“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.