One, Just One, Green Grape

It was just one green grape. It was one green grape too many. It's always something. 

It has been a picture perfect vintage. A lovely spring, with warm, dry weather for flowering and fruit-set. A “three bears” sort of summer: not too cold, not too hot, just right. So why was it there? As you passed through the vineyards you could not miss it standing out like a sore green thumb in the middle of a bunch of gloriously deep purple cabernet sauvignon, there would be one, just one, green berry.

No big deal, right? How could just one unripe grape on some bunches make any difference when all the others were perfectly ripe? One green grape is a very big deal if you want to make wines that are special.

Also there was another issue. Everything else this vintage has been perfect. The gorgeous weather has produced fruit capable of making wines from this vintage something very special indeed. When Mother Nature gives you such a gift you must take advantage of it. There is a sense of duty, responsibility, to take this gift and do everything in your power to make not only great wines, but memorable ones. 

What could we do? For us there was no choice. Out into the vineyards went our crews with one mission: to remove one-by-one those individual green grapes. Armed with scissors they went down the rows with the precision of a Bonsai gardener. Was this expensive? Certainly, but this is the price you pay to go beyond good, or very good, on to greatness in a wine. For us there was no choice.

We’re getting pickier and pickier every year as finicky is a virtue when it comes to winemaking. Not satisfied with just dropping any less than perfect fruit in the vineyard, we are going beyond just sorting out any bunches that don’t meet out standards and this vintage will be sorting individual berries on a special sorting table specially designed for nit-pickers like us. Note this is not a job we farm out, Jeff and I do all the sorting ourselves. 

I'll spare nothing, not only in this glorious vintage, but in each-and-every vintage to make wines that I love to drink and, most of all, that I am proud to share with you.

A perfect bunch of cabernet framed by the light of this morning's dawn

Night Harvest: Talcott Vineyard Cabernet Franc in St. Helena

Never Boring

Their shrill barking woke me from whatever dream I was having. A pack of coyotes was having a debate in the vineyard outside my window. In my sleepy stupor I tried, but could not remember the day of the week. It sounded like dozens of them, but it was probably just a few being particularly rambunctious. Suddenly the report of a rifle echoed sharply across the valley and the coyotes were silent. Just a few hundred yards from our house, in the other direction, the first crew of cooks were arriving for work at The French Laundry. Such is life in Yountville during harvest. There is this incredible mixture of nature and urban sophistication, which only intertwines so completely in the Napa Valley. The reason I could not remember the day was simple: during harvest all days are the same. There are no regular patterns, hours or life. It’s exhausting, stressful and the best thing that happens to you every year.

So what does this vintage mean to us? It means another debate with Mother Nature, much like the coyotes outside my window had last night. As winemakers we all bark at the weather, but in reality we live within it and in the end treasure what we have been given each and every year. Like a parent we don’t have a favorite child, but revel in their differences and the memories of their unique strong and weak points. The critics will give this harvest a rating, but numbers have no soul and harvests, like all things in nature, do.

So what should you expect from a wine or from a vintage? I think you should expect personality. Those who rank vintages by number in the modern era miss the fundamental character of wine and truly do not understand wine itself. The question should never be what is the greatest vintage of this wine can I have with my dinner tonight, but should be what vintage will taste the best with my dinner tonight. The disaster vintages of days past are no more due to the dramatic advances in enology and viticulture over the last decades. On top of it we live in the Napa Valley where, let’s face it, the weather is never really that bad. The ranges of vintages today runs more from producing earlier or later maturing wines and from bigger or more elegant styles. It’s a fact of the matter in the Napa Valley an overly hot vintage has a more negative impact on wine quality than ones that are overly cool.

It often strikes me that critics want all vintages to be the same. I cannot think of anything more boring: or unnatural. Tomorrow morning at 4 a.m. we start picking our Talcott Vineyard Cabernet Franc in St. Helena. It will make a wine different from last year and from the one it will make the next. I would not have it any other way.

Haymaking and Grape Picking

We’ve been blessed in San Francisco to have two extensive exhibitions of works from the famed Impressionist museum in Paris, the Musée d’Orsay, at the de Young Museum of Fine Art. In the first of these two exhibitions one work haunted me a bit more than some of the others. That work was Haymaking by Jules Bastien-Lepage. In this piece the exhaustion of the agricultural worker at the end of the day is powerfully portrayed. 

The feeling this painting gave me I could not forget as I picked up my camera during harvest 2010. I doubt I’ll ever see another harvest without seeing Haymaking in the back of my mind. Having grown up around farmers, my uncle and grandparents were dairy farmers in Illinois, and spending many a day during summer breaks and weekends helping on their farms I too remember the heat, sweat and endless work. Something I was lucky enough to leave behind.

In California and most agricultural states the majority of the real work is done by Mexicans who risk arrest and face the brutal prejudice of Americans (none of whom seems to want the jobs they take) to earn a living for their families. If you think you have any idea what they go through you are lying to yourself. From the most expensive California wines to Two Buck Chuck, none would exist without these workers. This is a concept that few consider as they sip their expensive wine in an even more expensive restaurant while raging on about how we should be building a wall along the Mexican border. It seems that good taste in wine does not improve the conscious of those drinking it. When we take a sip of wine, it seem the least we could do to remember and honor those that sweated to bring it to us.

What struck me in the photo above was the ballet-like symmetry which flowed through this crew as they worked. They are picking Stewart Vineyard Merlot just south of the town of Napa. The wine from these grapes is beautiful and they are a part of it.


Mixed Blacks


Mixed blacks, an old term that used to be the backbone of wines like Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy. It was a catch all phrase for varieties that did not command a premium like those that could be bottled under their own name. It also referred to a very old way of planting as farmers would plant many different varieties in their vineyards so they wouldn’t have all their grapes in one basket - if one variety had a bad year perhaps the others would do better. The ‘mixed blacks’ were the bottom of the totem pole and got bottom dollar for the farmer. Today that’s turned on its head as these old mixed planting vineyards have become a national treasure of old vines and interesting varieties.

Girard Winery has taken full advantage of one of these vineyards producing their 2006 Girard Mixed Blacks from a century old vineyard with a mixed planting of syrah, zinfandel, petite sirah, grenache, mourvedre, carignane and a few other varieties whose identity remain a mystery. All the varieties are co-fermented (always an interesting idea) and aged in a blend of French (85%) and American oak for eighteen months. What a wine this is! Loaded with explosive black fruit and layered with earthy touches of porcini and smoked meats, it fills the mouth without being heavy. Girard has avoided the ponderous, one dimensional character of so many “old vine” wines from these varieties. A crisp acid bite keeps this wine alive and it will remind Rhone lovers of a good Cornas or Crozes Hermitage, of course with an added dose of ripe California fruit. 

Too few of these great old vineyards survived the rush to plant more fashionable varieties. It’s great to see a winery give such an old treasure its due.

Posted via email from craigcamp’s posterous

The People That PIck

DSC_0057.JPG I was dreaming in Spanish, at least I was dreaming I was dreaming Spanish. As I slowly woke and came back into reality it occured to me I could not be dreaming in Spanish for obvious reasons. Then the lyrical strains of the harmonious Spanish language again floated through my bedroom window. The vineyard outside my bedroom window was alive with pickers in the pre-dawn glow and their happy chatter filled the air. How anybody can be that happy before dawn and facing hours of backbreaking work always amazes me.

That was about ten days ago and those crews were the first wave, picking grapes bound for sparkling wine. However, now those first ripples are getting ready to turn into a tsunami of harvesting as the Napa Valley gets ready for the main event: the Cabernet Sauvignon harvest. There has been scattered activity around the valley as first the grapes for sparkling wine and then some of the white varieties were harvested. We picked the grapes for our Cornerstone Sauvignon Blanc early last week, in perfect conditions. This was our first harvest of Sauvignon Blanc from the Talcott Vineyard just outside of St. Helena (not too far from Taylor’s Refresher), so I was out there at first light to watch the pick. It never ceases to stun me how hard the picking crews work. None of what we do could be possible without them. Every time I watch a harvest crew in action I want to punch Lou Dobbs in the mouth. I’d like to see him survive even a half-hour, while these crews work at breakneck speed hour after hour until the mid-day sun forces the picking to a merciful end.

Tonight our new Sauvignon Blanc is slowly bubbling away in a cold stainless steel fermemter, while the pickers themselves sleep the sleep that only exhaustion can bring as they prepare to hit the vineyards tomorrow before the morning light illuminates the seemingly endless rows of vines waiting for them. Today we scheduled the pick of our Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon for this coming Tuesday and our Oakville blocks will be right behind. It’s going to be a busy two weeks for us, but it’s nothing compared to the ultra-marathon our pickers have already embarked on.