Tasting at the home office

I work at Starmont winery, which is located in Carneros at the southern end of the Napa Valley. Starmont is owned by Merryvale Vineyards located in St. Helena in northern Napa Valley. Merryvale is the home office of the company and it’s also the public face of the winery. While most of the wine is made in Starmont that winery is closed to the public.

The Merryvale Vineyards tasting room in St. Helena.

The Merryvale Vineyards tasting room in St. Helena.

Christine and I made a recent trip up to St. Helena for a tasting at Merryvale. Some of my few readers may know I’ve been working at the cellar in Starmont this past harvest but may be curious about the wine I’ve been helping to make. The upshot is that Merryvale makes some excellent wine. Now, of course, I’m not going to be bashing my employer on this blog, but I can say that in all honesty everything Merryvale makes is good. Christine especially enjoyed the Merryvale Sauvignon Blanc. Both of us loved Profile, Merryvale’s premier wine. This is a Cabernet based blend featuring Merlot, Petit Verdot and some Cabernet Franc. It is just delicious with layers of dark fruit, a wonderful mouth feel and a long, pleasant finish. I also really enjoyed Silhouette, Merryvale’s top Chardonny. This wine is unfiltered and a solid, traditional California Chardonny. An unexpected treasure was the winery’s Antigua dessert wine, which is a Muscat de Frontignan that has a complex taste followed by an almost dry finish. I really don’t often like dessert wines because of the lingering sweetness that coats your palate, but because of its different finish I loved the Antigua.

The tasting room is large and has a relaxing feel to it. Merryvale is also open until 6:30 p.m. making it one of the last wineries in Napa to close for the day. This means it’s the last stop for many tasting parties and so you may see some folks, as we did, who have gone way past wine tasting and have moved on to wine guzzling. But that’s something you’ll see at any winery’s tasting room and sometimes you’ll even see it early in the day rather than later.

The tasting bar at Merryvale Vineyards.

The tasting bar at Merryvale Vineyards.

As one of the older wineries in Napa, Merryvale has a historic feel, which is emphasized by the cask room. This gorgeous banquet hall has as an old world, European feel and while I don’t believe it has any winemaking purpose any more it’s very popular for special occasions and is used by the winery for events for wine club members.

It was great to take a moment and sample the finished wines because it gave me a better sense into what I’m doing at the winery these days. The staff member who served us at the bar was friendly and it was great talking to someone in the company who worked up in St. Helena. (And you got to love the 50 percent off employee discount!)

Even if I wasn’t employed by Merryvale, I think our visit would still prompt a whole-hearted recommendation to include Merryvale on a Napa tasting itinerary.

Merryvale's cask room.

Merryvale's cask room.

Attack of the yellow jackets!

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One hazard of working harvest that I had not expected was swarms of yellow jackets high on grape juice.

All of the processing equipment at Starmont is located outside, and as we crush grapes the juice and grape skins attract hordes of yellow jackets. As we crush the first few bins a few of the wasps start buzzing around us, but by the end of the afternoon there can be what seems like 50 to 60 yellow jackets flying around a single bin of grapes. Yellow jackets aren’t that aggressive so they’re more of a nuisance than a safety threat. You just have to watch where you stick your hands because the sheer number of them means they’re almost everywhere. I’ve been stung once and it was because I rested my arm on the railing of the conveyor and didn’t notice a yellow jacket wriggling there in the sticky residue of grape juice. The sting resulted in a some impressive swelling on my forearm and it was itchy for a few days, but that was it. The funny thing about it was that earlier in the day I had remarked about the yellow jackets to a fellow intern and had asked if he’d ever been stung.

The swarms do add another layer of the sometimes surreal work of harvest. As you work on the processing line your clothes and skin get covered with juice and grape skins and so the yellow jackets will actually follow you as you walk away from the crusher. I’ve had so many yellow jackets buzzing around me that some have actually flown into my eyes and I could feel their wings buzzing against the wet flesh of my eyeball.

Midway and a moment of reflection

101_0561The rows of vines that once were covered in leaves of brilliant shades of  green are now spotted with orange, red or dusty brown. Mornings are much colder and foggier and the coolness persists through the weaker sunshine of the autumnal afternoons.

I have reached the mid-point of harvest and as I reflect back on the last few months, I’m amazed at the wealth of experiences I have earned in such a relatively short time.

Yes it’s been quite an adjustment from my former career in journalism to the wine industry. Do I miss newspapers? Of course. Just as I love the excitement of the long and busy days in the cellar during harvest, I loved the rush and excitement of putting out a newspaper on deadline during a crazy day. I also miss my talented and fearless colleagues in the newsroom as well as seeing the paper in print on my front porch.

However, I find some of the same satisfaction in helping to make wine as I did in putting out a paper. I have enjoyed the physical challenges of the job. Hauling hoses, digging out tanks, cleaning barrels, etc. which are all hard, demanding jobs, but it feels good to do something with your hands. On this blog I may have focused a bit on my pratfalls and miscues during this new experience, but those are the type of moments that have made me chuckle and I hope they’ve made you laugh too. This job was never anything I thought I couldn’t do, and it’s been hard, but not impossible. I’ve learned a great deal about wine and winemaking, and have had some memorable experiences.

One day in the cellar I was managing a pumpover at a tank and was just watching the wine flow from the racking valve into a bucket in a sump before getting pumped back up to the top of the tank. The wine was swirling out of the bucket in a steady flow releasing fresh aromas of fruit and spice. The cellar master Jeff happened to be walking by and said “It’s a hypnotic sight isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said. “A fountain of wine.”

“You know, Napa during harvest is beautiful. The hot air balloons in front of the mountains in the morning.” he said. “My first harvests here I was at the crush pad in the morning and there at night. I saw some beautiful sunrises and some beautiful sunsets. You have to appreciate that.”101_0569

And there have been those signature harvest moments that have made my time at the winery such a real experience even if it may just be temporary. Sticking my hands into the warm and yielding flesh of grapes as they passed by on the conveyor or filling new oak barrels with wine and savoring the mix of wood and wine as they meet for the first time. I’m still not yet sure what the future my hold, but I do know that my life has already been enriched by just taking a moment to experience something in depth.

Enough with the cryptic back text

When you pick up a bottle of wine you expect to learn a few things from reading the label. Perhaps where the grapes are sourced from, or what the wine tastes like.

Not about a duck “pretending to be a mini-hovercraft.”

We recently tried a bottle of Canard Sauvage Zinfandel from Sonoma County and found it to be a pleasant wine, but the label back text gave me a headache. I’ve noticed a trend with some wineries to make the copy on the back labels, or “back text” to be too cute for comfort. This is part of a larger trend to make wine fun and consumer friendly, but like all trends it can go too far.

This particular bottle label focused on a duck known to the winery staff that seems to hang out around the winery barrels and: “He staggers around in circles … raging at the world around him.” Well, that’s great, but how about what your wine tastes like and where you grow your grapes? I’m sorry for being such a traditionalist, but perhaps you could enlighten me about the flavor, aroma or winemaking that went into crafting this wine. No?

Wine should be an easy to appreciate product for every level of consumer from the sophisticate to the newbie. Labels are the first point of introduction, and while it may be tempting to try a very creative approach to your introduction, a simple handshake is always the best. Let me know what I’m tasting and how you describe the flavors. I don’t need to know that: “We love him, though for he is. Watch him waddle … watch him fly … ’round and ’round in circles … quacking in rage!” I really don’t.

Yes, I get it, savage duck, or Canard Sauvage, but really c’mon, too cute is too cute. This is coming from an Oregon Ducks fan too!

I recall opening a bottle of 1980 Beringer Cabernet Sauvignon. The back label was filled with technical details such as the brix level at which the grapes were picked, Ph levels and acidity. Now, that’s too technical and thankfully the industry has transitioned from that to using labels more helpful to the average consumer. Going too far to the other side — too cute for your own good — is just as bad as being too snobby.

Two very different kinds of tastings

One recent afternoon the head of winemaking operations took myself and the two other interns at Starmont winery for a tasting of this harvest’s juice. It was a pleasant and informative experience as we walked through the cellar sampling various Chardonnay lots from different barrels. The best part was tasting the differences flavors imparted by the different cooperages, or barrel manufacturers. One barrel would give the same juice a heavier mouth feel and impart more “toasted” or “smoky” flavors, while another would enhance the aromatics of the juice. We completed the tasting by sampling some finished Chardonnay from older barrels. This wine will likely be bottled sometime in January.

After the tasting, it was time to get back to work. I helped out on the crush pad for a bit until we processed the last of the grapes for the day. I then had to help clean the press hoses that run from the press to fermentation tanks. After being pressed, the juice is taken via these hoses to the tanks where they will ferment. My job was to fill a “sump” or small tank near the presses with hot water and then push the water through the hoses with an air pump. The water forces out any remaining juice and cleans the line at the same time.

Once the water had passed through the line, I then had to decouple all the various lengths of hose and stack them back up on the rack. I was walking through the cellar stepping over hoses when I came to the next connection. As I bent down and undid the clamp holding the lines together I noticed some liquid started spraying out of the connection. No biggie, I thought, it’s just some water that got left in the line. I undid the clamp and was met with an explosion of white wine juice that covered my face, chest and my legs. I jumped back, bewildered by this sudden flood of juice, I tried to push the hoses back together but the force of the juice flowing out only resulted in myself receiving another deluge of juice.

“Shit,” I thought, realizing I had disconnected a hose carrying juice from one tank to another, as some of my colleagues had to run to shut down the pump, close the valves and fix my mistake. Covered in juice, I just had to hang my head in frustration. My coworkers took in stride as there was no serious loss of juice and their main concern seemed to be if I was OK.

I was, but I was still embarrassed and aware of the irony in that I was now covered in the same juice that I had been tasting earlier in the day. I savored those same “aromatics” for the rest of the afternoon as they wafted from my clothes and hair.

It was a long day, and came at the end of the week. Once I was done with work, I stopped by the store to pick up some beer and smokes. The checker, noticing that I my clothes were covered in red splotches (from red wine splashing on me earlier in the day. The white wine didn’t stain, it just left my smelly funky and sticky.) asked if I was a painter.

I said, “No I work at a winery.”

“So are you a winemaker?,” she asked.

“No, I work in the cellar.”

“Ah, that would explain the beer and cigarettes.”

It’s a 24-hour industry

As I drive through the vineyards to the winery in the morning, the sky is painted in light shades of blue and orange as the sun begins its ascent.

The edges of my high beams catch groups of vineyard workers emerging from the rows of vines after a night’s work. Their legs are caked in mud and with a weary gait they trudge toward their cars parked on the side of the road. My day begins as their day ends.

After swiping my time card at 6:30 a.m., I walk into the cellar and begin the morning round of pumpovers. During fermentation, red wine needs to be mixed around and “pushed” a little. A pumpover is a process in which juice is pumped from the bottom of a fermentation tank to the top. The juice that is sent to the top of the tank trickles back down through the “cap” at the top of the tank. This cap consists of grapes, grape skins and a smaller amount of seeds and stems. Forcing the juice over the cap helps it ferment as well as draw color from the skins through what is known as “extraction.” The deep garnet and purple colors you love in red wine comes from the skins. Ensuring that all the juice has plenty of contact with the skin ensures good colors as well as good flavors.

Setting up a pumpover involves hauling a 20 to 30 pound sprinkler up a flight of stairs to the catwalk above the tanks. You then need to secure it to the tank hatch and make sure it’s centered above the cap. You then switch on an air pump that draws the juice up to the sprinkler. The sprinkler is like a whirly gig — two long arms centered on a revolving piece. As the wine is forced through the sprinkler it spins over the top of the cap sending a fountain of wine falling upon the cap and the rest of the tank. It’s almost a hypnotic sight, the wine cascading down along the sides of the tank and foaming on the top of the cap.

I usually wrap up the morning pumpovers around 1 p.m. and after a quick lunch it’s back to other cellar jobs. These can range from transferring wine from tanks to barrels, helping out at the crush pad or digging out a tank. By 5:30 p.m., it’s time to start the evening round of pumpovers to help the late shift. By 7 p.m. I’m usually out the door.

Back home, I step out onto my patio into the still night air. I can see Venus dancing with the moon as well as a host of other stars. I have a beer and a cigarette and listen to a pair of coyotes snarling and screaming as they fight in the distance. Their wild animal cries pierce the air in discord with the low humming, grinding sound of tractors starting up for another long night’s harvest.