If you ever wanted to own a vineyard and grow world class wine grapes, I suggest you play The Farming Game. It is a board game which is won by the player who most skillfully navigates the inevitable trials and tribulations that befall every farmer on the planet. Drought, floods, blights, pests, early frosts and late rains. Bad news from the banker. Labor strikes. Heat spells. All these and more can ruin a crop and a whole year’s worth of hope and effort.
But just as often, there is good luck, good weather, and good news. That’s the thing about farming, and that’s what my family found out when we set off to play The Farmers’ Game in real time. When we bought the lovely hillside acreage in Sonoma Valley, we had a fairly good plan in place–we were going to grow great grapes, sell them to the highest bidder, make fantastic wines, and make lots of money, too. Win the game.
Hah! Not so simple. The Farming Game’s highs and lows kicked in pretty early. Things went right, but things went wrong, too. We won awards for our wines, but then the whole vineyard became infested with phylloxera (it’s a nematode that eats the root hairs on the roots of the vine, essentially creating a starvation situation for the vine) and we had to start over. We had great harvests, but then years of drought. More awards, but also labor shortages, and problems with the old tractor. This turned into a very hard game to play, let alone win.
Farmers having fun at MacLeod Family Vineyard
Fast forward to now. For forty years, we’ve stayed at the table, kept playing the rounds, and we’ve managed to build a fine family business. Sure, we drew some very lucky cards at the right time and managed our hands well, but we had another important advantage, too. From the start, we were very experienced game players.
Card games, board games, outside games, indoor games, our family played them all. Our childhoods with Mom and Dad were lively with play and games. At first, I remember just the physical run-around games, which mainly involved wrestling on the floor with Dad or chasing each other around the house. Gopher Trap was our favorite. Dad would lie very still on his back and we kids would creep closer and closer. Then suddenly his arm would shoot out and capture one of us. We’d shriek with joy. The game usually ended after Dad had made a sandwich out of all our little bodies and pretended to gobble us down. We’d be exhausted with pleasure.
Doke-Doke was another game we invented which basically consisted of running around the house after dinner trying to scare each other by jumping out of closets or suddenly reversing directions. We’d be both screaming and laughing “Doke-doke” the whole time, which fueled our frenzy. Of course, someone would get hurt and that would be the end of things until the next night. Mom was always vaguely annoyed by this activity but it was too much fun to stop.
We graduated to more sophisticated, sit-down games when we were all pretty young. On Saturday nights, the card table would come out and we’d play for hours, only stopping for what seemed like some very sophisticated refreshments: Goldfish crackers and 7up. Monopoly, Chinese Checkers and Parcheesi were our favorite board games. And of course, cards.
Ahhhh, cards. Dad taught us how to play Hearts, which is a very plausible parable for real life. First, you are dealt a deck of cards, and you see some good things and bad things, and you make plans. You get a chance to pass your worst cards to your neighbor, at least what you think at the time are your worst cards. Of course, your other neighbor passes you his worst cards, and all of a sudden your fate at the table looks entirely different. Only with imagination and skill can you regroup and play out your hand skillfully. Cards are continually being put down and picked up throughout the game. You just keep looking for your best option at the time, and hope for a little luck. Just like life, if you ask me.
We played Hearts together almost every Saturday, even though it was an incredibly emotional roller coaster for some of us at the table. We came to call it Crying Hearts, because there were the inevitable tears. A hand could look really good, and then suddenly sour when other cards were played. The reverse was true as well, and the triumph of ‘Shooting the Moon’ could sweeten a whole week.
Unforgettably fun were the games of summer. Hide-n-Seek, Tag, Capture the Flag, Sardines, Kick the Can amused us endlessly. These weren’t exactly mind games, but they built our physical stamina and sense of community. The neighbors were welcome to join in, and we all were good at something. Tony knew the smallest places to hide, and Ricky was the fastest runner. I was great at finding things.
Through hours and hours of endless play, we learned how to make friends and stay friends, not only with our pals but with each other. We learned to forgive each other the slip of a very bad card or the careless bruise from a thrown elbow. We learned to start fresh with every hand, and hope for the best. We learned that losing didn’t last forever. We learned how to have fun together. And we learned, most importantly, how to stay in the game.
This February, we’re having our 28th annual board meeting. There will be flip charts and flowsheets. Lots of data, lots of questions, and maybe some excellent answers, and probably some questions that have no good answer at all. We’re playing The Farming Game for real and bad things can and do happen. Great things happen, too. Things go wrong, things go right. In this game, though, we’re all on the same team and we all want to win. We really want this victory, we want it for each other, and we want it for ourselves. We want this little business to thrive.
But here’s the thing. After the meeting, we’ll pose for our family picture and everyone will laugh and smile. We’ll have a great dinner together. We’ll celebrate the arrival of new grandchildren. We’ll talk about our trips, our homes, our cars. We’ll be at the table, all of us. We’ll have fun.
So, who’s to say we haven’t won already? Games are hard to quit, though, once you’re committed. We’re not folding. Never. As Babe Ruth once said, you don’t win today’s game with yesterday’s homeruns. We’re always going to come out slugging, willing to risk and to imagine and to innovate. That’s how we roll.
By Noel Beitler
Enjoy MacLeod Family Wine with your next game night!! Visit us at: www.macleodfamilyvineyard.com