Sunday, July 31, 2011


This is a year of anniversaries and initiations.  Fifteen years at the restaurant, twenty years of marriage, a first vintage of wine.  First real pruning in the vineyard.  First harvest of our own fruit.  First blossoming.   

My work at the restaurant is to tell the stories of the wines I have curated, tales of the landscape, the vineyards, and the people who tend them.  I have long worked to talk about methods of winegrowing and the work that happens in the cellar and how that translates into the glass, how the wine corresponds in an intimate conversation with the food with which it is being served.  I became interested in making wine because I talked so much about the process of making wine and having once studied forms of dance, I felt that to truly understand the alchemy of that process, I had to physically go through the choreography.  Once I had accomplished that, or rather failed in my first few attempts, I understood better something that I have always believed: wine is made in the vineyard and is a true expression of a complete landscape, that notion of terroir being all that encompasses a particular parcel of land from geology to botany, to the microclimate that embraces it, to the varietals that grow on it, to the human hand that husbands it and harvests it into wine.  Little did I know the desire to understand the rhythms of growing  wine would became much greater than the initially planned experiment of simply physically making wine in the cellar (or rather the bathtub as those first few years attested), and that in a three year period, Caleb and I would have a licensed winery with a fledgling vineyard and be producing our first negociant vintage. 

There have been many firsts on this journey and many surprises.  I have gone many times to other vineyards to taste wine and walk the land, to see the vines, to examine the shapes of their trellising.  But these visits exist somewhat in a vacuum.  For me the process is never fully understood until I experience the actual doing of it.  I am envious of two friends who have taken a sabbatical to work at another friend’s vineyard in France.  While they are a bit stunned by the hard manual labor and the difficulties and beauties of a living in a foreign culture, I crave to learn the repeated motions that they practice every day to the protest of their aching bodies.  While I have many mentors in many places willing to discuss the mechanics of the work I must do, I have no one who stands next to me with years of experience  guiding the way the hand prunes the vine here, ties the vine there, thins the shoots here, pulls leaves there.  I have pruned at this friend’s vineyard in France and had his tutelage working forty to ninety year old vines, but I have never pruned two-year old vines, nor have I ever shoot-thinned vines, or pulled leaves.  I have never lifted wires; I have never hedged.  

I have never watched the buds turn to the smallest looking grapebunch you can imagine, or seen how they lengthen and extend with each day until they become the flowers of this majestic and earthy plant with small threads of white pistils coming out of each supposed grape waiting for pollination.  I have never smelled grape blossoms before, the sweet jasmine of the Marquette, or the white pepper of the La Crescent.  I have never witnessed how these scents might translate into the fruit.  I have never noted when blossoming arrives and how long it lasts and if the sun graces the period or if the rain confounds.  This all happens for the first time here and now in this year. 

And there is some sun.  There is rain.  We’ve had strong breezes.  The flowers seem to have pollinated themselves as the pistils fade and the berries begin to grow.  But there are violent thunderstorms while I hide in our bedroom downstairs that is built into the hillside, hide with two cats fearing that the wind will blow the windows in the house out.  I watch out the French doors the hail, pea-sized and so pretty, ride the wind and drop to the ground bouncing like a broken string of pearls.  I find that I pray.  This is the first hail that I have feared.  

In the vineyard, there is cause for alarm.  This is the first time I’ve understood how dispirited a local orchardist felt after losing all the leaves on his apple trees to hail the size of a snowball; without leaves there is no photosynthesis and the plants will die.  This is the first time I understand why the woman in Bordeaux cried when half her fruit near the time of harvest was destroyed by hail.  This is the first time I’ve seen the sly shredding of the leaves and the gaping wounds even in this smallest of fruit.  This will be the first time I will know if the vines can survive this test, if any fruit will remain after all this brutality.  Will the berries just expire, shrivel and blacken, losing their heart after such a defeat?

But grapevines are absurdly resilient.  Only time will tell over these days that turn into weeks.  Already, after a serious of chamomile, yarrow and nettle teas, the vines and fruit seem to respond putting out new growth to replace the damaged leaves, and the untouched berries grow larger covering the holes in the bunches of the berries lost.  They are now about the size of those hail-pearls that caused the chaos in the first place.

This is the first time we think they will survive, and we will still have fruit for our first at home harvest.  This is not the first time, however, this season we have felt hopeful.  And this is not the first time we are a bit wary of that hope knowing that the next scourge or storm could render us hopeless.  Now, there are black caterpillars with white and orange stripes, and a foul infestation of Japanese beetles.  We pick them off the leaves every day, drowning them in old jam jars filled with water and soap.  We collect them and burn them into dust, their scent, rather putrid, perfuming the air.  But that is yet another story.

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