Monday, November 17, 2014

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Winemaker's Breakfast: Simple Soup, Simple Shrimp & Shrooms

Simple Soup, Simple Shrimp & Shrooooms

A man's got to eat a good breakfast to rack the new wine into the new barrels that arrived this week. Especially if he intends to do it without spilling a drop. The leftovers available were one day old shrimp, the bottom of the pan of 3 day old crab soup, cherry tomatoes going from red to green, several days old hard rice left as an offering to the spirit of the dog and some fur-growing mushrooms.

The method:

* Boil the left over soup. Throw in some broccoli. Throw in two fresh eggs and stir. Add the handful of hard dried-out rice. Simmer.
* Cut the mushrooms. Saute with olive oil and a dash of butter. Pour onto plate. (Note to chef, next time try adding a bit of leftover can't call it "Port" wine while cooking and a pinch of Hawaii Kai red clay sea-salt when serving.)
* Into the saute pan add more olive oil, sliced garlic, and from the herb garden grab what's available, which in our case was basil dried on the plant and some rosemary. Throw in the shrimp. A touch of butter. This cooks up fast - then drain off the delicious "shrimp sauce" into the simmering soup, stir, and serve. Alas, there is no suggested wine pairing today - it's 6 o'clock in the bloody morning.

I can hear dad asking: "Where are the grits?"  OK, next time.

Voila!  I'm so full - and so ready to tackle those barrels of wine - especially after the pot of pressed coffee and a piece of Belgian chocolate. For the record, this is the first time I can remember cooking with butter in ages. This is the first time I remember cooking in ages. Will get cholesterol checked on Monday at Lab Corp.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Is It Halloween?

Now that all the grapes are harvested and fermented and there's a heat wave I'm working inside on the bookkeeping and there's no excuse but to exercise a little personal hygiene and cut my overgrown hair. There should be a law against balding men appearing in public with hair as bad as this. At least I won't need a Halloween mask after cutting it myself.  I step carefully outside with the electric shears half expecting to see a Rattler looking for shade. Leaves rustle and a lizard - the relative of a Komodo dragon - scampers up the stucco wall frightened out of his wits. The mirror I need to avoid being arrested for a really bad haircut is hanging from the wall and I half expect to see the lizard's mate behind it - during Spring cleaning I found a lizard self-taxidermied stuck to the wall. I lifted the mirror and there was no scurrying but I half expected a Black Widow to crawl from behind the mirror onto my hand so I put the mirror down and found no spider then looked up on the wall to see what was left of the previous year's lizard corpse and I noticed Dracula sleeping. Before I could take a photo the bat had flown. Do you know if bat shat is poisonous? There seems to be some left behind.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Memories of the 2014 Harvest

What a difference a month makes. Just a few weeks ago, we were up to our knees - and eyeballs - in grapes and a blasting heat wave. Now, the weather has cooled, the vines are fading and the 2014 vintage is fermenting, slowly, and so full of promise. New barrels have been ordered - hybrid French & American oak barrels - and when they arrive next month we will begin the process of racking and blending. We have plans for a tasty Petite Sirah - Tempranillo blend; an uncommonly good Grenache based wine enhanced with Tempranillo and Petite-Sirah;and a big, powerful, towering Zinfandel-Aglianico blend. Meantime, it's time for some battonage - stirring up the lees, or sediment, in the holding tanks of the new wine to extract more flavors and to create a fantastic mouth feel. And when I'm in the winery, I'll take the opportunity to top-up and taste the 2013 barrels - I barrel tasted the 2013 Petite Sirah yesterday afternoon - it was amazing!

In case you think I get this excited about all of our wines - then obviously we haven't met yet. I've made plenty of bad wine the last 10 years - so I'm grateful for the good.  And now with some experience, I like to think we've finally figured out what works, just in time for our winery's 10th Anniversary.

Don't you just love how easy it is to create video memories with iMovie? I couldn't resist, so here's a short video of the 2014 harvest. Thank you to everyone who helped. It takes a village to make - and enjoy - good wine. Cheers!

To learn more about Blue-Merle Winery please visit

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Wine For The People

A boutique distributor of fine wines looking for a local San Diego winery to fill out his lineup approached me at a wine tasting event and tried a sip of our "Merleatage." He, his spouse and their two companions returned to our serving table several times to sample them all and the tastes turned into glasses. The distributor's timing was perfect - as wine was piling up to the ceiling in the winery - aka our modest two car garage converted into a crushpad and storage area - we really needed to start selling more. But, occupied by my daytime job I don't have time to sell it - and our help don't speak English - while the daughter moved to San Francisco to be a comedian.  So, I had reached the point - as painful as it was -  to give up margin and to work with a distributor as our sales force to turn our inventory into cash. Besides, if I hired a sales rep, it would probably cost me as much. A distributor made sense.

At a follow-up meeting at the distributor's tasting room we re-tasted our wines and compared them with other wines he was selling. His wines were good and he was buying them at a wholesale distributor price of $12 a bottle. Good wines from Santa Barbara and Lodi and Napa.  At this price, there is no profit for us, but the inventory pressure was high, the wines in the barrels needed to be bottled and stored so I bit the bullet and we shook hands. "Charge my Amex card at the end of the month - we pay net 30 days," he said. His enthusiasm was infectious - no wine shop or fine restaurant would be able to resist his sales pitch for our wines. Soon, our labor of love would be available throughout San Diego County - and the cash flow would allow us to buy new barrels and more bottles and first-grade corks to produce and bottle the highest quality wines.

The next week I delivered eight cases with an extra case for samples. I produced a tri-fold brochure. I set up a PayPal account and sent my first PayPal invoice. The invoice was received by the office manager. At 15 days I emailed the distributor - "How's it going?"
"We have two placements already,"he wrote. At 25 days, I emailed the office manager, do you have the PayPal invoice? Yes she replied. On day 30 there was no payment. At 40 days they didn't return my phone message. At 45 days their telephone line didn't work. At the 46th day I drove to their office and it was closed.

The good book says to forgive your debtors and I have "let it go" and perhaps some of the wine will be a seed that someone somewhere will drink and contact us and become our best customer ever. I had an epiphany - wouldn't it have been better to just give it away?

And this is how the superhero named BootleggerMan - or is he WineMan? - could they be the same person? - began.

I gave away a case of wine to the church. And a case of wine to the office of my daytime job. And a case of wine to a reseller of our products from my daytime job. And another case of wine to the church. And to our business consultants and to the group raising money for breast cancer research and to the group raising money for Big Brothers and to ....

Wine for the People. Wine for the Teachers. The Bootleggers Express Always Delivers.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Winemaker's Notebook

Today there is no harvest. No pressing. No ice change. No bottling. No heat wave. Just an easy punch down for the last batch of fermenting Aglianico grapes. For a moment, I don't know what to do. What is this? Free time?

Is the fog in my head from being a Zombie Winemaker lifting? During my zombiehood last week I watched Netflix videos of Himalayan expeditions to relax. Winemaking = Climbing Mt. Everest.

Today is irrigation day. The last big drip for the vines. Two hours of water yesterday blended with a cocktail of organic nutrients and enzymes to promote healthy roots. Another two hours this morning - which became three hours since I started writing this. That's it for water - no more - except for the baby vines who will get one final drink before bedtime.  The deep deep watering we did last Fall helped the vines get through this year's drought. Same strategy again next year. Already taking steps to make next year's harvest fruitful. Must order compost.

Our water bill for August was $150. I cut the water to raise the Tempranillo sugars.  My neighbor, who has no vines, no agriculture, has a bill over $200. Just sayin' ... yes, we're using water, but ....

As I walk by vines with fading and fallen leaves, canes emerge from once thick foliage. I lift my fingers as clippers and make practice air-cuts that will be made five months from now in February when we prune. I bend a long cane imagining it as a new cordon arm next year and begin stretching it down along the wire.

For weeks, I've been doing everything to keep the winery - a converted garage - cool during the heat wave where temperatures topped 100 degrees outside last week. Who invented the phrase "It's only dry heat"?  I'd like to employee that person outside here. The winery has an air conditioner. The house - and our cars - do not. Today, the morning temperature in the winery is 62 degrees from the natural cool air outside. I begin thinking "Hmm, I better let it warm up to 70 degrees today in the winery to encourage malolatic fermentation" of the new wine.

Yesterday, the spray guy came to do an injection into the irrigation line. I showed him how to cut off water from the new backflow device when he finished so I could head off to my daytime job to earn money to pay him.  "Is that the one you replaced after the building contractor broke it?" he asked. I nodded.  "And he charged you for a new one after breaking your old back flow device?"
"Some people."
"What would you have done?"
"Make him pay."
I remained silent for a moment and said, "It reminds me of the story of a man responsible for spraying a vineyard and he missed some spots and mildew grew.  The vineyard owner summoned the man to show him where he had missed and where there was a mildew infestation.  The spray guy went and bought some materials and came back and resprayed the area - charging the vineyard owner for his mistake." Silence..... I saved his life again by not strangling him on the spot.

Three generations from 82 to 5 years old helped pick the Petit Sirah, The patriarch accomplished something never before seen in this vineyard: with one motion he did a double-click and cut his hand with clippers in two places. Not a good idea for a Coumadin patient.  He survived and in two years we'll be drinking the blood of the vine at communion. Thank goodness I'm not a chip off the old finger.

All nephew Luke could say when he visited was "Uncle Craig, I hope we see a snake" and "Uncle Craig, where are the snakes?" She finally appeared the day after he left. A mathuesula. An 8-footer with over a dozen bands around the rattle cooling off under a Grenache vine the day we were planning to start picking our loveliest grapes. It guess it takes leviathan snakes a while to travel when called. She sure took her time leaving the Grenache as she sauntered into the riparian canyon next to our vineyard. My 1,000 year old cultivated snake friend from China, no doubt, who wished a few words with me.

This is the year we implemented night time harvests - at 6pm as the heat from the day passed we started picking grapes. The advantage to this was to get a headstart on the next morning's work - and - to give us a chance to photograph and pick some vines before the mad rush of the harvest and looking after the guests.  Do you know how hard it is to pick your own grapes while managing a harvest? We brought the grapes down the hill and let them cool overnight outside - or if the temperatures were not dropping that evening brought them into the winery and let the air conditioner run all night.  After the harvest and crush, my job was to drive into town to fetch blocks of dry ice - up to 20 lbs. - to cool down the grapes.  After the dry ice treatment, the next day and for a few days thereafter we added blocks of ice from the freezer - in water jugs. One of the daily routines is to change the ice in the morning and the evening. Could an ice bath be the secret to great wine?

Bottling wine is sure going faster this year - from not having to trip over the dog. Still, we miss him. During the harvest, we encouraged his ghost to eat all the grapes he wanted. Do dogs dream of eating grapes?

My vineyardmobile is approaching 300,000 miles and she says when it goes she wants to buy a truck. "I thought you wanted a Jaguar."
"No one will buy me a Jaguar."
"I bought your teeth." Her dentist bills cost more than a Jaguar. Unfortunately, he doesn't work for wine.

Did you hear about the winery in California being sued by the state for using unpaid volunteers? It seems wineries that pay their people complained about wineries that use volunteers because of an unfair cost advantage. Both the state and the wage paying wineries have it wrong. There's an old saying "there's nothing more expensive than free" and we've proven it in our vineyard. When we total the cost of food we prepare for people who help us at harvest - not to mention the time preparing it - we would save so much money hiring day laborers. For the record, if anyone from the state is reading this, we do pay our help. They work for wine.

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Simple Revelation

I heard the rooster crowing and opened my eyes and saw faint light entering the windows. "Dawn," and rolled over to look at the clock -  3:13 am -  "Ah, the light is from the moon. I can sleep another hour," and listened to the hoots of an owl and the roosters cokokirokoko-ing la lune. As I thought about getting up, "Craig - " I heard clear as day. "Oh great, now I'm hearing voices," but when your name is called clearly in the middle of the night you rise to investigate. The household was sound asleep. I did a zombie shuffle to the water dispenser in the kitchen and poured myself a cup and answered the only way I now how when you hear your name called -  "Here I am" - and memories of a forgotten faded song entered my head:

"I, the Lord of sea and sky,
I have heard My people cry.
All who dwell in dark and sin,
My hand will save.

I who made the stars of night,
I will make their darkness bright.
Who will bear My light to them?
Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord?
I have heard You calling in the night.
I will go Lord, if You lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart."

Then I remembered Las Mananitas when group after group of faithful singers paraded through our dormitory at dawn with joyous songs as part of a religious retreat called Cursillo. I thought at the time las mananitas was the summation of all your joyous birthdays at one breakfast.

This was supposed to be a low-key day. Maybe not. Good morning everyone!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Chere Francine, About that wine I gave you.....

"If it hadn't been for them we
wouldn't be here today," - a toast
to D-Day veterans.
Chere Francine,

I'm thinking about you this week, the 70th anniversary of D-Day, le six juin, le debarquement. You are grateful pour les americains and tell the stories of the parachuting over St. Mere Eglise and Murphy hanging by the church steeple from his parachute and Father Wood with his cricket and scenes featured in the movie Le Jour le Plus Long. You heard the stories first hand from the heroes who were there and you and your sister both met and fell in love with GI's, married and moved to the United States and your two sons served in Viet Nam. What a story! And your local newspaper knows your histoire and interviewed you yesterday for an article and a river cruise ship line stopping stopping near your house in Vernon has invited you to speak to the passengers about your memories and they soak up your personal stories more thoroughly than the bread I used to sop up la sauce a la moutarde you served me with a lapin.

"Do you see it on the news over there?" you asked. I reassure you President Obama will be there for the ceremony. You're disappointed many people especially the young do not know of these important events. For that matter, do we remember each year the Battle of Yorktown and your countrymen from France who made General Washington's victory over the British possible?

After you moved to America as a war bride you became friends with my parents - Dad worked at the same company as your Bob - and when we meet people today you say about me "I used to change his diapers,"  while Nina your daughter says "I used to beat him up." Time passed and you and your Bob purchased a country house in Normandy not far from Monet's old home and it was a dream come true until the dream shattered when your Bob died of a heart attack on the streets of Paris and you didn't know how you would live another day. That was almost 40 years ago, and here you are, entertaining the river cruise ships.

After graduating from college, I visited your house in Normandy the first week of June and you generously loaned me your Peugeot and told me the places to visit and what to do and I made my pilgrimage to the landing beaches and to the sea of grave sites with crosses and stars of David planted more symmetrically than my rows of vines. You suggested I stop and see the tapestry at Bayeux which I did and learned about Viking invaders. What I most remember about my D-day tour was when Father Wood himself returned to France to baptize your grandson and you also invited me to visit and we took Father to Giverney to see Monet's restored house and water lilies and le Pont Japanois and I basked in the presence of history.

I think of France and America as good friends - largely because of you. When I think about Japan and China aren't Americans and French true allies and very much alike? When you tell people about me visiting you you say "he used to bring me his dirty laundry and I told him what he could do with it." I guess that's just because I thought of you as mom. The families were such good friends when my parents went on vacation you volunteered to take care of their Lasaopso - Maltese chien named Mugsy whoknocked-up your Yorkie Nanette and we remained friends through health and through sickness, good times and bad, and even a scandalous dog.

Before every dinner we had an aperitif, usually white wine infused with creme de casis or mure and on special occasions there were kir royale with Champagne and there was always red wine with dinner. You are a legendary cook and you taught me how to make lapin au moutard and afterwards we watched on French TV an American movie The Flying Dutchman. You took me to see Jacques Chirac - then Mayor of Paris - speaking in your village. You and your neighbor taught me how to tie a bottle to a tree and grow the pear inside - and of course, you introduced me to the elixir Noyeau de Vernon - distilled from Apricot pits - and the local Calvados, stiff brandy distilled from apple mash.

Eight years ago you visited San Francisco and I flew up to see you and I knew enough about wine so that when we went to an Italian restaurant I ordered a Nebbiolo.  I brought you a barrel sample of our first Syrah and you told me you like a Syrah and I poured you a glass from my plastic water bottle I had bootlegged into a fine San Francisco restaurant.

The Queen of the Vineyard always appreciates the way you treat me like a kid and put me in my place like a domineering mother - she wished she could control me like that. Whenever I spoke French in your presence I was always justly criticized for butchering your beautiful language so I just gave up speaking it with you. Besides, your English is too good.

About that wine I gave you .....It was a year ago we flew to France to see you. We invited you to lunch at La Coupole and I presented you with a bottle of 2011 Petite-Sirah, the darkest most delicious wine we had made up to that time and it was a pleasure to carry it all the way to you. The Bootleggers Express always delivers. This is not like the wines we used to drink in your home - at least how I remember them - it is more in the American style and the fruit seems to taste sweet - although there is no sugar in the wine which is fermented to dryness. I once had a 2009 Gailliac wine from France that was similar in its syrupy texture and taste.

It was June the 1st a year ago and you proposed a toast with a tear in your eye: "This Thursday is June 6th and I want everyone to remember that 69 years ago the GIs and my husband Bob landed in Normandy. If it hadn't been for them we wouldn't be here today."

I know you miss your Bob and his comrades and today and your heart is aching as you remember their sacrifice to liberate France .... and I thank you for still being with us.

With love and gratitude always, je t'embrasse,

Your petit Craig

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Dear CCR, About that wine I gave you ....

Bottling the Estate 2012 "Merleatage"
a dreamy Rhone-style wine with
character, perhaps our best ever.
Dear CCR - The One and Only,

Together we founded The Bootlegger's Express. We didn't realize it at the time and didn't call it that, but we crossed state lines and brought wine to the people and the people were pleased.

It was June 2005 and I siphoned a few bottles of wine from the barrel of Syrah, our first batch ever. We drove this precious cargo to Las Vegas along with our products to exhibit at the INFOCOMM trade show and after each guest saw our document camera, LCD annotation tablet and cherry-wood lectern, we pulled out a clear plastic cup and served anywhere from a sip to a glass of that purple nectar. This, in spite of the unions, the inflated convention center wine prices, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Nevada's alcohol laws. How illegal was that? It was wine for the people and a way for us to show gratitude to our business partners who talk about it to this day.  We had arrived in Las Vegas baby, not leaving it, and after our work at the exhibit hall we crashed the Crestron Party held at the musical "We Will Rock You" and at the finale we stood up and danced in the aisles and shouted at the top of our lungs to Freddie Mercury's music "we are the champions of the world!" and the next day hungover with excitement as visitors walked by our booth we chanted in hoarse voices "We Will Rock You!" because we had rockin' good products.

You will be happy to know that both the wine - and products - have improved. And the spirit of the Bootlegger's Express lives on.

You knew Bluey the Australian Shepherd from the time he was a puppy and he was always excited to see you.  He was a dog, after all. I could never look at you the way some dogs and other men did - there are laws against such things since we were work colleagues - and though I would flaunt laws designed to thwart bootleggers I would never violate the laws of being a gentleman but I will say when we were at an exposition or a client meeting and you put on your makeup you were transfigured from California hippie into California beauty. Inside, you always had the most beautiful heart. And I am always grateful I was sent an angel to help our business.

When I wrote the story about Bluey's last days I said this is not a story about a dog; it's a story about us, and when I think of you and how you cared for your father your story is so much more noble. Your papa asked your mom, "Are you going to date another man after I'm gone?" Bluey had asked, "Are you going to get another dog?"

I remember you taking care of your papa and your "boyfriend" - as you called him but to us he was your husband - when he had cancer and that is so much more than caring for an old dog. You were a saint. You were such a great care-giver you even looked at care for the elderly as a career option.

If I summarized your memorial service it is this: You are Love.

For me, wine is love. Through wine and the inaugural run of the Bootlegger's Express, together we brought love to the people.

About that wine I gave you ... it is perhaps the best wine we have ever made. Here's how it came to be. I was visiting my dad a couple of years ago and he said, "I have this wine I want you to try. It's an expensive wine I usually don't drink but I'd like to share a bottle with you."  It was a Rhone wine from France, a 2009 Vacqueyras made from 75% Grenache grapes and 25% Syrah and the fruit was pronounced and it was the most enjoyable wine I've had from France and since we also grow Grenache I said "I want to make a wine like this!" So when our 2012 harvest came in we had enough Grenache juice for almost 3/4 barrel and to fill up the barrel blended in Tempranillo and when I tasted it after fermentation it resembled that Vacqueyras wine.

We aged it 19 months in a hybrid French-American oak barrel and when I heard the other week you had made the grade, oh boy, I was just numb.  I thought that was because we had lost Bluey recently and had lost the Queen of the Vineyard for a while - but she came back by the grace of God and CPR from the paramedics - and that my tears were dried-out but I realized the reason I've shown little emotion at your news is that I know you are with the Lord you love. In the fullness of time we will all understand "the why?" but secure in the knowledge you are comforted and healed, last Saturday was the day to reflect on your life while bottling, bottling the best wine we ever made. We're calling it "Estate Merleatage 2012"

Now that the bottling's done I'll figure out a way to get this wine up to Santa Barbara where it may nourish the pilgrims of your memory as they gather to reminiscence about the joy you brought to all the people you met, where ever you went, while dancing to the beat of African drums.

(Originally published on 5/17/2014 for CCR, the one, the only)

Friday, April 18, 2014

It's a Dog's Life

At dawn on mid-January morning with
"Rodrigo in the Vineyard" by Lera.
Helping dad recover from open heart surgery I learned how to take care of the dog. Taking care of the dog during his final days taught me how to take care of dad when the time comes.

After the New Year’s holiday it was time to get back to work so with remorse in our hearts we dug the dog’s grave.  He got better.

After hearing Bluey wouldn’t eat, neighbor Randy took pity so he and Danni Dog came over, opened a can of dog food and Bluey followed Danni’s lead and ate it, gaining another day. We had cooked filet mignon and lamb chops but the dog chose canned food.  So be it. I like the sayings “eat your own dog food” and “drink your own dog wine” and that’s what we do. We’ve been cooking his food and making his wine for over a year and that’s what I eat and that’s what I drink. The next day, he wouldn’t touch the canned food. Or the pizza or the steak or the hot dogs. Steve, visiting from Colorado, along with Lera and Kepa Dog came to pay their respects and Bluey ate her treats and gained another day. Lera gave Bluey a squeaky toy we named “Kepa” we kept by his side with his favorite “Birdie Birdie” stuffed animal.

I had been praying for the Lord to look after him and was wondering if there was a miracle in the works? He was starting to eat a little something each day.

Photo courtesy of Lera who writes:
"Beautiful Bluey was so happy and talkative
today." - Jan. 14
Lera gave us a painting of “Rodrigo in the Vineyard” and the colors are Van Goh and it’s beautiful in our little country home and I asked her if she’d paint for wine?  Thank goodness Lera didn’t give us a painting of Fidel, that rascal. The Queen would curse his likeness. At dawn the next morning I bring Bluey outside for a picture with the portrait. 

I fasten a bib under Bluey’s chin to catch the non-stop drool. Every time I walk near him, I wipe his mouth. Stomach cancer is nasty.

When it was hard to eat with
a spoon, we injected soft
food into his mouth.
Sometimes he needs a diaper changed. And a spoon of food put into his mouth.  And his teeth brushed. And then there was the medicine to control the stomach acid and nausea. After taking care of him for a weekend the man of the house was ready to go back to work, because there’s nothing more tiring than caring for a baby and it didn’t matter we had cut the satellite TV because there was no time to watch and we were too tired to watch and I swore I would never want to father another child. And after I said that realized I should never say never about such things.

This is a traditional household and it when it was time for the men to go back to work the women stayed at home. It’s almost always strong women who put down weak dogs. When I came back from London and a visit to the Polar Vortex two weeks later the Queen walked from the house carrying a smiling Bluey.  He could no longer walk on his own. He weighed 35 lbs. and his hip bone stuck out and I worried about it breaking if he fell. Eight years earlier he weighed 62 lbs.

Greg writes: "Took a number of photos of Bluey
during my visit to Blue-Merle Winery

but I think this image (taken by putting the camera 

on the floor and firing the shutter without looking

through the viewfinder) is my favorite. Bluey is resting

comfortably and peacefully because of the comfort

provided by his human's touch."
He could still walk with assistance so we slung a towel around his waist and hoisted him and when he sprinted he went 5 yards and this lasted a few weeks until he could barely take a step. When the neighbors saw this they said “the time is coming” and “you should put him down.” We took him out to pee but he wouldn’t. After the first day it was a worry and by the third day I wondered if it was kidney failure?  When he finally peed it was dark orange and as pungent as the latrine of the 82nd Airborne and since we live on a hill you had to lift up the dog so his foot didn’t get wet from the stream flowing down the hill then perform a quick Texas two-step to keep your own feet dry. That’s the best dog dancin’ we ever did.

Finding a place where he’d pee became part of the daily routine. We drove him to Randy’s and Danni-Dog’s and that worked a couple of times and then other days we drove two miles to where the dogs peed on the golf course but often he wouldn’t pee, even when Greg came from Maryland to pay a visit and to photograph him he wouldn’t pee. He welcomed Greg and sat outside on his blanket observing us prune the vines while a little poop came out and soiled his towel. I felt terrible because I couldn’t offer much hospitality to a friend from junior high school days who came all the way to see the vineyard and Bluey and our simple life on the hill but at least he met Bluey before it was too late.

Supervising pruning. Barking at sticks,
but not chasing them.
After Greg left, we found a favorite spot at the bottom of the driveway and I became something of an expert at bringing Bluey to pee and dodging the stream. Although he had lost weight it was still a strain on our backs to carry him and support him and it wouldn’t do good for us to throw out our backs so I prayed for strength to the caregivers.

Bluey was alert and engaged. When we pruned the vineyard the first two weeks in February he supervised but didn’t fetch sticks – always great fun while pruning. Grandpa called while we were outside and I held the phone to Bluey’s ears and the two eighty year-olds exchanged sympathies. I brought Bluey into the winery where we could be together while I blended and topped barrels. This time, he didn’t sip the wine. If he passed away with the barrel tops off would his spirit enter the wine making the best wine ever?

When I came back from another trip to the Polar Vortex a week later a nurse was giving Bluey an IV and she taught us how to administer it. This winter in San Diego the weather was warmer than June and the Vet said Bluey was dehydrated. In addition to the IV, the Vet proscribed prednisone to help manage inflammation for his arthritis and an appetite stimulant and we continued the regimen of sucralfate to coat his stomach. When I walked into the room where Bluey spent most of his time it smelled like a hospital ward from all the medication. 

Every day could have been his last so we cooked a Monster’s Ball of his favorite foods – lamp chops, filet mignon, fish sticks – in the hopes he would find something he liked. The dog didn’t eat but a little and at the end of the day the food was too good to waste so I gained weight.

The Queen made the decision back in November to take care of him to the end and as his condition worsened she said “You can decide,” and she was beginning to think it wasn’t a pleasant life drooling all the time and throwing up each day and unable to walk and having all kinds of medicine lovingly forced into your mouth. I wasn’t going to go there because if I suggested to her to put him to rest she would blame me for his death and hound me to my last days with “You killed Bluey.”
“Let’s wait and see,” I said. “He’s still alert and he’s not in pain and he enjoys being with us,” and what I didn’t say is if he gets worse we’ll see.

February 13 from Twitter: “Just when you think it’s the morning to call Dr. Dogvorkian he wakes up frisky at 5am shouting “I want to play” in dog.  It must be the IV.” So I woke up early to take care of him.

He was now waking up at midnight and talkative and agitated. We would take him outside. He wouldn’t pee. But the fresh air calmed him, just like a baby. I suspected the appetite stimulant was stimulating him a bit much so we cut it back a little.

On Wednesday February 19th, day three of Bluey’s hunger strike, we visited the Vet who saw no signs of pain. He suggested we purchase a dog harness to better carry him and a dog cart on wheels to move him down the hill more easily to his favorite spot. I worried about us breaking our backs carrying him. He could no longer support his weight at all. He also suggested we purchase more IV drip bags and needles. “How many do you need?” The Vet asked.
“How about a two week supply?” was the diplomatic answer but I was really thinking a few days.

The next morning I had to get to work and left the Queen holding an IV bag to finish administering it and 3 miles down the road I got a phone call from her screaming and rushed back expecting to find Bluey unconscious. There was the Queen, who had managed to stick herself with the dog’s IV needle. “I’m going to get AIDs!” I called the doctor’s office who said she’ll be fine – she had a tetanus shot the other year after she was hospitalized and went to heaven and came back again.  Two days later I give Bluey the perfect IV good enough to film for YouTube. “Be careful with the needle,” warns the Queen and before I can say “don’t worry” I’ve stabbed myself with the dog’s needle.  Even monkeys fall from trees.

Saturday morning, April 22 we made another Monster’s Ball of lamb chops, chicken wings, beats, risotto and a new treat – bacon.  When a dog doesn't eat bacon the time is coming. I filled his mouth with yogurt and soup – perhaps some of it made it to his stomach.

We finished pruning the vines and with bud break starting we needed the dormant spray done quickly, before more green was showing. I arranged for a vineyard management company to do the spraying but when the manager started driving his ATV on our hills he finally admitted our vineyard is too steep for his equipment and he backed out after telling us no problem he could spray our vines.  There was nothing for me to do but call Fidel, that rascal, who arrived in Merlot Mike’s Gator to do the dormant spray which can only be done by foot on our terrain.
“How’s your esposa?” I ask about his bedridden wife.
‘Not too good,” he says. “How’s your son?” he asks about Bluey.
“Not too good. You should go down to the house and see him before you leave.” So after the spraying is done he waddled down the hill to the house, peeling an orange. Fidel’s knees are shot. He’s on a waiting list to have his knees rebuilt.
“How are you Senor Dog?”
“Woof” says Bluey and the two old dogs start yacking about their pains. Bluey looks up at Fidel with mournful eyes. Fidel says, “It’s time to put him down.”
“Maybe it’s time to cut off your legs.”

As I head out to the vineyard the Queen says “don’t let Fidel steal all the oranges” and as I walk past the Gator I see the better part of our orange tree in the truck and pinch an orange from the pile he had taken from us and head up the hill peeling it as a walk with a trail of peel behind me. Let him have the oranges, I think, as I toss peels in the vineyard. She hates it when I litter her vineyard with organic scraps.

On Sunday February 23rd in the morning I tweet, “Laying on of hands, stroking his head, whispering a prayer, grateful for the joy and blessings he has brought to us, praying for relief from pain”
“praying that we as humans may be as generous as his dog-friendly nature, that guardian angels be with him and take him home to St. Francis” “And that in the fullness of time we may all be reunited in your heavenly kingdom. Amen.”

No trips to the vineyard that day. Just to the porch for some fresh air. How long does it take a dog who has stopped eating to die? I put a little ground vegetable meat puree prepared in a Cuisinart inside his mouth and for desert a little yogurt.

At 11:53 AM I tweet, “Whoops, forgot to put diapers on geriatric dog. Well, he had at least 1 poop left in him. Time to clean it up. Growing old not for sissies.” I lift him and carry him to the terrace behind the house where we have hooked up a hose to the sink and shower his butt with warm water and wash it with soap.

As I head out the door for a black tie dinner and wine tasting for the local Rotary Club, KarlRove, the neighbor’s cat, walks softly by the front of the house. “KarlRove, kitty kitty, come here,” I call, “It’s safe for you to come. Bluey won’t chase you today.” At the Coeur de Cuisine event I explain to the Mayor, the head of Major Market and other guests “our label is a Blue-Merle Australian Shepherd and here’s our dog’s picture on the back.”  A lump in my throat. Is branding your winery with your pet ever a good idea?

At 10PM I’m back from the event and Bluey calls “pee pee” in his dog talk –. I carry him down to his favorite spot and he pees, good boy. And I’m thinking I just threw out my back and this can’t go on much longer and maybe in the morning it’s time to have an honest conversation with the Queen and tell her it’s time to call Dr. Dogvorkian. I bring him back to his bed and wipe the drool from his mouth and brush his teeth. I place a fresh towel under his head to absorb the drool. We’ve set up a bed for him in the living room and I lay a blanket down and fall asleep beside him my hand on his back. After midnight, Bluey wakes up again and calls out. I knew he didn’t need to pee because he had done that two hours before but I need to pee and while I’m doing my business he’s calling and the Queen wakes up and asks “what’s wrong?” And I say “I don’t know – I just took him to pee before bed,” so I go to his side and he throws up and I change his towel and he became sick again on the fresh towel. He became still for a moment and I’m not sure if his heart skipped a beat. “How is he?”she asked.
“I think he could die. Bring another towel.”
“This is the last one,” she says and I put it under his head and wipe his mouth. “Why are you opening the windows?” I ask.
“If he dies it will be easier for his spirit to go outside.”
As I hold him he wretches for a third time and a squirt of pee escapes and he lies still in my arms. His heart has stopped and his breathing has stopped and the time has arrived.
“How is he?” she asks.
“He’s much, much better,” I say, “Please go back to sleep. I’ll stay here with him.” I keep vigil by his side then fall asleep beside him as a new star brightens the night sky.

In the morning I carry his corpse outside and residual throw-up leaks out of his mouth and we wash his face and the poop from his butt . We brush his calico fur blue and all. She lays out new white sheets on the blue velvet blanket and I carry him back inside and lay him down. She cuts fresh orchids and Birds-of-Paradise and fragrant wisteria and a grape-vine and places the bouquet beside him with favorite foods and a bottle of wine with “Birdie Birdie” and the “Kepa” toy looking on. Bluey looked so peaceful and beautiful it would bring a tear to your eye if you could have seen him. I thought I saw him smile.

Healed and resting at peace.
Just then two angels from the Lord walked up the driveway while the third waited in the car. Jehovah’s Witnesses. They saw the signs on the door stating “Do Not Ring Bell – Dr’s Orders” turned around down the hill and drove off.

Instead of carrying Bluey up the hill to lay him in the grave we made arrangements to have him cremated. “How much does he weigh?”
“I’m not sure. He’s lost a lot of weight. The last time I checked he was 35 lbs.”
“That will cost less since he’s under forty pounds.”

After saying goodbye we wrapped him in the new sheets then wrapped the royal blue velvet blankets around him and I carried him to the back seat of the car without any leaks and wondered how I would explain to the police if stopped about the dead body in the car. Bluey loved riding in the car and we were going for the last ride.

I stopped by the office on the way to the crematorium to put out some fires and parked in the shadiest area I could find and I kept the windows open so his spirit could escape and he waited in the car for an hour and when I returned he didn’t smell that bad. We brought bottles of wine to the cremation place – when you’re tipped by this winemaker your “pourboire” as the French say is going to be a bottle. The manager made sure those going through twelve step programs didn’t get this “pourboire.” Does working in a crematorium drive you to drink or attract staff with demons?

Private cremations are done on Saturday and it was Monday morning so Bluey’s mummy was put into cold storage for 5 days. When I got home from work two boxes from Amazon were by the front door: a harness and a dog carriage.

It’s often said that hot days and cool nights make for great wine – but in February? At least the unusually warm weather made it easier on Bluey, who could go outside without getting wet or cold. Did guardian angles keep the rains from San Diego so Bluey could be warm and dry? Is a dog responsible for California’s drought? At his death, storm clouds formed over the Pacific and the season’s first significant rain headed towards Southern California – almost four inches of rain. Did God change the weather for Dog?

We dug his grave but then she said she wanted to cremate him and spread his ashes. Can I rent that pit in the ground on Craig’s List?  “For Rent. One grave. Ideal for Jimmy Hoffa….”
She wanted an individual, private cremation so there had to be quality control and inspection to make sure she got her Bluey back. We had paid our respects and I didn’t feel the need for a wake and I guess they didn’t hear me when I explained that because it was part of the service and that’s what they do.  “Would you like the cremains back in a bag or a cedar box?” That’s when she saw the marble urn and said “I want that.” And so it was.

They kept him in a refrigerator for 5 days and when they brought him out I knew it wasn’t a freezer because he was starting to resemble the gopher caught in a trap and rotting for a week when he dug him up and ate him.  “Bluey kusai,” she said holding her nose.  It was time. We brought his Kepa toy and some snacks and his Birdie-Birdie stuffed animal and flowers and they all went into the oven with him.

We found a spot for the marble urn on top of Victor Hugo’s desk next to which Bluey spent his final days and the top of that desk is also green marble and it becomes a memorial shrine for Bluey with candles on either side and flowers from the garden – we find amazing orchids in full bloom and Protea flowers - and dog’s treats and then meals and condolence letters from neighbors and vets. The urn looks like it belongs there and I begin to think now that he’s with us why bury him?  “If you don’t bury him he can’t go to heaven,” she said.  I’m not so sure.  The empty pit in the ground was still for rent on Craig’s List.

Each night the ritual continues.  She cooks up a Thanksgiving meal of the dog’s favorite foods.  Lights candles on the dining room table and changes the water in the dog dishes on the table. She sets food on the table and on the shrine and she talks to the dog. Her voice cracks. The tears flow. When you talk to a dog’s ashes in an urn does he know it’s his twelfth birthday?

At night, when I get back from work she tells me to take Bluey for a run.  In the morning, she tells me to take him for a walk. “He’s here, look at the candle,” she points to the flickering flame. After how many days and weeks of talking to a dead dog are you certifiable as crazy?

“Don’t take Bluey’s food!” she snaps and later says “You can have Bluey’s food for dinner.” Navigating the rules of mourning your dog are another minefield in this household.  If you eat the lamb chops cooked for a dead dog will his ghost be angry?

He’s cremated on March 3rd the “Girls Day” in Japan and we have forgotten to put out the ceremonial dolls in honor of our daughter.  How will she ever find a husband? First I cut her off the payroll so I could use the funds I send her each month to pay for the dog’s medical care. And now by not putting out the dolls I’ve cut her off from marriage. How long will it take her to work that into her stand-up comedy routine? I receive a text from our sales co-op informing me they are cutting us from the shared tasting room because our wine sales are down, because we’ve been taking care of the dog. “Brother,” asks a man down on his luck, “Could you buy some wine?” Perhaps this is the beginning of "Death of a Salesman: Winemaker's Edition."

The Princess flew down from San Francisco to help us spread his ashes. When she walked into the house she burst into heavy sobs looking at the urn and lit candles. Three minutes later she was chatting away and telling us how she had worked material about Bluey into her comedy routine. I wonder if she will mourn me for all of three minutes when my time comes? For sure I will be in her comedy routine. When may I start collecting royalties?

The last time I carried him up this hill it was Christmas and we were all together and the Queen started singing the off-key “Beautiful Boy” song. This time I carried his ashes in the urn and with each step I remembered the last time we had made this trek.

And so it was three months after the pit had been dug the Queen commands the Princess and I to jump in and remove all the leaves. “Why mama?” asks the Princess.
“Because they’re dirty.”
“Isn’t the dirt dirty?”
Why argue so we pick up the leaves and as we shovel the dirt into the hole whenever a leaf finds its way back one of us jumps into the grave to pick it up and we throw in a bag of corks and bury a one square foot urn in a pit the size of a swimming pool. We place rocks around site. “Don’t step on Bluey’s head!” I’m warned and she reads the Seicho no Iie sutra and sets out a meal of smoked salmon and fruits and granola bars. I had picked grape leaves the day before and the Princess cooked the most delicious grape leaf dish I've ever eaten and we share that with Bluey. On the forty-ninth day she reads the sutra and his spirit ascends to heaven. Her work is finished. When dogs go to heaven do they gorge on chocolate and grapes?

Final resting spot on top of Blue-Merle Mountain.
It was Spring and new green shoots were growing and the season of the vines continued and some of the vines were hitting the top wire and it was time to get them sprayed to prevent the onset of powdery mildew which can ruin your crop. Since Fidel was going to be out with knee surgery I made arrangements to get another vineyard manager – besides, the Queen can’t stand Fidel and she’s always complaining that the mildew in the vineyard is his fault and she’s always telling me to replace him.
“Why didn’t you tell me you hired someone else?” she yelled. “I want to use Fidel.” This from the woman who accused him of being a thief, a drunk on the job and a scoundrel. She had been hospitalized because of high blood pressure. So had he. She had damaged her knees and had them repaired from surgery. He was about to receive that gift. Could this be the beginning of a reconciliation between the Old Man of the Vines and the Queen of the Vines?

“Are you going to get another dog?” friends ask. Not anytime soon. They say in your life there’s one special dog for you and I’ve had mine and she says he is still with me and any time I call he’ll be there. A vineyard without a dog is a Marine without a rifle and though Bluey loved the vacuum cleaner Nature abhors a vacuum and will fill it.  About another dog, never say never.

In thinking about the fullness of time when the hole in my heart might be filled with a new soul mate, it occurs to me these stories could be weaved into a novel, the tales of planting a vineyard, growing vines and from zero to naked in 1.2 bottles of wine. The stories of Fidel and the Vineyardista; Merlot Mike and Coyote Karen; Joe the Wino and President Obama and the Winos’ Inaugural Ball.  Stories of the Great Recession and bankruptcy and repossession. Tales of winemaking, wine muses, wine tasting and unrequited love.  And standing above them all is the story of a dog and his smile; how he fished for gophers – and swallowed - and chewed corks – but didn’t swallow; the dog who snuck grapes – and survived – and who licked spilled wine when bottling. The dog who would never let go of a rotten gopher carcass one day and who would bring me a lost baby bunny unharmed the next. The dog who made me go fetch and who told me to get my own newspaper each morning- because getting the paper was beneath him. The dog who steadfastly followed his “sheep” everywhere and kept him from getting lost. And the story about his last days and how through it all he bore it stoically to his final breath, even calling out “take me to pee” three hours before he could pee no more. And after he departed for the Rainbow Bridge, his master noticed a pain in his stomach, which he said was just a symptom of mourning, and the next time he noticed the pain he said it was gas from old age and the next time he said it was the beans. And he thought about the food he had shared with the dog and wondered if the dog’s cancer could have been transferred to him since they ate together and shared food and were always side by side and he was always wiping the dog’s saliva. No, you don’t catch stomach cancer from a dog and stop thinking like that or your body might follow the thought and create an illness so he ignored the pains and didn’t go to the doctor. Besides, he had always had stomach pains since he was a kid and the pains were from hunger and if he drank a glass of milk and lay down on his stomach they would go away and he would be fine and when he was an adult the stomach pains came from drinking too much triple espresso and if he lay down the discomfort would go away and after his dog died he said he had sometimes had that feeling in his stomach but when he drank a glass of milk and lay down the pain didn’t go away. One morning there was blood in his stool and he called the doctor. "Is it bright red or dark?" and after he answered the doctor said you better come in and the doctor noticed something and sent him to a specialist who ran a number of tests and when he got the results it wasn’t good news. At that moment he remembered the dog barked every morning when he ground the coffee beans to warn him that the strong coffee he drank was ruining his stomach. There’s no need to write about his last six months because it had already been written about his dog.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Owl and the Moon

It's 4:45 am on a Sunday and the bars are closed and everyone is flying home. In a low murmur he hums "Hoot, hoot-hoot, hoot" in a four-syllable cadence then repeats the rhythmic call. The faint light of dawn is an hour away and who wants a warm bed on a cool morning "Hoot, hoot-hoot, hoot?" After several minutes, from the next field over is a response, "Here I am" in a sweet higher pitch and as I hear this flirting from under my toasty covers I wonder if we'll have owlets this summer? We love our owls. They are so cool. During my day-time job I'm at a convention for art teachers and I'm calling out to each passerby the equivalent of "buy my product" asking with a friendly open-ended question and an owl saunters by and I receive a text message from The Matrix: "Follow the owl over the moon."

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Vineyard Update March 16, 2014

The state of the vineyard on this day, two weeks after 4" of rain fell and afternoon temperatures returned to the seventies, hitting 80 F degrees yesterday and today. The concern is drought.

With the first buds breaking back in February, it seemed bud-break would be early. Indeed, overall bud break seems to be about "normal" for this time of year, which is why I wanted to document the status of everything with photos.

What's different this year is the Duriff / Petite Sirah vines at the bottom of the hill are behind the others, when usually they are the first to breakbud, bloom and ripen. This could be a good thing, and add more balance and a more even ripening this year. Also, the Tempranillo at the bottom of the hill have started earlier this year than at the top.  As the top tends to ripen faster - again, this could result in more even ripening this year.  We shall see. We shall see. I'm not counting any grapes until they're picked.

In summary, the Tempranillo and larger Petite Sirah are in full bud-break with some shoots above the first wire, with the Tempranillo at the top of the hill lagging.  The Grenache are in full bud-break and throwing out shoots and grape clusters - last year they were the last to bud-break and this year they are also among the first.  The Zinfandel and the Aglianico are showing the first signs of budbreak, with baby shoots emerging from their woolen cocoons. Their coming out a bit later is "normal" for our vineyard.

Despite the warm weather, there seem to be only two active gophers at the moment. I saw Owl Gore flying overhead the other night. There have been some crickets but no serious damage - we laid some cricket bait for them just in case. The leak specialist swears there's no major leak in the piping. We started pruning in early February and finished three weeks later. Bluey oversaw the pruning and the last blending of the 2011 and 2012 wines. We did a dormant spray February 22 of 2% organic stylet oil. No lime sulphur was used this year - so we'll see how mildew attacks later this Spring. The new spraying manager swears there will be no mildew on his watch. We shall see. We shall see. This is also the man who said he could drive his ATV all over a vineyard.  Lots of Luck. Thank goodness he didn't roll over and die before giving up. We managed the vineyard properly by irrigating heavily after last year's harvest, twice.  In addition to the irrigation, there was also a good rain back in November, the last one until the big rains of February 27th, which dropped 4". On the to do list: purchase organic compost; finish tightening wires.  All photos taken March 16th, 2014.

April 27th update - The Tempranillo vines are well above the second wire. Most of the Tempranillo, Petite-Sirah and Grenache are flowering - with flowering finished on some of the clusters and baby grapes beginning to appear. No irrigation yet of the Tempranillo and Petite Sirah. They are a "jungle" already - and much "thinning" is required to remove extra shoots and to remove even shoots with grapes as the foliage is just too thick.  The Aglianico and Zinfandel are more under control. The four inches of rain made a big difference.

Grenache in full-bud break. They seem to be ahead of
past years.

The Tempranillo at the top of the hill are lagging the Tempranillo

Tempranillo at the bottom of the hill and throughout are in full
bud-break. Some shoots reaching the first wire.
Agianico - Uglihanako are just beginning to break-bud.

Aglianico - close up.
Grenache facing towards the ocean, bud break well under way.
That bottom row is probably one of the warmest areas of
the vineyard. We will need to be sure to net here early
this year, as this is an easy target for the birds.
Zinfandel just starting to bud-break.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Growing Old, Gracefully, Together

Walk to the top of the hill.
In the blogosphere, it's the quirky, cute, bipolar suicidal woman who has millions of followers. For us, posts of a dog generate the most likes. Today is the dawn of a new year. Let's talk about life - and life's last chapter.

This is not just a story about a dog. It's a story about all of us. Why do healthy people get sick? What health care options are available and how do you pay for expensive treatment? How do we care for the elderly? What are the responsibilities of children to care for their parents? How do we spend our last days? And what afterlife awaits us?

There's a story in the Bible of the final chapter of the great King David when a beautiful virgin was brought to his chamber and he knew her not. When the rabbit froze at the sight of the King of the Vineyard then hopped away without a chase from the Aussie I remembered old King David. Is not chasing a rabbit a sign of old age? Or perhaps a wise old dog who knows there's no use chasing a rabbit he can't catch.

A few years ago as I turned a certain age beyond life's midpoint and the dog turned eight I reflected on how we were growing old together, gracefully. Daily walks up and down the steep hill stiffened our joints. We both lost a step. Then we retired from running marathons. On the dog days of summer we both needed a rest in the shade.

A few years passed and then he was the age of my father. To help the arthritis, we tried laser therapy and then a dog chiropractor.

"Could you adjust my spine too?" I asked the therapist.
"You'll have to lie down where the dog was - it's dirty," he said.
"It doesn't matter. I sleep with him anyhow."

Growing old together. Gracefully. At first.

I bought diapers at "Babies R Us" for Bluey because he was having accidents at night, then during the day. They didn't fit. Catching samples of pee and trips to the vet. A bladder infection or incontinence? Prescriptions for a cranberry based herbal medicine worked for a while then didn't. Next, an incontinence supplement. Waking up every two hours at night to take himoutside became tiring. And then he started throwing up. At first we thought it was from eating the seeds from a Queen Palm tree. Then we thought it was a change in the food as we had switched from home made beef and vegetables to home made chicken-based meals.

The dog was a walking time bomb. At any moment he might throw up or pee or poop anywhere in the house. One learns humility from cleaning it up. We love him so it was just a task you do, cheerfully, like changing the diaper of the Princess when she was a baby. It was time for another trip to the vet. Why is this dog sick to his stomach so often?

Is it the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory for his arthritis?  Blood tests, clear. X-ray, clear. Ultra-sound, not clear but inconclusive. Biopsy, no cancer found. But there's something in his stomach. We're not 100% sure what it is.

It's not easy running a veterinarian hospital. There is no Obamacare for pets. Everyday, animals in dying need arrive requiring urgent care. Vets need to earn a living too. Their education is among the most costly of any profession. Yet how many people can afford to spend $5,000 for an operation to save their dear pet's life? The vets have it in their power to save the animal but how is their practice going to survive providing free healthcare to canine patients? The reviews on Yelp of the clinic where we went are full of such stories: the choice between saving a loved companion or personal bankruptcy.

How we treat our animals tells us a lot about ourselves.  As individuals. As a society.

"I love Australian Shepherds," said the Vet's assistant.
I tell Bluey, "I bet she says that to all of the boys." She starts asking detailed questions about his diarrhea.  She's knowledgeable. She's smart. She speaks with authority. And I'm wondering if a guy has ever asked a girl out on a first date to inspect his dog's poop?

After more tests, the doctor comes back with his findings. There's an 80% chance of cancer. To know for sure he needs to operate.

What are the benefits of the operation? We may extend his life three to nine months. Is it worth extending the life of a dog suffering from arthritis? And what are the odds that he will be weakened even more from surgery and suffer during recuperation? This is an easy decision. Let his sickness take its course and we'll manage his symptoms and pain until it's time.

Our friend Richie says you'll know it's time when he no longer wants to eat and doesn't want to engage. He'll go off to a corner and be by himself. That will be his sign to you.

The Queen said he doesn't have cancer. I wonder if the Rimadyl might have burned a hole in his stomach? I ask the doctor to treat him as if he had an ulcer.

We begin a routine of administering sucralfate to sooth the stomach then two hours later omeprazole to control his stomach acid - he seems to be continuously foaming at the mouth. In the afternoon we give him Cerenia to control his vomiting and it works and we try taking him off it a couple of days and he starts throwing up again so it's back on the meds.

Two 81-year old puppies.
In November, my parents arrive for a visit. Bluey loves his "grandparents" and he's so excited to see them. For the three days they are here he doesn't stop talking. He's putting on a brave show. Dad gets down on all fours and it's such a treat to see two 81-year old puppies rollicking around on the floor.

At first it's easy to insert the pills into a piece of avocado or chicken. But over time, he not only stops eating avocado. He stops eating everything.

Coyote Karen came over to see Bluey. She recalls the time when her parents reached a point when it was too painful to swallow food. Both her mom and dad succumbed to cancer.

Bluey looses weight. He grows weaker. And I remember Richie's words. When he stops eating, he's telling you it's time.

I find myself picking him up into my arms and carrying him down the steep driveway so he can pee in a favorite spot.  I had practice taking care of dad in the heart ward of the hospital after his valve replacement and bypass. We say Blue-Merle red wine cured him. But Bluey doesn't want to sip wine anymore.  He hasn't eaten in 24 hours. I get down on all fours and start ooooing and chewing the aromatic filet mignon from a dish on the ground as if enticing a baby. Yummy yum yum. He joins me and starts nibbling, eating like a very old man - with bits of food strewn all over his face and the floor when he's finished.

Twenty-four hours later and he hasn't eaten since, this time the filet has no appeal. We open a can of dog food - this is the dog who has never eaten food from a can - he eats half the can.  Small miracle. Relief. Another day's lease on life.

The Princess has come home for the holidays and after a couple of days of this routine says, "This is the worst Christmas ever!"

Settling down for a long winter's nap.
Sweet dreams.
"Isn't it nice we can spend this time together as a family? Let's go for a walk." All four of us head up the hill - I pick up Bluey and I realize I'm carrying my cross to the top of the hill. It's a dress rehearsal for his funeral and there's a tear in my eye and we reach the top with a view to the Pacific, macadamia trees and vineyard below -- his vineyard, named after him.

The sun is setting two days before Christmas and while I sit with the family in the last warm rays Bluey heads for shade. He always sought shade. We call him over. The Queen starts singing a song horribly off key "Beautiful boy, beautiful boy, mama loves you, beautiful boy." We take a selfie.

"Dad, can we bury him here?" asks the Princess. And I suppose we will spend Christmas day digging his grave. Three feet down through this solid dirt is going to be a lot of work and I'm thinking it would be nice if she can help. Family activity. Burying your dog.

We walk down to the house and he doesn't eat. No filet mignon. No canned dog food. The Queen has an inspiration. She drives to the market to buy Gerber baby food. He eats the baby turkey dog, but doesn't touch the other jars. He takes some Jarlsberg cheese. We wrap some bread around the cheese and he nibbles more. He will be with us another day.

The next day, he won't eat the Gerber. No filet. No dog food. No milk. We cook a Hebrew National kosher hot dog and he eats it this day. But not the next.

Let's cook him a lamb chop. That works. He's with us another day.

Let's cook lamb stew. That works.  He's with us another day.

Each day, he's a little thinner. The drool drips out of his mouth. He throws up some mornings, but I don't tell the others. One morning as he squats to do #2 blood oozes out. I wipe his butt and carry on. Thank goodness the incontinence has stopped. We can all sleep through the nights.

The princess is a good sport and she perseveres with efforts to entice him to eat. Finally, she uses an injector to suck up milk and soup and squirts it by hand into his mouth.

If we can show such compassion for a dog, what would the world be like if we shared as much love with our fellow humans? Will my daughter be there to wipe the spittle from my mouth, to feed me by hand, to wipe my butt during my last days?

Good wine is made in the vineyard and great wine is made by blending and a year ago at this time the 2012 wines were winners, so I thought, but a year later they are coming up short. With the Blue-Merle at my side, perhaps for the last time, we work to create artisan wines worthy of his name. But instead of staying with me as I taste and blend 13 barrels of wine, he sits outside. At least there's some good news, the 2013 wines are terrific. Bluey will go out a winner.

I found a mouse dead in a trap and usually I would release it from the trap's grip onto a shovel and dispose of it in the canyon adjacent to the vineyard but I was feeling a little tired from all of this and I just kept the mouse in the trap and buried it not far from the house. No need to worry about the weakened dog digging it up. The next day I walked to the area and saw the exhumed trap on the path without a mouse and Bluey licking his lips. No wonder the dog's stomach was upset.

Mr. Barry from Australia who named him told us "he will change your life." He was so right.

This story can have only one end. Even Lazarus raised from the grave must die one day. Bluey lies on his bed on the floor, a bag of bones adorned with a magnificent main and natural fur coat. Remembering how a thin Steve Jobs felt suffering from cancer - always cold - I cover him with a velvet blue blanket, stroke his fur, rub him behind his ears, pick the sand from the corner of his eyes. With lump in throat I lay my hands upon him as he sleeps, summon the Holy Spirit and pray aloud, "Lord, we are so grateful for all the joy Bluey has brought to our lives. Thank you Lord for looking after him during his final days and thank you for keeping him from pain. Please grant us the wisdom to care for him properly while he's with us, and in the fullness of time, may we all be reunited in your heavenly kingdom. Amen."

I whisper in his ear, "Good boy. Good boy. You can leave us if you want to" stroking his thick fur, so peacefully asleep. I quietly leave the room. A minute later I hear slow steps as he follows me, always tracking his sheep. It's not time yet.  One day at a time.

Today is the start of a new year. It's a wonderful day and we're together watching the sunrise. I pull the lamb shank out of the boiling pot of water, cool it, and offer him a morsel of tender meat, then a piece for myself. I hand him the bone. He gnaws.

Editor's note: For the rest of the story, click here. "It's a Dog's Life."