The Call

It is summer 2003. I am sitting at my desk in my office in my laboratory in Davis, CA working on a computer program when my wife Laurie calls on the phone from Oregon. She has spent the morning on a tour with a realtor in Yamhill County. ‘I just saw a piece of property. It’s really pretty, but it’s way bigger and way more money than we have been talking about. 80 acres’, she says. ‘Do you want to see it when you come up on Thursday?’ ‘Sure’, I reply cheerily, but kind of half-listening.

We have been looking at rural property in the Willamette Valley, Oregon for a few years now. It’s nothing serious, just kind of a fun diversion for the two of us when we go up to visit Laurie’s folks in Salem. Grammy and Grandpa Bob keep an eye on our four kids while we sneak out for a ‘date’ and muse about moving away from it all someday. The kids know what we are doing, and they are actually OK with the concept of moving ‘someday’. But we don’t bring them on these little excursions. No need to subject them to an emotional roller-coaster while we search in vain for ‘the grail’. Besides, we don’t need any additional opinions.

The Willamette Valley is where Laurie grew up, and I know she loves this area. I admit it is very pretty, but I grew up in Sonoma County wine country. Its rolling hills dotted with majestic oaks and slopes adorned in golden, dried grasses waving under blue summer skies is my idea of paradise. Fortunately for me, we haven’t found any property in Oregon that wasn’t ‘weird’ in some way. There was the forested property on a north sloping hill where we would never have any direct sunshine. There was the 5-acre Christmas tree farm with an odd house. We have never had to seriously consider giving up good jobs and our comfortable life in a friendly, safe town where all our friends live.

It’s three days later and we have a morning appointment to see the ‘way too big, way more money’ property. Laurie and I are in a white Chevy Suburban driven by Dave the Realtor and we have just pulled onto a gravel road with a closed black metal gate. The gate is sturdy and utilitarian except for some decorative metal dogwood flowers that are part of the design. My mental ‘weird list’ gets its first entry. But weird is good. Weird means we don’t have to move. There is a short length of white vinyl fencing next to the weird gate. There is nothing written on the fence but to me it might as well say ‘I’m cheap And fake.’ In front of the vinyl fence, an 8 foot tall sign tells us where we are. The top of the sign is a tasteful wood carving of a sunburst and fir trees and the words ‘PAL Ranch’. Below that, in large black and white letters: “PEOPLE, ANIMALS, LOVE”. The line below that, in equally large letters: ‘BULLS, HEIFERS, SEMEN’.

I am feeling relieved that we will not be moving from Davis any time soon and we haven’t even gotten through the front gate yet. Dave punches in the gate code, the flowery gate opens, and we proceed up the gently sloping road. In a hundred yards, the view expands. Rolling hills rise to our right and left, covered with golden-dry grasses. And scattered majestically on the slopes are the biggest oak trees I have ever seen. Two days later, we have a picnic under the prettiest oak. All six of us.

2020 Vintage Report

Vintage 2020

By mid-summer 2020, we could see that the vintage had potential for amazing quality. The grapes were small and the clusters were loose, resulting in low yields, a higher skin to juice ratio, and excellent sun exposure on each grape. Summer temperatures were close to ideal, with very few heat spikes, which kept the acids and aromas robust. By the end of August, we believed the 2020 vintage would rival or surpass the 2012 vintage in terms of acclaim.

Fire & Rain

Then around Labor Day, many parts of Oregon caught fire. Unusually big winds whipped those fires into devastating infernos that displaced many people, damaged forests and leveled small towns. Some fires were near the Willamette Valley wine country, but at our vineyard we had only a light layer of smoke. Still, we needed to determine if the grapes were affected by the smoke, so we made a mini test batch of wine called a ‘micro-ferment’. The results: our grapes had a noticeable ash flavor.

Eventually, some wonderfully refreshing rains came and banished the smoke from the sky. The rains seemed to have washed some of the soot off the grapes, because when we made another micro-ferment, it tasted much better. This was encouraging, but we wondered if the rains had washed off ALL the soot. So we made two more micro-ferments. One, we rinsed the grapes with water. The other, we did not rinse. Though not dramatic, the difference was noticeable. So for the 2020 harvest, we rinsed every lug of grapes.

The Pandemic and Harvest

Because of COVID-19, we had already planned to change our harvest process. Instead of crews of 12 picking grapes in the vineyard, and crews of 6 sorting grapes in the winery, we decided to do the entire harvest ourselves! Joel and our son Jason picked grapes for 14 days, with help from our son Adam and a few friends. Low yields and low cluster weight made the picking slow, but we were very selective, and were able to avoid sorting the grapes in the winery. We picked the grapes into stackable, slotted, yellow boxes which, it turned out, made them easy to rinse. At the end of each day, we dumped the rinsed grapes directly into the de-stemmer. We were very thankful that Jason was available to help, and that we could spend a couple of gorgeous Oregon October weeks together to bring in the 2020 vintage. Soon Jason will be off on new adventures in life and we will be left with fond memories of a crazy harvest and a tear in our eye.

Vintage 2020 Reprise

The fermentations are complete and the wines are in barrel. We are cautiously optimistic that we saved our 2020 vintage from catastrophe because the wines taste great! With such low yields, we will be making only
220 cases, but we think this vintage will deliver on its initial potential.

Grapes and Heat

We are going though our first major heat wave of the summer, with triple-digit temperatures for 3 or 4 days in a row. I haven’t found very many Oregonians who like heat waves, but the discomfort does give us something to talk about.
I very much appreciate people’s concern about how the grapes are doing in these conditions, so thank you to all who ask. But you can rest easy knowing that grapevines are really tough. They go into a kind of low-activity mode as a response to excessive heat. They don’t grow new tissue, and they don’t work on ripening the crop. I can totally relate.
This little delay will affect the harvest schedule, but we had such ideal weather in July that I’m not worried about it. Ask me in late September though.
One problem caused by these heat waves is sunburn on the clusters. It usually shows up on the west side of the vines where the still-green grape berries are exposed to afternoon sun. Once sun-burnt, the berries shrivel up and turn brown and crispy. Kind of like a cross between Raisins and Grape Nuts cereal. Unfortunately, they stay attached to the cluster so we have to sort them out in the winery. We will know soon how much sunburn happened.
One of the vine management practices commonly used in Oregon is ‘leaf pulling’, whereby leaves are removed from the area where the grape clusters are hanging. Most farmers only remove leaves on the east side of the vine, because the west side needs the leaves for sun burn protection.
Sun burn problems show up in less-vigorous clones. For example, we get virtually no sun burn in the huge jungley Pommard vines, but have to worry about the 777 vines because they have less foliage.
There is one good thing to say about heat waves: they kill Powdery Mildew. Grapes are very susceptible to infection with Powdery Mildew. All grape farmers spray during the growing season to control this fungus, but it is nearly impossible to have complete spray coverage, so we always have a little of it somewhere in the vineyard. When mildew gets into green clusters, they are pretty much ruined. But Powdery Mildew dies above 95 degrees F. It only takes 15 minutes above 95 to die, though. So the perfect heat wave would be 16 minutes long.

My Name is Dirt

Mid 1970’s, somewhere in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I am a kid on my first family backpacking trip. And I don’t know some basic common sense things, like how far from the campfire is a good distance for bedding down for the night. I figured closer to the fire is warmer, and warmer is good. Although I don’t remember much about that night, I do recall that the next morning, my filthy charcoaly face was the main source of entertainment for my co-campers. That was the morning I got the nickname ‘Dirt’.
Thankfully, there are not many who remember the episode, and the nickname did not stick. But oddly enough, it is a good name for me. Looking back on my whole life, I have always had some connection with dirt.
To my mother’s consternation, from the time I was 7 or 8 my favorite toy was a shovel. Why build a fort when you can dig one? Fish ponds are cool. You wanted one there next to the big pine tree, right Dad? How about building a subway under the playhouse? My imagination was way ahead of my engineering sensibilities. And it usually involved excavation.
After college, I spent 20 years in the analytical chemistry business. We tested environmental samples. Air, water, and….soil.
And in 2004, my ultimate dream project came along. 81 acres of land near McMinnville, Oregon with NO IMPROVEMENTS on it. 2000 feet of trenching to bring in electrical service? Yay! The fire department wants a 30000 gallon fire protection reservoir? I can go bigger than that! 9000 grapevines to plant? Bring it on, baby!
Although I don’t use the shovel as much as when I was 7, I do get the same thrill out of working a backhoe or the skid-steer. And I have dreams for even bigger holes in the ground. Weird, huh?