Broadway Market doesn’t make the best egg sandwich in town, but they do make the cheapest. Plus, they serve up hash browns, sometimes two for the price of one. When I arrive at sunup, the other regulars are already there, milling around the aisles with dusty boots and bright eyes.
“If this rain holds off another few days,” says one, “we can get that Zinfandel off the vines.”
Another nods. “Here’s hopin’. Another year like last will break us.”
A thin wire of tension binds us all. It’s a fear that runs through the whole town, from the post office to the taco trucks. The year is 2011. There is reason to worry about the grape crop.
I pay the clerk with a fistful of coins, then head out the door. Today I’m driving to the Cabernet vineyard, only a few miles away, but up a helluva road. My hatchback bounces over potholes as it charges up the mountain. At the top of the world, I step out and survey the entire Carneros winegrowing region. Sun burns away fog and reveals the faraway wink of San Pablo Bay. Later a breeze will pick up, a steady mistral like the one in Van Gogh’s famously swirly “Starry Night”. By dinnertime, cold fingers of fog will again reach over the westward ridge.
Sun, wind, fog: this holy trinity makes Carneros a temple for viticulture. It’s why more Pinot noir grows here than any varietal, anywhere in the world. That is, when the weather cooperates. Like me, Pinot noir is not native to the area, but somehow thrives here. Its thin-skinned fruit prefers a cloak of dewy moisture part of the day, before (importantly) its tightly packed clusters fully dry to avoid rot and ruin. Our Carneros breeze and sunshine do the trick.
In 2010, the rains did not hold. Instead they came early, drenching delicate clusters until rot was inevitable. Yields dropped twelve percent. 2011 has not been too rainy (yet), but it’s been cooler—10 degrees cooler, statewide. Fruit hasn’t been ripening the way it should. It’s leaner, greener. And there’s less of it. My comrades in the deli knew it, and I know it too. I taste it nearly every day.
I finish my breakfast and wipe my greasy palms on my jeans. Armed with a Ziploc bag, I head into the vines. Like any fruit sampler worth her salt, I have a method: three berries from each cluster, four clusters on each vine, twenty paces between vines. I walk the vineyard in this rhythm for an hour, dropping berries into my bag, nibbling as I go. Robert McCloskey’s classic picture book Blueberries for Sal features a little girl who gets lost tasting berries. Like Sal, I lose myself in flavor. Losing myself in flavor is part of my job.
Before I lucked into this life managing a small winery, I spent my days hunched over a computer. I dressed in suit jackets and pencil skirts. If it was sunny, I lingered on my lunch break in the park. When it rained, I packed an umbrella. Back home on the east coast, I endured my share of tornadoes and hurricanes. Weather seemed to be a perk or an inconvenience—but not an everyday guidestar.
When I arrived in wine country, that changed. I began to observe more closely: Which way is the wind blowing? When will the clouds part? Has the storm passed? The answers mattered to my winegrowing neighbors. They mattered to the winemaker who wrote my paycheck. And so, they mattered to me.
Inevitably, I began to dream of my own land. With my hand-me-down RV trailer, I searched for a plot where I could park and homestead. I wanted to grow a garden and mix dye baths from its colorful fruits and vegetables. I wanted to squeeze fresh lemons into my holiday pies. I wanted to hang my bed sheets out to dry, then fall asleep by the light of the moon while still wrapped in the warmth of the sun.
The price of one Sonoma acre was, alas, enough to curb that desire. But so was the looming responsibility. One could argue (deftly, as does Antonia Malchik in her essay “Who Owns the Earth?”) that land ownership is a right. Or, one might contend it’s a privilege. Either way, it’s a very hard row to hoe. My relationship to the land is at will: I come, I savor, I leave. Landowners, meanwhile, have less freedom and more worry. Property brings security—but vulnerability, too. And as I witnessed my farmer neighbors toil at the mercy of the elements, season after season, my yearning for ownership gave way to carefree relief. When you’ve got nothin’, you’ve got nothin’ to lose.
A few years later, when I pour 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon for the guests of my employer’s winery, I’ll editorialize. I’ll say that there are no bad vintages. I’ll say that 2011 wines get a bad rap, that they age better than most. That astringent quality makes the vintage distinctive, I’ll say. “A certain connoisseurship of taste,” writes Stephanie Danler in her novel Sweetbitter, “a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet.” And I’ll be sincere. Yet I’ll know, as I keep wine and conversation flowing, a deeper truth.
Amy Bess Cook has been a working writer for more than 15 years. Her essays have appeared at Vela, Misadventures, and The Manifest-Station. By day, she helps run a boutique winery in Northern California and writes for the wine industry. Follow her unconventional path at cavaliercareer.com.
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