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.
November 15, 2008
(This video is only partially ironic)
So, I stopped writing on this site for a while. It’s just that I’ve been so very thirsty. I’ve written about this before, and I don’t mean to complain, but I found myself uninspired by the work I was doing. The months slipped past and never once did I get a chance to try a sip of wine from the grapes that I’d grown. I would work with vines and try to help them to grow well and balanced, but what become of their fruit was a frustrating mystery to me. I might as well have been growing fucking sugar beets.
I had decided for a few reasons that I wanted to change things, to leave where I lived or to find a new job or something. Even thirsty, it’s not that I didn’t enjoy the work, it’s more that I didn’t like everything a guy’s got to put up with in order to do the work.
I think I’ll be able to put my finger on it after I’ve gone, but there’s something toxic in the air here in big-money California wine valleys. Maybe it’s that many of the fortunes behind the castles along Highway 12 or the Silverado trail were so newly minted or maybe not acquired by fully legal means. Or perhaps it’s that wine itself, as a perceived status symbol, attracts those sorts of people who value the price of an object more than anything. I think also that there’s a huge separation of wealth between the classes, and that the chasm allows for a certain abuse. I also think that there’s an unhealed injury on the collective psyche of the American soul, and that for various reasons, it expresses itself in California in ways I don’t really appreciate.
I could be wrong, I don’t know, but whatever it is, it just seems like I’ve had to put up with a whole lot of assholes ever since I moved here. I feel like a lot of the times people wouldn’t be speaking directly to me, but using a conversation with me as a vehicle to exorcise some demon, or to redirect an abuse that they’d suffered beforehand. I feel like a lot of the people I’ve worked with over the years used the workplace as a place to do act out an operatic, deeply emotional theatre. I just wanted to work and learn and get along, but I found myself deeply enmeshed in the personal problems and mental health issues of my coworkers.
In the meantime, I stuck to myself and when I got the chance, drove with my dog and my tent northwards, towards Oregon, where I’d heard the hills stay green, the vines grow happily, and the state parks allow dogs. Also, did you know there’s no sales tax and you’re not allowed to pump your own gas? It’s crazy!
Cedar burns aromatically in a campfire, like incense.
I knocked on winery doors and had a taste. I talked to people, asked around, and just wanted to see what it was like up there. I liked it. The air was cooler. I was lucky. The very winery I was most interested in had been looking for an assistant winemaker type person or a year or more without luck. It turned out that the owners and winemakers were a very nice family, well-read and polite, and they’d love to have me back up again for a few days to see if we got along.
I went back to Caliornia and finished the grape harvest, harvesting grapes I didn’t spend a lot of time growing, while the grapes that I had were harvested by somebody else. I worked a bit in a winery, but because the fruit came in maybe 40% lighter this year, they didn’t much need a part time afternoon kind of guy. I finished the certification process for 100 acres of biodynamic grapes, a 3 year process that I’d started and have now finished, my horns well-buried, my pixie-dust dusted. I went back up to Oregon and found out that it was true, we liked each other quite a bit and found working together and enjoyable way to spend some time. It didn’t seem like they were the sorts of people to act out a psychodrama at work. I liked the town, the people, and the cool feel and damp taste to the air. The leaves were turning orange and red. The bookstores and brew pubs seemed like home.
I took the job and went back to California and gave my 2 week notice the day after Obama got elected. I’ll be a production manager/assistant winemaker/vineyard person at a wonderful place with a long history, older vines, and oh yeah, I forgot, great wine, amazing wine, wine that they open for you and graciously ask you what you think.
Now, my last day is next Tuesday and afterwards I’ve got three weeks to pack and move my life. I’ll be starting all over up in Oregon, not knowing a soul but for my dog, and a family that’s not mine.
But have you looked at the cost of land in Oregon? It’s not so bad, really. It’s nowhere near as unrealistic as California. It makes a young farm lad believe that maybe by determination and the strength of his back he might someday win a piece of land he could call his own.
I spent last weekend at a sheep school.
I heard that there’s a whole of people who play music I like in Portland.
Listen, the monsters and dragons I’ve had to deal with weren’t so mighty, really. It hasn’t been anything I couldn’t cope with. I’m not much for faith in the almighty, nor in an eternal life, but I do think that if you go looking and striving to find a way back to the Shire, you’ll find it, somehow.
I’m still in love with the farm I don’t own and haven’t seen. I think that I might be coming closer to it by moving up north where the rain falls.
May 23, 2008
I must apologize, I’m deeply sorry. I’ve been really busy growing a beard, eating tacos, and nursing a bruised-up heart following a rather depressing breakup. I was sick for a while. There was a major frost. Then it was unbearably hot. I kept working, cold or hot, shivering or sweating, bummed out and lost in my own little world. The grapes kept growing and now, you should know, the whole world smells lovely as the grapevine flowers open up. It’s my favorite time of the year, at least in terms of smells, since all the vineyards are bathed in a heady aroma of springtime loveliness.
There was a point in my little depression where I hit the nadir. Sick, I’d lost my voice and had a fever for a week. I lost what little weight I’d spent a few years in the gym to gain. My birthday came around and I spent it alone, after working 12 hours in 105 degree weather. But then, I dunno, I got bored with feeling blue and a song welled up in my chest. Hank Williams, you drunk fucker, you popped out of nowhere one day while I was checking petioles or spraying some biodynamic bullshit, and there I was, singing about heartbreak at the top of my lungs, echoing off the walls of the mountains around me. Sure, I can’t really sing well, but it doesn’t matter. A grapevine requires song.
Many people with advanced viticultural degrees will have a lot of things one should do in order to grow good grapes. Things like deficit irrigation, or advanced canopy management, or limiting crop load. Hey, I won’t disagree. But I think that probably more important than any of those things, at least in terms of creating a truly sublime wine full of life-force and I dunno, truth, is that the grapevines need to be sung to by those who work with them.
Most of the guys I work with, in fact pretty much all of them, came here to California from Mexico. They’re macho cowboys who miss their women and children back home, and will often burst into song like a bird. A bird with a moustache. They carry little transistor radios with them to listen to their corridos and accordion-heavy love songs. For the first few years, I couldn’t stand the music, but as my ability to understand the words grew, I came to love the music. I mean, who the hell else can sing a happy song about suffering, about begging a lost lover on your knees to take you back.
This is the music that is played to the vines as they’re planted, as they’re care for, and as their fruit becomes wine. This is the music that’s infused into the wine that you drink . Songs of heartache and longing, of being an unloved migrant far from home, far from family. But a vine needs a song, and I’ll tell you why:
A little ancient history:
Some 220 million years ago, there were no flowers. There were no birds. There was no song. And then, a meteor struck the Earth.
Dinosaurs became birds, and:
plants learned to flower.
Plants began to seduce animals with aroma and fruit to propogate and evolve their species. Animals began to take to the air, migrating along with the seasons, singing songs of heartache and longing.
Within a short time, maybe just 100 million years, flowering plants ruled the earth, and the grapevine that we treasure had become widespread around the globe. Besides the meteor, the triumph of the grapevine was mediated by the power of song. Without those songs of heartbreak and longing, a grapevine won’t fully ripen its grapes, and you, the consumer in wherever you are –let’s say its New York– won’t have that sublime experience that you’re looking for. Your meal very much depends upon the willingness and desire of grown and macho men to burst into song like a bird. Keep that in mind. If the wine tastes good, it’s because a grown man with a heavy heart lightened his load by singing a happy song about loneliness and heartache.
As a vineyard manager, I take this responsibility as seriously as any other. I understand that if a man doesn’t have a song in his heart about to burst out, he won’t do the quality work that is needed to produce a quality wine. One of the guys I work with, his name is Albino, he was a professional mariachi back home. He played the Tololoche, a bass, and he’ll sing at least once a day. He’s a total badass.
And now, if you’ll forgive me, I’ve got beer to drink and tacos to eat. There’s a banjo within reach that needs playing. There’s songs to sing. Enjoy the wine, you assholes: those complex flavors you’re tasting: they cost me a rather lovely girlfriend.
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.
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 13, 2007
Nothing better informs me of my place in society than by going to the laundromat.
Here, with the other bachelor vineyard workers during a day of rest in the rains,
here, the wives and mothers of past and future vineyard workers,
and some fucking hippy eating broccoli,
here is where I sit, my pay turned to coin,
the coin turned to soap and water, washing away the:
(blood of the harvest) + (mountain soil) + (my sweat) = 2 times through the washer in order to get clean.
a twenty + 3 hours of my life.
the fluorescent lights,
the guy eating broccoli: they all make me need to leave and go walk outside. It’s stopped raining and the sulight is silver in the puddles.
This neigborhood, you have to cross the street and all of sudden there’s sidewalks, the roads are well-maintained. All of sudden you’ve stepped into big S Sonoma, the real town, the better side of the tracks. I like the other side, the working-class neighborhood. I like the spiderwebbed asphalt roads, the well-painted houses and tiny little yards of working people who’ve clung onto their homes.
In my neighborhood, across the highway, farther away from representative city government, there’s no mail service, but more chickens in the backyards.
It’s going to rain again next week. We’ve had a few inches. The fruit: it’s going to start falling apart in a week, the vineyard’s going to be muddy, a mess, and men will fall, trailers will slide, and then it will be all over, and time for a rest.
September 20, 2007
I was born and raised in Iowa. I wanted to be an astronaut, a diplomat, and a ninja. I wanted to travel and see the world. In Iowa, there aren’t too many ways to make money when you’re 13 or 14 except detassling corn, a horrible, itchy job that’s a very good way to introduce horrible pesticides into your bloodstream for 12 hours a day all summer. Still, for some weird reason, I loved it. Later that second season, I got just a regular job working for a nice farmer for the summer, and it was awesome. The smell of hay and rain still makes me think of sleeping through the thunderstorms in his barn.
In high school I worked as a bagel baker, and my best buddy and I would liberate bottles of his dad’s french wine to chug in the park while we talked about how we never got laid.
All the money I’d made detassling and baking I put towards a trip through Europe when I finished high school. I ran with the bulls in Pamplona, learned to roll a joint all Euro-trashy, fell in love, and started to notice that some wines I liked (Rioja) and some I didn’t like (wine from a box mixed with Coca-cola). I found a cool place in Spain called San Sebastian and returned for a year of college. I studied European history and Basque cuisine. It was great. I drank a lot of wine, and back then, in the Early nineties, 4 bucks would buy amazing and strong red wines that tasted good. I hung out and felt cool, but looking back, must have been a total idiot.
I spent a summer working on a Kibbutz in Israel. I picked bananas, avocados, and trimmed roses. We were shelled by the Hezbollah but it wasn’t any big deal. I had a nice girlfriend.
I returned to Iowa, gardened and ran marathons and eventually finished college. I thought I had it figured out, until I had to decide what to do with my life. I figured I’d either be a famous painter or a famous novelist. One or the other, maybe both. It really didn’t matter. I’d buy a small farm and grow my own food. So, illogically, I became a paramedic but found I had a very low threshold for sick people, so I traveled in Southeast Asia for awhile with some friends and then moved with one of them to Boston, where I devoted myself to a life of poverty and depression. I did pretty well. I also started training as a kickboxer, and in a couple of years won a national title.
In Boston I’d been a bicycle courier, but fighting and riding through traffic with no health insurance wasn’t the wisest of things to do. I remember once a cute girl i worked with asked me what i wanted to do with my life and I thought for a while, and all I could think about was being a farmer. It was something I’d been fantasizing about my whole life, but growing up in the midst of the farm crisis in the 80s, raised by a former farmer who’d quit to go to college and see the world, I’d never been encouraged. You know how memory and smell are linked? When I actually said out loud what I really wanted to do, I could smell the hay and the rain, the rich soil outside and the damp wood of the old red barn.
“what are you doing here?” she asked.
“Uh.” I said.
Later on, I got an office job, one of those cubicle deals, and I drank a lot of coffee and smoked a lot of grass and wrote what I figured was the world’s greatest novel. It proved unpublishable. I fell for a Spanish girl and moved with her to New York. I worked at a non-profit and fought poverty with poverty. I boxed and kickboxed but was still angry, and was missing something. I still wanted to be a farmer and was moving farther and farther from my goal.
Then, one of those pesky terrorist planes almost hit me. I got mugged, shot at, broken into, and exposed to anthrax. Fuck that shit. We moved to the South of France and picked grapes. I was back farming, and I’d never really been a wine guy, but an illiterate and poorly-toothed french field worker explained it to me: “Wine tastes good and it helps women out of their underwear.” A noble profession. And it was farming. I was in love. With an old tractor. With being outside again. With the soil. With wine.
After the harvest, my then-girl and I parted ways (not amicably) with the owners of the domaine that had truly enjoyed the free slave labor. We moved to Barcelona and I went to INCAVI, the National Institute of Cava and Wines for 6 months. I finished a diploma. I decided I couldn’t go into any more credit card debt and did what a lot of people do: I moved back in with my parents. I worked 60 hours a week and bought a purple ford escort station wagon and drove to California in time to get hired on in a winery. It was okay, lab work for one of those big super market priced wineries with a critter on the label.
I got single again and after a year of making $7.99 zinfandel got a job at a smaller winery. It was cool for a while, but I spent most of the time wanting to punch my boss, so I left for the vocation I have now, managing organic vineyards all around Sonoma and Napa. I’d been reading a lot, tasting a lot, studying everything and everywhere I could, and I knew, like a lot of people do, that great wine is grown and not made. It was my dream job, and still is.
In my first couple of years I was in way over my head, but since I spoke Spanish, I just learned everything I could from the guys who knew best, the Mexican guys who I worked with, ate with, and slept under trees with on our lunch hours. Now, I’m still here, doing what I do: farming grapes for other people, watching the sun rise and the sun set from the tippy-tops of mountains.
I am a very firm believer in organics. This comes from growing up in Iowa, seeing the devastation that military/industrial farming has had on America. I’m lucky to have found an all-organic vineyard management company with 600 acres of prime vineyards for me to play with and learn from. I’m a dedicated servant of the vine, an amateur scholar of all things wine-related, and a happy farmer just getting by.
Cheers! It rained today, but now the sun is out.