April 30, 2020
by Bruce Neyers
The Chicago Peach Rose
We bought our Conn Valley property in the fall of 1984, as a modest cabin, sitting on a gentle hill surrounded by 35-acres of mostly weeds. There wasn’t a single plant or tree near the house. We went to work prepping the plantable acreage for vineyards, and soon began landscaping the area around the house with a mix of sod, trees, and shrubs. Barbara insisted on plenty of roses.
A year earlier, we had traveled to the south of France for the first time. Barbara worked at Chez Panisse then, so with Kermit’s help Alice Waters arranged a visit to Domaine Tempier. I was able to tour the area’s vineyards and cellars with Lucien Peyraud, while Barbara spent time in the kitchen and gardens with his wife Lulu. Richard Olney saw that I needed a translator, and graciously accompanied Lucien and me.
At one vineyard, I asked why there were rose bushes planted at the end of each vine row, having never noticed that in a California vineyard. Richard quickly provided the explanation. Powdery mildew is one of a vineyard’s worst problems in France, he told me – more so in France than California due to the higher humidity in Europe. Roses typically show signs of an infection before the mold has time to move to the vines. Lucien then weighed in, noting that farming practices in France had improved to the point that they no longer relied entirely on this ‘Rose Bush Early warning system’.
The roses were still important to vineyard farming in other ways, he explained. They signal a shortage of moisture in the ground. Additionally, they serve as habitat for beneficial insects. Moreover, their flowers are more attractive than vines to some insect pests. The rose bushes keep the tractor drivers from making sharp turns at the end of the rows, reducing damage to both end-posts and vines. Most importantly though, they are just pretty to look at. Here I was in the south of France, learning the details of an important viticultural concept first-hand from two authorities — one a man who was arguably the world’s most talented writer on wine and food, and the other, one of the most respected grape farmers in France. I was gleefully taking notes in my green steno notebook, amazed at my good fortune.
When we returned to the house to eat, a leg of lamb was cooking over a bed of vine cutting coals in the open fireplace, while Barbara and Lulu alternately basted it with a mix of lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil, using a fresh sprig of rosemary. A small metal trough under the lamb held a collection of just-harvested, tiny potatoes that were cooking in the hot juice dripping from the meat. Nearby, magnums of Domaine Tempier red sat next to two decanters. I noticed that the table had been decorated with a beautiful bouquet of fresh roses from the garden, and explained to Barbara the connection between rose bushes and vineyards. I felt like a fountain of knowledge.
That visit was the beginning of Barbara’s plan to make roses an important part of our landscaping. Now, almost 4 decades later, I walk around the place that I’ve called home for all those years, and I see roses lining the walkway to the house from where we park our cars. Roses cover the outdoor shower alongside our exterior bedroom wall. More roses surround the propane storage tanks that power our wind machines, pumps and other equipment. Roses are scattered throughout the vineyards dividing parcels of Merlot from Cabernet Sauvignon. Roses shroud our large outdoor deck, and they shade most of the external walls of the house. They help us farm better, and contribute to our stewardship of the land. They do all of that, plus they are just pretty to look at.
This time of spring, the first blossom appears on the first rose bush that I pass after I leave the house to walk to my car. It’s called a Chicago Peace Rose, and Barbara planted it almost 30 years ago, on our south exterior wall, just outside the main entrance. The catalog describes the color as ‘Phlox-pink and creamy yellow, with subtle orange tones’. It began to bloom this week, and it’s so beautiful it stops me in my tracks. These days though, it does even more, as it’s a reminder to us that soon everything will be right again. It’s every bit as inspirational as a grape vine. There probably has never been a more important time in my life to simply have something pretty to look at.
That first trip to Domaine Tempier taught me much about life. I have never lost the fondness for Mourvèdre I acquired there — if anything, it has grown stronger. Over the years we’ve been able to locate Mourvèdre vineyards in California, and we’re thrilled to have another bottling ready for release. It’s the 2018 Mourvèdre ‘Evangelho Vineyard’ and it comes from a block of 120 year-old un-grafted vines grown in northeastern Contra Costa County, near Oakley. I could talk about it for hours, but for now I’ll just say that it’s delicious.