Thursday, April 29, 2010

One Romnce contd. (7)

Nick spent the month of May in the vineyard cleaning up leftover post and trellis problems, making sure the tying was indeed complete, and then watching bud break. The tractor was tuned up and ready to roar. His chemistry spray schedule was set up. The schedule he was given by the previous owner was formulaic. It didn’t take into account changes in weather and disease patterns, and, to Nick, it seemed like it was too reliant on Monsanto, a company that did not instill joy.

He had already made a few purchases for the winery-to-come: a small crusher/de-stemmer, a crude plate press that he would soon be sorry that he bought, a few small tanks and barrels. He had a couple of stainless tanks custom made, as his requirements were so small and particular he could not locate existing tanks to fit his needs. He especially wanted one tank for bottling that would have a convex bottom and an outlet valve at the center of the bottom point. He needed it because his bottling line would be manually done, fed from the tank by the force of gravity to a small hand-corker. His desire for oak was minimal, as he was never much of a fan of what he considered its over-use, and to be different, he decided on a couple of barrels of what was still back then called Yugoslavian oak. His small operation wouldn’t have and wouldn’t need a big lab, but he still needed a few items of measuring devices to test for acidity, sweetness, sulfur dioxide levels, and acidity/pH—he could not afford to measure for alcohol. For discovering flaws, he would use first his nose and palate, and then a neighboring winery or the Cornell University Cooperative Extension Service nearby.

The winery was an old barn that he had spent most of his money on making ready. A water well was already in place, which was used for the vineyard spraying regime. All it needed was an underground piping system brought into the barn and then a series of sinks and so on. The barn was of sound structure and it had few walls, which was perfect. It needed flooring on the upper levels and it needed pathways for hosing, plus many holes plugged and insulation. He designed the place so that the only time he needed to pump was to get white juice up to the top floor where it was fermented or to send fermented reds from the bottom to the top. After that, rackings were done first from a higher shelf on each floor and down to the second shelf on the second floor, where the wine stayed until bottling. The floors and shelves within floors were “super reinforced.” It was a nice design but it would last only as long as he did not start to increase volume; when that time came, he’d need a new or an expanded winery.

There was no room in the barn for an on-site tasting room, and since the barn was next to his home, he wasn’t crazy anyway about the idea of visitors in close proximity to his house. The idea was to establish that off-site tasting room as the sole winery tasting room. He waited about two weeks after sending in the application for the off-site tasting room before he began to pester the liquor authority. When the time came, he called and was given as his case manager a Mr. Friedman, a man who sounded elderly and harried. The phone calls were classic bureaucracy.

“New York State Liquor Authority. How may I help you?”

“Hello. I’m Nick Lazio. I’ve applied for an off-site wine tasting room license and wondered if you could connect me with the office that handles those applications.”

He was connected to someone who, after he repeated his reason for calling replied, “Applications for winery licenses take a little time. You should receive in the mail a receipt for your application.”

“No ma’am. I have a winery license already. I applied for an off-site tasting room license.”

“If you have a winery license already, sir, you don’t need a tasting room license.”

“ No ma’am. I am applying for an off-site tasting room license.”

“Sir, the only people who can apply for an off-site tasting room license are those who hold a Farm Winery license.”

“Exactly. That’s what I have and that’s why I applied for the off-site license.”

“Oh, thank you sir. I’ll connect you to that office.”

After having been connected to the proper office, Nick learned who the case manager was and so he spoke to Mr. Friedman.

“Hello Mr. Friedman. I’ve applied for an off-site tasting room license and am just checking to make sure everything is going along fine.”

“You must hold a Farm Winery license before we can issue you an off-site license.”

“Yes, I know. I have a Farm Winery License…

Friedman cut him off mid-sentence.

“What is that license number, please.”

He gave Friedman the winery license number and then waited on hold—until he was cut off the line.

Nick was used to this from the last go around with the liquor authority, so he calmly re-dialed and went through the steps necessary to get him to Mr. Friedman.

“Mr. Friedman. I was on hold for you but got cut off.”

“Who are you?”

He gave Friedman the information again and was again put on hold. This time, Friedman came back.

“Yes Mr. Lazy-o. We received your application. Didn’t you get a receipt?”

“It’s Lazio, with a short a. No I didn’t receive a receipt. That’s why I called.”

“Well, don’t worry. We have it and it is being processed. You should have your license within a few weeks.”

“Mr. Friedman, I was under the impression that it takes four weeks to get the off-site license. It’s been two weeks already and I wondered if you can tell me whether that four weeks time is certain. You see…”

Friedman cut him off again.

“Well, it takes about four weeks but it doesn’t take exactly four weeks. It could be five, six, or eight weeks.”

“Could it be three weeks, Mr. Friedman?”

“Oh, I’ve never heard of that happening, and I’ve been here in Albany for almost twenty years.”

“So, it’s possible that I won’t have it by Memorial Day weekend.”

“Have what?”

“The off-site license, Mr. Friedman.”

“It’s possible.”

“But I have a tasting room all ready to go. Is there any way to ensure the license gets here by the end of the month? Can I pay extra for expediting the process?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lazy-o, we don’t take money to make something happen that wouldn’t normally happen. The process takes about four weeks. You will get the license—if your application was filled out correctly—between four and six weeks. If you don’t, then you may phone me again. I’ll be here another few months before I retire.”

Nick’s stomach sank at the word “retire.” During the Farm Winery licensing process, the person that was supposedly helping him get through the many application snafus had retired and it took an extra week to locate the files and get another case worker on them.

“Thank you Mr. Friedman. I’ll call again when I need to.”

“Please, don’t call every day or even every week. I have a lot to do here.”

“Yes, Mr. Friedman. Thank you.”

The next time he called for Mr. Friedman, it was a few days before Memorial Day weekend, the license had not arrived, and the conversation went in a completely unexpected direction.

“Mr. Friedman. The last time we spoke you said I should call if the license hadn’t arrived within the allotted time frame…”

Mr. Friedman cut him off.

“Yes, but you didn’t wait long enough, did you? Anyway, from the files it shows that everything is approved. You should get the license any day now. Call me if you don’t have it in another week.”

“Mr. Friedman, I was hoping to have it for Memorial Day weekend. I submitted in time for that to happen. I am set up to open the tasting room on Memorial Day weekend.”

“Mr. Lazy-o, you can’t sell wine without a license. You can’t open until you get the license. I hope you understand that.”

“I didn’t say that I was going to open without the license. I said that I applied in time to have the license by Memorial Day weekend and I want to open that weekend. It is a busy weekend and could give me a nice head start in my business.”

“Like I said, you can’t open without a license. Call me in a week if the license has not arrived.”

Nick sold wine throughout Memorial Day weekend without a license to sell wine—the license arrived on the Tuesday after Memorial Day. Mr. Friedman never knew and it’s a good thing, because that would not be the last time Nick would deal with Mr. Friedman.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2010. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

One Romance contd (6)

Tying was going smoothly. Theresa held her own, when she was out there to help—Nick could not keep his hands off her. They had been separated for lengths of time in the past, but nothing like what this situation had created. Their marriage had become a weekend affair, with the rest of the week’s communication by telephone, but what wonderful weekend affairs they were having. Theresa was tired from the trip on Friday but not so tired as to be immune from Nick’s advances. It was Saturday, however, that gave new meaning to the phrase, “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” On Sunday, she was back on the road and they both were miserable.

Nick’s form of a cold shower was to spend Sunday afternoons doing the business bookkeeping in his little office, which he referred to as “the torture chamber.” After a bout with the financial chains that bound them, he marveled at how they managed to eat, let alone pay the mortgage. Yet, he was impressed by his own talent for juggling. The arrival of the New York winery license gave him one more thing to consider on bookkeeping Sunday: when and how would he get things started.

He also knew that there would be no wine to sell for more than one year, and to face that reality he had a plan to apply for an off-premise tasting license. Farm wineries were allowed a few off-site tasting rooms in the state and along with their wines, the wineries could sell their neighbor’s wines. The state’s liquor authority had assured him that he could get one of these licenses within 30 days. He wanted to get an off-site tasting room up and running by Memorial Day—five weeks away. He had already signed a lease on the space and started having the place renovated in preparation. With the winery license in hand, he had just enough time to receive the off-premise license if he filed right away, and so on this particular Sunday he filled out the application and sent a check; then, he plopped into bed early.

Living a rural, agricultural life is nothing if it isn’t a fixation on the weather. April had proved so far cooperative for the work in the vineyard, and so Nick was pleased to be ahead of schedule. Monday through Wednesday saw warm, sunny days and cool but not cold nights. In fact, not once thus far that April did the region experience a frost, which was unusual to say the least. But when Thursday arrived, it was a different story. A clear, still, cloudless night brought with it a frost sometime after midnight; at six Thursday morning, the temperature registered 19 degrees F. There was no way he could tie canes to the trellis in that kind of cold, for fear he would snap canes—besides, he couldn’t do the work wearing winter gloves.

The other thing about an agricultural life is that if you can’t get one chore done for whatever reason, there are always a half-dozen or so in line needing your attention. He decided to spend the day getting the tractor ready for spring and summer, and also to make arrangements to take the petrochemical applicator’s test that he had to pass before he would be allowed to spray his vineyards. Before he knew it, the workday neared its close. The time had come to decide on the wine to bring to the winemakers dinner.

Harold, the owner of the restaurant where the dinners were held reveled in his role as host. He loved both wine and winemakers. His wine preference leaned toward Bordeaux—Saint Julien, to be exact. Harold considered Chateau Talbot to be royalty. Since he was not out to make money on the dinners, but instead did them for fun, Talbot showed up quite frequently at the table, a fact that may also have been calibrated to push others to bring wines of equal status. Harold charged a flat $15.00 for a four-course meal but with one proviso: each attendee had to bring at least one, preferably two bottles of wine. Many winemakers brought their own wines to the dinner, but many others brought all kinds of wines. Nick decided on a bottle of Bodegas Bilbainas ViƱa Pomal Rioja and an Albert Pic Chablis.

He picked up Joel at his house and off they went with their bottles of wine, each in a brown bag. The idea for the evening was that all the wines were to be consumed blind, directly from bottles wrapped in bags so that no one would know what was in the glass. The blind tasting was set up to stimulate discussion about the wines and as a learning experience. Harold collected the wines as everyone came into the restaurant and then he took them into the back where he arranged them in some order to try to place certain wines with the foods as a pairing. He was the only one in the room who knew which wines were in the bottles as they were served. He loved watching the group discuss, and he loved handing out clues, which he sometimes did falsely, to watch them squirm a little. It wasn’t uncommon for winemakers to have a hard time picking their own wines out in the blind tasting, even when they brought them. Some went so far as to trash their own wines, especially when someone else brought them and the winemakers weren’t practicing caution in their assessments.

Joel had trained in France and had worked at a few wineries in California before making his way to the Finger Lakes. He harbored a deep disdain for both Northeastern grapes and French-American hybrids. Each time he knowingly encountered one, his face contorted. But there were times when he encountered them unknowingly, like at the dinner the night of Nick’s first attendance. Knowing his distaste for each grape species, the group was particularly delighted when after Joel had proclaimed what he thought to be a terrific representation of a fine Left Bank Bordeaux whose producer he could not identify, the unveiling exposed the wine to be the French-American hybrid Chambourcin that had been produced in Pennsyvlania.

Seating was not prearranged so it was by chance that Nick wound up seated next to John Peterson, the owner and winemaker of a small winery located just a few miles south of him. The two had met only briefly a few years earlier before Nick moved to the region. He was on a trip of the wineries tasting and also seeking property. It so happened that John was a fan of each wine that Nick had brought to the dinner. After dinner and wine, the custom was to end the night with beer nightcaps at the bar while rehashing the events of the evening, the previous week, and the century. Mostly, winery owners didn't attend the dinners, not unless they were also the winemaker for their winery. Much conversation twirled around the things that winemakers had to put up with at work, especially dealing with their often clueless owner bosses. John Peterson was an owner-winemaker but he seemed not to mind how the others talked about the owners. He Knew that Nick was also an owner-winemaker and since he happened to be fond of the two wines that Nick had brought to the dinner, they wound up in a lengthy conversation at the bar, at which time Nick discovered that John had need for Aurora grapes for a white table wine blend that he had recently put on the market to great success.

Nick went home that evening with a little buzz on and happy to have become an official member of the local winemaking community. He also felt more learned about wine and the extent of his abilities in a blind tasting, plus he was content that with the sale of his Aurora crop to John, he would have half the mortgage payment covered for that year.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2010. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

One Romance contd. (5)

Although he was in his late thirties, Nick had already established a curmudgeonly reputation. From the time of his teens, close friends had teased him with the name “grump.” Family members who knew him since his birth remember a precocious and gregariously happy child, but over time, displays of happiness seemed to recede, replaced by a grim outlook with respect to the world around him. His parents were from peasant stock; they had witnessed in the “Old Country” the results of having one foot in feudalism and the other in capitalist poverty. They were intimate with a few wars and a major depression, the genesis of their collective cynicism. Their life was so filled with struggle for so long that they were in their forties before they had children, first a girl and then Nick. By that time, his parents’ outlook on life had been ossified, and it surely must have rubbed off on Nick. But underneath his cynicism and overall grumpiness, Nick harbored volcanic emotionality that was prone to eruption at the slightest good deed done for him or a near-touching moment. That moment came when he had to say goodbye to James.

You don’t just pound posts in April. When the posts heave, and after they are pounded back into the earth, the tension on the trellis wire is slackened. So, you’ve got to tighten the wires. In many vineyards, the end post, which often is a sturdier, thicker post that is pounded in on an angle facing away from the row for stability, either has holes bored into where the trellis wire end is slipped through and then wound to tautness, or it receives the wire wrapped around it and tightened. Nick’s vineyard was broken into five plots. He and James pounded the posts of each plot first, but before moving from one plot to the next to pound posts, they went back through the rows to tighten the trellis wire. This is hard and time-consuming work, but without financing, Nick had to make decisions where best to spend what little money he had to get the winery going. The sad part of the situation was that the hard work would not bring in a profit—in fact, all it would do, if he was lucky, would almost pay the mortgage payments for a year. The question was: would he be lucky.

In any case, the tedious hard work gave Nick and James a large chunk of time to get to know each other. He found his nephew an intelligent, shy young man with no direction, the kind of kid who grew exceedingly bored in school waiting for the others to catch up to him and so he tuned out—a major daydreamer. Nick had known James’ dad for most of his life. The man turned out to be a loser of the highest magnitude, screwing up everything he touched, leaving Nick’s sister to be not only the breadwinner in the family, but also mother of two children and guardian to a man-child husband. Knowing this, Nick instigated many conversations with James over the ten or so days that they worked and ate together. He gave whatever advice he could. A love for his nephew swelled up to such a degree that at the bus station, as they hugged and promised to do this again in the summer, Nick gave way to his emotions and burst into warm tears in front of the other passengers in the station, embarrassing James, but in a good way.

With James off for home, and his tears dried, Nick had to hurry back to the vineyard to get started on tying the canes to the trellis so that he could control the direction and stability of the growing leaves and fruit of the vines. The weather promised to make this one of the early springs of the Finger Lakes region, and he did not want to lose the momentum for fear that the buds would blossom, the shoots would form and he would screw up some of the vines in the tying process and kill the important primary buds. It was going to take a lot of time to finish readying the vineyard for the coming growing season, but Theresa would be home on weekends and she would help with the tying.

The drive back from the bus station takes about an hour, just enough time to stew over that winery license from New York State that had yet shown up. Also, it was enough time to think about his luck. If the recent past was any guide, the only luck that he could expect was bad. It was the late 1980s. One large Finger Lakes winery, Gold Seal, the one that was in the vanguard of the local Vitis vinifera revolution, had already gone under, thanks to a shifting wine market combined with corporate greed and shenanigans perpetrated by the winery’s owner, Seagram. The other and much larger winery Taylor/Great Western was hanging in, but by the slimmest thread. Nick’s vineyard had originally been under contract with Taylor but the contract was broken about one week after Nick closed on the property, as the company began to back out of its commitments to local growers. Seagram had recently taken over Taylor from Coca Cola, and the giant spirits company would soon bring Taylor to the same fate as Gold Seal.

Nick’s vineyard was one part Catawba and one part Aurora, both rather useless grapes for his purposes. He was supposed to be yanking them out and replanting, but after the meeting with the banker that plan went with all his other plans. The idea was for him to replant that summer leaving him for the first few vintages to procure the grapes he needed for his winery. The new plan was to grow the grapes that were there and sell them to whomever would buy them and of course procure the grapes that he needed to produce his wine until he could raise the money to replant. But with the local wine industry in turmoil in part because of the types of wines that Catawba and Aurora produce, who would buy those grapes?

Back in town, during a stop at the post office Nick ran into a brief splash of good luck. The license was indeed in the mailbox plus he ran into Joel, a winemaker who recently came to the area to work at the nearby vanguard winery where the Riesling and Chardonnay grapes for the first locally successful commercial vinifera wines had been propagated. They had met before at a local wine industry meeting. Joel was of course happy for Nick about the license arrival, but he had another reason for wanting to talk with Nick.

“Now that you are a bona fide Farm Winery owner and winemaker, you should be interested in why I wanted to talk with you,” said Joel.

“What’s up?”

“When I didn’t see you at the past two monthly winemaker dinners held at the Pleasant Valley Inn I figured maybe you don’t know about ‘em and so I wanted to tell you about it and that you are welcome to join us.”

Joel was right: Nick wasn’t aware of the monthly dinners, but he certainly was interested in attending.

Joel said that the dinners are the third Thursday of each month, “that’s next week for this month. Let’s drive down together.”

Joel had rented a house that was on the way from Nick’s place to Hammondsport, where the dinners were held.

“It’s a date,” he said, “and now I’ve got to think about how to celebrate tonight the arrival of this license.”

The two wound up celebrating that evening together at a local tavern, where they began to solidify a friendship.

Nick didn’t know it of course, but the dinner the following week would provide him not only induction into the local wine world, but also a market for half his crop.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2010. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 19, 2010

One Romance contd. (4)

His teenage nephew, James, was a good worker but he came with a flaw; the kid hated to get up in the morning.

Nick harbors distaste over three particular human traits: thievery, irresponsibility, and envy. In his view, by having to be awakened in the morning, his nephew was being irresponsible. Couple that belief with Nick’s own personal quirk that for whatever reason makes him hate having to awaken someone in the morning, and you have the makings of a small friction. To impress upon his nephew both the need for personal responsibility and to ameliorate Nick’s personal quirk, he placed a stereo speaker right next to his nephew’s ear and when the time came for him to get the kid up, he simply turned on the radio and up the volume.

It worked. For the following ten days, as Nick and James worked the vineyard, neither had trouble getting up each morning at the prescribed time, which was 5:30!

The first day of work went rather well, as early April in the region experienced summer-like weather, which is one reason for starting out so early. You get a lot more done before the sun beats down on you and makes you want to sit under a tree or lie in the grass—anything but work hard. And with the weather being so damned beautiful, the scent of budding flowers makes it that much harder to work during the afternoon.

Their task was to pound the vineyard posts that react to the ground freezing in winter and thawing in spring by heaving out of the ground a few inches. For this job, which is a bear of a job, Nick had a wagon attached to the tractor. Inside the wagon was a removable raised platform, so that the person wielding the sledge was situated above the vineyard posts, to make the power of the downward hit onto the post doubly effective—they took turns pounding, doing a couple of rows at a time and then switching positions from pounder to tractor driver.

Nick’s method of pounding posts was rather old-fashioned, but it was necessary because it was the only method he could afford. Local grape growers and wineries had long ago invested in hydraulic post pounding equipment that was hitched to the tractor's power takeoff, that spinning universal-like joint that provides all the energy needed to run a variety of equipment, from plows to sprayers. The tractor is pulled up beside each individual post, the equipment is set over the post, the lever on the tractor activates the hydraulic, and the pounding begins. No human muscle is spent, except the effort to drive the tractor and move the levers, until of course something goes wrong, but that is a daily anomaly that goes with working the land.

The hydraulic post-pounding system is one of those things in life that raises one of Nick’s distastes: envy. The problem is that it’s he who often felt the envy of those who could afford the equipment. But the envy did do him some good. It made him conjure the image of that local banker's face and that gave him the motivation to keep swinging that sledge a little harder and landing it on the flat surface of the post top.

After the heavy work of pounding on day one, not feeling like cooking, Nick treated his nephew to a drive to the local pizza joint, where James managed to devour four slices of pizza and two calzones. This went into a kid with a 29 waist, and it was the second time that day that Nick felt a pang of envy. After dinner, they went back to the house, selected a movie from Nick’s files, and they each fell off to sleep while James Cagney shot up the place.

Day two started out rather well. The sun rose as it did the day before, promising yet another summer-like workday in April—until about mid way into their pounding. It started with a quick, cool blast of wind that swept from the west. For the first time, Nick saw James react to something with a twinge of fear. The wind wasn’t just quick and cold it brought with it a deep grey-ness and its own weather. They could see the weather coming at them, a seeming heavier air mass darkened by the falling of rain-ice; not hail, but something more sinister that carried heft as well as frigid water. It was like each drop was encased in a balloon that instead of rubber was constructed of ice.

The ominous weather that came at them pushed against the cumulous clouds, which, but a few minutes earlier, were all around them. Now, the cumulous clouds and the sun that joined them in the sky were situated east of Nick, James and the tractor. They were slowly but gradually being pushed toward the lake and out of the way by this front that moved in from the west. Within a few minutes, the whole vineyard, indeed the whole lake surroundings would be bombarded by the frigid downpour of heavy “icelets” and it behooved the two to quickly get the hell inside.

As they climbed up the stairs on the front porch, under heavy pelting, James, who had never experienced such a force of nature’s reversal asked Nick, “What is going on here?”

Nick tried to be philosophical but all he could come with was T.S. Eliot.

“James, have you ever read the poem The Waste Land? It isn’t about agriculture, but its first five words tells all you need to know about April in the Finger Lakes vineyards.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2010. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 16, 2010

One Romance contd. (3)

Spring was in the offing but you wouldn’t have known it by the air temperature. Still, it was a clear evening and so Nick decided to walk to Betty’s place. He grabbed a flashlight, a loaf of his homemade baguette as offering, threw on his parka and made his way through the icy mix of snow and road salt that the town insists on dumping on roads, no matter what it does to vehicles and to plants.

The quarter-mile walk past the vast acres of dormant vineyards would take only a few minutes, but it was just enough time to breathe deeply and to think. Considering where he was going, and why, he thought immediately of the past decade with Theresa. They had done a lot together in those ten years of marriage, and they’d done it all in their knock-around way. Each held down no fewer than three jobs in that span of time; when one got bored with a job, the other acted as encouragement to quit and to move on.

The biggest decision they made together was the one to move to the Finger Lakes and start a winery—actually, it was Nick’s decision, but Theresa didn’t argue about it. She was there when the idea hit Nick. It was after a day in Napa Valley spent with a local winery rep that impressed Nick so much with his stories of the wine life that he just had to try it. It was his wine passion that led him to California, so it seemed an easy extension of that passion to want to produce wine. Yet, it was a big decision, because of the size and nature of the commitment. Once into this operation, they each knew that neither could just quit and move on if boredom set in, and each was turning into mid-life, the time when both energy and opportunity have a way of slipping away. This could turn out to be the last great move—or the last not-so-great one!

They were good for each other, and he loved Theresa much. He had never cheated on her and as far as he knew, she hadn’t cheated on him. As he came closer to Betty’s house, he felt uneasy.

If he was going to cheat, he wasn't sure that it should be with someone twenty years his senior. He remembered that experience all too vividly. It happened with a woman he had come to meet when he was 24. The circumstances of their meeting evaded him all the years later. He remembered only that she and her husband were in their mid to upper forties, just the right time for the guy to start feeling like he had missed everything in life and that he needed to feel young and vibrant again, not to mention virile. He started going around with a young woman and he flaunted his affair in his wife’s face. Wanting to get back at him, she picked Nick to have an affair with, and since she was an extremely attractive woman, Nick was ready to oblige. But the affair lasted only briefly; it ended abruptly on the evening he went to pick her up to go to a show and she introduced him to her son, who had just graduated from college and was just a year or two younger than Nick.

“No way,” he said to no one, aloud, “I’ve never cheated on Theresa and I ain’t about to start.” Then, he intrepidly knocked on Betty’s door.

“Hello. You must be Nick. I’m Tom. Come in, come in; it’s cold out there.”

To Nick’s great relief, Betty’s husband did not have to work late after all.

The evening was warm and comfortable. Both Betty and Tom were good hosts. They made an attractive couple, too, these White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestants from Philadelphia who avoided becoming effete by engaging in hard labor in the vineyard. The work lined their once pale Anglo features with hard brown lines cut by wind and sun. The added depth rendered Betty more attractive than his impression of her on their first meeting earlier that day. Now past the apprehension, Nick began to feel regret that Tom hadn't had to work late.

Betty prepared braised lamb shanks and Tom brought out a bottle of Guigal Gigondas. The bread was well received and the conversation was especially enlightening. Over the course of the evening, the couple gave Nick the impression of what a long marriage can do, especially after Betty described their life together as an “armed truce.” But she was being facetious. The two were welded. They had moved to the area about 30 years earlier. They bought 30 acres of vineyard that had growing on it two native Northeast varieties and one French hybrid variety called Seyval. They systematically pulled out vines and replanted with Riesling and Chardonnay, in an attempt to capitalize from what they and others saw as a coming growth industry in the region.

The 1976 wine revolution that sprang in California wasn’t the only revolution in the domestic wine world. In fact, a revolution began in the Finger Lakes in 1962, the year of the first successful commercial release of Riesling and Chardonnay at Gold Seal Winery. This fact is what drew Tom and Betty to the region, and it also was why Nick wound up their neighbor.

When Nick told Tom that he had planned to plant Cabernet Franc as well as Riesling, Tom frowned and told Nick, “Trying to make red wine here is too lofty a goal. This is a white wine region. Get used to it. If we had been growing red grapes, we would have lost all our money years ago. I’ve been tracking it, and I found that the Finger Lakes region gives you a decent red grape vintage one out of every four or five years.”

Nick protested, but being older and wiser, Tom did not press the issue. Instead, he asked, “So how are things going with your plans?”

“Well, until I had a talk with the local bank manager, I thought I was on track. But now I have to revamp my plans to accommodate the fact that the banker is definitely not interested in loaning me any money.”

Tom snickered, “If you spoke to McCann, I know exactly what happened. These locals aren’t exactly trusting of outsiders. Hell, Betty and I have been here for thirty years, we raised four children here, I’ve served on the town planning board, and we are still considered outsiders that can’t be trusted. That’s probably why some of them spread that nasty rumor about Betty and younger men—you’ve heard that already, I’m sure.”

”Oh, no,” he lied, “I hadn’t heard that, but it is funny.”

“Anyway, it’s in their nature—rurals don’t like to change and they certainly don’t like someone from somewhere else trying to change things for them. It’s kind of like political conservatism, which, incidentally, is all around you, if you haven’t noticed. When we started pulling out the native and hybrid vines we pissed off a lot of people, and we pissed them off even more when we were proven right, after the largest winery in the region closed up and the farmers lost their market. So, tell me what happened at the bank.”

“It was quick. He looked at my financials, looked at me, looked back at my financials, looked at me and then commented as if I weren’t there, ‘So, Nick's from New York City, eh.’ Then, he looked at me straight in the eye and said that the bank couldn’t lend me money for my business start up. When I asked what the problem was he simply said that the bank doesn’t trust agriculture. When I pointed out that the whole region was supported by agriculture he said, 'that was then and this is now.'”

Nick never was much good at asking for money. He had always gone his own way. If he didn’t have the money that he needed to start something, he didn’t start it until he could raise the money through hard work. If he couldn’t raise the money, he changed directions. But this time he really wanted to get financing and to get a winery going, because the things he had read about starting a winery convinced him that the most important thing was to be well capitalized.

“What’s your alternate plan,” Tom asked.

“Can I answer that later?”

That reply told Tom all he needed to know about what was in store for Nick…

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2010. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

One Romance contd. (2)

There’s a segment in the old Television version of M*A*S*H when a non-detonated bomb is found near the hospital unit. From his perch in a bunker, the company commander, Colonel Blake, reads directions from a military manual to Hawkeye who has the honor of defusing the bomb. At one point, Blake reads a direction that says to loosen some particular screws and then to remove a certain wire or two. After carefully and gingerly following the directions, Hawkeye succeeds at removing the wires.

Blake reads the next paragraph of the manual and it starts with the words, “But first…” The camera pans to an anxious look on both Hawkeye’s and Blake’s face as they each realize that the order in which the directions were written had placed them in potential danger.

It was a funny moment in the TV series, but it was also an accurate one that illustrated the efficiency of bureaucracy’s mountains of directives and forms. The winery application process is nothing if it isn’t a series of directives and forms (often redundant). At one point, he wasn’t sure anymore whether his name was Nick Lazio or Lazio Nick, as each winery application form seemed to want his name filled in differently.

To be fair, the federal application process wasn’t nearly as onerous as the New York State process; the latter’s forms must have been the model for the M*A*S*H episode. Nick had gotten the federal basic permit to produce and distribute wine two or three months before the state came through with a license. That’s because a series of “but first,” situations created two or three re-application filings with the state.

Nick was aware that the aggravation perpetrated on him by the state was the direct result of Repeal. When the U.S. Congress wrote its mealy sentence into Repeal that gave the states the right to individually regulate alcohol commerce, the law makers not only shot a cannon hole through the Dormant Commerce Clause of Article I, Section 8 in the U.S. Constitution, the one that prohibits state protection laws against interstate commerce, the Congress also gave the states a massive boner that was measured in the amount of excise taxes and fees placed on alcohol and in the length of corruption that local control engendered.

When the repeal of prohibition arrived, most states already had in them alcohol distribution networks that had been solidified during Prohibition by bootleggers that state officials knew intimately. It was easy to give some of the bootleggers the new legal business with a promise of state protection, so long as the protected distributors forked over the excise tax revenue stream. It was the kind of sweetheart deal that only a corrupt union official and a greedy corporate management could love, and it was the kind of deal that made the application hurdles that faced startup wineries more than just an annoyance—they were an affront that treated nascent wine producers as criminals. But Nick was prepared for being treated like a criminal by the state. After all, the state was largely expecting from others what it engaged in itself, and state officials surely must know that old adage: there is no honor among thieves.

Still, the sixth century thinking of New York had not killed Nick’s twentieth century passion. While he waited for the state to send him a license that would allow him to be further abused by the Byzantine system, there was work to do in the seven-acre vineyard.

It was early March and vine pruning hadn’t been completed. He tried using local help but found it more work for him. When the locals showed up, which was sporadic at best, they often were hung over. So many times he had to do over some of what they did and to do some of what they passed up. He eventually hired one of his teenage nephews to come up from New York City to work in the vineyard on weekends and during spring break. In between those times, Nick pruned alone, a fact that gave him an intimate relationship with carpal tunnel syndrome.

Despite the application process, the poor local help, and the painful right hand, he was loving the rural life; the contact with snappy, crisp morning air and serene afternoons as he made his way from vine to vine, counting potential buds and snipping away excess. It gave his mind the space and air to think thoughts of working the land and creating from it wine that would please others. He also used the time and rhythm of pruning to compose little stories in his head and even little songs.

One afternoon, he heard a car pull alongside the vineyard. It being a quiet rural afternoon, he heard the driver apply the emergency brake and then the sound of the door opening.

He looked in the direction of the car to see a woman waving at him.

“Hello,” she said. “Can you come over here for a second?”

Nick walked up to the road to meet her. She was quite attractive, even though she seemed about twenty years his senior.

“Just wanted to introduce myself,” the woman said. “I’m Betty, your neighbor up the road." She pointed to her property located about a quarter of a mile north.

"Thought maybe you’d like to come for some dinner tonight—nothing special. Just a welcome dinner and a get-to-know.”

“Well, that would be nice," he said. "I’m Nick. What time should I be there? I’ll be alone, as my wife is away.”

“That’s ok. My husband’s working late and so I’ll be alone, too. Seven would be fine.”

She didn’t wait for further confirmation. She opened the car door, climbed back in, yelled, “See you then,” and drove off.

He didn’t remember until after she made the comment about her husband working late that the people who sold him the property had told him about Betty and her reputation for luring younger men into her home and corrupting them.

He thought that his quick acceptance might turn out to be a major mistake, but instead of backing out of the commitment, he figured. “Oh well, maybe there’s more to this rural life than just terroir...”

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2010. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 12, 2010

One Romance With Wine

The TTB application had been submitted, including the plat (line drawing of the planned facility) and the permit for Bonded Winery Number 15,000NYS had arrived just a few days earlier. All that remained to be accomplished was the New York State Liquor Authority inspection of the property and then the state license.

He was getting close.

It took only months to go from applying to receiving the federal permit to produce and distribute wine. But it was a matter of years from the day he dreamed of developing his 2,000-case winery to this point. In those years, he drank a lot of wine—as studies, of course—and he took a lot of courses in winemaking and related chemistry, not to mention business classes so that he would avoid the pitfalls of operating a small business.

It was excruciating to feel the dream tug at him over the years while he worked at building the capital, the knowledge, and finding the right location for what he had planned to produce to meet what he determined was the right market for his ideas. It was time for the American wine industry to stop this so-called varietal nonsense; at the least, it was time for individual wineries to do so.

He knew that his Cabernet Franc would be like no other Cabernet Franc, so why give it the same name? Why go up against every Cabernet Franc produced in the New World? The wine should speak for itself.

He realized that he would not be allowed to enter his wines into competitions or to send them to critics for free reviews under a varietal name. He also felt that so many people reviewing wines can’t tell what the varietal wine is unless they are told the category or shown the label so what’s the point of their reviews?

He wanted to challenge the notion that any wine must be seen as just one in an already established nomenclature instead of as a stand-alone. Even before he was ready to submit an application for a permit, he had decided on both the varieties he would grow and how he would develop the proprietary names for his wines. He would pick a trait or two from each variety’s characteristics and then settle on a name for the wine that reflected those characteristics as closely or as vaguely as he saw fit.

His market, he decided, included consumers willing to let his winemaking and his wines speak for themselves and not be judged against anyone else’s version. His hope was to simultaneously appeal to consumers and confuse the critics.

He was so close to fulfilling the dream of romantic notions; of a connection with the history of civilization; of the chance to be with the land; of using his hands as well as his head, to craft a product that is food for body and spirit. It was only a matter of a few hours before the New York State Liquor Authority inspector would come, make the rounds, and then sign off on the application. What could go wrong?

Later that day, he answered the front door bell.

Standing on the other side of the door a man in uniform, complete with a holster and a handgun, said, “Hello. I’m inspector McHugh from the New York State Liquor Authority’s Buffalo compliance office. I’m here to inspect your proposed winery location.”

Staring at the gun, he asked the inspector, without thinking, “If I fail the inspection, will you shoot me?”

And so, the romance of owning his winery had begun.

Or had it ended?

Stay tuned.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2010. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The eyes have it

How would I endure losing the pleasure of seeing a garnet-amber or brick red or golden gleaming wine in my glass?

How would I be able to write (or read) about wine without sight?

Come to think of it, without sight how would I read the notes on music sheets when I play piano?

How will I get to my favorite wine shop, see my favorite people, drive myself to New York City to meet up with old friends in convivial settings, look at my wife?

How would living in the dark be?

This past week I was given a scare and some potential bad news that made me think all the above.

I was preparing dinner, putting together a braised lamb shank concoction. As I made my way to cut some potatoes, a small dot appeared on what I thought was my eyeglasses. I rubbed the glasses with a cleaning cloth, but the dot refused to go away. It did, however, keep moving around.

Later that night, I noticed a flash of light off to the side of my left eye every so often. I mentioned this to my wife and she told me about floaters. I looked floaters up online and learned that they are little breakaway gel spots that happen to us as we age. I also learned that flashes of light can be a serious symptom and that I should call my eye doctor (I have one of those, because glaucoma runs in the family).

The doc took me in on emergency and gave me a thorough going over: dilation and a laser examination. In the process, I could see the road-map image of the blood vessels in my eyes. Weirdly fascinating.

The examination proved that the loosening gel is pulling at my retina—hence, the flash of light as it opens a tiny passageway where light gets in. But right now, it is only pulling. There is no tearing of the retina away from the gel.

The doc said that I must keep vigil over this situation, because if the gel tears the retina away some I will need laser treatment. The symptom will be more light flashes. If I happen to see a curtain-like closing over my eye, then I will need emergency surgery, as it would mean the retina had detached and I would lose sight.

This news, as news like this often does, started me thinking about what is and what isn’t important. Seeing is important, especially to a writer who is also a lover of stimuli such as the many bulbs we have planted around our property over the years and that are in full glory this spring, plus the forsythia and soon the fruit tree flowers—not to mention the striking beauty of the Finger Lakes region outside my porch.

I could live without seeing a computer screen, but could I live without seeing words or music notes in print, or the red and white of wine, or the beauty of my surroundings, or the beauty of my wife and others whom I cherish?

Sure, I could live, but could I enjoy it?

I’m going to be vigilant and keep a watchful eye, literally, on my condition. Plus, I’m going to look more closely at everything and everyone from now on. Beginning with tonight’s Tamellini Soave Classico with dinner.

If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
April 2010. All rights reserved.