Chapter 9: February 2020

Life in a Vineyard. A Yearlong Journal in Napa Valley.

Feb 1-7 Bocci Debris

By the first of February you can tell what's going on by what vehicles are parked along a vineyard’s edge: big pickup trucks mean vineyard management, small older-model sedans mean vineyard workers. They are parked along the inner-vineyard roads all across the valley floor. I read somewhere that you could criss-cross Napa Valley from east to west on these inner vineyard roads and never encounter a fence. That could, actually, be true.

I'm working in the house garden, pruning, pulling, planting, all the while looking up at the picture-book view of the Napa Valley floor from Yountville to St. Helena. It's vast and after all the recent prunes and the general lack of foliage, you can see the vineyard infrastructure with its trellis system of metal stakes, miles of wire, and black irrigation tubing. It's entirely visible and gives the vineyard a metallic-like view. At the top of the trellis are metal stakes that hold the wire in place. The wire runs the length of the rows and is often the most expensive element of a vineyard's substructure.

One of the things I haven't talked about are vineyard tear-outs, usually done anywhere from Nov-Dec but can even happen now in early February. It involves huge Caterpillar bulldozers that come in and literally rip out the vines, the stakes, the wire, all the roots, the irrigation pipe, everything. One day you can be driving into town and the next day a huge vineyard that must be 100 acres is leveled. I myself can't watch the dozers work. I can't watch the machines decimate a vineyard that has so faithfully produced for decades. I know it may have a disease or it’s time for smaller, tighter rows, or a different varietal. It happens all the time but I can't watch.

The bulldozers make huge balls of vine trunks and roots scattered over the vineyard and look like huge Bocci balls on a bowling flat. The debris sits there for 3-4 months until spring has come and they have somewhat dried out. In the past, they would burn them and they still do, especially those tear-outs with disease. At least the steel and wire is collected and put in large, empty containers for recycling.

I know that vineyards get old. I'm getting old. I know that things die but I don't like to watch it. Sometimes, in the garden, my wife is ruthless and doesn’t think twice about removing something. I know gardeners have to be that way and so do vineyard fields. It's the curse of being a city-boy observer and not a true participant who has to live on the profits of the crop. Few people own vineyards for observation purposes, such as I do. In short I have no skin in the game.

The Bocci balls of debris are proof that money is at work. Either not enough money is being made on the crop or future models show managers can make more money or more profit on the same boundary footprint with something else. These tear outs can be quite expensive so when crops change, money must say it's time.

Feb 8-15 Fib February

Okay, I have a confession to make. I started this year out with a bang, a figure-slimming diet but in fact I never did made the cut: I never went dry, I never lost weight and pruned myself down like the vines in front of my house. I tried to, several times, and then I wrote about my attempts but it didn’t happen. Future editors will hopefully fix this sequencing.

That is until last weekend and near dinner. We were out of wine and the dinner went amiss and it was basically uneatable. We went to bed early after a long day of gardening and a dinner frustration but when I awoke in the morning I realized that I just got started. No wine, very little food, and I felt great. I stopped trying to write about dieting and started doing it.

I went full keto for 10 days while intermittent fasting (eating one meal a day around 5pm). No carbs, no wine, just a two-egg omelette with a little cheese, a few pieces of salami, and lots of salsa inside and out. I was able to go for six days eating the same damn thing, and I worked out, too. I had a one-day break with some wine and a hamburger with bacon (no bun) and then went for another four days. My pants fit again. I lost almost 10 pounds.

As long as I am confessing I should also point out that no winery nor any vintner nor anyone actually, including my cat, is paying me to write this book or giving me some case goods on the side. So when I write about drinking wine, or not drinking it, it’s my own opinion and experience in watching hordes of tourists drive around too fast in giant fancy cars stuffing their trunks with alcoholic booty.

It was Robert Mondavi who first associated wine with a healthy life style. I know because my father adored Mondavi and he almost single-handedly supported the Napa winery through his wine purchases. My Dad bought Mondavi’s house wine in the magnum size and he bought a lot of it. I know because I was out of college without a job, in the attic of his old farm house in Ohio, living hand to mouth, and I helped drink his wine. He never once complained about the oil drum in back of the kitchen that was seemingly filled with empty bottles of Mondavi white and red that he took in to the recycling center when full. He just kept happily buying more.

Today, some forty years later, modern wine marketing doesn’t just sell wine to fill the empty glass container, they sell the weekend. They sell the whole experience, the wedding capital of California, the pampered spas, the incredible food from famous restaurants, the vineyard vistas and dramatic natural beauty, the delicious and intoxicating wines, and of course the beautiful wineries. It’s big business with corporations and investor groups, wealthy interlopers, and new generations of founding families.

And truth be told, I am not part of that community, either. I am not an online influencer, a wine marketeer, a vintner, a viticulturist, a food critic, nor am I knowledgable or experienced in how to grow grapes, how to make wine, or how to make a business of it all and support my family.

I basically have a laptop. And I sit down every morning and lie about my dieting. I can paint what I see but I can't always tell you why the painting looks a certain way. I read the Napa papers and have lived through this valley's crisis but I'm not vested in the industry, so the crisis come and go while I sit on the porch and watch. *Your reporter from the vineyard* is a slight stretch but its the only thing that truthfully applies. Who else could so artfully explain watching the grass grow?

One thing that has come up on the radar even though far away is this new virus thing, this thing worse than swine flu. My wife spotted it a few weeks ago in her nightly review of the internet and she has become alarmed and is thinking about how to lower our risk exposure.

Is it me or is there a general increase in warnings? I get wind warnings, rain warnings, fire warnings, and warnings about warnings. They come now as notifications that vibrate and light the mobile phone on my bedside at night. Oh good, I was laying here just thinking about nothing and now I have something to really worry about.

This is a warning unlike others. This virus attacks people, not vines. It's not an insect infestation, it's not a root fungi. It's a people thing. I'm worried. We are totally unprepared to get warnings about people.

# Week 7 Feb 16-23 February Summer

It hasn't rained for awhile and it’s supposed to be dropping buckets. It's late winter and not a drop. Yesterday it was 75 degrees and the sun was searing with that kind of UV wave you can feel.

It's the winter Blob. The high-pressure system that sits off the coast of Southern California and makes all the moisture go either to the east or to the north. Then the Blob sits. It doesn't move. Despite the oddity, my wife and I are getting gardening tasks done early. We're so ahead of our chores we can enjoy the warmish weather. It's so warm that the ground cover everywhere is exploding with new plants in motion, growing, jostling in the wind. Everything, inside and outside the vineyard grows: weeds, grasses, mustard, everything is two to three feet high. The vineyard rows are so jammed with wildflowers that the entire valley looks like a giant English garden with grape trunks.

In some vineyards mustard is cultivated and over the years it has adapted and thrived. It's bright yellow flowers can turn a luminescent lime-green-yellow in the sun and it’s used as a cover crop that can be turned back into the soil. Mustard is part of the brassica family, or cabbage, and the seeds can be used to make the mustard you eat. There are mustard festivals you can attend with exotic wine-country mustard flavorings: pinot curry, boar and truffle. I sometimes see chefs in their whites, arms full of mustard greens, walking out of the vineyard rows in the morning.

A sizable portion of California's wild plants are dormant throughout the summer and fall. They wait for the winter rains and the spring sun and then burst out and grow, have sex, create seeds, and then whither away in the first heat of summer. Not too far off from us.

Speaking of which, this virus is moving like a lion. Week by week it is at the head of the news. I do feel some trepidation here. It's 80 degrees in February and some new lethal virus is spreading in this country. Both are huge events that shouldn't be happening nor happen together, and they are being politicized seemingly on purpose. Some people say you can feel a premonition before a lightning strike; that's how I feel lately. My wife is moving money around.

Yikes! I immerse myself in the news boards. Viruses are not formally alive, I read. Which is hard for me to ponder. What makes them tick? They have no metabolism or nucleus. They invade the living body and infect certain cells, taking over the energy of the cell to make more and more and more viruses until you die. And now, this one, it seems, is very adept at being undetected and viral. It is spreading in New York City and everybody is watching if it will stay there. This isn’t normal.

In my head I want to take two things, warm weather and viruses, and unite them. Why this virus right now? Could it be the earth is getting warmer, more able to support the viruses of the world? Could it be the melting ice sheets are releasing viruses and germs now newly defrosted? Could it be mankind's endless excess, plastic trash, and chemicals have triggered something?

It's getting hard not to write about this troubling view instead of the immaculate vineyard view in front of me. I'm now addicted to the news cycle and less on my journal writing in the early mornings. Instead of writing I find different places on the property to doom scroll on my mobile phone, ignoring some of the most beautiful weather of the year: the earth is to going to shake us off this surface and rid us like fleas.