Chapter 14: July 2020

Alone with Grapes

July 1-7

On July 4th, the American holiday, we didn't stay home. We went to a friend's house for appetizers and wine and discovered eight more people were also invited. We wore masks but not when we were eating and drinking. Everyone seemed nervous about distancing manners. At least it was entirely outdoors.

It wasn't planned. We called old friends and asked if they were around and then made plans to drive over for a quick visit. Upon arrival there was another couple there and then two more couples arrived so quickly after I can’t remember their names. The host passed it off as happenstance. I could feel Elizabeth tighten nervously with each new arrival. It was the first gathering we had been to since Christmas seven months ago. And even now, at my writing desk, I admit it was sooooo good to have wine with friends and fresh food.

They were all very nice local Napa couples and it was reassuring to hear local people talk about local life. Everyone had brought a bottle or two of their home-made wine and the talk was politics fueled by the Pandemic and the very real realization that this could be our future: semi-isolation and sheltering. This group of retirees, teachers, and organic farmers were unbelievably shaking their heads at the recent news and the ever-growing virus death numbers. They would silently look at the ground after talking. Then a long silent moment and we’re right back to politics. It stretched out into the evening and the July fleeces were brought out from the cars where Napans conveniently store them until evening arrives.

It’s vivid in my mind because it was with people, not grapevines, the first group of people I've experienced in half a year. Now back at my writing table I can see another long stretch of sheltering ahead. Will it be another half year? My God! Vineyards can protect you by isolating you. They are buffers between here and there, me and you, and for days on end the canes flip and flap in the warm breezes, silent green things constantly waving to me with both arms. But there’s no interaction. There’s no communication. Just the silent natural beauty of well-maintained socially-distant rows.

July 8-15, Dust

When you live in a vineyard, surrounded by other vineyards all over the place, you notice that each one is farmed a little differently, different approaches to canopy, trellis, and how to clear ground, evident by the various tractors methodically discing the rows inbetween the vines. Then right next door, in the next vineyard over, the ground clear is done differently or sometimes not at all. Some disc, some mow. Some have different trellis systems, spacing, and cover crops.

The ground itself is a funny thing. I mean you don't see what's happening inside the ground while you walk on top of it. We live on this plane of existence that begins with us standing on top of something, building on it, paving it, when the ground is just as alive as we are. Say that again. The ground is alive. That's how all plants have evolved. That's why trees have roots so they can be underground and interact with it. That's how trees live. Everything with a root exists because dirt is alive. It's not hippie-shit.

I say all this because lately the grasses and weeds in my vineyard rows have gone dormant and look dead. It makes the vineyard floor look a like a shaggy beige carpet underneath the canopy, bolted weeds whose sun-dried seed pods are picked up by the wind and transported to other hillsides. That dead-beige is what local people call golden. The hills are golden, the rows inbetween the green vines are golden, everywhere in California during mid-summer is golden. It's also dusty and dry.

On a warm July day you can look out on the fields of vines and watch dust clouds rising inside the vast greenness, as distant tractors inside the valley canopy reveal their locations with tails of dust. The wind kicks up and the clouds of dust billow up in the air and then they find you, find your house, find your open windows and every piece of everything on your now dusty property. And since just about every house in Napa Valley is surrounded by a vineyard of some size and dimension, the amount of dust is legendary.

If you're outside just take your hat off and beat it once or twice against your leg and a flurry of dust will come out. It's on your shoes and boots, your pants or shorts, your hair and your face. It's everywhere! The joy of summer is a house in cadence with the wind, windows half open, breezes lifting curtains and then lowering them in that quiet summer way. But those open windows mean that when you wipe your finger on the kitchen table, you'll get a finger coated with dust. The floors, the carpet, the insides of your closet, it's everywhere and you can't just wipe it away (all you get is wiped dust), you have to wash it away.

Rutherford dust is famous. It's not only the name of a viticultural organization, the Rutherford Dust Society, who pursue excellence in grape growing and winemaking, but the dust itself is ever prevalent in the vineyards of Oakville, Rutherford, and other appellations in Up Valley because the soil is deeper. Deeper soil enables longer growing seasons and hang time. And that terroir creates a fine dust tannin in the grapes that often becomes the chocolate hints in the deep red wines of Napa Cabernets.

Leave your chocolate out at night and the next day it will have a fine dust to it.

July 16-23. Alone.

This week my wife went to our other house, in the SF Bay, where my son Tom lives and is sheltering and watching over the house and property. He’s got the whole place to himself. Elizabeth needs some big-city reliable internet access. I suppose this is the weak link in our family virus health plan... my wife going back and forth but once a month I make the trip too.

This week she takes the cat, Finnigan, my constant companion, just to change things up, reunite cat with son, and give me time to do a few things (like thoroughly clean the dust from the house). I had looked forward to the changing routine and having the ability to stay in my studio but then the day came quickly and they’re suddenly gone. Silence. Nobody. Stalks of grapes. A few cars pass on the Trail below but even that seems wimpy. I sit and read the online newspapers and worry about the virus, the world, while admiring the valley.

Being alone in a vineyard has its own beautiful kind of isolation especially in the evenings as the shadows lengthen and the rows of steel and posts and wires and these quite huge plants create this marvelous moat between you and the outside world. The vines are really quite large now and they turn into these large unlit black masses at night, large shapes in a sentinel formation of some kind as if guarding your nocturnal lands. It’s quite dramatic!

I talk to things more when I'm by myself. I talk to trees, the sun, I talk to birds and insects, I talk to the vineyard and to all sorts of critters and garden objects like the shovel, tractor, and buckets.

I talk to the quail a lot because they're constantly foraging in the vineyard either going up or down the hill. Up and then down. Like clockwork during the day. When the cat is here, I must play traffic cop, chasing the birds away to avoid a confrontation with the cat because the quail would kick his ass. They roam in gangs of twenty at a time and often surround him on all sides, making loud aggressive click-click-click noises.

The finchies talk all day long. They are little flying balls of constant chatter and bright birdie voices. That’s because over the years generations of finches have passed down the location of Pat, the human, who puts out copious quantities of birdseed and multiple washing and drinking stations. I call it Birdwood after the local Meadowood Health Spa. It’s a favorite of finches, titmouses, wrens, bluebirds, robins, even jays and doves.

It’s not a one-bird an hour affair. There are dozens of little birds, moving, fluttering, zooming in from all angles directly at the two bird feeders in the tree over the Party Patio. They chirp all day, happy to eat black oil sunflower seeds and visit the water tubs I have set up for them.

The birdbaths came during the dry years with a single terra cotta saucer full of clean water on top of the chiminea. Then it grew to two, three, and is now five large terra cotta saucers with assorted bowls of water around the property for the critters who won’t come near the house. The baths are great fun to watch and the finches make me smile and laugh out loud as they face each other on the round saucer, talk, talk, talking, sometimes jumping into the water and splashing their wings like a little water tornado. I’ve taken many videos of this happy event and sent them off to social media.

Two years ago, after the Atlas Peak fire burned a mere two miles away, I had all the fountains full and fresh every few hours. The ash made the water dirty with soot and chemicals in the smoke. And the number of birds washing themselves increased. One smokey morning I stumbled out and there was a giant brown eagle in the water, its tail feathers hanging off of one end of the birdbath, now wet and shiny, for a moment acting just like the tiny finches who jump in and bathe. I could see clean spots in its plumage where the smoke and ash was washing off.

There's a water bowl up the hill in the middle of the vineyard. Just a deep water bowl for critters. I fill it up almost everyday because its small and meant for drinking not fine bathing. I imagine skunks, raccoons, rodents, turkeys, and blue jays use it all the time. It can go empty after just a full night.

These are the things you do when alone and quarantined in a vineyard. You talk a lot to trees and grape plants.

July 24-31. Veraison

So far this summer has been gorgeous. Just like summers used to be: hot during the afternoon, chilly at night. The weather pattern has been holding for weeks now causing the rest of the US to suffer in their version of the heat bubble.

This week veraison took place. Veraison is the ripening of the berries on the grape clusters ( the grapes that turn purple). The whole vineyard and practically all of wine country flips all at once: "Turn purple on Wednesday." And it seemingly happens overnight. One day green, one day purple, but in reality it's taking many days of the slightest shifts of color toward purple. Then you finally notice it. The purple of course is striking and the new contrast is immediate. Oh, it's a vineyard. Up unto this point it's been a bunch of large green overarching vines, with no color contrast and tiny little green clusters. Now, veraison makes the whole valley look official. There are grapes on these vines!

For a vineyard it's amazing news! Perhaps the biggest news all year. Think of it. All the grapes in this entire valley just changed their color and it was all done in plant time. Needless to say, it triggers a wide-range of farming events.

For one, eight weeks from veraison is harvest. It’s a rule of thumb that prudently says things should be harvestable in two months. Eight weeks from now is the end of September and that's about right. Some vineyards go earlier, many will stretch it out to late October as science and art merge together in an attempt to perfect what Mother Nature has given you.

Thinning, the process of trimming away excess grape clusters starts now. The fruit is thinned and left on the ground, small tart berries left in place to decompose. Another crew comes through later and thins the canopy, sometimes weaving the long canes together like a pony tail braid, getting light down into the plant, telling the vine to put its energy into the fruit clusters.

Veraison is a pinnacle point of the year for a vineyard. Up to now it's been about waking up, pruning, growing, and developing fruit. Now and for the next sixty days it’s going to be about ripening and finishing the last leg of the vineyard year during a global pandemic: harvest.

What could go wrong?