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Turning Home 3: Commercial Set Net Salmon Fishing with the Family

Set Net Salmon Fishing in Bristol Bay (on a slow day)

Bristol Bay, on the Western Coast of Alaska where the Alaska Peninsula joins the mainland, hosts the largest salmon run in the world and includes five species–King (also known as Chinook), Red (also known as Sockeye), Silver (or Coho), Dog (also called Keta or Chum), and Pink (aka. Humpback, or Humpy).

The commercial salmon fishing industry operates through two types of gill netting–fishing from a 32-foot boat in what is called drift-netting (because the boat is always floating while the net is out; it is illegal for the boat to be on anchor while fishing), or fishing from shore, called set-netting.

Set-netting is generally done near the mouth of the river system, and occurs on pre-determined “set net site” locations along the beach that are designated through a state controlled leasing system. Original site designations were allotted in the middle of the last century through a point system in which applicants earned points from their history of participation in the fishing community operating prior to the leasing program.

For people to fish at a set-net site, or from a drift boat, they must also own a Bristol Bay area fishing permit. These were also awarded based on points during the middle of the last century. Since the point system, permits or set-net sites have changed hands via either inheritance, friendly legal transfer or sale.

Gill nets are approximately five feet wide with a rope of corks tied along the length on one side, and a rope full of 300 lbs of lead along the other length of net. In this way, the net floats like a curtain in the water. For drift netting, the curtain of gill net floats off the back of the boat; while in set netting the gill net is anchored on both ends in a line perpendicular to shore. To pick the fish from the net in drift fishing, the net is pulled back into the boat, and then after the fish are pulled from the net, it is put back out into the water again. For set netting, on the other hand, a 20 ft skiff is used to pull along the length of the net while the tide is in, or the net is picked by hand as the tide goes out with the fisherman walking in the water along the length of the net.

My father commercial fishes for salmon from a drift fishing operation, while my mother, two sisters, brother in law, and niece each fish their own set net sites with their fishing partners Nolan, and Cathy. I grew up set-netting, only getting on my dad’s boat on occasion when he needed extra help.

Following are pictures from visiting my family’s set net operation this morning. Hopefully later in the season I’ll be able to visit my dad’s boat and take pictures of drift fishing as well.

These pictures are actually from the slowest tide these sites have ever had during this time of year.

reaching over the bow of the boat to grab the set-net and pull it over the boat to pick

pulling the rope that the net is tied to over the bow of the boat

pulling along the (mostly empty) net–from left: Nolan, Mom, Melanie (taking pictures from the bow)

(taking pictures from the stern)

picking a red salmon out of the net

all three picking fish from the net

Nolan is a family friend that fishes with my mom and sister Melanie

showing off the genetic diversity of the river system–these are both red salmon but significantly different sizes from the same spawning year

fishing partners

family fisherman–Melanie, Mom, Me

When the fish have been pulled from the net they are gathered in brailer bags and then delivered to a tender with a weighing crane on deck and ice water fish hold in the hull.

the tender my family sells fish to–the tender then delivers the fish to a cannery

getting ready to lift the brailer from the back of the skiff

weighing the brailer of fish

dumping the fish into the hull

two members of the tender crew–Tony and Chris

visiting the other skiff crew briefly–my niece Melissa, and her dad Kevin

Cathy, our fishing partner, picking the net from the water as the tide goes out

she walks along the net pulling the lead line up out of the water so she can see if fish are caught, then throws any fish she picks from the net into the tote to bring back to shore

pulling the tote of fish up the mudflats (the tide had gone out) back to the beach

My summers growing up commercial fishing were so long. The work was tiring, and much of the time I was worn out and unhappy from exhaustion. Somewhere in there along the way I found that if I looked up at the sky and read the weather patterns showing in it, and how the light patterns changed over the course of the day, I somehow felt relief. Ever since, I’ve tracked the sky as I travel, and in fatigue have watched the skies to gain rejuvenation.

Here’s why:

the view of the sky from the Naknek beach


We ate fresh king salmon, caught this afternoon, for dinner tonight, alongside a Pinot Grigio Ramato from Friuli. Yesterday, we caribou soup served with Sta Rita Hills Pinot Noir. The night before we ate a roast with Domaine Tempier La Migoua Bandol Red. For life on the edge of the world, we’ve been getting spoiled. Wine comics of all coming soon. And more on Angela Osborne’s beautiful Grenache too.


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Listening to Nicolas and Elena Catena, Catena Zapata Wines

Talking with Nicolas and Elena Catena

Our last day in Argentina we were able to spend the afternoon lunching with Nicolas and Elena Catena, of Bodega Catena Zapata. The couple helped bring Argentine wine into the International market over the last several decades, opening the door for other producers of wines from Argentina to enter the United States as well.

Catena Zapata began originally with Nicolas’s grandfather Nicola who moved to Argentina from Italy in the late 1800s. The opportunity for shifting varietal and quality focus in Argentina has greatly increased these three generations since the project began.

In taking over the company, Nicolas has been dedicated, along with his daughter Laura, to raising the focus on quality and understanding terroir. The level of influence that Nicolas Catena has carried in Argentine wine can readily be compared to that of Robert Mondavi in California. Catena in fact names Mondavi as one of his inspirations. Meeting Nicolas and Elena Catena to share in food and conversation was a genuine honor.

When talking with some people the level of experience they carry shows finely distilled through the insights they share in conversation. In such instances, I prefer to present a transcript of the conversation, rather than an article on their work–especially in a case like the Catenas, where much has been written on them already. With that in mind, following are some of the stories and insights Nicolas and Elena shared with us.

Nicolas and Elena Catena

Nicolas and Elena Catena, October 2013, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Over lunch we enjoy several wines that the group had named as favorites earlier in the trip–a 2004 Nicolas Catena Zapata Malbec, a 2001 Nicolas Catena Zapata (Bordeaux blend), and a 2009 White Bones (high elevation) Chardonnay. Sitting beside Nicolas during lunch, I turn to thank him for sharing these wines. Our conversation begins.

“We have been thinking, the wine has been so well received in the American market that we say thank you.” The conversation opens up to the rest of the table.

“With my father, there was this idea. It has been like there were two different wines [in the world], the French, and everything else. You remember the famous tasting in France when the American challenged the French. For my father, American wine winning was a shock, and also for me because my wine education came from my father. We had an inferiority complex until that moment.

So, for me, my inspiration was not Europe, but California. California in the 1970s and early 1980s, when they were trying to do wine like the French. I remember when I met Robert Mondavi he told me he was trying to do what the French do.

“I used to visit California in the 1970s. In 1980, I was a visiting professor at UC Berkeley in Economics. So, our first weekend was visiting Napa. The first winery we visited in Napa with Elena was Robert Mondavi. We went just as tourists. I was really surprised by the flavor. That started to change my perception. I was accustomed to French and Italian wines. I had never had a California wine of high quality before.

“After that I met Robert Mondavi. He was such a nice person he would answer every question. It was different than visiting France. He would tell us exactly what he did to make the wine.

“Elena and I decided to do something different in Argentina after those three years in California. Our youngest daughter, Adrianna, was born there. So, when we started this new project for Argentina for our own winery, our inspiration was California. The meaning of that was we started planting Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon in Mendoza. Until that moment these varieties were only a little bit in Mendoza. The most important variety in my family [before that] was Malbec for red and Riesling for white.

“We came to the conclusion that it was about the micro-climates we were planting in to produce quality Malbec, to produce the best with French expression. So, we decided to plant in a place with lower temperatures to produce the best expression. We decided we would plant at the limit.”

The Catena’s were the first to plant at over 5000 ft elevation in the far Western portions of Mendoza at the foot of the Andes. Today the zone is recognized as producing some of the highest quality fruit for the country, and many other producers have followed suit, planting on the same plateau but East of the Catena’s vineyards.

“Everyone told me I was crazy, that the grapes would not ripen, that there would be frost. And it paid off because today we think that the best expression comes from this altitude. When we went up there and began planting, we were simply looking for lower temperatures but finally we discovered there was a factor there we had not considered–sunlight intensity.

“Such intensity [due to the change in atmosphere and decrease in UV protection at higher elevations] seems to be relevant for flavor expression of anything you plant at high elevations. At that altitude, the radiation, the UV-B, seems to be really high and deepening flavor expression. We are in the process of discovering how this works. What I can say is that wines coming from this place are really different in this micro-climate from temperature, radiation, and elevation, and they should be different.”

Nicolas and Elena’s daughter, Laura Catena, helped instigate an elevation and UV-index study looking at the impact of UV intensity differences on grape development, and variety. The winery now supports a research institute also in partnership with UC Davis looking specifically at Malbec. I will write more about Laura’s work, and the research institute in a future post.
Elena Catena

Each of us in the group are asked to speak to our last day in Argentina, what we have learned and what we have seen. Mary Gorman-McAdams MW speaks of the light, and landscape of Mendoza, Argentina. “The light reflecting in the Andes, in the snow, that purity, that freshness, now I know that is what I am tasting in the glass. The altitude is such an important part of the terroir here.” She explains. “It plays such a role in the longevity, the complexity of the wines.”

Nicolas smiles and responds. “Thank you for your comments. Yes.” Some of the other comments have considered success and work ethic. Nicolas speaks again. “For me, the most important factor influencing success is luck. Niccolo Machiavelli said, success can be explained half by luck, half by virtue. Virtue for Machiavelli means the capacity to do a lot very efficiently. Joe Gallo responded, ‘I disagree with Machiavelli–luck is 80%.’ At this moment, I think maybe, I agree with Joe Gallo. Luck is a very important factor. Today, right now, I have decided. I agree with him.”

Mary responds, “I would think a person would have to position themselves to take advantage of their luck.”

Nicolas pauses for a moment, then responds. “I received really the education, the culture of an Italian family. I started working at the winery, and I had to work from the age of seven. I took care of the chickens, and a rabbit at first.”

From across the way Elena hears this and nods. “Yes, he grew his own.”

Nicolas continues, “It was an obligation. I had to do it. After going to school in the afternoon I had particular tasks I had to do. By eleven years old I did everything at the winery. That was the Italian education, the culture it brought to Argentina. The working culture.

Elena responds. “Recently we went to Piemonte, staying in an agriturismo [housing at a winery]. We were impressed by the working culture. They told us that due to the economic crisis there they have gone back to the old ways. They have many generations living together. They made us dinner one night. You walk into that humble house and you have a professional kitchen, making pasta by hand for the whole house. There was grandfather with the baby, and a whole lot of generations, and each one doing an aspect of the over all job.”

Nicolas Catena

The speeches continue. Some are emotional. I speak of my family in Alaska, and the intensive work ethic they have. I explain that whatever I do I give thanks to my family, and that I see the Catena’s incredible work ethic, and how they honor their previous generations too.

After the speeches, Elena responds briefly to say thank you for what we shared. “If a person does not drink wine, you cannot trust them because if you drink wine, you may show your heart.” She tells us smiling.

People begin talking in smaller groups. Nicolas and I speak together first about my childhood commercial fishing in Alaska. Remarkably, they have a friend from Alaska living in Buenos Aires. He thanks me for telling him about my family. I ask him about his.

“I received an education very much like you describe.” Nicolas is referring to my growing up commercial fishing from the age of nine. As he continues, he reflects on his own childhood work, commenting on the challenge of it frankly, but not begrudgingly. “Still to this day I cannot answer why I had to work so hard. My family had money but I had to learn the work of 80 people. I learned the work of everything in the vineyard and the winery.”

He then responds to my comment about thanks and family relationships by reflecting on his own. “Originally, I was very young, my vocation was to study theoretical physics. I would have left the country to go further in physics. It is very close to philosophy, dealing with ideas. Then my mother died in a car accident and for my father it was very hard. I decided to stay with him. So, my vocation became economics, but mathematical economics, which is very abstract. I have no regrets because that is life.

“I meant what I said about luck and Niccolo Machiavelli, not just as an idea, as a practical reality too. That’s life. Growing up I had to study the intellectual in the morning at school, and the practical in the afternoon at the winery and vineyard. Also, I think, we do things for the love of our parents. It is like this. We do something important also to make our father happy.”


Thank you to Nicolas and Elena Catena.

Thank you to Marilyn Krieger and David Greenberg.

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Generations of Gratefulness: Bringing my Family to South America

I was raised in a multi-generational family in which the strongest tradition is sharing what we appreciate, and what we have learned through stories about the history of our own and our family’s lives. In thanks for the people with whom I was able to travel Chile and Argentina, I share this story. Thank you.


Travel from Alaska to Argentina

I was six the first time my maternal Great Grandmother, Umma, left the state of Alaska. As a full Aleut, she’d lived her life on the Western coast in first one fishing village, and then another. The area is Russian Orthodox.

Orthodox priests were assigned regions to lead, rather than individual churches. Every few months the priest would arrive in a village, and the people would quickly get married, buried, and baptized. And confess.

Confessions occurred in the small church cabin painted with holy pictures, and maintained by my Great Grandfather. Inside, the village would gather, most standing except for seats for the elder women. My Umma would sit through the service, as I stood behind her, my hands crossed on her right shoulder.

Villagers would wait through incense and prayers, blessings till time for confession, then stand in a line to speak to the priest. But first the priest would cross to the front to give communion to Umma where she sat, then return to the back to receive all the others.

Confessions in Orthodox tradition occur in full view, rather than to the side in a small box of a room. After the people proceeded past the priest at the back of the church they would continue in a circle around the sides, kissing holy pictures, till they met Umma. Then the villagers would stand and wait to greet and kiss her too. Sometimes they would also bless me. She was an elder of the community. As her great grandchild, I received honor from her too. It was a blessing I carried with me by being her relation.

My mother was the oldest of her family. She was raised by her grandparents, while also close to her parents. It was partially tradition of staying close to her elders, partially particulars of their own family.

As the story was told, when still young enough to walk to the back of the church, Umma met with the priest. My mom was still little. He said to my Great Grandmother, “someday this one will take you much farther than you’ve ever expected.” Our trip out-of-state was the journey.

Our entire family traveled together landing in Seattle, then driving to Oregon to my Aunty for Easter. I sat in the back, on the edge of the seat between my great grandparents on one side, my middle sister on the other. In the front, my parents and oldest sister rode. On the drive we would come around corners and discover another tall building, or a greater expanse through the trees. Umma would grab my back, squeeze, and whisper, Aling-na! her surprise for everything new that greeted her. On our arrival in Oregon we shared a bedroom. She told me the story for the first time of how the priest had predicted our travel.

She told me too how after I was born she would look at me and smile, then say to my mom, I don’t know where that one came from. It was her way to say too she didn’t know how far I would go.

My parents were both raised in coastal villages. My father, Inupiat, originates further North. Their home regions were small enough both chose to board elsewhere in the state for high school. For university they studied in Fairbanks, where finally they met and decided to marry. Both remained close to their extended families but in having children they made a choice to raise their daughters outside their villages. We spent winters in Anchorage attending a mainstream school, summers on the Western coast commercial fishing with our Native family.

My parents’ wish for their children was for us to be clearly based in our Native heritage while capable of asking only what it was we wanted to do, without question of if we could do it. A life migrating between Anchorage for school in the winters, and the coast for work in the summers was part of that.

Reflecting on my recent trip to South America, I find myself overwhelmed by generations of gift. I am the only member of my family, besides my daughter, that no longer lives in Alaska. My sisters are both quite accomplished but have chosen to live their lives there in the state of our birth. In this way, I stand both as a fulfillment of my parents’ wish that we succeed in the broader world, and as the one who suffers an effect of that gift without family near by. Family for Native people is integral to who we are, and part of any accomplishment we keep. It is me that must do my work, but my family that has made that possible.

We departed Argentina recently on their mother’s day, a celebration in recognition of the generations of women that are family. Before leaving we shared lunch with Nicolas and Elena Catena. They are two people that, like Robert Mondavi for California wine, helped carry Argentine wine into the greater international presence it has today. Spending time with them was an honor.

We were asked, each of us, to speak to what we learned in tasting wine in Argentina. Alyssa Vitrano began by realizing the parallels of her Italian heritage with that of many of the people in wine of Argentina. Mary Orlin, Kelly Magyarics, and Mary Gorman-McAdams spoke eloquently about the quality of the wines we’d tasted, and the intricacies of vineyards with landscape. We all mentioned the warmth of people that received us. When it came my turn to speak I was flooded with the voice of my Great Grandmother — her story from the priest and my birth. Sitting with such accomplished, warm-hearted people there in Argentina, my family’s wishes for me had sent me farther than I ever expected.

Thank you most especially to Marilyn Krieger and David Greenberg.

Thank you to Alfredo Bartholomaus, Alyssa Vitrano, Kelly Magyarics, Mary Orlin, and Mary Gorman-McAdams.

Thank you to Nicolas and Elena Catena.

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Life with Food

Life with FoodMy first day of school

my first day of school with Jr., age 2

For over a year I barely ate. My daughter’s father and I split when she was a year and a half. It was a difficult departure that included leaving our belongings, and taking no financial support from him. When the divorce was finalized he quit his high paying job making the court imposed child support irrelevant. I lived with my parents for eighteen months, then left Alaska and returned to school. In three years my degree was complete–a double major of Philosophy and Literature, with an honors degree and thesis.

Jr was two when I started classes. Having managed to afford the move, to win funding for college, to start with my daughter beside me, I was happy. I couldn’t afford to study full time, raise my daughter and also work so I applied for scholarships and grants continuously. Both my college and her preschool, as a result, were funded. The income for everything else would ebb and flow depending on the time of year but she got two meals through her preschool. I ate on my own in the day, with her at nights and on weekends.

Towards the end of my second year my funding was cut thanks to a reduction in state spending. We were living in Arizona. I knew we’d leave for Alaska and commercial fishing at the end of May, but it was March. At the start of each semester I’d purchase food staples that could last just in case. We started eating them. I’d give Rachel the canned goods with grains or pasta, while I ate just the rice or noodles.

It was something I didn’t talk about but for those three years my toddler and I lived below the poverty line in a house with a breeze through the living room (there were gaps in the wall). Towards the end of that second month of rice and noodles my best friend who lived in Seattle somehow realized I had no money. That same week a letter arrived with a $50 gift card for the grocery store. The simplicity of the gift was overwhelming, and still today, more than ten years later, makes my hands shake to think about.

At four, Rachel had never complained about her food, even with a bowl of only black olives and spaghetti noodles in front of her. So I’d assumed she hadn’t noticed. When we went to the grocery store together with the gift card I realized she had. She spent the twenty minutes in the grocery cart as I pushed naming all the things we could buy. For her it was mostly the fruit.


The United States government has shut down. I am uninterested in the federal politics behind it.

Many Head Start programs are almost immediately losing funding. WIC pregnancy and nutrition support for mothers and children will not be processed. Veteran benefits will not be processed. In some states, state processes will be able to temporarily over-step the federal aspects of a short term shut down.

Please consider sending grocery store gift cards to any families you know that may be affected. Please consider giving cash scholarships to any school food programs in your area. Please consider increasing your food bank donations. Real people need your simple gift.


To read more on the shut down:

A list of what is affected:

BBC coverage of the government shut down:

Coverage on how the shut down will affect everyday US Americans:


To locate a food bank near you:

To donate to a local school, call one near you, or the area school district, to ask how.

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Jr Heads North Soon (Taking it easy here for a few days)

with Jr, photo by Randy Caparoso

Jr, me, photo courtesy of Randy Caparoso

Jr heads North for the summer, as has been our family tradition from the beginning, in a week and a half. School closes for the year, then a few days later she is off to Alaska to commercial fish for salmon and spend time with my family. It’s a multi-generational migration integral to our lives.

I’m the only one not still commercial fishing all summer–I started at 9, became a business owner at 13, and sold it at 23. My sisters, their families, my parents all still fish together. The experience shaped my entire constitution. For more than a decade after leaving the industry, I still had spontaneous experiences in summers of boat-rocking while sitting on dry land. My skin starts aching for salt water. My feelings turn to gush. I become emotive and overly energetic as my body still recalibrates to the expectation of intensive physical exertion on lack of sleep. Last year I channeled that extra energy into three intensive months on the road interviewing people in wine. This year my plans are still in formation.

My family history rises from the land of Bristol Bay on the Western coast of Alaska. I’ve written before, here and elsewhere, of how conception of self and tribe for Indigenous people is rooted in the land itself. It is where we are from that makes our lives possible. This is true of anyone, but it is definitive of what it is to be aboriginal. So, though I return now only sporadically, I send my daughter back every year. She too is of the place from which we come.

Until mid-June, then, I’m slowing down a touch on the frequency of my posting here. I’ll be sharing some work but only a couple times a week rather than the usual three to four. Things will pick up again after June 16.


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It’s Melanie’s Birthday. Melanie also drinks wine. Happy Birthday, Melanie.

It’s my sister, Melanie‘s birthday today. She is old. We all are.

Native kids in the 1970s

us Native kids in the 1970s (she’s on the left. I’m in front. Paula on the right.)

Gratefully, she is old in that “I know how to love life better, and appreciate simple pleasure for the joy it truly is” sense of old.

Last July we met up in Willamette Valley for IPNC and she missed her flight from Portland back to Alaska because we were too busy eating oysters and drinking Egly Ouriet champagne. That seems an appropriate use of age to me–wise enough to know that moment was enough. The flight would come, even if later. It’s not the only time she’s visited and then missed her flight because lunch got in the way. Let it not be the last.

Happy Birthday, Melanie. You are my sister.

To read Melanie’s sum-up of her own very good year:


p.s. for anyone unsure: our great-grandfather retired from commercial fishing for salmon at the age of 84. He lived well into his 90s. In my book, life doesn’t really get going till you’re almost 40, and being old is a good damn compliment. Happy Birthday, old woman! -Your sister

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And Now for Something Completely Different: Crazy Alaska: The Start of the Iditarod

I got back from Sydney and went right into wine events with friends for a few days. Then I realized I was tired and decided it was appropriate to take the week off from posting. I’ll get back to a more regular schedule this coming week with write-ups from Victoria, Australia, Santa Barbara, California, and the world of Orange wine cycling through together. Since we’re in an interlude anyway, here’s a random tidbit.

The Start of the Iditarod


image courtesy of The Anchorage Daily News: the mushers and the course

In just a few moments… by the time I finish writing this post, Iditarod 2013 will have started.

Iditarod is a sled dog race crossing over 1000 miles of Alaska, traversing some of the biggest mountain ranges in the state, with temperature ranges going from well below zero F to well above freezing. Teams usually start with 12 to 16 dogs, led by a single husky and the musher, all moving a sled packed with several hundred lbs of supplies.

Mushers ride on the sled for portions of the race but during the final crunch when teams are pushing against each other to get or stay in the lead, racers will run behind the sled for hours to keep the dogs’ speed up. On downhill slides the musher must muscle the sled around corners to keep the team on trail. And in stuck spots the sled has to be pushed from behind as well. There are two long lay overs required–one of 24 hours, another at 8. Otherwise, mushers simply must check-in at certain points, make sure their dogs are healthy, and then check-out again. Many run for days on end. Incredibly, the race finishes now at just 10 days. All together it’s a seemingly impossible feat.

I grew up watching the Iditarod with dog mushing as a sort of normal option for people, even if only a few chose it. My dad’s close cousin used to race when I was little. Then my dad’s fishing partner spent a year training with the cousin and ran his dog team that winter, completing the full 1000+ mile course. That year I helped my mom sew a wealth of little booties to protect the dog team’s feet from ice and snow. I took up putting the booties on our dog too when I brought him out for a run. He always chewed the fabric off again.

In junior high, I volunteered at the Iditarod call station where people could phone in, the days before the internet or GPS tracking, to find out when and where a particular musher had last checked in along the trail, or who was in the lead.

By the time I went to graduate school in Montreal, life in French Canada was so foreign (tho loved) to me that following life in Alaska became a deep comfort. I’d grown up commercial fishing for salmon in Bristol Bay, which fascinated people, but when they asked me to tell them what fishing was like few people believed my answers. They’d tell me what I’d done wasn’t possible. (Strangely, my life in Montreal included a lot of hearing that my family’s daily reality wasn’t real.) The truth was too that much of the time getting through graduate school with a five year old also felt impossible. In the midst of that, somehow the Iditarod Sled Dog race became a symbol for me of how righteous people can actually be, of how much is possible simply by our deciding to get it done. It was a reminder too that none of us have to prove our accomplishments. Instead, we can just focus on doing good work, while we also celebrate what we love and what inspires us.

By the time I left Montreal fellow grad students that had entered the program believing dog racing was wrong were rushing into class asking me who was in the lead. The stories of mushers that had survived cancer then gone on to win; or the first woman to race; or the people that helped get the race started were inspiring to us all.

Still today, the idea that these people right this very minute are about to start the first steps of an impossible race… it still makes me emotional. There is such a concentration of intention and attention that goes into those early steps of an almost insurmountable task.

Here’s to all the mushers of Iditarod 2013. Run hard. God be with you and keep you and your dogs safe. I’ll be cheering for you.


Here are some great portraits of every musher all cleaned up before the race (you get a glimpse of how fancy Alaskans are actually able to get, though there are mushers here from all over the world):

For regular race updates, including GPS tracking of mushers on the trail, and video interviews of these serious characters:

The best news coverage of the race happens here:

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Visiting Santa Barbara Wine Country: Getting Ready

Santa Barbara Wine

This summer included several days of a quick tour of Santa Barbara wine country. Katherine and I started on the coast of the city, and drove north through wine in Lompoc, Los Olivos and Los Alamos, Happy Canyon, all the way up towards Arroyo Grande. This week I return for a week visiting some of the wineries and winemakers Katherine and I weren’t able to meet.

Santa Barbara wine country takes its fame originally from rich, while focused Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, but it has also succeeded at delivering strength in Rhone wines, and more recently started to show good quality Bordeaux varieties as well. This week I’ll be able to taste from each of these.

photos from this summer’s visit with Katherine

Coastal Succulents

Succulents along the coast in Santa Barbara itself

The region of Santa Barbara celebrates proximity to the coast, a unique East-West Valley orientation, significant elevation, coastal fog, and warmer inland temperatures, resulting in a variety of wine growing conditions. As a result, the area registers a handful of AVAs, with new ones still developing. Already established are: Central Coast, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Sta Rita Hills and Happy Canyon AVAs. Currently in application are Los Olivos and Ballard Canyon AVAs.

Venturing into the hills of Los Alamos

Heading into the hills near Los Alamos

The area also stretches at least fifty miles from North to South, demanding ample driving time between wineries or tasting rooms, though several areas host a nice cluster of tasting venues for easier access to particular styles.

Santa Maria Valley AVA

The first officially recognized AVA in the Santa Barbara region, Santa Maria Valley pushes from the coast as an open funnel shaped valley heading directly East, pulling the ocean fog inland along the valley floor. Valley floor vineyards begin at 300 feet in elevation, with plantings reaching up the slopes to around 800 feet. The combination of warm day time temperatures, with cooling fog, and little rainfall offer long slow growing conditions for fruit, leading to an easy complexity in the grapes.

Los Alamos Valley Region (not an official AVA)

Sandwiched between Santa Maria Valley AVA to the North, and Santa Ynez Valley AVA to the South, Los Alamos Valley offers a big temperature swing between warm days and cooler nights. Still, the overall heat range falls between the two with Santa Ynez generally considered around 10 degrees warmer, and Santa Maria 10 degrees cooler than the middlin Los Alamos Valley. The soils through the zone are generally well drained, but with a lot of variation in its geography, Los Alamos Valley shows genuine range in the varieties it can grow. This valley currently plants primarily Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but there are numerous smaller crops of Italian varieties dotted throughout the area.

POST EDIT: Word on the street here in Santa Ynez is that the Los Alamos AVA application has actually been approved but not announced yet!

Looking out over Los Olamos

The hills of Los Olivos

Los Olivos and Ballard Canyon proposed AVAs

With the diversity of conditions through the Santa Barbara region, new AVAs continue to be developed. Currently Los Olivos AVA and Ballard Canyon AVA are undergoing the application process to be recognized for their unique growing qualities. Part of Los Olivos application showcases the subzone’s ability to grow Bordeaux and Rhone varieties in particular, with a moderate temperature range, and good drainage supporting vine health. Ballard Canyon AVA carries a similar focus as the Los Olivos district, with the argument of differing quality and soil types. Ballard Canyon has recently been described as showing a comparable potential as the Southern Rhone regions of Chateauneuf du Pape or Gigondas.

Visiting Coastal Tasting Rooms

Flowers growing in the cooler, moister Western reach

Sta Rita Hills AVA

Part of the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA, Sta Rita Hills AVA features a cool micro-climate created from the rush of ocean fog cupped by surrounding hills holding the fog close against the plants. With its orientation towards the ocean, the AVA also receives ocean breezes bringing a mix of cool air, a steady drying of the fruit mixed with a sense of humidity that keeps the plants from burning in sun. The AVA is known, then, for its cooler variety success.

Vineyards of Santa Ynez Valley

Vineyards in Santa Ynez Valley, Happy Canyon

Santa Ynez Valley AVA

Santa Ynez Valley AVA nestles in the inland section of Santa Barbara wine region, also part of the Central Coast AVA. Santa Ynez Valley carries the highest concentration of wineries for the region, as well as a great variation of grape varieties planted. To the West (the Sta Rita Hills overlap) the region is known for Chardonnay, but as it moves East the climate warms allowing for a higher proportion of Rhone varieties, and other warmer temperature grapes.

Happy Canyon AVA

Happy Canyon AVA is one of the newer subzones of Santa Ynez Valley. The region has shown wonderful conditions for Bordeaux varieties, and is also known for producing elegant Grenache. It offers hotter temperatures than other areas of Santa Ynez valley, as well as more protection from the ocean influence, and the soil of the Canyon is considered a unique mineral effect on the wines grown in the still small subzone.

Vineyard Flowers in Northern Santa Barbara County

Vineyard flowers in Northern Santa Barbara County

I’ll be posting photos and sharing tasting notes from visits throughout this week. My itinerary will be busy, with a collection of 12 hour days visiting wineries and winemakers. Tuesday I get to wake up to an ATV vineyard tour.


Commercial fishing in Naknek, Alaska, Summer 2001–from left: cousin Ceara, me, Jr age 18 months, niece Melissa

Having growing up racing around the rock beaches of Naknek, Alaska on 4-wheeler I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to jump back on a little tractor for a quick jaunt through vines and farmland. Cheers!

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Giving Thanks for the Closing Year: Favorite Moments of 2012

Opening to Receive by Giving Thanks

A friend told me recently that she believes the best way to prepare one self for receiving good is to reflect on all the good you’ve received before. What a lovely idea. Here are some of my grateful moments from 2012. There are so many more I could just keep posting.

A trip to LA and Malibu included a wealth of incredible wine

In the early part of the year I was lucky enough to spend time with friends drinking utterly incredible wines, a lot of them favorites from older vintages. In Malibu a friend and I got to open this 1996 Bea. It was in the midst of a 1995 Chinon, a 1975 Pepe (both remarkable wines), Selosse Brut (so brilliant), and others, but the Bea took my heart and never gave it back. His wines are brilliant aged. What a treasure.

In Fall 2012 I closed my teaching career in philosophy

Fall 2011 became my last semester teaching philosophy in Arizona. I resigned in October 2011, but the last day of my contract was January 6, 2012. I stepped into the new year, then, finishing my teaching obligations, turning towards a whole new path. As grateful as I am for my time there, I am also grateful to be done. The biggest blessing came in my classes that final term being among the best I ever facilitated. The two sections of Intro to Ethics both had excellent students that helped me learn the material at a deeper level. What a gift. In Sci-Fi and Society (the other class I taught that term) we were all required to show up dressed as ourselves in alternate universe and then to remain in character through the entire class. I arrived as a Sci-Fi Writer’s Muse, a presence that helped inspire parts of the noble series Dr. Who.

Our sweet Briland opened my heart far more than I ever expected

Rachel, aka. Jr., asked for a hamster in 2011. I was resistant to the idea not wanting another live-thing to take care of. But Rachel was brilliant at helping Briland, her hamster, get comfortable so that he spent lots of time out of his cage playing, and eating treats beside both of us. He softened my heart in a way I didn’t realize it could. Dear Briland spawned a whole comic series, became the mascot of the local veterinary hospital, and made me appreciate the importance of life, no matter how small, in a way I never imagined until I met him. He died in the middle of 2012. I still miss him everyday.

The Rapuzzi family shared an incredible lunch with us

April 2012 included an 8 day tour of Colli Orientali del Friuli. The Rapuzzi family had our COF2012 group for lunch, sharing an incredible selection of their older wines. Thanks to them the world still has Schioppettino–Dina and Paolo Rapuzzi had a big hand in helping to preserve many of the varieties indigenous to Friuli and are credited with rediscovering and then saving Schioppettino.

We spent the first week of April in Friuli

A vineyard in Friuli

Serena and Cristian poured their first Schioppetino vertical for us

Serena and Cristian of Ronco del Gnemiz had us for a vertical tasting of their Schioppettino, explaining it was the first time they’d done so. They’re best known for their white wines, but their Schioppettino is some of my favorite. I am so grateful for our time with them.

Angela and Jason Osborne poured her first full vertical of Grace

In June, I met Steven Morgan of Tribeca Grill during a visit to New York City. He toured me through the impressive cellars of the restaurant and then opened a Schioppettino for us to share while we talked. After conversation about education, comics, superheroes, wine, friendship, and travel, he suggested I reach out to Angela Osborne of A Tribute to Grace, saying he thought I’d like her and her wine. That very night I emailed her. A week later she had my friend Katherine and I over for dinner with Angela, her lovely husband Jason, and the first full vertical tasting of Grace they’d hosted. We stayed for hours. Steven was right. I loved her, and her wine.

I returned to Naknek after a decade away

At the end of June, after a decade away, I returned to the waters of Naknek, Alaska where I grew up commercial fishing with my family–the area of Bristol Bay hosts the largest wild salmon run in the world, and one of the most bio-diverse ecosystems in the world. As Rachel does every year, she spent her summer there visiting cousins, her Grammie and Bobba, and her Aunties and Uncles. This photo shows five cousins–Oliver, Mari, and Rachel on the shore, Ecola and Ceara, my Auntee’s daughters in the water.

I didn't die eating oysters with Stephan Vivier

A couple of years ago I discovered a shellfish allergy by having a bad reaction to prawns. I didn’t know what other seafood I was allergic to, however, and so dealt with it by avoiding shellfish entirely. The reaction was too uncomfortable to risk it. In July, I met with Stephane Vivier to taste his Pinot Noir wines. We had a lovely time visiting. I loved his rose’ and Pinot, and thoroughly enjoyed our time. When he asked if we should have lunch and start with oysters I decided to risk it. My thought was–this entire experience is so lovely, if I do die by shellfish, I’d be quite sorry for Stephane, but such a happy time would be the perfect way to go. And if I don’t, it couldn’t be a better time to find out I can still eat oysters. It turns out I can still eat oysters. Vivier wine, then, restored one of my favorite foods to me. The experience has inspired me to go on since and test other shellfish too–it turns out I can eat crab (thank god!), and also scallops (thank god again!).

I spent my summer visiting some of the people I admire

I count myself deeply lucky. I have gotten to spend my time with some of the people I admire most in wine. Here from left: me, holding Ryan and Megan Glaab’s baby boy, Randall Grahm, George Vare, Abe Schoener

I lived for a month below the oldest vines in Willamette Valley

In July, I traveled to Willamette Valley, Oregon and was lucky enough to live for a month at the base of the oldest vines growing in the Willamette–Eyrie Vineyards South Block.

My sister charmed Jacques Lardiere

My sister traveled south to attend IPNC too and while there charmed Jacques Lardiere, the just-retired winemaker of Jadot. What a treat to meet him, and to concentrate hard enough to understand his talk on biodynamics.

My sister and I spent time tasting with Maggie Harrison

With Melanie flying from Alaska to attend IPNC I did what I could to schedule time after for us to also meet two of her favorite winemakers. We were able to have time with Maggie Harrison, of Antica Terra, and also Jason Lett, of Eyrie. Melanie told me after those two are like rock stars for her. I agree.

Fulgencio was generous enough to tell me his story

Someone asked me to pick the single most important event I lived this last year. That sort of question is a kind of metaphysical quandry I find almost impossible to answer. That said, the most moving experience I had was meeting Fulgencio, a vineyard worker in Oregon and then to have him trust me enough to share part of his life story with me. The experience was overwhelming. Then, as if listening to him hadn’t been moving enough, at the end he thanked me it, explaining it healed him to be able to share his story. To share in that kind of intimacy with someone, and to have it marked as life changing by both people… I can only explain the importance of such an experience by saying plainly it’s why I believe any of us are here. Such connections, in my experience, are the meaning of human life.

I spent the year following Ribolla from Friuli through California

One of the lucky projects of 2012 turned out to be following RIbolla Gialla from Friuli all the way back to California, its unlikely North American home. I love this grape. Following its story has also introduced me to a wealth of incredible people–George Vare, Dan Petroski, Steve Matthiasson, Ryan Glaab, Abe Schoener, Matthew Rorick, Robbie Meyers, Nathan Roberts, Chris Bowland, and others. Here the Vare Vineyard is being harvested by a crew directed by Steve Matthiasson.

Paul Draper took time to meet with me

Somehow this year included a wealth of visits with icons of wine, including a number of people that truly helped make American wine what it is today. Among them is Paul Draper. In September, Paul took the time to share several hours with me talking through his history and views of wine, as well as tasting the current wines for Ridge. I often joke that my parents are such intimidating people I am rarely intimidated. Paul Draper stands as such an important presence in the history of California wine, I have to admit I was utterly intimidated to go meet with him. That said, he is known for being down to earth, and quite generous in his willingness to share information and insight with people.

His dog is adorable

And he has an adorable dog.

Scientist Legend Carole Meredith, and her equally brilliant husband Stephen Lagier met with me

My final wine interview of 2012 was with two people I hold deep respect for. Carole Meredith is a genuine legend of science. Thanks to her we know the parent grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gamay, and many others. She helped find the origin and originary plant of Zinfandel and Primitivo, thus also helping to boost the local economy of Croatia due to their increase in tourism since (I kid you not–Zinfandel originates from Croatia). Stephen Lagier, her husband, is equally brilliant with a history of having researched chemical changes in vines due to vineyard practices, then going on to a long career in winemaking. Together they now live on Mt Veeder where they grow and make their Lagier-Meredith wines.

I spent the holidays with family

Jr and I closed the year in Alaska. We were able to spend the Christmas holiday in Anchorage, where my parents, and the families of all three of their girls were together at Christmas for the first time since 2006. Christmas Eve we spent with our closest family friends, the Meyers. Here from left: me, my sister Paula, my sister Melanie, and Robyn Meyer–she grew up with us like a sister. Jr and I now spend the New Year holiday in Juneau with Melanie’s family.

Lots of love to everyone! I am so grateful for all that 2012 brought (including all the stuff that felt like total bullshit–hardships hold sometimes the deepest blessings), and more grateful we can now turn in to 2013. May we all be blessed. Amen.

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Last day in Alaska

The drift fisherman were busy on the water through my time in Bristol Bay. So, no visits, and no pictures with them. Fishing works that way.

My uncle Smile and I hadn’t seen in other in at least eight years so on my last morning he docked the boat, raced to the airport and visited for five minutes before I had to board the plane. He brought with him a bag of Native style smoke fish, right from the smoke house. It takes about a month to make, and is so rich I fall asleep from just a few pieces. The bag I carried it in still smells of it.

Driving through California now trying to adjust to so much plant life after ten days in Arctic desert. Tonight I arrive in Sonoma for ten days in the extended area meeting with people in wine. Next Friday I also have a special media event to attend–hee hee. Can’t wait.

Love you, Smiley.