Kate’s Vineyard (2015 Silver Key, Personal Essay/Memoir)
I say this with a specific someone in mind. When I was eleven years old, my family and I were vacationing in Napa Valley, California, commonly known as the “wine country”. On our last day there, my parents decided that they wanted to visit a very specific winery, whose wine they had drank at a restaurant back home and particularly liked but could not purchase in New York. Naturally, my father gave the winery a phone call to see if he could schedule an appointment. Nobody picked up. A message was left, but unreturned. We agreed that it was somewhat unusual, but shook it off and didn’t think too much else of it.
The next morning, with time to spare before our flight, my parents decided that it was might be worthwhile to stop by the winery and see if anyone was there. The destination was located in Sonoma Valley, a brief and picturesque drive from where we were staying. The sky was drowned in soft, inviting hues of blue and orange. The road was long, gray, worn and winding. To me, the world had looked like an image out of a spectacular fairytale. The road seemed never-ending, the wineries infinite. But there was something ominous in the air, something omnipresent but not quite palpable, as if something was not right.
The sky, which had begun bright, had turned cloudy and charcoal gray. Deceptive fog shrouded us. It was hazy and seemed to have a message, yet was physically inconsequential. From the back seat, I noticed how incisively the emerald green grass contrasted with the deep gray sky, how neatly and precisely the rows of vines all lined up. Behind them all stood enormous, flamboyant tasting rooms, accessible by long, winding pea stone driveways.
Finally, we arrived at our destination. This winery was unlike all of the commercial ones we had seen along the main road – all of those were large-scale operations equipped with ornate tasting facilities. This quaint winery was neatly tucked behind the trees, barely visible from the street. I got out of the car, almost shocked by the house’s normality; I had been expecting a huge structure, ornate, with fountains or ostentatious landscaping, as the previous wineries had been. A window exposed the silhouette of an older man. The mist, which had been immaterial before, was now tangible; it had begun to rain and was muddy. My parents walked up toward the pale blue door and went to ring the bell. We were all expecting a prompt, impersonal purchase.
“Hi, we’re here for the wine,” my mother began.
The door opened, revealing a man who did not look completely ready to deal with us. “I’m sorry, ma’am, we don’t do tastings,” he stuttered.
“Oh no, we’re not here for that,” my mom continued. “We know your wine. We’re from New York, and we couldn’t find any to purchase there, so we wanted to see if we could purchase a couple of bottles.”
This caught his attention. I guess he thought we were looking to taste. He looked at her, as if pondering whether he was ready to put up with five strangers for the next indefinite amount of time, and then said, “Okay. I’ll be with you in a moment,” and vanished back into the house. A few moments later, he reappeared, looking more prepared to help us. Sorrowfully, yet somehow casually, he said, “You’ll have to excuse me for the way things are around here today. My wife passed away yesterday.”
That was something we really were not expecting. Stunned, my parents caught each other’s glances. Clearly, he was a very strong man, but we could not help but sympathize. Rather than dwell on himself, which would be conventional for someone whose wife had passed the previous day, he tried to act as if everything was normal.
He was a charming man, in his late sixties or early seventies. His eyes were a crisp, innocent blue which were sorrowful, but glinted with specks of hope. He began to tell us about the winery, about how he originally planned to only produce chardonnay but then expanded production to syrah and chardonnay sauvignon. He showed us the 180-year-old tree in the front yard, which we was tracking the growth of with his wife merely days before. But the things he spoke of were trifling in comparison to his manner of speech. The way he opened up to my family, especially to my two brothers and me, was truly heartwarming.
Naturally, one thing in the conversation led to the next, and eventually the solemn topic of his wife came up. At her mention, his eyes began to water and he sniffled, but he swallowed his throat and wiped his eyes. We were all astonished by his strength. “I’m so sorry,” I said softly to him, stranger to stranger, but I sincerely meant it from the bottom of my heart. The shy voice of my nine year old self barely came out as a whisper. He looked at me in the eyes, and he appreciated what I said. He really did. But he certainly didn’t need my condolences.
“Thank you so much. I really appreciate you guys coming by – and I really mean that,” he said. Those words were so frequently said, and usually just served as a gesture of politeness. But this time it meant so much more. It made me feel important to him, as if I had made some sort of small difference in his life.
“One second you have something, the next, it’s gone forever,” he sighed. Of course, I’d heard those lines many times before, but never had they felt so real, so meaningful. I had often heard it used with something trivial, like a cell phone or an article of clothing. An encounter like this would normally play such a minor role in my life. But this connection between him and my family was so precious, so fleeting. Moments like that remind me to never take things for granted because they really can vanish before you know it.
I’m not superstitious, but I really do believe that destiny was responsible for us showing up at Kate’s Vineyard on that gloomy, gray March day. All the odds were against us, and yet this miraculous encounter took place. In the end, my father bought four bottles of wine, and Robert gave him three bottles on the house. He even said he’d call us when he was in New York. I guess he wasn’t a stranger anymore.