Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Gopher Wars Episode III: The Diamond Backs Strike

We filmed the second episode of Survivor: Wino's Vineyard Edition at Phantom Vineyard in Fallbrook on Saturday and I was able to win immunity from being voted off the vineyard by staying late to string the last irrigation wires and clean up. (As one of the real winemakers of the group it was my duty to stay until the work's done. That's just the code of honor among winemakers around here.) Of course that also earned me generous samples of Jeff's wine as we sipped his first Petit Sirah made from 3-year old vines and it tasted great for such young vines. And then for fun he opened up a bottle of Aglianico from Trader Joe's. Both Jeff and I are planting Aglianico vines this Spring (we already have about 180 in the ground) and Trader Joe's $6 bottle wasn't bad but by the grace of God we hope ours will be five times better and worth $30 so I can pay off the line of credit which the bank said is now due next week.

By the time I returned to Blue-Merle Vineyard I was feeling pretty good and even better after inspecting the traps Bluey and I had set that morning by the border of the Crazy Lady's property where the gophers had infiltrated in a coordinated counter offensive trying to outflank our defenses and there he was, the infiltrator, ally of the Crazy Lady, dead in his tracks.

This is the first time you've read about the Crazy Lady in this narrative and when you live in the country every community has one. She's the person who drinks more than you and staggers up to your house yelling she's against a winery in the neighborhood because it will attract too many drunks. There's an old proverb about letting dogs and crazy ladies lie and I believe it which has limited our ability to launch a preemptive strike against the gophers and the squirrels on her side of the demilitarized zone, providing them a safe haven to wax strong and borrow their Ho Chi Min trails and supply lines onto our property and invade, when we may need her approval for our winery permits in the future.

Bluey and I started the climb to the Top of the Hill to inspect what was going on back up there. Since Spring had begun and the weather was warmer and we were almost ambushed by a an unhibernating snake the week before I've been extra vigilant when walking the paths and always carry a shovel, my weapon of choice. A vineyardner in these parts without a shovel is like a marine without his rifle and I remembered my lesson from last Fall when I was unarmed and helpless as the serpent in this Garden of Eden slithered by my feet.

As I walked the path lightning struck again at the same place (it's not supposed to do that!) and my jaw dropped in disbelief as another snake appeared at the same location as the week before. Fortunately, Bluey had taken the high road through the fruit orchard or would have walked right upon his mortal enemy as I almost did (especially after a few glasses of wine). After positive identification of the viper's pointed head I dispatched the Diamondback, and hurried to cover up the evidence as the Queen ascended the mountain. Is it cheating on your wife to hide from her the fact you just killed a snake? Or, in her case is ignorance bliss? One rattlesnake on a path is a coincidence but two in one week is a conspiracy and it's clear that the gophers and the snakes have entered an unholy alliance against us.

I checked in with Ms. Connie (our ally in Texas) to see if she was alright because the enemy has proven it's ability to mount coordinated attacks on our various operations. As we have neighbors close by we rely on the shovel, to avoid the risk of stray bullets wounding innocent bystanders whereas Ms. Connie's security is provided by Smith and Wesson. It's not for nothing they used to call her "Hot Pistol Pants."

"Connie, we're under attack. Are you alright?" She sounded a bit shaken with a tint of slurred speech. "What happened?"

"I couldn't get a good shot at the coral snake on my driveway so I resorted to the old fashioned hoe for the slaughter. Then I went inside, popped open a cold beer, and patted myself on the back," she said. That was a relief and I thought of giving her a pat on the back the next time we met then thought maybe that's not a good idea cause she might shoot me. She continued, "I went back outside with a camera to take a picture for Winemaker's Journal - and there was a second coral snake, hosting a wake for her partner. It too fell under the swift and deadly hoe attack."

"Sounds like you need another beer."

"A bottle of your wine would be better. When's the next shipment?"

"The Bishop is coming on Sunday and I need to pack up three cases for the Diocese. I'll get you some more after I take care of him."

"Well, hurry up, will you. Besides, you've got quite a following down here asking for more. I tell you, getting close enough to a snake to use a hoe is not what I call fun, and I wouldn't put up for it except I like your wine. They used to call me 'Hot Pistol Pants'. I now have bird shot for my Smith and Wesson. I do hope the snakes around have heard of my reputation and the new box of 22 long rifle bird shot, and they go find another yard to lounge in this year. "

"Connie, you'll be fine. Thanks for defending the Blue-Merle. Remember the Alamo and don't forget what the gophers did to our last, remaining 25-year old kiwi plant. Somebody has to pay."

"Well you be on the lookout for slithering companions," she said, then warned: "I have heard hunters say that snakes can 'smell' or perhaps 'sense' where another snake was killed and will go to that spot. Not sure if that has merit - but I have seen hunters kill a snake and toss it far away. What did you do with yours?"

"Now you tell me. I just threw it over the fence. I guess its relatives will be back soon, right?" I thought for a moment and announced: "I've got an idea...."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Survivor Wino's Edition: Episode I: Installing The Trellis System

There is a code of honor among wineries to assist your neighbors with their crush if you’re finished and they’re not. You’d think there would be competition but the best winemaking regions are those where there is cooperation. So when your neighbor puts out the call for help to install her vineyard, you go. That’s just what you do. (And that’s just the way we’d like to keep it in Blue-Merle Country, thank you.)

Jeff from Fallbrook (a little country town 20 miles up the road) put out the call and we went, joined by the Vineyard Management Class taught by Peter Anderson and Jim Hart who teach vineyard management and winemaking at Mira Costa Community College. This was a so-called “lab” for the “college students” but by the end of it when Jeff generously brought out his 2005, 2006, 2007 Brunellos for a little side-by-side tasting it was beginning to feel like Spring Break and "Survivor: Vineyard Edition for Winos" and I wasn’t feeling much like writing a lab report. Pete probably knows more about viticulture than anyone else in San Diego and Jim is a member of the Hart Family which owns Hart Family Winery in Temecula. Jim is also the Cellar Master for the up and coming Milagro Farm Vineyards & Winery in Ramona, a 100-acre estate worth the trip.

This is what I remember from the “Spring Break” excursion as my notebook only contains 20 words. (I did take 20 pictures, but the video is still in editing as we negotiate the broadcast rights and royalties with CBS for our inaugural season).

There’s more than one way to plant a vineyard. When you ask Pete about what’s the best way to do this? and what’s the best way to do that? his answer is predictably, “It depends.” (We kid him about that answer.) Jeff planted the first part of his vineyard 3 years ago and he’s on 4th leaf and he’s got his first estate wine stored in a breathable “flex tank” in his winery. He’s used rebar metal poles to stake the vines. (I’ve seen that at some other vineyards. Rebar is strong and works well.) He’s used different kinds of end posts. Some are metal. Some are thick wood (with wire hole bored through the wood). He’s decided to install his posts straight (I suspect he may need anchors in the future.) We will be adding another 8 rows on 1/8th acre. He’s decided on 8 ft. row spacing on two rows and 6ft. row spacing on the remainder. (If I were planting a home vineyard I would make my row spacing wider than 6ft.) We take turns using a handheld, gas-powered auger to drill straight down 2ft. (If it were my place, I would have drilled in at an angle and tried to go 3 ft., manually digging out the last foot.)

The poles were set by adding gravel and water and tamping dirt back in. No concrete was used. This saved money and Jeff said the clay will set hard. (I have seen several poles at Coyote Karen’s put in straight bend already after three years. At the Blue-Merle we used two bags of concrete per post.) After setting the posts, the team measured out the location for metal guide posts. These were forced into the ground with a “post pounder” by the tall team members. The metal stakes Jeff used were narrow enough so the post pounder fit. (Ours stakes were wider and we couldn’t use the post pounder. When we started to drive our metal stakes into the ground with a sledge hammer, the tops bent. So, we spent much [wasted?] time digging holes for the metal posts at our place.) This was “Habitat for Humanity for Winos” and “Survivor for Winos” rolled into one morning session. Instant vineyard.

We had made much progress and next the team took on irrigation. We dug by shovel a trench 18” deep for the schedule 40 PVC pipe. The pipe cutter didn’t function properly, so one member of the team had an ingenious suggestion: he took a piece of nylon; tied it to two small pieces of pipe which he took in his hand; placed the nylon under the pipe and started pulling, slowly at first, and then once it caught, more rapidly, back and forth as if he were building a fire from sticks. He cut right through the pipe with an elegant Hawaiian cross-over maneuver at the end and I knew I was going to vote to keep him on the vineyard. The rest of us wanted to give that a try so we took turns cutting the pipe and gluing in the T’s and then plugging manifold hose into the T’s which would then be connected to drip line. (I liked the way Jeff used the manifold hose – we spent much [wasted?] time fashioning pressure regulators and cut off valves on each row – the advantage: even pressure at each row and ability to cut off water at each row.)

Just before noon, our work finished for the day, Jeff took us on a tour of his winery and I was impressed and inspired. He had set up a place beneath his house that was wonderful. He had installed a cooling unit (it gets hot in Fallbrook, CA in the summer!) and wine racks to store bottles. He grabbed one of the eight remaining bottles of the first wine he had ever made and we went upstairs for a taste. Everyone had worked hard and earned immunity and deserved a sip of Jeff’s labor. With Jeff sharing his wine so generously he earned my vote to keep him on the show for another week. The survivors will gather again at Jeff’s place this Saturday to plant the vines and finish the job and hold their tribal council. Tune in next week to see what happens and to take the Wino's Survivor Quiz to see if you've got what it takes to appear in a future episode.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Pruning Primer

There have been a few distractions these winter months highlighted by the Winos’ Inaugural Ball, the Gopher Wars, running into the Law in Texas and numerous wine tastings for vineyardistas. Concurrently, silently, the vines have been storing water and nutrients and pushing this life force fluid up their trunks and out their cordon arms bursting buds and sending forth new shoots. Spring is here and it’s back to the vineyard.

We started pruning on the last Saturday in January and finished
on Saturday February 14th, Valentine’s Day, and I gave the Queen who runs this place and who did her fair share of the pruning (which required my fair share of redoing) a bouquet of “cuttings” – grape stick canes which placed into the ground will sprout new vines if given a little water. And a little water we had. As we pruned, winter returned and we were hailed on, sleeted on, rained on and I had not been this wet since I was a student at the University of Washington in Seattle and biked to school. The wines were quite happy and you could see them swell before your eyes and when you cut with the shears tears flowed through the xylem dripping on the vine, the ground and coagulating around the wound. The ground was wet and we dug holes and placed Nova Vines dormant, bench grafted Tempranillo on 101-14 root stock into the wet clay, planting each one carefully as a rose, first building a mound under the roots, then spreading the roots. I miscalculated the number of vines needed and we thrust a few of the hard cuttings straight into mother earth. (It will be interesting to see which grows better – the cuttings or the grafted vines on rootstock. Phylloxera is not a problem here so cuttings may have their advantage, unless you’re trying to inhibit vigor of a vigorous vine. However, vineyard consultant Frank Bons has observed some vines on their natural root stock cannot handle stress as well as grafted vines.) I made a couple of clay mud pies– which I hadn’t done since I was a kid in North Carolina—and sculpted smooth, red berms around the rims of the holes.

We in Southern California have finished our pruning while you in the wintry north may still face the task. We made many mistakes our first year pruning, which we avoided this year. Fortunately, vines are almost as forgiving as a Saint and survived our mistakes.

Pruning is one of the most important activities in the vineyard … you are making decisions which will impact your yield and also maintenance. How many buds to leave? How much space to leave between spurs? Do I need to replace this cordon? Which canes to keep? And, in the case of new vines (which we have at the Blue-Merle Vineyard) you are making decisions about the shape and structure of the vine. As one of the missions of Winemaker’s Journal is to openly share my mistakes so you may avoid them, the rest of this is intended for the would-be grape grower. (Besides, Joe the Wino is on vacation in Cabo San Lucas so there's nothing interesting to write about him this week. Next week, Joe and the Cast will be back for the premier of Survivor: Vineyard Edition.)

The most important thing to remember about pruning vines is that next year’s grapes come from last year’s new shoots.

Pruning: End of
First Year

There are three common scenarios you will face when pruning vines during the winter after the first year when developing a cordon system:

1) Cutting the vine back to two buds (from the bottom). In effect, starting over. Doing this ensures a very strong trunk the next year, and therefore, a healthy vine.

2) Bending the vine over, if you have a single-arm cordon system, and cutting the arm at the beginning of the next vine. (We have several hundred vines on 3-ft. spacing with single arm cordons). This should on
ly be done when:

The trunk is strong
The arm is at least as thick as a pencil
The bending of the vine can take place at the end of the growing season, if the vine has reached beyond the top of the trellis system and can be bent over without breaking. (Note, new shoots can be fragile, which you’ll find out very quickly after you’ve broken a few!)

Topping the vine just below the cordon wire to encourage growth of two arms (or one arm if you have a “one arm” cordon system). Be sure and top "below" the wire, which makes it easier to train the shoots which will become the cordon.

An unlikely scenario is that you have a vigorous vine which has grown so much, and by chance, there are two strong sho
ots going in opposite direction to make a cordon. (This occurred about 7% of the time with our vines which had vigorous root stocks.) So, we kept what nature had given us. (Check in next year to see what happened.)

In th
e case of “head pruning”, what you do the first year depends on your objectives. You may cut back to two buds if growth has not been vigorous. If you’ve had good growth, you may decide to cut back to the level of the base height you desire for the vine. For example, 2 ft. or 3ft. off of the ground, depending on your objectives.

Common Mistakes for the Novice:

* Not cutting back to two buds when there has not been enough growth.

* Not topping the vine at the top, in a feeble attempt to make a cordon when there has not been enough growth.

* Pruning the vine “above” the cordon wire instead of below. (It’s easier to form a cordon when the shoots are coming up from below. We broke many shoots a year ago when trying to form a cordon because we pruned above the wire. Ouch!)

*Bending over the vines during the summer of the first year in a bi-lateral cordon system, resulting in strong growth on one cordon arm and a very weak other arm. (You will end up cutting off the weak a
rm anyhow, so save yourself the trouble by topping the vine when pruning the first year.)

Helpful hints:

When pruning the end of a vine, cut it through the node (to prevent growth).

When bending a cane (a cane is a one year old shoot which doesn’t have “wood” on it), take both hands and place them by the point of the bend to gently “crack” the cane between the nodes. This will avoid breaking the cane when bending it.

If you need to propagate a new vine, you can bend a shoot over into the ground to start a new vine (as opposed to planting a baby vine in case a new one is unavailable).

Seeding a “cover crop” between rows is recommended.

Pruning 2nd Year Vines

If starting the year from two buds, refer to end of first year above.

If starting the year with a single trunk at the top of the wire then you may be:

Selecting the best cordon, from two or more possibilities.

Pruning “bull canes”

Creating some “spurs”

Where there has not been enough growth for a spur, pruning back to single buds along the cordon wire.

Where you have “wood” from first year growth:

Creating “spurs”

Leaving “spurs” at the desired distance

In the case of head pruning, this would be similar to pruning a rose bush – but leaving buds so grapes may be harvested in year three.

Cane Pruning is a technique where there is not a permanent cordon – you bend down a renewal cane each year on the fruiting wire to bear fruit.

At the Blue-Merle Vineyard there were approximately 900 2nd year vines and 250 first year vines to prune. When pruning, we sterilized our pruning shears after each vine in a mixture of Clorox and water.

To save time, we left the cuttings in the trellis system, allowing us to move more quickly between vines. Because of the warm winter we had, there was much fluid in the vines, which “bled” after we cut them, in some cases quite a lot. The canes that we left to “hang” dripped sap on the cordon arms below.

Because important pruning decisions are made with young vines, our goal is to “think twice and cut once.”

It is clear that our Aglianico vines – on a more moderate root stock – are not ready for fruit this, our 3rd year ("third leaf") – although we expect a crop from the Tempranillo, Grenache and Petit Sirah.

On Saturday, February 21st, we sprayed the mildew prone vines with a mixture of dormant spray (main ingredient a pungent sulphur) and oil. We purchased this from Grangetto’s, and in small quantity, a permit is not required. The mixture is 4 oz of dormant spray and 1 oz of oil per gallon of water. With a 4-gallon back pack sprayer, that meant 16 oz of dormant spray (or ½ of the bottle) and 4 oz of “oil.” This must be applied when the vines are dormant, without green leaves. I was able to cover the whole vineyard with two rounds. The spray is highly caustic and extreme care must be taken to avoid contact with eyes and breathing. The technique is to “soak” the vines, and I found the mixture dripping off the cordon. The cost of 32 ounces of dormant spray and oil is about $12 each. To purchase in larger quantities (and at a lower price) requires a license.

Our neighbor Coyote Karen and ourselves have not been attacked (yet) by powdery mildew, and so we are not on rigorous spraying programs, yet. (We have good airflow and wide spacings between rows -- well most rows except for two or three.) Merlot Mike, on the other hand, is on a rigorous spraying program and is able to keep the fungus at bay. At Mike’s vineyard the vines are packed together, creating conditions ripe for mildew. But at the Blue-Merle, rows are widely spaced, and we have strong “drying” breezes coming off the Pacific. We are also thinning shoots to maintain adequate space (about 7 inches or the width of your hand when you make the "Hook 'em Horn" sign of the Texas Longhorns), so stay tuned to see how long we can go without spraying and if the shoot thinning creates a vigor problem. If it's not one thing with a vineyard, there's always another.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

New World vs. Old World Shoot Out at Blue-Merle Vineyard: Surprising Results

The Queen hummed a tune in the manner of a Dr. Seuss song:

"That Fidel I am,
That Fidel I am,
I do not like that Fidel I am."

As everyone knows, what you think about most of the time comes true and Fidel appeared waddling up the driveway. It had been almost a year since they last met when she fired him and took over management of the vineyard herself.

"Hey, senorita, ¿Cómo estás?"

"Hey Fidel, don't you senorita me. What the hell do you want?"

"May I have some of your lemons?"

"Can you set some gopher traps?" So a cease fire was arranged whereby Fidel set 5 gopher traps and took 5 lbs. of lemons, tangelos, oranges and limes. Normally he charged $10 per gopher (carrying around the same used-gopher-carcass from vineyard to vineyard collecting his bounty), but he was dreaming of margaritas that evening and offered his services in exchange for citrus.

When I got home from my daytime job she told me about her encounter with Fidel. I was glad to see they had reached a detente of sorts in their cold war. Bluey and I went out to inspect the traps.

Now Fidel is the legendary gopher trapper of Blue-Merle Country, and it's not for nothing that he could make a living catching the varmints. He certainly relishes the victorious hunt, celebrating by stringing up the victims on fence, tree or trellis as a warning to other gophers: don't you dare. The Fidel "technique" is to find an hole, clear it open and set some weeds as bait. This is totally at odds with the theories of Macadamia Bruce, who insists on finding a "main road" and setting traps in both directions and never uses any weeds as bait. Now I have never seen Macadamia Bruce's captured gophers, but I have seen Fidel's. Fidel is in the Mexican version of the Guinness Book of World Records for his prowess, and he does it by setting a single trap at the end of a tunnel.

As I inspected Fidel's traps, it seemed to me that they were not set deeply inside the tunnels. Also, it seemed he had selected squirrel holes for two of the traps. What was worse, there was an area at the top of the hill in the Aglianico bloc with recent gopher markings and no trap set. So, I decided at that point to challenge Fidel. Novice vs. expert. Student vs. teacher. New world vs. Old World, to see who could catch Mr. Gopher. Bluey and I set our own trap and as it was getting dark called it quits and retired for the evening.

The next day (last Friday afternoon to be exact), Bluey and I went on patrol to inspect the traps. First, we visited Fidel's. Not only were there no gophers, there were no bites. Nada. Then, we checked the trap we had set, and there he was, Mr. pesky Gopher, deceased. What a way to begin the weekend! Fresh from our first round victory mano a mano against Senor Fidel we headed to our neighborhood Belle Marie Winery carrying bottles of Petit Verdot, Petit Verdot Plus and Petit-Petit wine for a little wine shoot out, after setting a couple of more gopher traps in other areas of the vineyard.

The next day, Bluey and I were out vineyarding and inspecting the traps and there were still no bites at Fidel's traps and we noticed that we had caught a gopher in the Grenache area from the trap we set the day before (that's two in two days and an auspicious continuing for a really good weekend). Just as Bluey was pulling on the chain to get the gopher out of the hole Coyote Karen called, offering us some brownies and mint-chocolate cake. Would we like any?

"Would you like us to come over and catch some gophers for you? Only $10/head!"

"How about a bottle of wine per gopher?" It's the new economic age of bartering.


The score after two rounds of the shoot-out: Gringo 2: Fidel 0. I reset the traps.

Bluey and I went out on patrol early this evening carrying a shovel which I used to strike at weeds along the way and we inspected Fidel's traps and there were still no gophers nor any bites. So I took out his traps and used the shovel to fill in the holes so the gophers would have to work if they tried to come back that way. Bluey went up ahead of me and took up position where I had set my last trap Sunday evening and by his stance I suspected that we had caught another one. Damn. 3 gophers in 3 days. I guess we had caught this one on Sunday and it was now Tuesday evening and he was a little gamy and Bluey had tugged on the chain pulling him out of the hole (good dog) without eating him (good dog). Now the Queen had gone to Japan on Friday carrying with her a case of the Blue-Merle's finest wine to find us a distributor and to host wine tastings in the Land of the Rising Sun as our wine is enjoyed from Texas to Oklahoma, from Connecticut to Japan, and since she was gone there hasn't been much to eat and I was thinking that a little gopher stew might be pretty good. But as this one was riper than road kill we threw it over the fence for the coyotes.

Thoughts were going through my head: 3 gophers in 3 days. America shuts out Mexico in Gopher Championships 3 - 0! Outlaw winemaker declared gopher champion in Blue-Merle Country. Boy, would the Queen be proud of me. And as I had these I heard voices of the Three Priests who warned me that perhaps I shouldn't be so proud. That perhaps the good, gracious Lord might just put a little rattlesnake in the next gopher hole I stuck my hand in, so with gracious, humble, humility in mind I walked down the Rue Jean Baptiste -- the road we had made straight and level in the hills -- with shovel in hand scraping weeds as I walked and there he was on the side of this main path feeling warm against a short concrete wall. What is it the experts say? What you think about most of the time comes true. I raised the shovel and made a positive identification of the tail before striking. The temperatures had climbed well above 70 degrees this afternoon, this almost first day of Spring and the rattlesnake had come out of hibernation. Bluey was a few steps away from me and I had been thinking of enrolling him in a rattlesnake avoidance class and used this opportunity to teach him about "bad" Mr. Snake and to "leave it" while allowing him to experience the scent from a safe distance.

I gave thanks for our blessings and in the manner of Disney's Country Bear Jamboree I sang a little country tune as I washed my device of self-defense:

"Blood on the shovel,
Blood on the sha-a-a-a-ovel...."

I looked at the the snake and remembered I was running out of food with the Queen being in Japan and thought that this would make a pretty good meal and it was fresh. In order not to offend our gentle readers I will simply state that I have been to China and I have eaten Chinese food and fried snake is good (and grandpa has eaten it too and even drunk the bile and has had a good long life) and if Ms. Connie from SouthTexas had been here she would have enjoyed it and I'll leave the rest of the story to your imagination.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Blue-Merle Country Pot Luck & Wine Blending

The neighbors of Blue-Merle Country held a pot-luck the other night in our local community center and I discovered the recipe for a future wine blend. I volunteered to bring some wine (which was already made) to the dinner, but was asked to make a dessert. Being busy chasing gophers, and mildew spraying, and weeding, and planting new vines, and repairing broken trellis systems, filling out tax forms and cutting down overgrown trees in the middle of the vineyard, and giving tours and tastings to passers-by, I'm not a person who has much time for making desserts on a Saturday afternoon. I thought I would whip together one of my "persimmon puddings" (one very ripe persimmon, an egg, some flour, some baking soda, some milk), but as we only have ONE persimmon left from the fall harvest, and as it is the Queen's, at the last moment I substituted a Myers lemon (of which we have an abundance) and a couple of diced kumquats (of which we have an abundance) and one tangelo (of which we have an abundance). I put in two eggs this time and set the oven for 425 degrees. I must say, it came out well, and had I added a white sauce and Grand Mariner, then the dessert would have been ambrosia. As it was, I did bring back and empty plate back from the event so someone must have liked it.

I brought a bottle of 2007 Petit Verdot to the pot-luck along with my dessert and my friend Joe the Wino brought a bottle of 2006 "Merletage" which was a blend of 2006 Blue-Merlot (80%) with 20% Nebbiolo. Joe's wife -- who I love to death -- is a generous person, and it's interesting to see her bring her own wine to these events (she's loathe to drink the house wine). She honored me by bringing a bottle of our wine, and since our Queen had drunk all of our '06 wine, Joe and his wife had the last 6 bottles in the world. I would gladly pay them $100/bottle for it.

"Joe, I remember the first time we met. You came to our open house two years ago when we planted our vineyard. You sat your sorry ass on a barrel of our best wine and kept dipping the turkey baster into it and pulling yourself a glass. 'Who in the Sam hell is that?' we asked ourselves."

He demurred, as if still suffering from that long ago hangover.

"After the blessing of the vines and the party had ended we found a bottle of Nickel & Nickel's best Napa Valley wine which you had left as a present and we said, 'Well, I don't know who the hell he is but he's my kind of guy to leave a bottle of wine like that.' The rest is history my friend. Here, please try a sip of this," and I poured him and his wife a jigger from the 2007 Blue-Merle Petit Verdot which he'd never tasted and which is not yet released.

"Smooth," said Joe's wife, but she wasn't doing cartwheels. And neither were Coyote Karen and Celestial Sandra -- they said it was nice but it didn't get me any hugs. Disappointed, I went to the bar and had a sip of all the house wines, then poured me a sample of the "Merleatage" Joe and his wife brought and had a sip. I was hit by the tannins. This one stood out. "Joe, try this," I said filling his glass.

He had a sip, and proclaimed, "This is the best wine here."

I thought I would have some fun and I went over to the Coyote who was pouring her own wine, and I suggested, "Let's play the Gustavo game." Gustavo is the name of the character in the movie "Bottle Shock" who can identify the type of grape in any bottle of wine. (It is an amazing ability.) The Coyote poured first. I took a sniff and a taste and I recognized the grape:

"Brunello, 2007, Bill Schweitzer's vineyard, Ramona." I was dead on (but won no money, only bragging rights). Then I poured her the "Merleatage." She liked it but didn't recognize it. "I'll give you a hint," I said. "You know the grapes." She still couldn't guess it, which surprised me, as this is the woman with the million $ pallet for whom $50 is a cheap wine. "It's 80% Merlot Mike's grapes and 20% Camillo's Nebbillo." She had made wine with the same grapes herself, yet couldn't recognize them.

I went back to the bar and poured myself another glass of the Merlatage, and did a more thorough taste test. The wine did stand out, but it could benefit from additional aging. I told Joe to cellar the remaining bottles for another two years. Then, I tried a little experiment: I poured some of the 2007 Petit Verdot I brought into the same glass as the "Merleatage" Merlot/Nebbiolo blend. Now that was good. I brought some to Celestial Sandra. "Try this." She sipped and approved. Then, I darted over to the Coyote. Now, we had played the "Gustavo Game," but there is a new measure of the worthiness of wine I call the "Gustavo Scale" -- this is when a woman loves the wine you give her so much she throws herself around your neck and offers a passionate kiss as a reward. With that in mind, I brought the serendipity blend to the Coyote.

Now it's not for nothing that we call her The Coyote. Of course, her vineyard is infested with the critters who try to snatch her grapes. This vineyardista is Coyote beautiful, proven by the howls of coyote, dogs and men alike in admiration of her feminine charms, and I had found the aphrodisiac to unleash her womanly affections.

"I like it," she said. Well that was a start, although there were no public displays of affection. With tail between my legs, and with a recipe for a blend that I know would work (3/4 Petit Verdot, 1/4 Merlot) I shuttled back over to Joe. "What's new my friend?"

"I went down to the County government to get a permit for my wine cellar." Joe had built a cellar into the side of a hill. It was magnificent, and I love to go there. Everyone loves to go there. "The government official said, 'We have a problem.'

"'What's that?' I had been trying to get that permit for almost two years now.

"'Wine is flammable.' So what? I said to myself and kept listening. 'You're going to need to add another door to your cellar.'"

Joe was dumbfounded. His cellar is buried underground. To add a back door would require major expense. It's as if the County of San Diego had never needed to give someone a permit for a wine cellar before. This is not a good sign for the County's future as an emerging wine making region.

Joe replied coolly to the County Official: "Let me tell you something. We just had a fire rage through here less than 2 years ago and I lost more than $2.5 million in property damage including my home. The fire passed right over the underground wine cellar without any damage at all, and without any increase in temperature. And now you're telling me that I need to add a back door to my wine cellar because wine is flammable and without a back door people could be trapped in the case of a fire?"

"Yes sir."

At that point I couldn't help throw Joe a jab: "Well, if Obama was head of the County, he'd clear this up and San Diego would be on it's way to becoming a major wine producer." Joe hates Obama, but now he hates the County government worse.

Macadamia Bruce joined us. I asked him what's new? "I'm looking for a squaw to marry."

"Why's that?"

"The Indians have just invested $300 million in a golf course that rivals St. Andrews and Pebble Beach combined. If you're a member of the tribe, you play for free."

I asked him how many gophers he'd caught this year and confessed that I had only got one in January. He promised to come over and give me a hand.

The next day, Sunday, I was finishing up my spraying and checking the gopher traps and Merlot Mike came by in his Gator. Well, wouldn't you know that I would find a melting gopher carcass in one of the traps as Mike pulled up. "I should have known you were on your way. I always catch a gopher everytime you visit." Mike had a guest and either they were pressed for time or he was feeling chicken and didn't want to take the vineyard plunge driving his Gator down our vineyard. "I hear we're getting a lot of TV coverage from the tour de California bike race going on," Mike said.

I reminded him: "The real tour is taking place here after Lance Armstrong crosses the finish line in the bike race. I've invited all of them to come up here on their mountain bikes to try tackling the Blue-Merle Vineyard."

Merlot Mike went on his way and I went back to setting more gopher traps and Macadamia Bruce, who had not visited here since we first probed the irrigation system 2.5 years ago came by. He wanted to teach me how to set gopher traps. So I took him to where I had set a trap and low and behold, there he was, Mr. Gopher, dead meat as fresh as he could be. Happiness is catching a gopher when your friend comes to visit. Priceless. And Bluey was ecstatic.

"You were lucky," Bruce said. "You put that trap at the end of a tunnel. You need to find their main road, and set two traps, one in each direction." He went on to explain that you don't need to use mustard greens as bait. "They're not hungry. They want to repair their holes." He also suggested setting the traps between where the males are digging and the females are hanging out -- because you know the little [expletive deleted -- a derogatory word to used to describe Mr. Gopher in the act of procreation with Mrs. Gopher] is going back there at the end of the day."

We went up to "Gazebo Hill" and inspected another trap I had set. (Nothing yet.) Then went over to the Protea Garden where Mr. Gopher's friends were running wild. Bruce found a tunnel, and set a trap in each direction. When I came back Monday morning to inspect, nothing. A few days later, when I inspected the traps I had set, I found a very gamely, disintegrating, rotten, Mr. Gopher. The final tally, three gophers in one weekend. I was gaining ground. As we used to sing as kids:

"Great big globs of greasy, grimy gopher guts
Mutilated monkey meat...."

February rains caused flashbacks to the days I lived in Seattle and biked in storms to college, but the cold has given rise to Southern California Spring, or at least a false Spring. Purple lilac blossoms decorate the wild countryside while in the vineyards, the great wave of bud break where green shoots emerge from bark has begun as the first pop of pop-corn and a the wave from San Diego to Temecula to Santa Barbara to Lodi to Paso Robles to Napa Valley to the North Coast to Oregon to Washington state ripples up the coast. Bud break in America begins. Here.