By Gretchen McKay


A week in California wine country

Categories : Food

LIVERMORE, Calif. — Much as I cook and write about food for this section, I’m pretty much at a loss when it comes to figuring out a good glass of wine to serve with it. My main criteria when perusing the shelves at my local wine store is whether or not I like the label. Plus, I’m cheap.

I know I’m not alone. With so many different vintages, varietals and weird terminology — how can something taste “flabby?” — the mysterious world of wine can be really intimating to a lot of us.

I was the perfect candidate then, for one of six 2014 Legacy Awards offered this spring by Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international society of women working in food, fine beverage and hospitality. The winner of this “wine experience” would spend a hands-on week learning all she could about turning grapes into wine at one of the country’s oldest and best-known familywineries — Wente Vineyards in Livermore, Calif. Talk about a life-changing experience!

The best way to learn was to get my hands dirty during the harvest. My visit, then, fell during the last week of September, which gave me plenty of time to try to bone up so I wouldn’t look like a complete idiot when I met fifth-generation winemaker Karl Wente.  But you know how things go. The thick “World Atlas of Wine” PG wine writer Libby Downer graciously loaned me sat pretty much uncracked in my living room until the night before I was to meet her for lunch to discuss it. My bad. I gave myself away when I guessed, incorrectly, that rose was a mixture of red and white wines.

With only about 50 (mostly mom-and-pop) wineries, Livermore Valley just east of San Francisco doesn’t have the cachet — or money — of nearby Napa. Still, much of California’sChardonnay originated with what’s known as the “Wente clone,” which came from cuttings imported from Montpellier, France, in 1912 by founder Carl H. Wente, a German immigrant who purchased 47 acres of vineyard land in the 1880s. The vineyard today counts more than 2,800 acres of grapes, along with a couple hundred head of Black Angus cattle.

Along with following the grapes’ path from the vineyard to the winery, I’d be doing plenty of grunt work: working the sorting line, shoveling pomice, punching down “caps” of grape skins, and washing and filling barrels. I’d also get to spend some time in Wente’s 1/2-acre organic garden with Master Gardener Diane Dovholuk and watch as executive chef Matt Greco fine-tuned dishes for an upcoming dinner at the Beard House in New York City.

And did I mention wine tastings? Lots and lots of wine tasting, plus a wine aroma seminar in which I’d put my nose to the test and learn to identify naturally occurring aromas such as herbs, fruits and spices. There’d also be more than a few good meals, starting with a welcome dinner that included Chef Greco’s signature dish — house-made lamb pastrami served with pickled onion on rye crisps.

“Wear grubbies and closed-toe shoes while working in the winery or the vineyards,” read an email from Julie Orr, Wente’s national accounts coordinator. Good advice, because at 7 my first morning, I was in tramping through vineyards heavy with ripe, sweet-smelling Cabernet Sauvignon and Orange Muscat grapes with 22-year-old Niki Wente, one of three members of the sixth generation.

A viticulturalist, her job is to sample grape clusters before harvest to crush and test for the Brix(sugar) and acid levels. After gathering the fruit in  plastic bags, we headed back to the “sugar shack.” After squeezing the grapes to release their juices and placing a few drops of liquid into arefractometer, she looked through the eye piece to read the scale.

“But these are just baselines,” she told me, as trucks rattled by carrying huge containers of grapes to the presses. “It’s Karl’s vineyard and he knows when he wants to pick his fruit.”

Over the next few days, I got to see all phases of wine production — how grapes are fed into giant hoppers to be crushed, destemmed (red only) and pumped into tanks for fermentation.  I also spent several happy hours with small lot winemaker Claude Bobba, who with his long hair and gentle demeanor reminded me very much of guitarist David Crosby, only so much cooler.

A self-taught wine expert, Claude took me into the barrel room to listen to the “scream” ofcarbon dioxide escaping and taught me how to take a whiff of fermenting wine to check for off-putting smells without burning my nose (you wave it to your face with your hands). With purple-stained hands, he also showed me how to shovel pomace (the solid remains of grapes after pressing) from a 12-foot-tall fermentation tank and when I finished, put me on the sorting table for an exhausting hour. All the earwigs rolling by on the conveyor belt grossed me out, but no way I was picking them out with the errant /eaves!

When I marveled over the science involved in wine making, not to mention the farming skills — vines need good soil and just the right amount of spacing, sun and water — he didn’t disagree.

“Every year is different,” he told me. “It’s mythic. You’re chasing the elusive butterfly.”

But experiences like mine, he added, help to demystify the process.

Getting my hands dirty in the garden with Diane Dovholuk was an equally pleasurable experience.

The New Hampshire native started her career at Wente in the 1980s as a server, but clearly was destined for something bigger. After completing the Master Gardeners’ Program in Alameda County in 1997,  she persuaded management to allow her to plant a 200-square-foot herb garden in the restaurant’s front yard. Such was her green thumb that five years ago she asked for — and got — a small, defunct vineyard in the back of the property to plant a restaurant garden. It’s been her life’s work and labor of love ever since.

The garden is incredibly diverse for how small it is: more than 60 beds ranging from 20 to 110 feet hold everything from squash, ground cherries, corn, eggplant, melons, peppers and 48 varieties of tomatoes to a wide variety of herbs and greens; most seeds are started in a 30-by-16-foot hoop house near the gate. Under her watchful eye, I got to plant a few rows of microgreens and also shelled countless kernels of red flint corn (and had the blisters to prove it), which she ground into a fine, pinkish meal for polenta.

More fun was watching her go after bagrada bugs feasting on her ’Red Russian’ kale with a blow torch. She’d rather have scorched earth than allow the invasive stink bug-like pests — they just popped up this year — to devastate her beloved leafy greens.

“No way, no how,” she said.

After a week in wine country, that pretty much sums up how I feel about my previous wine choices. No way, no how am I ever going to drink cheap wine again. And no way, no how am I going to complain about paying more for a bottle of good, estate wine crafted by the likes of Claude Bobba.