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.
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.
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.
February 28, 2008
Spring is here, you can feel it in the warmth of the sun after the rains, and everything is aflower: the fruit trees, the acacias, everything smells swollen and fertile. The wildflowers are beginning to glow, the fertile sap of rebirth is coursing, and did you see that goddamn lunar eclipse last Thursday? A full moon, in eclipse, glowing orange on a warm night at the end of February.
The rains quickly followed, I think the final big storm of the season; we’ve had enough, thanks. The little buds on the vine are starting to swell, and did you know Columella used the word “genitali” when speaking of the buds? I like that word better, really, to think of the delicate little buds as the moist little genitals of the vine. They are kind of furry. They’re so fragile now, and while pruning and training the vine to the trellis, it’s easy to knock them off and ruin everything.
The rains ended and it all dried out. We’re pruning still. It’s getting late, I know, but really, the danger of the spring frosts hasn’t yet passed, and though beginning to swell, the genitali haven’t yet burst with growth. Another few weeks of dormancy are left, maybe less. Each little genitali is still aslumber, dreaming of growth and sunlight and growing, dreaming of a primordial forest and a stout oak to grow up.
We came up with our own recipe for a biodynamic pruning wound paste. In includes benotonite and horsetail, and on each of the pruning wounds we paint a thin layer of white goopy goo to prevent eutypa infection.
I’m a little worried about the redwing blackbird. I just haven’t seen that many this year. and I wonder why, if they’re alright, or I’m just not tuned into their call as much as I used to be. They’re one of those birds common both from my childhood in Iowa and out here in California. In a way, I think of the redwing as a bird which accompanied me out here, and maybe there’s just some redwing blackbird party somewhere else and they’re all getting laid or something. That’s probably it. No need to worry.
Tonight I am drinking a bit of applejack, in honor of john chapman, a true American Dionysos, and my dog is asleep at my feet. Tomorrow the sun will rise again and we’ll be deep in the mustard fields of slumbering grapevines whose genitali are just beginning to stir.
January 4, 2008
For the past week and a half or so, without much else to do, I’ve been kayaking out in the San Francisco bay with the seals and the crazy seabirds, the loons and those pelicans. Because I had the time to do that, I was paying a lot more attention to the feel of the tides. It’s true, they’re a lot higher and a lot lower when the moon is full. I’ve been sleeping out on the water in a houseboat part-time for the past year or so, but over the christmas holidays, when the full moon and the perigee coincided, the parking lot of the dock was flooded. You learn to study the tide charts but more importantly just to look up at the moon to know if you’ll need your rubber boots.
There’s this old book I can’t find translated into English. Written originally in the thirteenth or fourteenth century by Pietro Crescenzi, or Petrus Crescentius. A section that I’ve found is seductively called “Winemaking and the Moon,” and for a geek like me, it’s like I heard about a book that may or may not teach you jedi skills, you know? A magic book. I’ve been trying to sort through all the various bullshit you hear people tell journalists, and at the same time watching the weather as I followed the biodynamic calendars and the old farmer’s almanac. I’ve been trying to figure it all out, see what’s what and what’s real.
Here’s what I think: In terms of winemaking, I wouldn’t want to rack my wines while the moon was full or new. I wouldn’t want to rack my wines during the weeks around the new and full moons. I think if the tides are high, the lees are probably a bit more turbulent, and if you’re the sort of person who’s trying to clarify your wines gently, maybe not have to filter them, you need to rack your wine off of the lees. That’s pretty much all I can think of. I don’t know what else you’d have to worry about. How did this Pietro dude write like a whole 7 pages on the subject? What’s he know that I don’t?
Okay, so, it’s raining now. A major winter storm. The houseboat swayed gentle in the wind, the ropes creaking. The tides are low. I mean, it’s almost a quarter moon I think and yesterday was the apogee, but there’s a major winter storm. What I’m trying to say is that the tides and the moon can’t predict the weather. But I’d like to know what it can tell you. I’d like to know what some old guy from way back then had to say on the subject.
I’ve got this old and maybe magic book translated into French on a PDF file. It was easy to find on the internets. That Sean Thackrey guy has a copy of it posted in his super-duper cool internet archive of medieval wine manuscripts. I’m going to post an ad on craigslist, and see if somebody would be willing to not charge me a shitload. I mean, hey, I’d love to learn French, but who has the time? Hell I’d love to learn Ancient Greek too, while we’re at it and why not the fucking , I don’t know, lute?
So if i get it translated, I’ll post it or a summary. I’ll let you know if there’s any winemaking jedi tricks in the book.
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.
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.
October 2, 2007
The thing about leaves is that they don’t taste good. You don’t want them in your grapes, nor in your wine. Good vineyard people have stationed people where the grapes are dumped into the bins, constantly removing leaves and checking for bad fruit. Most wineries don’t have sorting tables and really, since the bins are coming in one at a time, with a couple of guys with quick hands, you can deliver clean fruit that will make better wine. It’s a tiny little step that helps to separate the great from the merely good enough.
Friday was the Sonoma Patrons night, and there was wine to drink and goat to eat.
Saturday, we picked some valley floor Syrah that tasted lovely, all blueberry syrup. I drank a Bucklin Gewurtztraminer (good but the last vintage they’ll make of that grape), a Nicholson Ranch rose (blah), and some other rose I wasn’t so into.
Monday was rain in the morning, so no picking. I worked until 8:30 that night in the winery of a client. I miss winemaking and am fairly willing to work for free in order to see my babies turn into delicious wine that moves away and never visits.
Today I picked some more mountainside Cab Franc. Its supposed to warm up significantly, but rain again by the end of the week. It’s starting to get urgent that fruit is picked before it falls apart in the rain. All this moisture and humidity means more botyritis, more mildew on the canes, problems with fermentations and more work in the cellar.