Root riot, grapes, and the dawning grey

Hair dye, parking lot battles, and Oregon wine as a metaphor

Home>stories>Root riot, grapes, and the dawning grey

wintryswatch

“I REALLY like your swatch!” said the chick in the gorgeous teal leather boots, grabbing my arm as she passed, “It’s so wintry and I LOVE the contrast!”

“Yeah, I was going to say that, too!” said the woman behind me in line at the bakery.

Uhm…took me a sec to connect “wintry swatch” with the aqua stripe Markie had painted onto my head earlier that morning (“MOROCCAN blue,” she’d corrected, reprovingly), but it’s been awhile since I’ve added non-human color up there. The addition’s a reasonable match for Bullseye’s Steel Blue, and it’ll be evolving daily over the next six weeks or so.

Ideally, by the time I’m back in Markie’s chair it will have turned Uroboros Ming Green or–hope of hopes–Light Turquoise. More likely, I’ll wind up with Artichoke or Elephant Gray.

Now, usually, Markie paints this insouciant chunk-o-color in back, where everyone but me gets to marvel at its daily transformations. But this stripe is smack-dab in the center of my forehead, so I’ve just given myself front-row tickets to the Let’s Watch Cynthia Grow Grey Show, now playing every morning while I brush my teeth.

Hmmmm…possibly should have given this more thought. Isn’t it odd, the places your mind wanders when you’re standing in line at the bakery? (I’m at the neighborhood Grand Central, which is becoming a habit.)

Me and half the neighborhood are in this place, which is annoying the neighboring businesses and surprising Grand Central considerably. They weren’t prepared for what might happen if they served decent bread, soup, sandwiches, and coffee in a food-desert burb instead of their native habitat, i.e., downtown Portland.

Portland is famously a foodie paradise, but my local neck of the woods, the western burbs, is pretty much dominated by malls, strip malls, and “want some fries with that?” Our farmers’ markets are exceptional, don’t get me wrong, and there are a few casual chow places and decent Japanese stop-ins around. For the most part, though, we go over the hill to The Pearl, or to the eastern side of town to eat. Anything within a five mile radius is either a last resort, or a guilty pleasure you don’t talk about.

Then about three years ago, a Vietnamese food place good enough to break the five-mile rule showed up next to the Safeway. And this fall, an Indian restaurant quietly slotted itself next door, serving some of the best subcontinental fare I’ve had outside New York or DC (which is saying a LOT).

Now Grand Central’s come in just down the road, almost within walking distance, and all the folks that used to go downtown are staying home. The tiny parking lot has become a battleground and tempers are running a wee bit…hot.

It’s becoming a regular stop during my Saturday errands; I’ll walk over, stand in line for my weekly loaf of bread and get a cup of soup for lunch. Then I’ll take a seat at the big group table and sip–today’s soup is a vegetable extravaganza called Root Riot, so “chew” would be more accurate–with my like-minded neighbors. While we chat, we watch the Beemer and Lexus owners duke it out for the rare parking spaces, making this both a meal AND a show.

This morning I’m mulling over a conversation with a grower, a lady whose vineyards produce Montrachet and pinot noir grapes. It’s her second career; her family has owned good Oregon land for a long time but “the time just wasn’t right until now.”

falltreetops-windrift“Oregon wine didn’t have much credibility back then. Besides, all we had were California clones back then, just wrong for our land, our climate. We had a all our land tested and there were 40 acres–that’s a lot of land for a vineyard–that would have been beautiful for Oregon grapes, but it was just wrong.”

So she and her husband set their dreams aside, kept working, and finally got their chance to go into grape production a few years back. “We do dry farming, and it’s been great. We’re loving it.”

I’d told her earlier that I grew up in central California, where irrigation is a fact of life and dry farming is a horror story, so she laughs at my expression. “Too much water leaches the personality right out of the grape. You get a much richer, deeper flavor if you leave the grapes alone.”

“California, they’re moving in, and they have money. It’s really hard to stay small when these big corporations offer to buy you out. You can’t compete with them if you stay, and their money looks so good…”

She falls silent for a moment, considering. “I don’t really blame the young vintners; they’re finding their way, and they’ve been taught that success is growth. My husband and I, we’re old enough to know what we want. We just want to make great wine, to get to the end of our lives knowing that we’ve made vintages that people will talk about after we’re gone.”

“We know we’re not ever going to have a $300 bottle to compete with Rothschild,” (she pronounces it Roths-sheeeld), “and you know? We’re OK with that. We don’t need to grow big and become Robert Mondavi to count as successful. We don’t need to sell thousands and thousands of bottles a year.”

“But that’s not a message you want to hear when you’re just starting out. When one of these big guys shows you a shortcut, they show you the empire you could have if you just get little bit bigger, cut a few corners, speed up production…the temptation is so very, very hard to resist,” she says, “How do we convince these guys to stay small and maybe not so famous? Could I do it, if I didn’t know what I know now? Probably not.”

She sighs. “I just don’t want to see Oregon wines falling into the big California wine lake. I’d like us to stay true to what we’ve built, but that’s going to be so very hard, and expensive, and rare. Rarer and rarer.”

“Enjoy our wines now. I’m so afraid the taste is going to change.”

She’s right, of course; sometimes more isn’t better. Sometimes it’s simply…more. And sometimes, if you break “more” down into its component parts, you find “more” is really much less than you thought.

It’s a lesson that a lot of businesses (and governments, for that matter) discover too late, well after they’ve grown and grown and grown. Usually it sends them crashing back to earth.

Staying true to what you love in the face of pressure to expand, pressure to sandbag your customers with less than your best, pressure to slide on quality when no one else will notice, pressure to take the focus off the customer and put it on the bottom line…has nothing to do with age.

It’s an integrity thing. Or maybe a caring thing. I’ve seen plenty of 20-somethings run high-quality, boutique-style operations without pause, and 60-somethings go their slipshod, profit-driven way to hell.

But I do agree it’s awfully tough to remember quality when when all it gets you is an amused snort and an empty bank account.

“By the way, I really like your hair,” my grower said, as I was leaving, “I’m thinking of getting a little colored swatch, too.”

“Only mine is going to be wine-colored.”

2017-07-03T14:34:40+00:00

One Comment

  1. ellen abbott January 14, 2016 at 9:39 am - Reply

    it’s the definition of success in this country, get big, get rich, who needs quality. I was at that threshold with the etched glass studio back in time. I was at the point of having to get a small business loan, move to a bigger location, hire more employees…and I chose not to. being that busy with big clients and heavy deadlines was ruining my life. so we chose to go in the other direction. we opted to stay small, let our employees go through attrition when we stopped giving them so many hours, and focused on high end residential. didn’t get rich, still live hand to mount, lots of months with no work but what we did have and do was a life worth living and making a high quality product that will outlive us.

Comments welcome! (thanks)

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