Monthly Archives: September 2009

What I’m drinking …

There is an affliction upon American beer and it’s called “lite.”
It seems if folks drink beer they’re of two sorts. Those who are committed snobs who aren’t phased by paying $10 for a six pack of their favorite triple hopped, organic India Pale Ale, or those who only drink light beer.
To me, light beer is a bastardation. Why drink something that has had half of its flavor and character removed? But it seems as if Americans only see Budweiser and Coors as Bud or Coors lite. I’m a lover of just straight, Coors “banquet beer” in the yellow can. The refreshing Pilsner style hasn’t lost any of its malt foundation that is accentuated by the hops and a refreshing finish that has a note of saffron.
Sure, I’ve had plenty of “lites” on hot days but if you’re really going to drink beer, have a real beer.  What makes it lite is that it’s been diluted by water and you’re going to end up drinking twice as much to feel just as buzzed.

Your grandfather didn't drink lite beer and what did he do? He won World War II.

Your grandfather didn't drink lite beer and what did he do? He won World War II.



© Leonard Freed / Magnum Photos

There’s a great photo essay on Slate depicting German beer festivals, especially the Bavarian Oktoberfest in Munich. You may think Octoberfest takes place next month, but the traditional German celebration begins in September and runs into the first week of October. It began in Munich yesterday and I’m sure it was quite a party today as well.

If Bordeaux is the holy land of wine, then Munich is the holy land of beer.

I recall my time in Munich well. I stayed with two friends in a cheap hotel in a Turkish neighborhood that seemed to be home to an equal ratio of schawamer and kabob stands to strip clubs. We made forays into the city proper and discovered the wonderful Englischer Garten, which we toured after a visit to the museum of science and engineering. (Leave it to the Germans to have an exhilarating “forklift simulator” experience with real-life factory scenarios! There was also several interesting electricity and magnetism displays as well as an odd, scale model of the Jagermeister distillery.)

The Englischer Garten has four beer gardens as well as surfing on the river that runs through the park Surfers ride the swell created as the river is forced under several tight bridges. It also is famous for its nude sunbathing area, but as our visit coincided with a spring rain storm the weather did not inspire many locals to take full advantage of the park’s liberties.


Hang ten Herr Ofstermueller!

We weren’t in town for Oktoberfest, but there was still a small carnival set up near the old city center to give one a sense of the party that occurs every fall. A few locals told me that the event has become too popular, too wild and too filled with drunk Englishmen. I can see that from the photos and videos you can find online, but I also have heard that local residents disparage Oktoberfest because they would like it to just be their own private party rather than raucous international party it is now.

That is why I liked the photo essay on Slate. It has several photos from the Oktoberfests of the mid to late 60s in what, was then, West Germany. It shows a culture that is beginning to regain confidence in itself and an understanding of its new place in the world. If you can recall, large public gatherings of Germans in the ’30s and ’40s didn’t have the best of intentions. The beer festivals of the early ’60s were tentative and casual. Young Germans, like the one pictured above — at a festival in Dusseldorf in 1965 — were just beginning to once again wear traditional costumes and embrace their culture. But they did so in local and comfortable settings that stressed the values of community and friendship. They were reinvigorating the old traditions while dismissing Munich’s darker history like the Beer Hall Putsch in which a young Hitler made a presumptive move to gain control of the German government.

To visit Munich now, one can not ignore that history, but one can not also ignore that it is home to some of the finest breweries in the wold.


And yes, the Hofbrauhaus is an amazing good time.

A visit also gives one a glimpse into how a simple beverage can be a defining characteristic for a people and for a nation. Beer flows through German culture as well as its history.

So where is Carneros?

If you’ve read a few posts here on the blog you may be a bit confused as to where the home office is located. I use Napa and Carneros interchangeably but Carneros is actually a distinct region that spans both Napa and Sonoma counties.

The AVA is home to many wineries, but sheep and cattle farms also dot the region. Several marinas are connected to the nearby San Pablo Bay as well as the Napa River and its many sloughs. The land is a mix of vine covered rolling hills, wetlands and oak and eucalyptus groves.



Bordering the bay, Carneros enjoys cool Ocean breezes that make it an ideal area for Burgundy grapes such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, yet it also is good for Syrah. The strong coastal influence also means the weather is much cooler in Carneros than Sonoma or Napa valley. Cool and foggy mornings, even during the height of summer, are common.

While we live in the Napa part of Carneros, one could also claim to live in Carneros but live in Sonoma or Sonoma County as well. Being part of both of California’s premier wine counties gives Carneros a unique character. It also is quite literally where the two regions meet as it is bridged by Highway 121 the main road from Sonoma to Napa.
Carneros means rams or sheep in Spanish and reflects the area’s agricultural roots that were tied to the Spanish mission in Sonoma. The last, and northernmost of the Spanish missions in California.

A cool day in Carneros.

A cool day in Carneros.

The Carneros Wine Alliance has an excellent Web site with a wealth of more information about the region and its wineries.

The hits just keep coming

My work at the winery is a physical job. From the start in the morning to the end of the day, I’m running, hauling, lifting, jumping, bending, pulling and plenty of other verbs.

On a particular day though, I had my fair share of mishaps.
In the morning, I slammed my hand between a piece of machinery and a fermentation tank, cutting the ring finger of my right hand on the knife sharp edge of the tank’s bottom hatch.

The cut sprang open with a torrent of bright red blood and a coworker ran to get the boss. After some first aid, I decided I was going to forgo stitches and just tough it out with some butterfly bandages and having my ring finger taped to my middle finger to prevent the would from opening. I also wore wore a latex glove to keep the wound dry. I spent the rest of the day using three fingers of my right hand and wearing one glove in what looked like a gimpy memorial to the late Michael Jackson. (My bosses were concerned and checked several times during the day to see how my finger, and myself, were doing.)

A few hours later, I was working on the catwalk above the tanks connecting a nitrogen gas line to a main gas line. We use nitrogen to “gas the tanks.” Filling the tanks with nitrogen prevents the wine from coming into contact with oxygen, which can “oxidize” the wine affecting its flavors and aromas. As I stood up from connecting the hose I slammed my head into a pipe and after unleashing a flood of obscenities I went back to work with a headache that lingered for the rest of the day.
Then, later in the afternoon, I was in the outside tool shed looking for a hose for a power washer. I found one lying on the ground and I quickly reached down to pick it up. As my fingers closed around the hose I felt a sharp, pinching pain and looking down I realized I had just been stung on the tip of my finger by a yellow jacket. The same damn finger that was taped to my lacerated finger!

My finger is doing fine and now I’m always sure of what is above me before I stand up.

I do a dirty job

If you’re curious about seeing a little more about what I do as a harvest intern at Starmont, try and catch the episode of the The Discovery channel’s Dirty Jobs in which the host Mike Rowe works at a winery. Rowe spent a day at Starmont winery digging in the muck and mire of wine production work. I’ve talked to a few guys at the winery who were working when the production crew from Dirty Jobs spent a day filming at the winery. They said it was a cool experience to see how nearly 12 hours of filming was compressed into 20 minutes of television.

The onslaught has begun

My hands were raw, covered in leaves and stems and sticky from grape juice. My forearm was bruised from my juice covered skin sticking to the steel of the sorting station and peeling away with a sickening ripping sound. The loud cranking of the conveyor belt mixed with the steady hum of the crusher/destemmer, and the grapes kept coming and coming.

Harvest had begun and I was at the front of it.

Located in Carneros at the southern end of the Napa Valley, Merryvale’s Starmont winery, where I work, is slightly behind other Napa wineries because of the area’s cool weather. But harvest has begun in earnest and we’ve already ground through our Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

Working at the sorting station, picking out leaves, moldy or dried out grape bunches and unripe grapes can be a little tedious but also fun. Starmont uses a raised platform to which the grapes are lifted by forklift. The grapes then fall into a hopper that feeds a conveyor. The conveyor drops grapes into a crusher that feeds the shaker tables, which lead to a must pump that sends the grapes and juice to a fermentation tank.

The sorters stand alongside the conveyor belt and you usually work in silence as you concentrate on the steady flow of grapes. Between loads, however, you can take a quick break and chat a bit. On a recent afternoon, myself and another intern, who is from France, talked with two cellar workers from Mexico. In a disjointed mix of accents, we talked about what words mean in French and Spanish, music and what beer they drink in Mexico.

Starmont has its processing center outside, north of the winery. The crush pad is located above two large Bucher rotating presses. At the top of the conveyor stand one is surrounded by a view of rolling vineyards stretching to a horizon marked by eucalyptus trees.

With each load my hands dug deep into dark purple bunches of Pinot Noir grapes as I pulled them onto the conveyor. When I looked up, all I could see was acres of vineyards. The sun felt hot on the back of my neck and arms. The noise of machinery mixed with the sounds of Spanish of French and it was a true harvest experience.

Man vs. birds

As grapes continue to ripen in the vineyards of Carneros a battle is being fought between grower and bird.

Flocks of birds can descend on a vineyard and devour young grapes. To prevent a free avian buffet growers take a variety of measures. Some attach strings of reflective ribbons to the vines. The ribbons whip in the wind and the flashes of light  startle the birds and fly away.

Nets provide protection for grapes from birds, grape thieves or passing tourists.

Nets provide protection for grapes from birds, grape thieves or passing tourists.

Another tactic is to drape the vines with netting that allows the grapes to develop but protect them from foraging birds. The nets are often used with the reflective ribbons. Once the grapes are ready, the nets are rolled up and the grapes are harvested. A few companies also use devices that employ digital sound signals replicating bird distress and alarm calls to scare the birds away.

The most conspicuous method is the canons or bird guns, which blast off every five to ten minutes. During the mornings and evenings, when the canons are blasting off the most frequent, it can seem as if one is on the edge of a Civil War battlefield, hearing the desultory back and forth of artillery exchanges. The canon fire provides a surreal audio backdrop to an otherwise bucolic setting.