WWC21 – Bud's Vineyard, Washington

WWC21 Hancock H - Bud's Vineyard, Lummi Island, WA

Haley Hancock takes us to the tiny Lummi Island for her entry to our writing competition. She says that she has been working in cellars around the world for six years, 'spent three of those lovely years in the warm and generous glow of Central Otago, NZ, under the faithful and often heady tutelage of the bodacious folks at Mount Edward Winery' and she also runs a pop-up restaurant with her 'loving, wildly good looking, partner. I think and talk and seek answers and pleasures eternally in wine and food.' See our WWC21 guide for more old-vine competition entries. 

I still talk to him, you know

Dad, what do you think about this shoot?

Is it strong? Will this one make it?

It has been five years since her father’s death. Those years have been filled with family that pulled this way and that way, California way and East Coast way, but never vineyard way. This year, a pandemic flopped fatly across the family schedule and rooted Carolyn and her husband firmly at home with their grandson. And good thing, the vines need pruning.

The vineyard is tidily kept, its perfectly mowed lines dress up the sagging wires and rotted posts like a couple on their 50th wedding anniversary, bless their hearts. Perhaps, like that couple, the vineyard has been shrinking for the last 20 years, from its original 5 acres it now stands at a stubborn 10 rows, the last ten hairs lined dutifully across the old groom’s bald head.

As the vineyard wore away by the passage of time and the waning of enthusiasm, other actually useful things replaced it. A full size, two hole, golf course complete with a water feature much loved by herons.

Her father, Bud (everyone called him that), retired from regulating fisheries to fish the fisheries in the 70’s. He lived on Lummi Island, a teeny, ‘I haven’t seen you since you were seven’ kind of island, just off the coast of Washington State and a hair shy of Canada. Lummi Island is dark and damp and salmony and dense with kale jungles and mountains of mixed gasoline cans poured sacrificially into the mouths of weed eaters that command our service every year in the Battle of Endless Blackberries.

Bud was a scientist in his bones, tracking rainfall and temperature and weather patterns and fungus pressure and number of slugs in the garden. In years leading up to planting, notebook after notebook accumulated in the spaces between drifts of fishing gear and nameless farm implements. His hypothesis was that wine grapes could grow here and could maybe possibly make some pretty okay, maybe even good wines. His evidence was his pile of notebooks and a devilish bit of optimism. 

Bud and his wife, Ann, planted every vine on their five acre stretch in the soggy spring of ‘78. He chose Siegerrebe, Riesling, Leon Millot, and a concord variety for jellies. These are typical grapes to the region. Though, being typical of a region with only 12 wineries that actually make wine out of fruit that grows here is a bit like recalling the yesteryears of a relationship on week six, date number three. Years later, in ’95, the Puget Sound Wine Growers Association would establish the Puget Sound as an American Viticultural Area and agree with Bud’s planting choices, soft nods and mmhhmm’s all around. 

The vines matured and showed off their sugary orbs to the late summer tizzy. They attracted avian attention. Starlings swirled into a flip flap fluttering flurry above the vines. Each starling completes an entire digestive cycle in thirty minutes, so by the time Bud noticed the flock in his vineyard, they were already pooping out his harvest. Bud convinced fishing buddies (surely encouraged by the possibility of some quaffable booze) to donate old fishing nets. Bud stitched and wove and finally cast 5 acres of quilted together purse net, set net, gill net and ghost net in hopes of catching his grapes before they escaped into the mouths of birds. 

With the starlings at bay, and the dull satisfaction of a win in the endless game of Man vs. Nature, Bud started making his wines. Carboys of experimentation popped up around the garage. The first ones, I have it on good authority, were awful. Lummi Island is not a warm place and ripening is never guaranteed. Carolyn says that the first tart sips in these years were enough to curl your pinky toes into hiding. 

The vines spent the eighties digging their roots ever deeper into Lummi Island. Bud spent the eighties perfecting his vineyard management (still scribbling madly in notebook after notebook). The rare and precious sun on Lummi Island seemed to be just enough. The wines improved. The wines became delicious. They pulled your tongue from the wool sweater it had been wearing for the 6 (or 7) month northwest winter like the first day of spring, crisp, verdant and blooming. 

Bud never bothered with the unreasonably large stack of paperwork and spider webs of red tape that stand between any dreamer and a winery. Instead he gave much of his wine away on the island (gifting your homemade wine is legal, and the neighbors encouraged the practice). A slosh of Bud’s wine went down like a bracing dunk in the Pacific on New Year’s morning, though not quite as saline. They became the hottest item at the annual school fundraiser auction, which is the Lummi Island equivalent of Wine Magazine’s Super Top 100 or a Gold Medal at the Wine Awards of Somewhere Fancy.

Carolyn helped her father in the vineyard. He taught her to encourage the shoots that needed extra support, that if your pruning isn’t quite right this year, it’ll be right the next year. The vines will show you. Bud taught Carolyn’s children to prune and train the vines, again teaching them the importance of their decisions alongside the forgiving cycle of the seasons. The vines showed them, too.

Carolyn was in the vineyard with her grandson when I visited. Her grandson is seven and, therefore, a good size for pulling shoots off of the trunk and all of those low, sneaky, back achey places that they cling to. Carolyn tells him a bit about encouraging a shoot, if you think it can make it. You can almost hear Bud nodding two rows down. 

They make their way through the vines, Carolyn thinning up-high shoots and her grandson laying waste to the hopeful trunk-clingers. Clouds roll over and impose their patterns on the vineyard. The pair continue a steady pace of quiet work and an occasional whinge. Carolyn narrates a few of the lessons that she learned in the vineyard, but holds back a bit. The lessons are learned slowly, in the shifting from one vine to the next, the thoughts between conversations, the year between prunings.

Carolyn doesn’t care too much about the wine; she’ll sell the grapes this year. She still loves to be in the vineyard. She prunes and thins and fusses and encourages. She talks to Bud.

Some legendary vines are left in the ground for forty years because they produce wines of concentration or depth and always a certain sense of place. Carolyn has tried some of those legendary wines from far away places while sitting on her porch, which sits about a meter above and a bit to the right of Bud’s vineyard. Carolyn’s vines are here because they hold Bud tangled in their eager shoots. They’re here to be the venue where her grandson learns the forgiveness snuggled between cause and effect. The vines on Lummi Island were left in the ground for forty years because of the fingers that tended them. The legendary wines of Far Away and the utterly personal vines of Bud’s Vineyard are both kept in the ground for the stories that they tell. 

The photo is provided by Hayley Hancock.