Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Snow, snow, and more SNOW

With two and a half feet of snow, Grape Hill must be looking superb. We have never seen more than a few inches until this huge volume, so we shall soon find out who has the nearest snowplow for hire. We did not need to get over to Grape Hill to have a white Christmas...a foot of snow outside the door right here. I just walked out for the mail and found two huge limbs down from the weight, having taken out two sections of fence on the way. Fortunately, they missed the house so we can count our blessings. Another good thing is that we never lost power. So, I can use all the wood I have brought inside to make a giant cozy fire for Christmas morning! Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


Red rocks startling against blue skies, green-covered canyons with amazing stratification and eroded rock overhangs. The scents of pine and manzanita. There is a creative charge in the air; little wonder that we added our own rock-pile architecture to the happy mounds at Red Rock Crossing. Lots of funny realities, too, like finding out that Sedona isn't an ancient name at all. Sedona Schnebly only died in 1950, when Sedona had a handful of families living on land taken from native tribes. Far from hostile, Sedona has good water and one of the more temperate climates anymore. The thousands of charlatans and believers, millionaires and dropouts have found a special place indeed. The town is a hodge-podge of shops and restaurants, rich developments and tacky housing; not much to recommend man's input, that's for sure. Oh, but those rock formations and canyons...the ever-changing shading throughout the day, the stars and shadows at night...spectacular.

Saturday, November 22, 2008


High time. Face time. Quality time. Real time. Taking time. Making time. Wasting time. A million years caught in a fossilized amber instant. A moment reflected over a lifetime. Time for clouds and shooting stars. Time to listen and to hear. All the bells and chimes celebrating time.

Thursday, November 20, 2008


After ten or twelve rentals, we just had our first renting guests who didn't "get it". Actually, these were guests of our renters and not the renters themselves. The couple who rented from us totally loved Grape Hill. From what I understand, these other people never got off their Blackberries long enough to look up and take a deep breath. That brings me to Thanksgiving. Despite all the negative news in the economy and the stress out there that can easily be found, there is so much more joy and beauty that comes knocking at the door just waiting to be let inside. I ate the best pomegranate of my whole life just the other night. Wow! Looking forward tonight to making an appetizer of whipped eggs scrambled with chevre and topped with a filet of sole poached in white wine. Doesn't that sound good! Don't know about you, but I find the smell of Starbucks beats the heck out of the flavor of their coffees. Maybe I'll just sit in one of their deep chairs, read the paper, and take in the aroma. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is going to be especially great this year with my dad healthy again and the whole extended family making the trip from back East and LA and Seattle to share time together. Sue loves cooking for everyone and we all get to be loud and festive without religious focus or presents. Not even Hallmark has horned in on Turkey Day. Only one question...why is it always the Detroit Lions playing football on TV?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Peacocks and other secrets-

Drive yourself around back country roads and you, too, may stumble upon dozens (hundreds?) of peacocks happily pecking their way around Walla Walla. What a funny trip I have just had, an amble of obscurities. Tried and liked The Green Lantern, currently my Best Tavern of Walla Walla. Turns out that Jody and his pals have gone for it and opened Walla Walla Brewers. Had their Walla Walla IPA and really liked that very much indeed. Cannot wait to try more. This one is very alive in the mouth, super fresh, with a powerful hoppy back. Between that and a Rogue "Double Dead Man", the beer scene was superb.
Played quite a bit of Texas Hold 'Em at The Blue, had a ball and let my game go to hell just for the fun of it, calling on hands where I left my brain at the door time and many bluffs that I couldn't stop laughing at myself. Twice came over the top with $16 bets and won them both with absolutely nothing. Got burned on legitimate hands just as often. Had queens under five different times and lost 4 of the 5.
My new mantra is "Don't trust the ladies". Sorry Sue, spouses excepted.
The weather was warm and dry, very pleasant, for all but one of the days. It was in the 60s on two nights, nowhere near winter yet.
I will be trying to get over in three weeks to install the three new windows going into the living room and the upstairs bedroom. Come Spring, I'll be getting in the new outside features...cannot wait!
I've been invited to play poker in a home game on Tuesday nights and to shoot skeet at the gun club on Thursday nights. Don't know that I'll be going to either, but being asked is great. I was just talking about how my mom and dad have bridge as the central piece in their amazing, vibrant social scene. DO I love any game enough to play every week, much less four or five times each week?
There is a roving gourmet club that I'll find more out about, and I'm trying to find out whether I can use the YMCA occasionally...would love to get in some work outs in WW.
The one disappointment on this stay was truly bad food. Wretched! Grabbed meals rather than going to good places. The finale was a bowl of clam chowder at Shari's in Union chunky glue that was. I hope they checked the serve-by date before they opened that two-gallon can of chowder.
The birds were just wonderful, even better than usual! In an earlier blog entry I had wondered about whether November might be the one month where Walla Walla had little to offer. Wrong. The peaceful scene in town was lovely all by itself, low-crowds and nice weather.
Take some meandering roads and look for peacocks.

Saturday, November 8, 2008


Adding more windows this coming week and adding plantings for the first time other than the vines. The electrical transformer will go away behind a low hedge...not sorry to see it going. Also thinking to plant yuccas just outside the front door to create a nice spot for the chaise lounges and shelter the parking areas off from the house. How many years will it take to grow two trees big enough to handle a hammock with me on it?

Two new windows will go onto the south wall of the sitting room, looking out to Dry Creek. We have determined for now not to move ahead on the next phase of the building, so we are moving forward adding additional views both downstairs and upstairs.

Come Spring, I will add the outside shower. Cannot wait to be showering outside while looking out to the distances. Give me a teepee with a view over a dark palace any day!

Jerusalem artichokes are native, too. I wish that I had help with this many dirt clods to remove is a tough call.
The plantings are challenging...walking the fine line between enhancement and distraction. Wanting so much to keep the pure flavors of fresh food raw from the garden! It is just way too easy to lose the magic behind too much makeup.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Mother Gophers must love their gopher young, right? Badgers and coyotes love gophers...on a Ritz, perhaps? I do not appreciate gophers. They are my enemy. I long for the gentle thumping Gophernator2000. Every grape farmer knows that Caddyshack was no comedy. Caddyshack is a tragedy. We understand. Go get them Carl Spackler...never give up...

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Primary Fermentation Complete-

The purple hands are proof. The hydrometer and refractometer agree...we have wine! (In fact, I'm sipping at some right now. Opaque, with deep blood red coloration and fruit coming through. The acids are there, but not too much so.)

My feet are a little cold, ankles still wet, shirt clammy from spray coming off the bladder press. What a wonder Karen is for lending a hand and all her equipment! She is amazing. I cannot imagine what a pain in the neck this must all be for her and never a complaint. Must make very good wine for the right "Thank You!"

All in all, not major mistakes. Very nearly broke three fingers as they came close to getting caught between a shifting bin and the metal edge on the dolly. Tried to force open the press without relieving the pressure and might well have lost some teeth in that move. But no worries...all in one piece, happy and taking another big sip!

Sue snapped lots of fun pictures. Malolactic fermentation is underway to soften the acids and round out the mouthfeel. Picking the cab in another nine days and certain to feel like a seasoned winemaker when that goes to crush. I honestly never anticipated making wine...always thought that Stan and his students would be the main drivers in this I wouldn't miss it for the world. Man, I miss Stan. Right this minute he could probably finally convince me to start taking his classes (he had been working on me for years).

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bringing in the Syrah

Mojo time! Brought in three hundred pounds of syrah yesterday, crushing until 10 PM and getting ready to pitch yeast tonight. Getting the lingo down..."pitching yeast" and running tests for TA (total acidity) 8.0, brix (sugar levels) 24, PH 3.38. Waiting another two weeks before bringing in the cabernet...the cool spring has dictated a very late harvest for cab.
So here is the plan: making two blends, "The Twins", named for Shane and Connor, of course. Fraternal twins intended to be enjoyed side-by-side, one a syrah-dominant blend with our cab, the other a cab-dominant blend with our syrah. Shooting for big flavors and mouth feel and tamping down the fruit just a bit since the acid levels should be trying to bring the fruit forward bigtime anyway. The boys are into it...I can imagine the Connor could easily be bringing a case to his fraternity house and Shane could build a house party around his wine...just realized that they will both be turning 21 right about the time these are ready to drink.
Beautiful crisp weather. Lots of pheasants running around. Neighbors have been baling straw, apparently destined for use in mushroom-growing. A red hawk has been hanging out on the wind day after day, not a bit afraid of cruising forty feet around us.

Friday, October 3, 2008


I have a deep reassurance in having land, a comfort that comes from a deep well and good cold water, open horizons. That ease and security was in the abstract a month ago, touching my innermost soul yet telling me that I'm a throwback. appreciating times before history was written and civilizations were made. Amazing how quickly things have changed. Having this land has become fundamental, practical, immediate. At Grape Hill we are several solar panels away from power and water independence. This land can support crops and grazing animals, too.
A month ago I had an idea for cattle collars with GPS chips inside and wireless reception so that I could program the chips to shock cattle into herding in remote comntrolled, pre-set computerized directions...letting us have grazing animals without putting up fences. A whimsical notion!
In just a month what we thought of as silly certainly changed and those computerized chips sound mighty practical. Nobody likes turning on the TV and having leaders scaring the crap out of us. Having a good bit of land makes those guys seem pretty small.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

In the Vineyard

Forgot my camera and thought it no big deal. The fields have been harvested, even the stubble is getting cut as neighbors are making hay and collecting bales. It's barren and, I thought, not as pretty as usual. Then, this morning, the sun came up shining on a beautiful red hawk sitting atop one of the vineyard posts. Below the very still hawk, there were pheasants all over the place. So many of them! No camera. Bummer.

I have never before tested for brix levels and ph levels ahead of harvest. So, today I ran samples in to the lab and took out the instruments to do brix and TA myself. The syrah seems close to ready, but my tests show 20.5 brix and 10 TA...still a couple weeks away. The cab is still at least weeks away and maybe more...worrisome that weather may not support the late harvest season this year.

Everything about making this wine is intimidating to me more than I can express. So much love has gone into the process...I had better not foul things up!

Hours later, the results are in. My brix measurements were not too bad. I came in .3 lower than the lab. With brix at 20.8 and ph at 3.1, we are still a couple weeks out from harvest and we need a bit of Indian summer to help things along.

The stars are wonderful tonight. After seeing the crystal clear sky, I turned out all interior lights to star gaze in darkness. (It is perfectly amazing to recognize how even one electric light will wipe out half the stars that come into view. Wouldn't it be amazing if we could put together "dark nights" where the city lights are shut off to let in the starlight.) From Grape Hill, the effects of so-called "light pollution" are shocking...each urban area glows in the distance and the stars are washed out all around the lighted areas.

When I was going around collecting berries from all the grape vines for the test samples I came across a pile of pheasant feathers in between the vineyard rows. Looks like the hawk had a big meal.

This stay has been a tough one. News that the son of one of my oldest friends is gravely ill has overshadowed everything. I'm so upset. The open distances and the silences are helping some, at least. Looking out on the vistas might be my way of praying right now.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Being American

I helped install my first furnace today. Never expected to install a furnace, but we got it done and it is up and running right now. I spent $1300 total to get in something that was quoted to cost $3700 if I simply wrote out the check. More even than the money, I'm so happy to have stretched beyond my comfort zone to do this for my family. Last week, I replaced a pool pump myself and saved $700. Both jobs were scary...gas and water and pressure and electrical work...lions and tigers and bears OH MY!

Being American is, to me, all about optimism and self-sufficiency. There are plenty of frontiers to conquer out there every day, even if the task is only changing the oil in my car. It scares me when the notion of success we have is all about making more money so other people will do all these things for us. Anyone who has ever gardened knows that directing landscapers is nowhere near as rewarding as getting in there and getting dirty. There is so much joy in "getting it", in understanding common experiences through common labors. We're colonials, we're provincials...that is the best thing about us! Football in the mud is great! We can always shower and come clean.

How about this for a change...let's all get some dirt beneath our fingernails...let's get back to having a healthy distrust for everyone who is always looking a little too clean...

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Naming "Grape Hill"

Grape Hill was the Edward Bates family home outside St. Louis. Judge Bates was a western pioneer who helped St. Louis grow from its roots as a frontier outpost to America's Gateway to the West. During the Civil War, Bates served the country as Attorney General in the Lincoln administration. When Bates moved to Washington, he did so out of his sense of duty to hs country but he hated every minute of being away from Grape Hill. He served well, ably and admirably, but never joined the Washington elite. His heart was with his family at Grape Hill.

Bates and his one wife had seventeen children together, eight of whom survived and lived to have many more children of their own. He loved nothing in life more than being at Grape Hill with his family. Even after marrying and having children of their own, the entire growing Bates family always considered Grape Hill as their primary home. I love that. I want that. I love this land. Hence, we happily adopted the name. It is an honest name for a western wheat farm with the lovely vineyard on the hill.

Our good friend, the architect Steve Cox, commented how it seems odd to him that so many places in wine settings the world over are designed like villas in Tuscany and have names like places in French romance novels. We really like Tuscan architecture and French romances, but Steve's comment hits home...we're good with our clean and straight-forward "agricultural architecture" and "Grape Hill".

What's funny is that "Grape Hill" always comes out of the mouth sounding like "Grape Pill" (it's that powerful "P"). Good medicine, I say.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Reviewing the Rental Reviews

We're very glad, so far, to occasionally be renting Grape Hill. Spreading the love is good, right! I'm always wishing I were there, but Sue and I are getting vicarious pleasure from others, too.

Seems like the recurrent themes are shock and release. It's not like we are hiding anything, but the whole idea of Grape Hill has been to keep the human impact honest to the farmland and minimal. The house is supposed to look like an ag building...we're glad we didn't go with the yurt. Anyhow, we always are hearing how people can't believe how "out there" it feels and how relaxing it is to just gaze. The simplicity brings out good feelings and unclogs pressure points for us, too.

Not certain just how many places there are in this world where we can feel so far away and be so close-by. Thank the Palouse...without these gorgeous hills we would be right in town.

One of these days I will figure out how to do more with technology and maybe do a videolog to send out to everyone who has stayed at Grape Hill. It will be fun to record the harvest and, eventually, show the next phases of construction. The "old barn" will be a great addition!

I was reading a lovely story in Smithsonian about Charles Johnson, our acclaimed local writer and teacher. Makes me think to search him out. It could be time to begin our "artists in residence" program. Since before the house was built, we have been wanting to invite over artists to stay for a bit, trading the joy of time on this land for some token of original art from which we can build our Grape Hill collection. Yep, I'm saying goodbye now to contact Professor Johnson and see about getting this next chapter underway...

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Cool Week...Heatwave & All

Dawn is my favorite time. With a huge white moon to the south, yesterday a rich red dawn rose up from the northeast, slowly spreading an orange glow across golden fields. Temperatures were already in the low 80's and the breeze felt like a velvet caress.

We spent lots of time on the chaise lounges during a wondrous week at Grape Hill. On Friday night, the moon glow across the just-harvested golden wheat made the vista look just like we were gazing toward the Sahara. Goodness, I can only imagine how Monet would paint that one view across time...the shifts in color are easily as dramatic as his haystacks.

On Sunday, the mercury hit 108 degrees. Hot, yes, but entirely dry and really charming in small doses. We certainly were glad for having built the house with double-thick walls, tons of insulation, and hearty air-conditioning. Between the ceiling fans and the insulation, the AC cooled everything to 72 degrees at only 1/3 output. (We could probably drop the interior into the 50's!) The magical warm nighttime breezes more than compensated for daytime highs. We were tempted to sleep outside, but then again we were also enjoying switching between channels to catch as many Olympic events as possible.

We have been developing the habit of impromptu exploration; who can resist turning down a road called Halley Gultch or Marvel Reach? I have determined to make a collage of these great road names. Sue is getting into photographing old barns and silos. We tease one another, but both pursuits are pretty neat. Since we are on a search for the perfect cupola, every new turn offers excitement. We are turning into people who others might easily make fun of, yet these jaw-dropping views are the real deal. Steve and Lisa came out for a very joyful two days and they were a little smitten, I think. Lisa has always wanted to have a home on the water. We could not possibly be more landed, yet she felt the ocean thing quite a bit while looking out over the expanses. One of our most fun times was a delightful meal on the terrace at The Whoopemup in Waitsburg. Great company, really good food, perfect views in every direction, and that amazing warm breeze!

Sue and I explored into the Blues by driving out Lewis Peak Road all the way south and east until we looped back along the ridges turning north to Waitsburg. These are real mountains! On some of the ridges we were able to look down across the Walla Walla Valley all the way to Touchet and Wallula and then turn our heads the other direction and look down steep slopes to deep green thickets a couple thousand feet below.

Another great outing took us to breakfast at the Oasis (Sue is a tough judge on biscuits and gravy...says it was outstanding). Neither one of us liked the stinky cigarette smells, but cut the place some slack, being that is it in Oregon (smoking inside remains legal) and it is seventy years old. We met the British owner, late of California, and he was great...loving his adventure in buying the old place two years ago and really proud of the food quality. They are sourcing local vegetables, carefully buying and handling all their own meats, and selling literally tons of their favorites, including the top prime rib in the Valley. I had the patty-melt. No joke, the sandwich was giant, the fries were perfect, and I ate every bit. Still hated the cigarettes, but the food was magic. Afterward, we visited local gardens for U-pick veggies and then drove out to the Seven Hills area to look over the vast vineyards. Very interesting to see that all the cab and syrah and merlot were deeply-colored. Far higher heat units in these vineyards, which will harvest weeks ahead of us. Sue pointed out, just today, our first cluster with one purple grape amidst the green.

I spent our final morning today working with Carlos to put up a new steel post where we will remount the radio dish for the broadband system that drives our internet and VOIP phones. As it turns out, the erratic on again-off again issues seem to be coming from interference off the metal building. So, we got out and set a pole into concrete, trenched out 60 feet and buried conduit, and now Columbia REA will be able to come back and use the line that I left in place through the conduit to pull through their cable. With a bit of good fortune, we will have a continuous uncorrupted signal!

During the week, we spent time with contractors to walk through the expansion plans. Now, it is up to them to bring the numbers in to make the addition a reality. Part of me will miss having things just as they are, but then again, there are some very cool surprises yet to come!

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Shortcuts to Shopping, etc.

Grape Hill is five miles north of Highway 12, just about due north of the airport. The speed limit is 50 MPH on Middle Waitsburg Road, so the run is quick. Takes seven minutes to get to Starbucks, which is right at the center of old Main Street.

The easiest, shortest way to get in to Albertson's and other local shops and restaurants, is to take Middle Waitsburg Road along the airport fence and then take the first left turn as the road banks to the right. This leads immediately to a Tee and you will want to bear to the right. Follow this street (turns into Wellington) as it goes beneath the freeway and then turn left as you pass Lumberman's. In two more blocks you'll see Wilbur and Albertson's will be on your right. Albertson's is open 24 hours and there is an ATM at the bank in the same location. The Blue is open late and is right across the street at the corner of Wilbur and Isaac.

The big boulevard beyond Albertson's is Isaac. Turning right on Isaac leads to Whitman College, to downtown and Starbucks. Turning left on Isaac leads to the Community College and to the airport.

Turning left coming out from Grape Hill, Middle Waitsburg Road runs north to Waitsburg. This is a lovely drive and there are some great spots in Waitsburg. (When winemakers are done for the day and hanging out, lots of the young ones show up at the brewery and at the jimgermanbar in Waitsburg. For architecture afficianados like me, Waitburg and Dayton have many great old homes and buildings to enjoy.)

When you come out from Grape Hill, you can also take Smith Road over to Sapolil and then out to the highway. This is the fastest route to Mill Creek, but have a map along unless meandering sounds like fun.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Favorite Restaurants & Wineries

This is tough...too many to cover and new places coming up all the time. But I'll try to be helpful so here goes: Breakfasts- Merchants has the tourist atmosphere and it can be fine, but I admire the straight forward efficiency and darned good food from Clarette's. Clarette's is my favorite for a really dependable American coffee shop breakfast. Luscious By Nature, on Colville, is entirely hit or can be excellent...service can be deplorably chaotic.

Lunches- Yungapeti on 9th just south of Poplar serves great authentic Mexican food to locals. The Albanil Burrito is outstanding. The taco truck outside the Napa Auto on Isaac is superb. Just off 9th, The Ice Burg is the place to go for great drive up burgers and killer shakes. The Destination Grill at the Depot, on 2nd, is doing good sit down lunch fare.

Here is a great way to go: lots of the wineries have outdoor eating areas...another superb way to make a day of it is to buy box lunches at Salumiere Cesario on 2nd, go by Colville St Pastisserie for desserts, then get a bottle of wine at the winery & borrow some glasses for a lovely picnic. Another perfect spot for picnics is going out to Bennington'll see the signs off Mill Creek Road.

Dinners- You would be nuts to leave Grape Hill on a lovely evening...better to stay put and enjoy Big Table at Sunset. If you do go out, get reservations ahead whenever possible. Whitehouse-Crawford has great food and a wonderful setting. It's easy to run up a big bill here, but corkage isn't bad if you bring along your own wine. I like eating at the bar, where Avel is good company and conversations with strangers are more common than not. Chef Jamie Guerin is so experienced and so conscientious that he seldom disappoints.

Walla Walla has big time wine lovers who tend to congregate at 26 Brix and Whitehouse-Crawford. You'll hear them yammering about trips to Burgundy and who they know in Napa or about the special dinner that so and so made for them at Le Cirque. What these guys would not know is how Walla Walla has been quite a wealthy town for generations. Many of the locals know a ton about great wines and have trained in Bordeaux or other famous areas.

It's much better not to get caught up in all that bragging because the guys all around might just know a ton more than one might expect. Tell you what, you'll find farmers in overalls with Harvard MBAs and one fella down at the cement yard makes some of the finest beer you'll ever find anywhere. My electrician owns part of a winery and I would not want to compete with him in any blind tasting to identify what we're drinking.

Back to restaurants- Creektown seems always busy and service tends to be pleasant but slower than I like. When I can ratchet down to a really leisurely pacing, the food is really good and the terrace is perfect for summer dining. With a big group and planning ahead, the chef's table at The Marc can be great fun. We have had good meals at 26 Brix, too. I love the Whoopemup Cafe in Waitsburg and the jimgermanbar across the street. Saffron does delightful tapas-size dishes that are great. Don't go in hungry or plan to order lots of dishes and pay a big bill. T. Maccarone is quite popular. I found the food too bland for my taste on the two occasions when I ate there, but this may be a flawed sampling. The ingredients and the service were very good and I want to give this another try.
Backstage Bistro used to be a favorite, but prices went really high so I'd be more inclined to go there for a still-expensive lunch. Good food, but the ambiance doesn't support prices on line with the best restaurants in the area.

Places that are perhaps less memorable but easier on the wallet include El Sombrero on 2nd (American-style Mexican food...good fajitas & margaritas), PhoSho (Vietnamese noodle bar) next door to Saffron (same owners), Destination Grill at The Depot, & Sweet Basel Pizza on 1st across from Starbucks. Good sandwiches and other fare at The Blue Mountain Casino...with a very friendly game of Texas Hold'Em and some other gaming tables like Blackjack & 3-Car Poker. This is a fun local spot that seldom sees outsiders...not at all on the Wine Tourism Map. Another fun local spot, at a bit of a drive, is The Oasis on Stateline. Food, music, an eclectic crowd often ready with tall tales.

Wineries are basically located in five different areas (with a few very good ones peppered around at longer distances).

Coming in on Highway 12, the first wineries are in Lowden. L'Ecole 41 produces a broad array of good to very good wines. Woodward Canyon is one of the first wineries to open in the area and retains a solid reputation. The cabs, in particular, can be excellent. Getting a little closer toward town you come to Reininger and Cougar Crest (lots of estate bottlings...some really bright, delightful wines) and Three Rivers (I'm a big fan of their Boushey syrah). Longshadows is about a mile up the road behind Cougar Crest...some very fine wines, but not open for tastings.

In town, more and more tasting rooms are showing up. Seven Hills & Spring Valley produce great wines and you'll discover many more as you go around. Sleight of Hand is getting quite popular...the wines that I have tasted have been light and pleasant, not significant. Trey, the winemaker, is using quite a bit of sangiovese. More and more sangio is coming on in Walla Walla and, for me, this is still a disconnect. Some would well argue that Walla Walla sangiovese is distinct and different from chianti's grapes, while I tend to find it watery and best suited for lightweight summer quaffing, but that is why we all have our own tongues and tastes and I should probably keep my tongue to myself, but this is my blog so what the heck! I have had some good wines at Morrison Lane, too. Cayuse makes excellent wines, but you will never find the tasting room open except on a couple specific days each year.

The airport is a hotbed of wineries. Dunham Cellars produces very good and great wines, including exceptional reserve cab and syrah. The cabs have proven to be amongst the most age worthy wines in Washington. Buty makes very good wines, including some of the few worthwhile Washington chardonnays and superb cab/syrah blends. Tamarack is popular and makes some of the best table reds. Syzygy also does good wines. Russell Creek sometimes hits very high notes, too. College Cellars, just south from the airport, is both a viticulture training college and an active winery, with wines made by students and faculty. Interesting and very worthy institution. We owe great thanks to the college for help in getting our own vineyard up and running.

Out toward Mill Creek, K Vintners is always a memorable visit (great syrahs and more), Walla Walla Vintners does many great bottlings including lovely cab francs, Abeja is doing lovely cabs and several other very nice bottlings (reservations needed, I think). We are partial to Grape Hill, of course, but if Grape Hill were unavailable and you wanted a great breakfast that somebody else was cooking, the rooms at Abeja would a fine place to stay.

South of downtown are Rulo, Isenhower, Dusted Valley, and Chateau Rollat (this is a serious winery offering a wonderful semillon and two great Bordeaux blends...Eduoard is extraordinary). Pepper Bridge does very fine wines, Northstar makes some delicious wines, there is Tertulia, Waters, Beresan, A Maurice, Va Piano...too many to list. Mostly in the smaller facilities you may get the chance to meet the winemakers...spontaneous tours of the barrel rooms, wine thief in hand, are not uncommon!

Covering the Airport and Mill Creek is plenty for a whole afternoon. Seeing the wineries south of town is another whole afternoon. Feel free to spit out the tastes (the pros all do so). When you don't swallow, your palate will last much longer. I used to sometimes come home with wines that tasted so good at the winery and wonder "what was I thinking?" when we opened them at home later on. By driving absolutely sober y
ou'll be better prepared to avoid the bad driving or others who did not use the spitting jar. BTW-don't leave your wine in a hot car for very long!

Plan ahead...limousines are available that are the perfect choice when you want to really have a big blowout. With advance notice, the limo drivers may be able to arrange tastings in some of the wineries that are closed to the public, plus they will keep your wine cool, too!

On weekends, there are some more distant wineries open that will take you further afield (literally). Dumas Cellars produces exceptional wines. Couvaison Cellars is a lovely drive up Middle Waitsburg Road, not too far from Grape Hill.

Most of the restaurants close by 9 or 10. Bars and taverns are open later. Some favorite spots are the Mill Creek Brew Pub on Main St near the Whitman campus, the Vintage Bar inside Marcus Whitman Hotel on 2nd (choice seats by the fireplace), and Vintage Cellars on 2nd.

OK. That's a start. will offer lots more, plus maps and phone numbers.
With just a couple days touring around, most visitors tend to stick with the areas right off Main Street and 2nd Ave, but places like The Blue, The Oasis, jimgermanbar, and Yungapeti offer up local slices of life and may well be filled with Walla Walla natives who only go in to the Starbucks and places on Main St once or twice a year themselves. If you do drive home at night, take it slowly...there are no lights and lots of deer. Enjoy the stars and solitude.

When it comes to the wineries, with so many new releases, new styles, and whole new places opening up, the scene is always in motion and it is impossible for wine lovers to ever fall into a "been there, done that" attitude here. We could go out tasting for a whole weekend several times each year and still not keep up. Between bicycle weekends and rodeo weekends and ballon weekends and concerts and winemaker outings and harvest activities, there are not too many times to be bored in these parts. Humm...maybe early November is a bit dull? (I'll think about that in November and report back...)

Monday, July 28, 2008

So what the hell do you do there?

I get this a lot, usually from friends who can't seem to relate to simply being without always doing. There always seem to be chores that I can get done, wineries we haven't seen, restaurants to try, movies...I don't think much about them and don't much care. Sometimes I'll watch a car driving down Valley Grove. One car, two miles away, can be interesting. Not that I want to go microscopic and examine all things small, but a beetle walking across the porch can be really cool to watch. Sometimes I'll get out the telescope to look over a combine working a field five miles out, or I'll watch the wind on the wheat and the hawks sailing on that wind.

I like hearing through silence. This is a lot like building night vision...adjusting the eye until outlines show out, movements and shadows become distinct and seeing through the darkness feels precise and special. At first, I sit out and hear nothing. And nothing is good all by itself. Soothing and gentle. But then I hear bird sounds, in general, bird sounds that become the noise that the black bird over there is making, or the dove on the fence post, or the even the wind blown flutter from the back feathers on a kestrel's wing as it banks while scanning for field mice.
Sometimes I hear the motor from that one distant car and sometimes I hear the staccato noise from a moth bumping at the window glass. These things make me want to say hello to old friends, make me appreciate the convenience of email and long for the elegance of a handwritten letter.

I think of menus I want to cook and get excited about the possibilities...all the flavors in a rainbow. I hear the crunch of tires on the driveway and try to make out whose truck that is, way before I can see much more than shape and color. I have so much on my mind and now somebody is coming to interrupt...but that's fine, too.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

It's about the Land

The land is everything. It takes all of ten seconds here to understand that building a palatial mansion here would be like going to the opera and bringing along a Gameboy. When it is this good, leave it alone!

The structure is really engaging to me on an individual level; I love unique and thoughtful homes. Designing the house as a compliment to the land is a real pleasure, but the intent is always to celebrate the land and to keep my imprint entirely subordinate to the land. I feel a deeper connection to the land than to any impact I will ever have upon it. Grape Hill is about the topography; 360 degree views of unique land forms stretching out for many miles.

The fertility here is meant to produce crops. Farming gives us purpose upon this land. There is form and function in our soil, in the rain and sun and wind. This is elemental. Moreover, the land came before the society that we have built in this country and even if someday everything else goes to hell in a hand basket, the land will remain. If we need to plant our own food crops and raise beef or sheep or chickens, we can do that and not be too much the worse for wear.

Our Little Vineyard is planted on SW-facing 25 degree slope at 1250 feet above sea level. Rainfall averages 14 inches per year. The rich loess soil runs sixty feet deep before there is a grain of rock. Drainage is sufficient, while water retention is naturally balanced to support root development. With due respect to the wonderous rock rangers who swear by the qualities found in tough riverbed soils, the physical properties found at Grape Hill are a viticulturists' dreamland. Excited winemakers who know little about the demands of growing grapes always urge me to plant out dozens of acres. For now, I know just enough to be certain that disaster will follow anyone who plants a big vineyard without a full time commitment. The learning process has a long way to go before any decisions are made...

Last night, we enjoyed one of the unoaked blends from last year's "post-birds" crop. It is settling down a little just three hours on air before drinking. This is quite a lovely wine, with velvety tannins, plum and cherry notes, just a touch of chocolate. I got a minor hint of carbolic on this bottle...a faint fizz on the tip of my tongue. Will look for that on the next one. Why aren't more American vintners willing to waive off the wood from quality reds? There is certainly a place for these well-crafted summer drinks. Heck, all over Bordeaux this is precisely the sort of wine that goes with the season. You don't see anyone in Bordeaux opening first growths or even fifth growths at a summer table, not unless there are foreign buyers seated there. Perhaps I will always prefer the liberation of making wine with no commercial intent? The freedom to control production from the vineyard to the bottle is so joyful in itself.

We will be making something like fifty cases of red blends this year. My hope is to focus on two bottlings, The Twins, meant to be enoyed side-by-side. The first will be cab-dominant with 20% to 30% syrah. The next will be syrah-dominant with 20% to 30% cab. We will likely make another unoaked field blend including cab franc and merlot for immediate enjoyment.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A short delightful stay

Just spent three lovely days at Grape Hill, me and Sligo, who would certainly vote for being a full-time Walla Walla dog. Between visiting with his buddies, Buck and Reese, riding in the truck, and running the fields, life is good.

We went twice in to town together, which was a first. I brought a pocket filled with dog treats to coax his most polite behavior. He is now a definite star at Starbuck's, where he gets to sniff lots of other dogs and gets petted by most everybody. Lots of discussion over his block head, that English Lab thing...

I picked up the netting for the vineyard, made plans to start at 5:30 AM with Carlos and his crew, then nobody showed. Maybe I have advanced somewhat, since this hasn't bothered me. My expectations have changed and, more and more, I go with the flow on Walla Walla time. It will get done. This year, the birds can eat elsewhere.

Arnie Grassi and I have worked out the challenges for ductwork through the upcoming addition. According to Arnie, I am not alone in leaving HVAC as an addendum rather than integrating airflow design from the start. That makes me feel a bit better. I will raise the skybridge by two feet and tweak the elevation for the peak. My cupola will house a thermostatically-controlled exhaust vent that should drop cooling costs quite a bit.

Ricky came out with my drawings and it rapidly became clear that these are too unusual to be easily understood on paper. We walked the future spaces and he came to understand the intentions. A little discussion about Gaudi, some chatting about fun with structure and purposeful inefficiencies, and he got it. Structures can be artful and whimsical, particularly when we cast off the oppression of resale considerations. I love that taupe and beige need not apply!

Went to Yungapeti for their killer albanil burrito that Jay turned me onto. Must restrain myself from eating these daily! Lots of friendly argument over the La Monarca truck at the Napa Auto on Isaac versus Yungapeti. Rumor has it that the owners are brothers, which makes the competition still more fun. If either place served an ice-cold Corona, the world would be just too perfect!

On Saturday morning I went by the salami and cheese shop on 2nd and came out with a demi-baguette and a nice mound of salumia salami. Went home and sat out on the patio with my sandwich and an ice-cold beer. 90 degree weather, but the breeze was perfect (night and day the entire stay) and absolute comfort. A big dust-devil whirred in the distance, prompting me to wonder what is the difference between these and tornadoes? A big deer jumped up from the grass pretty close to me and ripped away across the fields. That sandwich was something else...with the cold Pacifico it was perfection!

Friday night I went over to the Blue Mountain Casino (five minutes from Grape Hill). We had a friendly, funny, very loose game of Texas Hold 'Em. Short of playing with my buddies, this may have been the most amusing poker table I can remember. I was playing tight and careful while all around me the other players were bluffing and running up the betting on draws...wild game. Finally, I just decided that discipline be damned (4-8 game so not easy to really get hurt). Things got to be as much fun for me as for the others and I went back and forth, from $40 down to $60 up. Great time! And when I hit four aces for a $380 jackpot, the night was mine.

Thanks to my weak back of late, the drive to and from Bellevue has to be broken up with hourly stops. I stopped at Kestrel on the way out and ended up having a great time hanging out with Dirk, the assistant winemaker from Cape Town. Did not swallow, since I was driving, but we spent an hour tasting both bottles and barrels. Really liked their co-fermented syrah with 7% viognier, their 100% cab franc (in barrel) and their "2-Ton" cab. Good stuff! The skill and enthusiasm was right on! Sue would have loved it, not the least that Dirk is both a very nice guy and great eye candy for the girls.

After the deer incident on my last trip over, I mounted the new deer whistles. The effort took all of two minutes. On my way back to Bellevue, I gave a hitchhiker a ride from Benton City in to Bellevue. Nice kid, Tom, a part-time baker at Tall Grass in Ballard and former ballet dancer. Talked a lot about his hitchhiking adventures to Guatemala and his recent stay in London with his English girlfriend. As we were climbing the east slope to Snoqualmie Pass, Tom yelled "deer" as a big doe rushed toward the side of my truck and then stopped before hitting us. (Deer whistle working already????) He turned and I watched in the rear-view as that deer played dodgeball with the traffic and actually survived crossing the freeway. Hooray for the deer!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Decisions Decisions

An entirely open, virgin pallet leads to lots more questions than to answers. Do we build in the valleys out of the wind or atop the hills trading frequent batterings for lush views? Do we bring in a mobile home for a few years and then build something later? How about building a small shack? A yurt, maybe? Would we build a Northwest Lodge? A Victorian?

Long before building the house, we needed to bring in power and drill a well. Getting off the grid sounded very appealing, so we explored wind turbines. Not good. I did not want to hear that noise pollution nor climb up to lube the damned thing every six months and replace batteries every five years. I appreciate wind energy, but becoming my own power company had little appeal. So we called Columbia REA. They came out and offered estimates for bringing in power from the road...a 2/3 mile run. Overhead power would mean less expense, but looking at power poles. Underground would run another six thousand dollars. Underground it was...except the price leaped another $9,000 higher after a whoops by their estimator. We now have a five-inch thick power cable running four feet underground along the eastern edge of Grape Hill. We could probably run enough juice to supply a small township. Put in a 400 amp system...for the future, just in case we do anything ambitious.

For the well, we called out Mike Harding. Mike stood on the site and pointed to all the wells he had dug around the region..."got in one just over that hill there...good water at 245 feet". I got a call from Mike saying that he would like to bring out his friend to witch for water before he set up his rig. (I still owe his friend a steak dinner at The Homestead.) I told Mike that it was fine with me and Mike said that he couldn't figure it out but that he had seen his friend in action too many times to doubt him. I decided to run an eight inch bore rather than a six inch so that we could have more capacity and even go deeper later if we ever need to do so. At 305 feet, Mike hit 35 gallons per minute in the basalt aquifer. Our water has been draining down from Montana since before humans walked the face of North America. Good water. Really good. I can't get over how Sue wants to buy bottled water since the water dispenser on the fridge has a little light showing we should replace the filter. I love this abundant water that Mike's friend witched!

Water is perhaps the most important element of all in farming country. We have lots of it, and lots of questions about how much of it we can use. We have excellent vineyard sites across five dozen of our acres, but even if we had the desire to enter into the wine grapes business, we would need to figure out our water. This is a whole separate discussion.

With power and water and the vineyard in place, the next thing we did was interview architects. Architects come in many shapes and sizes. There are artists who want to make their visions. There are the guys who listen to what you say, offer no input, and give you precisely what you deserve...usually a mess. We chose a level-headed guy who was supposed to understand our budget constraints and to work accordingly. Nice guy. He produced this banal structure that would have lived badly and had this awkward city deck stuck onto the back of the house. Some of the issues were my fault, no doubt, but I paid him his five grand and gave the plans to three of the good builders in the area to get their estimates. These guys spent a lot of time preparing the estimates and, to this day, I am embarrassed by the result. The architect produced a place that ran 250% of our top budget...all three builders were really close on estimates. In retrospect, that error saved us from producing a place that we would never have loved.

Hitting the financial sweet spot helped to narrow the field. We went with our version of a VW Pop-Top, our beloved pre-kids ride! Made it look on the outside like an agricultural building, all reflective galvalume metal siding to keep down energy costs and thick-walled post construction to allow for lots of insulation and wide open tall spaces. We would build a section now, pre-frame and wire and duct for expansion, and keep the farm looking as original as possible. I got to drawing, walking the spaces, drawing more, and the next year spent way too many nights at La Quinta Inn on 2nd Avenue to oversee the emerging structure. Nothing would come easily, but then so it goes when a place is one of a kind...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Why Walla Walla?

So there is some sanity to the decision to buy a farm four hours from home near a small city near the borders of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Not much sanity, but some. We weren't thinking about the explosion of wineries and restaurants. It was always about the land. But Walla Walla itself was always a key component in the blend. Good hospitals. Three universities. Beautiful old homes and amazing specimen trees. A town quite a bit older than Seattle, actually, with deep roots going back to Lewis and Clark.

Not being farmers, we didn't originally understand the value of the soil. The views, the open spaces, the amazing privacy just five minutes from a good supermarket...nothing hard to understand about that. Open to the world, but not lost in the crowd. That sums it up!

I used to hang around with the old farmers in Greece, fishermen too, and feel a calm coming from them. Many of these men had left Samos for Australia or to work on merchant ships and cruise ships for years upon years, just so that they could afford to come home and never leave again. Sure, they might visit cousins in Melbourne or in the Bronx, but they always knew where they were home. Some of them used the spigot at my house to run their water lines to their tomatoes and apricots and courgettes. After I did some work for them, word got around about Mikalis at Pirgalakis and how he did the work of five men. I liked that about myself and I liked the way they would come around in the morning to fetch me for more jobs or how they came by in the evening for a glass of ouzo. I worked for Eftiki one week, picking his grapes. He spread rough sheets on the ground and would make three piles. The biggest pile was for the Cooperative that would crush his grapes into vats with other juice from other growers. The second, much smaller pile was for his friends...bigger, better bunches. The last pile was very small. These were the choicest bunches meant just for his family. On the last day of picking, Eftiki gave me that last choice pile to take home for myself.

It takes years of forethought to plan and grow a vineyard. What will grow well in each area. What is the right balance of sun and canopy. Knowing the right spacing of the vines, when to water, when not to water. How to prune and when to train to the next wire. Getting good dryland wheat means thought and study, understanding moisture levels, fertilizers, and herbicides, too. Managing the land and the crop.

It is humbling to come from the big city to Walla Walla. In the city, I know my way. In Walla Walla, I need to listen and to learn. There is so much to learn...I am constantly making mistakes that no farmboy of twelve would ever make. But the rewards are huge, and I have the time and space to enjoy the moments as they come.

First seeing the beautiful exposures sloping to the south, I thought "how nice a vineyard would look here". My hunch was that the ground and area could be great for grapes, but what did I know? My one real vineyard experience, taking care of the muscat plantings at Pirgalaki on Samos, had rooted a love for vines, yet that was a far cry from taking raw land and making a vineyard. Grape Hill was CRP land when we bought it and much of the farm remains in CRP. (We actually had to pay significant money to withdraw the vineyard and house from the government contract we inherited with the purchase.)
The Little Vineyard owes much to Stan Clark, who was the dynamo leader of Walla Walla's Viticulture Institute and who became a great friend to us. Stan came out in 2003, looked over the area, and shouted "Sure, let's put in a vineyard" and off we went to make it happen! (Stan died suddenly last year. He is sorely missed for his great energy, his knowledge, his infectious enthusiasm.)

We drove to Benton City to pick up the vines from Tom Judkins, drove to Sunnyside to pick up the end posts and stakes (very nearly wrecking the truck...who knew that 120 rods of steel would weigh that much?), and Stan dove in with his classes to stake and plant the rows. Alan Wernsing came in soon after to build the eight-foot high deer fence all around the vineyard.

The deer fence was just the first of many lessons about critters and grapevines. Gophers love the new roots and took out half the cab franc and merlot. Battling gophers means a constant fence will keep out these guys. Hooray for our beautiful raptors...hawks most days and owls at night. Other birds are not so welcome. We learned the hard way how quickly a flock of birds will strip the fruit off the vines just about a day before we would be picking ourselves.

There is constant learning. I had no idea that planting a vineyard would mean that the neighbors can no longer use aerial crop spraying for a mile around. Asparagus apparently works as a barrier to gophers. Sound devices don't stop any critters, and hungry birds seem to look for mylar reflectors from 1000 feet up to zone right in on our fruit.

We put our first wine into bottle this May...a very funny learn-as-you-go experience in the kitchen at our Bellevue house. We learned how to use the siphon pump and the corking stand without too many spills. The shrink-wrap bottle-top foils are really cool. No, we haven't got a name for the wine, much less any idea where we will store the hundreds of bottles we will be making this coming year. But I had my first great wine success with a lots of thanks to Stephanie Briggs. We did that first bottling from a carboy of cab, syrah, and a little petit verdot...unoaked for early summer drinking. They do this all the time in Bordeaux...making less serious wines from quality grapes, showing them no wood at all, and drinking them "fresh" or slightly chilled all summer long. That first bottling is pretty terrific, if I do say so! We have to leave it decanted on air for about three hours ahead of drinking and then the young powerhouse softens into a full-bodied big strong smiling farmboy!

How we got here.

Last month, Sue and I walked through the tiny pioneer graveyard at the corner of Smith Road and Middle Waitsburg Road, just a short walk from the gate to Grape Hill. The wheatland had just been tilled and our shoes quickly filled with the powdery rich loess soil of our area. During the last 140 years, soil loss has left the graveyard raised about three feet above the land around the graveyard that our neighbors work. I have been meaning to ask our friend and neighbor, Jay, if the grave bearing Simon D is the resting place of one of his family members.

We learned a lot from walking the grave stones. First, we realized that there are others who still care for the site. Stones had been righted and cleaned. Area families bear these same names. There was, perhaps, a small hamlet near this spot at one time, when getting in to Walla Walla likely meant two hours each way by horseback.

Too many young mothers died in childbirth, many along with their children. Two teenage siblings died within one week, most probably victims of measles or influenza. Some, men mostly, lived long lives. They worked the soil, raised their families, died and were buried in this soft loess.