When I first arrived in California I didn’t really know anything about it… I was expecting Sun, surfers, beaches and the stereotypical hazy Californian streets. Little did I know that ‘Karl’, the fog of San Francisco, was at large and ensured that I rarely took off my fleece and the only beaches nearby appeared to be entirely overrun by seals.
After a short time in the city I drove up to the small post-industrial town of Petaluma. 15 years ago there was one sports bar that served pizza, now the town is filled with craft breweries, such as the now ubiquitous Lagunitas, dive bars and taco trucks. I was sure I’d arrived in the hipster Wild West and my accent seemed to confuse and intrigue everyone in the town… “Australian?” was the usual greeting which usually invited exhausting conversation about all the English speaking countries of the world until British was finally guessed and I was released from the conversation.
I then made my way to what would be my new home for the next 5 weeks. As the ridge of olive trees appeared in the distance, I had a good feeling about it. On arrival, I was the only person around, the family who owned the ranch were in England visiting relatives at the time so they had given me some jobs for the first week, introduced me to Gilberto (my soon-to-be boss), and told me where I was sleeping.
I went to unload my bags into the barn where I slept and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated by the place - a dark, gothic style barn with only two bats for company – it wasn’t exactly the welcome I was expecting.
My first week was one of freeing isolation – I had only 1 or 2 interactions with actual human beings. In fact, I mostly spoke to Arrow the dog, my trusty sidekick, and she would help/hinder me with my jobs throughout the week. Luckily my tasks were reasonably simple; I tended to the olive trees, watering and snipping them back, fed the animals – pigs, alpacas, emus, cattle, chickens, pigeons, love birds, dogs. The black widows were a little less welcome, however.
Arrow the dog
The area surrounding was more akin to Cornish farmland than typical California, placed right next to the San Andreas fault-line; the vineyard was sandwiched in between rolling hills. The nearby Petaluma gap was what brought in the fog every day. Not 15 minutes away was a town by the name of Inverness (named after the highland city because of their uncanny likeness) and just beyond that was the open Pacific with elephant seals on the beaches and whales frolicking about. Also nearby were odd little towns such as Bodega Bay where Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds was shot.
As the second week rolled around there was a lot to do in the vineyard and Gilberto and I began working together daily. Gilberto tended solely to the 11 acre vineyard throughout the year only with the occasional help of someone like me! Roughly 50% is Chardonnay and 50% Pinot noir, planted in 1993, the wine produced is a cool climate Californian that is less butter in the Chardonnay and more green fruit whereas the Pinot is much more variable year on year. Originally from a family of Staffordshire potato farmers, The Stubbs family bought the property in the 1980s but Tom Stubbssomewhat branched out from the family tradition and is now a commercial real estate developer in San Francisco.
Our first job was a crop thinning of the Chardonnay. This was truly where Gilberto and I became great friends, he told me of his story, coming from Mexico with nothing at the age of 18 to work on Orange farms near Los Angeles - “They paid too little” he would say in a thick Mexican accent. He then moved to Washington to work in the orchards but the cold got the better of him and he settled back down here in Marin in Northern California and became a self-taught vineyard manager.
After a while, Gilberto became convinced that I was to take over from him as vineyard manager, “I have 50 and I’ll retire soon. 65 and I am done. You come over here, find a nice wife, have a couple kids” he would say. Laughing, I would reply “What about my life back home?” but this he would dismiss with a snigger and reiterate his proposal with even more vigour.
Me and Gilberto
Occasionally, I would be able to tear myself away from the ranch and visit other nearby vineyards. My two favourites, if pushed, would have to be Kistler in Sonoma and Cakebread in Napa even though they are polar opposites. Cakebread is a very commercial enterprise with tourists (myself included!) walking through the barrel rooms, mouths agape, and the gift shop filled to the brim with merchandise. Kistler on the other hand was a by appointment only, down a single track road near Santa Rosa, the tasting room was an old prohibition era bar and brothel which had been beautifully renovated in the middle of one of their own Chardonnay vineyards. The wines of both places reflected their environments, the Kistler wines were more restrained, less typically Californian. The Cakebread wines were opulent with the quintessential flavours of Napa.
Kistler Tasting Rooms
Back on the ranch, after a few weeks of working there I was deemed as competent enough in Stubbs wine to host a tasting. I greatly looked forward to these tastings and prepared all the details on the history of the ranch, the details of the vineyard, and the style of the wine but in the end I found myself abandoning much of this and had some fascinating conversation with our visitors and finding out more about them.
I continued to work in the vineyard for the next couple of weeks, doing netting and the green drop as well as general tasks around the ranch. Some of these jobs were quite obscure, I think one of my most bizarre was kayaking into the middle of a lake with a large contraption of 3 rakes tied together to sweep any weeds away which were clogging the pump feeding the irrigation.
But in the blink of an eye my 5 weeks was up, my departure was announced with a hog roast of one of the Mangalitza pigs of the ranch, and as I drove up the I-5 at sunrise the following morning I couldn’t help feeling I had just had one of the most amazing experiences of my life.