Napa Valley Calls, Part 2, The Winery Tours

Sep 15th, 2008

In part one, I described our food and wine focused itinerary for a brief stay in the Napa Valley. We were driven to see the sunshine, too, and we certainly had eight days of fun in the sun. The outside temperature climbed well past 103F daily and dropped to 55F by morning! Good for the grapes and especially nice for us, the pale faced residents of Oregon’s north coast!

Upon arrival in the valley, our friends, Joan and Frank, who moved from Washington to Calistoga just two years ago, had lunch waiting for us: spicy provolone picante and local pears along with a crispy flatbread pizza, hot, right out of the oven. It was just right paired with an August Briggs Charbono, a rare grape that is cousin to the French Charbonneau. Joan and Frank have become friends with the owners of the August Briggs boutique winery, and said we could tour it if we wanted. Of course we did, and this wine further influenced our choice for dinner that night—It would have to be somewhere whose wine list included more of this intriguing grape.

The next day when everyone was finally gathered at the cottage it was off to help August Briggs with its crush. It is a small winery averaging about 1000-2000 barrels per varietal. The retired owner, parents to the current wine makers, met us in the tasting room. They were recruited to cover tasting room duties since today was a day of “crush,” and all hands were needed to pick, sort, and press. It is a verb, “to crush,” but in the wine world, it is a noun referring to the entire process of harvesting the grapes for wine making.

Our role was to be on the sorting line. Not all crops are sorted by hand. Zinfandel grapes, ready this day for crush, earlier this year due to the long hot summer, were, we learned, an especially good crop and the extra care was warranted. The wine maker and person who inspired the Vineyard’s brand, is Joseph August Briggs, and Joe is pretty well known for cleanliness and attention to such quality details.

Looking into the holding boxes of newly picked grapes we could hardly see a reason to sort. They were extraordinarily perfect! When the first grapes hit the conveyer belt, we were coached as to what we were looking for, and before we knew it our eyes adjusted, as they do from bright light to a dark room, so that within minutes we could pick out the green or under ripe clusters, hard and slightly pink. No mold should be present on the clusters some already looking like raisins. Our little group took turns on the conveyor, stopping occasionally while we caught up. The carefully picked over grapes fell into the automated picker, where the berries (grapes) were separated from the stems.

Occasionally the wine makers poured a clear liquid containing sulfur into the sorted grapes before they were striped from their stems. Sulfur kills potentially offending bacteria and the scrawny strains of yeast naturally found clinging to the fruit. When full, these one-ton collectors were dumped into very large barrels for the first fermentation. It didn’t take that long with so many sorters working the line.

After some time in the fermentation barrels, the grape skins and seeds float up to the top forming a thick cake. A long arm-press at the top of the barrels is employed to push the cake back down into the juice, at least a couple times, to allow the skins and seeds to impart their color and tannins into the juice. From here the juice is strained off and sent to stainless tanks for blending and inoculating with additional yeast, a strain hand-picked by the wine maker, and one that will survive the process until the desired alcohol content is achieved. The natural yeast strains often die when the alcohol content is only 5%, and the goal is to reach about 15%.

I am often struck by the similarities between making wine and cooking. From the time the wine is strained off the leis, (stems, seeds and skins), it is like a stock before it is seasoned, blended, enriched, and made into its unique destiny. The wine maker like the cook must make all sorts of decisions. They must decide to oak or not, what origin of oak, French or American, to toast or not, or how much toast, and decide if and what to blend with the juice. All as in cooking to created the flavor nuances of the final product.

Unfortunately we couldn’t stay with the August Briggs team all day. We said our goodbyes and headed over to Schramsberg, the second oldest winery in the valley. It was still only 10:30 am.

Schramsberg sits on a hillside with a two-mile underground-cave system built to control climate and store vast quantities of sparkling wine. Although it started with riesling and gewürztraminer still wines, the new owners who purchased just before prohibition eventually made it into a sparkling wine facility, which is what it is today. Our tour was conducted about a quarter mile into the caves, beneath the ground, where maze-like rows of bottle-lined paths with their dusty lichen ceilings create a mystical sense of being where we shouldn’t be.

At one point we stopped at a widened portion of the path where a large arched area was carved out and filled solidly with stored wines in bottles. This wall we learned was actually 70 rows deep and we could only see the bottoms of the last row, forming the back drop for three hand carved German antique barrels formerly used for the riesling and gewürztraminer. A hand-operated antique riddling rack was there too, poised to demonstrate to us what role riddling plays in making the sparkling wines of today.

Riddling is the term used for moving the bottle in a series of strategic turns and well placed angles for the purpose of moving the spent yeast cells, now forming a row in the bottom of the bottle as it lies on its side. As the wine goes through bottle fermentation, the dead yeast cells collect on the bottom or in this case side and are sticky and well attached. The goal is to move this sticky mass into the neck of the bottle to later be disgorged and until recently, this process was done entirely by hand. It was imperative to move gently in small increments with increasing angles toward the neck of the bottle. Slowly but surely the neck filled with the yeast cells that were frozen and disgorged again by hand. Today, gyroscopic machines move the bottles racked top down in the cages. Some believe that the hand method is still best for the most precious bottlings and it is still employed at Schramsberg. Ramón who is their long time employee still riddles thousands of bottles a day by hand and was there to gave us a demonstration of the rhythmic process, making it look far too easy, and reminding us of the Las Vegas act, Blue Man Group!

At another turnout in the cave a long trestle table held two large lighted candelabras and several flute style glasses awaiting our arrival for tasting. Here we sampled their blanc de blanc and blanc de noir, where we experienced first hand the tiny bubbles forming the creamy texture in the mouth as promised during the tour.

Tasting (and swallowing) made our group ready for lunch before heading to a different valley, the Sonoma, where we followed our GPS instructions to a most unlikely place for a winery. We had arrived at modern-day version of Quonset hut style buildings in an industrial park. We knew we were about to become educated in a new winemaking culture. Highway 12 Winery is a partnership between Michael Sebastiani, Paul Giusto and Doug Offenbacher, and they don’t own property or a single grape vine. As Paul put it, “when you own the milk, who needs the cow.” Their model is to lease a temperature-controlled warehouse and to lease land/grapes from good farms. They buy the wine barrels and equipment for crush and fermentation to make great wine without having to start with a sizable fortune.

And make great wines they did. We sampled ten wines and enjoyed the style differences in each. One became our favorite. It is a Late Harvest Aleatico – the red aleatico grape, cousin to the white Muscat with a rosy, floral, honey-like aroma and flavor that I thought would make a great aperitif to start a meal.

The wine distributors we partner with here in Cannon Beach helped us set up most of the winery tours before we got to the valley. We had no idea that these tours would be so educational. Unlike the general public tours, trade tours give a total picture of the wine making at each property and we picked up plenty of new information to apply back home. We gained friendships too, exchanging phone numbers, and presenting some good Oregon pinots to show our appreciation.

Our last trade tour was at Robert Mondovi, a winery well known and one that many in our group had already done in previous visits to the valley. We wondered if we could possibly learn anything new. To our delight we experienced the best tour of the week! We were in the vineyards, the barrel rooms, the fermentation rooms and the laboratory, too. The techs offered us samples of grape juice that they tasted to gage sugar levels and determine when to crush. In this sterile room the mood was very upbeat as crush is already happening in parts of the vineyard. We saw topography maps supplied by NASA of the vineyards both owned and leased by Mondovi. They show clearly a variance in color of the foliage from plot to plot and we learned the better fruit would be in the lower green to bright yellow range. With this tool and the tasting of the grape juice, winemakers decide when to pick, where to pick, and predict the quality each plot of the vineyard promises. Indeed we saw it all as told by a 19-year veteran, with the title education specialist, whose quite confidence and visible respect for this winery made us laugh and reminded us that it is just grape farming and fermentation after all. We learned many facts and heard enchanting stories that we will use in the selection, service, and teaching about wines back home.

No doubt the highlight of our wine touring was getting to know the real people behind the scenes: the pickers, sorters, pourers, and a riddler named Ramon. I see many parallels between what I do and the guys who went for it without starting with a fortune. The “romance” as seen from the public side is neutralized when we know that wine making is a business that takes down to earth grunt work, kind of like the sweat blood and tears of owning a restaurant. Not so sexy after all and yet thank goodness for those passionate enough to do it! .

Next time, I will describe the meals we cooked at the cottage as well as the centerpiece of our trip, simply lunch at the FRENCH LAUNDRY in Yountville.