Abloom

March 6, 2008

Lupine

Earlier this week, the lupine began to grow.  Lupine is my favorite wildflower.  It is a beautiful blue herald of the spring.  A legume, it pulls nitrogen from the air and fixes it in the soil.  With an incredibly vigorous taproot, it drills down into the soil like mustard, piercing heavy clay or compacted soils.  Even Columella wrote that nothing helps an unvigorous vineyard so much as the planting lupine as a cover crop.   We don’t do that so much, it grows wild and the seeds (which are edible, though not appetizing) are expensive.  I’d like to, I would love to have a vineyard about to erupt in pale green growth glowing blue with the florescence of lupine, but, alas, nobody i know is willing to spend the $8 a pound for seed.  Silly, I say.  Stupid, even.  But, ah, what can I do?  I just sing my song to nobody and everybody at once on the internet in the hopes of seducing somebody somewhere to listen to the ancients and sow lupine in the vineyard.  Also, it smells deliciously of pez candy.

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apple in bloom

The apple trees have begun to bloom in the higher orchards.

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And in the warmer pinot vineyards, bud break has begun.  That’s right, the pinot has awoken and though the frost might hit again, or the rain might bring mildew, pinot continues to insistently awake before the world is ready.

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.

Zinfandel harvest

September 27, 2007

Aw shit, I wish you could have seen the stars this morning at 5:30, the sky clear and black. I wish you could have seen the big yellow moon, full and setting as the sun started to peak, sinking below the coastal mountains. We were picking zinfandel, just a couple of blocks, maybe 2 tons. We started at 6:30 and were done by 8:10.

Afterwards and elsewhere, up in those mountains the moon disappeared into, we had some fruit to drop. Parts weren’t thinned well, and it was overcropped. The shoulders of the syrah weren’t fully trimmed, and as they mature differently, and too much crop means a delayed and lessened ripening of the grapes, it was important to bring a crew through. Elsewhere, maybe becaase we use only gentle, organic milder control methods, or maybe because the areas are just a bit more humid and cool, mildew had spread to the peduncle of the grapes, a grey furry growth that smells of white pepper and inhibits ripening by choking the flow of sap.

And also, well, if you have to know, when the moon is full and when the moon is on its elliptical orbit closer to the earth, there’s a greater humidity in the air. Also, it was a lot cooler there last week. Also, talking to the guys who’ve been around for a while, the sections of mildew growth always have mildew problems around now. So, whatever the cause, we walked through the problem areas dropping fruit.

It’s sad to see fruit not yet ripe but black and juicy looking, lying like a dead person on the ground. It’s a hard thing to do after spending the morning energetically putting as many grapes into bins and counting the money you’re making. Instead, we had to shift to counting the money we’d be losing. It makes you kind of queasy, you know?

And then, well, it was hot out, and i was tired. The sun was hot this afternoon. Maybe low 90s.  And then it was the end of the day. I went home and cleaned.