The Drake Magazine, Spring '17
Ron Johnstad’s obituary covered the bases but left out a few important details. “There were few better than Ron with a gun or fly rod,” wrote the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. It was true, but written from a distant office, likely in the wee hours by an overworked journalist who never thought the dead would be her beat. Almost certainly, the writer never got the first-hand pleasure of Johnstad’s unorthodox war against Yellowstone River whitefish.
Certain sounds remind me of Ron. The arhythmic rattling of his John Deere mower, faithful transport between his Paradise Valley home and the shore of the Yellowstone, about 200 yards away. The subtle slurp of a Montana bonefish taking one of his bizarre, homespun fly pattens. And, later, the rhythmic whoosh of an oxygen tank, which followed him around his deck as he told stories and looked knowingly towards the river. The tank didn’t so much interrupt as keep time as he talked about singing in the Norseman Quartet, playing college football, growing up in Wisconsin, the many merits of his wife, Mary Ellen, and whitefish; which in their best incarnation, ought to be smoked.
Johnstad’s casts were short and sloppy and the shadow he threw nearly forded the river. Surely, the cutthroat had fled long ago, if not for the loudness of his voice than for the ruckus his three golden retrievers amassed chasing killdeer along the bank. Yet, every summer evening, under the idyllic purple-grey light of dusk that’s bright enough to tie a #14, but nothing smaller, the pile of whitefish behind him grew to impressive heights.
“Just making more room for trout,” he would say, removing a tussled fly from another whitefish’s vacuum cleaner of a mouth. Just before dark, as larger fish began to slap the surface behind big boulders and the forked tip of Emigrant Peak was barely a silhouette, he would fumble through his fly box for his favorite creation.
When most people taste a Sémillon, they get citrus and apple flavors. Trained palates might even pick up the white wine’s ability to come off as both rich and fresh, worthy of some aging. Las Vegas-based sommelier Jaime Smith is more inclined to describe his sip as “orange tubes, rolling about in a grassy valley.”
For Smith, there’s no such thing as a blind tasting. The former wine director of the MGM Grand and one-time director of communication and education at Southern Wine & Spirits runs his own consulting outfit and currently commands the wine program at the Charlie Palmer Steakhouse at the Four Seasons. Throughout, Smith has had synesthesia, a rare condition in which the senses crisscross. For example, when a synesthete hears a trumpet, he might taste squash. Or he might see a stack of dark brown octagons every time he smells cloves. Sometimes, words alone prompt flavors so strong it’s enough to make him gag.
“One wine was so horrid, with the most interesting faults,” Smith says of a particularly off-putting wine he sampled at a recent festival. “It smelled of bile, not always bad given the type of fermentation, and then it exploded into a minty greenness. It was fractured, like having a wall in front of you and you can only go left. Inside this crazy smell maze, I took two lefts and then I was stuck, staring into the abyss.”
Daily SevenFifty, August '17
Not too long ago, Brent Braun was drinking Two-Buck Chuck in his adopted home of Santa Cruz, California. In those days, he says, “It was just as normal to bring a few bottles of Charles Shaw to a party as it was a case of beer.” But like a pop song after too much radio time, the cheap wines began to bore. Out with the fuzzy nights sipping Trader Joe’s White Zinfandel to the tune of Nickelback. In with the bracing acidity of J.B. Becker aged Rieslings and Leonard Cohen.
In just a few short years, at the age of 25, Braun would become certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers. In March 2017, the 31-year-old wine director of Castagna, the lauded headquarters for modernist cuisine in Portland, Oregon, made Food & Wine’s annual shortlist of sommeliers of the year.
Braun, who used to play synthesizers for Portland dance-pop outfit Vanimal, relishes the company of a good playlist, whether he’s surrounded by a fortress of empty wine boxes during his day-to-day back-of-house routine or performing somm service in the front-of-house fishbowl.
“If I’m receiving orders and stocking wine, then [I listen to] something more mechanical or more groove based,” he says, citing English post-punk powerhouse Gang of Four and German electro-masters Kraftwerk. “It gets you in a good rhythm of moving, lifting, breaking down boxes—just physical work.”