One of the most influential books I’ve read during my studies in Geography is by American professor Don Mitchell, discussing the California landscape. In it, Mitchell explains how the idyllic image of California as a place of beauty and opportunity masks the struggle that has gone into producing this landscape throughout history – the toil of almost exclusively migrant agricultural workers, and the (sometimes violent) confrontations with their employers regarding wages, rights, and living conditions. Revealingly, the book’s title is The Lie of the Land.
Since I read the book in the summer after my first year of undergraduate study, I’ve had the opportunity to go to California twice, most recently in the first two weeks of May. My older brother lives and works there as a residential designer in the Sonoma Valley, giving me not only somewhere to stay and family to visit, but an insider’s vantage point into life in this slice of Northern California.
The Sonoma Valley and neighbouring Napa Valley, known as the Wine Country, are famous worldwide for the produce of their vineyards, and the experience of wine tasting amid the scenic backdrops of wineries. According to Google and local anecdotes it’s a very desirable area to live in, with plentiful countryside, nice restaurants, and being a short drive away from the West Coast and the Bay Area with its larger cities. The median listing price for houses is between $650,000 and $700,000.
Early into the trip, my brother drove us up a winding road to a house peering across the Sonoma Valley from the side of its western ridge. Behind an electronic security gate, the driveway leads down to the main house building, and the remainder of the property which includes a natural lake that’s about 50 metres wide, and next to it an outdoor swimming pool flanked by deck chairs and a tree-sheltered outdoor dining area. Steps from here lead to a balcony overlooking the scene, while commanding views of the misty North Bay further south. Through sliding glass doors is an expansive modern kitchen currently being refitted, which connects to a living area with adjoining bar. Downstairs there are three bedrooms and two bathrooms, a utilities room, another living area, and a library, all elegantly furnished.
This house is worth about $2 million.
You can experience part of the culture that attracts such wealthy homeowners to this area by taking part in local wine and olive oil tasting, which we did on a couple of occasions. The first time, in downtown Petaluma at a wine club, we were directed through the five S’s of tasting wine. The first is sight: carefully turning and tilting the glass in your fingers to observe the wine’s hue in the light. Secondly you swirl, hand lightly clasping the rim and gently spinning the liquid inside to fold in oxygen. Thirdly, you smell, inhaling deeply to draw the wine’s aroma into the nose’s olfactory receptors. The fourth step is sipping, letting the liquid roll over the tongue’s terrain and interpreting different fruit and oak flavours present in the wine. Finally, savour, swallowing and noting the strength of the aftertaste, while contemplating the experience as a whole.
We put these principles into practice on a second occasion at a place called Jacuzzi, a ‘family vineyard’ whose tasting room has one side for wine and the other for olive oil. Tasting here was free but most visitors leave with at least one bottle of something. The staff there were exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable, clearly familiar with the products they offered on a personal level. Rather than talking about ingredients, prices or other facts, they would explain what the olive oil tasted like when they drizzled it on popcorn while watching a film the other day. On this basis, it would be hard not to find something you want to buy out of all the experiences you’re offered. It is a trend in personable customer service you encounter everywhere you visit in Northern California.
As we were leaving Jacuzzi with our buys, I spotted a small group of fieldworkers tending to grape vines near the roadside. Bent over and dressed head to toe in blue like surgeons, their gloved hands operated on the plants with precision and care. In that instant, it was impossible to make out what arcane knowledge or instincts they applied as they manoeuvred the stems of the vine, for as swiftly as the farmhands came into view, the image was swept away when we turned onto the highway.
If wine tasting is a method of deciphering experience, road travel – rural California’s default way of getting from A to B – is a routine of abstracting. The car window frames the world in motion, blurring and flattening the creases and inconsistencies of nearby things into the shapes and colours of the land behind. Like looking in a crystal ball, these journeys leave you with a mixture of crystal clear vignettes and foggy silhouettes. If we extend the metaphor, the practice of tasting wine is akin to palm reading – subjective yet with a careful attention to detail, and blessed by the wisdom of pseudo-science. What both these behaviours have in common is a curious fluidity between reality and imagination.
We parked up in downtown Sonoma, an orderly square of boutiques, historic buildings, eating and drinking establishments, to shop for souvenirs. Before leaving, bags fully loaded, my brother led us into a wine tasting room to show us its unique style of interior design. Shelves of dark wine bottles cascaded down one of the room’s lofty walls, behind a well-populated bar that was surrounded by plush leather armchairs and round tables. Everywhere sharply-dressed patrons smiled across tables with glasses slouched in their hands, sipping sparingly as if they were at a church communion. I remember wondering about the chain of events that transforms what happens in the fields into this highly curated ritual; the process by which a fruit of the land becomes a social and cultural event, a vision of grandeur.
Partly out of necessity and partly out of intrigue, Mum then decided that we should stop by the American equivalent of Poundland to get a few bits, a shop called Dollar Tree. To get there we headed down unfamiliar roads to a small retail outlet somewhere in the suburbs, Dollar Tree nestled in the corner as if it were hidden furthest out of sight from the casual visitor.
The first detail that struck me about Dollar Tree was the clientele. About four in five of those queueing at the tills were Latino, compared to – from my observation – zero in downtown Sonoma or in the wine tasting venues. The store clearly anticipates this, because when entering your eyes are met with the incongruous vision of helium balloons littering the ceiling, many with the words ‘Feliz cumpleaños a tí’ printed brightly on the silvery plastic.
The decorum of the boutiques was abandoned in Dollar Tree, as items spilled out of their shelves and baskets onto the thin green carpet. Above rows of soda bottles stacked up on shelves was a sign announcing Million Dollar Brands, printed in a goofy font next to the frozen section. When queueing for the till, we saw children stretching their tiny fingertips towards the shower of ribbons, eyes wild with glee as they jumped and clutched at the balloons.
The friendly community feel that permeated every establishment we visited in the Wine Country was here too, though it came across more like camaraderie. One exhausted staff member had just finished her shift as we waited at the checkout, and joked her goodbyes to each colleague with a weary smile. Till workers and customers all seemed to know each other by name, asking how so-and-so was and telling them to take care. It felt like a Californian outpost in a distant land, where old customs remain even as conditions differ, and people make the best of what they have.
Until recently in the neighbouring Napa Valley, immigrant farmhands slept by the rivers in tents, rented garages to crowd into with other workers and their family members during the season. Napa now has three farmworker housing centres, where $13 a night gets you a bed in a shared room, three meals a day, a shared washroom. Sonoma Valley has none of these centres, though the same problems exist with farmworkers being unable to afford local housing. I never got to see where these people live.
They don’t adorn the wine bars. Instead the grape’s fluid seeps into the cracks of their palms, colonising the exhausted body until it becomes one with the landscape they tend. While the lifestyles of some Californians mirror the pristine portraits of smiling faces that you see in the foreground of Visit California adverts, others are content with finger-painting the greens and yellows of rolling hills and neat rows of vines if it means that they can live. Their livelihood relies on the consistency of this image.
There is an immense irony in how all the local boutiques we entered were so keen to sell paintings of fields and vineyards with their iconic rusting metal barns – all devoid of the people without which this much-loved landscape would be unrecognisable. It’s akin to how tourists deftly turn their cameras away from human subjects in the photographs they take, as if the existence of these individuals in the picture would somehow reduce the authenticity of the landmark they’re trying to represent. As much as landscape images can give viewers a potent dose of a sensory environment, they stink of absence – of what lies outside the border; of the events and actions that led up to that moment.
Like the picturesque uniformity of a theme park, in California we have an image of living that entices everyone; a friendly sociability that everyone aspires to, in spite of material differences. The image repeats itself again and again and again in the acts of ordinary people, because it is a beautiful illusion. Whether their hands are grasping for helium balloons or the door to the balcony, fondling for grapes in the vines or stretching down to the wine fridge, it’s California they’re reaching towards.