Earliest ever Sauvignon Blanc harvest
By the time you’re reading this column we will have already harvested our Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel. The run-up to harvest is a special time in our Sonoma Valley – the tension, the optimistic tonnage forecasts, the rumble of equipment, and the infectious enthusiasm of the harvest crew.
We pick by hand and at night. This lets us deliver cool fresh grapes to our winery customers. Flood lights illuminate the vineyard, but the real action happens under the light of the LED head lamps that the pickers wear. Son John just arrives with a giant tray of donuts. In the darkness the phone rings. It’s crew chief Chuy saying, “George, there are no grapes out here!!!” We know from a neighbor who has already picked (and from our own bunch counting) that the vintage 2015 crop is small. We do not know the full yield yet, but it looks like it will be 50 percent less by weight than usual. But while the volume is down, the grapes are beautiful. Wonderful flavors and aromas of passion fruit and apricot hint at an excellent (if small) vintage.
Now let’s have the vines speak up for themselves: “Patron! Recall that for the last three years our Sauvignon Blanc harvests have been huge. Frankly we are just a little tired this year. And we have been trying to do our job with less winter rain and less irrigation water all season. Just be thankful we were able to get you any harvest!”
Our Zinfandel vines now ask for the talking stick. “Señor MacLeod, we will deliver a nice harvest around the first of September. Some of our bunches have a number of small, green grapes that were not pollinated during bloom time. But as you’ve seen from your sampling, our juice is a beautiful Zinfandel purple. Weight-wise we will be off about 30 percent. Not good news, but we are pleased with our performance when compared to the Sauvignon Blanc.”
All of these bad numbers make John and me think about the old adage, “How do you make a small fortune growing grapes? … Start with a large fortune.”
The saga of the vineyard bell
When Greta and I were first dreaming about this ranch – and our home to be, and our barn to be – we always knew we would have a large ranch bell that we could use to ring for meals, visitors, emergencies, and general spontaneous celebrations. Some years later, when we were in Mexico learning to speak Spanish, we asked our host in the home where we were boarding if he knew where we could get a giant brass bell. Several days later he and I headed off in his pickup truck at (what seemed to me) a hundred miles an hour – passing on curves, over hills and through tiny villages. We finally came to a small adobe house in a dusty little town whereupon my driver says, ”Patron, we will drink a lot of beer and talk. Do not say anything!” This tiny house had shelves loaded with brass castings of animals, small bells, you name it. Indeed we did drink beer almost all afternoon. Finally my driver said, “Señor MacLeod would like to talk to you about a bell for his new ranch.”
After more beer, the owner sent a boy out in the back yard and returned with a casting mold for a bell and asked me if that was the right size. I replied yes it was and he quoted a price. I then said I want the bell to have a beautiful tone. This stopped the conversation cold … more beer … more talking … turns out this “beautiful tone” costs more money. But I was still very happy with the deal so I paid him the amount in cash … lots of hand shaking … more Spanish about how beautiful the tone would be.
As we were speeding back along back roads through tiny towns of rural Mexico, I suddenly realized we were leaving for the U.S. tomorrow without either the bell or my money. Panic! My driver/host said not to worry, his friend makes lots of special orders and always sooner or later delivers the product and everyone is happy.
Back home, I went back to work laying out vineyard rows, building a barn, painfully trying out my new and fragile Spanish skills, and forgetting the entire subject of our vineyard bell dream.
Fast forward two years, and at lunch time I get a phone call from Palo Alto asking me if my name is George MacLeod and if I had ever bought a large bell in Mexico. I confirm “yes and yes,” and the caller says, “we are just returning from Mexico where we visited a small brass casting foundry, and the owner wanted to know if we were going any place near northern California. We were and now we have this giant brass bell in the trunk of our car.”
Greta and I jump in our car and drive down to Palo Alto. Meet the heretofore unknown tourist. He pops open his trunk, and as if by magic there is our huge, dreamed about brass bell, with our initials, the date (1982), and two raised designs of a bunch of grapes.
Back at Indian Springs Ranch, we get a chain and raise the bell on one of the giant horizontal front patio timbers. Then, with nervous expectation, we tried ringing … and a beautiful, echoing tone stretched out across the ranch.
A death in our vineyard family
Our cockatile family member “Hello George” left us the other day. He has been a cheerful and positive family member for the last 30 plus years. Our son Richard found him in a small tree and brought him to us. On the very next morning when we came in the sun room, he brightly welcomed us with a clear and loud “Hello George.” For the last 30 years he has announced any new arrival even out in our parking area with a clear welcome. He also learned to sing “California Here I Come” but he never got the notes in proper order. And we always called him “Hello George.” The other morning, in spite of harvest business, we had a proper and sensitive burial service with full honors for our friend Hello George and buried him with a proper basalt block tombstone with a handful of the parsley greens that he loved..
Our beautiful pink naked ladies are now growing and blooming all over our ranch. When we first bought this ranch, on the first August, a large group of these beautiful flowers bloomed in front of the stone footings of the original pioneer house. We have always thought of them as our good luck harvest blossoms. Their illustrations are on all our wine labels. And we often think of the pioneer woman who planted them in spite of hard times and poverty some 150 years ago. We have been planting them in her honor all around this ranch and along our driveway coming in for years. And as I write this, in our barn are 300 more waiting to be planted after the first real rain.