Electrical Storm -- Or, There Must Be Some Way Back

Are we really almost a month into harvest already? How can this be? What an (almost) month it's been. We've pulled in grenache for rosé; our first pinot noir; and two-and-a-half-weeks-riper grenache for red wine. The syrah and riesling fruit's still hanging, and we're hoping this rain that's falling in those vineyards as I type doesn't lead to any number of potentially disastrous results. Early October rain ... an out-of-our-hands reminder that a whole growing year, no matter how carefully managed, comes down to a few short weeks where anything can happen. This season has already held some seriously wild experiences. Take the very first pick...

Enter Zeus

The usual 2:30 am wakeup call? No big deal. Dangerously cut off in the fast lane by a dude with a live toucan perched on his steering wheel? Whatever. The 5 freeway suddenly shut down -- without signage -- detouring (also without signage, naturally) in an incredibly sketchy area of downtown Los Angeles? Do-able. The unmistakable smell of ozone heading up the 5 toward the 166? Wait ... tell me that wasn't lightning.

It was lightning.

A (non-forecasted, naturally) electrical storm, the likes of which I've never before seen in California, lit up the two lanes of the 166 like daylight. Furious, fierce, pounding hammers of blinding daylight, shining a spotlight flash on the golden grasses in the darkness. The thunder made me leap, every time, even though I knew it was coming. Angry chunks of hail hit the windshield intermittently, but when we pulled under the shed of the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard, no rain nor hail fell. Just the lightning, striking again and again, all around, and we watched it, mesmerized.

The sun rose, slowly, finally. The storm looked as though it was moving north; the lightning, still visible, had made its way into the distance, and the vineyard foreman said he could send up the pickers. Every visit to this site seems to hold a new and elemental experience. This time was no different.

Sunrise on the Uncontainable

If the sky can crack

Cuyama River - dry for now, but it could change in an instant...

Perfect for making glorious rosé

Enter Vulcan

Back at the scales, weighing and loading the bin, another unmistakable smell. Once a forest fire comes close enough to force you to pack your few most precious things and leave, as one did to us in 2007, the aroma of it -- anywhere -- grabs you with a silent, forceful message.

Go. Go now. Yellow smoke was rising in a thin plume behind the mountains across the road from the vineyard. In the direction of the wide, straight-laned freeway on which we'd planned to drive home: heavy, black sheets of rain. 

Change of plans. Through the winding mountains, the cliffs of the Los Padres National Forest, into Ojai, to Ventura and the 101, toward home, with this precious just-picked cargo, this very first of the vintage, wrapped in sheets in the back of the truck. Toward the making of the 2011 Uncontainable.

Fire trucks whizzed past us in the opposite direction on the treacherous mountain roads; brush-fire trucks, all squat and rugged; with thick, sturdy tires, and an attitude. Bound, determined, those trucks looked. They reassured me. The vineyard would be safe. They would see to it.

Next time: Pinot noir; pasilla peppers; and another magical moment at the Santa Barbara Highlands Vineyard. And, it's not over yet. Do check back, friends!