The first time I saw our former estate vineyard rolling up from the valley floor to the base of the Altamont hills, the late rays of the summer afternoon were throwing shadows out long and epic on the loamy ground. I slowly drove my truck around the perimeter of the vineyard, radio off and windows down. In the lowering light, the gently waving rows of vines descended the hillside into a perfect point in the distance, and the flying bugs were reflected like transient embers. The vines were loaded with fruit,
bunches dancing in the breeze, trellis wires playing their metallic accompaniment. The breezes were coming in from San Francisco Bay as they did practically every day. They carried the tang of the sea on their backs and were chiefly responsible for the Livermore Valley’s viticultural pre-eminence. Perfectly preserved in my mind like the landscape in a child’s snow globe, I stopped at the top of the vineyard, turned off the engine, and climbed into the back of the truck. The warm wind bathed me as the sun was slowly eaten by the western hills; I was alone and there was life all around me, and the beauty of that ragged rectangle of vine was so full that it hurt.
It so happens that Ghielmetti was planted fortuitously and well. Named for former partners, the Ghielmetti family, and planted for the practical purpose of mitigating the construction of a country club in another part of the south Livermore Valley, this 100-acre parcel would eventually encompass emotional multitudes. The site has six different soil types ribboning across it, and the arroyos that bisect it like untidy scars create a variety of aspects to the sun that serve the grapes planted there extremely well. The vineyard was put into the ground in 2001 by a team from Napa that knew what it was doing. The spots where there is more clay than loam are planted to Merlot while Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon benefit from rockier and fine-grained soil further below.
Because of its proximity to the hills that separate the Livermore Valley from the entrance to the Central Valley, twenty miles east, Ghielmetti is the backstop for the ever-present easterly winds. While this has deleterious consequences when the smoke from fires is present as it was in 2020, the beneficial effects are numerous. Ghielmetti is the last major vineyard in the Livermore Valley to push buds in the spring and the last to be harvested in the fall. Giving the lie to the misapprehension that the Livermore Valley is too hot to grow great fruit, the harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon starts there weeks after the much-warmer Napa Valley has already been picked out. The long hang-time at Ghielmetti coupled with the intelligent and appropriate planting of varieties has been rewarded with many vintages of world-class fruit and a deserved reputation as the vinous jewel of our area.
More than a perfect spot to grow important grape varieties well, Ghielmetti, or Out From Land, as it came to be called by my family, became the center of a vision for living that captivates to this day. Nestled in the 100 acres of vines is an olive grove of 111 trees that produces gorgeous oil. The arroyos, which twist vineyard blocks along a many-degreed axis, are home to fox, coyote, and wild turkey. In some spots they are deeper than the roof of a house and hold mysteries in the strata of their geologic adornment. On the bights of land that are the push to the old watercourse’s pull, young kids made forts from old wine pallets, and there is room on those small promontories for citrus and avocado and the other comestible necessities for delicious daily dining.
In the middle of the vineyard, like an old drowsing dog, a ranch house lay. The house was nothing special except that it afforded the most spectacular view to the center of the town of Livermore and to the western ranges that separated it from the sea. In the early evening, family would gather on the porch with a glass of wine and watch the sinuous line of Pidgeon Pass grow bright with the lights of cars returning from San Jose and the Peninsula. There was never a more beautifully desolate sunset than the one we would watch from an oak-sentineled clearing in a block of Cabernet Sauvignon.
Hundreds of days each season, I would walk a route around and through Ghielmetti and watch the annual progression of vine. My four-mile trek would take me to every corner of the vineyard, traversing the hard-pan dirt (tractor tracks memorialized in the rarely wetted ground like the footprints of ancient beasts) of the upper blocks and down to the deep fissure at the bottom of the vineyard in which lay the walls of old houses dumped there decades before the site was planted. I knew every foot of that place like I knew the knobbed back of my woman. I knew when the grey, adobe-like clay of Zamora silt loam would give way to the mealy fawn of Perkins, would feel in the ball of hip when mile three became the fourth. I knew where I could expect the marauding starlings to have torn at grapes, leaving them looking like empty buckets as they dried out over the course of the season, just as I knew when the front of Bay air would arrive each afternoon and spur the large Eucalyptus on the ranch into a Pentecostal dance. As the stove is the palette upon which the great chefs mixed their colors, so too the soil of Ghielmetti was where the creation of my annual picture-making began.
Out From Land (taken from an Emily Dickinson poem) was the family’s Brigadoon, rising magical and fully-formed each day. It was to be the place where generations of the family came to grow and commune (with each other and with nature) while it served the practical purpose, too, of providing the raw product for ravishing wine. My wife died in the house there in 2016 in a hospital bed, eaten up by cancer, but overlooking the vines that she had come to love. Two years later, unable to raise the money to purchase it, Ghielmetti was sold to a local farming family, and I moved back to town.
Losing Out From Land was a blow. I worked for months trying to find investors, trying to close the acid-eaten hole in my stomach too, perhaps knowing down deep in the rough places that I would be unable to make it all come about. Just because I fell in love with the vision of a place, was instrumental in creating the reputation of the site for world-class quality through the wines my team and I made and knew that it was the perfect marriage of person and purpose, I did not deserve it. While a connection to the soul of something – vineyard, product, philosophy – is necessary if you to intend it for greatness, it is no guarantor of success. Because of the rarity of this link and its provocative nature to those who do not sympathize with it, this holy joining, often, works counter to the prospect of financial reward.
My sleep was often troubled during the months of negotiations and sometimes I would dream of the small lime tree I planted in the backyard to commemorate my wife’s one-year survival after her GBM diagnosis. All the glorious color and beauty of the vineyard has been drained away to gray in my dreams, and I cannot see any of it clearly. The tree grows hardly at all and is stunted and forsaken, no matter how much water and fertilizer I give it. Eventually, it shrinks back into the hard ground – as in a reversed movie – and nothing is left but a weed-strewn patch. By the time I had to leave, the tree had not borne fruit. It turns out that I had planted it in the wrong place, and the ubiquitous winds methodically and pre-emptively tore away the buds that may have borne fruit.
As a maker of red wines, my personal timeline is chunked up into three-year segments and where I land on any given day is as often in the past or future as it is the present. Today is the condition of the current growing season, yesterday is the putting-to-bottle a vintage from two years ago, and tomorrow is concerned with the raising-up of the fruit from the previous harvest. It is a wonderful, if somewhat disconcerting, way to apprehend the passage of time. Time folds on itself and echoes as if I were swimming in a cave-bound pool. This temporal origami can also protect a sensitive soul. While the 2018 and 2019 vintages followed on the epically grand 2017 with nearly equal quality, they will always be linked to a moment of great import. Just as 2014 will be the vintage of my late wife’s diagnosis, and 2016 marks her final season, 2018 will be another vintage of loss.
The change in ownership of Ghielmetti Vineyard modifies my day-to-day involvement with it. I no longer have the same access to the site as I did when the vineyard was mine in every single way except the most ordinary one. I do continue to visit – daily, when we get close to harvest and picking decisions need to be made – but my visceral and immediate connection to its ordered rows and undulations and slashing arroyos and profligate beauty have waned with absence. With these losses come the grand and simple moments of being able to work with unruly nature every day to shepherd something bottomlessly beautiful into existence. The exultant moments of celebration, perhaps more common in other pursuits, take the shape of a deeply earthbound satisfaction when one of my wines profoundly moves a lover of wine and contributes joy and richness to an otherwise ordinary Tuesday night dinner.
What does Ghielmetti Vineyard mean? What is meaning? Are we talking about land conservation or business success or wine as manifestation of incorruptible Beauty? Or the landstarved man out to sea desperate for home? This place is the objective correlative to a love affair both vinous and geographic. Every harvest has its own character, suffers or transcends due to effects too many and interwoven to single out, though the soil and the annual work and the intentionality of thought behind its first parceling up and the subsequent effort to translate that objective thought into something that courts subjectivity are certainly major characters in our seasonal drama. It is natural beauty harnessed to create beauty in a bottle. It is Siren, certainly. And hopefully, Penelope too. I have pledged obeisance to this vineyard, and it has inspired and influenced nearly every one of my aspirations. Because I know it so well and because it continually repays my hopes for magical wines, there is no other vineyard I’ve seen to match its worth.