By: Melissa Smith | K&L Wine & Spirits Specialist
The longer I am in the wine industry, the more curious I become about wine. I read book after book on the subject - the history, the major players, the regions - but there is only so much that you can learn through someone else's experiences. The other day I finally got up the gall to ask one of those completely random (And I’m talking random) questions that struck me in the middle of the night. I wondered, “do they wash grapes before they make wine?” (Seriously, who thinks that at three in the morning?) But now, aren’t you wondering too?
None of my references had an answer, so when I was invited to join fifteen other industry professionals for Napa Bootcamp 2012, a day long excursion and educational intensive in the Napa Valley hosted by the Napa Valley Vintners Association, I jumped at the opportunity.
A few days before the trip a box arrived with pair of pruners, gloves, and sunscreen. Score! At sunrise we headed over the Golden Gate, through Sonoma, and arrived in Napa just as the coffee was kicking in. There we met up with our LA counterparts along with a handful of winemakers and winery managers. Tara McDonald of California Wine Merchant and I were "assigned' to the lovely Paula Kornell of Oakville Ranch. Although Oakville Ranch makes their own wine, they are best known for selling three-quarters of their fruit to some of the biggest names in the industry: Harlan, Peter Michael, Vine Cliff, Joseph Phelps, Miner Family, Lewis Cellars...the list goes on. All of their grapes are organic and farmed according to biodynamic principles. Paula trucks us and her two dogs up the private drive well above the valley to an oasis of vines tucked into the hillside. The plantings are heavy with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cab Franc, Petite Verdot, and Zinfandel, having been completely replanted over the last forty years.
In the vineyard we meet Vineyard Manager Phillip Coturri. Phil has been working in vineyards since he was fourteen; he will be celebrating his 60th birthday this month. Heavily bearded in true Deadhead style (Phil cites longtime friends Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann of the Grateful Dead as important sources of inspiration for his work on the winery's website) he may not look like someone responsible for $12,000 per ton grapes, but then again, grapes don't care what you look like. This man knows his stuff and thankfully doesn’t seem annoyed by the string of amateur questions we fire at him like first graders!
We hoist ourselves into the “gater,” a quad set to withstand climbing and descending the rocky hillsides. We are taught how to look at the vineyards with an artist’s eye. Subtle changes in green amongst the rows of vines, varying hues of red and orange in the soil, and even the size of rocks have an influence on the grapes. At one point we arrive at a block of Grenache and I am reminded of a picture I had seen of the 'galets' in the vineyards in Chateauneuf de Pape.
By now it’s ten in the morning and we’ve shed our scarves and unbuttoned our coats. We stop first at a block of Cabernet Sauvignon Clone 169, known for its floral qualities. We can already tell that 2012 is going to be an extraordinary year - the grapes are plump, abundant, and still ripening in the warm September sun. Several bunches lay strewn on the ground, removed in order to concentrate all plant's energy on the remaining drapes. Phil can afford to be picky this year.
The vines are exquisite, trimmed and trained like bonsais. The clusters are firm and broad, showing very even ripening. We pluck a few and taste, careful to chew the skins but avoid the seeds. Phil explains that they are waiting for the grapes to achieve “Sexy Ripe” status, the perfect '10' of sugar and phenolic ripeness. Aromatic ripeness is difficult to achieve below 14% alcohol, but too much sugar produces too much alcohol and results in wines with a lack of nuance. We learn that the grapes can get fully ripe--full of sugar--but it’s the additional hang time that allows them to develop the subtleties in their flavor profiles. It is a continual struggle to manage the canopy, choose which clusters to keep and which to drop, and deciding the exact time to harvest the grapes. While a refractometer is used in the vineyard to measure sugar levels, it is not the tool used to determine when to pick. That decision is guided by a sixth sense, an intuition built over decades of experience. Phil spends the entire year preparing for that moment. When the winemakers tell him to pick, his job is done.
We migrate to different areas of the vineyard, occasionally running into the apprentices who are busy gathering samples, weighing clusters, crushing grapes, measuring sugar levels, examining seeds and the gelatinous matter surrounding them. At this point the seeds are still green and chewy. Phil explains that they are waiting for the seeds to become brown and crunchy, which will minimize the presence of "green" (think bell pepper and green apple) aromas and flavors. The grapes taste delicious to me, but Phil equates the ripeness of a grape to that of a tomato or a fig. They are good when they are ripe and firm, but the flavors really come out the moment that they start to soften from the sugars. We move to different blocks, tasting different clones of the same varietal, different varietals from different sections, and I start to tally up how many hundreds of dollars worth of grapes I’m consuming that could have been turned into wine.
And with that lingering thought we are whisked away to enjoy their wine over a delicious lunch of roasted lamb sandwiches and a quinoa salad on the terrace overlooking the valley. We absorb the information from the day with a much greater appreciation for what is in the glass!
Oh, and the answer is no, they don’t wash the grapes. Sulphur takes care of any bacteria that may be lingering.
Melissa Lavrinc Smith
Wine and Spirits Consultant
K&L Wine Merchants
Interested in a private wine or spirits event? Check out PopUpEdu.com
Have an iPhone or iPad? Check out the Enotria Guide iPhone app for wine pronunciation!