Ripe and Swollen

Driving the wine country alone, right at dawn—headed home to San Francisco, after a weekend in Napa—I couldn’t help but notice the green and purple grape clusters dangling beneath trellised vines. And precisely because it was so early in the morning, with the low, golden light of a harvest-time dawn gilding the vineyards and casting soft shadows, I couldn’t help but look for a kind of visual poetry in the scene. For centuries, we’ve heard that such poetry is there: in one classical painting after another, in great literature and verse, not to mention in the ongoing sales job forever pimping the wine country lifestyle. We can’t help but know that harvest is a time of promise and beauty, and so with my wife and two young daughters asleep together, in one big bed back at my in-laws’ place, outside the town of Napa, I was hoping to feel that poetry for myself. It was a little sad to leave the girls behind, even if it was only to scoot home for work, and it was only natural to seek solace in the sight of vines—and thus the 2007 Napa vintage—every bit as pregnant as the young day itself.

But as I drove past Copia and on through town, and then took Route 121 through the lovely hills of Carneros, it occurred to me that a vision of the harvest here in California’s signature vineyards is far less simple than a dream of wine carved on the side of an ancient Grecian urn. First, there’s the old and obvious bittersweetness of knowing that a ripe fruit must fall, that autumn must come, that vines must go dormant and little girls like mine must grow up, and that my own time on Earth is limited, just like yours. But there’s also a bittersweetness that has more to do with the wine itself: The fruit hanging heavy on these vines, after all, is a commodity, an agricultural product, a key link in a hugely profitable international alcoholic-beverages industry.

Not sure what else I’d hoped to see: an uplifting vision of natural hedonism, perhaps? Something in those weighted grape clusters to make my heart sing for the vintage ahead? Reminders of my own years of high ripeness, when Eros ruled the day? One of wine’s mysteries, it seems to me, is that it strikes all the chords of the deeply beautiful, evoking all the poignancy and exaltation, and yet it never calls up specific themes or dreams, tragedies or comedies. The beauty of wine is more like a great landscape than like a great novel: A novel has content, story and character and philosophy; a landscape’s impact is more primal, like the impact of a pleasant smell.

So perhaps that’s what I’d hoped to see, on this golden dawn at the brink of harvest. Perhaps I’d wanted to feel through seeing, in that greatest of wine country visions, all the grapes swollen and ready, an aesthetic joy related to the aesthetic joy of drinking wine itself. And yet it was harder than that, as the road wound through the southernmost folds of the Mayacamas Range separating the Napa and Sonoma valleys. I was indeed alive to the way those folds and hills petered out to the south, running into the flat wetlands of the north San Francisco Bay. Cool winds come off that water—far cooler than up in Rutherford, or points farther north in the Napa Valley—giving Carneros a great climate for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But as I drove past the di Rosa Preserve, watching a flock of ducks headed south, I was also passing the loony glory of the Domaine Carneros château, a Disneyland version of the wine-drinking lifestyle, wowing the yokels with a vision of aristocratic Europe.

Farther on, I saw another flock of ducks, headed for those wetlands, and so I was feeling the way the ducks and the vineyards thrive in the same climate, but then I was passing the Laura Chenel goat cheese operation, recently bought out by some corporate giant, but still home to goats lying motionless in the cold shadow of a low Sonoma hill. So how was I to weed out the sacred from the profane, find a version of this picture—Napa at harvest time, the light unbearably rich and lovely—that held all this together, at once? Beauty and commerce, landscape and agriculture …

Ah, but then I was getting some help: The highway runs flat for a while, after leaving those Carneros hills, and sheep were grazing to one side while moist ocean air lay cold over the marsh to the south. On one wooden fence pole after another—three in row—I saw red-tailed hawks sitting, waiting for the air to warm enough for their big wings. And up ahead, I saw a lone figure, a person, standing on the south side of the road. As I grew closer, I saw that his hands were on top of his head, and as I whipped past I saw that it was a handsome young man, no more than 25, with shaggy hair and shabby clothes and a soft smile on his face. He was standing beside a motorcycle that he had stopped in the gravel for the sole purpose of breathing that bay air and gazing across the wetlands into the warm blast of the rising sun—and feeling, I imagine, alive and fresh, all the world new and waiting.

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