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Chasing Grapes

Columnist: Christina Julian
October, 2017 Issue
Columnist

Christina Julian
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Nine years ago, I moved to the Napa Valley, and left a grueling job in advertising (and Los Angeles gridlock) behind me. Soon after I landed, I met winemaker Kirk Venge at a Cheers St. Helena social, and regaled him with my dreams of becoming a wine writer. He smiled that wide- mouthed grin that only a man of Kirk’s stature and size can conjure, and offered to help. A few days later I was on the trail to “chase grapes” with him. This translated into me running to keep up as we traversed hundreds of vineyards, tasting and testing for levels of ripeness and acidity, so he could determine the precise moment to pick. A couple days would turn into a season as his official grape sampler, where each day would end, hands stained, eyelids sagging, and a body beaten to the core—but ready to rinse and repeat the next day.

 While my days as a sampler were sidelined to write about wine, I still get to swap stories and sips with winemakers. Here’s what some of them had to say about this year’s harvest.

Aaron Pott, winemaker for NASCAR driver Danica Patrick’s new Somiumn wine and vineyard, said, “This intense winter—after several winters of drought—drove compost and nutrients into the root zone, creating a frenzy of early growth. Canopies were large and thick early on. This created issues with airflow and powdery mildew pressure was high due to weather conditions and little air flow deep into the fruiting zone.” As for the organically farmed vines at Somnium, “It forced us to be extra vigilant on the mildew front. Quality looks good and set occurred under excellent conditions. Clusters are compact and light with small berries but abundant.”

Valley veteran Tom Gamble, of Gamble Family Vineyards, talked about how the varied weather patterns impacted his vines. “All the rain means healthier vines with more crop than the roots can bear in some instances.”

For Pott, the heat afforded opportunities to employ some biodynamic tactics. “I was able to use tools like kelp and aloe based leaf teas to deal with the effects of the heat.” In the vineyard, Pott saw leaf damage in the form of dried portions of leaf surface area, and burned skins. “That is unusual in the green stage of the berry. But Somnium’s row orientation allows the sun to be directly over the row during the hottest part of the day, so sun damage is not combined with heat to cause greater damage.”

Locals reign

On a token night out and away from the twins, my husband and I had to wipe our eyes to make sure we weren’t dreaming when we walked by The Saint winebar in St. Helena, shocked by its presence and astounded the place was still open at 10:30 p.m. after our movie had let out. The scene was a mix of tourists, lounging after dinner, and a sea of locals like us. Proprietors Lisa and Toby DeVore hail from Lodi and more recently from New Orleans where the couple owned and operated The Tasting Room. Toby who is also a sommelier talks about the decision to offer wines beyond our valley. “We felt the locals would enjoy trying other stuff alongside Napa wines.” The couple hopes the space has a broad appeal. “We felt like a lot of businesses cater to tourists, so we modeled ours the other way around, and cater more to locals.” This almost feels like a novel (and welcome) idea, given the attention that is often paid to tourists in this town.  I get it, tourism feeds our economy, but so too do the locals. 

“We created a space that we would want to hang out at,” Toby said. “We have a beautiful restaurant scene here, but we were missing a lounge scene, a place to enjoy a quality glass of wine from anywhere in the world.” In addition to wines, the bar will feature gourmet cheese, caviar, charcuterie and other small bites

When it comes to drawing customers, the duo envisions filling a sweet spot—the pre-and post-dinner crowd, and a place for those in the hospitality industry to unwind after work. As I sip the remains of an Argentinian wine, nestled in one of the cozy couches that envelop me, I can’t help but think, that amid the gangbuster growth that threatens to engulf this valley and the tourists that support it, it’s nice to know there is still room at the bar (and lounge) for locals.

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