Any time I’ve picked up a Russian novel, there has been a handy character reference in the front or the back. You always need it because every ten pages or so characters tend to disappear then pop up 100 pages later with a slightly different name: Marsha, Masha, Mashinka, Mashinenska. Not that this blog is anything like a Russian novel. But our zany and growing cast of characters does seem to float in and out of posts. Further complicating matters, not all our characters are human. After a few days up here alone with the terriers, I do end up quickly at the Doctor Doolittle level of craziness where I think I can talk to the animals. So for those of you who might get confused when I start talking about a conversation I had with someone named Stevenson who turns out to be a turtle, may I offer this quick guide to the cast of characters at Two Terrier Vineyards in a magical land called Unincorporated Sonoma County.
There’s a Yank. That’s me. After a career that took me from television news to advertising, I suddenly realized the next step on my ladder of least respected professions was prostitution. So I took up farming. I’m much happier for it. Clearly, an early stint as News Director at a Country music station had a profound effect on my life. I’m basically a city kid and I’ve killed every houseplant I’ve ever been near, but I’m doing surprisingly well with farming. I’m finding that, while it takes a huge skillset — both practical, botanical and spiritual — to be a great farmer, you can be a passable one with brute force, ignorance and a good sense of humor. I also wield the camera. Which is lucky since I hate to have my picture taken. That’s why I’ll only post the last shot of me I liked which was back in High School. My favorite song is “I Ride an Old Paint” which I think should be the National Anthem. (Seriously, it exemplifies everything that is mythically American — horses, dogies, wide open spaces and gratuitous violence.)
There’s a Brit.That’s Andy, an Englishman who likewise grew up in mostly urban settings. Having never owned a lawnmower in his life, he’s taken to country life as an opportunity to purchase as many vehicles and pieces of farm machinery as possible. This is Andy posing in front of a hay barn that he specified be built with no nails, just pegs and tenons. Why? Because Wyatt Earp would have done it that way. Andy’s role in this enterprise is still evolving. We’re not sure how he’ll relate to the orchard and the organic garden — hating fruit and vegetables as a good Englishman does. He’s not quite acclimated to Western wildlife. Typical of someone who grew up on an island that is almost devoid of wildlife, his first reaction to a rattlesnake was to poke it and see what would happen. He tends to call all furry meat-eating wild animals “badgers”. His favorite songs are anything by The Who. Because, like all British men of this certain age, he really thinks he still may grow up to be a Rock Star.
Cousin John, our winemaking buddy. John is not really my cousin or Andy’s, but the cousin of our eccentric friend, Julian. John and Julian are from a famous European circus family. Their great great grandmother was painted by Toulouse-Latrec. Julian’s mother and John’s father became two of the only kids to ever run away FROM the circus which may explain why Cousin John always insists on taking the road less traveled. A man of many talents — an architect, former DJ and stubborn adherent of traditional crafts and practices — Cousin John has helped us with nearly every one of our grape harvests and crushes. Still, he scorns even our low-tech winemaking set-up, preferring to stick to methods illustrated on a 15th Century Burgundian tapestry he once saw in the Louvre. Cousin John will also attempt to make wine out of anything, even, we suspect, roadkill. John prefers House Music, but he’s always very nice about the endless Country Western that I insist accompany our winemaking.
Amelia May, our Goddaughter. Beginning life as The World’s Most Beautiful Baby, Amelia has transitioned through status as The World’s Most Beautiful Toddler and is now The World’s Most Beautiful Pre-schooler. As you can see, we started early indoctrinating her in the Cowboy Way. In recent years, she has shown a distressing partiality to pink stretch pants, sparkly Uggs and Princess dresses. But lately she’s started to favor Cowgirl Jessie from Toy Story 2 and she can yell out a mean “Yee-Haw!” We’re making progress. As doting Godparents, we are sure that at some point we will buy her a pony. Amelia May’s favorite songs are from classic musicals such as The Wizard of Oz and The Sound of Music. Although she is insanely bright, she still hasn’t mastered all the verses to Davy Crockett as I had at her age. But she recently found us an autographed picture at a local flea market of Charles “Buck” Jones, cowboy star of the 1920s and 30s. We think we’ll make a cowgirl of her yet.
Lady Lucy Davinia Doglington-Smyth. One of the original terriers for whom Two Terrier Vineyards was named, Lucy is the Anna Nicole Smith of Smooth Fox Terriers. She’s all tics and neuroses and badly in need of pharmaceuticals. After a brief stint on Prozac, she’s now learning to cope and embracing her unique beauty as a rather full-figured gal. She is currently concentrating on defying hundreds of years of terrier breeding which were supposed to make her a superb dispatcher of varmints. To date, she has yet to kill anything but a squeeky toy. Since discovering that she is distantly related to two of the most famous Smooth Fox Terriers in cinematic history, Lucy has gotten ready for her close-up. As you might imagine from her English name (and all Smooth Fox Terriers, no matter their given name, must have an alternate English name), she is quite the lady. She tolerates my Country Western playlists, but what she really can’t stand is being referred to as a Jack Russell.
Oscar de la Hoya. What else could we call a pugnacious little dude with a brown handsome face? Oscar is the nephew of our dearly departed Founding Terrier and Terrier Emeritus, Charlie. His obligatory British name is Sir Oscar Doglington-Smyth, Baronet. He seldom lives up to that moniker. With zero percent body fat and unbounded energy, Oscar is the Lance Armstrong of terriers. Although powered by premium dog food, not by steroids. Oscar’s main duty is to bark very loudly at the pond water in a high-pitched yap that will make your ears bleed. He takes these duties very seriously. He too is bucking hundreds of years of terrier breeding by refusing to go after any small rodent that we might like eradicated. Consequently, the population of moles and gophers at Two Terrier Vineyards has exploded under his watchful eye. However, he is serious about killing the green snake (the garden hose), chasing deer (within a safe distance) and frightening anyone who bicycles past the pasture. Oscar proudly exhibits all the conformation flaws that would get him kicked out of the show ring at Crufts. We think he’s cute anyway.
Miss Kitty the Mountain Lion. My research tells me that Mountain Lions, as solitary hunters, can’t afford to get hurt and therefore will avoid contact with anything that looks large enough to fight back. We are holding on to that belief. My only sighting of our feline neighbor is a swift flash of brown. But John the Baptist and several workers here have seen her close enough to know she’s the Angelina Jolie of cougars — gorgeous and probably deadly. We often find her paw prints in the mud of the road after the rains — sometimes with the accompanying prints of a cub or two. Judging from the frequency of the deer carcasses we find, this is a gal who has a healthy appetite for venison. We are living in what the Soviets used to call, “peaceful coexistence”. In short, we stay locked up in the barn during her nocturnal hunting hours and she doesn’t come out during the day and kill us or the terriers. So far, this is working for everyone.
Bob the Bobcat. Bob seems to be doing the work that our terriers disdain, eating large quantities of pesky rodents. In fact, he’s sort of the feline equivalent of a terrier, lots of animal in a small body. We see him bounding around from time to time. Oscar is quite fond of the poo Bob leaves behind and is busily “double composting” it. An interesting thing about Bobcats: they are quite small — not much bigger than a large terrier, but on legs that are twice as long. Yet, as a defense mechanism, they can mimic the sound of the much larger Mountain Lion. Bob has startled us with this trick a few nights when he came down behind the barn to hunt while I was taking the dogs for their last walk of the night. We let him believe he’d fooled us and beat a hasty retreat back inside. If he wants to play a Mountain Lion, we’ll go along with the charade.
Wilma, Wiley and the Kids. Our coyote family includes a Dad, a Mom and two or three little cubs (it’s hard to count cubs when they are popping up and down in the tall grass.) My previous experience with coyotes was the skinny slinky things you see hanging around garbage cans in hillside LA neighborhoods. Not our coyotes. They are as big, fat and sassy as German Shepherds. They are comfortable enough to play in front of the tent cabin when John the Baptist is staying there. With us, they are more aloof, but unconcerned. When we meet them, the terriers cower and the coyotes glance at us contemptuously and trot on. They stroll with great unconcern up the vineyard road and slip in under the deer-proof gate. Which they are welcome to do as they keep the vineyard mole and gopher free. In fact, I’m thinking of putting up a sign: Mole Buffet. All You Can Eat. Coyotes Dine Free.
Chuck the Buck. There are a lot of deer on our property. There are a lot of deer in Sonoma. There are no deer like Chuck the Buck. He’s big, he’s broad chested and he’s not afraid of anything. We once drove up to him unawares in the ATV. He stood his ground and lowered his impressive rack of horns. We retreated. Chuck has not only lived a good long time around here — handily evading all the large meat eaters that stalk the property. But he seems to be a prolific father. Every season, we see more of his sons, who have the same characteristic barrel chest and swagger. One of his sons, unfortunately, has been known to get drunk on the discarded wineskins at our crush pad. We’ve named him Keef — because he’s the the substance abusing Keith Richards of Cervidae
The Pacific Pond Turtles. There is only one fresh water turtle native to Northern California. It’s horribly endangered. We’ve got a pond full of them. A naturalist who is rescuing the Pond Turtles from endangered habitat brought four of them over here to our pond, Lake Charles. We named the girls after various local Indian tribes — Pomo, Miwok and Suisun. The male was sickly, so we named him Captain Jack after a famous Modoc chief who led one of the most successful Indian resistance movements in California. We thought it would be good mojo, but he didn’t make it. The naturalist replaced him with another male we called after a local Sonoma chief, Solano. Then suddenly a fifth turtle just showed up. We called him Stevenson after Robert Louis who also showed up and who people around here claim as an honorary Sonoman.
Well, there are so many more characters I could mention — humans and critters. But you’ll just have to delve into the blog to find them.