We are all Caster Semenya

September 15, 2009

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Cheers!

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Monday was March 17th, a date celebrated in Ancient Rome as Liberalia. Liber was the name of an early Roman version of Dionysos, a God of Fertility and of wine.  The day was like a Bar Mitzvah for young Roman lads, and afterwards– after the procession of giant phallus symbols, the public drunkenness  and whatever it was that they did– they would switch their boy’s toga with its effeminate purple sash for an all-white grown man’s toga, and could vote and do pretty much whatever they wanted, I guess.

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On Tuesday I saw my first spring barn Swallow, returned from his winter sojourn, flying about the barn.  It is a beautiful bird, the swallow, and has been married to mankind since we first began to build structures.  I mean, jeesh, Virgil wrote about them like 2,000 years ago flyinga bout the rafters of the roof.

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Wednesday, was the Spring Equinox and as the earth was briefly balanced at 10:48 pm, the winter died and the spring began.  Persephone returned to Demeter.  It was sunny and warm and we’ve almost very nearly finished our pruning for the seasons, and have already begun mowing down and disking in our cover crops.

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On Thursday, we disinterred a batch of biodynamic horn compost- those the cowshit-filled horns we buried on the fall equinox.  We unearthed some wine we’d buried alongside them and drank the two bottles, some 12 or 15 of us thirsty vineyard workers in the shade of a fig tree just beginning to glow green with the spring’s new growth.  in place of the horn compost we placed a crushed quartz-filled horn and another bottle to drink in another 6 months.  Covered by soil, I danced my version of a Mexican hat dance over the site, and went back to work.

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And today, on Friday, I did it all again at another vineyard, but this time I was filmed by a TV crew, and I was miked and interviewed, and directed to do silly things for the sake of telling a story, and will someday, in like 6 or 8 months, be seen by those who watch “In Wine Country” (on the Bay Area’s NBC 11) and I will become instantly, incredibly, and annoyingly famous.  I will be blogged about by Perez Hilton.  I will be seen stumbling out of clubs with my vagina hanging out.  I will finally, finally be recognized while pissing in a bar.

It is a full moon tonight, and I really ought not to drink as much wine as I’m about to drink.  As the last good Friday before all my anonymity is stripped away from me, I’ll enjoy it by myself, relaxing in the silence before the helicopters descend to capture me embracing whatever starlet’s career could best be furthered by being seen with the likes of me, the famous Winefarmer.  Probably Natalie Portman, I hope she speaks kindly of me to the press after we break up.  I hope, I hope I don’t accidentally lose that tape we made drunkenly screwing each other.  I’m sorry for that Natalie.  I’m sorry for everything.

Everything is all alive again

February 28, 2008

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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.

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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.

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!