I profited from a brief January springtime that made the jonquils bloom on the banks of Lake Burton, to labor in the vineyards literally.
North Georgia has a thriving little wine industry, in fact. Most wineries are around the old gold-mining mountain town of Dahlonega. There’s one near the faux Alpine village of Helen—or Hel[o]n Earth as I call it. There is one next door in Towns County, and one working winery still in Rabun County.
It is in easy driving distance of Birmingham for the weekend and Alabama has planted its flag there prominently. They may as well dye Lake Burton crimson and paint a big white A on it.
And the mountains are lovely in fall and spring.
But on this winter day, regardless of the weather, Mary Ann and I set out with a purpose to prune the vineyard with good wine in mind.
On the way to the hillside vines, while we were walking through the rose garden, Mary Ann remembered. I didn’t.
“Two years ago you brought your bijou up here, Joy, and taught her to prune the roses. Didn’t they turn out beautifully?” I remembered coming but I wish it had been with some other girl.
It was a neat little rose garden thriving there still if I do say so myself. Mary Ann taught us to prune the vineyards that day two years ago, but it was comparable to what I learned growing up with rose gardens. On this January day with just enough sun to warm you in the cool mountain air, we set out for the vineyards that needed our attention.
You set yourself several tasks when you prune a vineyard. You are not just cutting the vines back to invigorate new growth.
Anyone can do that. Some vineyards just hire migrant workers to do it and don’t teach them the real truth about cultivating fine wine.
Pruning is much more a process of selection than that. The first thing you have to realize when wine is your goal is you do not want a bumper crop of grapes. You want the energy of the vine to go into producing its best, most subtle, most concentrated flavors. And that means fewer grapes.
Many grapes that might have grown and been eaten or rotten and gone to seed will simply never be—they would have been, but not after the pruner is through.
Briefly, you want to space the shoots growing off the main trunk to give them room. Cut off the dead wood. Eliminate the weak stems that will never bear poetry of any weight. Pruning is merciless.
We worked down the row with MA constantly talking about wine, grapes, terroir, everything. I told her to write an article about it. She teased me back. Her favorite topic is the bijoux (jewels) I bring to the vineyard.
“At least Joy did not work in a nail parlor,” she continued on my least favorite subject.
What I thought was something like don’t judge a book by its cover, and Einstein was a lowly patent clerk in Zurich before he was at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, and some of these tendrils that look like they will produce a wine of grace and substance will actually fool you and dribble out mere grapillons, just like some of the Five Star recruits end up second string at Georgia State.
What I said was, “Well she’s not speaking to me, either. I seem to have that effect on people.”
Mary Ann laughed at me. “You’ve got to remember—not everyone can lie down with a lion and survive.”
“I will try to remember,” I said without growling.
“She is not the one you wrote all the poems to, is she?” She was really digging into me now—so it’s a good thing I know she really is my friend and not just pretending like some people. But she sure was hacking on the vines, and she came over and corrected me, telling me I was using too light a touch. When I pruned I needed to really cut the shoot down to the nub—almost, because we do want that vine to bear fruit.
“No she’s not the one,” I said. “Oh that’s right,” she said, while getting out her little handsaw to eliminate an entire arm of a vine that had gone wayward, in her opinion, “that was the crazy one. The poems were beautiful. Did you really climb on her roof to take her dish down because she was afraid she was being beamed by satellites?” “Yes, I did,” hacking off a troublesome shoot whose would-be grapes will never make it into wine that I will drink.
“Yes, you really are lion-hearted, not to mention a hopeless romantic.”
I would not very well be here cutting vines in hopes that in three years’ time someone, maybe not even me, would be drinking beautiful, deep, dark-fruited wine, otherwise, now would I? I didn’t say it. I just thought it to myself.
“I liked Leigh Ann. She is substantial.
But what happened to the girl in the rose garden? She seemed nice.”
I thought, sometimes I wish Mary Ann would stop talking.
I told her just a couple of the tricks Joy pulled, just the facts, without editorializing or drawing any conclusions.
Mary Ann turned her eyes to the ground and stopped teasing me for a second.
“I’m sorry.” “That’s what everyone says when they hear that,” I said as I trimmed off some dead wood so decay wouldn’t enter the living woody stream from which the fruit emerges.
Mary Ann set to sawing off a large part of a vine. I was working with pruning shears with which my hands are strong enough to cut through all but the thickest trunk. Mary Ann doesn’t let just anyone use the saw, anyway. The saw is not only important, she says--the saw is a dangerous instrument in the vineyard. It is only for making dramatic changes in the growth of the vines.
She hacked away for a while.
“She shouldn’t have gone on and on about loving you forever if she was ever going to act like that in the meantime,” she said.
That’s probably right, I thought, but I had a pretty knotty vine that had been poorly pruned in the past to correct, so I didn’t answer.
“Well she seemed nice, but it was just a façade. Some people are like that,” she added.
“Funny someone named Joy would scheme so calculatedly to cause the opposite.”
It is a valid observation, of course, but sometimes you say just one sentence too much, I thought to myself as I corrected the course of some unknown Mexican laborer from the year before. The vineyard is so large you can’t tend to everything yourself and at some point you have to be able to trust somebody else to take care of parts of it. You can only hope they will care about the vines themselves even if they don’t particularly have your best interests in mind. As they say at Lake Burton, you have to keep good habits and follow a sound process to get good results. A strong fruit tree doesn’t grow from a rotten seed. I think Jesus said something like that, too.
Mary Ann came over and admired my artistry.
“Pruning is an art, you know. There is no scientific rule to follow, though there are some principles” (as I have mentioned).
I have to go pick up one of the sheep at the vet, she told me.
“Can you hold this and use it while I am gone?” She folded the saw into the glove of my hand.
I kept working. From the height of the vineyard, I could see Persimmon Creek flowing brightly through the bottomland below. I could see not only rows of vines—I could see where gardens had been. Maybe Indians, or Native Americans as we now say.
I like to think of the quartz facets gleaming, peering from under the earth, exposed by a plow or rain, but mostly I like to think of the hand that made it, a man like me probably stood here a thousand years ago, maybe picking grapes in the woods, a sylvan historian.
I remember being at the Louvre Museum, in the Greek section, and seeing a brass helmet—small, and irregular, so clearly beaten out of metal by hand--with a nose guard that delineated where the eyes would peer out. And I looked for a minute and I could swear that the small Greek man from 3000 B.C. was peering out of his helmet at me.
And I was overwhelmed by the feeling, as if I had discovered my own ancient childhood there, looking back at me, so I had to sit down. But the emotion welled up in me as my connection to that man made me physically shudder and suppress a sob. O Attic shape!
My wife at the time came over and asked me if I were tired. And I knew right then she would never understand a thing that went through my head.
The solitude of the vineyard is good for thinking. There is no cell phone, no texting.
I couldn’t even connect to the Facebook server. If you are working with a companion, since there is nothing else to do besides manicure vines that can’t answer back, it is good for nothing else but talking to each other.
When Mary Ann came back she took her place working at the vine next to me, silently at first. Then she spoke and teased me out of thought.
“I don’t think Joy understood you,” she said.
“Being understood is highly over-rated,” I answered. Consider Mrs. Einstein, I thought, who was no diviner of relativity.
Mary Ann just kept talking, as she usually does.
“The first time you came to Persimmon Creek you were healing from trying to help the crazy girl, and you wrote such a lyrical piece about it, she came back for a while.
I remember it pulsed like a Bach fugue and then released a stream of feeling, like Persimmon Creek.”
“Don’t do that again,” she admonished.
Well what if I had responded differently when I discovered Joy was a liar, or what if I had returned more affection when she screamed at me that I did not love her as much as she loved me.
Don’t go down that path again, she swore.
But why did she say she would love you forever Wednesday and then never speak to you again on Friday?
Hard to say, since she wouldn’t talk to me, but the best answer I ever got was I made too much mess and had too much trouble at the time, though all those problems are solved now.
Then I could tell Mary Ann was mad, even though she is an airy Aquarian, and not a fiery lion.
“I thought she was nice but I was wrong.
She is a fake and her name is metaphorical, because Joy was just along for the ride.”
The pruner has a God-like power over life and death. But don’t let it swell your head. The vineyard causes reverence for living things, or should. You are doing the best you can, but you do have a purpose. You are not just letting it grow wild to do what it will. You want to taste the wine it produces.
The vineyard makes good practice making decisions. You can’t stand in front of a knotty vine all day perplexed. You have to make those decisions about which stems to save and which to eliminate and move on.
And once you have decided to kill a small shoot or even pull a whole vine out of the ground from the roots, it is irrevocable and you have to live with it. It is a good practice.
Mary Ann has had her own travails, what with the best winery in the Southeast closing down.
The vineyard has been therapeutic.
“You can just saw people right out of your life.” She hacked, a little too crudely I thought—I would prefer a neater cut and not a gash, at least that’s what I learned from pruning roses—and tossed a limb to the ground.
When you are pruning vines you fix some things that previous pruners messed up, whether from ignorance, poor understanding, or lack of caring. You can also take some risks—saving a stem that seems like a long shot but may prove out, or even leaving vines intertwined and wrapped around each other with each one growing in the direction the other was supposed to, but it may work out in ways you would not have planned and may never understand- -and you will never know how it would have been if you had done otherwise.
All the vines you cut and throw away and grapes that would have been just go up in thin air. Some that remain might have fooled you with their potential. You can only see how the wine that gets made turns out.
Not everyone knows a winemaker and can get to cut vines any time they are in season. You can go to vineyards in California and Argentina and help harvest. I bet you can go pick muscadines in Alabama in the fall of the year. When the time comes, just call up a winery and ask.
If you can’t wait for fall, go to South America or Australia in the springtime. It will be fall down there. Winery owners are waiting to harvest their yields.
When they get to know you, they might even trust you with the pruning. In any case, I am sure there is a rose garden nearby—it may be closer than you think--that needs tending.
Go to www. bhamweekly.com to see our Video of the Week: Get out in the Vineyards.