Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Bodie Researched for Alton Towers Theme Park

This was a fun video to shoot. U.K. theme park Alton Towers decided to research an authentic mining town for an attraction they're opening this week. We spent one day up in Bodie capturing video, time-lapse footage, stills, interviews and sounds, and this was the result.

 I'd like to thank the California Film Commission for the quick turnaround on our film permit, Bodie State Historic Park / +California State Parks for supporting the research and production, and +Lori Hibbett for producing sunrise and night time-lapse footage of Bodie's iconic car on the shoot.

The day before the Alton Towers shoot in Bodie it was snowing on us 
For more information on accessing the historic buildings and town of Bodie, California, for photography or filming, contact Jeff Sullivan Photography, www,

Jeff also teaches night photography workshops in Bodie, and night and landscape photography workshops in Yosemite, Death Valley, and the Eastern Sierra.  His 2017 schedule will be released shortly.

This photo of Bodie by Jeff was featured on the cover of Locations International 2015, a directory of locations for film location scouts that was distributed at the Cannes Film Festival.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Eastern Sierra Fall Colors Presentation October 8

I'll be presenting on Eastern Sierra Fall Colors this Saturday, October 8, 1 pm in the Mono Basin Visitor Center auditorium in Lee Vining. If you're in the area, drop by after lunch for some inspiration before you head back out!

I'll have copies of my guidebook "Photographing California Vol. 2 - South" on hand for signing, or if you already have one, bring it by and I'll sign it!

If you'd like to let me know that you might be coming, you can RSVP at the event page on Facebook:

If you can't make it to the event, the +Mono Lake Committee bookstore in Lee Vining has had the book in stock recently, and Whoa Nellie Deli as well.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Eastern Sierra Conditions Spring 2016

The aspen trees are starting to leaf out
My early May blog post on spring Eastern Sierra conditions contained a collection of possible outcomes and opportunities for spring.  I've been out a few times since then, checking the emergence status of various wildflowers, the water level at Mono Lake tufa sites (and their muddiness, since they form over springs), unpaved road access conditions, snow levels and lake iceout conditions around Tioga Pass, pond water levels and reflection opportunities in Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows, bird and wildlife photography opportunities, and so on.

A quick snapshot on my iPhone 6S+ - good enough to show the arrowleaf balsamroot starting to bloom

Wildflowers vary in intensity and timing from year to year, which is why I do these scouting trips before the workshop, and not while dragging customers around.  Even knowing where various species can be prolific, checking the current year's status and timing involves many less than fully productive searches.  Wild iris seemed to be a bit behind in timing.  Mules ears have been starting to emerge over the past 2 weeks, and could peak in the next week or two.  The few days of clearer, warmer weather in the forecast early next week could help them along.  Paintbrush was doing well at low elevations but it is too early to tell how prolific it'll be at mid to high altitudes.  Lupine were healthy in some areas and should still be available for another week or more a lower altitudes, and emerging at mid altitudes.  Wild peach has been strong, and yellow bitterbrush has bloomed as enthusiastically as many local residents can remember (one even mentioned that this native must be a new invasive species), but the peak is now past for both.  Isolated patches offered a variety of other species, sometimes dense, but you really have to search for them.  I'll be back out over the next few days to see if some of the patches have increased in intensity, enough to warrant a visit during the upcoming workshop.

All of the photos in this post are from May 2016

The weather has been unsettled, great for daytime photography as but less conducive for many types of night photography.  That's pretty typical for May, which is one reason why I only ran a couple of Bodie night photography workshops then, but currently focus more on June and later.

Some locations are on the wet and muddy side, not unsurprising for spring, but certainly good to know before you show up for a sunrise or sunset and can't access the compositions that you might have enjoyed in the past, in summer, fall, or simply a drier year.  In other cases, a site might be more dependent upon long term trends, and the long term drought continues to provide cracked earth foregrounds.  If you're shooting in one basin and the weather and light looks like it might be better 25 miles north or south, you can save an hour of driving if you know that the site that you have in mind isn't in great condition that week.  Conversely, you can make your day, week or month if you know that a site is in great shape, and you arrive to find great light to complement the site's full potential.  A good workshop is made great when you can "connect the dots" to consistently arrive at a series of good sites, in great seasonal condition, offering optimal lighting, while reacting to the day's weather conditions.  There are no guarantees in landscape photography, and that's part of what makes it exciting, but scouting trips do resolve what would otherwise be unknowns in the mix, increasing the odds of everything coming together just right.

A quick iPhone snapshot is good enough to record conditions, break out the DSLR upon returning in better light

The somewhat early opening of Tioga Pass is not surprising given a fairly dry month of February and the winter's overall normal to low snowpack (93% in the Mammoth lakes area, closer to 100% north of Tioga Pass).  It has re-closed at times as moisture causes afternoon and evening storms, but it's open again now.  Lakes are in various stages of losing their ice.  Tenaya Lake was clear by the time the pass opened, Ellery may be completely clear now, Tioga was mostly frozen last week, so it may still hold some ice into next week.  The terrain is complicated up in that area, so having spent many sunrises and sunsets up in that area is important to knowing what is likely to be productive, vs. a bust.

Tuolumne Meadows currently offers a lot of seasonal ponds.  Determining ahead of time which of them provide decent compositions at current water levels helps keep the workshop moving efficiently.  Many workshop leaders spend a lot of time and money marketing, and do a great job filling their workshops.  Good for them.  I prefer to spend my time in the field, develop extensive site and condition knowledge, and over time earn the reputation for delivering great opportunities and results.

It's important to me for my knowledge to include photographic technique and post-processing skill.  Anyone can apply a filter in post-processing software or use a certain technique to make a landscape look wacky, and there's nothing whatsoever wrong with that, it it's the style someone chooses, rather than is trapped into through less than optimal exposure technique or lack of alternate post-processing workflow options.  Getting through the end-to-end digital photographic process with realistic results is like walking a tightrope: bay far the easiest thing to do is to fall off.  There are subtle things you can do all along the way to optimize results.  You don't need the latest camera or software, it's more about fine tuning the various steps.

Backlit storm clouds at night

Ansel Adams produced timeless results by producing heavily manipulated but seamlessly realistic results, while popular trends included hand-tinting photographs to add color.  Most of us don't know the names of his contemporaries today.  No doubt Ansel could have had great commercial success producing those colorized postcards, but any era's hot trends can look cartoonish years later, out of the unique social context of the time.  We're not immune from that today: I have over-saturated digital photos from the mid-2000s, tonemapped HDRs from the late 2000s, and I've dabbled with luminance masking, color light painting, and lately software filters.  I gravitate more realistic results, and for the experiments with various trends, I'm gradually re-processing many of the more over-the-top post processing results.  It's useful to try a range of things to settle on your own preferred style, and to continue to try new things for variety and to see if you want to broaden your options for post-processing any given scene in the future.  So I want to maintain a broad enough collection of experiences to be prepared to help photographers who want to expand their own skills.

While the goal of my pre-workshop explorations are mainly to visit locations to assess conditions, it'll be a fun challenge to line up the sites for great light and weather during the workshop next week.

iPhone 6S+ panorama

With the storms in the past weeks I haven't been out for night photography as much as I would like, but we should have a great time in Bodie June 4/5, and I hope to be out a few times in the coming nights to assess a few new locations as well.

Starry Night over Bodie Church

Friday, May 13, 2016

Eastern Sierra Photography Workshop in June: What's in Store?

“The Traveler sees what he sees. The Tourist sees what he has come to see.” G.K. Chesterton

Eastern Sierra Mules EarsI can only be in one place at a time, so I have to be efficient and pack as much opportunity as I can into my time in the field. Every day has the sun rising and setting. Some weeks have wildflowers. Fall colors may be peaking in a given location for only a few days to a week. The Milky Way is available during a few weeks of the year, a moon rise at sunset or moon set at sunrise about a dozen times each. So I pick a prime season, the most likely peak days and times.

Storm Over Mono LakeWorkshops take me out of the field as I work on permits, itineraries, write descriptions, set up payment / registration buttons, and I perform a some kind of marketing to get them seen, if only a mention or two on social media. I'm not going for volume, and I personally lead all of my workshops, so they are designed to place you in a stunning place, in a peak season, as the exact best time.

The first week of June is amazing for the Eastern Sierra for so many reasons. Some snow remains on the Sierra Nevada (and possibly the White Mountains) to catch alpenglow, and there can be a fresh snowfall around the end of May to refresh that surface. Several species of wildflowers are starting to bloom, profusely in some areas.

This year the new moon and Milky Way shooting timing coincides with this week, and we have the possibility of a late spring storm from the northwest for interesting sunrises and sunsets, or warmer monsoon moisture from the Baja coast that could bring dramatic afternoon clouds, showers and rainbows, or evening thunderstorms.

I used to be nervous about the thunderstorms interfering with night photography, but I've learned through experience in Bodie and the surrounding area that convection-driven storms tend to break up or blow east by the time the sky is fully dark around 10/10:20, so they're really just bonuses for sunset and twilight shooting, even when rain showers interfere locally for an hour or so (and even then they often give way to rainbows).

Fresh Snowfall at Ellery LakeTioga Pass may have just opened and we may have interesting iceout conditions on the lakes. More often than not the pass opens in May, so with 89% snowpack, the odds are good for a normal, mid to late May opening. It seems like they often try to wrap up whatever road maintenance is needed in time for an opening for Memorial Day weekend, so I'm going to guess Friday at noon as the official time, but cars line up early and they often let them in around 9 am.

We'll start with a sunrise on Thursday, pursue wildflowers and weather during the day, have an early dinner, and head back out for sunset at Mono Lake.

Entering the Earth's Shadow

We'll pick from a number of spots for Milky Way shooting, and arrive by the time it's fully dark at 10:07, when the galactic center of the Milky Way has already risen 6 degrees, perfect for placing it in our compositions.

Mono Lake Milky Way Panorama

Friday we'll catch sunrise at Mono Lake before the weekend crowds arrive, shoot different wildflowers, maybe explore some interesting geology or head up to Tioga Pass if its open for snowier views. Another sunset spot, More night photography, and turn in not too late since most of us are continuing on to Bodie the following night, and Bodie interiors the following morning.

Eastern Sierra Wild Iris

Plans are all well and good; I frequently plan something as simple as a sunset moon rise composition weeks in advance.  But landscape photography is about light, so if you're on a workshop, you want a leader have enough depth in detailed regional knowledge to be ready to ditch all plans and react to the weather and light if there's more potential 20 or 30 miles from where you are.  So leave the tourists behind who are stuck to their fixed agenda, and rather than a traveler who reacts to the weather and looks for a place to shoot it, you can travel with a local who knows the opportunities in every direction, and anticipates the conditions before you pick the next destination and hop in the car to arrive there just in time.

Sunset Rain Clouds Over Mono LakeEarly June in the Eastern Sierra offers an annual convergence of so many factors which could make photography conditions stunning.  Photography is more fun shared, so I can't wait, and all the better that I get to share all of this bounty with old and new friends!

Spring is Coming to the High Sierra!

Most of the participants are returning customers, but we have room for one or two more if anyone's interested!

Bodie's Standard Mill

Milky Way Arch Over Standard Mill

Connect with or contact me in all of the usual places for photographers: Flickr, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google+YouTube, 500px, Tumblr, or my Web site.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Mercury Transit of the Sun Coming May 9, 2016

Venus transit of the sun June 5, 2012
There will a a transit of Mercury across the face of the sun, as seen from earth, on May 9, 2016.  This article on can tell you when the mercury transit may be available from your location.  It also provides links to information on proper eye protection!

When the planet Venus was scheduled to pass in front of the sun in early June 2012 I wanted to capture the event, but I didn't want to simply record a dark spot in front of a bright one.  So I decided to place earth-bound objects in front of the sun to capture the Sun, Earth and Venus in the same shot.  And why not... the next opportunity to capture a Venus transit across the face of the sun wouldn't come for another 105 years!

My setup for the Venus transit enabled me to shoot it at 400mm:
  • Canon EOS 5D Mark III 
  • EF 70-200mm f.4 IS L lens 
  • 2X III Teleconverter
  • Solar film for photographing the sun
Since I was including foreground objects but wanted to catch Venus and the sun as well, depth of field was a concern, so exposures were captured at f/32, 1/500 second, ISO 200.  That's with the solar filter reducing incoming light.

The setup I'm considering for the Mercury transit will enable me to shoot it at 640mm effective:
  • Canon EOS 70D 
  • EF 70-200mm f.4 IS L lens 
  • 2X III Teleconverter
  • Solar film for photographing the sun
This time I'll may track the sun and go for a composite photo showing the path of mercury across it.  In that case I could use an f-stop like f/11 to reduce any image softening from diffraction, so something like f/11, 1/2000 second, ISO 100.

Be careful if you try to capture photos of this event.  The sun can fry your sensor, so don't leave the shutter open in live view for long.  

I'm going to go get a camera or two set up and focused now!

"After centuries of trying, only photographic technology could measure the ‘Transit of Venus’ and tell us our position in the solar system." - +Royal Observatory Greenwich

Monday, May 02, 2016

April Road Trip to Death Valley

Natural Bridge
You may have noticed that I'm obsessed with death. Death Valley National Park, that is! I grew up in New England, just about as far from the desert as you can get in America, so in my current quest to explore the largest national park in the Lower 48 States, I must be making up for lost time. 

Mesquite Flat Dunes
Fortunately, currently living in the nearby Eastern Sierra region, I'm only 3-4 hours from a couple of park entrances, so I can indulge in my desert yearnings frequently. I usually visit once or twice in the Thanksgiving to New Year's Day time period, then again in February and March as the wildflowers start to bloom. But as spring continues and Death Valley starts to really warm up, I like looking for storms and bouts of cooler weather, in case I can slip one or two more visits in before it gets too hot. 

In April 2016 I could see a storm front approaching in the weather forecast. Daytime high temperatures would drop into the 80s.  I'm currently working on a detailed photographer's travel guide to the park to be offered in the +SNAPP Guides app, so I threw my camera and camping gear into the car, and headed to the park with a list of the sites I wanted to explore or revisit next.

I hiked to a natural bridge, and enjoyed great views with sunlight streaming through clouds. I explored stone-walled buildings at an old mining town site, and found wildflowers thriving at higher elevations than on past visits this year.

I met a Subaru coming out the wrong way from Titus Canyon, apparently deciding that "high clearance" meant higher then they had. The worst part of the road is about halfway through the 24-mile loop, so drivers that wait that long have a lot of wrong-way driving to do. Sometimes they're in a hurry to get out, so they come flying around blind turns!

On the edge of a canyon, two jets saw me with my camera, so they took two passes each direction up the canyon, turning and shooting up sharply right in front of me, so I was able to get some great shots. They were very fast, very close, and very loud!

In Salt Creek, the water was slightly higher than normal, so the pupfish were exploring down to the parking lot, feeding in the flooded margins before low water forced them back into their normal cramped habitat space. Normally they're a little skittish, but their quest for food prevailed, so when I held my iPhone out over the water, one came over and posed for a portrait.

On one evening, I caught a sandstorm over Mesquite Flat Dunes, back-lit with golden sunlight by the setting sun.

On the way home, sunset light was lighting up rain showers at Mono Lake. It was an eventful and productive trip. I can't wait to return!  In the meantime, I've uploaded the latest batch of photos to the Death Valley 2016 photo album on my +Death Valley Workshops page on Google+.

If you might like to join me in Death Valley sometime, my spring 2016 workshops are done for the season, but I can add a session in mid-December if there's sufficient interest: Death Valley Photography Workshops.

Jellyfish Cloud
Sunset rain showers over Mono Lake

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Photograph Jets Up Close in Death Valley

High Speed Selfie
Water vapor condenses on the wing of an F-15C from the 144th Fighter Wing of the +Air National Guard in Fresno
I've encountered jets in this canyon in Death Valley by coincidence a few times over the years, so I mentioned them on page 130 of my "Photographing California" guidebook, but I've only recently sat around and waited for them to arrive. The first time I showed up at 4:30 pm and waited for a couple of hours, and was skunked. I later talked to someone who had arrived at 3:30 pm, and saw three passes in 45 minutes before leaving at 4:15 pm.
The second time I waited from dawn, nothing happened until a single plane went through at 9:50 am. Nothing happened for another hour, then a pair of F-15C jets from the California +Air National Guard went through it in each direction, twice! They seemed to spot the camera on the first run, then on the next three runs the lead plane pulled up sharply right at my location partway down the canyon, to be pulling a lot of Gs and turning up out of the canyon sharply directly next to me. The pilot appears to be looking at the camera each time, and I can't think of many reasons to end a run up the canyon early, in both directions, so it sure seemed like he was setting up selfies. When he was pulling the most Gs, water vapor trails formed as trailing lines in the wingtip vortices, and more vapor formed on top of the wings. Having heard that photographers fly over from Europe to spend a week sitting all day waiting for the jets, and they report 7 to 9 per day, I had my 9 and figured that I had done well. For some reason, Mondays were considered to be less promising, so I might not see any more planes that day. I picked up my tripods and started moving towards the car, and more planes came! It was like that until I had to leave by noon. I'd throw the tripod over my shoulder and another jet would come. A couple of guys from the adjacent campsite in the Stovepipe Wells campground the night before showed up and saw a jet go through. A few random people watched one go by from time to time. A busload of children on a field trip showed up, their wait was no more than 10 minutes, then a jet went by and they left. It seemed as if perhaps they came from a town nearby and had been able to coordinate with the pilot, perhaps a parent of one of the children. Having been skunked on a prior visit then rewarded with a flurry of activity after a few hours of boredom, I can't make generalizations yet about your odds of catching jets flying up canyons in Death Valley, but apparently if you are persistent enough, they may eventually come. That's when you'll find success, when preparation meets opportunity.

F-18 Showing Off
Water vapor condenses at the wingtips and over the wings of an F-18 in a high-G turn

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Shell Creek Road Wildflowers, Paso Robles

Shell Creek Road is a rural road running north – south between CA – 58 and CA – 46, passing pastures and rolling hills that can feature wildflowers in late March through April. There are also agricultural fields which can have symmetric lines for photographs, as well as a large vineyard with both old and young vines. The old vines are probably the ones which yield the excellent the Shell Creek Vineyard reserve petite sirah produced by David Bruce Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Shell Creek Road can be a convenient detour to take when approaching Carrizo Plain National Monument from the north, or departing Carrizo Plain in the direction of Paso Robles. The wildflowers are more concentrated towards the southern 6 miles or so.


From Paso Robles at US-101, take CA-46 east 15.6 miles and turn right onto CA-41 West Centre street.  Go 2.8 miles and turn right onto Toby Way.  After 0.3 miles on Toby Way turn right onto San Juan Road.  After 4.5 miles turn right onto Shell Creek Road.  You’ll be on Shell Creek Road 10.7 miles, ending at CA-58.

To continue to Carrizo Plain National Monument, travel east on CA-58 24.2 miles, turn right on Soda Lake Road and travel 13.7 miles.

There's a creek at the north end of the road which can flow over the road after a heavy rain, and this can close the road. When I last visited, there was a car in the creek, just downstream of where it had washed off of the road. Don't underestimate how deep the water is, or how little force it might take to push your vehicle off the road!

For more information on the area, I cover Shell Creek Road on page 177 of my "Photographing California Vol. 2 South" landscape photography guidebook.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Wines to Taste at Hospice du Rhone April 14 - 16, Part 1

Wineries producing Rhone varietal wines in the United States
When exploring wines produced with various different grapes, it can take years of experimentation to sample enough wines with dinners to get a good feel for which wineries produce the style that you like, and what foods they go with best. Fortunately there's an efficient, cost-effective way to find new favorite wines: wine tastings. I like to visit temperate regions and visit wineries while I travel, but there are many tastings in California where producers from all over the state, or all over the world, will come to you. The Hospice du Rhone (HdR) wine tasting event coming up this month in Paso Robles features top wineries from the United States, France and Australia.

Many wine lovers are familiar with syrah, one of over 20 wine varietals traditionally grown in the Rhone region of France. Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier and the other Rhone varietals have done well in the New World as well, particularly in California, Washington and Australia. In Australia they call syrah "shiraz", after a region in the Persian Empire that produced notable wines at the time, although those were apparently white wines, and not syrah. But I digress.

The first year that I attended the  HdR was 2001. Earlier that year I had toured the Australian island of Tasmania enjoying their pinot noir, then I flew to the shiraz-laden Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale wine regions near Adelaide. The Australians were enjoying the release of wines from their fantastic 1998 vintage, which was in a string of strong vintages. I was enjoying them too. Upon my return, I checked two cases of wine as luggage and packed more in my carry-on baggage, for a total of 39 bottles in all! Ah the days before airline restrictions on liquids. Then a couple of months after returning from Australia, I attended the Rhone Rangers tasting event in California, offering American-produced Rhone varietals, and I enjoyed many fine Rhone lineage wines there.

So I started 2001 with a great survey of Australian and American Rhone style wines, and Hospice du Rhone would be a great opportunity to add French wines to the mix, and try them all in one place. Let's start with the American wines and wineries that I particularly enjoyed at the Rhone Rangers event. Although wines change from year to year, the best grapes are consistently grown in the best sites, and wineries and winemakers that have tuned their winemaking practices for those sites will consistently produce great wines year after year. So finding your favorite vineyards, winemakers and producers is a great first step. So among this year's 239 wineries pouring at HdR, many of these producers will again be pouring great wines:

1998 Lewis Cellars Napa Valley Syrah 03/31/01 - Ripe nose, syrupy dark fruit, intense with ample tannins, a touch musty, long dusty finish with more dark fruit. 92
1999 Cedarville El Dorado County Estate Syrah $24.00 03/31/01 - Deceptively supple, fills the mouth with ripe soft berries and some vanilla. 91
1999 McCrea Cellars Yakima Valley Syrah 03/31/01 - Ripe and musty with minty plum and black fruit, intense acid and tannins, ripe on the finish. 91
1999 Truchard Vineyards Napa Valley Carneros Syrah 03/31/01 - Musty, concentrated, a little syrupy, intense on the finish. 91
1999 T-Vine Cellars Contra Costa County Syrah 03/31/01 - Ripe and very sweet,syrupy (American oak?), concentrated. A "no dump" wine. 91
1998 Joseph Phelps Vineyards Vin du Mistral Syrah 03/31/01 - Dry, deceptively well balanced, with a congue-tingling finish. Closed, masking ample intensity. Should be better in a few years. 91
1998 Justin MacGillivran Syrah 03/31/01 - (Barrel sample) Ripe, minty, fleshy, dark fruit, which carries into the finish. A "no dump" wine. 91
1998 McCrea Cellars Yakima Valley Cuvee Orleans Syrah 03/31/01 - Nice nose, plus ripe dark fruit, peppery, toasty, with ample tannins. 91
1997 Jade Mountain Napa Valley Paras Vineyard Syrah 03/31/01 - Supple with vanilla oak and coffee flavors. 91
1997 Swanson Vineyards Napa Valley Syrah 03/31/01 - Dry with dark fruit, oak, spices, herbs, nice acid balance. 91
1996 QupE' Wine Cellars Santa Barbara County Hillside Select Syrah 03/31/01 - Supple with vanilla oak, skins, dark fruit, nice persistence. 91
1999 Beckman Vineyards Santa Barbara County Syrah 03/31/01 - Tannic, dusty, peppery. 90
1999 Cedarville El Dorado County Estate Grenache $20.00 03/31/01 - Medium to full body, plush texture, sweet black fruit, balanced with an acid-supported finish. 90
1999 Cedarville El Dorado County Zinfandel $22.00 03/31/01 - Fruity, slightly syrupy, vanilla. 90
1999 Lava Cap Syrah 03/31/01 - (Barrel sample) Syrupy berry, spices… blueberry pie. 90
1998 McCrea Cellars Yakima Valley Ciel du Cheval Syrah 03/31/01 - Supple, vanilla oak, toasty on the finish. 90
1997 Clos Mimi Paso Robles Shell Creek Vineyard Syrah 03/31/01 - Minty, fruity, with spices and vanilla oak on the finish. 90
1997 Seven Peaks Paso Robles Shiraz 03/31/01 - Ample body, dark fruit (blackberry), mint, plum, shuts down on the finish. 90
1995 Swanson Vineyards Napa Valley Syrah 03/31/01 - Dry, medium bodied, peppery with red and black fruits, some leather, nice intensity and acid. 90

My Background in Wine

 But what qualifications did I have for attempting such a feat? I started enjoying Ridge Vineyards wine since the early 1980s: my mountain biking route took me past their tasting room. A friend of mine worked there. Ultimately they would be named one of the top 5 wineries in the world, so I was spoiled by quality from the start. As I worked in Silicon Valley's high tech industry for a couple of decades, I had access to great wines and my budget enabled me to collect them. I started taking tasting notes in 1994. Given that my day job was selling servers to Netscape, Yahoo! and other startups, I set up a Web site and posted my notes there. That got me into the big wine tastings, often early as a wine trade journalist, before the crush of public made it a little more difficult to access the more popular tables and wines. Even just trying a wine each night with dinner would tune my palate with over 3500 wines in 10 years. But my friends and I got together for a "boys night out" every Wednesday night, and we quickly settled on blind tastings as the agenda, with the host selecting the theme each week. Add in a few trade tastings each year, and you start to develop an experienced palate, along with a pretty sizable database. Eventually I decided to be a wine broker for a few years, representing small wineries to wine shops and restaurants.

My taste in wine may not be identical to yours (the whole subject of reviews, ratings and rankings has been covered ad nauseum for decades elsewhere). But you can try wines and a producer or two that I've liked, and if we like similar styles, my experience may come in handy for you.

I both take notes on the flavors and characteristics of a wine, as well as assign a score on a 100-point scale, like the ones American consumers have become familiar with from Wine Spectator Magazine and Robert Parker's newsletter, Wine Advocate. There's a love-hate relationship with such systems in the industry as a score over 90 points can help sell a wine, and higher on the scale may mean bigger, bolder and more in-your-face, but that's not what you want with every meal. There are many excellent balanced wines that score in the high 80 to 90 point range that might pair better with food. I think that many or most wine consumers have become educated enough to make educated choices, so there's no particular need to shy away from putting a stake in the ground regarding where on such a scale a wine might fall.

Fortunately the Hospice du Rhone event provides one of those opportunities for you find what you like, and cut months or years off your search time, while you save many hundreds of dollars on the cost.

Maybe I'll see you there!