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Perfect Pairs: Taste Restaurant & Wine Bar
(for Sierra Living magazine -- fall 2019)
Gold and diamonds, JLo and A-Rod, water lilies and Monet—some pairs seem born to togetherness, even when they aren’t. Truth is, great matches are most often the alchemy of experience, know-how, and a touch of genius. The making of fine wines, for instance, or fine meals. Better yet—the pairing of those two, a specialty of Taste Restaurant & Wine Bar in Plymouth, California. 
                Taste, set in Amador County wine country, works with many small, local farmers to acquire fresh, healthy, organic ingredients on which to base flavorful dishes. This takes time, of course, and requires various considerations: harvests, yields, and quality, among others. Just one of the reasons Taste has earned the highest Zagat rating in the region.
                Under the direction of executive chef Micah Malcolm and found at no other restaurant in the area, diners may split portions at no charge and choose multiple half-portions, the better to sample the menu. Says Malcolm, “You could taste three entrees before you reach dessert.” For the first-time guest he recommends asking the server “who we are and what we’re about, and ask how we can blow your mind.”
                If you’re new to Taste you might also follow Malcolm’s approach to taking the measure of a restaurant—by the tastiness and inventiveness of its appetizers, which offer a window onto the courses that will follow. From Malcolm’s perspective, outstanding appetizers = creative entrees.
                For a little California dreamin’ request a “chef’s tasting” dinner with optional wine pairing, or opt for a “wine lunch,” featuring local wines for which Taste’s staff has developed courses “as perfectly balanced” as possible. This means choosing herbs and spices, proteins, and vegetables that favor a wine’s acidity, tannins, and flavors of oak, jam, and fruit. A wine can be delicious by itself, as can the food, but when balanced, says Malcolm, they create a “whole new experience that would have been missed” had they not been paired together.
                While credit for Taste’s wine chops starts with chef Mark Berkner, owner of Taste with his wife Tracey, Malcolm holds a Level One sommelier certificate to better take advantage of an extensive wine list split roughly 60% Amador County, Eldorado County, and Lodi area wines to 40% sourced from Pacific Northwest, France, and Italy.
                Open weekends for lunches, and all but Wednesdays for dinner with a prix fix menu on Mondays. Vegan, vegetarian, and GF diners welcome. Taste Restaurant & Wine Bar, winner of Wine Spectator Award of Excellence since 2008, 9402 Main St., Plymouth, CA, 209-245-3463;

Pairing suggestions from Taste:
2015 Eighteen Sixty-One by Skinner Vineyards of El Dorado Co., and Passamore Ranch sturgeon with farro, fennel, poached egg
2015 Tempranillo by Fate Wines of Amador Co., and fall squash ravioli with Cipollini onion, marjoram, pepitas, toma cheese, shallot
Tawny Splash, a 7-vintage blend by Narrow Gate Vineyards of El Dorado Co., and pumpkin custard with gingerbread, cranberry, apple crisp, salted caramel


Who Let the Dogs In?
(for Sierra Living magazine 2017, here without sidebar)

America has gone to the dogs. Roughly 77 million of them and counting. They’re everywhere, from accompanying the neighborhood “walking bus” of school kids to riding in the sidecar of a Harley. They even rate a primetime television broadcast that each February showcases hundreds of purebred breeds—the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. No offense to pedigreed types, but America’s love affair also includes mixed-breed, Heinz 57, garden-varieties which are widely valued for their everyday smarts and adaptability.

                Ever notice that dogs are equal opportunity creatures? Work is play, and play is work, with joy to be found in each. A popular children’s story claims that if you give a mouse a cookie, it will want a glass of milk. Well, if you give a dog a job, it will ask for more hours. You won’t find a canine holding out for espresso privileges or free dry cleaning. No technology upgrades required or double pay for holidays. Just a bowl of fresh water in the corner and maybe a couple of those liver-flavored training treats.

                So, how did modern dogs become such sociable workaholics? Early tribe-friendly dogs are thought by some researchers (archaeozoologist Susan Crockford, for one) to have evolved from the smallest, most-curious, least-aggressive wolves. They may have “domesticated themselves,” she notes, and somewhere in the process been assigned a magical, spiritual role. Smart wolves aligned themselves with the upright creatures who shared scraps and were handy with fire and tools.

                We are still sharing scraps, plus homes, yards, automobiles, and sometimes sofas and beds, ample evidence that many of us think dogs are people too. Even if they’re not, canis lupis familiaris have long worked side-by-side with humans in roles suited to their considerable skills—herding, hunting, and standing sentry over livestock and property. They can sniff out drugs, explosives, and other contraband. Some outperform technology by detecting airborne molecules related to blood sugar spikes in at-risk people. There’s no machine for that!

At your service
Service Dogs are trained for specific tasks that improve human lives through direct assistance. Think wounded warriors, disabled citizens, and people with cognitive or sensory impairment. There are military, police, search and rescue, and cadaver dogs too, each assuming the same or greater risks as their handlers. These dogs are angels among us, laser-focused on duty and loyal to the core.

                Then there’s the brand of comfort provided by Therapy Dogs. Calm and uber-friendly by nature, they accompany their human partners to many public places: hospitals, libraries, airports, senior and adult care residences, schools and universities, courthouses, and mental health facilities. Paws4Love, founded in 1996, is a provider with 118 members in Washoe, Churchill, and Storey counties. Their dogs range from Chihuahua to leonberger, and everything in between, providing comfort at more than 50 locations plus Washoe County Schools. They also respond to crises.

                Pet therapy, aka, animal-assisted therapy, has been shown to provide a calming effect, reduce the need for pain medication, and reduce stress and anxiety for hospitalized patients. That’s why officials at Reno’s Renown hospital, welcomes therapy dogs on campus. Said Meghan Meagher by email, “Therapy dogs have a huge impact, not just on our patients but visitors and staff as well. All ages benefit…”

                When dogs aren’t hunting or herding or fetching, some participate in the “Take Your Dog to Work” movement, launched in 1996 by Pet Sitters International to promote dogs as companions and incite pet adoptions. June 23rd is this year’s designated day to take Buddy Fido Fifi Bella Gordo to work. According to the Society of Human Resource Management (quoted on the site, 7% of U.S. employers allow pets at work. Benefits reportedly include stress reduction, a better workplace environment, increased productivity, and increased employee retention.

                Susan Bergstrom Brackney, CPA, of Reno, takes her dog Houdini to work. Brackney says Houdini sleeps in the doorway to her office, the better to monitor her every move. He talked his way into his current arrangement. After losing the last of his dog and cat mates at home, he stood at the door and whined to go with her to work. She couldn’t resist. “I love animals,” says this business and dog owner. “They’re fun and they’re good company.”

                Vacation travel sites provide filters for choosing pet-friendly accommodations and will note extra fees, if any. Traveling with Benjy could mean being prepared to locate the nearest pet hospital or employ a bit of your own first aid knowledge. Peggy Rew, a Reno-based American Red Cross Pet First Aid Instructor, says dogs shouldn’t be fed people food other than carrots, string beans, or strawberries. Lingering in settings with shade is IN; left unattended in hot autos is OUT. Pet First Aid classes teach owners to troubleshoot and remedy problems big and small. The better to work, play, dine, travel, sightsee, sunbathe, comfort, compete, strike a pose, and find the joy in each of them.

Treasures from Down Under – Gemstone collecting in the Silver State
(Photos and story for Nevada Magazine)

Murmurs of appreciation greet the stones Alan Felker displays in gently cupped hands. “When I saw the glimmer in that bucket,” he tells his fellow rockhounds, eyes crinkling with pleasure, “I about fell off my perch.” The shimmer of a rainbow caught in hunks of precious fire opal is a just reward for a long drive and sweat-filled hours spent picking through clots of dusty earth.

                Felker is proficient at this type of hunting and gathering, but virtually anyone can prospect for gemstones, natural bling of the off-road adventurer. Before you set out, though, here’s a brief geology lesson: Nevada does mountains like no other state. It also does rocks, rocks, and more rocks. And the thing about rocks is they come in different models – plain, fancy, and deluxe. Nevada’s upper echelon includes opals, garnets, and smoky quartz. To get your hands on some, start by acquiring basic knowledge, then gather a few practical supplies and seek a little help from your friends.

                For the novice collector, inspiration arrives in the form of family-oriented Reno Gem & Mineral Society, an educational/social club with a focus on teaching basic identification, important because a stone’s outerwear can disguise its inner beauty. Members like Felker share success stories and hunting hints with like-minded enthusiasts. The club also organizes monthly field trips for collecting en masse, especially beneficial for beginners. Says Ernie Kastenbein, long-time member, “Specifics are what you get from others who have been there and done that.” Norvie Enns, the club’s shop director and an instructor, agrees. “Find someone who’s already been there,” he says, “and go with them.” He favors the group approach, but adventurous souls could take the indie route.

                A number of commercial opal mines and over 200 private claims operate in “Virgin Valley” territory, the high desert of northwest Humboldt County, where prized black opals and many-hued fire opals result from silica and minerals deposited in the cavities of disintegrating buried forests. Opal hunters search for crusty tree-limb shapes or broken bits protruding from the pale dirt. To quote Michelle Blowers, a Californian who hunts in Nevada, “There is nothing like spotting that glint of color in the grey sand. Your heart leaps. You brush off the dirt…the colors burst like tiny rainbows…after that you are hopelessly hooked. There is no cure for opal fever but more opals.” Fees for digging at private opal mines can range upwards of $100. Take U.S. 95 north from Winnemucca, 28 miles to State Route 140, then north to Denio (another 70 miles). Virgin Valley, in the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, containing mines such as Royal Peacock and Rainbow Ridge, lies west of Denio near the Oregon border.

                Garnets, a type of feldspar, are abundant at Garnet Fields Rockhound Area, six miles west of Ely, Nevada, off Highway 50. At the top of Garnet Hill you’ll find wheelchair accessible restrooms, a picnic area, a few camping spaces, and plenty of parking. Kick along the roadway watching for almandine and spessartine varieties glowing like luminous red eyes in pale-colored rhyolite, especially following a heavy rain or after snowplows have cleared the road. Better yet, “Get away to where there haven’t been too many people,” per Enns, who has found ¾-inch jewelry quality garnets off the beaten path (try the southwest quadrant of the hill). Free to the public.

                Mine tailings near the top of Petersen Mountain, approximately 33 miles north of Reno, yield pale brown to black smoky quartz, a type of silica. Distinctive flat sides and corners distinguish their crystal shapes from ordinary dirt and rocks.  With a hand-held rock pick, rake a portion of the loose tailings toward you then sift through it by hand.  You’ll need 4-wheel drive, work gloves, a pick (or shovel), and a bucket. To reach Petersen Mountain, travel north from Reno on Highway 395 North, continuing exactly 10 miles beyond Hallelujah Junction. Turn east onto the unmarked dirt road, which will take you to a parking turnout at a gate near the top.  Walk in to the tailings.  Beware of signs marking active mining claims and do not trespass them.

                Most guidebooks and Web sites suggest necessary tools and safety measures for successful gemstone hunting. These include sturdy boots, sun and wind protection, potable water, and a cell phone, though not all areas receive cell signals. Sites that charge fees for digging (fee-for-dig) might rent shovels and buckets; otherwise, bring your own tools. Don’t go alone, and remember, collecting is forbidden in state parks.

                Many Reno Gem & Mineral Society members learn to cut and polish cabochons and other gem shapes from their favorite specimens.  General membership runs $20.00 per year, with lapidary, beadwork, silversmithing, and wire wrapping classes for members at $6.00 or less each.

                Don’t despair if you come home with specimens good only for gracing your garden. Unlike with fishing, you get to determine which of them are keepers. Says Enns, “I don’t have to know what a specimen’s mineral content is to think that it’s pretty.” So what if your finds are not precious gemstones?  They might be any of the hundreds of collectible minerals native to Nevada, and before you know it you might just be hooked and headed toward becoming a rockhound.