You Gotta Start Somewhere...
It was the fall of 1982 when I arrived in Davis to start my graduate studies at the University of California. While my lessons in Enology for the most part were fine, I was a bit disenchanted by what seemed to be a lack of balance between looking at chalkboards, and looking at things that were actually fermenting. To remedy this situation, I enlisted the help of an undergraduate-fraternity-brother buddy of mine, Mr. Theodore Bacon, who was conveniently stationed just down the road in Sacramento, where he was in his second year of law school. It was a cold October night when Teddy and I allowed our eyes to adjust to the darkness before hopping over a chest high fence at an experimental UC Davis vineyard where the Grenache had been cut to the ground earlier that day. After gathering data from various experiments, the Viticulture Department was done with the fruit. As was customary, the students had cut it to the ground where it could eloquently rot without putting undue disease pressure back onto the vines. Since it was going to rot anyway, I surmised that it was a great opportunity to get started with my pertinent extracurricular studies.
After sprinting to the first row of vines, Ted and I hastily began scooping the barely ripe clusters into a jumbo trash can. As we drug the packed container out of the field, the reality of its mass started to sink in. We paused for a few minutes at the fence, contemplating the superhuman strength that would be required to hoist out the fruit. As we stood there, the therapeutic effect of our deep breathing was interrupted by the sound of an engine and a pair of headlights off in the distance. In an attempt to keep our focus on the job at hand, we counted, “one, two, THREEE”, and started to lift. Heaving as hard as we could, we got the mass off the ground and somehow managed to get it situated on the top wire of the fence. At that very moment, with my future in a trash can seemingly walking down the tight rope of life, that pesky car that had broken the evening’s silence oddly pulled into the parking lot and proceeded to park next to mine. Our adrenaline was rerouted from the optimism levers of our brains to the panic buttons. We could sense the headlights going out on the car, and just as we heard its doors close, we lost our grip, and our load crashed back down on top of us. It was midnight. We were spiritually broken and sticky. The last thing we needed was a visitor.
As it turned out, two university police officers had been making their rounds when they noticed the commotion. We were on the ground wallowing in muddy grapes when they hit us with their flashlights.
“Hey guys, what’cha doi’n?” asked one of the perplexed officers.
“Uhhh,... Officer,... my name is Bryan Babcock and I am a graduate student here at the University.”
“Yeeaah, oookaay” said the officer.
“...and, ...uh, ...well, ...uh, I was running an assay for my thesis, and I have been using this hyper-active enzyme that has a half life of 3 days, and it comes from Denmark, and it’s extremely expensive, and, well, I botched my first run, and I desperately need some more substrate, and...”
“Some more what!?” said the officer.
“...Uh, some more grapes, so I can run another trial to obtain my data. Otherwise, my master’s degree is shot. I mean, why else would I be out here right now?”
Then the officer looked at Ted and said, “Who are you?”
With Ted about to faint, I jumped in, “Oh, he’s just a freshman that’s helping me in the lab.”|
The officer shined his flashlight on Teddy who’s hair was starting to thin a bit. “A freshman, huh?” said the officer.
“You know, that’s a pretty good story, Mr. Grad Student.” Then he paused for a moment before he continued, “Here’s what me and my partner are gonna do. We’re gonna drive around the block and pretend like we never saw you guys. It’s a big block; 144 acres. It’ll take us about 6 or 7 minutes. When we get back, if you’re still here, you’re goin' to jail. Any questions?”
As the officers drove away I tried to frantically recover the fruit. Having absorbed my first important lesson in Viticulture, this time I positioned the trash can on the outer side of the fence. On the second go-round there was an extremely high ratio of MOG (material other than grapes) being desperately flung into the can. Ted kept commenting on how he could ill afford to mix his law degree with a felony. “Come on, keep scooping!” I begged, “We got 6 minutes! By the way, how’d you like my story?”
Later, as we emptied the can into my bath tub, Ted looked at the grisly raw materials and just shook his head. That’s when I realized I had made my first major enological error. My bath tub, which was also my shower, was now full of grapes. We went from sticky to downright funky.
A week later, there were so many fruit flies in my apartment you could hardly see the walls.
“Are you sure this is how it’s supposed to be?” asked Ted during one of his visits to check in on the fermentation. “Maybe you should take some of those beer classes just to be safe.”
The wine turned out kind of orange. We called it the Cat’s Meow. I had to keep reassuring Ted that it had enough alcohol in it to kill any human pathogens. He was a good sport. He tasted it with me. At one point I remember him saying, “Babs, look at the bright side; you got nowhere to go but up.”
Indeed Teddy. Every craft has to start somewhere. Thank you brother for helping me start mine.