Chapter 12: May 2020

Let's talk about something different.

# May 1-7 The Air Above Us

The sun is warming the air a little hotter in the afternoons now just as the vineyard workers finish their spring bud-break tasks. It’s the most attention the vines get all year. Every day someone is out there doing something, checking the irrigation, pulling weeds, or just walking the rows and burning up 15 minutes until the next break. The vineyards in Napa Valley are some of the most tended vineyards in America, literally manicured, meticulously farmed like a garden not a crop. These vineyards bring in the big money, the $100, $1000, and $5000 bottles of wine. My little vignette looks like an afterthought compared to the big Oakville cabernets growing in pampered fields on the valley floor where they must hire janitors to clean between rows.

My vineyard has grass and soil between the rows and is purposely farmed that way. This is Oakville hillside where the ground has variable amounts of topsoil, lots of oak root fungus, and limited rooting depth. It’s tough on these steep hillsides so the thinking is leave the land as fallow as you can. Besides it costs money to get up the steep slope in Block 3 where everything is hand-farmed.

As the air warms the sky becomes alive. Walk down the fallow rows between the vines and the air is just full of flying things. Edit that. The air is jammed with flying things. Throngs of flying things all going as fast as they possibly can like mad dare-devil drivers in a car derby. Most of the flying things have an excuse – they really don’t know how to fly because they just discovered they can. Oh, that’s how you accelerate. There must be a zillion winged things zooming from one place to another with the intensity and determination of a meteor shower.

Bees are everywhere when you stop what you’re doing and what you’re seeing and slo-mo certain portions of the sky. You can never see where bees land but the sky is full of them. They never seem to meander or relax. In fact I can’t remember if I have ever a seen a bee just cruising around, meandering, enjoying flight on a nice sunny afternoon. Never.

Further, if you pause for a second on that edge of the vineyard and concentrate on seeing other-sized objects in the air, there are dozens, hundreds, possibly thousands of things flying, jumping, crawling from plant to plant, flower to flower, criss-crossing over the vineyard, over the garden, over the walkways and the porch of the house. Bees, bugs, and birds of every variety, from jumping winged crickets to horseflies to blue jays. This vineyard airspace is full.

So why don't they crash into one another out there? Why don't you see more multi-critter collisions in the air? More ‘Bee Torpedoes Wren’ headlines? One would think with all the birds and flying objects that debris would be falling from the skies like dandruff. I see no evidence of dead birds nor do I see in-flight crashes ending in a flurry of wings. Instead giant bumblebees patrol the skies sounding like flying bulldozers with little flight guidance.

Every summer for as long as I can remember, a lone dragonfly, the kind with two sets of wings, flies over a section of the driveway in a square pattern. Twenty feet this way, right turn. Twenty feet that way, right turn. And on until it flies in a square and then it flies the square again. Over and over again. But the weird thing is that I see this every year. Generation after generation of dragonfly flying the same square in the same spot. What gives? Instinctual or just how new dragonflies test things with perfect right angle turns in mid-air.

Walk down the vineyard rows this time of year and the ground also comes alive with jumping, leaping, insect things no doubt busy escaping being crushed by my boots. It's amazing how much life there is in a vineyard acre and how much flying life there is trying to eat other flying life. Just like Silicon Valley.

Vineyards are unique because the canopy contains all the action. The actual ground area of things, three feet below the canopy, is mostly open earth where the trunk grows. It’s wide open down there with only weeds and endless acres of soil. You could consider vineyards as vast tracts of land with nothing on them but a canopy and fields of critters underneath.

I like the smaller birds that jump down into the vines and speed through the wires and posts of the vineyard trellis like Star Wars fighters attacking the Empire. They are moving so unbelievably fast, changing altitude, often in formation chatting with friends of feather doing exactly the same thing a foot or a wing away. You would think dozens of little birdies would have impaled themselves onto the iron stakes and taunt wires but I never see that. Instead it’s this asteroid belt of flying things that exists above and within the vineyard, acres that turn to miles of crowded flying things, spiders to buzzards.

There’s nothing like standing in the middle of a vineyard on a bright sunny May afternoon. Complete insect vortexes rise above the canopy involved in some kind of bug rave, swirling, undulating in the warm streams of sunlight. Swallows dip down like they’re sky-writing and lunch on them. At one point I saw a big bee come straight at my head at full speed about forty feet away before finally tilting its wings and missing me by a few mere feet. It hurts my noggin to wonder if it was intentional.

Back on the front porch after the bird, bug, bee inspection and in front of the keyboard excitedly taking it all down. This is what you happily do when isolating with a bunch of grape plants for four months.

May 8-15, Napa Noise

My little vineyard has a section that runs along Silverado Trail. The house sits on a ledge overlooking the ‘Trail’ about 40 feet above it with a portion of the vineyard inbetween the house and the roadway. There’s a line of oaks at the road's edge. The trees block the sight of the crowded main thoroughfare but you can hear traffic and the noise is everywhere. Tires, steel, and engines moving at 60 miles an hour.

For twenty years I have complained about the traffic. I am Californian, after all. My favorite day of the year is Super Bowl Sunday because there’s no traffic all afternoon during the game. I sit outside and ignore game updates because the quietude and peacefulness is spectacular. You can hear across the valley and you can sit in the yard with an outdoor fire in the chiminea and not hear a car for minutes. Sometimes it can last for five or ten minutes and I can reacquaint myself with the natural sounds of this amazingly beautiful but noise-filled valley.

I know you’ve seen beautiful pictures of Napa Valley a thousand times but I bet you’ve never heard a single hour or day near it’s busy intersections.

The topography of this narrow valley reverberates traffic noise on the valley floor and sends sound waves up into the surrounding hills. Which begs the fact that if you want to buy one of those fancy Napa Valley mansions up on the hill, you should go visit for a soundcheck first. Go in the morning, say 6am, and listen to the vineyard workers on the Trail, hundreds of them in cars all late to work. Or try around 4pm as lines of tree trimming trucks come home from the wildfire areas like a battalion of Army trucks.

Except now.

Now is four months into the Pandemic and traffic has been tamed. It’s like it was a long time ago. Few people, no tourists, just the business of growing grapes and making wine and shipping that out to a thirsty quarantined public. Gone is the 4-5pm traffic jam on the Trail when winery workers, construction crews, cellar staff, and PGE all leave at the exact same time. So strange. But I hear it’s happening everywhere.

May 16-23, A Pleasant May

A front passed through bringing light showers and cool weather, an unlikely event for almost summer around here. It was good moisture with about a half inch of rain and a day of just dribble with the upper parts of the state getting drenched and a little more snowfall in the Sierras. Unfortunately, Napa is only at a third of last year’s record rainfall. It's a huge danger sign.

The May days are full of sun and warmth and people activity is picking up on the roadways and in town. The tourists are coming back to take a lap around the valley, driving to see the vineyards, getting out of their cars for pastries at Bouchon and burgers at Gotts. We stay home on the weekends avoiding the whole scene and only venture out during the week.

It's pre-Memorial Day weekend and people seem ready to bust out of their confinements like prisoners in stripped clothes. News photos show crowded beaches, full picnic tables, parties on sidewalks, and lots of open restaurants. Different states and cities have their own sheltering rules and laws and it's a complete mess however you look at it. All the while politicians are politicizing the virus and the use of masks with conflicting stories and disinformation tactics. Now there’s talk about a second wave, worse than the first.

I’ve seen only two people this week – one checking on the irrigation and the other on a tractor mowing between the rows. In other vineyards on the valley floor you can visibly see crews fan out and do their social distancing as they work the rows and fields. Official vineyard distancing is three vine trunks in any direction. Since most vineyards are four feet wide these days that means about eight feet of distance. There are billboards in the vineyards that explain this Napa County health advisory with big silhouette pictures of workers in a vineyard. Always have a vine between you.

Memorial Day arrives and temperatures climb. I sit in the cool morning, writing, and then I get my chores done essentially waiting for the sun to drive me inside. Weather forecasts predict the entire week in the high 90s. It’s the first big blast of summer and it’s a month early. The tourists come back for the holiday and I don’t know how to react because frankly I'm not used to seeing anybody. It's been six months since I've had to deal with visitors coming into the valley, tourists who could be sick and spreading germs. You just don’t know who they are and where they’ve been. It's the first real American holiday since the pandemic began and we’re feeling a little cautious.

We close the front gate and watch the tourist traffic from the front porch having bought supplies to last us (and the 5th Army) the whole weekend. By mid-afternoon it seems like half of San Francisco has come, all on two small roads that go up and down the valley. Many park along the country roads getting out to snap selfies or tailgate with wine they just bought. My wife and I seek the solitude of our vineyard and the unwavering fact that a couple of acres of vineyard is pretty good protection from this viral uncertainly.

May 23-30, Summer Arrives Early

The weather forecast for the following week remains accurate except that it climbs to the low hundreds. You know it's going to be warm when the vineyard workers start their mornings earlier and earlier. Now, instead of 6am, it's 5am, even 4am depending on who you are and what you do. In the middle of the night the valley floor can be full of tractors with their headlights on, discing the large vineyards in the coolness of night. By noon, the fields are empty and the vineyard couldn't be happier. The vines love the sun. They reach for it, waving their canes with long arms facing upward as if at a valley-wide rock concert. The sun seems to be literally pouring liquid light on the vineyard canopy charging it with energy too pure for people to understand. And I swear to you the growing canes seem to quiver with enjoyment.

Vineyard irrigation is now On. It is programmed to turn on during the morning and go for several hours before the ambient temperature rises. Each vineyard block is divided into separate irrigation zones and each individual vine trunk gets one or two dripping nodules that are connected to the black plastic water lines suspended by the trellis structure. The irrigation system whistles when it’s turned on as the water dashes through the line, up the slope and back down again blowing out all the air. Then there’s this marvelous sound of a thousand drops all falling into little puddles around the trunks, a vineyard-wide patter-patter that is zen-like and soothing as you work in the garden or tend to the yard. It’s not quite the sound of rain but more like a vineyard-wide fountain, either of which is welcomed on hot days.

By the end of May the vineyard soil is warm to the touch, that whole invisible world of soil underneath my feet, where roots exchange energy from the sun for nutrients in the soil. These vines are now fully engaged, fully charged, selling off oxygen and keeping carbon to build new plant matter. The whole vineyard is electrically charged and each day you can almost see new inches on the canes, new minuscule grape clusters taking shape. The vineyards capture this exchange between the sun and soil so well that they produce a fruit that can be made into a fluid so revered by our society that total valleys are devoted to it and people follow it with their future.

I walk down a vineyard row with my arms and hands held out and brush my fingers lightly on the wild canes shooting up to the sky on either side. Feel all that wild new athletic growth? These new canes probably grew last night. They are one day old. Vibrant, elastic, green. They are so new to life it's like touching some kind of spark.