Decades ago, the late Orville Magoon asked some workers to clear brush on an old, long-neglected hillside vineyard on his Guenoc estate in Napa County that was part of his Lake County property.
After hours of clearing the hillside, the workers took a break when Magoon arrived for a chat. One of them pointed to what he said was an amazing sight.
“I walked over to this one scrawny vine,” Magoon told me in the late 1980s, “and it was still alive, with a lot of leaves still on the vine.”
What amazed him was that that area of the vineyard hadn’t been planted to grapes since 19th century actress Lillie Langtry owned the estate in the late 1890s!
Left untended, and un-irrigated, for a century, that lone petite sirah vine had survived and may even have produced grapes at some point — and Magoon then said he discovered something even more amazing.
“At some point in its life, that vine had a challenger,” he said. A small sapling had grown up within inches of the vine, “and that vine saw that as a threat and it strangled the sapling!”
He said he found remnants of the tiny tree with tendrils wrapped around it.
The story reminds me of the many ways in which grapevines are remarkably self-protective and true survivors.
After a young vine is firmly rooted in a vineyard, it usually does not need irrigation. Ever. Many vineyards are so self-sufficient that they do not need any form of water, sending their roots deep into the earth to survive, and still produce a viable crop from which to make great wine. Growers call them dry-farmed.
In times of severe heat and drought, grapevines know enough to shut down, put nutrients back into storage as they prepare for a difficult stretch — as if waiting for Mother Nature to correct a weather imbalance.
If winter brings floods, vines typically are dormant and are unaffected.
The fires that raged throughout Northern California over the last two weeks did far more damage to buildings than they did to vines. Yes, some vines were lost, but that loss was minimal. In many ways, vineyards acted almost as if they were firebreaks, reducing the potential for wind-ripped embers to create further havoc.
There are two reasons you don’t see large oak trees in vineyards. First, the shade of trees blocks the vital sunlight so necessary for even ripening of the fruit. And the vast root system of large trees competes with the delicate root systems of vines. Vines adjacent to large trees usually do not make good wine. Growth is stymied.
The removal of trees before vineyards go in also removes potential combustibles. Without that fuel source, the fires that approached large vineyard had less to feed upon.
As I drove through outskirts of devastated Glen Ellen on Tuesday, just north of the Arrowwood winery, I saw farmland that had been blackened and was laden with soot. Every spring, I look forward to driving that same stretch of road because that land is always under a blanket of blue wildflowers.
And it will be again. It is part of spring’s rebirth and Sonoma Valley’s beauty and heritage. It will return, once fall has sent the vines into senescence, once winter has dropped additional rain, once spring arrives to brighten the vineyards of Ledson, Kenwood, Landmark, Kunde, St. Francis, St. Jean, B.R. Cohn, Imagery, Mayo Family, Hamel Family, and a dozen more picturesque properties along Highway 12.
John Donne’s classic poem “No Man is an Island” applies to all the deaths from the fires and how each effects us all. Nothing compares to that heartache.
The rebirth of the buildings, roads, and landscaping, the recommitment to the land and the people, and all that follows in our efforts for homeostasis has already begun.
It’s a task undertaken with heavy hearts, to be sure, but the message of the vines reaches out like a beacon to remind us that time will heal some of the scars, and that despite such grievous loss, we can move forward — we must move forward.
The losses may be sad, but the single word that came out of this tragedy most obviously was “family.”
I have heard that word so often over the decades in a wine industry I have covered for more than 40 years that at one point I thought it was a cliché.
No longer. We are all in this together and our efforts to revive the spirit of the wine industry are already evident. Like Orville Magoon’s little grapevine, the family of wine will return.
No wine of the week.