The Tao of Taos

A Shaded Patio

A Shaded Patio

After the hard work in Albuquerque, we spent a couple of days in Taos, working just a little bit less hard. Taos is loaded with art galleries, many of them excellent. My favorite we discovered inside a dark adobe doorway, which led to a cool, shady, and inviting courtyard, where we found the Total Arts Gallery. The owner, Teruko, has a great eye for art, and particularly, strong style, and her gallery holds a rich diversity of styles, including her own. In addition, Toruko is a gracious host, and we talked art for a long time.

I have to admit that wide and wild diversity of Taos’ adobe architecture absolutely fascinated me. Yes, I understand that a great deal of it is simulated, superposing adobe simulation over modern architecture, but at the same time there is a huge amount of ancient adobe work. I think what turns me on the most is the almost non-existence of standard shapes and conventional architectural lines, as if you’d given gifted children buckets of modeling clay, and told them to build a fort.

Many Shapes of Adobe

Many Shapes of Adobe

As for lunch, we’d been told about Bent Street Deli & Cafe, a pleasant sunny cafe at the entrance to one of the open-air shop-lined patios that decorate downtown Taos, the John Dunn House. When we entered the cafe, the hostess was otherwise involved, so Christy, one of the waitresses, guided us to our table, coincidentally also one of her tables.

Since Pat is not notably fireproof when it comes to spicy food, and because this is New Mexico, after all, we needed to discuss the thermal power of the green chiles in one of the lunch specials, a sausage-tomato-and-green chile quiche. Christy was friendly, funny, and helpful with our selections, and we ended up ordering that quiche (which was delicious, and not too hot for Pat) and a Reuben sandwich (also delicious, but we added some fire to it with a side of horseradish), all of which we split between us. We  washed all this down with a nice local (pretty much) milk stout. When it came time to think about dessert, Christy stopped by to describe the available dishes in lingering, mouth-watering detail.

Bent Street Deli & Cafe

Bent Street Deli & Cafe

Normally, if we have dessert, Pat picks the most chocolate-containing dish, and then I split it with her. The first dessert item was a Mexican chocolate ice cream, and I figured I’d read Pat’s mind, but however strong the appeal of chocolate, she’s not big on ice cream. One down.

For the second dessert, Christy began a litany of fresh strawberries, vanilla custard, and whipped cream, all on some sort of extremely rich crepe. I could tell by the look in Pat’s eyes that she was sold. We never even heard about dessert number three.

In fairness to my wife’s judgement, the strawberry custard crepe was delicious, and I’ve never before tasted a crepe with that extreme-butter richness. If you’re ever in Taos, New Mexico, you need to visit the Bent Street Deli & Cafe and ask for Christy. Great fun and excellent food.

Seconds Eco Store

Seconds Eco Store

Happy and full of good food, we wandered further down the patio, and into a most amazing and interesting little shop, Seconds, which specializes in found art, recycled wonders, and unlikely re-utilizations. If you’ve never imagined that pop can pulltop tabs could be converted to high fashion, you’ll be delighted; if you’ve never kept your fruit in a bowl of bicycle chain, this could be your first; If you’ve never though of  printed circuit boards as art, Seconds may change your mind.

Moby Dickens, also in the John Dunn House patio-mall turned out to be a wonderfully comfortable book store, and a lot larger on the inside than on the outside. Their book selection was marvelous in both depth and breadth, and the two store cats will make you feel welcome.

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The Great (But Almost Airborne) Albuquerque Book Signing

On the way to Albuquerque, we had asked Agnes the GPS shrew to show us motels close to Victor’s Grape Arbor, where we had set up a book signing for my book Making Fine Spirits, with Michelle the owner, for the next day. Since a La Quinta was close, and we’d had good luck with that chain, I told Agnes to show us the way. She did and we arrived at the motel, where we registered and drove to our room on the back side of the motel.

As we were unloading, I told Pat that this back street looked familiar, and a moment later it dawned on me that we were on the same street as Victor’s Grape Arbor, and further, that Victor’s was almost directly across the street from us.

That night we slept soundly, comfortable in the knowledge that, not only would we not have to find the next day’s book signing, we’d have only to walk across the street and we’d be there. And that’s the way it worked out.

When I thought it was about time to cross the street and set up my laptop and 32″ monitor to run my Power Point presentation on, I stuck my head out the motel door to see Michelle and Patrick setting up a portable sunshade canopy in front of the store. I grabbed my gear and arrived just in time to be absolutely no help at all, except to congratulate them on a canopy well erected.

This is the second year we’ve done a book signing at Victor’s Grape Arbor, in part because the first was a great success, but mostly because Michelle is just a joy to work with. Always cheerful, she had set up the lecture part of the signing with the aforementioned sun shade canopy, to keep me out of the blistering Albuquerque sun, and had also provided a table for my laptop and monitor, under the canopy. This ensured that the monitor could be seen, which doesn’t happen when it’s in direct sunshine.

Michelle had also done her homework in advertizing the event, and a goodly crowd started assembling about the time I finished setting up.

When I started the lecture part of the signing, it soon became apparent that this was a really good crowd, both attentive and friendly, although I still try to test the presentation by asking if the material is making sense, so far.  As the lecture got going, another problem, not of our making arose. The very aggressive Albuquerque wind had decided that our sun canopy would make a wonderful kite, and that canopy started hopping from one leg to another, like a baby bird testing its nerve for the first flight.

Being quick of mind (ok, not exactly true, but for the sake of narrative flow, can you just give me this one?), I reached up to grab the canopy frame over my corner (after all, I only needed one hand to point to the monitor display with a long plastic brewing spoon). When I looked up, I saw that Michelle had moved to the opposite corner, and was holding her part down.

Throughout the rest of the lecture and Q & A session, Michelle and I hung on like bulldogs, while the canopy jerked and hopped, trying valiantly to take flight, dragging the two of us upward looking like a sort of tandem Mary Poppinses.

Afterward, I got a chance to chat with the attendees, and found they were extremely friendly and generally quite advanced in distillation.

We had such a good time, in fact, that Michelle had to nudge us a bit, so she could close the store. When I packed everything up, I noticed that my PowerPoint remote was missing, and several people came forward to help me find it. Michelle breezed through all these helpers with, “What did you  lose? I’m the best finder”.  “Bob’s remote”, was the answer. Michelle’s answer, “Check your pocket”.

I did, and there it was. Damn, how does she do that?

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Day Two of the Winemaker Magazine Conference

The second day starts much as the first did, but without the registration. I hit the conference breakfast of fruit, sweet rolls, and coffee as I did the day before, already fortified by a real breakfast.

The same friendly crowd is distributed amongst the breakfast tables, although some familiar faces are conspicuously absent. It’s almost certainly coincidence that many of those faces are the same ones driven from last night’s wine tasting by the forcible lights out and lockdown.

The second day is also more relaxed in every way, and my conspicuously-carried copy of Making Fine Spirits is eliciting more questions about the dark art of beverage distillation. Some sales are made, and several impromptu discussions spring up.

After a really interesting “Frozen Must Roundtable”, of great interest to us because our climate does not reliable produce wine grapes every year, one of these distillation discussions breaks out. I’m asked if I know of any way that grappa, a sometimes potent classic Italian brandy made from distilling discarded grape pomace, could be made. “Know of?”, I blurt, “I’ve made it several times, and as chance would have it I have a small sample in my car.”

Evidently, more people are interested in grappa than I’d imagined, because I’m approached by more potential grappa makers/tasters during the day. I tell them all that they can all have a taste at dinner, during that time when lots of bottle-bearing table-hopping goes on, but they have to understand that I only have something less than 200 ml of grappa, so the tastes must be small.

My second seminar is “Enzymes and More Pre-Fermentation Additives”, which extends my knowledge of fermentation enzymes, an increasingly important field in distillation. My last seminar, “Upgrading Your Home Winery”, exposes me to some new testing equipment that may make the fermentation and distillation metrics for my next book on distillation recipes and procedures easier to do.

Instead of attending a “Speed Wining” session, whatever the hell that is, I spend a pleasant hour chatting with an old conference friend from Louisiana, who has great skills at cadging wine (and glasses) from one of the wine kit company booths. The grappa subject comes up again, and even more people evince interest. Dinner will be fun.

Dinner, it turns out, really is fun. I bring a bottle of our Barbera to share at the table, and it’s well received. We’re getting more into Italian styles all the time. I meet several new friends at the table, and some are interested in my book, hobby distillation, and again, the grappa.

After we’ve had dessert, and drop into the awards ceremony, with lots of background conversation, I break out my pitifully small bottle of grappa. During dinner, I’ve noted where all the grappa-tasters were seated, so I take the grappa to those tables and pour a taste for everyone. I love to watch the expressions on the faces of people tasting a liquor they like for the first time, and it’s gratifying to see that expression now. The grappa was well-received.

Winemaker Awards Ceremony

Winemaker Awards Ceremony

After a bit, back at my table, one of the conference presenters, glowing softly with wine consumed, stops by our table and asks if he might taste the grappa. I send him off with a taste, leaving the bottle dangerously close to empty. A few minutes later, he’s back, and leaves with the bottle. I’d love to know where it went and who tasted it, and how it went over.

As for me, it’s been a long, but pleasant, few days, and I’m ready to call it an evening, so I do.

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My Fourth First Day of the Winemaker Magazine Conference

The first day of each Winemaker Magazine conference has fallen into a comfortable pattern. Grab a real breakfast about 6:30, because the pastries and fruit breakfast at the conference won’t keep me going until lunch. Hit the conference registration table to pick up my badge and bagful of freebies and the conference schedule and workbook. Stick four or five copies of Making Fine Spirits in the conference bag, tuck one copy under my arm (showing the colors, doncha know), and enter the breakfast hall, looking for old friends and/or interesting people.

I find both at one table, a Jesuit brother I met three years ago and really enjoy, and the owner of a complex of vinyards that grows, buys, freezes, warehouse, and ultimately sells, grape must from which hobbyists and commercial winemakers will make wine. I drop my bag by a chair, place the visible copy of Making Fine Spirits face up on the table to grab any interested parties, and fetch some coffee and fruit.

When I return, no-one has bitten on the idea of hobby distillation, so we all just chat and catch up on what’s happened the last year. Aside from socializing, a major endeavor at breakfast time is choosing the day’s seminars. When my wife Pat is with me, she takes all the vinyard management seminars, I take all wine chemistry seminars, and we divide the others depending on how we feel.

This year, I take “Reducing Sulfites” just to see what’s happening, “Home Vinyard Q&A” because nothing else in that time slot catches my attention, and “Techniques to Add and Remove Tannins”, which turns out to be the best session in the conference, at least for me. While the lecturer thinks he’s teaching me about the chemistry of tannins in wine, he is actually giving me great insight into the flavor chemistry of tannin as it is leached into aging liquors from the oak they are aging in. Specifically, he relates tannin harshness, mellowness, and solubility to molecule size, giving me great clues to reducing oak harshness in “over-oaked” spirits. A great session.

Dinner at the Winemaker Magazine conference is always great fun and an incredible wine-tasting opportunity, both to taste the wines of others, and to have others with experienced palates taste your wines. When the hall is opened for dinner, the tables are fairly well stocked with an assortment of wines, typically from sponsors and presenters, but the conference attendees come through the door bearing armloads of their own wines, to be shared with any and all.

In this crowd, the quality and variety of wines shared is stunning. While traditional French styles still predominate, it seems that more Italian styles were present. In my case, I bring an Amarone and a Nebbiolo the first night, and I’m not the only one with Italian wines at our table. On the exotic side, someone brings a Montmorency (sour pie) cherry wine. Forget your images of treacly homemade fruit wines; this wine is first-rate in every sense, and a big hit.

Understand that, quantity of wine consumed notwithstanding, we are artisans and craftspersons, and our exchange of information is orderly and sober, although necessarily lengthy. That’s why we are all deeply hurt when the authorities have to turn off the lights to get us out of the hall.

Wine Tasters

Wine Tasters

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Warming up for the Winemaker Magazine Conference with Agnes and a Bowing Contest

After starting the day with a stop at the Seven Bridges Cooperative homebrew supply store in Santa Cruz, I cruised around beautiful Monterey Bay to locate both my motel and the Monterey Marriott hosting the Winemaker Magazine conference, guided all the way by the tiny lady who lives inside my Garmin GPS.

While she is undoubtedly helpful at times, Agnes tends to be unstable, peevish at times, and at other times downright confrontational, to the point where after every verbal instruction, the implied “you idiot”, unspoken, and with a note appropriate to discussion of a bad mutual, and ex-, marriage, seems to hang in the air. As an example, “Drive to the highlighted route, you idiot!

As an aside, I’ve learned that you must never ask Agnes to find you a post office. Mostly she has no idea what you’re talking about, so she makes stuff up. She may guide you right past a perfectly good post office, and dump you at the loading dock of some run-down warehouse. God help you if you question her guidance; I once asked her three times to take me to a (possibly mythical) post office in Albuquerque, and she suffered a complete (and acrimonious) breakdown, never to recover. We retired her to someplace soft and dark, and replaced her with a new Agnes. God’s truth.

Anyway, after I’d found the Marriott, and learned I’d be using valet parking, I asked Agnes to find me the nearest 76 gas station, so I could start the following day (and the Winemaker Magazine conference) with a full tank of gas, which she did. (Arriving at 76 station, on left, you idiot!)

With tank filled, I moved next door into a small strip mall parking lot, to ask Agnes where I might find lunch. While she was busy telling me there was nothing close, I looked up to find I was parked 10 feet from a Chinese restaurant (you idiot!), and I loves me some Chinese food.

My waitress was a lovely young lady, sweet and polite to a fault, and dressed in traditional Chinese (restaurant serving) attire. When I gave my order (kung pao chicken), she performed something between a head nod and a deep bow. I was so struck by the gentle respect implied (especially by such a lovely lady), that I felt moved to … do something … so I, too, bowed.

When I looked up, my waitress’s face was more animated. Pleased perhaps, challenged maybe, inscrutable certainly, but changed. Her eyes showed increased interest in whatever the hell was happening, and she seemed to wait for a response from me. Deeply in over my head, I did the only thing I could think of; I bowed.

I don’t recall exactly what followed, at least on a play-by-play level, but my lovely waitress and I performed a short volley of bows every time our eyes met, which was often. I may have participated in a touching social ritual. I may have competed in something (if so, I lost). Hell, I may have insulted the poor dear egregiously; I have absolutely no idea.

All I can say for sure is that I may have thrown something out in my neck (you idiot!)

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Sierra Moonshine, The New Monitor, Missing Batteries, and Aluminum Boilers

Today saw me leaving my comfortable and well-fed digs high atop the Sierras, to perform my standard dog-and-pony show and Making Fine Spirits book-signing at Sierra Moonshine Brew Supply, in Grass Valley California.

The long route took me through the heart of California’s gold-rush country, on roads a lot twistier than I remembered, so twisty, in fact, that I’m pretty sure those marks on my rear bumper were made by my front bumper.

I got to Sierra Moonshine a bit early, because I knew I had to unpack and set up my new monitor for the Power Point presentation. Had to buy the new monitor when I found that I’d left the power supply to my old  monitor at home, and it was too special to replace. Of course, when I unpacked, I didn’t see the remote’s batteries, so I had to drive a few miles to find some and buy them. (I found the factory-supplied batteries after I got “home”.)

Although attendance was light, everyone kindly waited for me to get my presentation set up and working, and I ran through the graphic part of the presentation. We had some spirited discussions in the Q&A part. Interestingly, I ran into a bit of resistance with my assertion that you can’t change the temperature of a boiling liquid just by changing the heat input rate. I’m sticking with Roualt’s law of partial vapor pressures (I see it as a law rather than an opinion), so we agreed to disagree.

Similarly, there was disagreement on the safety of using an aluminum still boiler, something I’ve done (off and on) for close to 40 years with no flavor or corrosion (or Alzheimers, that I recall) problems. Nonetheless, I spent a lot of time later on the internet, studying the possibility of volatile aluminum compounds, on the assumption that if it isn’t volatile, it won’t come through the still (an argument I made to myself when I started using aluminum).

From everything I could find, it appears that volatile aluminum compounds are mostly lab curiosities, and formed by rare reactions and/or reagents I don’t expect to see in my still.

All told, a long, hard, lean day, and I was happy to get back to Echo Summit and a good bed.


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Getting High on Sierras, Slow Food, and Appreciative Bears

House with sun

A Fine Place to Take a Breather

With a few days between book signings, I’m staying at the house of a dear old friend, in stunningly beautiful country, some odd patches of snow remaining, high atop the crest of the Sierras, overlooking the Tahoe basin. Ok, in truth, it’s about a mile and half walk to where you can actually look over the Tahoe basin, but I’m feeling expansive, and a mile and a damned half is precious little distance to quibble over.

Aside from simple friendship, and the fact that I’m sort of halfway between my next two signings, the best part of the arrangement is cooking for each other, foods we’d never make to eat alone, or that a spouse won’t eat. I’m eating embarrassingly well.

Bear paw print

The Bear Paw Print

I’m guessing that food satisfaction radiates somehow, because we seem to be attracting bears. Two mornings in a row we’ve been visited at dawn by a bear who’d really like to come inside and share in the good times with us, but who never really got past a nose through a cracked- open window. Like all well-behaved bears, he finally responded to, “go, bear”, and left the window, pausing a bit to look in the back of my car to see if I had food. No harm done, he wandered off, leaving only a slightly muddy pawprint on the car.

It seems that everyone has this bear-folks relationship well worked out. I just found out that a bear used to stand at my friend’s kitchen window, just to watch him fry bacon and smell that bacony goodness  coming out of the exhaust fan. Nothing overtly forward, he evidently just enjoyed watching bacon fry.

I guess that makes two of us.

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A Grand Day Out (Only With Beer Instead of Cheese)


Setting Up Brewing in the Parking Lot

When I drove into the parking lot and saw brewers setting up their gear outside, I knew that I was in the right place. Not only would I be doing my standard spiel and Making Fine Spirits book-signing at NorCal Brewing Solutions in Redding CA, but I would get to spend the whole “International Big Brew Day” playing. I knew it would entail beer-making and beer-tasting, but I had no real idea of how grand a day it would be.

NorCal Mezzanine

NorCal With Mezzanine

My first impression of NorCal is that it’s huge, well-stocked, sumptuous, well-staffed and busy as hell, although some of that may just be that today was a special day. Second impression was that everyone, staff, customers, just visiting friends, book-signing attendees, and most especially the owners Jay and Victor and their wives Tina and Michelle, were friendly, helpful, and warmly receptive, almost to a fault.

Getting Read for the Lecture

Getting Ready for the Lecture

The pre-signing hobby distilling lecture was well attended, and I’d make a wild guess that 3/4 of them were already distilling on some level, although I know of a couple of noobs for sure. Even at that, everyone seemed tolerant of the fact that my material starts at the very beginning and covers a lot that the experienced distiller may already know. Attendees were focused and asking good questions. For my first time with the new Power Point material working, I was really happy with how it went.

After spending a late afternoon loafing at cafe tables on the mezzanine (I told you this place was nice) and sampling all kinds of potables, I was taken to dinner by the owners, where (thanks to a dinner-order failure) we spent a lot of time in simple friendly conversation, a super end to a great day.

Now I can’t wait until next year!

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Of Hospitals, Being Late, and Laughing Hard

Day 2 of the 2013 second annual cross-country Zymurgy Bob book scramble, lecture series, and serial cluster-(bleep), and things aren’t looking much better.

Starting the morning in the hospital, everyone was just sweeter than pie, although they acted a bit devious when I asked about leaving so I could make my book-signing in Eugene. They even gave me breakfast in bed – with scrambled eggs! I started to do my trick with breakfast, but I figured if they had too much fun, they might keep me forever, so I tried really hard and kept my face out of my breakfast.

Even so, the hospital friends started making up reasons why I should stay with them, so I called my son Mike to help me make a getaway. I didn’t mean to seem rude, but after Mike and I both tried to reason for my departure, I’m ashamed to admit I got a bit devious.

It appeared this game of “paste the wires on the fall-down guy” was really more important than they had let on, and I found out they had somebody hidden in another room, testing to see that I still had the wires, and was still going along with that gag. I reasoned that if I started taking off the wires, everyone would kind of see that the joke was wearing thin, and they’d let me go.

It’s amazing how well those wires were glued on, and it was only after losing a lot of hair that I finally got the wires off (although I missed a couple of those little sticky-pads, that I only found later), and just as I’d hoped, pretty soon I had visitors expressing regret that the joke was no longer funny.

Long story short, we got busted out of the hospital, and took off at a dead run for Eugene, with my wife Pat phoning ahead to let Jim at the Home Fermenter Center know that I was on my way (and already late). People who had come for the book-signing very graciously waited for me, and we did the lecture in Jim’s parking lot.

As I stood there, in front of a group of hobby distillers seated on folding chairs, in three-day old clothes, unshaved, unbathed, with tape covering my recent IV removal, and a terrible case of bed-head, another gentleman, in appearance very similar to mine (but I think his eyes were redder) crossed the parking lot to us and whispered to Jim in the end chair, “Is this an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting?”

Any day that ends with laughing your butt off can’t be all bad.

ZBob on the road

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First Day of the 2013 Making Fine Spirits Book Tour

Well, the 2013 second annual cross-country Zymurgy Bob book scramble, lecture series, and serial cluster-(bleep) is underway, and its beginnings are seriously inauspicious.

I spent the first night away from home at my daughter’s house in Hillsboro, Oregon, with my grandson Sean. While there, I had a bad drug trip (on a prescribed drug, mind you) from which some truly amazing symptoms developed.

When I put a forkful of scrambled eggs in my mouth, consciousness flew from my body like a wild bird, and I buried my face in my breakfast. I’m told my eyes made little X’s.

Sean was so impressed by my trick, that he called his friends over to watch, and they came right away, but oddly they brought a fire truck with them, evidently assuming that my entertainment skills extended to self-combustion, or something similarly spectacular. Sean’s friends were also seriously impressed by my trick. and talked me into going with them to show my trick to their friends over at the hospital. They being generous, I got the reclining seat on the way over.

The hospital friends were very nice (although sometimes a bit forward with pokey things, and found great amusement in pasting wires all over my body – just hospital humor, I guess), so I was able to show them my trick a few more times (what is there about scrambled eggs?), but I was very firm with them that I had to be in Eugene the next afternoon for a book signing.

I don’t think they heard me very clearly, because they planned a big sleepover, sort of. I didn’t get much and they were helling around all night, so it was a mixed blessing, and one helluva first day out.

ZBob on the road

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