Recently in Winemaking Category

Learn about the harvest season and what crush is like in Napa Valley from St. Supery's Assistant Winemaker Brooke Langelius and Winemaker Micheal Scholz.


A Look at Pre-Harvest at Benziger Winery

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Mike Benziger takes a look at the vines at Benziger Family Winery in July and says this year's vintage is "off to an awesome start"! Watch the video below:

Why Are Tannins So Crucial to Red Winemaking

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Winemaker Matt Smith from Kendall Jackson, located in Sonoma Wine Country, answers a question that many wine lovers may have asked themselves at one point or another "Why are tannins so crucial to red winemaking?"

The answer might be bit technical in nature, but the result are red wines we love to drink!

kj_Blog_Tannins.jpgExcerpt from recent KJ Blog Post:
In 2010, Kendall-Jackson participated in a seminar on high-altitude winemaking. The winemaking team here was particularly eager to participate because we wanted to confirm what we've known all along: great red wines are particularly rich with tannins. And, for us, that means high altitude vineyards.

Winemaster Randy Ullom reported some of the findings from this research we conducted on tannins. Our philosophy has always been that the best wine comes from the best land; a core tenant of this philosophy is that mountain grapes produce better wines. A large part of that has to do with how much tannin is found in those particular grapes.

So, just what is a tannin?

Napa Valley Grape Harvest Begins!

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Napa Vintners

Harvest Season is a wonderful time of year to visit Napa Valley! Looking to get an inside look into "crush"? Check out our list of upcoming harvest events around Napa Valley

CLICK HERE for list of activities!

Jon Emmerich has always worked in the wine industry.  In 1985, Jon interned in the Cognac region in France.  After graduating from The University of California, Davis in 1987 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Fermentation Science with an emphasis in Enology, he worked a harvest at Stags Leap Wine Cellars.  He then spent a year at Conn Creek Winery and Sebastiani Vineyards before joining Silverado Vineyards as a Lab Technician in 1990.  As it turns out, Jon's lessons took place not only in the classroom, but also in his dorm room. He and a dorm mate, whose family owned a small farm and winery in Lodi, decided to use some of the family fruit to make wine in their dorm room. It was a red lend and, at that point, Jon realized that if he could make decent wine in a dorm room, then he could make really good wine out in the world.

A Winemaking Stroll Down Bennett Lane

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By Robert P. Farmer

bennettLaneWinery3.jpgAlthough it was the birthplace of Wine Country as we know it today, Calistoga is often overlooked among the visiting public. Or, more accurately, it's not overlooked so much as it is not quite reached. Snuggled into the northernmost region of the Napa Valley, Calistoga frequently proves just a bit too far up along the lengthy, easily sidetracked winery trail of the Valley. Too bad. Because some of Napa's true gems await the tenacious traveler with the stamina - or planning foresight - to alight upon Calistoga.

One such gem is Bennett Lane, situated near the edge of the Mayacamas Mountains. Bennett Lane is not one of the household names associated with Napa Valley, but the still-young winery has quickly garnered a reputation as serious producer - earning especially high recognition for its cabernet sauvignon and for its tasty everyday varietal appropriately called Maximus. The vision of owners Randy and Lisa Lynch, Bennett Lane typifies the potential for high-caliber cab grown in the northern stretches of the valley - where warm summer sun and volcanic soil give the fruit a compelling intensity. Bennett Lane's winemaker, Grant Hermann, grew up in the area and learned at an early age the importance of sourcing local fruit and attention to detail when aiming for the sort of quality that he has achieved at Bennett Lane. His efforts have not gone unnoticed. In less than half a decade, more than a dozen Bennett Lane wines have earned 90-point scores from Wine Spectator, and the publication has twice given the Maximus Vintage its "outstanding value" recognition.

2010 Mendocino Harvest Report

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By Courtney Cochran

With smoke-tainted 2008 vintage wines in circulation now, Mendocino winegrowers no doubt are keen on a strong harvest this season. Still, this hardy group from one of Nor Cal's most northerly wine regions is all too familiar with the vagaries of inclement weather - not to mention so-called acts of god (hello, fires!) - which means they're used to holding their breaths come near-harvest-time.  

I caught up with standout Mendo vintner Paul Dolan of Paul Dolan Vineyards to get his take on what's in store for Mendo wines in 2010.


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collage_over_image_page41_10_1[1].JPGBy Courtney Cochran

A recent San Francisco tasting of some of our nation's top Biodynamic® wines proved revelatory as potential for these much-buzzed-about quaffers goes.  Made from grapes grown in vineyards that are treated with special natural soil additions and farmed according to the lunar calendar (seriously), these wines are beginning to turn heads with their graceful fruit profiles and authentic transmission of terroir.  Read on for some of my favorite producers from the event, along with tasting highlights and recommendations.  

And for more on the practice of Biodynamic® farming - along with historical facts and philosophical considerations, such as the importance of biodiversity on farms - check out this useful site from the Demeter Biodynamic® Trade Association, organizers of the tasting.

Passion, not Pretense

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Julio.jpgPalmaz Vineyards reflects the ingenuity and determination of its owner.

By Ethan Fletcher

Dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, Julio Palmaz doesn't give the impression of being the millionaire inventor of a medical device that has saved many lives. Just as his Palmaz Vineyards, located virtually unmarked off a windy country road on the outskirts of Napa, doesn't seem all that extraordinary at first glance. But like the winery, which houses one of the most sophisticated underground wine-making operations in the world, Palmaz has more going on than meets the eye.

Trim and youthful looking at 63, Palmaz was born outside of Buenos Aires-his father, a bus driver, used to send the young Julio to the store to fill up glass jugs with wine. After attending medical school in Argentina, he came to the United States in 1977 for his residency at UC Davis, and it was while living in the Bay Area that Palmaz and his wife, Amalia, discovered the magic of Napa Valley.
"I had this little white Triumph Spitfire, and we used to love exploring Wine Country on the weekends," Palmaz recalls.

It was also at Davis that Palmaz first came up with the idea that was to enable the couple to fulfill their fanciful dreams of one day owning their own Napa winery. Interested in medical innovation, Palmaz developed a coronary stent-a miniature collapsible scaffolding expanded by an inflatable balloon that essentially props up clogged arteries.

Read More

Three to Watch

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You may not know these winemakers-but maybe you should.

By Linda Murphy

Who are all these winemakers? That's the reaction of many wine drinkers when they scan retail shelves and restaurant wine lists, and see dozens of unfamiliar labels. Some of them are small brands, numbering in the hundreds, not thousands, of cases. The wines are sold by word of mouth, and the good ones are quickly snapped up by keen listeners. Here are three winemakers who are getting good buzz.

Hoax or No - Twitter to Make Wine??

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fledglingwine.jpgBy Courtney Cochran

It's true, management for social networking phenomenon recently announced a partnership the company has struck with San Francisco-based Crushpad, the urban winery, to make its own brand of wine: Fledgling. Proceeds for the so-called social media wine - which has its own handle, natch: @fledgling - will go to Room to Read, a charity that supports international literacy projects. And with some 49,124 followers as of press time, it sounds like Twitter's Fledgling Wine is off to a buzz-worthy start.
CharbayPosterScan CroppedPostcard 4x6.jpgCharbay makes wines? Wines, Ports & a new Green Tea Aperitif. Miles is a 12th generation winemaker/master distiller from Yugoslavia. Trained in Europe as an Enologist & Viticulturist, it's what comes naturally to him and now to his son, Marko Karakasevic, too. Miles' life is a multi chaptered story with all that has happened since leaving his homeland. These days he lives beside his winery & distillery on top of Spring Mountain where he ferments, distills & bottles the unusual with the usual.

After he left his home, he studied in Geisenheim before heading to Canada where he was a chemist & a diver for Uniroyal. He was brought into America as an enologist to make wine in Michigan. There he met his wife, Susan, and they headed to California in 1970. He made wines & champagnes for United Vintners in Madera & Escalon California, (the company that owned Italian Swiss Colony). He fermented in one week as much wine as Napa Valley used to make in a year. Those were his big tank years.

Watch the Harvest in Napa Valley

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Want a first hand glimpse of crush season in Napa Valley already underway? Of course you do, which is why you're here!

See what Hall Wines and Goosecross have been up to . .  .

Hall Wines

Goosecross Cellars

Pre-harvest Grape Sampling from David Topper on Vimeo.


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homewinemaking.jpgBy Courtney Cochran

Who says that when it comes to winemaking you have to leave it all to the pros? Turns out there's never been a better time than today to make your own wine, whether you're set on doing so solo in your own home, with a group at your local wine shop or at one of the popular new custom crush facilities. The wine world, you see, is your oyster - or perhaps we should say, your Cabernet.

Home Winemaking
Home winemaking has been around for millennia, though it really picked up in popularity during the Prohibition era, when Americans were allowed to make a limited quantity of wine at home for their own consumption. Techniques for home winemaking have improved since then, though many of the practice's most staunch adherents continue to use fairly basic techniques (for more on how to begin making wine inexpensively at home, consider picking up the well-received The Way to Make Wine: How to Craft Superb Table Wines at Home.

Grape Crush Begins

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It's early, but for some vineyards crush has already begun. On August 10th, in the dead of the night (3 am to be exact), Hunter Farms of Sonoma Valley began harvesting this season's first pinot noir.

Although the unusually cool weather has many Californians crying "what happened to summer?", it is actually perfect weather for growing grapes. More surprising for Hunter Vineyards is the seemingly increased quantity of grapes being harvested. According to the Press Democrat "Instead of the 15.3 tons delivered last year (to Gloria Ferrer Winery in Sonoma), the same 5.5 acre vineyard produced 21.5 tons, a stunning 40% percent increase"Click here for full article.

Watch the Video!

Crush on Bordeaux

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By Robert Farmer

You've heard me go on about how great custom winemaking programs are, and how a few of them go beyond the simple do-it-yourself drill to provide an experience you won't soon forget - and wine you can actually drink. One such program is the popular Crushpad, a Napa-based company that has helped set the standard for individual winemaking.

Steve Leveque: Inside the Mind of a Winemaker

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HallWinesSteve.jpgAnytime you have an opportunity to talk with a winemaker it's a special experience.  Here is "The" person directly responsible for making the wines you love to drink. And . . .you can now ask them any question imaginable...

I had such a moment at the HALL Rutherford Release Party for their wine Excellenz.  Their new winemaker Steve Leveque answered every standard and zany question I asked.  Steve has been making wine for about 16 years. He began his career at Robert Mondavi Winery under the tutelage of Tim Mondavi for close to 11 years.  Eventually, he spread his wings and flew to Chalk Hill Estate Winery in Sonoma Wine Country where he served as Executive Vice President and Winemaker.

New to the HALL Wines family starting summer of 2008, Steve says he's found a place he's proud to call home. It sounds cliché, but Steve relates that Hall Wines is dedicated to making great wine. "The owners are committed to the winemaking process, passionate about the wine experience, and they have one of the best vineyards - Sacrashe - to produce from."  With all the right components in place, you might say the only thing missing was Steve Leveque as winemaker....

Benziger Swaying With The Palm

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thepalm.jpgBy Robert Farmer

I'm typically not a "chain" guy, when it comes to restaurants. Indeed in most instances I avoid them by personal writ. But of course some chains are better than others. And some are cut from different cloth entirely. So it was when I entered for the first a couple summers ago The Palm Restaurant in Miami.

I knew the Palm was one of the most feverishly followed steak houses in the U.S., and I was eager to discover what all the fuss was about. Besides, with only 25 Palms in existence, this particular chain was decidedly "short" which made it easier to bend my own rule.

Georgia on My Mind

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By Robert Farmer


Okay first things first. In light of recent news about books being published by authors who simply make things up and claim them as real, I'll admit: I've never been wine tasting in Georgia. But I'll also admit, the Wine Highway Weekend they've got scheduled for March 29 and 30 sounds like something I need to do. Yes, wine tasting in Georgia. And what better way to discover the wines of the Peach State than during an official event designed to garner awareness for the region's burgeoning wine industry?

Like California's, Georgia's wine industry has its roots in the 1800s, before being crushed by Prohibition. But its favorable grape-growing climate, with steep, well-drained hillsides, excellent soil qualities, and warm summers, remained. It wasn't long before grape growers returned and got vines in the ground and by the 1980s, the industry began to blossom again. Today, the Winegrowers Association of Georgia counts ten member wineries, located along the Wine Highway, north and west of Atlanta. During the special event weekend, member wineries and affiliate members will each feature open houses, including barrel tastings, food pairings, and live music.

It may be time to start thinking about heading south for Spring. For information, visit

Gone Sbragia Gone

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By Courtney Cochran


After 32 years helming winemaking duties for Beringer - during which the winery was twice recognized for producing Wine Spectator's Wine of the Year - Ed Sbragia has left the famed property to focus on his own wine project, Sbragia Family Vineyards in Healdsburg. The respected winemaker called his departure "bittersweet," but says the brand will be in good hands going forward under the stewardship of his longtime assistant Laurie Hook, known for her exacting standards and rigorous quality control.

Sbragia's role in raising the profile of the historic property cannot be underestimated. After decades of producing mostly bland, unforgettable wine following Prohibition, the languishing property began a turnaround in the 1970s under the ownership of the family behind the Nestlé brand. Sbragia came on board as part of this turnaround and in short order was producing award-winning wines that reaffirmed Beringer's reputation and propelled the property back into the purview of the international cognoscenti.

Foggy Bridge Winery

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By Robert Farmer


The news that a winery would soon open in San Francisco's Presidio hit home for me quite literally. Or at least, close to home. My residence happens to be within an easy walk to the Presidio, that gorgeous former military base that is now a national park. And it's a frequent haunt of Yours Truly - ideal for Sunday afternoon walks with the family beneath the towering forest of Eucalyptus trees and among the array of historic structures that one by one seem to be getting new life. One such structure will be the home of the proposed new winery at Crissy Field. >

Foggy Bridge Winery would be the first winery every in a US National Park. It's the idea of Daryl Groom, former winemaker at Geyser Peak Winery to open a boutique, 8,000-case working winery and tasting room inside a 37,000-square-foot former Army machine shop. Plans also call for a 120-seat restaurant to be built into a former airplane hangar. While there are of course no vineyards surrounding the planned winery, that won't prevent Foggy Bridge from its plans of being a working winery. Grapes will be hauled over from Livermore vineyards to the facility and guests will be able to watch the full process during crush time. I for one can't wait to see the plan ripen into reality. The ongoing development and improvement of the Presidio makes one of my favorite spots in the City more attractive all the time. And the idea of a winery within walking distance from home and within eyeshot of the Golden Gate Bridge is something I can easily support. I'll keep you all up to date as plans develop.

Label Overexposure

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By Robert Farmer

bonny_doon_label.jpgOn the other side of the label - the wine label argument, that is - is California's trend-setting winery, Bonny Doon Vineyards, in Santa Cruz. Long known for its avant-garde approach to the wine biz, and for its rather whimsical takes on wine label, Bonny Doon announced recently that it would begin offering wine labels that list all the ingredients in its wines, as well as what ingredients were used to create those ingredients. Though it might be a case of TMI (too much information), and perhaps even a case of Who Asked For It, the winery hopes it will be a precedent-setting example of transparency that will help the consumer make better choices'certainly more "informed" choices, at the very least.

This is interesting to me, especially in light of the recently proposed Oregon legislation (see above) that hopes to mandate such transparency. But what this means, and what consumers will begin seeing on the labels of Bonny Doon’s, Demeter certified Biodynamic 2007 Ca' del Solo Albarino and the 2007 Ca' del Solo Muscat, is an esoteric catalog of such things as tartaric acid, yeast nutrients, bentonite, enzymes and sulfur dioxide. Many of these ingredients are benign and indeed no longer remain in the completely fermented and bottled wine. But, trailblazer though they are, Bonny Doon wants to expose it all. I’ve always like the Bonny Doon labels - typically fun, eclectic, and colorful. But I'm not sure I like this idea and I'm not sure it makes a difference.

Label me undecided.

Wine Label Larceny

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By Robert Farmer

labels2.jpgIf your New Year's Resolution included being more conscientious about what you eat and drink, then the addition of nutritional information to wine labels might strike you as a good thing. For those in the wine industry, however, the proposal is something less helpful.

As has been much in the wine-industry news lately, the Oregon State Alcohol Tax and Trade  Bureau (TTB) has proposed a requirement that winemakers there list nutritional information on their wine bottle labels. Now, you may be saying to yourself… What!? Because, like many people I know and with whom I have discussed this notion, the idea seems superfluous at best, idiotic at worst. And as we know when it comes to all things state-related, one state’s law can soon impact the nation. So it's not surprising the Oregon winemakers have been digging in their heels in opposition to this. You should be too.

The proposal presents a number of problems, both logistical and philosophical. From the former, it's not easy for winemakers to list the ingredients that go into their wines - it's an ever-changing array of components added with the temperament and nuance of an individual and generally with little consequence to the wine drinker other than a resulting product that they enjoy. Nutritionally? If you're that worried about what nutrition you're getting from your wine, I'm afraid you’ve got bigger problems than can be solved on a wine label.

And, speaking of the label, the ones that already have government-mandated copy publicizing alcohol content and the dangers thereof (which I agree isn't a bad idea), it's also the space that the winemaker relies on for telling the particular wine story - not to mention for grabbing the attention of the wine-buying public from its position on store shelves.

So, in other words, there are many reasons why this is a bad idea. For Oregon's sake and for overall wine-drinking sanity, let’s hope this particular label idea doesn't stick.

AVA Angst

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by Courtney Cochran

Thumbnail image for homepage-feature1.jpgI feel sorry for those of you who – like me – have been attempting to follow the US Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau’s controversial proposed amendments to American Viticultural Area (AVA) regulations.  I feel sorry for anyone, for that matter, who is sorting through the piles of legalese and angry banter being circulated about the matter in newspapers and online, not only because it's all terrifically confusing, but also because the proposals at the center of the controversy shouldn't even be up for debate at all. 

Proposed amendments hinge on a fundamental shift in regulations that would prohibit wines hailing from smaller appellations located or “nested” within larger appellations (e.g. Oakville within Napa Valley) from listing both the sub- and macro-appellations on their labels. Besides this, there are other issues at play in the current mess, most importantly a proposed "grandfather” clause that would allow wineries founded between 1986 and 2005 to continue to use place names that are also appellations in their brand names (e.g. the soon-to-be-approved Calistoga AVA, as in the case of Calistoga Cellars) even though their wines may not satisfy the standard requirement that a minimum of 85% of the grapes used to make a wine be grown in the wine’s stated AVA. 

If all this sounds confusing – and WRONG – that’s because it is.

When a Spade Isn’t a Spade
When it comes down to it, listing both a sub appellation and a macro appellation – especially when the sub AVA is a new and/or little known region – is a key marketing tool wineries use to communicate what’s inside the bottle.  For example, a consumer might hesitate to order a Cabernet Sauvignon from “Wild Horse Valley” (popularly held to be Napa’s least-known AVA) but he or she might decide to give the wine a try if the bottle listed both “Wild Horse Valley” and “Napa Valley” on its label.  

As recognition of the Wild Horse Valley AVA and its wines grows, that indication on a bottle may very well become a source of differentiation that helps vintners from the area to sell their wines.   And while we're on the subject, differentiation is also the key economic driver that allows producers to charge more for their products than others charge for similar, undifferentiated products.  So, the most effectively differentiated products are not only more likely to sell, they’re more likely to sell at a higher price.

And don’t even get me started on what’s wrong with a wine’s inferring it comes from a certain place when, in fact, the legal threshold for grapes coming from that region hasn’t been met.

At What Cost Costs?
Rumor has it that the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade and Tax Bureau (TTB) proposed these amendments as a result of the growing number of sub AVA petitions the bureau is receiving and the its members’ desire to manage costs associated with processing the petitions and regulating wine labels that list an increasingly large number of regions.  The problem is, we need to look beyond these superficial costs.  Restricting geographic labeling can only hurt wineries and therefore – on a much larger scale – hobble the wine industry itself, one of California’s most vibrant and economically viable agricultural entities.  Moreover, I seriously doubt that the costs “saved” by TTB could equal the long-term fiscal impact of these changes on the industry.

As a sommelier I will always be in support of providing consumers with the most information possible about a wine – and in this case that means both sub and macro AVA identification.  And I will always press for veracity in wine labeling. 

For these reasons, I find the changes proposed by the TTB unacceptable and in need of review. At the end of the day, refuting TTB’s proposals and maintaining or more fairly altering the current AVA regulation policies will only help winemakers - folks who for the most part make wine with integrity and would also like to market their wines with integrity – not to mention sell a good amount of the stuff while they’re at it.  

To voice your own opinion on the subject, visit Docket No. TTB-2007-0068 at .

The Young Guns

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juddhill.jpgWine Country's Next Generation of Wine Makers Takes Off

By Courtney Cochran

Ever since Yellow Tail landed stateside I've seen a lot more young wine drinkers stepping up to the tasting plate. Now, before you stick up your nose and bad mouth the Aussie juice as some sort of unsophisticated entry-level slop, think twice.

It's having a profound effect on consumption patterns amongst new drinkers, functioning as a starter wine for lots of folks who were previously swilling just beer and booze. And, as is true for all things entry-level, there's only one way to go from here: up.

Once they're in the door, newbie wine lovers are moving quickly beyond the black and yellow to more complex wines. And what better way to introduce them to a bunch of awesome examples than through a live tasting featuring some of most dynamic movers and shakers on the wine scene under the age of 35?

Harvest Hopeful Redux

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By Robert Farmer

It got a little screwy there for a bit in October. Winemakers went from feeling outwardly optimistic about the state of affairs for California's 2007 wine grape harvest, to suddenly having their spirits dampened by a wetter-than-usual October. But the clouds have parted and the news is still good. It was announced earlier this week, that California's wine grape growers are bullish on the 2007 harvest. The state's grape harvest this year began early, stalled mid-way due to cool weather, and finished in late October to "vintner accolades." The mild winter with below normal rainfall, coupled with a dry spring, led to early bud break. Overall, fruit was small, which leads to a high skin to juice ratio and, ultimately, higher quality in the bottle. "The 2007 year is one of the better vintages in recent history," commented Vince Bonotto, Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines Vice President Vineyard Operations overseeing vineyards in Napa and Monterey. "There was a lighter crop and yields were down from the past few years, but quality is extremely good." The only bit of bad news? The yield was not as large as hoped for. Which really means the 2007 vintage is shaping up to have that "rare" and "hard to find" quality. As I've mentioned here before, get in on those futures while you can.

The How-To Harvest

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Harvest Tales - Part 2

by Robert P. Farmer

It's easy enough to feel like you're part of the wine country harvest simply visiting in the fall. But there are ways to truly be part of the action. Short of pulling up stakes and moving here, you can act like a local by getting involved with one of the many programs designed by wineries to make guests feel right at home. These events and programs don't only take place during harvest, but there's no better time to take advantage.

There are a number of excellent behind-the-scenes programs at wineries throughout wine country and in all of California's various wine regions. They range from full-fledged, yearlong grow-your-own courses to afternoon-length grape stomps. The programs are fun, educational ways to get to know wines first hand.

Diary of a Crush: Part 3

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courtneyCochran_profile.jpgBy Courtney Cochran

Day 3 - Saturday, Sept 22

We rose at five the next morning to pick Kenny's Zin. As I emerged from the guest room I was greeted with a large mug of coffee and pressing questions about how much beer I thought we would need when we finished picking. Unable to think with perfect clarity at that hour, we all agreed to err on the side of "more is better." Amply plied with caffeine and with our beer in tow, we departed a few minutes before 6, giddy with excitement about what was to come.

Go Premium Yourself

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Personal-batch wines for the High-end Set

by Robert P. Farmer

In our do-it-yourself world, people remodel their kitchens and build their own outdoor decks. Now, add to the list, making their own wine fine wine. Sure, folks have been making their own wine (and outrunning the local sheriff) for centuries. But, of course, today we're talking about Wine Country and personal-batch wines in these parts are always up-and-up, and more often suitable for sampling along with fine cuisine than for sipping from a jug in a shed 'round back.

The individual-label wine trend is growing. And as part of its natural evolution, the trend for personal premium wine is growing too. In Napa and Sonoma counties, the trend is fostered with the help of professional winemakers who possess both the facilities and the patience to help interested parties learn about and appreciate the effort it takes to make their own wine. Individuals like this can be found at Owl Ridge Winery, whose custom-crush services at Owl Ridge Winery gets under way this year in the form of Sonoma Grapemasters.

fw_winecellar_chardonnay.jpgChardonnay's attraction is like that of a movie star. It's the most widely planted premium wine grape in America, it has millions of fans and it shines in any setting--from backyard barbeques to presidential dinner parties. In fact, one of the surest signs that Chardonnay currently leads the fine-wine parade in that people are starting to jump off the bandwagon. While some of them simply seek a change (a trend known as ABC--"Anything but Chardonnay"), others have a bone to pick. Chardonnay, they complain, just doesn't taste like Chardonnay anymore.

The Purple People Beater, a Hands-on Vineyard Experience

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By ML Hilton

(NAPA, CA) – I had every intention of sleeping in. It had been a long, tiring week and my body wanted to spend as much time swimming in a sea of cool sheets, as
my mind wanted to revel unhindered though as many bizarre dreams as my fertile imagination could conjure.

But it was not to be. I didn’t know it yet, but six tons of grapes had my name on them.

It’s funny what you will let a friend drag you into. The four-word phrase “it will be fun” has preceded as many of my most excellent times; as it has times of embarrassment, and infamy. I guess I approach both the same, and hope it works out for the best.

The “fun” on Saturday was a down-and-dirty (sticky, purple dirty), get up-close-and-personal with some of Napa’s finest grapes. We became part of the crew at an exclusive hillside vineyard; working through early morning picking to sorting and then watching the real professionals go to work in the winery, and custom crush facility.

My first job was to ride the tractors pulling two half-ton bins. I, and a couple of other “volunteers” leaned over the large tubs and pulled, as fast as possible, as many leaves, twigs, sticks, spiders, and other non-lovely, plump grapes out as fast as our office-jockey bodies would allow us to. The real vineyard workers had no respect for our personages, they had a job to do, and if we were not fast enough to be part of the process, we were literally under it. That evening, I pulled sticky grapes and twigs from the collar of my shirt and from my hair. My hands turned purple, my jeans tacky, and my vest stuck to everything I leaned up against.

I have been part of vineyard experiences before. But they have been mere introductions. After watching the professionals, I was given an opportunity to try, and then was allowed to wipe the dust of my designer sandals and re-apply my lip gloss before a sumptuous lunch was served. Today was different.

The early morning crispness turned into hot afternoon air while we worked, attempting to beat the clock; the dust gently exploded into little clouds that drifted around the boots and ankles of the vineyard workers, and into my throat and nose. But, I kept at it. It had become personal, caring for the grapes.

I was not the only one so smitten. Besides my fellow conscriptees, there were new winemakers just experimenting with the fermentation process, tested professionals, and scions of California wine making families all milling around the crush pad. One well-known industry profession, sporting their “lucky” vest complete with red duct tape patching a tear on the back, confessed to being out of their regular clothes this far into harvest.

Bob Baeyens and Dave Hirsch gave up their morning’s rest also. They left their Orange County homes before 5:00 am to pick up their hillside, hand-picked, Napa Valley grapes. Their wine is stewed in a new facility built into Bob’s home (by Dave). This one-thousand mile round trip is only part of their winemaking journey, inspired in part by John Caldwell.

It was Caldwell Vineyards vines that we were tending in the morning, but the grapes – I believe, of the blocks that I sifted and sorted – belonged to other wine makers. Those wine makers came for the select hillside location, the well-tended grapes, John and Joy’s generosity, the professional facility, and John’s experience.

As their web site says: If the coordinates 38’17’North Latitude, 122’14’ West Longitude don’t inspire you, try the visual. You’re on a hilltop, 500 feet above sea level. To the north is a panoramic view of the Napa Valley framed by the Mayacamas Mountains to the west and the Vaca Range to the east. At your feet is a sloping 123-acre ranch with more than 60 acres planted to grapes. This is the renowned Caldwell Vineyard, a spectacular place to view the world and one of the premier sites in California to grow grapes.

And apparently, to learn about them. Want your exclusive experience? Watch, we will be offering you a chance to enjoy the dust, the sun, the vines, the visuals, the Caldwells, and the satisfaction.

Respect for Tradition

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The winemaker at Kelham Vineyards in Napa Valley was taking me into a back room for some wine samples because I couldn’t stay to taste. It was a fairly typical moment considering how many wineries I visit, but this time I spotted something completely unexpected. It was a handmade jig for aligning labels on wine bottles.

The tool was obviously designed and built by a craftsman to improve the speed and accuracy of his own work. If you do any kind of wordworking, ceramics or craft of your own, you know what I mean. The tool had a beauty all its own, combining simplicity, functionality and humanity -- you could see that from the unmistakable patina on the wood, evidence of use by human hands.

I turned to the winemaker, Hamilton Nicholsen, and asked “Are you guys labeling your own bottles here?” It seemed impossible that the owners of a Napa Valley estate winery were hand-labeling bottles in a store-room, but tools don’t lie.

He shrugged and said “We do everything here.”

I started to test the meaning of “everything,” and it turned out Nicholsen wasn’t kidding. He and his brother Ron not only handle responsibilities in the vineyards and winery, they had remodeled their house into a family-style tasting room -- where their mother was pouring wine for visitors at that very moment. Their father had been growing grapes in Napa for a long time and was still at it, now that the family was making its own wine. When I asked about the odd color of the impressive new winery building across the way, Nicholsen apologized. “That’s the primer coat,” he said. “I just haven’t had time to finish painting it.”

It occurred to me that he had probably made that labeling jig in the store-room, too. Or his father had. Or his brother. Or his mother.

When I looked at the wine samples, I noticed that the Cabernet Sauvignon was from 2001, the Sauvignon Blanc from 2003. Both, in other words, had been given a year or two more barrel age than most wines, even from Napa Valley. Nicholsen explained why.

“We make our Sauvignon Blanc to peak between six to ten years of age, and our Cabernet is made to be at its best from ten years to fifty years. That’s what André Tchelistcheff said Napa Valley should do, and we respect that.”

To hear these words coming out of the mouth of a young winemaker made my heart glad. I meet so many who are looking to break the mold before they understand it. They don’t have to care about tradition because the barriers to entry in the wine business are shockingly low these days. A good score from the right critic and you’re set, regardless of where the wine came from or what it represents. For these winemakers, the legendary Tchelistcheff is the answer to an exam question, not an inspiration to exemplary enology.

So I asked Nicholsen where he went to school to study winemaking. "Here in the valley," he said. "I learned from other winemakers." I should have seen that answer coming.

At Kelham Vineyards, the traditions most of us long to find honored in the wine business are in fine shape. A hard-working family with roots in the region, mature vineyards that produce estate wines, and winemaking that aims at Napa Valley’s highest standards.

Plus some crafty tools in the back room.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at

Snob Appeal

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Got a message from a young American winemaker, Jason Burrus, working in Malta. Apparently one of his former UC Davis professors had sent around a story I wrote about Zelma Long for the San Francisco Chronicle. Zelma’s an icon of winemaking and a pioneer in making the wine industry a great place for women to work. While the story was mostly about her, it included some discussion of a new wine she is making in South Africa. The wine’s fairly expensive by some standards, because people in South Africa want desperately to be seen as fellow travelers with the great wine regions of the world, and a serious price tag is one way to make people notice you.

Burrus sent the following message after reading the story, which you can also read by clicking here.

“I enjoyed reading this article until I got to the point where her wines are selling for $50 and $70 a bottle. This is ridiculous. All of us, as UC Davis students and graduates, enjoy making top-class wines. But, isn't the the real reward in winemaking to make better wines at lower prices so that everyone can afford and appreciate fine wine? How many of us, as winemakers and viticulturalists, can afford to drink the fruits of our labor anymore? Stories like this just increase the snob factor of fine wine, something I think we as an industry are trying to move away from.

“I make wine in one of the poorest countries in the EU. Our most expensive, barrel-aged, Bordeaux red wine sells for $14. But the real success is our bread-and-butter wine, a wine made of Sicilian must of the varieties Catarratto, Ansonica, and Inzolia grown in high-vigor/yield style. This wine retails for $1.68 for 750 mL. Not only is it cheap, but it's actually good wine and it sells very well. Wines at this price and quality are a relatively recent event in this industry; they are the direct result of the advancements in hygiene, processing, and scientific knowledge that institutions like UC Davis foster.

“I will continue drinking wines like this others that sell for less than $5.00 on a daily basis, and those of $70 once or twice a year. So, which is the real success story here?”

First, I should answer his question. The answer is “Both.” I could not agree more that the wine industry needs to create more wine drinkers, particularly in the U.S., and that good wines under $10 are the best way to do it. I also agree with Burrus that technological advancements -- and willingness of people in "legacy" wine regions in Europe and the Middle East to adopt them -- have transformed wine drinking in those parts of the world. So what Burris is doing in Malta, and what countless other small producers like him are doing around the world, are absolutely a huge success story for wine. And good for him for choosing such an unusual place to write his chapter of that story.

At the same time, the wine Burrus calls “ridiculous” because of its price is also a success story. It’s a success story for South Africa, as well as for Zelma Long and her husband, Phil Freese. The two of them have always worked for other people’s wineries. Now they have one of their own, and they are making what I call a statement wine. The statement is that they believe South Africa can produce wine as good as anything else in the top rank.

This sounds like a fairly personal, perhaps even odd statement to make, but if you visit South Africa, which is transforming its society, economy and arts so fast it’s hard to believe (much less keep up with), you understand that it’s not a weird thing to want to declare to the world. It’s a cry from the heart of a whole nation.

Now that I am warmed up, I must also comment on Burrus’ claim that stories about people like Zelma Long "just increase the snob factor of fine wine."

I am pretty sure I am not a snob, I can say for damn sure that Zelma Long is not a snob, and I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of the people who drink her wine are not snobs either. They certainly have a lot more money than I do, but that does not make them snobs. It means they can choose wine for reasons other than the need for calories. They can choose to drink Two Buck Chuck or Screaming Eagle. They can buy wine because of the story behind it, which is what is attracting a lot of people to Zelma Long’s new wine. This does not make a person a snob. This makes them curious, and fortunate enough to explore their curiosity at $50 a bottle.

No matter how poor Malta may seem to Burrus, and how virtuous his $1.68 wine may feel to him, the $14 wine he makes is a pure luxury item. No one in Malta needs it. They buy it for pleasure, or to feel special. This does not make them snobs, and it does not make Burrus a snob for producing the wine itself.

The only thing that increases the snob factor of fine wine, in my opinion, is prejudicial behavior that is dismissive of others. I do not know Jason Burrus, and I don’t think he would consider himself prejudicially dismissive of Zelma Long. But throwing around terms like “snob” is a knee-jerk habit I see in a shocking number of young people in the wine business. All I can say is, look into it a little deeper before you slap a label on people or their preferences – especially when you get your paycheck from satisfying them.

Recently tasted 38 Dry Creek Zinfandels, almost all from 2003. The winemakers at my table were leery. The heat that summer, they said, was the worst in memory. They called the year a “winemaker’s vintage,” meaning that the quality of the wine was in human hands more than it usually is, because the weather was so freakish.

Dry Creek has got pretty much perfect Zin conditions, and a reputation for producing well-balanced, stylish wines with a great combination of fruit flavors, floral aromas (think violets) and spices (white pepper comes to mind). In most years, winemakers can let good grapes be the story. Frame them up in a little oak and send them out into the world.

Not in 2003.

The high heat had magnified Zinfandel’s tendency to ripen unevenly in the vineyard, so the fruit was not rich, ripe and jammy. It was more cooked, strained, or stewed. This part was definitely not the winemakers’ fault. It’s what they did next that I can’t understand.

For some reason, the route that dozens of winemaker took was to load up on oak. Many of the wines were hot, astringent, and un-fun – the opposite of what most of us want from Zinfandel.

A couple of the winemakers at the table were shaking their heads as we sampled wine after wine that featured big doses of charred wood. Some offered explanations – but withdrew them as soon as they had spoken the words. One winemaker said that the problem was that “the oak is showing through more because the fruit was a little overcooked.” What this means to me is, “overcooked fruit came into the winery, and we put too much oak on it.”

To be fair, every vintner at my table for the Dry Creek Tasting had a wine in the tasting, and every one of them was 100% Dry Creek Zin. This means they did not use other grapes, or Zin from other areas, to save their bacon. In other words, they gutted it out and did what they could, as winemakers, to bring in a good wine.

On the other hand, none of them selected their own wines as standouts. As one vintner said as he left the table hours later, “when we’ve got to douse Zinfandel with that much oak, even in a winemaker’s vintage, something’s wrong.”

So what is that “something?” One of my go-to guys, Mark Bowery, is a retailer and restaurant wine director with a tremendous palate and huge ability to coax people to try new things. He says that consumers “just want to be blown away,” and that’s why oak and alcohol are headed up, up, up.

Could it really be that we consumers are rewarding winemakers for burying even friendly, easy-going grapes like Zinfandel under too much oak?

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at

Yesterday I visited a winery in South Africa I had been thinking about for seven years. Usually I don’t think about wineries between visits – much less seven years between visits – but this one was special.

Back in 1998, Vergelegen was just a few years old. Its owners had prepared me for a temperamental enfant terrible of a winemaker named André van Rensberg. But he didn’t seem crazy to me. He was just totally, completely determined that nothing would compromise the integrity of his winemaking. He did make the occasional crack about the “suits” running the wine business, but otherwise he was cool.

And his wine was killer. I had already tasted one, a Semillon dessert wine, the night before I met him. It was one of the best things I ever put in my mouth. The owners of the winery asked me what I thought they should sell it for. Maybe it was the wine talking, but I blurted out, “Don’t sell it at all. Keep it to pour for special guests, wine writers, celebrities. It will make you far money that way than if you sell it, even at a ridiculous price.

This answer surprised them, and the conversation soon wandered on.

Now, seven years later, I was going back to Vergelegen as an incognito visitor. A local brochure extolled Vergelegen’s reserve Sauvignon Blanc and its Semillon, made as both still wine and dessert wine. I smiled to myself. I was going to taste that heavenly elixir once again.

The first surprise was the gated entry where my companion, Viva, and I had to pay merely enter the premises, never mind taste wine or take a tour. Only when we had paid to get in were we told that all the tours were sold out for the day.

To get to the tasting room, we had to pass through a gift shop. Viva looked at me over her sunglasses. I shrugged back, and we pushed through the gift shop and its throng of camera-toting tourists to get to the tasting room.

Once there, we were given a menu of wines we could taste – and pay for, a la carte, for every single taste. A laminated “tasting guide” described the wines, but it had no vintages printed on it, meaning that either the descriptions were generic or the winery was making wine according to pat recipes.

I picked five wines off the list and a server brought them over: tiny pours in tiny glasses for the equivalent of ten bucks per person. They were all disappointing: thin, over-oaked, ordinary. I could not believe André van Rensberg had made them.

When the server came back I asked why I didn’t see a reserve Sauvignon Blanc on the list. “Oh,” she said, “that’s only available at the end of the month.” Why? She had no idea. What about the dry Semillon? “You can’t get that until January.” And then only on alternate Thursdays? I joked. But the server didn’t smile. “Something like that,” she said.

It appeared that the whole operation was designed to lure in tourists and shake them down with the crassest kind of commercialism.

Finally I asked about the Semillon dessert wine, the bottling Vergelegen was supposedly famous for. “You can’t taste that,” the server said. I asked if I could buy some, then. She shook her head. “It’s not for sale.”

I stared at her, stunned. So who got to drink it? “Special guests, wine writers, people like that,” she said, and took away the tray of tiny glasses.

I sat speechless. Viva slipped on her sunglasses. “I guess the suits won in the end,” she said.

Apparently. But apparently I helped them. Writing this on the plane home, I’m still shaking my head.

What happened, André?

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at

The phrase “wine is made in the vineyard” is not only the emptiest cliché in the wine business, it’s also the most annoying. Why? Because it’s either dumb as rocks or a deliberate deception.

“Any winemaker who says wine is made in the vineyard is not doing their job.” I got this blast of fresh air last week, during a coffee-and-pastry-fueled conversation with Zelma Long, an icon of California winemaking since the 1970s. “If you’ve ever tasted three wines made by different winemakers from the same variety in the same vineyard in the same vintage,” she said, “you know how different the results can be.”

I have made wine from the same varieties in the same blocks of the same vineyards as commercial wineries in Napa and Sonoma, so I know what Long’s talking about from direct experience. But almost every winery website and press kit I read mouths the “made in the vineyard” pablum. It’s lost any meaning it ever had. Grown in the vineyard, yes. Made there? No way.

This is important because at long last, an unspoken agreement between winemakers and media is breaking down. That agreement hid the fact that winemakers add all kinds of things to wine in its earliest days, from water and tartaric acid to sugar, coloring agents, and powdered tannin. Winemakers still call this “night work,” because they prefer to do it when no one else is around. They want you to think that wine is – you guessed it – “made in the vineyard.”

They also use all kinds of swanky machines to inject oxygen, remove alcohol, change texture, and more. Laurie Daniel’s article “Little Wine Secrets” (8/17/05, San Jose Mercury News) and John Andrews’ “Water into Wine” (Summer 2005, Intelligent Life) are clear signs that these practices will be exposed more and more openly.

So what does this mean? It means that we should talk just as openly about what really is being made in the vineyard. Besides winegrapes, what’s being made in the vineyard is either healthier soil and richer habitat, or money at the expense of ecology. The tiny minority that grows winegrapes without synthetic or toxic substances of any kind is replenishing what the vast majority of the industry is willing to use up.

This is why I have made a point for the last five years to write about organically and biodynamically grown wines, and recommended them to anyone who will listen. It’s not because those wines are “better” than conventionally farmed wines when they’re in your glass. They’re better when they’re in the vineyards of your planet. They are good for the earth you live on. (Five years of tasting tells me that they’re also pretty darn good in the glass, but that’s my day job.)

So I urge winemakers who use clean, green fruit to junk “made in the vineyard” and put “grown in an organic vineyard” on the website, so we consumers can vote with our wine-buying dollars for two things: a little more honesty and a lot more care for the earth.

This month's naked plug: If you see a Fat Bastard, buy one. This month, every purchase of a bottle of Fat Bastard (nicely priced French wine produced by Click Wine Group) generates a donation to breast cancer research.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at