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Back in those days it was definitely the line of conventional farming. They sprayed everything to the ground and disked everything under. Any bare weeds showing in the vineyard or anything that was green, other than grapes, was not wanted. [The attitude was that] it all had to be removed. And the chemicals they used for dealing with pests were the sort that if you sprayed it, it died. That's what everybody did; nobody really questioned it. But that conventional thought only goes so far. When I took over the vineyards in '95/'96, I started playing more of a role in the viticultural side of the ranch. I took a direction to go 1) sustainable — which is blatantly obvious; that's what everybody should do, and 2) organic, to start composting, to take a lighter path in the vineyard, not have so much mechanization out there — not disking so much, not mowing so much — just letting things fall into balance.
NM: You were relatively young when you decided you wanted to do things differently in the vineyard. What was compelling you to take that much gentler direction? After all, as it turns out, it was actually quite progressive; you were thinking ahead of your time.
JM: Well, I think there's always one side of you where if your parents do it one way, you want to do it another way, and where you're going to fight them tooth and nail: "I'm not doing it that way; I'm doing it this way!" I think that was inside of me, perhaps latent. But also, [taking that different direction] just felt right, it felt healthy. It didn't seem right to be using chemicals on a piece of ground that you want to keep in your family for generation after generation; it seems you'd want to clean that up.
KM: It seem to me, also, knowing you and what you were doing at that time in your life, that your inspiration was that book you had read, Sunlight Into Wine. You talked about that for a long time! It was something very fresh and new in the world of wine for a while.
JM: Yeah, in conjunction with [University of California] Davis, the author [Dr. Richard Smart] extrapolated all the viticultural data they had gathered up until that point, and wrote a very simplified book on how to grow grapes. And one of the biggest things that caught my attention in that book was that grapevines are probably the hardiest plant in the world. They're extremely simple to grow. If you can't figure out how to raise a grapevine and keep it alive, don't plan on farming anything else! So, with that in mind, I wondered, "Why do we spray all the weeds on the vines? Why do we cultivate? Why are we so worried about the 'competition' on a vine's root system?" I thought all that's a [rather] great way to create diversity in your soil and your area. That's when I really made the shift, coming from a conventional side of farming, to just allow things be the way they are. If you've got certain areas that grow different grasses because it's a different soil type, just let it be. That's what you want to do, rather than always trying to homogenize everything out in the field; let it be diverse on its own. That was a major point for me. Also, I was studying some metaphysics, too, and learning that plants are living beings who are no different from you or me. One book I'd read was called the Secret Life of Plants. After reading that book — I was 16 or 17 — it really dawned on me: they really are no different from [us].
NM: What I hear you saying, to put it in spiritual terms, is that there's not only an abstract, but a palpable connection between plants and human beings.
JM: We wouldn't be here without them! And they're older than we are, too; that's another thing we have to remember. Plants are absolutely amazing; they move and change at a very slow pace. Whereas humans adapt extremely rapidly. Just the ability for a plant to adapt to a change in environment is absolutely fascinating to me, how they can do that.
NM: Being that you were so young and it was during a time well before general attitudes changed in wider support of natural and more gentle treatment of the environment and the life within it, it sounds instinct was leading you. Can you say a bit more about that?
JM: My instinct was telling me basically that fast food, for example, is not something I should be putting in my body. While the idea of consuming healthy, locally grown produce just touched me. It felt right, it felt like that's what I should be eating; not the food that's been imported from halfway around the world and trucked in two days from Texas. That didn't feel like I would be eating something that belonged in my system. So, with that in mind, I changed my whole philosophy behind farming to be natural, go with the flow, and let it be — and not try to find absolute visual perfection in a vineyard. You can manicure yourself to the tee and look better than anybody else out there, but it makes you nervous, it makes you tense, when you're all fancied up and going somewhere. To me, it's the same: when you're a vineyard that's really wholesome and moving at its own pace, it's comfortable, it's balance. Sure there are imperfections, a weed here and a weed there, but it's healthy. Of course, that's not to say that we don't strive for perfection in our field with vine balance and all that stuff, but we do take the approach of being healthy.