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 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.
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.
December 11, 2007
Last night I drank a 2005 Rosso Di Montalcino, by Claudia Ferrero, which I think was probably Sangiovese, because if it was Brunello, well, it would have cost more than the $17 I paid. It was nice, good even, with a nosefull of chocolate and cherry and leather. I was in the mood for a nice, big wine and whoever Claudia is, she came through.
And so what if I drank it myself?
Who are you to judge?
Listen, my headache this morning was my problem, and not yours. The wine was good, okay? I dealt with my headache like a big boy, after two cups of coffee and a hot shower I was alright. At 6:30 when we left, it was cold, with frost on the windshield and a white dusting in the grass. Up in the mountains, it was our last day of the olive harvest, and dawn had just begun when we began working.
Once it warmed up, it was a beautiful day. I didn’t have to be in charge of a bunch of dudes, but just work with them, just picking olives out of the trees on a lovely, sunny day by a mountain pond. With my dog jumping around the hemmed lavender bushes and back to me, and the natural smell of a fresh olive in a tree, it was a nice aroma-therapeutic sojourn. I read a bit at lunch, napped with my dog at 2:00, and finished off the day in a good mood.