Sunday, September 15, 2013

One Last Harvest

They told me I’ve been here long enough. Time to make room for new growth. Told me to prepare for my last harvest.

It used to be that an old-vine vineyard was prized, revered. Something in it had the depth of meaning more profound than just terroir. Dirt plus wisdom. Now, those attributes are no longer prized. The owners want bigger numbers. And their analysts tell them they need new and shiny.

Maybe it was the way the original owners planted me. They gave my roots plenty of room to grow, free to be me. I could sprawl, seek out new levels, not have to fight for water and air. Now the experts say that they need to plant closer together, cause more competition between the vines. Stress is good. But the new owners aren’t vines. They are wealthy businessmen who came back home to make a simpler life for themselves. The problem, they brought all their old habits and schemes from the city.

The winemaker still walks the vineyard at night, especially when the moon provides for ample illumination. I think she is torn between the vineyard and her need to keep her job. It isn’t easy finding work in the country anymore. And it’s even harder getting paid a decent living, or getting paid at all. I don’t blame her. Her grandfather planted these vines and I know she sees me as a link between her and her ancestors. Believe me, I don’t want to go, but I’m not the one who’s pulling the strings. Or pulling out the vines.

It’s been a good run. We had some great vintages. The year they planted me, not long after the last war, those were some tough times. When I was young we were hit with a terrible frost and they almost lost me. And then two years later, my first great vintage, 1958. Then in the 1960’s, when I was barely a teenager, we had 1961, 1964, 1967 and 1968. I was full of energy, but it was Nature that was calling the shots. In those days all I had to do was grow and spurt leaves and fruit and it was magical.

In the 1970’s I graduated to more serious vintages. The grandfather’s son was just starting to make the wine and he had been to enology school. So he paid more attention to winemaking in the cellar. And we had some great times together, 1971, 1974 and 1978 (the year of the 13 moons). The granddaughter, when she walks around me at night, she still talks about those vintages that came out of me.

And then the 1980’s hit. All of a sudden the old casks weren’t good enough. Soon, trucks started rolling into the winery with small barrels from France. And then they started pruning me differently, calling certain parts of me an experimental plot. It was a confusing time above ground, but below, it was always as Nature had meant. Light, water, grow. Rain, sun, wind, fog, day, night. Same as it ever was. What they did in the wine cellar was none of my business. And I grew my heart out for them that decade. 1982, what can anyone say? It was as perfect as it could be. The grandfather who planted me talked as though he had never seen anything like it. I knew he loved me when I was young, but as I was maturing he loved me even more. They all did; the son, the new baby, the importer, the critics. I was at the height of my prowess. And I wanted nothing more than to grow and produce for my owners. And I did. 1985, 1988, 1989, I was on a roll.

And then it stopped for a few years. I noticed the fog less. The seasons started lasting longer. I noticed more hail, more drought, more sun. I figured it was just the middle-aged crazies. I thought it was me. But underneath, Nature was stirring. And above, the owner brought in an agronomist and hired an enologist and a famous consultant from nearby. All of a sudden I started hearing the “90’s” a lot. I figured it was because we were in the 1990’s. But they were talking about something altogether different. They were looking for higher numbers than the years we were in. And they started doing things to me in the field.

They cut half of my harvest, which hurt and confused me. Seeing my fruit scattered on the ground before it had time to ripen baffled me. And when they pruned me in the winter, they tried to re-shape and re-graft me. They tried planting different varieties onto me. That was so painful, physically and psychically. I almost never recovered. If it weren’t for the grandfather lingering in the fields with me till late at night, I don’t know if I would have made it. Little did I know they were blending me with other grapes from elsewhere and putting me in those small barrels, trying to make me into something I never had intended to be. All for those numbers, those high 90’s. It was a dark time.

And in 1996 it all started rolling back in. 1997 was like the world had begun anew for them. They brought people out to the fields to visit me, take pictures, make movies. I couldn’t figure out why some many people were coming to see me. I felt terrible, what they made me do, how they’d arranged me and cut me so. But the son was joyful. He had a bright shiny new car and fancy shoes and watches. His old sweater now was multi-colored and he had more than one of them. His nails were clean and manicured. Something was going on.

And then one day, the grandfather stopped coming to see me.

A few years passed and a young woman started visiting me. She would talk to the grandfather, but he wasn’t there. She seemed kind and compassionate. I liked her. And she liked me, talking to me all the time, especially under the full moon.

We were in the new century now, and things seemed great for the family. I was vigorous in spite of the reigns they kept on me and I kept pushing out fruit from my loins. The year 2000 was like another 1997. I remember hearing the word “100” and not knowing what it signified. The owner had a another new car, four door, fancy, an SUV, from Germany. And his watches kept getting more important.

2001 followed with another success. And then 2002 and 2003 hit. The weather was strange: dry one year, hot the next, with flood and droughts, frosts and heat spikes. I was getting older and had the normal aches and pains one has at that age, but I was getting mixed messages from Nature. “Maybe this is what getting older is all about,” I would tell myself, and keep on pushing forward.

2005 to 2008 were hit and miss. I felt good about myself, but the changes above and below affected me. When you get to a certain age, you get used to change and you learn to survive. But something was being set up. Even now, the daughter was in the cellar and we had a great relationship, just like the one I had with her grandfather. The son, her father, was spending more time at his seaside home in Liguria with his watches and cars and sweaters and fame. He was spending money faster than they could make it.

Somewhere around 2009 I noticed an abrupt halt. The father sold the property, but the daughter stayed on to make wine for a time. She was also a survivor. She felt she had an obligation to her grandfather and the land (and hopefully, me) and the tradition to stay on. The father had spent his way into a corner and it was either bring in the new people or fold it up.

And this is where we stand. All my life I have done no more than give my all. My owners sometimes were wise, sometimes capricious. But in 2009 the world collided and that was the beginning of the end for me.

I don’t know how many more moonlight nights there will be for me and the winemaker. Sometimes she weeps gently. I feel so bad for her. But I know it is only a matter of time before I will no longer be. My cousins in the South, some of them have lived for hundreds of years and no one has any intention of pulling them up. I wish I could move to Etna, but that would be wrong too. I’m not the right type. Still, I’m not ready to go. I may be old-vine but I’m a hard worker and I have deep roots.

None the less, I have been told to prepare, to make way for the new vines. 2013 will be my last harvest, my last fruiting, the last time I will see the spring, the summer and the autumn. I will never see another winter, no more snow or fog. This will be the end of my life. But if I’m going out, I’m going to go out with a bang. You see, I’ve known for some time this was coming and I’ve been storing up energy for one last great vintage. I’ll be long gone by the time the wine is declared the wine of the year, or maybe the century. The new owners and their experts might think they can recreate me on their spread sheets, but they don’t know what the old vines know. Science will never replace the workings of an old soul.

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