my month in Napa

It is amazing the plans that have been born among friends over a glass, or perhaps a bottle of wine.  We a have all done it,  (You have done it, right?)  planned a fabulous vacation, fantasized about a meal, a dress, or a relationship.  I recall picking the flowers for a friend's wedding before she even met her now husband, and all over a glass of Domaine Tempier Rosé.  We love to dream, and wine provokes us to do so in the most wonderful of ways.  My dream was to make wine, and I talked about it for a long time with my friend Nicole Abiouness, who is a remarkable wine maker and a dear friend with whom I often fantasize about all sorts of things while sharing some wine.  Today, she helped me actualize that dream.

I woke a few minutes before 6 am in a terrible cheap motel near Ukiah, California (sounds good already, doesn't it?), made truly terrible Mr Coffee coffee and drank it, smiling from ear to ear, before ascending the 1800 ft to the top of Eagle Point Ranch, where we tasted and picked about 1 ton of Grenache.  I am beside myself with excitement, even as I write this I am grinning.

It was cold, the crew moved like a swarm through the vineyard, and sun seemed to be pouring over me, as I reached into the bin and tried to grab whatever sticks, leaves and bugs found their way into my bin of perfect grapes.  Suddenly, I felt protective, territorial, and so proud.  These are my grapes, my Grenache, and they are decidedly the most beautiful and perfectly formed Grenache that has ever been witnessed.  "It is really great, really beautiful," I said with conviction to the crew.  They smiled and nodded, and for certain thought I had completely lost my marbles, and I may have.  I thought for a moment, just now, that I should describe the grapes, so you too would smile and nod, but I will restrain myself, if only because I already repeated this offense twice today as I pointed at the fruit and showed other people at the winery.  They, too, smiled and nodded.  They have seen my kind before; the first timer.

I am not embarrassed by it though, on the contrary, I am glowing with the same joy I have after a long arduous run, or the completion of a difficult essay, or the satisfaction of making a really delicious meal. I am exhausted, but not at all tired because I touched the beaner. It was a great day, and I am both gratified and thrilled by that which is yet to come: the fermentation.  I am totally geeking out on all of this, and I don't care who knows it!  (I better publish this before the wine maker's high wears off!)

For those of you who share this dream with me, who love wine and are curious, and for family and friends who love me enough to endure this ridiculous recording of the unfolding of my wine journey, I am grateful for your readership.  I will try to be informative and compelling, without being uncomfortably excited as I detail and record this month for you, but no promises.

Day one: the pick, the sort, and cold soak.

After collecting our fruit from Eagle Point Ranch in Mendocino, we went to the winery to prepare for the arrival of the grapes.  The winery is a "custom crush" facility where about 20 wine makers, who sell their wines commercially make and store their wine.  It is not unlike any winery that you have visited, just that it is communal.  Young wine makers can make wine more affordably this way.  What I loved about it was the community feel and camaraderie.  For example, as I was waiting to sort my grapes (my beautiful, perfect, unique and clearly developmentally advanced Grenache), I had the good fortune of bumping into John Grant, who makes Couloir Wines.  John's wines are so perfectly balanced and carefully crafted.  His pinot's are nuanced, bright and so delicate yet powerful, bespeaking an old world sensibility with a unabashedly new world character. He is a talented wine maker with many years of experience.  John offered me advice and suggestions without hesitation.  He explained what choices he makes about destemming, which was my primary concern, and in the end, he gave me a simple suggestion.  "If you want to do some whole cluster, chew on a stem and see if you like the way it tastes." 

Sound advice, I thought, so I did just that.  It tasted fantastic, which is when I felt certain that I had indeed lost my marbles.  It is a stick, after all!  That said, it tasted fresh, reminded me of spring, and had a slight bitter note, like a cup of warm comforting tea.  Okay, I thought, I like that, so after much consternation, I dismissed my fears and added a small percentage of whole clusters to my small batch of wine.  I will have to wait a year before I know what that will do, but in the end, I felt like I was cooking, tasting the ingredients and deciding what and how much to include in my meal. How bad can this be?

The rest destemmed but left whole berry, the fruit spread evenly, the bin carefully cleaned, a small amount of sulfur added to ensure stability, and some dry ice to cool the grapes, and then the bin was moved to the cold storage room where it will remain in cold soak for 2-5 days.  It was thrilling. I will return to it tomorrow to check on the progress and keep the cap wet and mix it up a little.  A new set of decisions will ensue, more on that then.  In the meantime, I am enjoying a glass of Nicole's 2009 Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir, putting my feet up, and I am still smiling.