“That takes balls. Harvest is hard.”
One bartender’s comment sums up well what the reactions were among local friends and acquaintances upon learning about my shift in career path. I suppose it makes sense that people in the Napa Valley, and in wine producing regions around the world, would have an opinion about cellar work, whether they work in the industry or not. After all, once harvest time hits, it’s hard not to take notice of the sudden change of pace in the vineyards and in the cellars. If the sight of tractors on the road, flood lights in the vineyards guiding grape picking teams at all hours of the night, or endless stacks of macro bins on flatbed trucks transporting grapes to and fro doesn’t give it away, then the pungent smell of fermenting must that penetrates even the thickest wall will. Not too long ago, I was an outsider looking in, creating my own picture of what cellar life was really like based on books, tours, and first-hand accounts from those who live it day to day.
On the inside, I soon discovered my mental picture fell short of capturing the complexity of the cellar in many ways. Namely, the people, who are of a peculiar sort.
At the start of harvest, the cellar master recommended an article by Santa Barbara vintner Matthias Pippig to help prepare the “green” interns for what to expect during the tumultuous months to come: The Pirate Life of Winemakers During Harvest. Now, two months in, I can see how one could draw a likeness between a pirate ship crew (or at least my Hollywood-influenced perception of one) and a harvest team, though with slightly different jargon: the cellar worker’s “what?, pump off!, pump on!, are you free?” replacing the “arrr” of a pirate.
Pirates aside, how the harvest team must work together day in and day out continues to amaze me. No one is really above the bitch work. Of course, as seasonal workers, the interns do get the brunt of it, however, cellar masters clean out the drain next to the pomace bin, full-timers rinse bins, and even the assistant winemaker will jump up on the conveyer belt and start sorting grapes. Why? Because it needs to be done. As an intern, just when you think you’ve graduated from rinsing bins to activities with seemingly more clout—inoculating grape must or doing a rack and return—you’re back on the bins. Why? Because it needs to be done and you’re the one who’s free.
There is a strange comradery that exists, despite the continual onslaught of work that every member faces 12 hours a day, six days a week throughout the harvest season. Friendships blossom, but are primarily (if not solely) based in the workplace as the main pastime off the clock is sleep. At the end of day, week, month (what day is it again?), everyone shares a common goal: to make great wine. And they aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty to achieve it.
Timing is everything in the wine world. From a sales and marketing perspective, it might be when to launch a new label or when to release the portfolio’s rosé—a highly seasonal wine style. For the end consumer, it is often the question of how long to keep the wine after purchase in order to enjoy it during the optimal drinking window. In viticulture and winemaking, timing is of the essence from before the start of the growing season to long after, as the wines hibernate in barrels.
Every year, wine production teams face a long list of “whens”: when to prune, when to pick, when to rack, when to blend, when to barrel down, when to bottle. All of these decisions are essential to the success of a harvest, however, perhaps the most imporant of all is deciding when to wait.
This year’s harvest in the Napa Valley has been an interesting one. The first few days in the cellar with my fellow harvest interns were packed with presentations on cellar policies and procedures so that we would be equipped to hit the ground running during the second week of August, when Sauvignon Blanc started rolling in to the crush pad. A few days of endless pressing, cleaning, racking, cleaning, inoculating, and cleaning made it seem as though there would be no rest on the horizon. Chardonnay was already on the schedule and then we would move right in to the reds. Or so we thought.
The temperatures during the last two weeks have been a clear reminder that Mother Nature does not abide by our calendars. A streak of cool nights and mornings followed by warm (not hot) days hit the Napa Valley and left vineyard crews sitting in their trucks, waiting for winemakers and vineyard managers to give the go-ahead to start picking. The delayed ripening that is resulting from the cooling trend may throw a wrench in work schedules, however, the grapes will benefit from more balanced acidity and sugar levels, potentially leading to a higher quality end product. And so we wait, but rest assured that no one in the cellars of Napa Valley is simply twiddling their thumbs. We carry on with everything else that needs to be done: sorting those Pinot Noir grapes that are finally trickling in, cleaning, racking, cleaning, barreling down Chardonnay, cleaning, fixing hoses, cleaning … did I mention cleaning?
Winemaking is all about the line: you make it, you sanitize it, you walk it, you check it, you prime it.
What is the line exactly? Physically, it’s the hose that transfers precious juice or wine from press to tank, tank to barrel, barrel to tank, and back again. Metaphorically (in my mind anyway), it’s finding that perfect blend of wines that will eventually be bottled—consisting of different grape varieties, plots, vineyards, or barrels—over the course of a year more or less.
I’m fairly well-versed in winemaking practices and techniques thanks to WSET studies and the like. However, it’s only been during the last couple of weeks that I’ve actually started work as a harvest intern in a Napa Valley winery. Now I can say I’ve lived and breathed the repetitive and tedious, yet also very rewarding, daily routine of cellar work. It may go without saying, but reading about and being tested on the theory of a task and actually executing it are completely different beasts.
Now, back to the line. Mornings start with it and days end with it. At 6:00 or 7:00 a.m., before the fog blanket lifts from the Napa Valley, the line is being prepped for racking.
1) Sanitation, when done properly, is no simple task and takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour to accomplish.
3) Walk (a.k.a carry) the line to drain out the water from the rise.
4) Check that all clamps are secured along the line. However much one respects a colleague, in this case they can’t be trusted. All parties involved in a project are responsible if something goes wrong—so you better check it yourself.
5) Priming the line with nitrogen will ensure the wine is protected and, when filling a 2,500 gallon tank that’s already half-full of wine, priming the line with wine will keep from any unecessary air getting in.
The practice of making the line is a whole other can of worms, involving a great deal of patience that I hope I can exercise. That chore is in my forseeable future; for now, I’ve only observed.
Through I’m now familiar with the physical version of the line, I still have much to learn about it’s metaphorical counterpart. It takes pulling samples, tasting and analysis, and numbers to create a consistent blend from year to year. To get to that point, I may have to consider a couple more years in school, but for now, I’m content with observing how the process unfolds and being able to contribute to the end result.
Despite certain challenges — from the geographical disconnect between winery and vineyard to the overwhelming choice of varieties planted — Washington wineries are proving successful in their advancement of the young wine growing region’s national and international reputation.
The City View at the Metreon in San Francisco played host to over 75 Washington State wineries last week for an educational seminar and wine tasting event, inviting Bay Area media and trade to taste and see just how far Washington wines have come since their beginnings in the 1970s.
Master Sommeliers Geoff Kruth, Matt Stamp, and Greg Harrington offered a “Masters’ Perspective on Washington State” for the seminar: While all three agreed that viticulture practices have improved drastically since the early 1970s, they also emphasized that the region will continue to evolve over the next couple of decades. Harrington, owner and winemaker at Gramercy Cellars, predicted that producers will continue to become more precise in matching vineyard site to grape variety. “That’s the real change we will see in the next 10-15 years in Washington,” he said. Harrington also noted that vineyards will be planted at higher altitudes, pushing elevations of 2,100-2,200 feet versus the current “sweet spot” at 1,500 feet.
The eleven wines tasted in the seminar effectively illustrated the tremendous diversity of climates and soils that Washington State has to offer. It is the size and location of the vineyard sites, however, that act as a blessing and a curse for many of the state’s wineries, which are primarily based around the city of Seattle — a 3- to 4-hour drive from the principal AVAs, across the Cascades mountain range.
With diversity in the land comes the ability to produce wines of many different expressions. Stamp pointed to chardonnay, a variety that is planted in nearly every wine region of the world, as an example. “No one wants to talk about chardonnay, but Washington makes great chardonnay,” he said, primarily due to the versatility of the wines produced from different sites.
The negative effect of these vast yet isolated vineyards is apparent in the “disconnect between the vineyards and the wineries,” which Stamp referred to when speaking about Sparkman Cellars and their winery in Woodinville, just outside Seattle. During the grand tasting, this became a clear trend among winemakers as they pulled out their maps and indicated where they sourced their grapes and where they actually made the wine. Estate wineries exist, though in small numbers, and do not represent the status quo for the Washington wine industry.
Andrew Will Winery, with its winemaking facilities on Vachon Island in Puget Sound and vineyards all over southeast Washington, is a perfect example of this “disconnect.” Still, the site-expressive wines have earned an excellent reputation, which suggests that the separation between winery and vineyard is not wholly bad. What’s more is that winemaker and owner Chris Camarda doesn’t just buy grapes from his long-standing grower partners, he co-owns the Champoux Vineyard (Horse Heaven Hills AVA) and owns out-right the Two Blondes Vineyard (Yakima Valley AVA), which he purchased and planted in 2000.
At Andrew Will and most other wineries based around Seattle, grapes are brought over the Cascades in refrigerated trucks, some privately contracted and others that pick up grapes for a group of wineries, cutting costs but limiting flexibility with when and how quickly grapes are transported. Others, like Kim Brady at Brady Cellars, prefer to crush the grapes nearer to the harvest sites. He and around 200 others operate wineries in Walla Walla. “Fruit doesn’t travel as well as people say it does,” says Brady. Though Walla Walla doesn’t boast the same direct-to-consumer sales that wine regions like the Napa Valley does (the town falls well beyond the Washington state tourist track), winemakers are allowed to manage the grapes immediately after harvest, rather than having them traverse the width of the state first.
Those behind the wines of Force Majeure disagree: “The grapes arrive just as intact as if we were right next door,” says winemaker Todd Alexander, who previously made wine at Napa Valley’s Bryant Family Vineyard.
Chris Peterson, winemaker and partner at Avennia in Woodinville, says few wineries are seen in Washington grape growing areas because they are secluded sites where most owners and employees would not choose to live full-time. “Eastern Washington is a very specific place to live,” says Peterson. With a 270-mile drive from Seattle to Walla Walla, commuting daily or even weekly is not an attractive alternative.
Despite the many miles of land between them, Peterson feels that the relationships between growers and winemakers are strong: “We have such an opportunity to work with fantastic growers,” he says. “We all work together to reach our own vision; it’s a creative ferment.”
The Napa Valley is in the midst of a very uncharacteristic lull in tourist traffic. For the local, this is good news: less congestion on the highways, fewer pedestrians darting out in the street. For businesses, however, rainy days coupled with “dry January,” low season for wine country getaways, leave proprietors struggling to get people through their doors. The solution it would seem, at least for eateries around the Napa Valley is Restaurant Week.
As soon as I discovered restaurants from Calistoga down to Napa were offering deals on multi-course meals and wine pairings, I began booking tables. At the top of my list of “Napa Valley restaurants to try” is The Restaurant at Auberge. However, the 5-star Michelin restaurant’s special for the week was a lunch. I would have happily taken advantage if my workplace allowed 2-3 hours for lunch; alas, another time. Here is where I did manage to get seats, forming a 4-day gastronomic tour:
Tuesday: CIA’s The Bakery Café by Illy, “The Greystone Market Lunch,” $20
Mixed Green Salad
Croque Monsieur: Dijon Mustard, Morney Sauce
Giant Chocolate Chip Cookie (still warm from the oven)
The wine: Greystone Cellars Merlot 2011
No reservation required, and not so extravagant that we could manage it on our lunch break. The food was fantastic, given that those in the kitchen were chefs-in-training at the Culinary Institute of America in St. Helena. The morney sauce drizzled over the grilled sandwich was delicious, and made the egg (of the also offered Croque Madame) unnecessary.
Wednesday: Siena at The Meritage Resort & Spa, “Special Three-Course Winter Dinner,” $35
Napa Valley Salad: White Frisée, Caramelized Yogurt, Pear, Sun Dried Strawberries, Pumpkin Seed, Citrus Vinaigrette
Market fish: Salmon, with Kabocha Purée, Baby Winter Vegetables, Green Apple Sauce Verte
Apple Cake: Apple Terrine, Vanilla Gelato
The wine: Flowers Chardonnay 2014
The food was very good: the salmon was blackened on the top and the squash was cooked beautifully. The service was, sadly, close to a zero. The bottle of wine was poured, nearly entirely, into our three glasses, only just shy of the brim. If we hadn’t been mute with surprise we probably would’ve been able to stop the pourer in his attempt to empty the bottle in one round. Another server lifted the plates from under our still poised utensils as we were rushed from course to course, and though I realize it was with good intention, do you need to ask “how is it?” twice during every course? It was all a bit too reminiscent of my Wine Train experience.
Thursday: Torc, “Contemporary Dinner at Torc,” $46
Violet Artichoke Soup, wild herb royale, crouton, taggiasca olive
Quinault River Steelhead, celeriac, wild mushroom, apple, black truffle vinaigrette
Pyrénées P’tit Basque cheese, piment d’espelette marmalade, pickled mushrooms
The wine: Koehler-Ruprecht Kallstadter Saumagen Riesling Spätlese Trocken, Pfalz 2011
Rarely the case for my hearty appetite, I felt the dishes were slightly large for a multi-course meal. Still, the quality on which the downtown Napa restaurant has built its reputation was definitely there. The artichoke soup was top-notch, and paired very nicely with the wine — finding a German riesling on a Napa wine list was a real treat.
Friday: Harvest Table, “Charlie Palmer’s St. Helena Restaurant Week Menu,” $36
Steamed Mussels: Piquillo Peppers, Garlic Aioli, White Wine
Mushroom Ravioli: Pomegranates, Chestnut Purée, Brown Butter Sherry
Mandarin and Cream: Vanilla Bean Sponge, Mandarin Mousse, Cream Anglaise
Chef Charlie Palmer’s new restaurant obviously dedicated more time to curating the menu then the naming of its restaurant week special. From start to finish, this was by far the best experience of the Restaurant Week outings. The food was exquisite, portions were adequate yet manageable, and the service was polite but never domineering. I would happily pay $36 for a meal like this any day of the week.
The special menu offered wine pairing of St. Supéry wines with each course for $15; however, we opted for a “Blind Vine” wine from their impressive, and unusual, wine list. Alongside a lengthy selection of Napa Valley wines that listed the standard notes— wine, producer, appellation, vintage, and price — were international and U.S (if from regions other than the Napa Valley) options marked with asterisks — the “Blind Vine” wines. Short descriptions of the wines were written; however, though the vintage was stated, neither producer name nor appellation was included. Our “mystery wine” was served wrapped in tin foil and the cork was kept hidden so as not to give the producer away.
Our Domaine Berthet-Bondet Cotes du Jura Savagnin 2008 was easy enough to guess from the description, yet tasting “blind” did add a fun aspect to the meal. A great way to get people to venture away from only drinking local; our server said about 30% of the people who buy wine from the list will choose a “Blind Vine.”
Third time’s a charm. As far as the prix fixe menus went for this year’s restaurant week, Harvest Table was an easy favorite all around with the key elements nailed down: efficient, unobtrusive, and friendly service; quality ingredients for creative dishes, and a varied (in styles and price points) wine list.
I’ve been to my fair share of wine tastings: large scale and international (Prowein, Vinexpo), smaller with a more local reach (Pinot on the River, San Francisco Vintners Market), and new to the scene (Oakland Wine Festival). My concluding observation? No matter the category, all wine events have a common basic formula that must be followed to be successful. The following list covers most of the essentials and points to steer clear of when planning and executing a wine tasting event.
Supervise volunteers: A great way to get the support you need for an event of any size is through volunteers: They lower the overall cost and also provide opportunities to involve more of the local wine industry, including sommeliers, retailers, chefs, and restaurateurs. However, be wary: Some volunteers may take their tasks lightly as they will not receive payment for their efforts. The solution? Supervisors. Indispensable to ensuring the success of an event, they may offer guidance to even the most dedicated, industry-savvy volunteers, who often find an event they are not familiar with to be difficult to navigate.
Set up information point(s): Whether in the form of a map, signs pointing guests in the right direction, or event staff/volunteers stationed at a table, having information at the ready for attendees is an absolute must. Otherwise, the show could end in guests running about with no idea where to go except for the next table that will pour them a glass of wine—not a desirable ambience. Though going digital—offering maps and schedules via phone apps—is a bonus, it is not (yet at least) essential to success.
Keep everything as tidy as possible: I have frequented too many wine tastings where spit buckets full to the rim inspired gag reflexes of tasters passing by and abandoned cheese platters morphed into fly havens. Even if it means spending a little extra money on staff, this is one area that if done well will ensure that people stick around and maybe return next year with their friends.
Provide plenty of ice and water: Always err on the side of too much. There is nothing worse than dehydrated wine tasters and winemakers looking for something, anything to keep their whites chilled. Though some winemakers are savvy enough to carry a cooler with them, the organizer should assume this responsibility if they hope for participating wineries to return.
Offer variety: Wine tastings usually attract a wide range of consumer types and a large scope of palates, so set a goal of including something for everyone. Even if the event doesn’t yet have a large scope of potential winery participants, make sure that a variety of wine styles and price points are represented.
Leave it to the last minute: Whether they’re to do with timing or locations, last-minute changes are to be avoided whenever possible. Winemakers get upset and guests just get confused. A disgruntled winemaker at an event can cause quite a bit of harm to their own brand as well as the event on the whole. Happy winemakers mean happy guests and make the event worthwhile. Sometimes adjustments to the program are unavoidable, so in these cases event organizers should try to anticipate what effects the change may entail and ensure that any transitions, re-locations, etc. happen as seamlessly as possible.
Overdo it: It is always advantageous to take the “less is more” attitude when planning events, especially one as volatile as a wine tasting. This may include but is not limited to: the amount of participating wineries, guests, and sponsors, as well as the size of the venue. An overly large space with not enough people to fill it could lead to lost, dazed, and confused attendees.
Make false promises: If table linens, spittoons, etc. will for some reason not be available to those pouring, say so prior to the start of the event. Winemakers/winery representatives know what they need for a tasting, and will pull items from their own stock if not provided by the venue. Though it is preferable to provide these to participating wineries (see “DOs” above), it is not obligatory so long as the representatives know what they will need to bring with them.
This guideline also applies to the expectation of the number of guests that will attend the event. The event organizer should have a good idea as to how many guests that will attend prior to the start in order to manage winery participants’ expectations. Be honest, and if attendance is lower than originally anticipated, find other incentives to offer participating wineries.
Leave tables unattended: After registration, which should be comprehensive and informative for the winery representatives arriving and looking for where they need to set up, the work is not over. Whether in the form of volunteers or event organizers, backup should always be on hand to stock the pourers with whatever they need, relieve them from their station for breaks, and direct them when they are unsure of what they should be doing. It’s a safe bet that none of the winery participants have read the preparation packet sent out the week prior.
The bottom line is that with experience comes knowledge: with each event completed another lesson will be learned. Following the above set of standards from the start, however, will increase the probability that people will return for a second edition … and allow opportunities for improvement.
It is not everyday you get to have lunch with one of Californias’s most influential and unorthodox (dare I say eccentric?) wine producers. Though there was ample discussion during the 2-hour lunch at the winery in Santa Maria Valley, I believe we only got a small glimpse of Jim’s compelling, at times radical, views on winemaking and the state of the California wine industry today. As it was, it took 2 of us — @mattswineworld and I — to put into print what we did cover with Jim, which you can read here.