“There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief “There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine, plowmen dig my earth None of them along the line know what any of it is worth”
All Along The Watchtower, Bob Dylan 1968
With wine terms such as acidity, balance, bouquet, crisp, earthy, fruity, legs, toasty, brute, one might ponder the origin of whether such vernacular being 1) descriptive personal adjectives from a dating service or 2) about “bottled poetry.” Let’s go with Robert L. Stevenson’s apt praise for the privately tasted wines of, and in the company of, Jacob Schrams at Schramsberg Winery in 1880, which he put to prose in his book “Silverado Squatters.”
I find myself in 1971 once again, for the very first exposure I ever had with the world of wine. Well, with the singular exception of our Tennessee non-drinking family’s stock of a single bottle of Mogen David wine for the yearly holidays. I know, right!? Syrup for waffles? It’s alright. They rosé (intended ... sorry) to the occasion and learned well of the reds, whites, champagnes of “The Valley” in due course.
I am with my friend Everett, who will always loom large in my memory for introducing me to the land of Lady Calistoga. We had a fine cottage out on Myrtledale Road. It had the appearance of someone utilizing a shrink ray on a 2-bedroom cottage with all the rooms of a full-sized house. At $150 per month rent, that’s $75 a piece. It was a dandy place as part of Arnold’s Lone Oak Resort. A gorgeous property with flowers upon flowers. Time has not been kind to the old place. Now duly covered up with a tall fence.
I digress. During that pre-fame era, it was the high school boys who earned extra money, driving tractors, suckering vines, dicing the vineyards as well as pruning during the winter months. This particular day Everett made a stop along Grant Street by a tiny bridge. We drove off into this “old growth” dry-farmed acreage of Zinfandel grapes. Deep tap roots with no irrigation. Everett’s attention went to a 3-4 foot square of concrete upon which stood a tall slender cylindrical stainless steel, jacketed tank. It was his job to make sure the cooling temperature was at its proper setting. Founded in 1969, this was the beginning of Cuvaison Winery.
From that day forward I began my wine production career with the vineyard crew of Sterling Vineyards. At that time Sterling consisted a plain concrete building on the valley floor beneath the knoll upon where sits the Greek island-ish look of the winery which crowns the hill top for all to see. Started by Peter Newton, English expatriate, in 1964, Sterling’s winemaker was Ric Forman. A fresh-faced winemaker just out of UC Davis. Mr. Newton sure knew what he was doing, with taste and gusto.
My first job in the vineyard was “Rock Patrol.” Such a delightful undertaking. Dripping with sarcasm there. Rock Patrol consisted of workers walking the rows digging up rocks of all weights and sizes. At times using a 5-6 foot iron bar to leverage the sometimes boulder up out of their resting place. Then lifting said boulder into the bucket at the front of a CAT diesel D4 tractor.
One of the reasons fruit of the vine does so well here in Napa Valley, when the volcano was active it spewed molten rock infused with calcium which the grapes adore. As well as other byproducts of a belching volcano. (Go to Glass Mountain Road to see obsidian lying about. Volcanic glass. Lake County has it all over the roadsides in the eastern portion of the county.) So rocks hold the calcium and the vineyard rock patrol crew holds the rocks.
It wasn’t long before I transferred into the winery itself. It was only just beginning to be built. A crew of volunteers cleared the knoll of rattle snakes. I did not volunteer. Duh! I was fortunate enough to assist the Frenchmen who came to build the oak tanks, the artist who produced the artful tiles of the cellar floor. It was there I ran a grape “bladder” press for the first time. Learned to be a racker blender. We were babysitters of the sensitive and tender elixir of truth serum from the vine. We Cellar Rats carried out the winemakers artistic blending instructions along with any additions needed; eggs whites, sulphur, for example. We engaged in “racking” i.e. pumping wine from one tank to another or to barrels for aging. New wine leaves behind a sediment called lees. And lees begat brandy.
What an adventure. We were Cellar Rats! We embraced the name and wore it proudly. Apparently, it is against the laws of big business marketing to utilize such an earthy moniker. We loved it! Simpler, funky times abounded.
It was family-like between the wineries. We helped each other in times of need. Whether it be lending equipment, pumps, taking care of wine over stock, etc. You name it and we were there for each other. We worked hard, played hard and, like me, carry the unmistakable aroma of a winery filled with oak tanks and barrels aging with a bouquet of nature liquid bounty inside a life long memory. There was a quiet pride for being a Cellar Rat. Yep, we did love it. Still do.
A note to my fellow traveler’s; While Time Trippin’ in and around Calistoga, we will be visiting different eras from the 1970s dating back to the geographic formation of our slice of nature’s splendidly unique designs. We will meet some of the characters who paved the way for the rest of us to respect and revel in our Calistoga. So, from the Old Bale Mill up to Bennett Lane circumventing the base of the foot stools of Mt. St. Helena, join together with me as we learn where we’ve been so we will know where we are going. At least that is what my history teacher flogged his students with … See you next time, my friend, when we revisit Lily Hitchcock Coit, of Coit Tower fame (she had a party house on Larkmead Lane, back in the day).