Harvest 2015: Chaos on the Crush Pad

New empty barrels sit beside lasy tear's full barrels at White Rock Vineyards.

New empty barrels sit beside last year’s full barrels at White Rock Vineyards.

Traditionally, September and October are when the Napa Valley grape harvest is in full swing. The Valley comes alive during that time; the roads choked with trucks hauling tons of grapes in those ubiquitous white bins. The air is ripe with the smell of fermenting grapes, and wine club members fill the hotels and restaurants as they gather to attend one of the countless winery release parties and harvest events. It’s a heady time, to be sure, for both locals and visitors. But this year, the tourists who arrive from mid-September on may find they missed the party.

Harvest has come early this year. Way early.

Thanks to Mother Nature, the normal harvest schedules have been accelerated by about a month. While some pundits and newspaper reporters have attributed this to the ongoing drought, others, including winemaker Cathy Corison, argue that is not exactly the case. While California is indeed in the throes of a four-year drought, the Napa Valley actually received plenty of rain last winter, although in just a few concentrated storms. The true problem was that the month of January was rain-free and warmer than usual, which meant the vines started growing earlier than normal. Since bud break happened a month early, it makes perfect sense that harvest has to also happen a month earlier than expected. It wasn’t just a lack of rainfall, per se.

A typical harvest season starts quietly in August. During that month, sparkling wine grapes are harvested by the few wineries that make bubbles. Meanwhile, at all the other wineries, workers spend the month bottling the previous vintage’s wines and shipping them off to storage. Then they spend many hours cleaning and prepping the newly-emptied barrels and tanks for re-use when the grapes are harvested in September. New barrels (“new oak”) are also delivered during August, and also have to be prepped to receive juice. Come September, most of the cooler grape types (Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and others) start coming in to the winery. Most Cabernet grapes will normally hang until October. So there is a nice, easy controlled rhythm in the valley from August through October.

But this year is different. And for some wineries, this accelerated timetable has created some chaotic conditions on the crush pad.

The early harvest saw sparkling grapes being processed as early as July 22nd, the earliest date on record. The wineries that normally harvest in early September began to realize that things would be happening earlier than usual, and that presented timing challenges. Rather than bottling a month before harvest, this year’s accelerated schedule meant that wineries would be bottling, cleaning and harvesting almost simultaneously.

A visit to White Rock Vineyards in Napa last week revealed that they were bottling last year’s wines, cleaning out the old barrels, accepting a new shipment of barrels and processing some early Chardonnay fruit on the same day. Over in Sonoma and up in Santa Rosa, respectively, Patz & Hall and Pisoni wineries were alternating days of bottling and cleaning with days of processing newly-picked grapes. For wineries with small staffs, this can create even more stress and longer hours than usual during the time-sensitive harvest period.

While some Cabernet grapes are coming off the vines now, most will be harvested in September, assuming the weather stays cooperative. Yields will be lower than in the past three years, owing to cool growing conditions early in the season which resulted in uneven flowering and fruit set. Due to this, most vineyards dropped a lot of fruit early to allow the remaining clusters to ripen fully. Also, after the last three vintages which yielded more tonnage than normal, many vintners have chosen to not over-tax their vines for a fourth straight year and will be happy with a smaller but nicely-concentrated crop.

So while the Napa Valley is busy with activity now, one can expect things to really be in full swing in early September when the Cabernet grapes start rolling in. The silver lining to all this may be, for this year anyway, that the vintners will be able to relax and enjoy the harvest parties with their wine club members in October.




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Starmont: A “New” Carneros Winery Worth A Visit

starmont_winery_1_20131125_1346039348Yesterday afternoon we visited Starmont, a “new” winery in the Carneros region of the Napa Valley that I predict will become an instant hit due to its combination of location, ambience, and delicious affordable wines.

Although the building and property have been in place since the late 2000s, the winery did not open to the public for direct sales until late last month (July, 2015). It seems the economic crisis of 2008 hit just as the winery was getting ready to open, and it was too much of a hardship for the owners to go direct at the time. Instead, they focused on wine production for distribution, and also sold many of their grapes to their sister winery, Merryvale, located in St. Helena.


The patio and grounds are dog-friendly!

Now, with the wine economy in full gear again, the owners felt it was time to reach out to the direct market and open the winery to tours and tastings. While reservations are required for the daily estate hike and barrel tasting, no reservations are necessary if you just want to drop in, which is what we did, with our dachshund Sadie, late on a Saturday afternoon. (Yes, they are dog-friendly!)

Situated just to the south and west of the towering Butler Bridge off highway 29, the Starmont winery is located at the end of Stanly Lane, which is accessible from highway 121 off of 29. The modern visitor center is very open air, and is surrounded by a sea of vineyards. This cool climate gets some lovely afternoon breezes from the San Pablo Bay, making it a comfortable place to sit outside and sip their wines, as compared to the blistering heat you might find this time of year up valley.

Being Carneros, the winery produces wines that thrive in these cooler conditions. Along with the usual suspects of Rosé, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, they also produce several other wines, including a Merlot, a Cabernet (which I did not taste), a Viognier and a really nice Syrah, which is made in the Côte-Rôtie style (meaning that it has some Viognier blended in with the Syrah.)


Estate label (l) and Signature label (r)

Commensurate with the opening of the new tasting facility, Starmont has introduced two new label designs for its wines. The label with the S wrapped around a star is for their distribution wines, and the label without the S-star is for their Limited and Estate wines. Both labels still feature the distinctive shape of their building.

The 5 distribution wines, produced in large volumes, are referred to as “Starmont Signature Wines” and range in price from $19 to $29 retail. Yes, you read that right.


The price list; tastings are $20 and $35

The “Limited and Estate Wines,” which are made in much smaller production lots and only available through the winery, range from $19 to $55. Yes, you also read that right. The tasty Syrah I mentioned above, for example, is only $45, but only 50 cases were produced.

Two tastings are available: The Starmont Carneros Tasting (four Signature/distribution wines and the Estate Pinot Noir for $20 a flight) and the Starmont Single Vineyard Tasting (Rosé, Viognier, Estate Chardonnay, Estate Pinot and Estate Syrah for $35 a flight). We had one of each so we could try all the wines. As a wine writer, they comped our tasting, although I tried to dissuade them from doing so. (I never want to feel obligated to write a nice review just because I was comped.) However, we ended up purchasing a case of wine anyway, so in the end the point was moot. I decided to write about the winery due to it being new, and a great alternative to many of the high-priced wineries in the valley.


Outdoor seating, and tasting room in the rear of photo


Cornhole on the lawn!

A suggestion for those of you electing to visit is this: If you go as a group of 4 people, buy three different bottles of their wine (less than the cost of 4 tastings) and sit on the patio, soak in the breeze and the classic rock music playing on the speakers, and enjoy the Carneros experience! On the patio they even have couches and fire pits, which will be great as the weather gets cooler. They have lovely seating areas inside and outside, a laid-back vibe, and even Cornhole stations set up on the lawn. This is a great winery to visit as your last stop of the day due to its location at the south end of the Napa Valley and its proximity to the highway back to the bay area.tasting room


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My Secret Life As An Uber Driver

uber2It’s time to confess: for the past six weeks I have been driving for Uber here in the Napa Valley. Up to this point only a handful of people have been in on this little secret, but it ‘s finally to the point where I want to share this interesting new endeavor and relate some of my experiences and opinions.

Over the next couple of weeks I will write a few blog posts about different aspects of my Uber life. There is far too much to communicate in a single post, and I learn or observe new things every day, so I will want to keep it current. My hope is that you will find these writings to be educational and maybe even humorous. If you have any questions about Uber, and how it works, let me know and I will be happy to answer them. It has been interesting to me that many Uber riders do not fully understand how the system works, so I am happy to share what I know.

Before I go much further, I want to say this: I am having a blast! This has exceeded my expectations about how much fun I could have driving around in my car for several hours a day. The experience is also teaching me what makes some people very successful in the customer service industry, while others fail miserably.

For those of you who have yet to experience Uber personally, Uber is a point-to-point ride sharing service that is part of what is now being called “the sharing economy.” At Uber, a person like me can turn his personal car into a taxicab, for all intents and purposes. A rider requests a ride using his smartphone, and is immediately paired with a driver in the area, who is also logged on to an app on his smartphone. A map guides the driver to the rider’s location, at which time the fare officially begins. The driver then takes the rider to the desired location, using a navigation map provided by the driver’s smartphone app. At the completion of the ride, the rider exits, the driver marks the ride as completed, and the fare is calculated and automatically charged to the rider’s pre-supplied debit or credit card. No cash changes hands, unless the rider wants to offer a tip in cash. The driver and the rider must rate each other on a scale of 1-5 stars before either can take a subsequent ride. The total fare (based on time plus distance, and any surge fees for low-supply/high-demand situations) is split thusly: the first dollar goes to Uber for a rider fee, then Uber takes 25% of the remaining fare and I get 75%. Uber calculates my fares each day, in real-time, and deposits my earnings into my bank account every Thursday.

There is a little more to it than that, which I will cover over time in my posts, but that is the simplistic explanation of how this works.

To complete this first blog post, I want to mention why I decided to abandon my never-ending pursuit of “all things wine” in favor of driving tourists around the Napa Valley. Since moving to Napa a little over four years ago, I have come to realize that the valley is not about wine; it is about hospitality. People here, whether in the wine business or not, want to share their bounty and good fortune with locals and visitors alike. Sure, there are always exceptions to this theory, but it never ceases to amaze me how generous and giving the people of the Napa Valley are with whatever they have.

I mentioned this to a passenger yesterday and he practically jumped out of my back seat and said “Yes! I agree with you 100%!” So, for me, driving for Uber (in Napa, anyway) is my way of sharing my home with visitors from around the world. I thoroughly enjoy being an “Ambassador for the Valley,” as another passenger referred to me just this morning. Because I know about the history of the valley, how wine is made, the economics of the industry, and personally know so many of its players, I am a really good tour guide for my guests. So much so, that several have hired me to be their guide for the day (all through Uber, of course). So this has become a way for me to amuse, delight and educate my guests, to the extent they are interested in that. And it is more fun than I ever thought it would be.

I will share more about the experience, my opinions of Uber, my observations on riders and much more in the coming weeks. And as I stated before, please let me know if you have any questions about Uber and how it works.

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Do You Deserve Good Service?

It is my belief that there are two kinds of people in the world: those that get good service when they travel, and those that don’t. I have often wondered why some people report getting great service at an establishment while others report quite the opposite at the same place. I think I finally have the answer. A bit of background:

My wife and I like to travel a lot, and we enjoy staying at fine hotels and dining at high-end restaurants from time to time. Before we try a new place I read a lot of reviews, from both professional and amateur reviewers. After our trip, I often write my own reviews of our visits. When I post an entry, I read other recent reviews to see how our experiences compared. What amazes me, over and over, is how many people complain about receiving poor service, when our experience has been exactly the opposite.

It happened again this week. We just returned from a 4-night stay at a high-end resort in Scottsdale, and we spent the majority of our time on property, enjoying the pool scene and the wonderful restaurants and bars. Every single staff member we came in contact with was professional, prompt, friendly and accommodating to our requests. We commented on the plane home how wonderful the service was, and how it helped justify the price we had paid to stay there. Yet when I read other recent reviews, from just a couple of days earlier, I was surprised by those who felt the service was poor, slow, or impersonal. How can the same employees provide different levels of service to different guests, just a few days apart?

My hypothesis is that, to a certain degree, the guest plays a large role in determining the level of service he or she will receive. How else to explain it? Countless times over the years, I have observed fellow guests in hotels, in restaurants and on cruise ships. I have watched and listened as they dealt with hotel staff, waiters and shipboard personnel. It is amazing to me how often these guests are rude, demanding, demeaning or downright boorish when it comes to interactions with service personnel. It doesn’t take much to imagine how the service professionals feel about dealing with these kinds of guests. Most will simply try to handle the situation to the point where the guest gets some level of satisfaction and finally goes away. It is unlikely that the guest will be “delighted” with this result.

Watching these types of interactions, I always feel empathy for the service provider. It is hard enough dealing with nice customers all day, much less the challenging ones. So what do we do that seems to result in more satisfying experiences when we dine out and travel? Here are a few tips:

Present a positive and friendly face. I know, it sounds pretty rudimentary, but you would be surprised how many surly people step up to a hotel registration desk or greet an arriving waiter. Make eye contact. Smile. Exchange pleasantries. Don’t always be in such a hurry to get your room key and move on. The initial impression you make with at the hotel registration desk may make or break your stay. The conversations you have here can lead to superior service. Ask questions. Ask for recommendations. Learn a little about the person assisting you, such as where he is from or what other sister properties she has worked at in the past. Ask the waiter what dishes he recommends. Even if you do not choose his suggestion, you have valued his opinion, and he likes that. Engaging with the staff on a quasi-personal level is always a good thing to do.

Make use of their nametags. My kids used to be embarrassed when I talked to the checkers at our neighborhood grocery store and called them by their first names. I said “if they didn’t want to be called by their names, they wouldn’t wear the nametags.” We try to learn the name of every service professional we come in contact with, whether they are wearing a nametag or not. We also encourage them to call us by our first names, rather than our last name. It’s friendlier that way, and that helps establish a more personal connection. And it makes sense that people will try harder to please people they know…even if they really don’t know you. Once you learn his or her name, remember it. Call her by name when you see her coming next time. Everyone likes to be remembered, and this will encourage her to remember you. Use her name when dealing with other staff members on site: “Susan recommended we come talk to you.” Now the new staff member feels compelled to help you even more because a colleague has referred you. And now you have a chance to make a new connection.

Ask nicely. Again, this sounds like standard practice. But not everyone does. And guess what kind of service people get when they are rude or demanding? Exactly. If you have a request, find someone who may be able to help you. Hopefully this is someone you have already met and whom you know on a first-name basis. Ask “is there any way possible for us to be able to do X?” Sometimes it just won’t be possible, and you should be okay with that. (Most service people actually want to make you happy. If they cannot accommodate your request, giving them grief does not make things better for you.) Sometimes your request won’t be possible, but the server will have another idea that you had not thought of. This constitutes a win. And sometimes, they will make your request happen just as you wished, at which point you should be grateful and most appreciative. The scope of the service, and the favor, will depend on whether tipping is required.

Do the unexpected. When we cruise we take small gifts (usually a small bag or box of candy from our hometown) with us and hand them out to key staff members at the beginning of the cruise. While tipping is expected or required at the end, we have found that these small gifts at the beginning pave the way to a great week ahead. Not only do the crew members appreciate the gesture, but they tell other crew members about the nice people in Cabin 712. You would be surprised how far this can go. Anyone can hand over money, but the act of bringing a local gift, however small, can make other people go out of their way to please you.

Finally, when something goes wrong, don’t lose your cool. In the travel world, things always go wrong; it’s part of the business. As stated above, service professionals (especially at higher-end places) usually want to do their best to delight you. But sometimes it is out of their control. Maybe it is past 4pm and your room is still not yet ready. Maybe the table you requested is not available. Maybe they ran out of the entrée you desired. Resist the temptation to make this a huge issue, thinking it will somehow get you something better or for free. In my experience, making a stink only serves to label you as “that obnoxious couple from Cabin 712,” and that word will get around. Instead, gently express your disappointment, but accept the result, and move on. The staff will appreciate that you did not cause a scene, and many times they will find another way to make it up to you. But let that be their idea, not yours.

Service is something we all get when we visit a restaurant, hotel, or other travel venue. But there is no guarantee that it will be good. While there are always going to be factors out of your control that affect your experience, there are also things that you can do to increase your chances of having a great experience. Happy traveling!

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Harvest 2014 is Underway!

16 Tons (as Tennessee Ernie Ford used to sing)

16 Tons (as Tennessee Ernie Ford used to sing)

Despite the fact that one of my neighbors is still shooting off 4th of July fireworks every evening, harvest started in the Napa Valley today. Yes, that harvest. The grapes. The grapes that make the wine that makes all this (making circular gesture with my hand as I gaze out over the valley) so amazing.

Mumm winemaker Ludovic Dervin sabers open a bottle to bless the grapes

Mumm winemaker Ludovic Dervin sabers open a bottle to bless the grapes…

Thanks to a mild winter, warm spring, early bud break and warm humid summer (i.e. global warming), the folks at Mumm Napa Valley started harvesting grapes from their Game Farm vineyard in the

...and then showers the grapes with wine.

…and then showers the grapes with wine.

Oakville appellation today. Starting at 6am, they picked 16 tons of Pinot Noir grapes, which is above normal as far as yields go, although down a bit from last year’s 18 tons, according to winemaker Ludovic Dervin. Today’s harvest is 2-3 weeks ahead of the usual schedule (and two days ahead of last year), but the recent spate of high temperatures and high humidity made the early harvest of this vineyard necessary.

Mumm's finished product, part of the celebration

Mumm’s finished product, part of the celebration

Mumm makes sparkling wine of course, and unlike the grapes used to make Napa’s famed Cabernet Sauvignon wines, Mumm’s grapes are picked at lower Brix (sugar) levels, when they have higher acidity. Most of the Cabernet makers won’t harvest until mid-October, weather permitting, as they desire as much hang time on the vine as possible to make their sultry, opulent (expensive) red wines.

But now that Mumm has kicked things off, other wineries will soon be picking also, starting in the Carneros region (the southern part of Napa) with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. For us locals, it means we’ll see spotlights in the vineyards in the middle of the night as workers hand- and machine-pick the valuable fruit. It means we’ll see a lot more trucks and tractors on the road, not to mention thousands of those ubiquitous white grape bins.

The famous Wicker Peterbilt

The famous Wicker Peterbilt

And it also means I will undoubtedly hear the flatulent sound of the airbrakes on Ron Wicker’s reliable old Peterbilt at 6am as he hauls 24 tons of grapes at a time up the valley to waiting winery workers.

This is magic time in the Napa Valley, make no mistake about it. The energy and enthusiasm in the air is palpable, and everyone who lives here, or visits during this time, feels it. While outsiders may wonder “Doesn’t the whole idea of harvest get old after awhile? I mean, you do it every single year”—it doesn’t. Each year is a new beginning; the chance to make a new vintage of wine. Each harvest is full of calculations, watching the weather, guessing the right time to pick. It’s a logistics game for many, as you have to have the right workers and equipment at the right vineyard at the right time, or you may miss your window of opportunity. Winemaker Dervin, for example, only decided two days ago that harvest would begin today.

Mumm team members pop open their splits of sparkling wine...

Mumm team members pop open their splits of sparkling wine…

Adding to the energy of harvest is the amount of teamwork involved. I was fortunate to be invited to Mumm today as they celebrated the first harvest with 100 members of the winery staff. Most of these folks will spend the next two months working extra hours in order to process and ferment

..and then promptly douse each other.

..and then promptly douse each other.

the huge volume of sparkling wine that Mumm will produce this year. The blessing of the grapes and the celebration that I witnessed this morning will be repeated up and down the valley over the coming weeks, and every team at every winery will experience the adrenaline rush that is harvest.

As a resident about to experience my fourth harvest, I am still awed by the way everything comes together to put fermented grape juice in bottles. It takes an amazing number of people and machines, art and science, skill and luck, to make some of the best wines in the world. It also takes a community, and an infrastructure to support that community, or none of this would happen. So for me, and for thousands of others who live in wine country, today is a day to rejoice, to be thankful, and to get down to work.

Harvest is on. Hallelujah!

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