You Don't Have to be a Farmer to Love Harvest

Note: this was first published in the Vacaville Reporter on Sept. 24, 2013.

One of the best things about living in wine country is the newspaper headlines, especially at this time of year.Murder and political malfeasance are not the stuff of our breaking news. What do we care about? Grapes! “Growers Expect Early Harvest,” “Wine Grape Harvest Could Be Biggest In Years,” “Grape Harvest Accelerates,” who knew there was so much to report about grapes?

The articles that accompany those harvest headlines invariably quote winemakers who have been walking the vineyards for weeks, sussing out the ideal levels of sugar, acid and color. They calculate the logistics of vineyard crews, cellar tanks and “hang time,” ever vigilant for the heat wave or rain shower that could ruin everything. When everything is as good as it can be they “call the pick” and harvest is underway.

No matter what the challenges of the vintage year, these winemakers are media savvy; each year their quotes indicate that THIS harvest is “one of the best.” Rarely do they publicly worry that a freak rainstorm will turn their crop to rot or a hot spell will bake their grapes into raisins. The standard comment about a late season rainstorm, as typical as “it’s an honor to be nominated” from an Oscar loser, is “No problem, the rain was just enough to wash the dust off the grapes.” Vineyard full of baked cabernet? “The yields may be off but overall the quality of the grapes is outstanding.”  

The winemakers are not so sanguine in the cellar. Their art involves many choices: yeast strains, fermentation temperatures, pressing techniques, and barrel choices, but the quality of the grapes is paramount. They’d rather enhance the flavors created by a playful Bacchus than the fix problems wrought by a cranky Mother Nature.

For everyone in the wine industry it’s an exciting time of year, like final exams and graduation. The work of a season culminates in long and anxious hours, with the promise of leisure once it is all over. People like me, for whom the industry is a spectator sport, see the signs and get excited too. The lights in the vineyards before dawn, the yeasty aromas in the air, the cellar worker in the coffee line, bleary-eyed and still in his rubber boots, all signal that harvest is here.

Harvest is a time when we, in our world of freeways, reality TV, and shrink-wrapped vegetables, can reach back to the ancients and celebrate the elemental pleasures served up by earth and sun. When the daylight is waning, the hills are brown, and even the crape myrtles seem melancholy, it is cheering to see the vineyards. There we see bunch upon bunch of fat, round berries, full of juice and ripening before our very eyes.

I look forward to the day that Solano’s emerging wine industry shoves those joyless headlines off our newspapers in favor or our own harvest news.  For now I can enjoy more immediate pleasures:  turning leaves, an orange moon, and wines of earlier harvests.


Wine Pioneers In Their Own Words: Grgich, Martini, Mondavi, Winiarski and More

Note: This article first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on August 27, 2013 under the title, Toast: Our Wine Pioneers: In their own words.

Martini's first winemaking experiences: sometimes good, sometimes not. It smells good in here. Usually I say that when I enter a winery.

This time I'm talking virtual aromas. If we could smell through the Internet (it's just a matter of time, isn't it?) the Bancroft Library's oral histories of wine pioneers would smell of cedar cigar boxes, a hint of grandpa's aftershave and wine, of course.

The introduction to the collection explains oral history as "a spoken account, offered by the interviewee in response to questioning, and as such it is reflective, partisan, deeply involved, and irreplaceable."

Yes, it is exactly that, deeply involved and personal. The kind of thing you would hear at the knee of a favorite uncle, when you grab the nuggets of what you want to know from what he wants to tell you.

All the names are here: Gallo the behemoth of Modesto; Mondavi the restless innovator; Winiarski -- political theorist turned winemaker; and others (admittedly almost all white and male) who made California wine a product of pride for all Americans.

Most of the histories are from winemakers and growers, but a few of the pithier accounts are from a sharp lawyer named Horace Lanza, who recognized prohibition as a business opportunity. "Well, I was one that didn't believe in Prohibition anyway, and I didn't do anything to get in trouble with the government, but if I saw that you bought for sacramental purposes but went around the corner and drank it yourself, I didn't care a darn ... "

Miljenko Grgich relates the frustration of making wine in post-Prohibition Napa, when the industry was starting again, almost from scratch. "White wines were mainly dry sauterne and chablis -- very poor quality. Those wines would be good for six months on the shelf, and then they would oxidize and be worthless." Twenty years later, Grgich made a wine that changed California wine forever, when in a blind tasting, henceforth known as the "1976 Judgment of Paris," French judges chose his chardonnay over those of their own country, which until then had been unthinkable.

The evolution of California wine may best be illustrated in the contrast between two Martinis, father and son, both named Louis.

The younger Martini, educated in enology at U.C. Davis, discusses his interest in microclimate research, sales strategies and the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve.

In an earlier chapter of the same account, his father remembers the San Francisco earthquake, his loyalty to the "paisani" -- fellow immigrants from the Liguria region of Italy -- and the wine he sold from a clam wagon.

When asked about the kind of grapes he bought, he replied, ""Zinfandel, anything."

And the wine he made? "We made white wine and red wine, put it that way."

What a difference a generation makes.

You'll find the stories of more than 90 wine pioneers at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library's Regional Oral History Office online at

This is old-fashioned reading -- these oral histories are not easily scanned.

But like the reminisces of a favorite uncle, they are stories you will never forget.



Wine School

Note: This article first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on July 15.

"I've taken all the drinking classes so this sounded like the next best thing," joked the man with the distinguished grey at his temples, in response to that inevitable question on the first day of class, "Why are you here?"

Why was I there? In VWT 241 class, Wine Marketing and Sales, at Napa Valley College? I had recently moved to Napa and understood that if I was ever to be accepted in my adopted home, I had better learn a little bit about the industry that employed what seemed to be 99.99 percent of the population.
It was only later, as I furthered my wine education, that I learned that wine is the perfect subject for the dabbler and the dilettante, someone like me who is happy to flit across the surface of history, geology, horticulture and chemistry with a warm wine buzz and some tasty food thrown in. If not in the classroom then, at least, doing "homework."

I hasten to tell you that they don't really offer drinking classes in Napa Valley College's Viticulture and Wine Technology program. Tasting, yes. Drinking, no. Spit cups are required. They are usually the large, red Solo brand you may remember from kegs in college. Tasting 30 wines in three hours, we filled and emptied them often. They also came in handy for drooling, yes drooling, which we did in Sensory Evaluation (VWT 173), when we tested the viscosity of our saliva. "Don't watch your neighbor," cautioned our teacher.

What do you learn in wine college? A lot. That pyrazine is the chemical responsible for the tomcat smell in sauvingon blanc, our three-tiered distribution system for wine is a by-product of prohibition, the French ranked their first-growth wines in 1855, a ranking that has remained frozen (save for one exception) ever since, and, when a plant passes something called the "permanent wilt zone," there's no coming back, a fact all too familiar as I look at the snapdragons on my deck.

Some of my classmates were preparing to go on to four-year degrees at Fresno State, Sonoma State and U.C. Davis. Others were home winemakers or vineyardists exploring the transition from hobby to career. Many of my classmates were working in local wineries, product managers, biodynamic advisors and "cellar rats," all continuing their education and sharpening their competitive advantage.

If the Viticulture and Wine Technology program is college, then the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) course is the SAT. In two days we covered what seemed like every wine in the world, with a primer in vodka, Scotch whiskey and other spirits thrown in. Even with my trusty spit cup, I absorbed enough alcohol through my skin to feel a little woozy at the end of each day. With the hefty fee, the No. 2 pencils and exam results you get in the mail, the process really did have the feel of an expensive prep course for a critical exam. What you get for your trouble is a nifty certificate and an international certification of wine knowledge that is more concise than a listing of your coursework at Napa Valley College.

On test day, our group could hear one of our classmates, who had arrived late, arguing loudly and vigorously with the proctor because he was prohibited from taking the test. Quite a change from the affable guy we had been swirling and spitting with a few weeks ago. His fury was no doubt fueled by the knowledge that he would have to return to his employer with $800 of coursework and no certification.

Vacaville is located almost equally close to two premiere venues for wine education, U.C. Davis and the Napa Valley. Whether you choose to go slow and easy or fast and hard, I recommend you get your wine geek on and try a class. Don't forget your spit cup.


Why Is It So Hard To Make An Inexpensive Pinot Noir?

Note: This first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on June 18, 2013

The 2004 movie, "Sideways," is about two buddies spending a weekend together in wine country. Jack, played by Thomas Hayden Church, is a fun-loving actor who is looking for one last fling before his wedding the following weekend. Miles, played by Paul Giamatti is a failed writer and wine aficionado of the most tiresome variety. He talks about wine in that annoying way, "Quaffable, but ...far from transcendent .. just the faintest soupçon of asparagus and just a flutter... ah, of nutty Edam cheese."

 Miles rhapsodizes about pinot noir but is clearly "over" merlot. When Jack begs him to please be polite if someone chooses merlot at dinner, he responds, "No, if anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any fucking merlot."

With that fateful line, Miles initiated what came to be known as the Sideways Effect in the wine economy. Merlot sales slid and pinot noir sales soared as this low-budget film became a classic.

Merlot, a less tannic, sometimes wishy-washy alternative to cabernet sauvignon, is just one example line of a wine fashion to move from hot to not. Chardonnay, the wine everyone seemed to favor in the nineties, suffered a similar reversal when drinkers revolted against the overly oaked flavors in a movement called ABC (Anything But Chardonnay). And, now that I think about it, when was the last time you heard someone get excited about a chenin blanc?

Pity the poor farmer who, whenever wine fashions change, must rip out vineyards, replant, and then wait four years for the vines to bear harvestable fruit. After all, farmers are business people, they must grow what the market demands. In 2012, the California Department of Food and Agriculture's crop report listed the average price for French colombard grapes, a wine we never hear of anymore, at $300 a ton. Pinot noir, at $1,500 a ton, was five times that. No wonder pinot planting is on the rise.

But there's the rub. Pinot noir is picky. It doesn't grow well in most places. It likes a cool breeze and a chilly fog, like that in the Carneros region of Napa, the Willamette Valley in Oregon and the Burgundy region of France. The grapes are small, yields are low and its thin skin make is susceptible to bunch rot (which always sounded vaguely locker room to me).

Coaxing the silky tannins and ruby colors, that make wine lovers like Miles cry out in pinot ecstasy, is tricky, too. Winemakers will take extra steps, sometimes with a "cold soak," which is a chance for the juice and skins to hang out together before fermentation, or by pulling out some of the juice to boost the skin to juice ratio during fermentation.

My advice is not to skimp on a pinot noir. I keep looking, but I have never tasted a really good pinot noir under $30, one that expressed the "lively, sprightly essences of place," to borrow the words of wine guru Jancis Robinson. But maybe I'm sounding like Miles and getting tiresome.

If you're more like Jack and just want to have fun, you might try 24 Knots, a wine I received as a sample this week. Named for the wind that cools the hot Salinas vineyards, it's the perfect gift for a sailor or weather geek, someone who will find the wind diagram on the label's two-toned black map of the Central Coast as fascinating as the wine inside.

Whether you're a Miles or a Jack, there's a wine for everyone. Share it with friends.







The Karma of Midwestern Wine


Note: This column first appeared in the Vacaville Reporter on May 21, 2013.

I'm back home again -- Indiana. It is achingly green here and, even more remarkably, the sky is blue.

The weather in northern Indiana is notoriously bad. The winters are long and gray. The summers are punishingly humid. The annual average of sunny days is 73, about one out of five. But, on this trip home, the weather that drove me to California feels like a bad dream, and I've awakened to a Technicolor wonderland like Dorothy in the "Wizard of Oz."

Every lawn is a carpet of turf, every house has a blossoming tree, and in every living room of those who stayed, are portrait photographs of those who went away.

Growing up, we took for granted the terrible weather and the vivid greens that were its result. Occasionally, there were perfect days, with the aroma of cut grass in the air as we rode in cars with boys. On Saturdays, we would drive 30 miles north, on back roads with the windows down, past red barns and small farms to the dunes of Lake Michigan.

The Great Lakes are truly great, vast freshwater oceans with no land on the horizon. Lake Michigan is so big that it has a moderating effect on the weather. Freezing air blows across the warmer open water, moderating the temperatures on the eastern shores. The warming "lake effect" means that fruits that grow in Solano County are also mainstays of the narrow fruit belt of southwestern Michigan -- peaches, cherries, plums and wine grapes.

Wineries in Michigan have evolved from producing post-Prohibition jug wine to fine wines that are as much about tourism as they are about wine. One fruit farmer who saw the potential for agritourism in southwestern Michigan is Joe Herman. He approaches his winemaking in typical Midwest fashion -- with a sense of humor and an eye to the bottom line.

 His Karma Vista tasting room is on a knoll overlooking vineyards and trees, a view that must be equally beautiful covered in snow as in the green riot of spring. Where Karma Vista parts company with the more sedate brands of California, is in the rock 'n' roll inspired wine names, flashy labels and a willingness to experiment -- with blue bottles, stainless-steel "aging" and post-fermentation additions of sugar to "sweeten up" the wine.

Herman, a sixth-generation farmer, went back to his family's farm after a brief stint as a reporter at a local newspaper. "You hate farming when you're a kid because all you do is work," said Herman. "Other kids are playing ball and you're working. Not till you get away do you realize people work all week to come here."

His knack for turning a phrase is evident in the witty copy on the Karma Vista website. "I'm trying to entice people to come here. I want them to feel a bond," he said.

 Herman is a faithful correspondent on the winery's blog, opening each entry with a rock 'n' roll lyric. For his 50th birthday, his kids bought him a new turntable -- he is a vinyl man. "It keeps your drinking under control because you have to flip the album after 20 minutes," Herman explained, joking.

I didn't get the full effect of my favorite wines till I shared them at dinner, the narrow tasting glasses favored by Michigan wineries don't allow for much sniffing and swirling.

The 2011 Coloma Sol, made from seyval grapes is a food-friendly balance of hay and grapefruit. The 2010 Karisma, a co-fermented blend of merlot and syrah, is a soft burst of black cherry, cola and vanilla.

Karma Vista only ships in-state, you'll have to visit to taste their wines. If you can't go to Michigan, or Indiana for that matter, find a winery near your old home. When you do, I hope it's a day when everything but the sky is a psychedelic green and someone like Joe Herman is there to share some rock 'n' roll with your wine.