On Saturday Chris and I drove to Wise, Virginia, to the Mountain Rose Vineyard. We were part of the entertainment at a small festival, Mines to Wines; we joined Ron Short to play a set of coal mining songs. What made it apropos is that the vineyard was created on the remains of a strip mining operation. Folks thought the idea was crazy, but owner David Lawson knew that grapes would love the acid ground and thrive in the relatively dry weather. Five years later, the wines David produces are now winning awards.
We arrived in mid-afternoon because the group that sponsors our Music of Coal shows, the Lonesome Pine Office on Youth, had arranged for a photographer to take some publicity stills. He hiked with us up to a particularly scenic section of the vineyard, picked out a spot for us to stand, and proceeded to do what photographers do. The day was intermittently cloudy, so there were stretches of waiting for the right light punctuated by hurried sessions of picture-taking. The fellow seemed to know his craft, so we’re curious to see the results.
The winery grounds really are lovely, in a polished industrial way. I don’t intend that as an insult, but only to note that much of what made it picturesque had been done exactly for that purpose. Rose bushes were planted at the end of every row of grapes. The rows of grapes were weed free, probably from liberal application of Roundup, and the paths between the rows were wide and well-mowed.
The operation had the manicured look of an agritourist attraction, which in fact it is, a very well-thought out one. Just outside the winery building is a lawn suited for holding outdoor dinners, which is just what they held before our performance, for $20 per head, serving chicken breasts with mashed potatoes and green beans and salad and rolls and cobbler with ice cream for dessert, accompanied by a glass of wine if you liked. Just inside the building was a large room with more tables, a fireplace, and a counter, where wines could be tasted and purchased.
After the show the owner gave us a quick tour behind the scenes, taking us into the rest of the building which was filled with the equipment they use these days to produce wine: a machine to de-stem the grapes, another to crush and squeeze them, maybe twelve 1000-gallon temperature controlled stainless steel vats where the juice is fermented, and a bottling station. David told us that each of the vats cost him around $6000 a couple of years ago; now they sell for over $10,000.
Thinking about our own efforts to farm, I was vaguely uneasy about the whole operation. On the one hand, I had been reacting positively to the place all day long. But as I heard these numbers and added my own silent estimates of what it must have cost to acquire the other equipment, build the building, prepare the grounds, plant and maintain the grapes, market the product, and plan and execute the different events hosted there, I understood that it was a significant business venture that required investors, employees, profit and loss statements—a different universe than the one we operate in, a universe fraught with dangers that had driven us to choose another path.
As we were leaving, Ron was telling David that he thought Mountain Rose Vineyard was a wonderful thing, a blessing to Wise County, and I wondered: is it? After all, I spend a lot of time pointing out the dangers of the modern industrial approach to not only agriculture but life in general, and in some ways this operation exemplifies that.
I think that it is a blessing, and maybe even a wonderful thing. The operation is small, and run by the Lawson family, the folks who were setting up beforehand and serving in the midst of and cleaning up afterwards. There is a house on the property where I think David lives with his family. They are making a fine and wholesome product, with the attention to detail and quality that a small operation can provide. They draw visitors to the county. They have become a local gathering place for the community through the events they stage (music, dinners, grape harvests, and so on). And even though their business is capital intensive beyond what the average family could manage, it is ends up being a home-based family business, and I imagine the Lawson family experiences many of the same blessings that other rural farming families experience.
Which brings me to my point. For awhile now I’ve been reluctant to speak too bluntly about certain aspects of our own journey, because I haven’t known how to do so without seeming to criticize folks who have chosen to pursue simplicity in their lives in ways different than ours. But I think it’s time for all of us to get past this, either by choosing a niche in the matrix or coming to understand that we’ve already chosen one, and then getting comfortable with it. We need to be equally comfortable saying two different things: (a) I think what you’re doing is great, and here’s why; and, (b) I wouldn’t do it that way, and here’s why. Put another way, there are choices that are great in one context and not so great in another. Put yet another way, what works very well for you might not work at all for me, because we have decided to follow different paths to the same (or at least similar) goals, and so my rejection of some specific choices you’ve made is not necessarily a criticism of your overall project.
Let me offer a specific example. My friend Scott Terry has written a number of important posts (here, here, and here are examples) pointing out ways in which a home-based economy is at odds with the cash-centeredness of modern life, and that the form of the good life he advocates is fairly spare when it comes to material blessings (at least as the modern world counts such things). For folks who are on the path we ourselves are following, this is critical wisdom; we need to know that there is no panacea, pastured poultry or anything else, that will result in the sort of life we seek while still yielding comfortable amounts of cash. But we also need to acknowledge that there are other sorts of lives that can center around cash crops and still be dramatically superior to the average modern industrial existence.
I want to get past the abovementioned reluctance for two reasons. First, I think that anyone who reads what I write benefits most when I am clear and detailed about what we do and why we do it. So I want to be able to do just that without giving unnecessary offense and without being called to defend our choices by folks who object to them. And second, I think that folks who are largely in agreement on what constitutes the good life need to do everything possible to help one another in their efforts to live such a life. So I want to get to a place where those who largely share our assumptions about the good life can exchange opinions and information freely, in full confidence that any arguments or questions or objections come from like-minded people of good will who are trying to get at what’s best and are just as open to being persuaded as they are to persuading.