The Crush

I once heard a policeman say his job was 90% boredom punctuated by 10% terror. The work of anyone who grows and produces their own wine is markedly similar, except the grapes don’t shoot at you. A vastly disproportionate amount of a winemaker’s annual workload is devoted to a flurry of activities in the weeks between the ripening of the grapes and the end of fermentation, collectively known as “the crush”. Here in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the crush usually begins in late September or October.

Everything must be done quickly and carefully, as any mistake or delay in the process can result in bad wine, or even vinegar. Mother Nature gives us grapes, but she seeks to destroy our winemaking efforts in many other ways, including but not limited to mold, bacteria, fruit flies, not enough oxygen or too much oxygen. Now back to the good stuff.

When each block of a vineyard achieves the perfect degree of ripeness, as judged mostly by the sugar content, or Brix, the grapes are harvested. Workers handpick the fruit, often working under Klieg lights in the cool morning hours before dawn. The cooler the grapes are when picked and crushed, the better chance you’ll have to make great wine from them.

Pinot Noir Grapes, Grape Harvest

By ten o’clock in the morning, the bins of grapes from today’s block are picked and ready to move to the crusher/de-stemmer, which will separate the stems, the skins and the juice. The stems are discarded. For red wines, the skins and juice are placed in fermentation bins where yeast is added. White wines are fermented with little or no contact with the skins, while pink wines stay in contact with the skins for a day or two. By the end of the day, primary fermentation, the process in which yeast convert sugar and oxygen to alcohol, begins.

The skins eventually float to the top of the bin and cut off the supply of oxygen to the yeast, so each bin much be “punched down” twice a day throughout the primary fermentation, which takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, depending on temperature and other variables.

Meanwhile, the grapes picked on earlier days will be in different stages of the process, so in addition to picking, crushing and fermenting, during the crush there is always “racking” to be done – moving wine from bins to tanks to barrels. As I’ve no doubt mentioned in the past, some winemakers arrange the fermentation tanks to be up hill from the barrels, and the crush pad uphill from the tanks, so that the delicate juices never have to be pumped. I stopped by Alfaro one afternoon and observed Richard using a makeshift gravity feed system: there he was, standing atop a tank holding a hose connected to a bin that he had positioned above himself on a tall forklift.

This is an exciting time to visit a winery if they’ll have you. Some are closed to the public during the crush but stop by if you can and you’ll see a flurry of activity and hear some amazing stories.

Stags Leap District

As readers of the Wine and the Movies column may recall, it was the 1976 Judgment of Paris wine competition that put Napa Valley on the world stage. And it wasn’t just for the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay featured in Bottle Shock, but also for a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa’s Stags Leap District, which runs along the Silverado Trail between Napa and Yountville. This unique terroir produces fruit with a unique softness and intensity, and local winemakers know how to transform that into a great wine.

After a couple of fun days in Healdsburg, we decided to drive through the Alexander and Knights Valleys, both highly respectable Cabernet growing appellations, and get a room at the historic Napa River Inn. The River Inn is a converted mill and warehouse located in downtown Napa. It’s a nice hotel and a great location for exploring the riverfront and downtown areas.

The next day, we took a drive up to Robert Sinskey, at the north end of the Stags Leap District. Sinskey has vineyards at the winery and in Los Carneros, and a few years ago produced the best Merlot I’ve ever tasted. The tasting room boasts fine craftsmanship and a soaring ceiling, and you can count on experiencing a variety of perfectly crafted wines and some of the best food pairings in the valley. It’s also a nice place to picnic, with bucolic vineyard views. In addition to the truly great Merlot, the Three Amigos Vineyard Pinot is always a treat, and you shouldn’t go to Stags Leap without trying some estate cabs.

In search of more great estate cabs, we proceeded to Cliff Lede, on Yountville Cross Road, where cab is king. In keeping with the old adage “How do you make a small fortune in wine? Start with a big one,” Cliff Lede and his brother made their fortune building Ledcor, one of Canada’s premier construction companies. Along the way, Cliff had the foresight to buy land in Napa, which is probably now worth a fortune itself. We happened to pull into the parking lot at the same time as Tom Roseller, a senior consultant who advises clients on custom wine production.

Tom also trains the staff, but had enough time this day to afford an interested listener an extensive dissertation on the myriad details involved in producing some of world’s great Cabernets. We sampled anything and everything he could find, including a couple things from the backroom that Tom poured while discretely muttering “contraband”. As an avid wine tourist, it doesn’t get much better than that.

I must close by offering an apology to any reader of the Healdsburg column who rented My Favorite Year and wondered why there was no Russell Crowe and no vineyard. The correct title is A Good Year.


When visiting California wine country, many people prefer exploring Sonoma County, which has excellent wineries and is less crowded and more laid back than its more famous neighbor Napa. Of course if you really want laid back, you need to come to Santa Cruz, but that’s another story.

The best towns for a base of operations in Sonoma County are Sonoma and Healdsburg. They each have a town square or plaza, surrounded by restaurants, boutique inns and shops, and tasting rooms. On a recent visit to Healdsburg, we found ourselves staying at the H2 hotel, just a block off the Plaza. It’s a modern, sustainable affair, with bamboo flooring, recycled steel and an undulating, living roof. The café, Spoonbar, opens onto the sidewalk so you can eat al fresco, and the food is extraordinary. In the same space is the “Receptobar”, where you can check in, get a drink, make a dinner reservation, borrow a bike to ride around town or a DVD to play on the flat screen in your room. We watched My Favorite Year in which Russell Crowe plays a ruthless stock trader who inherits his uncle’s French vineyard where he had spent summers as a boy. See it.

Next door to the H2 is the La Crema tasting room, featuring some of my favorite Sonoma County Pinots and Chardonnays and a friendly, young tasting room staff. Venturing further down Healdsburg Avenue, you’ll find the Healdsburg Bar and Grill, Murphy-Goode and Kendall-Jackson tasting rooms, and the Bear Republic Brewery, all highly recommended. Just past the plaza is Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar. If you are only able to do one thing in Healdsburg, this has to be it. You can sit at Willi’s bar and order individual oysters from all over the world, along with numerous tapas style delicacies. We like to dine on the patio on calamari and ahi.

Healdsburg wouldn’t be complete without getting in the car and venturing out from downtown. To the south, you’ll find Rodney Strong. I always like to visit at least one place whose wines I can find at home, and I always enjoy their Chardonnays and Cabernets.

If you are a movie buff, consider driving north from Healdsburg where you can visit the Francis Ford Coppola Winery, a gorgeous estate that was once called Sovereign. The movie memorabilia that used to be on display at Coppola’s Inglenook estate in Napa is now here, including five Oscar statues. Coppola’s wines are always excellent, so we didn’t leave empty handed.

On the way back to Healdsburg, you might enjoy stopping at Trentadue. We found the staff friendly and the wines well made. The winner was the Chocolate Amore desert wine, and I don’t normally go in for port. While at Trentadue, you may be able to pick up a bottle etched with the logo of your alma mater, unless you’re a Banana Slug or Gaucho fan.

Closer to downtown Healdsburg is Seghesio, who have a large, Mediterranean style tasting room with glass windows behind the bar providing a view of the barrel room. The variety and quality of the wines were much to our liking and the pour girl was unusually knowledgeable.

After two fine days in and about Healdsburg, our Wine Country adventure continued with a drive through the Alexander and Knights valleys to Napa. Please stay tuned.


The Startup

Four years ago, Mica Raas’ team of six winemakers was producing 2.4 million gallons of wine per year at one of California’s large contract wine manufacturers. Since 2009, he’s been making 1000 times less, having started his own winery, Mica Cellars, in a Watsonville warehouse. He did this for the same reasons that Applied Motion was founded in 1978: to create and market products that embody his own vision, design and craftsmanship.

Mica Cellars shares a space called Winemakers Studio on Hanger Way, near the Watsonville Municipal Airport. It’s just up the street from one of our contract assemblers. You would never guess from the industrial surroundings that Mica and fellow tenant Roudon Smith are producing excellent, hand crafted wines on site.

Mica Raas Winemaker
Winemaker Mica Raas

He’s making around 1000 cases per year with carefully selected, purchased fruit and French oak barrels. The barrel room is a typical industrial warehouse with roll up doors, but is well insulated and filled with racks of oak barrels, fermentation tanks, and the usual pumps and hoses. At Mica’s previous job, they pumped the wine out of the tanks with 6 inch hoses and 10 HP pumps. You won’t see that at the artisanal wineries you’ve read about in these columns. Some even arrange their equipment so that the wine can be “gravity fed” instead of pumped. Peter Bargetto, a partner in Soquel Vineyards, tells me that his small, cavitation-free Italian pumps are just as good to the wine as letting it flow downhill.

Many of my favorite wines are single vineyard. They have a distinctive flavor, traceable to a particular spot on Earth, and the label bears this out. Instead of “California”, a single vineyard label might read “Garys’ Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands”. The Mica Cellars 2010 Pinot Noir offers engineer-like precision in “Smith Road Vineyards, Rows 2-5, Santa Cruz Mountains”.

My wife and I have been to visit several times and we always take home a bottle of Pinot Noir, and sometimes Cabernet Franc. Franc is a close cousin of Cabernet Sauvignon and is usually grown so it can be blended with other Bordeaux varietals. But a well made, single vineyard Cabernet Franc is a treat. Mica Cellars also mixes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes before fermentation in what is called a “field blend”. The tannins combine chemically during fermentation, producing flavors that are not possible if the blending occurs later in the process.

Having helped start something from nothing myself, I can only wish Mica Raas the best of luck with his venture. He’s off to a great start. If you get a chance, stop by 18 Hanger Way on a Saturday afternoon, and treat yourself to a taste of some very enjoyable wine.

South of the Border

As our cruise ship pulled into port at Ensenada, Mexico, we decided to bypass the popular La Bufadora & Shopping Excursion and board an air conditioned tour bus bound for the Calafia Valley, to see the vineyards of Old Mexico. As luck would have it, our dinner mates Tim and Eva decided to join us. It never hurts to have a judge in tow when you’re out and about in Mexico, even if his jurisdiction is Tucson, Arizona.

Jeff Kordik, LA Cetto winery Mexico

Calafia is about 20 minutes from the coast; the ride was scenic and charming on a typical sunny, dry Baja day. Our first stop was L.A. Cetto, founded by Don Angelo Cetto, who emigrated from Italy in the 1920’s. The winery is named after his son, Luis Agustin. I can say with certainly that it’s the only vineyard I’ve seen planted around a bull fighting ring. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised after visiting Howard Hughes’ flying behemoth The Spruce Goose, which is also surrounded by a vineyard. But if you’ve been paying attention, you already knew that (hint: Jeff’s Wining Again, Sept 2011).

Our guide Tomas showed us around the grounds and the production facility. Judging from the size of the barrel room, I’d guess L.A. Cetto is producing about 10,000 cases per year.

Back in the tasting room, we tried several whites, including Chenin Blanc (not a fan), Blanc de Blancs, and a decent Chardonnay. We also sampled the Italian reds Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, accompanied by excellent local, fresh bread. I am known to seek out good Sangiovese whenever possible, but this particular day I would be unsuccessful.

Our second stop was Casa Pedro Domecq, founded in Spain by an Irishman named Patrick Murphy. While not fluent in Spanish, I’m fairly certain that Pedro Domecq is not a literal translation of Patrick Murphy.

Domecq is an eclectic blend of new and old worlds, and a worthy wine destination. Beneath the modern tasting room with stunning vineyard and mountain views lie a series of tunnels used to age the wine. If they offer you a tour, take it. In addition to housing thousands of barrels and bottles, the caves also serve as an informal “museum” of antique wine making equipment that Pedro Domecq no longer uses but has preserved for posterity.

While lacking a bull fighting ring, the wines were vast improvement over L.A. Cetto. The Cabernet Sauvignon was good enough for us to bring a few bottles back to the boat.

The lesson of Calafia Valley is that grapes are grown and wine is made in many countries and most American states. You don’t have to go to Burgundy or Napa to find someone who makes a good bottle of wine. Adventure awaits wherever you go.

Buen Viaje.

Wine and the Movies

With that title, you might be expecting a story about taking a flask to a theater, or which wine pairs best with Casablanca (Bogart’s characters would likely prefer whiskey or gin). In fact, we’ll be exploring several aspects of the long relationship between wine and filmmaking.

Legendary director Francis Ford Coppola owns two wineries, including the historic Inglenook estate in Napa Valley, which was purchased with the proceeds from The Godfather and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a beautiful chateau to visit and the wines are exemplary. Like most Napa establishments, they focus on Chardonnay and big Cabernets.

The list of current actors who own wineries or vineyards includes Kyle MacLachlan (Pursued by Bear, Washington State), Dan Aykroyd (Aykroyd, Ontario), Antonio Banderas (Anta Banderas, Spain), Emilio Estevez (Casa Dumetz, Malibu) and Fess Parker. Parker’s vineyard in Foxen Canyon, near Santa Barbara, is worth a visit. The Pinot Noir and Syrah are excellent and the tasting room features wine glasses with a coon skin cap etched onto them. For those too young to remember, Fess Parker played Davy Crocket, an early 19th century American wilderness man who wore a raccoon skin cap.

Wine itself can be prominent in film, but sometimes it just drops in for a cameo, as in two of my favorite Roy Scheider films. In Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman stars as an NYC grad student whose life is consumed by his studies and marathon training. When his worldly brother (Scheider) visits with a great French Bordeaux in hand, he searches the kitchen for wine glasses before settling on two water glasses of questionable cleanliness.

Marathon Man Wine Scene

The tables are turned on Scheider’s character Chief Brody in Jaws, the 1975 Spielberg thriller. This time it is he who disrespects a fine bottle of Burgundy that shark expert Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss) has brought for dinner. Brody, severely stressed after losing a second citizen to a shark attack, grabs the freshly opened bottle, fills a tall glass and starts gulping as Hooper attempts to protest “you should really let that breathe”

Wine takes center stage in Sideways, the Alexander Paine comedy about the last romp of a groom and his oenophile buddy who takes him tasting, and adventuring, around Foxen Canyon and the Santa Ynez Valley. They even stop at Fess Parker. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church are terrific in this film, so if you haven’t seen it and you like wine and laughs, put it in your Netflix queue.

Another great film that is wholly about wine is Bottle Shock, the story of Chateau Montelena’s improbable victory in the “Judgment of Paris”, a 1976 international wine competition that helped propel Napa to the forefront of the wine universe. Bonus points: it stars Chris Pine, who played young Captain Kirk in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.

There is much more to this story than we can fit in these pages, so you’ll have to continue the journey through wine and film on your own. Bon voyage.

Barrel Tasting

Those who like wine tasting are accustomed to the routine: six or eight bottles are lined up on a counter; the tasting room associate (aka pour person) explains a bit about each wine as you’re sampling. The wines you taste are available for purchase and are often sold in stores and restaurants. The winemaker, on the other hand, has a different experience. After the wine has gone into the barrel (or a stainless steel vat if it is to be “unoaked”) the progress is gauged by taking barrel samples. There’s simply no other way to know how the wine is progressing and when it has aged enough to bottle.

Occasionally, a winemaker will invite a few friends and customers to stop by for barrel tasting, as did Jim Schultze of Windy Oaks Vineyards on October 30. Upon arrival, I bypassed the other guests, who were “bottle tasting” and grazing on Corralitos Market venison sausages, and snuck into the barrel room. Frequent readers of this column know that this is my way of getting some good photos and a little inside information. As luck would have it, Jim was drawing a liter of his best estate Pinot Noir from a French oak barrel.

When a winemaker is drawing a sample for himself, he normally employs a long glass tube with a rubber bulb at the end that resembles an oversized turkey baster. When you need enough for guests, you siphon the wine into a flask using a long, clear tube. The apparatus resembles something college kids might use at a party; at least that’s what I’ve heard.

Barrel tasting gives you a good idea what the wine will taste like after the aging process is complete, but also provides the experience of tasting something a bit “unfinished”. Windy Oaks produces exemplary estate Pinot Noirs, and I’m pleased to report that this one is coming along nicely.

If you visit Windy Oaks, be sure to take a walk through the vineyards to the top of the hill where you’ll enjoy a commanding view of the Monterey Bay. It’s the next best thing to Dijon, and a lot closer. If you come in October, the vines may even be sporting Halloween outfits.

That’s netting, of course, to keep the birds from stealing the fruit. If you’re thinking that the harvest should have been in September or early October, you are correct. Because we had a cool, foggy summer in 2011, the Chardonnay grapes were still on the vines. Jim assured me that these are the last unpicked Chardonnay grapes in California.

If you get a chance to do some barrel tasting, I highly recommend it for the “inside experience” it provides. And if the opportunity is accompanied by a trek through the vineyard and a hilltop view, it will be a memorable experience.




The Oregon Trail

Back in June, my wife suggested we visit Oregon’s Willamette Valley in search of new world class Pinot Noirs. Luckily, Portland is a short plane ride from the Monterey Bay.

Portland’s a great little food and beverage city. There are a couple of wineries in town, but craft brewed beer is king. We spent two days in the city, ate from one of downtown Portland’s famous food carts, and enjoyed our share of local brews and pub food.

Midweek found us in McMinnville, a small city in the heart of the Willamette Valley with a charming, historic downtown. We were able to secure a cute French style flat that rents nightly. From there, we explored much of the Dundee Hills, which is to Willamette Valley Pinot what the Stag’s Leap District is to Napa Cabernet: the best of the best.

The roads leading up to the various hilltop vineyards are gravel. You’ll also end up with a layer of red dust on your vehicle that will make it easy to recognize fellow pinotphiles when you get back to town. It’s worth the drive just to see the views from the vineyards that stretch for miles, but it is a journey best taken by rental car.

Dundee Hills Oregon Wineries

While in the Dundee Hills, we tasted at two of our long time favorites, Torii Mor and Erath. On their recommendation, we visited Buena Vida and Winderlea, who also make excellent wines. Because of the differences in climate and soil, Pacific Northwest Pinots are distinctively different than their California cousins. I once took a ferry from Seattle to Bainbridge Island to visit a couple who grew two acres of “cold climate” Pinot. That kind of fruit produces an “earthier” wine. One of the Pinots at Torii Mor has such a mossy bouquet that it is described as “forest floor”.

One of the Pinots at Torii Mor has such a mossy bouquet that it is described as “forest floor”.

Oregon wineries also distinguish themselves from their neighbors to the south by their choice of glassware: the Oregon style has a short extension at the top of the bowl. Georg Riedel designed this glass expressly for a group of Oregon wineries and now nearly all use it in their tasting rooms.

Erath Wine Tasting Room

Wine tasting is everywhere. While we were in McMinnville, we stopped by the Evergreen Aviation Museum to see the Spruce Goose and found a tasting room inside the museum. Our first clue should have been the vineyards we drove through getting to the parking lot.

As if driven by manifest destiny, we continued on to the rocky Oregon coast. We found a great inn right on the cliffs at Depoe Bay, with deck mounted hot tubs overlooking the Pacific. If you visit, you can get a decent bowl of chowder at nearby Cape Foulweather and go next door for – you guessed it – wine tasting at the Flying Dutchman, who really make wine right there on the cliffs.



Behind the Bar

If you are a sports fan near my age, and I won’t tell you what that is, you might recall a sportswriter named George Plimpton. George felt that it wasn’t enough just to cover professional sports; if you really wanted to understand the game, you had to see it from the inside. So one season Plimpton trained with the Detroit Lions as a backup quarterback, and then wrote his most famous work, Paper Lion.

A few weeks ago my friend Mary Kay Alfaro, co-owner of Alfaro Family Vineyards, inquired if I would be interested in helping out for a couple hours in her tasting room. An image of Plimpton immediately came to mind, but without the danger of getting sacked by 300 pound linemen, so I agreed.

If you are a regular reader you know that I always treat the folks behind the bar with respect, but I had no idea of the difficulty until I tried it myself. Sure, I can wield a corkscrew, and I know the difference between a chardonnay and a pinot noir. But like a quarterback, the pour person has to keep track of everything that’s going on. We poured seven wines that day, in a specific order, so you have to remember who’s had what. You also keep track of who has paid for their tasting and who is in the wine club (they taste free).

Amidst the pouring, you get asked a lot of questions, ranging from detailed ones from veteran wine enthusiasts to basic ones like “why is white wine white and red wine red?” At what elevation is the wine grown? What is the sugar content when the grapes are picked? Who designs your labels? Can I try the Lindsay Paige again? What’s the discount on a case? Every question must be answered as patiently and accurately as possible; this isn’t a computer store or a car lot where you can just make stuff up.

Luckily, a more experienced “tasting room associate” was there to run the cash register; that might have pushed me over the edge. Like George Plimpton, I survived the experience, a little wiser and with some stories to tell. Mary Kay thanked me graciously and even offered to pay me. I was happy to return home with material for a column and a nearly full bottle of Garys’ (the one I’m opening in the photo), which was payment enough.

Napa Roots

My love of wine goes way back. But it never flourished until I first visited Napa. The Napa Valley is ground zero for world class Cabernet Sauvignon, the first varietal that made me realize just how good wine can be.

Even if you’re a casual wine drinker you may know names like Mondavi, Beaulieu (BV), Sterling, Beringer and Domaine Chandon.

Merryvale ProfileThough I’ve been to all of those, I’ve come to prefer the small and medium sized producers, where you can get the personal touch. Ron, our host at Merryvale in Saint Helena, is a perfect example.

We stopped by Merryvale because we wanted to try some of their limited production wines. Ron started by pouring a few of their more widely distributed labels. You can buy the Merryvale Starmont Cabernet and Chardonnay in many supermarkets, and both are a good value. I’m always trying to get a photo or two, so while Ron was engaged with the Official Wife of the Wine Columnist (OWWC), I decided to sneak through the big doors marked “Employees Only” and get a shot of the barrel room.

Busted! I apologized to our host as he summoned me from the barrel room while explaining that the winemaker worries about bacteria contaminating the wine. “If you want a picture of some wine barrels, we have empty ones over here,” Ron said as he led the OWWC and me into a cavernous warehouse stacked to the ceiling with racks of empty oak barrels. “While we’re here,” Ron said, “let’s check out the library.” A library is a climate controlled stash of bottles from every vintage a winery has chosen to keep. In California, they can go back 100 years, which is actually longer than you can expect even a Cabernet to remain drinkable. The Merryvale library contains large format bottles of many high end wines, including the Profile Cabernet, Ron explained as he launched into an animated dissertation about the history of Merryvale.

Merryvale Tasting Room Napa

We ended up tasting a lot of great wines that day, some retailing for over $100 a bottle. If you make a point to get to know your pour person and express a real interest in wine, you’ll get better service and maybe the opportunity to try things that are too rare or too expensive to be on the regular tasting menu. There’s a lot more to report from our recent trip to Napa, so please come back in June and we’ll be Wining Again