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sun

Protecting Precious Treasure

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Protecting Precious Treasure

We meet in the early morning light. Dewdrops glisten on the leaves and wispy clouds drift in from the pulsing sea. A line of surfers motor by, off to catch the promising swell at our local surf break, as we six lift nets from bags and place them across the rows. Then moving all together, in constant communication, we unroll a white carpet across the canopy. Occasionally the net snags and a voice calls out a halt, and we wait for it to be untangled. It’s so easy to damage a net from snagging and we move patiently, getting it right as we go. Unroll and repeat, unroll and repeat.

Once we’ve unrolled the nets, we lock them down under wires, wires that tangle as they are rolled out, tangles that require patience to unravel. The sun is melting us.

I have become a fisherman, with my nets and my wires, and I flash on how much of my fishing time is spent tying monofilament and untangling impossible knots and snags. Netting the vines requires the same patience and attention to detail. If I try to force something in the hopes of accelerating my progress, it causes a set back. I’m challenged, now, with the day heating up, to maintain the careful attention and patience and breath needed. 

Next we check each net for holes, carrying repair strands of tough polyethylene cord. We check the periphery and then go down every row, lifting the net above our heads, searching for the smallest tear. The Silvereye, Zosterops lateralis, is tiny and a deft flyer, able to slip through the tiniest gap. This beautiful little creature can wreak terrible damage on the grapes, by typically taking a single sip out of multiple grapes, effectively ruining each. When other forms of food are absent, silvereyes have been known to dive bomb the nets to tear them open, and once one silvereye enters, others are sure to follow. 

The nets are made of a plastic that degrades with time, and exposure to sunlight. They can catch on posts and wires and tear, and the littlest tear is an invitation to invasion. To sew up a hole, we go all the way around the damage, weaving the cord through the solid holes and then tying it tightly. It is easy to miss a tear, all depends on the angle of vision, a trick of the light -- so we check and recheck each other’s work.

And then at a certain point we scrutinize the blocks in teams to make sure the nets are secured near the ground. We receive strong prevailing ocean winds here, and if we fail to lock down the nets, they can be swept open, exposing the fruit, and undoing this meticulous labor.

Every morning and every evening from now until vintage I will walk the vineyard, monitoring the nets. When they are breached, I will release the trapped birds and repair the nets. We leave the vineyard in a sea of white, a Christo wrapping, a bandage of gauze embracing vibrant green.

I return just before dusk on foot, listening to a huge commotion of ravens. I’m in a post exercise in the sun kind of torpor, which lifts in an instant when I startle a magnificent male fox. He lopes away, and circles back in the high grass, followed by the ravens. They are hoping to participate in a kill. He glances back at me as he disappears into the cover, the ravens wheeling away in hoarse song, the sky dimming.

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Heat of Summer

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Heat of Summer

We're in the thickest part of summer and I’m wearing a layer of discomfort that only immersion in sea and nighttime breeze can relieve. We are at the end of the season of Birak, the time traditional owners of these lands used to spend by the sea. It is also the season when they burned the bush to drive game into the open. Increasingly dense housing combined with fire bans have led to limited burning bringing the fuel load to dangerous levels. Fire is inevitable here, but in modern years has become increasingly destructive to property as a result of this way of treating country.

The vineyard shimmers in the heat, wind a vague recollection. Only the grasshoppers are moving, smashing into the nets like moths pinging against a lightbulb. They rise with a desiccated clatter and Houdini sidewise through the nets. Meanwhile the marris at vineyard edge are beginning to bloom, but in this intense heat, the nectar volatizes. The bees, normally in high-pitched chorale, are toiling elsewhere. The silvereyes are down by the seashore - there’s nothing to eat or drink here. The sky is a washed out version of lavender, a cloud would die of loneliness. 

I head down to the surf, the sea a drowsy grayish blue wearing a holy white halo of haze. No one is about, repelled by sun and the latest shark scare. I gallop towards the blue place, wincing as I sink into the firewalk of baking sands. I have to stagger step my way down into the relieving swirls.

I visualize a mushroom cloud of steam rising off of me as I knife into the swell. I remain in the waves, bringing my core temperature down, looking across the undulating mercury. I cover my head with rubber tentacles of kelp and wrack, improvising a soothing salty sun shield. My breathing slows, I allow the coolness of sea to penetrate deeper and will it inward. I relax into the cold and feel a deeper movement and the sea’s grace.

With closed eyes I attempt to float, but I'm wave battered and take too much water on board. I dive and touch craggy limestone reef scattering silver shiver of herring in my tumbling wake.

I stay semi submerged for a long time. My fingers prunify and a salt taste sets up in my nose and back of throat and along my lips. My eyes are red and stingy. I'm getting that blurry wide horizon stare and am starting to feel cleansed. 

Standing with feet digging through sand, activating deadened toes, stretching ached out muscles, breathing salt, getting goosebumps in the miniscule breeze.

Virtually all thought has been burnt and washed away. I'm cooled down and getting ideas about those herring and icy beer.

The trek back up to the truck dries me out some more, and I gobble a liter of water in one breath, my salty throat aflame. I drive over the ridge to the vineyard, hot wind blowing across bare chest. The vines have taken it on the chin - the heat has been overwhelming and the leaves are facing away from the sun. They have shut down to reduce transpiration loss. Everything is suspended in a holding pattern, waiting for the sun to take a vacation.

One beer later I’m back at the shore casting into the surf and a velvet lavender sky with watermelon rind horizon. Old Sol takes a deep breath before sounding into a silvered pool, and in a moment the light goes dull. The breeze comes up and with it the fish are on the bite.

I reel iridescence upon iridescence out of the shimmer and soon have filled the dinner pail. I clean the catch in a purple gloaming. Stars wink as the surf cracks and foams before me. The softest of breeze is beginning to tickle into shore and I am a green plant again. I stretch my leaves and drink it in and head home to the fry pan

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Season's Greetings- Let the Sun Shine In!

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Season's Greetings- Let the Sun Shine In!

Seasons Greetings!

Yesterday I got an early Christmas present - I found several bunches of Chardonnay with the beginning traces of powdery mildew! I freaked, and immediately went on a tear chopping off the afflicted clusters, but I gave up after discovering, that it was mostly just a berry or two in scattered bunches along the Northern side of the block. It seems to have blown in at the heads of several rows, possibly the result of spotty sulfuring along the row edges. Either way, it is a big concern. 

We are days away from bunch closure and if the mildew gets inside the cluster, it will thrive in the dark, closed environment, eventually ruining the bunch. What are my options? If I let it take its course, it might flare up more intensely throughout the vineyard. The weather has been cool, there’s wind, and light precipitation is expected. These are the conditions favored by mildew. Not acting could lead to even more widespread infection. I could go around and cut out the afflicted berries, but I might miss some and that could lead to additional outbreaks.

My strategy for Chardonnay has been to keep a dense canopy in order to shade and cool the clusters. This shading strategy favors the type of flavors I am aiming for in the wine. Because Chardonnay is such a thin-skinned grape, too much sunlight, even reflected light, and high temperature, drive away chlorophyll and yellow up the berries, leading to sunburn. Sunburn, in turn, imparts a riper, more caramel flavor, something that I enjoy as an ingredient in the wine, but not as the main course.

But the dense canopy I’ve been developing blocks sunlight and wind. Were I to open it up I would reduce the mildew pressure –- the sun will help to clear it up and keep it away, and drying air will be able to blow through – but doing so brings the very real risk of sunburn and the possible loss of the flavors I am aiming for. Opening up the canopy will also insure that sulfur would actually get into the fruit zone, rather than merely ending up on the leaves when I spray.

It’s a quandary. The clock is ticking. The days have been cool. There’s been a fair bit of cloud cover, even some overcast. And the nights have had moist winds blowing off the ocean. Precipitation is on the horizon.

I live by signs and portents and a message arrives from a moldy odor in my washing machine. It has been idle for several days and the moisture in the closed dark space has been a breeding ground. I bleach the machine back to health and resolve to get radical in the vines.

I’ve been growing a jungle in the Chardonnay, allowing the vines to grow way beyond trellis height. There are places where they’ve crossed and tangled across the rows, and they are blocking the light and airflow. First up – topping the vines.

I head out in the early dawn covered from head to toe and plugged into music. A flock of White Tailed Black Cockatoos swoop dip across the edge of the vineyard, their conversation making crazy counterpoint to the song. I cut vine by vine with my secateurs, positioning the shoots to provide optimum canopy. I pause to pull away some laterals to let in more light, and notice some of leaves in the fruit zone are senescing –- they are yellowed and shriveling, indicating they are no longer acquiring nutrients for the vine. The shoots are also lignifying, another indication that the vines are far along.

After trimming back the jungle, I bring in a team of leaf-pluckers, having made the decision to expose the fruit to receive the morning sun. We are plucking specifically in the rows where I saw the mildew, plus a bit more. I figure that our close planting will serve to shield the grapes from the sun when it is overhead, as well as in the afternoon. The grapes will still be receiving lots of direct sun, although it will be the cooler morning sun, but inescapably this action will be inviting sunburn. When the nets go on, some of the light will be diffused, and perhaps that will reduce the sun’s effect.

I’ve tossed this decision around endlessly, concluding that this is what is being called for with these conditions. Some of the canopy will grow back in the lead-up to the hottest days of the summer, providing some shielding, the nets will diffuse some of the direct sunlight, and most importantly, we will end up with healthy fruit. There will be some sunburn, and depending on how much, I can drop fruit, vinify it separately, or let it flow and see where it goes. Our stunning 2012 Chardonnay has some rich glazed onion flavors that dance with mouthwatering nutty brioche. I didn’t expect we would achieve such richness, especially at a low alcohol, but I wouldn’t trade it – not for all the shaded grapes in the world.

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Weeding the Nightshade

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Weeding the Nightshade

They say you reap what you sow, and today, I am reaping acres of nightshade, an extraordinarily toxic plant. The new cabernet block is carpeted in the stuff, a consequence of our disturbing the ground at the time of planting. I bend to the task in the hot afternoon sun, along with a crew of five, and we barely progress. The nightshade resists our efforts at hand weeding, with tenacious roots gripping deep into the gravelly soil underlying the woody layer of mulch.

Flies have moved in as well, buzzing in for a drink of our sweat, getting in our eyes, adding an annoyance factor. I position the truck close by, open all the doors and blast classic rock and roll anthems, lifting our mood. Each of us frees a vine at a time from the nightshade’s chokehold, and bit by bit we gain ground. But it is extremely time consuming and I am resigning myself to the fact that this will be a major undertaking at a huge expense.

The only way for me to eradicate these unwanted guests is to remove them by hand, and there are tens of thousands of them. They are already well established, and in a matter of weeks they will get woody and put out more seeds, perpetuating the issue far into the future. With our thick mulch, we cannot cultivate, as the plants will break off at the roots and simply regrow. Anyone else would spray herbicide and be done with it in a few hours, but this is not the Cloudburst way.

Nightshade is a perennial shrub with a woody stem, big herbaceous leaves, and a five petaled purple flower with a fused yellow calyx in the characteristic shape of a tube. A member of the Solanaceae family, close relative of the tomato, potato, belladonna, datura, it is can be an extremely poisonous plant.  It puts out a generous crop of green berries, which ripen to a dark black, each filled with about 30 highly viable seeds. Just a little bit of its toxic alkaloid is all that’s needed to cause death...

I get a noseful of its distinctive deadly odor and notice my thoughts are going off on a sort of dark strange delirium.  I’m in the poppy field, it's The Wizard of Aus, and my limbs are feeling heavy and I’m lightheaded. A bit of juice has splashed on my bare arm, so I tromp off to the shade for my water, wondering if the juice itself has caused this, or my hours in the sun, or my soaring imagination.

We will take pains to remove every last bit of nightshade, scouring every square meter of the planting, until it is gone.  It’s a huge undertaking and I’m steeling myself to the need to remain vigilant for years going forward.  There’s no question in my mind that this is going to be an extraordinary block.  The Cabernet Sauvignon that was planted here just two months ago is thriving.  Perhaps 97 percent has taken, an astonishing and promising result.  Clearly the nightshade likes the spot as well--who wouldn't?  North facing, bordering a stream, nestled in the bush-- it's just a lovely spot.

I gobble water, splash some on my filthy arms, return to the field and bend to the task anew. The sun is drooping through scattered clouds and the light slants long. A kookaburra sets up a chuckle in the marris and is answered by a mate on the other side. I can laugh too. There’s always something to attend to in the vineyard, and there always will be. 

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Cool Down?

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Cool Down?

A somewhat chill wind has blown into the shire, blessing my outside work with cooling relief. In the run-up to summer, I’ve set up a perpetual squint, despite hat- brim shading. The light has acquired a heated white resonance and the country is drying out. I can feel it on my bare feet and see it in how the grasses have dulled into gray brown and the leaves of the trees have dialed back from vibrant green to a taupe gray green. Heat radiates in visible waves off every object. My perspiration seems to disappear as it’s created. And it’s not even summer. This cool breeze is my nectar.

The vines respond happily to these conditions. Fresh tendrils reach for the sky. Baby new leaves arrive daily. There’s flowering throughout the vineyard and the bees are throbbing through in a lovely trance. There’s a vibrancy that lifts my mood, feeds my hope.

I’m plucking leaves to open up the dense foliage to light and air circulation. I’m aiming to slant some sunlight into the grape clusters. This will reduce the possibility of mildew arising. Light and moving dry air is the enemy of fungus. With the Chardonnay, my intention is to create dappled light, to give partial bunch shading. Chardonnay is a sensitive thin-skinned grape and subject to sunburn, which can lead to “jammy” and other off flavors. Full exposure is undesirable, so I’m only plucking the occasional leaf.

The Cabernet however, can handle more sunlight and I’m a bit more thorough in opening up the canopy to bring in light and air.  At the same time, I’m inspecting for any sign of disease or damage and have thankfully found none. So far we have a perfectly healthy crop growing beautifully in terrific balance. Everywhere in the vineyard I’m encountering ladybugs and spiders and beneficial insects. All leaves are intact and vibrantly green. And the fruit set looks to be tremendous.  

Could this possibly be another terrific vintage?

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Out in the Rain, Again

I’m out in the rain again. I just have to see for myself – all this driving rain has had to have an impact. And so I’m walking through the Chardonnay, inspecting leaves and bunches. Overnight the leaf cover seems to have doubled in volume. Everything looks to be in top shape, with the exception of a few scattered leaves with tiny rips in them.  Was that caused by wind and rain?

The block I’m replanting is mostly soggy. I stay on the higher ground and replace about fifty plants. The rain intensifies and the wind starts to sting and then hailstones are snapping against my neck. I take cover under an ancient Peppermint tree and when it passes walk to the mini lake in the middle of the block. Everything is underwater and rain is forecast for several weeks to come. In a moment of desperation/inspiration I poke a dozen cuttings deep into the water, like I’m planting rice in a paddy. My bet is that the block will dry out and that they will take root. We’ll see.

The Chardonnay leaves have that vibrant early green color that only comes in the first flush of Springtime. They almost shimmer in the rain. They’ve survived this tiny fusillade of hail, the imperious gusting of wind, the relentless pounding of rain. They are way more resilient than I expected they would be, and are thriving.

And now the first flush of budburst is gripping the Malbec as well. Roused by the energy of Spring, this part of the vineyard is wakening. The smallest of leaves are emerging, delicate and perfectly formed. They are so different in aspect and color and energy and in the way they unfold from the Chardonnay, literally two meters away...

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