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A Map, A Watch... Pt. 2

Updated: Feb 22

Take Your Time


My father, Rick York, wore a Rolex GMT Master every day of my childhood. He’s a ripped shorts, faded T-shirt guy, so a proper timepiece stood out on his wrist. He’d tell us it had been machined from a single piece of stainless steel. Look here: The drill bit left perfectly parallel cuts you have to get close to see. Feel it with your finger. Heavy, isn’t it? 


A GMT Master, very similar to my father's.


You could take it under water. You could bash it into things. You didn’t need a battery because with the shake of his wrist, a mechanism inside wound the spring. Rick still makes that habitual gesture, though the watch has been gone for decades.


Tom Selleck wore the same watch. Brad Pitt, too. Marlon Brando. Pablo Picasso. Fidel Castro. Rolex refers to it as a “tool watch,” as if it tells the time in the same way a hammer drives a nail. It was made for Pan Am pilots who wished to easily set their watches to two time zones–home and away. It has a fourth hand and 24-hour bevel that can be rotated to adjust a second zone. The original was two colors: red and blue, like a can of Pepsi.


Fidel Castro, wearing his GMT Master.


This watch, like all watches, is different from a clock because a clock is a fixture. It’s a part of the place, not of you. A watch travels where you do. It’s a possession (which would make it an ideal heirloom). And, unless you haven’t adjusted it properly, it only tells you the time where you are. Personal time.


Some are simple and unadorned while others go for more than homes. Some are manufactured by the millions on massive assembly lines while master watchmaker Roger Smith regularly spends 5 years making a single one. They serve a utilitarian purpose and they are one of the most enduring status symbols. 


Watches look a bit different these days—more often they’re referred to as “wearables” because of a profound lack of imagination. But they do more than tell time. They track your vitals, notify you of messages. It makes the idea of a tool that only serves one function seem quaint. Like a telephone that only places phone calls. But that hasn’t affected the sales or use of plain old watches, which just about half of adults still wear every day.


Rick York wears an Apple watch now. He’s often annoyed by its notifications and the inadequacy of its call quality. But there are some features he likes including the ability to select your own face. He’s chosen the one with a red and blue bevel.


Rick, sporting his wearable, taking a selfie with Toby.

 

The parallels between wine and watches are fairly clear. Wine is utilitarian because it is food: It provides a source of calories, refreshment, and enjoyment. But it is also a status symbol and investment vehicle. Wine can be manufactured by millions of gallons for a few cents a bottle, but it can also be raised by hand from grapes grown at Le Montrachet and squirreled away in a billionaire’s basement.


Wine has also evolved from something simple to something more complex. The end product is no more technological, but an increasing amount of technology is used in its production and analysis. 


There’s also the sense of time, which a watch provides and wine affects.


When tipsy, I tend to lose track of time. Drunkenness puts everything quickly in the past tense or blots it out completely, but slight inebriation stretches things out in a lovely way. It’s a reminder that, while time seems immutable, it can also shift. A paradox we’ve all felt. Pleasure moves on too early and trouble leaves too slow, as Joni Mitchell put it.


But time doesn’t just happen to us. We are active participants. The personal kind of time a watch tells you can be filled in innumerable ways, like a barrel. How we spend our time defines our character. Sometimes we get caught up and lose time, but a quick flick of the wrist sets us right again.


Dusty and I joke that wine has ruined our lives because it takes up all our time. It’s all we spend our money on. Sometimes we argue we should save, but then inevitably realize we’d celebrate our thriftiness by buying special bottles. It feels bizarre: We’ve chosen to spend our lives making slow wine with maximal effort and minimal equipment in an era preoccupied with efficiency, scalability, and control. It wasn’t a conscious choice but, I think, our genuine reaction to the way we feel the world working. 


We’re both skeptical of technology when it is used as a way to cheat time. Let’s make things easier, distances shorter, and produce more, more quickly. Companies that can demonstrate more growth over a shorter period attract more investment, even if their product lacks value or their business model sustainability. Grocery delivery subscriptions, meal replacements, and Uber Eats change not only how we spend our evenings and mealtimes, but how we shop and the things we buy. Hydroponics reduces climatic complexity and allows food to be grown in less time. Systemic herbicides reduce the number of passes a farmer has to make to keep rows clean. Products that used to be made by hand are now incrementally modified down the length of an assembly line. Years have been saved through optimization. There’s much more time and more money flying around, but what now? What do we do with it all? And does the time contain what it did before now that everything has been streamlined and bored out?


Early winemakers of southern California were the industrial type. While they have left us with a truly singular viticultural heritage, their philosophy of winemaking may have led to their demise. Early wines were multi-region, multi-variety blends fermented and aged in large quantities, adjusted (and named) to mimic the styles of better recognized regions around the world. Because sanitation and temperature control were impossible, the wines were pasteurized for stabilization before being shipped across the country. As the triple plagues of prohibition, world war, and vine disease waned, those remaining in the wreckage despaired because they felt they could no longer compete with the wineries they saw as peers: the Gallos of the world. How could they expect to remain viable if they couldn’t continue to produce more for less, year after year? And when development and logistics companies cut farmers checks bigger than they’d ever imagined for their increasingly valuable land, they thought of their families and took the money. 


Etiwanda and Highland in Cucamonga Valley, lifetimes ago.


But what if the sirens of efficiency and scale drew them toward the rocks against which they broke the bows of their vessels? What if they chose to hold themselves up to a different set of peers instead?


Put another way: Why wasn’t slowing down and making wine of quality an option? Was there something in the spirit of the time that demanded immense scale for success?


Look long enough in the history of the region, you’ll come across one possible explanation in sentences like “The Vaches produced ordinary wine because the climate at Redlands does not favor premium varieties of grapes.” The statement, printed without attribution on a National Park Services entry about the historic Brookside Winery, seems to indicate that quantity, not quality, was the only option for the substandard growing regions of southern California. The statement raises many questions, though. What is “ordinary” wine? What are “premium varieties of grapes”? Certainly Grenache at Weingut Keller in Rheinhessen would pale in comparison to the same grape grown and vinified at Château Rayas in Chateauneuf.


The historic Brookside Winery in Redlands, where only "ordinary" wine could be made.


The National Parks statement sounds like a sentiment thrown off by one merely acquainted with something, not one who understands the nearly infinite combination of factors possible when it comes to growing wine. A sentiment like this is easily picked up, carried along, and accepted as truth, as if informed by the most rigorous research. Yet, for every dismissal of the Inland Empire wine region, there is a claim in the marketing materials of early winemakers like Secondo Guasti about the perfection of the Cucamonga soils and their similarity to the slopes of Piedmonte. While winemakers of the time would have the world believe we had gold buried under our feet, they didn’t seem to believe the hype themselves. So they produced their millions of gallons and sold it for a steal. 


In fact, they manufactured wine like Henry Kaiser would, in 1941, begin manufacturing steel in Fontana, California, which lies within the present-day Cucamonga Valley AVA. He was known for the scale and speed of his steel manufacturing operations, but Kaiser’s longest lasting legacy is Kaiser Permanente, the private healthcare system he developed for his employees and later opened to those outside the factories. Believing a healthy workforce was a more productive one, he did what few in the United States did in the 1940s and provided healthcare to those in his employ.


This, as well as his location in inland southern California, was an attribute Kaiser shared with Secondo Guasti, who provided many municipal services to the Italian immigrants who farmed the vines and ran the factories of the Italian Vineyard Company in present-day Ontario. Both men are often referred to as “industrialists” and were lauded for the quantities of their output, the size of their operations, and the speed with which their factories produced their products. Kaiser, driven by the wartime shipbuilding needs, integrated mining, rail, forging, and fabrication throughout his supply chain. His company trekked raw materials from Nevada and Eagle Mountain,through the Inland Empire where it was turned into steel, then out to the coast where it was assembled into ships bound for foreign conflicts. Guasti, in the previous decades, planted the world's largest vineyard, employed full time coopers to supply his and his neighbor’s wineries with redwood barrels, and distributed his wine and brandy nationally through his own company. 


Both men had much in common: a spirit of innovation, a desire for fine things, the talent and energy to create “company towns” that provided what the young state and municipal governments of southern California could not. They valued growth, wealth, and progress. They were involved in multiple industries, including manufacturing, distribution, real-estate, healthcare, and education. They came from immigrant families that were not wealthy by the standards of the day. They staked a claim on Cucamonga and were rewarded for their faith. One wonders if the two were swapped, would they have been as successful? Perhaps if you sat Guasti in Kaiser’s chair, the steel would be just as strong, the ships just as seaworthy. And with Henry in the cellar, the grape must would have flown through the belt-driven pumps, unceasingly. Their broad interests and talents tell me the product at the heart of their success could have been incidental. It was the doing that interested them. The having done. They filled their time completely; as they finished one endeavor, they were driven by their character to move onto the next, to develop it and to perfect it. Then onto the next endeavor, with only a quick glance at their watch. They shared an unquenchable capitalist spirit that, sometimes, sees time as the only finite resource.  


Secondo Guasti's mansion in Los Angeles.

There is much to admire in this spirit, but there is much to fear as well. Guasti’s vineyard stopped at 5,000 acres, but what would he have done with a fleet of New Holland tractors and systemic herbicides? What would the air quality of the San Bernardino Valley be if Kaiser Steel were still in operation at its western end? And the productivity and stability these two juggernauts brought to our inland valley became, with their collapse, an agricultural and economic depression whose effects we still feel today. It was a prosperity that could not last. But one wonders. Is there a way to live, to build, and to grow that may take a bit more time but creates artifacts that become a part of the landscape, like the vines that stubbornly outlasted the farmers? This in contrast to the winery and factories whose broken roofs and crumbling bricks only clutter the landscape, abandoned today. Can we use more time to create fewer things of greater value? Guasti and Kaiser recognized that machines and punch cards were not the only requirements for their workforce to show up on time and be able to perform their work. They had human needs as well. Time was something to spend in the factory, sure, but also with familly. On their own health. But even with this recognition, the driving force was still the maximizing of production. How could it be otherwise if they were going to compete and remain relevant in an America climbing to the peak of its relevance in the 20th century?


Given enough time, things have a way of working out. Time heals all wounds. Tragedy plus time equals comedy. And if we believe in the cliches, then what are we to do? If we don’t take enough time, will things work out? Will wounds heal, and will anything be funny? This is, partly having some fun with words, but partly earnest. The story told in seconds feels less human, resonates with us less than the one unspooled over hours. Fondness, longing, and nostalgia cannot be whipped up. They come with time.


One can imagine large clocks hung in the rafters of Guasti and Kaiser’s now-abandoned factories, precisely counting away the working day in full view of the employees who played their parts expertly and the managers who assured every minute was spent at peak productivity. There was a time when both clocks stopped and all the things those minutes contained spilled out like fruit from a broken bin, spread across the ground where it could only be tallied up, then rot in the sun. What was it all for? They spent so much time, but what did it buy? 


Guasti died before his factory’s clock stopped, but Henry Kaiser, after his ceased and he had moved on to other industries, continued to watch time tick away on his Rolex Chronometer, the same model my mother wore for years.


"Leaders of industry know the value of time."

 

The word “watch” comes from the old English word “woecce” which means either watchman or “wakefulness,” in reference to the state in which the watchman must remain when on guard. The watch helps you pay attention, remain alert, and track significant milestones. 


Wine and the city of Florence, which is where Dusty and I first fell in love with wine, is one of these milestones in our personal time: an anchor stuck in it–an anachronism. Fifteen million visitors a year count on Florence being a certain way. Even a hint of modernity spoils their expectations. Everyone ends up, at some point during their stay, crossing the Ponte Vecchio (the Old Bridge) and staring up at the Palazzo Vecchio (the Old Palace), delighting in the stonework like kids observing moths under glass. A clock ticks away on the tower, recording a time that has no effect.


Greater Florence from Fiezole, 2018.

The city is home to people whose influence on history is unaffected by the passage of time: da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Dante. Their clothes and language are different, but their ideas and accomplishments are more than a product of their epoch; they’re the outpouring of a timeless, universal genius. It seems almost unfair that so much of this would come out of one place. We learn about the ideals of the Renaissance and the influence of the Medici in high school; It’s easy to see why so many things were accomplished here, but the fact that they were is still astounding. 


What does it take for something to get stuck in time like this? The Amish have organized their entire culture around preserving a certain time in history. The Redlands Area Historical Society, and other organizations like it, reward citizens for preserving the heritage of their neighborhoods. “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” Woodrow Wilson established the National Park Service and the Department of the Interior to protect 35 national parks and “preserve” them at a particular time in their history for future generations.


Sometimes a time in a place is only important to a small number of people who don’t have the power to preserve it in the same way that governments or museums or offices of tourism do. While they can’t erect a globe around the park where they proposed to their spouse, they can look at pictures, retell the story, and visit the place again (if it remains) to evoke the significance it holds for them. That is the pilgrimage Dusty and I took a few years ago.


Dusty and I on a Florentine balcony.


There is a stretch of road between Careggi and the center of Florence, lined with four-story apartments that is nearly indistinguishable from dozens like it that spiral outward from the station at Santa Maria Novella. On this road, there are two roundabouts where storefronts look out over unfussy parks. 


Dusty and I walked this street at least twice a day for a year in college while living in a small apartment on a hill above the hospital. We’d walk in the early morning as rollups clattered open. We’d shuffle home late at night alongside listful twenty-somethings in puffy black jackets. The distance was endless. Each block stretched before us. The journey was arduous; the bus, infrequent and too crowded when it did arrive.


Graciously, a beloved landmark stood halfway down the street: Pizzeria Spera, whose wood-lined basement was where we had our first significant wine.


The destination of our pilgrimage, Spera.

Before you descend the narrow staircase into the dining area, you pass a tavola calda offering slices and calzoni to go. At the top of the stairs, the owners hung a collection of photographs and newspaper clippings from 2002, commemorating their recognition as the best pizza in the world. In one picture, the chef stands next to Jay Leno, showing off a Fantasia: the pie that won them international recognition. We lived there in 2008, and the intervening years had earned them no additional recognition—there were no new clippings.


The pizza was excellent, but the vino dalla spina, an anonymous “local” red table wine, poured from the tap, was sublime. According to boys who were not yet old enough to drink in their own country. We weighed the wine heavily when considering where to eat. We thought about when we managed to scratch together enough money for a glass at the Frescobaldi wine bar in the city center. They offered the type of wine we’d buy as gifts to bring home, not the kind we thirsted for.


Week after week, we’d return to Spera, claim our seats, then order a few pies and a pitcher of what we called “juicy juice.” When the basement was too hot to bear, we’d buy three packs of Peroni and sit on the steps of San Lorenzo. On hot afternoons, we’d trek across the river to La Cité Libreria Café, order an absinthe cocktail, and listen to Free Jazz musicians pound out cord clusters on the upright piano. But no matter how good the drinks elsewhere, we always wanted juicy juice.


Ten years later, Dusty and I planned the trip with our wives to the city that remained so incandescent in our memories. Kendall and I would ride our bikes from the port of Nice into Italy and meet up with Dusty and Laura in Riomaggiore for a few days to swim and eat seafood. Then, we’d all travel to Florence and spend a week in an apartment near the old café with the upright piano. We had a lot of plans. Reservations at restaurants. Appointments at wineries in Fiesole.


We were our giddiest, though, as we planned our trek down the long road to Careggi. We would wander the street until we found the stuffy basement for a few pies and a pitcher (or two) of juicy juice at Spera. As we passed Stazione Santa Maria Novella and let our instincts guide us toward the street whose name we never bothered to learn, we noticed something new: light rail tracks in the cobbles, leading toward the hospital on the hill below our apartment. Maybe we’d gotten the wrong street. But no, after looking around, it was clear. In ten years, they managed to cover the endless distance between the station and the bottom of the hill below our villa with tracks carrying a pristine train, every 15 minutes for a euro and change. Our wives rode, we walked. The injustice wore off, and the nostalgia took over. 


When we arrived at the top of the hill and let ourselves into the courtyard below the window of our old apartment, we noticed the front gate had been painted. There’s where we’d slept in the bushes after the doors had been locked at curfew. Here’s the gated asphalt pad where we played soccer and the Romanian theologians kicked our asses. Over there is the grass on the hill behind the garden where Gideon found the hedgehog he brought to our room late at night. We loitered, considering how little everything had changed. It was still a little early for dinner, but we had a way to walk to get to Spera, so we got a head start.


The doors were open, the tavola calda stocked with greasy slices, the newspaper clippings hung unchanged from the wall at the top of the stairs. In the basement, we held our hands up to our mouths, waiting for our wives to decide their order.


When the pitcher arrived, we filled our gibraltars and drank. 


If this story were invented, the wine would have been plonk. A convention by the author to show that, as Shakespeare put it, “a man loves the meat in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.” Everything we’d learned about wine in 10 years would have put us off the humble vino dalla spina and shown us the ignorance of youth. But it was exactly the same as it had been. Simple, refreshing. An entire moment, resurrected.


I found myself wondering if it would have tasted the same in a different city. One whose reverence for the past is not as pronounced. Would the wine have been the same if we had ridden the light rail with our wives rather than retracing our steps down a street we knew by heart? Would our adoration be stronger if the wine we’d fallen in love with had been finer? Of greater quality? I’ll never know, but I can only assume that it would not. So where does the magic actually happen? Where is the meaning made?


The seconds that tick by on your watch can mean nothing if you look with only curiosity, but they can be filled with tension if you’re waiting for the concert tickets to go on sale. They can be filled with victory if they mark a personal record. They can be full of inadequacy if your blind date is late. They can be full of anxiety if you're waiting for your mentor to pronounce his judgment of your newest vintage. 


Time can be sweet and bitter. It can be put to good or bad use. Some wield it like a luthier’s chisel, others like a box of explosives. It gets away from you. We rarely control how it feels when it passes, and we’re surprised by the moments that seem the most significant. But we work to bring it into order, to serve us rather than the other way around. We put it on a dial, organized into twelve sections, elaborated by a set of hands and strap it to our wrists like a possession. We dress it up in diamonds and gold, like an offering, or stainless steel and a blue and red bevel, like a tool. We scrapbook and videotape and memorialize and make wine, but nothing stops the watch. Our anachronisms drag along behind us, plowing through the soil, as we are drawn inevitably on, like horses. 


For me, and for others, wine gives us the illusion that we’re capable of capturing and reliving moments every time we revisit a vintage. Just like the face of a watch that presents us with the illusion that time is cyclical.  But they are illusions, no doubt. “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” Heraclitus said. We move on, the river moves on. Our desire to revisit the past imbues the artifacts that represent it with resonance and a sense of our own finitude. I can reminisce about a Rolex that could have been a family heirloom. I can reflect on the way Guasti and Kaiser built their industries, their fortunes, and this region, questioning whether they could have done otherwise. I can think fondly of a bag in box wine that may as well have been La Tache. All are a form longing, which is ultimately personal. I can tell you to walk down the stairs of Spera and ask the waiter to fill your pitcher with wine, but you won’t drink what we drank. Your life is filled with your own anachronisms.


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