On road trips, magnificent vastness, and incipient serendipity

Welcome to Twitsville!Unless we’ve walked the trail together or sipped a glass or two and had a chance to let our hair down, you’ve been getting only bits and pieces of me. It’s true: I have devolved into an unabashed microblogger. Like many around us, I’ve adopted a 140-character mentality, having steadily assumed the social attention span of a mosquito, copping the latest buzz. Couple that with the regular rigors of following my hiking muse, keeping my garden green and wearing 3 hats at work, and there’s simply been little left of me for developing creative, long-tail journalism.

Certainly my responsibilities have grown these past few seasons, ever since I closed up shop at California Wine Hikes and returned to my old job. Programs I had steered a half decade earlier had degraded in that time; I’d inherited a dismally broken website and a documentation program that had fallen into disarray. Having spent these past four years treading the grindstone to nearly single-handedly resurrect both, I felt I was overdue for an extended road trip. It had been 10 years since the last one. Ten years!

All work and no road trip makes Russ an indolent grouch.Skyping across the globe in January with my friend Niki had had us both dreaming of her flying from Zurich to California toward a summer road tour of Portland, Calgary, Kalispell and Estes Park; we were going to make one big circuit of things and take 4 weeks to do it. By April, however, commitments to the road had grown less solid; a potential new hire in my department had fallen through and things had changed with Niki’s employment scenario; I was faced with the prospect of picking her up at the airport in Missoula if she could swing it. But if I could manage to escape the office at all, it was beginning to look like a solo road trip.

When May rolled around, I hadn’t yet thought too hard about my road itinerary – I was cranking out the work while attempting to prospect another round of candidates. But when Adam Nutting reached out to me about joining him and 12 other outdoor social media enthusiasts for a sponsored backpacking and rafting expedition in Idaho’s Hells Canyon, I could barely prevent myself from jumping up and down at my desk like a hyperactive schoolboy on a sugar high. I instinctively responded “Yes!”idaho

I was going to Idaho!

Despite my travels thus far, I’ve not yet set foot in The Gem State. Though my company has always had a presence in the Boise area, my particular job role had never dictated that I be sent there on business. My infatuations with the southwest had confined the range of my more recent road junkets to such exotic locales as Ouray, Kanab, Springdale, Shiprock. But truth be told, I am smitten by the entire enormity of the Great American West, and the prospect of exploring northern Idaho excites me. It doesn’t hurt to know that I’ll be exploring it with folks with whom I’ve enjoyed inspiring and provocative dialog these past 3 or so years on social media.

Learn more about the #HellHikeAndRaft adventure!

Not so strange, perhaps, is that it is my social media backtrail that has established why I’ve been selected to participate on the Hell Hike and Raft Expedition. It’s an exquisite honor to be recognized for the efforts I’ve made at sharing my story and engaging in dialogs with you, and I find myself both humbled and grateful for the new level of experience that it brings.

And as to that experience, all of us participating in this expedition – we who call ourselves the #HellHikeAndRaft crew – have Parker and Becky of America’s Rafting Company to thank for their willingness to outfit us as we backpack northern Idaho’s Seven Devils Range and brave the rapids of the Snake River through the Hells Canyon gorge. A number of outstanding sponsors have stepped up to amply facilitate our effort, and we’re excited to test and evaluate their products on the trail, in camp, and on the water.

The #HellHikeAndRaft crew is proud to be sponsored by these fine establishments.

So buckle up, ladies and gents: over the next days and weeks, as the Internets allow, I plan to take you along on this serendipitous journey. After I clear my desk this week, we’ll embark on a 3-week road trip that’ll take us not only to the rugged beauty of northern Idaho, but to the magnificent soul-cleansing American vastness that is northern Nevada, southern Idaho and eastern Washington and Oregon. It’s a pretty safe bet that plenty of hiking and wine will be involved.


Twitter | Facebook | Instagram | Klout


Flickr Photo: Romp thru the Redwoods

A footbridge across one of the many small creeks at Henry Cowell Redwoods.

Happy winehikers, cavorting along a woodsy path on a late-September morning. These folks joined me last year; would you like to join me this year? If so, you’ll find all the details on my Romp through the Redwoods page.


Wonderful Wednesday Links

What tree is that?

You can identify most trees by studying their leaves, seeds, and fruit. This animation from the National Arbor Day Foundation can help you learn to identify these characteristics and take a “step-by-step” approach to arrive at the name of your tree. It’s a pretty cool tool for all ages, so be sure to share it with your kids and get them out on the trail with you soon.

read moredigg story

Are “Five Star” Wine Rating Systems Too Simple?

Before Robert Parker Jr. introduced the 100-point wine-rating system to the world back in 1978, wine tasters, if they used any scoring method at all, would generally use a simple “five star” scale to rate their wines.

You can apply stars to wine, or you can actually learn something about wine.

You can apply stars to wine, or you can actually learn something about wine.

This five star (or five point) system is best understood as:

1  Poor
3  Good
4  Excellent
5  Outstanding

Naturally, it is simplicity that differentiates a five-star system from Parker’s system. After all, what budding connoisseur intrigued by wine would not choose to begin their lifetime of passion de vin with something elemental, readily grasped? And who among us can really tell the difference between an 83-point wine and an 84-point wine?

While there is much that is ludicrous about the Parker scale (e.g., a 76-point wine can be just as undrinkable as a 38-point wine), it’s much easier to understand the five-point system because we can readily identify with it – it corresponds with the letter-grade system many of us grew up with in grammar school. A simple system, yes. But very, very dull! Fortunately, other ardent wine rating personae have tackled the notion of dressing up this simple little system with rating thresholds of their own.

Jon Bonné, lifestyle editor for MSNBC.com (and Amuse-Bouche wine blogger) expands the aforementioned scale to the following:

1.0, Undrinkable: Major flaws that make the wine too bad to drink.
2.0, Marginally drinkable: You’d drink it if stranded on a desert island, but not otherwise.
3.0, Acceptable: Wine free of any major flaws, but not otherwise worth mentioning.
3.5, Good: Decent and drinkable wine, competently made and enjoyable to the average drinker.
4.0, Very good: Highly pleasurable wine with excellent qualities, the product of top-notch winemaking.
4.5: Excellent: Wine that excels in every aspect, true to its terroir and origin and of exceptional quality.
5.0, Extraordinary: Classic wine of rare and unparalleled quality.

Bonné suggests that:

“Wines below 3.0 aren’t worthy of consideration at all, and 3.5 is a decent starting point for wine worth buying. Beyond that? It’s really a matter of personal taste and preference.”

Deceptively simple. Yet notice how the five-point scale is already stretching out to something beyond five points. In his defense, Bonné only bases his ratings on a five-point system. But whoa – he’s willing to rate incrementally by half-points. Perceptively tedious!

Erin over at Grape Juice quips that she has her parents to thank for her growing alcoholism. Her wine rating methodology goes beyond the five-star rating system, too, though I’d have to say it’s more of a five-bar raving system. Or raging system – take your pick:

Not Even On Pain of Death: I’d pretty much run screaming from this wine if I ever saw it again.
I Wouldn’t Make Faces: Not my choice, but if someone were to serve it to me at a gathering of some sort, I wouldn’t turn up my nose.
I’d Hit It: A good wine, but not necessarily mindblowing. I’d consider buying it again.
Repeat Offender: I’ll be buying this one again. A wine with a certain “je ne sais quoi”.
Bet Your Bottom Dollar: A sure-fire hit. Even your mother-in-law would like this one.

Hmmm, I wonder how Erin can taste wine with her tongue in her cheek like that. Come to think of it, if I had a mother-in-law, she’d probably only drink white zinfandel. At the other end of the wine-scoring spectrum, Rod Phillips at Worlds of Wine suggests a 1,000-point wine-scoring scale.

Methinks Rod jesteth overtly. But yikes!! Talk about tedious. Well then, could there be a wine tasting methodology that isn’t boorishly elemental, deceptively simple, flagrantly tedious, or mincingly ambiguous? Something that goes beyond “trite” yet doesn’t have you mired in point-shaving schemes?

You bet. It’s a moderately sane 20-point system, and it’s freely available to all. If you like wine but want to know why you like it, or if you would choose to educate yourself further about wine, then here’s a little guidance, some developmental history, and a place to download the winehiker’s scoring sheet for nearly everyone.


When liking a wine is not enough

There’s a lot of debate out there in the Great Blogosphere about wine scores and wine-scoring systems. Some suggest that wine tasting is too subjective a practice to quantify with objective numerals. Seasoned wine tasters would have you distrust someone else’s (e.g., Robert Parker’s) seasoned palate. Yet I’ve learned that knowing that I like a wine is not enough – I want to know why I prefer one wine over another. Because other people do, too, I believe that’s where a wine scoring system can help.

I had a lot of help from my wine-tasting friends developing a 20-point scoring sheet that I use quite frequently. We’ve found that a 20-point system is definitely more manageable than a 100-point system such as Parker’s and others – I think they’re too difficult to attempt by most people who would taste wine. A 5-star system, I’ve found, is just too simple, because it doesn’t offer any real educational value.

The winehiker’s 20-point wine scoring sheet for individuals and groups.

The winehiker’s 20-point wine scoring sheet
works well for both individuals and groups.

This wine scoring sheet is broken into seven criteria with numeric values assigned to each; sample descriptive adjectives are offered within each tasting criterion (aroma, body, finish, etc.). It also is two-sided, allowing input for individual wine scores for seven wines, as well as space for tasting notes and group scoring on the second page to aggregate a group’s individual ratings. A third page includes instructions for how to use it.

Jeff Stai, owner of Twisted Oak Winery remarks:

“While it can argued as to whether “taste/flavor” should be 4 points and “finish” only 2, the winehiker’s system can be a big help for people who want to learn to taste more thoughtfully by breaking a rating down into more manageable chunks.”

Most of my guests are new tasters who want to learn why they like a wine (or why they don’t); many return for follow-up tastings. That’s a vote of confidence, indicating that they derive value from this scoring system.  Perhaps you will too!

————————— ♦ —————————

Have you scored any wines using this or any other 20-point wine scoring sheet?
If you have, please let me know what you think.

If you haven’t used it, this scoring sheet can be
a valuable learning tool to help you train your palate.
Try it at your next tasting!

————————— ♦ —————————


Really cool websites I’ve stumbled upon

As if I actually have time for surfing websites, much less stumbling upon them…

And, because “timing is everything,” a graphical interactive time zone checker.


October’s Mt. Shasta Ho-Down: Distilled Spirits

Hiking, mountaineering, fishing, camping, food, wine, and blogspeak. Not to mention miles and miles of driving and flying – for all of us except Tom C., who lives (no, exults!) upon the proud flanks of Northern California’s premier volcano, Mt. Shasta. That’s what’s in store for us outdoor scribes one juicy weekend next month.

Wait a minute – blogspeak?

Well sure! After all, we outdoor bloggers have to have something in common to talk about.

The 1st (Known) Outdoor Bloggers Conference, October 2006 (where @winehiker elects himself camp cook because, presumably, he doesn't want to eat Moose Turd Pie).

The 1st (Known) Outdoor Bloggers Conference
♦ October 2006 ♦

(where @winehiker elects himself camp cook because, presumably,
he doesn’t want to eat Moose Turd Pie.)

We’ve been lurking on each other’s blog sites. Heaven knows why. But now we’re enjoying a rather spirited excitement about our pending rendezvous.

Why are we planning a rendezvous? We don’t really know that, either. But I’m sure we’ll figure it out, and have a lot of good outdoorsy fun doing it.

What follows is a boiled-down slumgullion from our recent correspondence. Call it “collected threads from us bloggerheads.”

Tom M. of Two-Heeled Drive: Hey Tom, we need some advice on the environs around Shasta. What can you tell us about fishing/hiking/camping locales around the mountain, and are any of these close enough to nearby trailheads that the mountaineers in our midst could still get in some time on the slopes? For now Horse Camp is OK, but we’re not averse to car camping.

Tom C. of Trout Underground: Horse Camp isn’t a wholly bad choice; no fishing up that way, but the hike in from the Bunny Flats trailhead is relatively easy, so people can come and go. And obviously, access to the mountain is pretty good. Downside is that leaving and going does require a hike in/out and a 20 minute drive to town.

There are many other choices. One good choice is Gumboot Lake, which offers campsites (car camping), good hiking opportunities, and (not surprisingly) a lake. Very pretty setting. I wouldn’t suggest this during the summer due to crowding, but think it might be vacant in October. It’s at the far end of a pretty little river canyon and is a bit farther from town than the 20-minute drive to the Horse Camp trailhead. Surrounded by ridges with nice views, lots of trees.

Hiking-type activities could include a hike up Castle Crags and even some climbing (5.6 or so) at the top. Obviously, there are a few bazillion other hikes available, but I lack the finger power to list them all here.

A couple other thoughts…

First, my house is on the road headed up Mt. Shasta, and – provided that eBomb guy stays away from the cats – bloggers are welcome to stop by and access the wi-fi broadband that permeates the place. (Naturally, all outgoing posts will be edited for [Tom] Chandler-friendly content.)

Second, I’m willing to host a barbecue here at home if it works out. Have Weber, will eat.

Third, I’m not sure if I’ll be camping with the group or out doing other things, but it sure would be nice to have a chance to talk blogging. You know, an opportunity for me to steal everyone else’s blogging secrets.

Finally, Chris Carr (co-owner of Mount Shasta Guides and monster telemark skier, mountaineer, etc.) will just be returning from a conference in Boulder, and has offered to help out or even meet up and answer questions about the mountain, and what to do in the area. That’s gold, baby.

Russ B. of Winehiker Witiculture: I’m with you, Tom Chandler. Winehiker does BBQ and talks blogging! “Gumboot Lake” sounds more quintessentially attractive to me, too, than “Horse Camp” which, to my mind’s eye, smacks of equine ploppage…

…well, I probably wouldn’t mind either place, just as long as there’s no turds in the middle of my Sa-turd-ay….

I’m also hoping to get an early start on the road Friday myself, since I prefer to have camp set up and dinner inside me before dark. I have room for one passenger plus gear; I have most camping equipment, including a 3-person tent, a brand new 1-gallon propane tank/2-burner stove combo. John [Fedak of fedak.net], since it would appear Tom Mangan is driving his own car, perhaps you and I can pal up together.

Tom M.: I like the idea of Gumboot lake, too. Any dissenters?

Tom C.: Are the mountaineering types on board with this? As much as I’m into comfort, I’d hate to unnecessarily deprive anyone of their chance to get mangled by falling rock while freezing to death.

Panther Meadows (campground high on Mt. Shasta) also offers the potential for car camping while still preserving the chance to freeze to death. (I’d have to check with the Forest Service to make sure it’s open.) Not quite the all-around site that Gumboot is, but better if you harbor a desire for hardship.

Finally, I understand someone offered to cook for us on Saturday night. Do we want to do that at Casa Chandler?

Adam M. of GoBlog: I take it you mean us [mountaineer types]. No problem. If we end up going, it will be a quick run up and down. Gumdrop sounds fine. Especially if I bring my boy.

Tom C.: OK. Gumboot it is. To create a little drama for your blogs, we can always photoshop a bear attack picture or something.

Russ: Tom C., how many driving miles is it from Casa Chandler to Gumboot Lake? I propose that it may be better, logistically, to assemble for BBQ at your place on Friday night and enjoy dinner in camp on Saturday.

For Saturday dinner (and after I get a hike in), I’m tentatively thinking of a Thai-style menu, complete with Dutch oven and garden-grown produce:

  • Baked Chili Fish with Fiery Thai Salsa (hint: this dish may contain freshly-caught trout)
  • Carrot Soup
  • Cucumber Salad
  • Ginger-Pineapple Noodles
  • Vino rosso (definitely NOT Thai-style)

Gosh, I hope that’ll do y’all. Comments? Questions? Aversions to food that isn’t brown or white? :)

Tom C.: Probably 20-25 minute drive. The Friday at Casa Chandler schedule works for me, though let’s see if there’s even support for the Friday barbecue. Could be the majority won’t make it.

The menu is OK, though you’ve made no mention of the pine needle garnish, dirt sauce, or mosquito sprinkles that accompany every outdoor meal.

I plan on liberating several float tubes (those inflatable armchairs used by fly fishers to nap in on warm days when they’re supposed to be fishing a lake). A hike on Saturday sounds like the group choice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t sneak in a little fishing around the edges.

Still, keep in mind you’ll need a California fishing license if you want to fish, and they’re definitely NOT available up at Gumboot Lake.

Rick McC. of Best Hikes: Where do I sign up to become a “wine hiker”? (I was thinking bland dehydrated mashed potatoes.)

Just in case you one day want to take the meetup to Canada, certainly I would first suggest Mt. Assiniboine. You must hike or helicopter in to one of the finest vistas in the world. No road access. Accommodation is a choice of inexpensive rustic cabins, a lovely campground or expensive mountain lodge. Fine dining is available at the restaurant there. You would fly in and out of Calgary. Logistics are a breeze as this is such a popular tourist area.

Something to chat about over the Baked Chili Fish.

[Editor’s conclusion: apparently we’ll all find it convenient to forsake the hiking boots in favor of debauched and reprehensible float-tube stupefaction. Some may not agree with me, but it sounds better than Vegas.]


Tasting Wine Made Easy

Who's ready for easy?

Who’s ready for easy?

If you love wine but are not sure why you prefer one wine over another, you can learn to identify what your palate is telling you. The best part about learning to separate wine into its aroma, flavor, body, and other attributes is that it is very fun to do! Plus, when practiced in the intimate atmosphere of a small group, all participants can interact with each other in a manner that promotes discovery, friendship, learning, and above all, joy!

At a typical tasting event, a host may choose to announce one grape variety, such as Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, or Chardonnay; he or she may also decide to choose a geographic region, such as Australia’s Hunter Valley or France’s Bordeaux region. A simple objective would be to pour and taste six wines of this varietal or from that region. As you taste your wines, follow a “blind comparison” format to prevent label bias, and use a wine scoring sheet that includes space for notes; be sure to keep it for reviewing later when you plan to purchase wine.

Though there are a number of ways to approach a blind comparison tasting, I believe the best way is to involve each participant in the purchase of the wine they bring to the tasting. As such, shopping for wine can comprise online research, prior tasting knowledge, consulting with a wine merchant, or just plain old eeny-meeny-miney-moe.

The main thing is: a blind (comparison) wine tasting is for everybody who wants to learn about wine. You don’t have to know anything about wine other than the notion that you want to learn more. Before long, you’ll come to understand that the world of wine is not nearly so intimidating as it is fun!



Hot Day, Cool Folks

Every day, people come and go in and out of our lives, often only for brief encounters. Yet when those brief encounters are approached without pretense or condition and are instead met with levity, compassion, and a relaxed good nature, everybody wins, and brief moments linger in our memories much longer than we could have anticipated. Even when the weather and the trail combine for scandalous brutality!

Such was my experience last Saturday meeting a foursome from Palm Springs.

The Coachella Valley Masochist’s Society, as they irreverently called themselves, had headed north to Napa, ostensibly to escape the blast furnace at home. No small surprise – Friday’s high temperature in Palm Springs had registered 120 degrees. And yet somehow, they had brought the heat with them to the town of Napa, where they had made arrangements to stay at the Adorable Purple Victorian for four days of wine country fun.

So while the local bird population in Palm Springs was using oven mitts to pull worms out of the ground, our foursome was enjoying a drive in a ’49 Packard convertible along the Silverado Trail, enjoying the Stag’s Leap District’s Robinson Family Winery and an interesting lesson in barrel tasting at Del Dotto Vineyards.

I showed up early the following morning to guide our foursome along the Mount St. Helena Trail at Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, above Calistoga, California. Our plan was to hike a 10-mile out-and-back to the top of the mountain for a broad look-see, as well as stop to admire the remains of Stevenson’s honeymoon cabin (where he purportedly sowed the seeds for his later novel, “The Silverado Squatters”). Later, after the hike, we would stop for a picnic lunch and a tasting at Cuvaison Winery.

But boy, was it hot. We joked about the heat as we drove up the Valley in our air-conditioned Crown Victoria, as if the heat were merely an innocuous quintessence. We knew better, however, and hydrated a-plenty during the drive. And we got to know ourselves a little. We talked about wine and told tall tales from the trail. Then, we laced on our boots and, floating uphill in the heat, in flagrante delicto, we told some more. Despite the impetuous inferno and my need for more than two handkerchiefs, I was having quite a fun day. We all were – four desert rats and one wannabe desert rat.

And that’s how it turned out, too – just plain fun. It didn’t matter that the trail was exposed and the rock was too hot to sit on and we lost five pounds of valuable sweat and the sun was the devil incarnate and we really couldn’t taste wine ’cause it was too darn hot. No, what really mattered was that goodness in people just naturally shows through even when Nature throws the high-heat fastball at ‘em.

Dori, Bob, Becky, and Ware: you folks are the best. May I hike your path again someday. Heck, I’ll even bring a (highly chilled) bottle along next time.

[Editor’s note: I arranged a custom tour for this foursome via my tour business, California Wine Hikes. I can do the same for you – hopefully on a cooler day! Just click here.]