April 17, 2009
Out here in the country, every few weeks around 3:00 in the morning, the coyotes come around and howl from the forest line, singing out their hunger. My dog, who might be part coyote, goes crazy, running in circles and barking at all the windows. For a while, I thought it was that he might be like Buck in the Call of the Wild, and maybe just wanted get in touch with his inner beast, maybe get himself some sexy coyote tail. But that’s just romanticizing things, I suppose. Really, he wants to drive them away, because their songs are a reminder that the world is vicious and mean and if you’re weak, you’re food, and then you’re shit, and then you’re nothing.
I should have listened to the songs. The ancient Greeks called the foretelling of events in the flights of birds orinthomancy, and I believe we can see important warning signs in the workings of nature. Like, the smoke from all those forest fires last summer in California that turned the sky green and the noonday sun blood red: those signs that made my coworkers make the sign of the cross and mutter about el apocolypto: those signs made me take a vacation to the green hills of Oregon that led to my eventual transplant here. I drove north and introduced myself to various tasting rooms. I met good people and was offered a job as the Production Manager at an historic vineyard and winery, whose wines are delicious, whose vines are ungrafted and tended to organically, with care and concern. They are good people and I moved here as soon as I could, arriving just ahead of the worst snowstorm in 40 years. They took me out to dinner on Christmas Eve, had me over for their annual New Year’s party.
I should have paid attention to the signs. The snow, the coyotes: I should have saved more. I would listen to NPR and hear news about unemployment figures, about the tanking of the economy and I would feel comfortable and smug, knowing that I had a good job, was paid well-enough. I got to work before anybody and stayed longer than everybody, usually, and I don’t know a lot about the world, but I always figured that you work hard and do good work, you’re safe, right? I threw myself into my work, ignored the signs, and calmed down my dog when the coyotes sang. I made plans to buy sheep, for crissakes.
This morning, lying down with a cup of hot coffee, getting ready for another day unemployed and frustrated, my dog, bored and wanting to go to the vineyard and kill gophers and deer, crawled up and went to sit on my chest and insist that we leave. Instead, the little fucker sat square down onto my mug of hot coffee and scalded his hairy dog asshole, jumping up, getting coffee everywhere, scared and upset and confused as to why I’d treat him so raw.
I knew exactly how he felt. That’s how it was to learn after a long week of working hard and well that the economy being what it is, which is crap, those projects for which I was brought on aren’t going to be done, and that I’d quit a good job and moved my ass to where I knew nobody for a job that was effectively over, thanks.
Life, I suppose, will turn around: there’s horsetail pushing up again in the ditches that had been sprayed with herbicides, and the cherry trees are in blossom. The vines will wake up again and need somebody like me: a guy who knows how to sing to and tickle a grapevine so that the grapes blush deep with promise and love.
My dog keeps licking his ass, whining, and I understand. In a way, by writing about my layoff, I guess I’m licking my wounds as well. I’m just scalded a little bit.
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.”
January 29, 2008
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.
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
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
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.
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?
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.
January 14, 2008
When it rains, the mountains come alive with mushrooms, insistently pushing themselves through the soil and leaflitter to reach for the moon. A few of those wild devils are sauteeing in butter right now, chanterelles destined to accompany a grassfed ribeye and a bit of squash roasting in the oven. A bit of red wine, a syrah from Napa’s hidden gem Lovall Valley; I’m drinking from a coffee cup. Me and my dog, we’re alone and watching 60 minutes.
The rain last week brought wind. Crazy wind. Wind so strong that my ladyfriend’s houseboat tilted so violently that the glass dishes flew across the room, wine bottles and olive oil exploding and mixing on the floor. So strong was the wind and the waves that we nearly capsized, and ocean water poured through the front door, and we were close to losing everything she owned. We yelled for help, holding the boat between the dock with the strength of our backs. Help arrived quickly (she’s got a good neighborhood, really) and we ripped open the floor, opened the windows, and started bucketing water from the hull.
I stayed outside, holding a wedge betweed the dock and the rotten, splintering frame of the door, moving up and down in the wind and the waves, soaked to the bone. It was just some 4 or 5 hours of emergency and then, calm. Vietnamese coffee, a strong joint amongst friends, a rice ball filled with fish and it was over, and we’d survived. My dog Sancho had hidden himself in a corner and was safe though scared, and my girl Rose was shaken up a bit, dismayed that she’d nearly lost all she owned, but we were together, alive in a boat with no more electricity, no more sewage line, and nothing but rain and wind outside.
We were alive but good people had died. A close friend of hers named Forrest is being buried as my squash roasts, swept from his tugboat on a rescue operation near the Golden Gate. An uncle died a few days later, falling into the water while checking out his boat.
We were alive though, and before the sun set that night, we bought a nice bottle of wine that, though we were kind of warm and cuddled up in bed that night, the boat still a chaos of broken glass and upended bookshelves, the wine kind of tasted flat. I’d thought, having survived and all, it would taste better, like a kind of victory, but it just, I don’t know, it had an acidity and tasted like wine, it had that classic cherry flaovor of Tempranillo, I dunno, it tasted kind of hollow.
So, tonight I’m drinking Syrah and cooking, waiting for my girl to get home up here in Sonoma. It tastes better tonight, wine. The horizon’s not moving, the wind can’t blow my shack down, and the dog sleeps restfully in his kennel. I’m drinking for Forrest, some guy I don’t think I ever met but my girl insists was a great fellow, a good guy, and her coffee-in-the-morning-before-work buddy. Here’s to him and here’s to Fitz, her kind-of-uncle, a best friend of her father’s who died in the ocean like Forrest, a grandfather with a great white moustache and a cane. We smoked a nice big joint the one time we met. His wife went to my mom’s high school. He was in AA, but I’m still drinking for him tonight. I went to his funeral on Friday, ate sandwiches at his house with his kids. Now, it’s just me and my dog, drinking for him. I’ve learned that wine tastes better a week after a near-death adventure at sea. The Egyptians buried their pharoahs with jars of wine, wine that would evaporate and never be drunk and they were wrong, those goddamn fools. Wine is for the living. Wine is for the here and the now and for those of us who remain, a bit more alone, in this world of ours.
December 22, 2007
Last week, dawn was cold and rosy-fingered on the horizon, the skies clear and Perseus still lingering in the sky as we started pruning up in the Mayacamas. Tomorrow will be the winter solstice, the sun in its southern-most arc of the sky and the shortest of the days. It will correspond with a lunar perigee, at a time when Mars is just days from reaching its closest proximity with the Earth. I’m not sure what it all means. I heard we’re supposed to have nice weather.
It’s pruning season. I like to prune. It is the most difficult and exacting of vineyard operations. It takes years of hands-on work in the vineyards to become truly adept as a pruner. It is also the most fundamental, most important activity or the growing and making of quality wines. I’ll be honest: I’m not the best. Possibly the slowest. Most easily distracted and confused, I have the least amount of hands-on vineyard work of anyone out there pruning for my company. I work with plenty of guys with great, gray moustaches (bigotones) who do this shit with jedi-like abilities, taking into account:
1. The general architecture of the vine
2. The general vigor of the plant
3. The variety
4. Sun exposure
5. Predominant winds
6. The vigor of each individual shoot, based on diameter and length between nodes
7. Risk of exposure to winter-season fungal agents such as Eutypa
8. Evidence of viral infection
9. Future exposure to growing-season fungus like Mildew and Botyritis
10. The trellis system
11. Desired crop-load
12. Previous year’s crop
13. Age of the vine
14. Overall beauty of the vine
15. General disposition of the vine
16. If the winemaker in charge actually knows anything, and
17. Whether or not he comes to the vineyard.
All these considerations and probably more I can’t right now think of need to be weighed in a moment’s notice, without any real thought, because when you slow down to think, that’s when you really mess up, do stupid-ass shit.
But, as it is, I’ve got two weeks off. I plan on hiking in the mountains with my dog, kayaking in the bay with my ladyfriend, and drinking perhaps much too much wine.
December 11, 2007
Last night I drank a 2005 Rosso Di Montalcino, by Claudia Ferrero, which I think was probably Sangiovese, because if it was Brunello, well, it would have cost more than the $17 I paid. It was nice, good even, with a nosefull of chocolate and cherry and leather. I was in the mood for a nice, big wine and whoever Claudia is, she came through.
And so what if I drank it myself?
Who are you to judge?
Listen, my headache this morning was my problem, and not yours. The wine was good, okay? I dealt with my headache like a big boy, after two cups of coffee and a hot shower I was alright. At 6:30 when we left, it was cold, with frost on the windshield and a white dusting in the grass. Up in the mountains, it was our last day of the olive harvest, and dawn had just begun when we began working.
Once it warmed up, it was a beautiful day. I didn’t have to be in charge of a bunch of dudes, but just work with them, just picking olives out of the trees on a lovely, sunny day by a mountain pond. With my dog jumping around the hemmed lavender bushes and back to me, and the natural smell of a fresh olive in a tree, it was a nice aroma-therapeutic sojourn. I read a bit at lunch, napped with my dog at 2:00, and finished off the day in a good mood.