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Meanwhile, back at the winery..

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Meanwhile, back at the winery..

It’s early and the winery is silent.  The whoosh of water, thrum of pump, and whirr of machine has yet to begin. I’m plunging the Malbec, pushing down the cap of skins that have floated to the surface of the ferment, bubbled aloft by carbon dioxide produced during fermentation. And for the first time ever, it is quiet enough for me to actually hear what plunging sounds like. It has the resonance of the sea. Each plunge elicits a wave and reverberation. There’s a rush of tide created by the seeds tumbling in the wash and plinking against the side of the open tank, like waves breaking on a pebbled shore. Each motion sets up the soft swoosh and ebb of the wine dark sea. She churns and seethes and bubbles and pops, pulsating with vigor and life, all set in motion by the plunge.

The wind shoves in through the marris, rattling the leaves, and causing a sentinel pair of cockatoos to lament. The energy of that translates into the wine through the kinetics of plunge. I clench bandhas, control breath, reach to make each thrust a graceful vinyasa. I will myself into a clear focus, only to catch a random cloud casting an impish shadow across the fields. And in that moment I feel like the world has just moved through me, and on through the wine, and it has. This moment, and then this one, will reverberate in the drinking. 

It’s profound and inexplicable. It’s part of the transmutative magic.

I continue the motion, breathing a heartbeat, now setting up a diastole, systole, a thrust of intention through the lifeblood of the ferment. I pause to test a sample of this living beating concoction. I have my hands in her, my arms. Everything has gone purple. I taste her with my nose, throat, lungs. I’m intoxicated and haven’t had a drink.

A living current has flown into me through the ferment and back out of me again. She is making herself, and I merely follow her command, caught up in her immensity, her power, her inexorability.

Hours later, I still hear her powerful song, still breathe her heady scent. Something still resonates in my spine. It is her breath. She breathes, inspiration and expiration, with a breath so great, it encompasses the region, and time itself. This is way bigger than I am.

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Taste of Autumn

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Taste of Autumn

I'm getting a taste of Autumn here, deceptive for a New Englander in this hot climate, but change is in the air. I plod through the emptied chardonnay vines amidst the yellowing leaves and am transported to New Hampshire and the White Mountains. I've got a touch of melancholia and vintage isn't nearly over. Everything transforms. The seasons streak by too quickly to catch -- what is born, dies, to be reborn in a different form. Likewise the wine, memory of what preceded, is translated into something new, captured living and changing in the bottle.

Will my offspring succeed me? Will what follows match the effort expended? Does my stand matter overall? At a certain point in inebriation, and, I imagine, at the point when I die, letting go of my attachment to everyone and everything so that I can move on, will anything matter at all?

A cooling wind has risen off the sea and is shuddering through the peppermints. I stand in the gentle rain of thin purpled fragrant leaves and see signals of endings everywhere. The light is dampening and I’ve only begun. 

Last night I saw a mother kangaroo and her joey hopping across the road and to my horror the oncoming car didn’t stop until it had nicked the joey. I saw it struggling up the hill, mother zigzagging in panic. They disappeared out of sight and I was left with a dread in my heart. Could it survive that? If it did, what would it’s future be like? Was it suffering? Clearly its mother was, and I still am.

Such thoughts must be consequences of the hour and of the time.

It’s the turning of the season, the waning of the light. Dawn arrives noticeably later, and darkness falls earlier. I can smell rain on the wind, feel the prayer of the expectant parched earth. Those unbearably hot days are mostly behind us. The harvest moon is waxing towards fullness, the Cabernet is ready to come in.

In the US I’d be hearing Canada geese winging southward, the crunch of dead leaves, apple spice in the air. Endings are new beginnings. Wine is this moment, captured. The year lives in the bottle. Autumn is the death that sets up rebirth. I taste the bitter in the sweet, the dark in the light.

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Malbec 2014

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Malbec 2014

It's the quiet moment after sunset when the world is tucking itself in and the night creatures are coming up to speed. There's a perfect swell on after days of doldrums and the sea is roaring a bass hello. I've parked the truck and trailer, both laden with bins for tomorrow's pick and I'm saying goodnight and farewell to the Malbec. There's the deepest purple glow in the West and a purity to the darkness, with the stars beginning to wink on in the moonless gloaming. I'm reviewing the past growing season as it morphs into its culmination with an uneasiness I can neither explain nor shake.

A dry dusty heat continues to rise off the dirt, despite the darkness. Summer is lingering on. The grapes taste delicious, but the crop is tiny -- we have made a tremendous effort for just a small amount of grapes. My mood has been shaped by the employment of the past few days -- cutting off raisined bunches and individual berries that have been burnt up by the relentless sun. It's reduced our low yielding crop significantly. We dance across harvest’s tightrope balancing the success of creating exquisite fruit with danger -- the paucity of return.

I trudge my way back home across the stubbly field, in a great quiet, punctuated by the sea’s susurration. When I reach the edge of the dried streambed, a coolness rises off the earth and resuscitates my spirits. I look up at Jupiter sprawled comfortably in the vast sky and breathe again. I see in that instant how thoroughly wrapped up I've been in business and other compelling concerns causing separation. I will myself to shift into gratitude for the harvest, for this place, my life filled with blessings, my family, friends, well-being.

Later, I rise in darkness and make my way back to the vines. I hear a Roo clippity-clopping in the obscurity. The slightest breeze like earth's exhalation carries a promising dampness. I smell grasses and peppermint and salt. The entire sky is dotted with a gazillion stars and the Sea is clapping and snapping and singing. And when I get into the vineyard open, Mercury and Venus and Saturn and Jupiter ride the moonless sky.

I free the nets and start them rolling. The crew yawns in and we set to work by headlamp, and as the daylight spools in, in come the pickers with their smiles and earnestness. I kneel in the first row and snip a bunch, which I offer to the land, the ancestors, the gods of this place and of wine, and then we all get stuck into it. We work as the light comes in and the sun winks through the trees and the bins fill up and our sweat arrives.  

My family trickles in, along with some well-wishing friends, and the bittersweet feeling returns. Another year, another year, another year. All that effort distilled into a bin. The taste of 2014, as manifest through Malbec. Life in all its magic marches on, and we with it.

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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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Wheelbarrow Races

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Wheelbarrow Races

This year has been characterized with a huge focus on hand weeding but I was still floored to learn that we had spent over 400 hours at it this season, and that we aren’t finished. That’s an incredible amount of effort for such a small vineyard. Most of it occurred in the new plantings, particularly the cabernet sauvignon, undoubtedly a result of our disturbing the soils. We dealt with thistles, sorrel, kikuyu, bracken fern, and were absolutely hammered with nightshade, but there was also a smattering of an insidiously clever weed Emex australis, an immigrant from South Africa. I took bins and bins of it to the tip.

It goes by various names-- double g, goathead, cathead, three cornered jack. It’s a low growing annual that sends prostrate stems bearing clusters of spiny fruit. These burrs are three-spined and designed for maximum dispersion, constructed in such a way to inevitably imbed itself in anything that touches it. I’ve run barefoot in the field and been categorically stopped in my tracks like a tank in a tank trap. These babies know how to penetrate and they hurt.

So once the weeds had been pulled, making vast piles at the edges of the vineyard, I decided to reduce the possibility of future proliferation, by deploying six semi loads of ground up tree mulch. I couldn’t have picked a hotter dustier day for this work!

We spread it by hand, of course, wheel barrowing the mulch, section by section, utilizing forks, and rakes and gloves. We were sweating.

And that’s where the double g caught us. That insidious little bugger was waiting to puncture our wheels. Four of us spread mulch for three days and I ended up changing six tires and and four inner tubes before I finally found some industrial strength tires as replacements… If I had started with those tires in place, though, I wouldn’t be as proficient as I am now in wrenching the wheels off the wheelbarrow, popping tire off the rim, yanking the inner tube, replacing a fresh one, pumping it up and ratcheting it back on.  In the Indy 500 of wheel barrowing, I’m king of the pit crew.

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Right Livelihood

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Right Livelihood

I worked hard in the heat today and when I knocked off, sucked down a couple of apple beers to quench an unbelievable thirst. It knocked me for a loop – I had to lie down, and when I awakened it was as if my brain had been scrubbed clean. I had to return from pretty far away, and it made me uncomfortable.

The Buddha instructed that one should not take intoxicating substances because it causes heedlessness -- a dumbing of awareness, a loss of connection with the world, a harmful obliviousness. But with wine I notice a connection, a loss of separateness, a feeling of wholeness, a warming rush of feeling, the love space. Certain unimportant distinctions blur and drop out, a commonality is reached, and there’s always the promise of ecstasy, of the overarching feeling of the “allrightness” of everything that I find positively spiritual.

It’s the next morning that’s the worry. I’ve drowned myself in water, gotten intimate with my coffee apparatus, dunked in the sea… But it’s always a journey back. 

I wish this washed out state was the state of no thoughts, not slow thoughts.

A quiet mind is a worthy place. But this represents a disquiet and, yes, of course, it’s got me thinking about samyag ajiva, or “Right Livelihood”, the fifth of the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Buddha cautioned all to make a living without doing harm to others. Wine is an intoxicant, which the Buddha said should be avoided. (Of course Trungpa Rinpoche and others would take exception…) But can I do this work without it being a source of suffering for others? 

I “do no harm” to the environment, to those who work here, to the spirit of the land.

Our practices will pass pretty rigid scrutiny. But when the wine leaves my hands, what of it?  

I dream of Cloudburst singing in your throat, of it lifting you up to your highest most conscious place, of it enlivening your day, your conversation, your insight. I hope it takes you to the love space. May it do you no harm.

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Guinea Fowl Update

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Guinea Fowl Update

Of the original keets, a total of 11 survived out of the 20 placed with our clucky duck, Peepling. All the little ones mysteriously perished.  Luckily, we kept a newly hatched keet in the house in a cardboard box with a hot water bottle that my son assiduously filled and refilled, eventually replacing it with a desk lamp bearing a sixty watt bulb. He was pretty tiny and very weak. My wife suggested we put him out of his misery, but he recovered and slowly put on weight and feathers.

One day I came in from the vines to find him strutting proudly around. He had learned to fly and made it out of the box. Then he started following me around.

I didn’t get it at first, but after awhile I understood that I was his Peepling. This amused me no end, and I was happy to let him perch on my shoulder while I puttered around. But eventually finding his “messes” got to me after long days in the vines and I decided to cage him in a lovely little birdcage I found in the shed.

Bad move. This infuriated him, or made him anxious. He’d call and pace in clear frustration. Whenever he could see me, he’d calm down. When I’d leave, he’d tweet and peck and carry on incessantly. So I’d take him out of the cage, plop him on my shoulder, open my laptop, and he’d calm right down. The moment I tried to place him back in the cage, though, he’d squawk a blue streak, and as the days proceeded, and he devoured his feed, it became increasingly difficult to get him through the narrow cage door. 

So I built him a pen, utilizing a couple of pallets, chicken wire and some leftover tin for a roof. I positioned it adjacent to the Guinea Fowl pen so that the flock would get used to him and he to them. We had one last sweet night together.

The next day, I rose at dawn and popped him into the enclosure. He raced back and forth piteously calling for me. Peepling waddled over and whistled and scolded at him and tried to peck at him through the wires. Uh oh. I suddenly had some misgivings about Peepling. This wasn’t gentle mothering -- it looked entirely like something else.

So I decided to look for some companions for him and found three “teenagers” from a nearby grower. I consigned one to join him in the cell and placed the other two in with Peepling and the flock. Instantly Peepling flew at the newcomers, pecking and harassing them. Oh boy. I opened up their enclosure letting all the guinea fowl out into the fenced orchard, along with Peepling, and herded the two newcomers back into the vacated enclosure. Peepling tried to peck at them through the enclosure. Uh oh again.

After a few days of separation, I took my child guinea fowl, (who purposely doesn’t have a name so that I don’t reciprocate any attachment, being the hard hearted farmer that I am), along with his cellmate, I mean new boon companion, and tossed them in with the other two. These four spent the next several days pacing the perimeter of the pen, only to be pecked or billed by Peepling who set herself up within range of the pace track.

Today, when I was feeding them, though, I saw Peepling reach through and grab my child fowl and shake him, and that was enough. I chased her into a corner and grabbed her before she could flee, unlocked the enclosure and shooed the four young birds out into the flock, then tossed Peepling in alone and locked the door.

All day long she has alternated between a sentry position on the little shed and a sniper pecking position at the fence when her charges, augmented by the four, come by for a chat. She is still determined to harm the four newcomers.

Meanwhile my child fowl is not faring particularly well. I have seen him get pecked by random jealous chickens, and he definitely is the runt of the crew, lagging behind the others and seemingly not an attentive feeder. I call out encouragement to him and importune him to feed, to watch out for beaks and spurs, but he is ignoring me.

At one point I felt I needed to rescue him, but he eluded me and fortunately joined the flock where there’s a modicum of protection.

I must “release” him, he has left my nest, but even now, sitting in the farm kitchen with windows wide, my ear is bent and I’m interpreting every squawk, chirp and call like a nervous sad parent.

In retrospect, Peepling must have murdered the other little ones. Next time I’ll put those eggs under a clucky hen.

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The Vineyard as Organism

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The Vineyard as Organism

When I discovered powdery mildew in the Chardonnay I was in shock. I cascaded through the stages of grief, all in the course of an afternoon. After denying it was anything significant, I got angry with myself for letting the canopy junglify, bargained with my trusted vineyard workers about it, got depressed and eventually accepted the unthinkable – that something unwanted had found it’s way into my precious pristine temple of a vineyard. Immediately I reconciled myself to a course of action.

First, radiation. I lopped off the tops of the vines and vigorously hedged, shoot thinned and leaf-plucked, exposing the grapes to the intense direct rays of the sun. Truckloads of vine material were heaped on the compost pile and an autumn of leaves carpeted the floor of the Chardonnay. Having let the sunshine in, I watched as here and there grapes became sunburned, shriveled up and dropped off, casualties of the treatment. You kill some good cells along with the undesirable ones…

Next, chemo. I upped the frequency of sulfur treatments in the hopes of creating a climate that the powdery would find undesirable. After a while, it smelt positively volcanic. I smelt positively volcanic! I’d walk the vines in freshly laundered work clothes and return home smelling like Old Faithful. Swimming in the sea, showering with Dr. Bronners cut it somewhat, but always the faint odor of Hades lifting off my skin. My clothes, despite repeated washings, had the stench of, well, skunk. And miraculously, the mildew was dialed back -- it didn’t spread.

So I flagged the grape bunches that had it, decided to watch them, to see if it proliferated, and checked the vineyard to see if it metastasized elsewhere. The sun did its work. The hot winds dried the tender grapes. The sulfur, sulfurated. And the powdery was stopped in its tracks. But it remained in those flagged lumps of grapes.

So today I got radical, and pulled on my surgeon’s glove, beginning the process of cutting out the afflicted bunches, sob. And in farmer mind, I’m assessing, second guessing, remembering, postulating, hypothesizing – had I done this, seen that, if only this, but what if that… In the final analysis my vote is for getting radical, for an immediate unemotional surgical strike. After all the effort, expense and anxiety, I’ve ended up cutting it out, leaving nothing but healthy vibrant, delicious fruit. I’m a radical at heart.

 

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Seeing Ain't About Believing

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Seeing Ain't About Believing

A brilliant friend brought me relief in the vines in the form of the welcome gift of his iPod, replete with an outstanding collection of songs. He was responding to my text that I had resorted to listening to ____, as I had “run out of” music. I hadn’t of course -- my iPod boasts about 12,000 songs, but after months of shifting through my sounds, it felt like I had heard it all. So we plugged his into the truck and floated cool sounds out into the hot green, chatting happily while I trimmed and shoot-thinned the lusty vines.

I explained what I was doing, at some point averring that I think myself unskilled. His biting protest about my “false modesty” considering our cult success, stopped me in my tracks. I hold it that I’ve got heaps to learn, and that I don’t always get it right. I was saying that I was still discovering how to “see” the vines. Despite book study, a fair bit of direct hands on experience, I’m still learning. I’m often surprised by things and frequently miss critical details. I’m continuing to work to “get my eyes in” –-to be able to see all the components and trajectory of each vine, to read what is expressing and to act appropriately in delivering what is needed in the proper time frame.

Where does this knowledge come from? Some certainly comes from science and book learning, some from direct experience, and some comes from the expressed experiences of others. But a large bit comes from an awareness I’m striving to cultivate, and at heart, this is one of the “holy grails” driving the vineyard and the entire Cloudburst process.  

I’m talking about being able to receive, interpret and act on crucial tidings that come from “somewhere else” -- those dead-on otherworldly insights that represent a critical intuitive leap… This type of information arrives through meaningful coincidences or riddles or talismans and through seemingly unimportant occurrences that turn out to be portents. Occasionally I catch them.

Last year I was far from the vines and found a feather from a Darlmoorluk (the indigenous nickname for the Western Ringneck Parrot, Barnardius zonarius). I picked it up and had an instantaneous flash of absolute certainty that there was a parrot in the vines. I raced there and sure enough, a Darlmoorluk had punched a hole through the net and was cheerfully lopping off bunches of grapes. I chased him out, patched up the gaping hole and was struck by how opportune the sign of the feather had been.

Such signs are everywhere. Can I tune myself to read them? Can I really listen? Can I cultivate seeing? Can I transmute that into the grapes, into the wine, into my life?

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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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