(Another) Year in the Vineyard
Week #2: March 18-25, 2010
“It’s My Party, So I’ll Write If I Want To…”
(or) How a Vineyard Manager Spends his Birthday/’Day Off’
Ladies and gentlemen, I had no intention of blogging today, as I crossed this day off on my calendar and wrote: ‘BDAY: Wallow in Your Own Crapulence.’ But as the day progressed, there was a series of events that will show that even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry (or ‘gang aft agley’ if you want to be all literary/celtic/Burnsian and junk).
4:00 am: The frost alarm goes off. After checking dew points (the lower the more dangerous), hearing the neighbors’ frost machines on, and taking a thoughtful and anxious hour watching to see if 36 degrees was going to 35 degrees, I decided that the vineyard was safe and I could reset the alarm, go back to a warm bed and warm Chanda and warm Oliver, and if it got any colder, the alarm would get me up again. After a few dozen emails and checking a few news websites, I saw the temperature on my wireless monitor register 36 degrees—it was going back up, which means I made the right decision to save the gasoline in the frost machines and head back to the ‘birthday bed’.
8:00 am: After an extra hour or so wallowing in my own bed-ulance, I awoke and finished my emails and read a number of birthday greetings that arrived on my FaceBook page. I wrote a few pithy twitter updates, checked on a menu for an upcoming winemaker dinner in San Luis Obispo (at Buona Tavola, Sat. April 24th, reservations: (805)545-8000), and spent a few moments looking out our front door at the sheep we’ve moved into our yard to do our mowing for us. They sure are cute! Remembering that I was instructed to add some molasses to our fertilization program this year (both olives and grapevines), I went online and learned a thing or two about agricultural grade molasses. My ADA brain started considering how easy it would be to buy an extra 10 gallons, find a still, and try making some bathtub rum. But I still have three bottles in the cabinet, so that thought was lost as quickly as it was found. With the idea of bubbling cauldrons of fermented molasses fading, I cooked Chanda and I a big, hearty breakfast.
11:00: With the idea of a full day off quickly losing momentum, I drove into Lompoc and to the Agricultural Commissioner’s office and spent an hour renewing my Ag Permit for 2010, and discussed new rules for gopher control and using SO2 gas in the winery—which now requires a special permit through their office. Filled with the good vibes only accessible by jumping through County statutes and bureaucracy, I drove home. Chanda was dressed and told me we were going to La Purisima Golf Course with Oliver and I was going to do something fun on my birthday before the day slipped away. We hit the course around 1:00 pm, finished 9 holes in just over an hour. If you want to know how I played, I recommend asking the course, for as we all know ‘The Victor Writes the History’. After golf we drove quickly to try to make the 2:00 pm cutoff for lunch at Sushi Teri in Lompoc, but missed it by 7 minutes (10 less strokes and we would have made it!), so we headed to Dong Hae sushi where we had a nice, small lunch so we would be hungry tonight for a sojourn to Patrick’s Side Street Café in Los Olivos. Rumor has it that the owner has a check for us to pay for some wine previously dropped off, so technically even dinner will have a business-taint to it, but I expect to drink it out of memory quickly when I get there, so dinner can be chalked up as further ‘wallowing’. I’m wondering what sort of fermented grape product to bring—maybe something old and Californian…a mid 90’s Selleck Calera jumps to mind.
3:30: Well here I am back in the office. I was considering plopping on the couch and exercising my thumbs as I watch video game images flash across the Xbox-influenced big screen, but then I remembered I started blogging again last week. Tomorrow is a packed day filled with meetings and tastings and agricultural molasses and (likely) frost alarms, so it was now or never. Within a few hours I will be showered and at a table stacked with tasty plates and old pinot. Even when a ‘day off’ gets a little off track, I lead the life that I love. Anxiety and all. I wonder what kind of rum I still have in the cabinet?
(Chanda’s working with the sheep and not available to use her hawt tallness, so I have to pull out the stepstool to find the rum in the back of the cabinet above the fridge. Oohh! 12 year old Flor de Cana given to me by Theresa and Curtis Steinhaus for my 40th birthday last year. Guess that makes it a 13 year old! Nose reminds me more of Scotch than rum—lots of pretty woody and carmelized notes with a hint of sherry and cotton candy. In the mouth—whoa—not to freak anyone out, but there may be some alkeehaul in there. If I break into some Bukowski-like prose, someone make me another coffee…)
I promised I’d make this short, so let me give you the weekly update and some pics. The shoots are elongating, we’re seeing everything from barely opening buds at the bottom of the vineyard, to 4” shoots on the vines first pruned in early January. As my friend David Vergari (Vergari Wines—find them, they rock) said: “Dude, budbreak is looking really, really uniform!” I agree. I think that the change from cane pruning to spur pruning really does keep the consistency from vine to vine much more pronounced.
We’re almost half way done with Frost Patrol—you may remember it lasts until at least Mother’s Day—so about 6 more weeks and I’ll be able to assume the vines will not burn due to cold. Last week was quite foggy at night, and I had very little worry due to cold temps. Some cold air will move in in the next few weeks, so the next 14 days will likely test me more than the previous 2 weeks. The vineyard floor is bare and the machines and sprinklers are tested and ready. The shoots are almost ready for a good dousing with copper sulfate, which will keep botrytis shoot blight at bay and also destroy the ice-nucleating bacteria that would aid in bursting the cells inside the shoots on a cold, cold night. No bacteria = slightly safer vines. It gives us another few degrees of protection.
The crew has also been doing some hand-hoeing to knock down vines that our in-row tiller missed, and they are working on numbering our vine rows with new paint so it’s obvious which sections belong to which producers. This year we welcome back Arcadian Wines back into the Clos Pepe fold with both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Also expecting fruit from Clos Pepe in 2010: AP Vin, Brewer-Clifton, Diatom, Loring Wine Company, Tyler Wines, Siduri Wines, Roessler Cellars, Ken Brown and of course the Estate program.
The Bully Pulpit: What I Believe In When It Comes to Wine (by Wes Hagen with an assist to a 13 year old rum that’s going down mighty smooth… “Hey honey, will you drive to and from dinner tonight?!?!)
- Wine is a beverage meant for table. It’s not meant to impress in cattle-call tastings where the biggest wine always wins, and it’s not meant to be made in a laboratory. It should be crafted with passion for people who are passionate about food, friends and family.
- I will never try to make my wines homogenous from vintage to vintage. My new rules of engagement when making a wine fall in this order of importance: Vineyard, Vintage, Varietal. That means the vineyard character should dominate the wine, and in my book that happens at less than 14.5% alcohol in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The vintage is the wave we ride, and it should tower over head, there should be anxiety that it could wipe me out at any time, but when thinking back, it should evoke a memory of a swift and sexy ride, culminating in an exhausted sigh of triumph as I crawl onto a warm, sandy beach. Varietal ‘correctness’ takes care of itself if you honor the vineyard and the vintage in the craft of winegrowing. Note I said craft. I immediately lose respect for anyone who calls winemaking ‘art’ Epistemologically, art is the production of a representation of a concrete. A dance is art—it represents, as does a painting, a sculpture or a haiku. Craft is an actual concrete object. It can have an artsy flair, like a perfect handmade chair. Some objects, a Tiffany stained-glass lamp comes to mind, may smear the distinction, but clearly a bottle of wine is a concrete object that has a utilitarian purpose. Now after we DRINK a bottle of wine we may feel artisitic—but that is not to say the process of growing and making the wine was anything but craft. Great art makes me feel crafty, and great craft can make me feel artsy.
- Great wines are structured for the long haul. I have recently decided, freaky as the concept is, that bright fruit in a wine is the enemy of the fully aged potential of a great wine. Any Californian vineyard can produce a bright, fruity wine that’s easy and fun to drink. But it’s the lack of bright fruit that allows the more complex and inimitable character of a great vineyard site and a great vintage to become evident in the glass. When the baby fat drops off and the minerality emerges—that’s what you can’t fake. That’s why I envy the great winemakers that craft vintages for long term cellaring. I would love to be known, in twenty years when I’ve earned it, as the Randy Dunn of California Pinot Noir. Well, maybe a little cheerier and a touch taller, but I do love the fact that Randy was thinking about what I want to drink tonight thirty years ago. As Roger Boulton once said in a Davis lecture hall: ‘The greatest obstacle to California taking its rightful place as the world’s greatest winegrowing region is the fact that we make wines for immediate consumption and we do not hold our wines in cellar long enough to show the beautiful complexity that emerges with patience.
- Wine is the solution to the ‘Disease of Americanism’. Hurry, don’t stop, keep on going, slug some more coffee, work, work, work. Grab a quick bite and start all over. The solution to the ‘go go go’ attitude is a few hours at table with great food, great people and great wine. The Blackberries are neglected, the conversation becomes light and peppered with laughter. This is one major reason that I got into wine. I remember being a kid in my room during an adult dinner party and noticing that the voices would become magically louder and more joyous about an hour into the meal. That’s the sound I work for in the field and in the winery—when the day’s worries are forgotten and the table is enchanted with Bacchus’ blood.
- Wine is liquid hospitality. If you are in the wine or hospitality business and get burned out, please do us all a favor and find a new job. Robert Mondavi called this business the ‘gracious life’, and those are my marching orders every day when I wake up on the vineyard. How can I make a better vintage, and how can I make those that come to Clos Pepe understand what a special place this is for growing wine and living a good life. There is no greater goal in my life than to provide a meaningful experience to those that give me a few hours in the vineyard and at table. My hospitality triangle looks like this: Intuition>Flavor>Narrative. Make the service intuitive: give your guests what they need, when they need it, as if you were them at that very moment. Make sure the wine is delicious and balanced and matched with tasty cheese and bread treats that approximate a short time at table, where the wine’s meant to be consumed. Give the story of your craft and your passion—because the human mind is hard-wired to consume and remember a good yarn.
I’m sure I’ll remember a few other things I wanted to include. But it’s my birthday, and I might as well finish my work and find something else to wallow in.