on dogs and wine

January 29, 2008

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There is a silly sort of book out, available in barnes and nobles in every suburb: a big picture book of dogs in the wine country, generally owned by people whose names you might somehow match with wine (like they own the stuff you can’t afford and don’t really care for).

I’ll admit to picking it up and looking at it. I mean, why not? Nobody had a dog cooler than my dog and I decided that the book was kind of stupid, just pictures of dogs, posed, I dunno… who needs a whole big book like that? What’s the point of killing trees to print pictures of dogs?

There’s this thing about dogs and wine that keeps popping up. A weird sort-of thing. Whaddya call it? A thing. no. A congruence?  A confluence?  A commonality between the myths?

Whatever– you remember that movie Mondo Vino? There’s this funny subplot to the movie: almost everyone that’s interviewed has a dog. There’s all these mad wine people with dogs that suited their personalities, like that Monsiour Parker has a flatulent, slobbery bulldog.

I’ve got a young pup of a sheepdog, a bunny killer who’s submissive to bigger dogs; a ruthless and intelligent herder who just wants to snuggle. What does that say about me?

My dog and I spend a lot of time in the vineyard together. We inspect vineyards, he talks to me while I prune, he chases rabbits and I sing songs. So, you can understand why i think an awful lot about the mystical union of man and dog and man and vines. There’s something about dogs and wine I want for us to explore. You’re cool, right? You’ll understand that there’s a deep sort of connection between dogs and wine that, and if you’ll indulge me a little, I’ll try to explain.

In Greek mythology, the dog is intimately involved in the revelation of wine to mankind. They wed the stories of man’s friendship with the dog into the patterns of stars in the sky. I will tell you exactly 5 of these stories.

1. Sirius

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The brightest star in the sky besides the sun is Sirius, the dog star. The rising of Sirius in the summer months coincides with the rising of the Nile and the blast of scorching summer heat, which they called the dog days.

Sirius is a set of two stars that orbit each other in a helical pattern and is drawn into Canis Major, one of Ptolemy’s original 48 constellations.

The ancient writers like Columella and Pliny the Elder wrote about the timing of the grape harvest taking place on a certain time after the appearance of Sirius

in Roman times, The rising of Sirius brought the Robigo, an annual festival set to placate some goddess or god that brought mildew and rust to the crops. To keep the deadly goddess happy, they’d slaughter a goat and a puppy at her altar.

2. Canis Major

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Canis Major is a collection of stars that includes Sirius that kind of, sort of, looks like a dog. It is referred to by Homer and Hesiod as the hunting dog of Orion. The chinese call it the Celestial wolf god, I guess, and other folks do too. it’s this weird commonality in the mythology of disparate people in the world: that Sirius is a dog star, that the stars surround it form a large dog in the sky.

(Orion is the mighty hunter in the sky, chasing the big bear Ursa Major)

3. Canis Minor

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Canis Minor is another small constellation that’s supposed to be a dog. It dates back to Ptolemy too. I guess it’s supposed to be Orion’s second dog. I don’t know. It looks just like a couple of stars to me.

4. Bootes

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Bootes is a cool constellation. This little collection of stars was referred to by its name as early ago as Homer. Some folks think it might be the oldest of the constellations, whatever that means. Bootes is said to be a herdsman in the sky. Maybe he invented the plow, you know?

In another story, Bootes represents the story of Icarius, a simple sort of guy who lived in the countryside near Athens with his daughter and his dog. Dionysos visited him and bestowed upon him the secrets of grape growing and winemaking. Icarius being a cool dude, he shared this new wine with some dumbass shepherds, who upon getting drunk killed him and buried him somewhere. His daughter found the body with the help of the dog, and Dionysos placed the three of them in the sky. Icarius as Bootes, his daughter as Virgo, his dog as Sirius.

Sophocles wrote a play about it. It got lost.

5. The curious case of the Ozolians

So, if you’re not familiar with that guy Pausanias, it’s okay. You don’t have to be. He was like this wannabe Greek in Roman times-around 100 AD. He traveled around Greece and wrote about what he saw for all the other Greek wannabes. He told another story of dogs and wine.

In Phokis, near the border of Laconia, a few villages called themselves the Ozoi-a play on the word for branches. These branch people had a few stories why they called themselves as such, one of which is an alternate dog-based revelation of wine. Orestheus, a son of Deukalion (the Greek Noah), had a dog.  One day the dog gave birth or puked up a stick, which her owner then planted or buried and it grew to become a fruit-bearing vine. The vine had a bunch of branches, you see?

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So there you have it. 5 stories about wine and dogs from way back when everyone worth a damn spoke Greek. They told stories about wine and dogs but they never really said why. They never explained the linkage between the two.

My guess? I don’t know. Around the vineyards, I see a lot of coyote shit that looks like the coyotes are eating a lot of grapes. My dog likes to roll around in it. Maybe it’s just a bunch of bullshit.

But, I think its just that the two things–dogs and wine– are so elemental to the existence of homo sapiens that the two things can’t be divided. The dog was the first animal to which the human bonded, and the vine was what I believe to be the first plant to seduce us into settled life. Just like drinking wine, or pruning a vine, to be a human with a dog is to participate in the most ancient of acts. Without the dog, we’d never have made it so far as to wander northwards into the snow and find the grapevine surviving the age of ice, clinging to an oak tree.

Today, one of the people I work with that I guess is supposed to be one of my bosses or something told somebody to tell somebody that I’d have to leave my dog in my goddamn truck while in the vineyard.  It was the singlemost stupidest thing i’d heard in a while, the boss person just making up rules on the spot, trying to feel important or something.  They do that, you know, those sunsabitches: they see universal truths and try to erase them. Out in the country, up in the mountains at night, you can still see the dogs in the sky chasing bears, finding wine.  You’ll always be able to, you know.  The sunsabitches can’t do a goddamn thing about that.

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More about the Moon.

January 4, 2008

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For the past week and a half or so, without much else to do, I’ve been kayaking out in the San Francisco bay with the seals and the crazy seabirds, the loons and those pelicans. Because I had the time to do that, I was paying a lot more attention to the feel of the tides. It’s true, they’re a lot higher and a lot lower when the moon is full. I’ve been sleeping out on the water in a houseboat part-time for the past year or so, but over the christmas holidays, when the full moon and the perigee coincided, the parking lot of the dock was flooded. You learn to study the tide charts but more importantly just to look up at the moon to know if you’ll need your rubber boots.

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There’s this old book I can’t find translated into English. Written originally in the thirteenth or fourteenth century by Pietro Crescenzi, or Petrus Crescentius. A section that I’ve found is seductively called “Winemaking and the Moon,” and for a geek like me, it’s like I heard about a book that may or may not teach you jedi skills, you know? A magic book. I’ve been trying to sort through all the various bullshit you hear people tell journalists, and at the same time watching the weather as I followed the biodynamic calendars and the old farmer’s almanac. I’ve been trying to figure it all out, see what’s what and what’s real.

Here’s what I think: In terms of winemaking, I wouldn’t want to rack my wines while the moon was full or new. I wouldn’t want to rack my wines during the weeks around the new and full moons. I think if the tides are high, the lees are probably a bit more turbulent, and if you’re the sort of person who’s trying to clarify your wines gently, maybe not have to filter them, you need to rack your wine off of the lees. That’s pretty much all I can think of. I don’t know what else you’d have to worry about. How did this Pietro dude write like a whole 7 pages on the subject? What’s he know that I don’t?

Okay, so, it’s raining now. A major winter storm. The houseboat swayed gentle in the wind, the ropes creaking. The tides are low. I mean, it’s almost a quarter moon I think and yesterday was the apogee, but there’s a major winter storm. What I’m trying to say is that the tides and the moon can’t predict the weather. But I’d like to know what it can tell you. I’d like to know what some old guy from way back then had to say on the subject.

I’ve got this old and maybe magic book translated into French on a PDF file. It was easy to find on the internets. That Sean Thackrey guy has a copy of it posted in his super-duper cool internet archive of medieval wine manuscripts. I’m going to post an ad on craigslist, and see if somebody would be willing to not charge me a shitload. I mean, hey, I’d love to learn French, but who has the time? Hell I’d love to learn Ancient Greek too, while we’re at it and why not the fucking , I don’t know, lute?

So if i get it translated, I’ll post it or a summary. I’ll let you know if there’s any winemaking jedi tricks in the book.

On tasting

December 4, 2007

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William Saroyan is another one of those authors I love. The owner of a gigantic Armenian moustache, Saroyan was this ballsy young guy who exploded on the literary scene in the 30s and 40s, a sensitive man’s man who lived what he wrote and what he wrote was beautiful and good. He was a good enough writer to win the Pulitzer, and ballsy enough to turn it down.

Tracy’s Tiger, now THERE’S a book. Just a little short novella, really, (you can find it in the William Saroyan Reader) it’s one of those things I need to read a few times every once in a while, you know? In this book, and why I’m writing about it, a young guy (who feels as if he has a tiger walking beside him) moves to New York and gets a job doing manual labor at a coffee business. After 2 weeks of huffing sacks around he demands a job tasting the coffee. He knows good coffee, he says.

The owner asks what’s the difference between good coffee and great coffee.

“Advertising,” says the smartass.

There’s only three coffee tasters in the whole company, each of whom waited 20, 30 years for the job to taste coffee, and there’s no room in the room for another. The tasters, they marvel at his audacity. Just who the hell is this kid?

I’m drinking coffee now. It’s a rainy day so I’ve got the day off, and I’m on my third cup. It’s good coffee, but who am I to say? Who the hell am I to give my opinion?

My first gig in the wine world was this internship with a small producer in France. I was allowed to do everything on the domaine, except taste. I understood. Sure, I’d been drinking wine for a decade, had changed my life to devote it to the vine, but who the hell was I? I was allowed to assist in the tasting of the wine for the blend. I could measure it out, I could empty the spit buckets, and I could sit quietly in the corner as the owner and his son sipped and realized what geniuses they were.

At my next gig, I worked in the laboratory of a supermarket wine producer. As a lab guy, I did the sampling, set up the tasting, and cleaned up afterwards. There weren’t enough seats for me to taste. I told my boss at the time I thought I ought to be allowed to taste. I’d gone and taken some wine tasting courses, some sensory analysis classes. I’d lived in France and Spain, drinking wine every night. Why not me?

“You’re just some kid from Iowa who doesn’t know dick about shit,” she said, laughing. She’d been the personal assistant (two semesters in a row!) of whatever Davis douchebag had invented the wine flavor wheel. She couldn’t believe that I thought that I ought to taste the wine. “Get back to work,” she said.

That’s pretty much been my experience. Astute students of the phenomenon of winetasting will realize the inherent flaws in keeping the group of winetasters in production panel small. They develop what’s called “cellar palette” and will always prefer the wine with which they work to any other. That’s how it was at those first two place. At the third (where, miraculously, I was allowed to attend the tastings) it was even worse. Every time we tasted everybody but me declared the mysterious wine that tasted like the wine we were working on to be the BEST, obviously, and all the other wines we were trying blind to be a bunch of crap. The owner was there, the winemakers were there, all of whom really didn’t want to hear from me that it tasted like barrels and not wine.

Nowadays, I’m not so intimately involved with wine. Grapes, sure, but the wine, once it leaves the vineyard on the back of a flat-bed, well, we lose contact with one another. Nobody really cares to hear my opinion about the wine made from the grapes I fondle, which over the years, I’ve come to accept. I am just some kid from Iowa who doesn’t know dick about shit. It’s true. I drink wine that I buy, and I keep my opinion mostly to myself.

But, well, that’s not entirely true. I’m still kind of ballsy. I don’t accept the fact that my opinion doesn’t matter. The wines I find myself falling in love with are wines other people love too. Maybe I don’t have a metaphorical tiger striding beside me, but then again, maybe I do. Although everyone for the past 6 years has told me that my opinion doesn’t matter, I have the faith in myself to think that maybe they’re wrong. Yeah, I’d like to taste more wine, and educate myself.

So, I’ve signed myself up for some expensive classes at the Culinary Institute of America. This Thursday and Friday I’m taking a sensory analysis class. In the meantime, my coffee’s gotten cold, my dog has gotten bored, and the rain has stopped falling.

I swear, I’m not at all a religiously observant person, but in my half-assed study of the spirituality of wine, I came across a pretty interesting example of intercultural cross-pollination of wine fables that spans 700 years.

The Midrash are rabbinical commentaries on biblical stories and Talmudic law, the record of debates and inquisitions into the esoterica of the Jewish religion’s beliefs and literature. The Midrash Tanhuma were written beginning as early as the 5th until the 9th centuries. In a commentary on the story of Noah planting a vineyard after having landed his ark, the Rabbis place the dreaded Satan alongside him.

“Once while Noah was hard at work, breaking the ground on a vineyard, Satan drew near and inquired what he was doing, “What are you planting?”

Noah: “A vineyard.”

Satan: “And what may be the qualities of its fruit?”

Noah: “The fruit it bears is sweet, be it dry or moist. It yields wine that gladdens the heart of man.”

Satan: “Let us go into partnership in this business of planting a vineyard.”

Noah: “Agreed.”

Satan thereupon slaughtered a lamb and then in succession a lion, a pig, and a monkey, and fertilized the soil with each in turn. Thus Satan conveyed to Noah the qualities o wine. If a man drinks one glass, he is as meek as a lamb; if he drinks three of four glasses, the he behaves like a monkey, he dances around, sings, talks obscenely and does not know what he is doing; and if he becomes intoxicated, he resembles the pig.”

Much later in 1553, a man named Hans Sachs published a pamphlet in Nuremberg called “The four wondrous properties of wine and their effects.” He was a Meistersinger (considered the best), a poet, playwrite, and most importantly, a shoemaker.

Without a special pass that shows that I’m a real scholar, I’m unable to look at a copy of this book. I’m consoled with a small little translation
of the first paragraph made available by by the University of South Australia:

“One day I asked a doctor to tell me whence derives the power of wine to affect in four different ways whomever it overcomes so that his mood changes. The first he makes peaceful, benevolent, mild and kind. Others he arouses to anger, so that they storm and quarrel and rage. The third he makes crudely childish and shameless, while the fourth is led by the wine to fantasies and follies.

He said, I will tell you. The wise pagans describe how after the Flood had passed, Lord Noah began to plant vines before anything else. But the soil was unfruitful, so old Noah cleverly fertilized it with manure which he took from different animals, namely sheep, bears, pigs, and monkeys. With this he manured his vineyard all over, and when the wine was ready it had acquired the natures of the four animals, properties which it still possesses. Now God made all men of four elements, air, fire, water, and earth, as Philosophy confirms, and according to each man’s nature, so does wine affect him.”

So. Do you see why this is interesting? It’s basically the same story, without Satan, a bear instead of a lion, but basically the same exact story told 600 years later by a non-Jew in a different culture.  These are the little things that I love about wine (besides that it tastes good, gets me drunk, and has a lubricative effect on the undergarments of the fairer sex): that there is an elemental truth to it that forms linkages between languages and cultures.  There is a universality to wine that weaves itself through the history of mankind, and helps to make us humans something special.

I wonder, however, where a young vineyard manager might find himself some prime A, organic-certified monkey manure in Northern California.  I’ll check at Wal-Mart.  I hear they have everything.

Let me explain:

1. Jean Giono

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If I had to choose a beginning for the path I’m on, it would probably begin with me wandering about, fairly lost with what I wanted to do, but sensing that what I was doing wasn’t what I ought to be doing. There I am, an idiot in front of a used book store, and then inside looking through musty old books for something, clues or hints, that might help me to figure out what I might want to do.When I found my first (and to this day favorite) book by Jean Giono, Harvest, I realized that the thing that I’d felt dead inside me could come alive again. As I hungrily devoured everything the guy had written (he was from Provence and lived between the world wars) I found a man expressing the same feelings inside me. In books like “The Joy of Man Desiring,” “The Man Who Planted Trees,” or “The Song of the World,” he wrote often about a denuded, depleted landscapes, farmed out and depopulated. They were places where humanity had become debased, wildflowers no longer grew, and rivers dried. A change would occur, the wind would blow, a mysterious stranger might appear, and people’s actions became motivated by love and a sense of renewal. Probably the easiest and most accessible of his books (and also the most still in print) is “The Man Who Planted Trees,” wherein an old man devotes the last decades of his life to single-handedly reforesting a deforested landscape. Springs reappear. Dry riverbeds fill with water. Flowers bloom again.

You should read it. Now.

2. Banjos

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When I got the chance to work in Provence, Jean Giono’s homeland, I left as soon as I could and never really came back. Before I left, while the French Government had momentarily lost my visa paperwork, I went to the Fiddler’s Picnic, an old-time music festival in my hometown of Iowa City. There, for $100, I bought my first banjo, a lousy old thing, but something I brought with me to France to remember America, where I thought I might not be returning. I kind of taught myself to play, filling the lavender-filled air of Provence with the poorly played tunes of Appalachia. By poorly-played I want you to know that it pretty much led to the breakup of a relationship, that kind of bad. I played it out on the terrace in an apartment in Barcelona, as all the housewives would nightly fling open their windows and bang their pots and pans in protest to the looming war in Iraq.

Later, a few years ago, I bought a banjo off of E Bay. It wasn’t really a banjo, just the stick and the hoop of a banjo once made in the 1880s, but I restored it as best I could and kept teaching myself (rather slowly) the old time music. When I finish this post I’ll take it up and play one of the few songs that I know.

I tell you this because, I want you to understand that I’m pretty devoted to this recreation of something ancient and now lost. I tell you this because I want you to know what a fool I am.

3. Jack London

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I love Jack London. I’ve read nearly every book he’s written. I drink at the London Lodge, just down the street from his old farm. On his old property, now a state park, you can see a 4000 year redwood tree. People go there and ride horses. He had a stone pig farm. He raised and rode horses.

You should read “The Valley of the Moon.” It’s another one of those books about rebirth. There’s a young boxer in Oakland. He’s also a teamster, handling work horse. He meets a girl. They embark on a journey to get the hell out of city life and to find the very best place to live and grow.

They find Sonoma. It was horse and cow country then.

4. Horses

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Farmers were the first archaeologists. Plowing a field you find relics of bygone eras. Often enough, ancient and forgotten civilizations are unearthed by a curious farmer, wondering about the artifacts he finds in a field. My Dad used to find old Indian arrowheads on the Iowa corn farm he grew up on. Me, I find rusted-out horse shoes. On the periphery of vineyards I find old horse-pulled mowers, plows. I work amidst the ruins of a time when farming meant a connection between horses and men.

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Once, I went to Davis for a few days for a viticulture class. I’d like to say I learned a lot, but I’d read the textbooks, the journals, worked in the field for a few years. UC Davis is good for a lot, but what they’re best at is perpetuating themselves, making sure a nation of “winemakers” believe that without the research and deep science that is food science, good wine can’t be made.

The final lecture I suffered was from a lab guy. He’d never made wine, nor grown vines. He gave an hour-long lecture on the importance of soil testing, by UC Davis labs, in order to best understand what chemical fertilizers you ought to be using to grow your grapevines. His final slide was an old photo of a European farmer on a beautiful terraced, hillside vineyard somwhere, plowing the rows of his vine behind a horse. “Hey,” said the lab guy, “I don’t know about you, but between looking at a sheet of numbers and what this guy has gotta look at, I’d rather stay in the lab.” Mild laughter followed. I was looking at the pretty picture, wondering how nice it would be to have that as my vista, to be fertilizing and plowing at the same time without burning fossil fuels, and to get to know the psyche of a horse that well.

Now, I subscribe to the Small Farmer’s Journal, a big beautiful magazine dedicated to horse farming. I read it like a teenager looks at pornography. That is, with awe and longing. I think about taking a seminar and horse farming. I think about it a lot.

5. Biodynamics

This past Friday, I attended a Biodynamic wine event down in the Presidio. It was pretty much a press junket, and the stage was filled with 8 or ten multi millionaires who’ve paid their employees to convert their vineyards into biodynamics. The words were big. The questions were fluffy. The wine tasting wasn’t anything new. The best part was when that Randall Graham guy, the Bonny Doon dude, got into a little argument with that Alan York fellow, the one with all the hair well cared for on the cover of the Wine Spectator. They talked and talked and didn’t say much. I thought about asking the lot of them if any one of them had been on a tractor in the last year, ten years, lifetime. I thought about asking them about the heart of biodynamics, the closed system of diverse farming that requires the use of on-farm animals to generate the fertility and where the diesel came from that fueled their tractors and what maybe Rudolph Steiner might think of the use of Japanese tractors, driven by a Mexican, burning Diesel from the Middle East, or about barrels made in France, and sulfur mined in Texas. I especially wanted to ask the Bonny Doon dude why the photo of his vineyards showed clear usage of Roundup underneath the vines. That shit ain’t biodynamic dude.

It wasn’t the time or the place to have a serious discussion. These were luminaries up there, beatifically extolling the virtues of a philosophy they could afford to market themselves as.

Me, personally, I’d like to have a flock of sheep to mow the vineyard and provide meat and maybe wool. I’d like to keep a couple of small but strong draft horses around to disk the winter’s cover crops in after the sheep come through.I’d like a herd of goats to eat the forest’s underbrush so I don’t get poison ivy or burnt out during the fire season. Mostly I’d like to do it for myself and by myself, on my own and with my own two hands. None of those guys on stage could tell me how to do what I want to do: get ahold of a piece of good farmland and make it work. All those guys had made a killing in the wine trade and paid other people to do the farming for them. They had no interest in doing the pruning, the harvesting themselves. What those guys were best at was speaking, and they spoke well. They had used immigrant labor to build little empires, and who am I anyways? Just some kid who’ll do what they say if the paycheck will cash.

6. Truck

Listen, I need to do this. I need to get this done. I need money. I need to find that land and put in some vines, raise some kids, and farm. So I bought a Toyota pickup truck. A Tundra. It’s cool. I sold the ford escort for $800. I’ve been using a work truck at work still. Mine is for me, for when I work for myself.

7. My pup is named Sancho

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I bought a truck so I bought a dog. A McNab. You won’t be surprised to read that it’s an old breed that’s hard to come by. Originally bred up in Mendocino to be the perfect outdoor ranching dog, they’re good with goats and cows and children and snakes. They’ll hunt pigs and deer.

Mine, just 12 weeks old, why he’s the best goddamn dog I’ve ever seen. Smart enough to be basically house-bred already, he’s been mine now for 4 days, and for the past 3 has been my constant work companion, his head in my lap as I drive around, running beside me in the vineyard checking everything out. He’s asleep now, at my feet, tired from a long day of trying to keep up.

I named him Sancho for two reasons: one, it’s the generic name you use when you speak of the man who’s sleeping with your wife, back in Mexico while you’re at work. You send your check back home to your wife so that Sancho eats well. Now, when I speak of the black Sancho my girlfriend entertains, I’ll think only of my little pup. Two: Sancho Panza was the sidekick of Don Quixote-the original romantic farmboy who ffelt his life to be more important and noble than it actually might have been.

Soon, he’ll be big and strong and tough, but right now, he’s just a pup. With him, with my truck, I’m going to carve a little piece of the world out for me and mine. I will make a wine like it ought to be made, and I’ll live a life the way it ought to be lived. Me and my buddy Sancho, we’re going to restore a sort of something that is being forgotten about, a type of farming that’s personal and direct, a kind of wine that tastes of the soil and the stars, a kind of life that’s good and true.