Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Pursuit of Fun

Ah, Napa Valley – coconut palms and ocean breezes, grass skirts and tiki torches, nightly luaus of poke and poi, ukulele music and dancing girls – wait, hold it! The Napa Valley? Yes, if you’re hanging around Judd Finkelstein, who with father Art, mother Bunnie, and wife Holly, runs Judd’s Hill winery on the Silverado Trail. That’s precisely what Napa Valley looks like. Paradise.

Judd plays in a ukulele band called The Maikai Gents, and recently I had the pleasure of seeing him and his band mates perform during Halloween at Copia at an event called “The Spooky Lau,” and in another event at the grand opening of a new restaurant in Napa called “The Lobster Shack Luau.” They had costumes that reminded me of the fifties, with Hawaiian pastel shirts and short brim hats, and they sang classic Hawaiian songs like “Tiny Bubbles” and “The Hukilau.” I should also mention that it’s not just The Maikai Gents – it’s The Maikai Gents with The Mysterious Miss Mauna Loa (which I’m pretty sure is really Holly, Judd’s wife, but don’t tell anybody). She can often be seen dancing the hula along side while they play. On the band’s playbill, a Disney animator has created cartoon caricatures of Judd and Holly performing, which are spot on – you’ll immediately recognize them if you happen to visit the winery.

But let’s be honest, when people decide they’re going to start a band, it’s usually to get chicks or to seek fame – and more often than not it’s rap music or punk. To choose the ukulele, well, obviously that has an entirely different aim. It’s the pursuit of pure pleasure, and from the way The Maikai Gents play, with both enthusiasm and skill (and I especially appreciate Judd’s fine singing voice), you too can join in on the fun.

This pursuit of fun can also be seen at Judd’s Hill winery, with their most recent event, The Hanukkah Hootenanny and full latke bar with more Hawaiian music performed by Judd’s band. But just as important for the Finklesteins is family, which you notice right away from the office layout (through the glass windows in the entrance hall are Art’s desk and Bunnie’s, with Judd’s and Holly’s right next to them, everyone working happily along side one other). When Judd’s Hill moved from St. Helena to the property off the Silverado Trail, Art designed the new winery, and on my recent visit, he was outside busy putting on some finishing touches, laying ornamental rock and planting trees.

Art is no stranger to the wine industry. He and Judd’s uncle started Whitehall Lane Winery over thirty years ago, and the business became very successful. Judd remembers growing up in St. Helena, playing in the vineyards or down by the creek, living an idyllic childhood. But not all was fun and games with his uncle always on the road selling wine, and with Art working way too hard to keep the business growing. Neither had the time to make the wine anymore, which was why they had started the winery to begin with – so, in the end they decided to sell. Art started Judd’s Hill on a much smaller scale, where he could make the wines like he had always wanted. He chose to use his son’s name on the new winery label in hopes that someday Judd would join him in the family business. Judd went away to college in the Southwest, yet always returned every harvest to help Art make the wines, and in Southern California he met Holly, eventually getting married before coming back home to Napa Valley – and to the family winery.

Judd’s Hill winery makes only 3000 cases a year, which allows Art’s and Judd’s winemaking to be hands-on in every way. On my recent visit I tasted through their whole lineup of wines with Judd, and one detail jumped out right away no matter what the varietal – all the wines were very fragrant. They all had just terrific noses, which might be on account of their judicious use of new oak. When I pointed this out to Judd, he showed me his profile and quickly quipped, “Well, that’s because terrific noses run in the family.” Then he asked if I had ever tasted their estate Cabernet Sauvignon. I hadn’t, so Judd revealed his secret stash of Estate wines hidden in a large Hawaiian tiki. Perfect.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Reindeer’s Leap

I’ve been spending a lot of time at Chimney Rock Winery lately, partly because I’ve been signing books in their tasting room (and we’ve been selling a lot of books, which is fantastic), but mostly, it’s because the people are so nice, like Tom Trzesniewski (pronounced “tres-new-ski”, with an emphasis on the “tres”). Tom is the retail manager at Chimney Rock. He owned his own business for 11 years, ran businesses for other people, and retired in 2003, so he could do what he loves the most. The other day, Tom gave me, and some friends of mine from Chicago, a vineyard tour of the estate and barrel tasting. We were standing in the vineyard, and Tom was pointing out to us an outcropping of crags on the eastern face of the Vaca Range, called Chimney Rock, which the winery was named after. Tom tells us that a chief of the Wappo tribe that settled the area thousands of years ago had chased a white stag up into the palisades, and to escape, the stag leaped from one palisade to another. Considering the distance between those palisades today, either the chief was an awfully good storyteller, or it wasn’t a stag at all, but a reindeer. But Reindeer’s Leap doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like Stag’s Leap does.

Tom moved on to explain how these palisades on the eastern face of the Vaca Range tend to heat up during the day, causing thermal winds to swirl around the Stag’s Leap district in a unique way. In the summer months, the swirling air keeps the region cooler, lengthening the time the grapes will hang on the vines. This translates into softer tannins in the finished wine, while giving them an enviable ability to age.

Maybe the reason why Tom knows so much is that he’s not just the retail manager, he’s also a wine educator. It’s says so on his business card. Actually, all the wine tasting staff are wine educators, come to think of it, like Mike Morf (with an emphasis on “morf”). He was telling me this story the other day about his late father-in-law, which has nothing to do with wine, but it’s a really funny story. His late father-in-law immigrated to California at the early part of the last century with his identical twin brother, from the north coast of France, which, incidentally, is a region known for pirates. Mike jokes with a twinkle in his eye that the instinct for piracy was probably embedded in their genes. They somehow became owners of a gas station in the early 1940s and quickly made enemies of all their competitors by underpricing their gas and cornering all the retail trade by buying bulk parts and supplies by the box-car load. The funny part comes when the brothers discover that if they buy three box-car loads of parts, or more, they can get them even cheaper. So they hire a guy to go around to their competitors and his job is to bad mouth the brothers, complaining bitterly how they won’t do business with him, and he has all these cheap parts and supplies, and if they buy them from him, they can screw the brothers. No one ever caught on that they were actually buying from them. Classic.

And then there’s Tom Ebert (who needs no emphasis), who I’ve noticed is building his dinner menu while he’s pouring wines for guests. Some of them sound so delicious, when I hear him describe them, my mouth waters -- like his dry shiitake mushroom encrusted halibut. It sounded so good that I went home that night and tried it myself. What you do is you take some dried shiitake mushrooms, and you pulverize them in a food processor with some garlic powder, salt and pepper, and some rice flour to crisp up the coating. You coat your fish with the mixture, and sauté in some butter for 1-1.5 minutes on each side on medium high heat. And what a fantastic fish recipe it turned out to be, and I might add, a perfect pairing with Chimney Rock’s award-winning wines, red or white.

All the people I’ve met at Chimney Rock – Tom, Mike, Tom, Joan, Ashley, Curtis, and Doug Fletcher, the winemaker – have been a delight. Mrs. Wilson seems to agree with me. She is 94 years old, and started Chimney Rock with her husband in the mid 1980s. She lives in the house on the hill above the vineyards, and still comes to the winery to pick up her wine, shake hands, and visit. Who wouldn’t?

Friday, November 2, 2007

How Do They Sell So Much Wine?

Can you take a few more?” Rick Healy sticks his head inside the door, interrupting. We’re in Dennis Zablosky’s office at Frank Family Vineyards (that's Dennis in his office in the photo), where Dennis is giving me, along with David Harmon III, owner of Carneros della Notte, and about ten VIPs a private wine tasting. And with that many clinking wine glasses crowding his desk, the place is wall-to-wall jammed. Dennis sputters, “Absolutely not!” “OK,” Rick quips, “I’ll send them right in.”

Vaudeville. Everybody laughs, of course, why not. They’re having the time of their lives, sipping Frank Family Vineyards’ award-winning Chardonnay, described by Dennis as “liquid crème brulee”. It’s not just the office that’s jammed. It’s the whole tasting room. Dennis, who runs Frank Family Vineyards’ direct sales, has been a larger than life presence in the local wine scene for nearly four decades. Robert Mondavi, the most eminent wine celebrity in the valley, called him “a living legend,” and rightly so. Not many wineries get this kind of foot traffic, day in and day out, with much of it serious wine buyers: CEOs and business tycoons, sports celebrities and movie moguls, film stars and famous authors, well, almost famous – the movers and shakers of the world – who fly on private jets to visit wine country, and to sit down with Dennis. “It’s a day-long party,” Patrick Cline says to me, “from the moment we open until closing time.” I marvel at their stamina. Patrick is one of Dennis’ raconteurs, entertaining and pouring wine along with Rick Healy, and Jeff Senelick, and Jerry Smith, and Tim Murphy – all men, mature and self assured, who create a club-like atmosphere that’s as inviting to women as it is to men. Somehow they manage to juggle a host of new visitors everyday, who arrive by the minute, spreading them out amongst three pouring bars in that old ramshackle building, more like a small-town Mayberry government DMV than a grand wine palace. (Rumor has it a new winetasting room is in the works at Frank Family Vineyards.)

Rick is back moments later with the two new VIPs, a business executive who had visited Dennis on a previous trip, and is back for more star treatment with his gorgeous girlfriend. As Dennis tries to explain once more about the lack of room, he catches sight of her at the door. “Well, hello sweetheart.” To the executive he says, “If I’d known you brought such a beautiful woman with you… Make more room!” He motions at the rest of us to clear some space as more laughter erupts. “What do you do, honey?” “I’m a masseuse,” the girlfriend says carefully, aware that all eyes are watching her. “Oh,” Dennis moans with true feeling, “you can save my life. Come closer honey. Give her room.” He rolls his shoulder painfully. “I have this old rotator cuff injury that stiffens up on me.” Obviously, this is the price of admission. As room is made, the girlfriend happily obliges.

There’s something special about a visit to Frank Family Vineyards. When you’re near the pulse beat of a place, the very heart of what’s happening, where the who’s who gather, you can feel it – that same draw that pulled Marilyn Monroe and joltin’ Joe DiMaggio north from Hollywood years ago when Frank Family Vineyards was called Hans Kornell, and when Marilyn fell in love with pink champagne that later she was rumored to have bathed in, and is still being made in the old Champangnois method by Frank Family Vineyards’ winemaker, Todd Graff.

Many wineries in the valley draw huge crowds, and have great stories to tell, and have fantastic wines, but Frank Family Vineyards not only gets visitors packing bottles out the door, but whole cases. Cases and cases and cases.

I’ve wondered how exactly they do it. Somewhere near 85% of the wine is sold directly at the winery. What makes this wine tasting room so successful? It’s actually quite simple. They make you feel like a star. And being a star means getting star treatment. From the moment you step foot inside, you’re in the spotlight, greeted with a smile at the door, offered a glass of champagne, and asked, “Where are you from?” and “What brought you to wine country?” You’re special. And to prove it, they’re putting on a party, just for you. It doesn’t cost you anything. Just showing up makes you a member of the club. And club members get privileges. Maybe even a private pouring at Dennis’ office. And that special feeling can keep going just by taking some wine home with you when you leave. Cases and cases and cases.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Smokin’ Wines

Recently, I attended the J.Moss Wines release party, where James and Janet Moss (the “J” getting double billing for James and Janet) poured their newly bottled 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, and I had the added delight along with the many fans of J.Moss Wines on hand, to taste all their Cabs going clear back to their first release in 2001.

Tasting the 2001, their debut wine, was a rarity, precisely because of how rare the 2001 Lauer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon actually is. Tragically, nearly all of the 2001 bottles were burned up in a warehouse fire in Vallejo in October 2005.

“This was our first vintage, our first commercial release,” Janet said to me, a touch of emotion still in her voice. “We had just hand labeled the bottles the week before, and then, when we heard about the fire, we thought it had to be a joke.” Not only were the J.Moss Wines debut Cabs lost, but also over $200 million worth of wine from other wineries and private collectors. In March 2007, a Sausalito businessman was arrested for the arson, charged with 19 felony counts. Some of the larger wineries could afford insurance and absorb the loss, financially anyway, but many of the smaller wine businesses were completed ravaged.

Janet went on. “How could somebody do such a thing? So many people lost everything.” Hearing her recount the story, it was clear that the anger hadn’t gone away with time. But unlike Janet, who needed to talk about the arson fire to cope with the loss, James reacted to the tragedy exactly the opposite. He wanted to put the terrible episode behind him. “I wanted to forget the whole thing ever happened. I was so sick of hearing about it. I just wanted to move on.”

After the fire, James and Janet immediately raced down to the warehouse and of course no one was being allowed in. But determined to see if any of their wines could be salvaged, they eventually pushed and cajoled their way past the gatekeepers, and saw the devastation firsthand. “Everything was burned up,” James said, “with all these stacks of wine toppled down into huge piles. Broken glass was everywhere.” He shook his head at the memory. “We had to dig down through these stacks of toppled burned up bottles, which was very dangerous, just to find our wines. We managed to save a few cases on the bottom of the collapsed piles, that had escaped the heat of the fire.” Only then did James’ eyes light up. “But, tasting the 2001, dude, that wine blew me away. I mean, it was smokin’.” I smiled back at him, not sure if he had caught the double meaning in what he had just said.

But I knew exactly what he meant after tasting the wine for myself, and not only that, but tasting all the wines straight through to the 2004s. These are vineyard designated wines, meaning that the grapes from one vineyard are not blended together with other vineyards or varietals, but are kept separate to highlight their uniqueness. The Spicer Vineyard in Stag’s Leap (photo above of the Spicers with Janet and James), the Puerta Dorada and Galleron Vineyards in Rutherford, or the Lauer Vineyard in St. Helena that makes up the 2001. Only you can still recognize James’ hand at the helm, because all his wines have qualities in common, the foremost of which is clarity. They are the perfect example of terroir, that hard-to-wrap-your-mind around French idea of totality, that includes vineyard site, soil, climate, weather, and winemaker that make up a given wine’s individuality.

If you hang around the Napa Valley, you’ll soon discover that the topic of wine is the constant background conversation. But every once in awhile, a wine comes to the foreground. The very first time I tasted a J.Moss wine, it commanded my full attention - one of those moments when the world seems to withdraw, and you’re left alone with the wine thinking, “wow”.

One evening, I asked James how he does what he does, and he gave me an example. “A while back, I decided to taste grapes from all over the Valley, from all these different appellations, just asking friends and farmers and winemakers I knew if I could walk their vines and sample some grapes just before they were harvested. And what I discovered is that you can really tell the difference. Dude, just from tasting the grapes.” He went into the vineyards, and saw how different places had distinct flavors and elements. I feel thrilled when I hear stories like that, when winemakers build sense memories and build their palates, so that they can make wines that stop the world.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Ninth Hawaiian Island

There was something faintly Hawaiian in the air during harvest this year in the Napa Valley. And it wasn’t just my imagination. I was with Terry Kakazu, and her seven-year-old son, Nick, and we were at the Mansfield Winery on Conn Valley Road, a few miles east of the town of St. Helena. Terry is owner of Paul and Terry’s Place and HASR Wine Company out of Honolulu. HASR is short for Highly Allocated Spoiled Rotten. Terry is the proverbial “juice queen” visiting wine country once again on her continuing pilgrimage to procure the best of the very best wines Napa Valley has to offer for her eager wine shop patrons. Being curious to see firsthand how she goes about making everybody a member of her extended family, I decided to tag along, and apparently, so did Hawaii.

We were visiting with Leslie Mansfield, who had been kind enough to give us an amazing walking tour of the old winery built in the late 1880s that she currently owns with her husband, Richard. This is the last of the great ghost wineries that had been built before Prohibition and, unfortunately over the years, had been allowed to fall into disrepair. Leslie had been filling us in on their ambitious plans to restore the old stone winery and surrounding grounds, bringing everything back to its proper glory. And what a magnificent project it will be. I plan to go into more depth in a later blog.

But what struck me just then wasn’t anything about the old winery or the fantastic wines Leslie had been pouring for us, or the even more fantastic ghost stories that Leslie and Richard had personally experienced. It was what I had noticed occurring and reoccurring all over Napa Valley often enough that I could no longer shrug it off as mere coincidence. It was happening inside the Mansfield’s house. One of their guests visiting from Alaska was playing…a ukulele. Yep, and singing Hawaiian ballads…in native Hawaiian! Ah, Hawaii. There it was again. It seemed that wherever Terry Kakazu and her son traveled in wine country, Hawaii wasn’t far behind. Or maybe it was already there in front of us.

Terry catches my eye and laughs at the familiar tune coming from the house. The “aloha spirit” springing up again is not lost on her either. Then it dawns on me. Maybe this isn’t purely a coincidence. Maybe this connection Napa Valley has with Hawaii has deeper roots, to use a vineyard metaphor. Maybe, dare I say it, Napa Valley is the ninth Hawaiian island. I know this sounds like crazy talk, but I’ve just thought of this. Bear with me. There’re a lot of similarities. I mean, Hawaii is volcanic. And Napa Valley is volcanic. And look at all the hot springs in Calistoga.

And I could give you other examples. Like when Terry, Nick, and I stopped in at Schramsberg Vineyards for a tour of the two miles of wine caves under the mountain, and tasted some terrific bubbly with CFO Fred Zammataro (in the photo above with Terry), and he greeted us warmly wearing…get this, a flower print Hawaiian shirt. Yeah, I know, everyone has one of those in his closet. But, he was wearing it that day, and it wasn’t planned in advance. And what about Carneros della Notte’s harvest party a couple of weeks ago, when the women on hand were asked to see if they would like to stomp grapes, a la “I Love Lucy”, and nearly all who did, amidst much laughing and carrying on, turned out to be…Hawaiians. Terry Kakazu was one of them, and none of these “wahine” had met before. What are the chances of that? If you don’t believe me, the whole thing was caught on film by the NBC TV show, “In Wine Country”. So, I’ve got them to back me up. I wouldn’t be surprised if the 2007 vintage of Carneros della Notte pinot noir turns out to have a faint tropical flavor. And have you tried Hawaiian sushi with pinot noir? Wow. Such a perfect match can’t be coincidental. Still not convinced? How about the non-scientific survey I conducted of Napa Valley winemakers, and it turns out their favorite food is…poké. Yep, if I had been asked to guess beforehand, I would have said Kobe beef sliders, but poké? Then there’s Terry and her son Nick, greeting winemakers all across the Valley, with wide grins and warm embraces, calling them “uncle” or “auntie”. I mean, the whole Valley is her extended Polynesian family. Oh, and one last thing, back to the Mansfield Winery. One of their most successful wines, besides their small lot Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, Zinfandels, Rieslings, and Chardonnays, is their…pineapple wine. Pineapple wine in Napa Valley? I’m telling you, it’s more than mere coincidence.

Everybody knows of the Big Island, Hawaii, and of course, Oahu, Maui, and Kauai. And many know of the smaller islands, Lanai, Niihau, and Kahoolawe. But I bet you didn’t know about the furthest island to the east. Napa Valley could very well be the lost ninth Hawaiian island. Think about it.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

The Smallest Winery in Napa Valley

Rollie Heitz was measuring his cellar – he had about four more inches of room along the left wall and another eighteen inches in depth and was trying to figure out just how best he might use that extra space. “Since I’m paying for it, I might as well try and use ever bit of room I can,” he said with a crafty twinkle in his eyes. Rollie was showing us his new winemaking facility on Sage Canyon Road, about two tenths of a mile off the Silverado Trail – in the old Limur winery – where he was currently making wine under his Midsummer Cellars label. Once off the Trail at 771 Sage Canyon Road, those with quick eyes will catch sight of the small sign at the roadside on the right identifying the entrance. “I wanted to have a bigger sign out front,” Rollie explained, “using a full sheet of plywood, but I couldn’t get permission. Then I proposed half a sheet . . . I ended up with sign measuring two feet by three feet.” Which was apropos, since the Midsummer Cellars winery was probably the smallest winery in Napa Valley, every bit of a thousand square feet tops and with a ceiling height of barely seven feet. That was why all the measuring. “I could get another ten gallons, if I could purchase larger barrels that still fit in the same sized barrel racks,” Rollie calculated. With the tight overhead most wineries have to contend with (no pun intended), it was no wonder Rollie had out the measuring tape. “Now, if barrel coopers would start make barrels six inches around and four feet long, then I might slide a couple more underneath along the walls,” Rollie joked, and I laughed along with him about the newly discovered business model for barrel coopers – oddly shaped barrels for tight cellars – square ones, and triangular ones, and tall narrow ones, and long skinny ones shaped like torpedoes.

But don’t think for a moment that the wines are small coming from this winery, especially the 2004 Midsummer Cellar’s Cañon Creek Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, which Rollie poured for me over lunch. We were having carnitas burritos and gourmet chocolate brownies at a small outdoor table next to the winery under what Rollie informed me was one of the oldest Valley Oak trees in the area. The tree, clearly old and massive, with limbs reaching out above our heads thicker than most tree trunks you might happen to see, looked more like something created in a Hollywood special effects shop for another The Lord of the Rings movie than a real living thing. Rollie informed me that for a long time the massive tree was a corner marker for the area. It had been significantly old enough a couple hundred years ago to be chosen for that purpose when George Yount was still exploring the Valley (the town of Yountville was later named after him).

The Cabernet Sauvignon was obviously amazing – obviously because Rollie put in eighteen plus years working for his families’ legendary Heitz Cellars winery when he was younger – that was before branching out on his own with his Midsummer Cellars label – and also obviously because his perfume-laden wine was going so amazingly well with carnitas burritos of all things. Rollie just smiled knowingly as I helped myself to another glass. You always know when you’re drinking a wine of extraordinary quality when you have to hold back the primitive impulse to shove everybody to the ground and hog the entire bottle for yourself.

The 2004 Midsummer Cellars Cañon Creek Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon retails for $48 with just over three hundred cases made, and Napa Cabs this good usually go for three times this much. Rollie just shrugs when I point this out. Maybe if he can figure out that barrel space dilemma there might be a few cases more for those lucky enough to get their hands on some. Hey, no shoving!

If you’re in the area, and would to like to visit Rollie and the giant Valley Oak at Midsummer Cellars, please call to make an appointment. Contact Rollie Heitz by phone at (707) 967-0432, or visit his web page at

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Most Affordable Vacation in Napa Valley!

Have you ever wanted to escape it all and go live in wine country? Make award-winning wine, maybe fall in love? Or maybe just visit, but can’t seem to find the time? Now the wine country comes to you in The Good Life, A Chris Garrett Novel by David G. White, a fictional story about a winemaker whose winemaking skills are put to the ultimate test — solving a murder!

It’s harvest season, the most exciting time of year for winemaker Chris Garrett and also the busiest, where working long hours is the rule, not the exception. So when his mentor legendary winemaker Vic Miranda is found floating face down in a vat of fermenting wine, everyone assumes the drowning was an accident caused fatigue and overwork.

That’s the official line. But like badly made wine, Chris just can’t swallow it. Vic was too experienced. He must have been pushed into that vat. Only who did the pushing? With help from his friend Deputy Sheriff Jeff Beckwell, Chris investigates on his own, but poking your nose into other people’s business much like finding flaws in a highly touted cult cab is usually resented, and soon Chris is fending off accusations, threats and even an attempt on his life!

Who could want Chris dead? And does it have anything to do with Vic’s illicit love affair? Or was it more about the questionable land deal Vic was involved in? And who is the alluring woman in the red dress that is so curious about Vic’s death — and Chris’s interest in it? Can highly honed winemaking skills help Chris detect the clues into why his mentor was murdered? Perhaps it’s those very skills that will make it possible for Chris to solve the mystery.

The Good Life: A Chris Garrett Novel is available for $24.95 at,, select bookstores and outlets. To download Chapter 1, please go to

Sweet Grapes at Bouchaine

“Starlings really aren’t that tasty,” Adam Leach says, making a face at us for added emphasis. “Trust me, I trained and worked as a chef before becoming a winemaker.” I’m at Bouchaine Vineyards in the Los Carneros region of Napa Valley, discussing the menace of starlings that descend on the Appellation during harvest season, happily gorging themselves on wine grapes. Chatting with Adam is Sal Godinez the winemaker for Carneros della Notte, who custom crushes at Bouchaine and who earlier offered up an effective though novel measure of dealing with the starling hordes. “In Mexico, we just eat them,” Sal said with a wolfish grin, which brought on Adam’s reply. “Of course, in Mexico, we eat most everything,” Sal jokingly points out. “Chapulinas anyone?” Chapulinas if you’re not familiar are a kind of grasshopper that is dried and then seasoned with chili powder. Deliciously crunchy, I’ve heard, though I’ve been too chicken to try them myself. As if reading my mind, Sal says with a shrug, “They’re not bad.” Adam goes on, “If I had a choice I’d prefer cooking quail,” which is apropos since we earlier this morning flushed a covey of them next to the winery while driving down Buchli Station road. Do quail also eat wine grapes? -- Pretty sure they eat grasshoppers.

Bouchaine, if you haven’t already guessed it, is off the beaten path in the southern most leg of Los Carneros away from the traffic and the crowds and is still very rural. A nearby neighbor has put up a hand-painted sign at the edge of the road that reads, “Pigs for sale.” Bouchaine grows primarily pinot noir and chardonnay fruit -- not pigs – and these days is making some amazing wines, though if you happen to visit the winery you just might get a chance to taste some wines made from other varietals as well, since winemakers love to tinker. On a recent visit I got to try a dry pinot meunier (a red grape -- cousin to pinot noir usually used in sparkling wines), a locally grown Los Carneros syrah, and even some sweet late harvest chardonnay, which had gotten us talking about the starlings in the first place. Late harvest wines are made from grapes that are left on the vine, hence the danger from hungry birds, and allowed to increase in sweetness well beyond the level at which still wines are usually harvested, sometimes upwards of 30 degrees Brix (Brix being the measurement of sugar in grape juice). Still wines for example are usually picked between 20 and 24 degrees Brix, depending on what type of wine is being made. “Late harvest” is a term used by wineries to identify wines that are fermented to a certain point and then left with a percentage of sugar remaining, keeping it sweet. Mike Richmond, the General Manager and Winemaker at Bouchaine whom Adam refers to as the Grand Master, joins us, smiling kindly with his bushy white moustache and glances at the birds. He doesn’t seem alarmed about the starlings. To tell you the truth, he doesn’t seem alarmed about anything. Mike’s been making wine in Carneros since the early 70’s, co-founding Acacia Winery down the road and showing the rest of the world what could be accomplished growing grapes and making wine in this most southern Appellation of Napa Valley. Now, Mike is the visionary behind Bouchaine, and tasting the impressive wines he and Adam and the crew at the winery are currently producing, we quickly note it’s not only the birds who will be flocking here.

Knowing a good thing when you taste it was exactly what was in store at the Officers Club at Fort Mason in San Francisco on February 10, 2007, where The Affairs of the Vine held their annual Pinot Shootout. The event as it is aptly named, is all about pinot noir with seminars and a tasting of over forty of the top wines previously judged and proffered blind for enjoyment, wrapped in tinfoil to hide their identity, letting everyone have a chance at picking out the best of the lot, pitting their palate against the panel of judges. If you want to find out more about which pinot noir wines scored highest, check out The Affairs of the Vine, website at

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Takes A Lot of Burgers to Make Wine

There’s something deeply satisfying about pruning grape vines—the clearing away of last year’s unruly growth and tidying up the trellis—spring cleaning, only it usually happens in the winter. Or maybe it’s better described as giving the vines a much-needed haircut, because that’s just what it looks like. We’re in David Harmon’s DIII Vineyard in the southern part of Napa Valley in the Los Carneros Appellation, from which Carneros della Notte makes their vineyard designated pinot noir (that's David Harmon pruning grapes in the photo). It’s gorgeous outside—the kind of day people can’t keep from smiling about—clear blue skies, the air fresh and clean and a pleasure to breathe with just the right amount of chill to make pruning enjoyable. Indio, a black Labrador of David Harmon’s hustles up and down the rows packing cut shoots like prideful trophies. We’re pre-pruning, which is the first step in pruning that takes off the bulk of last years wood, but still leaves on about eight inches of the shoots with as many buds, while at the same time leaving wood still needed to fill in any gaps in the trellis. The task cleans up the vines so that it is easier to see where to make the final pruning decisions. David Harmon says, “There’s another reason we leave more wood on the vine at this first pass through the vineyard. It’s weather insurance. For example, if the weather happens to turn warm early in the spring and buds begin to push, buds on the ends farthest from the roots open first. So when the weather turns cold again, those buds will be lost to frost, but the buds lower down that haven’t pushed yet will remain protected.” Though, speaking from experience, pre-pruning can have its hazards as well, like when a just clipped shoot whips back and catches you in the eye! Ouch!

Later we stop in at the Napa Valley Grille in Yountville (which, unfortunately, is no longer open), because it’s Thursday, and Thursday’s Slider and a Beer night, a popular get together spot for winemakers to catch up and network. For five bucks you get a Kobe beef burger (Slider)—that’s right Kobe beef, from Japanese cows that drink sake’ and whose muscles get regularly massaged so the fat is uniformly distributed throughout the meat (meaning juicy)—and your choice from a plethora of micro-brewed beers. All for five bucks! No wonder you’ll find so many winemakers hanging out—they generally know a good thing when they see it, or better, taste it. Chuck Custodio, of Trahan, who happens to already be at the bar sipping a beer when we arrive claims he once downed as many as six Kobe burgers at one sitting, with even more beers. “They’re that good,” he says nodding for added emphasis. Somehow, when he says that it feels more like a dare.

Some of the other winemakers on hand are Mark Raymond the General Manager of Tamber Bey, and Jim McMahon from Luna, who also has his own label Athair, along with Jarred Pearce and what often occurs is that some wines get brought in and passed around to be evaluated and enjoyed by those on hand. Tonight, Mark has brought a 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon from Tamber Bey that gets poured liberally and expert noses take a serious appraisal. Mark smiles knowingly as the wine gets many satisfied nods. Also tonight, David Harmon has brought in his 2004 Los Carneros Pinot Noir along with his sweet 2005 Late Harvest Botrytis Pinot Noir for general perusal, catching the eye of the Napa Valley Grille’s Chef Thad Lyman who somehow has escaped the kitchen and sauntered over to try Dave’s wines. The 2004 Los Carneros is fabulous juice, and arguably better —believe it or not—than the 2003, which won last year's The Affairs of the Vine 2006 Pinot Shootout, being picked by women as the number one wine out of 240 entries. That’s saying something. Only what has caught Chef Lyman’s attention is the Late Harvest Botrytis Pinot Noir. The novelty—being the only wine of it’s kind made in 2005—brings people over, like the Chef. But make no mistake it’s the taste that makes his eyes sparkle. When Chef Lyman asks to take the bottle over to his sommelier for a private discussion, David Harmon can’t keep his own eyes from sparkling as well. (Chef Lyman has moved to Brix 25 Restaurant in Gig Harbor, WA - we wish him all the best)