I am hunched over a grapevine at Warnecke Ranch & Vineyards in Sonoma, Calif., a bunch of deep-purple merlot grapes in my gloved left hand, a pair of clippers – tijeras, they call them here en Espanol – in my right. It is just my second time picking, but I am already developing preferences: These grapes are looser, lower hanging and easier to grab hold of than yesterday's chardonnays, meaning faster harvesting and a higher hypothetical paycheque.
The morning sun is beating down, and I fall into an almost meditative rhythm of grabbing, clipping and dropping grapes into my bin – and, I'll be honest, stretching my aching back – as I move down the row, tasting as I go. Some of the berries are plump and sweet and grapey while others are shrunken, with a distinct raisin flavour. Both go in the bins: They add complexity to the flavour of wine, I'm told, with the overripe grapes balancing the slightly green ones. It is details like this that winemakers have to keep in mind as they decide when to pick and how to blend.
It is one of the many lessons learned at Grape Camp, an annual three-day event that welcomes about 25 wine lovers to this county one hour north of San Francisco during the fall harvest season. The schedule is intense, not least for the growers and winemakers, who spend many a foggy night picking – cooler grapes remain in better condition en route to the winery – and catch just a couple hours of sleep before generously spending time with the group.
Besides harvesting grapes (and, in a nod to tradition, stomping them), the itinerary includes blending, pairing and tasting seminars; winery tours; plenty of gourmet meals; and a lot of sampling (one day we sip for almost 12 hours straight). The goal, in the end, is a deeper appreciation of the effort and passion that goes into a glass of wine.
"The more time you spend with wine, the more it draws you in," says winemaker Greg La Follette, who leads a blending seminar at his boutique in the Barlow, an old apple cannery in Sebastopol that has been repurposed into a small-business complex. "You exit out of harvest having been in this delicious time capsule where nothing exists but you and the wine."
Despite La Follette's enthusiasm, I feel out of my depth as we're split into five groups to mix our own creation out of three pinot noirs. I let the experts of my group take the lead in pointing out flavours, playing with the chemistry equipment – we have beakers and pipettes, flasks and bottles – and putting together the blend they deem best, one that everyone agrees is extremely drinkable, so much so that we prepare some extra to enjoy as the judges taste the submissions.
And then, despite our confidence, we do not win; we're one of the two groups that do not place at all. Our wine was balanced, La Follette says, and the most drinkable. The winner, which not-so-coincidentally has the closest ratio to his own blend, will age best, he explains.
And then I get it, really get it – the personal nature of tasting wine, the importance of context and how I need to trust my taste buds and forget about perceived inadequacies. A wine expert, I decide, is someone who pays attention to the flavours, trusts their opinion and is not afraid to share it – no more, no less.
The point is to take as much pleasure in the tasting as the drinking, to enjoy the subtleties and complexities of flavour and how they interact with food and – perhaps most importantly – to appreciate the dedication that goes into every bottle. I think we can all raise a glass of Sonoma pinot noir to that.
IF YOU GO
Sonoma County Grape Camp 2014 takes place Sept. 22 - 24. The cost is $2,000 (U.S.) a person or $3,700 a couple, and includes meals, tastings, daily transportation and three nights at the Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa. sonomagrapecamp.com
Grape Camp caterers vary from year to year. Our most memorable meal was prepared by staff from the Girl & the Fig in downtown Sonoma. thegirlandthefig.com
Besides winemakers, businesses at the Barlow include bakeries, produce vendors, cheese makers, a distillery, restaurants and the flagship coffee bar of roaster Taylor Maid Farms, whose $2 "cappy hour" late-afternoon cappuccinos will perk you up after a long day of wine tasting. thebarlow.net
Also worth a visit are the shops and restaurants of downtown Healdsburg, such as Shed, a "food community" housed in a renovated agricultural building that encompasses a marketplace, an event space and a café that serves up on-tap wines, beers and ciders plus non-alcoholic kombucha and kefir water. healdsburgshed.com
The writer travelled as a guest of Sonoma County Winegrowers. The organization did not review or approve this article.