I grew up in the middle of a vineyard about half a mile from my family’s winery. Not far from my house there’s a sign anonymously posted along the road. Part warning, part commentary, it manages to be smirkingly cute and gruff at the same time: THIS IS GOD'S COUNTRY, it intones, DON’T DRIVE LIKE HELL ON YOUR WAY THROUGH. Ironically, this is less directed to the tourists (who salivate over every turn, cameras poked out the windows like guns) than it is to the locals (who are thoroughly unfazed by the scenery).
I fall into both categories: resident and transient, jaded aesthete and easily-awed rubbernecker. When I was a kid, there were no such divisions, Life on a vineyard was fairly straightforward, ritualistic in its routine. The beauty of the locale was a given. Occasionally, my sister and I would complain about what we felt to be "unfair isolation," but I never felt ill-prepared for the complexities of post-vineyard life. Sure, I didn't have much of a handle on foreign events, but I could identify the true threats to human happiness: the fruit fly, dare you ask?
My caustic sense of humor was fueled early on by oenological tales of woe. When it was my father’s turn to put me to bed, I'd beg to hear the famous “Ladder Zinfandel Story,” in which, still heady from his newly acquired role as entrepreneur-cum-epicure, he left a wooden ladder in an empty tank. The punch line is that he then proceeded to fill the tank with wine. It wasn't until months later that his ladder was discovered -- sodden, splintered and on the brink of disintegration.
There is no moral, alas, to the story. That the descriptor "oaky" could legitimately be applied to the wine proved little comfort to my father, even in recollection.
Although I took enormous delight in the hazards of the business, I think it's safe to say that I didn't have the most sophisticated palate. On trips to Safeway, I'd surreptitiously drop prepackaged bags of grapes (swollen, waxy and probably shipped from Modesto) into the shopping cart. Upon discovering them, my mother would giggle and show them to my father, who’d cringe appropriately. During college, in a related act of unconscious rebellion, I'd routinely purchase a throat-stripping $3.95 Chilean wine -- the kind suited only to the horizontal life of the sale bin.
Visitors to the winery, of course, don't know this about me. There’s no reason to suspect such sordid secrets lurking in the past of a winemaker's daughter. All they see is that I walk through the "Staff Only" door with bare feet, looking all nonchalant. I pick tomatoes, which I eat without washing, and I know the names of the winery cats, so I’m usually approached cautiously like a rare species of untamed animal.
Sometimes, to unsettle them, I pick up the cat who has no ears and put her in my lap. I figure if we’re competing I'm bound to be less of an attraction. This puts the visitors off a bit. They reassess the situation. Still, despite my efforts to postpone the inevitable, I’m drawn into conversation. After certain things have been established -- that the winery is quite beautiful (yes, yes, it is) and that the cat has no ears (yes, yes, she has cancer) -- they get to the point.
“So,” they say expectantly, "your going to take over the business?" A wistful sort of envy emanates from each face. They would kill to step into my oft-absent shoes. I don’t begrudge them this. However, I would like to make it clear that this isn’t a Keanu Reeves movie. I know what they -- and you, perhaps -- are imagining. Languorous, self-congratulatory strolls through the vines. The incomparable sensation of grape innards sliding between one's toes. The occasional finger dipped into crimson-hued juices.
These are innocent and common preconceptions. Recently an article entitled “The Allure of the Grape" ran in the San Francisco Chronicle and told of the thrills of harvest season. This is very sweet. Yet I've always wondered how charmed the average wine drinker would be if he knew of the noble grape’s effect on the poor winemaker. In the days before harvest, when the fruit is flirting with ripeness, the haunted soul must traipse through each and every block of vines, sampling grapes until his tongue is numb and purple. If this makes you think of Dante -- it should. My father, who’s no longer the winemaker, has some interesting and rather graphic observations about the abdominal aftermath.
But I’m polite enough to provide visitors with a standard reply, rather than shower them with unwanted illuminations and gastrointestinal vignettes.
"Well," I answer sincerely, “I’m actually more interested in poetry."
This generally strikes people as quite funny, not to mention illogical and somehow suspect. How is it that I can so casually shrug off my blood’s calling; the siren song of the untrounced grape?
I don’t know, really. But now that I’ve been asked the question so many godforsaken times, I feel obligated to defend myself. See, I'd like to think it's all about process. When I write, I muck around with a lot of amorphous things, get sick of it, then muck around some more. Hopefully the end result is some sort of pleasing arrangement. And when you get down to it, making wine isn't all that different. Winemakers and poets are, in fact, beleaguered by many of the same pitfalls -- inadequate rhythm and poorly selected ingredients, to mention a few. In the worst of situations, external forces rally together, wreaking irreparable havoc: grapes get phylloxera and cluster rot; words group themselves into sentence fragments and dangling modifiers.
As you can probably tell from all my analogizing, I’m inclined to view the winemaking profession as more an art than a science. Although there are lots of, well, rules involved, a bottle of wine is probably more indebted to the make-shift, imperfect gestures that nurtured it. Growing up, I fell in love with the scores of alienated milk cartons dotting the property. It comforted me to imagine each one carefully tucked into place around young vines, stiff collars circling their vulnerable necks.
Yet (and this is admittedly contradictory) I cannot help but resist the popular image of farmer as baby-sitter. Although perhaps when you get down to it, that is what he is: a dogged attendant, an inherently disadvantaged caretaker. He assumes that something will go miserably wrong (it won't rain -- or, even worse -- it will) and does his best to control what is, by nature, uncontrollable.
Whenever I take friends home with me, they beg for a tour of the winery. I comply cheerfully, although I have only the scantiest of knowledge about which machine does what. I point at things and give colorful, interpretive descriptions. And I always save the bottling machine for last. A serpentine, commanding contraption, it represents the pinnacle of the winemaker's travails; the metamorphosis of romantic notion to a tangible, shelfable thing. Corks are inserted, labels glued, foils sealed. I’m generally moved -- in a rare demonstration of tenderness -- to describe it as the printing press of the drinking world. It’s cantankerous, unreliable and entirely indispensable. Members of the staff hover around it with suspended breath. The bottling machine has the power to ruin the day of anyone and everyone, involved.
It's been a long time since I've seen the bottling machine in action. The last time I visited, I noticed that someone had sardonically adorned the machine with a kitschy postcard of the Pope. His arm is raised weakly, presumably in some sort of benediction. He looks a little frustrated, as if pissed-off to be in the company of an object so revered. Indulgently, I imagine that he's trying to yank me out of my waywardness. "Look at this," he says, peevishly pointing into the depths of the winery, "This too could be yours."