June 11, 2008
I re-planted a fancy vineyard today.
Last night, as I was driving up the hill to see my fiddler friend, I saw a fawn, nursing beneath its mother. They were in the middle of the road, and I scared them dumb as I braked. They looked at me and hopped off. Last night, after the deer and after the fiddling, I stayed up too late, those fiddlers, they do that, they make you talk about your feelings and the air was clear and the Sirius was out, so today I woke up tired and sad, and already kind of defeated.
Planting a vineyard is supposed to be some sort of spiritual endeavor, but it’s grim and hard labor. I guess on one of the mountain vineyards I take care of, before it was a vineyard, before it was some hippy nudist colony, it was a back-to-the-land spiritual cultish thing, where wealthy people seeking something would pay good money to plant a grapevine themselves. What a beautiful con job that was, as good as Tom Sawyer’s whitewashing the fence, because the planting of a vineyard is just a whole lot of sweat and dust and bullshit.
The shovel, at a certain velocity sparks, it flames when it hits a big rock, and if you don’t know how to let go of the shovel at the last minute, you’ll feel the rock lightning down to your spine and into the soles of your feet.
Now, I don’t know how much you know about him, I can’t be sure how in tune you are with the cosmic macho powers of the universe, but listen, nobody is more macho than Julio Cesar Chavez. Nobody. I remember hearing that for one of his biggest fights, maybe the one with Hector “Macho” Camacho, he didn’t really traditionally train or spar or anything, he just dug fencepost holes around his rancho.
He punished “Macho” Camacho, Mr. 41-0 with 18 KOs, that little puto with his fancy assed hair and his clown pants, and went home to his ranch, like it was nothing as hard as a hard day working under the sun like a real man, digging holes in the unforgiving earth.
It was like 4 years ago when I got my first 9 hours of planting a vineyard, of breaking shovels and rocks, and I understood. I take pride in that I get the respect of my coworkers for being a gabaacho who works in the fields as hard as they do. It’s unheard of. They don’t understand. I just tell them that I’m from Iowa, and that we’re different.
The killdeer is in the plover family of birds and is smart and pretty and I just love em. Today, in the face of my crew of 2 tractors and maybe 50 men with shovels and picks, a mated pair of killdeer sang a beautiful warning song and defended their four spotted eggs laid in the bare dust of a recently laid out vineyard.
We taped off the rows and wouldn’t let the tractor through. We warned all the guys, but we had to go close to the nest, you know, we had to work. The two retreated in our presence, singing loud raucous warning songs, beautiful really, and there we were, a bunch of dirty macho cowboys, each of us keeping an eye on all of us, protecting their four, fragile eggs from one another.
I think they made it. I think it’ll be alright. They seemed like they’d be good parents.
I didn’t bring Sancho with me to work this morning. It was maybe 90 degrees in the boring sun, and he doesn’t really care for it when I just have to stand and slowly work all day. He gets bored and he gets hot, and just sits under a tree and looks at me, like, “is this really what you want us to do with our lives? Really?”
So I didn’t bring him to work, and he insisted on a long walk in the woods when I got home, I was all at once thirsty and hungry and smelly and dirty and I still had work to do, but after a quick shower, a cold beer in my pocket, I took him out. As we got to the woods, and I should tell you- it’s an urban woodland, you know, it’s a abnormally low, and once a bit more proud but now polluted and urban creek in the working class part of town. But in the creek, (Sonoma Creek), strangely, and I wouldn’t have believed it had I not seen it, I saw that a lone salmon had made it all the way up the creek from the bay and expired here, a few blocks from my house. Had it made it? Did it find another and spawn? I guess I wish I was a bit more optimistic. The scene made me sad deep down, you know? Like even though I braked so as not to not kill the doe and the fawn, even though I made sure nobody fucked with the killdeer eggs, I didn’t really do enough. The salmon are leaving the earth, you know? And I love the taste of lox. I love my spicy salmon sushi rolls. The whole thing was really kind of my fault.
Also, the deer, the killdeer, and the salmon, they all kind of looked at me accusingly, like my coworkers do when we talk about having kids, seeming to ask me why I’m fucking around, why not just leave it in one night and make some kids? I don’t even know what to say anymore.
Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was a beautiful, 17 year old , migrant, and pregnant vineyard worker, who died last month before her boyfriend could give her the gold ring he’d saved up for. They were both from a small little village in Oaxaca. Their manager wouldn’t give them enough time to go and get water on a day that was 95 degrees out. She died in the dust, in her boyfriend’s arms in a vineyard in California.
It was a Wednesday.
April 10, 2008
I’m just some kid from Iowa whose boots are tied together with wire and whose dog got into rat poison yesterday.
But tonight, for your pleasure, I’m speaking at the Berkeley Ecology Center regarding the Light Brown Apple Moth.
It’s a rare ovcasion when somebody asks my opinion.
My life’s been a little turbulent the last few weeks, unravelling faster than I can weave, and so I really didn’t prepare anything to say. I’m thinking of titling my little lecture,
“LBAM: Not that big of a deal,” or:
“California: is a bunch of bullshit”
I don’t even know how these Berkeleyites got ahold of my name. I’m actually nervous. I won’t have time to clean myself up, and I’m dirty and need a shave and smell as I am: a slightly hungover, stressed-out, kind-of-broke, bachelor farmer who sweated a lot today. My ears are somewhat hairy.
One of my Mexican mentors at work gave me some good advice today. He asked, “y te pones nervioso cuando lo vas a meter?” (Do you get nervous before you stick it in?)
“Pues, es igual.”
November 15, 2007
Let me explain:
1. Jean Giono
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
October 19, 2007
When Dionysos was officially welcomed into the Olympic Pantheon in the 6th Century BC, he and his ithyphallic (giant cocked) followers, the Sileni, quickly became the most common and popular of themes painted onto household vases. The frank sexuality of wine and satirical (satyrical) plays would be considered pornographic in today’s Christian society, but as late of 691 AD, over 300 years after the pogroms that officially ended paganism, wine was still made by mad men, naked but for their Satyr and Sileni masks, crying out to Dionysos as they tread the grapes as women danced around them.
It was that year, at the Second Council of Constantinople that it was forbidden to cry the name of the wine God Dionysos Iakhos, or Bacchus while treading grapes, and that when wine were poured into casks, nobody should provoke laughter by actions which bear the imprint of lies and madness. It was forbidden to dress as the opposite sex. Women’s public dancing was banned. Women dancing in public was considered by the celibate rulers of the church to be the root of all evil. Should anyone be caught transgressing, they would be officially excommunicated from all society.
Ever since then, ever since the end of the pagan age, a puritan wind has blown over everything, and everything once considered Dionysian, except for wine, is now considered evil. But wine needs a raw sexuality, a certain measure of vulgarity surrounding its upbringing in order to fully flower, a little bit of the horned god, you know? It’s important for you to realize that under optimum conditions, the wine that you drink is still made by salty men of the earth, and in mostly Spanish, but also ancient Mayan dialects and a bit of English too, men sing and curse at the top of their lungs.
A report from the vineyards, harvest 2007: The men respond favorably to two newly learned swear words in English: “Dingleberry” as in, “You are a Dingleberry,” and “Douchebag” as in, “You are a Douchebag”.
They also respond favorably to my teaching the new intern learning to say “Sacate los pedos, buey,” meaning “suck the farts out my ass, buey”
A note: A buey is a castrated bull, a steer. A buey can be a term of affection, but said to a stranger, can lead to fisticuffs. Buey is pronouned only softly pronouncing the “b” often sounding more like “Way”.
September 28, 2007
I think that Cab Franc can be every bit as interesting and powerful as Cab Sauv, it just requires a little better foreknowledge of the terroir in which its being planted.
We were still picking as the sun peaked over on the other side. If you can get away from the tractor and the yelling, you can hear the birds wake up and start to sing, but at work, sticky and sweaty, all you hear is:
“Bandeja Bandeja,” and “Aguas ! Aguas!” and “No pinche hojas senores!” and a few gay jokes thrown in. El macho burro apparently really likes big vergotes, big black ones, like this big, greased up. big. It gets so old it’s funny.
up on top, where it’s maybe 5 degrees warmer at night, the fruit was uniformly dimpled, the pulp brown, and the flavors intense. Sweet and with still enough of an acid bite to awaken my heartburn.
Around 9:00 the guys are yelling something different and yelling and I get bitten by a wasp and then another one. They’re everywhere, biting. I yell to forget that section of grapes and run and we do, leaving the grapes for the wasps and swatting the wasps off of each other and laughing in pain. I dash off on my ATV for advils and antihistamines and by the time I”m back, they’re done with the top section, ready for a quick break, and ready to start below.
If they’d have asked me, I could have told them the block of cab franc down a few hundred feet below, wasn’t as ripe. I told them we were moving down and they gave the thumbs up, but they hadn’t checked out the fruit. We started to pick and the first trailer went down. The fruit was sweet but the flavors undeveloped. Some of the berries showed red below the skin, and there were more shot, green berries. Also, absolutely no dimples. By the time the second was full I got a frantic call to stop picking. Then to fill the trailers that we had. The tank could only hold so much, and the fruit was, well, wait there dude, i want to check it out.
4 hours of picking and we’re done. We’ll wait until monday, let’s see what the weather might bring.
I rushed off to sample some more vineyards, huffing up and down rocky slopes to bring them to the lab and process them before my boss had a meeting with a winemaker. The numbers were weird and I checked and rechecked the pHs, but they stayed low. It’s weird. This year in a few places, and maybe its the sampling and maybe its the equipment, the acidity has risen as the sugars have risen. That doesn’t happen. It isn’t done.
I phoned in the numbers and organized. I have to get my vine mealybug traps in by tomorrow and so I drove up to Lovall valley and swapped some out. By then, and hour later, I get a call from the winemaker, asking how I got the pHs, if I know how to use a pH machine, his voice full of doubt.
I wasn’t surprised. Just tired and sticky. I had some more work to do. I showered and cleaned and drank beer.
I’ve got poison oak below the belt line, a bad tan line, and this daily grape juice and dirt facial mask isn’t doing wonders for my post-pubescent acne. I’ve got 5 wasp bites, a week-old beard, and thistle-thorn scars on my ass. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.