Beautiful People Who Grow Beautiful Fruit

The bare, wintry-looking grapevines in deep earth tones sprawling in evenly spaced rows over fluorescent green, rolling hills as far as the eye can see. Corpulent sheep-filled vineyards abutting Clydesdale-sprinkled pastures. Monumental mountains jutting vertically out of the ground way off in the distance. And when you get right up close, I mean really put your face in the vine, you can spot the very first, tiny green buds daring to burst forth in stunning forms of complexity and delicacy from their months-dormant canes.

Feeling inspired today by the beauty of it all.

Our growers are dazzling, too. Not the symmetrical contours of their pretty faces, though this is nice, but the enveloping warmth, the brilliant openness and the glowing down-to-earth nature radiating from their beings. Four different groups of them in two days, and it’s been consistent.

Over the past couple of days, I’ve had the supreme pleasure of accompanying talented photographer Dona Kopol Bonick on a mission to capture the “essence” of each of our growers. This photo project will provide material for various projects we have in store for you this year- Year of the Snake for some, Year of the Grower for Ram’s Gate. You might be familiar with the “estate” model of winegrowing, i.e. you walk into a tasting room and your gracious wine host says, “This is our Estate Chardonnay, notes of caramel, vanilla and toasted brioche, yadda yadda bing bang boom.” By this, they mean the fruit was grown right next to the winery where it was turned into wine; was aged and bottled right there, too. This is a great model for producing wine, for sure, but not the only model. Although Ram’s Gate Winery certainly produces some beautiful “estate” wines from our own estate vineyards rooted around our Carneros winery, we are fortunate to be able to diversify our collection of wines by sourcing other equally if not more stunning grapes from some of the most cherished vineyard sites throughout Sonoma County. So while we don’t get to use the well-marketed term “Estate” on all of our wines, the truth is that we’re sourcing some of the best fruit in the county to produce wines of superlative quality. I saw this pertinent quote somewhere recently, (sorry MLA citation rules, can’t remember where): “It takes a village to raise a wine.” 

And so, to highlight the genuinely amazing people who play the principle role in bringing our beautiful, healthy grapes into this world, we’re starting with the photo project. But because yours truly was along for the ride, I couldn’t help but tease out some of their stories, too.

Without further ado, it is with humility and honor that I present to you…

Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 9:00 am, Silver Eagle Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County

Ulises Valdez

This man, who just oozes warmth, love, positive attitude and work ethic, grew up in a tiny village you’ve never heard of in Michoacan, Mexico with no electricity, an adobe hut, 2 donkeys, 7 brothers and sisters, lots of corn and not much else. His father died in an accident when Ulises was 7, leaving the family with next to nothing, and so, shortly after his father’s death at the bewildering age of 8 years old, Ulises started working with the other men in his village, farming corn. At 10, he moved to Mexico City by himself to work at the market for a little extra cash to send home to his family. With his third grade education plus a few reading and writing lessons from a generous Senor at the market, 16-year-old Ulises and a friend set off for the United States in pursuit of more for their families. Though his mother was not totally keen on the plan- read: terrified for her teenage boy’s safety, unsupervised in a foreign country-driven and courageous Ulises knew what he must do and do it (whatever it was) he would. He took the first job he could get and got to work in the land of the grapevine, pruning, tending the vine, whatever was needed to be done, always paying attention, always learning, always seizing an opportunity to learn from someone who knew more than he. Now, 26 years after he first crossed the border, he manages 1,000 acres of grapevine throughout Sonoma County. Oh, and in 2010, his wine was poured at the White House at a state dinner honoring President Felipe Calderon of Mexico. When asked his favorite thing to do/favorite hobby/favorite activity? “Pruning.” He says with the warmest of smiles. “My favorite thing is being with the guys in the vineyard.”

(This story made possible in part by Reagan’s passing of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which made Ulises a legal temporary resident, allowing him to eventually become a U.S. citizen. A fact for which he gives thanks at every opportunity. Seriously, he’s brought up how thankful he is for President Reagan all three times I’ve met with him. We should be so lucky as to have more fiercely driven, hard working, kind-hearted Ulises’ in our country. But please forgive me this brief and totally inappropriate political digression.)

Tuesday, March 5, 2013, 10:30 am, Bush Crispo Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County

Bush Crispo Family

Though I got less of the story on this visit, Audrey, Audrey, Chris, Daniel and Caroline ooze warmth and sincerity as well. In fact, every single grower I’ve met with so far has. Audrey Bush, Sr. is 91 years old, about as big as my pinkie, and as sweet as apple pie. She just recently stopped driving her fire engine red Jaguar XKE and owns the beautiful property where they live and grow grapes.

Daniel and Caroline are in high school and impressively, considering the somewhat awkward time of life, carry themselves with enviable self-assurance, kindness and humility, as do their parents Audrey and Chris, of course. Audrey moved to this area from outside of Los Angeles and spoke about how surprised she was when she first moved at how different people are in this area. “Near L.A., once you get through someone’s protective guard,” she said (I’m paraphrasing somewhat), “that person is usually a great person, but there’s always that guard you have to get through. Up here, you don’t meet that guard. People are friendly. And sincere.” Amazing how friendliness and sincerity begets friendliness and sincerity. Let’s just say that after the all too brief 30-minute shoot, I was ready to join the clan.

Check back soon as grower stories continue…

Britt Starr

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