Chapter 10: March 2020

A Year's Journal in Napa Valley

March 1-7 2020

The virus seems to have infected the news, too.

In fact the virus is the only news. How the virus spreads, how it makes you ill, how to avoid it, how all these on-screen counters tabulate people sick and dying. And I'm sure by the time you are reading this it will all be over and you can vividly remember what happened these weeks in the modern pandemic. I don't have to paint that picture.

Let's see if I can get back to the vineyard... vineyards get viruses, too. They have names I can't pronounce nor spell correctly but they get spread via insects, nematodes in the soil, tainted propagation, in contact with fungi, virus, and blight. Once infected the disease can spread to the whole vine, trunk, roots, canopy. It affects the plant just as the covid virus make humans sick. Grapevines get weak, they start to have less fruit, or have lower quality fruit, which explains the weekly lone vineyard worker walking through the entire vineyard, row by row. Health check.

From what little I know, a wide range of different fungus can attack vines and they're more common than a giant vineyard virus. The vintner's primary defense is the choice of root-stock. Once planted and allowed to root, a second type of varietal stock is grafted onto the root stock and that is what you drink. You can actually go into a vineyard and cut the vinetrunk below the current graft line and graft a new grape varietal, in effect changing an entire vineyard to another type of grape. Think of the right root stock as being vaccinated against common vineyard germs.

There are pests of all types that can chew through your vineyard. Some pests can bring diseases with them, too. There are also blights, a type of plant disease, and of course mildew. Mildew and its bacteria is controlled by the use of sulphur both in the vineyard and in the winery. Several of these bad viruses, bacteria, molds, and fungis can and do exist in the winery. Things have to be spotless. It's the cellar rat mantra. It's also the simple fact why wineries use so much water and why Napa County commissioners are always slapping water usage limits on wineries – there's only so much water in the aquifer.

All these ways to infect an agricultural endeavor is one reason vineyards, orchards, and even your home vegetable plot has space around the plants that gardeners purposely thin. There are rows of social distancing for plants since time immortal. It's the physical way that farmers and gardens ensure plants get the sun they need, the airflow, just like you and your social habitats. To kill a human virus you socially distance from it. In agriculture, don't plant your crops on top of one another.

Vineyards are alive and there's a whole viticultural movement that treats farming as a living biodynamic organism. Called biodynamic viticulture, and founded by Rudolf Steiner, it treats the vineyard (or farm) as a piece of living earth that it is. You work in phases of the moon, you worship the soil, you do a variety of organic farming procedures because your soil is a living viable social gathering of things your plants need. Personally, after living in a vineyard for the past 20 years, I don't see why this isn't the rule of the land. Crops are alive, duh. Maybe Steiner goes a little far off into the viticultural weeds sometimes but once you live in it and live with it this respect for life matters more and more. And who cares if you pipe Bach into the vineyard 24/7 to maximize yields.

# March 8-15 Spring Drought

As if the virus wasn't beserk enough, it hasn’t rained in six weeks and counting. And they're watering the vines! My God, it's not even spring and the irrigation has been turned on! (I'm pretty skimpy on exclamation marks.) We're not even close to bud-break yet they're starting to give the roots water. I don't know what causes me more anxiety, a virus that kills randomly or the thought of an upcoming summer that will bake us like a rotisserie in October.

Everything has flowered in this warm dry weather. Roses, almond trees, mustard, daffodils, a medley of wildflowers, and the fruit trees are starting to show buds where the leaves might be. It’s the February Blob, with no water for California, just balmy, sunny 75 degree days, the envy of half of America right now judging from East Coast winter storms.

Despite my worries, it's been god-awful beautiful. Elizabeth and I have been planting and weeding, tilling and pruning, enjoying the warm days and the very evident lack of tourists due to Covid-19 sheltering. I've been driving over to Yountville for spring walks in that flat deserted town, happy to have it almost to myself, happy to have warm weather to do so these past weeks. It's so strange and ironic that one of the most touristy valleys in wine country doesn't have a soul. I can walk three miles without passing anyone.

Things seem upside down. It's spring but it's supposed to be winter. It's a virus but it's ugly politics. It's March and it hasn't rained in over a month. Local businesses are closing, wineries hurting, restaurants moving outside, everything seems off-center, mis-aligned. My wife and I stay hunkered down with trips only to get some exercise and a change of scenery.

# March 15-22 Rain!

It rained! After seven weeks of sun and dry warm weather, the rain makes the vineyard dazzle. It looks like a date waiting for a partner – it's pruned, trimmed, tied down, fertilized, and even a first mow on the long grasses between the rows. It looks dapper if that is possible. Ready for spring. And the proud, wise vine trunks didn’t fall for the weather trick, either, there isn’t a single bud, just some swollen spots on the cordon.

It rains off and on and I'm attune to every wet millimeter. Californians get worked up about rain. We can't live with it, nor without it, and we absolutely don't know how to drive in it. I’ve become dialed in to all the internet warnings and text alerts for every possibility. I analyze the reservoir levels, the type of clouds, the winds, humidity, and of course monitor every inch that falls. Napa Valley gets about 20 inches a year, on average, with the surrounding mountain ranges pulling in much larger amounts. When it doesn’t rain like it’s supposed to, I get flustered and upset. And when it finally does come, especially in the fertile farming valleys, I can feel a recognizable sigh of relief.

When we first moved to Napa Valley there were flooding issues for many years (1997-2007). I spent years putting in drainage systems and controls for flooding and now, during the past decade (2008-2020) there's a palpable change to decade-long drought. Winter is lessening in its severity and its duration. This year it stopped on Feb 1, a full six weeks early. I don’t know how much we can depend on the March Miracle. Four years ago it never came and we spiraled into a drought. I can remember it vividly. Trees died by the millions and it prepped the countryside for wildfires with lots of dry, dead undergrowth in the Californian ravines and steep gorges. Now, instead of floods, it’s fire and the inching up of temperature intensity. This is climate change. I‘ve seen it coming for years as odd little weather things, a month of this, a month of that. The alerts keep coming.

#March 23-30 Last Night

My cat, Finnegan, wears a collar and a leash if he goes outside. It’s a long bit of leash, about eight feet in length, forever dragging behind him like a broken tether. And of course, just like a water hose, the leash gets stuck on anything jutting out a bit unusual from the ordinary. Sticks, rocks, corners of the house, edges of steps, large plants, and on and on. And cats being who they are, once stuck they then compound the problem by doubling back over the offended protubrance a few more times. I’ll hear a loud meow and come over to see that he has wrapped the leash several times around a thick sunflower stalk.

We had a prior cat who was a natural farm cat, one who had free range, but only because he had a large Old English Sheepdog to protect him from the coyotes and bob cats. This collar-and-leash cat doesn’t have that protection so we slow his wandering abilities down instead with the ball and chain. But as soon as you turn your back, he disappears. Well, not disappear, because he’s actually standing ten feet away from you but the orange tabby blends in so well with his surroundings that he’s all but vanished.

So I’m a guy on a laptop in the vineyard watching a cat on a leash. Pat & Cat as my wife says. It works out fine except that I’m interrupted every fifteen minutes. Where’s the cat? Where did he go? He was just here. So I stop what I’m typing and begin looking for a camouflaged cat, somewhere half-hidden, sitting in the Army Crawl position and not making a sound.

Whenever you see a new paragraph with a space before it, just like this, that means I was interrupted and conducted a cat search and now am back to the outdoor writing table but can’t recall the train of thought I was having, so I start a new paragraph.

I awoke to the sound of rain last night and I opened the bedroom window to hear the patterns of falling water. It wasn’t much but maybe it will start a trend, a new trend, a good trend. It drizzled for two days straight, then stopped, and then in typical California style, it stayed cloudy and cold and dank but wouldn't rain. I watched the radar maps for the entire week hoping the moisture was there but all it did was sprinkle. Wimpy sprinkles. Day after day. The radar maps showed the entire Central Coast getting all the rain we were supposed to be getting up north. They should be good for the rest of the year but I'm afraid that in Napa were now about 60% of normal.

Then one afternoon it rained for an hour like it's supposed to be doing, cold large drops as big as tuna, straight off the Pacific, the kind of rain we used to get a few decades ago. It was just for an hour. I walked outside after the downpour and the ground had completely soaked it up. Not a puddle anywhere.

And for the rest of March we repeat. Wimpy sprinkles when the weather maps predict an 80% chance of precipitation. Big heavy thick dark grey clouds continue to rumble over us, carting their moisture to the Sierras. Then a cold front comes and the temperature goes dangerously down.

For nights we hover right around 34 degrees, close to freezing. Most vineyards had bud break last week, tiny red and orange buds atop small swollen shoots, looking very similar to rosebush buds. What perfect timing for Mother Nature to take a whack at farmers and vineyards with a season-ending freeze. At least it's one calamity in the world we are prepared for: frost. The vineyards have frost-protection apparatus, giant propellers raised on shafts and sometimes a sprinkler system built into the vineyard trellis. It's a whole defense built expressly for the tantrums of March. Such careful preparation.

My God, the virus killed over 1000 people this week in New York.