Saturday, May 23, 2009


“Deep roots are not reached by frost.”
J.R.R. Tolkien

She called me at work. She was crying. It was not the first time. I am sure it will not be the last. I was sure I could provide her with some solace. I was sure that I could say something, in my stupid manly way, that would make her hurt go away. She mumbled something. I couldn’t make it out.
“What? What?”
“There was a frost last night. They’re dead. They’re all dead,” Dominique wailed. I immediately dismissed it. There might have been some frost, a touch, somewhere in the vineyard. But a hard frost on May 19th? Impossible.
She said she had already emailed our winemaker and our consultant.
“What did they say?”
“Rich said it was a good time to find a bar and have a good cry. There’s nothing we can do” I chuckled. It sounded like Richard Olsen-Harbich. “They’re all gone,” she was crying.
She couldn’t stay on for long. She was crying, driving, on her way to a meeting.
Call me an eternal optimist. Call me stubborn or stupid. Other people have. You wouldn’t be the first. But it was a gorgeous day outside. It was already 60 degrees down where I was in the city. A frost of such devastating proportion was out of the question. To farm, you need to be an optimist. There’s always something going wrong. Weather, disease, infestations.
Dominique is very attached to the vines. She walks the vineyard once or twice a day. She cares for them like babies. Tends them. Talks to them. She and the dogs patrol the farm, inspecting the buds and canes. She’s also checking out the raspberries and blueberries. Any blight of any kind was enough to send her over the edge.

The vines are like our other children. We argue over them. When to spray. What to spray. When to prune. Like our sons, they are a constant source of conversation both good and bad, both pride-filled and a little ashamed. Have we done enough? Too much?
I commute into the city. With a vineyard, you need to either be rich, retired, or have a day job. I’m a working stiff. I had been thwarted by fate in the last week to see the vines up close for any length of time. I had become angry about it. I had arrived home late, due either to work or two train delays or a broken down car, all the week before. Even the weekend, I was working, bottling, working the tasting room, ferrying my children somewhere, rushing off to church or a friend’s house for dinner. Sunday, I finally got to spend some time walking the vines.
They had been pruned and tied up. This was a big year for us. Our winemaker, Steve, had pruned all the vines and tied them himself. They were now properly trained. Leaves and clusters were bursting out of every bend and crook in the vines woody boughs. This was going to be a big year. We had more tiny baby grape clusters than we had ever seen. All the different varieties were bursting with little mini grape bunches. We were headed for an awesome harvest! It was so exciting.
I assured her everything would be OK.
After I hung up, I too called Rich and Steve. It was my turn to be assured by someone else. The tone in Rich’s voice was conciliatory, almost comforting, as if I were the close relative of someone who had died.
“I heard from Dominique,” he said sadly.
“Is there anything we can do?”
“You can find a bar and cry,” he said with a soft chuckle.
“What if it was only for a short duration?” I asked, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages suddenly coming into my head.
“Any duration.”
“It only got down to maybe thirty last night. It wasn’t that cold.”
“All you need is 32 degrees. Even one point under that is enough. The cell walls, especially in the young buds and leaves, they can’t take it. They burst.”
“So what happens now?”
“You find a bar and cry?”
“And then what?”
“Not much. Everything will turn brown and fall off. The vines aren’t dead. Secondary and tertiary buds should push through. You’ll get some fruit.”
“How much? Half? A third?”
“Maybe a third. It varies.”
His suggestion of finding a bar suddenly seemed like a good one. I still had the rest of the business day ahead of me. To say the least, I was preoccupied. The train coming home couldn’t have taken longer. It seemed like it took six hours. I watched the sun as it began its descent. Would I make it home and still be able to see the vineyard. My vineyard. Our vineyard.
I got in my truck, fired it up, and raced home from the parking lot, the warm late spring air, filling the cab. She had to be wrong. She had to be.
I pulled up the driveway of the winery, stopped, put the truck in park, and with my suit jacket still on, I raced out into the vineyard. The leaves and clusters were already brown on this one. I went to another. It was green! ‘See!’ I told myself. But upon closer inspection, it too had obvious frost damage, it just hadn’t turned brown yet. One after another continued. From one group of plants to another. All of them, all of them, had been affected. It was the whole vineyard. She was right. Dominique was right.
Suddenly, I could not breath. The air had been taken out of me, and all I wanted to do, like her, was cry.
I was so angry. Like when you lose a dog or a cat, especially to an accident. How could this happen? Why us? Why now? I wanted to shout out every bad word I knew. I wanted curse someone or something. I wanted to break something.
I went inside, and there was Dominique. She looked so sad, her eyes still swollen (she had cried again), even as the boys, seemingly oblivious to the news, cackled on. We hugged.
“They’re all dead,” I said.
“I know.”
“They’re all dead. May 19th.” I shook my head. My wife was right.
“I had two couples come for tastings and tours today. I couldn’t bring myself to take them out there,” she said. “I couldn’t look.”
I sat there, for the first time in my life, speechless.
“I’ve been reading up,” she said “on frost damage. A grape grower out in California said his secondary and tertiary buds came though. He said the crop was small, but the grapes were some of the best his vineyard ever grew. Maybe we’ll get lucky.”
To farm, you need to be an optimist.


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