Monthly Archives: November 2009

Hidden Napa Valley back country

A small reservoir on a bend of Redwood Creek in Napa.

The mountains and vineyards of Napa Valley are some of the area’s best known scenic beauty, but if you know where to look you can find gems of more wild scenery.

One spot is tucked away in the far corner of a small valley carved through the mountains by Redwood Creek. A couple of buddies and me hiked to Devils Well, a small chain of waterfalls that make a dramatic fall down a ravine. The land is managed by the Land Trust of Napa County, which has maintained a good trail. The trek starts out in a redwood grove and after a steep, initial climb you amble through more redwoods and oaks until you reach the falls. When we made our trip the falls were just a small trickle, but it’s still an impressive sight. The “well” is a natural pool that has been created by a waterfall in a small cleft of rock. You stand in what is like a small natural amphitheatre surrounded by towering cliffs. The creek flows out of the well before plunging another 100 feet down to another pool.

The trail begins in a grove of redwoods.

My friend John grew up in the area and recalled jumping into Devils Well when he was a teenager and not being able to touch the bottom.

It being about 55 degrees when we were making our recent hike, my friends and weren’t about to jump into the water. While it was chilly, the sun was still shining bright and we would often pause in clearings to warm up in the sunshine. During one pause we noticed that the ground was covered with ladybugs. The trail to Devils Well may be a little short, but around every bend there was great things to see in the details. John had mentioned he thought it was the time of year when ladybugs would be hatching, and it was just amazing to see everything on the ground covered in the small, red insects.

A hatch of ladybugs.

A hatch of ladybugs.

Parts of the trail do require you to scramble over boulders and through tight crevices, so you need to be in moderate shape to make the walk. Thankfully all the work pays off with a great reward, being able to enjoy the beauty of the well.

On our return trip we stopped by a small reservoir on the creek and skipped stones. It was a fun end to a great day hike.

Access is through permission from the land trust. The trail is a little small, so if you do find yourself behind another group it’s best to pause and keep some distance.

Here are some more pictures from the hike:

A slug hangs off the side of a rock.

A slug hangs off the side of a rock along the trail.

Approaching the cliffs that surround Devils Well.

More ladybugs!

Walking into the entrance to the well.

Bennie perched on a cliff above the ravine.

John and Ben standing near the well.

The view down the ravine.

Everybody had their cameras out all day.

Everyone had their cameras out all day.

Further downstream, one can also explore a small reservoir created near a bend of the creek beneath a huge boulder.

Ben said the boulder and the reservoir were quite a "Mayan sight." I'm not sure what he meant by that. (We did have a bottle of Markers Mark with us to keep warm.)

Brew it up!

What do you do when you work at a winery and harvest is slowing down and you get your first two day weekend in about a month?

Brew beer, of course.

"Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron boil." Dude it's brew time!

Home brewing has been a hobby of mine for about the last three years. I hadn’t had the time to put down a batch in a while so when I had some free time from harvest I decided to brew it up. Brewing beer at home is far simpler than many people may assume. It’s really like making a big batch of tea. The trick, however, is that this tea needs to be prepared with the utmost attention to sanitation and it needs to be a good environment for yeast to get all happy and multiply resulting in fermentation.

The good folks at Napa Fermentation Supplies helped me out in picking the right ingredients for my brew. My recipe, cobbled together in my mind, was for a light, crisp pale ale with some good and strong hop notes. Hops, a vine like plant, is what gives beer that nice bitterness and flavor. The other key ingredient in brewing is the grain, the basis of the brew. The first step in brewing (at least with a simple home brew set up like mine) is to steep raw grain in hot water. The water draws out the sugars and enzymes that will ultimately ferment and give the beer its malt flavor. After the grain is done steeping, you add the first batch of malt extract and hops. Malt extract is essentially the grain steeping step that’s done in a factory brewery that allows the home brewer to avoid having to buy a whole bunch of extra, and expensive, brewing equipment. (The hard core home brewers don’t use extract, and instead have “all grain” systems that are like miniature, commercial breweries.)

I use a propane burner to get a good, roiling boil as quick as possible.

My first batch of hops, known as the “bittering” hops was a British variety that should give the beer a subtle bitterness in the initial taste of the beer. These hops sit in the brew kettle during the entire boil, a key step in brewing when all the ingredients come together. Later in the brew, I added some American hops to give the beer much more of a hoppy finish. I’m hoping for something that’s similar to a Sierra Nevada or Laqunitas pale ale. The wild card, however, is that when I was digging out my brew equipment I discovered that I still had about half a pound of caramel grain. This was much darker than the other grains I was using, but I decided to just use it rather than throw it out. I think it’s going to give the beer a darker color than I had originally envisioned and some caramel notes in the finish.

After the beer is done brewing you have to cool it as quick as possible with a device that’s known as a “wort chiller.” (Wort being the traditional name for unfermented beer.) This device is essentially a copper coil that has an inlet and outlet hose. You attach a cold water hose to the inlet and let the flow of cold water through the coil chill your wort down.

The wort, or unfermented beer, just after I pitched the yeast.

During the boil, the wort will reach temperatures in excess of 200 degrees farenheit, so even with the wort chiller it takes about 40 minutes to chill the wort. This is a key step because if you let the wort chill slowly, bacteria can find a home in your unfinished brew and lead to nasty contamination. Slow chills, also can let various compounds develop in the wort that will turn your finished beer hazy.

I chilled my beer down to about 80 degrees before transferring it to my 7.5 gallon carboy, or large glass bottle. This bottle serves as my primary fermentor, were the yest will turn sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol. I pitched the yeast at about 75 degrees and crossed my fingers. I’m a little wary of this first batch because I think there was some contamination and a recent cold snap means the yeast will be working at colder temperatures than is ideal. But, the wonder of home brewing is that sometimes you think your worst mistakes become wonderful surprises. (And conversely, sometimes you think a knock-out brew turns out to be rather mediocre and uninspired.)

Despite the cold temperatures, the yeast are doing their job and I’ve got a nice fermentation going. I’m still worried about the contamination, because beer is particularly sensitive to bacteria causing havoc with the taste, smell and appearance, but we’ll see.

And I’ll be sure to keep you updated about how it goes.

Active fermentation after three days. A good sign!



The colors of wine country


Vermont? Pffffh.

The hills of Napa County wine country are painted in bright shades of red, yellow, dusty green and brown.

As harvest comes to an end, the vineyards provide an amazing show of color. I always say that fall is one of the best times to visit the California wine country because you can often experience wonderful weather without having to slog through the traffic and crowds of summer.

Communication breakdown

As an intern in the cellar of a Napa winery, most of my colleagues are Mexican.

My Spanish is terrible, but most of my coworkers have solid English skills. However, this doesn’t mean that communication between my self and other cellar mates is perfect. In fact, there have been a few communication breakdowns.

Some of the most frequent involve numbers. I remember a guy asked me to set up a transfer hose to tank 16.

“I thought it was tank 15,” I said.

“Si, tank ss-feeeff-ten,” he said.

“What?,” I said, “You mean one-five or one-six?”

“One-six,” he said solving the breakdown.

One of my favorites occurred when I tried to help set up a barrel filling job. My boss Emilio pointed to some hoses and in his thick accent indicated he wanted me to go and grab some more hoses. I ran to the hose rack and hauled over two more one inch hoses.

When I was done, Emilio looked at me, and then looked at the hoses.

“Andrew,” he said, a quizzical look on his face, “where did you get these hoses?”

“Where did I get the hoses,” I say to myself, thinking of making a smart-ass reply like:”Oh these, I brought these from home.”

Instead, I say I got them from the hose rack.

“The what buddy?,” he asks, looking as confused as me.

Eventually, I’m able to describe what the hose rack is and I figure out he’s asking me where I got the hoses to see if they had been sanitized or not. It turns out there was a pair of sanitized hoses Emilio wanted.

The problems go both way too. Sometimes my colleagues won’t have a clue what I’m talking about.

When I was using a power washer, another coworker, Luciano, stopped to explain that the high pressure of the hose can actually cut through plastic.

“Oh so the water can actually sever the hose line,” I said.

“No, not sever, cut the line,” he said.

Really though, I sometimes feel bad that I can’t quickly understand my coworkers as possible. And I now wish I spent my high school and college years learning Spanish instead of French. (This has resulted in a few odd situations in which I’ve actually had to translate for the French intern what our Mexican boss wants us to do.)

What I have been impressed with however, is the infinite patience my Mexican coworkers have for someone who doesn’t speak their language and didn’t have a clue about cellar work when I started. I’ve learned a great deal and it’s because they’ve been willing to teach me.

Digging out

As harvest winds down, each day we’re digging out more and more tanks.

Red wine ferments with the whole grape. The juice and colors of the grapes are extracted during fermentation leaving behind the skins and other materials, such as seeds and stems, known as “pomace.”

This pomace is essentially waste, but before it’s tossed wineries press it to get the most wine as possible out of the grapes.

The hard part, well at least for lowly intern cellar rats like myself, is digging out the pomace from the tanks. Digging out tanks is the messiest and at times most dangerous job during harvest. It’s also one of those grueling tasks that builds comaraderie through shared experience. It’s a shitty job, but everyone’s got to dig out tanks during harvest so everyone shares the burden.

At Starmont, the big jobs are the 12,000 gallon or 44 ton fermentors. These towering, thirty foot tall tanks can handle 44 tons of grapes. The pomace from that much fruit weighs a couple thousand pounds. Before digging out a tank, all the wine is drained and transferred to another tank. Then you slowly and carefully open the main tank hatch and get a first peek at the solid mass of pomace. Guys on the outside dig out enough pomace to create an opening for another worker to climb into the tank. You clear out the pomace using sturdy, food-grade plastic shovels and ranks. Once an opening is cleared, a supervisor needs to check the tank’s atmosphere for CO2. Carbon dioxide is the silent and deadly killer lurking in tanks. The gas is released during fermentation and will fill a tank. I’ve heard several horror stories of cellar workers dying from just sticking their heads in tanks. The CO2 robs their lungs of air, and they pass out with the heads still in the tank and quickly suffocate.

Once the tank has a safe level of CO2, you climb in with a shovel wearing a safety harness and CO2 monitor. The harness is there to pull you out should you pass out, and the monitor is another level of protection.

Inside the tank you’re surrounded by a wall of pomace up to your shoulders. The material is thick and clingy, not unlike water-saturated clay soil. You get to work, but the shovel is only about half the length of a regular shovel, so you labor bent over at the waist shoving hunks of pomace into a bin outside the tank. The trick is to shovel away at the base of the pomace so large chunks will fall over and you can shovel the loose material out of the tank. This can sometimes prove problematic. For example, I was digging out a tank when a large chuck, weighing about 300 pounds, slid off the tip of the heap and slammed into the floor of the tank. I dodged and was just able to get out of the way and avoid getting pinned against the shaft of the tank’s thermometer protruding from the tank wall.

The tank atmosphere may be safe, but it still has lots of CO2 and as you shovel your lungs strain to pull as much oxygen as possible. Your feet slip in the puddles of wine on the slick floor of the stainless steel floor and the sweat runs in rivulets across your brow and aching back.

There’s a little bit of manly competition among the cellar guys about who can dig out tanks the fastest. I posted a damn good time of about 30 minutes in a 44 ton tank, but then I had the adrenalin pumping. Normally, it takes about 40 to 45 minutes of solid work to clean a big tank.

California tri tip


Time for dinner.

It often seems that when it’s time to fire up the grill, tri tip steaks are always worth a consideration. A California classic, tri tip is one of the only cuts of steak that were developed on the West Coast. My understanding is the cut originated on the large Haciendas, or ranches that comprised California when it was part of Spain and later Mexico.

Vaqueros would roast the meat over open fires and serve it sliced alongside beans simmered with jalapenos.

When ever I visit family and friends in the midwest and East Coast most of them have never even heard of the tri tip cut. To me, and most other Californians, grilled trip tip is as ubiquitous here as slow smoked barbecue ribs are in the south.

Recently, some relatives from New York were in town for a visit and I decided to treat them to my own special tri tip. I use a dry rub and then baste the meat with a mixture of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and red wine. The rub gives the meat a spicy and savory flavor while the baste helps the meat retain its moisture even when grilled to medium well. The recipe is based on a few I found on the ‘net and one by television chef Bobby Flay. I tinker with the rub every now and then to add different nuances to the flavor. For example, for this most recent tri tip I gave the rub a dose of cinnamon. The cinnamon added a nice counterbalance taste to the spicy heat of the cayenne.

For cooking the meat, I use indirect heat for about 45 minutes to an hour. I light the front two burners on high on a propane grill and put the meat on the unlit back burner. I turn the meat about every eight to 10 minutes basting it each time. Tri tip often comes with a fatty side so the trick is to cook the meat without letting the fat burn. Also, when basting, it’s handy to have a spray bottle of water to knock down flare ups. When done cooking, it’s crucial to cover the meat with tine foil and let it rest for at least 15 minutes before carving. Some people slice tri tip and then cook the sliced steak. To me this is an abomination. Trip tip should be cooked slow and low like a roast and then served sliced.

Here’s the ingredients for a good rub for one good-sized trip ti:

Four teaspoons fresh-ground black pepper

Three teaspoons cayenne pepper

One teaspoon ground chipotle

Two tablespoons granulated garlic

Three tablespoons salt

One tablespoon garlic salt

Half teaspoon cinnamon, or one teaspoon of brown sugar.

For the baste:

1/8 cup balsamic vinegar

1/8 cup red wine

1/4 cup garlic infused olive oil.

The final push

As I walked out of the cellar on a warm afternoon last week, I noticed the crush pad was quiet. It struck me as odd, because the grape crew had been working well into early evening lately. I figured it had just been a light day for grapes coming in to the winery.

Another intern who worked the shaker table was making his back to the cellar when he stopped by me and a few other colleagues.

“We’re done,” he said.

“Done with grapes for today?,” I replied.

“No, harvest is done.”

I was shocked, I had heard at least a couple more weeks of processing grapes and the rush of harvest. Instead, without any ceremony, our harvest had come to an end.

The past two weeks had been a blur. We had reached the fever pitch of harvest. Every day it was 12 hours or longer of processing grapes, pumpovers, filling barrels and dozens of other tasks. My knees and back ached every day, I was sleeping seven to eight hours a night and still felt fatigued. To suddenly see the end so close — I felt like a GI crawling out of his foxhole to hear that the allies had crossed the Rhine. I haven’t been able to keep up the journal simply because there just wasn’t enough time in the day to write. Most nights my sleepy eyes would begin to close as I finished dinner.

There’s still plenty of work left to do at the winery. Several tanks are still fermenting, and so require pumpovers twice a day. Once it’s done fermenting the red wine has to be pressed and then put down into barrels. White and red wine barrels need to be topped off and there’s lots of other small jobs as well.

But already, coworkers are asking each other what they’re going to be doing after the end of this year’s harvest. One of my fellow interns at the winery has plans to travel to the southern hemisphere — perhaps Argentina or New Zealand — and work harvest there. Our French intern is heading off to Canada and from there South America. Myself? I’m reviewing a few options but will be staying at the home base here in Napa.

It seems like just yesterday I was writing the post about reaching the midpoint of harvest. Now that the end is in sight, I’m still a little overwhelmed at the intense and variety of experiences I have enjoyed.

And there will still be plenty more uncorked moments left to come.