Monday, July 28, 2008

So what the hell do you do there?

I get this a lot, usually from friends who can't seem to relate to simply being without always doing. There always seem to be chores that I can get done, wineries we haven't seen, restaurants to try, movies...I don't think much about them and don't much care. Sometimes I'll watch a car driving down Valley Grove. One car, two miles away, can be interesting. Not that I want to go microscopic and examine all things small, but a beetle walking across the porch can be really cool to watch. Sometimes I'll get out the telescope to look over a combine working a field five miles out, or I'll watch the wind on the wheat and the hawks sailing on that wind.

I like hearing through silence. This is a lot like building night vision...adjusting the eye until outlines show out, movements and shadows become distinct and seeing through the darkness feels precise and special. At first, I sit out and hear nothing. And nothing is good all by itself. Soothing and gentle. But then I hear bird sounds, in general, bird sounds that become the noise that the black bird over there is making, or the dove on the fence post, or the even the wind blown flutter from the back feathers on a kestrel's wing as it banks while scanning for field mice.
Sometimes I hear the motor from that one distant car and sometimes I hear the staccato noise from a moth bumping at the window glass. These things make me want to say hello to old friends, make me appreciate the convenience of email and long for the elegance of a handwritten letter.

I think of menus I want to cook and get excited about the possibilities...all the flavors in a rainbow. I hear the crunch of tires on the driveway and try to make out whose truck that is, way before I can see much more than shape and color. I have so much on my mind and now somebody is coming to interrupt...but that's fine, too.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

It's about the Land

The land is everything. It takes all of ten seconds here to understand that building a palatial mansion here would be like going to the opera and bringing along a Gameboy. When it is this good, leave it alone!

The structure is really engaging to me on an individual level; I love unique and thoughtful homes. Designing the house as a compliment to the land is a real pleasure, but the intent is always to celebrate the land and to keep my imprint entirely subordinate to the land. I feel a deeper connection to the land than to any impact I will ever have upon it. Grape Hill is about the topography; 360 degree views of unique land forms stretching out for many miles.

The fertility here is meant to produce crops. Farming gives us purpose upon this land. There is form and function in our soil, in the rain and sun and wind. This is elemental. Moreover, the land came before the society that we have built in this country and even if someday everything else goes to hell in a hand basket, the land will remain. If we need to plant our own food crops and raise beef or sheep or chickens, we can do that and not be too much the worse for wear.

Our Little Vineyard is planted on SW-facing 25 degree slope at 1250 feet above sea level. Rainfall averages 14 inches per year. The rich loess soil runs sixty feet deep before there is a grain of rock. Drainage is sufficient, while water retention is naturally balanced to support root development. With due respect to the wonderous rock rangers who swear by the qualities found in tough riverbed soils, the physical properties found at Grape Hill are a viticulturists' dreamland. Excited winemakers who know little about the demands of growing grapes always urge me to plant out dozens of acres. For now, I know just enough to be certain that disaster will follow anyone who plants a big vineyard without a full time commitment. The learning process has a long way to go before any decisions are made...

Last night, we enjoyed one of the unoaked blends from last year's "post-birds" crop. It is settling down a little just three hours on air before drinking. This is quite a lovely wine, with velvety tannins, plum and cherry notes, just a touch of chocolate. I got a minor hint of carbolic on this bottle...a faint fizz on the tip of my tongue. Will look for that on the next one. Why aren't more American vintners willing to waive off the wood from quality reds? There is certainly a place for these well-crafted summer drinks. Heck, all over Bordeaux this is precisely the sort of wine that goes with the season. You don't see anyone in Bordeaux opening first growths or even fifth growths at a summer table, not unless there are foreign buyers seated there. Perhaps I will always prefer the liberation of making wine with no commercial intent? The freedom to control production from the vineyard to the bottle is so joyful in itself.

We will be making something like fifty cases of red blends this year. My hope is to focus on two bottlings, The Twins, meant to be enoyed side-by-side. The first will be cab-dominant with 20% to 30% syrah. The next will be syrah-dominant with 20% to 30% cab. We will likely make another unoaked field blend including cab franc and merlot for immediate enjoyment.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A short delightful stay

Just spent three lovely days at Grape Hill, me and Sligo, who would certainly vote for being a full-time Walla Walla dog. Between visiting with his buddies, Buck and Reese, riding in the truck, and running the fields, life is good.

We went twice in to town together, which was a first. I brought a pocket filled with dog treats to coax his most polite behavior. He is now a definite star at Starbuck's, where he gets to sniff lots of other dogs and gets petted by most everybody. Lots of discussion over his block head, that English Lab thing...

I picked up the netting for the vineyard, made plans to start at 5:30 AM with Carlos and his crew, then nobody showed. Maybe I have advanced somewhat, since this hasn't bothered me. My expectations have changed and, more and more, I go with the flow on Walla Walla time. It will get done. This year, the birds can eat elsewhere.

Arnie Grassi and I have worked out the challenges for ductwork through the upcoming addition. According to Arnie, I am not alone in leaving HVAC as an addendum rather than integrating airflow design from the start. That makes me feel a bit better. I will raise the skybridge by two feet and tweak the elevation for the peak. My cupola will house a thermostatically-controlled exhaust vent that should drop cooling costs quite a bit.

Ricky came out with my drawings and it rapidly became clear that these are too unusual to be easily understood on paper. We walked the future spaces and he came to understand the intentions. A little discussion about Gaudi, some chatting about fun with structure and purposeful inefficiencies, and he got it. Structures can be artful and whimsical, particularly when we cast off the oppression of resale considerations. I love that taupe and beige need not apply!

Went to Yungapeti for their killer albanil burrito that Jay turned me onto. Must restrain myself from eating these daily! Lots of friendly argument over the La Monarca truck at the Napa Auto on Isaac versus Yungapeti. Rumor has it that the owners are brothers, which makes the competition still more fun. If either place served an ice-cold Corona, the world would be just too perfect!

On Saturday morning I went by the salami and cheese shop on 2nd and came out with a demi-baguette and a nice mound of salumia salami. Went home and sat out on the patio with my sandwich and an ice-cold beer. 90 degree weather, but the breeze was perfect (night and day the entire stay) and absolute comfort. A big dust-devil whirred in the distance, prompting me to wonder what is the difference between these and tornadoes? A big deer jumped up from the grass pretty close to me and ripped away across the fields. That sandwich was something else...with the cold Pacifico it was perfection!

Friday night I went over to the Blue Mountain Casino (five minutes from Grape Hill). We had a friendly, funny, very loose game of Texas Hold 'Em. Short of playing with my buddies, this may have been the most amusing poker table I can remember. I was playing tight and careful while all around me the other players were bluffing and running up the betting on draws...wild game. Finally, I just decided that discipline be damned (4-8 game so not easy to really get hurt). Things got to be as much fun for me as for the others and I went back and forth, from $40 down to $60 up. Great time! And when I hit four aces for a $380 jackpot, the night was mine.

Thanks to my weak back of late, the drive to and from Bellevue has to be broken up with hourly stops. I stopped at Kestrel on the way out and ended up having a great time hanging out with Dirk, the assistant winemaker from Cape Town. Did not swallow, since I was driving, but we spent an hour tasting both bottles and barrels. Really liked their co-fermented syrah with 7% viognier, their 100% cab franc (in barrel) and their "2-Ton" cab. Good stuff! The skill and enthusiasm was right on! Sue would have loved it, not the least that Dirk is both a very nice guy and great eye candy for the girls.

After the deer incident on my last trip over, I mounted the new deer whistles. The effort took all of two minutes. On my way back to Bellevue, I gave a hitchhiker a ride from Benton City in to Bellevue. Nice kid, Tom, a part-time baker at Tall Grass in Ballard and former ballet dancer. Talked a lot about his hitchhiking adventures to Guatemala and his recent stay in London with his English girlfriend. As we were climbing the east slope to Snoqualmie Pass, Tom yelled "deer" as a big doe rushed toward the side of my truck and then stopped before hitting us. (Deer whistle working already????) He turned and I watched in the rear-view as that deer played dodgeball with the traffic and actually survived crossing the freeway. Hooray for the deer!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Decisions Decisions

An entirely open, virgin pallet leads to lots more questions than to answers. Do we build in the valleys out of the wind or atop the hills trading frequent batterings for lush views? Do we bring in a mobile home for a few years and then build something later? How about building a small shack? A yurt, maybe? Would we build a Northwest Lodge? A Victorian?

Long before building the house, we needed to bring in power and drill a well. Getting off the grid sounded very appealing, so we explored wind turbines. Not good. I did not want to hear that noise pollution nor climb up to lube the damned thing every six months and replace batteries every five years. I appreciate wind energy, but becoming my own power company had little appeal. So we called Columbia REA. They came out and offered estimates for bringing in power from the road...a 2/3 mile run. Overhead power would mean less expense, but looking at power poles. Underground would run another six thousand dollars. Underground it was...except the price leaped another $9,000 higher after a whoops by their estimator. We now have a five-inch thick power cable running four feet underground along the eastern edge of Grape Hill. We could probably run enough juice to supply a small township. Put in a 400 amp system...for the future, just in case we do anything ambitious.

For the well, we called out Mike Harding. Mike stood on the site and pointed to all the wells he had dug around the region..."got in one just over that hill there...good water at 245 feet". I got a call from Mike saying that he would like to bring out his friend to witch for water before he set up his rig. (I still owe his friend a steak dinner at The Homestead.) I told Mike that it was fine with me and Mike said that he couldn't figure it out but that he had seen his friend in action too many times to doubt him. I decided to run an eight inch bore rather than a six inch so that we could have more capacity and even go deeper later if we ever need to do so. At 305 feet, Mike hit 35 gallons per minute in the basalt aquifer. Our water has been draining down from Montana since before humans walked the face of North America. Good water. Really good. I can't get over how Sue wants to buy bottled water since the water dispenser on the fridge has a little light showing we should replace the filter. I love this abundant water that Mike's friend witched!

Water is perhaps the most important element of all in farming country. We have lots of it, and lots of questions about how much of it we can use. We have excellent vineyard sites across five dozen of our acres, but even if we had the desire to enter into the wine grapes business, we would need to figure out our water. This is a whole separate discussion.

With power and water and the vineyard in place, the next thing we did was interview architects. Architects come in many shapes and sizes. There are artists who want to make their visions. There are the guys who listen to what you say, offer no input, and give you precisely what you deserve...usually a mess. We chose a level-headed guy who was supposed to understand our budget constraints and to work accordingly. Nice guy. He produced this banal structure that would have lived badly and had this awkward city deck stuck onto the back of the house. Some of the issues were my fault, no doubt, but I paid him his five grand and gave the plans to three of the good builders in the area to get their estimates. These guys spent a lot of time preparing the estimates and, to this day, I am embarrassed by the result. The architect produced a place that ran 250% of our top budget...all three builders were really close on estimates. In retrospect, that error saved us from producing a place that we would never have loved.

Hitting the financial sweet spot helped to narrow the field. We went with our version of a VW Pop-Top, our beloved pre-kids ride! Made it look on the outside like an agricultural building, all reflective galvalume metal siding to keep down energy costs and thick-walled post construction to allow for lots of insulation and wide open tall spaces. We would build a section now, pre-frame and wire and duct for expansion, and keep the farm looking as original as possible. I got to drawing, walking the spaces, drawing more, and the next year spent way too many nights at La Quinta Inn on 2nd Avenue to oversee the emerging structure. Nothing would come easily, but then so it goes when a place is one of a kind...

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Why Walla Walla?

So there is some sanity to the decision to buy a farm four hours from home near a small city near the borders of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Not much sanity, but some. We weren't thinking about the explosion of wineries and restaurants. It was always about the land. But Walla Walla itself was always a key component in the blend. Good hospitals. Three universities. Beautiful old homes and amazing specimen trees. A town quite a bit older than Seattle, actually, with deep roots going back to Lewis and Clark.

Not being farmers, we didn't originally understand the value of the soil. The views, the open spaces, the amazing privacy just five minutes from a good supermarket...nothing hard to understand about that. Open to the world, but not lost in the crowd. That sums it up!

I used to hang around with the old farmers in Greece, fishermen too, and feel a calm coming from them. Many of these men had left Samos for Australia or to work on merchant ships and cruise ships for years upon years, just so that they could afford to come home and never leave again. Sure, they might visit cousins in Melbourne or in the Bronx, but they always knew where they were home. Some of them used the spigot at my house to run their water lines to their tomatoes and apricots and courgettes. After I did some work for them, word got around about Mikalis at Pirgalakis and how he did the work of five men. I liked that about myself and I liked the way they would come around in the morning to fetch me for more jobs or how they came by in the evening for a glass of ouzo. I worked for Eftiki one week, picking his grapes. He spread rough sheets on the ground and would make three piles. The biggest pile was for the Cooperative that would crush his grapes into vats with other juice from other growers. The second, much smaller pile was for his friends...bigger, better bunches. The last pile was very small. These were the choicest bunches meant just for his family. On the last day of picking, Eftiki gave me that last choice pile to take home for myself.

It takes years of forethought to plan and grow a vineyard. What will grow well in each area. What is the right balance of sun and canopy. Knowing the right spacing of the vines, when to water, when not to water. How to prune and when to train to the next wire. Getting good dryland wheat means thought and study, understanding moisture levels, fertilizers, and herbicides, too. Managing the land and the crop.

It is humbling to come from the big city to Walla Walla. In the city, I know my way. In Walla Walla, I need to listen and to learn. There is so much to learn...I am constantly making mistakes that no farmboy of twelve would ever make. But the rewards are huge, and I have the time and space to enjoy the moments as they come.

First seeing the beautiful exposures sloping to the south, I thought "how nice a vineyard would look here". My hunch was that the ground and area could be great for grapes, but what did I know? My one real vineyard experience, taking care of the muscat plantings at Pirgalaki on Samos, had rooted a love for vines, yet that was a far cry from taking raw land and making a vineyard. Grape Hill was CRP land when we bought it and much of the farm remains in CRP. (We actually had to pay significant money to withdraw the vineyard and house from the government contract we inherited with the purchase.)
The Little Vineyard owes much to Stan Clark, who was the dynamo leader of Walla Walla's Viticulture Institute and who became a great friend to us. Stan came out in 2003, looked over the area, and shouted "Sure, let's put in a vineyard" and off we went to make it happen! (Stan died suddenly last year. He is sorely missed for his great energy, his knowledge, his infectious enthusiasm.)

We drove to Benton City to pick up the vines from Tom Judkins, drove to Sunnyside to pick up the end posts and stakes (very nearly wrecking the truck...who knew that 120 rods of steel would weigh that much?), and Stan dove in with his classes to stake and plant the rows. Alan Wernsing came in soon after to build the eight-foot high deer fence all around the vineyard.

The deer fence was just the first of many lessons about critters and grapevines. Gophers love the new roots and took out half the cab franc and merlot. Battling gophers means a constant fence will keep out these guys. Hooray for our beautiful raptors...hawks most days and owls at night. Other birds are not so welcome. We learned the hard way how quickly a flock of birds will strip the fruit off the vines just about a day before we would be picking ourselves.

There is constant learning. I had no idea that planting a vineyard would mean that the neighbors can no longer use aerial crop spraying for a mile around. Asparagus apparently works as a barrier to gophers. Sound devices don't stop any critters, and hungry birds seem to look for mylar reflectors from 1000 feet up to zone right in on our fruit.

We put our first wine into bottle this May...a very funny learn-as-you-go experience in the kitchen at our Bellevue house. We learned how to use the siphon pump and the corking stand without too many spills. The shrink-wrap bottle-top foils are really cool. No, we haven't got a name for the wine, much less any idea where we will store the hundreds of bottles we will be making this coming year. But I had my first great wine success with a lots of thanks to Stephanie Briggs. We did that first bottling from a carboy of cab, syrah, and a little petit verdot...unoaked for early summer drinking. They do this all the time in Bordeaux...making less serious wines from quality grapes, showing them no wood at all, and drinking them "fresh" or slightly chilled all summer long. That first bottling is pretty terrific, if I do say so! We have to leave it decanted on air for about three hours ahead of drinking and then the young powerhouse softens into a full-bodied big strong smiling farmboy!

How we got here.

Last month, Sue and I walked through the tiny pioneer graveyard at the corner of Smith Road and Middle Waitsburg Road, just a short walk from the gate to Grape Hill. The wheatland had just been tilled and our shoes quickly filled with the powdery rich loess soil of our area. During the last 140 years, soil loss has left the graveyard raised about three feet above the land around the graveyard that our neighbors work. I have been meaning to ask our friend and neighbor, Jay, if the grave bearing Simon D is the resting place of one of his family members.

We learned a lot from walking the grave stones. First, we realized that there are others who still care for the site. Stones had been righted and cleaned. Area families bear these same names. There was, perhaps, a small hamlet near this spot at one time, when getting in to Walla Walla likely meant two hours each way by horseback.

Too many young mothers died in childbirth, many along with their children. Two teenage siblings died within one week, most probably victims of measles or influenza. Some, men mostly, lived long lives. They worked the soil, raised their families, died and were buried in this soft loess.