Friday, June 18, 2010

Canopy Management

Yesterday, I was in Rome, teaching story basics to first-year script writing students at the national film school at Cinecitta`, home of the great Fellini, Rossellini and others. Today I am back in Tuscany among my vines happily wondering if I should have been a little more careful in what I wished for.

I have spent the last 3 years since purchasing the property, returning the vineyard to as much health as possible: raising the fallen vines and repairing the trellises, pruning for vigorous growth and the reestablishment of healthy roots and trunks, leadering (rooting sections of long vine trailers in the ground) to create new vines in the gaps left by the dead , keeping the brucchi (grapevine caterpillars) at bay, and training the vines as much as possible toward the time I could at last make wine from their grapes. Well, the vines are TOO HEALTHY! I now need to stop saving the vines and pruning for health and need to now prune for healthy grape clusters. There are too many stems, too many leaves, and actually, too many grape clusters. All this, with the Napa Valley sort of fogs we have on mornings like this one, will lead to the dreaded oidio (mold) that is the bane of sangiovese's existence.

Sangiovese, the primary grape of Brunello and of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and of Morrelino di Scansano and of Chianti, already comes with a characteristic handicap -- tightly packed clusters -- so they need a lot of air circulation. That is what I'll spend the next few days providing by removing all branches that do not have clusters on them and all lower leaves that are damaged by brucchi or touching the new clusters. This is mainly a pinch and a flick of finger and thumb, but it is repetitive and time consuming work. Later, as the clusters grow, I will thin them so no two touch each other and make sure they hang correctly.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


This is Irio Perugini. He was a contadino for 45 years until he became a carpenter. Yesterday, after he finished the installing our windows and doors, he showed me how to leaf prune, to give this year's abundant grape clusters plenty of air and light and thus avoid oidio (mold).

Both Irio and our next door neighbor Guilio Manzi tell me its cheaper to buy fine Brunellos than it is to make one’s own wine. Can this be? Actually, because of farm subsidies and the wholesale economics of factory farming and chain supermarket distribution, yes. As far as I can see, growing ones own anything makes little economical sense. In fact, for what we’ve spent on our modest Tuscan farm, Sally and I could spend yearly vacations in fine hotel suites in exotic locations for most of the rest of our lives. If so, why the @#$%^&* am I working so hard?!

“Small scale doesn’t really pay,” I told Sally, as we sat sipping prosecco, waiting for the first Italian match of the World Cup to light up the screens in our village’s parking lot. “It used to be cheaper to grow your own corn and chickens, if you wanted to eat chicken. But mass production has changed all that.”

“Is that true of your garden, too?” Sally asked, remembering I’d spent $600 just for seed.

Generally speaking, after the initial outlay for tools, tillers, tractors, transportation (amortized over time, of course) and fencing, there are the costs of gas and oil for tiller, truck, weed eater, grass mower, etc., string, plastic ground cover, variety tags, mulch, fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide, compost bin materials, seed and plants, seed starting containers and medium, electricity for lights if you start your own seed, labor (at least to water and weed when the gardener is away on vacation), water and electricity to pump it and more weighing down the balance sheet of any garden or farm. For us, it’s a little different.

So far I have spent about $200 dollars for garden tools, plastic, and fencing, $700 for seed (usable over 3 seasons) and transplants, and another $50 for soil organic improving inoculants and pest controls. Let’s call it an even thousand. If I weren’t practicing organic no-till gardening and had bought a tiller or a tractor and the petrochemicals that go with it, if I hadn’t brought over in my suitcase almost all of my hand tools, if I hadn’t started my own seed in soil blocks I made myself, if I didn’t mulch with the vineyard cuttings and recycled newspaper to keep weeds, watering and labor down, if I had hired help, the costs would be at least tenfold. At the moment anyway, I am absolutely certain that our garden will provide us with produce into winter for less than the cost of putting it in. Never mind that since mid March, I’ve spent an average of 15 hours (with Sally adding another 5 or so) per week putting it in and maintaining it.

The real point is cost vs. value. We are already eating watercress, a dozen kinds of lettuce, 3 kinds of radish, onions, chicory, spinach, mustard and other greens and we look forward to whatever succeeds in my grand experiment to see which varieties will grow and bear the best produce with the least care out of the dozen kinds of heirloom tomato, the dozen pumpkins and squash, dozen types of melon, dozen kinds of pepper (many chilis), the half-dozen eggplant varieties, the two kinds of potato, the many onions, etc. It makes my mouth water just to list. But is it really worth all the work? I am not alone in thinking so.

Firstly, there’s the matter of what you do not get when you avoid buying food in a cost-effective a grocery store of any kind (Whole Foods included). On the health and planetary consciousness side, you do not get pesticide and herbicide residues; you do not get (using heirloom seed) Monsanitized food (like “Round-Up ready” soy and flounder genes spliced into strawberries, for instance); you do not get meat that has been fed things it is not designed to eat including parts of its own kind; you do not get the huge carbon footprint that comes from shipping ridiculous things ridiculous distances (like water from Fiji, for instance) and produce out of season in your own hemisphere in superfluous packaging; you do not get under-ripe tasteless-but-shippable fruits and vegetables and the lack of enzymes and vitamins that go with them.

On the soul side, when you buy in a store you do not get (except for the friendly exchanges with nearly extinct local grocers you actually know) gratifying human interaction; you do not get fresh air, exercise, bird and insect song, a sense of weather and season, a firm connection to the natural rhythms we are actually inextricable from; you do not get escape from the onslaught of corporate advertising and mind-numbing food aisle decision making; you do not get a chance to meditate on much of anything, and you do not get (if you are at all aware of the above) the shot of dopamine to the prefrontal cortex that lights up your reward center and makes you feel you have done something right and are being truly accomplished.

Besides outright praise, here is my short list of things that make one feel directly and deeply and satisfyingly accomplished: the smile of someone you have shown love, care, or compassion to, the reaching of a goal (a passage well-written, a ball or fish caught, a kiss responded to in kind), and perhaps most directly and immediately, the sweet complex taste of something perfectly ripe you’ve just harvest and put in your mouth (or harvested and prepared, like wine and oil). If there is a fold in the brain that remembers paradise, it must be the one involving taste.

That’s why.