Chapter 4: Life in a Vineyard

September 2019

# Week 36 September 1 -7 Heat Breaks

It’s hot. Stays hot until seven. By nine it’s chilly and you’re grabbing your fleece.

The grapevines and their grape clusters love this. Some days I look over the valley and you can almost see the vineyards drinking in the energy, wide gulps of heat waves that rise above the canopies. It’s like walking through a field of aggressive solar collectors with jaws.

In a vineyard it’s the cycle that matters, the vine’s 24 hour cycle: night, morning, afternoon; cold, chilly, warming, then hot. It’s not necessarily the bright, bright sunshine and the heat in the afternoon, it’s the cycle.

Duh. If you took a siesta nap from 2 pm to 6, your days would be just plain glorious, from tonight’s evening until noon tomorrow. You’d sleep through the heat, just like my 20-something son does. The vineyards love this cycle when things in the soil get to the plant, and when energy in the plant gets to the soil. I mean, look at these tall, brassy plants! They are the epitome of healthy vines, each carrying 5-8 clusters of large purple fruit. The sunny dry days warm the soil, increasing soil bacteria activity, aiding and embellishing the natural give and take of soil nutrients to the plant. All it needs is a little water and that's delivered by drip irrigation fed by wells and water tables.

One early September afternoon, when the cicadas drone is carried by the heatwaves, the heat breaks. First, these initial gusts of cool air come like a calvary charge across the valley and up the next range of mountains, and then more and more waves of fresh, ocean air. My god, you can stand up from your pool of sweat and breathe. It’s delightful!

A few years back the heatwave broke right at 5 pm. My wife and I were sitting outside on the porch swing, imbibing, sweating, and reading books during the Napa version of the 5 o’clock French Mistral. The 95 degree wind became 90 then 85 then 80 and then an amazing 75 degree in the space of a half-hour. You could smell the Pacific suddenly, and in the cross-valley distance the Mayacamas mountains had that hazy green color, signaling a great wave of new moisture. That doesn’t happen any more.

With the new cooling, the next few days are simply glorious in the vineyard. Warm days, cool nights, lots of growing healthy fruit. It’s September at its finest and the vineyards just absorb it all, growing larger and larger, their canes swaying making the vineyard undulate in the soft breezes. The skies are clear at night and if you stand outside long enough, the stars sparkle.

# Week 37. September 8-15 First Fall and Walnuts

Napa Valley used to be planted with nuts and fruit trees, orchards that went for miles like they do now in California’s Central Valley. This was during the 1930s the decades after right up to the 1970s.

Today, the slow-growing, statuesque walnuts are still found throughout the valley but they mostly occupy the edges of roadways or property boundaries deep out in the valley floor. The groves are gone now, except for one spot down near Trancas and Silverado, at least I think the grove is still there.

Now the walnut trees go unpruned and have become these enormous, tall, grand kings with deep roots, offering shade for the vineyard workers, beautiful wood, and one of the most wonderful nuts for the human body.

The walnuts are ripe and they are falling. As you drive across the valley on Oakville Cross, or maybe Yountville Cross, and all the “crosses” that happen Up Valley, the crows push the walnuts out on the roadway for cars to run over. And the crows watch, waiting for the walnut’s hardshell to crack under the car tires. Several times I’ve almost crashed the car trying to get that one walnut on the edge of the road’s shoulder.

There's several spots near me that have the Italian version of pickable roadway food where you can park the car and gather wild delicacies. The walnut trees are not only friends with crows. There is always someone with a bag walking through the walnuts looking for the newly fallen. And then there’s a few fig trees I know where you can almost pick fresh figs from your truck's rolled down window. It’s all on public land.

For years, blackberries have edged Silverado on an embankment not visible from the roadway but well known to pie-lovers in Rutherford. In the spring there's mustard everywhere and it's not that hard to make fresh mustard with your choice of dozens of herbal flavorings. Apples, oranges, dates, bay trees, and cactus with the flowering cactus roses and even the leaves (needles removed) that can be eaten like a tortilla.

I’m a sucker for those Mom&Pop garden stands, too, set out along the road with a locked dropbox and all the produce arranged by someone who wanted to be a grocery store clerk. One advertises on local web sites and has a following on twitter. Sometimes you can find really good, fresh produce, totally organic and picked within the last few hours but typically no wi-fi.

Speaking of eating fresh produce, we have a preponderance of rats around the house since last year's Atlas Peak fire. Big rats, roof rats that chomp on my wife's garden and flower beds until she comes to me angry and in tears. The Atlas fire that came within two miles of our vineyard and house and I theorized it killed many of the rats' natural predators. There are less raptors, coyotes, snakes, and other critters that usually take care of the rodent population for me. In addition, I overheard a hardware store conversion about the same orgy of rats on some other guy's ranch, too. Who can argue with overheard hardware store conversations?

I bought a half-dozen rat traps at the hardware store, big rat traps that would give your hand a good bruise should you try for the cheese. I don't like to do de-rat the rat trap. I'm city-boy scared that the large rodent is going to wake up when I pick up the trap, its eyes pop suddenly open, and blame me in front of God for causing death and destruction. I close my eyes, and open the trap part with the hanging rodent so the body falls to the ground. Then, with a long shovel, scoop it up and fling it far into the vineyard, a dozen or so vineyard rows in, for the night-time critters to eat. Damn rats. Last year they discovered my old pick up truck and ate their way through $800 of ignition wires even though I had traps inside the engine compartment and at the base of every tire wheel. And last year they ate all the grapes off of about 15 productive vines, which in its final form sells for $100 a bottle – that was several thousand dollars of premium Napa Valley Cabernet.

# Week 38 September 16-23 Dark Purple

Northern Hemisphere's fall equinox is this weekend. It’s noticeably darker than usual at night -- it was just 9pm for sunset and now it’s 7. I love to sit on the balcony with a glass of wine and just watch stuff: the wind, the distant mountain, the traffic, the constant movement of birds, the vibrant light that travels across the Napa valley floor as sunset sprays with light shadows for miles and miles.

The birds adore the sun more than I. They watch it from tree tops and from the wires, with many birds lining up on the wire trellis that supports the canopy of the vineyard. It’s the only time of day when the different species aren’t warring in the skies. They can be perched close together and they don’t fuss about with each other. We are all staring at the sun as it disappears, watching it, feeling it, and no one is watching each other. Then, boom, the sun quickly sets and everyone splits.

After sunset vineyards gets that dead-end alley kind of dark. There isn't any light source. There are no street lights on the roadways nor houses nor reason to floodlight a growing vineyard. There’s ambient light in the south, from Napa and the further realms the SF Bay Area. But without a moon, the dark landscape envelops the vineyards like a fog and the vineyards seem to absorb any light you may be shining. Walking inside the vines at night can get a little scary if you let your imagination go. It’s purple dark and the vine canes seem everywhere.

Some city people who have stayed at our house have gotten a little spooked by the deep purple and the absence of street lighting and the general lack of people society in general. They step out of the front door and enter this deep purple-black void and it can be unnerving. One set of guests from New York city liked to sit by the window with views of Silverado Trail, the county highway, and from up there they would sip their wine, somehow relishing the moving headlights down below. “I’m not bothered by the traffic noise at all... thank you.”

So what does rural America do when you live out in the sticks? You leave the outdoor house lights on all the night.

As you attract every vineyard flying bug and crawly for miles. Moths the size of playing cards, long stringy things, and bugs of every antennae and demeanor. They hang out near the house lights all night. So then, of course, spiders camp out waiting for midnight buffets as bats come swooping in as fast as you can say “What was that?” And every time you do happen to go in and out of the house, well, you do so gingerly. The screen door has those crawlies attached to the outside screen and because it’s so, well lit, you can see them all up close with their big buggy eyes kind of dazzled by the lightness in the bulbs. Those people from New York never went outside at night.

Dark purple also means you can’t see fifty feet into the vineyard at all, which makes the screech owl that’s a few rows deep sound all the more human. It’s the one thing that can literally scare the crap right out of you. Some woman is shrieking, right there to the left. Even my cherished Old English sheepdog, Goop, would look at me nervously, “You go, Dad."

When night becomes the vineyard, it becomes full of critters. The grapes hang lazily while the animal world is in motion beneath it all night long. The owls are hunting, the mice are running, skunk, raccoon, deer, and coyote make it seem like a giant safari that you can’t see. And it is a giant safari. It stretches for miles and miles across the valley floors, up the hills, and around the knolls. There’s nothing there to deter or hamper nature’s smorgasbord at night. As long as they don’t interfere with the vines and fruit, farmer John isn’t going to do anything.

The romantic dark nights of Napa Valley end right around 2am during the summer and fall. Farmer John has got a crop to mind and frankly a lot of vineyard work happens at night, especially in late summer building up to the harvest in late September and October. You can see a dozen tractors out on the flat valley floor, bright LED arrays fastened to their cabs plowing the pitch black rows between vines. Some tractor combinations look like UFOs have landed in the middle of this huge black vineyard sea called the Napa valley floor. Up and down the rows they go. And sometimes you can lie in bed and hear them, lights on and sounding like giant vacuum cleaners or street cleaners.

When we originally bought our dumpy poison oak-filled Appalachian chalet, we had to sign a paper recognizing Napa’s Ag-Preserve status, and acknowledging that farm stuff might happen at all hours, including the night. Farmers have trump in this valley and can make any noise or traffic they want in the middle of night. Instead of bird song and heavily perfumed summer breezes through the vines, instead of Tuscan villas and fire pits and aromas of red wine, you lay awake and listen to the clunk-chunk of a slow plowing tractor lifting up the dark like a rug and doing something underneath.

# 39 September 24-30 What Heat Can't Beat

The oak tree is an amazing being. They may well out-last human beings over the next millennium. They may well outlast climate change. I admire them in many ways.

I live surrounded by a vineyard but I live under a grove of oaks that mark the boundaries of the house and gardens from the vineyards. There's Live Oak, and Valley Oak, and Silver Oak, and lots of scrub oak, and they all form a shaded canopy that the house and garden enjoy. I rake all year round.

It's nice to live in the shade but that means I live with the acorns and I live with the animals that want those acorns. Squirrels are the worse and number in the dozens. They dig, they nest, they eat everything in sight the other eight months when there are no acorns. And rats love acorns and collect them in the engine compartments of any valuable machine on the property. Quail hang out on the property everywhere, and we call them the Quail Gang because they gang up on the house cat. They hang out along the stone driveway that dwindles down to the Silverado Trail, eating the acorns I've run over. If I had pigs, they would be some tasty acorn-infused ham one day.

I have bonded with these old oaks over the past twenty years and I now know where and when all those knobs and broken limbs on the oak’s skeleton have come. You don't see it year to year, it's a five-year thing such as one day you notice the spot where you trimmed a large branch a few years back that has grown over and completely closed up and healed the trim wound. Or you might notice how much such and such tree hangs over the vineyard now. It never used to do that.

These trees grow slowly in their magic trick of life, taking sunlight and carbon dioxide and making it into plant matter and oxygen. If you remember from biology class, there are two types of cells: cells that use the sun (plants) for energy, and cells that use matter for energy (us). I am still (after biology class) uncannily stupefied that sun, water, and nutrients can make such strong heavy things. Amazed because how can unthinking, unknowing molecules build things as solid as tree trunks, or vineyards, or grape clusters. And further amazed that molecules can develop terroir-like ecosystems for defending itself from other molecules that have developed other things.

I went to a winery/harvest party yesterday at a remote winery in Sonoma County. The gravel road went on for miles into the back country, up and down the steep ravines until we came upon the winery and operations. And in that backcountry, untouched by any human construction were the most beautiful oaks. It wasn’t that they were classic oak shapes or tall majestic trees, it was that they were all individuals of varying shapes and sizes. They had been there for hundreds of years and each tree was unique. Some were old and deteriorating, some were young and straight and vigorous. It had a sense of place like few places I've witnessed before. It was an oak sanctuary like so much of wine country can be.

Oaks rule in this climate. During these hot dry days of autumn when everything is dry and brown and waiting for the rains, the oaks with their long tap roots survive and flourish. The hills and knolls, with their tans and browns, are graced with these huge green canopies. I can see them now, as I write, across the valley floor, a distant knoll rising out of green vineyards speckled with oaks. Even from a distant the green canopies of the oak seem large.

And then you realize why the oaks support such large ecosystems. They are the only things that make it through the cycles of drought, rain, and heat. The branches support innumerable animals, insects, and reptiles. Entire communities surround each tree for its shade, protection, nest holes in limbs, and bee-homes in bark. From bees to owls to big cats to hummingbirds, the oaks define their habitat. We should consider each tree as a farm and start looking at all trees that way

But vineyards don't do well under oaks. Something in the sap or the long oak roots under the soil that I understand fights with the vine roots. You'll seldom see vines under the branches of an oak tree. That’s why the unvarying straight vineyard rows suddenly do a circle around an old-growth Oak tree. It isn’t because Farmer John needs a big circle there, because if he could he’d plant right up to the trunk. It’s because of the oak roots and the branch overhang. In fact, you don’t see too much of anything growing under any California oak tree except grasses.

Isn't that odd. The two most prevalent plants you'll see in wine country can't live too closely to one another.