The bounties of the land, and not just the bounty in your garden or vineyard, are never easier to find than late summer and fall.
Berries are ripening, greens are sprouting, mushrooms are blasting through the soil.
The recent rains brought new life to the mountains, which were starting to look a bit parched, all part of the long-term West-wide drought frustrating a lot of dedicated foragers.
However, a couple of weeks of rain changes everything, and a recent encounter with my ‘shroom-hunting friends from the North Fork Valley, where “eating local” takes on a whole new meaning from the ground up, indicated the time had come to stomp around a few favorite places.
The first stop was to drop in on Yvon Gros at Leroux Creek Inn and Vineyards on Rogers Mesa. If you didn’t know the amiable Gros was French, you might deduce it from his immense talent of wresting a delicious meal from things you and I might overlook.
In the spring, he forages among the still-bare vines for wild greens. In the fall, when he isn’t filtering and bottling wine or harvesting the acres of wine grapes growing in his Provence-like landscape, he’s out hiking the backcountry plucking mushrooms.
Earlier this summer, after a particularly memorable meal had guests begging for a recipe, he simply laughed, grabbed a small kitchen knife and said, “Come, I’ll show how hard it is.”
A few steps into the vineyard, he bent over, swiped the knife across the ground and stood, his hand full of…dandelions?
“See? In the spring and summer when these are young and tender, they are delicious,” he said, laughing again. “Just be careful and don’t cut yourself.
“When it gets too hot down here, I go up on Grand Mesa and all summer I find young dandelions.”
Eating off the land isn’t new. American Indians and settlers in many countries kept watch for the first greens of spring because those sprouts were key to surviving the dull, vitamin- and mineral-depleted winter diets.
A generation ago we were being admonished to eat naturally by Euell Gibbons, wild plant expert and author of “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” among other titles, and today it’s people such as Steve Rinella, hunting-rights spokesman and star of the cable TV show “Meateater,” pushing us to step out of bounds, literally and figuratively.
Dandelions, miner’s lettuce, purslane and numerous roots and seeds provide a natural larder for those adventurous enough to seek them out.
With the summer rains here, there are mushrooms and berries to add to the mix. A short drive on Grand Mesa this week turned up ripe raspberries, serviceberries (a favorite of black bears, with whom you may have to compete) and tiny strawberries, bursting with flavor although no bigger than the nail on your pinkie. Plus, there were trees and bushes full of still-green but promising wild apples, acorns and chokecherries.
Also a variety of edible and non-edible mushrooms, and yes, it’s important to know which is which. Boletes, oysters, puffballs, scaly urchins and, of course, the much sought-after apricot-hued chanterelles are among the fungi poking through the soil.
But you’re on your own. Favorite mushroom spots are protected like favorite children – everyone loves to admit they have one, and they expect you to know how to get one of your own.
“Of course it’s a secret,” admonished Gros after a visitor pleaded to know where Gros went for his prized mushrooms. “It takes me 45 minutes to get there from here, and my kidneys are shaken apart, but it’s worth it.”
He said he has a friend with a helicopter who volunteered to fly Gros to his ‘shroom spot.
“I don’t know,” he pondered. “It would be much easier and I could go there in just minutes. But then I’d have to show him and, well, he’s French, you know, and I’m not sure I can trust him not to tell.”
Here is another example of how bad reporting makes for confused readers.
In a recent online issue of The Business Insider was a story headlined “America Won’t Have Enough Grapes To Make All Of The Wine It Wants To Drink.”
Neither the all-caps headline nor the breathless claim stand up to scrutiny.
The story quotes an report from Gino Rossi and Craig Woolford. Craig is marketing analyst for Citi, the global banking conglomerate, specializing in supermarket retailing.
Their premise is that because an oversupply of California wine grapes 20 years ago caused some growers to pull their vines for more-profitable crops such as almonds, the increased interest seen recently in wine drinking means grape growers can’t keep up with demands and that in a few years a grape shortage is likely.
Well, maybe not and here’s why…
Rossi and Woolford write, apparently without their fingers crossed, that “[S]trong consumption growth in the US has meant that demand has eventually caught up to supply and the small harvest in 2011 caused many industry participants to panic,” they add. “This sent grape prices higher, indicative of how nervous the industry is about a growing grape shortage.”
It’s not new news that more Americans are drinking wine and that seems to have spurred a cottage industry in stories about a possible grape shortage.
Of course, it seems such stories invariably originate from sources who stand to make money from the higher grape prices resulting from a perceived shortage.
Funny that anyone with half a sense would forecast a grape shortage, since we’ve been reading stories such as this which says California winemakers are concerned about not having enough tanks for this year’s harvest following last year’s record harvest.
Fortunately, there are insightful and cautious industry watchers such as Lew Perdue at Wine Industry Insight who saw through the awful story and posted this rebuttal and then there was this from the inestimable Jeff Siegel of The Wine Curmudgeon, who also scoriates the above mentioned marketing types for their hyperbolic “pump and dump” style of writing.
With an exasperated sigh, Colorado state viticulturist Horst Caspari grabbed at yet another untrimmed grape vine hanging from a trellis and wove the emerald fuse between two wires.
“I know there won’t be many grapes this year in most of these places, but that’s no excuse not to be out here taking care of the vines,” said Caspari, midway through a morning tour of several Grand Valley vineyards on East Orchard Mesa. “You have to spend time in the vineyards this year so you get a good crop next year.”
Valley grape growers are finding this summer a re-run of 2010, when many vineyards were regrown after being killed to the ground by a Dec. 2009 freeze.
Growers again this year are letting most of their vines go wild, building vigor, storing nutrients and growing new branches (canes) to replace those lost to winter cold.
While it lessens the time (and money) owners spend this summer in the vineyard, Caspari said effort now means better production in the future.
“In 2011 we did OK but didn’t have (the grape crop) we should have,” he said. “That’s because (grape growers) didn’t do a good job of retraining the vines in 2010.”
He looked at the dense foliage splayed before him. “This is all this year’s growth and next winter you just re-establish the complete framework,” he said, holding up a handful of new shoots. “But you don’t just lay it down and let it go.”
Last January, shortly after a valley-wide freeze sent temperatures as low as minus 21 degrees, Caspari guessed grape growers this year would see a 75-percent grape loss.
Recent surveys indicate the loss may not be that severe but we saw a lot of leafy but empty vines.
Caspari said the January cold and an April frost that reached 20 degrees was too much for many of the favorite grape varieties.
Merlot seems to have been particularly hit hard across the valley, along with syrah and gewurtztraminer.
“If you can grow Merlot this year, you’ll sell every bit of it,” Caspari said. “Good location is the key.”
“You try to scientifically get your head around it but it’s impossible,” said grape and peach grower Neil Guard at Avant Vineyards on East Orchard Mesa. “You’ll have three plants that have grapes and four that don’t, all within 50 feet.
“I think my Cabernet Franc, Riesling and my Petit Verdot look fine, absolutely just a normal year,” said Guard. “There’s no rhyme or reason to the damage we see.”
As Guard noted, Cabernet Franc, a red grape known for its cold-hardiness, came out of the winter in good shape in most places while Riesling leads the white varieties.
Another challenge facing growers this year is uneven ripening after the late freeze and a cool spring in some places delayed bud break.
“Look, these won’t ripen,” said Caspari, holding a vine bearing several clusters of grapes, each berry tiny and hard, no bigger than a pencil eraser. “They are at least two or three weeks behind now, and all they do is steal nutrients and vigor from the other grapes.
“What’s bad is they will change color so the pickers can’t tell them apart from the ripe grapes,” he said. “But they’re green and they’ll add off-flavors to your wine. They have to go.”
And he started tearing away the green berries, moving vine to vine and throwing the pre-mature clusters on the ground.
Caspari stopped midway down a row of grapes, looking ahead at the hours of work awaiting some vineyard worker.
“There’s an old saying that the thing you want to see the most in the vineyard is your shadow,” he said. “I don’t think people understand how critical it is to train your vines this year in preparation for next.”
Forty years ago you could drive the California coast south to north, staying on the back roads as much as possible and marveling at the many faces of this immense state.
In that era when gas cost 40 cents a gallon, you could wander from place to place but one site you wouldn’t see is the amount of winemaking we now see along what’s today is the Central Coast AVA. At least not much compared to the estimated 100,000 acres of grapevines found there today.
Marked by fog, damp and patchy sunshine, the Central Coast AVA stretches more than 250 miles long, a vast area of agriculture tied together by the influences of the Pacific Ocean. The AVA produces 15 percent of California’s wine grapes, including those of Robert Mondavi’s Private Selection wines.
The Mondavi Private Selection wines, founded by Mondavi in 1994 to take advantage of the region’s wide-ranging growing conditions and more recently the RM line of wines aimed at Young Transitionals (upscale 21-35 y.o. with no kids), are examples of how well, and how affordably, dedicated winemaking can produce delicious wines.
This year (June 18) marked the 100th anniversary of Mondavi’s birth and as part of the ongoing celebration of what Robert Mondavi meant (and still means) to winemaking in California and the nation as a whole, I recently had the opportunity to sample a range of his Private Selection Central Coast wines.
This line includes 11 wines – seven reds, four whites, not all of which I tasted – includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Meritage, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Zinfandel.
Whew. All are line-priced at the wallet-friendly $11.99 and offer a level of quality rarely seen at that price. It’s easy to forget for a moment these are mass-produced wines, that’s how good they are.
As winemaker Rick Boyer says on the Mondavi Central Coast web site, “To me, winemaking is a lot about combining gut feel, experience, and art. We hope there is soul there.”
The “soul” part I can’t speak of, but the ability of Boyer (and Robert Mondavi) to produce sound, consistent wines at an affordable cost has helped the company become the “third most powerful wine brand” in the world, according to a report from strategy consultants Intangible Business.
2011 Central Coast Meritage – A Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend with Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot, offering dark berry flavors with black-cherry and plum notes. Mouth-filling but not over-whelming.
2011 Central Coast Cabernet Sauvignon – A return to the early days of California Cabernet, before the domination of oak hid the natural flavors that initially propelled California to world attention. Lots of red and black raspberry and red cherry with a touch of earthy notes, all highlighted with subtle American and French oak.
2011 Central Coast Chardonnay – If only all California Chardonnay was this subdued, this tasty and this affordable. Lemon rind, green apples and a hint of peach highlight this product of one of the coolest growing season in Central Coast record.
2011 Central Coast Sauvignon Blanc – right out of the bottle, this wine recalls a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, with hints of grass and lemon/lime citrus. Behind that,of course, are the citrus, melon and spice that mark California’s version of this uber-popular wine. Crisp acids and bright flavors, a good late-summer sipper.