Joe Mesics had a great way with grapes and words.

I had just known Joe for a little under ten years when he died this past February. As I write this several short months after his death, I am still dealing with him not being here. He came late in life to grape growing, starting his vineyard in Oregon after having spent a large part of his professional life in publishing. Then at age fifty-five he started clearing land putting in his Timbervine Ranch vineyard on the vertical flanks of Black Mountain in California’s Russian River Valley. I work in the Healdsburg Library, and part of my job is just regular library work, and part involves running the Sonoma County Wine Library, a business and technical library for the area wine industry. It is natural that I’d run across Joe, a literate grape framer, but it was literature, not wine grapes that first brought us together, The Grapes of Wrath rather than grapes of wine. I coordinate a book group at the library called the Canon, and we read and discuss great books. We had met and discussed The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s powerful novel, but some people had missed the discussion, and wanted another session. I scheduled one and just Joe Mesics and a rather shy young man showed up. Joe was a big rough-cut man, elemental even in his 70’s. It came as no surprise to learn later he had played foot ball, been a Marine and was a very hands-on farmer. I had a recording of Woody Guthrie singing The Ballad of Tom Joad. I played the song for Joe and the young man. I was concerned that with only this big old guy and a tight-lipped teenager we might not have much a talk. But Joe liked the Woody Guthrie song, a fair summary of the whole book, and it served as a springboard for Joe. He admired Tom Joad whose short fuse, passionate moral intensity, hectoring impatience with misused authority, pugnacity and courage made him a memorable literary creation. Joe also gushed about Steinbeck’s love of the simple things and the nobility he found in the common man, his flights of literary prowess in portraying the plight and flight of the Okies as an epic struggle and for its steel-eyed documentary realism in depicting the human misery that underlies the physical beauty and apparent abundance of California’s great Central Valley. I need not have worried about not having a lively discussion. Joe became a staunch member of the Canon. He never failed to be contrarian and passionate and thoughtful and utterly polite and civil and respectful. He defined to me what respectful disagreement sounded and felt like. Joe became a wonderful regular contributor to the book group. He usually took a 180 degree opposite to the consensus opinion on any given book. We, the group, were kind of bland and middle-of-the road. He was edgy, out-there, and hewed to some wonderful and strange, hard-to-define aesthetic. We the book group all adored To Kill a Mockingbird. “Lacks verisimilitude,” snapped Joe. “No way could a 13 year old girl talk a lynch mob down.” He absolutely loved The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman., a book that has been voted the most hated book in the curriculum by generations of English majors. The book group more or less sided with the English majors. But Joe, not to be cowed by the shallow Philistine views of the mob, channeled the long dead author, Laurence Stern, and produced a charming and illuminating interview with this oddball English gentleman Stern, who expressed disdain for much in the modern world, and took the insults of the undergraduate English majors as high praise. While most of us thought we were doing great if we read most of the assigned book before the meeting when we discussed it, Joe wrote mini-, sometimes maxi-essays. He would show up for the meetings clutching these book reports he had written, typed out, his daughter told me

a retired comptroller who dealt in shades of financial gray. He told me shyly one time that he had been writing essays for his own amusement and for his grand children about what it is really like to farm grapes. Read his essay that begins “I never met a grapevine I didn’t like. what new technology promised care-free farming. the publisher of the Healdsburg Tribune and gotten a column called VitLit. These retired guys with a pile of money come to wine country to buy a lifestyle. Gangbardt!” “Landing gear locks?” “Landing gear locks.” Joe explained.” So Joe knew he had fallen for that harsh mistress. “Gangbardt. written under the name of F. “It’s a Marine aviator’s term. and I always learned something from them. in a room detached from his great little house.” This gaggle of the wellfed misty-eyed rich retired bought vineyards. with the uneven bite and letter placement of his battered old typewriter. we have renamed the book group. had fallen in a big for grapes. who had bought whom.” He wanted to set the record straight. you sang out your list of items to be checked to your ground crew. He would sit in the in the wine library and catch up on the wine news: who had gone belly-up.” As in: “Tire Pressure?” “Tire Pressure. In a preflight checklist. a heart specialist. the crew would yell back the nonsense but vaguely Norwegian or Finnish sounding word. talked and wrote about the good life in California vineyards in a way that flat out contradicted Joe’s experience. The critiques were type written. grape growing and the wine country lifestyle. “What’s with this Gangbardt pseudonym?” I asked Joe. but he at least wanted to put that relationship into print in a clear-eyed and accurate way. may have even worked them a little. And they were always cogent. he had talked Rollie Atkinson. He was irked by a number of books and essays that extolled the “Romance of Viticulture. Joe was enamored of the romance. Gangbardt!” “Fuel?” “Fuel Gangbardt!” . He talked to me and threatened to show me some of these essays. a room specifically dedicated to writing. He described this group as “an ex-CEO. and after each item. or maybe the biggest Roto-Rooter operator in the state of Oklahoma. Since Joe’s death. “The Romance of Viticulture” was Joe’s catch phrase to describe this soft-focus fantasy. what new wine-making technique was being touted as a way to gain perfect mastery over the difficult and complex fermentation of grapes into wine. Joe would come in the library almost weekly for purposes other than the Canon.with two fingers on a battered typewriter. Joe Mesics’ Literary Canon. Gangbardt. Before he could make good on this threat. The phrase had a more than a tinge of self deprecation. a sports or entertainment celebrity.

and not everyone gets it. Maybe he kept those columns hidden. There were some swipes at the fatuousness that infests the wine scene. Carved into the side of Black Mountain. Why do you even need a pseudonym?” I asked. the paper may be forced to fire me because of pressure from big wigs and advertisers. In any case I was still in the dark about Joe’s need for a pseudonym. you somewhat understand Joe. “You” look across the table at the pretty lady from Alexander Valley. “You’re a rough tough old cobb. and added a ‘J’ to the Fuel to make it Fjuel and then mysteriously abbreviated it to F. “Oh.” Joe explained. He had several acres of Zinfandel on the flat near his home on Westside Road. I’m going to tell it like it is. Gangbardt in the pseudonym.” I kept waiting for the tell-all rip-the-lid-off pieces he promised. frankly celebratory of the delights of the vineyard. You have to experience Timbervine. and the world becomes more vast. “This column is going to seriously offend some powerful people. The horizon. and you continue to climb past the upper vineyard and begin to see Mt Tam. It "clung to the mountainside with none of the grim deliberation of a Rhineland castle. but the columns that appeared in the Healdsburg Tribune in 2008 and 2009 were not scathing rants. and you in some Gary Snyder zone of mountains and rivers without end. wry and knowing. The Russian River takes shape below you as you get higher and higher. and “you” get an immediacy from it. and the lower vineyard fans out beside you. He writes a lot in the second person. . You ascend a hill that only a 4-whieel drive vehicle can make. but rather with the chance delicacy of flower petals impaled upon a crag. The pieces that follow remain wonderful writing.Joe liked the sound of Fuel Gangbardt. and if you get it. If you were with Joe. It was a beautiful vineyard in a bend of the Russian River. Joe’s poetic description of the flowering grapevines simmers with erotic beauty. “You” sit down with Bernie at John and Zeke’s. glimpsed between Manzanita and Redwoods recedes. but without the gauzy pretense that infects so much wine writing. He also tells that frustrating details of trying to find parts in the local hardware stores. but with no luck. If I reveal who I am. It is both very real and complete romance.” to borrow Hilton’s description of Shangra-la from Lost Horizon. It’s the way Joe talked. maybe it was just Joe’s joshing about a nonsense name he made up. and on a clear day Mt Diablo. but about 10 miles further along Westside was his Timbervine Ranch. You have to know where to turn off. he’d unlock the chain and you drive through and start your vertiginous climb. Joe. “You’ have an epiphany that leads to a vision. There is only a dirt road with a chain across it. the anxiety that pervades dealing with vineyard managers and workers whose facility in English seems to flexible. like an alpine meadow. To understand Joe you must experience his vineyards. how galling it is to have every yahoo ask you how your grapes are doing. You round a bend. this vineyard encloses a spiritual space. I have tried to verify that Gangbardt is a real Marine aviator’s term since. but I saw no need other than the fun of it for Joe to use a pseudonym. and some thinly disguised and recognizable real people made to look less than wonderful.

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