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Wednesday, 25 July 2012 17:09

Sharpshooter

SharpshooterBy Nadia Gordon

Chronicle Books 2002

ISBN 978-0811834629

272 pages. $11.95

 

sharpshooter-cover

Sunny McCoskey is the owner of Wildside, a Napa Valley restaurant. She also solves murders. At least in the pages of Sharpshooter, she does. In what the publisher defines as the first mystery in a Sunny McCoskey series, the chef/sleuth jumps into a murder investigation when her friend, winegrower Wade Skord, is arrested for the murder of Jack Beroni.

Beroni was in the process of inheriting control of the most substantial winery in the area. Many of the locals had reason to dislike him, and maybe even murder him. In any case, someone who was a pretty good shot with a rifle drilled him in the heart one night as he awaited at meeting at the garden gazebo adjacent his vineyard.

Gordon portrays the late Mr. Beroni as an aggressive proponent of a plan for wholesale presticide spraying to thwart the pending invasion of the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter. That sharpshooter is the vector of Pierce's Disease, a real-life threat to the wine industry.

The double entendre is the most obvious of many details designed to give a feeling of authenticity—an insider's view—to the reader. For the most part the author succeeds, although vineyardists and winemakers may be amused at her heroine's measurement of the sugar level of friend Wade Skord's ripening Howell Mountain Zinfandel. Chef McCoskey gets readings of 17 degrees Brix and decides that the grapes would reach the desired level of 24 degrees after a couple more warm days. This is a process that would take weeks, not days. Other details are more credible and Gordon's descriptions of Wildside certainly make it seem that it could be a real café in St. Helena or any other Napa Valley location.

How many Napa Valley murders can be devised as fodder for subsequent books in this series-to-be remains to be seen, but Sharpshooter is worthy on its own. The details and the setting create a book that's fun for wine and food buffs and probably for many mystery devotees, as well.

 

--Reviewer Dan Clarke writes about wine and food. He has worked at a vineyard on Howell Mountain in the Napa Valley.

(Editor's note: These observations from a very special tasting of Inglenook wines first appeared in our electronic pages in 2002. They remain relevant today as Francis Ford Coppola, a man with an appreciation for history, has continued to acquire Napa Valley vineyards that supplied grapes to this icon of California wine. In 2011 he bought back the Inglenook trademark so that he could use it for the highest quality line in his winery operation. Readers can learn about the resurrection of the fabled Inglenook brand at Historic Inglenook Estate to Release First Wine with Classic Label)

 

By Dan Clarke

Inglenook 1941 Cab MEDThe legendary 1941 

For all the mystique about older wines, not many of us really have much first-hand experience with them. Not even wine writers.

In the modern world most wines are purchased shortly after they are released. The red wines of Bodeaux and their American counterparts (comprised mostly of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) go on sale about three years after their grapes were crushed. Those of us who write about wine spend an awful lot of time tasting, analyzing and pontificating about these new vintages. Often we predict which ones will age well, though we may not have extensive experience with their previous editions. It is expected of us.

So while we spend most of our time tasting new wine, we love to sample older vintages. Doing so validates (or refutes) our predictions. The exercise usually involves wines five or ten years old, at times somewhat older.

Last Friday I was privileged to experience vinous history. The Niebaum-Coppola Estate occupies the property that once was home to Inglenook. Francis Ford Coppola didn’t have to inherit the mantle of greatness of the legendary Napa Valley property (interim corporate entities squandered that opportunity in the 1960s and 70s), but he chose to do so. He believes that the glory that was Inglenook’s is the heritage he continues in his Rubicon wines. Since 1974 he has been purchasing segments of the original historic Niebaum Estate, home of Inglenook wines, and after extensive restoration, winemaking returned to the original chateau with his 2002 crush for Rubicon.

John Daniel Jr. was the name associated with the glamour years of Inglenook—the decades of the 30s, 40s and 50s. He was known as a man who never stinted in the pursuit of quality. He made what must have been a difficult decision to sell the winery in 1964. Things were never the same. After a very few years the emphasis went to lower prices points and larger production. Today the name Inglenook still appears, but only on cheap jug wines.

About 70 of us participated in the Inglenook tasting and the Rubicon dinner that followed. Our host was there, of course, as were his wife Eleanor and son Roman. Others from Niebaum-Coppola tasted with us. There was a clear link to the past in the presence of Robin Lail and her husband Jon. Robin is the daughter of John Daniel and continues the legacy in her own way with the John Daniel Cuvée from Lail Vineyards. Some television people were there and I recognized fellow wine writers Dan Berger, George Starke and Alan Goldfarb, among others. We were part of a fortunate group.

The tasting included seven Cabernet Sauvignons spanning four decades. We began with the youngest wine, the last one made on John Daniel’s watch, a 1963. We concluded with the first Inglenook wine to celebrate the repeal of the Volstead Act, the 1933 vintage. Master Sommelier Larry Stone supervised the uncorking and decanting of the wines. Because of the size of our group, not all of us had samples from the same bottles, of course. Variation from bottle to bottle could mean different tasting experiences. My observations seemed to be more-or-less similar to several of my colleagues. Quantification of the experience wasn’t the point, though. You don’t count beans when you’re experiencing history.

I would have loved it if every friend who really appreciates wine could have shared the table with us at last Friday’s tasting. Since that wasn’t possible I’ll provide the harvest notes we were given for each vintage (as taken from the writings of Charles Sullivan, Stephen Brook, Michael Broadbent and James Laube), as well as my own thoughts:

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Cask, C-3,

Napa Valley 1963, 750 ml

 

Harvest Notes “A very wet rainy season was followed by lots of frost and a cool summer. September was cool and foggy. The early October rain hit with 50 percent of the crop unharvested. There was a race to get grapes in, and pickers were scarce. Last vintage under John Daniel family ownership. The Napa Valley Wine Library was formed. A record year for California wine production.”

 

This wine is nearly 40 years old. Thinking of it as John Daniel’s last wine brings a little sadness, which is amplified by realizing that the grapes were crushed the month before Jack Kennedy was assassinated. I wonder if I have ever tasted this wine and the 1958 and 1959 vintages that will come next. It’s certainly possible, but that would have been a long time ago. When the fraternity party invitation read B.Y.O.B., I tended to drink Almaden Mountain Burgundy, not a bad wine and, at $1.25 affordable for a college boy. But it was not Inglenook Cabernet Sauvignon.

 

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Cask, J-6,

Napa Valley, 1959, 750 ml

 

Harvest Notes “A dry year with a scorching summer. St. Helena hit 111 degrees on July 10th. The vintage started on August 28th and was rapid and fairly orderly. Hot weather cut crop, but yields were satisfactory. A huge September 17th rain frightened growers, but excellent weather followed. Very hot in Napa, but some memorable cabernets. Napa wine production was 5,752,000 gallons with an average grower price of $67.38. Vineyardists earned $201 income per bearing acre.”

 

I’m relieved to find that this wine is still vibrant. If not youthful, it certainly isn’t over the top. It was a great nose, with minty, menthol/eucalyptus aromas. This is a wine that makes you sit up and take notice.

 

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Cask, F-10,

Napa Valley, 1958, 750 ml

 

Harvest Notes “Vintage was early and orderly. Warm weather lasted into November. An extremely good vintage for Cabernet Sauvignon. The number of wineries declined from 38 to 30 since 1951. Prices went back up, with national wine consumption rising steadily.”

 

Less minty than the ’59, but fine Cabernet aroma. This wine is wonderfully balanced and has a long finish. An elegant wine. (Might I have had it before? Maybe in the early ‘60s on a special date at Restaurant Antoinina or while looking for sophistication on trips to San Francisco as a college student).

 

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Napa Valley, 1943, 750 ml

 

Harvest Notes “Winemakers of the era considered 1943 only ‘good.’ Vineyardists left monumental numbers of buds on their vines, making 1943 the largest vintage here since 1888. In 1943 the wine list of New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel contained twenty-eight table wines from Napa producers. A decision was made by founding fathers (Martini, Tchelistcheff, Daniel, Abruzzini, Stelling, Stralla, Forni, the Mondavis and Brother John) to meet regularly and discuss matters important to Napa wine, be they technical, financial, cultural or gastronomic. Martini was the first president and Daniel the first vice president. They were most concerned about government price controls on grape prices. Later, in 1983, the group became a formal trade organization, the Napa Valley Vintner’s Association.”

 

The 1943 is a little dimmer than the ’58, but still remarkably good. It smells and taste like an old Bordeaux. (This vintage is a year older than I am--and maybe in better shape?).

 

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Napa Valley, 1941, 750 ml

 

Harvest Notes “The 1941 vintage was almost featureless, except that Napa producers made several great wines . . . the Inglenook Cabernets . . . were fifty-year wines. Some great wine, notably Inglenook Cask. Heavy spring rain, ten cold days, bloom delayed. Very warm summer. Dry autumn, late October harvest. Napa wine production was 5,288,000 gallons with an average price per ton of $24.50.”

 

The wine still has good color and composition, but not a lot of nose. It’s still an elegant wine, though, with a very long finish. (For years I’ve heard about the California vintage of 1941, but hadn’t the opportunity to taste it until now. What a treat! It would have been wonderful to track this wine all through its history, maybe tasting a bottle every year or two. I wonder if anyone has been able to do that? No matter. I have experienced this 61-year-old wonder this evening).

 

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Napa Valley, 1934, 375 ml and 750 ml

 

Harvest Notes “The vintage . . . was of good quality . . . Good quality. Independent vineyardists organized to form the first cooperative winery. Grape prices collapsed from 1933 euphoric heights.”

 

These last two wines are in very short supply tonight. Vintages poured prior to this provided a small glass for each taster. Each glass of the 1934 and the next wine must be shared by two tasters. Color is very dark, dense. The first whiff and the nose seems unusual. The aroma reminds me of knockwurst, a word I’ve never used in describing wine. The first sip reveals a taste much better than the odor might have hinted. Later sniffs reveal some floral odors—maybe a little bit like violets. It gets nicer as it goes along. Not a long finish, but what ’34 does? (At harvest time my father was running cross country during his senior year at San Mateo High School).

 

 

Inglenook Estate Cabernet Sauvignon

Napa Valley, 1933, 375 ml

 

Harvest Notes “The Napa Valley crop was very short and 5,000,000 gallons of wine were produced. The weather for harvesting grapes was ideal—reported in mid October. First harvest after prohibition.”

 

All of the 1933 tastes and some of the 1934 have been poured from ½ bottles. Accepted wisdom is that the larger the bottle, the slower and more gracefully the wine will age, but these bottles were what was available. Would the wines have tasted different/better if they had come from larger bottles? The point is moot, of course, but I can’t imagine wines this old tasting any better or more youthful. This wine is still remarkably young in appearance. There seems to be a little subtle spice in the background—not a characteristic normally attributed to this variety, but I find it pleasant. It finishes nicely and very long. (My mother was in junior high school in Medford, Oregon at harvest time. No doubt her father was pleased about the end of Prohibition, though it didn’t cramp his style too much according to most family recollections).

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of hundreds of lodging and dining options in the Napa Valley and the rest of the North Coast can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

 

 

Inglenook Estate has announced that it will produce the first premium wine bearing the Inglenook label since the Estate was disassembled in 1964. The 2009 vintage of Inglenook CASK Cabernet will be released in late spring of 2012.

One year ago, Francis Ford Coppola successfully completed the process of reclaiming the Inglenook trademark so that his celebrated Rubicon Estate in Rutherford, Napa Valley would thereafter be known by its historicInglenook 09 Cask  SMALL ING engraving FNL original name. At the same time, he hired winemaker Philippe Bascaules, previously of Château Margaux in Bordeaux, to assume the position of Estate Manager and Winemaker for Inglenook. Inglenook and its wines have played a prominent role in defining Napa Valley as one of the great wine regions of the world, with a legacy dating back 130 years to the founding of the Inglenook Winery in 1880 by Gustave Niebaum. The 1941 Inglenook Cabernet, which is considered one of the greatest wines ever made, was produced from vineyards that are still part of Coppola’s estate in Rutherford. The legendary 1941 vintage remains an inspiration for Inglenook Estate today and for the fortunate few who have the opportunity to experience it.

The estate wines will return to their historical labels as well. The new label heralds the original Inglenook Cabernet label of the late 1950s, of which it is almost an exact replica, and features a classic design showcasing the façade of the Inglenook Estate and the name of the grape, Cabernet Sauvignon. Francis Ford Coppola commissioned a retired US Mint artist to create the etching of the chateau that appears on the new label.

Inglenook and its wines have played a prominent role in defining Napa Valley as one of the great wine regions of the world, with a legacy dating back 130 years to the founding of the Inglenook Winery in 1880 by Gustave Niebaum. The 1941 Inglenook Cabernet, which is considered one of the greatest wines ever made, was produced from vineyards that are still part of Coppola’s estate in Rutherford. The legendary 1941 vintage remains an inspiration for Inglenook Estate today and for the fortunate few who have the opportunity to experience it.

The choice of the 2009 CASK Cabernet as the first wine to bear the new Inglenook label is fitting. The CASK Cabernet is a tribute to the highly stylized Cabernet Sauvignon produced by Inglenook during the John Daniel, Jr. era of the 1930s and 1940s that saw many of the greatest historical Inglenook vintages ever produced. This wine epitomizes the kind of Rutherford wine that inspires and stimulates debate among connoisseurs.

The 2009 vintage is a deserving choice to represent the greatness of Inglenook Estate, as well. Philippe Bascaules offers his first impression of the vintage: “When I tasted some samples of the 2009 vintage, I recognized the incredible potential of this property. I understood Francis Ford Coppola’s desire to bring the quality of the wines to their fullest potential.”

Bascaules works closely with Stéphane Derenoncourt, the famed Pomerol-based winemaking consultant who has been the consulting winemaker at the Estate responsible for the 2008 and subsequent vintages.

HISTORY OF INGLENOOK

Inglenook Vineyards was founded in 1880 by Gustave Niebaum, a Finnish sea captain who used his enormous wealth to import the best European grapevines to Napa. Over the next several decades under the guidance of the legendary John Daniel, Inglenook built a reputation as the source of some of the finest wines ever made. By 1975, however, when Francis and Eleanor Coppola first purchased part of the famed property, the Inglenook Estate had long since been broken up and its name sold off. The Coppolas spent the next twenty years reuniting the vineyards and restoring winemaking to the historic Inglenook Chateau. Today, in addition to the Cabernet Sauvignon that dominates the Estate, the Inglenook acreage is also planted with Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah, and eight acres of white Rhone varietals that produce the estate's flagship white, Blancaneaux. Inglenook is now completely restored to its original dimensions and is once again America's great wine estate.

 

Editor's Note: Readers can share Dan Clarke's experience with many of those great Inglenook vintages at Tasting History, A Trip into Inglenook's Past.

 

Spring in The Napa Valley is the perfect time for getting outdoors and up-close-and-personal with blooming wild mustard and budding vines. Conservation organizations, nature-minded hotels and sporty tasting rooms serve up exciting adventures in the great outdoors with treks that include biking, kayaking, art and yoga.

Trees Hwy 29 SMALLCanopy of trees on Hwy 29Connecting to the LandDedicated to the preservation of the Napa Valley, the Land Trust of Napa County has successfully protected 26,000 acres of pristine wilderness, designating these spaces as public parks and recreational areas featuring fabulous vistas and wildlife corridors.

Throughout the year, the Land Trust offers unique and invigorating field trips, from hikes to wildlife sanctuary explorations or jeep-led tours. On April 29, 2012, the Land Trust began offering a free six-mile "Maggie's Peak Trail Run." The new hike features a trek up the mountainside to the dramatic Devil's Well waterfall and into a serene redwood grove. And this spring and summer, the Land Trust kicks off its new MemberSeries program focused on new ways to connect with the Napa Valley's protected lands, including a 90-minute yoga/meditation session at Archer Taylor Preserve, a century-old redwood forest, and field trips involving lessons in outdoor art and photography. For a schedule of events, brochure and hike sign-up, please visit www.napalandtrust.org.

Tasting the TrailsCycling enthusiasts can pedal over to Velo Vino, a St. Helena tasting room celebrating both cycling and wine, for the sportiest wine tasting in the Napa Valley. Serving Clif Family wines alongside group or custom biking excursions, Velo Vino offers monthly, complimentary cycling adventures suitable for both moderate and advanced riders, ranging in distance from 35-50 miles. Recent rides included cycling along the 40-mile Franz Valley loop on March 24, and on April 21, participating riders biked the 38-mile Old Toll Road route.

Art Inspired Hikes at di RosaSpring is the perfect time for art and nature lovers to visit the di Rosa museum and explore its significant collection of Northern California art. Beginning in April, di Rosa is offering a series of Spring Nature Hikes (April 28, May 5, May 19 and June 9), where guests join experienced guides for the rare opportunity to hike to the top of Milliken Peak at di Rosa, the highest summit in Napa Valley's Carneros region. In addition to sweeping views of the North Bay, hikers' gazes will be entranced with sculptures along the trek to the peak. The hike is moderately strenuous and children under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult.

Also offered at di Rosa, every Saturday at 10:00 a.m., April through September, is the two and a half hour "Art and Meadow" tour, which includes a tour of di Rosa's Main Gallery, Historic Residence, and Sculpture Meadow rich in flora and fauna, including resident peacocks. Highlights include the wildly colorful outdoor art populating the meadow, courtyard and 100 year-old olive grove, featuring sculptures by Viola Frey, Mark di Suvero, Gordon Huether, Ray Beldner and the world's tallest file cabinet (Minuet in MG) by Sam Yates. Hikes are free to members, all others $15. For more information about the hikes and tours visit: www.dirosaart.org.

Stay and Hike the Day Away PackageAt the eco-friendly Bardessono hotel in Yountville, a LEED Platinum certified property, the "Hike the Day Away" package includes annual membership for two with the Land Trust of Napa County, which provides access for hiking on private lands and opportunities to enjoy unique members-only excursions. The Bardessono also offers amenities that encourage environmentally friendly adventure, such as complimentary bike rentals for guests and an electric car recharging station. For information and reservations visit http://www.bardessono.com.

 

(TravMedia.com contributed to this article)

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of Napa Valley wineries, as well as websites of hundreds of lodging and dining options will be found in the North Coast section of Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

Thomas Keller of Yountville's French Laundry received the S.Pellegrino Lifetime Achievement Award on AprilThos Keller SMALL Images Original 09 267e6d30Thos Keller of French Laundry. 30th at London's Guildhall.

The award is conferred by the World’s 50 Best Restaurant Academy which includes 27 Chairs from around the world and an 837-strong voting panel. In receiving this accolade, he joins the S.Pellegrino Lifetime Achievement hall of fame alongside Juan Mari Arzak, Eckart Witzigmann and Joël Robuchon.

Keller's iconic restaurant, The French Laundry in Yountville, California, effectively revolutionized American cooking, combining classical French techniques with distinctive, locally sourced quality ingredients years before such an approach became de rigueur.

For two years The French Laundry topped the list of The World's 50 Best Restaurants (2003, 2004) and built up global notoriety for individual dishes such as Oysters & Pearls, Salmon Cornets and Coffee & Donuts that have since become famous in their own right.

Per Se, which opened in New York in 2004, is Keller's “urban interpretation” of The French Laundry and sets equally high standards of food and service. With two three-star restaurants on opposite coasts, Keller has passed day to day cooking responsibilities over to his respective chefs de cuisine, but his philosophy, influence and sheer presence still dominates both restaurants.

Further afield, Keller is revered across the world by chefs and diners alike for his graciousness, collaborative nature and enduring ability to inspire culinary perfection.

cornet of marinated Atlantic salmon SMALLcornets of marinated Atlantic salmon William Drew, Editor of Restaurant magazine, said, “Chef Keller has long been an inspirational figure in the restaurant world – not just to the numerous chefs that have worked under him but to many others who have tasted his wonderful food or simply admired it from afar. His restaurants' ever-presence on the World's 50 Best list is a testament in itself to the enduring brilliance of this most respected of culinary masters.”

Chef Keller commented, “I am extremely honored to have been selected to receive this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants Lifetime Achievement Award. But what I am most excited about is the opportunity to celebrate this recognition with my friends and colleagues after the event! We’ve pushed the envelope and inspired each other through the years – we are all in this together.”

Complete results of the awards are featured in the May issue of Britain's Restaurant magazine and be accessible at www.theworlds50best.com.

 

(TravMedia.com contributed to this article)

 

Editor's note: links to websites of wineries in Napa and the rest of the North Coast, as well as hundreds of links to lodging and dining options, are found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

Friday, 20 April 2012 13:54

Harvest '90

(Editor’s note: The following essay appeared in the November 1990 edition of the California Wine Press and has been rerun in California Wine and Food. In some ways the world has changed since then—wages have risen and the price of top-quality wines has, too--but the hand picking of winegrapes remains much the same.)

 

By Dan Clarke

 

They start to gather in the darkness. It’s still a little chilly and most are wearing light jackets or wool plaid overshirts. Later they will peel these off and work in tee-shirts.

Bancroft20Ranch July09 PPT Friday SMAll 18 MayMerlot vines on rolling hills of Bancroft Vineyard. Photo by Chuck O'Rear. Bancroft Vineyard is on the top of Howell Mountain a few miles to the east of St. Helena in the heart of the Napa Valley. Here at 1800 feet elevation it’s usually cooler in the morning than on the valley floor.

Simon, Ruben and Ignacio are among the first out of the bunkhouse. A few minutes later Leopoldo—“Polo”—joins them. These men live at the vineyard pretty much year ‘round. They have families in Mexico they haven’t seen since they came up in January to begin the pruning. Within a week after harvest is completed they will be on the way back to El Llano, their home in Michoacan. It’s a difficult life and they work hard for their six to eight dollars an hour wages. At home they might make that for a whole day—when they could find work.

Headlights coming up the drive announce the arrival of more pickers. Most of them are from Mexico, but are living in the wine country now. Two crews will be working today with about 10 pickers each. Gringos don’t pick grapes. Oh, they can and sometimes do just for the experience or to augment the Mexicans’ work, but the fact is, they’re not very good at it. There will be others working today, men and women without Latin surnames who will drive tractors, help pickers dump bins of grapes into the gondolas, and remove “MOG” (material other than grapes).

Everybody pretty much knows what the group is going to do and what his role in the day’s activities will be, but there is an air of anticipation; an excitement and maybe a little tension. The feeling could be likened to the feeling shortly before kickoff of a football game or backstage just before the curtain goes up.

Joaquin Villanueva, the foreman, confers with vineyard manager Jon Seibel and then speaks to the pickers in Spanish. There is the sound of machinery everywhere. Two Ford pickup trucks leave the staging area, taking the pickers out to the vineyard. Four Kubota diesel tractors leave, too, pulling empty blue gondolas on the low trailers behind them.

Most farm work is done for wages, but this is different. Harvest means piece work and the chance to earn $100—maybe $150 a day. Each person shares evenly in the money his crew will earn today. The first half hour or so, picking is done in only a half-light and care must be taken not to include any clusters of “second crop”—grapes that begin their growth after the majority do. These may look mature, but they’re not. Their characteristic shine or slight luminescence can’t easily be picked out until the sun gets over the pine trees adjacent the vineyard. Now and for the next couple of hours the packers are literally running. They scurry from vine to vine, looping around each other until their trays are filled, then run to the gondola which usually precedes them down the row about twenty to thirty yards ahead. Later, fatigue will slow them a bit, but now they run toward the gondola, usually dumping their bins themselves if they are working in the same row as the tractor. If they’re in a row adjacent, they’ll hand the bins to helpers who attend the tractor and gondola—under the vines or over them. The helpers this day are tall Anglos who can usually take the tray over the vines more easily than they can bend to the level where the Mexicans are to pick the tray up. Occasionally, Arriba!  is heard and a picker sends his bin flying over the vines and right into the goldola. We retrieve the empty bin and send it back at him. This throwing of the bin may be thought to conserve time and, when it’s done accurately, probably does. There’s a macho element to it, though, and I can’t deny that for men who weigh maybe 130 pounds to press 40 to 50 pounds of grapes overhad then fling them over the vines and directly into the gondola is pretty impressive athletically. As the day warms, this practice wanes as does the running.

BER Vyd Picker Bancroft PPT SMALL Friday 18 MayPicking is hard work, but the pay is good.

Picking fast and picking cleanly is imperative, but is not easy to do. Leaves are sometimes cut along with grape clusters and must be minimized before the load goes to the winery. The tall helpers stoop over the gondolas, working furiously to remove leaves and anything else that’s not grapes. Each gondola holds about two tons and as one fills, it must leave the vineyard row and be replaced immediately by another tractor with empty gondola. Filling each gondola takes about 45 minutes and care must be taken to periodically level the load and gently pack down the grapes, otherwise the gondola will overflow without acquiring its required two tons.

Whether picking or packing, handling ripe grapes gets the hands sticky. Loaders and packers will rinse off occasionally in water from the orange cylinder kept on or near each tractor. Pickers will use the same water source for drinking but don’t seem to have time to wash off. When loaded, the tractor and gondola will be driven back to the area in front of the bunkhouse and shop where Javier will weigh the grapes and load them onto a large flatbed trailer. Later, this trailer will be towed down eight miles of steep and windy road to Beringer.

Nature, good viticultural practices and maybe a bit of luck along the way have combined to produce exceptional red wine grapes from this vineyard. Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc from another section at Bancroft are picked for Beringer’s Private Reserve, but this Merlot is regarded as something really special. At the end of the year Beringer will release its first-ever Merlot, designated as “Bancroft Ranch.” The price is projected to be $27 a bottle on release for the 1987 vintage. Who knows how much the Merlot grapes picked today will be worth when they are available in bottle in three years? Perhaps this is a question only writers ponder. (Editor’s note: The Beringer Winery currently sells Bancroft Ranch Merlot at $90.)

Around noon people begin to wonder if we are close to finishing. Today, Beringer Winemaster Ed Sbragia says he wants 24 tons. The pickers are tired, but they’d rather continue deep into the afternoon and are disappointed to find that the winery can only accommodate the 12 gondolas of grapes today.

Disappointment is tempered by the exhilaration of knowing that relaxation is just a few minutes away as some ride in from the vineyard clinging to the last full gondolas, others standing in the back of a stake-bed pickup. A few minutes to rinse their picking bins and themselves and then quickly to the iced tub of sodas and Budweiser.

About seven hours ago I thought the atmosphere resembled that preceding an athletic contest and now, sitting under a tree and savoring the second beer, I feel like I used to when peeling off tape in a locker room and looking forward to a shower.

Fifty yards to the north and out in the sun is the big trailer with 12 gondolas of our grapes. Better to stay away from them now as the bees are attracted to their sweet stickiness. It’s nice to relax and gaze at them. They’re a very tangible record of our labors today. In an hour they’ll be gone and in two hours they’ll begin to be dumped into a stemmer/crusher at Beringer and its stainless steel augur will continue the work of helping fruit reach its highest expression.

And tomorrow before dawn we’ll begin again.

 

Editor's note: Links to websites of all the Napa Valley wineries, as well as hundreds of lodging and dining options in the North Coast, are found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

 

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