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.
The wine industry draws all types, from burnt-out pharmaceutical reps to engineers to musicians. For many, the pathway arrives in the form of an unforgettable glass of wine, often enjoyed abroad. For Kort Clayton, the connection to wine was forged by the wings of a well-trained bird of prey.
Clayton is part of the small and intriguing community otherwise known as falconry. His Portland-based business, Integrated Avian Solutions, trains raptors to scare off so-called “nuisance birds.” A day on the job could see Clayton anywhere from a waste facility looking to rid the premises of seagulls to a downtown business district looking to fend off thousands of crows.
The growth of Willamette Valley wine and its longstanding battle with grape-loving birds is an obvious target for the business. His current team of five falcons was subjected to a training program not entirely unlike that for most pets. Trust is established between bird and man and positive behavior — namely the raptor’s instinctive ability to chase smaller birds — is rewarded with food.
The birds are naturally afraid of humans but Clayton is able to overcome that gradually. Once a bird is feeding from the glove, it is taught incrementally to step up to the glove and ultimately fly from growing distances to the glove. “Within a month or two, they are flying free, following us around the vineyard and sometimes soaring and chasing birds for an hour or more,” Clayton says.
Peddling cases of product for a distributor isn’t a siren call for everybody in the wine industry. For many, the idea conjures up complicated portfolios, large restaurant and retailer cattle calls for new, inexpensive finds, and a constant renegotiation of commission rates. But when the fit is right, the experience can be much the opposite.
Sommelier Mariel Wega recently made the jump from restaurant floor to distribution. The former wine director of modern Philadelphia bistro a.kitchen+bar—whose colorful yet cost-effective wine list earned her a spot on Wine Enthusiast’s Best New Sommelier list in 2016—joined Skurnik Winesjust a few months ago as their Pennsylvania sales lead.
Wega had always been intrigued by the other side of the industry aisle and had been buying from Skurnik on behalf of the restaurant for some time. When she heard Skurnik was looking for local representation, she talked to her restaurant rep about the opportunity and then approached Skurnik. Adding context to the move was a rapidly emerging Pennsylvania market.
“I’m based in Philly,” Wega says, “and I’ve seen the wine scene here grow tremendously in the last five-plus years—it’s happening all over the state. I loved being a part of that development on the restaurant side, and now I feel that I can spread the enthusiasm and support for these great wines and winemakers we work with on a different scale.”
Long-awaited legislation allowing grocery stores in Pennsylvania to sell wine passed in August of 2016, creating a new model for both distributors and retailers. It’s a small reason that Skurnik, a family-run distributorship founded on Long Island, New York, in 1987, has swelled to 112 staff members nationwide, and a big reason it now has a growing presence in the Keystone State.