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Mining and Swilling

November 29, 2011

Salt Lake City, – I may have to become a Mormon. Turns out the last international airport in the United Snakes that gives even a nod and a wink to the weak and sinful amongst us is SLC, which extends a helping hand to those of us who've failed to kick the nicotine habit. At the end of every concourse at Salt Lake is a compound for cigarette smokers, choking down their last puff before embarking upon 12-hour, smoke-free and peanut-deficient flights. Perhaps the Mormons are teaching the rest of the nation a lesson in tolerance.

A half-dozen years ago, Detroit, MSP and even LAX provided such sanctuary inside Checkpoint Charlie, but those are long gone. Hell, it was not that many decades ago that the airlines served, with your multiple-course meal in coach, a 5-pack of Winstons to light up after dessert.

Northwest Airlines tried in vain to keep the smoking rooms open at its World Clubs, but was legislated out its of kindness by government authorities. Now, at those places, and all others in the U.S., you wanna smoke, go all the way outside and resubmit yourself to body cavity checks.

Lighting up in a wind- and rain-besotted outdoor hovel (you can't smoke on the other side of the street, where the terminal is) at Spokane, we were joined by a Transportation Security Administration agent who lit up. We did our normal friendly griping, to which she rejoined: “Yeah, it's reverse discrimination in a way. But it's to our benefit and our health. They're just trying to protect us from ourselves.”  God help us: she meant it, and she's touching your junk every day.

So there's the upside of Delta's conquest of Northwest Airlines: Notwithstanding that a ride on Delta in coach class is tantamount to enduring a hemorrhoid-ectomy sans anaesthetic, at least they route you through Salt Lake and the last stand against intolerance.

San Francisco – Last Saturday fetched up that rarest of San Francisco days: no fog, no wind, no rain, just beautiful sunshine, as we wended our way across the Golden Gate northbound from downtown and wound up through the Mayacamas Mountains through a herd of tiny (by Idaho standards) but obviously well-fed black-tailed deer to Gordon Holmes' fabled Lookout Ridge Winery. And “lookout” it commands, over a spectacular, 360-degree view of the Sonoma and Napa valleys a thousand feet below.

We are on a mission: to taste Gordon's wine and talk about gold, silver, lead, zinc and copper mining. There was a side-bet, too; the San Francisco Hard Assets conference was going on downtown at an adjacent Marriott, but such seemed anti-climatic after a visit to the elusive Mr. Holmes' elusive, and exclusive, juice factory. It being before noon, the sips were shallow but significant: first a charming chardonnay, followed by a slurping of pinot and cab, as Gordon spun out his 61-year life-story as an investor, publisher, and now award-winning wine-maker.

Gordon likes the high country better than the fabled valleys we survey below, for the purposes of growing grapes. Drainage is better, and the rockiness of the soil forces the vines to work a little harder, and the plants get a 360-degree view of the weather. He comes by viticulture and horticulture honestly: his grandfather, Harry, even co-wrote a book on how to grow stuff in this part of the world.

“I always knew I was going to be a wine-maker,” he recalls, winding up the life-story he is about to tell his guests. But first there was Wall Street to conquer: he bought his first mining stock at age 13 and sold it for a tidy profit. By the age of 21 he had acquired quite a bit of knowledge about the stock market and about the wine business. Next to conquer was the publishing world, which he did as a young Californian helping write the business plan for Investors Business Daily. He went out on his own, founding supply-side investor and broker print publications in New York and doing spectacularly well financially. Then at the end of the millennium he sold his print media, shed his Italian-tailored suits and returned to California to settle into his first passion: “making juice.”

A coincidence of conversation with neighbour Ken Behring and having his wife contract multiple-sclerosis, which confined her to a wheel-chair, got Holmes thinking about the plight of the several hundred million folks on the planet immobilized by accident of birth and without the means to get around. So now Gordon Holmes gives away a wheel-chair for every bottle of wine he sells. Even at $100 a bottle he takes a $300 hit for every wheel-chair that goes with it. “Corporate karma,” he calls it. How interesting it is, that silver mining companies have stepped up to Holmes's plate.

Wallace, Idaho – Perhaps our big government would better serve us by backing off its attack on smokers, and buying a few cases of Lookout Ridge wine instead.