What Difference Does the Letter “E” Make? At Mentone, the Answer May Surprise You.

Pizza Margherita and 2017 Punta Crena Ligurian red wine at Mentone’s Little Beach outdoor patio in Aptos, California.

Menton, written without the letter “e” at the end, is a picturesque city on the French Riviera close to the open border with Italy. It also is a high end, classically styled Boston restaurant run by Chef Barbara Lynch that focuses on French Provençal and Northwestern Italian coastal cooking. That much we can learn from Google. 

Mentone, with an “e” added at the end, is a bit more of a mystery for the search engine gods to unravel. It’s not just about the facts and figures here, which the Internet handles rather well. It’s also about gut feelings and future prognostications, and humans still may be better suited to such tasks than Google. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

For starters, Mentone as an actual place doesn’t exist anymore in Europe, except as a long forgotten memory. It was annexed by Napoleon III’s France in 1860 from the Kingdom of Sardinia, who would soon go on to unify Italy within the same decade. What lingered after the political maneuvering was over were enduring regional traditions of food and culture that included things like an ardent love of garlic, basil, olive oil, and refreshingly crisp white and rosé wines that pair well with grilled fish and seafood. The French and Italian populations who live between the port cities of Nice and Genoa also share a distinct coastal Mediterranean influence that reflects the unique microclimate of the region as well as the heirloom food and grape varietals cultivated in the region for centuries.

Pizza pesto with Calabrian chili, forage blanc, mozzarella, crescenza cheese, & housemate pesto.

So much for Mentone’s past. Mentone’s future is currently being written, but it’s not happening in Europe. It is happening here, outside of Santa Cruz, in the beach community of Aptos on the Central Californian coast, where the mountains and sea come together to produce microclimates perfectly suited for wine growing, sustainable fishing, and organic farming. If ever there were a New World location to recreate the magic that was historical Mentone, this would likely be that place.

Even though I don’t know him well enough to ask, it seems to have been Chef David Kinch’s founding vision for Mentone to take the best of French Provence, Northwestern Italy, and the Monterey Bay region and blend them all together to produce something accessible and affordable but also of lasting culinary value. He indicated as much in a revealing 2019 interview that appeared in the magazine, Edible Monterey Bay written by Sarah Wood.

At Mentone, it’s not about making a Michelin-starred statement or celebrating New Orleans food and music this time, as was the case with Manresa and The Bywater, which are both located in Los Gatos, near to the Silicon Valley metropolis of San Jose. I also suspect that it’s about making his coastal community a more attractive and comfortable place, food wise, to call home. A gift to his friends and neighbors after years of working in kitchens around the world at the highest level. And a coveted chance for younger generations of chefs, wine directors, mixologists, and wait staff to advance service industry journeys of their own. No, it’s not charity. It’s a business that must make a profit to stay afloat. But it also felt like a gift of sorts, from a master chef to his hard working crew and their dutifully paying customers. Maybe not a gift, exactly. But most definitely a message. 

My gut feeling is that Mentone is intended to be a statement about the gastronomic present, one where contemporary eaters and drinkers rely on Yelp and Instagram for guidance, not the newspaper food critics or paid reviewers for Zagat. While the menu leans heavily towards traditional regional styles of cooking inspired by Italy and southeastern France, the overall vibe is contemporary and comfortable with lots of interesting wine, beer, cider, and cocktail choices and several seasonal specials that reflect the local farming and fishing seasons along the Central Coast. It’s a family-friendly, neighborhood hangout with a real deal kid’s menu, a highly desirable food tourist destination for singles and couples with weekday happy hour specials and rotating craft beer on tap, and a special occasion eating out spot with an excellent bottled wine list all rolled into one.

Pizza boxes await weekday only dining out orders. Weekends are dine-in only.

The city of Napoli is unquestionably the inspiration for Mentone’s über-popular pizzas, of which some four to five varieties are available daily. The flour, which is custom blended and milled at Manresa Bread in Los Gatos, is slowly and naturally fermented over the course of several days, giving it a distinctive sourdough tang and soft pliability. It is hand stretched thinly into rounds and filled with tomato sauce, cheese, or other toppings and baked rapidly in an Italian made wood-fired oven. The oven’s intense heat causes the edges to balloon up rapidly like life rafts, bubbling and charring in the process. By the time the pizza emerges from the oven, the cheese has melted into a semi-liquid sheen and the sauce has saturated the soft inner crust. The pizzaiolo slices each pie into six wedges, adds any remaining ingredients, and sends it out for service. It’s ample enough as a meal for one, or it could be shared as part of a multi course dining experience, depending on your preference.

Eating a pizza like this is an immersive experience that demands a bit of focus on your part. You will need both hands and possibly the assistance of a knife and fork to do so. It’s very different from New York style thin crust pizza or the Wolfgang Puck inspired, California-style gourmet pizzas that use fancy food items like sliced baby asparagus, Baja shrimp, fermented Serrano chiles, or curried jerk chicken. This is about honoring a regional style of pizza making that is practiced at a high level in Naples but that has spread globally because of its gustatory appeal. Mentone isn’t the only place in Northern California where you can find pizza like this (such as Centro, Doppio Zero, & Il Casaro), but it probably can lay claim to being the most committed to preserving Old World traditions.

Other parts of the compact food menu also highlight regional recipes, like the white bean and farro soup, chickpea and herb panisse, stracciatella soup, and tocco, a Ligurian meat sauce pasta similar to Bolognese. Seasonal specials, like a niçoise style salad with local eggs, tuna, and haricots verts (Riviera), porcini trennette pasta, or pumpkin ravioli with dandelion pesto, make use of the abundance of the Salinas Valley, Monterey Bay, and Santa Cruz coastal organic farms. Menus are posted daily, with some food and drink specials added to their Instagram feed as well. If you’re not a local who has dined here before, doing a bit of research ahead of time will make the first visit more memorable. When it doubt about a menu item, ask the staff. They are knowledgable, eager, and happy to help.

Outdoor dining umbrella outside the main restaurant on a sunny October weekend.

The most trenchant advice I can give you about Mentone is that to me it represents lean-and-mean DIY fine dining at its best, with a healthy dose of fancy casual, Cal-Ital cooking thrown in to render it more familiar and family friendly than might otherwise be the case. It’s a gastronomic wolf in soft and fluffy sheep’s clothing that would make aspiring James Beard types as well as Giada De Laurentiis fans happy, and that’s not easy. 

If you want soft and fluffy, you order a salad, pasta, cocktail, or frozen aperol spritz and be done with it. You order a pizza or two to go for a simple Thursday dinner at home with the kids. You meet friends for local beer on draft and wine by the glass and work your way through the snacks and specials menu over the course of the season, whichever one it happens to be. It’s not cheap, but the quality is excellent. The flour is custom milled, the sourcing of fresh ingredients is local, many of the meats are prepared and cured in-house, and only the best imported cheeses, oils, and vinegars from France and Italy are used to prepare the dishes. Many of the staff previously have worked at Manresa, so they know how to show customers a good time. Don’t overanalyze. Just enjoy.

If you want to DIY fine dine at Mentone, you research the wine list ahead of time and identify bottles of interest, visiting wine importer web sites as needed for details on more obscure producers or grape varietals. You follow them on Instagram to see what new dishes or cocktails have been added to the menu and scan recent Yelp reviews for tips on busy or slow times of the day when chances are best for scoring a prime table. You focus on one or two menu items at a time and craft mini tasting menus for each visit, mentally comparing the Mentone approach to other restaurants, cafes, or food trucks you’ve been to before. You share everything, first with your dining companion(s) and then on social media. You reflect on what you ate and drank and how much effort went into producing them. And then, you allow yourself to get good and hungry for more. 

In the years to come, Mentone will surely adapt to the changing times. Little Beach can’t stay the way that it is forever. Still, I hope that the commitments to regional cuisines, local ingredients, and inspired beverages will remain. I’ll be back at least once a season to have pasta, salads, soups, small plates, and more pizza, accompanied by another new and interesting bottle of French, Italian, or local wine. Even though it is less a a year old at this stage, Mentone is writing its own magnificent if understated history, one week and wine by the glass at a time. Stop by if you’re interested and play your part in its making.

Is Mendocino Ridge the Next Great Winemaking Frontier? Drew Family Wines Invite You to Discuss, but Quietly.

2017 vintages of the Drew estate “Field Selections” Pinot Noir & 2917 Perli Vineyard Syrah.

It is often remarked that listening is a lost art. I disagree. The listeners are out there, but most of them are waiting silently to be found. The trouble nowadays is that such strong and silent types are easily drowned out by today’s over saturated and often shrill media landscape. Including, of course, social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Drew is like that. The wines will speak volumes if you have the patience and gentleness to listen. If they aren’t overwhelmed by loud mouthed wine critics singing their abundant praises first. If you care about California wine as much as I do, we simply can’t let that happen.

2018 “Bahl Briney” Chardonnay at Drew’s Anderson Valley tasting room.

Some explanation may be in order, so that you don’t misread my message. Winemakers as experienced and talented as Jason Drew, who runs his small family-run estate winery with the help of his wife, Molly, in Mendocino County on a high ridge line overlooking the Pacific Ocean, won’t let high scores & top 100 rankings in Wine & Spirits go to his head. He’s a hard working grape grower and winemaker (vigneron) who toils from ground to grape to glass to make his wines, and I doubt he’ll change his approach now just because the wine magazines and online experts are starting to take notice of his skills crafting expert renditions of Burgundian and cool climate Rhône wines. But you as a wine consumer will, because the power of suggestion can be a dangerous thing.

Inside the Drew tasting room. Note the bottles of Albariño to the left and rosé to the right. Try them if you can!

Even experienced wine drinkers are prone to be swayed by an effusive tasting note or laudatory review they encounter while researching a future tasting trip. It’s human nature to care what others think, even if we try to approach a wine tasting appointment with an open mind. Drew doesn’t make that so easy anymore. They have worked exceedingly hard to turn the Mendocino Ridge vineyard growing region into something of the next great frontier for Northern California wine enthusiasts and also helped to solidify the already sky high reputation of Anderson Valley for making great Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. What’s not to admire about that?

Tasting room entrance sign for Drew in Anderson Valley between the small towns of Boonville and Philo.

I think that there is a fundamental difference between searching for “greatness” in a glass of wine and celebrating something essential, enduring, and classically styled about its “grapeness.” Greatness can be found anywhere, from sports to music to cooking and more, but grapeness is unique to wine. It’s a quality that suggests to me not just an understanding of terroir, which is fundamentally a deep and abiding respect for place, but also a dynamic understanding of heritage, which is fundamentally an abiding appreciation for the passage of time and the role that we in the present play in bridging the gap between the past and future yet to come. The best winemakers, like Drew, are able intuitively to grasp and balance both.

2017 Mendocino Ridge Perli Vineyard Syrah.

The problem with wine critics is that they are constantly seeking out greatness and pounce when they encounter it, as many already have with Drew. So tasters who come to Anderson Valley to encounter greatness for themselves know ahead of time what to look for: balance, aroma, flavor, finish, food friendliness, age worthiness, texture. They run the risk of talking over top of the wines, which speak a different and altogether quieter sort of language than the critics and cognoscenti do. If you shout at the wines, they won’t shout back. They will ignore you. And you will miss out on what actually makes them such interesting company. Let them start the conversation first. Listen and learn. You may be surprised by what happens next.

2017 estate “Field Selections” Pinot Noir.

What made Drew wines special to me upon my first tasting was how honestly and unassumingly they introduced themselves as Syrah, or as Pinot, or as Chardonnay, of the sort raised to maturity in rock, windswept homes surrounded by redwood forests overlooking the ocean, nurtured by doting parents who treated them kindly and with profound respect for the wonderful natural, organic creatures they are.

These wines tasted the way that I imagine wines made from these grapes have for generations, either in California or Europe, depending on the clonal selections chosen. Jason Drew knows his clones, and he knows his winemaking history, too. He honors the classics while also exploring the potential of his vineyards to generate variations on terms of taste and smell. The fruit, the spice, the floral elements, the earthy and mineral notes, they all felt right. Not loud. Not brawny, but not meek or mild-mannered, either. It’s like a top notch jazz musician who cares enough not to mess up a beloved tune with too many flourishes of brilliance or virtuosity. Not that he couldn’t perform so if asked, but I doubt that he would wish to do that to his grapes. They surely deserve better. Give them freedom of self expression, and they will sing songs of their own design and making.

2018 Anderson Valley Chardonnay & 2018 Mendocino Ridge GSM blend.

There are plenty of status seeking, ambitious, and committed winemakers in California out there. Many make superb wine. And there are also great vineyards that have proven themselves as unique enough to warrant the term Grand Cru terroir. Drew may well deserve to be celebrated as a top 100 winemaker. I don’t disagree. His Mendocino Ridge estate, Fâite de Mer Farm, may one day achieve world-class status. Good for the vines. They could probably use the publicity and added encouragement to produce consistently superior vintages. Personally, I don’t need to be convinced of a Drew wine’s capability for achieving greatness. Its grapeness is enough for me. But that’s because I took the time to listen until the wines spoke to me in their own language, not mine, which has been corrupted by too many scores, tasting notes, and human interest stories to be of much use anymore. If you love wine like I do, you owe it to yourself to do a tasting at Drew and see if you have not yet lost the power to listen.

Peak Experiences and Summit Sensations: A Visit to Silver Mountain Vineyards (Santa Cruz Mountains AVA).

2019 Santa Cruz Mountains rosé of Pinot Noir

What are we trying so desperately to find when we travel somewhere special to taste fine wine? And how can we best describe the more elusive of the sensations we are searching for, above and beyond the momentary pleasures of a mild buzz? I set off recently on a visit to Silver Mountain Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains in search of definitive answers. Three hours later, I ended up with a couple of bottles of really nice wine instead. In any case, the visit revealed to me a promising new direction to explore, and for that I am quite grateful.

Basically, I learned three things about my own wine tasting habits that may resonate with you as well. If so, I would encourage you to visit Silver Mountain for a future tasting of your own. First, I respond positively to compelling human interest stories that make me feel warm and fuzzy inside knowing that life, while full of setback and sorrow, doesn’t always have to suck. Second, I am susceptible to fun-filled consumer experiences that provide me with lots of new topics to discuss with my friends and family when next we meet. Third, as someone with more than a casual interest in wine, I get excited when I discover wines of character and charm that capture my attention and make me want to learn more about them as they continue to age.

This ability of fine wine, regardless of how much it actually costs, to entertain us in its youth but then to evolve over time is the ultimate source of its appeal. If wine can gain in beauty and complexity as it gets older, then so in theory can we. Wines that are made honestly and expertly invite us to drink deeply and with intent, but they also make great company if we decide it is time to think for a moment or two about life’s many challenges directly rather than grasp for yet another distraction. And that’s a very cool combination, in my book at least.

Beer, no matter how well made, rarely does that, since it’s typically meant to serve our more immediate needs for thirst-quenching refreshment and pure, simple pleasure. With distilled spirits, either imbibed straight or served in elegant looking cocktails, the impact tends to be both more visceral and more intense, offering us the immediate creature comforts of warmth and welcome rather than providing space for more serious contemplation that can at times drift off into somber territory. That’s a lot to ask of wine, I know, but humans have been doing so for thousands of years, and I don’t think we’re willing to stop asking just yet.

Taste of Bordeaux four glass flight.

Generally speaking, it is the story that comes first, since all wineries have their own unique origin stories to tell and are generally eager to share them with their guests, who may be likely to buy a few bottles if they sense the human connections at work behind the contents of each glass. The very best stories, of course, are also the most rare. These are tales of hard-working families who bonded themselves to particularly special pieces of land and spent generations tending rows of ancient looking vines that dug deeply into the soil and extracted something of the earth’s very essence to be crafted into distinctive, age-worthy wines. While far more common in Europe than the U.S., such stories can be found among Italian, German, and Swiss winemaking families in Napa, Sonoma, Alameda, and Mendocino Counties, for example, and increasingly elsewhere in the state as founding generations retire or pass away and their sons, daughters, or grandchildren decide to take charge. Given the commercial pressures that such family-run businesses face simply to stay viable in a world filled with corporate-owned winemaking empires, it’s hard to put a price on heritage like this. When we do encounter it, we tend to respond with our hearts as much as our heads. And with wine, that’s often a very good thing.

Stories matter, but wine tasting has to be about more than that, or we wouldn’t actually make the effort to go somewhere distant to do it rather than just swing by the supermarket or wine shop instead, or order online. Making consumer experiences so fun and memorable that they are worth doing in person, after all, is the secret sauce that has been powering growth in popular California wine country destinations like Napa Valley for the past forty years. Other regions have since stepped up with their own array of tasting flights, food and wine pairings, gift shops, sculpture gardens, ATV vineyard adventures, overnight accommodations, and a host of other amenities. Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, the Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, and Anderson Valley are all already overflowing with a wealth of indulgent, Instagrammable offerings, to the point where the wine itself may even be at risk of fading into the ultra-luxurious, all encompassing background. Still, no one wants to suffer to taste good wine, and winemakers who fail to upgrade their facilities to meet consumer demand tend to struggle to attract newer, younger guests more likely to check out reviews on Yelp rather than read the latest issue of Wine Spectator.

When it comes to sheer winemaking ambition, however, it isn’t necessarily the known names in Napa or Sonoma who have the edge. They have reputations to maintain and are often averse to taking unnecessary risks. Experienced wine tasters looking to expand their palates tend to seek out the crusading individuals who operate independently at the winemaking vanguard. These are women and men dedicated to their winemaking craft who are also willing to experiment with new grape varietals, fermentation methods, and artisanal styles in search of something special. Greatness, perhaps, or notoriety, but also a quest for authenticity and total freedom of self expression in service to the grapes and soils from which they originated.

Such winemakers form a loose sort of cohort and collectively have a greater impact than any one of them otherwise would. Unless they have vineyards of their own, they prefer to source their grapes from various vineyards where the prices are fair for the quality of fruit produced, provided it is grown using methods they like, which they then make and cellar wherever rental space is cheap enough to support their operations. They brand the wines assertively to appeal to newer generations on wine drinkers and often create cool-looking tasting lounges in urban or warehouse complex settings, like Healdsburg, downtown Napa, west Berkeley, Tin City (Templeton), or Lompoc, to market the wines directly. Eventually, some of most successful find ways to purchase their own organically and biodynamically farmed vineyard plots to create the highly prized sorts of wine that make wine connoisseurs and critics swoon. Tracking down such highly sought after wines to taste and add to one’s personal collection becomes part of the adventure.

Estate Merlot grapevines, organically & sustainably farmed.

To recap: wine tasting at its best is one part personal story, one part consumer experience, and one part sensory impression. It’s not about finding the perfect food and wine pairing, trying an obscure grape varietal, or adding a 98 point wine to one’s cellar. It is simply a way to form meaningful connections to the world around us through the magical medium of wine.

The quandary that is Silver Mountain Vineyards (founded in 1979) is that it doesn’t fit squarely or entirely into any of these boxes, even though it unquestionably fits partially and semi-perfectly into each and every one. And that is why I think that visiting here for a wine tasting is such fun. You will be tempted to solve the puzzle of what makes it so special, but an easy solution will elude you. You will likely then want to spend some additional time after your visit trying to work it all out – hopefully with an opened bottle of their excellent estate Pinot. And that will add an extra layer of pleasure to the initial experience. If this sort of thing isn’t at least part of the reason why we still leave our homes and comfort zones to go out and taste new wine, then I don’t know what is.

The Silver Mountain Vineyards story is structured around the personal life journey of its founder, Jerold O’Brien, who rehabilitated an abandoned orchard deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the late 1970s with a goal of making fine wine similar to those he enjoyed from France and that were being made by pioneering California winemakers after the Second World War, including the Russian River Valley vintner, Joseph Swan, and the founder of Chalone Vineyard, Richard Graff. After years of effort, Jerold and his small support staff turned Silver Mountain into a thriving vineyard with an attached winery known for its sustainable, earth-friendly practices. When floods, fires, and even a major earthquake in the 1980s threatened to destroy the dream, Jerold doubled down and rebuilt the winery and continued to craft fine wines with the help of a talented assistant winemaker, Anthony Craig, and group of dependable growers who supplied him with grapes to supplement the estate’s limited production numbers.

Now more than forty years on, thanks in no small part to a devoted circle of wine club members and the strong support of the Santa Cruz Mountains winemaking community, the Silver Mountain story continues. It’s not the multigenerational stuff of wine-making legend spanning multiple wars, revolutions, famines, and plagues, but it’s a fascinating tale of triumph over adversity, nonetheless.

Outdoor tasting patio for winery guests.

The consumer experience here doesn’t attempt to outdo the luxury offerings you’ll find in abundance in Paso Robles, Sonoma, or Napa, where attentive, attractively styled staff cater escort you around immaculately landscaped grounds as if it were a tour of the Palace of Versailles, often while serving your wines in varietal specific stemware as they do so. What you can expect here instead is more modest but also somehow more meaningful: a gracious, unassuming welcome, polite and helpful table service, and a comfortable, quiet location beneath the shade of a few ancient looking trees to enjoy your wines. You can choose one of four separate wine flights (4 wines for $15), order wine by the glass or bottle, or do a combination of both, should time allow. Picnics are welcome and encouraged and lingering for two hours or more is very easy and tempting to do.

A bottle of the estate rosé ($22) is perfect for sharing in warmer weather, but glasses ($12) of Pinot Noir (four different versions are available), Chardonnay, or “Alloy” Cabernet-dominant Bordeaux red blend would be equally enjoyable following a tasting flight. Don’t expect anyone aggressively to sell you the wines or convince you of their merits. They are experienced enough to let you decide what, whether, and how much to buy, and they realize that taste in wine is highly subjective. Chances are good, however, that the owner himself will be present to assist you with wine recommendations, talk about the winery’s history, or share his thoughts on the current harvest. It’s not a candlelit tour of the wine caves or ATV ride through the vines, by any means, but it is the sort of simple human kindness that one tends not easily to forget.

Guest parking area next to the vineyard.

When it comes to winemaking artistry, Silver Mountain leans toward the traditional rather than the cutting edge. Burgundian and red Bordeaux varietals are the calling cards here, along with a Santa Cruz Mountains Syrah. The estate vineyards used to make Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Merlot (for blending purposes) are all farmed organically, while the winery itself uses solar panels and water storage technology to minimize its environmental impact on the surrounding natural world. Long-standing relationships with other growers in Monterey, Santa Cruz, and Santa Clara Counties supplement what the estate itself can provide.

The estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are very distinctive expressions of the high elevation, mountainous site where they have been cultivated for decades, and anyone who loves these varietals should ask to taste or purchase them if available. Other Pinot Noir wines are sourced locally from the Miller Hill and Muns Vineyard as well as the from the Tondré Grapefield in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Case production is limited each year, and the wines are given time to mature before release, lending them particular charm and showcasing the fine balance of flavors that makes them so attractive to wine connoisseurs as collectibles.

The Bordeaux blends (made up of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot) and the Syrah are allowed to age for five years or longer before release, gaining complexity and maturity in the process. Tasting an older red wine that is priced similarly that of a much younger one is a rare treat, especially for visitors unaccustomed to such things. This is a feature of the Silver Mountain tasting experience that newer, hipper urban winemakers simply cannot reproduce.

2020 vintage of Bates Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon fermenting in American oak barrel at the Silver Mountain Vineyards Winery.

Wine tasters are often on the hunt for what they call “peak experiences.” These are encounters with wines that are pronounced by experts, merchants, and collectors to be great. They are anointed as such with high scores by the critics or they can claim a long and storied history of superior vintages in the past that earlier generations of wine enthusiasts have come to value and appreciate. Gaining access to these highly coveted wines is widely regarded as the pinnacle of what wine tasting is all about, similar to an angler landing a prized Chinook salmon, a foodie scoring a top table at a popular Michelin-starred restaurant, or an Elite reviewer on Yelp discovering an amazing taco truck, craft brewery, or BBQ fusion joint before the masses learn about it and weigh it down with long lines and excessive demands for service.

Silver Mountain doesn’t specialize in “peak experiences” like that, in my opinion. They offer summit sensations instead. These are feelings of wellbeing that at least some things in this world are still alright, are still stable, and are still the way that they are supposed to be. Things like the fact that wine tasting in California should still be accessible, affordable, and fun. Things like meeting the winemaker by chance, not prior reservation. Things like sampling wines that are the same age as your son or daughter, ones that you perhaps could save to gift to them when they are old enough to drink, to fall in love, and to get married. I can give all of this a 5-star rating on Yelp. If prompted to do, I could rank the wines from Silver Mountain on a 100-point scale (my highest scores in the mid-90s would be for the 2013 estate Pinot and 2013 Bates Ranch Cab). I can post images from my visit on Instagram and share them on social media. Perhaps I’ll even sign up for the wine club as a Christmas present to myself this year. Only time will tell.

Wine tasting in most of California, save for isolated places off the beaten path, isn’t what it once was, and neither Silver Mountain nor I can really alter those trends. Good thing, then, we don’t really care to try.

Do Flowers Also Need to Practice Social Distancing? Darwin Holds the Answer.

Calla Lily in bloom.

I started rereading Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle this weekend and was struck by how fascinated he was by botany, as much as by zoology, geology, and the natural world in general. However, I was equally if not more interested this time by the many references to disease, illness, and quarantine, which kept the H.M.S. Beagle from stopping at some ports of call during the early stages of their five year mapping journey around the world. What would the resilient, young Charles Darwin (or “Chuck D.,” as I affectionately call him) have to say about social distancing rules in the Covid-19 Era? Do the rules apply only to humans, who can transmit the flu to each other, or to other species as well, like flowering plants?

I think Chuck would marvel at the power of the coronavirus to circumnavigate the globe on such tiny, little legs and to mutate so rapidly in a matter of months. Clearly, airliners today speed around faster than sailing ships of the 1830s, even those of the celebrated British navy. He’d likely follow the basic rules of social hygiene when required, but when it came to non-human beings, like flowers, I think he would say that social distancing was part of their evolutionary makeup. While plants compete for water, soil, and light, they also cooperate and communicate with others while doing so. Even the beauty of a flower has an allure to others, who pollinate or pick it, transporting them over small or great distances from where the plants originally were rooted.

I think that social distancing, which is always in place in some ways (think of your own “comfort zone” when meeting strangers) needs to be counterbalanced by creative forms of connectivity. This is the Darwin way of seeing and interacting with the world, in a nutshell. We zoom. We meet up to video chat. We text and talk. We journal. Maybe we do so online now using WordPress rather than pen and ink, and we post images without words on Instagram rather than using clunky cameras of old, or we review places visited on Yelp rather than publish them as a guidebook, but we aren’t that different than young Darwin was in his 20s aboard the Beagle or off adventuring in the wilds of South America and the Pacific. He marveled at the sheer audacity of plant and animal life, including the parasitic ones. He understood at some inner level how the pieces fit, but he could not grasp the concept yet of deep time, the millions of years of history needed for planetary changes to be observable.

Potted orchids in early May bloom.

Darwin did not experience the time-space compression that we do in the early twenty-first century, and he was famously socially averse in his later years, but he knew time. He knew that life was speeding up all around him and that this recent development was responsible for moving plants and animals all around the world in weeks and months, not centuries and millennia. As for flowers, I think that a walk through a field of them in bloom would have raised Darwin’s spirits quite a bit while traveling or simply sheltering in place at his later home in Kent, England. Down House, by the way, is now open to the public for visits, including the walking path and gardens that Darwin visited daily when he needed exercise, inspiration, or simply time to relax from the rigors of the day.

Daisy framed walking path in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Darwin knew that life ultimately is about connectivity, not distancing. There are boundaries, but these eventually are meant to be bent, if not broken. When there is too much connectivity at too intense of levels, people, plants, and animals – not to mention protozoans – will start to compete too violently, and things can reach a breaking point. And that is when dynamic, catastrophic changes are most likely to happen. Flowers, however, remind us that they can coexist without letting one type or color overlord its way on top of all the others, when the environment where they grow is healthy and balanced. Let’s see how healthy our environments really are by testing them a bit to see where rules are working and where they might need some adaptation for future events of public health emergency. Darwin may not be here to guide us, but there are voices of sanity out there, if we have the courage and bandwidth to listen. Even flowers can speak to us, if we are patient and really try to hear their voices.

The beauty of small things.

Earth Week 2020: 5 Tips for Being Green in a Time of Social Distancing.

Hiking a quiet trail makes keeping one’s social distance easy.

There are some years where one Earth Day is enough, when the news cycle isn’t dominated by a huge topic of Earth shattering importance. 2020, it obviously doesn’t work that way. We need a whole week’s worth of green activities in order to appreciate what really matters in life when viewed from a longer-term perspective than 30 day increments. So, take a few days to get into that green feeling. Here are 5 tips that can help you make Earth Week 2020 on truly to remember!

Tip 1: Get some really green exercise.

The ocean views from the Irish Ridge overlook go on for miles and miles at Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, San Mateo County, California.

Sure, you can get cardio on a home treadmill if you’re lucky enough to own one, but why not find a park or hiking area that is still open and take a hike? In the San Francisco Bay Area, some open space nature preserves are closed weekends only, and as long as you maintain 6 feet distance and adhere to simple to follow rules, you are free to wander just as before. April and May are ideal for wildflower viewing, and the coastal views from the higher ridgetops isn’t to shabby, either. Check out the Irish Ridge overlook trail, in Purisima Creek Redwoods Open Space Preserve, for quiet trails, stunning views, and lots of blooming grasses and flowers to enjoy.

Northing says “springtime” like blooming flowers, such as these California poppies.

Tip 2: Do some really green shopping – at home.

Flower decorating is a nearly lost art, one that can be practiced well without leaving one’s yard to do so. Just grab a clipper or kitchen scissors and make a selection of tree branches, fern fronds, plant tips, and other newly grown things and put them in an attractive vase for brightening up your new office workspaces at home. It is a fun activity to do with young children, as well!

An elaborate looking flower display can be made from things growing outside the home. Be creative!

Tip 3: Do some really green cooking – with foraged foods.

If you know basic foraging skills, you can find items to eat outside your home, like wild nettles. They can become the basis for soups, pesto sauce, or used as ingredients in egg omelettes, among other things. Sorrel, miner’s lettuce, and mushrooms are other likely candidates. Foraging is fun, too, and nutritious!

Foraging wild nettles can really bring green into the cooking menu. Try using them in soup!

Tip 4: Find a really green office workspace – to share.

If you have to work from home, why not do so outside? Especially if you can work side by side using laptops connected by wifi to the Internet, what is the problem? Going green doesn’t mean forgetting how and why we all stay connected. Just be sure to add value to the work-from-home experience rather than take it away. Who wouldn’t want to work from home on a warm and pleasant Earth Day?

Exterior patio spaces with fresh air and natural light bring the green feeling to your “shelter in space” day.

Tip 5: Do some really green activity to wind things down – without electricity.

Once work, exercise, shopping, and cooking are over, wind down by powering down with a game, book, knitting project, or simple face-to-face conversation with a friend, family member, or loved one. Even a pet will do. The key is to choose an activity that is, by definition, “green.” Worry about climate change next year – or next month. For now, there is enough to worry about not to take the “celebrate” part of Earth Day seriously. Stretch that celebrate out. Make it last. I know I will.

Knitting, reading a book, playing a card game, or simply talking can all lessen your screen-time and help your body adjust to the new routine.

Spanish style omelette (tortilla de patatas) without all the mess.

Ready for the table …

When I lived in Madrid one summer, I used to love making potato omelettes brimming no with caramelized yellow onions & soaked in local olive oil. Such simple pleasures had their downsides, however, in hours spent on a hot, steamy kitchen and lots of oily scents in hair & clothing.

The perfect Spanish style omelette.

Now, I make the perfect Spanish style omelette without the mess. How? By being always green, of course! That is, after all, the leitmotif if this blog and founding principle of my boutique Internet content startup, http://www.sempervirens117.com. No mess. Limited oil. Less time cooking. Less electricity or gas. It all adds up.

Helpful tools for the prep.

I start with 6 to 8 fresh pastured organic eggs, 1 medium shallot, & 1 lb. or so organic potatoes. Boil the potatoes slowly until fork tender and cool. Use a fine Microplane grater to liquify your shallot into a paste, then whisk in a dash of organic apple cider vinegar & 3x that amount of good olive oil.

Lodge cast iron pans are ideal for retaining heat.

I preheat a medium sized seasoned Lodge cast iron pan in a 350F oven. I grate about 2 ounces of semi soft cheddar cheese into the shallot paste and then the whisked eggs. Using a box grater, I shred to potatoes and discard the last bit of skins for composting (or snacking on while you cook).

I add the wet ingredients (eggs, cheddar, shallot paste) to the potatoes & spoon it all into the preheated cast iron pan with about 1 tablespoon of fresh olive oil on the bottom to prevent sticking. Wait 30 to 40 minutes at 350F for the omelette to cook.

When the center is firm, remove from oven and use a spatula around the edges and then invert your omelette on a plate or saucepan lid.

Inverted omelette on a saucepan lid.

Then, slide the omelette onto a serving dish and dress up with fresh herbs 🌿 or simply slice at the table and serve to your guests. This will be good as a main meal for 2 people or a tapas style dish for many more (8 slices).

Ready to enjoy.

The omelette can be eaten right away or allowed to cool for later. The flavors of the main ingredients are central here, but you can get creative with the secondary flavors. Smoked paprika is a favorite, as is fresh dill. Enjoy!

Being Green has Always Been Easy – in the Santa Cruz Mountains, at Least.

Century old coastal redwood trees growing vigorously in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

I have been thinking at lot about being green lately. And not just because of my new blog and boutique Internet content creation business, http://www.sempervirens117.com (although it is a good excuse to mention it).

Sword fern unfurling new fronds.

It’s because of the flu pandemic and the talk about we as humans can best adapt to the Anthropocene epoch in Earth’s very long and very complex history. We’re talking billions of sun cycles here.

Tree ring of a coastal live oak taken down to protect Pacific Gas & Electric high voltage transmission lines.

I live in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California near San Francisco & Stanford University. But it’s not to the city or university I am looking to “solve” the current mess we’re all in. Arguably, they helped get us in it with all the global connections and trade routes.

Redwood stump acting as a nursery log for holly sprouts.

No, I am looking at something older and wiser for guidance, and that is the forest itself. Nursery logs, in particular. What are they? I thought you’d never ask!

More holly using a tree stump to grow in.

Nursery logs or stumps are useful places for other plants to sprout and grow. They provide a bit of elevation, needed moisture, some nutrients, and a little bit of protection from the elements and denizens of the forest. Is it much more than just springing up from the ground? Probably not, most of the time when things are normal.

The redwood forest is beautiful but also treacherous.

But times are never normal all the time, if ever, really. So nursery logs fills niche. Just like they can, metaphorically speaking, for us today. And this blog is about precisely that: uncovering and sharing “natural hacks” that provide us metaphorically with tips for being greener, healthier, smarter, & more productive in our working lives as well.

Split oak wood with its thick layer of moss visible.

So, Mega Tech like Google/Alphabet, Facebook, and Amazon.com can provide nursery logs to help small startups grow. Don’t wait! Help them when they need it most, and they will reward you with secrets for survival that may just make the next global pandemic easier and possibly more profitable than the current outbreak, which is costing us all – big time!

Redwoods in the mist collect moisture in their branches as “rain.”

The more we nurture micro startups like mine, the stronger the collective forest will be. It does not ultimately matter if those holly sprouts or ferns become as tall & ancient as the redwoods (Mega Tech). They are part of the healthy ecosystem. They need help now! When it matters most. Not when they have already grown big enough for others to notice. Being green does not mean throwing money to charity. It means investing it in microdoses wisely.

Fern fronds growing on a redwood tree stump.

This is the message we need to learn from the trees. The really old and wise ones who know more collectively than we ever will, even in the Internet Age. Listen, look, & learn!

Fire burns the lower truck of very ancient redwoods (1000+ years), but the branches collect sunlight far above.