Did the El Nino predictions get it all wrong?

 

Perhaps no other weather event in recent memory has been more anticipated than this year’s El Nino. From the first media rumblings that it was coming, in 2014, to the “monster El Nino” hyperbole that was still current as recently as last December, Californians have been warned by the experts about floods, mudslides, service disruptions and other forms of mayhem caused by the warming of ocean temperatures in the southwestern Pacific, which in theory should drench us here on the West Coast. El Nino “should scare the shit out of the West Coast,” Thrillist headlined just last month.

Otherwise sober-minded media outlets like the San Jose Mercury-News ran how-to-cope-with-El Nino checklists to help readers save their lives and property, as if in an earthquake or hurricane: get sandbags, keep rain gutters free of debris, and register for emergency alerts on your T.V. or smart device. Local mayors asked California Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency even before the rains came.

But guess what? After decent rains in December and January, during which San Francisco had nearly 11 inches of rain—almost 50% of the annual average–February has turned out to be a bust. As I write this (Feb. 21), San Francisco has had 0.83” of rainfall for the month so far, well short of the average 3.25 inches. We’ve had so many record high temperatures—from the 90s in the deserts to the mid-80s in wine country–with little or rain at all, that photos of bathing-suit clad people enjoying California’s sandy beaches have been all over the newspapers. As a result, people are starting to wonder if El Nino has simply decided to stay away from California this year. Already, scientists are saying El Nino has “peaked” and is “waning.” This, despite the fact that the climate scientists were telling us last Fall that February and March would be the biggest months for rainfall. Predictably, the second-guessing has started. “’Godzilla El Nino’—What Happened?” asks one media outlet. “El Nino is almost dead,” declares Gizmodo.

We could still, of course, get drenched in March, making February an anomaly. But right now, it’s more a matter of hoping than expecting. The seven-day forecast for this week continues to be dry and sunny, with temperatures in San Francisco ranging from the low- to mid-70s. Concerning the climate scientists who predicted El Nino’s deluges, I can’t bring myself to come down too hard on them, because despite our significant advances in satellites, computer modeling and so on, long-range weather prediction is still imprecise. What does make me worry is that there remains in this country a stubborn residue of people who refuse to believe in the reality of climate change, or of human-influenced climate change. These same people are usually of an anti-science bent and are prone to superstition and resentment of scientific knowledge; they take pride in their irrationality as if it were an extension of their politics and religion. And this failure of the climate scientists (if failure it proves to be) in getting El Nino wrong will be enough to arm the know-nothings and enable them to say, “See, I told you. You can’t trust anything these ‘scientists’ say.”

French wine month names, the California drought, and growing weed in Napa Valley

 

Here’s how a wine-crazed country thinks: On Sept. 22, 1792, the First French Republic was born, amidst the fiery pangs of the French Revolution.

It was a good day for the middle class of Paris, not so good for Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie-Antoinette, both of whom who already had been deposed and imprisoned (and would shortly be killed). The people were in such a radical mood that when deputies to the Convention gathered to draw up a new constitution for France, they even changed the names of the months. Instead of Roman-derived names usually dedicated to gods (i.e. January/Janus, the god of sunset and sunrise), the Convention created a calendar that began with the current revolutionary Year I and, starting with that dramatic Autumn month of “September,” redubbed the months this way:

Vendemiaire (Vintage)

Brumaire (Mist)

Frimaire (Frost)

Nivose (Snow)

Pluviose (Rain)

Ventose (Wind)

Germinal (Budding)

Floreal (Flowering)

Prairial (Meadows)

Messidor (Harvest)

Thermidor (Warmth)

Fructidor (Fruit)

The new month-naming scheme, as it turned out, didn’t last; Napoleon abolished it in 1805 (although it was briefly resurrected in 1871, when for two months a radical-socialist government took over Paris). But see how much the month-names of the Revolutionary Calendar reflected the annual cycle of the vineyard. How wonderful it was for France to consecrate their calendar to wine and other treasures of the harvest! Vintage-budding-flowering-fruit—these remain the annual stages of the grapevine around the world, but alas, no government any longer names months after them.

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The Press-Democrat reports that, thanks to El Nino, January was “the wettest since the drought began” in 2012, with more than 10 inches of rain falling in Santa Rosa. That has brought North Coast reservoirs up quite a bit, and the Sierra snowpack hit a five-year high last month, but “California is Still in Drought,” Scientific American says, adding, “It will take many more storms and almost assuredly more than a single winter—even one with a strong El Niño—to erase” the historic dry spell. Bring on the storms!

* * *

It looks like Napa city may be poised to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, including the possibility of “cultivation,” although both practices currently are outlawed. It’s likely that California will soon legalize even recreational use, not just medical use, giving a new state agency, the Bureau of Medical Marijuana Regulation, authority over growing it. No doubt the best pot farms will be located in precisely the kind of climate central and northern Napa Valley possesses: hot, sunny and dry in the summertime. Given the vast amounts of money that can be made in the pot business in California alone–$31 billion a year—why would a vineyard owner, given the legal ability to do so, waste his time on Cabernet Sauvignon when he could grow weed instead? Maybe not on those prime hillside and benchland vineyards, but in terroirs less suited to Cab, like the fertile flatlands along the Napa River? Hmm. Would you? I would. I’d find a consulting farmer who specialized in weed—kind of like the David Abreu of marijuana (and you know there are folks setting themselves up for it) and grow, baby, grow.

Christmas, and here’s El Nino!

 

We had a quiet, low-key Christmas Eve dinner down in San Mateo. Maxine made a prime rib of beef, perfectly cooked, with her specialty creamed broccoli and good old-fashioned baked potatoes with butter. I paired it all with a Corison 2002 Kronos Cabernet Sauvignon. That particular wine is well-known for aging, but at 13 years, it was still filled with juicy black currants and dark chocolate, although it was showing its age a bit around the edges. I preferred it straight out of the bottle, young; after an hour in the glass it grew a little ponderous, which makes me wonder if perhaps another ten years might not be kind to it.

Before the meat course, however, we started out with some appetizers, particularly ahi tuna tartare I made from scratch. I like to almost mince the fish, then macerate it in a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, capers, cilantro and lime juice. Some recipes call for adding things like avocado or roasted macadamia nuts, but I don’t; they make the tuna cumbersome and the dish doesn’t need all that frou-frou. Let the fish be the star, I say. Tuna tartare needs something to place it on or in. I’ve tried just about everything: toast, bruschetta, rice crackers, butter lettuce leaves and so on, but for the past few years I’ve stuck with potato chips, although in that case you have to spoon the fish onto the chip because if you try to use the chip to scoop out the fish, it (the chip) will break. But then, that gives you an excuse to use those weird little spoons that live in your utensil drawer. With the tuna, I opened a “J” 1997 Late Disgorged Brut, which I’ve been hanging onto for about ten years (it must have been released around 2005). Some critics say you shouldn’t age an LD after it’s been released, but I’m glad I did. The wine really was superb. It had lost about 70% of the bubbles, and was all nice and leesy-yeasty-toasty, and while the fruit had evolved into secondary characteristics (dried lime, grapefruit rind), it had a core of caramel sweetness. That was really a memorable wine.

We also had a wee sip of Highland Park 25 Year Old Single Malt. I gave that bottle to Keith a few years ago; I’ve always liked it, but never understood how valuable it is. We Googled it and found prices averaging between $500 and $600. How does Scotch get that expensive? Supply and demand, I guess. At any rate, a fabulous sipper, smooth, mellow, endlessly complex and satisfying especially on such a cold evening.

On Christmas Day we went to see The Big Short, which I highly recommend. It’s hard to say who should get the Oscar, Christian Bale or Steve Carell. Both were just terrific; the story itself—how bankers, through their greed and carelessness, almost brought down the world economy—is compelling, and director Adam McKay’s production was astounding. He used that “breaking the fourth wall” technique that The Office employed so well. Go see this movie.

Meanwhile, for those of you who have been enjoying a warm East Coast December, give us our weather back, you thieves! We’re freezing our butts off in California, where the daytime high has struggled to get out of the 40s and broad areas of the Bay Area have been dipping into the 20s at night. This morning—yesterday, as you read this—Oakland set a record low, at 30 degrees. Brrr. Gus didn’t mind it, but I did. Now I know that 30 degrees isn’t “cold” by Michigan or Vermont standards, but cut us a little slack here; we’re not used to it, and something about the Bay Area’s damp, fresh-off-the-Pacific wind makes 47 feel like 7.

But the big story isn’t the cold, it’s the rain. El Nino seems to be delivering as advertised, and since it’s not really supposed to kick in until January, we could be in for some extraordinarily soaking rains and blizzards in the High Sierra, which is where we get our water. In fact, the snowpack is twice what it was last year, and is at 111% percent of normal.

If El Nino is as “monstrous” as the scientists have been saying, we’re going to have to laud their predictive powers. When they get stuff wrong, everybody jumps on them. If they got this right—and it looks like they did—it will redound to the greater glory of climate science.