Chapter 7: December 2019

A Year's Journal in Napa Valley

# Week 49 Dec 1-7 Vineyard Math

December begins with rain, cold, fog, mist, downpours, drizzle, big puffy clouds, blue washed sky, soaring hawks, buzzards, and a million new smells. I love it. In the vineyard the canes have lost most of their leaves but those remaining are a wilted brown waiting to be blown around the vineyard and wetted with moisture to then quickly decay. Isn't it funny that the same way you never see anything grow, you never see anything decay. One day that leaf is on the ground, the next time you pass, it's not.

If I had a winery I certainly wouldn’t be watching vineyard components decay. I'd be fixing equipment, monitoring and moving tanks, finding room for expansion and fermentation, while trying to sell as many cases as I could. But I don’t own a winery, I'm a grower in industry jargon, one who grows grapes and sells them by contract or on the open market. But I don't even grow the grapes. I own the land the vineyard is planted on and the whole farming thing is managed by vineyard professionals (definitely not me). So officially that makes me a weekender who doesn't do anything but watch and pay the mortgage.

Last week we got our yearly royalty payment for grapes just harvested from the vineyard. We get one third of the sale of those grapes, according to the contract signed with the Pina Vineyard Management company. Tonnage was recorded and the price per ton is advertised at the state level.

Owning a vineyard is funny math, the smaller it is the more funny. Let's say we pay a mortgage to the bank, say $30k a year plus $6k in land taxes, for $36k in total costs. We get one third of the sales of grapes (by weight) which works out to be an average of about $10k for royalties (the first years were close to $0).

So that’s $36K in costs and $10K in grape sales, leaving us with -$26k just for the privilege of owning a vineyard. Of course, we happen to have a house and live here, but if I didn't have my job in Silicon Valley who would pay the mortgage?

Now, if I wanted to buy some of the wine made from the grapes that were picked in my vineyard, those bottles retail for $100 a bottle. If I wanted to buy my wine with the earnings from grape sales, I could buy about nine cases. That's 108 bottles of wine on the proverbial wall. And I would still owe the full $36K for ownership.

The only way to make it in the wine business, as far as I can judge, is to either be a corporation or to own your land, flat out own it. This way you’re not paying for the mortgage, you’re paying for the growing of vines on your land . Without the mortgage, my little vineyard earns $10k, enough to pay the $6k in land taxes and another $4k in profits to make repairs or buy back wine for consumption.

So vineyards are either owned by a winery growing the grapes for themselves (called estate grown) or a grower selling the grapes for others to make wine (by contract or on the open market). This simple fact in the wine business is getting more complex, especially in California where demand and revenue are climbing, and alcohol, farming, and money mix it up. There are hundreds of scenarios happening inside this simple equation. For example, say you sign an agreement to buy grapes from a grower for ten years, and the contact says you have oversight in how the grapes are grown, pruned, and thinned. So now you can go in and thin the fruit (less fruit = more flavor) so the grower has less tonnage to sell (less fruit = less $) but the wine has better flavor. Or as a grower you make some farming mistakes and the harvest tonnage is not what the winery signed for; they wanted more and you delivered less. Or chemicals versus organic. Or weather, or fire, or smoke taint, or earthquake, or bugs, or the most vicious: family feuds. These can and do create fiscal dynamics, wars, and legalities that typically last longer than the vintage under question.

So, let the record show that I got paid this week on the first of December. Let the record show that the royalties paid the land taxes for the year, one case of my vineyard's wine for the holidays, one fixed roof where it leaked, one new dishwasher, and lots of new garden supplies.

The mortgage is a completely different ledger.

# Week 50. Dec 14-21 Central Coast Travel

It’s raining. There’s nothing to do but watch the rain sink into the thirsty ground. My wife and I decide to take a trip to LA, via the wine country in Central California, and stay overnight in Paso Robles and Los Olivos on the way down .

The total drive from San Francisco to LA is about 5.5 hours. You can take I-5 for speed and a straight line through the Central Valley and produce farms, or you can take 101 that meanders around a bit on the Central Coast. You can also take Route 1, which hugs the coast in a dizzying road and pray there isn't a family RV in front of you. We opt for 101 because it goes directly through the Central Coast wine country.

It's a boring drive until well south of the Bay Area and you come upon the Salinas Valley. Here, agriculture rules. There are large windmills that slowly grind their way around in circles at the heart of the valley. You can see the tall towers for 5-10 miles, especially in this pancake-flat valley. The Salinas Valley is much larger than Napa Valley, much wider, yet still flanked on mountains to the east and to the west. It must be 20, 30 miles wide compared to Napa's 5-8 miles. It's home to huge fields of greens, vegetables, and other seasonal things we can't identify at 60 miles an hour. The valley floor is absolutely covered with crops, from the foot of the Coastal Range to the foot of the foothills and mountains that separate the Salinas from the San Joaquin valley. The road is straight and flat and the rain stops and the sun comes out and this beautiful place looks like classic California as we pass old Spanish missions near the highway. Talk in the car marvels at the amount of diversity in California, it's huge size and quaint spots, and we pledge more local trips in the future.

My wife is driving so I get to watch out the window at the steady parade of farms and workers in fields. My little Napa hillside is a tough patch of dirt with lots of rock except for one block in front of the house full of soft, black loam, nothing like the adjoining areas. "You could grow vegetables, here!" the vineyard manager told me, and shook his head in disbelief. I always remembered that because I, city-boy property owner, didn't quite understand what he was talking about and I remember improvising: "Well, damn, I've seen everything now."

We get stuck driving behind two trucks, one trying to pass the other.

Back to staring out at the farms passing now a little more slowly, row after row of endive, then spinach, then another green, all growing on this flat plane between two mountain ranges and there wasn't a vineyard anywhere. Too fertile for grapes? I ask my wife. She nods.

After twenty years I have so many more questions for that vineyard manager. "How deep? Is it well-drained? What kind of rock?" Because now I can see the difference of the soil by noticing the difference in the vines growing there. I can see the demarcation of the deeper, richer soil among the vines, a jagged line different from the surrounding vines where there are big, boisterous plants with large canopies and a full complement of leaves. Other parts of the vineyard have smaller clusters but the winemaker wants different profiles for within the block, too, allowing her to blend blocks from within a single vineyard .

Ever wonder if when a truck is passing another truck they slow down and hand-signal back and forth through their cab windows? "Hey, let's slow down and hand-signal. What's that, say that again." The trucks and cars behind us are growing in numbers with every mile, getting antsy and belligerent so we decide to pull over and get some coffee for my driving wife.

And wonder of wonders, there's a Starbucks. I think there's a Starbucks everywhere on earth. There's also the typical collection of franchise fast food eateries jammed together in a little row near the exit ramp. It's town center called Exit 152. And I can't resist a few jabs at my wife for going to Starbucks. In all this beautiful flatness, tended to by hand, by thousands of field workers, a place that grows amazing food for miles and miles, and there's a fast-food emporium a block or two long. It's such an odd American phenomena. They probably truck in all the food and sugars and ingredients, instead of sourcing the food from all this goodness that surrounds them.

The line at Starbucks to get a Frappuccino is amazing. We're out on the edge of the Salinas valley, surrounding by farmlands and rich dark soil, and there's a line for sugar laden syrups mixed with coffee and whipped cream. The sandwiches are made in San Jose, the yogurt has more sugar than a Coca-Cola, and the muffins have so much canola oil that it will really stop your heart. And just to prove myself, the customers in line all seem to visit this place too often. This is not good food, it is not sourced, it is processed. Why can't we return to small eateries owned by real people serving real food? Why can’t everything be like small family run wineries in opulent Napa.

My wife simply ignores me and hunkers down in driving mode. Soon we see signs for Paso Robles (The Pass of Oaks). True enough, the straight line of 101 starts to veer toward the ocean, crossing over hilly junctions filled full of oaks whose trunks are now blackened from the new rains. No more flat lands here. We weave in and out of rolling hills that drape down to the Salinas River. As soon as we get into the hills, vineyards start to stretch out from the roadway.

Once in town it rains hard, for hours, eliminating anything in our visit to less than driving through Paso and reading the store signs. About two miles out of downtown is Tin City, an old industrial complex of small galvanized covered buildings. It's now a wine mecca with a dozen or so wineries in each small building, most with tasting bars and right of sale. It's nice to taste in the small winery spaces where work is being done to clear the vats and find storage for the new harvest.

It's taken this whole book up to this time to enter a winery. Sorry. We're just not that used to doing what thousands of tourists do every day where we live, loading their trunks up with bounty, finding someplace to eat, then driving home. I do like this Tin City concept. There's bound to be one small boutique winery among the many that caters to our wine tastes. We have pledged this year to help the small family wineries, no more Amazon or Walmart crap, just gifts to friends and family from the local economy. The fires have been devastating. Not only on our Northern California landscape and wildlife, but on all local businesses we come across.

While tasting at Tin City it eventually comes out that we're vineyard owners from Napa on their way down to LA to see a ballet. At first the reaction is snooty but it warms up as we ask about the vineyards, the placement, the soil. By the end of the tasting, they seem happy that snooty Napans have come to visit, spent their high money, and now are quickly leaving to LA.

We work all the tin sheds and have time to visit five wineries and have five cases in the back of the car. Next we drive to find larger wineries with their own vineyard before sunset and I get to see a vineyard that’s not Napa. They are quite beautiful and beautifully tended. There's a lot of hillside plots and lots of old vines in a very remote settings. These vineyards are out in the country and the country seems to start wherever the town of Paso Robles ends. I know for a fact that living out here is close to isolation once the sun has set.

It's hard to tell which varietals the vineyards grow. Sometimes you can tell by how they're planted or trellised but I'm not enough of a vineyard manager to tell the difference. I know the old-growth vines, the ones that grow out of the land with no support or trellises tend to be the old Sangiovese, or Syrah, or older less-tended varietals planted 40 years ago. In fact the whole Central Coast from Paso down to Santa Barbara experiments with far more varietals than the Northern Californians do. Grenache, Pinots, Viognier, Chenin Blanc, Merlot, and many of the Italian varietals like Sangiovese, and they love to blend. Most of the Tin City samples were blends of some kind, which can be typical of smaller wineries where they can't source large plots of single designated varietals, or they’re just trying to bust out of the pack and make something different, something new.

We drive for miles on a one lane road, obviously home to tractors rather than city cars and end at a winery, fresh, modern, very large with a local legacy. Again, I'm not a winery owner but it seems a fancy place that's way out of the way. How do they make money? It's a few weeks before Christmas and there's no one there except for several sales clerks. The wine is okay but I like the start ups in Tin City better. I am impressed by the upkeep to the vineyards though as we drive out. And notice there's very little frost protection on these hillsides - just like mine, when you're on a hillside, cold air sinks and the coldest airs sink the furthest.

A night in a motel and we're off the next day and we skip San Luis Obispo and instead travel to Los Olivos (Olives) within Santa Barbara County and the large vinicultural appellation of Santa Barbara AVA. The town is cute and devoted to wine tasting. Indeed that's all there is, wine tasting, and a few knick-knack shops that occupy the non-drinkers. It must be crowded in the summer. This winter’s day is warm and we walk through the streets with light jackets, stopping, again, at the many boutique and medium-size winery tasting rooms. Unlike Tin City, these are tasting rooms with their bonded wineries somewhere else. Again we provide our Napa schtick, generously spreading our Christmas allocations on the Central Coast town. Again the people are charming, happy, and want to share who and what they do — they are very good at the art of the tasting room sell.

I've been spitting the whole day but in a few places I have to ask for a spittoon, wondering if anyone spits. It's no wonder everyone seems festive. I keep hauling cases back to the car and we must have about 10 now. Some will go to our hosts in LA, some will be gifts for Christmas.

For dinner we try a recommended place on a whim and have the best meal of the whole year. The area not only grows grapes, it’s true farm to table country and the food is delicious, fresh, and well-plated. I ask the waiter for his choice of a glass of wine and he brings out a Grenache that is lively, fruity, yet substantive. It is the fifth Grenache I've tasted today, and all were fantastic, reminding me of the sign in the store window in town: "Grenache is Queen."

Los Olivos is part of a several small towns that line Rt. 101 forty miles north of Santa Barbara. The other towns are large and touristy. Buellton, Solvang, and Santa Ynez. Solvang has a Nordic ancestry somewhere in its history and the main street drag is covered with Nordic/Spanish Missionary-style, the strangest combine I have seen. Buellton is a big town, home to the wine-tasting movie "Sideways" and in fact there are several billboards announcing 'Home to Sideways' or 'As Seen in Sideways.' (At one tasting I learned that the Santa Barbara mountains are the only mountain range in the U.S. that go sideways, or left to right rather than North and south (Rockies, Sierras, Appalachians). Wine tasting is everywhere and large crowds from LA sustain the local economies.

The charm ends as we get on 101 and make our way down to LA. Friends bearing wine! Later in the day we are sharing Grenache on a chilly, rainy LA day in West Hollywood, telling stories of what we saw, who we met, and postulating when we might do it again.

# Week 51 Dec 15-22 Home for the Holidays

It’s been raining for a month now, which is highly unusual. I’m told 94% of California was in a drought, now it’s 3%. It rains, then drips, and then rains again, slow, steady, the perfect way to rehydrate the state and the land versus the typical winter rain storms with floodwaters. Heat and dust are a distant memory.

As winter approaches, that December light gets more and more valuable. It’s the time to do things both inside and outside. Darkness comes during happy hour now and coupled with the rain makes for early evenings and long slumbers in the chilled air. Our diet changes to savory and evolution says that food is becoming more and more scarce and those hibernating slumbers are also driven by less food and the body’s natural reaction to live off your fat (best done when you’re not aware but sleeping). Soups, stews, metabolically put you in the same boat with the grapevines, who are dormant and sleeping in the cold rains. Red wine aides in the hibernation aspect.

I wake in the dawn light and sit by the big picture window with coffee and watch the morning fog. In this drama-queen valley, fog is not a singularly massive thing. Instead small fingers of fog walk across the valley floor coming to you like a careful visit. Bright sunshine slants in from the east. What makes the fog bank move? There’s no wind yet watching across the valley the banks really appear moving, like a murmuration of birds, up then down, then flowing this way and that. As it moves it becomes opaque with trees or complete vineyards underneath.

When the fog clears and the sun is at winter’s noon, the land shines green. The dead brown has vanished. It’s green everywhere, inbetween the countless miles of rows. The hills are green, the shoulders of the roadways are green, thousands of new deciduous plants are a brighter green. Green is great. It will be here for the next six months in various shades of luminescence.

The soil is coming alive with moisture. While the vine roots are being massaged with nutrients, bacteria and soil action is waking up. Hundreds of grassland plants and species are coming out of dormancy. In most of California the fields and meadows and deserts are growing, living things. It’s their time of year as hundreds of species burst out of the moist earth.

Grass is amazing. Do you ever wonder how hoofed grazing animals get so big by grazing on grass? What’s in it? As far as I know, it’s as close as you can get to newly formed life. It's the fastest growing thing on the planet, green, green, grass. And that fast growth means whomever is eating it is getting as close as they can to the magic of life, as close as you can to new cell germination and growth. It’s life that makes grass grow, it’s in every single shoot and sliver, and it’s in you, and the hoofed ones, and the trees, and the vineyard.

I remember thinking while driving to Paso and watching the houses that passed by in the vineyards that clinched to the hills, why is the sight of rolling hills covered by orderly rows of vineyards so appealing? Why are vineyards so attractive from afar?

And I think it’s because they are man-made, yet they are nature. They resemble our societies by their forced placement, each plant communicating underground with all its neighbors, the whole soil biome thing in the ground giving the vineyard voice and a terroir. Are we not just like vines only living in tracts of homes and houses, whose weather and place on earth determines the character, language, and customs of how we live ?

More and more I see similarities between vineyard and society. More and more living with a vineyard is like watching society repeat itself year after year. A well kept vineyard produces vigor and the well-kept society enjoys life. There is order in a vineyard, the spacing, the trellis, the strict pruning, the cultivation. Not to far from the order we impose upon ourselves.

Today I walked down the longest row of the entire vineyard with both arms out so my open hands are brushing the long dry canes. It is cold and dank and the earth is a little slippery but it is the greenest, brightest, freshest grass you have ever seen.

# Week 52 December 23-32 Winter Arrives and the Vineyard View

The narrow Napa Valley is literally filled to the brim with vineyards as if filled to the brim of a giant wine glass with mountains on all sides. Winter reveals the structure and the mechanics of all these vineyards, the steel posts, the trellis wiring, the parallel lines that are so directly visible on the hillsides and mid-valley knolls. The sun goes in and out of the clouds like a dramatic actor waiting for applause. This week of rain is such a welcome sight to me, sheets of cold water drench the land.

Christmas is a good time to come to wine country. The farmers' markets are stocked with winter's bounties, and the restaurants serve savory foods that seem made for the big red Cabernets so famous here. It's time to support the locals: all the local business, local entrepeneurs, local wineries (there are many family-run wineries here, too), and local farmers. If you come the week before Christmas you will be rewarded with local activities and generally happy people: the harvest is in, the vineyard looks good, its raining, and money is circulating again with the harvest and holiday sales.

The holiday is typically dry, I don't know why. Perhaps its the cold that's coming, that all-important freeze coming either this week or next, with frost warnings and a dip just before freezing. The freeze is a critical part of the ecosystem resetting the land, plants, and animals, and of course the vineyards. Lately, November and December have been warm so the plants can get confused and can start to bud without any cold snap. The December freeze resets things above ground and focuses plants on root growth, not new foliage or canopy growth.

Surprising to me are the number of hummingbirds that stay the winter. Beautifully iridescent, there must be some kind of winter nectar in various plants, especially around the houses, and on those cold, cold nights I’ve read that they hibernate and shut down systems to stay warm. I've never put out nectar for the hummingbirds but they visit all the time, flying as fast and as expressive as they do on warm weather days, zooming through the vines and trellis systems as if jumping into hyper-speed.

I don’t have any New Year's resolutions this year other than to continue to write this journal, and do so regularly every morning, and then stop after a year and see what I have. I have no great insights or specks of wisdom except that you can see yourself in the cycles the vines go through. The patterns, the years, the cycles within those years, they pass and pass so quickly that you have to grab at each vintage.

I’m hoping that 2020 will be a peaceful and prosperous new year.