple recommendations we know we’re on the right path.
Since we were looking for a special bottle of wine for the 100th anniversary of my mom’s September birthday, I thought I’d share just how I choose a wine to buy. Make no mistake about it, every winery will do its best to entice you to join a wine club and sell its product. The temptation of impulse purchase can get pretty persuasive. I know plenty of people who buy more wine than they can drink, and though I’m sure their enjoying their library I’m not so convinced they know what their drinking. I resist the urge to get a short term bargain, which results in the odd equation of losing money by saving money.
Here’s my approach. I only buy a bottle that is reasonable in price (a splurge is rare but possible, usually for a dessert wine like a Sauternes at the holidays). But that’s not all, not by a long shot. I have to immediately taste what I would cook with the wine I’m trying. If a specific dish, herb, or overall flavor strikes me with an action plan for the kitchen, if I can sense an entire menu for a party or celebration meal, then – and only then – will I plunk down money for a bottle.
Oh, and try not to read the often hysterical verbal descriptions of the wine offered by most wineries. They remind me of program notes gone nuts for new music concerts or young composers going on and on about perceptions and contexts and technology. Both have the same effect on me, which is to glaze my mind over the intent of the writing because content is missing. I never read a program note for a world premiere (a great lesson from Schoenberg’s assistant and my teacher Leonard Stein). I do read them – after experiencing the piece. Same goes for wine-ese writing.
Cheese and wine was a point perfected at Penny Royal Farms, which I think has a leg on everybody because they tend goats for the most delicious assortment of California goat cheese you could find and then match the various cheeses with their own wines. And Penny Royal Farms make a great sandwich, too, so should you visit the Anderson Valley on Hwy. 128 you might consider having lunch there. You can look all these wineries up online to see for yourself. Trust me, there are many more, too!
Surrounding all these vineyards, anchoring my home state, are the magnificent redwood trees of California, the tallest and oldest things alive on earth. Yes, we Californians are by and large all tree huggers. There is a California reality that politically binds, yes wait for it, Republicans and Democrats to, wait for it again, sound environmental policies. That means Arnold “Terminator” Schwarzenegger and Governor “Moonbeam” Jerry Brown. Touching our coastline reamins a bi-partisan no no.
When we returned to San Francisco, there was a massive demonstration for the Rise for Climate March, preceding the Global Action Summit convened by Gov. Brown and the United Nations, a homegrown Californian response to the capitulation of the Republican Party to climate change denial. This is not a time to give up. I’m proud of being a Californian as we our electorate keeps our representatives focused on climate change.
I began my post in a reflective mood, but between a walk in the redwoods, a few winery visits and inspiring activism by my friends and fellow citizens of California, I know we aren’t giving up or giving ground to an incompetent federal government.
And I know my parents are happy about that. Who took me to my first farmers market in the 1980s? My mom, who was thrilled to return to the daily freshness of her childhood farm in Minnesota. She gives me continued strength in this bizarre time period where up often appears as down.
Truly, how hard is it to say that Nazis are bad?
I’ll be posting a few more blogs, taking you with me on a long walk into the Armstrong Redwood Forest near Guerneville and visiting a few more wineries in the Russian River. And not to disappoint you, but we didn’t find that perfect bottle of wine for my mother’s 100th birthday.
In fact, we found quite a few, so I’ll be cooking special meals all year in her honor.
See you soon from a redwood forest!
Best, best, best,