The Kenwood Press
: 09/01/2017

Signs of the coming harvest

By George MacLeod and Ed Murphy, Indian Springs Ranch

Harvest is close at hand. Very close. In fact by the time you read this, it’s likely that harvest will have begun at MacLeod Family Vineyard and other vineyards across Sonoma Valley. Optimism reigns supreme for vintage 2017, however a more detailed report will have to wait for next month’s “Journey to Harvest.”

It’s mid-August as I write this column. On our ranch I’m surrounded by my favorite sign that harvest is near – the beautiful Amaryllis belladonna (aka Naked Ladies) bulbs are in full bloom. They are called “naked” because they produce their leaves and flowers in separate seasons. In arid August the green foliage of winter/spring is gone, and from the hard barren ground spear-like, leafless stalks suddenly appear. Within days a cluster of pink, aromatic flowers burst forth – a delight in their beauty, and a sign that kids and teachers will soon be headed back to school, and that harvest is nigh.

You see them and their optimistic pink blossoms in places that have been long abandoned, battered, and trampled over. They often mark places here in California where pioneer families once settled. They state loudly, “optimism lived here!”

Years ago, when our family first came to the Sonoma Valley, the abandoned ranch we purchased was nothing but overgrazed brown grass, rocks, and the ancient cobblestone foundation of a pioneer family’s ranch house. A few broken down cherry trees and some rusting tools were all that survived of the pioneer family’s dreams … or so we thought.

Imagine our surprise that first August when we discovered the swan-like stems and slender, pink blossoms of a cluster of naked ladies growing close to the original ranch house porch. As we now know first-hand, farming this rocky hillside land was not easy. Life on this ranch for the pioneer family must have been a class in basic survival 101. Who would guess that some pioneer family long ago would have had the dream and optimism for better times to plant these beautiful flowers. Yet there they were.

And they chose well. These flowers, natives of South Africa, are tough, incredibly durable and perfectly adapted to our climate. They were probably first brought to Spain and Portugal by Portuguese sailors, then ultimately to California by the Franciscan priests.

Over the years, as we worked to develop our vineyard, our dreams seemed to entwine with those of the original pioneer family. We began to feel a tender kinship there. At times I confess to feeling like we were literally holding hands with the past, and we have tried to imagine the details of how these first naked lady bulbs arrived on our ranch. Did the farmer buy or trade for them as a surprise for his wife? Did she get some from a neighbor? Did her mother feel sorry for her daughter’s hard farming life and send her the bulbs? Or was it a practical effort to plant the poisonous bulbs as a barrier to keep gophers out of their vegetable garden? We know there was little or no money, so we can only guess.

When we selected the Amaryllis belladonna flower as our family’s good luck talisman, we did so based on its beauty, its toughness, its ability to flourish under adverse circumstances, and its timing that signals the coming grape harvest. We’ve placed an image of the flower on the labels of our Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Merlot, and Rosé wines to symbolize the emotion and passion we have for our lives and our work. And the optimism we feel for the coming harvest. At mid-August it’s as if our voices join with the pioneer family before us saying, “This is the year the crop will be large, the quality superb, our customers delighted, and perhaps even a little profit left over to save for a rainy day.”