Monday, May 25, 2020

Wall of Sorrow


As we approach the 60th anniversary of its construction, a novel's narrator reflects on the Berlin Wall, excerpted with permission from About That Wine I Gave You
       In 1987, President Ronald Reagan traveled to Germany’s largest city still very much divided by the still very real Cold War and declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall,” referring to the notorious Berlin Wall erected in 1961. President Reagan went on to predict, "This wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom." The exact number of people killed crossing from communist East Germany to a better life in capitalist West Germany during its twenty-eight year history is unknown. A memorial at the site lists 140 victims, while statistics gathered at Checkpoint Charlie, the U.S. controlled border outpost where I served, put the total higher.
       In the early 1980s as a peace movement gathered momentum in West Germany, I decided to return. You may not regard Berlin an ideal vacation spot, but I enjoyed the night life when I was in the Army and wanted to go back to find an acquaintance. When I walked from West Berlin through Checkpoint C to the other side in March 1982, it was like Alice walking through the mirror into another world, as stark and contrasting a border crossing as Hong Kong to Shenzhen, Kansas to Oz, San Diego to Tijuana. East Berlin was dark, gray, and subdued compared to the bustle and brightness of West Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm  – and though I spotted some good-looking food, packaged goods, and delicacies displayed behind a few glass windows in the East, such luxuries were out of reach of most citizens behind the Iron Curtain.
       I explored East Berlin, ventured into a bar and drank beer with punks dressed in black leather jackets, one with a purple mohawk, then went to a theater to see a play I couldn’t understand. After the performance, I spoke with some members of the audience. Younger people were eager to talk with an American and here I was, people-to-people with East Germans who were “the enemy,” members of the Warsaw Pact controlled by the Soviet Evil Empire. It was surreal. The conversations were open and you could sense their humanity, but mostly their hopelessness of a future without promise.
       After my hardship tour in Vietnam, I was posted to West Berlin where I met an East German soldier my age on the other side. I saw him a couple of times; we exchanged greetings and cautiously extended our conversations. I assumed he was a spy trying to entrap me, but, after several encounters, I could tell he was just a regular guy. One night, he told me he needed to get to our side to see his deathly-ill mother who had fled to the West before the wall was built. He asked me to switch uniforms. I almost can’t believe this happened and wonder what the hell I was thinking but I loaned him my uniform and stayed in his family’s apartment and joined them for stew and bread while Hans visited his mother. I remember the bread was good, thick, sour. His family was like any family back home. We were prepared to fight them, and Berlin was ground zero for the Third World War. We were enemies on paper, but they were just people. When Hans returned a few hours later, he gave me his Lugar as a souvenir and I kept it, using it now to manage the surplus squirrel population.
       Hans, of course, was against East Germany’s government and despised the secret police – he knew life on the other side was better – but what could he do to voice opposition? There was no Friedensbewegung peace protest, no March on Wall Street by East Germany’s 99% against the accumulation of wealth and privilege by the 1% communist party elites. For Hans, the dream of America – called Beautiful Country (Mei Guo) by the Chinese and El Dorado by the Spanish where streets were paved with gold – appealed to people on his side.
      Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
       Each year, more people in search of a better life die crossing the U.S. border with Mexico than during the entire existence of the Berlin Wall. The U.S. Government tightened our southern border after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and since, more people have died crossing into the U.S. from Mexico than perished in the Twin Towers. Don’t even get me started about Europe’s refugee crisis in the mid-2010s. Desperate people will do anything for a chance at a better life. Nature abhors a vacuum and people are drawn to America like ants to fresh grape juice – even if it means getting sucked up into the hose of a vacuum, the same consequences faced by migrants caught in the whirlwind.
        The human carnage along San Diego County’s southern border caused no loss of sleep for Joe the Wino who said illegals have it coming to them. He was all for steps to tighten border security around San Diego, shifting the flow of illegal immigrants from the city into the isolated, harsh desert. And, he put his money where his mouth was funding the local Minute Men, a citizens’ militia that took protecting our border into we the people’s hands since the god-damned government wasn’t keeping illegals out. It was the same with his vineyard. He had a right to defend his grapes and erected a barrier of nets around his vines to protect them. If some birds perished trying to sneak through, that was tough luck. They had it coming, stupid birds. Same with Mexicans, if they’re stupid enough to come here.
       Of course, Joe was the largest employer of illegals in the neighborhood – I still chuckle remembering when Obama called him out during the Wine Summit. Joe’s estate employs a cook, a cleaner, a driver and on any given day he might have three of Miguel’s guys working outside caring for his vineyard, orchard, grove, and garden. He didn’t ask for their Green Cards and didn’t tell.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

The Moral Equivalent of Hazardous Front Line Work

Nurses can't work a three hour shift, so neither will I, wrapped in a white onesie, commonly called PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), which everyone knows, because of it. Gas mask, goggles, and rubber gloves to protect my hands, my eyes, my body from fungicide. It's the May Day holiday for celebrating organized labor, and I've never worked harder, imagining the sprayed mist is Covid-19, Wuhan Flu, Ebola. Sunglasses - to protect my retinas - pressed hard against my face by goggles, painfully pinching my nose's bridge, labored breathing marching up the hill echoing Darth Vader on a ventilator, then, moving one step at a time, cautiously, watching for the leviathan, sure enough, at the corner of the vineyard, the Valley of Death, she's there, ten rings round her rattle, "Oh!" I step back, and she rises to strike and shakes her castanets.

"I'm the wine guy who brought you the wine," I'll say to the nurses at the hospital's emergency room. "Can you spare some antivenin?"

"We've been expecting you."

Joe the Wino stopped by to trade two bottles of wine for avocados, wine I have in abundance, but food is what I need to eat and live, there being no income to buy, the noblesse oblige of  trickle down economics, but I miss Joe, he arrives when I'm on the hill, and there is no break, and I tell myself the nurses can't stop, so neither will I, and keep spraying. It's the least I can do to honor their work.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Promise and Prophecy of Green Shoots

Ten years ago in the depths of the Great Recession, I walked through the vineyard, saw the first shoots of spring, and took it as a good sign. I novelized the experience - the message as relevant today as then. I want to share this hope and good news with you. And wouldn't you know it - since our quarantine began several weeks ago, dark, cold, wet, winter has roared - but today, the sun and warm weather returned, and the vines are reaching for the sky. Best wishes to you and yours.

"In the spring of 2010, it was opening day in the vineyard when anything could happen. Buds were popping; shoots were shooting. The fragile shoots of spring will become strong in summer as sure as cars will roll off factory assembly lines, concrete foundations laid, wooden frames hammered for new houses, and store shelves stocked with inventory discerned Paul.
The dormant economy woke from its slumber and green shoots reached the first wire and Paul and the winemakers saw it first. Before the vines grow out of control, the Federal Reserve will step in and cut back irrigation to control inflation and the vineyard and economy will grow in balance.
Paul witnessed the first shoots. A new spring. A new vintage. Opening Day. All contained within the tiny bud of a dormant vine. He packaged a bottle of Petit Verdot, women’s favorite, another bottle for the messenger, and a special blend for a special recipient. And with the foolish audacity of a winemaker – isn’t making wine the operational definition of a fool? – he picked up his pen and wrote:

Dear First Lady and Mr. President,

For months, there has been nothing but dreary news in the media about the economy. No city or town has been passed over by the damage and pain. Even in our semi-rural, gentlewomen and gentlemen farmer community, we have seen neighbors’ homes foreclosed, families uprooted, shops on Main Street abandoned. I am reminded of what scripture tells us about the biblical patriarch Joseph and his dreams; he foresaw seven years of famine followed by seven years of abundance. In ancient Egypt, after seven years of drought, the rains returned and so did the crops. And from the depths of the 1932 Depression, the United States emerged to become the world’s greatest economic power. The lessons from the past speak to our time. We will rise again.
We come and go – but the land is always here, always serene. You should visit this area sometime and experience it – to park your burdens at the entrance for a day and reconnect with Nature and the Earth. In the vineyard among the vines, there are answers to all dilemmas. All things have their seasons. After midnight’s darkness, the sun will rise again. After winter’s cold, spring’s thaw will follow. We spent the cold, dark winter pruning vines, cutting back, cutting expenses as well. In winter, the vineyard is barren. Just as the sun must rise and the swallows return to Capistrano – this Recession, it too shall pass.
Yesterday in the vineyard, I came across a shoot – a green shoot – with fragile green leaves – signaling the start of spring. Then I saw another, and another. Green shoots, everywhere. Mr. President, just as there are green shoots in the vineyard, there are green shoots sprouting in the economy. The recession is ending. Growth is on the way. Stay the course and keep the faith. We are keeping hope alive.
            About that wine I gave you …The first bottle is Petit Verdot, the most fragrant wine known to womankind and dogkind – a wine made for fine ladies. It is for Michelle. The second bottle is a blend made from all the different grapes of our vineyard, some Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot and Zinfandel and Tempranillo and Grenache and Aglianico … the recipe is a little bit of this, a little bit of that. This is the Ellis Island of wines, an assembly of our leftovers, our poor, our huddled masses. Grapes yearning to be free. A melting pot. A kitchen soup. And the result? Bluey the Aussie gave it six licks, the most I’ve ever seen, and it is perhaps the best wine we’ve ever made. Just as the good Lord brought people from all over the world to this country to make America the Beautiful – we have taken grapes from each corner of our vineyard – and carboys of wines from all corners of the winery – to create this blend, which we henceforth call President’s Cuvée.
            May God bless your Presidency and the United States.

            Sincerely yours,
            Paul the Winemaker"

- Except from "About That Wine I Gave You". Please click here to learn more about the novel

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Wine for Nurses

I do not have masks.
I do not have ventilators.
I do have wine - so this is what I give, in appreciation.

Dear Maria,

I feel your fear.
Do not be afraid, for the people are with you.
We pray for you.
We hold you in our hearts.
You are our savior, our comforter, our healer.
You fear the coming battle, yet you prepare, donning your mask, your armor, to confront the foe.
Fear not - the Lord is with you!

You saw Wine for Nurses - you said, "Here I am."
You asked, and you shall receive.
Blessed are the nurses, for they are God's healing hands on earth.

About that wine I sent you ....
Harvested in 2017, ten years after the vines were planted, all our trials and tribulations in the vineyard came together at the end of the drought to produce a wine to honor you and your colleagues. A wine worthy of your mission. Sunshine in a bottle, to warm you, fortify you, relax you, calm you. Grapes from heaven, to recharge your soul, recharge your spirit, to defend you from the unseen enemy. The Lord is with you. The people are with you. Even a humble, unshaven winemaker 3,000 miles away is with you. May the wine calm you, strengthen you, protect you, bless you, and fill you with love, inner peace, and the courage to do what needs to be done. Ava, Maria.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

And Now For a Something Completely Different: Author Reading at Happy Hour

At the end of the first full week of self-isolation, an author opens a bottle of Tempranillo and reads from the director's cut of his recently released novel.  Cheers!

Monday, March 2, 2020

A Taste of San Diego Wines After Opus One

     This is not a story about competition - it's about the coming of age of San Diego grapes and wines.
     RULE: I grew up with a rule that when serving red wine during a meal, the wines should become progressively better, if different ones are served. In other words, save the best for last.
     The first time I tasted Opus One was in 2002. I was hosting Japanese business partners at Mr. Stox restaurant in Anaheim, and one of the guests saw Opus One on the menu and ordered it. I had no idea what it was, nor how much it cost, and was pleasantly surprised by the wine's taste.
     The second time I tried Opus One was two years later, again at a business dinner, and this time I ordered it, and enjoyed it greatly. The bottle went fast between two of us, and I needed to order more. Alas, I didn't have the budget for another Opus One - and ordered a good wine instead. Coming right after the Mondavi-Rothschild masterpiece, the 2nd wine didn't stand a chance - and was clearly a violation of the rule to serve progressively better wines.
     To state my tasting preferences clearly: I like Opus One; I also love "big, juicy, cabs" from Napa - rarely drinking them, because of the cost, and thoroughly enjoying them when given the opportunity. I also like our good wines (many of them have not turned out so good over the years).
     In the intervening 16 years, I've been a winemaker and winegrower. Last night, I was invited to dinner, and as a hostess gift brought an assorted cheese plate and assorted wines made from our "estate" grapes - the wines not to be served, but as a gift.
     The first wine served was a 2016 Centered cab. It was enjoyable - well aged for being relatively young (although I thought the vanilla, carmel flavors a little strong). And then came the 2010 Opus One, living up to its reputation, reminding me of a 20-year-old Chateau Lafite Rothschild I drank two years before.  Both wines were decanted 90 minutes before serving. The meal featured tomahawk steaks cooked perfectly. With six drinkers, the Opus One was soon gone, and the host said, "Let's open one of Craig's wines." See RULE above - panic time.
2018 Merleatage Bottled Early January
    The next course was steamed bass, so I chose a lighter red - our 2017 Merleatage, a blend of estate Tempranillo, Grenache, and Petite Sirah. I decanted it quickly. The musky aroma - as I feared and expected - was totally different than the Opus One. As I took the first taste, however, I thought this isn't so bad, and on the second sip realized this will work. Indeed, the wine made from San Diego grapes was NOT a downgrade from the Mondavi-Rothschild Opus One, and held its own. This is a compliment to the quality of grapes growing in San Diego.
     For dessert, the host served fresh, sweet, blackberries paired with a splendid ice wine from Canada that disappeared quickly. I had brought the hostess a bottle of our 10 year old so-called tawny Port, aged for eight years in an old barrel on our back patio in full sun and two years in the bottle. Once again, the San Diego wine - although drastically different than the ice wine - held its own, the nutty flavors pleasing the hosts and guests.
     My neighbor Coyote Karen of Coyote Oaks Winery says she started making wine because Napa wines were getting expensive and she could save money making her own. I think we're on the way to doing that, without sacrificing taste or enjoyment. Cheeers, and congratulations, San Diego.
10 Year Old Tawney "Port"

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Mount of Olives

     ..."Speaking of olive oil,” said Paul pointing to a grove of Picoline and Arbequina trees, “I call this our Mount of Olives. Bishop, you’ll appreciate we created a theological garden.”
     Paul pointed up to Golgotha and the Cross of Calvary at the summit, and beneath it, a cave symbolizing the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher. The president pulled a ripe olive from a tree and popped it into his mouth before Paul could stop him. ​“Damn, that’s the bitterest thing I’ve ever tasted,” Obama said, spitting the remains to the ground.
     ​“I was about to warn you not to eat it,” said Paul. “It needs to be cured before eating. Don’t worry, we have estate grown and cured olives on today’s menu.”

Excerpt from "About That Wine I Gave You" during the presidential Wine Summit.

Monday, February 24, 2020

First Pop of Popcorn

      "Birth, childhood, adulthood, death – the annual circle of life commences as winter’s water, nutrients, and life-force surge from the earth through the trunk to the dead-ends of cordon arms, against the dead-ends of cul-de-sac buds, and probe for an escape; and like a volcano with rising lava, pressure builds, soft lava pressing, pushing, and after pruning, there are no long canes, no branches for that flow to go and buds start to swell, imitating a pussy willow’s furry catkins, the rising dome of a sleep-walking volcano – Marine helicopters from Camp Pendleton circle above reconnoitering the growing dome – will Mount St. Helens explode again? – until the inevitable happens: one pops – the first pop of popcorn – pop, pop-pop – second and third rounds of popping as corn warms over the fire – and soon there is machine-gun popping, chainsaw weed-whacker-sputtering-engine of popping – pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-pop.
       Welcome to budbreak in the vineyard. The first shoot emerges – a lonely shoot – a pioneer – sparking a celebration among the vintners at the first sign of spring. (Beware the grasshoppers – they’re celebrating too.) The first shoots of spring– the first pops of popcorn– will give way to summer when small shoots grow into a forest.
       A new spring. A new year. A new vintage. Opening day. April Fools! This could become the best wine ever. All contained within a tiny bud of a dormant vine."

Saturday, February 22, 2020

Business Pruning

"On the either side of the hill, as Joe the Wino cut canes, he thought of pruning his company. Too much dead wood. Weed out the lower-performing 10% to make the company more vigorous. Off with their heads! If only cutting staff was as easy as vines – thank goodness I’ve got HR for that. Snip. Cut. Prune. Bend. Shape the vine. Strengthen the organization. Joe was a builder of businesses, a job creator. But the goddamned President has been a job killer bad for the country. Thank goodness his time is up next year."

Excerpt from About That Wine I Gave You

Monday, February 17, 2020

Of Oranges and Tangelos

"Each morning, Bluey walks with me up the hill where I pick an orange and peel it, his mouth salivating. He takes a slice from my hand. He loves oranges. He eats everything I hand him. Paul says you’re not supposed to have citrus trees in a vineyard, because sharpshooters roost there in winter and kill the vines. When I saw him walking up the hill with a chainsaw I shouted, “What are you doing?”  He was going to cut down our orange trees! I told him to leave the orange trees alone. They’re here for a reason. They’re tangelos, actually – a hybrid of grapefruit and tangerine – and the fruit is delicious. In winter, young tangelos taste tart, sour as lemons. But the fruit that hangs until summer is very sweet. I’ll squeeze fresh juice for breakfast and after a day in the vineyard, I’ll squeeze one into a glass then pour in a shot of our home-made tequila – it’s grape moonshine – and walk to the gazebo with Bluey and watch the sun set. The juice is so sweet, there’s no need to add triple sec and it’s a perfect home-grown Blueyrita."

- Excerpt from "Soliloquy of the Queen" in About That Wine I Gave You