Men Who Like to Cook - David Latt

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Boot Camp at HALL Wines in Napa, California

Many states in the U.S. have developed premium grape growing areas: the Ohio River Valley, Oregon's Willamette and Columbia Valleys, Washington State's Walla Walla and Yakim Valleys, the Hudson River Valley, and Napa Valley in California, to name but a few. If you love wine, there is no greater pleasure than taking a trip to a winery and sampling the wine where it is made.

At a few wineries you can do more than just have a glass of wine. You can go behind the scenes and learn how wine is made. In California, Wine Boot Camp has 1-day workshops in Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles. Grape Camp offers a Sonoma Wine Country experience that follows the grapes "from the vineyard to the bottle." In New York's Niagara-on-the-Lake, Peller Estates hosts weekend boot camps that also teach wine-food pairings. For wine lovers with ample resources, Beautiful Places can provide a more private setting where you can stay in a villa in the middle of a Napa Valley vineyard and learn how to make wine with the villa's grapes.


Recently I was part of a group invited to a Harvest Experience at HALL Wines in Napa Valley. We spent three nights and two days learning how to make wine. This wasn't a series of dry presentations with a bow-tied oenophile lecturing in front of a blackboard. We had a hands-on experience in the fields and the winery. And this was the best time of the year to be in Napa. Excitement is in the air because 90% of the year's grapes will be harvested in a few weeks.

Driving through the Valley, passing by so many miles of neatly tended vines, it's easy to assume that all the grapes are the same. Of course there are different varieties of grapes, but what we learned from our Boot Camp was that in addition to those varietal differences, each vine is unique depending on the quality of the soil, its location, what direction it faces, and how much water it receives.


During the two days, winemakers Steve Leveque and Megan Gunderson took us on a tour of the HALL owned fields and wineries in St. Helena and Rutherford. We experienced every step of the wine making process, from picking the grapes to tasting and blending wines to create a final product.

When we were at the vineyard, Steve was debating when to pick the grapes. Checking the weather forecasts several times a day is second nature to a winemaker this time of year. Steve and Megan hoped there wouldn't be any rain, high winds, a cold spell, or a heat wave in the next week. Just before the grapes are picked, they want steady, warm temperatures. At just the right moment, Steve will give the order to start harvesting the grapes and when he does, everyone has to be ready to work quickly.


When the harvest begins in earnest, the pickers meet in the fields at 4:00am when the sky is pitch dark and a thick fog hangs in the air. Avoiding the heat of the day is easier on the workers and the grapes. When the flood lights are turned on, night turns into day and the workers move quickly from vine to vine, cutting off the grape clusters one by one, dropping them into their grey plastic bins (bandejas). And so the day goes, from vine to vine, then row by row, filling one bin at a time, emptying the bandejas into the micro bins that hold a 1/2 ton each. When the mico bins can't hold anymore, they're driven to the winery where they are emptied onto a conveyor belt so the grapes can be sorted before they move on to the distilling tanks. The wine spends up to 24 months in tanks and French oak barrels before being bottled and stored another 12 months before being released to the public.

As you are reading this post, the crews at the HALL vineyards (Sacrashe, Napa River Ranch, Bergfeld, Hardester, and Walt Ranch) are picking the grapes that will produce their 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Syrah, and Petit Verdot. Those bottles will be released in 2011.


For Kathryn and Craig Hall, HALL Wines is a passion project. Kathryn inherited her love of the Valley from her father. Growing up in Berkeley, California, farming was the farthest thing from her mind. When she was a teenager, her father decided that he didn't want to live in the city any more. His dream had been to grow grapes and see them made into wine. And that's what he did. He moved the family to Mendocino and settled into a life as a grape farmer. That move changed not only her father's life but her own as well.


Kathyrn Hall has had many careers. To mention but a few, she worked as a poverty law lawyer, has been an assistant city attorney in Berkeley, California, administered Safeway Stores' affirmative action program, campaigned to be the mayor of Dallas (twice), co-founded the North Texas Food Bank, is a trustee of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and in the Clinton administration, was the U.S. Ambassador to Austria from 1997 to 2001. No matter where she has lived or what she has done, she never forgot about Napa or wine making.


In 1995, she and Craig bought the legendary Sacrashe vineyard in Rutherford. Her plan was to focus on limited-production wines. That changed when Craig was driving on Route 29 in St. Helena and saw the vineyard at 401 St. Helena Highway South. A well-known real estate expert, Craig was convinced there was something special about the property. Today that is the location of the HALL St. Helena winery, where Frank Gehry is designing the Visitors' Center. They are half-way through building a state-of-the-art winery that will qualify for the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED).


Even though they have expanded their holdings substantially, they still have the same approach to making wines: low volume and high quality. They regard HALL as a 21st Century premium vineyard and winery. Key to that objective is their high-tech winery and high density planting, a strategy developed by HALL's first winemaker and now President of the company, Mike Reynolds. Instead of vines planted in rows 12' apart, with 8' between each plant, the approach at HALL is to plant the vines closer together in rows 6' and even 3' feet apart. According to Mike, high density planting results in smaller, more flavorful yields and HALL would gladly trade quantity

for quality.


Our stay included accommodations at the HALL owned B&B La Residence. A full breakfast is included as well as Wine and Cheese Hour each night with a pouring of HALL wines.


At dinner that first night we were introduced to the HALL wines with a

wine-paired meal prepared by Chefs David and Mimi Katz that included a selection of HALL's recently released 2005 Artisan and Napa Valley Collections, served in Riedel Sommeliers Series glasses.


With our starter of Butternut Squash Risotto with Pancetta and Sage we had the "Diamond Mountain", Cabernet Sauvignon. The main course of Breast of Liberty Duck, Fall Vegetables and Pan Seared Chanterelles was paired with the "Darwin", Napa Valley. The next course brought together a selection of California Cheeses (Fiscalini Eighteen Month Cheddar, Bellweather San Andreas, and Point Reyes Blue) with HALL Wine's signature Cabernet, "Kathryn Hall". And for dessert we had Baked Napa Peaches with a Hazelnut Cookie and Chocolate Custard Filling, which was paired with the perfectly balanced "Late Harvest" Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley.


We arrived a few days before the really intense picking was to begin, so we were spared having to be in the fields at 4:00am. But it was early enough that the fog still blocked out the morning sun. After a quick breakfast, we were driven to the HALL's Napa River Ranch where Don Munk, who is in charge oftaking care of the vineyards, handed out razor sharp knives that looked like miniature-scythes.

He gave us a quick lesson in the proper method of removing the grapes from the vine: one hand holds the grape cluster, while the other hand holds the knife. We were warned that the knife was sharp, so we were happy that we were also given tear-proof gloves.


Don showed us to put the knife behind the stem that holds the cluster to the vine and to slide the curved blade along the stem, pulling it towards us. Then we practiced putting clusters into our bandejas, being careful to keep out leaves. Now we were ready to join the crew.

I wanted to show that I was a quick-study but I quickly recognized what a novice I was. The vineyard workers moved down the rows at freeway speeds. Within minutes they quickly filled their bandejas while I progressed tortoise-like.


As we picked, we were encouraged to eat a few grapes. Steve told us, "What you taste in the grape, you'll taste in the wine." Which is why HALL Wines puts so much effort into how the vines and grapes are cared for in the field. That is, we were told, what quality winemakers do.

Don explained that each and every vine is "touched" 7-8 times during the year: pruning (cutting back the vines); tying the canes to the trestles; cleaning off undesired shoot growth when the vines begin to bud; leafing (thinning out the canopy so there are enough leaves to shade the grapes to prevent them from burning and turning into raisins but not so many leaves that the grapes don't ripen); crop adjustment (thinning the grape clusters so they don't grow on top of one another); just before the harvest, cutting off any grapes that have turned into burnt raisins; and finally just before harvest, checking the sugar content level (brix).

The location of the vine determines its care. If a vine has a western exposure, each cluster of grapes has to be protected from the blistering afternoon sun by a canopy of leaves, but not so much that the grapes are completely shaded. The grapes need a lot of sun but they need the right amount. Too little sun and they won't ripen properly. Too much and they become raisins. If unripened grapes get into the fermentation tanks, the wine will have a "green" taste. If the raisins get in, the wine will have a "prune" flavor.

After a couple of hours of picking, our group had mastered the fundamentals and our pace had quickened. Picking grapes is back-breaking work but there are tricks of the trade. We learned from the vineyard crew not to pick up our bandejas but to push them with our feet so we only had to pick up the bandejas when they needed emptying. The vineyard crew was very supportive of our efforts. They generously said we had helped them pick one and a half tons in record time.

Next we followed the grapes back to the winery. We ate lunch with our crew in the jumbled area behind the old winery building. The burritos (delicious!) came from La Luna Market in Rutherford. Then we headed to the sorting table. Our grapes were transferred into a giant auger that moved the clusters up a three-story conveyor belt to a sorting table where we pulled off as many raisins as we could. Once sorted, the grapes pass through a sieve that separates the grapes from the stems.

If we had picked Sauvignon Blanc grapes, they would have left the sorting table and, after being destemmed, would have dropped into a giant tank where a thick plastic bladder would have gently squeezed out the juice. From there the juice is captured and pumped into fermenting tanks. The skins and seeds are sent to a composting recycler.

We had picked Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and since red wine gets its color from the skins, the grapes were kept whole. They moved into stainless steel tanks where they would have a "cold soak" for several days.

The objective is to give the juice as much contact with the skins and seeds. At this point the mixture of juice, skin, and seeds is called the "must". When heat is applied and fermentation begins, the skins and seeds rise to the top, creating a thick "cap" on top of the juice. HALL Wines doesn't add commercially prepared yeasts to facilitate fermentation. Since they are dedicated to organic farming and processing, the yeast used in fermentation occurs naturally on the skin of the grapes.

For our second day, we walked the tanks with winemakers Steve and Megan. Now we tasted samples of juice that had been in tanks 7-8 days. The stainless steel tanks were cold to the touch. The yeast was still asleep so fermentation hadn't started. We tasted Sauvignon Blanc juice. At this point the wine looked like unfiltered apple cider and had a slight tang. The Cabernet had the quality of thick grape juice but even at this stage we could taste the layers of flavor that would be featured in the wine.


Our next samples were from tanks that had been heated. The yeast had awakened and was happily consuming the sugar in the juice. These samples had a decidedly more alcohol kick. We knew to swish the wine around in our mouths to appreciate the flavors and then spit it out. Once fermentation has finished, the wine is moved into French oak barrels.


For lunch we made pizzas on the patio at the HALL Rutherford Winery. While we kneaded our mounds of dough, formed pizzas, and added toppings, we looked out over the vineyards in the Valley below. After our pizzas had been baked in the outdoor wood-fired pizza oven, we sat down to enjoy our lunch of pizza, Caesar salad, and--of course--a glass of HALL Napa River Ranch Rosé.

For the final part of our Harvest Experience, we were given a half dozen bottles of wine: Cabernet Sauvignon

from two different areas of the Sacrashe vineyard, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Malbec . We were to make our own blend. We tasted each wine, made notes about flavors and alcohol levels. Then we experimented with percentages in pursuit of a perfect balance of flavors. The only problem, as Steve had warned us, is that the flavors we wanted didn't exist yet. We were tasting wine that wouldn't be ready to drink for another 18-24 months. We had to taste the wine with our mouths and our imaginations. That is the true genius of the winemaker.


For the 2009 harvest, HALL Wines wants to offer the Harvest Experience to their Wine Club members as a premium package: three nights and two days working in the vineyard, touring the winery, learning how to make wine and enjoying wine-paired meals with the winemakers. For our group the experience was unforgettable.