Saturday, July 30, 2011

Days of Wine and Roses

Some of my readers may not know that I am also a regular contributor to Walla Walla Lifestyles, a magazine about the valley's people, wine and food. It is distributed 11 times a year through subscription with the Walla Walla Union Bulletin. The following article is from the July 2011 issue.

The title sounds so romantic, right? Unfortunately, it comes from a melancholy black-and-white movie from 1962 about an alcoholic man who falls in love with a young woman. She, however, unlike him, prefers chocolate over alcohol. Of course, they get married. He assists her in her own upcoming addiction to alcohol so they can share his addiction. And, wouldn’t you know, he beats his addiction, she doesn’t, and he leaves her. The End.

The movie’s title is an odd one, because the alcoholic protagonists don’t even drink any wine. Liquor, such as gin and vodka, is more to their liking.

I have my own “Days of Wine and Roses,” but they are nothing like the movie. My days of wine and roses are spent out on my back deck during the summer. It’s a quiet place where I can sit in one of two rocking chairs I purchased during a visit to Tennessee. These oak chairs were handcrafted by a family who has been making rockers for 150 years.

Between the two chairs is an old Hungarian oak wine barrel. On the head of the barrel, I have placed a large, round, glass top. It makes the perfect prop for my afternoon glass of iced tea, evening glass of wine and, often, my morning cup of coffee.

On the deck is an assortment of pottery and antique cement pots that are usually filled with summer annuals and herbs. There’s a birdhouse that has actually housed a few nests, and a delicate-sounding wind chime.

The best part is below the deck. It’s framed with a colored assortment of rose bushes and the fragrance of the roses wafts up to the deck.

Unfortunately, an early freeze struck last November, and this spring when the roses began showing some bud break, we received another cold snap. Out of my 18 rose bushes, seven were given over to merciless Jack Frost​.

As I sat in my outdoor rocking chair, mourning my roses and looking at the lifeless, thorny gray sticks poking out of the ground, it suddenly became overwhelming to me. Everything that week became overwhelming from simple chores like rinsing a cereal bowl to reading a sentence and trying to make sense of it.

It dawned on me that I hadn’t taken a vacation in a couple of years. The last few years of my life had met with some losses and, at the same time, some intense excitement and life-changing experiences. I had to get away!

And I did, and started writing these sentences about wine and roses in a cabin tucked away in the mountains of Oregon. It wasn’t too far from civilization, as there were other cabins close by, but they were also filled with other adults who, I imagine, were looking for the same thing I was looking for: peace and solace from nature.

There was no cell service, but plenty of fresh mountain air and a few friendly deer. Most of all, it was quiet. The noisiest thing around me was the humming refrigerator in the cabin’s kitchen and the occasional sigh from my patient little dog, Chloe.

This time made me reflect on people who had made a difference to me in the last 14 years of my life and, in fact, had even changed the path of my life. Of course, I also thought of my roses — or the lack of them.

I started thinking about my former wine instructor, the late Stan Clarke, and how he made such a difference in my life. I remember a classroom discussion about vineyards, whether they were in Washington, California or even in Europe, and how there would sometimes be beautiful rose bushes planted at the end of vineyard rows. Stan pointed out that the roses were there for more than just aesthetic reasons — roses and grapevines are susceptible to the same diseases.

Vineyard owners in Bordeaux discovered centuries ago that roses and grapevines have a lot in common. Roses act as beautiful and fragrant sentinels for the grapevines as they can display early warning signs of powdery mildew, a fungal disease that affects the growth of fruit and causes the vines to rot eventually. Roses are more sensitive than grapevines, so, if a vigneron notices his roses have this fungus, he knows it is time to treat the vines to prevent them from getting the same disease. Roses are also homes to beneficial insects such as ladybugs that feast on aphids and other undesirable insects.

Later, Stan, with his practical and rather sarcastic wit, pointed out, “Why bother with the roses, when we could just look at the grapevine itself and tell the symptoms?”

Not just the roses told the story of the November freeze and the cold spring — so did acres of grapevines. The Walla Walla Valley experienced some of the coldest temperatures around the state, and many of the lower-valley vineyards suffered the most, sustaining damages of about 20 percent, with some grape varietals being damaged as much as 100 percent. Still, as they often are, winemakers are feeling optimistic about the 2011 vintage.

After four days of cabin-living, I came home feeling rested. I was able to jot down few words during my stay, but I read through a magazine and a book and was able to comprehend all of the words.

I went out to my deck and peered down at my slow-blooming roses and noticed three of the seven bushes I had declared dead were showing signs of green, and young, new, red leaves were gloriously popping up from the earth. The sun was shining and birds were singing — once again, I would have my days of wine and roses.

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