Like the Vine

Consider the grapevine of the wine-producing sort. When you drive past a vineyard in a wine region, you usually notice the neat, straight rows. The vines are sometimes trellised so they stretch out along a wire, others are not, growing unsupported, depending on the variety. Vineyards always appear neat, tidy, geometrical, pristine. Sometimes you see many people in the vineyards tending to the care of the vines. It would seem that the vines needs are looked after in every respect; the soil, water, nutrients, there are fans and heaters and sprinklers and all sorts of things to keep the vines warm when it is too cold and cool when it is too warm. Many measures are taken, depending on the practices of each vintner, against pests, from tiny bugs, to birds, to deer, to passing, hungry motorists. They actually record the temperature in the different vineyards many times throughout each and every day to calculate out necessary information for optimal care of the vines. At first blush, it seems that vines are pampered much like star athletes. Some varieties of grapes come from vines that require many years of establishment before ever producing a single piece of fruit. Consider the investment involved.

I had the good fortune to take a walking tour through a vineyard this past weekend as part of a special “Earth Day” event. As we strolled along, viewing different “blocks” of vineyards, our tour guide described many of the different practices used in growing vines that produce wine grapes. I was at Hess Winery in the Mt. Veeder district of the Napa Valley, a series of steep hills with harsher soil conditions and cooler weather conditions than other wine districts in this famous region. Because Mt. Veeder is cooler than other districts, and because the soil is composed mostly of limestone, with a thin layer of topsoil over it, the vines here are in a constant “struggle”. Only certain varieties can even endure this district’s climate. And this, it was explained to us, is good. Vines that struggle will produce better fruit than those that do not. Whether a vine has to struggle to derive nutrients from the soil or to overcome a streak of unusually warm weather, the results are usually for the better, ultimately. Struggle, to a degree, is good, if you’re a grapevine.

An Effort to Evolve

I began to contemplate this some after about my third tasting, of six, following the vineyard walk. I’m glad I decided to taste wine after the walk and not before! As I thought about the vines and their struggles, I translated that to people and their struggles. Are we not very similar to grapevines? People who struggle usually grow in ways that are both unexpected and beneficial, in the long run.

It is unreasonable to expect that every growing year, for a grapevine, will be perfect. There are likely to be conditions that will cause the vine to stress out a bit and to struggle. It could be a late season frost, or an early, warmer than usual spring, a cooler fall, a colder winter, too much rain, or too little rain. No two years are ever going to be exactly alike in any wine district, in any wine region. This explains the distinct differences in wines between regions and years, or vintages.

It is also unreasonable to expect that life is always going to be a cakewalk for us. We are all going to struggle with something at some point in time. If you haven’t, brace yourself. I know, I know, I know; I’m the “positive mental attitude” and “law of attraction” preacher. And I am here to tell you, that my life was as perfect as I could imagine and going my way, 100%, for a very long time. It was pretty easy to be positive. Occasionally, I would look over my shoulder, though, because I couldn’t believe how well things were going, for so long. Not perfect, of course, I was making compromises, but things were really, really good, overall. And, even while practicing and preaching PMA and the law of attraction and even visualization, my entire world collapsed. Talk about struggle.

For quite a while, as my world completely shattered all around me, only my immediate family and my closest, closest friends knew what was happening. For everyone else, it was business as usual. Yes, I was struggling, but because I was so positive, because I believed in the law of attraction, I knew I would grow tremendously from the struggles I endured. Only occasionally did my faith waiver, only rarely did I despair, and only in private, and only for a moment. Then I set myself straight, and just went on.

As more and more of my friends and acquaintances became aware of the turmoil that had occurred, the struggles endured, by me and my kids, teenagers at the time, the more often I heard “I don’t know how you just keep going”. I didn’t know how to NOT keep going. I was driven, my kids were driven. It was just a struggle and we were going to get through it. As more and more friends found out about our situation, and looked on in awe, I realized that we had become invincible because of our struggle. We had always been tough, stoic, strong, stubborn even, the three of us. What we endured in the past several years, to some, would be a nightmare beyond fathom. Ok, it was. We lost everything. But all the while, we went about our work, school, myriad volunteer activities, we never had an excuse, we never quit, we showed up for everything, worked hard, and we excelled at everything we endeavored, we smiled, joked, laughed, lived. And we grew; better, I think, than if everything had gone perfectly as they had all those years prior. My son became an Eagle Scout, my daughter held a state office in the California International Order of Rainbow for Girls and I took on a new job that required learning pubic speaking and also required an enormous amount of travel, two things I never considered an ability prior to this “struggle”.

Our story is not unique. I’m sure, in light of the past several years of economic turmoil, you can think of a family, perhaps displaced from their home or from their jobs, who through those struggles actually found a new lease on life. Perhaps a more suitable lifestyle, perhaps the rare chance to start over with a career, to finally do something they only ever dreamed of doing. The vine bore better fruit as a result of the struggle. Of course, there are those who just sat there in despair, being the victim, languishing and desperate. Those grapes became bitter fruit because they did not respond to the struggle in an appropriate fashion.

I guarantee that no successful person in the history of the world ever made it to success without some significant struggle along the way. It is not possible to truly succeed without having struggled. The greater the success, I promise, the greater the struggle.

Do not be afraid when you are met with a situation you must struggle against; health, money, relationships. Just remember the vines, growing on the steep, limestone hillside in the Mt. Veeder district of the Napa Valley, remember that occasionally they struggle beyond just their difficult rooting in the rocky soil, in a climate cooler than the rest of the valley, where there is far less water. As a result, the fruit becomes sweeter, and the wine is divine! You will be, too. Learn to use struggle as a catalyst for growth and you will succeed, like the vine.

Welcome Home

Welcome home to your new and improved planet! Happy Earth Day! Your planet has been spruced up a little over the course of the day and the preceding weekend. Many volunteer groups around the globe have made gallant efforts to plant trees, pick up trash along trails and roadways, and to clean up creeks and streams where rubbish has been illegally dumped, among other things. The earth looks good today, far from perfect, but better.

I was running along a popular multi-use trail on Saturday, frequented by walkers, runners, cyclists, skaters, and horseback riders. On Saturday, there were numerous volunteers picking up bits of litter along the trail. It surprises me, really, that there was any litter to be picked up, because, for the most part, the users of the trail are sensitive to these issues and police their own litter fairly well. Somehow, though, the volunteers had bags full of bits of litter. As we passed them we thanked them, each and every one of them, for their contribution. I found a Snickers bar wrapper and picked it up, while running, and tossed in the trash when I passed a can. Grin.

On Sunday, I “celebrated” Earth Day by taking part in a vineyard walk at a local winery, The Hess Winery, in the Mt. Veeder wine district, one of five wine districts here. I live in Napa, right between the Carneros wine district and the Mt. Veeder wine district, to be exact. So there are lots of local wineries, but Hess Winery is probably the most local. As a crow flies, less than a couple miles from my house, perched on a steep hill that people around here call a mountain. Until recently, I’ve been living a bit closer to the Sierras, so I consider mountains far larger, but that’s aside from the point.

I grew up here, in this house, in this town, at the foot of this hill, er, mountain. Near the top of the mountain has been a winery for over a hundred years. It produced wine in the late 1800’s for many years, until prohibition. The owner was busted for bootlegging during that period and was forced to sell the winery, as a result. Wineries weren’t very salable during prohibition, as you can well understand. There was a group of folks that were able to produce wine, during prohibition, with impunity. The Catholics. So, a Catholic priest bought this winery for a hell of a price. Pardon the vernacular, I couldn’t resist.

You may recall Christian Brother’s wines. The name still exists, but the Christian Brothers themselves sold their winemaking interests, with the name, in the late 1970’s. Their history as winemakers, initially, was for sacramental wine. Later, they expanded and made wine to help fund their Catholic educational system, with many schools and universities throughout California. The winery on the mountain behind my house was called Mount LaSalle.

Mount LaSalle
Mount LaSalle

Mount LaSalle was, among other things, a school for priests, who were to be teachers at the Christian Brother’s schools and universities throughout the state. And every day, for my entire childhood, you could hear the chapel bell ring. For as long as I can remember, Brother Timothy was in charge up there. He passed away at the age of 94 in 2004. He lived a grand, long life. I’m thinking it had something to do with the red wine! I don’t think I ever met him, personally, but I knew of him. People still drop his name around here quite a bit. My dad had a bicycle store when I was a kid. One company, Campagnolo, that made very high end, precision derailleurs for bicycles also made a beautiful, large corkscrew. Back in the 1970’s, this thing retailed for over $100. My dad gave one to Brother Timothy. I’m not sure why. My dad was not a practicing Catholic. It must have had something to do with the wine. My dad was a practicing wine drinker. Brother Timothy wrote my dad a wonderful thank you note that I’d love to see right about now. Mom shredded it in a clutter busting frenzy about a month ago. She busted the wrong clutter. Damn. A missed opportunity.

Campagnolo BIG corkscrew
Campagnolo BIG corkscrew

I have other memories of this fantastic property that my Earth Day stroll brought back to vivid life. My dear, dear childhood friend lived at the top of a neighboring mountain, on Partrick Road. Our other dear friend lived not too far from the Christian Brother’s Mount LaSalle winery at the top of Redwood Road. The quickest way from the top of Partrick Road to the top of Redwood Road was by pony, at full gallop, right past the old cemetery where we used to ride at night to sit on the graves and tell spooky stories, right through the dense woods where, yes, redwood trees grow, right across several private parcels, right past the neat rows of vines, right past the Catholic boarding school for boys, and I swear to you, like a good Catholic, I didn’t know there was a boarding school for Catholic boys there, ever, until the tour yesterday. Talk about missed opportunities!

I was at a book launch party the evening before at an art gallery on the other side of town. There I had the chance to visit with many folks, some I knew, and some were new. One young man, I’ll rephrase that a little, one younger man than myself, the son of the neighbor who has lived next door for many, many years. I babysat him when he was in diapers. He is probably approaching forty now. I don’t think I’ve seen him since he needed his cloth diaper changed. And I’d never changed one before. Luckily, neither of us remembers the details of that event! We did chat a little and I mentioned the Earth Day Vineyard walk because I thought he and his wife might be interested. He shared his stories of riding his mountain bike through those very same woods. That winery, that property, has been a very large part of a lot of childhood memories around here! It was so awesome to be standing on the edge of those woods, by some of the very same vines, really, and listening to stories of the history of the Christian Brothers, of Mount LaSalle, of the vineyard, and of what’s become of it.

The Christian Brothers still own the property and operate a school for priests who will teach at the schools throughout the state. There is also a home for retired priests who have taught in the past. And some administrative offices, as well. The vineyards are still there, but have been leased by a Swiss business family, the Hess Family.

The Hess Winery grows all of their grapes sustainably. We toured several “blocks” and saw the different ways the grapes were trellised, pruned, plowed, or not, all in the best interest of the mountain, then in the best interest of the grapes. They respect the wildlife and let nature take care of her own. Yes, deer do eat the tender shoots on the vines, but the four breeding pairs of local mountain lions are left alone and, in turn, take care of the deer. The winery owns 1,000 acres on the mountain, in addition to what they lease, and only 340 of those acres are planted. The remainder of the land, steep and rugged canyon land, is managed for fire by goats. The goats are managed by flock guardian dogs, who keep the mountain lions on a strictly deer diet. It was a fascinating hour stroll through the vineyards around the Christian Brothers chapel.

I haven’t heard the bells ring since I’ve moved back. My mom hasn’t heard them for years, but probably wouldn’t. First, she is a bit hard of hearing these days, second, and possibly the cause of some of her hearing loss, the TV is usually on at full volume, and often, so is one of her four vacuums. Like now. I asked about the chapel bells, and yes, they are rung every Sunday, just before mass. Next Sunday, I plan to take my breakfast on the deck and listen for them.

It was heartwarming to have the unique opportunity to take this tour, as it is not offered regularly to the public. It was even more heartwarming to learn that this is one of several winemakers thinking of Earth first in their production, with their sustainable practices. The tastings I enjoyed after our stroll were fantastic, as was the modern art collection housed within the winery building. They now have a loyal customer in me.

That brings me to the point of my article. Once a year we celebrate Earth Day, but really, isn’t every day earth day? Only once a year we make an effort to pick up trash or haul rubbish out of a creek? This, I think, should be a constant practice. We have much to be grateful for, abundant resources and the beauty of nature. We should show our gratitude by doing, everyday, something, however small, something to help keep our planet more pristine and to conserve precious resources. There are so many ways we can incorporate something meaningful into our daily routine. Walk instead of drive, reduce, reuse, recycle. Look for companies that make sustainability a priority, support them, even if their products cost a few pennies more. The price, at a few pennies more, is far less than what the net effect of the impact of businesses not practicing sustainability will cause. A few pennies more now, or thousands and thousands, probably in tax dollars, for massive, corrective actions ordained by Congress in the future. This is as close to paying it forward as you can come as a consumer. Every little thing we can do does make an impact, however insignificant it may seem. I buy from companies who practice sustainability every opportunity I can. I vote with my pennies. I also like to pick up trash. Everywhere. Everyday. If I see something on the ground, I just pick it up and put it where it belongs. If everyone on the planet picked up one stray piece of trash every day, can you imagine the impact? I’ve been a Girl Scout leader and a Boy Scout leader for a decade and a half. Everywhere I took those kids, from kindergarten through high school and on into college, every outing, every meeting, we found some way to leave places better than we found them. That is the challenge for the generations that live on Earth today. We are going to have to find a way to leave things better than we found them, for the sake of our children, our grandchildren, their children, and their grandchildren. Let’s make everyday Earth Day! Let’s leave this place better than we found it, kids!