Trip report: Spring serenity at Briones Regional Park

From Briones Peak, a view to the north of cattle ponds and Carquinez Straits.

From Briones Peak, a view to the north
of cattle ponds and Carquinez Straits.

The day after a snowstorm, folks who ski tend to reference sunny, clear-blue skies as evidence of a bluebird day. If I can extend that term to include my hiking adventures, then I’ve recently enjoyed two bluebird days – one at Big Basin Redwoods back on February 24th, and the other this past Sunday at Briones Regional Park.

Quite fortuitously, each of these hikes had occasion to occur two days after moderate seasonal rainfall late in the week, each rain quickly giving way to clear weather and allowing adequate drainage and drying of the trail surface. By the time I’d arrived at their trailheads, the soils at each park had yielded a near-perfect tack, comfortable underfoot and presenting only minor incidence of loose footing in the shadowed low spots.

Red Maids (Calandrinia ciliata) were a common sight on the sunny saddle between Briones and Mott peaks.

Red Maids, Calandrinia ciliata, were a common sight on the sunny saddle between Briones and Mott peaks.

It had been another in a series of long weeks at work, and I first had to get past the frustrations of deciphering dense Engineerese and an all-too-tall pile of workload. A good night’s sleep and a few miles of road between my Sunnyvale home and the hills of Orinda seemed to carve away the vestiges of these vexations, but once I stepped out of my truck at Briones Park’s Bear Creek Trailhead, breathed the cool green hills, laced my boots and embraced a friend, all care quickly melted into a serene pace and welcome chatter.

Within a few steps, my week had suddenly and gratefully distilled into a decoction of carpe the damn bluebird diem.

We strode out on a counterclockwise loop, Angela and I, first walking a trail east along Bear Creek before angling right along Homestead Valley Trail. We encountered the softest earth along these lower flats which, though pocked with cow sign, were easily navigable, yet too laden with moisture to support wildflower displays. After perhaps a mile, our route took us left onto Briones Crest Trail and into hills rampant with coast live oak, yet studded here and there with madrone, bay laurel and, as we climbed higher to a junction with Table Top Trail, a scattering of surprisingly tall, quickly-growing buttercups.

Mt. Diablo glows in the morning haze.

Mt. Diablo glows in the morning haze.

Eventually we emerged from the trees onto an open ridge below Briones Peak and enjoyed our first glimpse of the surrounding countryside. Mt. Diablo shimmered beyond us to the east above the town of Walnut Creek, its twin peaks prominent on the morning skyline; to the west, we could easily recognize the unmistakable contours of Mt. Tamalpais.

We sauntered on, gaining Briones Peak, then continued northwest, following the crest of the ridge toward Mott Peak. The land undulated away to the north below us, offering a dazzling view of the Carquinez Straits, the Mayacamas Ridge in Sonoma County beyond and, just below us, the twin Sindicich lagoons.

Up until now we had generally followed the main trails, which had in large part been wide ranch road. But having seen that the trail we were on skirted the high point of the park, Mott Peak, I eschewed pretense and instead decided to follow a fenceline cow trail directly upslope to its summit. Mild protestations from Angela elicited a brief discussion of rhythmic breathing technique and, before we were scarcely aware of it, we were communing with the meadowlarks and ravens atop the peak, and hungrily unwrapping our sandwiches.

The Herrick Red from Conn Creek Winery: well-structured, fruit-forward, and absolutely delicious.

The Herrick Red from Conn Creek Winery: well-structured, fruit-forward, and absolutely delicious.

At 1,424 feet, the view from Mott Peak is nothing if not commanding, and so we sat and gazed awhile at the splendor surrounding us, gratefully chowing down and occasionally commanding sips from a bottle of Herrick Red from Conn Creek Winery, a classic yet affordable Bordeaux-style wine sourced and blended from Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes grown in Napa Valley’s Rutherford district.

On such a comfortable, sun-warm day, it was easy to accept the notion that we should simply linger in the grass among the Red Maids, allow the gentle Bay breeze to caress us, and let our thoughts wander in unbroken reverie, but our feet eventually ruled the moment, given to notions of wandering themselves. And so we ambled downhill, back along Mott Peak Trail to Black Oak Trail which, though it descends sharply enough to wisely warrant a counterclockwise circumnavigation of the Briones Crest, quickly returned us to Old Briones Road and our cars.

If you’re going to Briones Regional Park

The wildflowers are just beginning to bloom, so now through mid-May is a great time to explore the magic of Briones Regional Park. The majority of the park’s over 6,000 acres of open space is unshaded and open to the elements, so be sure to wear sunscreen, even a wide-brimmed hat. The Briones Regional Park website a includes a downloadable trail map; parking at the Briones Park office and the Alhambra, Bear Creek, Lafayette Ridge and Reliez Valley staging areas is $3 and is open from 8 a.m. to sunset.

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Have you hiked Briones Regional Park?
If so, did you see any wildflowers or enjoy the view from Mott Peak?

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~winehiker

Flickr Photo Download: The 2006 Township 7 Cabernet Sauvignon

The 2006 Township 7 Cabernet Sauvignon by winemaker Bradley Cooper.

Winemaker Bradley Cooper of Penticton, British Columbia, produces exquisite wines from the south Okanagan Valley, including this delicious handcrafted small-lot Cabernet, of which he made 752 cases.

I simply adore this wine’s cherry, coffee and cola overtones, especially when enriched by a broad silkiness on the palate and an enduring finish that will cause you to delay brushing your teeth too soon. Lovely with red meats or on its own, here’s a special, affordable Township 7 Cabernet that you should be drinking.

Price: $25.99 per bottle / $311.88 for case of 12
Heat: 13.9% ABV
Where to purchase: contact the winery.

Disclaimer: this bottle was a sample, stolen fair and square from the winemaker when he wasn’t looking. ;^)

Record Northern California 2005 Grape Harvest

Though I often find myself embracing quality over quantity in my life, I suspect that the 2005 Napa and Sonoma grape harvest will find wine collectors, futures buyers, and consumers embracing both, and snapping up as much 2005 Napa Valley and Sonoma County Cabernets and Merlots as possible.

Imagine the best wines you could ever drink at a price you’d never expect to afford. Now imagine having so much of it available to you that you could die happy, a heartily-satiated wine lover. I think life for an admirer of wine just doesn’t get any better than that. As long as you’re still embracing life, of course.

Hey, you can’t drink wine when you’re dead, right?

Even as far back as a year ago, on a wildflower jaunt to Death Valley, I thought 2005 was going to be a banner year. Multiple storms had pounded Southern California, delivering record-breaking rainfall and spawning prolific 100-year wildflower shows in Death Valley and the Carrizo Plains. But these constant heavy rains had also soaked deep into the terroir of California’s myriad expanse of grape-growing regions. I had thought at the time that winegrowers around the state would benefit from a record quantity of grapes, therefore keeping prices low for consumers. But with the consummate knowledge that California grape growers and winemakers have applied in recent years, I felt that those of us who are ardent wine fans might just enjoy a great synergy of quality, as well as quantity, from the 2005 grape harvest.

Indeed, what I suspected has become wonderful news, as you’ll see in the following story reprinted from the Napa Register.    

Napa grapes brought in more than $500 million; harvest up, prices steady, and cabernet is still the king
By L. PIERCE CARSON, Register Staff Writer Saturday, February 11, 2006 1:10 AM PST

Weighing in at a record 180,813 tons, Napa Valley’s 2005 grape crop is the largest ever harvested.

As a result, the value of last fall’s grape crush — a cool $541 million — is the largest amount ever paid local growers for prized Napa Valley grapes. Tonnage registered half again as much as the previous year’s harvest, while the average price paid for a ton of Napa Valley grapes — $2,989, the highest price per ton in the entire state — crept up a modest 2 percent last year. Pricing and tonnage information about the most recent harvest is contained in the preliminary 2005 grape crush report released Friday by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The value of Napa’s 2005 crop is estimated at more than half a billion dollars, noted Sue Brewster, an associate with industry analyst George Schofield, of St. Helena. A 54 percent increase in income for growers when compared to 2004, it also eclipses the prior record of $390 million set in 2003, Brewster added.

In a year where prices remained relatively stable, the huge increase in crop value is tied directly to “a huge avalanche of grapes,” declared Schofield, attributed to newly planted vines coming into production. “The relative short production in the four years from 2001 through 2004 — a fairly narrow range of 120,000 tons to 130,000 tons — concealed the effect of the maturing of the significant planting of vines from 1997 to 2001,” he added. “Clearly, the 181,000 tons of Napa grapes for the year 2005 brought this impact into sharp focus.”

“With this volume (of grapes), prices remaining strongly stable and a lot of people looking at quality with high regard, we may have seen the triple crown of winegrape growing,” said Napa Valley Grapegrowers executive director Jennifer Kopp after poring over the 2005 grape crush report. Kopp noted the previous crop tonnage record was set in 1997, with this year’s total coming in 21 percent higher than that.

If one looks at the revenue derived from grapes in the North Coast counties of Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino, “it comes to well over $1 billion. I think that sends a message about the value of agriculture in the North Coast,” she said. One of the largest independent growers in the North Coast, Andy Beckstoffer said he was surprised at tonnage figures. “But more exciting is that prices held,” Beckstoffer noted. “With that kind of tonnage you’d expect prices to fall. So that’s a great credit to Napa County.  “When you combine record tonnage with stable prices and outstanding quality, you get what they call in hockey a hat trick.

Facts and figures

Cabernet sauvignon remains king of the grapes in the Napa Valley, with a record 69,178 tons harvested last year. That’s an increase of 19,478 tons, or 39 percent, above the 2004 crush. The second largest planting in Napa County is chardonnay, with 33,935 tons harvested last year. That’s an increase of 10,700 tons, or a hike of 46 percent.  Merlot tonnage in 2005 totaled 31,676 — up by 9,415 tons, or 42 percent. Pinot noir weighed in at 10,181 tons, an increase of 1,906 tons, or 23 percent. America’s grape, zinfandel, saw a 22 percent increase in tonnage last harvest — 5,357 tons, up from 4,222 in 2004.

“Indeed, the results for pinot noir point out that the large increase in grape production in 2005 reflects that the year 2004 was about as far below normal as 2005 was above normal — roughly 25 percent each way,” noted Schofield. As for prices of 2005 fruit, cabernet sauvignon remains at the top of the largest planted varietals — an average of $3,970 a ton, an increase of only $17 over 2004. Also registering very modest price increases (between $20 and $26 per ton) were merlot at $2,661 and pinot noir at $2,196.

The average price paid for a ton of chardonnay continued to decline slightly. The average price last year was $2,112 per ton, a drop of $17. The price paid per ton of sauvignon blanc was $1,711, an increase of 5 percent. Other reds gaining popularity here include syrah (4,218 tons, $2,712 per ton), cabernet franc (3,706 tons, $4,125 per ton) and petite sirah (2,229 tons, $3,149 per ton).

“Due to the offsetting effect of the large 2005 crop and the short 2004 — as well as the inherent pricing economics of premium wine grapes — inordinate concern ought not to be raised about a radical price reaction for Napa grapes in 2006,” advises Schofield. “Nevertheless, prudent growers should put some of the 54 percent gain in 2005 revenue in the bank in anticipation of the next down cycle in the industry, which is certain to occur.”

Around the state

The news was also good in neighboring Sonoma County, where total grape crop revenue registered $429 million, an increase of 38 percent over the previous harvest. Grape tonnage in Sonoma is higher than in Napa by nearly 50 tons — an increase of 39 percent from 2004 to 230,000 tons. The chardonnay crop in Sonoma County is more than double Napa’s, weighing 73,241 tons in 2005. But the average price paid for chardonnay in Sonoma is well below Napa’s — at $1,581 per ton. Cabernet sauvignon tonnage in Sonoma County registers 45,399, with the average per ton price of $2,322.

Sonoma County growers received the second-highest return statewide, of $1,868 per ton, virtually unchanged from 2004.  Statewide, the 2005 crush totaled a record 4,318,083 tons, up 19 percent from the 2004 crush of 3,615,278 tons. Red wine varieties accounted for the largest share of all grapes crushed, at 2,220,096 tons, up 35 percent from 2004. The 2005 white wine variety crush totaled 1,524,404 tons, up 34 percent over the previous harvest.  The 2005 average price paid for all grape varieties was $531.65, up 10 percent from 2004. The average price paid for red grapes throughout the state last year was $634.40, an increase of 1 percent; for white grapes, $503.15, up 3 percent from 2004.

~winehiker