October 03, 2008 Features & Images » Feature Story

Riesling and Rattlesnakes 

The unlikely intersection of desert herpetology and dessert oenology.(That’s studying snakes and winemaking to the rest of you.)

click to enlarge Photo by Leslie Anthony
  • Photo by Leslie Anthony

By Leslie Anthony

I was staring at the rings of Saturn and seeing stars in broad daylight.

Jack Newton had just topped up my afternoon glass of merlot, but it was he and not the grape treating me to close-up views of the sun and other marvels courtesy of a hydrogen-filter mounted aside his computer-driven, 16-inch telescope, the centerpiece of an impressive hand-built observatory.

As proprietor of the Observatory B&B, located high on a mountain overlooking Osoyoos, B.C., Jack takes pleasure in dragging guests along on his continual scouring of the visible universe. Jack’s is one of several observatories dotting mountaintops in an area of notoriously clear skies and comparatively low urban glow.

But astronomy wasn’t the only science intersecting with the fruits of local commerce. Shifting my gaze downward and across the valley revealed a different kind of universe—the terrestrial mosaic of vineyard, orchard, forest, and sage desert of the southern Okanagan Valley. Officially known as the Bunchgrass Biogeoclimatic Zone, this desert is North America’s most fragile and fastest-disappearing ecosystem. Agricultural and developmental pressure are consuming habitat at an alarming rate, bringing people into increasing contact with creatures that depend on it. The semi-arid land responsible for the explosive success of British Columbia’s and Washington State’s wine industries is also home to many plants and animals at risk—including cute-as-a-puppy Burrowing Owls and the not-so-frickin’-cuddly but no less important Northern Pacific Rattlesnake.

How burgeoning agribusiness handles conservation issues will determine whether the desert ecosystem survives, and the plight of the much-maligned rattlesnake — rodent-hunter extraordinaire, icon of the Wild West, bogeyman of every Boy Scout campfire — is a signpost of that struggle.

“I’ve seen plenty,” said Jack, who wintered at another home observatory in Arizona and was no stranger to the buzz-kill of a rattler’s buzz. “Almost stepped on a few, too… but of course, I’m used to looking up, not down.”

Around the Okanagan, winemakers and other land-gobblers were similarly trying to come to grips with serpents underfoot, raising an all-too-common question: could humans and snakes coexist? I figured it all made a good story. And so, in the waning warmth of early October, with snakes curling into winter dens and gourmands crawling the Okanagan during its annual wine festival, I set out to explore this dalliance of decadent and deadly.

I’d spent enough time around both rattlers and herpetologists (those who study reptiles and amphibians) to understand the nanosecond it took the latter to make a painful mistake, so there would be one rule: Snake-chasing could precede wine-tasting, but never vice versa.

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