Playing the farming game
By George MacLeod and Ed Murphy, Indian Springs Ranch
If you’ve ever thought about owning a vineyard and growing world-class wine grapes, I suggest you first try playing The Farming Game. It’s a board game which is won by the player who most skillfully navigates the inevitable trials and tribulations that befall every farmer on the planet – drought, floods, blights, pests, early frosts, heat waves, bad news from the banker, labor strikes, you name it. All these and more can ruin a crop, trash your bank account, and perhaps even dent the ever-renewing hope and optimism that is the lifeblood of a farmer.
But just as often, there is good luck, good weather, and good news. That’s the thing about farming, and that’s what my family found out when we set off to play the real farming game here in the Valley of the Moon. When we bought the lovely hillside acreage overlooking Kenwood, we had a fairly good plan in place: we were going to grow great grapes, sell them to the highest bidder, make fantastic wines, and make lots of money, too. Win the game! No sweat, right?
Hah! Not so simple. In our real-world farming game, the highs and lows kicked in almost immediately. Things went right, but things went wrong, too. With help and guidance from our wonderful Sonoma Valley neighbors, we started winning awards for our wines. But then … oops … we drew a bad card. The whole vineyard got infested with phylloxera (a soil nematode that eats the hairs on the roots of the vine, essentially creating a starvation situation for the vine) and we had to go back to start and replant the entire vineyard.
We’ve had years of abundant harvests, but then also lean years of drought. Our wines won more awards, but we also had to deal with labor shortages, and problems with a beloved but temperamental old tractor. This turned into a very hard game to even play, let alone win. On one evening, while playing the game for “fun” with the family, my wife Greta abruptly stood up and said, “That’s it, I’m not playing this board game anymore. It’s too real!”
Vintage 2017 deals a mixed hand
So far this year, vintage 2017 is dealing us a mixed hand of good and bad cards. We’re experiencing a significant amount of “shatter” in the Merlot that could result in a 50 percent reduction in the size of our crop (and the size of our harvest paycheck!) A bad card, indeed. Shatter occurs when you don’t get your six days of perfect weather at bloom time, resulting in irregular pollination. This spring, the weather was cool, windy, and there was even some rain at the tail end of bloom. In the Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel vineyards, we did get some shatter, but this could turn out to be a healthy thing. The bunches look big and the berries that were shattered allow room for the other berries to grow with less risk of bunch rot later in the season. So, a good card? Maybe. You just never seem to know if you’ve won the game until the gondolas full of grapes are rolling off the ranch headed for the winery.
Through it all, we can look back to see that for 40 years we’ve managed to stay at the table of the real farming game. We kept playing the rounds, crossing our fingers as we drew new cards, and we’ve managed to build a fine family business.
So, who’s to say we haven’t won already? Games are hard to quit once you’re committed, and we have no intention of folding. As Babe Ruth once said, “Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s game.” We’re always going to come out swinging and play the game with love, affection, and (hopefully) a little bit of luck. Always willing to take a risk, to imagine, and to innovate. That’s just how the farming game is played.