on dogs and wine

January 29, 2008

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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.

1. Sirius

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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

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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

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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.

4. Bootes

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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?

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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.

when it rains

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.

pruning

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.

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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.

Cheers!