Chapter 11: April 2020

The Pandemic Interrupts

#April 1-7, 2020

Pandemic sheltering is fine and well for a vineyard hermit like me but it’s becoming trouble for the Napa tourist trade. The wineries are shut down and nobody knows whether tourists and tastings are going to return in the post Covid-19 world. The wineries have to figure how to reach customers rather than enticing them to visit here.

Wine eventing is now a public health caution. Let me repeat myself, all eventing has stopped. All tasting rooms are closed. Restaurants and hot-air ballooning canceled. There is nothing to do but work in the vineyard or work in the winery or work at home. Tourists are gone. A few restaurants offer pickup and takeaway food for the locals but where I live no one delivers.

This is insane. Spring is a fabulous time to visit wine country but nothing is open and all the fine dining doors are bolted. How do people even eat while wearing facemarks? Do you remove one side, fork it in, and then cover over while you chew? If you and your date go to a restaurant, wearing facemarks, and the couple next to you are not wearing facemarks, what do you do? There will have to be some kind of rules for all.

How odd that in the middle of writing a year-long journal about life in a vineyard a pandemic spreads across America and into this iconic tourist valley. I started in August 2019 with a sassy journal about quietude and vineyard observation and by the time the pandemic arrived I had already been sheltering for six months ( my wife would quip the past twenty years). Now, oddly, the same life I had been leading voluntarily is being enforced upon me.

This world is transitioning to another place, another plane.

And this book is transitioning too (he boldly types into his laptop on the shady porch). It's going to be about viruses and vineyard rows and new buds on the cordons and all these natural disasters, namely drought and wildfires. I”m going to mix it up. After all, the cars have stopped, the tourists have fled, the restaurants and swanky hotels and wine-country getaways have closed. How could I not write about life in a stuck place? I’m stuck here.

Speaking of stuck, I paused and stopped typing a few moments ago and there was a silence so true I could hear life happening all across the early morning. I could hear dozens of individual birds and a tractor far off to the left. It's early Saturday morning and five minutes go by. Not a single pickup racing to Lake Berryessa with a boat in tow – this is a new thing. This is something that hasn’t happen in the twenty years I’ve been here. I can listen to all the separate bird noises coming from every nearby single tree. I may have prayed for peace and quiet but I don’t think I quite expected this. It’s beautiful.

#April 7-15, Pandemia.

I'm sure all of you have distinct and graphic memories of April 2020 when the Covid-19 virus was spreading across the world. I'm writing this live, April 8th, 2020, and I don't know whether it will be the month we fail or the month we turned the tide. While the viral curve seems to be flattening, no one seems to know whether it will come back again, stronger, smarter, more dangerous. The daily news is saturated with it. Society is changing and half the population won’t admit it.

My walks are becoming more treasured every day as a way to break the isolation while getting a wee-bit of exercise. I walk a lot in Yountville, sometimes in St. Helena, and often down a secret lane in the middle of valley floor that few people know.

The walks in town can get creepy. It feels like a bad sci-fi movie about the end of the world. Add more crows and it could be a re-make of The Birds. Those old end-of-world sci-fi flicks always showed a deserted Coney Island or an empty L.A. overpass to shock you into believing nobody was alive. In this remake of The Birds, famous restaurants are shuttered, tourist shops closed. Hotels have barricades in their driveway to keep people out. Wine country with its drama, glamour, hotels and restaurants, looks like an empty movie set.

Each shop or store I pass usually has an announcement taped to the entrance, something printed on a computer, some kind of personal apology and timetable when they might reopen. The stories are so touching that I spend an afternoon reading as many as I can, taking photos to share online, of course.

Then in my deserted movie set someone approached! "Mr Ames, Mr Ames?" he called out. It was the last thing I expected and I faced him hesitantly not quite familiar with protocols when someone recognizes you in mask, sunglasses, and large straw hat.

It was one of the Pina brothers, the vineyard management company that works my vineyard and we exchanged family updates. I mentioned how odd to be talking together on a deserted Yountville street. "Yes, yes, it's so quiet and beautiful now." He paused and exhaled, "I feel guilty." And a truer thing could not have been said. I realized that's why I've been walking in Yountville and St. Helena every day. I feel guilty and I don't know exactly what to do with that guilt, that privilege of having Napa Valley all to ourselves. “I suppose it's the same as being stuck in Tahiti," I tried to joke. He smiled, put his mask back on and we went our separate ways.

So it's a beautiful isolation is it? What do I do with that? The world is in turmoil, hate is filling politics, nursing homes are ablaze with virus, and people are dying but the springtime air is filled with April scents amid the scenic rows of peaceful vineyards that stretch to the bountiful horizon. I wanted to write this journal to share a life of quietude and natural beauty before it goes away, before it gets pushed aside by the sheer amount of people crowding in to experience it. But the pandemic is actually accentuating those things I was trying to say were being lost. The pandemic is making Napa Valley, and a lot of wine country, quiet again, like it was decades ago - just farming and vineyards.

In the news they're reporting that pollution is lowering, traffic is gone, animals are thriving, oceans recovering, all because the excess has stopped. Could the virus do that? Could it be somehow beneficial? Even if just a sharp viral kick in the ass to see differently? The old economy of excess creates carbon, the new economy of the pandemic reduces excess and thus eliminates carbon. That’s how we all survive and get to the future. The pandemic makes us Green.

Yountville is up-to-date with solar roofs and electric cars. They remind me of my own green improvement plans for the house, the gardens, and the periphery of the vineyard. We need some kind of rain-water catchment system that collects roof-water and stores the runoff in potable tanks. We need to extend the solar collection that already exists on the house and replace PGE service with large-scale batteries that can run the house independently. We're switching over to electric cars so I need to build small car-charging stations, powered by the bright Napa sun. Finally, I need to meet with the vineyard company to talk about expanding the vineyard’s footprint on the property.

What day of the pandemic is it?

#April 15-22 Frightening

My god this is a frightening time. The world is rebooting. Elizabeth and my son Tom are quarantined in Silicon Valley (he's getting better but they must both quarantine now for two weeks). I am resigned to the vineyard casita until a vaccine is done which some say is at least six months away. The world is rebooting its politics, its finances, its businesses, its society as I sit alone with my birds and birdhouses.

Only a few grocery outlets, some brave takeout restaurants, hardware stores, the post office and gas stations are open. The vineyards are alive however with lots of activity, dozens of cars and tractors, even more so than usual it seems this late in spring… probably attributable to lots of unemployed available labor.

For the first time in years the vineyards have more people in them than the wineries.

Read that again because that's a shocking and complete reversal of the modern wine business. And it only took two months. This pandemic is crushing tourism. It won't stop the flow of wine and I'm sure the 2020 vintage will be superb but local business is slowing down. You can watch it happening in real time as the world literally sits at home and watches TV because nobody knows what to do.

I’ve been doom scrolling on social media all day but just before closing the laptop a lone motorcycle tours down Silverado Trail and it’s almost pleasant in its singularity and I listen for a long minute as the low twisting rumble finally disappears.

#April 23-30, A New World

My wife and son are fine but everybody is staying put for the next week, my fourth week of isolation, working my day job remotely, finding things to do, pulling weeds and composting garden beds, playing my guitar, writing journal entries, trying to go back to sleep at 2am but can't:

What do I trust?

I'm reluctant to participate.

I don’t feel intimate anymore.

I have become virtual and I live in that space.

Am I not in the world.

I project myself.

Where?

I am alone.

Why is it getting warmer?