ELGIN — They call it the angels’ share, the bit of wine that evaporates from the barrel while it ages.
On an ordinary day last September, it’s easy to believe that the angels taking their share must have been looking after Elgin winemaker Kief Manning.
Because what happened to him in a split second that day should have left him paralyzed, if not dead. And over the 91 days that followed, a black cloud of tragedy seemed to hover over Manning wherever he went.
Manning doesn’t believe in angels, but he does believe that things happen for a reason.
It was Sept. 2, weeks away from the harvest at Manning’s family-run Kief-Joshua Vineyards. He and a neighbor were working in the barrel room when it happened.
Usually when barrels of wine move you hear a clinking sound from the metal hoops.
Manning heard nothing.
“I’m not really sure how it happened. I was standing beneath it, no warning until that crack on the head,” he recalled.
A 600-pound barrel full of wine fell from the third rack, about 12 feet from the ground. It landed on Manning’s head.
“It’s one of those things where you get blindsided in the head without any warning,” he said. “I didn’t realize what had happened until I opened my eyes and started walking around.”
The neighbor helping him stood with his mouth open in shock. Manning started cursing and threw his baseball hat on the floor. His head hurt, but he couldn’t quite figure out why.
Until he saw the barrel sitting upright nearby.
He reached up to his head and felt the gash across his skull.
“I could slip my hand underneath my scalp,” he said.
Curiously, there was no blood. So Manning, who has bought the land and built the vineyard in 2003, went about the business of running the winery. He fixed a gate at the front of the property, tidied up a bit and waited for his dad, who works with him, to come back from Willcox with a load of grapes.
Jeff Manning had no idea how badly his son was hurt when he pulled up to the vineyard on Elgin Road with a truckful of fruit. It was a hot, sunny day, not ideal for leaving a load of freshly picked grapes outside, so he knew he had to unload them into the cold storage before he did anything else.
His son assured him he was OK, that he probably just needed a few stitches. He could drive himself to the hospital, he told his father.
“When he left it didn’t seem that serious. I thought he was going to get some stitches in his head,” Jeff Manning recalled, then admitted that the whole situation was beyond surreal.
“Not many people survive that kind of blow to the head,” he said. “He wasn’t even unconscious.”
Kief Manning, too, thought he’d be in and out of the hospital. A few stitches, maybe some aspirin and he’d be good to go.But the doctors told him it wasn’t that simple.
In addition to the cracked skull, Manning fractured his C3 vertebrae in his neck and ruptured two ligaments. Ironically, he didn’t suffer a concussion. “I’ve never had a concussion in my life, it turns out, and I’ve been hit in the head a lot,” said the 33-year-old, whose only other brush with a hospital had been when he was hit by a car while scootering on a sidewalk when he was 12 and his shinbone shot through his ankle. He used money from a lawsuit settlement to buy a house when he was 17 and, with the proceeds from selling the house, built the vineyard when he was 20.
The doctors in Sierra Vista put Manning in a temporary neck brace and sent him home. The next day, his mother, Charlene, drove him to see a specialist in Phoenix, where he grew up. They gave him a real neck brace and instructions not to move, bend or lift anything for the next 10 weeks.
That’s like putting one of those funny looking neck cones on a dog and expecting the pup not to rip it off at every chance.
“It’s rough not to be able to work during vintage when you’re a winemaker,” Manning said.
Reluctantly he swapped his role of doer for director and guided a handful of neighbors who volunteered to help him get through the harvest. Whenever he crossed the line and started to do more than his doctor ordered, his mother would remind him, sometimes loudly, that he needed to sit it out.
“He wanted to engage but he also was pulled back by the fact that he didn’t want any permanent injuries,” said volunteer and longtime Manning family friend Kathleen Crockett, who has 10 acres under vine on the 22-acre vineyard she and her husband, George Whitmill have up the hill on Elgin Road. “You could tell it was very frustrating for him. He was there. He was involved.”
By mid-October, Manning was starting to see the light at the end of his very dark tunnel. A few more weeks and he would be rid of the neck brace and the restrictions. He could get back to life.
On Oct. 16, he was driving with a friend to a neighbor’s house five or six miles away. Even a short drive when you live that far out can be considered an outing.
Manning was a passenger. One of his restrictions was that he couldn’t drive, including his beloved antique vehicles like the 1966 Ford F-250 pickup that he rebuilt with a ’71 Oldsmobile 455 big block engine and a 400 turbo transmission. It sits in the yard in front of the vineyard alongside his newest prize, a 1947 Pontiac.
“We took a turn in front of a blind hill and right as we turned, a truck came over the hill and T-boned us,” he said, sounding almost matter-of-factly, as if he had played this movie over and over in his head.
The crash took the front end off his friend’s car, but no one, including Manning, was injured.
“I still had the neck brace on,” he said.
A few weeks later in mid-November, he was allowed to remove the neck brace and begin resuming his life. The timing was perfect: The Arizona Winegrowers Association was hosting the 2015 Grand Wine Festival in Chandler the weekend of Nov. 20. He could go a day early and see his neurosurgeon for his final appointment.
Manning loaded his truck with 24 cases of wine and headed up Arizona 83, the two-lane state highway that twists and curves its way to Interstate 10. His mom texted him before he left: “Drive carefully.”
He was 20 miles up the road and about eight miles from the freeway when he saw the car cross into his lane.
“I’m honking my horn and flashing my lights. She never even hit her brakes,” Manning recalled.
The driver slammed into Manning’s truck head on; she told police that she was blinded by the sun and couldn’t see that she had drifted into oncoming traffic.
Manning’s truck was totaled. It took hours before emergency responders could remove the mangled vehicles and clear the road.
Jeff Manning was at the vineyard when he got the call. He hopped in his truck and headed down 83 only to come to a dead stop. He could see the flashing lights ahead.
“I just parked in the line of traffic and ran down because there was lots of lights and ambulances and things like that,” he said. “It was another unreal experience; it seemed like it was coming boom, boom, boom.”
It took several hours before Kief Manning could leave the scene. He didn’t appear injured; his neck seemed OK, he recalled.
When he got back to the vineyards, he texted his mother a response to her earlier “drive carefully” message: “I tried,” he answered.
The next day, the Mannings went to the crash site and Jeff Manning helped his son unload the 24 cases of wine from his mangled truck. Not a single bottle had broken. They packed the wine into another truck and Manning headed to Phoenix for the Winegrowers festival and his doctor’s appointment.
The doctor confirmed that his neck was fine, but he wanted to run a CT scan to be sure. It was Manning’s fifth scan in three months.
The scan revealed a 3-inch tumor on Manning’s right lung. On Dec. 1, they confirmed that it was cancer and on Dec. 3 he underwent surgery to remove 40 percent of his lung. He spent 10 days in the hospital and while he was recovering his mother started reflecting on the whole craziness of the 91 days that led them to that point.
“There was a reason for all of this to happen,” she said.
A month before the barrel fell on her son and all the bad things started happening to him, Charlene Manning got an unexpected and curious gift from fellow Elgin winemaker Ann Roncone of Lightning Ridge Cellars. She gave Charlene a copy of Doreen Virtue’s “Archangels 101,” a book about how to connect with archangels (Michael, Raphael, Gabriel) in times of need.
In those days sitting by her son’s bed after the cancer surgery, she couldn’t help but think about that book and the angels that she said were surely looking over him that fateful day in the barrel room and every day since. They were trying to tell him something, his mother said.
“God kept him around to do something very good with his life,” Charlene said, her voice choking with emotion like it does whenever she talks about her son and those bad six months. “My biggest hope for him is that he just looks at everything that happens as a new lease on life and that he’s thankful. And that he realizes everything that happened gave him a second shot at life. Everything that happened gave him a new perspective, a new beginning.”
On Tuesday, May 24, Kief Manning goes back to his oncologist to find out if his lung cancer is in remission.
“I’m not worried,” he said. “My last six months weren’t the greatest, but everything’s looking good.”