Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Yak is the New Black--Yak Ridge

As Julie Smoragiewicz walks up the short hill behind her home in the beautiful Black Hills, she shakes her bucket of treats.  The large pellets of compressed alfalfa make a familiar noise, and her furry pets come running toward the fence line to greet her for their special snack. 
These are no average pets.  

These are large, woolly, horned, and unique; so unique, that they are the only ones of their kind in the area. 
Julie is feeding her yaks, the animals that gave her and her husband Jim’s farmstead, Yak Ridge, its name. Although more known for calling the Himalayan Mountains of Tibet home, this small herd lives just a few miles outside of Rapid City. 
Yaks waiting for snacks.
Though neither Jim nor Julie was raised on a farm or ranch, all four of Julie’s great-great grandparents homesteaded on the other side of South Dakota, and Jim’s father was a young, farm boy in Poland before moving to the United States.  All of these familial influences worked into the formation of Yak Ridge.  Attempting to connect to the land and be more self-sufficient were important to the Smoragiewiczs, especially after the death of Jim’s dad.  They felt this little bit of land helped honor him and his Polish ancestry.

The idea may seem very unusual, but raising yaks made perfect sense to Julie and Jim. When planning their farmstead, the two did much research to decide what livestock to raise.  They looked into sheep, goats, and cows.  However, the benefits of raising yaks kept outweighing what they learned about other possibilities.

Yaks are very self-sufficient while being easy on the environment.  For their size, they eat less food than other herds and produce less waste, as well.  Because of this, pound-for-pound, they take less of a toll on their surroundings and their owners’ pocketbooks.  Keep in mind where these animals originated, and it is clear that they can be left alone for longer periods of time, even in the winter.  Yaks will break through ice to find water if they have a source nearby and will even eat snow instead of drinking water.  They will also dig through snow, much like buffalo, to scavenge for food underneath. 

Yaks give birth to smaller young, making it easier for caregivers and healthier for both yak momma and yak baby.  They are also very, very friendly animals.  Yak young are incredibly playful, and when raised with regular interaction with humans, trust is developed with the caregivers—much like Julie and her social, furry friends. 
The yaks at Yak Ridge.
The benefits Julie and Jim learned aren’t just about caring for their animals, yet that is a major plus.  Yaks produce many products.  Yes, they have tasty, lean, red meat that can be cooked just like beef, but there are also other uses for yak goods.  The milk is high in fat, making wonderful cheeses, butters, and yogurts.  The wool can be harvested from trimming the long yak skirts or combing the thick under-layer of yak fur.  They can even use their own fitness to be pack animals—remember yaks were originally used for this in the cold, Himalayan Mountains—and can carry up to 300 pounds of cargo.
If all of these reasons weren’t enough, the glorious hillside just opposite the newly-built Smoragiewicz home is in the shape of a yak’s back, the buffalo-like hump of the shoulders clearly visible through the trees.
Yak Ridge
Yes, Yak Ridge was meant to be. 

However, it isn’t just a place to pet a friendly yak or source some wonderfully-lean meat.  Yak Ridge is so much more.  Jim and Julie also built three guest cabins in addition to their home, garage, and barn.  These cabins—which were first rented out to the public this fall—sleep 4-6 people, with private kitchens, baths, and porches for Black Hills travelers to enjoy.  In the summer and fall, the front porch flower boxes are actually not filled with flowers but with tomato and herb plants for use in the modern kitchens.   
Books about yaks in the cute, comfy, and modern cabins.
There are plans for two more cottages in the future, but it is important for Julie—former owner and chef of Dakota Thyme in Rapid City—to keep the operation small enough for the two of them to manage and maintain all aspects of the business on their own, while still having some semblance of a life Jim and Julie can enjoy.

Other small expansion plans are in the works, but most of these plans are Mother Nature’s doings, not necessarily Julie’s.  For instance, over 40 baby chickens are currently growing in Julie’s new barn.  They should be laying eggs by the spring.  The bees living in Yak Ridge’s hives produced an abundance of honey this fall, and signs are good that will continue for next year as well. 
Yak Ridge's chickens...staying warm.
A slight expansion is planned for the yak herd…actually quite soon.  One of Julie’s cows will be giving birth to the newest addition of the Smoragiewicz herd next month!  Yak Ridge will soon have a baby in its midst.

As Julie gives one more treat to Houdini—her steer that is soon headed for the greener pastures of yak heaven—she ruffles the fur on another yak nudging its way toward the treat bucket.  The friendly livestock has surely made the past construction-filled year at Yak Ridge worth every moment.  She has gotten to know more about these majestic creatures, all while creating an inviting place for tourists to stay. Yak Ridge is definitely in style as it helps Jim and Julie live the lifestyle they desire.  
Houdini eating his treat!

Monday, November 9, 2015

He Doesn’t Sleep…So You Don’t Have To--Tony DeMaro of Kol

Laser lights flash in the dark.  Large, blue halos glow over a crowd that is dressed to the nines and transfixed by the music coming from the DJ booth above. 

Yes, something has been started…Ig-Nite is in full swing.
Just hours before this thumping club scene, the same exact space was Kol, the super-trendy eatery Tony DeMaro and company opened last spring after a year of work and a million dollars of renovations.
As soon as Kol closes, the tables are cleared out, an expansive LED light curtain hangs over the kitchen housing the huge coal-fired oven, and the lights go out.  Circle-shaped LED lights dangling from the center of the now-club match the LED lighting throughout the rest of the dance floor.  The laser lights all over the ceiling finish the atmosphere that is clearly “a Vegas/Miami style nightclub” seeking “to challenge each and every sense in order to create an unforgettable night out on the town.” 

Have I mentioned that this is in Rapid City?  Central Black Hills.  South Dakota.

Tony DeMaro, proprietor of Kol, Murphy’s Pub, and The Blind Lion, has literally spent years watching his dreams—Kol and Ig-Nite—become reality.  First, his group purchased the prime real estate at the corner of Rapid City’s Mt. Rushmore and Main Streets.  The spot was formerly many different types of businesses, most recently Dublin Square, another bar.  However, many will remember years and years ago, before downtown Rapid began its evolution from slightly-seedy city center into the cool and modern place for people it is today, the establishment was once a strip club.

My how times have changed!

Ig-Nite has set a charge in Rapid City’s social scene.  Before the grand opening on October 30, Tony distributed Platinum Tickets through his personal and business Facebook pages.  Those who were interested in attending needed to personally come to Kol to collect their tickets, then be in line at 10:00 p.m. when the club officially opened.  First come, first served to those who dressed the part for the party—no baggy jeans and backward baseball caps here.  

When the doors opened to much fanfare, men were dressed in collared shirts and sports jackets.  Women were in fabulous footwear and fashionable frocks. 

And this crowd was not disappointed.

A VIP seating area sat opposite the full-service bar.  Yes, the cocktails were wonderfully creative, but bottle service of both wine and liquor were available as well.

Performers swung from the ceiling.  Dancers spun fire sticks.  DJs jammed to the latest beats.

Tony’s party was definitely a success.
But he is not even done yet.

The evolution of Rapid’s newest hot spot is still not over.  Tony’s endless energy has him dreaming up one more plan for this adult playground:  a vintage arcade in the basement.

As a child who grew up in the 1980s, Tony wants more entertainment for the sophisticated set of socialites in the area.  The large space in the basement has been gutted and will eventually hold the best old-school arcade games—think Pac Man, Tron, Frogger, etc.—along with a small bowling area.  

Tony’s mission to give the Black Hills the absolute best in entertainment may have already been fulfilled in some people’s eyes, but definitely not his.  He will continue to use his Energizer Bunny dynamism to make these establishments the best; his boundless drive and motivation (and an equally-energetic and hard-working business team) have led him to be one of the most innovative restaurateurs in the area.  

He doesn’t sleep much as he thinks of and then puts into action all these pioneering ideas for the Black Hills.

That’s okay, though.  Because he doesn’t sleep…you don’t have to either!

Monday, November 2, 2015

To Infinity...and Beyond--Infinite Monkey Theorem

“Don’t Fear the Reaper” blares into the brick-walled building as cellar workers tend to the punch downs of eight bins of fermenting petite verdot grapes; all of this happens under the carefully-painted graffiti wall, showing from the start how cool this space is.  Peeking through the graffiti art is the painted replica of the Denver skyline, its “cash register” building clearly visible as it overlooks the end-of-harvest work happening below. 
Cool and hip, Denver skyline in the graffiti.
This is The Infinite Monkey Theorem in Denver, Colorado.  A true urban winery in all senses of the term.  

Just as the monkey on the labels of Infinite Monkey wines symbolizes evolution, the cool, modern winery also symbolizes this—the evolution of the modern wine world in what would be considered non-traditional areas using non-traditional techniques.  Winemaker Ben Parsons is the theorist behind this movement, a movement that he also had to develop through an evolution of his own.

The Infinite Monkey Theorem monkey.
In the early 2000s, Ben lived and worked in the United Kingdom selling high-end, expensive wine to other people.  One day he woke up feeling the $1500 bottles of wine were just not accessible  to the average person, and he wanted to change this.  In order to do so, he made a drastic lifestyle transformation.

First, he traveled to the Adelaide region of Australia and received his degree in wine making.  Next, he spent time in New Zealand furthering his knowledge of the craft.  Then, Ben applied for and accepted a job on the Western Slope of Colorado, an area once known for growing peaches.  Here he made and sold Colorado wine, often making trips to the consumers in Denver who were definitely intrigued by their “local” vino.
Winery work in the urban setting.
Ben and his father always dreamed of Ben having his own winery; sadly, Ben’s dad died in 2007, and Ben decided he had waited long enough to fulfill the next step of his dream.   With his dad’s memory close to heart, Ben and his wife embarked on a 25,000 mile road trip to buy used winery equipment from all over the country.  They returned to Denver and bought a Quonset hut in the up-and-coming Sante Fe arts district.  The Infinite Monkey Theorem was born.
Infinite Monkey, building 2.0.
Ben uses 65-80% Colorado grapes, primarily from the western side of the state, trying to be true to the unique growing seasons and terroir of Colorado.  However, it is this unique growing season that often sends him to states like California and Washington for grapes to supplement his crops in years where weather is not conducive.  

Even when adding grapes from other states, Ben does not then attempt to make a California Syrah in Colorado.  He uses the additional grapes mostly in his large production wines that he does not plan to bottle in the traditional manner (more about this later).  When he does use these out-of-state grapes in his other bottlings, he continues to stay true to the Colorado style of the overall end product.
Pressing, aging, and fermenting in the middle of the city.
Ben owns no vineyard land himself; to attempt this would totally go against the true urban winery concept he has developed.  He also has embraced the urban setting in many other ways, such as canning and kegging wine.  Yes, that is correct—canning wine.  Only a proper city winery would have such a modern way to package wine, and TIMT does not disappoint.  

Ben chooses his keg and can wines very carefully.  Obviously, he is not canning his traditional method sparkling wine or his petite sirah that has been on oak a year and a half.  He cans his younger wines, like sauvignon blanc, or his large lot wines made especially for canning.  A rosè, a white, a red, and a moscato are all made specifically to be canned, which happens right there in the winery with a canning line made in nearby Boulder.  The wine is carbonated with carbon dioxide and then sold in the tasting room or distributed in forty-one other states.  This number will only keep increasing as Whole Foods will soon be selling Infinite Monkey in its stores.  That is quite a coup!
They CAN do it!
It is this canning and kegging business that is booming so fast Ben can hardly keep up with it.  From the original small Quonset that Ben and company outgrew, they moved into a much larger space…which is already filled to the brim in just three years.  To give an idea of how high the demand for canned and kegged wine is, Ben is producing the equivalent of 50,000 cases of wine, all under that watchful eye of the graffiti wall. 
Ben also started Iron Monkey, a wine kegging business.  Other producers send wine to be kegged by Iron Monkey at the Infinite Monkey location.  Though many may turn their noses up at keg or can wine, the market tells quite a different story.  TIMT supplies keg wine for Snooze—a Denver area brunch hot spot—mimosas.  Snooze pours through four kegs…a weekend!  At least a dozen other Denver restaurants, including popular stalwarts like Old Major and Rioja, also serve Infinite Monkey keg wines. 

It seems many are interested in getting on the green bandwagon to support the environmental impacts of saving glass bottles from wine consumption.  Aluminum is easier and cheaper to make, from both an economic and an environmental standpoint.  Aluminum is also easier and cheaper to recycle and can be recycled an infinite number of times—pun intended.  Producing certain wines in kegs also saves thousands and thousands of bottles a year, not to mention the manpower to bottle and handle those products.  
Iron Monkey kegging system.

Kegs of wine for Snooze.

Don’t be fooled into believing that a super cool and modern winery in the middle of a city with graffiti on the walls can’t produce great wines.  Quite the opposite is true; many standout wines make themselves known when sipping here.  

The Riesling—from grapes grown in Cortez, Colorado—has just a slight hint of residual sweetness.  It shows fabulous peach and pear on both the nose and palate, adding a very interesting green grass and floral characteristic on the finish. 
Good wines the bottle and on tap.
The Petite Sirah, also from Colorado fruit, is a great example of what this grape can produce.  I gained an appreciation of these wines this summer, and Infinite Monkey’s is also worth respecting, too.  Under-ripe cherry, fresh strawberry, and white pepper dominate the aromas and flavors and then lead to very smooth tannins.  
When TIMT bottles, it does it in style.
Finally, Ben’s traditional method sparkling wine from Colorado albarino grapes is a show stopper.  Perfectly crisp and refreshing, with tart lemon and bread dough, this wine sips as a beautiful bubbly should…too easily!
The Infinite Monkey Theorem proves evolution is real…evolution in the wine industry at least!  The concept of the urban winery works for Ben Parsons, the people of Denver, and the residents of Colorado.  The growth of this winery in the heart of a city is so great that a second Infinite Monkey Theorem is getting ready to open in Austin, Texas—another trendy area—predominantly using Texas grapes for wine production.  

Canning and kegging, graffiti and art, loud music and good wine all show that progress in the New World wine industry is fun and funky.  It can take place in beautiful, rural vineyards or in hip, cool neighborhoods.  The monkey on the label of  The Infinite Monkey Theorem bottles, cans, and kegs is the perfect symbol for this evolution, an impeccable way to show that those willing to change with the times will be rewarded…in an infinite number of ways.