In April of this year I began making plans to work the 2011 Harvest in the Napa Valley. I had no idea what it would mean to “work” the Harvest — only that it was imperative I be present in the valley in June, when wineries began the process of hiring for the season.
To simply pack up and leave Kings County, Brooklyn for five or so months and head west to the no-humidity, dry Napa County seemed like… a fine idea! I telephoned everyone I knew – bloggers, winemakers, family, pool attendants and supper club impresarios… on the advice of Hardy Wallace and Jeff Morgan, two dynamic winemakers of radically different styles, I booked a one-way ticket and promised my wife that I would make good on this adventure (after all, she would only be able to visit in August, so we’d be apart for quite some time). I eventually found myself working in the cellar at Alpha Omega Winery in Rutherford, CA, but first there was June, July and August…
From the beginning of June until the middle of August I had work consulting for Ram’s Gate Winery. Ram’s Gate is now the first winery in sight as avid wine-country adventurers speed north from San Francisco into wine country. It is in effect, the gateway winery to the valley. Situated on a hill across from the Infineon Raceway in Carneros, the place is a work of art with expansive seating areas, lounging areas, glorious tasting room and demo kitchen, lake, on and on. I will revisit a recap of Ram’s Gate in part three of this little three-part harvest recap series. For now, we fast-forward into September.
The foundation of a “wine country experience” for a person decidedly delving into the industry as a profession, is in my professional opinion: cellar work. And there it was. Was it there? Surely. Several weeks of early mornings and strenuous repetitive and tiresome activities. But: thrilling work, fulfilling work, gritty, take-action, no-standing-around, honest labor – a labor of art. You thought I was going to say a labor of “love,” but that’s silly. Harvest work is perhaps for some a labor of love. I began to see the work of the winemaker, the cellar team and vineyard crews as a labor of art.
Think about the many different works of art you might see in flea markets or say in Paris’s famous Montmartre market. Some works stand out above the rest, though the experience is entirely subjective. A finished piece of art is the result of an artist’s labor of his art, and speaking wine, bottled wine is the labor of a winemaker’s labor of his art. The artist will brood over many decisions: what canvas to use, brush strokes to perform, colors to highlight, textures to impart, anon. The winemaker too will ruminate over his canvas: the vineyard. What and how to plant? And then: when to pick? How to harvest (hand harvest vs machine harvest), and how the grapes are crushed, sorted and sent to cold-soak or to ferment, whether the juice goes into barrel or stainless steel, whether it is macerated with the skins during cold-soak or fermentation, whether it is inoculated with yeast or left to ferment with the natural yeasts coming in off the vineyards — there are a myriad of possibilities and wine as a finished and bottled product will be influenced by the choices the winemaker makes.
Now look: I’ve dabbled in a variety of careers: acting, directing, writing, temp work, restaurants, public relations, bird-feeding, horseback racing, fishing, hunting, singing, pretended to be a billionaire, Frank Sinatra, and told more Henny Youngman jokes than Henny Youngman, however folks: talking the wine-speak, walking the wine-talk and performing in a manner that holds the simultaneous attentions of the amateur and professional connoisseur is in short: a challenge. I’ve appointed myself a “Master Sommelier” for two reasons: 1) it’s irreverent 2) I will never be a true Master Sommelier, but why should that stop me? Okay, you say, fair enough — can you hold your own? Can you indeed talk the wine-talk and still keep your Maryjanes from biting? Good question.
Yes (for the most part). The impetus for my western pilgrimage was to get an education. So: can I tell you the laws that govern the lands of Burgundy and Bordeaux? Can I name the 13 cepages that make up traditional Chateauneuf-du-Pape? Would I be happy to debate the origins of Portuguese grape varietals? Or tell you the difference between any Spanish wines, any of them? How about describe the sensations, the aromas and the subtleties of white wines? Red wines? Rose wines? Would I recommend a wine to go with your dinner? How about a wine to go with your anniversary? Shall we head to a restaurant with a Gold Medal Wine Spectator Grand Award-O-Palooza wine list and tell you what the acid is like in a 1987 German Spatlese or Zweigelt or recommend the ’84 over the ’95 third growth Bordeaux or tell you the difference between the Cote-du-Rhone and the Cote-d’Or??
Yes. Will any of it be true? Maybe! Will you believe me because my conviction will be absolute? Absolutely!
Can we talk California? You bet we can. Need another list of questions? No you don’t. But a fun list of the many activities I engaged in while working at Alpha Omega Winery is absolutely in hand. All, I should say, set into motion by winemaker Jean Hoefliger and assistant winemaker Henrik Poulsen. These good gents, whom I had the privilege to work for, are masters of their art. Jean is Swiss and Henrik is Danish from Denmark though contrary to what you might be thinking they don’t mix Swiss cheese, great Danes, Danish pastries or chocolate into the wine (I’ve suggested as much but to no avail). Swiss chocolate? Swiss knives? Danish Flags? Maybe. Delicious? Complex? Drink now but just you wait until later? All the above. A brilliant duo who work around the clock to make the best wine they can.
In the cellar, I worked with a team of Spanish-speaking work-horses: and I mean that with utmost respect. Many of these guys (and they were all guys) work year-round at Alpha or head to South Africa for harvest in the Napa-off-season, or other parts of the world for harvest work. “I’ve been workin’ on the railroad, all the live-long day,” is exactly how I felt through the month of September into October. “Up in the morning, out on the job, work like the devil for my pay,” is what I sang every morning in the shower. So, how about a typical day in the life of a cellar worker? Looks like this:
5:30am: Get up.
6:59am: Clock in.
7:02am: Morning Meeting.
7:12am: Get to work. Punch-downs, add sulfur, clean barrels, clean tanks, clean crush pad, clean tools, sanitize everything, clean some more, rack wine, depose of lees, stir the lees, batonnage, find something to clean while waiting for grapes to come in and once the grapes come in oh boy… make sure the million-dollar sorting machine is in place and sanitized, bins are ready, hoses are ready, barrels are ready, ozone, sulfur, all ready and man your position — you are sorting you hosing down you are driving the fork-lift you are cleaning the crates, the bins, the crushpad and you are helping him and you are supervising them because I’ve got to taste and make sure the “D-Juice” goes into this tank and the “Free-Run” goes into that tank and then after you’re going to climb in and scoop out the grape skins, but don’t worry, we won’t turn the machine on (har har har) and oh the jokes. Joking. There are lots of jokes. What else are you supposed to do when for eight hours a day you’re doing punch-downs. Repetition is the way of the winery. And guess what? It’s lunchtime.
12:30pm: Everything you did from 7:12am until 12:00pm do again. Do it a little faster too, okay?
4:00pm: Clock out, as long as there aren’t more grapes coming. If they are, stay put, but clean that punch-down stick and make more sanitizer and inoculate those barrels while we wait and take this into the lab and have them run the #$&%*#Y*@% test on this stuff and make sure they run the #(%*&%&# test and not the $(#&%&(#%( test, okay? You got it? That’s what she said.
4:05pm: Hunt for car keys and realize you are covered in grape juice, grapes hanging off your pants, sweater, hair, and blue rags are still tied around your belt. Oh well, they’re yours.
5:00pm: Just try reading and responding to emails. Just try it.
6:00pm: Dinner? You ate plenty of grapes today.
8:00pm: Too early for bed? Nope.
Alright, that’s a typical day. So let’s imagine you’re holding a bottle of Alpha Omega 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s nice, right? Looks like this:
You: How much does it cost?
And here is where the battle is waged between consumer, the market, reality, the connoisseur, the collector, the every-day drinker, the educated and frankly the uneducated. If you ask why the wine costs $84, chances are you’re not going to buy that wine. The efforts, aforementioned, that go into producing this product are monumental. The costs, the people-power, farming, the marketing, the distribution, everything that happens before that wine hits a shelf and eventually your table are a bit incomprehensible, but understanding that can help put costs into perspective. It takes a lot of people and energy not only to make a wine, but to make great wine. Think about that when you think about price. (We can have a different conversation when we’re talking a bottle of wine that costs $200+ because I have a different opinion about that).
Now let’s back track a moment and say that you tasted the $84 Cab before you new how much it cost. Now we dabble in the realm of quality vs expectation. Remember: that taste in wine, like taste in art is subjective. There’s one important factor however that trumps subjectivity and that is experience. Experience is not drinking; experience is tasting and reflecting. And reflection can shape expectation. Part of my pilgrimage to Napa for five months – leaving my wife to the vacuuming in Brooklyn – presented as much of an opportunity to taste/reflect as it did to network, talk and hear tales of the glory days and struggles of such a history-rich community of farmers.
Listen too and let’s dispel this: to truly taste&discuss a wine, good fearing wino, is not to be a snob of wine. When you drink chocolate milk or when you drink coffee or tea you’re looking for a pleasurable wonderful experience, ain’t you? You order that Blue Bottle $55 cup of Joe because it makes you feel like an important person. Wine is full of complexity too and recognizing that complexity by talking about its mouth-feel, texture, aroma, body, viscosity, taste anon! and what it reminds you of is all part of the pleasure to be had from building toward an intoxicating moment of truth. The children of our current college circuits are imbibing wine like Prohibition is once more on the horizon and if that’s a place to start, okay. After that, it’s time to work toward the sophisticated aspects of enjoying wine with a meal and crucial to not be so self-absorbed or self-infatuated that talking about wine is beneath some culturally idiotic principle you’ve decided to uphold because you saw it on Google, or some friend on Facebook thinks you might be an up-and-coming snob or some wine writer intimidates you.
Jonny on the rampage! Well, I had to. Being in the valley and working at Alpha also meant distancing myself from technology and hence, distancing myself from the constant conversation that seems all-too-important to drop, or leave behind. There simply wasn’t time to “engage.” I’ve tweeted less, I’ve blogged less (much less than I promised!), and I’ve engaged less than ever before. I spent hours connecting to the fruit of the land – being outdoors – noticing nature. I worried less about posting content every few minutes and focused instead on what I was doing. People used to drive. Now people drivetext. At the risk of sounding preachy, I mention all this because there was a lesson to be learned and I learned it: the conversation will go on & you can pick it up at any time. It tis only one’s own self-induced manifestations (and I induced plenty, believe me) of what one might be missing that creates – and is continuing to create – more content and more saturation than any of us can or need to handle.
Stop, slow down, reflect and enjoy. That is the power of wine. Wine is by nature slow and reflective. I spent many evenings having dinner with good people, and we talked and talked about wine and the qualities of wine – a valuable activity for anyone albeit a fan of drinking wine or immersed in the industry. I saw grapes grow on the vine over many months, tasted them as they ripened until they were harvested, crushed them and drank their juices and in another year I’ll be able to taste the white wines that made this 2011 harvest and in a year or so after that, the reds. Then, I will have come full circle. And when the time comes, I hope to be surrounded by friends, tasting the wine, eating good food and talking about the hours spent working in the cellar, remembering things like the sounds of fork-lifts racing around the crushpad.
“Door is always open,” is what Jean said to me as I left Alpha for the last time, on a bright and warm late October afternoon. Well, I’ll be back – certainly to taste the red wines, the very wines I spent hours upon hours punching down during cold-soak prior to fermentation. I tasted the juice then, and I look forward to tasting the juice… when it becomes wine.
Visit Noble Rot Talks to hear an interview with Jean Hoefliger.