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Getting rid of Snipes

I didn’t mention it yesterday but there was a reason why we stopped in Granger. It’s the gateway to Snipes Mountain.

I know, right? Snipes?

When Tia and Alicia told me they were taking me up Snipes Mountain to look at vineyards my first reaction was, Yeah, right.

A snipe, if you don’t know, is an odd little wading bird that is so difficult to hunt that it gives its name to the term “sniper.” And a snipe hunt is nothing more than a practical joke where you talk some dummy into going out into the woods with a gunny sack or something and have them run around in circles while making some ridiculous noise until they finally realize there are no snipes in the woods and they’re all alone.

So I was sure this is what Tia and Alicia were doing: Taking Dave on a snipe hunt and leaving me there. But I guess people around Granger haven’t heard of snipe hunts because there really is a Snipes Mountain. Although calling this modest-size hill (which tops out at 1,310 feet) a mountain is kind of ridiculous. I’ve seen bigger sand dunes.

Anyway, there are only two things of interest about Snipes Mountain. The first is its geology. The soil is littered with car-sized boulders of granite, which is interesting since there’s no granite in the Yakima Valley. Obviously the granite was delivered either by aliens in their space ships or from hitching a ride on melting glaciers (which is also probably how the bones of that wooly mammoth they found in the clay pit arrived) during the last ice age. I’m guessing it was the aliens that brought them.

Hogue Cellars winemaker Co Dinn sampling grapes on Snipes...er, Dinosaur Hill. Photo by David Lansing.

Hogue Cellars winemaker Co Dinn sampling grapes on Snipes...er, Dinosaur Hills. Photo by David Lansing.

The other thing of interest about Snipes Mountain is that in February of this year, it became an official Washington American Viticultural Area (AVA), the state’s 10th. This is interesting because there are only about 665 acres of vineyards planted on this hill. Which isn’t much. But Tia and Alicia wanted me to see it. So we drove up the dirt road, getting a nice view of the Yakima Valley, to the flat top where the Roskamp family lives in a wind-buffeted ranch house surrounded by the vineyards that grow grapes for Hogue Cellars.

I don’t know how anybody could live up there. It’s isolated and Tia says sometimes the wind blows so hard that it just rips out chunks of the house. Nice.

Now I’m telling you all this because I think it’s just crazy that there’s an AVA a few minutes outside of Granger named Snipes Mountain. It’s just wrong. And I want to help change that. So from now on, I’m going to do the logical thing and call it Dinosaur Hills and I want you to call it Dinosaur Hills as well. There may never have been any real dinosaurs in this area but there definitely weren’t any snipes either and at least people can go see big ol’ plastic dinosaurs when they pull off the highway on their way to Dinosaur Hills to taste a nice glass of merlot.

I mean ask yourself if you’d rather visit a winery on Snipes Mountain or Dinosaur Hills. Obviously Dinosaur Hills. And if Hogue Cellars was smart, they’d order a 20-foot wide pterodactyl and put it way up high, with its wings open, in the middle of the Roskamp vineyard. I’m guessing that would keep the birds away from the fruit.

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Dinosaurs in Granger

We never took a plane to go on family vacations when I was a kid. In fact, the first time I flew, I was 19 years old. What we used to do instead is what most American families did back then: road trips. My dad built special wooden cabinets to fit the back end of our Chevy station wagon and we’d all pile in and drive for days and days on end up the spine of California to Oregon.

This was back when the Interstate, I-5, was just being completed and small towns were being bypassed. This had a tragic effect on such iconic highway businesses as the Giant Orange stands that once dotted Highway 99 in towns like Chowchilla and Merced.

Some towns lost so much business that they resorted to circus-like promotions to get travelers to pull off the Interstate. Things like bottle houses and train rides through trees or giant statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox (I think when Mr. Bunyan was finally retired, his ax was replaced with a golf club and he ended up waving from the side of a driving range in L.A.)

One such oddity that always fascinated me was Thunderbeast Park near Crater Lake in Southern Oregon. We’d be driving down Hwy. 97 through some endless pine forest and all of a sudden you’d pass by this odd beast that looked like a cross between a giant sloth and a dairy cow standing alongside the road. A sign promised more pre-historic wonders inside the park. I was smitten by the possibilities. We only stopped once. But it was enough. I just remember it as being one of the strangest places I’d ever been. Sort of funny but also a little creepy.

The DinoJava in Granger, Washington. Photos by David Lansing.

The DinoJava in Granger, Washington. Photos by David Lansing.

RoadsideAmerica does a better job of describing it than I ever could so I’m just going to go ahead and quote them: “There’s no T-Rex, brontosaurus, triceratops, pterodactyl—none of the mainstream crowd pleasers. Instead, the creatures highlighted—from the uncelebrated ‘Eocene Epoch’—are low-to-the-ground puzzlers like the Glyptodont, the Dinohyus, and the Platybelodon.

“The oddly painted statues are cartoon-like—such as the Dodo Bird-ish ‘Diatryma’ a nutty flesh-eater—and resemble farm animals dressed for Halloween. The Uintatherium is a cow wearing a mask of Styrofoam coffee cups.”


I mention this because yesterday, as we drove east over the Cascades towards the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco, through miles and miles of hot, dry, rolling landscape greened up only by the large tracts of farmland sustained by irrigation projects off the Columbia River, we stopped for a break in the little rural community of Granger. And in the parking lot of the gas station was a green dinosaur. And across the street was a wire mesh and steel sculpture of a spinosaurus sitting on a pedestal that said, Granger, “Where Dinosaurs Roam.”

There was a pterodactyl just up the street from the DinoJava coffee shop and a triceratops blazing across the Granger Travel Plaza. I immediately had flashbacks to my visit, decades ago, to Thunderbeast Park, although I have to admit the dinosaurs in Granger were more artistically rendered. Still, it was…odd.

There was a Granger public works employee getting coffee at the gas station’s food mart so when he lumbered back to his pickup truck (which had a tyrannosaurus stenciled on the door), I asked him what the hell was the deal with Granger and dinosaurs.

Well, he said, sipping on his coffee from a Styrofoam cup, it was kind of a long story. He said a hundred years ago, Granger was a hot little town, located as it was along the confluence of two rivers. Later, it had a clay mine that made bricks and tiles, but that closed up back in the ‘60s. “From then on, we just seemed to get smaller and smaller until folks worried we were just going to disappear.”

Back in the early ‘90s, the locals tried to figure out a way to get people traveling between Seattle and the Tri-Cities to do more than stop for gas in Granger. “Someone remembered that back when the clay mine was open they found the bones of a wooly mammoth in the pit and that got us to thinking.” A wooly mammoth, as you probably know, is, an elephant-looking animal perhaps best known as the pal to the stupid sloth, Sid, and acorn-loving squirrel, Scrat, in the movie Ice Age.

Now wooly mammoths roamed all over North America (they recently dug one up near the La Brea tar pits in Los Angeles) and they’re not dinosaurs, having evolved thousands of years later, but what the hell. They’re not trying to sell the steak in Granger, they’re trying to sell the sizzle.

So in 1994, the first Granger brontosauraus showed up and they’ve been creating dinosaurs in and around the town ever since (there’s a pterosaurs in the middle of Granger’s manmade pond).

Has it increased tourism? The public works employee just shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not. Don’t forget that we’ve also got the menudo festival this month,” he said, getting into his truck.

I hope Granger does better with the dinosaurs than the old woman who built Thunderbeast Park. But I think it’s wise that they’ve got the menudo festival as a back up plan.

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Dinner with Oscar

Gary Hogue, who started Hogue Cellars with his brother Mike in 1982, saw me hanging out in the Suncadia lobby and asked if I wanted a ride to the house where he was hosting a dinner party last night. So we walk out of the resort and there’s a canary yellow Lamborghini parked up front and, just kidding, I tell Gary this must be his car.

“It’s not mine but it’s a friend of mine’s,” he says. The friend is Don Watts, a farmer from the Columbia Valley in Eastern Washington who made a fortune growing potatoes for McDonald’s. Don sold the farm, literally, to ConAgra last year and now is involved in building a new winery, Swiftwater Cellars, at the Suncadia Resort that Gary says will be one of the top ten wineries in the world. (Okay, Gary likes to exaggerate and sometimes he says Swiftwater will be one of the top five wineries in the world and sometimes he says it will be one of the top twenty; so figure somewhere in between the two).

In addition to the yellow Lamborghini and a massive new winery, Don Watts also owns and flies his own helicopter and owns another winery called Zephyr Ridge. All this from growing spuds for French fries. Something to think about the next time you hear some senator suggesting the American taxpayer subsidize the poor farmers so we can maintain their way of life.

Executive sous chef, Oscar Guitron. Photos by David Lansing.

Executive sous chef, Oscar Guitron. Photos by David Lansing.

Anyway, we’re driving around the wooded resort, which is built around concentric circles, getting lost as we turn down Snowberry Loop which takes us to Pinegrass Loop which spills onto Larkspur Loop—you get the idea—and all the while Gary, who looks a bit like Telly Savalas back in the day, is telling me stories that are a lot like the drive we’re on (i.e., they circle back on themselves but don’t seem to lead anywhere). Not that this is a bad thing. It’s just the way Gary talks and it’s kind of interesting, particularly when you’re lost in the woods.

“We weren’t dirt poor,” Gary says apropos of nothing as we slowly cruise down Steam Gin Loop, “but we were poor. In fact, I was trying to figure out just the other day when my mom first got a vacuum cleaner.”

And then he starts talking about brooms and sweeping and various vacuum cleaners and I have no idea why and he probably doesn’t either.

Eventually one of the loops actually takes us where we want to go and we end up at a very large log cabin home where a man in a blue suit and red tie is standing in front of an open door and holding a tray with several glasses of champagne. Is there anything better than a glass of champagne after being lost in the woods? I don’t think so.

Inside, dropping lobsters into a large pot, is Oscar. Oscar is from a little town in Jalisco, Mexico. He got a job washing dishes and chopping vegetables at some hole-in-the-wall restaurant many, many years ago, then worked his way up being the prep bitch at various country clubs until he somehow ended up at Microsoft doing everything from BBQ cookouts for employees to high-end dinner parties for Bill and Melinda Gates. And now he’s the executive sous chef at Suncadia.

You’ve got to love a story like that.

Anyway, I ask Oscar, as he’s killing the lobsters, what his dream job is and he admits that someday he’d like to move back to some little fishing village near Puerto Vallarta and have his own little restaurant, “Making the best damn Mexican food you’ve never had.”

I tell him I know this stretch of Mexico well and then we have a long conversation about my favorite Mexican dish, mole.

“Listen my friend,” Oscar says, taking a break from murdering the lobsters. “You may think you have had good mole before, but you have never had the mole made by my abuela. It has more than 75 ingredients in it and is the best mole in the world.”

Any man who has worked as hard as Oscar has to become the executive sous chef at one of the finest resort’s in Washington and yet still thinks the best cook in the world is his grandmother…well, that is a fine gentleman in my book.

Oscar's lobster and scallop salad at Hogue Cellars dinner.

Oscar's lobster and scallop salad at Hogue Cellars dinner.

The dinner itself is wonderful. Oscar’s poached lobster and spicy scallop salad is a work of art and the kasu sake sea bass in coconut green curry as fine as anything I’ve ever had.

Still, as we raise a toast to Oscar, I can’t help thinking about his abuela’s mole. I’ll bet it’s every bit as fine as Oscar says.

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The photo I took this afternoon of the Suncadia Resort pool from my balcony is so deceptive. It looks like a nice summer day, right? There are a couple of little girls playing in the pool while their parents lounge in shorts or swimsuits.

Photo by David Lansing.

Photo by David Lansing.

What you’d never know by looking at this picture is that the wind was blowing about 30 mph and it was freezing outside. So cold that I had a fleece jacket on while I took this shot and I was still shivering.

So what the heck are these people doing in the pool? God only knows. But I’m on the eastern slope of the Cascade Mountains in Washington, a state where people could care less about the weather (if they did, they’d move). If it’s suppose to be summer (Labor Day is behind us but technically summer doesn’t end until September 22) and there’s some water nearby, they get in it. Even if it might start to snow in an hour.

I know this because I used to live on the eastern slope of the Cascades in Oregon and spent much of my time as a teenager hanging out around the pool at Suncadia’s sister resort in Bend, Sunriver, where we used to have snowball fights. While in the pool. Seriously.

We knew summer had arrived when thin layers of ice stopped forming atop shady pools on the Deschutes River. In August we’d go skiing at Mt. Bachelor. In shorts and T-shirts. Because we could.

There’s something about living in a cold and rainy climate that makes people a little nuts. It’s like, “Okay, the thermometer says it’s 37 degrees out but it’s August, so let’s go to the lake!”

The truth is I hate cold climates. And as far as I’m concerned god had absolutely no business inventing wind. A little breeze, fine. But wind is obnoxious. It’s like an alcoholic uncle, just waiting to spoil the family picnic.

Okay, one last thing and then I’m going down to the bar to order a nice summer drink like a hot buttered rum. This afternoon I met a chef from Suncadia, Oscar Guitron, and he’s going to be cooking for a little dinner party I’m going to tonight. So Oscar and I got to chatting and he invited me to stop by before dinner so he could show me the lobsters he’s going to prepare tonight. He wrote down his address on Honolulu Drive.

Honolulu Drive.

In Eastern Washington.

That just about says it all, don’t you think?

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