Readying the soil

by Lorin Michel Friday, March 18, 2016 4:39 PM

There is a DirecTV commercial currently running that makes me smile every time. It’s called "The Settlers." The premise is simple enough: a family lives in a house right in the middle of a tract development. On either side of their house is another almost exactly the same. One neighbor comes home in his BMW SUV and stops to say hi. The family’s father is on his wagon in the front yard. It’s being pulled by an ox. They’re tilling and fertilizing the soil. His son has already asked why they can’t have DirecTV like the McGregor’s next door. The father has informed him that they’re settlers. They settle for things. Like cable.

Cue Mr. McGregor, calling over the fence. “Hey Jebediah. How’s it going?” 

Jebediah, waving back: “Working the land. Hoping for a fertile spring.”

The absurdity of it is what gets me, similar to the Geico camel and hump day commercial from a year or so. They’re just laugh-out-loud funny. 

We have DirecTV so we’re not necessarily settlers. We are however about to be working the land, readying the soil and hoping for a fertile fall in about three years. Actually, we’re not quite readying the soil yet because we have to have some delivered. About 6 cubic yards of it. But we are working the land because we’re getting ready to plant grape vines. 

Several years ago, Kevin and I bought grapes and made our own wine. We got about a hundred pounds of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes from Paso Robles, and an equal amount of Syrah grapes from Santa Barbara County. Over the course of several months, we fermented, crushed, aged, and bottled about 72 bottles total, 36 of each. There was more to it, of course, but that was the gist. It sounds so easy. It was nerve racking, what with temperature fluctuation and the time Kevin was sure that the cab had developed bacteria. In the end, it all came out well, and we had our first true Michel Cellars wines. That was about three years ago. We haven’t had time to do it again since due to other life things like moving.

But for Christmas this past year, I bought him six grafted Barbera grape vines. We have to be very careful what we try to grow because of the climate, but Barbera is supposed to grow very well here. So I found a place online. I ordered them before Christmas and gave Kevin a print out in his stocking. The vines ship on Monday; they’ll arrive around mid-next week.

Once we decided on the best place to put them, we got to work. He’s been building walls because we want to plant on a hillside on the west side of the house. The issue, other than our fairly dry soil, is that we’re mostly rock. The soil we have simply isn’t that deep. So he’s positioning his walls on a flatter part of the hill and we’re going to have dirt delivered to create an area where we can plant, and nurture, and grow. We also have to figure out the best way to keep the critters away and to protect the vines from the winds and the monsoon rains. This is why I only bought six. Better to start small, figure it out and add to the vineyard than to start with a bunch and have them all get eaten, blow away or drown. 

Providing the grafts take in the soil we’ll have delivered next week, we’ll spend the next three years tending our six little vines, training them, pruning them, weeding, and watching. Any berries that grow we’ll put back into the soil for the first couple of years. In three years, we should have grapes that we can pick, de-stem, ferment, crush, age and make into our first estate-grown wine. Michel Cellars Barbera 2019.

Jebediah would be proud.

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live out loud


by Lorin Michel Friday, December 26, 2014 10:04 PM

There is a town in Cochise County that was originally called Maley. It was founded in 1880 as a whistlestop on the Southern Pacific Railroad. In 1889, it was renamed Willcox after Orlando Bolivar Willcox who served as a general in the Union Army in the Civil War. He was on the first train that came through the tiny town. Today it is home to 10 Southern Arizona wineries and about 3700 people. Day-after-Christmas wine tasting is a tradition, and this year Willcox was where we journeyed.

This tiny, nearly forgotten western town is just over an hour from Tucson. At an altitude of nearly 4200 feet it’s also cooler. In fact, it was only in the low 40s under a cloudless sky, and it was windy. We went to the older part of town first. Driving through, we were immediately struck by the fact that it’s very run down, kind of a hole as I dubbed it. Once upon a time it was probably wonderful and bustling. There are motels after motels, nearly all abandoned, with broken windows and signs that are falling from the building, hanging by old wires. It looks like you’re driving through an old town from the 1950s, a black and white movie like The Last Picture Show.

We turned right on Maley and then left onto Main, at the corner of The Rabbit Hole and The Dining Car Big Tex Barbecue. Flying Leap was on the same corner. There was an empty saloon for sale by Steve, and another small barbecue that looked like the place Frank Underwood frequents in the House of Cards on Netflix. The owner was sitting outside. He smiled and said Merry Christmas as we walked by. The old-fashioned movie house was advertising Hobbit 3 on the marquee. The road had angled parking places on either side of the street. Keeling Schaefer was there, too, across from the bronze sculpture of General Willcox.  We walked in and began our day of tasting.

Keeling Schaefer is in an old bank building from 1917. There is a ladder up to a lookout where the guard would sit with his rifle. Such was security in the old west. We tasted wine, we bought wine; we watched the trains roll by. We walked over to Big Tex, had some pulled pork for lunch, piled into the car and went in search of other wineries.

We found Bodega Pierce after turning on a dirt road. It was like being in a covered wagon, jostling along, kicking up dust. I was glad we hadn’t washed our already filthy car. From Bodega Pierce we went to Pillsbury and then to Zarpara. All of these tasting rooms are in people’s homes. They pour from what would be an eat-at bar in their kitchen.

We met a woman named Barbara at Bodega. She’s the owner of the winery. We met Bonnie at Pillsbury. She’s originally from Ohio but has been in Southern Arizona for 20 some years. She’s 65, a writer and came to Willcox about a year and a half ago to live on the vineyard property. She had her woodstove blazing. At Zarpara we were greeted by their dog Tilly, and the winery owners Rona and Mark were pouring wine from their kitchen. All of these winery owners had left corporate jobs; had decided there had to be something more to life. They found it in the rolling planes of this wonderful and wonderfully odd, time-forgotten little town.

We found it today, too, as we journeyed to a different time and place, where the grapes grow in volcanic soils and the winemakers walk the vineyards themselves, testing, observing, living a new life. In vino vertitas is what the Italians say. In wine, truth. And life. Today in Willcox, in wine there was living it out loud.

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