‘Between Grit and Art’ – growing grapes in Mason, Texas

My last month has been like this –  I subletted two apartments in Bedstuy, Brooklyn, and sold tacos and margaritas at a friends taqueria. I took a flight to Chattanooga, Tennessee for the 4th of July, and stayed with some old dear friends. I took a flight to San Antonio and then a Greyhound to Mason, Texas, where I’m currently living in a trailer on a vineyard until harvest.

Mason is dead-center middle of Texas, a township of 2000 people. It reminds me of Gilmore Girls, with its little downtown cast of characters, though the dialogue is a little slower. To the east is Art, Texas, an unincorporated town of 18 that I’m told is for sale; I don’t yet know what that means but if anyone’s interested in purchasing a town, please reach out. To the west, Grit. This caused one of our volunteers to remark that our vineyard was somewhere between grit and art, and as you might imagine, this made all of us very, very happy.

Robert Clay Vineyards is 20 acres of grapes on 25 acres of property. We’re growing merlot, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, viognier, ruby cabernet (a genetic hybrid of carignan and cabernet sauvignon), barbera, syrah, mourvedre, touriga, tempranillo, and grenache. The vines are mostly 20-25 years old, growing on S04 rootstock, in sandy loam and a little clay, over granite. It was conventionally farmed for most of its history, but Dan has been slowly bringing it to a more organic place. Dan Mclaughlin bought this property about 8 years ago, and manages it year-around with a paid and volunteer staff. More on him and this operation later.

The smells here are like: allergies, hay, chickens, septic tank. The sounds here are like: cows bleating, cicadas buzzing, rattlesnakes, big grasshoppers, the geese are chatty, the vineyard cat is hungry, lots of gunshots in the background. The sky is big and cloudy; we must be the only people in Texas praying it doesn’t rain. The grapes taste delicious in the hot sun. We’re about 3 weeks out from harvest.

It’s hot here, and a burn ban is in effect. It’s a farmer’s lifestyle and schedule. I’m like a duck on water – floating by, staying dry – sometimes I’m overwhelmed working in the heat, other times so immersed that I forget I’ve only been here for 5 days. I’m wearing long-sleeve fishing shirts, shorts, a hat, bug bites, a lot of sunblock. I help in the fields a 5-8 hours a day, putting up netting, yanking morning glory, picking grape samples, spraying after the rain; then I head to the winery to watch them run lab tests and steal tastes from the barrels; then cook sweet potatoes and eggs for the volunteers. Dan’s a little sick today, so this has been my first chance to sit down and write a summary. All day I ruminate –  on Texas: the accent, the size, the culture and history; on wine: what is natural, what is intervention, what is taste; on gendered attitudes towards labor, race, and the one Trumpy volunteer; on industrialism, and pragmatism, and food production; and on my place in life: I’m concerned about money, my plans for August and September are still in the air, but I’m grateful for the chance to learn about wine from the grower’s perspective. The advice I’ve always given myself is to shut up and work, and let the work change me, and already it has. I dream the changes while I sleep.

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