Monday, March 26, 2007


It was an absolutely spectacular July Saturday morning. In the early morning hours, as the mist rose from the pond below us, we walked our Dalmatians in the vineyard.

The still bright-green leaves of the vines and trees were tinged with yellow and gold sunlight. The vineyard looked beautiful. It was idyllic. The dogs ran up and down the rows of vines, all senses on high alert.

After the walk, we ate breakfast in the kitchen with the windows open. We ate cereal with raspberries and sipped fresh-brewed coffee.

Today would be a nice day. We would finally take a breather and drive around the country, looking for yard sales filled with great deals on items (i.e. cheap, affordable furniture) with which to decorate our house. We took our time. We all took showers, discussed our route and places to stop, Hawthorne Valley, Love’s Apple Farm, and we hoped to take a drive through Old Chatham and Spencertown.

It took us a while to get ready. We got the car keys, we gated up the dogs in the kitchen, and we walked to the back door. Closing the back door, we looked at the large rose bush in bloom. Were the blossoms, the new flowers, already rotting? What were all those small brown spots? Upon closer examination, we realized that the suspect brown spots were in fact small, brownish/copper bugs. And there were a lot of them. We were being invaded by Japanese beetles!

It was then that Dominique and I looked at each other. Japanese beetles. Hordes of them. And then we both thought the same thing—the vineyard!

We ran around the house and ran toward the vineyard. From afar it looked fine. But when we got there we realized our little green patch of paradise was now hosting what appeared to be one of the biggest Japanese beetle festivals in North America.

There, on almost every plant, were hordes of beetles doing two things—fornicating and eating. Sometimes in that order—and sometimes not.

I hate bugs. I hate them. I am totally grossed out by them. I hate spiders and beetles and ants and mosquitoes and moths. I truly don’t even like butterflies—which I am sure makes me somewhat unmasculine in a lot of women’s eyes.

We had heard what they could do. To say the least, we were completely unprepared. What to do? What to do? We called our Cornell Extension expert, Steven McKay. Nothing—we got through to his voice mail. Then Dom called Michael Migliore, HVWGA president and Whitehall owner. Yes. He, too, had been attacked. He recommended doing whatever we thought might work, and had a few key suggestions. Steve Osborn from Stoutridge responded to us, as well. He’d been at war since early that morning.

Dominique wanted to try an organic solution.

We tried pepper sprays, garlic sprays, went around with a can with oil. We did battle on every front around the farm. We beat bushes, even resorted to squashing the beetles in our fingers (they crunch, by the way, when you press them). The boys, especially Dylan, were thrilled.
We spent all day Saturday and all day Sunday battling the little pests, who sometimes sat as many as five on a leaf, in ugly bug orgies.

Finally, as they were gaining the upper hand, and the vineyard was disappearing before our eyes, we sprayed our small vineyard with an over-the-counter spray. It worked.

By Sunday night, the bugs were gone. Our beautiful vines had holes in them everywhere, at least the ones that had not been completely eaten. We were devastated. We went to bed that night, after a bottle of wine, exhausted and relieved.

On Monday, someone asked, "How was your weekend at the vineyard?", thinking it must have been charming and restful.

I just rubbed my eyes.

It looked like we were growing giant tube worms. Our idyllic vineyard, sloping up the hill, now looked like a large field of worms, or some kind of odd cemetery.

In establishing a first-year vineyard, it is customary to use grow tubes to help spur growth and protect the vines. They come in different heights and colors, but essentially they are large, cylindrical tubes one places at the base of a plant that go up almost 36". The plastic of the tubes was opaque, but let through copious amounts of light. They protected the plants from deer, raccoons, and mice, and created a terrarium-like atmosphere to help the plant grow up straighter and better.

Placing these on the vines is back-breaking work. Ours were the color of a very clean band-aid. I had seen blue- and light-green-hued tubes, but ours were a bland cream-colored hue—about the color of uncooked pasta. It was an unexciting color, to say the least.
The ones we purchased from our farm supply resource were like rolled-up sheets of corrugated plastic. You had to pry one of them apart, and try to wrap it around the uncooperative vine.
First, the tube was hard to handle. It was formed much like a mechanical spring. Any time you lost your grip, it would snap or roll up right back into a narrow little tube. And vines, partially grown, were spreading out in various directions. They looked like giant, sprawling green spiders, with limbs going out every which way.

First, you had to have your tube cocked, and then you had to wrestle the vine, collecting all its limbs, and then you had to coerce, cajole, wrestle, and stuff the wily, slippery, bull-headed, stubborn vine into the mousetrap-like device. If you did it correctly, you could close the tube at the base of the vine, and with a turn or two, the tube would snap shut around the vine.
More often than not, especially with the faster growing vines, this took two or three attempts. In our inexperience, we had probably let them go on too long before attempting to harness them.
Once the tube was on, it had to be set. You also had to make sure you were including the bamboo stake that had been driven into the ground. A series of holes were slotted into both ends of the tube. Slot A fit into slot B. By attacking it in this way, you unwound the tube a bit to give extra growing room inside the tube. Unfortunately, the tube or the plant might again not cooperate, and the whole thing might come undone. So you’d have to go back and do this all over again.

Once that was accomplished, we put rubber bands and tape on our tubes to make sure they would not come undone. While we applied the tubes, Dylan and Dawson were ferrying tubes to each of us. They fought over who would push the wheelbarrow up and down the fields. It tipped over more than once. They used tubes tightly wound up like swords to hit each other. Both Dom and I had to adjudicate more than several bouts.

As I said before, this is back-breaking work—especially for me. The plants are in the ground, and the tubes have to be put on around them. It’s a lot of work on your knees and bent over. Luckily for me, Dominique was excellent at it. I had helped on the first batch, but just as in the kitchen, she would come by tubes I had done, like I was some little kid whose mother was checking his hastily prepared homework, and re-do the ones I had done.
At one point, she told me not to bother. To run to the store and buy more tape and more industrial-sized, thick rubber bands. I went to the truck with pain in my lower back and drove to the nearby Wal-Mart.

However, by the time I tried to get out of the truck, the mud of the fields dry on my boots and hands, I had some real difficulty. Much like Felix in The Odd Couple, I could not straighten up. I walked around the Wal-Mart, going up and down the aisles, holding on to the shopping cart for dear life, leaning on it, relying on it like my 90+ year-old grandmother relies on her walker.
Eventually, after taking fifteen minutes to crawl into the truck, I drove back to the vineyard, where the boys took the rubber bands and began rubber banding numerous tubes.
By Dominique’s edict, I too was relegated only to this task, as I was not an approved tube applier. I cannot lie, my feelings were hurt but my back was thrilled.
In the end, it didn't quite look like an idyllic vineyard, but it was the proper next step in our fledgling enterprise. Many neighbors wondered what we had done. What were those things? Where were the grape vines? We were asking the same thing.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


The next day we broke open the irrigation, and I spent a good portion of the morning uncoiling the irrigation and laying it out with my brother. To say we were two city slickers in this world is no understatement. But we kept up a steady banter and worked through the morning, only laying out the front half of the vineyard. In the afternoon, after he had left, Ralph, our General Manager, came over and helped us with the rest. It turned out I hadn't ordered enough parts anyway, and the water pressure wouldn't have been enough to make it run right. I had screwed up.

(This is a prime example how not to set up irrigation)

By 3 pm my wife and one son, Dylan, had had it. But there was still irrigation to be done. My other son, Dawson, and I stayed behind. He and I watered each plant. I used a spray gun and he carried buckets of water. And then we both carried buckets to where the sprayer wouldn't reach. We watered from 3pm to 8pm until we had watered all 1,000 plants.

(Our high tech water station)

We developed an ad hoc watering system using hoses we had bought at the Dollar Store. We had about 1,500 feet of garden hose snaking all throughout the vineyard. Yet, there were still spots we could not reach. The hub of this system was an odd loking series of valves, which in the end, looke like Medusa's head. One look at it, and you grew frieghtened for us.

We needed to water each plant with no less than 1/2 a gallon of water. With the sprayer, we needed to stand there and count to about 20 slowly. And then move on to the next plant. Or we would fill up a bucket and pour water onto the just planted root. Dawson and I worked like dogs to the end, watering the last plants in the setting sun.

I took him to the hill that over looked the vineyard, and I told him that I hoped that one day he could look over this vineyard with his friends, his son someday, and tell them when he planted these vineyards. I told him we should be grateful to God for the good fortune that brought us here and have us this opportunity, and that we should be grateful for all the blessings in our lives.

In truth, I was disappoited. The vineyard looked like a monnscape, with a bunch of twigs sticking out of it. What the hell had I gotten myself into? What was I doing? If this didn't work, if I was still married afterwards, I would surely never hear the end of it.

We cleaned up outside, went to the bathroom and washed our faces and hands, and got in the car for the long ride back to New Jersey. I stopped at MacDonalds.
"What do you want?" asked him.
"Mommy said we can only have the happy meal."
"Today, you worked like a man. You can have whatever you want,” I said to him.
“Anything?” he asked with a smile.
He ordered a Big Mac combo, 2 apple pies, a soda and a milk shake. I ordered the same, and on the ride home, we both ate it all.
When we hit New Jersey, I got a call from Dominique checking on our whereabouts.
"Garden State Parkway."
"You have a voicemail on the house phone. Call the number to listen to it.” she said.
“Don't screw around, I'm tired. Just cut to the chase and tell me what it is,” I sid, somewhat tired.
“It's your office. I don't know what it is. Get it yourself,” she said just as brusquely.
“OK. We'll be home soon.”

I hung up with her, and called the message number and entered the code for our home number. There was only one message.

"Hi, Mr. DeVito. Your truck is fixed. You had a short in your battery cable Truck's fine. You can pick it up when you want. Also, some guy called, saw your truck in our lot, He said he found your mattress. Wants to know if you want the other half of your mattress back. Call me and let me know. Thanks.”

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


(Rachel and Eric had brought their children, who played with ours. While the planting was going on, this little tribe of mischief makers was roaming the grounds, and having a general good time. A few times they even helped.)

Neither Dominique nor I are farmers, which makes us bad prospects to be winery owners. But it is a fact we have decided to deal with. In recent emails back and forth with the New York State Winegrowers Association we had come to terms with the simple fact that we had better be prepared to get our hands good and dirty.

Dominique grew up on a small farm in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. They had chickens and horses and a large vegetable garden, amidst a sprawling 35 acre spread in hunt country Pennsylvania. I on the other hand I had matriculated through various suburban neighborhoods around the metropolitan region. The closest we came to a garden were the weeds and vines that encircled our house. I had once manned my deceased grandfather’s hand push-mower, like some old timer, the spindle of curved blades swishing through the wet, soggy grass.

We had read copious amounts and attended seminars filled with endless information about vine selection, winter hardiness, planting, trellising, caring, spraying, pruning, training, and harvesting the vineyards. After attending the "Scared Grape" seminar I was even more upset at the prospect that I had truly pissed away the years of scrimping and saving for just this moment.

(We soaked the vines for hours before planting.)

They talked about cover crops, sprayers, hilling, bud break, and I sat there, scared straight, and absolutely absorbed, and thought, oops, this was definitely a mistake. At one point one expert came on and asked the crowd how many in the room had children under 12 years old. He said he was sure we all held out aspirations that our children would join us in communing with the land and eventually want to make wine. He said he had three sons, all of whom individually found ways to destroy the current tractor of the day (one rammed his into their barn, one hit a telephone pole, another stranded one on top of a large boulder). All three now live in New York City.

(Dylan by the soaking vines.)

On top of this was mother nature. Downy mildew, Japanese beetles, deer, birds, moles, and other assorted pillagers were waiting to ransack your lovely little row of fruit vines. Several unnamed vineyard veterans admitted that they ate more venison than they wanted local authorities to know. And of course there were beetle traps, bird netting and spraying again and again…coper sulfate and round-up ad a number of other products that sounded very much like the chemicals we keep under the sink at home.

As I was told, starting a winery is a lot about ignorance, because if you really knew what was involved, you might not do it. It’s also a lot like the concept of fire. You tell a toddler fire is hot, the stove is hot, you will get burned, don’t touch. And of course, they can’t wait to touch. I am a toddler. All winery owners to a large extent are. Humans have the gift of communication, yet we choose to ignore the benefits of that gift time and again.

(Dominique planting vines)
We had dreams of planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay…maybe some Merlot. We had heard Pinot Noir was testy, maybe we would wait a year, we thought. By the time the seminar was ended our first two acres would be planted, we decided on hybrids. They are not as sexy as the classics, but they are a lot more winter hardy, which for us is a boon, and they are hardy to survive us, and our ignorance. And so we ordered 400 Seyval Blanc, 200 DeChaunac, 200 Channcelor, 200 Golden Muscat grapes. Basically we bought the vines most other vineyard owners can’t kill. Now we’d just have to see how hard we’d have to work to destroy as many plants as possible in one growing season.

(Friends Eric and Rachel)

Then my brother, Eugene, his girlfriend, my cousin Daniella, and my friends Eric and Rachel showed up We now had an army, including a few employees of Skip's who also helped out. With the holes being marked, we went into the large barn and pulled out 10 large boxes of 2 year old vines. We separated them by type and started to soak in large tubs the vines that would be planted in the back.

(My brother Eugene helping us during the planting)

It was Dominique's birthday. And he birthday would be the planting of the vineyard.
We had a massive irrigation system to set up in the mean time, prepared to water vines all the way out into the fields. I had bought more than 1,000 feet of garden hosing, which it turned out was not enough.

At the same time, I had been assembling in the kitchen a caabinet I had started the night before. I needed to finish it, as there were many folks out in the field, and they would soon need to be fed and bed. With a half asembled cabinet, it's parts strew all about the kitchen, I needed to get the cabinet assmbled. Everytime I came int he house from the fields, I assmbled a few more parts, and then went back outside.
Dominque came up to me with a cell phone.
"What kind of bed do you want?"
"It's 1-800-matress. Do we want a good bed or a crudy bed?"
"Mind as well buy a good one." I said gritting my teeth. "OK?"
"Fine." She then asked me for my credit card since she didn't carry hers with her out in the field.
Then I asked Ben to continue to asemble the cabinet for a minute while I went out to the fields. He was quite put off, but was nice enough to help.

Now that the vines had been soaking, we were ready to put the first vines into the land. Each vine looked like something out of Harry Potter or some witch folk tale. They were long and spindly like large dead spiders or the discarded animals who strangle unwitting victims in the Aliems movie series. You took the stalk, shoved the thick roots into the hole, and filled the hole with dirt. I thught it seemed kind of simple, but apparently, I had done it wrong. So did others. Dominique corrected us. Eventually, we got a few right.

"Ben's bored out of his mind inside. Let him come out here and work and you go in and finish that damned cabinet you started," she said aggrivated. I sighed.
I stomped in the house. Ben was lost trying to assemble the furniture. He looked up. I smiled.
"How about I put together this piece of crap, and you go plant some vines." He shot Up like a rocket, smiled, and was out of the house before I could turn my neck to watch him go.

So here we were. The entire entourage was outside, planting my vineyrd, while I was inside, putting together a white china cabinet in the kitchen I could see them form the kitchen windows, working the fields, planting the vineyard. This was irony. My life long dream was being realized by other people, while I WATCHED FROM MY KITCHEN, WITH A SCREWDRIVER AND AN ALLEN WRENCH IN MY HAND. "A" shelf goes into "B" side using a dowel with glue and turn hidden screw counter clockwise 1/4 turn.

By 1 pm we offered lunch. Large sub sandwiches, potato chips, sodas. We ate quickly, with clean hands and dirty faces. Some used the bathroom, and we were all back out in the fields in minutes. By now the front was almost planted, And Skip and company were finished drilling holes in the back. Teams of folks ran up and down the rows with large groups of soaked vines, Stick 'em in the hole, cover it with dirt, go to the next hole. My friend Eric, who's a construction executive, commanded the crews from the vine tubs, making sure the right vines were going in the right rows.

When I finally finished the cabinet, I was ready to go back out to the fields. Just then Dominique came in and told me to get ready to put the bed together. The bed would be here any minute. My son Dawson helped me put the frame together. We hit the walls a couple of times. I got my thumb caught in setting up the bed frame. I cursed again.

By the time I got back out there, I helped plant maybe a couple dozen vines. But that was it. It was done, and while all my friends and family had come through, I had missed most of the planting if my own vineyard. My brother on the other hand, a banker by trade, had a ball.
That night we ate wonderful pasta my cousin Daniella made, and we opened some upstate New York sparkling wine. It was cold and delicious. And we celebrated Dominique's birthday with some wine and cake. We all took turns taking showers, and then haivng a glass of wine. It had been a long time since any of them had worked so hard. We were all sore.

(My cousin invaluable field-hand and a great cook)

We ate and drank, and talked about the day. We sat in the kitchen for a while. Eventually, people started to dissapate. Eric and Rachel and the kids had to leave. Skip and his son were gone. But my cousin and brother and his girlfriend stayed over. The guest rooms in the house were full. We hung out in the kitchen, drinking wine and beer.

We had planted Dominique's Vineyard.

(end of day 2)

Now, the first thing I noticed when I arrived, with a bewildered son, was that there should have been two big pallets of irrigation awaiting my arrival in the drive way by the big barn. They were not there. So I called the irrigation company who forwarded me to the trucker.

The trucker inissted that they had called me several times and that I had not answered. And since I had never returned their call, no drop off had been scheduled.

"Well, I'm here now. Tomorrow is fine." I said.

Nope, the dispatcher assured me, there were no more trucks to dispatch this late in the day, a friday, and they did not deliver on Saturday and Sunday. I tried desperately to explain, with passion and gusto, why my 1,000 plants would die without their irrigation, which he was now with holding.

"You should have called back. It's a little late now," he said with sarcasm. I asked what number they called, and he read off the house number in New York.

"That's not the number I gave on the reciept. I gave them my cell phone number. No one's here all week. I don't give this number out to anyone. How was I supposed to call back?"

"That's not my problem."

"So it's not your problem? Your company called a number I didn't give you. And it's not your problem that my irrigation's not here. And it's not your problem if my plants die."

There was a pausse. "Is there anything else you want?"

"Yeah, my damn irrigation."

"We can deliver it Monday."

"No one will be here monday, and my plants will be dead. So I won't need it. You can keep the irrigation!"

"Aything else?" he said without emotion.

"What if I pick it up from you?"

"Not my problem. I get paid either way. Gotta be here by 5 pm . We close Friday 5 pm sharp."

Suffice to say, after several faxes to their office, a few more conversations, wherein I used a few more choice words, a deal was struck. I found one of our good folks, Ben and friend of his, and they rode with a check in-hand in a flatbed up to Schenecthedy to pick up two pallets of irrigation.

In the meantime Dominique and my other son, Dylan, arrived. And Skip Dyer and his son were there with their equipment to start drilling. They brought two large augers. The drilling was started on the front block, as we had marked the remining holes in the back. We started running strings and tying them to stakes, and then running parallel stakes and lines. Then we began marking the dirt where the giant augers would bite into the ground. We stayed slightly ahead of the hole diging. They started the front 600, and we started to mark the back block of four hundred.

Ben came back with the irrigation. I celebrated his return with great gusto.
We ended up around 4pm with the whole front drilled and the whole back marked.
Dominique and I were surprised we had gotten even this far.

(end of day 1)

Friday, March 16, 2007

PART 1 of 4

So the weekend of reckoning was at hand. I called Dominique on Thursday afternoon from my office in the City. The previous day we had gotten a seal of approval from the local planning board in Ghent to start a winery. We had planned to leave Thursday night. The truck had been giving some problems, with fits and starts. It was not fixed. The local folks who fix our cars could not find anything wrong with it. And they were usually pretty reliable.

"Don't holler, but I don't want to go up tonight," Dominique said, with exhaustion in her voice.

"We agreed to go up tonight. I don't want to fight Friday morning rush hour traffic. We already discussed this," I said trying to keep the hint of anger down in my voice.

"I really don’t feel well. I must have the flu or something, but I really don’t feel well. Why don’t we just stay home tonight and we’ll wake up early on Friday and go up.”

“I just really don't feel well," she said again. I did not respond positively, and fought on, but to no avail. She practically cried right there on the phone, and I finally gave in. As I hung up the phone I had bad feeling. This already was not going well. Going up on Friday, for three days of drilling, planting, and setting up an irrigation system was a mistake. And I knew it. I knew it in my bones.

Another thing I knew was that it was my wife's birthday. I knew she was a little down in the dumps. She was hurt that the boys had woken up and not wished her happy birthday that a.m. I asked to speak to one of them and told him to call over the other one, and instructed them to sing her Happy Birthday. It mollified her some, but she was sad nonetheless.

At work, that Thursday, I counted the hours until the clock struck five o'clock, I was so anxious. I raced home and saw my wife. She indeed looked like hell. I wish I could tell you I was a wonderful husband, but I was too anxious, and I pressed my wife for some compromise, but to no avail...we were going up on Friday morning.

"We'll wake up early tomorrow. I'll set the alarm for 4:45, and you and Dawson can go up first...but I cannot go tonight. The answer is no." I relented, and went to bed angry and anxious. But I have to admit now I was very tired. Exhausted. The worrying, the anxiety, my job, all added to my level of stress.

Making sure the vines were there, the irrigation, the augers. There was a wealth of things to keep one up at night. I must have touched the alarm clock at least a half dozen times, making sure, double sure, triple sure, the right time was set, each time setting it slightly earlier and earlier, subtracting another five minutes here, or another five minutes there, insuring we would get there in plenty of time. Wake up was eventually set for 4:30 a.m. My eyes were bleary with lack of sleep. As I finally turned out the light, I realized the wisdom of my wife's decision. I would have been too tired to drive up that night, but I could not admit that to her then. I was so tired, I was out before my head hit he proverbial pillow.

I woke up to the sound of our three dogs, who were rustling in our bedroom, moaning and groaning, and turning around three times before they settled back into their beds. I rolled over, and peeked from my heavenly slumber. It was going to be a lovely morning. The sun was already up, and the sky looked beautiful from our bedroom window.

Sun!!! I glanced at the alarm clock. It was 6:30 a.m. We had over slept. In checking and rechecking the clock I had accidentally turned off the alarm. All I could see in my head was rush hour traffic.

"Dominique! We're late. Get up! Get up!" I raced around the room, finding my clothes, trying to put them on and walk at the same time.

"What happened? What time is it?"

"It's 6:30. I must have screwed up the clock." I admitted. "I told you we should have left last night. I told you."

A bit of shouting back and forth ensued as we each fumbled for our clothes. The dogs were suddenly excited and all were pacing around our room, while each of us bumped into one another trying to ready themselves for the gauntlet ahead.

"OK, you go first. Dylan and I will follow. You'll be fine. We have time," she said with a mixture of assuredness and hostility. I answered with a string of obscenities. She woke our son Dawson up, and clothed him as he was still trying to rub the sleep out of his eyes. Eight years old, he already weighs almost 100 pounds and is a man child. If not taller than all the boys in his class, he is easily the biggest. His forearms and thighs are tree trunks, and has athletic prowess to spare. His major interests include fire trucks, trucks in general, police cars and policemen. We can divine little else of Dawson's other interests, as these are obsessions with him, and there is room for little else in our conversations, no matter how you might try to derail his one track mind. Lately baseball is making an impression on him, and a bat and glove are his new constant companions that sometimes replace his police badge and handcuffs, and whatever his is using to substitute for a gun.

However, the one thing I can honestly say about Dawson is, with his round cheeks, big brown eyes, and thick limbs, is that he loves to help. In the kitchen, if needs be, but preferably where tools are concerned. He loves tools of almost any kind, but is seemingly convinced that all are to be used like a hammer, no matter their real use, save a saw, which it seems, he knows how to use well. One Christmas, my step-father gave him a set of real tools from Home Depot. The next thing I know I walk through the dining room where Dawson, a 1st grader, standing between two Chippendale chairs, has lined up his saw, teeth set on the wood, on our 10-foot long Mahogany dinning room table. I shrieked so loud he dropped the saw in sheer panic long before he even thought to look up.

Dawson helped me the weekend before buy an inexpensive mattress from the back of some old warehouse, so we could have a queen size bed in one of our guestrooms. My brother Eugene and his girlfriend were helping us out, and I wanted to make sure they have a nice bed so they'd be encouraged to stay as long as possible to help. And it's only right since they were sacrificing their entire three day weekend to help us plant grapes. We drove down to the warehouse neighborhood of a place four towns away. It was kind of eerie. But Dawson and I persevered. We went down in the pick-up, which he sees as his domain (and by which his brother is most decidedly unimpressed), and helped me and the other man load the huge queen-size mattress on the back of the truck. The box spring went in first, followed by the mattress. We did not bother to secure as it was big and heavy in the extra long bed of our truck.

Now here I was, cursing a blue streak, wondering where my wife and son were, as I watched the time slip by on the face of my watch, and counted in my head the increasing number of cars that would soon be piling up on the Garden State Parkway, the first highway I would have to traverse before reaching the New York State Thruway. With the extra minutes, as I cursed under my breath, I got out two bungee cords and stretched them across the mattress, to make sure nothing would happen to them on the ride up. As I did, my mind raced. We still needed gas and coffee and breakfast. We wouldn't get there at least until lunch time I was sure of it at that minute.

Dominique appeared on our porch with Dawson, half asleep, lumbering behind her.
"Come on, come on, let's go. It's nothing but rush hour out there. I mind as well leave tomorrow at this point. I told you we should have gone up last night."

"Calm down," she barked. "And be nice to him," she nodded in my son's direction. "Drive carefully. You have plenty of time," she spit.

"They'll be a congressional election before we get up there at this pace. Let's move it!" I barked back.

Dawson climbed into the cab of the truck, and Dominique kissed him goodbye. "Good luck guys," she said sweetly.

"Bye!" I said, and yanked the truck into gear. In anger, without even looking, I backed the truck out into the middle of our street, gunned the loud engine, and rumbled forward. I was now 6:45 a.m. By my calculations, a run that would normally take 2 1/2 hours I was now sure would take us at least until mid-day. My mind raced. What would I do, who should I call, to make sure nothing was held back or missed in my absence?

I raced down to the end of our road, and gunned the loud engine once again, and shot off onto Route 9 like a bullet out of a gun. Needless to say, I was driving angry. The first stop was for gas. I pulled up to the pump and asked the attendant to fill it up. And in the same moment to try and kill some time, I asked Dawson what he wanted for breakfast. We went inside the convenience store for some coffee, water, and some breakfast snacks. I got a large coffee and some Tastykakes, and Dawson got a large container of Yoo-hoo and some Hostess mini muffins. As I paid for our breakfast and ambled back to the truck some of the fun of our upcoming adventure began to seep in and Dawson and I began to chat quite animatedly, me about the vineyard, and Dawson asking questions about what trucks and what tools might be involved.

I paid the attendant cheerfully, and opened the door to my truck.

"That your mattress" another patron asked me.

"Yeah," I said warily.
"You got one or two?" he asked. I was confused by his question, but went along with the gag for the sake of hearing him out.
"Two," I said.
"You sure about that?" he asked. I looked at the back of my truck, and the top part, the mattress, was missing. I looked back at him in an instant of terror.
"It's out on Route 9, about 1/2 a mile back. Was sitting there. Queen-size."
"Did I cause an accident?" I asked, terrified.
"Naw. It's sitting off to the side like it’s there for giveaway," he shrugged. Panic struck a second time. Dawson and I looked at each other, I gunned the engine yet again, and raced all the back way home, to the road I had just been on, so I could retrace my steps and find my mattress. I got there, and followed the road, exactly like I had ridden it a 1,000 times before. We drove as slowly as we could in mounting rush hour traffic, but no sign of the mattress could be found. We went back again and again. No mattress. I was dumbfounded.

"How can this be? It was five minutes! Who in the hell stops and picks up a mattress in their way to work? How is this possible?" I asked, cursing up yet another storm. Things could not get worse. Here I was, wasting another 15 minutes, circling the roads around our house, hoping to find my lost queen-size mattress, like someone had taken my bike when I was a kid.

“Things could not get worse," I told myself with utter contempt and resignation. I had no idea how much worse they could get, but I was soon to find out

As I circled the area for the third time, the truck suddenly died on Route 9 in New Jersey. Route 9 is a heavily traveled commuter road at that time of day. I tried and tried to restart the truck It would not restart. I stomped my feet and started screaming, letting loose another stream of profanity. I looked over and Dawson's eyes were as big as saucers and I was immediately embarrassed.

"Gimme the phone," I said. I called Dominique and asked her to come and get me. Maybe she could jump start the truck. Sure enough after fifteen minutes the truck restarted. I drove it around, passing the spot where the bed had fallen. I could not help but look again. I did not see the mattress. I drove the truck around the corner and took it to the mechanic that had not fixed it the first time. I left it in his parking lot, with the box spring still sticking out of the truck bed. I tugged Dawson out of the truck, and we got in the station wagon that Dominique was driving and we raced back to our house. I mumbled the entire way. I told Dawson to get into our sedan, as I ran in the house to get the keys. Dominique tried to calm me down, but my mind was lost already.

I got in the car, started it, and looked at the clock in the car. It was now 7:30 a.m.
It took forever to get up route 9. I aged two years sitting in the car, as we went into stop and go traffic. Then we parked on the New Jersey State Parkway for a while. The only relief I got was on the New York State Thruway...were I tried to make up for lost time on the empty road. However, the time I made up was lost when I got a ticket for speed at 80 mph.

"I'm telling mommmmmmy." said Dawson, laughing.

We finally pulled up to the farm at 11am.

End Part 1

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


If there is one thing you can say about our our family it is that is is never complete until you count our dogs. My wife and I have both written about our dogs for as long as we have known each other. We love our animals. The current mascots of the Hudson-Chatham Winery are our pair of Dalmatians Cinder (the smaller one up front) and Chief (the one in the back). Whether it's sleeping under the big country kitchen table, or roaming the farm, sniffing up groundhogs and other wildlife, our logs love farm life.

In 10 SECRETS MY DOG TAUGHT ME I wrote about my old friend Exley, a German Shorthaired Pointer, "It had been Exley's job to raise me. All that time we had been having fun, going for walks, getting into trouble, being companions and friends in some great adventure. And I had spent so much time teaching him to sit, stay, lie down, roll over. But all along, he had been teaching me. It is the child that makes the man, and in this case it was a dog. All along it had been the dog doing the teaching, not me. How do you like that? And I love him for it to this day and will for the rest of my life."

I would say I have learned a great deal from every dog we've ever had. And we have loved them all.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


The fireplace in our living room, when we bought the house, was one of the most fabulous large fireplaces you’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, it was a shambles. The fireplace was inoperable.
The firebox had been taken out and the plumbing from the upstairs bathroom flowed down, directly from the chimney. Every time someone flushed the toilet upstairs, the drain behind the mantle burped and gulped, finishing with a resounding clang of the pipes.

To say the least, we were disappointed with the dead spot in the room, which like it or not was the focal point of the space.

We asked a friend and a friend of his to rip off the mantle from the wall, refinish the wall flat, and bought a new fireplace and mantle to be placed in front of the wall, which might at least be filled with either candles or a gas fireplace.

It took two weeks before they actually came. Then it took them another two weeks just to finish the wall, which eventually took another two weeks before a fresh coat of plaster was finally applied.

Each weekend, we unpacked the station wagon, complete with kids and dogs, only to drop our bags and jaws in the living room, eminently disappointed once again that the job was not complete.

And each time, there were more plaster dust and dollops of dried plaster splattered on the floor. The room was slowly overtaken by the white powder which the boys and animals then tracked all over the house. When the new wall was finished it looked smooth and great.

One weekend, the fireplace was delivered. I assembled this first-line project. I followed the instructions packed in the crate. It came out beautifully. It took me a half day, and turned out to be an elegant large white fireplace with a black metal firebox. Dominique and I had visions of it anchoring the large cranberry-colored living room trimmed in glossy white. Long nights spent wrapped in blankets by the fire or hoisting up wine glasses toasting a large and cheerful crowd of friends and family danced through our heads. I called our friend, saying that the mantle was ready to be attached to the wall, and assume its baronial place.

The entire next two weeks, I looked forward to seeing the fireplace set against the wall. As we unpacked the station wagon yet again, I raced to the heart of the house like one of my little boys. I was so excited, like I was about to open the long-awaited Christmas present of my dreams.
My jaw dropped again.

To say the floors of our house are warped is an understatement. They roll this way and that like the putting greens at the Bob Hope Desert Classic. The floor nearest the fireplace was no exception. The floor on one side of the fireplace was one and a half inches lower than it was on the other. Our friends had not made up for this. Here was my fabulous new fireplace on a twenty-five degree angle. I stood there, tilting my head, looking at my fireplace in silence. I felt like I was on the deck of the Titanic, it slanted to one side so much.

I decided to finish the job myself. With screw drivers, hammer, and a level. I attacked the fireplace. First, I detached it from the wall. Then I used a pack of shims, slowly inserting one after the other, and then looking each time at the level I placed on top of the mantle. It was like a giant Jenga puzzle. But finally, the level came out even - and my fireplace was now - level. Using some small braces, I secured it into place and then covered the bottom with large quarter-dowels where the floor meets the baseboard.

And now it was time to paint. A friend, Lori, helped me by doing the ceiling for me. And then I went to work. I put a half case of caulk up by the cornice work, and then primed the entire room. And then I started with the red. The first coat made a huge difference, but anyone who has ever painted with red knows that red takes more than two coats no question.

Then I had to do the trim work. I stayed up at the house two nights, and I slacked big time. One of our neighbors asked me two Sunday nights in a row if I wanted to come over and watch the Giants on his big screen TV, but I told him I had to paint. What did I actually do? I can’t even tell you. I got sidetracked.

But the second Sunday, with the game on the radio again, I focused and got it all done.
The next time we came up was the day before Christmas Eve. On Christmas Day, the boys opened their presents from Santa, and we shared mimosas in front of our lit fireplace.

Monday, March 05, 2007


What is it about a truck? Why do men like Tonka Toys as little boys? And why do we love trucks when we get older?
The connection between little boys and trucks was never clearer to me than the day I announced that we were going to buy a used truck for the farm. When I made my little proclamation, “We are going to buy a truck!” Dawson’s eyes lit up as if I said Santa Claus was coming to dinner. His eyes widened, and he started jumping up and down in his seat.

I might as well have said I was buying it for him.

From that moment on, Dawson’s laser mind was now focused on only one thing—the truck!
What kind? What color? How big? Bigger than that one? Bigger than this one? Smaller? About that size? I like that one! We should get one of those. How many wheels?
One with four-wheel anti-lock brakes? We should get the cool black tinted windows. What kind of mud flaps are we going to buy? When you do, will the truck be mine?

However, Dawson was a little taken aback when I explained to him that we were indeed buying a used pick-up. Not a new one.

Dominique and I had discussed buying it some time before. Between our need for a truck to haul things around the farm itself, and something to haul wine in, and other basic necessities, a truck would do us a lot of good—especially with the upcoming planting of the vineyards.
I had budgeted around $3,000 for a truck. So that tells you, right there, how little money we had and what low expectations I had for my vehicle.

Dawson’s enthusiasm was greatly tempered a little, but his devotion to the subject never wavered. So keen was he that when I mistakenly told him, on a Tuesday night, that the coming Saturday, I would take him truck shopping with me. I instantly regretted it. From that second forward, Dawson must have asked a million times, “Is it time to go truck shopping yet?”

I had been shopping via the newspaper and several price shopping websites, looking for the best possible deal. As I have said from the beginning, we had a finite, and modest, sum of money to start the winery. I wanted to make sure I spent my money on the grapes and the wine. Small quantities, high quality.

I found several trucks I had called about. A few had already been sold.

“No, that one is not for you, my friend,” said the salesman. We were at a used car dealership Most of the cars being sold there were the automobiles people gave away to the blind or for charity. They were old, beat up. Scarred. Broken. The selection ranged from well worn to wrecks. I was drawn to the lower middle of the range.

“What’s wrong with it?” I asked.

“Oh, no,” the salesman said, shaking his head.

I disregarded him, and approached the truck. All the while, Dawson was pulling on my hand, smartly trying to drag me to the better trucks. I ignored him too. I opened the door. It reeked of oil and the cloth hung low as if it had been ripped.

“How much?” I asked the horrified salesman.

“This? This is $850 . . . but it doesn’t even start, the battery’s dead. I’ll have to jump it,” he said, waving me toward a more expensive option.

“Get the jumper cables. Let’s try it,” I said with great bonhomie.

“You sure?” he asked.

“I’m sure!” He shrugged, disappeared, and then reappeared with a jumper battery and cable. The engine failed to turn over.

“Maybe your battery is not charged enough,” I offered. He grumbled, and walked back to the dealer’s showroom, and brought back another battery, and cables. This time the engine choked and gagged and eventually rumbled to life. It gave out a queer sort of sound, and a cloud of smoke billowed up into the air. But it began to rumble, and eventually settled into a loud gurgling like a loud motor boat. I pressed the accelerator, and the engine jumped, roaring to life, and I revved it to see if it was sound after it had a chance to warm up.

“Can I take it out for a test drive?”

“I’ll go get some plates,” the crest-fallen salesman shrugged. The plates were put on the truck, and Dawson bounced up and down in the seat next to me in sheer excitement. We were going to ride in a truck. Maybe this wasn’t the truck he wanted, but the love of driving in a truck aroused in him an excitement that was sheer exuberance.

The first thing they told me when I started looking at the deal was that they guaranteed nothing. The cars, trucks, vans all needed work. The more expensive the car, the better the shape and value. Regardless, we soldiered on. One of the tail lights was shattered, and it was filthy. It had only two major flaws, as far as I could tell—it had no emergency brake, and it needed a new exhaust system.

We chugged into the driveway of our house with all the fanfare of a docking tug boat. My wife and other son, Dylan, came out to the front, wondering what all the noise was about. Their faces were a mixture of humor and incredulity.

“Is that it?” Dominique asked in as if she was about to throw up.
“Is this our truck, daddy?” echoed Dylan.
“No, Dylan. We just borrowed it,” Dawson shot back authoritatively.
“Is this the one you saw on the computer?” my wife asked me.
“No, this one’s better.”
“How so?” she asked in shock.
“It’s half of what we intended to spend!” I announced proudly.
“How much is it?”
“Did you buy it?” she asked.
“Test drive,” I assured her.
She smiled. “Do you like it? Are you sure it’s trustworthy?”
“Seems to be OK. I drove it all the way here from the dealership.”
“They didn’t have anything better?”
“For this price? Absolutely not,” I said cheerfully.
“So, you’re going to buy this thing? Are you sure it’ll make it up to Hudson?”
I shrugged gleefully. “Dom, I figure, even if it costs another $850 to fix up, we’re still way ahead of what we said we were going to spend.”

She shook her head, and batted her eyes. “All right. If that’s what you want.” She held up her hands.
“We’re buying it, dad?” asked Dawson excitedly. I shook my head.
“Dylan—this is our new truck!” he screamed to his brother excitedly.

I went back, bought the truck, and picked it up later that night with my father in law, who was both horrified and amused. It did indeed end up costing another $900, for a new exhaust, a tune up, a new battery and battery cable, and some other minor repairs. It leaks when it rains, but the heat works (even if the air conditioning also blows hot air), and it has a serviceable radio.

Since then, it has made a dozens of trips up and back between New Jersey and upstate New York. It has hauled scores of felled trees, a couple hundred rocks from the fields, two full payloads of mulch, dozens of vineyard supplies, three full loads of lumber, a set of kitchen cabinets for the blending room, paint, caulk, plumbing, a toilet, and enough used furniture to fill a four bedroom house.

I got my money's worth...and the boys love it.