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.
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.
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.
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.
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.