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 www.midsummercellars.com.

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 Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, select bookstores and outlets. To download Chapter 1, please go to www.harmonandwhite.com.

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 affairsofthevine.com.