Building the 21st Century Vineyard

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Photo by Aaron Pott

After five years of working to get the permits to plant 6 acres of grapes at my house, I have reached the crucial moment of the taping of the boundaries. This is when the flat map I have been staring at for four years becomes a reality, as we walk around and physically mark the outer edges of the area that is going to become the vineyards.

My project has been incredibly difficult to get started for a number of reasons. Top of the list would be the fact that I live near a small pioneer cemetery that was founded in 1897. One would normally think the dead wouldn't present much an obstacle to development. But they did.

At the end of the 19th century the surprisingly large number of people that lived on the isolated slopes of the dormant volcano of Mt. Veeder decided they needed their own cemetery.

Perhaps weary of making a sometimes day-long horse and buggy return trip to Napa, they decided on what was then a small, rounded, grassy hillside of sparse oaks, which afforded an amazing view of a small valley and the double peaks of Mt. Diablo beyond.

The beautiful site was the generous donation of the then-owner of my property, and included access to the road that would eventually go to my house.

It is not easy to plant a vineyard in Napa County. For good reason.

This owner ensured that he would forever have access to his property by granting himself an easement that allowed him enough room to "turn stock." We have always wondered exactly how large an area one needs to turn a cow around; my guess is that it depends on the cooperation of the beast.

Another equally generous donation came from the next owner of my property: a larger piece that put a good portion of our access road onto cemetery property. The owner specified to the cemetery association that it could only use the road for "cemetery purposes only."

When we decided to plant grapes on our property, we invited the members of the Redwood Cemetery Association, which included four agreeable older gentlemen who seemed eager to work with us and even more eager to drink copious quantities of our wines. We told them what we wanted to do, and they agreed to help in any way they could.

It was not until well after we submitted our proposal and were $50,000 deep in surveying and design fees that they decided they were opposed to our plan. We could not use our driveway to access our future vineyard, they told us: it was restricted for "Cemetery Purposes Only."

One of their numbers, a Welshman who played in a pretty decent Irish folk band at a local restaurant by the name of John Kelly, had worked as a legal aid for many years and was very good at writing extremely long-winded documents that essentially said nothing but possessed a very legal tone -- which is all you need to create a lot of lawyer fees.

It took my genius wife, Claire, the CEO of our two-person company (four if you count my daughter and the dog), Pott Wine, to figure out that the restriction was on them to prove the use of the road's not being for cemetery purposes -- not on us. This great enlightenment came a little too late, as the cemetery boys had already tried to poison our name with our neighbors, coming up with a lot of good stories. We were Satan worshipers using our house as a headquarters for our intensive baby boiling and red hot pokering. We did not really own the property but worked for a unknown person who was hell-bent on destroying the cemetery. We were surprised when we attended local events and overheard people whispering, "they don't have horns?" or "is that one of the babies they have been torturing?"

I think only now people are starting to realize that we really quite like living next door to the cemetery, and would love to help remove the pine trees that have grown there in the last 50 years and to uncover again the beautiful grassy hill. As I said before, it is not easy to plant a vineyard in Napa County. For good reason.


Photo by Aaron Pott

Erosion disasters have plagued poorly planned vineyards and muddied streams and rivers. It is easy to control erosion and work harmoniously with the environment in a vineyard, and it's better for the wine. But more people need to take the time to do so. In order to plant a vineyard you need to file an Erosion Control Permit with the county; in order to take trees out to plant a vineyard you need to file a Timber Harvest Conversion with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Our project required us to do both.

During the 19th century the area I am going to plant with vines acted as a plum orchard planted to prune d'Agen. The plums were dried to make prunes on large outdoor drying racks and were rumored to be some of the best in the state of California.

Sometime around 50 years ago the plum orchard was abandoned and Douglas fir trees began to grow rapidly in their place. Since we are taking an agricultural site and turning it back into an agricultural site, the environmental impact is minimal.

Last week for the first time, I went out on a wet day and helped our forester Scott Butler to outline the vineyard blocks with blue tape. For the first time in four years we were actually able to see what the true boundaries of our vineyard would be.