Why Do Your Fall Images Look Better This Year?

Yellow aspen in the Eastern Sierra

Eastern Sierra Fall Colors

I often receive supportive feedback on my photography, as well as questions on how I get my results.  Since I’m “in this for the photography” I tend to prioritize photography over writing.  So my answers to questions provide a great opportunity to address common questions in a blog post.  This time, I’ll just have it all be the blog post, illustrated with photos that I’ve post-processed in the past month, fall 2017…

Yosemite Daylight Long Exposure Composite

On 9 Nov 17, 5.52PM PST ———- said:
Jeff:
I see a dramatic change in your fall images….much improved, even though the old ones were great to start with. What software are you using to develop your images? It looks like you are using focus stacking for the landscapes as well. Is this so?
Nice job, ————

Hi ———-,

I’ll answer in two parts, first regarding post-processing.

I honestly don’t know if I can narrow it down to one or two factors and answer the question completely, but here goes…Everyone’s looking for ways to improve their photography, and the questions often assume that a new camera or post-processing software must be the key.  To be sure, cameras and applications do evolve, so there are benefits to new versions, but there’s a lot to be said for the influence of experience and personal stylistic choices.

Spring in the FallIt would be really easy to simply provide “the answer” and point to one new product that will provide the magic bullet.  You find that all over the Internet with people paid to promote products, and they often do not follow FTC guidelines to properly identify their social media and blog “reviews” of their sponsors’ products as paid ads.  I’m unencumbered by product/manufacturer relationships, so I can take a more comprehensive and less biased approach.

I do find Adobe Lightroom 5 and lately 6 to be meter than older versions of the software, and I do often re-process results as recent as two years ago and get better results.  But here’s the catch: I also notice that I’m using a different approach and settings than I did even as recently as two years ago.  So I can’t really attribute the improvements to solely or even mainly to newer Lightroom software.

Fall Colors in the Virgin River NarrowsI’ve been using Photomatix from HDRsoft for many years, and I remember as early as 2009 I was occasionally layering my best edit of the original photo on top of the HDR result to make the result more realistic.  Unfortunately that required exporting the files to Photoshop for the layering.  I prefer the photography side of the process over the computer/graphics arts options, so I often just settled for an average of the three exposures in Photomatix, and touched that up on Lightroom instead.  The new version Photomatix 6 that I started using in beta last spring includes the layering of any of the original files on the HDR output, and enables blending using a slider from 0 to 100%.  So in addition to being to select from more preset HDR results, it’s little extra effort to blend in the best straight photographic result that you were able to produce in Lightroom.

That would certainly account for many of the files that I post-processed in Photomatix, but I try to tag all of them with HDR and Photomatix, so you can see for yourself that it’s not a huge percentage of my overall fall results.

Yosemite Fall DogwoodsSo what’s left is some combination of experience and what I choose to do with it.  I think that I’ve become more demanding with my results, which forces me to take a more critical look at them.  I often say that I prefer to spend five minutes or less post-processing a photo on my computer, but to get better results, at a minimum it is necessary to take the lead of Ansel Adams and at least invest some time in dodging and burning.

Stylistically, while I always preferred to produce more or less realistic images, sometimes digital cameras simply didn’t have the dynamic range to capture an entire natural scene well, so I’ve decided to accept the compromise of visibly manipulated results.  As cameras get better in subtle ways and I continue to master my skill with the various techniques and tools available, including the software tools, I can shift my focus to stylistic choices instead of fighting the tools to get an acceptable result.

Fall CalmI recall that I decided to get a little more assertive with contrast and blacks about a year ago.  At some point earlier this year I decided to produce some more colorful results, although I still don’t want the first impression people get to be “manipulated”.  I may not always succeed, but I’m exploring a wider range of results, and reining myself in when I can detect that the photo is crossing some invisible line.  I guess that you could boil it down to developing my own effects, range and style, mainly within the bounds of what Lightroom can do, but occasionally using Photomatix if/when the dynamic range of the scene warrants it.

The next logical question is what am I doing in Lightroom.  The short answer is that what I like about landscapes is the photography “pursuit of light” side in the field, experiencing the moment itself, so as mentioned, I tend to keep my adjustments under five minutes or so per photo on the computer, whenever possible.  I push as much quality as I can back to the capture side of the process, and automate some of the post-processing, so I can get back outside.  The fine details of how I achieve that, from image capture through post-processing, are probably best left for interactive post-processing demos during my workshops, since sharing my process and some of my favorite locations is exactly how I continue to pursue photography.

Yosemite's El Capitan in the Fall by Jeff Sullivan on 500px.com

 

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Eastern Sierra Fall Colors Peaking Now in Mono County

Eastern Sierra landscape photography

Mono County fall colors are peaking now!

If you’ve been waiting to head to the Eastern Sierra for fall colors, wait no longer!  These photos were all taken yesterday afternoon.  The spectacular color could last through the weekend, but maybe not: the forecast warns that Thursday could bring stormy weather that might knock a few leaves down before the weekend.

West Walker River in October

West Walker River October 15

Topaz Lake Cottonwood Trees

Topaz Lake October 15

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Photograph the Moon Rise at Sunset Tonight, October 4, 2017

Mono Lake Tufa State Natural Reserve: Super Moon Rise

The moon will rise shortly before sunset tonight, providing a perfect opportunity to photograph the moon near the horizon at sunset.  Here are 38 degrees north it’ll rise about 15 minutes before sunset, and be about 1.6 degrees high, or three moon widths, above a zero-degree horizon at sunset.

Mono Lake Moonrise (Re-edit)

About ten minutes later as you may start to see the earth’s shadow rise above the horizon, its blue color contrasting against the adjacent pink-orange last light of the sun in the “belt of Venus” effect, the moon will be about 3.5 degrees high, seven moon widths.

Super Moon Reflection

In apps such as The Photographer’s Ephemeris and PhotoPills you can fine tune the times and moon direction and elevation for any shooting spot you might want to plan for.  Plan well enough, and you can anticipate compositions that place the moon reflecting in lakes, or beside or just over natural or man-made landmarks.

Moon Rise Behind Half Dome

Similar opportunities present themselves on the opposite horizon with the moon set at sunrise, so look at your favorite astrophotography app and start planning! You can combine opportunities, such as catching a moon coming out of eclipse, as it sets behind a nearby ridge.

Partially Eclipsed Moon Setting, October 8, 2014

Or place the moon on a man-made structure like the tip of the Transamerica building in San Francisco.  I started shooting this sequence of images about 15 minutes ahead of time to show how the placement of the moon can be accurately planned in advance, and rendering the images as a time-lapse video lets you see the entire sequence:

Plan to Shoot the April 14/15 2014 Lunar Eclipse: Example Landing on the Transamerica Pyramid
As calculated, the moon ends up centered on the tip of the pyramid!

For a discussion of advanced considerations, read the article, “I’ve planned my supermoon eclipse shot: what could possibly go wrong?

For a bonus on the tomorrow morning, I see in my SkyWeek+ app that the planets moonVenus and Mars will be within 1/4 degree of each other before dawn on October 5.  The StarWalk+ app shows me that they will be rising by about 5:10 am roughly due east.  Photograph them on and close to the horizon, then conditions should continue to improve improve by around 6 am as they’re rising out of the thicker air and haze close to the horizon.  At that point they are still low enough to be captured in landscape shots as the oncoming twilight increasingly illuminates the landscape.  The sun rises close to 7 am, so they may fade as the sky brightens, and Mars in particular may be long gone by 6:30 am.

Venus Jupiter Moon Conjunction

You never know what you might come up with.  A while back I shot the moon with Jupiter and Venus rising nearby, and my photo was used in an article by astronomer Don Olson of the University of Texas, in an article in the August issue of Sky & Telescope Magazine!

I haven’t looked up the phase that Venus is in, but if you have a strong enough lens, youc an see that it’s illuminated in a crescent phase.

Multi-Colored UFO?

The first step is to anticipate and plan for some great opportunities with the moon and/or planets. Then get out there and shoot! Tonight at sunset and tomorrow before dawn offer you a couple of good ones to start with. You never know what you might discover!

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5 incredible stargazing spots in California’s Eastern Sierra

stargazing locations

Night photography locations in California’s Eastern Sierra

Thanks to the San Jose Mercury News for using several of my photos to illustrate their article on viewing the night sky in the Eastern Sierra!

Here’s another location covered in the story.

For the rest, read the article at the San Jose Mercury News:

5 incredible stargazing spots in California’s Eastern Sierra
http://www.mercurynews.com/2017/08/03/5-incredible-stargazing-spots/
by Jackie Burrell

#astrophotography #astronomy #nightphotography #easternsierra

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Eastern Sierra Photography Workshop in June: What’s in Store?

Eastern Sierra landscape photography workshops

Eastern Sierra wildflowers, late May

“The Traveler sees what he sees. The Tourist sees what he has come to see.” G.K. Chesterton

North Peak Sunset AlpenglowUpdate 1, May 31: Tioga Pass opened in Mid-May, so we can include Yosemite”s Tioga Pass area in our workshops starting this Thursday.  I’ve already been up there three times in the past couple of weeks to assess and monitor conditions.

Update 2, May 31: One of my customers has asked to extend the workshop with a few days in Yosemite Valley, so we’re adding June 6, 7, and 8 next week to the schedule!

The first week of June is amazing for the Eastern Sierra for so many reasons. Some snow remains on the Sierra Nevada (and possibly the White Mountains) to catch alpenglow, and there can be a fresh snowfall around the end of May to refresh that surface. Several species of wildflowers are starting to bloom, profusely in some areas.

This year the new moon and Milky Way shooting timing coincides with this week, and we have the possibility of a late spring storm from the northwest for interesting sunrises and sunsets, or warmer monsoon moisture from the Baja coast that could bring dramatic afternoon clouds, showers and rainbows, or evening thunderstorms.

I used to be nervous about the thunderstorms interfering with night photography, but I’ve learned through experience in Bodie and the surrounding area that convection-driven storms tend to break up or blow east by the time the sky is fully dark around 10/10:20, so they’re really just bonuses for sunset and twilight shooting, even when rain showers interfere locally for an hour or so (and even then they often give way to rainbows).

We’ll start with a sunrise on Thursday, pursue wildflowers and weather during the day, have an early dinner, and head back out for sunset at Mono Lake.
Entering the Earth's Shadow

We’ll pick from a number of spots for Milky Way shooting, and arrive by the time it’s fully dark at 10:07, when the galactic center of the Milky Way has already risen 6 degrees, perfect for placing it in our compositions.

Mono Lake Milky Way Panorama

Friday we’ll catch sunrise at Mono Lake before the weekend crowds arrive, shoot different wildflowers, maybe explore some interesting geology or head up to Tioga Pass if its open for snowier views. Another sunset spot, More night photography, and turn in not too late since most of us are continuing on to Bodie the following night, and Bodie interiors the following morning.

Storm Over Mono LakeWorkshops take me out of the field as I work on permits, itineraries, write descriptions, set up payment / registration buttons, and I perform a some kind of marketing to get them seen, if only a mention or two on social media. I’m not going for volume, and I personally lead all of my workshops, so they are designed to place you in a stunning place, in a peak season, as the exact best time.

Eastern Sierra Mules EarsI have to be efficient and pack as much opportunity as I can into my time in the field. Every day has the sun rising and setting. Some weeks have wildflowers. Fall colors may be peaking in a given location for only a few days to a week. The Milky Way is available during a few weeks of the year, a moon rise at sunset or moon set at sunrise about a dozen times each. So I am careful to hold my workshops in a prime season, and I then select the most likely peak days and times, including astronomical considerations.

Along Yosemite's Tioga Pass Road

Tioga Pass Road sunset reflection, May 2016

Plans are all well and good; I frequently plan something as simple as a sunset moon rise composition weeks in advance.  But landscape photography is about light, so if you’re on a workshop, you want a leader have enough depth in detailed regional knowledge to be ready to ditch all plans and react to the weather and light if there’s more potential 20 or 30 miles from where you are.  So leave the tourists behind who are stuck to their fixed agenda, and rather than a traveler who reacts to the weather and looks for a place to shoot it, you can travel with a local who knows the opportunities in every direction, and anticipates the conditions before you pick the next destination and hop in the car to arrive there just in time.

Sunset Rain Clouds Over Mono LakeEarly June in the Eastern Sierra offers an annual convergence of so many factors which could make photography conditions stunning.  Photography is more fun shared, so I can’t wait, and all the better that I get to share all of this bounty with old and new friends!

Spring is Coming to the High Sierra!

Most of the participants are returning customers, but we have room for one or two more if anyone’s interested!

Bodie's Standard Mill

Milky Way Arch Over Standard Mill

Connect with me in all of the usual places for photographers: Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google+YouTube, 500px, Tumblr, or my Web site.

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More Photos from Death Valley in April

Natural Bridge

You may have noticed that I’m obsessed with death. Death Valley National Park, that is! I grew up in New England, just about as far from the desert as you can get in America, so in my current quest to explore the largest national park in the Lower 48 States, I must be making up for lost time.

Windy Day on Mesquite Flat DunesFortunately, currently living in the nearby Eastern Sierra region, I’m only 3-4 hours from a couple of park entrances, so I can indulge in my desert yearnings frequently. I usually visit once or twice in the Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day time period, then again in February and March as the wildflowers start to bloom. But as spring continues and Death Valley starts to really warm up, I like looking for storms and bouts of cooler weather, in case I can slip one or two more visits in before it gets too hot.

In April 2016 I could see a storm front approaching in the weather forecast. Daytime high temperatures would drop into the 80s.  I’m currently working on a detailed photographer’s travel guide to the park to be offered in the +SNAPP Guides app, so I threw my camera and camping gear into the car, and headed to the park with a list of the sites I wanted to explore or revisit next.

I hiked to a natural bridge, and enjoyed great views with sunlight streaming through clouds. I explored stone-walled buildings at an old mining town site, and found wildflowers thriving at higher elevations than on past visits this year.

I met a Subaru coming out the wrong way from Titus Canyon, apparently deciding that “high clearance” meant higher then they had. The worst part of the road is about halfway through the 24-mile loop, so drivers that wait that long have a lot of wrong-way driving to do. Sometimes they’re in a hurry to get out, so they come flying around blind turns!

On the edge of a canyon, two jets saw me with my camera, so they took two passes each direction up the canyon, turning and shooting up sharply right in front of me, so I was able to get some great shots. They were very fast, very close, and very loud!

In Salt Creek, the water was slightly higher than normal, so the pupfish were exploring down to the parking lot, feeding in the flooded margins before low water forced them back into their normal cramped habitat space. Normally they’re a little skittish, but their quest for food prevailed, so when I held my iPhone out over the water, one came over and posed for a portrait.

On one evening, I caught a sandstorm over Mesquite Flat Dunes, back-lit with golden sunlight by the setting sun.

On the way home, sunset light was lighting up rain showers at Mono Lake. It was an eventful and productive trip. I can’t wait to return!  In the meantime, I’ve uploaded the latest batch of photos to the Death Valley 2016 photo album on my +Death Valley Workshops page on Google+.

If you might like to join me in Death Valley sometime, my spring 2016 workshops are done for the season, but I can add a session in mid-December if there’s sufficient interest: Death Valley Photography Workshops.

Jellyfish Cloud
Sunset rain showers over Mono Lake

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Photograph Jets Close in Death Valley

High Speed Selfie
Water vapor condenses on the wing of an F-15C from the 144th Fighter Wing of the +Air National Guard in Fresno

I’ve encountered jets in this canyon in Death Valley by coincidence a few times over the years, so I mentioned them on page 130 of my “Photographing California – South” guidebook. But I’ve only recently sat around and waited for them to arrive. The first time, I showed up at 4:30 pm and waited for a couple of hours, and was skunked. I later talked to someone who had arrived at 3:30 pm, and saw three passes in 45 minutes before leaving at 4:15 pm.

The second time I waited from dawn, nothing happened until a single plane went through at 9:50 am. Nothing happened for another hour, then a pair of F-15C jets from the California +Air National Guard went through it in each direction, twice! They seemed to spot the camera on the first run, then on the next three runs the lead plane pulled up sharply right at my location partway down the canyon, to be pulling a lot of Gs and turning up out of the canyon sharply directly next to me. The pilot appears to be looking at the camera each time, and I can’t think of many reasons to end a run up the canyon early, in both directions, so it sure seemed like he was setting up selfies.

Having heard that photographers fly over from Europe to spend a week sitting all day waiting for the jets, and they report 7 to 9 per day, I had my 9 and figured that I had done well. For some reason, Mondays were considered to be less promising, so I might not see any more planes that day. I picked up my tripods and started moving towards the car, and more planes came! It was like that until I had to leave by noon. I’d throw the tripod over my shoulder and another jet would come.

A couple of guys from the adjacent campsite in the Stovepipe Wells campground the night before showed up and saw a jet go through. A few random people watched one go by from time to time. A busload of children on a field trip showed up, their wait was no more than 10 minutes, then a jet went by and they left. It sure seemed as if perhaps they came from a town nearby and had been able to coordinate with the pilot, perhaps a parent of one of the children?

Dropping Into the CanyonWhen these jets was turning the hardest, smoke-like trails formed behind the wingtips, and smoke-like misting formed on top of the wings as well. It turns out that this is water condensing, not uncommon when pulling the most Gs:

“Condensation of water vapor in wing tip vortices is most common on aircraft flying at high angles of attack, such as fighter aircraft in high g maneuvers, or airliners taking off and landing on humid days.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wingtip_vortices

Having been skunked on a prior visit then rewarded with a flurry of activity after a few hours of uneventful watching the second time, I can’t make generalizations yet about your odds of catching jets flying up canyons in Death Valley, but apparently if you are persistent enough, the jets may eventually come. That’s when you’ll find success, when preparation meets opportunity.

What Aircraft Use This Space?

The Panamint, Saline and Eureka Valleys in Death Valley National Park are part of the R-2508 Complex, jointly administered by the Edwards Air Force Base, China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station and Fort Irwin (Army). NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center (Named Dryden Flight Research Center until 2014) is located at Edwards AFB. The 144th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard, based in Fresno, came through while I was waiting.  Apparently jets from Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada come over on exercises, and one of the jets that passed me had a UFO logo on its tail, so it might have been out of Groom Lake (Area 51) on Nellis. 

Although R-2508 stretches 140 miles north and south and 110 miles across, each dimension is only a few minutes across at 500 MPH.  So it’s not all that large from the perspective of the pilots using it, and sub-sections include bombing and artillery ranges, so pilots have to navigate around closed sections on any given day.  Nevertheless, it’s the largest overland Special Use Airspace (SUA) in the United States, so it’s a scarce and valuable resource for the armed services to have.

Why is the military using National Park airspace at all?  This has been a topic of discussion for some time, and in 1977 it was agreed that the jets would stay above 3000 feet over Sequoia, Kings Canyon National Parks and Death Valley, a national monument at the time. The areas the jets used for low level flying were mostly administered by the BLM, and were in use by the military before the Death Valley National Monument became a national park via the California Desert Protection Act on October 31, 1994. That was also when it was expanded from 2 million acres to 3.4 million acres, adding the valleys being used by military aircraft. 

Why Do Military Aircraft Fly Low?

An information sheet that I picked up at the Maturango Museum in Ridgecrest states: 

“Today,one way a military pilot can survive in combat is to fly as close as possible to the ground to avoid detection by enemy radar systems. This skill is developed by flying at very low elevations over a variety of terrain.”

“Not only do the pilots fly very low in combat, but also very fast.  This low and fast flying requires many hours of training time for pilots.  They must train in a gradual step-by-step process down to a minimum low level of flight to gain the confidence and experience needed and then regularly practice this skill to make second nature the necessary split-second decisions.”  

“In general, military flights can occur in the complex as low as 200 feet with several exceptions.”

A discussion of civilian use of the airspace appears here: Navigating “The Complex”.

F-18 Showing Off
Water vapor condenses at the wingtips and over the wings of an F-18 in a high-G turn

#Air National Guard

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Shell Creek Road Wildflowers

Shell Creek Road is a rural road running north – south
between CA – 58 and CA – 46, passing pastures and rolling hills that can feature wildflowers in late March through April. There are also agricultural fields which can have symmetric lines for photographs, as well as a large vineyard with both old and young vines. The old vines are probably the ones which yield the excellent the Shell Creek Vineyard reserve petite sirah produced by David Bruce Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Shell Creek Road can be a convenient detour to take when approaching Carrizo Plain National Monument from the north, or departing Carrizo Plain in the direction of Paso Robles. The wildflowers are more concentrated towards the southern 6 miles or so.

Directions

From Paso Robles at US-101, take CA-46 east 15.6 miles and turn right onto CA-41 West Centre street.  Go 2.8 miles and turn right onto Toby Way.  After 0.3 miles on Toby Way turn right onto San Juan Road.  After 4.5 miles turn right onto Shell Creek Road.  You’ll be on Shell Creek Road 10.7 miles, ending at CA-58.

To continue to Carrizo Plain National Monument, travel east on CA-58 24.2 miles, turn right on Soda Lake Road and travel 13.7 miles.

There’s a creek at the north end of the road which can flow over the road after a heavy rain, and this can close the road. When I last visited, there was a car in the creek, just downstream of where it had washed off of the road. Don’t underestimate how deep the water is, or how little force it might take to push your vehicle off the road!

For more information on the area, I cover Shell Creek Road on page 177 of my “Photographing California Vol. 2 South” landscape photography guidebook.

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Wines to Taste at Hospice du Rhone, April 14 – 16

Rhone Ranger wines

Some of the wineries producing Rhone varietal wines in the United States

When exploring wines produced with various different grapes, it can take years of experimentation to sample enough wines with dinners to get a good feel for which wineries produce the style that you like, and what foods they go with best. Fortunately there’s an efficient, cost-effective way to find new favorite wines: wine tastings. I like to visit temperate regions and visit wineries while I travel, but there are many tastings in California where producers from all over the state, or all over the world, will come to you. The Hospice du Rhone (HdR) wine tasting event coming up this month in Paso Robles features top wineries from the United States, France and Australia.

Many wine lovers are familiar with syrah, one of over 20 wine varietals traditionally grown in the Rhone region of France. Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier and the other Rhone varietals have done well in the New World as well, particularly in California, Washington and Australia. In Australia they call syrah “shiraz”, after a region in the Persian Empire that produced notable wines at the time, although those were apparently white wines, and not syrah. But I digress.

The first year that I attended the  HdR was 2001. Earlier that year I had toured the Australian island of Tasmania enjoying their pinot noir, then I flew to the shiraz-laden Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale wine regions near Adelaide. The Australians were enjoying the release of wines from their fantastic 1998 vintage, which was in a string of strong vintages. I was enjoying them too. Upon my return, I checked two cases of wine as luggage and packed more in my carry-on baggage, for a total of 39 bottles in all! Ah the days before airline restrictions on liquids. Then a couple of months after returning from Australia, I attended the Rhone Rangers tasting event in California, offering American-produced Rhone varietals, and I enjoyed many fine Rhone lineage wines there.

So I started 2001 with a great survey of Australian and American Rhone style wines, and Hospice du Rhone would be a great opportunity to add French wines to the mix, and try them all in one place. Let’s start with the American wines and wineries that I particularly enjoyed at the Rhone Rangers event. Although wines change from year to year, the best grapes are consistently grown in the best sites, and wineries and winemakers that have tuned their winemaking practices for those sites will consistently produce great wines year after year. So finding your favorite vineyards, winemakers and producers is a great first step. So among this year’s 239 wineries pouring at HdR, many of these producers will again be pouring great wines:

1998 Lewis Cellars Napa Valley Syrah 03/31/01 – Ripe nose, syrupy dark fruit, intense with ample tannins, a touch musty, long dusty finish with more dark fruit. 92

1999 Cedarville El Dorado County Estate Syrah $24.00 03/31/01 – Deceptively supple, fills the mouth with ripe soft berries and some vanilla. 91

1999 McCrea Cellars Yakima Valley Syrah 03/31/01 – Ripe and musty with minty plum and black fruit, intense acid and tannins, ripe on the finish. 91

1999 Truchard Vineyards Napa Valley Carneros Syrah 03/31/01 – Musty, concentrated, a little syrupy, intense on the finish. 91

1999 T-Vine Cellars Contra Costa County Syrah 03/31/01 – Ripe and very sweet,syrupy (American oak?), concentrated. A “no dump” wine. 91

1998 Joseph Phelps Vineyards Vin du Mistral Syrah 03/31/01 – Dry, deceptively well balanced, with a congue-tingling finish. Closed, masking ample intensity. Should be better in a few years. 91

1998 Justin MacGillivran Syrah 03/31/01 – (Barrel sample) Ripe, minty, fleshy, dark fruit, which carries into the finish. A “no dump” wine. 91

1998 McCrea Cellars Yakima Valley Cuvee Orleans Syrah 03/31/01 – Nice nose, plus ripe dark fruit, peppery, toasty, with ample tannins. 91

1997 Jade Mountain Napa Valley Paras Vineyard Syrah 03/31/01 – Supple with vanilla oak and coffee flavors. 91

1997 Swanson Vineyards Napa Valley Syrah 03/31/01 – Dry with dark fruit, oak, spices, herbs, nice acid balance. 91

1996 QupE’ Wine Cellars Santa Barbara County Hillside Select Syrah 03/31/01 – Supple with vanilla oak, skins, dark fruit, nice persistence. 91

1999 Beckman Vineyards Santa Barbara County Syrah 03/31/01 – Tannic, dusty, peppery. 90

1999 Cedarville El Dorado County Estate Grenache $20.00 03/31/01 – Medium to full body, plush texture, sweet black fruit, balanced with an acid-supported finish. 90

1999 Cedarville El Dorado County Zinfandel $22.00 03/31/01 – Fruity, slightly syrupy, vanilla. 90

1999 Lava Cap Syrah 03/31/01 – (Barrel sample) Syrupy berry, spices… blueberry pie. 90

1998 McCrea Cellars Yakima Valley Ciel du Cheval Syrah 03/31/01 – Supple, vanilla oak, toasty on the finish. 90

1997 Clos Mimi Paso Robles Shell Creek Vineyard Syrah 03/31/01 – Minty, fruity, with spices and vanilla oak on the finish. 90

1997 Seven Peaks Paso Robles Shiraz 03/31/01 – Ample body, dark fruit (blackberry), mint, plum, shuts down on the finish. 90

1995 Swanson Vineyards Napa Valley Syrah 03/31/01 – Dry, medium bodied, peppery with red and black fruits, some leather, nice intensity and acid. 90

My Background in Wine

But what qualifications did I have for attempting such a feat? I started enjoying Ridge Vineyards wine since the early 1980s: my mountain biking route took me past their tasting room. A friend of mine worked there. Ultimately they would be named one of the top 5 wineries in the world, so I was spoiled by quality from the start. As I worked in Silicon Valley’s high tech industry for a couple of decades, I had access to great wines and my budget enabled me to collect them. I started taking tasting notes in 1994. Given that my day job was selling servers to Netscape, Yahoo! and other startups, I set up a Web site and posted my notes there. That got me into the big wine tastings, often early as a wine trade journalist, before the crush of public made it a little more difficult to access the more popular tables and wines. Even just trying a wine each night with dinner would tune my palate with over 3500 wines in 10 years. But my friends and I got together for a “boys night out” every Wednesday night, and we quickly settled on blind tastings as the agenda, with the host selecting the theme each week. Add in a few trade tastings each year, and you start to develop an experienced palate, along with a pretty sizable database. Eventually I decided to be a wine broker for a few years, representing small wineries to wine shops and restaurants.

My taste in wine may not be identical to yours (the whole subject of reviews, ratings and rankings has been covered ad nauseum for decades elsewhere). But you can try wines and a producer or two that I’ve liked, and if we like similar styles, my experience may come in handy for you.

I both take notes on the flavors and characteristics of a wine, as well as assign a score on a 100-point scale, like the ones American consumers have become familiar with from Wine Spectator Magazine and Robert Parker’s newsletter, Wine Advocate. There’s a love-hate relationship with such systems in the industry as a score over 90 points can help sell a wine, and higher on the scale may mean bigger, bolder and more in-your-face, but that’s not what you want with every meal. There are many excellent balanced wines that score in the high 80 to 90 point range that might pair better with food. I think that many or most wine consumers have become educated enough to make educated choices, so there’s no particular need to shy away from putting a stake in the ground regarding where on such a scale a wine might fall.

Fortunately the Hospice du Rhone event provides one of those opportunities for you find what you like, and cut months or years off your search time, while you save many hundreds of dollars on the cost.

Maybe I’ll see you there!

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California Wildflower Sites: Antelope Valley

The Mojave Desert in April

Goldfields and California poppies mix with Joshua trees in Antelope Valley

One of my favorite photography road trips ever was a tour of California wildflower sites in the spring, including Antelope Valley and the California State Poppy Reserve, Carrizo Plain National Monument, Figueroa Mountain Recreation Area in the +Los Padres National Forest, and the area covered by the annual Ridgecrest Wildflower Festival in the Eastern Sierra. I posted on my blog at the time some of my favorite photos from the Antelope Valley, but I have a little more time now to take a second pass and show you more of what I saw.

I’m considering taking that route again this year, so reviewing past trips and refreshing my memory on what to stop in on and check can be productive. I’ve also looked up the wildflower report at the California State Poppy Reserve, which posted this update on Saturday, April 2:

“The season appears to have ended early, as last month’s rains came too late to sustain the bloom that had barely started. The fields are mostly grasses now; only a handful of poppies are blooming alongside the trails. The beavertail cactus in front of the visitor center is blooming, which usually happens after the season has ended- a sign that an early summer is on the way.”

An early start to summer should not be entirely unexpected, given the record El Nino heat in the Pacific Ocean driving our weather pattern in recent months. It’s a shame though that it didn’t bring enough rain at the right time to deliver a bumper crop of wildflowers in the Antelope Valley. The Antelope Valley is large though, and there may be dispersed pockets where enough rain fell, perhaps with a northern exposure to minimize drying during the gap in winter storms in February. Much of the area is in the Mojave Desert ecosystem, where Joshua trees serve as gerat subjects, with or without wildflowers.

In any case, many other areas of Southern California desert are blooming with normal to above normal intensity, so if I decide to take the trip, the conditions in the Antelope Valley won’t make or break the outcome.

So while I have my photos handy, here are a few more photos from the Antelope Valley area on that prior trip, and I’ll sprinkle a few across my various social media accounts as well.

The Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve often starts its wildflower reports in mid-March to keep visitors updated on the conditions as they peak at some point through April. The area celebrates the annual bloom at the California Poppy Festival.  This year the 25th California Poppy Festival will be held April 16-17, 2016.

For more information, I cover the Antelope Valley California State Poppy Reserve and other sites to visit on an April California wildflower tour on page 184 of my new 320-page guidebook, Photographing California Vol. 2 – South (shown to the right).

Road to Nowhere

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