Before I could stop myself the word burst out of my mouth like it had a will of its own. “Recession?” I asked, which caused my friend’s face to shift from his usual smile to an uncharacteristic scowl.
We were driving to an isolated vineyard. For weeks I had been on a quest to photograph the burn piles that had proliferated around the valley, and my friend Edwardo had told me about a site that he thought would make a great shot. So on that morning I’d jumped into his truck and we headed out. The day was bright and clear with the smell of smoke thick in the air as a few farmers ignited their piles of old vines, making ready for new plantings in the spring.
“Don’t say that word out loud,” Edwardo finally said. “It’s like a fire — it can spread quickly once it gets out there.”
“I’ve just been hearing the word come up lately,” I explained. “And I wondered what you thought, given your background.”
Edwardo’s frown remained. He’s one of the smartest guys I know, and he has recently been working on his MBA at Stanford through their extension program. He is a successful second-generation Latino who started working vineyards when he was young and has lately been investing in small rental properties around the valley.
“What I’m learning — and probably always knew — is that the markets are largely driven by psychological factors,” he said. “And so you need to be very careful on what you get out into public.”
We’d turned off Highway 29 and headed up into the mountains just north of Calistoga. The valley dropped away as we rose toward the Palisades, their stony edifice looking fencelike in the early morning light.
Intending to change the topic, I asked, “Why are there so many burn piles around the valley this year? I mean, it seems more than normal.”
“Low commodity prices and a record year for Cabernet Sauvignon grape prices last year,” he answered, his tone sounding like this should be obvious.
“Commodity prices? You mean like oil?” I asked.
“Oil, steel, all of it,” he said.
He turned to me. I raised my eyebrows as in, “Why?”
“Cheap prices associated with putting in new vineyards — like poles and wine — and record prices for Cabernet grapes and you get a lot of people ripping out old vineyards or even new vineyards that are not Cab.”
“But don’t vineyards take three to five years to produce fruit?” I asked.
“Yep,” Edwardo said. “And by then things may have changed, but at least for the past 20 years cab prices have always seemed to go up. Way up. But that wasn’t always the case, and people don’t study history much.”
“I thought cab in the valley has always been expensive,” I said.
“Not really,” he said. “Even up through the early ‘90s cab, merlot and chardonnay in the Napa Valley were all about the same price, and prices had been flat or even declining since the ‘70s.”
“Cab the same price as merlot,” I laughed. “You have to be joking.”
“The data is the data, my friend,” he said. “Go back and look at the grape-pricing reports.”
We were now driving on a narrow road, and he was taking each corner as if he’d driven it many times in the past. To the right the view was that of the valley, dotted with threads of smoke from burn piles that rose into the sky and then seemingly hit a horizontal wall and spread out cloudlike.
“But they say ‘cab is king’ here in the valley,” I said, sounding a little defensive.
“I don’t know who you mean by ‘they,’” Edwardo said. “But personally I’ve never heard of any royalty — be it grape or king — lasting forever.”
“Are you saying that growers who are looking to the future might want to rethink planting cab in their ripped-out vineyards?”
“Predicting is for fortunetellers,” Edwardo said and then grinned widely. “Me, I’m just a vineyard worker trying to provide for my family.”
“A vineyard worker who is getting an MBA from one of the top schools in the country,” I said and then paused. “Whose vineyard are we heading to up here, anyway?”
He grinned again. “It’s one of my new ones,” he said.
“New ones? How many do you have?” I asked.
He smiled, “Only a few.”
When we got to his vineyard I set up my camera as Edwardo doused an enormous burn pile with fuel and struck a match. Within seconds tongues of fire mingled with bursts of sparks as dark smoke lifted into the sky and the sound of crackling and pops accompanied the clicking of my camera.
Taking a break from snapping photos, I asked, “What will you be replanting to? Cabernet?”
Edwardo turned back toward me and laughed.
“I’d rather keep that a secret for now,” he said, “but I can tell you that it’s definitely not cab. Think supply and demand my friend.”
I took a few final shots. When I got home and looked at them I discovered that one of them was of my friend standing in front of a burning burn pile, his silhouette dark against the red and orange glow. Behind him drifting smoke obscured everything in the background, but I couldn’t help but think that, although I might not be able to see through the haze, perhaps Edwardo could.
Originally published in the Weekly Calistogan, February 2016