Mining Gravel

It is gratifying to use local materials: Elderberry, (Sambucus mexicana) which grows profusely on the property is currently blooming and the flowers are capable of making a white wine that has the potential of rivalling a fine Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre. This is a potential, I hasten to add, that my father in his wine making experiments with the European elderberry in Surrey, England, never seriously approached. The terroir of Upper Ojai is of course superior to the Surrey clay and drizzle - we get a little more sun, so perhaps we should continue the effort.

The Chumash were inveterate in pursuing altered states of consciousness but the technique of alcohol production apparently eluded them: perhaps they preferred the rocket fueled ride to a parallel universe afforded by the Datura (Datura wrightii) or the slower rush of endorphins produced on their Chia (Salvia columbariae) provisioned marathon runs. They understood the usefulness of the elderberry strictly in terms of making whistles and flutes. (Music, of course, can be totally transporting). My father also made a red wine from the berries which appear in the fall. For a British wine of the time it was excellent. But only those who have tasted the delights of VP sherry and the such can truly understand the import of this evaluation.

A couple of years ago the elderflower liqueur St-Germain was popular. Here is Married with Dinner's (the blog) somewhat arch description of its charms,

"....... hand-picked wild elderflowers are macerated and combined with eau de vie. The result is a liqueur that balances citrus and floral notes as gracefully as a skilled waiter carries a tray of cocktails. A heavy hand with the sugar is perhaps the liqueur’s only limitation; you need a steady resolve and a miser’s touch to make a drink that captures St-Germain’s floral notes without edging into tooth-aching sweetness....."

I have long threatened to make acorn beer. Why? Because they are here. Which is precisely how they became a staple in the Chumash diet. While acorns were of great nutritional importance to the Chumash, their consumption came with a heavy price by way of gastric discomfort (Jan Timbrook's wonderful Chumash Ethnobotany, Heyday Books, Berkeley, 2007, details the many plants that were used in the attempt to correct stomach disorders). They were also of some significance in the late nineteenth century development of Ojai providing food for John Meiner's pig herds that, acorn fattened, were then driven overland to Port Hueneme for shipment to the bacon and ham factories of Los Angeles. The lesson here is: work with what you've got. 

Locally, oil was the real economic driver in the late 19th century and it is fitting that Edward Doheny the oil baron upon whom Upton Sinclair loosely based his 1927 novel Oil! (subsequently made into the turgid movie There Will Be Blood) chose to build a house on the old Ferndale Ranch in Sulphur Springs, now St Thomas Aquinas College and originally the site of the Chumash village, Sisa. There is a plaque on the 150 highway a little east of Koenigstein that marks the first oil strike in Ojai made in 1867 and Doheny undoubtedly was aware of the proximity of his estate to this first gusher. He, of course, had made his fortune in the oil fields of Los Angeles. The oil that seeps in rivulets along the 150 as it begins its headlong descent to Sulphur Springs is rivaled only by the La Brea tar pits in the obviousness of their dumb show: stored hydrocarbons available here.

Agriculture makes use of the native soils and the water shed, but those Ojai oranges, avocadoes and even the famed Ojai pixie tangerine are hardly indigenous. Oranges arrived sometime in the 1870's after the cattle and sheep operations on the erstwhile ranchos had dissolved in the dust of the disastrous droughts of the late 1850's and early 1860's.

Grapes are indigenous to the local mountains but the fruit of Vitis girdiana is lillipution at 1/4" in diameter. Wine grapes have a checkered history in the valley. In the 1980's Adam Tollmach began a fairly ambitious vineyard in Oak View only to see his vines decimated by the glassy-winged sharpshooter, Homalodisca vitripennis, that somewhat benignly chomp grape leaves but more malignantly infects the plant with Pierces disease which attacks the root stock. The critter was introduced into the area in the 1990's and since then viniculture has been somewhat blighted. However, there are successful vineyards - the Roll ranch in Upper Ojai is carefully managed and now supplies grapes to Adam's Ojai Valley Winery. Here Adam extolls the virtues of its rocky soil,

"Roll Ranch is located beneath the dramatic face of Topa Topa Mountain in upper Ojai-a hanging valley 700 feet above Ojai valley proper. The soil at Roll Ranch is a decomposition of the mountain itself and is poor in nutrients, which makes it perfect for syrah grapes. Syrah is naturally vigorous, and the poor soils allow the vines to spend more of their energies on the fruit rather than on shoot and leaf production."

Bruce and Marie Botnick have a beautifully tended quarter acre of Syrah in Ojai's East End and their 2007 bottling, Chat Lunatique, is a wonderfully fresh, fruit forward wine. Richard Lyons is growing the Italian varietal, Barbera with some success on a hill perched above the old Doheny Estate within earshot of the bells of the Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity and the base notes of the adjacent oil fields.

Our neighbor Dr. Margot Griswold formerly farmed in the central valley and has experience of growing grapes for the table, for raisins and wine. We have a few acres not doing much on the west meadow of our property and Angela Osborne, assistant winemaker at Casa Barranca and vintner of her own delightful Grenache ( a wine named for her grandmother Grace and available at the Ojai Beverage Company and served at The Treasure Beach Cafe) was early in encouraging us to grow grapes. She kindly arranged a dinner with Adam - who we knew from our days at UCLA School of Architecture when we had taken his brief for a cellar, production facility, tasting room and winemakers residence as a major design exercise under the tutelage of Australian architects Brit Andresen and Peter O'Gorman. He was generous in sharing some wonderful wines from his library but was blunt in doubting the wisdom of growing grapes in Upper Ojai. Margot and Angela are more sanguine on the prospects.

Meanwhile, we mine the soil for gravel. And here we are not without experience.

Our previous house was in Santa Monica Canyon. It was an old single-wall beach cottage that reputedly had been built by the Crenshaws. Quite who the Crenshaws were was never apparent but they were of sufficient note to have had a Los Angeles street, and in turn a district named after them. The house was built before the First World War and at that time an un-paved road and a creek shared the canyon bottom. in the 1930's, as part of a Publics Works Administration program, the year-round spring-fed creek was channelized. The road was then called either West Channel or East Channel according to its relationship to either branch of the creek. All of this occurred close to the ocean and it was the West Channel branch whose job it was to dump the water and waste into the Pacific at Will Rogers Beach.

The house was literally a stone's-throw from West Channel and about ten feet above the channel bottom in elevation. In the fifties, heavy winter rains and a fallen eucalypt in the channel had caused the canyon to flood and the house was inundated. When we first moved in, in the early 1990's the house would flood every winter, less dramatically, but insistently, because the brick terraces in the back yard had been incorrectly graded. When it became clear that we were not going to tear down the old cottage and build our dream home, we removed the terraces and re-graded the back yard.

The house was essentially sited on an old river bottom - the soil was thin and heavily graveled. We planted Sycamores (Platanus racemosa) and surrounded them with the gravel we mined on-site. We made our own sieves out of hardware cloth and 2x4's and my older son and I went to work. In the heaviest rains of 1998 and 2005 the gravel would momentarily pond in the down-pours but the house never flooded again. Eventually we tired of the stony field and replaced it with a native meadow of bunch grasses. The gravel was carefully removed and placed in the front yard where our attempts to grow grass had been defeated by the heavy shade of palms, eucalypts and cotoneaster.

Thus it was that gravel-mining was second nature to me and my two sons when we confronted the issues of grading around the Upper Ojai house. We had already established the 'gravel plinth' which surrounds the house to a width of either eight or four feet and provides drainage for the roof. Here we used 3/4" crushed rock. For the pool terrace we imported 20 tons of Felton Gold 3/8" crushed rock from up-state. The boys and I wheel-barrowed it into place atop the area drains that are connected to the outfall above the seasonal creek to the east of the house. 

At the terrace surrounds and beyond the pool we used site specific, mined gravel and, at the east end of the house, we are slowly covering the mud patch with a mixture of our own gravel and grapefruit sized rocks which we have congregated along the drainage path which makes its way southward past the house.

This is not glamorous work, but the aesthetic results can be quite pleasing.