All posts by Alan J. Block

Farmer, IT guy, dog butler

Dog Days here in Saybrook

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Ah, Stouty and Sammy, they make quite the pair, these two.  They are innocent posers for sure.  Yes, we also have Tasha, but T-dog goes her own way most of the time.  The two boys, they work as a team.

Yesterday out on our field hike, Sammy was on a roll.  First, he woke up a field mouse in the deep leaves.  In true cartoon-like fashion, the mouse popped up on its hind legs and chirruped at Sammy, who bobbed his head up and down above the little grey guy.  Instinct-wise, he likely wanted to chomp that little guy, but Sammy is a bit of a Buddhist and thinks a lot, truly, so he left the mouse alone and moved on.

Meanwhile Stout was busy racing through the woods looking for another dead squirrel.  See, he found one the other day–unfortunately for Chris it was on a hike that she joined–and he could not have been prouder.  The regal retriever in him did not want to drop that saggy squirrel the first time I told him to, or the next eight times either.  Hopefully some other critter in the night took care of that soggy squirrel sack of bones.

Anyway, as Stout raced in the big woods, Sammy and I, with T-dog trailing somewhere behind, walked along the thicket in our pasture.  Suddenly Sammy was excited and I then spied the ring neck pheasant rooster he found.  The prancing bird and Sammy did the classic fast forward chase around the little trees–some Benny Hill music would have been appropriate.  Soon, Stout showed up and the pace got really fast, but that pheasant had no interest in doing anything other than scampering.  That was until Stout turned on the jets and started his eight foot leaps–then the bird used flight to escape to the feathery grasses by the barn foundation.  He caught his breath for a couple of minutes until Stout found him again and then he squawked and flew into the woods across the street, having had enough of dog business.

And Friday, in a more domestic moment in dogdom, Stout pulled off something that we are not quite sure what to make of.  Chris will sometimes close the door in the kitchen that leads to the hallway that goes back to her studio.  I guess she finds dog slobber on her leg and the “hey, watcha doin’ now” stare with the constant following to be distracting from things like etching and routing and maintaining her sanity.

Anyway, the dogs usually eat about 4:30p or so.  At about 4:40p, Stout slowly slinked his way into her studio and was like, “hey, uh, just checking to see if, uh, you might want to make us dinner.”  (He is, indeed, all teenage boy.)  So, somehow, he opened the door in the kitchen without an opposable thumb.  If the door had not been closed all the way, he would have been down there bugging her hours before.  So, yeah. We’ll see where this little saga goes…

The Sweet Gift of Ohio’s Wine Country








Saying that one is living in any sort of area known as Wine Country has the potential to sound pompous and uppity, and perhaps it does.  But living in wine country is marvelous.  Actually, the fact that Ohio has a Wine Country, or really, more than one, is pretty damned sweet.

And sweet is indeed the order of the day with ice wines, one of the true gifts to the world from Ohio’s northeast portion of its wine country.  Country that Chris and I just happen to live in the heart of.

The past two Saturdays, and next Saturday too, is the annual Ice Wine Fest, where a half-dozen Grand River Valley Wineries offer up their latest silky sweet ice wines in an official and organized tour.  Fortunately, several other wineries not officially part of the tour also participate, and at least as fortunate is the participation of a distillery.  More on that later.

Each winery offers two samples of wine, at least one of them ice wine, and a food pairing.  The three samples are $6 in total, and if you donate a canned good, you get $1 off.  So, that 29 cent can of butter beans from Aldi that has a blanket of dust on top is actually worth a buck–good investment.

Chris and I split the samples since we were A) hitting several places each day and B) we needed to drive home safely and C) the food portions are about the size of the free samples the ladies in aprons give you near the baloney at the grocery store.

We enjoyed (mostly) each of the wineries for different reasons, and this Fest has given us a good sense of who among our friends and family we will take where in the future.

Grand River Cellars: we started at this winery last week.  It’s set far off of the highway (528 to be exact) and is quite large.  There’s a sizable restaurant with a wide ranging menu that we will return to try out.  They have a fireplace where you can toast your own $3 marshmallow.  It was crowded–this was the only place that had people directing car parking in the lot.  We were herded down to the cellar to sample the wine.  It was cool being in the cellar in every sense of the word.  Their ice wine was quite good–smooth, pear-y, highly golden in hue.  The food sample was a caramel pear tart and was our favorite of the foods.  A nice place to take visitors who like to shop of souvenirs and eat caesar salads.

St. Joseph Vineyard: The signs to this winery point you further south of 528 from Grand River Cellars, but when you wind past the residence to the small vineyard building there is a small sign that tells you they moved to route 307.  That sign needs to be at the road.  Anyway, we hit this winery on the second day, and its new location feels quite new, maybe too new at this point.  The ice wine was OK, a bit metallic, and the homemade strudel was pretty blah.  Chris got a shard of apple core in hers.  This was the only place where one of the ice wine pourers was questioning in tone and eyebrow about whether I was trying to get more samples than I was due for my $5 bucks.  Parking was also random.  Still, they have a national award winning Pinot Noir that we’ll have to check out sometime when a Pinot fan is visiting.

Debonne Vineyard: Certainly one of the two biggest success stories in the region from a sales and scale perspective.  They segmented the ice wine sampling away from their lively music-filled restaurant, which was a good idea.  As always, the place was packed.  They had sled dogs visiting that one could pet, which I did of course, though I am not a fan of forcing dogs to pull sleds in this day and age.  But, dogs suffer many worse fates every day; they seemed to enjoy the attention.  The ice wine at Debonne was one of our favorites–Chris especially liked the peachy 2013 vintage.  The grainy fudge, Ritz cracker, and dried apricot sample was silly and sad.  Good place to visit with a group who has varied interests and tastes since they have Cellar Rats brewery too.

Laurello Vineyard: This is the only one of the officially participating wineries that we did not stop at.  Both of our passes by were harrowing with the parking lot situation.  Not enough room for the many idiots trying to pull in and out.  And a limo driver standing in the road smoking a cigarette in a snowstorm is a Darwin award waiting to happen.  Still, we’ve been to Laurello before and know that it’s a good place for those who like leather couches and Jimmy Buffet.

Harpersfield Vineyard: We’d heard of Harpersfield from many people who never remember its name.  It’s typically described as the “French place with the dogs and the guy playing guitar.”  It’s well off of highway 307 and is indeed chateau-like.  And there are indeed two small dogs on constant pitter patter patrol, a Jack Russell and a slightly curlier cousin cur.  They were charming and confident, curling up by whomever they chose to near the enormous fireplace (when a man can stand inside of the fireplace to move a log, that counts as enormous in my book).  Anyway, this place did not have ice wine but they do have $1 samples every day from Noon-6p and that’s a happy thing for a swiller like me.  We had a rose, which I enjoyed and Chris found appalling.  Perhaps that’s a slightly strong word, but when one asks “do they store it in metal tanks so it then tastes like the metal tank?” it is clear that it’s not up there with hot cocoa and ginger peach tea.  Anyway, this is a great place for those who love dogs and fireplaces and wine, which is pretty much my entire side of the family.

Ferrante: Along with Debonne, Ferrante is one of the true giants in the Ohio wine industry.  You can buy their wine at Kmart here in Ashtabula, to give you a sense of ubiquity.  The Ferrante compound is immense–limos have their own parking section here.  They had the ice wine tasting in a large enclosed pavilion-like space with these remarkable heaters suspended from the straight-from-the-Amazon-rainforest beams.  They had crafters selling flattened wine bottle cheese trays.  They insisted we go in a certain order from table to table–when I created my own path, I was cattle-prodded back into compliance.  The wine was fine, though the samples were paltry indeed.  The butternut squash soup had marshmallows on top.  Ferrante doesn’t really have to try to please anymore–they are well past the tipping point of failure and likely have all of their processes documented in ISO fashion.  Not my kind of place.

Virant Family Winery: We’d seen the sign for this place many times on South River Road, but this was our fist ever stop in.  The neon OPEN sign and ratio of pickup trucks to BMWs were clear indicators of what was to come; we were not at Ferrante anymore, Toto.  The inside of the winery has a definite wedding reception/bingo hall kind of feel.  There were long folding tables with bottles of A1 sauce spaced every four chairs from one another.  A John Deere towel hung on the wall near the mounted deer head.  This was the only place that served its wine in plastic cups normally reserved for Jello shooters.  On the other hand, this was the only place that served us three samples of wine.  They also had great brownies.  It’s also the only winery we went to where you could also order onion rings and deep fried cheese sticks.  Great place to go with kids in tow and when you had a long day working outside and are still wearing your Coors cap and muddy work boots.

South River Winery: Our longstanding favorite and this Fest did not change that.  Situated in an old church on a hill, with a marvelous pavilion and dreamy outdoor fireplace, South River is a comfort zone for us.  Their blush ice wine is Chris’s favorite, and their elegant ice wine glasses with little stars, made just for the Fest I assume, were our favorites of this year’s collectibles.  The vibe here is always laid back, the people are typically happy and relaxed, and the wine is fabulous.  A place to take anyone you care about.

Red Eagle Distillery: Owned by the same guy who owns South River Winery, and just down the road, this is a fairly new place in a magnificently restored old barn.  We had an old fashioned that was perfectly boozy-sweet.  It had three muddled maraschino cherries at the bottom–three!  It was served in a perfectly heavy glass.  The inside of the place has to be seen–all dark wood and well-positioned ironwork stairways, a sunken bar below the old hay loft–it is a model for what Chris hopes her Studio Barn will feel like when completed.  And hey, not every place can boast an Winnebago-sized brick outhouse.  A great place to take those who love old barns, cocktails, and dark wood.

Life here in Ohio’s wine country, even in this seemingness endless winter, is a sweet gift indeed.



A Wolfish Winter

It turns out that moving to Ashtabula in December is a bit like getting a wolf for a pet rather than a dog–it’s been fiercely beautiful, but also biting winds and snarling snow, and you really don’t trust it when you go to sleep.  Like last night, when I went to bed assuming it might hit minus 1 and instead it dropped to minus 10 and after I got up dropped to minus 12 just for spite.  Grrrrrrr.

Still, we’re settling in.  We have our daily routines with the friendly but cabin-fevered dogs, work, coffee, beer, local wine, and, wolf-weather permitting, hikes in the back pasture and woods.  On the weekends we have delicious pizza with great people at Bridge St Pizza and excellent pulled pork and smoked turkey at Briquettes.  We go get our local vegetables and eggs and honey from Terra Local in Geneva and a growler of beer from Beverage Depot.  We have brunch at the River’s Edge Diner.  We go to Saybrook Feed and Seed for grain-free dog food, treats, and soon garden supplies and chickens.  We marvel at the sunsets and the wild turkeys and hawks, at the overwintering bluebird couple and friendly cardinals, at the sheer number of jacked-up pickup trucks and all-consuming sunrises.

Chris has her temporary studio in good shape–a converted bedroom for her design and clean work, a converted bathroom for the messy etching and scrubbing, and the now-heated garage for her spray booth, saws, and routers.  I’ve got my drive down to a consistent 45 minutes to work, unless it snows and doubles my drive time and blood pressure, and those 45 minutes allow me to hear just enough of Steve Inskeep and Audie Cornish before I cut over to In Rainbows (my personal Radiohead fave) or Junior Kimbrough.  Those 45 minutes also allow me to mentally prepare for my meetings and then, in reverse, forget about them too.  That’s the good spin on that drive.

We love our huge kitchen: it has our big dining table, my desk, Chris’s comfy chair, my beer fridge, the usual fridge and sink and stove, a wine rack, a soap-supplies cabinet, and a book shelf.  Still plenty of room for three begging dogs too.  We already know that when we are older, we’ll probably not leave this room much.  And I am not sure there’s been a winter where we’d have made better use of our natural gas well; let it never run out or be sucked dry by frackers.

The upside is that we’ve not even gotten to yet enjoy most of the reasons we moved here: a huge amount of space for the dogs to run; for us to have chickens and ducks and a pony, perhaps; the pavilion in the summer with campfires and porch swings; the wildflower-filled pasture; the endless sky of sun and stars overhead and endless lake just down the road; a spot to build Chris’s dream studio; garden plots galore and and orchard to plant; and visitors to enjoy it all.  Soon, soon.

The garden I’ve started planning and ordered the first seeds and sets last night: shallots, potatoes both gold and sweet, onions, strawberries, a boatload of garlic and asparagus, parsnips, kohlrabi, and beets and more beets.  This weekend I’ll order the rest, and six or so months from now, I expect to have an abundance of homegrown food to enjoy, store, and share.

But right now, the ground is frozen solid.  The smattering of white snow covers the tans and browns and blacks beneath it hiding the warmth beneath–a wolfish winter indeed.

Happiness in February



February has come into view and with it, my focus has adjusted from worrying about freezing pipes and snowy driveways to perusing seed catalogs and planning for garden spaces.  Happiness.

Up close to the house there are some lovely, sunny spots for herbs and leafs greens.  And out in the expanse of a yard, there’s a southerly slope of land just south of the barn foundation that will be perfect for deep-diving potatoes and ever-reaching and -rambling pumpkins and squash.

What I am most excited about right now, though, is a bed I’ll be putting within the southernmost part of the old bank barn foundation.  There’s no obvious prior use of this section of the 1860-built barn.  Rusted chicken wire and a frozen river of melted glass–from the blazing fire–points to possible storage.  But the weeds, seen pictured here with Sammy wandering amongst them,  have grown vigorously since the barn met its sad end.  And if weeds can grow, then I can get vegetables and fruits to grow.  The end of one thing leads to the start of another.  Comforting on this day of sad news in the world, though that seems every day, the older I get.

In old Europe, it is very common to grow plants near stone walls for the extended heat the rock provides long after the warming sun has set.  So, this plot, now populated by your-guess-is-as-good-as-mine grasses, will before long be home to fat tomatoes, spicy peppers, and waving swiss chard.

Winter will have a few more days of glory, but soon, I will be tilling soil and planting seeds.  That is happiness in waiting.


Old Man Winter



Old Man Winter.

While he arrives every year, this year he is belligerent.  He is rude.  He is stubborn.  He is that guest at the party who rubs everyone the wrong way and seems to be waiting for you no matter what room you try to sneak away into.  He’s that close talker with harsh breath who makes you wince whenever he is near.

I’ve tried seed catalogs for optimism.  I’ve tried dog hikes in the sunshine.  I’ve tried coffee and hot chocolate and beer.  They all help for a few moments, and then I look out at his whipping wind dragging snow as a hostage and I long for the motherly days of ripening tomatoes and freshly cut grass.

Stock, though, always helps.  There’s something about taking chicken and turkey bones saved in the frigid freezer, adding celery and carrots from the crisper drawer in the chilly fridge, selecting seemingly lifeless bay leaves and peppercorns from the dark cabinet, and pouring cold water from the frosty pipes, putting them all in a cold steel pot and then heating them to a near boil.  There’s something about that pot then simmering for hours as the heat melts the flavors, makes them into something aromatic now, and flavorful later.  There’s something about making something today that can warm the belly and soul for weeks to come, until March arrives with its hopeful longer days and heavy snow that can’t withstand the warming earth, the old man weakening.

I hold hope that this cold, cold winter demolishes bugs like mosquitoes and spring flu, that it does its job of forcing us all to slow down and rest, that it hands to spring and summer a clean canvas on which to paint.

I’m always amazed by nature and its power to do more than we can imagine possible.  It’s been an impressive, humbling winter.   But I’ve seen enough.  That proclamation causes a cold cackle, no doubt, from Old Man Winter.  So, better to huddle up with some warmed stock and wait for him to head out of town, which I know he’ll do on his own time, not mine.

Sushi in Ashtabula? No Fish Story Here!



Chris and I ventured down Lake Rd last night to Shogun, which is a newish Japanese restaurant in Ashtabula.  Tis true!  This burg most think of as offering only diners and dive bars is actually turning out to have some great food.

Shogun is unassuming to be sure.  In fact, it was kind of hard to know that it was open when we drove up.  But once inside, the service was friendly and patient with our questions, the miso soup was umami-ful to a definite degree of happiness, the edamame had a nice salt flake upon it, the pickled ginger was super bright and peppery, and the main courses were quite fresh and filling.

Chris had the Vegan roll, which had avocado, cucumber, carrot, and black sesame seeds on the outside of the rice.  I had the Shogun roll, which is a California roll with salmon and tuna on the outside.  Both were well presented and delicious!

Right now alcohol is BYOB, but they will have their liquor license soon.  And if you like sugar, pack your own as stevia is the name of the sweetener at Shogun.

Here’s hoping they get more business and thrive!  It was way too quiet for a Friday night considering the quality of the food.


New Thermos!

When I fell in our garage a week or so ago, my old faux bois Thermos took the brunt of the fall.  I moved on quickly and found a new vintage Thermos on Etsy.  It even came in the original box!

It’s a beaut: dual pint sides that give me two refills in my travel mug each day at work.  It’ll pay for itself in five days now that I am not paying for Starbucks at work.

And those dual sides could totally hold hot chocolate in one and an adult elixir of some sort should I find myself tailgating or ice fishing.  It could happen…


BBQ, Middle Age, and Learning from my Dad


When I first knew my parents, they were about the age I am now.  They had me when they were about 40, but you really don’t register who an adult is in any thoughtful way until you get to school age, at least in my opinion.  So, when I was about six, I had a pretty good sense that my Dad was someone different than the milkman (though we had that running family joke, of course, like everyone with a milkman did).

In the few years I got to spend with him, my Dad taught me some key skills: how to fish, how to box, how to shoot a gun.  He also taught me to appreciate barbecue–the real stuff, the good stuff from Kansas City, Missouri, where he was born and raised.


So, it was a happy and nostalgic venture indeed that Chris and I made last week to Briquettes on Bridge Street in Ashtabula.  The place has a strong reputation in the region, and it turns out to be very well-deserved.  My Dad would have approved.

Chris had the turkey reuben, which she defined as the greatest turkey sandwich she’d ever had in her life.  When she even praised the coleslaw, I knew we were in happy land. (The fact that she also talked about the ratio of slaw to bird shows she’s probably been hanging out with me a lot.)  I had the three meat platter–pork, chicken, and beef–which comes with two sides in addition to the cornbread it comes with by default: a good smokey mac and cheese and a sweet bowl of beans.  The pork was by far the best–juicy, smokey, endlessly alluring. I would eat some for breakfast, if I had any.

The beer list at Briquettes is also impressive with well over 100 bottled or canned craft beers and many on tap too.  That they have a running Wednesday night special of $1 off all Great Lakes Brewing beer brings a smile to my regionally-biased mug.

The setting of Briquettes is true Bridge Street, with brick walls, and a curved glass turret, a long wood bar, and classy metal beer signs galore.  The neon is tasteful, if that’s possible.

But at my age, you can only have so much barbecue, at least if you pay attention to things like cholesterol and triglycerides, which my cardiologist does, and which she wants me too.  I guess I can try to eat more herring and oatmeal and mackerel and pretend that I am in a Dickens novel.   Beer and wine are supposedly bad for triglycerides too, and that’s just sad for a middle aged man who has a very European take on imbibing.

Exercise is also supposed to help with those invisible enemies in my arteries.  So, this morning I got up early and did some yoga and the Scientific 7-Minute workout, which is about as much time as I could hold out before I needed some coffee.  And post-workout, my ankle that I twisted last week, and which had been feeling better, is now a bit wonky.  But my triglycerides feel great.  Or not great.  Whichever is better.

And at these times I think of my Dad, who lived a life much unlike he ever planned to once brain tumors started to rule his every moment.  He lost his sight and his marriage and his job, eventually his life.  But I know he still went out for barbecue right up until the end, back in his old hometown of Kansas City and parts nearby.  Maybe he is still teaching me now, many years since he taught me how to lead with a left jab, leave the right amount of worm dangling from a hook, and to keep the right things in my sights.