Sunday, August 21, 2011

My Last Day at Chateau Montelena

This past Wednesday was my last day at Chateau Montelena – I go back to school on Monday for my final semester of viticulture study at Santa Rosa Junior College. While I am happy to be returning to classes, I am sad that my Montelena summer vineyard “internship” is over, and want to thank everyone who played a role in making it the valuable experience I hoped it would be. I learned a lot of things about growing grapes that I expected to learn – methods of irrigation, canopy management, and pest control, among others. What I did not expect to learn: how hard the work really is! Now when I hear someone say “the vineyard is where wine is made,” I will understand firsthand what they mean. I also did not expect that I would enjoy the company of my coworkers as much as I did – they helped to make each vineyard day a good one for me with their positive attitudes, good nature, and guidance. Jamie Rothberg, Marketing Coordinator, allowed me to share her blog space and was always helpful and responsive to my questions. But my biggest thanks has to go to Montelena’s Vineyard Manager, Dave Vella. Dave related to my desire to learn, and was willing to give me this opportunity, something for which I will always be grateful. On my last day, I posed for this picture with some of the vineyard crew. Only half were available at the time we took the picture, but my thoughts were with all 13 of them…Hasta la vista!

Friday, August 12, 2011

American Dream

Placido Garcia Hernandez, Montelena’s vineyard foreman, tells the quintessential story of the American dream. I sat down with this integral member of the Chateau Montelena team to learn more about his life and work in the vineyards. Placido, whose birthday is July 4th, came to California from Mexico in 1961. As a teenager, he worked hard, picking tomatoes, melons, pears and peaches in the fields and orchards of Sacramento, eventually working his way west to his first grape harvest in the Napa Valley. He has been with Chateau Montelena for 37 years, since 1974. When I asked Placido what the best thing is about working at Montelena, he replied without even thinking about it - “every day.” Every day he is happy to be here, and thanks God he still has the energy to work. He explained that Montelena is a very special place, a “nice place to work,” where there is good communication and support, and where it feels like family. Most of all, Placido told me, Montelena is what enabled him to realize his American dream: that of buying a home and sending his children to school. He is proud that he has been able to share his dream with his wife Maria and their family of four girls (including a set of twins) and a boy, all grown now with children of their own – his six grandchildren. He is also very proud of the fact that he has been a part of the many changes that have taken place here since he started. He told me how different Montelena looked back then (fewer vines) and also how different Calistoga was – he can remember when you could buy a pitcher of “cerveza” for one dollar! I was curious to get his take on the Paris tasting and what happened in 1976; Placido remembers that it was a “big deal” – but not just for Chateau Montelena. That event put Napa on the virtual world wine map, and everyone who made wine in the Napa Valley was forever inspired to strive to make the best wine they possibly could. Placido admits he doesn’t really know much about making wine or even describing wine – he “can only say if it’s good” – but he does know about grapes and vines. I’ve admired his expertise and have been fortunate to have his guidance and support this summer. It would be hard to imagine Chateau Montelena without Placido!

Thursday, August 4, 2011


Today, Montelena’s vineyard signaled the first sign of veraison – every year, one of the most important events in the vineyard that starts the countdown to harvest. Exactly what triggers this remarkable event isn’t fully known, but it may have something to do with seed maturity. Veraison means, literally, the “change of color of the grape berries” – basically, the onset of berry ripening. During this period, the vine switches its resources to ripening the fruit, and leaf and cane growth subside. The berries soften, seeds turn from green to brown, acids decline and sugars accumulate and fruity aromas develop. Not coincidentally, this is nature’s way of making the fruit appealing to animals! This morning’s assignment was leaf pulling in the fruit zone – to increase air circulation around the berries and give them more sun exposure. It was during this exercise that I pulled away leaves on one cluster to reveal, for the first time, purple berries. I ooh’d and aah’d with delight, and had to run back to my car to get my camera, afraid if I went back later and tried to find that exact bunch, I wouldn’t be able to find it. The vineyard crew carried on, unphased – though I think they were somewhat amused at my enthusiasm for something they have all seen already many times. The result of that effort is the photo here, which I think you’ll agree is a thing of beauty! p.s. these are Cabernet Sauvignon grapes.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Montelena's Happy Vineyard Crew

My co-workers - the people who make up the great, hard-working vineyard crew at Chateau Montelena – really help to make my time in the vineyard enjoyable. They are also good, patient teachers, and a lot of the fun for me has been practicing my Spanish as we try to understand each other. Placido and Beto (foreman and supervisor) do speak English but most of the crew are as limited with their English as I am with my Spanish. Yet we carry on conversations as we work, and somehow I know about their lives and they know something about mine. Most importantly, the language barrier hasn’t hampered their ability to explain something, or mine to comprehend. Last week I was partnered with Jose for the morning and he showed me a very efficient way to do leafing in the fruit zone. Clusters are getting big now, and it’s important to allow appropriate sun exposure and adequate ventilation around the berries. Jose demonstrated how to lift the canopy with one hand, kind of like looking under the hood of a car, and using the other hand to “comb” through and pull off leaves, working fast but taking care not to accidentally pull off a cluster of grapes. With experience it is possible to work quickly and avoid the fruit, but the key of course is to end up allowing enough sun exposure on the clusters but not so much you risk sunburn. I told Jose he was “muy rapido” but that I was “lento(a)” – slow. Somehow he made me feel that I was still doing a good job. On Wednesday, I was part of a small team tasked with dropping fruit from some young vines. Even knowing why this has to be done (keeping vine yields low to produce grapes with more flavor and intensity) still doesn’t make it any easier to snip off a perfectly beautiful cluster and throw it in a pile where it will shrivel and die in a matter of hours! Depending on the size of the shoot, I was told to leave two, one, or no cluster. The heat was back with us today, and the work was hard. But I continue to be impressed and amazed that my coworkers are always smiling, singing, and happy. Amidst their laughter and chatter, I can sometimes pick out a word or two or a phrase I understand. Most of all, listening to them passes the time and makes me smile, and I am grateful for this experience.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

My Favorite Vineyard Day

One day last week I spent my morning at Chateau Montelena working on some Petite Syrah vines. The Montelena estate vineyards are exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon and old Zinfandel; the Petite Syrah vines are experimental (maybe the winemakers will try them in some new blend?) Arriving at the vineyard at 5:50 a.m., I learned that the rest of the crew was working offsite. I wondered what I would be doing, since that meant I would be working alone. Did they actually trust me to work on my own in the estate vineyard with no supervision? Beto asked if I would like to work on the four rows of young Petite Syrah vines that needed a little “tidying up” - vines creeping out into the row middles needed to be tucked into the catch wires and trimmed above the top wire. Sure! I said, happy to have any opportunity to use my pruning shears. I love pruning and cutting and trimming and snipping – as someone who has never really worked in a garden of any kind before, I had no idea how empowering it is to “discipline” a vine….maybe it’s because I can’t seem to establish the same control over my two obstinate Pugs. At this stage, when the vineyard seems to be growing like crazy, the vines are like unruly children. Fortunately, and unlike my dogs, they respond well to just about anything you do to them! It was a glorious day in Calistoga – very warm, but not too hot, with a soft breeze and a postcard-blue sky. As I was talking to the vines in the peaceful silence and listening to the birds chirping, Mr. Barrett rode by on his little motor scooter, and it made me happy to see him out and about. After a bit Dave Vella, the Vineyard Manager, stopped by to ask how things were going for me. In addition to what I was already doing, Dave suggested I start “dropping” berry clusters – in effect, pruning to leave just one cluster per shoot. When vines are young, this allows them to put their energy and resources into producing berries with more concentrated flavors. Montelena purposely keeps their vine yields low because smaller crop yields produce wines with more intensity and complexity. I was excited about this new task, until I started trying to decide which clusters would live and which would die. The problem, I discovered, was that by and large, all of them were beautiful and soon I realized I was spending far too much time trying to pick and choose and that it probably was not an effective use of my time. Where there were clear and obvious choices, I snipped off the “lesser” bunches, but I have to say that I did not enjoy murdering those little clusters that will never grow up to become fine Chateau Montelena wine! All in all, though, a perfect day.

Monday, July 11, 2011

My New Job!!

As if it wasn't exciting enough to have a working internship at Chateau Montelena for the summer, I was just offered a position as Assistant to the Vineyard Manager at Paul Hobbs Winery in Sebastopol! Incredibly, this job basically fell into my lap - the Vineyard Manager is a former SRJC student who contacted my current professor to ask if she knew of any current student(s) she would recommend for this new position just created for the winery...and she suggested me! I wasn't looking for a permanent or full-time job at this point because I still have a few more classes this Fall to complete my viticulture degree, so timing wasn't ideal, but it's something I couldn't pass up. And they made it easy by agreeing to let me work part-time (2 days a week) until I finish school; then, if I want to stay and they want to keep me, it will become a full-time, permanent position. I have to admit, I did not know much about Paul Hobbs when this came up. I'd heard of his winery but didn't realize how well-known and regarded he is, not only in California but throughout the world (he also makes wine in Argentina). Paul was the winemaker at Opus One and Simi before founding his own winery in 1991 with small lot, hand-crafted, vineyard designate Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon wines. His wines are among the highest-rated - not your "everyday" wines....."world class, and priced that way too" - ! But the good news for me is that I will have a nice employee discount, so I plan on stocking my wine cellar while I can! The winery itself is gorgeous - the architecture is very modern, sleek, and stylish. And I've never seen cleaner tank and barrel rooms - definitely my kind of place! My new position will be the best of both worlds - half in the office and half time in the vineyard. There will also be opportunities to participate in harvest and cellar operations. My goal for the next 6 months will be to work hard and learn, learn, learn!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Summer Vineyard Activities

Hope everyone had a good 4th of July. At Chateau Montelena, the vineyard has really been flourishing – the warm, sunny weather has given the vines everything they need to grow, and grow rapidly! It is very exciting to see the berry clusters taking shape and increasing in size; “peppercorn” diameter now (about 4 mm), they are actually beginning to look like bunches of grapes. “Berry set” occurred in June and this month wineries can begin cluster counts to determine their crop projection for the year. Because everything is growing like crazy at this time, it’s also necessary to keep up a busy pace of tucking vines up into the catch wires as well as continue with suckering – removing unwanted shoots we don’t want and the vines don’t need. Extra shoots “rob” the vines of the vigor and productivity that has to go into growing, ripening and maturing the fruit, so this is a very important task. We have also started some shoot “thinning” to eliminate crowding and allow the leaves – i.e. the little solar panels of the vines – full sun exposure and again, to give the vines the opportunity to focus their energy into fruit production instead of green (vegetative) growth. We did have a day of real rain last week; happy for the cooler temperatures, we started work as usual at 6 a.m. under a light drizzle but within an hour the skies opened up to a full blown deluge. I had my rain gear on and wanted to continue but Placido, the crew supervisor, wisely summoned us out of the vineyard and told us to go home – no sense jeopardizing anyone’s health or safety. The sun and high temperatures have returned, and we are back at it – yesterday was spent doing more vine tucking and suckering. These things grow like weeds!