Sunday morning hot air balloon landing

Coming in for a landing and trying to avoid the rows of vines.

This past Sunday morning I woke to the sound of frantic shouting and a faint “whooshing” sound that seemed to be getting louder. In a daze, I stumbled out of my bedroom to hear Christine yelling: “A hot air balloon is coming in for a landing!”

I slipped on some shoes and stepped outside to be greeted by the sight of a tremendous, blue and yellow hot air balloon drifting toward our house about 20 feet above the vines. The “whoosh” noise was the sound of the gas burners used to keep the balloon aloft.

As a Napa local, I’ve grown accustomed to the sight of ballons hanging high above the Napa Valley, but this was the first time I had the experience of seeing one so close and headed right for me. Hot air ballons are a more common sight upvalley in St. Helena and Youtville rather than in Carneros. And as it turned out, this particular hot air balloon had departed from Yountville but had been carried down to Carneros on fickle winds.

The yelling had been from the balloon support staff who had arrived at the house in advance of their craft. After getting permission to land in the back field, the staff quickly and loudly began coordinating with the balloon operator (ballonist? pilot? hot air aviator?) to get the cumbersome craft on the ground.

It took about 20 minutes, but the ballon came to a gentle rest among tall bunches of wildflowers and grass. The staff assisted the 15 passengers out of the basket and the balloon boss (I like the ring of that — “What do I do? Why I’m a balloon boss actually.”) thanked us for providing a landing spot. He also tossed us a bottle of Chandon sparkling wine.

After the landing, the next job is rolling the balloon up.

When I was able to take a look at the balloon, I was surprised by how many people they can cram into the relatively small balloon basket. It appeared that on a balloon ride you’re shoulder to shoulder with the other passengers, like on a ride on a MUNI commuter bus. I thought I might get a little claustraphobic, but perhaps the sweeping vistas of the Napa Valley make one forget about the tight proximity of the fellow balloon adventurers. A ride on a balloon costs about $100.

The whole experience took about 45 minutes, but it sure was an interesting and different start to a Sunday.

The balloon basket.

What I’m drinking … Hoegaarden

No, it's not a pint of "ho-garden."

Sunshine, cool breezes, fields of green grass and wildflowers below fat clouds hinting at possible rain showers drifting across blue skies. Spring is one of my favorite seasons and heralds a time to put away dark stouts and smoky porters and turn to fresh, effervescent beers that give one the same sense of revival that this season offers the soul.

The Belgium beer Hoegaarden is one of my favorite spring beers. This traditional “wit” or white style beer is similar to a German hefeweisen in that it’s made with wheat, but instead of notes of banana and vanilla in the finish, Belgian whites have surprising and delectable hints of spices such as coriander and other flavors like orange peel.

Hoegaarden is rather common in the states these days, but I remember the first time I saw a tap handle of the brew was in ’04 when I was bouncing around Europe with a couple of buddies. We saw the name in a London pub and asked for pints of “Ho-garden” with the requisite immature giggle and jokes about having a ho in a garden and what not. In the dark and smoky pub, the beer tasted sour and a little weak. We quickly went back to ordering English ales and lagers.

Later when our trip took us to Amersterdam in late May we were sitting at a outside cafe in the Vondelpark. It was a brillant, sunny day and the cafe served Hoegaarden in the traditional flat sided glasses. It was there and then that I learned to appreciate “Hoo-gaar-den.” Not only how to pronounce the beer but to appreciate the seasonality of it. Sure, Hoegaarden can be enjoyed in the dead of winter, but for me this beer is at its best when quaffed outside in the sunshine.

To enjoy a Hoegaarden, first muddle a slice of lemon in your glass. Then pour out most of the beer into the glass leaving a small amount in the bottle. Swirl this remaining beer a little before pouring it on the top of the glass. The swirling helps stir the residual yeast in the bottle and will give your beer a lively head of foam and as much flavor as possible. Gezonheid!

Pop top wine bottle

Open another bottle … anybody got a church key or a lighter?

Perusing the import section at a local Napa bottle shop I was surprised to see a bottle sporting a pop top bottle cap. Alternative bottle closures such as screw tops and synthetic corks have become prevalent in the wine industry, but I have to admit a bottle cap was new to me.

The bottle turned out to be the Austrian wine, Berger Grüner Veltliner. As Grüner Veltliner is a variety I’d been hankering to try for a while and add my intrigue in a bottle cap wine, I had to pick a bottle up. As I opened it, I realized I had even been expecting the familiar “pssh” that comes when you crack a bottle of lager, but this being a still wine there was no release of CO2.

I found the wine quite enjoyable. Light tropical fruit flavors balanced with a crisp acidity and an underlying base of minerality, made the Grüner a tasty and refreshing wine. I happened to have some left over ham from Easter brunch and made a fried ham sandwich with cheddar cheese and asparagus that was an exceptional pairing with the wine. At about $9 for a liter bottle this is a great wine to bring to a party, or with the easy pop top a great wine for the beach or picnic. Here’s some more on the wine and varietal if you’re interested. I enjoyed the wine so much I asked Christine to pick up another bottle. She put it in the freezer to chill it quickly and then forgot it. We found it the next morning. The wine was rock solid and the bottle had cracked ruining a vegetarian lasagna. (Oh no! Not a vegetarian lasagna! — Note the sarcasm?)

On the issue of closures, I say bottle wine in anything that works. Traditional corks do add a ceremony to opening a bottle of wine that adds a degree of enjoyment to drinking. I mean, this is the “uncorked” blog after all, but a screw top works just as good. There are also lots of times when you can find yourself without a corkscrew and a screw top can turn out to be quite a lifesaver or a party saver.

Fanning the frost away

We’ve had some gorgeous spring afternoons here in Carneros this past week but we’ve also had some damn cold mornings.

Those cold morning temperatures bring the danger of frost, which can kill the tender, green shoots that have sprouted on the vines. To prevent the frost from settling on the vines a common method here in Carneros is to crank up the huge wind machines. The machines look like an airplane engine that’s been mounted on a pylon about 20 feet tall. And when all the props start turning at around 4 a.m., it sounds like a squadron of fighter planes idling on the deck of a World War II aircraft carrier.

The first frost warning of the season came about two weeks ago. I remember I walked out of the house at around 5:15 a.m. to go for a run and could hear a loud whirring, humming noise that sounded like a helicopter. In my drowsy state, I thought a helicopter was hovering nearby and I leaped to the conclusion that a grower had hired a chopper to hover over his vines to protect them from frost. (Well, at first I thought the cops had raided a meth lab and had a police helicopter hovering overhead with a spotlight, but that was just too ludicrous.) After starting on my run, I soon discovered it was just a simple wind machine.

Frost caused significant damage in the months leading up to 2009’s harvest, but I haven’t heard of any major frost problems so far. With temperatures dipping into the mid-30s, however, growers have to be careful.

My father in law, who spent his entire career in viticulture and was educated in France, noted on Saturday that a few growers have made the mistake of tilling the rows between their vines. Uprooting the cover crop between vine rows can expose the soil, and the vine, to frost. Tilling the ground robs the ground of its natural insulator.

Another way to protect against frost is to  freeze the vines. A vineyard manager friend of mine told me his company cultivates vines in Pope Valley in the northern corner of Napa County. He said there are a few vineyards up there at higher elevation that can be subject to quick and damaging temperature changes. When a forecast calls for temps that will drop far below freezing, he said they’ll turn on the sprinklers to freeze the vines. This method will encase the vines in ice and keep them at a constant temperature that will stay higher relative to the air temperature, which can keep dropping into the low ’20s. He said it’s a surreal sight to arrive at the vineyard and see the plants locked in ice.