One Bottle of Wine
When I went off script last fall in our Rangeland newsletter and told stories that go beyond our current winemaking and ranching operations, I was encouraged by a few customers to do more. This is gratifying to me, because I am an unfulfilled writer. When I bought our ranch in 2000, after 20 years of grinding start-up businesses experience, I was a burn-out. I was planning to come down here to Paso Robles from the Bay Area to get away from management, work outdoors, farm a little and write a little. As it turned out, I farmed a lot, started new businesses and wrote very little. I am, by temperament, a doer. I call this my constructive avoidance of art. Nevertheless, having reached the ripe age of 60, I am going to try to write a little. So, with that short prelude, what follows is a true story. Although this is a tale of bourgie (pronounced boo-gee) excess, there is also an element of timeless aspiration and serendipity--the full significance of which only recently dawned on me.
One Bottle of Wine
In the fall of 1996, my wife Lisa and I planned a short getaway from our 3 young children and daily cares, which included operating a small internet startup that, at the time, was losing millions of my investors’ dollars. We set a high goal, to climb Mt. Dana (elevation: 13,061 ft.), near Tioga Pass in Yosemite National Park.
On the appointed date, we parked the kids with my sister, who was the ultimate auntie babysitter, rest her soul. With only one night to escape, we had an aggressive plan that would take us from sea level to the crest of the Sierra and on to a special dinner at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley, all in twelve hours. We had, at that time, a little A-frame cabin in the Tuolumne County foothills not far from Yosemite. We purchased that cabin in the 1980s because we couldn’t afford a Bay Area home. The price, including the lot next door (this will take you fellow boomers back and make the millennials weep) was $60,000. The cabin was situated in a modest little resort community called Pine Mountain Lake, which also included an airstrip. I owned a small, single engine airplane (Beechcraft A36), so we hustled to the San Carlos airport and set off for the Sierras. Flight time: approximately 1 hour.
It’s hard to describe the exhilarating sense of escape and adventure that we felt when winging out of the Bay, over the golden hills on our getaways. I loved the rippled topology of the California hills and the geometric green weave of farms in the Central Valley as we headed for the high country. A few years later, I used that airplane to visit Paso Robles, eventually obtaining landing rights at the MacGillivray Ranch airstrip, which is now the home to Halter Ranch. At the time I started flying, older airplanes were affordable. I bought my first airplane (a sturdy Cessna Skylark 175, vintage 1960) for $10,000--which was totaled on my first flight by the previous owner “showing me how to do it.” Lisa and I were in the plane at the time. No one was hurt. But that’s another story, which I promise to tell one day.
When we arrived at Pine Mountain Lake, we put our light gear and dinner clothes in an old beater Subaru wagon we kept there. That was before the “Subaru is for lesbos” stigma. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. :) We headed for Yosemite. Funny-tragic side story about airport cars: an earlier version of our airport jalopy was an ancient Honda Civic. We had trouble keeping the battery charged during long absences. Once, after arriving, getting a jump start and driving to our cabin, I left the car running to charge the battery. Wanting to boost the charge rate, I put a rock on the accelerator, left it running high and went in to change a diaper or something. When I looked out the window some minutes later there was a cloud of smoke rising from the engine. I hustled to inspect the damage. The distributor and most of the other plastic components had entirely melted onto the engine. Apparently, it had over-heated and I learned a valuable mechanical lesson. The battery was well charged but the car was totaled. Idiota! But I digress.
Back to the adventure. We drove an hour to the Park and turned left for Tioga Pass, which was still clear of snow. We reached Tuolumne Meadows around midday on a gloriously clear and warm fall day. The Mt. Dana trail requires no feats of mountaineering. You basically just hike a steep roadside trail from 10,000 ft up to the 13,000 peak in just 3 miles. It offers a big reward for such a short hike—if you can get enough oxygen. Having started at sea level that morning, getting enough oxygen turned out to be a challenge for our thirty-something lungs. So, we crept up the mountain, with frequent rests. Our struggles were overseen by bemused marmots, basking and smiling in the sun. Eventually we reached the top to soak in the view (see panorama) while gasping, both literally and figuratively, at the scene.
The Sierra is formed by the crushing forces of the Pacific Plate jamming into North America, subducting downward into the hot earthly mantle and literally bubbling up as a molten granite batholith (check this out), into this great snow-catching mountain range. Remnant glaciers, granite spires and sheared domes pock the view to the south, towards Mt. Whitney. The well-wooded, gradual western slope climbs for 60 miles and more from the Great Central Valley to these peaks, before steeply dropping more than 6,000 feet into the Great Basin in the next few miles. You are sandwiched by Greatness.
The crest of the Sierra Nevada is a sublimely barren and striking place. Natural history unfolds before you in all its bizarre grandeur. Looking eastward, the lunar beauty of Mono Lake and its companion cinder cones lie at the foot of the range. The volcanic living history of the place is highlighted by names like Pumice Valley, Crater Mountain, Obsidian Dome and The Devils Punchbowl. The landscape is dotted with coulees, fumaroles, tuff rings, rhyolite domes, lava plugs and other geologic bric a brac that confirm Mother Nature’s majesty and still youthful menace. The Mono Craters are likely the youngest volcanic mountain range in North America, having formed as recently as 600 years ago.
Boundary Peak (13,146 ft. elevation), the highest point in Nevada, seems right across the valley but is 40 miles distant. Wave after wave of scattered but parallel mountains extend eastward across the desert, and eventually lapping at the feet of the Wasatch, 400 miles away on the far shore of the Basin. The signs of geologic decay also surround you, with shards of rock and great rivers of graveled talus skirting the time-worn peaks, abraded by ice and wind. Are the mountains still rising? Are they decaying? Both. And of what fleeting significance are we and our children in this great physical drama?
Did I say the western Sierra slope was well-wooded? Looking westward from Mt. Dana, the forest begins in the alluvium of Tuolumne Meadows, wrapping the feet of the peaks and collaring the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River around John Muir’s beloved Hetch Hetchy. Eventually this great green carpet of trees emerges from the bare mountains and steep canyons, spreading wide to cover the entire western front of the Sierra, from Tehachapi to Lassen. The terrain is well drained, mostly granitic gravel, mineral rich, southwest facing to catch both abundant sunshine and the precipitation sweeping eastward from largest ocean on the planet. The Sierra is a natural plantation, California’s true gem and one of the great forests of the earth. Trees tower up to 200 feet and are sometimes 10 feet across—not including sequoia gigantea. Ponderosa Pine, sugar pine, white pine, lodgepole, incense cedars, firs and several oak species extend north and south across this slope for 400 contiguous miles. If you are ever really stuck, you should seek these hills and take a walk, remembering Muir, who said “between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.”
Back on Mt. Dana, the day is getting late and we have a dinner reservation to get to. We are so hungry, having completely consumed our pitiful ration of gorp, jerky and water, that we don’t even consider missing it. Images of sizzling steaks and buttery potatoes swim in our oxygen-starved imaginations. So down the mountain we go on wobbly knees. We look at our watches anxiously and try to calculate our valley ETA, an hour and a half of driving time away. Racing down Tioga Road, we regret the chance to loiter over the view at Olmstead Point, rest on the warm granite at Tenaya Lake or, better yet, hike out to North Dome (our favorite) and stand before the towering face of Half Dome. But we only have one day and dinner beckons, so we wind our way quietly downward and leftward to the Yosemite Valley.
Arriving at the valley, we drive between the stupendous cliffs and towers that define the sacred space. As our anticipation, hunger and fatigue rise, the scene mesmerizes us: the wending Merced River, sere meadows, soaring pines and impossibly higher cliffs swim in the golden fall light. It is off season, but the vehicles and low bustle of the parking lots is a little jarring after only seeing one other hiker on the mountain.
The Ahwahnee, as the reader may know, is an old school national park hotel, a masterpiece of “parkitecture” style. In the 1990s, it still required men to don a jacket. So I slip out of the car, tug on some khakis over my mountain-begrimed (don’t ask) tight-whites, right der in the parkin lot. I put on the white oxford button down and slip into my trusty old blue blazer, the one with the gold, vaguely nautical buttons. Ah tradition. Now, imagine, at the same time, Lisa stripping in the confines of the Subaru. Off come her pink, overall (hiking ?) shorts (for reals, see photos), sans knickers (for reals, no photos!) and tugging on a dress over her dried sweat and dust caked body. Far from being a gentleman, I was rivetted. What a woman. What a wife! Anyway, on with the story.
The Ahwahnee dining room is grandly large (seats 350) but seemingly organic in design, befitting the surroundings. Mortared stone columns rise to support an open beamed, peaked trestle ceiling more than 30 feet high. The most memorable features of the room are the sugar pine posts, each consisting of a fine tree trunk, naturally stained, about two feet in diameter with barely any taper as they rise all the way to the eaves. You feel as if you may be sitting in a great hall of Tolkien’s imagining, hosted by the kings of men or elves or some such. But this is California, pure California.
Moving on to the dinner, there is a sharp squawk, as the needle scratches our recording and we are forced to consider the cuisine of the Ahwahnee. Having traveled far, ascended the mountains, sped to the valley and donned our best in the parking lot, we are now fucking famished. Nevertheless, I remember almost nothing of the dinner, except the beverage. This may be for the best. For any of you who have ever had a national park concession hamburger that tastes like canned dog food, no explanation is required. I vaguely recollect that dinner included some quite cold, but colorful and quite tasteless mixed vegetables, verily like those from a can. It may have been what they called “succotash” in the twentieth century. I won’t even mention norovirus and current events.
In any case, we were there to celebrate, um, life. So, there must have been some rich, seared meat and it may have been warm. NEVER ORDER FISH IN NATIONAL PARK RESTAURANT. EVER. This sets us up for the beverage, which was to be wine, red wine of course, to pair with our possibly warm but certainly overcooked steak. Yes, I confess it was grain-fed, industrial beef for sure because I hadn’t invented grass-fed beef yet. :)
As I eyed Lisa lecherously (a kind of love) through the dim, mock-candlelight of the great hall, I held in my hands the WINE LIST which, although written in English, was mostly Greek to me. We liked wine but were not aficionados by any means. Because it was an Occasion, my eye wandered down the list into the big leagues, where the prices grow in proportion to the name and the grandiosity of the tasting notes. I was way, way out of my depth but I pressed on, almost without hope of a making a sound choice. Then a couple of words caught my eye and resonated with meaning for me: Ridge Monte Bello. Monte Bello Ridge is a spur of the Santa Cruz Mountains. It is a high, broadly rounded hill that overlooks Cupertino and the entire South Bay Area. There is parkland and open space behind the ridge in the Stevens Creek drainage. As a kid, I had hiked that area with my brother, discovering salamanders, banana slugs and crawdads in the steep, laurel-shaded canyon. You could ride your bike from Palo Alto right up Page Mill Road past the world headquarters of Hewlett Packard and the Stanford Hills, past Foothill Park (a ranch donated to Palo Alto to become a city park that my family visited frequently when I was growing up) up to the Montebello area. I once hiked the ridge itself to the fence line to look through the fence at the vineyards and winery buildings.
Although I knew very little about it at that time, Ridge Vineyards was a fixture in the constellation of great California wineries and that reputation persists to this day. They are famous for cabernets made in a sustainable, natural, terroir-sensitive style and aged in American oak. I did not know it at the time, but Ridge Monte Bello was one of the California cabs that placed highly in a blind tasting in 1976, famously known as the Judgement of Paris (Good book: Judgement of Paris, by George Taber). I knew Ridge for their single vineyard zinfandels, including a Paso Robles, Dusi Ranch zin that they have been making for 50 years. Dusi Ranch Zin was our favorite at the time. So, I chose Ridge Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon, the most expensive wine I had ever ordered, based on my affinity for the place, the reputation and our familiarity with the brand. I do not recall the vintage and I wish I could remember the price. In any case, the memory is priceless.
Well, suffice to say that the meal, whatever the quality, was consumed with relish and the wine hit us like a giant slab of Yosemite granite, exfoliated from those majestic cliffs. I remember that the wine was not so fruity as their Zin but expressed layers of oaky and herbaceous complexity that kept emerging as we sipped. I was in awe of the whole situation: the wine, the room and the events of the day, but profoundly tired. Our heads were bobbing with exertion from our madcap, slightly silly day of overachievement. So, we retired from the dining room at dusk with our unfinished bottle.
Outside, the evening was Indian Summer calm and warm, although the temperature was dropping as the cool air drained from the spectacular high country around us. We began to revive a little in wonderment at the scene. We moseyed down to the riverside in the gloaming, hand in hand, to take in the view. We stopped on the bridge and listened to the water slip quietly downstream. Then we established ourselves on a beach of the Merced River (river of mercy, indeed), which was low and slow for the season. As we sat and hugged and sipped the remainder of our very fine wine directly from the bottle, the north canyon wall above the hotel began to illuminate. This interrupted our glugging and intimate groping for the moment. We stared in awe as the curtain of light began to steadily descend the wall and to reflect into the valley. Soon it began to cast shadows from the trees and the bridge and the landscape. It occurred to us to look over our shoulders for the source of the light. What we saw caused us to stand up with our mouths open, in a state of pure wonderment. The moon, of course, nearly full (waning gibbous by 1 day), was emerging from the living rock, rising directly over Half Dome.
Did you know that when the moon is full it rises just at sunset and sets at sunrise? I myself only learned that in the last year, but it is wonderfully satisfying and symmetrical natural fact. It had to be known to the native humans who lived in Yosemite successfully for 10,000 years before us, who stood in awe and danced and hunted and cooked in that sublime canyon for what must have seemed like all time.
Before long Yosemite Valley was entirely bathed in moonlight, and the deer walked out to browse in the meadows, under the arching oaks. It was so quiet you could hear the deer hooves crackle the twigs as they emerged from the forest, into the bright night.
We were done for the day in every possible way. We walked back to the car and made the long drive to our cabin, not speaking except to keep each other alert. I had forgotten these events until recently, when I was talking with a Rangeland customer about full moons. Lisa and I have noticed that our wines often taste more vivid, fruity and supple on full moons. We’ll sometimes comment to each other about how expressive they are, next level. We’ve learned to say, oh yah, full moon! I’m looking forward to hosting some tastings and dinners on full moons to see if this tendency holds up under collective scrutiny. Should be fun.
On that fall day in 1996 we were in the moment. We didn’t have a crystal ball to foresee that our struggling internet startup would succeed modestly and make our investors some money. Or that it would provide us some resources to buy a ranch and start a new stage of life in Paso Robles. I want to be careful about drawing too heroic or predestined a picture about what happened for us that day in Yosemite and in the years since. Ranch life for us has not been easy, more like touch and go for 20 years. We are not killing it. Like our life before the ranch, we have spent most of the time failing on our way to occasional success.
Nevertheless, this story has a point, even a moral. That day on a mountain top in Yosemite, that one bottle of Ridge Cabernet in the Valley, they were not an epiphany for Lisa and me. But they were very special. Maybe even a subconscious tipping point towards fine wine and a life spent—at least partially—working out of doors. What better tipping point than the crest of the Sierra Nevada, the Range of Light? That day, that one bottle, they are emblematic of an approach to life that I highly recommend. Put yourself out there. Stay in the moment, when it is offered. Go for it and keep going for it.
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