by Laura Ness
With a simple pair of shears and a compassion for saving trees and bushes others thought were simply in the way, the man who has been Concannon’s chief groundskeeper and vineyard pruner for 30 years, has turned this vineyard estate into a fanciful display of greenery. Meet Ernesto Hernandez, one of 10 siblings whose parents raised them on a big, bountiful farm in Michoacán, Mexico.
“We had cows and horses, we grew corn, potatoes, broccoli – everything,” says Hernandez, with a broad smile that accentuates his convivial nature. Growing up in this agricultural paradise agreed with him: consequently, Ernesto loves living outdoors and spends every moment he can, either caretaking the entire Concannon property — which includes pruning the estate vines — and tending to his own garden at home, where he grows tomatoes, squash, cilantro, radishes and peppers – all, he says, “100% hot!”
Hernandez first came to Concannon as a vineyard worker in 1984, pruning the vines when Sergio Traverso, and then Tom Lane, were head winemakers here at this historic vineyard site, established in 1883. He also worked the tractor, discing the vine rows and tending to the irrigation infrastructure.
About 18 years ago, he began helping with the sugar sampling of each block of vines in preparation for harvest. Says Jim Concannon, “What he does is highly scientific and extremely important. He samples grapes throughout the Valley. He knows just where to sample in each block to get highly accurate readings of sugar and acid. He’s the best at what he does.”
It’s a job Ernesto takes most seriously, as he knows how critical sugar and acid levels are in making proper harvesting decisions. It would not be an exaggeration to say that he plays one of the most critically important roles in wine making at Concannon: he’s been one of the consistent forces at work there for 33 years, and has no thought of retirement.
Says Hernandez simply, “I love what I do. I feel good about it.” Besides, he pretty much does the same thing at home on the weekends, working in his own yard or helping his daughter with hers.
He has ample reason to feel good about it all, because over the decades, he has become the primary caretaker of this place. His domain includes the hedges, vines, arbors, topiaries, trees and rose bushes that make Concannon such a commanding presence in the Livermore valley.
One day, about 16 years ago, Ernesto was discing in the front block near Tesla and one of his co-workers complained about a bush he thought was unsightly. Instead of removing it, Ernesto thought, “What can I do with this bush? What does it want to be?” And so, he sculpted the famous dinosaur that guards the Concannon gate. It was the first of many artistic visions he has subsequently executed all around the property. Says Ernesto, “I wanted to make something of that bush and save it.”
John Concannon recalls that dinosaur was the subject of a controversial prank some years back around Halloween when someone cut its head off. Everyone was distraught but Ernesto simply grafted it back. “Just like you do with vines,” he says. “It took a year and half to come back.”
Ernesto’s next sculpting masterpiece was the dancing couple in front of the new tasting pavilion. He began by planting the bush that became the man. Then he decided to plant another bush that became the woman, and he carefully trained the outside twigs to become “arms” that would eventually intertwine. There they twirl and swirl, forever happy together, beneath another of Ernesto’s brilliant executions, the intertwined mulberry tree canopy. Devoid of leaves at the beginning of March, both Jim and John think it looks like a train track or perhaps a roller coaster. Ernesto looks at it and smiles, knowing how spectacular it will be in full bloom, when it will look more like a giant floral umbrella.
When someone wanted to remove an old olive tree by what was by Jim Concannon’s former office, because it was in the way, Hernandez said, “Wait a minute! I will make something of this tree,” Ernesto recalls thinking. He decided to turn it into what looks like a giant bouquet of hearts, balloons and lollipops.
When Former Wine Group CEO, David Kent, worried about a particular tree growing tall enough to obstruct the view of the famous Concannon house, Ernesto turned it into a peacock. Nearby, are more dinosaurs and a fanciful leafy “selfie” photo frame that bachelorette parties are fond of posing with and posting on Instagram.
Where does this extraordinary ability come from? Says Hernandez, “Every job you do, you have to focus. For me, it comes from the heart. It is my imagination that guides me.” And what an imagination it is.
Every little thing Ernesto does brings delight to both young and old, to the first time visitor and to those who work here every day. There’s an elephant and a bear he’s working on, hoping to grow them larger. He shows off his bush chair, hoping it will grow quickly so he has a taller backrest.
There’s a giant hare, a few chickens, more dinosaurs and lots of fanciful baskets: one even has three handles. There’s a giant clam, a teacup, bottles with corks and a riotous incarnation of SpongeBob SquarePants. Literally, there is no end to his creativity. And it’s all done with a pair of pruning shears he carries in his back pocket.
Look carefully and you will spy faces peering out from the bushes outside the corporate offices, whimsically winking at passers by. A graceful pair of green urns flanks the entrance to the courtyard where the fountain burbles: nearby, topiary delights that look like something out of a Dr. Seuss tale catch your eye and make you smile. All along the buildings are bushes, hedges, roses and trees in training, slowly being turned into works of art.
Ernesto’s latest creation is a simple church, about three feet high, with a door and topped with a simple cross. Inside, a padre carved of wood beckons you to stop into his silent sanctuary.
What drives his decisions in transforming greenery into scenery?
He says, simply, “I ask God to put something in my mind — something good — because people are coming to enjoy this place.”
You could call him a bush whisperer. He looks at each piece of plant life wondering how it’s doing – what does it need? When he prunes the rose bushes, he speaks to them. “How are you doing, beautiful? What do you need? More water? Food? What can I do to make you happy?” And they reward him endlessly with their blossom smiles.
But his talents go well beyond topiaries. When John Concannon decided to create a new tasting area on the massive front lawn, he envisioned a series of low walls that would form a natural border around the property.
Says Concannon, “When I was a kid, my Dad would say to me, ‘When you run out of other things to do, go down to the creek and collect rocks.’ So I asked Ernesto to build walls using rocks that are prevalent on the property.”
But Ernesto had never built a wall. He admits it took him a few weeks to get the hang of it. “I gathered rocks and I looked at them wondering, how do they want me to put them together? It took a while, but once I figured it out, it was easy enough.”
Much like his topiaries, each foot of that low, decorative wall is lovingly sculpted to reveal the true beauty of the stones that comprise it. That, and the heart of the master hand behind them all.