Chapter 13: June 2020

Tip: Build a Party Patio

June 1-7 Yountville

My essential pandemic ritual has been to drive to Yountville and walk from one end of town to the other, down the main drag, past the empty restaurants, the shops and closed tasting rooms, through the vacant parking lots, nodding at anybody I might see along the way inside my hat, sunglasses, earbuds, and mask. It's about three miles round trip. Life is lonely in a vineyard. Yountville gives me that “I’ve seen people so I must still be okay.”

Politicians are opening sheltering restrictions all across the nation as summer slinks towards us. My walkie is getting crowded: couples without masks, families with dogs and kids, cramped tourists pouring out of minivans saying, "Oh, this is cute." The merchants are happy because they are busy and the tourists are happy they have discovered a true Californian treat, “There’s no one here!” they whisper.

Yountville has more Michelin-rated restaurants per capita than anywhere else on Earth and I think even the city street plan has been adapted to make the walk after the meal as enjoyable as possible. It’s a town of restaurants and tourists, wine tasting, and clothing, and when we fully emerge from the lockdowns and Yountville returns to its hub of energy I’ll not recognize a thing. Gone will be these weekday stretches when the only person I see and talk to is the clerk at Kelly's Gas Station and Cappuccino. It's June and I'm going bonkers.

So one night my wife had the idea of tidying up our porch. We could eat our meals and have festive times with non-existent visitors that never come and don’t drink all your wine. Pimp the porch then send pics on social media so everyone can see we still know how to have a good time: Wish You Were Here. We started a few weeks ago and just finished this weekend adding the final touches to the upper deck of the house.

The Party Patio is a portion of the wooden deck that wraps around the front of the house and sits just off of the kitchen, so it's always been a great spot for dinners, especially with the large wooden table made out of old palette wood that sits in the middle of the space, enough for six, even eight people to sit around. I joked we could get those cardboard cutouts of people at sporting stadiums and put them around the table.

We added a small fountain with plants inside and outside the water. We added party lights all around the perimeter and there's more plants in each of the corners, all in large pots with irrigation coming up from the lower deck. Yesterday we finished by adding a sun-sail over the big table, a triangle of blue cloth suspended above to keep things shady for mid-day lunches and relaxing. There's two rocking chairs under a tall green sun umbrella and of course the two busy bird-feeders in the tree next to the porch that are filled daily with black sunflower seeds.

I can now sit at the table and listen to the fountain gurgling, the birds chirpy, and some modern classical music while I read the news feeds. The bird feeders attract hundreds of finches whose joyful singing and tweeting, along with the fountain, drone out the traffic on the distant Trail. I cannot overemphasize the delight the Party Porch adds to these monotonous days, party lights on, sitting out in the early evening and enjoying the twilight colors. It's such a simple thing but it visibly makes me happier to see it there along with the lovely addition of a fountain and the sound of water.

I had to use the tractor’s front bucket to lift the fountain's terra cotta vase up to the second floor, take out a section of the handrail and lift the bucket high enough so I could scoot the fountain off the bucket and onto the deck. For years this fountain was off in another garden space. The large terra cotta base had two designed holes in the bottom and I always assumed these were to pass the electric cord for the pump and the water line for the fountain. So I had the cords feed through the holes and then used a silicon waterproof caulking to seal the remaining gaps around the incoming wires. But it always leaked, albeit slowly, so a full fountain would last about a week or so before I would have to fill it up. I did this for many, many years. Refill the weekly fountain.

I explained this to Elizabeth a few weeks ago when we were planning the Party Patio and she had the idea of putting the large terra cotta pot up on second level decking. "The fountain leaks," I said. And I stood over the terra cotta basin showing her the holes and the old silicon caulking in them that leaked. "Why not put a membrane of some kind inside the fountain, something that holds water, and bring in the cords through the holes and then over the top of the membrane? The fountain holds water in the membrane and not the terra cotta?"

I remember looking at her with astonishment. I had never thought of that! For almost twenty years I had been trying to seal the hole with the wires in the hole but if a basin sits inside the large fountain and holds the water… I had never thought of that. And it took me about fifteen minutes to build a prototype using a large plastic bucket inside the terra cotta to hold both water and the pump. Voila! It worked. It didn't leak and the bucket inside held the water and return it to the pump. After twenty years of trying to get something to work, you see it in a different way and it works. The Party Patio was born with capital P's and a non-leaking fountain.

These are, of course, distractions. It's already June and Covid-19 is still erupting across the country. Politicians seem to spread the virus by coughing up rumors and flooding the news feeds with denial and excuses. Hundreds are dying in the barrios and in nursing homes yet people are refusing to wear masks. Meanwhile, I sit in the Party Patio, birdies chirping, fountain bubbling, reading the Washington Post on my laptop, reading about a world away, a world of riots, Black Lives Matter, racism and police brutality, while a virus easily attacks our distracted society.

June 8-15, Sunny June

Have you ever watched a solar panel work? As entertaining as light shining on the ground. That's what watching a vineyard is like only it’s a thousand growing plants being warmed by the light and each plant cell is a solar panel in a sea of other plants, millions of tiny solar collectors. All of the vineyard, all of the bushes and trees and blades of grass and everything within this lush and green Napa valley is stored sunlight busy collecting more.

June transforms the sun into King Mambo, the Energy Giver, shining all summer long, every day, every hour, every angle, a huge ball in the air that never goes away. The energy transfer is palpable in the silent sunlight. Now, and as we inch toward the summer solstice next week, the rich fertile valleys of inner California are becoming sunlight farms, as far as you can see, vast stretches of growing things, sucking up the brilliant, abundant rays. It’s what happens for the next three months when the grapes become large and have turned color. The sun powers it all.

If you remember when I started this book (that would be Chapter 1) it was last August 2019. The sun had been blazing for four months straight and the weather was erratic, one week blazing, one week cool, and I wanted to document how global warming was changing and alternating our roles with Nature and our roles with each other, using the vineyard as a foil and backdrop. Today, instead of searing heat, summer arrives after months of global pandemic with beautiful warm weather and the kind of picture-perfect wine country living photographed in the magazines. It's cold at night and warm for a few hours between 3-5 pm. There's a steady coolish breeze coming up from the San Francisco Bay with a humidity I can see in the mountains across the narrow Napa Valley. Fog comes in some mornings keeping the temperature moderate.

The valley is basically boarded up, financially suffering during one its most beautiful Junes that I can remember. This summer is quiet and peaceful, when you leave the news off, and we have lunch and dinners outside on the open deck where the finchies sing near the Party Porch. When the owl whooo-whooo’s at twilight we know it’s time to go in.

If this is the new normal for Napa she wears it like an evening gown. It is beautiful outside. Napa Valley looks more like France than France looks like France. The vineyards are manicured. It is peaceful, slow, sleepy, and sunny.

June 16-23, Consumption

The virus is beginning to have a second surge in America. Higher numbers are forecast. I spend my afternoons under a shade tree reading the headlines, reading the news articles, the progress reports against the Pandemic. I am both fascinated and terrified of what is happening in the world. Protests in the cities, riots in the streets, corporate ignorance in the boardrooms... after four months of isolation and pandemic uncertainty Black Lives Matter is forcing America to look at the beasts in its nature.

I am so far away from it all that I want to apologize. I try through the music I write and through my social media to be supportive and generous. When I grew up during the 1960-70s that too was a decade of guns, violence, bigotry, war, vice, corruption, hate, and white supremacy. The only difference today is that there is a virus. I don’t see or hear any differences in the topic, the viewpoints, or the complaints. People don’t like other people that don’t look like them. Period. It’s been that way for decades.

The things one sees from isolation and quarantining become magnified, especially if you don't step away. The virus isn’t attacking individual people, it’s attacking our social structures – people in these social enclaves are an easy meal. By the time you are reading this I hope the virus is over, that we have a vaccine and that we have herd immunity. And I hope that we will have taken steps to stop our over-consumption of this planet and its resources as a result of this world-wide virus.

I know this consumption well. I have lived it and I have taken advantage of it and I have profited from it. I'm a baby boomer and my life has been all about the boom, all about riding the crest. I've seen consumption rise further than any virus curve. I’ve witnessed and lived through the rise of car culture, from one car per family to one car per person to several cars per person. I’ve lived through simple homes and bungalows to houses so large they ship from outer space. I helped create the new digital culture, a world of gadgets and devices that help you consume everything without consequences. Yet the Amazon forest is depleting, the Poles are melting, plastic fills our oceans and climate change, once a threat, once a common way to end nature shows on TV, is now very real.

June 24-30 Summer

Smack me the next time I veer away from the vineyard.

Woo-hoo! This week was busy in the vineyard. Two crews! First weed-whipping came by for a few hours on Wednesday and then a few days later the sulphur spraying crew came. Sulphur is naturally occurring in vines but many vineyard managers do a dusting of the plants (several times a year) to fight bacteria on the grape clusters. Since my vineyard is on a hill, with a 30% slope, and the rows are spaced four feet apart, it must all be hand-done, thus these machines on the backs of workers. Think of a crop-dusting plane but on the back of a vineyard worker walking between the rows, spraying the plants at cluster-level with a fine fog coming out of an aimed long nozzle. The crew comes in gangs of four or five, all dressed in plastic chemical-handling suits that include their boots and heads. They wear a mask over their face with double filters for air.

They always seem to come on Saturdays. This morning it was 5:45am. I heard voices in the vineyard and after so many years I know exactly what to do, even if half-asleep and stumbling. Close all the windows in the house, pull down the blinds in the bedroom, then turn our master bedroom fan on so loud it drowns out the noise of those Honda things on their backs.

The days flow into one another like water, inseperable, full of routine and always a warm sun. My work gets busy so I’m writing less. Can you tell? The days are busy with endless Zoom meetings conducted on the Party Patio where I realize I don’t need a special virtual background and the finches can be heard and they are always “Liked”.