The Time is Ripe

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There's No Time Like Crush in Wine Country

by Robert P. Farmer

For my money, there's no better time to be in wine country than during harvest. The crush. That's what the locals call it. It's the time of year that the grape growers turn their crop into cash. It's an important time for them. And for the average visitor, it should be just as important - and no less busy, if you want it to be. The trick is to know what to do with your harvest time visit. You can spend day after day traversing the countryside, watching the colors change, and taking in chest-filling breaths of the crisp fall air and not really have any idea of what is really going on at harvest time. Wineries love this time of year and you should too.

Grapes are grown in 46 of the state's 58 counties, and there are more than 2,000 wineries in California offering a mind-boggling assortment of varietals. So important is the harvest season to wine makers and, indeed the California economy, that Governor Schwarzenegger signed for the second year in a row a 2006 proclamation acknowledging the significance of the industry and declaring September "California Wine Month." In the proclamation, the governor said to winemakers, "your ingenuity and enterprise have established the Golden State as the fourth largest wine producer in the world."

There are more ways than ever to feel like an insider during Crush season. The first, of course, is to simply visit as many wineries as possible and keep your eyes open. Harvest is a once-a-year opportunity to catch a glimpse of the sheer passion, love, forethought, not to mention science and downright hard work goes into making the wine we so frequently pour into our glass without so much as blinking an eye.

Behave like a winemaker and get up early. Take a drive along the country roads, the mist still low to the ground, and select a few of your favorite wineries to visit. Though much of the action takes place in September, in November you can still catch vineyard hands working the vines, hauling grapes in bins to transport trucks to take them back for processing. To further ensure the insider experience, sign up for private tours and tastings, where available. The intimate tours, often customizable by personal taste, are among the best ways to experience harvest season the way the locals do.

Another sure-fire way to get the insider experience is by taking advantage of the many special events held during harvest time. These events are held at almost every winery and take the form of harvest lunches and dinners, special vintage tastings, artisanal food and wine festivals, auctions, winemaking and blending seminars, and even the occasional esoteric vintage report.
Meanwhile, local restaurants and area attractions are frequently in on the act, offering menus designed in honor of the season to be paired with specific wines while harvest-themed events can easily be found at galleries, shops, and museums.

The beauty of it all is the crush really has to do with the grapes and not with the amount of visitors in tasting rooms. The peak of tourism has typically subsided at this time of year, allowing the intrepid wine aficionado ample time to explore, taste, and experience the harvest like a local. This is a chance to get to know the people behind the wine, when you can look forward to the possibility of quality time with the always engaging, often entertaining winery personalities.

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