Winemaking: November 2006 Archives

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.