WINE & SPIRITS
COMMUNING WITH THE GRAPES OF NAPA
At the advanced stages of wine obsession, oenophiles find themselves mysteriously drawn to vineyards all over the world during harvest to be close to their precious vines. Like answering a call to Mecca, I, too, decided to make the pilgrimage to commune with the grapes in Napa Valley—grapes that would become big-name wines like BV Tapestry, George de Latour Private Reserve and Sterling Three Palms Merlot.
Along the famed Silverado Trail and Rte. 29, the parallel north-south routes running from Carneros to Calistoga that are framed by mountain ranges on either side, I traversed Napa and took the crosses to Sonoma and back again. I paid tribute to those miraculous grapes, all the way from the sturdy, high-altitude malbec vines of Sonoma's Moon Mountain Vineyard along the Mayacamas Range to Carneros in the south, where Acacia's pinot noir grapes benefit from San Francisco Bay's cooling breezes.
I attended Crush Camp, an annual hands-on program given by five wineries (four in Napa and one in Sonoma). The three-day camp was packed with activities, all leading up to blending our own wine and a final blowout banquet. The first day, at the crack of dawn, we picked Semillon grapes, cutting bunches with our tiny curved knives and carrying buckets full to a depot truck. The Mexican pickers laughed at our painfully slow pace. Later we de-stemmed the same bunches, I Love Lucy-style, as they rapidly sped along a conveyor belt toward the crusher.
Next, a series of wine samplings started off with newly fermenting white wines from steel tanks, and then samples of aging red wine from French, Hungarian and American oak barrels. The trick was to identify the characteristic each oak imparted. As we learned, the barrels are the winemakers' spice rack. American oak gives coffee, mocha and a scrappy edge; French oak gives a vanilla nose and a toasted bacon-y character and Hungarian can produce spicy, sometimes herbal flavors.