Autumn in California Wine Country

Autumn has arrived in California Wine Country, and once again I am struck by how incredibly beautiful it is here at this time of year.  The air actually smells like wine as the harvest gets underway, and there is a huge rush of energy as winery employees work around the clock to pick the grapes at the exact moment of perfect ripeness.  Fermentation begins in vats, tanks, and barrels, and the used skins and seeds are redistributed back in the vineyards to provide nourishment for next year’s crop.

When I first moved here eleven years ago from Colorado, I was worried I would miss the change of colors in the tree leaves during autumn in the Rockies.  However, I was unprepared from the magnificent tapestry of orange, gold, yellow, and red that spreads over the vineyards.  The hillsides are ablaze in a myriad of fall colors, and it takes your breath away when the huge harvest moon rises in a deep orange globe over the evening landscape.

I am on sabbatical this autumn semester, working on two new books – one on California’s
most famous vineyards.  I’m also helping with harvest in some local wineries and waiting for my own grapes to ripen before the yellow jackets eat them all.  Who knew that yellow jackets ate grapes?  This semester is also filled with travel.  I just returned from 3 weeks in Italy where they were having an early harvest in Tuscany.  In October, I head to Hawaii, and in November to London and Idaho.   I stay in touch with many of my students through email and Facebook.

And so in this time of miraculous autumn in wine country, I believe the following quote from J. Robert Moskin is most appropriate:

“One of
life’s gifts is that each of us, no matter how tired and downtrodden, finds
reasons for thankfulness: for the crops carried in from the fields and the
grapes from the vineyard.” 

J. Robert Moskin

Summer in Sonoma

Sonoma and Napa Counties are a wonderful place to spend the summer. The weather is usually in the mid 80’s during the afternoon, but fog gently covers the landscape most mornings and some evenings.  This is especially the case in Carneros and Sonoma Coast appellations, which are closer to the Pacific Ocean and San Pablo Bay.  This cooling marine influence is what allows us to grow world-class pinot noir and chardonnay in these areas.  However, if the fog is too cool for some (as it was for Mark Twain when he spent a summer in even cooler San Francisco), you only need to drive a few miles inland to find the hotter areas of Alexander, Dry Creek, and Calistoga where cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel thrive.

This summer on campus we are offering classes in both the June and July sessions.  Many students can accelerate their studies by taking for-credit classes during this time.
I am not teaching this summer, because I am working on research and a new book.  In addition, I have much travel planned, including trips to France, Italy, Croatia, Wisconsin and Arizona.

During the summer I also work much in my vineyard.  We got off to
a cool start with unseasonably cold and wet weather at the end of May and first
of June.  This caused delays in fruit set and increased threats of powdery mildew.
I have had to spray the vineyard with sulfur and Serenade (both organic products) more than usual.  Everyone is predicting a delayed harvest again in this area. Interestingly France is experiencing a drought with no rain in April and May including heat in the 90’s.  Their vines are much more advanced than ours at this time, and they are predicting
one of the earliest harvests on record – perhaps in August!  It is amazing how much control Mother Nature wields, and so for the summer months, I offer a few quotes in honor of her power.

“We cannot command Nature except by
obeying her.” – Francis Bacon

“Let us permit Nature to
take her own way; she better understands her own affairs than we.” – Michel de

May and Senioritis Runs Rampant

May came quite fast this year, and on May 1 were we treated to the first 80 degree weather of the year in Sonoma County.  Hurray!  There are only three weeks of class left before Final’s Week.  Graduation is on May 28th, and my classes are filled with graduating seniors who have a bad case of “senioritis.”  This means they can’t stop talking, fidgeting, and swinging betweens moods of euphoria over graduating and anxiety over entering the job market.

In the vineyards the green leaves are growing rapidly under the warm sun.  Small baby clusters of grapes are being formed.  I spend much time in my vineyard “suckering” the vines, which means pulling off unnecessary leaves and shoots which take energy from the grape bearing vines.

And so during this very busy month of the year, I have found a quote by Ernest Hemingway which reminds us to relax a little and enjoy life and wine.

Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing. 

Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

April Brings BudBreak

Budbreak in the vineyards arrived especially late this year in Sonoma County.  In my hobby vineyard, which is located in the cooler climate of the Petaluma Gap – just like SSU, the first pale green buds with their pink tips did not burst forth until Sunday, April 3!  That is two weeks later than the past seven years!  But since March was one of the rainiest months on record this year, I can understand why the vines waited until April.

On campus everyone seems very pleased that the sun has finally come out again.  We’ve had a few warm days in the 70’s (F) which caused the students to flock to outdoor tables, chairs, and the lawn to grab some rays of sun.  Shorts and flip flops are now familiar sights on campus again.  More importantly, April brings Spring Break – which is late this year (the third week) – and everyone looks forward to a relaxing week off.

In gratitude and celebration of the sun’s return and the beginning of a new harvest, I jotted down the following lines:

When the dark barren branches of the vineyard

push forth their pale green buds

joy surges through my heart.

For I know Spring has returned,

and with it Hope of warmth and sun.

I raise of glass of wine in anticipation

of the new harvest that has begun

to stir in the Spring vines.

Shamrocks in the Vineyards and Other Green Rites of March

March came in smiling this year in Sonoma County with much sunshine and bright green grass on the hillsides.  The vineyards are still dormant, but I am beginning to see more clover (shamrocks) as a cover crop between my vines.  If you weren’t aware, many vineyard owners plant specific plants between the rows to protect the soil from erosion, to improve soil fertility, and regulate vine growth. Common cover crops include not only clover, but winter peas, mustard, oats, and fava beans.

Besides shamrocks in my vineyard, the month of March brings St. Patrick’s Day which is held in reference by college students across the nation as a great day to party.  Thus when I accidently scheduled my mid-term exams on St. Patrick’s Day this year, there was a rather loud uproar from some students.  However, when I reminded them the exam would only last 30 minutes and they would be getting out of class early that day, this appeased most.

I also love St. Patrick’s Day and anything to celebrate being “green” and “sustainable.”  Therefore, this month’s wine quote comes from Paul Dolan, CEO of the Mendocino Wine Company, the first carbon neutral winery in the US.

“Like children, vines need a good environment and nutrients to grow.  Our responsibility as wine grape growers is nuturing the environment so the vines and grapes can express themselves.  Adopting sustainable winegrowing practices makes this happen.”

Paul Dolan, p. 91, How to Launch Your Wine Career

February – Classes Commence and Mustard and Valentines Adorn Our Vineyards

February is upon us, and at SSU this means new classes are starting.  The first few weeks are always hectic as students are jostling to find seats in our crowded classrooms.  Due to budget cuts, we have less seats.  However, due to the large group of Millennials coming through the university system now and until 2015, we have more students than we have seats available.

So it is best to look on the positive side.  The vineyards around campus are filled with yellow mustard, and Valentine’s Day is a special part of this month.  It is good to take some time out each day to think of these small blessings.  Thus my wine quote for February focuses on the romantic side of this month.

Wine Quote of the Month:

“A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,

A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread-and Thou

Beside me singing in the Wilderness-

O, Wilderness were Paradise enow!”

Omar Khayyam

Welcome to a New Year at SSU

January 2011 is upon us, and I believe that this will be a wonderful and exciting new year!  After weeks of cold and rain, the month of January is starting bright and sunny.  Classes don’t resume until Jan. 31, so I’m hoping that many of my students are enjoying the Winter Break.

As for me, I’m back at my computer writing research papers, but also enjoying long walks past sleeping vineyards.  The vines are bare of leaves, but the black cordons and slender shoots look like sculptures in the bright sun.  Pruning season is upon is, and soon yellow mustard and orange California poppies will fill the rows between the vines.

January 2011 Wine Quote

My quote for this month comes from D.H. Lawrence’s poem “Grapes”:

Our pale day is sinking into twilight,

And if we sip the wine, we find dreams coming upon us

Out of the imminent night

December and Final Exams Are Upon Us

We are now entering the last few hectic weeks of the semester.  As a professor, I am busy grading papers and preparing final exams. Students are cramming and desperately trying to schedule assignments from multiple classes so they don’t have to pull “all-nighters.”  Yes — I remember what it is like to be a college student in December. However, keep in mind, it is just as crazy for professors, who have to grade all those papers.  This semester I have 129 students!  This is why I save my “stress management” lecture for this time of year….  It helps me, just as much as the students.

Anyway, enough complaining. I still love my job, and know that in a few weeks, we will all be celebrating — perhaps heading to the snow in the Sierras, drinking Cosmopolitans in Palm Springs (I’m heading here), and always enjoying lots of lovely wine and food with family and friends during the holidays.

So I end this post with a wine quote from the Bible – Ecclesiastes (31:35-36) and also one from the Koran (47.15).  During this season of thanksgiving and joy, we can celebrate from multiple perspectives.

“Wine drunk with moderation is the joy of soul and the heart.” Ecclesiastes (31:35-36)

“Here is a Parable of the Garden which the righteous are promised:  in it are rivers of wine, a joy to those who drink.” Koran 47:15


Enjoying Autumn in Wine Country

Autumn is definitely in the air.  Nights are cooler, the leaves are slowly changing to gold and red, and the grapes are ripening on the vine.  We are deeper into the material in our classes, and students have started on team projects.  The campus is even more beautiful this time of year, with autumn flowers amongst the changing foilage.  Students relax on lawns, and often we have bands playing music at noon.

It is this time of year that I always remember my favorite Jack London quote — and of course, Jack London adopted Sonoma County as his home, establishing his “Beauty Ranch” on the Eastern side of Sonoma Mountain, with the House of Happy Walls.

“The air is wine.  The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame.  Across Sonoma Mountain, wisps of sea fog are stealing.  The afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky.  I have everything to make me glad I am alive…”

In Icy Argentina This Week

It seems a little strange to fly to Argentina during the second week of school, but that is when the International Wine Forum is scheduled in Mendoza.  This year they kindly invited me to be a guest speaker on the US wine market — all expenses paid.  Amazingly, I was able to fit in the 5 day trip around my class schedule, and after 20 hours of travel I’m back in winter in the Southern Hemisphere.  It is very cold and they are in the process of pruning their vines, while at home in Sonoma everyone is praying the grapes will get ripe enough to harvest soon.  Feeling a bit like Alice in Wonderland.

However, looking forward to my first glass of Malbec, and the fancy wine dinner planned for tonight.  I will be blogging this trip on www.winetravelstories.blogspot.  Check it out in the next few days for more details.