Chapter 8: January 2020

A Year's Journal in Napa Valley

# Week 1, January 1-7 2020 Dry January

It’s January and we're going dry. After a year of drinking, tasting, imbibing, and general indulgence, it's time to prove you don't need your nightly grog. I'm sorry if you thought this book was about drinking wine and beautiful wineries in Napa Valley – we’re taking a turn and it’s now called Abstention in a Vineyard.

It’s January and it’s winter and soon we'll be pruning but first it's cold and dank. The vines have been sleeping for about eight weeks now. They were exhausted after harvest and all the stress that came with it and will probably rest another eight to ten weeks until sometime in March when new buds appear.

Vineyard managers up and down this narrow valley are getting ready to prune. So in this book about vineyards, we need to prune our own metabolic system, prepare it for the year ahead and expertly manage its growth. Dry January works well in wine country because it's so desperately needed after the holidays but also because it is very similar to what goes on in a vineyard. I think the whole notion of winter dieting after the New Year harks back to our evolution, thousands of years of eating too well in the summer and fall and come winter and spring both you and vine are ready to sprout. You will become energetic, healthy, and thinner, just like a newly pruned vine that triggers new growth, new buds, new canes, and clusters of fruit. Sounds fun, huh?

This is what animals and plants have done for millennia and what modern food advertising ignores. Ignore them. You don't have to eat all year long, not to mention all day long. Trust me, you don't need that much food and all that extra fat from last year needs to go. You need to be more like a vine if you want to read the rest of this book. So follow along.

For the next 30 days there is no wine, not for dinner, not for a nightcap, not to get rid of those holiday wine gifts from cheap friends. Why? Because wine is not calorie free. A bottle of red wine has roughly the same caloric count as a McDonald's Big Mac, somewhere in the vicinity of 600 calories. A 5oz glass is roughly about 150 calories, or a large cookie. Do the math. One glass of wine beyond your daily caloric limit is about 4500 calories a month or 1.3 pounds of body fat. Do this for a year and you've gained twelve or more pounds just from one extra glass of wine per night for a year.

In the vineyard, vines get healthy after being pruned because it stimulates the roots and a new growth cycle begins. Your body needs to do the same thing. Trust me. I know the American diet quite well and what it does to the human body.

You and the vineyard need to prepare for the coming year by pruning yourself. Vineyard pruning choices are made by the vineyard manager. But since your tendencies are more akin to wild vines that grow up a tree, you need to prune your own body. No wine for 30 days. Sorry.

# Week 2, Jan 8-15, No Sugar, Either

Did I mention diet, too?

If you're not going to drink wine, why eat well? I believe that's a famous French proverb somewhere.

Better to eat modestly while abstaining from wine so your body metabolically burns some fat. You need to clear out the gunk, the chemicals, the fast food, the food made in factories, wrapped in plastic and sold to you as you stand in line with a bag of processed non-food and a cheap Chenin Blanc to wash it all down.

In the vineyard, whole gangs of pruners begin to branch out into the vineyards to par away the excess canes using several unique pruning techniques, telling the vine exactly where it will bud, flower, and bear fruit in the upcoming years. When you think about it almost half of the existing vine is removed, that’s quite a large body reduction.

So, while giving up your grog, the one thing in the evening you look forward to, let's also eliminate all sugars and all foods that quickly turn into sugar (glucose) once inside your digestive system. Ready? Eliminate all wine, all sugars, and all starches: no wine, no bread, no potatoes, no rice or flour, no cakes, no fruit, no cereal, and no processed food. What can you eat: vegetables, fresh meats, butters, olive oil, and eggs. So for breakfast you can have eggs and bacon, for lunch a salad with olive oil, and for dinner soups, stews, grilled veggies, etc. If you’re vegetarian, replace the meats with your favorite vegetable substitute.

Monotony is the killer of any good diet and the trick is having something to do. When you don’t get bored, you don’t go astray, you don’t cheat. I can go outside to watch the still plump workers go through their vineyard rows, the first people to visit in months. There’s not been a soul since harvest, except crows and gangs of grey, dark rain clouds. The workers wear bright green/orange safety vests and move methodically sideways, vine by vine, one by one, cutting the canes off of the trunk branches, throwing the spent canes in front of their path so their boots don’t sink in the rain-soaked vineyard rows. Vine after vine after vine. All this week, all next week, all the week after and the week after that. It’s as boring as dieting. The entire valley, appellation, state, and northern hemisphere must be pruned in January and February. It's a good way to not eat in between meals.

Just think, if you lived in a vineyard like me, you'd be sitting on the front porch, not eating (but burning fat) while watching the monotonous art of pruning by a handful of skilled vineyard workers. Snip. Five seconds. Snip. Five seconds, snip. Some sing, some cuss in Spanish. The five-second pause is to allow the pruner to visualize the cut and do it correctly and carefully with a clean, sharp slice. If they do it wrong, the vine could get infected.

Pruning is an art form best discussed on the Internet. There everyone is an expert. Go online as one of your boredom fighters while dieting and search for vineyard pruning. There are more books, videos, and classes than vines to prune. They even have pruning tournaments to find the best vineyard pruner in the valley, though it’s not exactly a spectator sport until you realize that pruning is telling the vine exactly what to do as well as what to do in the near future. That's why pruning always gets winemakers out of their cellar to check out what’s being done in the vineyard.

Back to the diet because I don’t want to lose the metaphor. Pruning your body is about your future. Don't get hung up on weight cycles as you get fat, thin, fat, fatter. As long as you pause and occasionally clean yourself out, life can be pretty good.

If you lived in a vineyard you would see this happen every year, not just to yourself but to all the vines around you. It’s cyclical and that’s what you do. This is how you live in a vineyard in winter. There's no winery here, there's no parties or tastings, there's no people, really, just a steady cycle of deep sleepy nights and sunny days with an occasional rain shower. You sit and watch the grasses grow and then you watch the vineyard lose half of it's mass. It's quite an amazing sight.

# Week 3, January 15-22 Dry, Dry

Feeling a little nauseous? I forgot to tell you that there’s a sugar withdrawal period, about 10 days into the diet. Ooops. It’s not a sickness, it’s a metabolic body event when your body switches from being primarily sugar-burning to primarily fat-burning (nutritional ketosis). You feel slightly noxious for half a day, not sick, just off a little (go eat a few olives). The good news is that your body has flipped to fat-burning mode and started eating away the stores of fat on your body. In another day or so you’ll have this rush of energy that feels wonderful, clean, and strong. And it becomes quickly obvious. The best fat to burn is your own.

The vines are doing the same thing. There is not enough light to fully power the growth cycle that activates the plant cells to start photosynthesis, so all the activity is down in the roots where the earth is moist and warm (55 degrees) and bacteria starts to be more active. Wet from the rains, the earthen bacteria starts to create nutrients for the roots to absorb. Everything above the earth seems asleep but everything below the earth is getting active: worms, insects, larvae, bacterias, water, and all that new grass, growing wildly after being dormant for a year, the grass roots feeding energy into the soil from January's partial sun and clouds.

The rain hasn't been sensational quite yet, rather just gentle and constant. One day a little shower, two days of sun, then repeat. It makes the fields too muddy for tractors so all the work now is done by hand. Yesterday I saw standing water, which means the aquifer is getting filled and that’s always good news. In fact California a month ago was 95% drought and now it’s 30%.

Pruning lasts the entire month and into February. If you came to Napa in January you could come watch the pruners meticulously march up and down the rows. Or you could watch the grass grow, or some days watch the rain come down. The romance of vineyards and wine is in the wineries, the wine caves, the tourist tasting rooms. There is no reason to go outside except for fresh air inbetween vast flights of deep red wine.

It’s so quiet that in the middle of a sunny afternoon I could hear geese crossing the valley, their throaty calls starting on the left and then moving to the right as the v-formation unites the entire narrow valley. Silent pauses in the traffic can last for minutes now and you can listen to the land, hear things across the valley, birds, a distant plane. I must admit I love Sundays in January and the absent rush of traffic. I'm not looking forward to the busy year ahead and the hordes of people.

Our favorite outdoor sport is now the wood-burning chiminea. As a fire prevention rule we always wait until the first rains and then use fallen limbs and sticks from the oaks. Ye ole mouse-ridden wood pile is now far away from our vineyard house, filled with last year’s tree trimmings and some old wooden fence posts we finally tore down on the edge of the property. Great kindling! I do miss that glass of wine and fireside appetizers at the end of rather lazy days. There is something about a small fire, a vineyard view, and the expectation of a forthcoming dinner of hearty soup, bread to dunk it in, and deep red Cabernet.

Speaking of real excitement, the lime, lemons, and oranges are all ripe! Wow what a smack on the lips! And you don’t have to pick them until it’s time to eat! How different here in the vineyard garden, where we have lemons, a blood orange, and a lime tree in an area near the house. The trees look like Christmas trees bedecked entirely with yellow, orange, and green globes. You can sit by the fire, get up and walk over to the orange tree, pick one, go back to the fire and throw the peels into the fire as you eat. It can’t get any fresher. And since you’re not drinking, put half a Meyer lemon in a large glass with sparkling water.

Truth be told, the diet and the vineyard are really boring right now. What you quickly discover is that you’re fighting habits. You can exercise more, but that gets boring itself, so you get bored (and a little weak) while trying not to get bored. It’s the habit of eating you miss, that sheer joy of mouth taste and chewing and swallowing. The habit of lifting hand to mouth is deeply embedded and hard to break especially when the reward is something tasty, salty, crunchy, or winey.

The second thing you discover is how much of the day is spent hunting, buying, cooking, and cleaning up after eating and drinking. I find it to be about two hours a day, more when there’s company. And so now you have those extra hours and it’s just plain weird trying to fill them. Second thoughts creep in. Cheating flashes like a neon sign. I’m bored, I'm a little weak, I’m cold, it’s dank and drippy outside, WTF.

Take a cue from the vines. Sleep. Go to bed early, crack open a window for fresh winter air, and read a book while buried in thick blankets. The very apparent fact that you’re not drinking and you have reduced your eating will let you sleep like a God. It’s the one thing that saves you on a rainy day watching the grass grow between the vines. The sleep is so refreshening that you feel younger when you awake and that’s the one feeling that can fight off the bad eating habits and the desire to cheat.

It's amazing what your body tears down and rebuilds when you sleep. It empties the trash and literally flushes out the debris in the brain. Since you’re not eating sugar, your body uses ketones made out of body fat by your liver. It’s like a high-octave fuel that energizes repair on cells and muscles while the darkness of the vineyard seeps through the window into your own dark sleep. Day by day you hibernate, cleanse, and rebuild for a new vintage year.

That’s how you do winter in a vineyard.

# Week 3 Jan 23-30 Winter

To make the pruning metaphor complete, I had out-patient surgery on my face this week to remove (prune) a non-malignant cancer growth. It appeared a few years ago and after a year of wishing it away and home remedies such as apple vinegar soaked bandages, I opted for professional removal.

When I did a search for dermatologists in Napa Valley I was surprised to find a dozen or so plus two doctors in tiny but convenient St. Helena, a town of only a few thousand. When I called, I was put off for three weeks until they could find time to talk. Evidently sunny wine country has a host of skin cancer issues and skin doctors that are so busy they can't see you right away.

After a few hot weeks of waiting (this was back in October) I finally got in. The doctor took one look at me and said “Yep.” Evidently a lot of St Helenians get a nonmalignant cancer called Mohrs Cancer that supports the hard-to-get-in clinics in the heart of wine country. She took a biopsy and would send out for lab work, but she was sure it would come back positive and sure that I had to go to an out-patient clinic, get professionally scraped, sewn back up, and then heal for weeks.

This seemed exactly like pruning.

Sure enough it came back positive and I made an appointment for Halloween Day joking that my facial bandages would be real and bloody. When Halloween came it got furiously hot and dry and windy, so much so that PGE turned the power off for Northern California. The whole week was terrible as fires burned in Knights Valley and to the north of Calistoga. I cancelled the face pruning and rescheduled for January when it would be quiet, rainy, and a month when no one ever sees me anyway.

This week I had that appointment. The doc came in very jovial, numbed my face, took out a piece of my cheek about the size of a quarter and two quarters thick and left. The whole thing took about five seconds. The next doctor came in and stitched me up, and took much longer, effectively loosening the skin over the cheek and pulling it towards the nose to cover the huge pot hole. I learned about his whole life as he stood and talked to me with towels over my face except for a small open square where he cut and tied things down as if he was at a chatty craft project.

So if you live in a vineyard and you're trying not to drink and you’re on a diet that forbids carbs and sugar, and it’s rainy, cold, and boring, my advice is not to get your face scraped so it feels like you got smacked with a shovel.

I have been pruned. I wonder if pruned vines are embarrassed by their new nakedness. Snip, snip, snip. Some guy singing Spanish love songs goes by and prunes you and then walks away.

The sunglasses and bandages from the skin clinic makes me look like the Invisible Man. With nothing to do and invisible powers to boot, I decide to start pruning. But they won’t let me in the vineyard or anywhere close to it with something sharp in my hand. So I start to prune the roses and olive trees around the house, bandages on and all. Which brings me to my next point: grapevines don’t have thorns. Even with proper rose gloves on, my hands get more bloodied than my face. I lumber along, hungry, thirsty, and now rose-thorn poked.

Somewhere during the repetitious snipping you realize you’re a living thing in the middle of other living things all around you, just as if you were swimming with a school of fish or flying with a flock of crows. You are part of this living entity, this community, really, and they become more than roses or vines, they become like friends and you talk to them about your dreams of food: a delicious sandwich with bread and a giant glass of wine.