Zen and the Art of Fruit Maintenance


With the black and white monitor in my view, my obstetrician tapped the fuzzy image on the screen and said, “You are this close to being put on hospital bed-rest,” pinching the air to show me just how close. “You are going to have to curtail all activity and seriously take it easy.” It was about a week and a half before we would start picking grapes for the 2011 vintage. I gulped and squeaked out, “But what about harvest? It’s my busiest time of the year when I work like crazy.” The doctor shot me an incredulous look and then shook her head with a knowing smile like she knew my type, she’s dealt with us before. “Umm, working like crazy is not going to happen. I am sure you will figure out how to get the work done without you.” I protested, “You don’t understand. How am I supposed to make the wine? I am the winemaker!” She just kept shaking her head, then stopped, and looked at me gravely, “No, you don’t understand. I am serious. If you don’t take it easy, you won’t even be at work making wine, you’ll be at the hospital. You don’t want to have this baby early…or worse…” she trailed off. I bit my lip and nodded that I understood. We had waited a long time for this baby to come along and I still had almost three months to go–eleven weeks and at least 8 of those weeks would be during harvest-time.

I left the doctor’s office wondering how I was going to manage during the crush. The summer had already been very busy in the vineyard responding to the challenges of a late and cold growing season with very little crop on the vines to show for all of our efforts. And now I was being told to decrease my work load and we hadn’t even started the harvest yet. I was directed to lay down on a couch while at work and neither to stand nor move around on my feet much. How was I sup-posed to check on the vineyards? Monitor grape maturity? Assess fermentations? It was the time of year I would be on the go from 5:00 in the morning to 10:00 at night for eight weeks. Take it easy? I wasn’t even sure what that meant. My mommy-girlfriends sympathized and offered suggestions: “Phone it in!” “Get an errand boy.” “Telecommute.”

Although well-intended, none of these ideas seemed feasible. The best words of encouragement came from a friend who also worked at a winery. She told me that their winemaker one year broke his leg right before harvest and managed with lots of extra help and a 4×4 ATV. Yes! I will commandeer the trusty Kawasaki “Mule” to my purpose, although I wasn’t sure if all that bouncing around while riding through the vineyard was recommended. I fell into despair over my plight, the general course the vintage was going, and over the weather, in general. (We farmers always find reason to fret over the weather). Then I realized that I had no control over these things. So I mulled over what my doctor had said and her directive to have weekly ultrasound exams as my situation was precarious. I clasped my hands around the underside of my belly, looked down at it, and made a pact, “Okay, kiddo, I promise to try to take it easy if you hang in there and not come knocking too early!” With that I crossed my fingers and toes, and for good measure, my legs, too.

A Guardian Winemaker From…Argentina

Knowing that I would need some extra help during the harvest, Nick and I attempted to seek aid and sent out an email during the summer to all of our friends and colleagues who made wine in Antipodean wine country. It was like a casting call for anyone who might want to have a “busman’s holiday” and spend their vacation doing what they do at home Down Under, that is to say, make wine. We got responses from many well-wishers but none from any takers. As harvest approached, I became despondent, especially with the new restrictions put upon me by the obstetrician. Then, in late summer, we hosted our annual “Sommelier Love Fest”, an event that gives us an opportunity to thank those good folks at restaurants and wine shops who connect Peay Vineyards to you, our wine lovers, and to share with them an up close experience of our vineyard. At this particular “Love Fest” dinner, the team from our Florida distributor had flown in and joined us for the occasion. As we gazed up at the vast night sky above pointing out shooting stars, our Florida portfolio manager, Carolyn, asked me if I had received a letter from one of their wine producers from Mendoza, Argentina. She said that he wrote us because he really wanted to work a harvest at a small winery in California and they had suggested he write to Peay Vineyards because we were so similar: small estate winery that farmed its own grapes and really cared about quality. She added that Cristian was really, really nice and a great winemaker. Believing that this could be the answer to our predicament, I asked her to have him re-send the letter. We were overjoyed when we finally did get in touch with Cristian and learned that he was very experienced in winemaking both in Argentina and California – and he was available and willing to come for a few weeks in October. I am not saying that I believe in making a wish on a shooting star but I thanked my propitious meteoroids from that night.

Cristian Allamand (in photo) is the grape-grower and winemaker for Allamand Viñas & Vinos. Like Peay Vineyards, it is a small winery that farms its own estate vineyards so Cristian was very much in tune with the work we do and the attention to detail it takes to grow quality grapes and make terroir-driven wines. Acting as my “stunt-double” he did more than the heavy lifting on my behalf. Not only did he help me to do the regular tasks during crush like: walk the vine-yards to check on the vine growth and health, gather grape samples and process them to check on ripeness, oversee picking operations at non-estate vineyards, and run around the winery analyzing juice and bringing me wine samples, but he was also my winemaking therapist. You see, grape-growers like to commiserate with one another about the trials of farming. So on our long drives to and from our vineyard out on the West Sonoma Coast, we would talk about every topic surrounding the growing of grapes and making of wine: tractors and equipment, pruning, vine diseases, harvest logistics, vinification practices, barrel aging, bottling packaging, marketing, distribution, all aspects the occupation encompasses. And, as he was a father to three young children, we often touched on the subject of kids and the complications of raising a family with the rigors of running a vineyard and winery. I knew that he missed his children while on this far-away wine-making stint and he knew what weighed heavily on my heart when we talked about kids. When we fell silent in our own thoughts he would perk up and say, “You are going to be okay! We are going to make it through this harvest!”

He said this because the vintage itself was no walk in the park, either. Hampered by rains and cold weather we spent a lot of time waiting it out followed by hours upon hours of sorting and throwing out fruit from a crop that was not very big to begin with. There was a morning when I did not find Cristian back at the house ready for our morning drive to the vine-yard. I went to the winery to find him there, he had spent the night on the couch in Andy’s office because he and our intrepid crew had stayed and sorted grapes far into the wee hours of the morning. He knew that is what it took to improve wine quality and it is what I would have done. This was not the only undertaking he performed above and beyond the call of duty. One morning we made a plan to head out to the vineyard far before sunrise. Yet, when I woke up, I sensed some-thing wrong and knew I had to go to the hospital. Cristian offered to take me and I was much relieved because I was fearful to go alone and, Nick, being at the vineyard, was too far away. I spent the morning at the hospital while they ran a battery of tests on me and made sure that all was well and stable. All the while Cristian waited patiently in the waiting room to hear word on any developments, grapes or baby. I am not so sure that is what he signed up for in deciding to work harvest at Peay Vineyards, but he took it all in stride and was like a guardian winemaker watching over me.

By mid-October, we were starting to pick a majority of the grapes but we had to bid farewell to our dear friend and col-league. Cristian had to return to his winery in Mendoza to bottle his Malbec. I was a little anxious in losing his help but had gotten into a Zen-like mindset about the rest of the vintage. With the rest of my very capable crew intact, we made it to the end of October bringing in the rest of the Pinot noir and Chardonnay and I made it to the milestone of 34 weeks to which my obstetrician pronounced I was out of the danger zone of going into labor too prematurely. Two more weeks into November we brought the last of the grapes, the Syrah, into the winery with the relieved feeling that we had success-fully passed a couple more milestones. So, with eight small tanks actively fermenting away I hoped I would make it another couple of weeks to see the Syrah safely put to barrel.
Alas, the Syrah was safely put to barrel but without me. In the middle of the night, after the Fall Release Open House, I got that proverbial “knocking at the door”. Both baby and I kept our pact and he arrived only a little bit early: 3 weeks but I’ll take it. I took the earlier advice of my fellow moms and “phoned it in” from the post-partum room to tell Nick which barrels to put the Syrah wine in. Dr. Kahl came in to check on me and baby and glanced at my laptop and barrel list print-outs on the hospital tray and asked with weary disbelief, “You are not working are you?” I gave her a sheepish look as if to say that both harvests were safely in and I just had to make sure all the babies were being cared for.

On Vintage and the Wisdom that Often Comes with Time

Time flies, as the cliché goes and another season of grapes has come and passed. We have another vintage in the cellar and baby Cyril is now one year old and tottering about. With the last harvest’s wine in barrel, Nick and I decided to visit Burgundy. We love what we do and can’t seem to get away even when we try to go on vacation. We feel it is important to talk to other grape farmers, compare notes about the difficulty of farming organically, and taste wines to gain a wider perspective and deeper knowledge of growing grapes, making wine and enjoying wines in the con-text of the regional cuisine. (We hope our kids feel that way, too, although I think we owe them Disneyland next time!) We visited several wineries and many bemoaned the difficulty of the past growing season and harvest. At Domaine Henri Gouges, Pierre Gouges asked me what wine I would like to taste. I asked him to pick a vintage that he felt was a difficult vintage. He picked the 1982. The wine was really quite good, which is a testament to how a lovely a wine can be from a vintage that wasn’t so well regarded at the time.

These are experiences and perspectives that one can gain by exchanging ideas with those we are fortunate enough to come across in life like Cristian Allamand, and by tasting and talking to people like us who have grown and made wine, some for many more decades, centuries even, than we have. With time we gain perspective on how things in our lives develop and mature. Many years from now I probably won’t remember how anxiety-ridden my pregnancy or the 2011 vintage was but I will recall how hard everyone worked to produce a worthy and meaningful harvest. It will be a fond memory I look forward to enjoying some day.

Recent articles by Vanessa Wong