Turning of the Vines


I helped a friend take out a vineyard recently, and I confess I enjoyed it much more than I should have. It was only a small backyard vineyard in Napa, but it seemed much bigger for symbolic reasons.

Too often I give in to sarcasm at the news of more vineyards receiving development permits in the Napa Valley. “Thank God!” I stoop to exclaim, “I was worried we wouldn’t have enough vineyards!” This admittedly cheap shot is often followed by a mock-enthusiastic comment about how soon the bulldozers can rush here to strip out the trees and carve the hillside. With tongue planted in cheek, I praise the businessperson for his or her originality, and when I start with all of this, someone inevitably reminds me to be grateful that it’s vines getting planted and not strip malls. Good point.

For the record, I am a huge fan of sustainable winegrowing. In 2002, I wrote a book advocating the practice (Vineyards in the Watershed: Sustainable Winegrowing in Napa County). Since its release, there seem to be even more growers who think out of the box and work constantly to make winegrowing more sustainable. My hat is off to them, especially to the vineyard owners behind the Agricultural Preserve, that piece of local law protecting the Napa Valley from looking just like Walnut Creek or Santa Rosa. Now those were original thinkers; they protected their business interests and improved the quality of life for the community as a side effect. Such radical, forward thinking.

My own forward thinking involves seeing something more than wine grapes growing in Napa, Sonoma and Marin. Call me radical, but vegetables and fruit trees have been grown here in the past quite successfully, and the day may come when locally sourced food is, well, the only food. I have already praised in this column the people in Napa County, including wine grape growers, who are planting food crops in the areas of land where grapes don’t flourish, in particular the controversial riparian zones, which are spots along the river where the critters always seem to have the upper hand.

On my friend’s property, I learn that vineyard demolition is hard work. The vines have to be chain-sawed at the roots, and to get the blade close to the vines, we first have to remove the wire trellising system around which the vine grew. In the old days (and in a few remnants surviving the engineering of modern vineyards), the grape vines grew up on their own legs, and when they got old enough, they looked like gnarled trees.

I recall such vines from long-ago Sonoma County as I fight to recoil the stiff wire we cut from the deeply sunken fencing poles. The wires snap back forcefully enough that by the end of three hours, each of us has at least one trellis injury—the prize going to the bloody forehead cut—which we wear as badges of agricultural courage, and proof we have fought the good fight with the damned wire.

Why we’re doing this crazy thing of ripping out vines is because my friend is fed up and doesn’t care for the “gentleman farmer” bragging rights so coveted by others with vines. Instead, he wants room for his kids to play and space for a garden. I’m proud to assist.

As I wrestle with a wire stubbornly attached to a pole, I notice a vine with a trunk of smaller circumference than the rest. I stare a few seconds, then drop the wire and cutters. With gloved hands, I grab the horizontal arms of the T-shaped vine and pull hard. There is a slight give. I grab again with greater conviction and pull as hard as I can for as long as I can until, with a sudden jerk, the vine lets go and I’m standing with a vine, roots and all, at chest height, victorious. I did it! And the act is exhilarating. With my own hands I’ve contributed to there being less wine and more food growing in my community. It’s a start.