We are all Caster Semenya

September 15, 2009


Though male, Dionysos was always somewhere in-between the sexes.  He was raised by women and worshipped by women; his religion was suppressed probably because it was run by women.  In the Bacchae by Euripides, Pentheus is told by Bacchus to dress as a woman to learn the secrets of his worship, and it’s likely that the giant dildos his worshippers carried around might have been used by his male worshippers in a practical sense.  Though bearded, he was effeminate, and like a lot of great Greek men, stories were told of his bisexuality.


In a lot of ways, he’s like the grape flower: with both male and female parts.   The grapevine is able to self pollinate, something I’m glad to be incapable of doing.


It reminds me that we are all somewhere in-between. It makes me think of my newest vineyard employee: a transvestite man from Mexico, young and strong and gay with painted fingernails, earrings, a swish in his walk and an ability to outwork any of the macho men with moustaches who joke and laugh but cannot keep up.  Jose Antonio: I like that dude.  I like that he is willing to put up with a few jokes because he is who he is and there isn’t anything anyone can do about it.  He could hide who he is, but he doesn’t, and he doesn’t care what they say, and besides, some of theose moustachioed men probably come knocking on his door late at night, lonely and hungry for his soft embrace. He does good work and sings to himself love songs and I would love to have a whole crew of transvestites, just so long as they’re Mexican and can sing.


When last I wrote on this here blog thing, I had found myself suddenly unemployed, alone in a haunted house, not knowing anyone in Oregon who could tell me where to find a new job.  Within three weeks, with the buds swelling and ready to burst in the vineyard, I’d found myself a good job with a good company run by a smart and knowledgeable man.  I am a vineyard manager again, of over 200 acres of dry-farmed, own-rooted, and sustainably-farmed Pinot Noir, Gris and Blanc in the Willamette Valley of Oregon.  It is beautiful, and I am grateful.

Since then it’s been a flurry of work and of life.  I bought chickens and now eat their eggs.  I planted tomatoes and now eat their fruit.  My dog and I have dispatched two delicious deer.  I have loved and been loved.  The vines awoke, burst forth with green life, and now the fruit hangs heavy in purple and rose, sweetening, ripening, yearning for its seeds to be born aloft in the belly of a bird and deposited beneath an oak tree somewhere good and rich and warm.

Also:  I bought a fiddle, and am learning to play.    I sit on my porch and I imagine myself an old man, drunk and happy and teaching a granddaughter how to play Sally Goodin.

8 years ago, I was in New York City.  I had just moved to that goddamn place to give it a go:  I was in love, trying to be an artist and a writer and a doer of good things.  On the morning of September 11, 2001 I rode my bike from Brooklyn to Manhattan, stopping on the bridge to look at the skyline and contemplate things.


A year later I was picking grapes in France, and now I am entering my eighth grape harvest, having reinvented myself and become a professional in my field.

When the towers fell I made for myself a 15 year plan to buy myself a piece of land to farm wine.  I probably had my boxing gloves with me that day, with a plan to go spend my afternoon fighting people for fun at one of a couple of gyms in Brooklyn or Manhattan.  Things changed after that, and I began to dream of a peaceful life devoted to the art and poetry of making something true like wine for and by myself.

I am alone tonight in a 200 year old rented farmhouse, my faithful pup Sancho asleep at my feet.  I am in-between having a dream and realizing it.   I am going to be 35 soon:  In-between old and young.

We are all in-between something, always and forever and that’s alright.


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.

Shortly thereafter:

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.


Es igual

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.”


March 6, 2008


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.


apple in bloom

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


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.


December 22, 2007

2.jpegLast 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.


and then the fall

November 2, 2007

the final grapes came in on Monday, and I guess that means it’s over. I’d been picking grapes for more than two months, the work pace was always kind of frantic, and there at the end of October, after woking in the cold rain, I fell ill. I still held down two jobs, working in a custom-crush facility at nights, but I was fatigued and thirsty and feverish.

The past few days, though, there’s been a cool, refreshing fog all morning, and each day I get to feeling a bit better. We transitioned immediately after finishing harvest to seeding our cover crops and installing any needed erosion control.

I like seeding cover crops, the mixing of 10 or 20 different grains and legumes and wildflowers into a half-ton picking bin and stirred with a shovel. With two of the woven plastic bags and a bit of string you can make a handy carrying bag, filled again with the seed mixture (which looks like fine birdseed or maybe some sort of nice porridge) it will weigh maybe 50 pounds and can last a month or two.

Didn’t your Jesus say something about the scattering of mustard seeds? I can tell you this: It’s a nice feeling scattering seeds into the soil, by hand. I see the owners of estates leaving early, or late in the day, or not at all from the gigantic homes, and I think about what a fine fine day in the vineyard they’ll be missing out on. The tacos at 10:00, the long break at noon to relax, the nap at 2:00 beneath a tree, what’s not to love? It’s warm enough in the morning, if you wear enough. Cool enough in the hot afternoon sun to make for a non-sweaty day.

When the rains come, the cover crops will grow, a forest of blue flowers and green peas, crimson clovers and yellow mustards. Right now, with the thick morning fog, the dew is thick enough to soak my leather boots and my barely functioning windshield wipers make me drive in the morning seated in the center of the bench, hunched over, and cursing my goddamned work truck.

I carved a pumpkin last night at my Boss’ house, the lot of us assembled and halloweened, drinking many fine Syrahs and enjoying being something, anything other than a sticky farmworker. I wore my only suit and it seemed to everyone to be a pretty exotic wardrobe for me.

The acorns

September 28, 2007

When we talk about the correlation between oak and the vine, we often speak of the use of oak as a barrel, or maybe that its from an oak tree that natural corks come.  The marriage between oak trees and the grapevine has a longer history than that, began before we were on the scene, and continues to in ways that most people don’t understand well.

For instance, one of the major problems in newer vineyards is Armillaria Melea, the oak root fungus otherwise known as the honey mushroom or foxfire.  It’s edible and tastey, but when vineyards are cleared from the wilderness and planted, often oak tree roots persist deep below any ripper can reach.  There, they fester with oak root fungus that then spreads to the young new roots of the newly planted vineyard.  In a place where once an old oak tree grew deeply and was removed, it’s likely that its ghost will haunt forever the vines planted in its stead.  They will be weak, unproductive, and die young before they get a chance at glory.

This year there’s a lot more acorns than normal, and they’re falling earlier and often green.  Most of the conventional old-timey wisdom is that it means it will be an early, wet and cold winter.  A year of heavy acorns is known as a “mast year.”

Today its cloudy and cold, just he 50s so far, overcas with gray cold clouds the block out the sun but don’t yet threaten anything more than a bit of a drizzle. A acorns fall and the clouds thicken, it ems like the conventional old-timey wisdom is going to hold true.

The grape acids are acting topsy turvy this year, as I mentioned in my previous post.  The deer are in rut early this year and acting strange.  I think that its likely this year’s winter is  going to be a nasty and wet mess.

Cab Franc

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.

I woke up and the sky was dark. I was at work as the sky started to lighten. We were picking Cab Franc up in the Mayacamas and the moon, as full as it could be, slowly fell behind the hills.

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.

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.

Equinox, Yom Kippur, Harvest

September 23, 2007

It rained. I told you so. We farmers know these things. We also have the internet, so it makes it easier to predict.


Today is the fall equinox. It seems like always around the equinox, at least since I started to pay attention, the clouds are a bit more swirly, and rain or hail is a lot more likely. The Earth is now balanced upright but the atmosphere is still in flux.

It’s also, or was recently, Yom Kippur. I’m a lousy jew of a jew, and instead of repenting and fasting, spent my Friday practicing the neo-pagan rituals of biodynamics: I unearthed some cow horns full of crushed rose quartz powder and buried some others filled with fresh cow shit. I sprayed a bunch of the shadier blocks of our vineyards with the quartz powder, dynamized into water.

From my recent studies of the ancient roots of the Dionysian religion, much of Jewish law seems as if it were written to prevent its members from participating in the worship of the wine god. For instance, a typical greek sacrifice to Dionysos was to boil a kid (goat that is) in the milk of its mother, something strictly forbidden under Kosher rules. Another injunction was the story of the Egyptian slaves and the worship of the Golden Calf, something intimately linked to the worship of Dionysos. It would seem that I’ve made my choice, wouldn’t it?, between the religion of my mother’s family and the spirituality of my vocation. Although biodynamics isn’t truly rooted in the worship of the wine god, it’s supposed to be some sort of rebirth of sprituality that might mimic or replace what once was practiced by the first civilized farmers for thousands of years.

That being said, there seems to have been some confusion amongst the Greeks as to the origins of the Jewish religion. In Plutach’s Convivial Questions, one of the guests claims to be able to prove that the God of the Jews is really Dionysus Sabazius, the barley god of Thrace and Phyrgia. In Tacitus’ History he writes that “some maintain that the rites of the Jews were founded in honour of Dionysos.”

So, if I were a real academic, instead of a part-time, half-assed one, I might look into the link between the Jewish and Dionysian religions. I’ve read that it’s the ancient city of Obeid that the man later known as Abraham probably left from to found his own religion. There in Obeid, the central religious compoud was formed in the shape of, well, ahem… the female genitalia in all its beauty. Poychrome mosaics found among the ruins show a company of priests at their holy task of milking cows. The figure of Dionysos was probably known better as Tammuz at this time, son of the the Earth mother and a vegetation god of rebirth and death. He had horns. The Earth mother was represented by a cow.


It all gets mixed up in prehistory, and that’s what I love about my profession: what I do and what I think about can be traced back to the foundations of civilization. I might never really figure it all out. But I get to think about it, see how I feel about things, and enact ancient rituals of my choosing when i want.

The grapes aren’t ripening. The flavors are developing but the acidity remains high and the sugars low. the rain won’t help the thinner-skinned varieties’ tendency to develop botyritis. Tomorrow I’m picking 3 tons of Gewurtztraminer in Sonoma. Old vines we tend and tend to neglect a bit, but the fruit is delicious and makes a great wine.