LETTER FROM CHIEFLANDDakotah proprietors
by Mike Pope
Max Rittgers was described to me by many people before I actually met him. Flighty. Bizarre. Unusual. Spacy. Weird. And I have to admit, all of these descriptions apply.
Sometime in the middle of the 1980s, Max, had just completed a graduate degree in family concealing. His son Rob had just graduated from college with a business degree. Together, they decided to buy a plot of land in Chiefland, Fla., as a business venture. It was one of those father and son moments shared over the 10-year mortgage flow-chart at the local Screw-U Bank. Iím sure it was a touching familial moment. Bonding -- in its most legally acute way.
The plot of land was located on US Highway 27 about 100 miles south of Tallahassee. The land was right on the highway. They knew the property value would go up. They were right.
When they originally bought the land, they only planned on growing a few grapes. What they had in mind was one of those side of the road U-pick operations you see all over Florida. They are very popular, especially along well-traveled routes like 27.
But the business became much more to the Rittgerses. What started out as a side-of-the-road shack became a small building, which became a large building, which is now a whole complex of things. The Dakotah Vineyards[, named after their home state of South Dakota, now includes a full vineyard with seven different varieties of grapes, a pond with seven Canadian geese and five ducks, an Audobon bird sanctuary, a monument to every dog that has ever been loved, a 1945 windmill from South Dakota, and, of course, The Store.
The Store is itself of monumental proportions. Not only does it have every wine accessory one could possibly imagine and a whole line of wine-related products, but itís also a museum of sorts. Scattered throughout the store are all kinds of items of interest: a Civil War bayonet, a patent medicine collection from the early 20th century, a railroad coal stove inscribed with the phrase "If I am good, please tell someone about it," a collection of Indian arrowheads found on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
In many ways, the Store is kind of like a glimpse into the psyche of Max Rittgers. As he was pouring me a sample of Carlos Dry, he pointed to a quilt made at Pine Ridge and he told me that the awful oppression felt by the American Indians caused an astounding suicide rate within the population.
"It isnít funny," he chided me. I hadnít smiled.
Iím not sure exactly what kind of fascination Max Rittgers has with American Indians and I didnít want to ask. The passion with which he spoke indicated that he had very deeply held views on the matter. The spelling of his vineyard was enough to indicate his feelings.
Whatever kind of fixation Max Rittgers has, Iím sure itís bolstered by an incident in 1995 when his black Labrador, Ben, found a 1763 lead marker left by the first white men in South Dakota during a spring canoe trip. Apparently, the plate was left by the same party of French fur traders who left the Verendrye Marker. Historians believe that this was the Europeansí way of marking their territory.
Marking territory proved to be a recurring theme in the struggle which surrounded that plate. A primordial dog will piss in a circle to mark its territory. An 18th century European explorer will leave a plate. But when Ben found the remnants of European territorialism, the shit hit the Ö plate.
Historians hounded Rittgers to give them the plate. The Indian tribe on whose land the plate was found demanded the plate. The state in which the Indian reservation was housed demanded the plate. The federal government demanded the plate. Rittgers was troubled by the fact that all these people wanted this plate from him and were willing to take legal action to get it.
But I think something deeper was going on. The plate represented something to Max Rittger. It was like Europe was pissing on America to mark its territory and here was a roundish piece of lead to prove it, hidden for centuries and finding its way into the mouth of his dog, Ben. It symbolized the thousands of native inhabitants whose civilization has since been obliterated, whose traditions have been trampled by the forced assimilation of American culture, whose land has been stolen by men with bigger and better weapons.
Max Rittgers didnít want any of it. So he charted a private plane to fly over the river from which his dog retrieved the marker and threw it back in. By doing so, he re-claimed the area for its European conquerors so many centuries ago. I think that it bothered him that he was in some way enabling the European genocide conquest of the 17th century.
The dog that found the historical marker was hit by a pickup truck on Christmas Eve in 1996. And a dog like that deserves some kind of special recognition. Under a magnolia tree in the front of their vineyard, the Rittgers placed a tombstone to Ben that claims to be a monument to all parents and children who have ever loved their dog.
In any event, when he started talking about the high suicide rate among American Indians in his store that day, it scared the shit out of the 11-year-old girl who was standing next to me. Some things, I suppose, should be removed from commerce.
A few years ago, Max and Rob decided to enter the wine business. They already had the grapes -- all they needed was the equipment, right?
Wine in Florida is a peculiar thing. In the early part of this century, Florida had a wine industry that was set to really take off. Winemakers in Florida expected the kind of success that California would eventually have. They hadnít counted on the vine pests that plague the state. As it turns out, itís nearly impossible to grow European grapes in Florida. Unfortunately, these are the grapes that great wines come from: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Chablis. But there are many strains of the Muscadine grape family that do grow very well in Florida, all of which the Rittgerses grow in their vineyard.
Florida wine is difficult to get used to -- itís very sweet. Some describe the taste as musky. Some say foxy. Musky really isnít all that helpful because what the hell does musk taste like and how many among us have eaten a fox? Sometimes wine people go a little overboard with their descriptions, but whose to blame them?
The job of the wine writer is a perilous position. How does one describe a brilliant sunset or a monumental work of art? How is perfection deconstructed to a few syllables? How is truth and beauty reduced to a few arbitrary adjectives? It isnít. Thatís why wine people use silly words.
Regardless if musky or foxy is the correct adjective to use, Florida wine is much different that European wine. Itís also different from American wine to the extent that most American wine is made to mimic European wine. The only American grape to gain any significance is the Zinfandel, which took off in 1976 when Sutter Home invented White Zinfandel, which is actually not a white wine at all but a blush. Zinfandel is a red grape. But even Sutter Home navigated their wine to relentlessly European standards.
Florida wine throws all those Old World wine distinctions out the window. Itís much sweeter, muskier, foxier ... whatever words one would prefer.
I asked Rob to show me how the wine was made. He brought me to the corner of the store and showed me the press. What I saw was really shocking. They actually press the grapes and bottle all the wine right there in the same room that they sell all the wine. Then they wait, Rob tells me, until a rainy day to apply the labels.
"Now on the next rainy day I expect to see you here, Mike." he told me.
I laughed politely.
Then he leans in and says to me in a quiet voice, "You see those people over there," motioning to two women and three small children that had just walked in the store. "They are going to go out to the vineyard and eat for an hour and come back and only buy half of what they ate."
Rob knows his clients well. Owning that kind of place allows one the privilege of becoming very well-aquatinted with oneís customer base.
I followed them out into the vineyard. It turns out the women Rob recognized lived in Chiefland. The woman she was with was her sister. The children were the sisterís daughter and the childís friend.
Rob was right. They didnít go out to pick grapes they were going to buy. They went out to graze. Man, they really ate.
The womanís sister had driven to Chiefland so they could all go to the University of Floridaís football game that day. Some things you just canít escape.
When I returned to the store, Rob explained to me how he knew that they were eating so much. Because the grapes had some sort of chemical, eating them in bulk like that caused some sort reaction that induced urination. When his customers come back and make a beeline for the bathroom, Rob knows what the score is.
It didnít seem to bother him, though. Making money really is not at the top of the objectives list for the Rittgerses. They are much more concerned with finding peace in their own lives and helping others to do the same.
Not that they are hurting for money either. Iím sure they do quite well. Enough to support a yearly trip to Cuba to donate medical supplies to impoverished Cubans.
"Some of these women have never even seen a sanitary napkin," Max Rittgers told me in a mixture of concern and outrage.
One thing that struck me about the way he spoke were the odd inflections that crept into his diction. He always spoke slowly and deliberately, but when he told a story the pace would slow as the plot unfolded. By the end of the story he was pacing his words at maximum intervals, emphasizing every syllable as if it were golden. He did this in much the same way one of his customers might swish a Carlos Dry around in his or her mouth to ensure that it has had a chance to acquaint itself with every part of the tongue.
Listening to a Max Rittgers story was like drinking a bottle of wine slowly, by yourself. At the end youíre intoxicated and operating heavy machinery probably isnít a great idea.
After a particularly intoxicating tale about the windmill from South Dakota which appears on every label of Dakotah Vineyardís wine, I decided to go see the ducks. Behind the store is this homemade pond and a porch that overlooks it. As I walked out I saw the 11-year-old girl who had been frightened away by Maxís Indian suicide rant. She was feeding the ducks sunflower seeds from the vending machine that had been bolted to the railing of the deck.
"I like that one," she told me and pointed to a very unusual-looking duck. It had this incredible shock of black and white hair on its head.[ I learned later that the Rittgerses referred to it as the Don King duck for its arrestingly lifelike similarity to the boxing celebrity. I wondered if the girl knew who Don King was and what a travesty to Western civilization it would be if she did.
But the ducks are really only a part of the earthiness of the operation. The Vineyard has been specified as a bird sanctuary and has five Purple Martins and a gaggle of Canadian geese.
Although the Rittgerses avoid the word "organic," thatís what they are.
"Organic is so political," Max told me in a tone of disgust. When he used the word political, it was always used as an insult.
No pesticides are used on the Dakotah Vineyard. They import special insects that do job in their place. Roses act as temperature gauges. Sheep are used to weed around the vines and Rob assures me that they make great fertilizing machines.
A sign hangs inside the store that illustrates the earth worship. It reads: "The earth gives us wonderful grapes. The grapes give us wonderful wine. The wine wins us lots of new friends. Thank you earth."
The sign is perhaps more illustrative than it appears. The Rittgerses love their grapes and they love their wine and they love their store. But even more than that, I think they really enjoy getting to know all the people who wonder unsuspectingly into their little world.
And thatís a given. From the highway, what grabs your eye is a largish billboard which reads in large red letters, "free wine tasting." It worked on me.