# Week 40 October 1-7 , 2019
October treats Napa Valley like a calendar photo shoot, with picturesque rows of vineyards going up and down the hillsides, solitary winding roads, workers with large sombreros and smiles, constant sun, food and wine festivals, a light that is starting to slant shadows in new directions, and lots of wine. I hate it.
Everything is brown. The hills and grasses and edges of the road used to be golden but now they are just brown, that tan-dead kind of noncolor reserved for waiting rooms. Every plant and patch of growth is tired. Everything is tired of the heat, the lack of water, the long summer, tired of the half-frozen nights and 95-degree mid-day heat. Even the oak trees are losing faith, the leaves of the deciduous oaks becoming thick burned-up curls that fall reluctantly, sticking to the gravel driveway because so much oak sap has leaked. The vines have the look of exhaustion, with heavy clusters of grapes weighing down the whole plant, the canes not so springy anymore. Even those magnificent clusters are starting to show their age – some berries have cracks in their skin, some are sunburned. Birds enjoy grapes right now, as they did last year when one whole end of the vineyard was a bird party. About two weeks ago workers came to wrap the rows in bird netting, a seasonal task, unraveling large bales of netting down one side and then stretching it all the way up the row along the other side.
October’s weather is unpredictable and getting more so. It could bring heat, or get cold, it can rain, or it can be the most peaceful New England fall day you’ve ever seen. And in reality, it doesn’t matter to the tourists because in October they come. They come to catch glimpses of the harvest (on nice days) and to get away from the San Francisco or the Silicon Valley heat by coming to a hotter place. They come in droves on Saturday, mixing with the bicyclists, tractors, and large flatbed semi’s carrying harvested grapes to the winery. There are weddings, harvest parties, and long stretched limos that can’t make the country lane turns, and get stuck, and everybody is out of the car taking selfies of their stuck limo. Typically I seem to always be behind one or all of these. Weekends are when you stay home.
You can assume that by mid-afternoon every driver has been drinking. Some tourists drive at half the speed limit creating city long traffic back-ups while others drive wildly around them, ignoring safety concerns and solid yellow lines. I’m always alarmed by the bicycle pods filling the roadway shoulders, ten, twenty bicyclists in their colored jerseys as vineyard trucks race with 80 tons of just-picked grapes just a few feet away.
The motorcycle pods come on Saturday, too, and sometimes the same ones on Sunday afternoon. They have loud blaring radios you can hear for miles mixing with deep guttural tailpipes that advertise the testosterone. Put 50, or a 100 motorcycles, cruising by your little vineyard out in wine country and you can’t hear yourself talk. Today, it’s must be some kind of last October fling for old bikers, as Pink Floyd times 40 bikes goes past at 60 miles an hour.
October is now, officially by my reckoning, state-wide fire month. The dry summer and hot sun has taken their toll. The epic Napa/Sonoma fires (Atlas Peak) of last year (2018) were in October as just about every bad wild fire in California history. The Atlas Peak Fire evacuated my house and vineyard and came within a few miles, burning down the mountain to touch Silverado in several places south of us.
Everyone has seen pictures and news about the fires in Napa and know what they look like but most people don’t experience the walls of fire. They experience the smoke. It was so thick and so harmful to the lungs and filled with so many chemicals from the houses that it burned down my throat even though I had a few HEPA N-95 wearable air filters. Buy the best ones you can. The smoke is everywhere and for days you’re trapped in your home watching the news about the fires, or attached to Twitter, as I was, following second-by-second updates.
I don’t like October because of the fire danger it brings. Tourists like the constant sunny days but by I’m tired of it. I want November. I want water. I want gentle winds laden with moisture, not PGE threats to turn off the electricity. I want big fluffy clouds but it’s only the first of October and we have four more weeks to go until November.
# Week 41. October 8-15 Harvest
Last night bright light clusters seemed to be climbing out of the valley floor like ants. So much light that I got up and looked out the upstairs windows. There were eight places in the valley where I counted activity. The closest was a quarter mile away and it looked like a football field during a night football game, about an acre of vineyard lit up so well that you could see the green of the vine leaves, and then on the edges of that rectangle of light, darkness, and the deep purple all around it.
At 8am that same morning, a picking crew swept in and picked about a quarter of my grapes. They had a distinct area to pick. After a half-hour they got whisked away for other jobs. That's been happening the last few years – certain blocks go earlier than the others so instead of one harvest, there’s three to four mini-harvests. The Ames vineyard has the terroir of east slope Napa valley, meaning hotter, meaning things set a little quicker. So our vineyard tends to get picked early but as the vineyard has matured over the years, different blocks are slightly different. The block in front of the house which has a deep loam, deep enough that you could grow vegetables, has a sub-block that produces huge, bountiful clusters. They are always the last to go. The winemaker placed yellow caution tape around half of the block to reserve it until later.
While looking at the valley floor seems like vast miles of vineyards, the blocks and sub-blocks abound in each vineyard you see. Every little area is its own thing, its own terroir, its own self. Which makes perfect sense. Every plant is different, every tree, every direction and perspective to the sun is different. Every person, and every bottle of wine is different. We sometimes get lost in our own little world and forget that everything else has a perspective, too. Vineyards are no different. The growers and farmers know the blocks and sub-blocks by heart, whether it's Napa, Burgandy, or Mendoza. Everything is unique, and different is alive like nothing else. Terroir should also be about space-time and include not only location but time. Because no two sequences of time are the same, either.
October Crush (or the time when you crush the grapes for juice) is in full swing. The object is to pick everything at its prime yet somehow coordinate the winery to crush all the grapes and store the vats of fermenting juice somewhere while other grapes are on the vine but coming in soon. Sometimes harvesting grapes is not about the grapes but about the winery: how big is it, can it hold everything in tanks and vats, what do they have to move around, like musical chairs, to keep the grapes coming? It's a huge logistic effort to just get the grapes picked, received, logged and weighed. (You don't want them to sit in like airplanes on a tarmac in soaring October sun.)
If you know your vineyards, then you start running a complicated algorithm in your head about what to pick, when to pick it, where to put it once once it’s picked, and how to use every inch of the winery for different purposes at the same time. Creative barrel storing and outdoor fermentation helps. Most wineries bottle in the spring and summer, converting their barrel and tank storage into bottles and cases that go to vast warehouses (caves still exist, too) in American Canyon. Wine is constantly moving from vats to tanks to barrels to bottles, to clear the way for the new harvest. Forklifts are often the most valuable thing you possess.
The industry measures the amount of grapes picked by it’s weight and typically by the ton (here in Napa). The US Government requires stringent record keeping of what gets picked, where it gets picked, and its weight. It's part of liquor control and the government requires records from all harvests everywhere. Further, wineries are wineries because they have been "bonded" by the government (again this is US, other countries have their own penalties). Lawfully, only bonded wineries can make wine from grapes with an exception that home wineries are allowed a gallon limit, which I believe is currently 50 gallons.
Bulk grapes are for sale on the open market by the tank or the tanker truck, and right now, unpicked fruit can be bought right now and get picked. The wine classified business is a year-long marketplace. You can, just by using you phone, buy bulk wine, have it shipped to a bonded winery, buy time and space, pay someone to bottle it and store it, arrange shipments of casework to different distributors, and sell it to the supermarkets and restaurants. Voilá, you don’t have to grow, pick, or do anything. You can own a label without the hassle of growing vines. Thousands do it and try to out-clever the competition with new label names. (Just about every Uber driver in Napa Valley has a their own brand for sale in the trunk of the Uber car.)
Back to the grand algorithm to get the grapes in... a dreaded heat spike is coming this weekend and already there’s a heat advisory three days in advance. Hello, it’s Cal-fire season. October. You don't worry about rain or hail storms damaging the crop, its climate change that you worry about, it's fire and smoke. Get the harvest in before the electricity gets cut because of fire danger. Get the harvest in before the smoke comes. Get the harvest into the winey where it will be safe. Get the harvest in.
The harvest algorithm has gotten more complicated.
# Week 43 October 16-22 Our Little Harvest
Our house garden is in full bloom. Sunflowers have gone mad and made several arcs above the garden reaching 10-15 feet tall. The actual sunflower is smallish, perhaps enabling such heights, but the stalks are rambling everywhere somehow surviving the daily winds but you always wonder how. The tomatoes are still producing and years of experience has taught my wife to only have grown two plants, or else there’s just too many tomatoes. Frankly, by October, after three months of tomatoes, I'm a little tired of them.
She’s cutting flowers, cucumber, basil, eggplant, and October lettuce before the heat spike. The almond tree is still young and the almonds are few. The olives have plenty of fruit this year but nothing happens until December when they ripen. The citrus is young and should get through the hot days until the winter months, if I managed to hand water them. My pistachio trees were planted in the wrong place, and I must get new ones at some point. In fact, at some point we must decide on either to grow more food or cut back on edibles. For decades we’ve depended on this vineyard home to detox from the Silicon Valley as a weekend retreat and gardening is part of the respite, but it can be a full-time occupation. It’s the weekender’s dilemma.
Since we’re not here enough the critters win. The garden shrinks in your absence. Rabbits eat the lettuce, squirrels dig everywhere. Blue jays peck at the veggies and moles can pull a whole young plant down into the earth in seconds. Not to mention raccoons, opossums, deer, birds of every feather, and the entire insect world with an affinity for table vegetables. For years we’ve been weekend gardners and the garden shows it – it's not neglected, it’s visited too much by the wrong visitors. Plant a bunch of succulent things to eat and go away for a week of PowerPoint presentations and budget meetings and upon return the garden will look like the morning kitchen after a cocktail party.
But garden we must, so about 10 years ago we started with a patch of Napa earth that we turned over (it took days for the tractor backhoe to breakup the hardened soil). We spent a fortune on compost and sand and grit and bags of loose soil to amend the poor stuff I broke in to. Elizabeth planted and I ran irrigation lines so it could be watered while we’re off PowerPointing during the week. Essentially we picked stuff on the weekend while the critters ate it during the week. I remember Elizabeth coming home with new plants from the ag store, planting them in our new garden, and in the time it took for her to go get a different shovel, a mole had dragged her newly-planted veg down into the soil. One moment it was there and the next it was molested.
Thus started the mole wars.
Every type of electronic device or chicken wire contortion was enlisted. One winter I dug up the garden (with the tractor), laid overlapping layers of chicken wire down and recovered the soil, then built back the raised bed over the chickenwire, refilling with the finest Napa Valley top soil. The moles from beneath came out during our absence and climbed up to the top of the raised bed and nibbled right down to the quick.
She tried the mole vibrator (officially called a Mole Sonic Spike), a plastic cone that vibrated every 20 seconds driving the mole crazy to self-evict itself and never return to the land of plenty again. It kind of drove us crazy, more than the moles, with these sonic vibrations happening every few seconds from another corner of the garden. My complaint was that it took like four D batteries and the buzzers went through the batteries. At some point our battery usage was out-weighing the benefits of having our own organic lettuce and basil and our carbon footprint was outrageously out of balance. I don't like to poison things, so I tried mole traps that fit down into mole holes and managed to snap my fingers more times that the number of moles that were caught. Then one day we faced the truth and decided to pull up the wires and wood planks that comprised the frames and instead use galvanized water troughs made for cattle and horses as raised beds. Expensive but at least we wouldn't have to buy batteries.
They worked great for a few years. Their two and a half foot high galvanized sides were too tall to climb over and the steel bottoms stopped everybody. But after two years, the drain plug got plugged up and the soil became more clay and wet and we had terrible drainage (a death knoll of a veg garden). So we dug each tub up again, I drilled a dozen holes in the tub bottoms for drainage, filled the bottom with gravel, a layer of fabric to keep the dirt out of the holes, and then refilled with fresh dirt and compost. It was so much work that I made it my wife’s Christmas present. Merry Mole-less.
# Week 44 October 23-31 The big, valley wide harvest.
Harvest continues. It goes on for weeks. The weather continues in what must be called drought conditions: dry, sunny, cold at night, hot and still during the day. The fields are alive with rows of cars, their men and women dressed in loose clothes yet showing little skin except their oval faces. There’s lots of chatter, fast-paced street Spanish, a blend of California and Mexico idioms tailored for the vineyard.
To harvest you slice the grape cluster stem and lay, not drop, the large clusters (hopefully) into the plastic tub sitting at your feet on the ground. Actually, it’s a stack of empty plastic tubs the size of a dish washing tub in your sink, a half-dozen or so in a tight fitting stack. You push the stack of tubs down the row with your legs or feet as you clip from above with your arms. When the tub is full of your freshly cut clusters, you lift the full one out from the stack and start filling the next tub. Depending on the picking crew, someone collects the filled tubs and they go into a larger bin, called a T-bin, and those bins go to the winery for crushing. There’s a fire-fighting line handing the plastic tubs, which get out of those long rows of vineyard and into some larger tub, and then eventually a T-bin that goes back to the winery, is weighed, emptied, briefly cleaned and then stacked on a stake-rack truck and returned.
From the road, or watching from above, I can see various hoodies and jackets, hats and heads, some taller than the vines, some not, moving like a flock of humans through the vineyards. There's a tractor or two in there kicking up dust as it moves. Rumbling noises emerge and eventually a stakerack truck drives out noisily and slowly accelerates on the highway bound for the winery. Once the traffic dies down, I can hear the voices, some singing, laughter, and probably curses. It’s back-breaking work carrying plastic tubs of grapes as you work your way down a long row only to discover there’s a whole bunch more to go. At lunch time there is little singing or laughter. They’re too tired to talk.
Harvest is dirty. It’s dirty work and everything that is outside in October is dusty and dirty. Trucks, roadways, vines, and people. You see lots of pickers patting off their pant dust and jacket grime at the end of the rows. The tub has every imaginable spider, bug, and grit crawling within its plastic sides. When the tub gets passed down and deposited in a large T-bin, all the grapes, stems, leaves, and critters go with the dusty fruit, not to mention the T-bin trucks that lumber away on the vineyard dirt road, kicking up dry October dustballs that blow back on the vineyard.
The winery is the first clean place grapes go their entire life.