Can’t believe it’s been two years since I started writing this blog, when I had a heck of a lot more time because Sam went to bed at 5:30 and STILL NAPPED! And I had a very reliable gal who came over 2x a week besides. Now my posts are a little hurried, I know — kid is growing and changing every day, and my last gal was too Portlandia, causing me to lose faith in good help for now. So there you go.

There are a lot of little gems from the days back, and I’d like to dig up a few, because they’re still relevant, and they give me some breathing room while Sam and I start “crafting” things for the holidays.

The following was posted December 22, 2009


The Dalles Bridge: A Western Bridge for a Western Town (sorry it’s fuzzy)

Hooray! The Dalles has been named a “True Western Town” in True West Magazine’s top 10 list of, you guessed it, “True Western Towns” for 2010.

I’ve always had the feeling, from the first time we showed up and actually spent some time in The Dalles looking for vineyard ground—instead of simply rumbling by on 84 as I imagine most do, because honestly, from a car window, The Dalles kind of shows its ass to the world and who would want to stop? The auto repair and RV spots, the strip malls and former old rundown Aluminum factory site now razed to a bunch of bare earth…and that’s probably enough said*—that it was, at its soul, a quiet, Western town.

And it is: at its center you’ll find restored, 19th century Victorians; one-way down-town streets lined with high-windowed brick buildings; farm rigs and big hats going by; cowboy boots and western wear; plus all what the article in True West speaks of. And all against the backdrop of enormous, grassy hills that echo Connemara to me—or pictures I’ve seen of New Zealand—on the Washington side, and heights of basalt outcroppings with scrub oak and sage on the Oregon side; the Western character is hard to miss.

Once our vineyard was planted, it felt like—and still does—a little vineyard on the frontier, all alone under the watchful eye of Mt. Hood in that striking expanse of rolling hills of wheat, the Klickitats just across the river, the hawks and kestrels soaring against the blue, blue sky. The occasional truck or car zipping down Emerson Loop Road can’t even wake me from this reverie, so few are there.

From people I’ve talked with, not many know about The Dalles, few know even less about the geographic Big West that’s just past the bend in the Columbia River heading eastward out of “The Hood,” or Hood River (I call it The Hood—don’t know if others do). How dramatically the landscape changes; away from the rain influence of the Cascade Range where the average precipitation reaches 75 inches—The Hood approximately 32—the verdure of the densely forested, canyon-walled-passage drive from Portland is replaced by a set out of a Leone western, with open, golden—sensuous even—rolling steppes, rim-rock rises and scrub-oak gullies where I imagine a young, poncho-ed Clint resting, or, more likely, on the run (ah, Clint); for every mile you drive east from The Hood you lose an inch of precipitation, and in this area, in the rain shadow of Mt.Hood, a scant 14 inches of precipitation is the yearly norm. Lewis Mumford, an early 20th century philosopher of the urban landscape (among other areas) eloquently describes the Columbia Gorge’s scenic transition in 1939 as “[unrolling] itself like some great kakemono of classic Chinese landscape art.”

I don’t subscribe to True West, but the categories of “Renegade Roads,” “Classic Gunfights,” and “Frontier Fare” from its website pique my interest in becoming a regular reader. I hope what might be more inviting to you, my dear Reader, if you haven’t been, or if you don’t know, is The Dalles and surrounding area itself. It quietly sits like an undiscovered gem, only seen by the more discerning eye who relishes the new, for the individual who is not afraid to step off the beaten path and find their own island of quiet, while the rest of the world rushes loudly past. A true Western town with a true Western sense of place.

*update: Google’s shiny power station and the area’s funkelnagelneu grain elevator stand out like beacons near that old aluminium factory site, hopefully heralding in more bright things to come.

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My jaw dropped and eyes teared when I saw the devastation of that little cold snap we had last week. “Holy crapola” was all I could say, again and again, as we drove into the vineyard, and saw all those fried sangiovese leaves along the farm road.

Holy crapola. The dark clusters, only last week comfortably housed under a fall canopy, looked so desperate now as they clung to the plant, cringing below the now crispy leaves. “Get us out of here!” they seemed to be calling from behind the net. “Help!”

Help us!

Granted, this cold snap did not kill anything other than the leaves, and not even all the leaves across the board; the vineyard’s hillside got it in different places. Definitely at the bottom where it’s the coldest, and hit and miss across the midsection and top. Click on this picture to enlarge and you can see the line of “normal” looking yellowed autumn plants, and the dark, fried plants at the bottom.

Our Vineyard Gnome Surveys

What did this occurrence mean for us? It meant we had to make decisions that would otherwise not have had to be made if it were not to have happened. Like speeding up harvest, for example. We were out picking the cabernet sauvignon last weekend, as planned, which also fell prey to the cold, but it was the sangio we were still waiting for. Turns out another cold snap is moving in (and why shouldn’t it? It is the first of November, after all — like everyone else, we are a good three weeks behind harvest) and to mitigate the risk of sangio ice-wine, where the berries actually freeze on the vine, we picked it today. So it’s pretty much a done deal out there.

What a year. There are worse things, like the bank telling us our funding stops here, which they did. Yesterday. While ketchup may do just fine with a fried vineyard, I’d prefer a stiff drink for that news. And a good, warm fire for us to gather around, while we enjoy this evening’s last bit of sunshine in Portland for a while. We’ll figure it out, with ketchup or not.


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After the doom and gloom of the other day’s HIT post, a little color might be a welcomed addition. These images are also on our Facebook Page, in 2011 October Colors in a Western Vineyard and Place album, but I don’t trust the links FB provides, so they’re here, too — enjoy —

A Little Bit of Upstate NY for More Harvest Cheer

Tempranillo Showing Its Autumn Color

North Side Grey Rabbitbrush*

Acres and Acres of Vines Under Net

Blueberry Dan's Bounty, Grown on Our Hill's North Side

Light Makes it Through An Uneasy Harvest Evening Sky

Cabernet Sauvignon Kept Safe from Pesky Birds

*Many thanks to Andy Plymale, for pointing out my error — I thought the yellow-flowered plant was some type of sagebrush, but Andy told me it’s Grey Rabbitbrush, a very good native plant to have on the land, I found out. Thanks again, Andy!

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Let’s just say, last night’s frost was not little. Scott spent the night at the camper, up checking temperatures throughout the late night and early morning, with a helicopter on stand-by if the freeze would be that severe. It was not good–not the 15 degree junk our little vineyard endured the first year we planted it, more at the 25-27 degree mark –but what was not better was that by all indications, there was no warmer air to push into the vineyard, the temps at the top of the hill below freezing, too. And pushing freezing air around was not the solution we were after. So the helicopter was called off, and the damage done.

How much? We don’t know. The question now is, is the vine still working if all leaves were not destroyed? We were planning on harvesting the cabernet sauvignon this weekend anyway — how much might the fruit degrade if the plant is no longer active? And what does it mean for the sangiovese, all those vines so laden with lovely fruit, but still a ways off from being what we need? Scott’s trying to figure all this out, on his way to his day-job that keeps the bills paid and at least THAT worry taken care of.

Scott just said, rather simply,”It’s a fecked* up year that continues to be fecked up, to the end.” I tried reminding him that the riesling and tempranillo we just brought in last weekend turned out just fine, that is, the sugars and acids were in balance and so we can breathe a little there. But then he reminded ME that we were only looking at 3.5 tons of fruit there, mostly because of the season’s earlier cold temps, and we still have 8-10 tons hanging. What could I say to that?

So we’ll see. Fingers crossed, aGAIN.

*I changed this to the more polite term, for us American English speakers. Irish readers might still feel the full pain.

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Behind every good wine endeavor is a good cat, right? We only talk about Jack Dawg, our Ireland rescue pup, for he’s the one who runs excitedly to the back seat when we leave for the vineyard, and waits in anticipation for those first bends in the road after we get off the highway, his nose up and pulling in the scents now so familiar to him out in the wilds of Wasco County. Then like some banshee he runs those hills, almost until his legs give out, and we have a very quiet dog come evening.

Who I don’t talk about is Georgina, our cat, mainly because she views cars with detest (she knows where’s she’s going when she gets in one), and although she might do just fine out there on the land competing with the hawks for nature’s mouse bounty, I wouldn’t want her to be inadvertently picked up  by a large bird of prey, or some wayward coyote. So she stays home, alone, “Where she’s probably very happy because we’re all gone” says Scott.

That doesn’t mean she hasn’t been a contributor of sorts to this whole endeavor. Right after planting the vineyard, while we waited for those vines to grow and I had the time to freelance and bring in some moolah as a brand writer, Georgina would sit with me, like my own Pangur Ban, her silliness when we’d bat at each other across my laptop screen would free my mind when I was stuck, just as that old monk wrote about in his poem.

And she was hauled all the way to Ireland, where our story began, where Scott finally read all those techy wine books I had given him, her wailing from under the seat as we took off into the great blue unknown on our return trip to the USA documented in our saga I posted under Going Our Own Way. She has been a part of all this, and deserves to have it documented.

So when I ordered pavers the other day, personalized for all the individuals who have so generously supported our endeavor, their names, home places, and relevant date to be forever a part of our hill and our adventure, I added one for Georgina.

A rescue cat, found at LaTourelle Falls  in the Columbia Gorge one autumn day in 2011 with my sisters when they were visiting from NY, and dumped off hours earlier, according to a road-crew worker, Georgina’s been with me through the thick and thin of it. She made it all the way to Ireland and back, and always seems glad to see us when we return from the farm (or is that just for the crunchies I give her? hmmm). For all that, kitty cat, there’s a paver with your name on it. Thank you, thank you, little fuzzy face.

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Such a late harvest has us, like many, walking the line: on the one side we’re hoping this new abundance of mid-October’s above average temperatures will give us just what we need; on the other side, it won’t. I have no idea how many times Scott may check the weather during the day, my guess is many. I don’t check, because sometimes, I can’t handle what I’m going to hear.

Like last night, before going to bed, we listened to old Portland weatherman Matt Zafino give us his interpretation of the weather. Chance of frost in The Dalles. Sh*t. “If it’s going to be that cold in town,” Scott said, “It’s going to be colder out on our hill.” Well, that was enough to worry me, and as much as I do know worry is a waste of time and energy, it made for some hard sleeping. Scott didn’t seem so worried, his snores moving me from bed to couch so I could toss and turn out there.

We’re supposed to start harvest this weekend. Checking Weather Underground this AM, it doesn’t appear we got the cold Matt Zafino told us about, but I’m sure Scott’ll check some of the surrounding orchard stations to verify. We’ve yet to have a crop where we look at each other and say, “What are we going to do with this?” Thankfully we’ve walked the line with success for all our vintages to date. The specificity of grape character intact, and sugars and acids in balance, we have what the year gave us, and we’ve been extremely pleased with the results. Sanity-wise, that’s a whole different story.

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Yesterday I held a flicker in my hand, feeling its chest heave and its little heart beat, right there on my skin. Speaking to it only increased its agitation, so I stopped, and waited for Scott to return with Sam–who was having a tearful day, scared by all the grasshoppers and wanting to go home as soon as we had arrived–and something to help extricate the poor bird from the netting it was caught in.

When I saw Scott kneeling on the hillside, at the end of a net-ensconsed row, I figured he was working on a drip tube, a leak or something. Then I saw it was something under the net, and he called me to come down, asking, “Do you have any cutting thing in your bag? A knife or something?”  I didn’t.  “What’s caught?” I was fearful of hearing it was a hawk, or worse, our resident kestrel. “It’s one of those long-beaked birds you like.” “A flicker?” “Yeah, a flicker.” Just as bad, I thought. A flicker.

Scared beyond all get out of what I might see when I got there, there it soon was, wild-eyed in Scott’s grip, as he tried unsuccessfully to release it. He showed me where the one wing had netting stuck tight to it, and our plan was to cut it out.

I’m alone on that steep hillside with the bird now, the sun peeking past the billowy white clouds, the air warm and gently scented with sagebrush and dried grasses, the start of Fall. The ground feels soft under my knees as I try  to gently, yet firmly, hold this fearful feathered creature. I use my fingers and create a stronger vise-like position near its neck area, so the bird’s head becomes a cork and the rest of the body can’t get through, and am more careful with the wings and body, not knowing what damage might be there–its right wing greatly entangled in the green webbing. I look into its dark red eyes and hope and hope and hope that all will be well.

Not knowing how long it has been tangled, it is still feisty, and strangely calm. While I wait for Scott, I undo its big, leathery clawed left foot. Mistake! For as soon as I get that free, the wiggle becomes more determined. And it is soon caught up again. I decide to just wait.

I hear voices, and look up the hill. Soon they appear at the top, and down the hillside Scott comes, carrying Sam so the grasshoppers don’t get him, I suppose. They get to us, and Scott tells me, the only thing he found to cut with was clippers, no knife. We’ll make it work. “Hi little birdie.” Sam, now three, speaks to the flicker. We tell him matter of factly how this little guy got caught in the netting, and now we’re doing our best to get him out.

I have to hold the bird now in one hand, so Scott can get to that leg that had become re-entangled. Done. Now all that’s left is the right wing, and now with the bird almost out, the netting comes easily away. The flicker is free.

Please excuse me while tears come to my eyes now as I write; in the moment there was no time to be emotional, it was simply holding that bird and wondering what would it be able to do once it was released?

I jump up because the flicker obviously senses its recent detanglement, its fight now stronger than ever to leave my hands. “Don’t toss it,” Scott tells me, as he watches me lift the bird while I steady myself on the hill. “I’m not,” I tell him. “I’m taking it away from the netting.”

I walk the few steps across that 30+ grade, to what we call the north side, and set the bird down. And just as soon as my hands move away, it departs. Shaky, but flying, wings broad and nothing visibly damaged, it jumps right into the air, and disappears over the contour of our hill. Why it decides to turn back toward the vineyard, we will never know. “Oh, please, please, please, do not land or drop down there,” I think. I share my concern with Scott, who simply says, “We did what we could to help it, there’s nothing more we can do.”

As we walk back up the hill, I realize there is something more I can do: somewhere, somehow, get a tougher skin.


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That’s where you’ll find us, on Google Earth’s new site, One World, Many Stories, in year 2005, 3 dots following the start of a program that has reached its one-billionith download (holy crow!). Click on this lively circle and you’ll read all about how we (Scott, really) used Google Earth to zoom in on a dream, to locate our vineyard, without ever having set foot on the ground.

In actuality, we discovered our land while Google Earth was still in its Beta version, in April 2005. But since the timeline really begins with the launch of Google Earth, we decided to use the October 2005 date as the day we finally set foot on the property itself.

We are honored to be that little dot, on that fantastic timeline, with all those others who set off and explored to make a difference, either in their own lives, or in others’. Thank you, thank you, Google Earth.

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This is what I was thinking about Oregon Trail Pioneers right here at our usual Deschutes River swim spot, almost at the point of where it flows into the Columbia River —where we cool ourselves down when it’s hot out at the vineyard. After another harrowing river crossing* for these people here on the Deschutes, the long-awaited fertile land is now within a shortened reach, but with still a long way to go:

OMG, these people made it all the way here are to Oregon Territory, but it’s not the verdant valleys they see, it’s these basalt-y, dried out autumn golden grassy hills that are presently Wasco County, and on the other side of the river, in Washington State, Klickitat County. “We came here for THIS?” I know my thoughts would be along those lines, cursing the man who brought me here—feigning no free will, of course—and wondering, was it because we took a wrong turn and he didn’t want to ask for directions that we’re in this place? But inwardly I’d be enjoying my secret excitement of adventure and possibility, because that’s just how I am. Terrible, I know, I’ll work on it.

Maybe those settlers cooled themselves right here at the mouth of the Columbia, where the rushing waters and its temperature rise and fall with Mt. Hood’s snow-melt, the air scented with the sweetness of sage brush cooking in the heat. Yup, right here along the banks, I decide, where my small family and I now frolic, Sam dipping in and out of the pools with his long, yellow “noodle,” that long floaty tube you imagine geriatrics using for a pool work-out. It’s right here that those people washed their clothes or dipped their feet, set their fires, and wondered again: “We came here for this?”

“Oh, please, let me make it right with a good dinner,” the men may have thought, as I watch modern-day fishermen cast a line out into the waters, the Chinooks still running fast but not so plenty as days gone by. And in the morning, the settlers would continue on, wondering, wondering, are we almost there?

Along they’d go, another 15 mile trek down to The Dalles, maybe on the basalt lip running along the river where their trail is still visible, or maybe fanned out across the landscape, passing right by the base of our vineyard. But once at The Dalles, they have to decide two things (if they’re late comers to the Trail) in order to circumnavigate Mt. Hood: continue on over the treacheries of a late Fall Cascade Mountain trail, or put it all on a raft and navigate the wilds of the Columbia. So close, so close. Yet no matter which curtain they picked, I can’t imagine they’re NOT thinking, where is the green we’ve been promised? Where are those fertile valleys? And stands of timber? And quiet spots of respite, where we might eek out a new life?

Those valleys would be there, obviously. And only the toughest would reach them. As I watch a small school of fry try to hide in the reeds as I wade past, I look out and think, “We are so close, so close. And yes, Stephanie, we came here for this.”

*Years later around this very spot where I tool around in the water wondering all this, a Heritage Marker would be placed, one I have yet to see, reading: “The Oregon Trail crossed the hazardous Deschutes River at this point by floating the prairie schooners and swimming the livestock. An island at the river mouth was often utilized when the water was high and the ford dangerous. Pioneer women and children were frequently ferried across the stream by Native canoe men who made the passage in exchange for bright colored shirts and other trade goods.”

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There’s silence over the vineyard. Last weekend this wasn’t so. Starlings and Brewer’s Blackbirds had gathered, maybe a good 100 or so, in anticipation of our changing grapes, chippering and chirping in excitement of their imminent gorging of the grapes–or so they thought. They’d rise up as Jack ran the rows, looking like little winged muffins being tossed into the sky, so sudden was their lift. Then those plump little beasties would lazily land only a few rows away, where they remained until Jack or one of us sent them springing upward again. But now, nothing.

We started at the west end, where the sangiovese and tempranillo were undergoing veraison. A few days later, the entire vineyard was under netting.

The vineyard is now ensconced in bird netting, and a new green hue covers the land.

We saw one of our kestrel friends, a male, out watching the activity (literally) unfold. I ducked behind a vine, in hopes I’d see him in action, for that was why we even put in those kestrel houses, so these little falcons would swoop and maybe even swallow down some song birds, as message to others to “Stay out.” Well, he wasn’t that interested, even when it looked like those birds landed right under his roost. Geez!

Hey Guy! Get to Work!


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