A rich aspect of agricultural life is seasonality and the change of pace that comes with it. Wintertime brings shorter days, longer nights and soggy weeks. After 300+ days a year of sunny and often hot weather in Paso Robles, capped by the long days of the wine harvest, we gladly huddle indoors on occasion and enjoy an oakwood fire. There is more time for reading and indoor work on the business side of ranching and winemaking, as well as time to reflect.
I began my winter reading with Richard Rhodes' Arsenals of Folly, which recounts the history, proliferation and attempts to limit nuclear arms. It is a chilling ride that brings the Cold War to life and reminds us of the fundamental risks of modern life and technology. While reading that book in the deep of a November night (3:07 AM, actually), I was startled to see what I thought was a bright and persistent shooting star out my bedroom window. I went out on our south-facing balcony to watch it arc across the sky when I realized I was watching a missile launch, the ghostly trail of which lingered in the night sky as if left the atmosphere far out over the Pacific. This apparition had been a Vandenberg Air Force Base test launch of a Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), whose designed purpose is to carry a nuclear weapon to the far side of globe. I was profoundly moved at the eerie coincidence. I have not been able to stop thinking about it for very long since.
I was so impressed by Richard Rhodes writing that I sought out another of his books: John James Audobon: The Making of an American. This book provided a rich plunge into the world of early 1800s frontier America. It is, for me, a gripping tale of the great naturalist, artist and publisher spanning decades of misfortune, persistence and eventual triumph. Audobon's _Birds of America_ was the finest ornithological work of its time and his paintings set new standards for natural realism. His scenes have a wild, strange, sometimes violent quality that Rhodes summed up as "the concentrated essence of the wilderness". What really struck me in the book was the dramatic environmental changes already taking place in North America. Audobon observed that through deforestation and overharvesting of wildlife in 1830, "Nature herself is perishing".
Moving on in my literary journey, I read Wendell Berry's The Gift of Good Land. Nathan, our ranch manager, had recommended it to me and was so moved by the book that he read passages aloud to us. The Gift is a collection of essays on sustainable farming published in 1981 that is still strikingly relevant. Berry's prose is so thoughtful and beautiful that I found myself marking page after page with dog eared corners.
On the work of family farmers Berry comments: "The work of factory workers is ruled by the factory. Whereas the work of housewives, small craftsmen and small farmers is ruled by their own morality, skill and intelligence" and "society...may lose...efficiency and economy of scale. But it begins to gain...independence, pride, respect....love, reverence."
On cattle feedlots: "within the boundaries of the feeding operation itself a certain factory-like order and efficiency can be achieved. But [it] produces biological disorder, for we know that health problems and dependence on drugs will be greater among cattle so confined than among cattle on pasture. And beyond those boundaries, the problems multiply."
On life: "the world, the weather, and the life cycle have caused me no end of trouble, and yet I look forward to putting another forty or so years with them because they have also given me no end of pleasure and instruction. They interest me. I want to see them thrive on their own terms."
On farming: "Agriculture depends on nature and is contained in nature; if you want to understand agriculture, therefore, you must understand what preceded it."
So what does all of this reading and reflection have to do with growing (and enjoying) good food and fine wine? Everything.
Springtime, Party Time, Excellent!
Springtime is festival time in Paso Robles. We will be pouring our wines at the following events in next few months:
- Zinfandel Weekend, March 15-17, 11am to 5pm at Thacher Winery, including 2011 Zin barrel samples and advance "future" sales
- Paso Robles Cab Collective, April 27, 2-5pm at Windfall Farms in Paso Robles
- Rangeland Wines Field Day, First Annual April 28, 12 to 3:30pm at Adelaida Springs Ranch (see below for more details)
- Paso Robles Wine Festival, May 18-19, 11am-5 pm; the ranch will be open to visitors for tasting and grass-fed sliders.
First Annual Rangeland Field Day
For years we have talked about a springtime event in the pasture celebrating what we do here as ranchers and winegrowers. Our inaugural Rangeland Field Day will include wine, food, music, educational and livestock displays and tours in our beautiful pasture, including:
11:00 am Vineyard Tour led by winemaker Shannon Gustafson
12:00 - 3:00 pm Field Day Celebration
Wine: taste Rangeland Wines and enjoy a glass with your lunch
Food: grass-fed beef and lamb sliders, salads, homemade baked goodies, lemonade and iced tea
Music: live acoustic music from local singer/songwriter/guitarist Jill Knight, plus some homegrown family and ranch employee performances
3:00 pm Ranch tour led by owner Laird Foshay
Tickets: $40 per person, club discounts apply for members and their guests (when purchased by the club member).
Children 12 and under are free.
We went for a Sunday ramble on the ranch, ostensibly to check on livestock and open a few gates for the cattle. Usually there's a point to the ramble, but even when there is one, the ramble turns out to be much much more than its intended beginnings.
So we headed down the road to the vineyard. The horses in the east pasture looked at us nervously…their little thought bubbles would have read "Um, I'm not really up for a ride today. I'm feeling peaky. My legs are sore. I'm too busy eating." And then there was Honey, in the pasture across the road, looking all perky and interested. Laird gave her a good long pat and a handful of grass from our side of the fence…because the grass is always greener. She would have taken us anywhere we asked. Good horse.
At least 50 band-tail pigeons were scared out of the trees and flew in a great arcing pattern above and around us, settling in a cluster of trees across the road. They were large and greyblue in the light, and flew gracefully with beautiful notched wings.
We entered the vineyard and all the sheep were right by the road, sunning themselves in the winter light. Jack and Mia (the guardian dogs) went crazy barking, since our dog Silver was with us. The sheep were not nervous. They were alert and curious. Do you have a treat for me? They are funny, serious looking. Solid and fat. I am ready for lambs!
I wanted to look at my garden plot so we walked down through block 5. Saw the first bush lupine in bloom! So early. So beautiful. Hard to appreciate the beauty when the nagging worry about rainfall diminishes the color.
At the end of block 5 was the line of demarcation: where the sheep had been, and where they had not been. A perfect mowed line. They are amazing grass consuming machines! There were bits of wool stuck to the lower vineyard wires, looked like flocking décor from Christmas. I put a piece in my pocket. We walked the garden plot and talked about different ways to water. I'm already plotting, plotting. There will be canning this year, yes there will.
We went through the lower vineyard gate by the willow tree. There was a party under the willow, calves and mothers and young steers. They were vocal and funny. Didn't see any new calves, but we are on the hunt, every time we go out. We headed over to the gate to open it and lure the cattle into the Yucca Point pasture. We called for the girls and of course, a (halter-trained) fair cow came running. I wonder what will happen to the herd once the fair cows are all gone. They are the leaders, the gentle ones, unafraid of humans, comfortable with contact. The rest, the ones born on the ranch and now breeding on the ranch, are warier and wilder.
We hiked up the steep ridge above the lake and made our way back down to the flats. Just as we crested the hill I saw a golden eagle on the ground; he took a running start and sailed over the canyon, away towards the neighbor's lake. He had been feasting on the little steer that died a few weeks ago from tetanus. Nathan had dragged the carcass into the canyon and the critters have come to clean up.
We were hoping to get the one wild cow, who'd resisted joining the herd, into the lake pasture. She was by the gate, with a greeting committee on the other side, braying at her. But she ran up the hill into the trees when she saw us coming. Lone cow. Not normal!
At the gate between the lake pasture and the house pasture, we came upon the crusty remains of an aborted calf fetus. The skull was the size of Laird's hand, the hooves not fully formed. Sad to see. We are wondering, what caused this? First time mother? Vaccinations that caused a miscarriage? Nature weeding out the weak? That's two in a couple of weeks, one 6 month old gorgeous steer, one calf not yet born . Soon there will be dozens of calves being born on the grass, licked into life, nudged onto wobbly legs. The next day, frisky and running. Life and death on the ranch. Life and death.
The girls sprinted up the hill to the house; how nice to have young limbs and lungs. The daffodils have started up around our old dog Rufus' grave. No blooms just yet, the stems pushing up towards the sun. If I could pick a spot for my own bones, this would be it.
A Day to Remember
I started this blog last year with the hopes of keeping up a regular schedule. Now I notice that my previous post was last summer. It turns out that running a ranch as a family business and writing regularly are at cross-purposes. Ironically, after my first career in business, I saw myself as writer who occasionally trotted around on horseback and sipped my own wine from the terrace while overlooking nature's bounty. Ah, to be naive again.
Of course last year was one for the record books in our family, including: launching our Rangeland Wines label, beginning sales of our Adelaida Springs Ranch grass-fed beef, opening our Little Ranch House to paid visitors for the first time, graduating our second son from high school and getting him settled at UCLA, and dealing with the illness (cancer) and death of my father-in-law late in the year. I'm not making excuses (ha) or seeking sympathy (whimper).
For those of you thinking of ranching or wine growing as an escape from the daily grind, it would be wise to remember that ranching and winemaking can be just a different kind of grind. Indoor tasks like marketing and paperwork compete with the outdoor time of farming life. Now this wine country grind has many deep and gratifying compensations, but sometimes the grinding overtakes the compensating, and it becomes hard to appreciate one's surroundings.
Anyway, last weekend offered a little break from the grind when we found no guests on the schedule, no wine tastings, no ranch tours and no tasks urgent enough to overcome our need to recuperate. Due to recent rains, it was a little too wet to tractor or ride. The weather was bright and clear due to a cold front sweeping through the area. Morning brought 50+ mile views the Santa Lucias all the way to the Ventana Wilderness above Big Sur. Juniperro Serra Peak, the highest point in the range at almost 6,000 feet, stood snow capped in the distance. Echelons of towering white clouds skidded over the ridge. The sound of running creeks tumbling off of steep hills quietly roared in the background. Around mid day, my wife and I decided to tour the ranch and check cows, since our spring calving season is upon us.
We set out in my pickup with a beer in the cup holder. I shot a ground squirrel on the way for the sheer fun of it. My wife always comments on how romantic that is, like cruising with Elmer Fudd. Sometimes, however, she giggles from the infectious sport of it. Wicked girl. Deer trotted lazily away on the sunny hillsides. Fat, maturing cattle jogged near the truck, hoping for a hay treat that almost never comes, since we only feed our cattle a little to lure them when we gather them. We stopped in the at the Little Ranch House to pick up the laundry and crack the outdoor faucets to avoid damage in the coming freeze.
Continuing to the Hill Pasture where we keep our pregnant cows, we came across the first calf of the day. Newly born, it stood spraddle-legged under the oaks, across a clear-flowing creek, with its mother licking it in a devotional trance. Right then, all the cares and scars of the daily grind fell away for me and I found myself completely at home. I held my wife's hand like a schoolboy. Speechless. The mother had just graduated from heifer to cow. Because cows usually seek seclusion for their births, there were no other cattle in view. We had no camera with us, but we knew there would be dozens of calves and hundreds of photos to come. We were happy just to watch.
Up the hill and around the corner more calves started to appear. We used the field glasses to watch a mother cow chew lustily on her own afterbirth, shining pink in long tendrils from her mouth. Meanwhile the unsteady calf tried to work the colostrum milkshake machine at the other end of the cow. Pale yellow winter light flooded the scene, highlighting the shining black coats of the cattle.
Back at home, I sat on the terrace with a cigar and a glass of estate Cabernet, feeling mellow. The temperature was dropping fast, now in the 30s and I spread a wool blanket across my lap and wrapped my legs. Sunshine glinted intermittently under darkened clouds. I heard the racket of a chirping Kestrel, a little "sparrow hawk" and imagined it harrying a Red Tail Hawk, as they do every day. There, in the distance to the south, hundreds of yards down over the tops of the winter-naked oaks, I saw the Red Tail swoop and flare, its wings and wedge-shaped tail flashing iridescent against the charcoal sky as it landed in a tree top. I watched it sway and glitter on its perch while the Kestrel renewed the attack.
With the weather closing in, I heard a hissing sound in the oak groves to the west, getting louder. The dog sat alert facing the advancing storm. Soon the light hail arrived, sprinkling, then covering everything with dry spherical little corns of snow. A little flash and static flux in the atmosphere was followed by a short, rolling blast of thunder. Mudda nature was getting her freak on. After a few minutes the precipitation turned to fat, lazy flakes of snow, which began to accumulate on the gnarled scaffolding of the oaks, now almost luminescent in the darkening evening. It was time to build a fire and enjoy my rediscovered naivete.
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