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Well, more like their scent. And thankfully not everywhere I look/smell around because that would just be wrong. Lilacs in February? I found this little lovely in in Pier Park, right next to where we live, one of two small bushes nestled under the towering firs that have decided: it’s time. You can’t blame them — it’s been unseasonably warm. In reality, though, they are more an early May/Mother’s Day bloom out this way, and if all the bushes happened to be flowering, that would be trouble: too warm.

We want, no, make that NEED, our vineyard to slumber for another few months, so that a late season frost doesn’t cause harm if it awakens too early. Although what can you do? Even though our land is 90 miles away in a cooler, drier climate, 90 miles really isn’t that far; it’s almost 60 degrees F here in Portland today, and in the low 50s right now in The Dalles. As long as the nights stay cool, though, we’re good, and Weather Underground is showing some rather chilly nights during this period of warmth. If we were making maple syrup (which we can’t out here since sugar maples are not to be found — dang it!) we’d love this weather. But it puts me a little on edge vineyard-wise. It’s ridiculous, isn’t it, how something so lovely and scented as a lilac can make one worry?

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This year marks our fifth year anniversary since planting the vineyard. If you have been reading our Diary of a Start-Up Winemaker series on The Daily Meal, you will have come across this — I posted one year each day last week. If you have not, it’s all right here for your reading enjoyment. Hold on, here we go.

2011 marks the fifth anniversary of our little vineyard on the frontier. It’s been five l-o-n-g years since we took the plunge and transformed a steep and distinct hillside out in the middle of wild, windy Oregon wheat country into a vineyard going on its 4th vintage, to make wine like no other from only the grapes we grow. Can that be right? We planted in 2006; at the end of our third growing year in 2008 we had our first harvest; then 2009, 2010, and holding our breath for 2011, which is our 6th growing year. Yes. This will be, if all goes well, our 4th harvest.

We thought you might enjoy a tiny peek in on those five years, for what happened along the way—to us and to our land—is as much a part of the wine as the grapes we make it from.

2006 : The Planting, and the Big Freeze

After months of preparation that began pretty much the day after we stepped off the plane in October, 2005, from Scott’s 2-year work assignment in Ireland, we planted The Grande Dalles vineyard. We had already found water and dug the well in 2005, so that was off our to-do list. But early 2006 was busy, busy, busy, as we laid out the vineyard, walking that hillside and holding up markers, person unseen because the terrain was so curved in areas.

Scott put in weather stations, a deer fence went in, we had a surveyor out to help us set rows evenly, 3-phase electricity was brought in from miles away, and Scott placed numerous orders for the supplies we would need for the vineyard, the grapes not the least of it. The bigger things we collected were drip line, wire, end posts, and center posts, and between Scott’s squabbling with our vineyard manager over inches of ground (Scott’s a farmer at heart, and does not like to waste a bit of land) we decided on the vineyard’s boundaries. In April 2006 the end posts were set, Scott holding every single one of them as they were tamped 5 feet into the earth on a terribly cold and blustery day.

If you want to get a decent first growing year, you have to plant as early as you can, and every day you lose is every day less for the plants. The big pressure for us was getting water to the top of our hill before the plants arrived. We sort-of made that deadline, and the plants arrived. But to make absolute sure water could successfully reach our hilltop again and again meant we had to stage all 17,000 starts for a week or so, securing them behind chicken wire so local deer couldn’t feast. As soon as we knew we could depend on bringing water up a good 400 feet from the well down in the valley below, we were ready to plant, and plant we did, in early June, 2006.

It was a joyous time, for the most part, as we placed all our hopes and dreams into that hillside. But Stephanie was beginning her slip away, as relationships and characters, and all the weeding we did by hand, began to take their toll. And by December, all our jubilation was soon dashed when we got the news that our vineyard was most likely dead from that unexpected freeze in October. To add to that, our then vineyard manager, our one and only with no ulterior motives who believed in us, had emergency open-heart surgery. It was around Christmas, and we thought we had lost both of them, Leroy, and the vineyard. What would 2007 hold? Read the rest of this entry »

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I posted  a few images on our The Grande Dalles FaceBook page,  from our latest weekend at the vineyard, and from a brief exchange with a “Fan,” the word “reverence” came on the screen. I had written it. A big word, I know, but that’s the only one I can come up with when I am out on our land.

It’s funny, because as I get closer to The Dalles on the cruise through The Gorge, I look for the classic rock station, the one our very interesting helper Richard listens to: ZZ Top, old U2, Pink Floyd…an eclectic mix of nostalgia (for me), and down the highway, and even up into the windy, hilly road to our vineyard, it feels right. Once I get to the gate, the deer-gate entrance with the sign “Please Close Gate Behind You” I let the music drift out of the car door as I pull into the turnout, put us in neutral so I can open the gate, and then again so I can close it behind us. Back in the car I do turn the music down; the windows now are up because of the dust–they may have been up for some time if we needed air conditioning on the drive–but the reverence has begun; I need some quiet as I survey the vine rows along our vineyard road. Scott’s usually waiting for us at the top of the hill, for his boy, and the quieted party in our car comes to an end.

In the evening we will have drinks, as civilized people in the wilds will do, and sometimes the music will again return to the landscape, me sitting in the car with the doors open as music cascades down the hill and outward in the fading sunlight.

But for almost the whole time we are there, there is no music, no man-made sounds other than that from the ritual tractor ride of father and son, the occasional car zipping down the road far below, or the lone plane droning above the wide, glorious land. It is the three of us (avec chien) alone under the sky, fully present in what the land gives us. And in those moments of stillness, like when I step outside in the middle of the night and surprise a hunting owl as it alights from its perch on the camper and flies silently overhead, its shape in stark contrast to the bright of the moon; or when I smell the sweet of the earth or hear the rustle of the growing wheat or that precious meadow lark song; when we all watch the kestrel hunt in the early morn before the heat reaches us, or as I smile at our vines who wave at me in the wind, Mt. Hood forever stoic out in front, the only music in my ears is that of reverence. Pure, unadulterated reverence.


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Came around the bend outside of The Dalles on Saturday and this is what I saw:

A range fire in someone’s wheat field, just outside town. Wheat harvest was under way, and Scott had called me on the drive, to tell me of the fire that flared up, and how Dave, the gentleman who farms the rest of our property left with his crew to help fight it. He asked Scott to stay behind, in the event there could be a flare up on our land; I guess hot machinery can get a flame going.

In town, where Sam and I stop to pick up sandwiches for lunch, we saw this:

On our way to the vineyard we had to pull over to let the Hood River Brush Engine go by, the neighboring town coming now to fight the blaze. Sam wanted to go see the fire, but I told him there’s no need for Looky-Loos, and anyway, it’s not safe, and best to be out of the way so the men and women fighting the fire can do their work.

Once at the vineyard, the smoke had greatly subsided; Scott told me he had seen the flames dancing in the distance, some few miles away, and when Dave and crew came back, he told us the fire was 20 ft. high, and had done a good 100 acres of damage before being contained.

In the morning, I snapped this picture from our camper window, where you can see the burn area:

That same morning we also were privy to “our” kestrels hunting, and caught a few images (click on them to make them bigger — sorry if they take longer to load):

And Dave’s John Deere combine. When we saw that thing sitting on our land, it was like a lunar space machine had landed, so foreign is that to us, out there, but not foreign at all to the history of the area.  This shot is of Dave, with Scott and Sam, heading off for an evening run; Dave was kind enough to offer Sam a ride, and after we came back from our Deschutes River outing, and had our pizza dinner, he was still at work. It was a beautiful evening.

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Our latest installment on The Daily Meal

Some time ago, it filtered down to us — a wisecrack at our expense, from someone who we refer to as Old Wise All — about how we did our farming in a Subaru.

Back in the day, when we were getting ourselves up and running on the farming end of it, turning bare wheat ground into vineyard, Old Wise All, an established neighboring farmer, went by the farming book when it came to vehicles out in that neck of the woods. He had a 4×4 farming truck, a “going to town” shiny truck, a “stepping out” car, and numerous other farm vehicles: a couple of tractors and trailers, and an enormous combine that he painted himself. So no wonder the snide comment, “And he’s out there farmin’ in a subaru!” Because that’s all we had. A “town and country” dusty, dirty, old Subaru that we used for everything — even farming.

See, when you have a dream and don’t have a family farm or deep pockets (or friends with deep pockets), you do what you can. So we farmed in a Subaru, among other things, to make this dream happen. And don’t we laugh about it now. READ MORE

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Water has returned to the hill. Sam and I went and picked up old pump out in the green and firework stands of Vancouver, WA where we thought we might buy our new one, and then travelled southward down I-5 with all those tractor trailers to pick up new, smaller pump we ended up purchasing. Didn’t I feel like quite the farm wife that day, talking the ag-pump talk, driving the dusty pickup with my co-worker Sam, and Curious George, of course.

Old Pump, New Pump

And best news, the pump works! Yes, yes, a new pump ought to work, so why this excitement? The last pump was nightmarish. It caused so much headache and heartache because we could not depend on it. You should know, when you’re working on an endeavor like this and have bootstrapped the adventure yourself, along with a very kind bank (always grateful, Brad!), and don’t live out there to get right on it, everything that doesn’t go right is magnified because of the time and energy and moolah to fix it. So off Scott goes, he with his full time other job that pays the bills, because we’ve learned our lesson when counting on others. That’s why I’m so pumped up. THE PUMP WORKS! Scott’s only hesitantly pumped up. But not me! WOOHOOOOO!

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Our well’s pump stopped out at the farm. Nice. After hours of Scott calling around for trouble-shooting and alternatives–new pump? repair existing?–it was decided, we’d get it fixed. The problem was that Scott was at work, and the people who would fix the pump were in Vancouver, WA, some 90 miles-ish from the vineyard, and every day without water for the vines was, well, everyday without water. So after getting the phone call from Scott, off me and the little one went, from Portland to The Dalles, to pick up the pump, and haul it to Vancouver.

The pump and motor had already been pulled out of the 250 foot hole, so all that was needed was to lift that sucker and 250 feet of wiring into the back of the truck. Thankfully, our neighbor out there, who also shares the pump, had a winch on his work truck, so after some struggles, we lifted and pushed the motor (looked like a 5 foot torpedo) and pump into the pickup’s bed–Sam kept himself busy running up and down the road and tossing little stones into the neighboring wheat field…hmmmm… and then off we went, well, first had to change some little boy’s diaper out in the cheatgrass, but then we were racing the clock to deliver the pump by 5 PM, or as close as we could, which had its own troubles attached: rush hour, and getting across the Columbia River to Vancouver, WA, with all those Vancouverites who come in to Portland to work and then clog up highways on the return home; we needed to get across the river BEFORE we got to Portland.

From The Dalles, there are only three bridges that cross the river before hitting Portland’s highways: one in The Dalles, one in Hood River, and one in Cascade Locks. Crossing any one of these puts you directly in Washington State, on SR (state road) 14, on the most beautiful leafy drive that follows the folds and contours of the Gorge. While stunning, with the vistas of the river and Oregon, it’s much slower going, and it is tourist season, making it even slower. So we opted for the closest-to-Portland bridge at Cascade Locks, The Bridge of The Gods.

The Bridge of The Gods is so-called for the land bridge that formed there eons ago, when Table Mountain collapsed, damming up the river for some time before the backed up river resumed its flow to the sea. This occurrence was experienced and passed down through local Native American lore, the bridge built by one of the sons of the Chief of all the Klickitats’ gods. It’s a great bridge to cross, despited the ongoing $1 toll ($2 if all you have is credit card….), and high above the river, it’s not a lift bridge like at Hood River, where you have to wait for all the river tug and barge traffic, so great a commerce conduit is the Columbia.

After the bridge we were in Washington, in Skamania County, and on the rolling road. Sam almost three, said, with no prompting, “It’s beautiful.” And it was. The tree canopies, the views, the grasses, a very different drive than the highway on the other side of the river. And we made it into Vancouver just at 5. Found the well/pump shop, and we were back over the Columbia River and into Portland not soon after. Sam and I had a great time, we laughed a lot, sang songs, had our standard going-to-the-farm Mc Donalds lunch in the truck, enjoyed the sights (made a mental note to take Gramma and Sam hiking up Beacon Rock when she comes), and now the pump can get fixed.

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A Dream’s End

Got some very sobering news the other day. The farmer who sold us our land, the coot I’ve referred to as “Old Wise All” in my earlier posts, the guy who at one point years ago we would’ve said is getting what he deserves, might be losing it all. His house and property up for auction on the courthouse steps. I can’t imagine. For all our headache and heartache, this guy also enabled our own dream when he sold us land. He, too, took steps to change his own life, bust out of the status-quo and do something different. It appears this might be the end for him. We hope he may have something else lined up, but when all your land and family home is getting auctioned off, it doesn’t appear so.*

I’ve got to write a book. The ups and downs, our own and all the others we’ve run into during this endeavor, have been tremendous. The emotion I feel today thinking about this overwhelms me. I feel hollow, with tears as I write. What is happening to this man could happen to anyone who steps out and tries to do something different. It could happen to us. How in the hell do I know this is all worth it?

*Follow up to the Public Foreclosure Notice: The auction on the courthouse steps never did take place.

Why We Make Wine


It’s a story that has been 20+ years in the making, maybe even longer. I mean, after all, Scott is the son of farmer of a farmer, and now here he is, a farmer himself, with a son.

If you’re interested in the whole story, it’s right here.



I know, reminds many of a Bob Dillon song, but I wasn’t thinking of that when we were out at our vineyard this past weekend. Instead, my title is based on the more literal facts: the tangle of our vineyard against that blue sky. It was a stunning blue, as you can see, and there was a sweet growing smell of Spring in the air, along with numerous Meadowlark calls, the one sitting in the slight bowl of our vineyard off to the east was so shrill and distinct, answering a number of other calls blowing in from afar.

So, what’s the tangle about? A few things. One, we haven’t pruned yet, so you have the tangle of all the old canes. The other is from all the dried weed called Mare’s Tail Scott’s now fighting.

Dried Mare's Tail, an obnoxious weed

Funny this weed didn’t show up early on back in the day, almost six years ago now, when we first planted our vineyard on that wheat ground. No, THOSE monstrous weeds were Russian Thistle, Prickly Lettuce, and, shoot, the last one escapes me — it’s a total ground cover, creeper-like thing, supposedly people eat it when it’s young. I’ll remember. Anyway. I’ve mentioned before, but in case you don’t realize, we purchased one MESS of a vineyard site as far as weeds are concerned. We had no idea that all these monsters lay in store, and how they’d materialize after the ground was no longer soaked in the big weed sprays of the commercial wheat farmer. Or maybe in our case, thankfully, the ground wasn’t all that sterilized, as all these weeds lay in wait. Pig Weed. That’s the name I forgot. Anyhoo…We’ve been fighting the slow fight, and thankfully, the native clump grass we’ve planted is now starting to choke out many of the weeds.

Native Clump Grass

Native Clump Grass

Fingers crossed.

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