Entries in napa (6)


New Year's Blessing 

I like the walk I take up the hill, behind my home, very much and for many reasons.  It’s about an hour long, a nice amount of time, and there’s a steep hill at the beginning that gets your heart going.  One of the few regrets I have about my dog’s last days, when she was dying but I didn’t know it, is that I would urge her up that hill, even when she was so very tired, from the internal bleeding that was hidden from me by her faithfulness. Occasionally we would go back down the hill, and abort our mission.  But mostly Lucy would soldier on, loyal dog that she was, and we’d stop to catch our breaths in the shady spots.  It is on this walk that I miss her most. Sometimes little sobs still escape when I walk it, which surprises and embarrasses me.
The trees and brush on the hill make it smell good, of bay and sage, and deer are there and quail and hawks. The views of the valley are there and of the river going to the bay.  I’m not the only one who loves this walk. There’s a bench someone put up, with a beautiful brass plate that says “So... Sit,” that’s all, that’s its only message.  More often than not, Lucy and I would obey this imperative and I would sit on the bench, and she would lean beside me, as I looked out over the valley, the rows of vines, little cars traveling somewhere they think is important, and the clouds wisping around the mountains.

The walk is rarely solitary. My neighbors, and I think of them that way even though they live in expensive houses and I do not, love this walk too. But I have never seen anyone sit on the bench till my walk on New Year’s Eve. A young family was there as I turned the curve, a young father and mother with a baby on her lap. As I approached the baby reached out his hand to me, as babies do. I reached out my hand in a wave and he smiled. His mother said, “Happy New Year” and I took that as a sign that this year will be a good one.



What Would My Dad Say.....about biodynamics? 


Joey Brinkley of Grgich Hills Estates

High on a hill in American Canyon I heard the faint hum of traffic and industry below. It’s purpose, it seemed, was to remind me how lucky I was to be at this peaceful vineyard on a beautiful blue, crisp morning in December.

My guide is Joey Brinkley, Vineyard Assistant for Grgich Hills Estates. Spending time with Joey,  I can’t help wondering if the biodynamic approach to farming works for people too. On this little farm among the olive trees, vetch, rye, peas, barley, beans, yarrow, catnip, lavender, bees, owls, hawks, eagles, chickens and jackrabbits, I get the feeling that the sky to soil diversity that is good for the vines is also good for the soul.

It seems to be working for Joey. At the ripe old age of thirty he appears to have internalized the balance and harmony that is part and parcel of biodynamic farming. He has an easy laugh, listens intently and is healthy-handsome in a way that falls somewhere between Farm Journal and Abercrombie & Fitch.

Joey, a self-described “seeker,” became interested in biodynamics after earning a degree in horticulture at Virginia Tech (and economics from Virginia Commonwealth University). Organic farming was good, but he felt something was missing – he was looking for a holistic approach that went beyond inputs and production.

His father, a Vietnam vet who spent his working life at the Newport News Shipyard encouraged him to follow work he loved. His mother was supportive but a bit more pragmatic. Joey told her not to worry, “Mom. I have degree in economics. I can add.”

He was working at the Josephine Porter Institute, the "mother ship" of biodynamic farming, when he met Ivo Grgich. Ivo is the nephew of Miljenko "Mike" Grgich, the winemaker who helped change the world for California wines when his Chardonnay was named "finest in the world" in the now-famous "Paris Tasting of 1976."   When Joey got the call to come to work for this famous family he didn't immediately say yes.  He and his wife, Natalie were about to embark upon a cross-country trip. "We were going to end up wherever we ended up and try to find jobs. That was the plan. The plan was not to HAVE a job, it was to find a job when the money ran out.” He didn't accept till he talked to Natalie. "She said, 'Yes, yes, yes! Take it" and they took off on a month-long trek from New Orleans to their new jobs in Napa Valley.

Obviously Natalie has a strong streak of “seeker” too. She was his waitress in Blacksburg, Virginia when he was traveling from a farm in Kentucky where he was helping a friend.  Four months later he went back to Blacksburg, and in a simple statement that says it all,  “I found her.” 

They live on Grgich property in Calistoga and Natalie works in the Grgich tasting room. This venerable winery is still very much a family affair. Ivo, is the winemaker and in charge of production. Mike Grgich’s daughter, Violet is in charge of all the day-to-day operations, marketing and sales. "It's not like this is just something fun to do, although they totally enjoy it. I think for some people in Napa it's a hobby. They made billions in some other industry and they come to do this because their friends did or because it was fun. Our situation is different. I think that changes things." 

In addition to her business responsibilities, Violet is the inspiration for the Violetta desert wine, made with the botrytis-ized late harvest fruit that grows in this vineyard.  “This year was great because of the rains. We got lucky. You can't really manipulate it. The rains and humidity helped it spread and it really concentrates those flavors." 

The only thing missing in Joey's life seems to be a cow. Or cows.  As he looked wistfully at an open field next to the vineyard, he muttered, "Good to get some cows on that." Later, when I spotted a jack rabbit, he told me they call them mini-cows, "The closest thing we have to cows right now. They eat the green stuff and poop." When I quiz him about what I consider some of the more bizzare aspects of biodynamics, cow-related and others (cow horns filled with dung and buried, intestines with camomile, vortexes and equinoxes) Joey replies simply, “For one thing, because it works.”  

Yes it does work. Harmonious conditions and minimal manipulation allow Grgich wine to be the ultimate expression of terroir, that sense of place that encompasses soil, climate and topography.  The wines taste clean, bright, and elegant, and with a complexity and balance that honors the farm in the vineyard where Joey works.  

Tomorrow - what it took me to "get" biodynamics. What would my Dad the Physicist say? 

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Table + Wine = New friends

When friends come to Napa, we almost always go wine tasting. Chappellet was our destination this time, and the only thing more striking than the views of Lake Hennesey was that special alchemy of friends and wine around a table.

In 1973 the Vietnam Peace Accords were famously delayed because they couldn't agree on the shape of the table around which they would negotiate. I can't imagine delaying world peace because you don't like the table, but at Chappellet, the table did make the experience.
As we ended our tour outside the grounds and inside the barrel room we turned a corner to see a pretty table set for 12. We had been invited to introduce ourselves at the beginning of the tour but it wasn't till we were sitting around the table that we became friends. 
We couldn't have been a more diverse group. There was a couple and their adult daughter from Canada, a liquor distributor and his wife from Miami, a professional football player from Dallas (that's all I'm saying, he seemed to value his privacy), and my friends from LA, Denver and Melbourne, Florida. 
We were all ages, colors, shapes and sizes. 
Thirty minutes after sitting down and sharing wine, we knew each other in the way you sometimes get to know a seat mate on a plane - not well but better than many of the people you've worked with for years.  We heard the story of how the football player fell in love with his wife, about the "cougar" who was dating the son of the Miami couple, and how my friend finally has three-year-old triplets after years of trying. 
I used to believe that alcohol was alcohol, whether it was a shot of Jack or four ounce glass of wine. But now I believe that there is a magic, an alchemy, a connection to years of tradition and fond memories that occur when wine is sipped around a table.
With food it's even better.
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Wine, I’ve got you under my skin 

My buddy Heath is so wild for wine that he has a tattoo of a New Zealand vineyard on his arm. Last week I felt like wine had gotten under my skin as much as his. Wine crowded out all the “shoulds” in my life: work, gym, Christmas, and my disaster of a closet. The result was a very good week indeed. I’ll write about all the people with whom I spent time, including Heath, in coming weeks. For now a short recap of one of my best weeks ever.


Chatted with Carl the money genius who pours wine at Taste at Oxbow. Carl is a financial consultant who occasionally works at this very comfortable tasting room, in Napa. Why I'm not sure, perhaps a chance to work with people and not numbers.  Sounds geeky, but discussing GDP, currency rates and economic indicators over a glass of say, Mahoney Pinot from the Las Brisas vineyard in Carneros, is a nice switch from the usual swirl and sniff.

More Monday

I had time to talk to Carl because I had missed my rendezvous with aforementioned Heath who is now unemployed after working at a custom crush facility. When we finally met up I picked his brain for two hours and was wowed by how this 25-year-old has learned so much about wine in the three short years he’s been drinking it legally. 


Joey Brinkley, vineyard assistant for Grgich Hills Estates showed me around a biodynamic vineyard on a hill looking over American Canyon. The vines may be “sleeping” but this ecologically diverse little farm was buzzing. Hens were a-laying, birds a-chirping, bees a-buzzing and microbes a…. doing whatever microbes do. Joey sent me home with some biodynamic eggs. The meal I made from the eggs and the high I got from the vineyard stayed with me all day.

More Tuesday

The last night of wine class had us tasting some very famous wines, – 1999 Echezeaux Grand Cru, 1979 Mouton Rothschild, and 1970 Graham Vintage Port. But for me, it is not the finish of the wine that lingers, it is the people. Oscar, a Spaniard who in an earlier class had winced about Americans’ use of paper plates, sang us a very sweet song from his country that is traditionally sung when one is drinking special wine.


Checked out the Wooden Valley tasting room in Suisun Valley and met the chatty Ron Lanza who introduced me to Roger King of King Andrews Vineyards. Ron grew up in a family wine business and his story echos the stories of family vintners in Napa, before Napa became Napa. With a background in ski resorts, Roger's story is less pastoral. When I asked him what Kirkwood Ski Resort was like in the 70s he got a far away look in his eyes and memories of sex, drugs and rock and roll danced across his face. Then he muttered the mantra of all of us who have lived large and are still around to tell the tale, “I’m lucky I’m not in jail.”

There's a story there. Stay tuned. I intend to tell it.