Chapter 6: November 2019

A Year's Journal in a Vineyard

# Week 45 November 1-7 Tinder Dry

The leaves are changing to yellow and soft oranges. The acorns are falling on the wooden deck as I type, loud thuds that bounce like footballs down the wooden steps, thump, thump, thump. It’s chilly in the morning but will still warm up during cloudless days. The harvest has been over for a week or so, with straggler trucks coming in from the upper elevations. It smells like grape must in the mornings when the humidity is high enough for whiffs of fermentation tanks and vats nearby in a valley full of wineries.

It’s not hot, it’s dry. So dry that I’m putting bowls of water out randomly in the house. So parched that my lips get stiff and my exposed skin feels like newspaper when I move - it seems to crackle. Fire season is here with its insanely low humidities.

It’s two years after the Atlas fire of 2017 that burned the Napa mountain tops and destroyed portions of Napa and Sonoma and Lake counties. Last year in 2018 it was the Camp fire, which devastated several valleys north of here. There has always been a fire season in California, and there have always been fires but now they have gone extreme.

This year, 2019, is the year that PGE (Pacific Gas & Electric) started to turn off power during “climate episodes” to avoid its system from breaking down during storms and wildfires. People are up in arms and me, too. During some of the hottest, windiest weather, when humidity is just 10%, you don’t go around and turn off people’s electricity. It’s the power that is running harvest in the wineries, power for the huge tourism industry, power to open and close your gates, house, barn, or turn on your water pump.

The energy grid is ridiculous and wasteful and slapped together like an afterthought – Napa Valley has these ugly poles all over its beautiful landscapes, laden with huge wires almost in a willy-nilly valley wide fashion. It’s obvious, it’s ugly, and nothing has changed in 50 years. We need to be shaken awake, here. We need to sit up and take action. I need to get off this grid and fast.

It's Saturday as I write and there’s a rough weekend coming. They’re predicting 30 mile winds in the valleys which means 60+ miles per hour on mountain tops where hundreds of these power lines crisscross. If just one line falls because of trees, branches, or flying debris, you can create firestorms that move at incredible speeds disintegrating everything in their path. Aliens could not devise a more potent war machine.

It’s a red-flag fire warning in Northern California, meaning conditions are ripe for new wildfires to begin and PGE has quickly notified me I’m without electricity starting at 4pm, later today.

8 am. I go into St.Helena to buy food looking for things that are already cooked or things I can cook on the barbecue (plus the side-burner for things like hot water for coffee and pan-fried bacon and eggs). I fill the freezer with bowls of water for ice to keep the inside of the fridge cool. Water isn’t an issue here unless the 3000 gallon tank up the hill gets used up, still, I filter extra water in some storage containers just to be safe. These black-outs can last for days and days. I check all the flashlights, charge all my laptops and devices, set out plugs in the truck and car to charge devices from the car battery.

11:30 am. Putting things away, swings, yard umbrellas, hanging stuff, and I arrange the car and truck on the driveway pointing to the exit. I put the tractor in a spot where's there's no trees to keep it from burning should things happen that way. There’a haze across the valley that’s getting thicker and a long stream of cirrus passes north to south – odd I think. My mouth is dry. I drink a big, big glass of ice tea. Humidity is 31%.

2:30pm. Humidity is 23%. 84 degrees. Wind 5-6 mph.

4:00pm. Power finally goes out as the winds pick up, as PGE had promised. Just before the power flips off, the cat and I hear a shrill whistle in the back vineyard that we thought was an owl, but I think the shrill was the power being flipped off (we have several large PGE poles that grace the middle of our property, doesn’t everyone). The AT&T cell towers are still working so there’s text and voice. I’m careful not to drain the phone's battery but peek online just to find out what’s happening.

9:00pm. Humidity 15-19%. Winds 12-32 mph from the north (coming from the Nevada deserts). The Kincaid fire is spreading in these winds and I’m tracking with a couple of different phone apps. I’m sleeping on the couch, fully dressed, waiting for someone or some notice to say Time to Go! By midnight it’s hitting Sonoma county. Then Geyersville, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa. Sadly I hear Jimtown, too.

This is all happening twenty miles away and the winds are driving the smoke somewhere else because the air here is relatively clean, chilly, and smokeless. All around Oakville in Napa Valley it's just dry wind. The news on my phone says half of Northern California is without power with a giant preventative shutdown that will take at least a day to turn back. The night air is so dry that I can feel the low humidity in my nostrils.

Then Sonoma takes another hit, almost exactly where I had just passed three weeks ago in the Knight and Anderson Valleys. Three weeks ago it had that tired October look with vineyards spent and hillsides, knolls, and ravines full of dry-brown scrub oak.

A night without electricity is a strange thing. You don't sleep and if you do it isn’t well. The mobile phone is bedside, ready to relay texts should fire danger be imminent. Having that kind of danger around is an adrenaline jolt that leaves you wide awake. I listened to the acorns fall on the patio deck, powered by the gusts of wind, and keep thinking about the animals. I’ve don’t want to know how many critters and organisms perish in such fire disasters. I refuse to Google it. The numbers must be staggering because each tree is a such a marvelous village. I can’t bare to know.

In the morning I heat a kettle of water on the outdoor (propane) barbecue and have coffee while writing these few lines on my phone. We survived. The book can continue.

Ash has fallen on everything. I feed the birds and change their watering baths. There's no electricity but the weather has broken. There's a slight moisture in the air and the wind is coming off of the bay lands now and starting to come relieve Napa Valley.

The vineyard grabs desperately at the moisture in the new breezes and if I was a better writer I would somehow convince you that they are surprised to be alive.

# Week 46. November 8-15

After a harrowing week Napa is back to it’s true form, beautiful. The fires stayed to the north and the smoke was bad but only lasted a few days. And then the sun, blue skies, cool temps, and a little moisture in the air – it’s so odd that my favorite month is right after the month I hate.

One reason I love November is that we get the vineyard to ourselves. No one is walking around inspecting this or that, no one picking or pruning. All the activity has moved into the wineries as crews and workers rest from the crush and the cellar rats and winery workers get the overtime clock.

The colors of the vineyard are green, yellow, and orange. If you see red in vineyards during the fall leaf change it can indicate something may be wrong with the vines. Did I mention bright blue skies?

That's the November mashup: cold, dry, and dusty with colored vineyard leaves and a slanted light that visual artists cry for. People are generally happier now, there's less hard work, there’s new wines, and there’s a harvest bounty of produce. If you can stay for the American holiday of Thanksgiving, do so. Food and wine is everywhere and most tourists have fled. And the light is extraordinary. Have I mentioned that?

Napa sunlight produces extraordinary views. November light is clean, especially after the first rains. After the tractors and dust of the summer and fall November is a landscape wash, once washed with rain, can become breathtaking. You don't have to be an light expert here, just drive down Silverado Trail during the day and you’ll spot photographers with their tripods pulled off on the road’s shoulder. They don't have to hike in. They are seeing the same amazing things from the roadway that you are: color, light, shadow, intensity, highlights, perspective, all playing on the dramatic narrowness of the valley and the fact that it's filled with very expensive vineyards that make high-quality wines.

November rapidly loses daylight. Here, the sun is moving "down valley." Since the valley runs, roughly, south to north, the sun's east-west axis is sliding down valley, moving perceptively as the days become shorter. By mid-November, you literally have more slanted light than straight-above-your-head light. Slanted light means it goes through more atmosphere to reach you thus softening it, like how a sunset does. When the bright morning light strikes the vineyard foliage the valley floor goes green-yellow neon in the fresh light, an amazing sight especially with fingers of fog floating in the crooks and crannies. If you come in November, wake up early and take a walk or drive and watch the sun clear the eastern mountains and light up the Mayacamus Mountains on Napa's west side. Better than a crowded balloon flight.

It's the reason you live in a vineyard. It’s why you put up with the isolation, the dust, and the critters. It’s for the views.

Vineyards views have something nothing else can quite provide. The tight rows cascade down knolls and over ridges, the valley floor, mountainsides, and it's all visible, you can see far and wide! It’s where the tight human-order of the vineyard and natural’s beauty comes together.

And you get this view of your life, too, your loves, your success, your failures. It’s not a crowded city scene where you are part of something infinitely larger than your concerns, but instead it is you and the seemingly infinite vineyards stretching out in front of you. And you can see that far! You can see past things, like tomorrow, or next week. You can watch the slow cycles of the vine, not those other things in a society far away. Life in a vineyard is about viewing your life.

There. It took me twenty-five years to write that last sentence. You can see backward and forward and off into the tangents. You can stand in the middle of a vineyard and turn around and around and see the same thing going on behind you and in front of you. It reminds me of my life and the passing of days that brought me out into the vineyard in the first place.

That’s because life is a vineyard. You create yourself every year, something that continues to bear fruit even as you move on. There’s a vineyard of days, months, and years in your head, tightly cultivated, grown in strict rows, nurtured and provided for. Swirl the red juice in your glass, it too has time distilled. Drink. Time isn’t a moving arrow, it’s a vineyard that grows up all around you.

# Week 47 Nov 16-23 Almost Thanksgiving

November is what I call window weather when you warm the house up in the afternoon by opening the windows. Often the house warm up is enough to last through the night. There's no smoke in the air, thank God, and the winds are back to normal and coming from the Southwest not the Nevada deserts. And all around there’s less dust, soot, ash, and general tractor and harvest dirt. Time to open the windows up and air out what's been shut up for weeks because of the smoke.

Windows open at noon and close by 4 pm. The air is invigorating and the warm breezes break into the house and pass right through, like how a gang of kids can run in one door, tour the house, and then leave out the other door in a few seconds (usually with food), only now instead of kids, it's dashes of warmth on stiff breezes. So far we haven’t turned on the heater at night. It's the last desperate act of summer: to avoid the dry, forced-air furnaces of winter.

You can smell the vineyard: the dusty rocks, the vegetation starting to decay, all with whiffs of cinnamon and chocolate. The air itself is starting to change, starting to have humidity. It’s the Pacific Ocean. Hello again! After six months of arid vineyards and bright blue skies, smelling the ocean in the air again is quite an amazingly cheerful thing. It’s nice just to use your nose again. The air seems thicker somehow more rounded, as if moisture had a shape. I’m fascinated by it for hours.

Air, of course, is made in the vineyard in great quantities. Fresh air made right on site. A vineyard can go through a sizable amount of carbon to grow its long canes and clusters of fruit and they release a lot of fresh oxygen in the process. There’s an entire vineyard valley at work here creating air. Fresh air. In the city it blows in. Here, it’s made.

Once the nose gets working there’s also the smell the slight decay of leaf matter and spent grapes that got missed or passed over at harvest. Fresh vineyard air is quite remarkable. There's no human smells here, no fumes, no chemicals from man or society, no plastics, chemicals, or FreshAir Spray in a can. That November breeze you open the windows for picks up these wonderful smells and aromas, hay, grass, leather, and lots of pure, fresh oxygen.

Then, suddenly, one weekday morning, the deepest fog I've seen since last year arrives. It's thick and soupy and the outdoor table tops and car engine hoods have tiny beads of water. It's moisture! It's not rain, but damn, it's moisture and you can smell it too. So many new smells in November. It’s like an alarm clock going off.

The vineyard pales by comparison to the cacophony of smells that are in the wineries: the must, the vats, the smells of washed down concrete drying in the autumn sunlight, wine and alcohol, and the smell of fresh oak barrels off in the corner. The smells permeate the cellars. Depending on whom you’re following, there’s strong trails of perspiration, too. It’s very busy in the wineries right now and everyone is tasting and spitting flavors and aromas, and then if that wasn’t enough, talking about them. The cellar life is all about the nose. It seems natural, when you think about it, that people trained in the cellar can smell terroir, location, wine varietal, and vintage years. It's all there and once you have developed the senses you can taste wine without drinking it.

A cellar worker once told me that when they wander from the winery’s cellar into the public tasting rooms, the first thing they smell is perfume. It's overpowering and interferes with their sensory abilities and some claim affects your own taste buds. (Global hint: don’t wear perfume when wine tasting.)

Finally, in a month that is full of senses, the smells coming from the restaurants and home kitchens are amazingly tempting. Food and wine seems everywhere. As the weather turns colder, the afternoon windows stay closed and the aromas from the kitchen stay indoors: soups, stews, and roasts. The produce is remarkable in California and one of the best reasons for moving and living here. November is a time to revel in the senses so my wife and I celebrate with a glass of wine at Bistro Jaunty in Yountville and some proper French food.

The restaurants are so exquisite in Napa that we simply cannot afford to eat out every night. We don’t own a winery or a restaurant or a vineyard management company or a trendy bar or a fine art connection – we literally just live in a vineyard. We cook wonderful food at home, we read a lot, we do office work, plant vegetables in a garden, and we go to the farmers’ markets. None of it is over the top wine country with $500 wines and chef-inspired meals with fresh truffles. That exists. And it exists in abundance, so much so that we tend to stay in the vineyard and cook. Here, it’s dark. November has arrived. It’s fleece weather and our thoughts are a little more mundane: it still hasn’t rained.

# Week 48 Nov 24-30 - Thanksgiving and Rain

There are several cute expensive small towns in Napa Valley, lined with chi-chi shops, boutiques, and hardware stores, but 95% of the land of Napa is either ag or wild. Instead of out in the sticks we're out in the vines. Most of wine country is that way. It’s full of vineyards not people or houses.

It looks like France or Italy with the big wineries and the large beautiful architectures built to attract the eye and the long driveways with perfectly placed sycamores or olive trees or Italian Cypress lining the entry. But get out into the vineyards and you see migrant workers, pickup trucks, portable plastic latrines, and burritos. It’s real country life where lunch is in the shade of an old oak tree, not in the dining halls of over-decorated wineries. Most people you meet in the vineyard are friendly, boring, country folks intent on remaining so.

There is so much country in Napa county that it became an *agricultural preserve*. The Napa Valley Ag Preserve is a strict, county-wide, land-use ordinance, voted in over 50 years ago, forbidding any land usage other than vineyards, farming, and agricultural. The land use ordinance was visionary in my mind and it still is. In fact, I personally think all of the U.S. should consider such rural designations and restrictions in non-urban areas. Without the Ag Preserve, Napa Valley would be like current day Silicon Valley, once home to thousands of orchards, now paved with parking lots.

While the Ag Preserve limits development to agricultural, the Napa Valley commissioners both limit and permit vineyards and wineries. You can no longer find a patch of level ground covered by trees and make it into a vineyard. First of all, there are few vineyard opportunities left and if you do find one, good luck with the permitting. You can’t plant vineyards on greater than 30% slope; you can’t cut down oak trees greater than 1 or 2 inches in diameter; you have to have a series of environmental studies done; and even if you have a permit, there’s no land movement or construction allowed from Oct-March (roughly the rainy season). Or you might get the land but your neighbors have negative input on any kind of land use you might envision, and limit your production (water usage), tourist events (crowding and cars), and outdoor eventing and parties.

Water and water rights to the valley’s aquafer is fought after, defended, and sued upon. There’s an old joke: Nobody can take a shower while Mondavi is irrigating their vineyards (the water table sinks in the entire valley). While the Ag Preserve protects the valley from over development, the lawyers and courts fight over the Ag Preserve and its applicability to all.

Finally, it’s the Thanksgiving holiday. In years past it would have rained several times by now. The colors in the vineyard would be deliciously bright because they would have been washed. Instead, I'm watching dust devils blow across the valley floor. Not a drop of rain, and to make matters worse, the dry, warm winds with no humidity are coming back from the deserts and blowing down from the north. It feels like the Earth rising up and flicking us off, like an ant crawling up your arm.

And then finally, on November 30th, after a fire season from hell, it rained. Temperatures plummeted at night as it barely reaches 50 in the afternoon. Grey clouds everywhere. How strange. After months of hot sun, suddenly, there's cold humidity and then it comes quickly, rain, steady and strong. I go outside and let it fall on my face. How strange! Humidity, water, rain. And in the middle of that night I open the window as the cold front passes and listen to the sound of rain, that wonderful sleep inducing, calming rain.

The Sunday of the holiday we trim the olive trees and walk the vineyard and have turkey leftovers. The roads are near empty and tourists and locals are watching football or shopping online. The roads are empty and I can hear the geese crossing the valley a few miles away as they fly into or out of their habitat near Yountville like a bomber squadron. It's a day of reflection and rest from a brutal fall while surviving yet another California fire season, the heat, and the power outages. It’s been raining and life could not be grander.

I can finally build a fire in the chiminea because it has rained. My wife and I sit by the warmth, have a glass of wine, talk about what needs to get done in the garden, and watch the sun set. Over the top stuff.