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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Alimentary, My Dear

A Jug of Wine —
Respite in the Wilderness

By Tamia Nelson
tamia@paddling.net

November 20, 2007

Dinnertime in camp is many things. First and foremost, it's a refueling stop, a chance to top up your tank after a long struggle against a contrary wind. It's a time for rest and recovery, too, a time to warm your chilled body and ease your way toward a sound night's sleep. But there's a lot more to dinner than physiology. It's an opportunity to lift sagging spirits, to put the small irritations of backcountry travel — boggy portages, relentless attacks by squadrons of biting flies, seemingly endless rain — into perspective. Of course, dinner on the trail isn't always a leisurely meal. Far too often you have just enough time to bolt your food before you need to roll up in your sleeping bag and get some welcome shut-eye. Luckily, though, most days aren't this hectic, and there are some days when you can afford to really … well … make a meal of your evening meal. That's when a glass of wine tastes mighty good.

First, however, a few cautionary words: Alcohol has no place on the water. A single drink — one can of beer, one glass of wine, or one tot of rum — can blunt the sharp edge of a paddler's judgment and slow her response time disastrously. I've seen it happen, seen an expert paddler become a clumsy tyro after only one lunchtime beer, and then watched helplessly while he nearly wrecked an heirloom canoe in consequence. Yet even the longest, hardest day has to come to an end sooner or later. Once you've hauled out your boat and set up camp, you can usually afford to "stand the watch down." That's when wine enters the picture. After all, it's been an enduring source of pleasure for thousands of years, justly celebrated by prophets ("use a little wine for thy stomach's sake") and poets ("A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou / Beside me singing in the Wilderness") alike. No surprise, that. When drunk in moderation, by adults for whom it is not otherwise proscribed, wine enhances food, relaxes both mind and body, and aids digestion. It may even prolong life. The key is moderation.

Now let's take a closer look at …

Wine and Food

Everything tastes better outdoors, and wine is no exception. So you can be confident that whatever you like to drink with your dinner at home will work equally well with meals in camp. But what if you're comparatively new to the world of wine? No problem! Winter's a good time to explore its bays and archipelagoes. And just as with paddling, local knowledge is invaluable. Begin by visiting a nearby wine seller. He (or she) will probably be an enthusiast, delighted to talk about his stock in trade. (If he's not, go somewhere else.) All you have to do is listen and learn. Don't get carried away, however. There's no shortage of very expensive bottles on the shelves of most shops, but drinkable wine needn't cost the earth. Still, enthusiasts aren't likely to dwell overmuch on the costs of their hobby, whether they're paddlers or wine drinkers, particularly when they're in the business of spending someone else's money. That's only human nature. My advice? Unless you have very deep pockets, set a price point and let the seller know what it is. Then stick to it. Start cheap, in other words.

Or are you a do-it-yourself type, the sort of person who prefers to make his own mistakes? OK. Make the library your first stop, instead of the wine shop. And don't neglect the periodical section. Even the once-staid Consumer Reports now rates wines, and — in my experience, at least — their ratings can be relied on. (If you're curious, check out the December issues.) Next, after you've done a little preliminary reading, take a non-credit college course in wine appreciation. Attend wine-tastings at local shops, too. Most important of all, experiment. Buy wines to drink with your dinners at home, and keep a record of your discoveries. Make a note of the bottler, the variety and vintage, the food you served, and your impressions, favorable or otherwise. Your judgments may not agree with those of the experts, but who cares? You're the expert on what pleases your own palate, after all. Before you know it, you'll have a list of favorites, and when the time comes to plan your camp menu, you'll be ready.

What's that? You're all at sea in the world of wine? Here are few hints from my own exploratory voyages …

  • What Goes With What?  Not all wines complement all foods, so your menu will limit your choices. An oft-repeated rule of thumb declares that red wines go best with beef, lamb, and game, while white wines are happiest with fish and chicken. It's straightforward advice, to be sure, and it has the virtue of being easy to remember (red wines with red meat; white with white). But there's a downside, too. It's only a half-truth at best. Your own experience is a far better guide.

  • Do You Get What You Pay For?  Yes. And no. While there are bad wines to be had at every price level, there is a rough correlation between cost and quality. That said, you don't need to spend a great deal. You can buy drinkable wine for as little as US$2.00 a liter, and a few more dollars will yield many pleasant surprises. Experiment.

  • What About Boxed Wines?  Wine snobs often turn up their noses at wines marketed in these ingenious matings of cardboard box and plastic bladder — at least when other snobs are looking! — but there are many excellent wines sold by the box these days. And there's no better way to carry wine in the backcountry, either. You can even reuse empty bladders as water bags or air pillows. (Wine snobs also frown on plastic corks and screw-top bottles, but with the decline of the cork forests of Spain and Portugal, more and more bottles of "quality" wine are now corked with plastic. Some even have screw tops.)

  • Does Temperature Matter?  Yes, but …. In general, white and "blush" (aka rosé) wines should be served at "cellar temperature" (50-55 degrees Fahrenheit, say), while reds are happiest at cool room temperature (around 65 degrees Fahrenheit). This may be hard to achieve in the backcountry, however. Few canoes have wine cellars, after all, and nature's thermostat is rather variable. Just do your best. Stow wine deep in a food pack to keep it from getting too hot — no wine benefits from overheating — and then cool your white wine in the shade or shallows while you prepare supper. (If you opt to chill white wine in shallow water, better loop a lanyard around the bottle or bladder — and be sure to keep bottles away from rocks and breaking waves.)

 

Stocking your traveling cellar is only the beginning, of course. You'll also want to attend to some …

Practical Matters

If you've opted for box wines, consider removing the bladders from the boxes to make the most of the limited storage space in your pack. But beware — unprotected bladders are vulnerable. A stray tent peg or other sharp object can release a red tide of wine. You get the point, I'm sure. And bottled wines demand more careful packing still, not to mention an efficient corkscrew. Moreover, if you'll be paddling where regulations prohibit glass containers, you'll have to open the original bottles at home and decant the contents into botas, plastic bottles, or clean hydration packs. You can also rinse and reuse the bladders from boxed wine for this purpose, but since no amount of rinsing will remove every trace of the original occupant, always add like to like. Red wines should go into a bladder that once played host to a red; whites into a bladder from another white. Unfortunately, most fine wines go downhill fast once they're out of the bottle, especially if they've been forced to take shelter in an apartment vacated by a lesser vintage.

Another hint: If you like the idea of a bota, fill one with water first and practice pouring (and drinking) from it until you're sure you've got the knack. It's not as easy as it looks, and even cheap wine makes for an expensive shower.

Give some thought to your wilderness table settings, too. Fancy stemware is out of place in the backcountry. Traditionalists will probably find the Lexan® wine glasses sold by some outfitters and yacht chandlers an acceptable compromise. But be warned: spills are commonplace occurrences with these elegant vessels. It's hard to find a level surface in a riverside camp. That's why less fastidious paddlers eschew elegance and make do with something squat and sturdy. A plastic whisky glass is my choice, but some folks are happy drinking their wine from the same cup they use for their breakfast coffee.

 

And now, while I'm speaking of my personal predilections, I suppose I ought to say something about …

My Portable Cellar

For everyday meals — but no backcountry meal is really an everyday meal, is it? — I buy boxed wines from Peter Vella Wines, in Modesto, California. (Nope. I'm not on the payroll. I just like the wine.) Burgundy, White Grenache (a "blush" wine, despite the name), and Chardonnay cover most of the bases. The Burgundy complements red meats, hearty stews, pasta with tomato sauce, and pizza, while the Chardonnay and White Grenache both go well with omelets and western egg sandwiches, quesadillas, fish, and fowl. The White Grenache rests more lightly on the palate, however. For that reason alone, it seems the better choice in hot weather.

Special meals deserve special wines, to be sure, and where possible I prefer a bottled vintage. Yet I don't like to spend a lot of money. Tisdale and Yellow Tail Cabernet Sauvignons rise to most occasions where a robust red is called for, as does Yellow Tail Shiraz. I prefer Tisdale Chardonnay when serving pasta with a creamy sauce, though. Yellow Tail Chardonnay, on the other hand, is more assertive. In fact, it has a pronounced ginger-beer flavor that works well with spicy fusion meals, even if it jars and jangles when matched with more subtle dishes. But please don't take these recommendations as gospel. Wines change from year to year, even wines from the same estate. That's the whole idea behind vintage labeling, and both Tisdale and Yellow Tail wines were labeled with a vintage year in the past. Now only Yellow Tail wines are, and I've found them remarkably consistent from one year to the next. The non-vintage Tisdale, however, suffers somewhat in comparison with its vintage brandmates from former years. No matter. It's still a good bottle of cheap plonk, and I take comfort in knowing how much money I'm saving when I ride my bicycle to the wine shop in town to pick up a case. I'd rather spend money on wine than gasoline.

 

So much for my foibles and fancies. But I can't leave the subject of wine without repeating my earlier …

Cautionary Words

Wine is one of life's affordable delights, but — with apologies to Mae West — too much of a good thing is still too much. And any alcohol, in any form, is too much when you're on the water, when you're chilled to the bone, or when you've taken a knock on the head recently. So if you fancy a glass of wine in the backcountry, wait until you make camp. Then drink it with your evening meal, after you've finished paddling for the day and you've had a chance to warm up and relax a bit. 'Nuff said? I'm sure it is.

Wine has been around a long time, and the advice to "use a little wine for thy stomach's sake" is nothing new. So if the spirit moves you, and when circumstances allow, why not broach a box of wine the next time you make camp? Elementary advice, you say? Nope. Alimentary. And that's my last word on the subject — for now, at any rate.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.









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