At Work How My Parents, Who Loved Grapes, Lost Their Love of Winemaking
Others began to intrude in what had once been a mom-and-pop operation. The conversion from hobby to profession had been made.
Starting in March, on the occasional Saturday, my father would take me along when he visited the grapes. He woke me before the sun rose, creeping into my room without turning on the lights and shaking me lightly, taking care not to wake my younger brother, who slept on the other side of the room. We would trundle into the kitchen in our pajamas. My mother would greet us there under the soft light of overhead lamps and hand us bagels—one day old, warmed in the toaster oven, and spread with cream cheese—for the car. We would only go on weekends when my father wasn’t on call at the hospital. For two or three years after my parents started the winery, but before he took his pager off on the weekends, the tiny, olive-tinted screen on his hip would sometimes buzz and glow when he was on call, the messages a sudden end to plans made over earlier bowls of Captain Crunch. They fit a pattern: patient inbound, PET or CAT or some other scan needed. But on other weekends, at least some of them, the two of us would wake early and drive north toward Santa Barbara.
The roads were still quiet when we left. A few hours later, depending on the sun, the lanes would fill with families driving to Huntington Beach or Corona Del Mar to play and burn on the sand. But in the earlier hours, I waded in and out of consciousness, no light or sound or anticipation holding me to the car’s journey along the 101 Freeway. From Santa Barbara, we would take the 154 toward Los Alamos, not far from Los Padres National Forest pines. The scenery from the highway was sedate: grey shrubs lined the berms along the road. The chaparral looked like it was on a slow march to desertification. It never completed the journey, but the occasional green, from deep roots or a tiny spring, stood out. An unmarked path led off the road toward the hills. Neat lines stood out against the dirt. We turned right, heading closer to the streaks.
Those first trips were made before the grapes started growing. The vines we found then looked on the verge of death. Layers of bark cracked along stout trunks, revealing more withered layers underneath. They were bare, but would soon grow full heads of leaves. Javelinas, robins, yellow jackets, and others waited to gather their shade as farmers prepared rifles, long fine nets, and toxic sprays—a battlefield, but for now, quiet. This is, after all, the spirit of viticulture: driven by conflict against instincts, an act started by grabbing hold of vines and pulling them in unnatural directions. It transforms the fruit’s desire to be plucked by a roaming bird or squirrel and turns it into something else, something new. It takes nature’s want and makes it ours.
Our destination was a plot of Cabernet Franc grapes on the western slope of the vineyard. The grapes sat in a corner of the land, untouched at the end of each harvest. Their unplucked state was due to the character of Cabernet Franc, which, unblended, turns many away. Vegetal is a word often used to describe the sensation of the grapes’ juice flowing across your tongue, the essence of green peppers lingering on bitter taste buds. Funky is a more generic, but somehow more accurate description of their essence: a taste that begs examination, like iron on one’s lips. Transformed by the bright acid of Cabernet Sauvignon or the plush fruit of Merlot, Cabernet Franc becomes balanced, affable even. As a result of disinterest, not much effort had been made in understanding how the grapes should have been cultivated. They were harvested early; the point of ripeness kept the sugar low, which only enhanced the less pleasurable elements of their taste.
For my father, these grapes were a material of raw necessity. They were distinguished in that they weren’t bought or used by large wineries across the valley. More importantly, they were economical ingredients for experimentation.
My father found his passion for grapes as a student at the University of Missouri, in a course on wine and civilization. Every other week, the students left the classroom, and the lecture turned into a wine-tasting between sloshing conversations. They visited the professor’s vineyard in Lone Jack, Missouri, a town of about 1,000 people, known—if at all—as the site of a tiny Civil War battle.
From Missouri, he made his way to Wisconsin for his post-medical school internship. There he met my mother, at the time his senior resident, and they fell in with a crowd that included a young wine importer who brought vintners—usually French, and usually from old, distinguished winemaking families who were just finding American buyers—into the group for brief stretches. At the importer’s cramped flat off State Street in Madison, past the capital building and the neon sign of the Orpheum Theater, old men careened around the room, knocking over bottles of Bordeaux wines with the essence of the earth (tobacco, leather, minerals) in their bones, Rhône blends that mimicked the flavors of Provençal herbs and berries, and white Burgundies—subtle and almost flavorless in a vacuum, but able to pick up the air, the ground, and other elements of the surrounding environment like no other fruit.
This is the spirit of viticulture: driven by conflict against instincts, started by grabbing hold of vines and pulling them in unnatural directions.
After Wisconsin, my parents moved to Santa Barbara. Two friends introduced them to a software engineer named Craig who had started making wine in his garage. Stomping feet eventually gave way to a small, hand-cranked press as friends asked for bottles. My parents found him when he was deciding whether his passion could be turned into a profession, whether he loved it enough to spend all day in its intricacies, whether he’d lose anything by doing so. My parents had taken positions at Washington University in St. Louis by the time he made his decision. The following autumn, my father left the Midwest to return to California for two weeks. He joined Craig during the harvest, witnessing the grapes’ first moments after they left the vines, before Craig’s enlisted friends removed them from their temporary storage containers to be pressed. Later, when my parents moved back to California and settled a few hours south of Santa Barbara, they made the trip up north each subsequent harvest to join him.
I now imagine them having a conversation like the one Craig had with his family. I imagine the lights in the house are off, except for the one leading out to the front yard and the one over the dining room table; the dishes have been cleared; I am in bed or with a babysitter; a bottle of wine sits between them, enough left for a couple more glasses if the pours are economical. To hear my father describe it later, if they went ahead, they wouldn’t actually be taking on any more work. If anything, it was the grapes bearing additional labor—my parents would only be patrons.
I’m not sure whether this conversation occurred, certainly not as described to me later. I don’t think the decision was one they grappled over, in any case. I believe the most consequential decisions are rarely the ones that cause someone to pace back-and-forth across the carpet, to pick at the beds of fingernails and to scrunch one’s face into anguished masks. It’s the small and meaningless decisions that force us through these trials. A person may even slide into a decision of great consequence without realizing it. It was for my parents, the conversation proceeding naturally, the volume building in agreement instead of debate—I know this much to be true, even if some of the details are lost.
My parents secured a small contract for Cabernet Franc from the same vineyard as Craig. The morning of the harvest began at three or four, before the sun started baking the valley. Pickers walked along the rows of grapes, carrying plastic bins secured by rope on their backs. When the bins were filled, they launched the grapes into a container in the back of a truck.
My father and mother joined them in those early years, leaving our town at midnight to arrive at the same time as the workers. They participated in the harvest lovingly, I imagine, not yet with a cold professional eye. In time, though, they ceded the ground to the vineyard. They began arriving after the workers finished. They picked up the full bins and drove them to the winery, where they processed them.
The sun was always up by the time my father and I arrived at the vineyard. It didn’t have time to rise above the hills, though; a faint coolness still filled the air. Little more than a rusted three-bar gate separated the vineyard from the road. It was a working place, free from the burden of giving tours to young couples who drove in for romantic picnics, or flocks of bachelorette parties—such people were usually drawn to the pastoral mansions of other, larger vineyards.
The vineyard manager or sometimes the owner met us at my parents’ plot of grapes. He and my father would discuss how the grapes would be grown: the degree to which the canopies should shade the grapes, dehydrating them in order to concentrate sugars; how much water they should receive to stimulate growth without diluting their juice; how the vineyard would drop some clusters, ensuring all the grapes that remained would reach full ripeness. While they spoke, I might pick up stones pressed into the clay path, dropping them to kick lightly between the rows of vines. Sometimes I sniffed at the vines, but there was nothing there for me yet.
For my father, these grapes were a material of raw necessity, economical ingredients for experimentation.
We would repeat our trips to the vineyard as the grapes ripened. The buds burst in late March, depending on the climate. Flowers bloomed six to nine weeks later. These weeks were important to the grapes’ development, but didn’t require our visits; the vineyard manager kept watch, a benevolent foster parent. It was close to harvest, as the summer neared its end, when we once again visited. In July, or thereabouts, veraison occurred: the transition from growing to ripening, when our grapes prepared themselves for the hungry bird or wild pig’s visit that would not come. To a young boy walking down rows of vines, swatting at flies and kicking stones, the grapes look nearly ready to eat at this time.
I pick one up and squish it between two fingers. It is still green, almost lime-colored. I look at the flesh now bared between my thumb and index finger. I taste it; it is sharp, as green as its skin. I try spitting out the juice but its edge sticks to the back of my throat. I toss the broken fruit into the dirt, wiping the remnants onto my jeans before moving down the path. I continue walking then notice a change has begun along the length of the clusters. It starts with a slight deepening in color from light green to olive. In other berries, the color has shifted from green to copper, in others still, the hint of familiar dark purple is found underneath the muted exterior of the berry. If I were to pick another, more flush one, I might’ve noticed a slight sweetness touch the tip of my tongue, but the raw residue of the grape lingers, so I walk by without tasting others.
Thompkin Cellars released its first commercial vintage made from the 2001 harvest. The winery stayed fresh in the first couple of years, with the little vineyard’s hiding place among the vines and the early mornings alone with my father; the wet squelching of crushed berries in the tiny bins, where I’d stomp to release the sweet juice that would stain from the cracked bottoms of my feet up to my thighs.
The winery’s adolescence lasted from 2001 to 2003. In these years the winemaking process took place almost entirely in our garage. After processing them up north, my father brought down the destemmed grapes in a rental truck just large enough to store the vats that sloshed with red foam as he took the turns. The vats sat in our driveway, under the shade of a palm tree. The wine won local awards, and my parents’ friends were willing to buy the small quantity they produced. To the degree it was a business, in those days, it was like the knitter who makes more scarves than she can give away.
In 2004, though, my parents began renting an industrial space to accommodate a larger hydraulic press and separate their domestic lives from the strain of winemaking: the murky purple run-off that stains the concrete of a driveway filthy water-grey; the indecency of having one’s garage occupied with carboys, corkers, cases of empty bottles, siphons, wine thieves, and various odds and ends; the lack of space for a child’s basketball or hockey outside the front door. Others began to intrude in what had once been a mom-and-pop operation: sales were made to customers, labels professionally designed by artists, calendars and meetings penciled in a full year ahead. By the time my father and I made our trips to the vineyard together, the conversion from hobby to profession had been made.
Until 2013, the winery continued its slow creep. After harvest, the grapes needed twice-daily visits, which now meant a drive into town before work and after school. My mother, who had stopped practicing medicine by then, became the winery’s lone salesman, though her tiny five-foot frame was scarcely able to move the full cardboard cases of wine from her car. Customers asked for tours of the winery; the industrial space, abutting a church group and an artist’s studio, didn’t dissuade them. The world of the winery, still contained the occasional tasting party as the blends for the next vintage were decided, but it was mostly filled with label approvals, bottling logistics, contract negotiations, cork troubleshooting, requests for donations, and hand-dipping wax capsules. Most of those orbiting the next year’s release were customers who had little stake in anything but the taste of the wine, and sometimes not even that.
One year, in late August, my father and I took what was to be our final trip to the vineyard. While he measured the grape’s sugar using a refractometer, peering into the sky like an alchemist hoping to harvest the sun’s glow, I walked along the vines. The clustered berries were full and dark, like tiny plums or a twilit sea. Where grapes had dropped and burst, bugs gathered, drinking from the exposed, swollen flesh. I picked one of the grapes and tossed it into my mouth. When I closed my jaw, the juice burst from its core. I picked the seed from between my teeth and savored the taste: The sweetness was almost overwhelming, the sugar putting to shame those grapes found on supermarket shelves.
Not long after, a woman, another parent from my brother’s school, approached my parents and asked whether they were interested in making a bulk sale to a distribution company in New York, which would route the wine to China and its growing market. The order was for an amount larger than the winery’s output at the time. My parents demurred. They came back with another offer: Would the company be interested in buying the winery instead?
I went back to a vineyard last summer. Not to any of those my parents bought grapes from—instead I visited a large producer of biodynamic wines, made through a semi-mystical process that views the entire vineyard as a single organism. The winery and vineyard were massive, designed to be viewed and to create staggering quantities of fermented juice. It sat to the northeast of San Francisco, where I had been spending the summer. At the beginning of my stay, I had committed to joining a graduate writing program in New York. I was working in the field something less than full-time at that point, freelancing for a few publications and writing a book proposal, filling the gaps with work for a tiny policy outlet. The ability to live in New York and work in a frenzied environment with other writers made the decision easy.
Others began to intrude in what had once been a mom-and-pop operation. The conversion from hobby to profession had been made.
A friend had joined me in San Francisco the Friday before for my birthday. Though he had mentioned it earlier, I didn’t know that I wanted to visit wine country. I was feeling groggy and behind on work, and I knew the dry July heat, nonexistent in the city, would make itself known inland. I weakly pushed away the idea, but an hour or so later, I found myself in the passenger seat of a car driving along the 101 north toward Sonoma.
We parked in the gravel lot of the vineyard. After paying for admission, we waited under the awning of the visitor’s center. Eventually, a large tractor pulled up, dragging behind it a centipede-like appendage of two or three golf carts, its exhaust pipe sputtering with a gloom. We sat next to a family from China; the vineyard guide—a local man who went up to each group and asked where they were from, invariably ending each conversation with, “I need to get out there”—herded us in. We visited two or three winery sites, industrial and empty, before we drove out toward the vines.
The grapes were still young. The guide recommended against picking them; they would taste unappetizing: high in acid and low in sugar. Instead, at a poured concrete table with an embedded mini-fridge set up for the stop, he took out a few bottles from the previous year’s harvest, already chilled. The bottles were olive-colored and soon collected dew that slid down their curves, drawing translucent paths along the cream-colored labels; I remember thinking how clean they looked for having been stored outside, not even the faint borders of hard water marking their lips.
The guide began pouring the wine into glasses set up on the table, just enough for a few sips. People went up to the table and took one, returning to their places in the clearing beneath two oak trees. While he spoke of the natural process they used in ushering along the wines, I turned back to the rows of grapes. They blended in with the canopy above them; the shadow of the leaves threw the green of the grapes into stark relief. In the occasional space between the vernal fruit, however, I saw a burst of ruby, the first blush of passion or sickness.