Sunday, October 31, 2010

Celebrating Hallowine

Forget Snickers, Smarties, and the dreaded penny from that lame house around the corner; it's harvest time!

Lynne and I were invited to a friend's vineyard, Two Barns Farm, to help with the harvest today, a Tom Sawyer-esque bargain we were only too happy to take advantage of. The rains have come to the Pacific Northwest, but thankfully gave us a break this morning. It was cool and foggy, giving the grapes a sparkling cover of dew when the sun broke through. Pinot was taken off the vine last week; today was Riesling.


Having never experienced a grape harvest we were coached on using our shears to snip the plump, sweet clusters from the vine, carefully checking for mold before dumping them in our buckets. from there we wiped our sticky, juice-covered hands and transferred our bounty to the FYBs, or "F'n Yellow Bins", so called because they will only stack properly in one direction, which ultimately, is always the second direction you try to place them in.

After another sort for mold it was to the barn where the FYBs were weighed and put through the crusher; stems separated and the remaining slop went to the linen-lined press.


From the press, the juice (tasting strongly of apples and sweet enough to induce diabetes right there on the spot) was poured into containers to ferment and go from grape juice to pure awesomeness. (well really, is there any other way to describe the result?)

Such a great experience to help with the process in person. Unfortunately, we missed going back into the vineyard for a run of Chardonnay because we had to get back home to make sure our own little demons got to have their fun as well.

Sheesh, who do they think this holiday is for anyway?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Review: Secretariat

I recently took time out with my lovely wife to go see the new movie Secretariat: The Impossible True Story. The film is based on the excellent book of the same name written by William Nack, who is played by Kevin Connolly of Entourage fame. Coming in from the small-world file, I went to high school in Virginia with Mr Nack's daughter, Emily.

The movie is thoroughly enjoyable, though not nearly the quality of
Seabiscuit, perhaps my favorite horse-centric film. Coming as it does from Disney, it is fraught with cliches, a sappy soundtrack, and tricks to make the eyes well-up at the right moments (which mine dutifully did). There is nothing particularly exceptional about the cinematography or the acting, though Diane Lane does a nice job of portraying owner Penny Tweedy with southern pluckiness and charm and John Malkovich, playing trainer Lucien Laurin, steals every scene he is in. I think where the movie falters is in trying too hard to make the story more than it is. In Seabiscuit, there was a historical perspective that mattered. The country was in a depression, horse racing was in its prime, and that scrappy little horse gave everyone hope. In Secretariat, the filmmakers attempt to do something similar with the anti-war sentiment of the 70s, but it always feels forced and ultimately takes away from the film as a whole. Similarly, there is an attempt to make this a story of the little guy making good, but in reality, this level of horse racing has always been the sport of the wealthy, so it is a little hard to connect with a protagonist who needs to syndicate her horse for close to seven million dollars to pay an inheritance tax. In the end though, none of this matters, the four-legged subject is too enthralling to worry about film critique.

Why does Secretariat captivate so? America loves the underdog, but this is not Secretariat's story. He came from exceptional bloodlines was not small like Seabiscuit (he didn't get the nickname "Big Red" for nothing). He was favored in the Derby, even after losing the Wood Memorial, and only paid out $2.20 on a two-dollar bet at the Belmont. No, the dirty little secret is that as much as we love to root for the underdog, what Americans truly love is a winner.


Secretariat was an equine freak of nature. After his death, his heart was found to be two-and-a-half times normal size and weighed 22 lbs. When he came on the scene, no horse had won the Triple Crown since Citation in 1948 and only two horses have done it since: Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. But what solidifies him as the best race horse ever, and what captured the hearts of racing enthusiasts is the way in which he won: by dominating his peers. He broke a record for the Derby that had been held for 28 years. He probably did the same at the Preakness, though a malfunction of the official timer puts it in some dispute. But the Belmont win is what everyone remembers.

Winning the Triple Crown is no easy feat. Three races in five weeks, ending with the Belmont, the longest of the three at 1 1/2 miles. After pounding out wins at Churchill Downs and Pimlico it is a rare horse that is capable of turning around and winning at distance. Not only did Secretariat win, he won by 31 lengths and still holds the track record after 37 years, a feat that ESPN ranks just behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game on a list of greatest sports performances of all time. Like Michael Jordan, Secretariat is the gold standard all others will be compared against. Is Jordan the greatest? Kobe Bryant might have something to say about that. Is Secretariat? There's a big mare named Zenyatta who is 19-0 and set to finish up with an undefeated career on November 6th (do not miss this race). She may yet take the crown from Big Red. But it takes more than talent and a record to topple a legend, there has to be that extra, that "wow" factor, and Sercretariat's Belmont win oozes with wow.

The story is old, moviegoers know the outcome, yet the heart still pounds during race footage and you still want to stand up and cheer when Secretariat opens up his gigantic lead at the Belmont. There is something about horses; their athleticism, beauty, and nobility, that makes for captivating imagery.
Secretariat, despite its flaws, captivates and entertains, and is worth a look.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Western States Regional Sheepdog Herding Championships


McMinnville is right in our backyard, so we took the opportunity to go to this trial and see some of the final rounds. What a job these dogs do! This was a
"double-lift" gather, meaning the dog had to collect two different groups of ten sheep, each group about six hundred yards from the handler. After that, the entire small flock is driven through two gate obstacles then into a ring, or "shed" where five collared sheep need to be separated from the rest and then driven to a pen. This is extremely challenging, even for the best dogs and it was a real privilege to be able to watch them this weekend. Pictures are worth more than words, so here are a few I was able to capture at the event.





Sunday, October 3, 2010

Winds of Change

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the
thatch-eaves run"
-To Autumn, John Keats

Ah yes, fall is upon us, and those of us living in the Pacific Northwest know all to well this season of mists (and rain, and darkness, and abandonment of hope that the sun will ever appear). You can already see color bleed into the edges of leaves, pumpkins fill the bins at farmers markets, and there is a nip in the morning air, suffused with the with the smell of decay. Personally, I love this time of year. We call it the beginning of cold and flu season, the Chinese see as a time of change, specifically yang (summer) transforming to yin (winter, once the transformation is complete).

I don't want to go all theoretical on everyone (and by everyone I mean the small handful of folks following this blog), but looking at autumn from the Chinese medical perspective is an interesting way to know what sort of things to look for, and possibly prevent, in both ourselves and our animals. Western medicine has a way of looking down on the Chinese system as quaint and simple, when even MDs will say that you "caught a cold", have "chills" or are "burning up", yet still smirk in half-hidden superiority when an eastern practitioner talks of wind-cold or wind-heat invasions, when both are talking about cases of influenza.

Environmental conditions have always been important predictors of disease in Chinese medicine. In
five element theory, each season is paired with a corresponding organ; winter with the Kidney, spring with the Liver, summer with the Heart, late summer with the Spleen, and autumn with the Lung. That's right, the lung, which in this system of medicine is not only part of the breathing apparatus but also responsible for the health of the skin and the immune system. This immune system, or wei qi, is thought of as circulating between the skin and muscles, acting like a shield to keep the bad bugs out and keep us warm. Damaged, things like "wind" can bring bad qi like "heat" or "cold" into the body. This wind-heat would cause fever, sweating, a deep cough and thick-yellow mucous production. A wind-cold invasion would cause chills, a dry cough, headache, and a clear discharge from the nose. Sound familiar?

Our animals are no different and are affected in similar ways. Horses tend to get the short end of this seasonal stick. With big temperature swings occurring regularly, a horse can be turned out with a blanket in the morning and come in in a full sweat by evening, with little time to dry before temperatures drop. These wild fluctuations can damage the
wei qi and make it easier for a wind-cold or wind-heat to invade, and indeed, this time of year is rife with cases of equine influenza. (the other time being spring, the season of transformation from yin to yang) Another example of cold invasion in horses is spasmodic colic; the sudden onset being an element of wind, the stabbing pain being a sign of cold. Horse people the world over know to be on the lookout for this type of colic whenever a storm front blows in.

Dogs have it a little easier, most having the protection of a house. But as the season comes into itself, we see a syndrome in dogs also common in people: joint pain. People with arthritis in the knee, shoulder, hands, or wherever will often complain that symptoms worsen in bad weather. In Chinese medicine this is called
bi ("bee") syndrome and is an accumulation of wind, damp, and cold in the body (usually at the joints). When the environment has more wind, cold, and damp it aggravates the pre-existing condition, stagnates the flow of qi and blood in the body and causes pain. So, dogs with hip dysplasia, or arthritis in the knees and back will often stiffen up this time of year. In all cases, human or animal, the onset of disease mimics the seasonal change: in autumn, diseases of wind, cold, and damp are more prevalent; in summer, diseases of heat, like skin rashes and allergies, are more common.


So do we all just get in a funk, throw our hands up and despair? (interestingly, sadness is the emotion associated with the lung and autumn). Of course not. As humans, we listen to our mothers and dress appropriately for the weather. As owners, we protect our animals from the elements as best we can and try not to expose them to drastic temperature swings, both environmental and man-made (don't put your horses away wet and don't lock your dog in a cold, damp garage). Though not used widely in Chinese medicine, an everyday herb that helps the lung is garlic, which stimulates the immune system and eliminates wind, cold, and damp. A clove or two in a horse's grain bucket can go a long way towards preventing the flu, if not doing wonders for their breath. A Chinese formula commonly used for similar purposes is Yu Ping Feng San, or Jade Screen Formula, which uses Astragalus root as its chief herb, and is stronger for immune support than garlic. For bi syndrome, many people find tumeric to be helpful. Called Jiang Huang, or "yellow ginger" in Chinese, this herb is often used as an ingredient in formulas for reducing swelling and relieving pain.


Fall, like all seasons, is part of the natural cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. It brings with it the bounty of the harvest, respite from the heat, splashes of color, football, and plentiful opportunities for some serious comfort-food consumption. It also heralds shorter days, cooler weather, and plentiful opportunities for some serious lung infections. For ourselves and our animals, the best defense is to keep protected from the elements, keep stress to a minimum, keep the joints warm and wei qi strong. And if you do find yourself in a doctors office and he or she diagnosis you with a cold, make sure to compliment the good doctor on their knowledge of Chinese medicine.