Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Serenghetti II

               A lion in hand is a most amazing experience:

  Nubian vultures hung in the blue sky, looking for death on the blonde ocean of grass. We tried to find this kill, without success except for the one crucial lesson I had learned about Africa: nothing lasts for long after it hits the ground.

A stiff east wind curdled the clouds above Naabi hill, the nickname for the largest of the kopjes - "kopies" - rocky up-thrusts on the Serengeti where acacia and Sodom apple trees grow. This part of Africa has been compared to a submerged mountain range of great age, the kopies geologic elbows protruding from the thin fabric of soil, ethereal points of reference on the otherwise uniform plain that provide havens for big cats and other living things.
On the east slope of Naabi, a lioness appeared. Something in her manner alerted our driver, Lawrence. He parked under an acacia to wait while she crossed the road to join a group of lions we hadn't noticed, a tawny feline puddle including a male and two more females. She rubbed faces all round, the leisureliness of the group attesting to full stomachs. The car wouldn't bother them as long as we remained inside.   

The lioness returned to the kopie, and moments later two cubs emerged, tentative at first, then bounding ahead of their mother and throwing themselves onto the other lions. Only months old, compact, muscular, they were wary of the male - but not enough to avoid attacking the black tip of his tail. They fight one another, too, rolling in the grass, exposing white bellies.
I took the mike from the dashboard and reported the news to camp. The voice of Hugo, the director, came crackling back across the airwaves: "You've brought us luck."
Soon his van was bumping across the plain, rooster-tailing dust, specially adapted for filming, with a picture window that could be removed in the rain and hydraulic lifts for stabilizing in high wind. On top, a rack contained a collapsible "hide" of canvas for filming surreptitiously, or for sleeping; inside, there were two camera mounts, a swivel chair, and curtains to eliminate silhouettes. The van stopped fifty yards from the lions, and Lawrence and I withdrew, for lions often will not accept the presence of two vehicles.
Depth perception was difficult in all this space and light, the landscape alive but elusive. West of Naabi, a distant elephant turned into a wildebeest, its demonic head magnified by thermals; a rampant lion became a jackal with its forepaws on a rock; the black golf balls on undulating tees were really ostriches, the slashed heads of mythical beasts the rumps of grazing zebras, stripes evolutionary slights of hand that can cause a moment's hesitation in a charging lion and therefore make the different between life and death.      
Our luck held, and I spotted a cheetah; Lawrence, peering through his binoculars, asked, "And who is this?" Two cubs appeared, about 16 weeks old, while their mother watched the herds of Thomson's ("tommies") and Grant's gazelles drifting across the plain, her small head and elongated body built for speed. The fleetest of all mammals, cheetahs are capable of 60 miles an hour in the initial dash that enables them to swat a fleeing tommy to the ground before throttling it, as the lion suffocated the giraffe. But as often as not, a lion or a hyena will deprive the cheetah of its spectacular kill before it gets even a mouthful of protein.            

Hugo and Mat, done with the lions, came now to film the cheetahs; I joined them in the van and sat on the wooden crate full of water bottles while they got into position. Hugo was using a smaller French Aaton camera, quiet compared to the .35 millimeter "nail bucket" between Mat's knees, capable of slow motion and of exposing 120 frames per second, when a chase was on. "Then it sounds like a machine gun," said Hugo.
The cheetahs were not cooperating. The mother lay down, big ears extended, flipping off flies, and so did the cubs. The tommies moved maddeningly in the wrong direction, and she did not pursue them. "Not very adventurous," said Mat.
   The lithe predator in his lens seemed to feel threatened, and not by us. Hugo's earlier film, Innocent Killers, showed the dark side of a band of male cheetahs that attacked a female. This one was doubly vulnerable because lions will kill cheetah cubs whenever they can.
We moved twice, about 40 feet each time. The minutes turned into an hour, the hour into two. This was the common state of the wildlife photographer, elaborately prepared inertia. The waiting was helped along by a small library of natural history, a stack of magazines, and two kokapes full of canned sardines, cookies, Ali's bacon pancakes, marmalade, tea, coffee, and antacid tablets.
A dust devil mesmerized; the incremental drift of the gazelles was matched by the massive shift of alternating green and golden islands, cloud spawned. Hugo's driver, Andrea, kept up a sporadic conversation with camp by radio phone. "How many elephants in the marsh?" he asked. "... Are the hornbills fighting?" Wildlife was opportunity in all its guises.          
This landscape had not changed in an eon, home of early hominids and some of the most interesting animals on earth, their complex relationships developed over the immense span of time. Wasps bumped against the windows of the Land-Rover, looking to eat; a secretary bird stalked snakes through the wind-blown grass like a miniature, feathered dinosaur. It occured to me that we all predate here - the cheetah on the tommies, Hugo and Mat on the cheetah, me on the filmmakers.
Meanwhile the light was going, the Gol kopies turning purple; the filmmakers' quarries threw long shadows. "Plenty of sun left," said Andrea, to which Hugo responded, "You're an optimist."
   He badly needed a shot of a functional cheetah family; at last the mother got up and approached her off-spring. The Aaton and the nail-bucket begin to roll as the cheetah lowered her head, sniffed, and licked a cub.
"Bingo," said the director.            
Lawrence, Penny and I traveled to Seronera, where the biologists studying canine distemper were being assisted by American veterinarian, Melony Roelke-Parker, who worked for the park service. A friendly, capable woman, she lived in a stone house with a hippo jaw in the front yard but spent most of her time in her four-by-four. Her duties included putting wild lions to sleep with sedatives, so blood and tissue samples could be taken.
Melody was interested in our observation of the lion pride on Naabi hill, which she had studied in the past; we made plans to meet there in a few days, and then Lawrence and I got out to look for leopards in the korongas, low-lying, overgrown creases in the landscape that offered the best opportunity.
   Secretive, difficult to spot in the long grass, leopards hang out there - literally - in "sausage" trees, named for their dangling seed pods. We checked the trees carefully, without success, and then he asked, "And who is this?"
   The leopard, a female, was not in a sausage tree but perched on a termite mound. Her engorged teats signified that she had cubs nearby. With elaborate unconcern she stretched to watch a herd of grazing tommies, the classic profile, head raised in a cloud of white butterflies; the only movement about this darkly spotted, supreme felinity was her luxuriant tail. 
The leopard glided into the grass. We could see only her tail, a dark scimitar, and then only its white tip. The tommies knew she was hunting them, but not exactly where she was, and neither did we now. The gazelles moved in long segmented strings, skittish, dashing and freezing while others took the lead. Their convex eyes were adapted for wrap-around vision, to better protect themselves; they could out-run a leopard on the straight-away, but they had to see her.
The tommies moved in single file toward the spot where we thought the leopard waited. They snatched mouthfuls of grass, a show of sang froid, or stupidity? "I think something is going to happen," said Lawrence, and my neck muscles tensed. I imagined the leopard leaping up to seize a throat, the brief, furious struggle that would follow. "There!" I said, as a tommy bounded in panic, but there was no leopard.
She emerged elsewhere and passed within ten feet of the car, intent on the boiling, escaping herd. "She's nervous because of the elephants," said Lawrence, and I saw the line of hulking silhouettes above the blonde savannah, etched into the rose-tinted evening sky. One by one the elephants crossed the road ahead of us, unhurried, alert, some of the putty-gray babies so small they disappeared again in the grass.      
The last elephant, a towering female, turned in the road to face us; she lifted her trunk. The leopard was elsewhere, but not her scent, mixed with ours. "Go on, mama," whispered Lawrence, easing the Land-Rover into reverse. If we were charged, it would be extremely unpleasant at best. Our vulnerability was palpable, the gorgeousness of the scene enhanced by the modicum of danger, the old African trade-off.
Finally the elephant turned and followed the others, and we ate dust all the way back to Ndutu, through the darkness of a thousand eyes.

"They're all here," said Melody, of the lions on Naabi hill. She had names for them: "Lupine is the collared one. There's Lilac, Lily, and Lychee, the mother."
They were stretched out near the waterhole in the early morning sunlight, the cubs noticeably larger after only 10 days, the adults only vaguely interested in our cars. Melody's contained her young son, Seth, another vet from the Tanzanian agricultural ministry and his assistant, a French photographer, and lots of equipment, including a Talenject, an 8-inch dart with a red feathered tail, in a plastic sleeve, and an air gun. "It's really slick," she said, "when it works."
She drove to within a few yards of the pride. Lupine was her target, her blood sampled just two weeks before having proved positive for antibodies to the canine distemper virus. Two other lions checked at the time were negative.
Melody aimed the gun and fired, and the lions leapt away, Lupine with a red feather in her flank. One of the other females pulled it out with her teeth, a poignant reminder of the cooperative habits of lions, rare in nature, but the air pocket behind the plunger has already collapsed, pumping a drug called Telazol into Lupine.
   She settled down again and within minutes her head drooped; soon she was unconscious, her eyes still open. The other female remained beside her, seemingly out of sympathy, but fled as we approached. Shielded by the cars from the rest of the pride, Melody put on rubber gloves and went to work: checking Lupine's temperature and respiration, feeling her groin for blood pressure, examining her mouth, recording her girth with a tape measure, talking all the while into a tape recorder.
  The other vet and his assistant plucked ticks off Lupine and put them in plastic vial; they took a hair sample from the tail. "She's not nursing, but she might be pregnant," said Melody, feeling her stomach. "It's hard to find the babies in these big-bodied lions."
She took a blood sample, and one from a lymph node. I felt Lupine's coat, so silky, the muscles and tendons in her back leg a concentration of awesome power, and yet there was something distinctly sensuous about her. The big yellow eyes seem to watch me, flecked with brown: beautiful, implacable, vulnerable. Melody put salve into them "because I can't blink for her."
I wanted Lupine to be cured, but the answers were not as easy as all this prognostic science in the wilderness suggested. The biologists knew canine distemper was picked up from the thousands of un-inoculated domestic dogs on the park's periphery, the latest incursion of civilization. But isolating the virus and coming up with an antidote involved thousands of variables; it was by no means assured. And the political pressure of encroaching homo sapiens was even more daunting.                 

Suddenly Lupine reared up, scattering her human tormentors like flies. She rolled over. I was acutely aware of blue starlings flashing in the morning sunlight, and of standing unprotected on the sprawling plain.
   (For the first Serengeti installment go to:
To order my novel, Nose, click on:  
To order my book of travel essays go to:

Monday, October 28, 2013

Believe it or not, these are labels:

    This bottle of sauvignon blanc's from Uproot, an innovative winery in Napa Valley that takes a daring approach to branding in the age of wine glut, with a label that tells you... nothing.
    The back label reveals a bit more about Uproot's 2011 Gray Edition, but what you really need is the accompanying card:
    "Ever taste a wine where the label says it has cassisnotes, and you go, 'Uh, yeah, not tasting that, whatever it is.' Fact is, tasting notes are subjective. So, there's a reason you see three black bars on the label.
    "We wanted to have some fun with this one, so you could, too. Sauv Blanc isn't usually aged. So that makes it somewhat surprising. And it's aged in oak, so that should tell you a little more.
    "Pairing suggestions. Yes. But we'll never tell. Let's just say it's not seafood. Isn't that what they always say?"        
    I don't know what they always say but, no, it sure isn't seafood. The wine has better acidity than I expected. There is some grass in there but mostly I found citrus and peach, whereas the yellow-green stripe's supposed to denote key lime. 
    Here's another Uproot label - the 2011 unoaked sauvignon blanc  -  that's pure informational overload by uproot's standards. According to the accompanying card the colors denote, in descending order: melon, fresh cut grass, citrus, grapefruit, and passion fruit. "This wine finishes seriously as dry as laundry on a summer clothesline."
    But not as dry as the wit covering what must be a whiff of desperation. The challenges in today's wine marketing jungle are formidable for almost everybody. It's a dog-drink-dog world out there and Uproot's found a unique way to at least make people take a second look.
    And what do these well-made wines cost? I'll never tell.

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Friday, October 25, 2013

Off-road in the Serengeti

Beautiful, yes, and more tooth and nail than I bargained for:                                                                                            
  The road west from Arusha forsook concrete soon enough for the rocks and dust that are the traveler's continuum in East Africa. At first the animals glimpsed at a distance seemed both fabulous and cliched: a lone elephant on the shores of Lake Manyara like an ink blot on lime-colored parchment; a dozen loping giraffes ethereal, hallucinatory; splendid starlings like driven leaves, electric blue in the bright sunlight.
The well-watered slopes of the Ngorongoro crater were more like Tuscany than Tanzania, with grain in the fields, and lush coffee plantations. On the rim, Masai warriors waited motionless to be photographed in their crimson robes, gripping spears dark as their countenances; beyond them yawned a collapsed Pleistocene diorama, a green-veined vision of paradise under flat-topped acacia trees, spattered with distant herds - Cape buffalo, wildebeest, hippos. The sublime beauty was paradoxical and speaks to the whole continent: boundlessness contained, wildness heart-breakingly fragile.
    Beyond the crater, the plains fell away in a cloud-shadowed land-sea much like that of the American West, creased with chlorophyll but overwhelmingly dry. White plumes lifted on the thermals, ephemeral pushpins marking the way through the immensity of the Serengeti. I had come to see big cats - lions, cheetahs and leopards - and to learn about a mysterious virus that threatens the Serengeti lion.
Two hours later, my driver turned into a track less hospitable and sped south, trailing a tornado of dust that worked its way up through the floorboards and under the doors, coating dashboard, sunglasses, teeth. Ahead of us the Serengeti's mythical menagerie splintered and fled: Thomson's and Grant's gazelles, chevroned white and black, sleek topis with swept-back horns, hartebeests graceful even in panic, hyennas like rocking-horses, heads designed for killing, and big Kori's bustards lumbering into flight.
Pods of yellow-necked spurfowl exploded from beside the car. I could see solitary Marabou storks, and addled guineas in bunches, and low-slung warthogs, erect tails like short-wave antennas, a favored repast of lions, as were the zebras, their outrageous stripes surreal against the monochrome of brush and sky.
We entered a scrub woods of thorn acacia, at dusk. Eyes appeared in the headlights, some identifiable - impalas, dik-diks - and some not. At Ndutu, the so-called "soda" Lake Lagarja sat on the official boundary between the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and the Serengeti National Park, its alkaline shores extensive in this, the dry season, its water offering protection and food for hundreds of greater and lesser flamingos, pale pink in the gathering shadows.
Lights blinked on above the lake, revealing a line of tents with peaked roofs. Woodsmoke unfurled from the kitchen; we could smell cooking as we approached and heard native music from a radio also fed by the gasoline generator. Land-Rovers parked under the acacia trees included one with a customized door, hydraulic lifts and special racks for mounting cameras, all indications that we had found the place we were searching for.
A short, stout man with white hair, heavily bearded, stood at the hospitality table set up under the big canvas fly: Hugo Van Lawick, the Dutch wildlife photographer. "Have a coffee," he said, in English, the standard greeting. "Have a drink."
With him were members of his multi-cultural professional family: a young British cameraman named Mat, two assistants, Karen and Carny, one American and one Irish, and Hugo's crucial Yorkshire car mechanic, Mort. All awaited dinner; I took a chair and listened to talk of the day, jacket zipped against the sudden cold, savoring the lack of motion after eight hours, and the taste of bourbon.
Karen and Mat had staked out the nests of hornbills and snake eagles with their cameras, for a film about big cats and some of their neighbors. For almost 30 years Hugo, formerly married to the chimpanzee expert, Jane Goodall, had pursued Africa's natural stars with the care and meticulous observation of a biologist. He translated the experiences into extraordinary narrative films about the wilder aspects of what is still the most romantic of continents.
The capture of discreet moments in the wild involves logistics equal to those of a small war. The Land-Rovers had to be kept operational, food ordered by radio telephone and brought in over the fearsome road from Arusha. There were travel and equipment permits to obtain, and the all-important finding of subjects to be filmed. This often involved as many as three cars plying separate parts of the Ngorongoro and the Serengeti, their passengers scanning the horizon.
Lurking behind the conversation was the throbbing, palpable darkness. The orchestra includes insects, birds and animals, baffling to a novice - I recognized a fox's bark, and the odd yell of a hyena - and conspicuously lacked what every child associates with the African night: the roar of a lion.
  Later, I mentioned the threat of canine distemper to the stars of Hugo's film, a problem that worried him as much as it did the researchers in Seronera, headquarters of the Serengeti National Park. They estimated that the virus may have killed as many as a third of the 250 lions being studied; researchers had actually observed the deaths of seven lions racked by neurological seizures.
"Canine distemper has already wiped out the wild dogs," Hugo said. "It could do the same to the cheetahs," which are genetically less robust than lions.
Dinner was served in the big tent by Frederick, one of a dozen "chaps" who proudly carried over from the kitchen a platter of roast meat of indeterminate origin, vegetables cooked with cinnamon, and mangoes, all delicious, equal to the rapacious appetites generated in the bush. Over the dregs of Spanish red, Hugo issued marching orders for the following day: look out for cats with young, particularly those belonging to the species, Panthera leo.
"We'll see how things unfold," he said with a fatalism derived from a life spent among forces savage and sublime, rarely predictable.
   The next morning revealed flat-topped acacias strung with the nests of weaver birds that seemed to hold up a sky streaked with orange. The hypnotic calling of the doves had already begun. From the kitchen came the sleepy voice of Ali, the cook, making up the kokapes - Swahili for the baskets containing sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, cake, and Thermoses of hot water.
   Endless cups of tea and coffee were consumed in the mobile theater of the car that is the travelers' Africa, where guns are prohibited and tourists are confined to the few main roads. We were allowed to go anywhere, and for almost a week did just that and still didn't see a lion. Then one morning my driver, Lawrence, a Tanzanian who wore loafers and a plaid sports shirt, pointed to a shadowy fugitive on the edge of camp as we were pulling out, and said, "A good day begins with a hyena."
A few minutes later, speeding over the soda flats, he added, "There is a lion!"
At first I saw nothing but flamingos, then she materialized: a tawny, fluid presence that instantly added tension to the landscape. Belly full, indifferent to the car, she headed for cover on the slope below camp to sleep. I sensed both power and an unappeasable quality I did not want to encounter without the car's encapsulating steel, and felt unreasonable exhilaration.
Miles away, white-backed and Egyptian vultures perched in the acacias. We found a clearing that bore signs of extreme violence, and in it lying what is left of a giraffe - a rack of ribs, up-ended spine, folds of moist, torn skin, and a severed head. The hindquarters were gone; there were feathers everywhere.
   A big male lion slept in the shade, tongue lolling, and a smaller one nearby, both breathing in shallow bursts, their distended bellies coursed with thick blue veins. By human standards it is a gruesome scene. We haddn't see the kill but, knowing something of lions, pieced together what had happened:
The spring wildebeest migration was sparse, and these two lions were starving. Locals, not nomads, they stayed put after the females of the pride, the hunters, had moved down to the lake. The big male, scarred by past encounters, was about five years old and weighed almost 400 pounds, with a full mane streaked with black. He did little more than propagate when the females were in estrous, capable of mating as many as 75 times in a single day. Sometimes he guarded cubs while the females hunted, but mostly he slept.
Lions rarely attack giraffes, which can weigh up to two tons, achieve a speed of 37 miles an hour, and kill with hooves at the ends of deceptively thin but powerful legs. But these two had been desperate.
   Meat was, with few exceptions, their only food, usually scavenged from cheetah, leopard and hyena kills when not provided by the lionesses. Males kill on occasion: wildebeest, zebra, and Thomson's gazelle, the staples, and warthog, topi and hartebeest, impala, eland, and even, if the circumstances were right, the formidable Cape buffalo and giraffe. They have also been known to eat tortoises, ostrich eggs, locusts, fruit, and even a man's shirt left in the bush, according to George Schaller writing in The Serengeti Lion.
The giraffe may have been lame. Members of the species often travel great distances alone; if this one moved with imperfect fluidity, the lions would have been instantly on their feet, advancing with their bellies close to the ground, heads extended. The giraffe no doubt fled, fore and hind legs working together, like a rabbit's. He probably wheeled and slashed with his hooves.
The big lion leapt onto a flank and imbedded ten prehensile claws in the soft flesh. His weight could pull down most prey, but not a grown giraffe. This one spun in a cloud of dust, snorting in panic while the lion held on, raking its loins with his back claws. The subadult would watch for a moment and then leap up and bite into the giraffe's back. The towering animal stumbled, turned, and was dragged down.
On the ground, he would be unable to reach the attackers with his flailing legs. The older lion grasped the straining neck in his jaws. A lion's teeth are not ideal for breaking bones, and too short to reach the vital arteries in large animals, but they can rip out most throats. More effective, and more common, is suffocation. The lion clamped down, cutting off the giraffe's breath while it lunged from side to side, its struggles growing weaker; the lion waited for a full two minutes after the struggling had stopped, to be sure the giraffe would not get up.
The young lion, panting from the exertion, stood by while the older one tore into the giraffe's hindquarters, where meat was most easily reached, and pulled out the intestines and other vital organs, source of minerals. He waited for the older to begin to feed on a haunch, his muzzle turning red, before joining in.
    They eat by tearing hunks of meat from the flanks and swallowing them whole. Capable of consuming a quarter of their body weight in a few hours, they slept next to the kill, and in the early morning hours fed again. Vultures danced at dawn just out of reach, tearing at the eyes of the giraffe, and hyenas congregated. The big lion charged and dispersed them, but they quickly returned.
    In packs, hyenas can kill an isolated lion, subjecting him to the massed onslaught of some of the most powerful jaws in Africa.
At some point either a lion or a hyena charged and killed one vulture but that did not deter the others, while behind them, waiting their turn, were yellow-backed jackals, bat-eared foxes, and Marabou storks. Flies swarmed over the carcass, and bees, and across the ground came beetles, ants and innumerable other claimants.
   By nightfall of the day we found the kill, there would be nothing left of the giraffe but a hoof or two.
   (Next: the lion(ess) in hand)

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Right Stuff

There's a special sub-strate - to my mind - of exceptional wines from Napa and surrounding regions that are less than $50 a bottle and should by current standards cost twice that. (Remember Cotton Harrell's Puddle-jump from the novel, Nose? Well, this ain't that place or that wine, but there are similarities.)                                                             
       Volker Eisele Family Estate is located in Chiles Valley, high above the Napa River but tributary to it. At the south end of Pope Valley, a world apart from Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Up here cabernet sauvignon is dealt with in a manner more reminiscent of the Medoc: distinctive California fruit but not with such intensity that you have to wipe off your face with a towel, classic structure well suited to food and to aging, great lingering finish and a commendably low (real) 13.8 per cent alcohol. This in my opinion is the way the best Napa V cabs are headed. This one's still affordable but probably not for long.                                                                                                        

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The real Big Easy

On Oct. 16 I posted some of the many uses made by others of the title for my first novel (http://cjonwine.blogspot.com/2013/10/the-big-easy-not.html ). Here's a version of the new cover that will go on the ebook when it's issued, with tweaks. Any suggestions for altering it are welcome:

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  
To order my book of travel essays go to:

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Dark and deep

     We got thoroughly sick of (bad) balsamic vinegar. Then this lovely bottle from a friend landed in the kitchen:                                                       

        It's brought to you by Olivier and Williams-Sonoma but it originates in Modena (Italy) and is 25 years old. According to the back label, "Grapes are slowly cooked in copper kettles cauldrons, then combined with older balsamic vinegar to help speed the acidification process." For salad dressing you don't need more than a dash into good olive oil. Crusty bread dipped in same is great.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Postcard: The Vermillion Cliffs

Magnificent Possessions:
Who's to Protect What's Left of the West?

     The Vermillion Cliffs extend all the way from the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona to the Escalante Mountains in southern Utah. Imagine a vast arc of flaming rock with the Colorado River at one end and the Utah border at the other, the cliff's deep crimsons and magentas running along 25 miles of eternally stressed sandstone.

     The cliffs can be seen from state  highway Alternate 89, which takes the low road from Page, Ariz., to Kanab, Utah, once the southern hub of the Mormons' land of Deseret. This is the so-called Arizona Strip, cut off from southern access by the millennial crack of the canyon, as rich in prehistory as it is in geology, with distant plateaus with old Piute names—Shivwit, Uinkaret, Kaibab. Wind and water shaped them, the broad valleys silver-green with sagebrush and juniper, and the high forested tablelands of confusing, sometimes frightening aspect.
     Atop the Vermillion Cliffs sits the Paria Plateau, named for the ancient occupiers of this back pocket of the West. The Paria have been gone from this landscape for roughly a thousand years, but they and other Native Americans left behind artifacts and ghostly remains of dwellings that serve as a palimpsest of ancient civilizations, if only you have eyes to see them.
     Peter W. Bungart, an archaeologist, does. He explained that the Ancient Puebloans, once referred to as Anasazi ("ancient enemies" in Navajo), arrived c. 300 B.C. and introduced agriculture. "They made pottery," he said, "because they were growing squash, corn, and beans, which required pots."
     He was standing on a sloping shoulder of the plateau, still under the Vermillion Cliffs. In shorts and brimmed canvas hat, a pack on his back containing lunch (bread and avocados), topo maps, a battery-run global positioning system (GPS) device, and other tools of the itinerant student of the long gone, Bungart looked like a day hiker. All around us, in red sand under blue sky, lay some of the pottery shards as well as knapped flint and smooth stones used as tools that had been cast in their millions by the elements and by various peoples across thousands of square miles.
     Bungart could pick up any one of those artifacts and tell you its provenance. However, much of this reliquary lies in the midst of impromptu tracks of all-terrain vehicles. He was employed by the Wilderness Society to "inventory" this part of the vast, arid Southwest that has drawn hundreds of archaeologists to the hottest research turf on earth. The Paria Plateau and Vermillion Cliffs form part of the relatively young National Landscape Conservation System (NLCS), some 26 million federal acres in large, scattered parcels in the West, kept intact not as national parks but as spectacular public space.

     The NLCS—bureaucracy's uninspired name for a heroic vision—was established back in 2000 by President Clinton's secretary of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt, to provide extra protection for whole landscapes. But most Americans have still never heard of it. The system's sheer size and complexity—more than 200 separate parcels from New Mexico's Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks to Oregon's Cascade-Siskiyou range, from the Upper Missouri River Breaks in Montana to California's Carrizo Plain—defy easy description.
     In short, the NLCS embodies, in the West, the last and best of old-time America. And locked within its gorgeous, commodious confines are answers to some of the country's most fascinating cultural and scientific ­mysteries. One way to ensure continued protection is to compile lists of the prehistoric structures and objects of what could liberally be construed as a kind of American Mesopotamia. Extensive evidence of ancient cultures is required for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, the main mechanism for protection.

     But there are useful laws other than the National Historic Preservation Act—the source of the National Register—including the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Recording evidence of prior habitation by Homo sapiens puts some brakes on business as usual—energy exploitation, mining, lumbering, and grazing—and the more evidence, the better.
     We walked on through a scatter of painted pottery shards, then plain, ridged ones from broken cooking utensils. Decades of off-road vehicle use and looting have wiped out large settlements of departed Natives. But by chance we found ourselves standing next to an abandoned house site, the tumbled, mostly buried stones faintly outlining the shape of rooms lived in before the Renaissance. The subtlety of the arrangement added to its poignancy. This site would also attract those who steal artifacts from public lands, either for sale or for a private collection, far from the gaze of officialdom. "Pot hunting's a way of life around here," Bungart said. "The BLM needs to close some roads."
     He meant the Bureau of Land Management, a lesser satrapy within the Department of the Interior responsible for 260 million federal acres. Created in 1946 by combining the General Land Office with the Grazing Service, BLM must manage for multiple uses of these lands but tilts heavily toward development. The agency professes to lack sufficient funds to properly police areas like the Paria Plateau, which is true in part, but as Bungart said, "They lack the will, too. They're always working on management plans, and meanwhile the resources are trashed."
     On the way back to the highway, we stopped to watch condors, successfully relocated from California, soaring above the Vermillion Cliffs. This was just one instance of nature prevailing with the help of science, on land that belongs to everyone but without pavement or posted lectures on geology, history, and "sponsorship"—land that could be experienced much as it was a century ago, with few people and regulations, and much still to be discovered.
     The National Landscape Conservation System has narrowly survived despite the fact that "locking up" western resources on public land is frowned upon by privatizers both inside and outside government, denounced by western congressmen, and nibbled at by lobbyists and industry. Of the units included in it are 15 national monuments, 13 national conservation areas, 38 wild and scenic rivers, 175 wilderness areas and 600-plus wilderness study areas, more than 5,000 miles of national historic and scenic trails, a forest reserve in northern California, and a mountain in southern Oregon—most remain imperiled despite their official status. National parks are not included.

     Utah's 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument abuts the Vermillion Cliffs. It was named for a series of rising cliffs and plateaus and for the Escalante River, which has carved up much of the landscape, and it has some 4,000 recorded archaeological and historical sites, most of them eligible for the National Register. But these amount to only an estimated three percent of the monument's total number of sites. Culturally, they span 10 millennia and include a smorgasbord of treasures, from lithic scatters to can piles, from petroglyphs to old corrals. And most of Grand Staircase-Escalante is unsupervised and therefore unprotected.
     Administered out of Kanab, the monument has been resisted locally since its inception. Its workers have been ostracized in town; one who wore his uniform to the supermarket was advised that he might be shot. "The primary fear," he told me, "is that citizens are being shut out by the federal government. My barber is one of 15 kids, and they made a living cutting cedar posts on the monument. They're afraid they're losing some of their heritage, and their sense of ownership."
     The fact is, they never owned it or the cedar posts. Utahns, like residents of other western territories with significant public lands, petitioned the federal government in the mid-19th century for inclusion as states in the United States of America, formally accepting the reality of public ownership of much of their surrounds. The federal government then gave each state public land to help support its school systems. Since this bargain was eagerly entered into by westerners, local claims of ownership—or "rights," as they are viewed by revisionists of history—represent attempted takings by locals. People often ask administraters why Utah isn't subject to the same federal laws as the rest of the nation.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The 100-point scale's dead. It just doesn't know it yet.

The editor of Worth magazine asked, "What is the future of wine criticism?" Looking for the answer proved even more interesting than I thought it would be:

Robert Parker and his "100 points" are on the way out. The Wine Spectator preaches to the converted. Who will capture the growing world of wine drinkers? A story of culture power and its consequences.

By James Conaway

There are some 400 million cases of wine, from plonk to Petrus, sloshing around on the wine market, and the competition to sell it—and rate it—is proportionately fierce. Never has there been so much good stuff available, never has the search for the best been so ardent and never have wine drinkers been subjected to so many voices telling them where they fit into the vast, shifting terrain of oenophilia. The result: a confused and rapidly evolving marketplace in which neither sellers nor consumers know exactly where they stand, with billions of dollars at stake.

To make sense of the current predicament of winemakers worldwide, we have to go back a few decades to the closed and often snooty genre of wine criticism. In the 1960s and ’70s, wine was idealized by the likes of Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson and other proselytizers of the well-tempered grape. Wine connoisseurs could expect to read over-the-top descriptions like “impertinent” and “big-shouldered,” or hear a wine described as having “an Episcopalian predictability.”

But all that changed in 1978, when a Baltimore-based government lawyer who had drunk Coca-Cola until his girlfriend introduced him to French wine launched a newsletter called the Wine Advocate. It contained a 100-point rating scale—really a 10-point one, since nothing under 90 was considered worthy—and it revolutionized wine criticism.

The lawyer’s name was Robert Parker, and in a handful of years he ascended almost vertically from bureaucrat at the Farm Credit Banks, which helps arrange loans to farmers, to grand poobah of what came to be called “rocket juice”—high octane cabernet sauvignon. Blessed with more olfactory gifts than writing talent, Parker had a Rabelaisian enthusiasm for the pleasures of the palate that helped make him a wine world star.

Parker’s great achievement was making wine seem both slam-dunk accessible to buyers who could afford it and as reliable as new cars and kitchen appliances. At the time of his ascent, Ronald Reagan was president, business was booming and consumers had money to spend—along with relatively little knowledge of wine. It was perfect timing for a new critic with a knack for branding.

Parker accepted no advertising in the Wine Advocate and did most of the tasting and writing himself. His taste for lush, fruity reds, rooted perhaps in his fondness for Coke, struck a chord. The extent of his influence became clear in the early ’80s, when he declared the uncharacteristically soft, fruity 1982 harvest in Bordeaux “the vintage of the century.” Thanks to Parker, the Bordelais and later other French producers made a lot of money; so did California winemakers who saw no point in fighting the inevitable and cashed in on “the Parker style.” After all, Parker’s endorsements paid off. Today, prices still point resolutely toward $1,000 a bottle for wines early endorsed by Robert Parker.

The Advocate’s success brought other entrepreneurial beasts out of the jungle, the most successful being a go-go banker from the ‘70s named Marvin Shanken. Brash but savvy, Shanken shared Parker’s tastes, yet also saw “lifestyle” opportunities that had escaped the critic. Shanken bought the already existing Wine Spectator and appropriated Parker’s 100-point scale. He buttressed it with what the Advocate lacked: flattering profiles of vintners and collectors, articles about expensive destinations and lucrative (for the Spectator, anyway) restaurant contests.

The Spectator’s tasters—primarily James Laube—favored the Parkeresque MO of big, soft, forward fruit and high alcohol content. Though competitive and mutually exclusive, this formidable (and highly profitable) Advocate/Spectator bifecta hoisted many a French chateau and California winery, sometimes to undreamed-of heights: Think Harlan, Abreau, Screaming Eagle, Staglin, Colgin, Bryant Family and any number of expensive California cabs— and their winemakers, too.

Until last December, the Advocate and the Spectator sat cozily atop the wine world. But then, apparently ready for greener pastures, Parker announced that he had sold a “substantial interest” in the Advocate to a trio of Singapore investors for a reported $15 million. Perhaps more important, he stepped down from the editorship and was replaced by Singapore-based wine writer Lisa Perotti-Brown. At about the same time, one of Parker’s tasters was accused of accepting bribes in Spain, and Parker himself got involved in a nasty legal dispute with Antonio Galloni, an Advocate writer who had defected to start an online wine publication.

This tawdry sequence of events demoralized Parker’s followers and proved a huge boost to the Spectator, which is now proclaiming itself the non plus ultra of wine rankers. I asked a number of wine critics, marketers, publicists and sellers which critics are most capable of moving wine in volume. My informal poll did indeed put the Spectator first, with the Advocate coming in a somewhat distant second. But the truth, I think, is more complicated.

The American palate has evolved since Ronald Reagan was in the White House; it’s gotten younger. The many wine-drinkers still aboard the Spectator/Parker wagon, on the other hand, are mostly “legacy buyers”— baby boomers and the last of the original ’82 worshippers. Meanwhile something quite important has occurred that complicates life for the purveyors of the 100-point scale and the whole, fruity status quo. It’s called the internet.

“We’re moving from a past in which critics’ scores drove people to buy to a time when search results, like aggregate reviews, social mentions and blogs, along with in-store recommendations like shelf-talkers, help consumers make a final buying decision,” says Joe Roberts, the blogger behind popular site 1 Wine Dude.

Paul Mabray, founder of a social media analytics site for the wine industry called VinTank, looks closely at the industry and thinks that both Parker and the Spectator’s James Laube “are diminishing in influence at a rate they, and their publications, fail to understand. Yes, for a certain tier of consumers they still move cases, but time, technology and consumer behavior are quickly degrading their value and influence.”

Established wineries and critics once dismissed bloggers as anarchic and too diverse to move wine on a large scale. Not any more. The growing number of wine bloggers and their readers has resulted in a broad reassessment of how wine is presented to the increasingly sophisticated American wine drinker, for whom gold medals and one-to-100 rankings seem simplistic. And many of the most influential of these new critics don’t think much of the Parker/Spectator duopoly. Neither Parker nor the Spectator looked kindly upon winemakers who didn’t cotton to their style; some winemakers feel they were punished for years for making subtler, more classically structured wines suitable with food. Now the tide seems to be turning in their favor. Many younger drinkers focus not on points but on “context,” the particularity of a wine that includes agricultural, environmental and even social factors.

Eric Asimov, wine critic for the New York Times, believes there’ll always be a place for numbers among “people who know little about wine and want to pick up a good bottle, and investors and collectors wanting vintages and individual bottles ranked.” He mentions a third category— countries new to wine, with lots of disposable income and a steep learning curve before them.

But Asimov thinks that many of his readers want more from a critic. “Huge numbers of American wine drinkers are exploring the unprecedented diversity of wines available today,” he says. “They’re more interested in writing that presents wine in thoughtful, even inspirational ways and includes such things as place, history and heritage.”

Another influential tier of criticism consists of traditional publications like the Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Decanter, Food and Wine, the World of Fine Wine, and other magazines. Some continue to assign points to wine in 20-point scales, but some critics doubt that the scales mean much. Younger consumers are turned off by “the open firehose of numbers,” says Jon Bonné, wine editor for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Fans of Parker and the Spectator tend to dismiss this ‘authenticity’ factor, but if younger wine drinkers insist on having real context in wine reviews, and standards beyond words like ‘delicious,’ those guys will have to evolve or be screwed.”

The internet hurts the Advocate and the Spectator in another way: The magazines’ numerical rankings are available only to subscribers, so if a wine shop hasn’t posted the rankings on its shelves, the huge numbers of consumers who now research wine on their smartphones immediately before buying won’t see them. The result, inevitably, is diminished influence.

“We see these same trends in many other markets, particularly with online sales,” says 1 Wine Dude. He cites 50 million online conversations annually about wine among 16 million social media-savvy wine consumers. “To think that wine will be immune from the trends that have impacted just about everything else is total folly.”

There are many bright lights in the firmament of online wine commentary: Stephen Tanzer (International Wine Cellar), Alder Yarrow (Vinography), Tom Wark (Fermentation), Dave McIntyre (WineLine) and others. Throw in critics here and in England loosely connected to wine journals, like maverick Alice Feiring and establishmentarian Jancis Robinson, and you have a mixed gallery ranging from serious writers to knowledgeable gadflies to self-promoting amorati of wine.

These online critics may seem Lilliputian in comparison to the old Parker/Spectator bulk—but collectively, their influence is considerable. Tim McDonald, a Napa-based wine industry consultant, has been looking critically at the business for decades and says, “Now you have to depend on a lot of eyeballs. Blogging has definitely arrived.” And some of those writing today have axes to grind, blaming Parker for “training” the American palate to crave alcohol and frontal, fruity assaults. Others wonder how Parker, Laube and other veterans of the numbers game will adjust to the shifting critical landscape. And how will wineries and winemakers fare who were for so long their darlings?

“The vintners are still on autopilot,” says Bonné. “The playing field’s crowded with those who evolved in the era of big flavor dominated by Parker and the Spectator, and they’ve benefitted enormously from that critical landscape. They just keep doing the same thing over and over again for the score and money that automatically comes with it.”

The new connoisseurs “have more diverse tastes,” says Bonné. “Cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay were most popular when America was getting interested in wine, and both grapes are easy for a novice to understand. But the more mature wine culture is more exploratory, and demanding.”

That sentiment is shared by one member of generation Y (born after 1980), a successful lawyer so smitten with the grape that he apprenticed himself to a winery, bought land and plans to build his own winery. (Fearful that his comments could backfire, he asked that his name be withheld.) “My generation’s a lot more skeptical of points handed down as if from the hand of God,” this young vintner says. “Anybody who makes wine hates the point scale and knows it’s 85 percent bullshit. That the futures of young winemakers are still in the relatively few hands of these critics should change.”

There’s more at stake in all this than the super-sensitive palates (and egos) of a few contending critics, or the internet’s capture of print media’s erstwhile prerogatives. Wine matters in ways that rarely occur to most people raising a glass. For one thing, wine sales in the United States alone amounted to $35 billion last year, a lot of money by any standard. And it’s dwarfed by the value of other enterprises directly in its wake, like tourism and agriculture. In little Napa Valley alone, tourists spent $3.8 million a day in 2012, almost all of it associated in some way with wine. Those revenues help fund everything from schools to parks to medical services to land preservation.

More important is the role of agriculture, not just its enhancement of scenic views and forestalling of development, but its strengthening of community.

Every state in the union now produces wine. Its growth as both a homegrown and imported commodity, whether cheap or luxurious, affects quality of life as surely as it does the health of businesses and households in some way dependent upon it. Thomas Jefferson’s vision of wine as the chosen beverage of Americans creeps closer, and today the individual finds the vast universe of wine most easily engaged and comprehended in the ether of the internet.

Even at the high end, wine and those enterprises built around it shouldn’t be dependent upon a few critics or, for that matter, on a relatively few, potentially fickle buyers interested only in scores and attendant bragging rights. What many bottles need are many voices.

To order my novel, Nose, click on:  
To order my book of travel essays go to: