It’s springtime in the vineyard. Fuzzy pale green shoots display their tiny buds. The goldfinch and wren trill their melodies amid the pink and white blossoms of the apple trees. Honeybees romance the lavender. A salivating scent permeates the languid warmth. Children cavort. Couples embrace. And then…
At 5 a.m. the drone of the engine begins its approach. I jump out of bed, and slam shut the windows as an undocumented alien (shhh, don’t tell anyone) swathed head to toe in a white hazmat suit, and a gas mask direct from the movie Contagion, advances. From the back of his machine sprays a white powder that adheres to the vines, the house, the car, the trees, and any animal that crosses his path. Pesticide, fertilizer, its springtime in the vineyard.
In Sonoma County alone 70,000 acres are planted in wine grapes. Grapes are the largest fruit crop on earth! That includes seedless, and the variety made famous by those squishy face California Raisin dudes. Revenue from wine grapes tops the list. When you factor in spending for the material suppliers, and wine related tourism, revenue for the local economy scaled the heights of $8 billion.
Wine agriculture is king. Wine sales have rebounded to pre-recession levels. While vegetable farmers barely scrape by. Dairy farmers lose revenue as the price of milk remains depressed, as it has for several years now.
I drink the wine. Viticulture is a complex science. The vintners in this county are expert at their craft. They are true artisans.
The surreal beauty of the vineyards has the capacity to cast spells. But the cost is insurmountable when dairy farmers and vegetable growers, those that provide us with nourishment, are unable to earn a living. Every year more acreage falls to the grape. The water table is sucked dry, animal habitats are lost. All for the want of an alcoholic beverage that a certain percentage can afford.
Money trumps our stewardship of the land; a global issue to be sure. Our reliance on oil and natural gas, and the injustice inflicted upon our landscape to obtain it, comes to mind. Wine is only my immediate conundrum as the canes are grafted outside my windows.
The following is a true story of the role agriculture plays out in my neck of the redwoods and fog. I had an old cat. Stay with me. I sense your eyes rolling as you think there is no more room on the web for one more tale of a cat! I assure you the cat is peripheral. So, I had an old, sick cat. Oh, so now the cat is sick, too? Anyway… This cat and I were in bed, drifting off to sleep one night, when I became aware of a droning, muted at first, but slowly increasing in decibels.
At midnight a single harvester began to crawl, like the spiders that comb our websites, from row to row. Now she’s talking about spiders? Where’s this going? With every turn, the headlight strobed the bedroom. The drone grew ever louder. All night this continued.
In the morning I took my cat to the vet. The vet convinced me to let her go, as she was pretty damn sick. I hadn’t known that night was to be my last with my 20-year companion. I hadn’t realized that with one injection the whole of my youth would evaporate.
At home, I lovingly placed my dead cat in the freezer, and in the throes of grief, fired off an email to the vineyard owner, who lives miles from this piece of land. It was one of those emails that perhaps ought to have been written, but not sent. Alas, I hit the send button and my solitary stratagems of scorn were made public.
The next thing I know there’s a knock on the door. Stealthily scanning the driveway I noted the name of the vineyard emblazoned on the truck. I thought: he’s come to apologize for the noise, and present me with a bottle of that buttery Chardonnay in which he prides himself. I swing wide the door.
Owner: “Don’t you know you live in an agricultural area? Agriculture is entitled to dispensations. Would you rather be looking at a housing development or my green vines?”
Me: Stunned speechless.
Owner: “Nothing to say now? Cat got your tongue?”
Me: Thought bubble – he said cat, didn’t he? Hold it together.
Me: “Had there been a housing development out there I wouldn’t have rented this place. So that’s not a valid argument. Why do you harvest at night, anyway?”
Owner: “The sugar is at its peak. And the fruit is cool. When we harvest by day we need to cool it down before fermentation.”
Me, after a beat or two: “In other words harvesting by machine is cheaper and faster. Your immigrant labor force costs more. Your profit margin for that bottle of Chardonnay is higher.”
Owner: Silence: Cat got his tongue.
Thanks for reading!