YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Tramping Out the Vintage : In Los Alamos Valley, Harvesting Grapes Is Filled With Simple Pleasures and Financial Perils

December 08, 1985|CHRIS HODENFIELD | Chris Hodenfield is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

She caressed the bulging clump of grapes and said that it was almost a crime. "See these?" she said, moving close to the sprawling vines. "These are Rieslings. They are just about perfect now." She snapped off a powdery green grape and popped it into her mouth. Genuine concern crossed her face. "It's almost a crime," she said again.

"Why?" I asked. "How much longer will they last?"

"A week."

I dove into the garlands of grapes and scooped up a handful. They were a little sweet, a little tart. Some growers say that you can almost taste the future wine inside the grape. That may even be so. The piercing freshness, anyway, was surely intoxicating.

Mary Vigoroso was at home among the bountiful rows that rolled on and on in green lines up to the bare brown hills. The vines stood about six feet tall, and the first chills of autumn had given a reddish tinge to the leaves. The domain of this sharp Italian woman ran to more than 350 acres. Earlier in the tasting room, when she poured a sample of her distinguished Cabernet Sauvignon, she put a warm intensity into her eyes and said, "The wine follows my name. Do you know what it means? Vigorous !"

I would never have guessed. This short woman in the white sweater and orange-net bandanna had real sparkle. Her gestures were not operatic, but still there was that dramatic, love-of-life flair beloved of all Italians. Too, her land in the Los Alamos Valley, a hilly grazing and growing area halfway between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, was precisely the kind that an Italian would immediately take to heart. "When I first came here," she said, "I said that this is just like Italy." She pronounced it It-lee.

"Our family lived about 20 miles south of Rome," she said. "And I remember, when I was about 3, going between the rows of grapes on a mule with the big straw barrels hanging on the sides. And taking the grapes back to the crusher."

"You didn't really stamp on them with your feet, did you?"

"Oh, sure! All the kids used to get in the vat and crush them."

Her family migrated to America, and she spent the next 50 years in Boston. After her husband died, she moved to California in 1972. Her son-in-law got together with some investors and bought up the ranch, located in an area that was then mostly cattle country. It was supposed to have been a tax write-off. The soil was perfect for grapes, but the winds--cooled by an ocean just a few miles over the hills--could sometimes run a bit brisk for the grapes. The sun brings out the sugar level that wine-making companies prefer. "I wasn't going to stay long, but I fell in love with the wine, the grapes," Vigoroso said. "I didn't know anything about making wine, but it was in my family all that time--for centuries."

We walked back to the wine shed. Just then her pickers were coming in, covered with dust. The tractors discharged the large wooden crates, each one holding about 1,000 pounds of small, purple grapes. The foreman wheeled the forklift around and stacked the crates for pickup by a wine-making company. Mary Vigoroso's wine-making business is a casual affair. "I made 7,000 cases one year, 3,000 another and 500 the next. That's the kind of wine I make."

It is also an old-fashioned, full-bodied, old-country wine with sediment in the bottom of the bottle. "And no chemicals!" she boasted. Wooden boxes were stacked along one wall, and in the back, the oaken barrels were piled to the ceiling. "It's not heard of, the way I do it. I'm not an enologist, and I don't know how to do it. If I knew, I'd use chemicals. But I make it to my palate, my tastes."

Her tastes are pretty exceptional. The Cabernet she offered, made in 1975, her third year on the ranch, was a beauty, and I bought four bottles. The next night in Los Angeles, I put the wine before some knowledgeable domestic critics with a great deal of breeding. They agreed that it was pretty high-toned stuff. "Indeed," one taster deemed, "the peacock spreads its fan."

Vigoroso's livelihood is dependent not on selling bottled wine but on selling her grapes to other wineries. Although one of California's larger wine-making concerns sometimes pays growers only $50 a ton for grapes, and Vigoroso spends $60 a ton just on wages, she doesn't seem too concerned. The better companies have paid her up to $700 a ton for her finer grapes. She could only hope that the wineries would come soon to buy, or else the grapes would dry on the vine, unfit to be sold even as raisins.

"There are too many grapes coming out of the valley now," she sighed. "And the wine business has leveled off during the last couple years." She arched her eyebrows and looked cautious, as though we were now dealing with spooky truths. "I'll bet that by next year some of the vineyards will be going out of business."

Los Angeles Times Articles