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)