Every year nearly five million tourists travel to Napa Valley. At 6:00 a.m. on a Friday morning in late Summer, it’s a safe bet few of them are up yet. More likely they’re slumbering under puffy quilts at quaint bed & breakfasts, bellies still full with gourmet food and wine consumed the prior night at one of the region’s renowned restaurants. The owners of the mega-mansions speckling the forested ridgelines that flank this narrow, 25-mile-long valley are also a few dreams shy of their first café latte. But Tony Biagi, the twenty-eight year-old winemaker at Neal Family Vineyards, has been up since 4:30 a.m.
It’s the last day of August, harvest time in Napa Valley. In the vineyards, grapes hang from vine shoots in heavy bunches, swollen with juice, skins stretched taut over pulp. They’re a purple so deep it’s almost blue. Pearls of dew bead slowly off the skin down to the dust below and evaporate in the sun’s warming rays. Leaves in the overhanging tree canopies quiver in the breeze, but the sagging clusters barely move. To most people driving the wine country byways, the grapes look ripe. Yet, inside some of the fruit, the juice is still sour and the seeds are hard, green, and bitter. Ripe grapes would have crunchy brown seeds swimming in sweet nectar. Those are the ones Tony wants today.
Harvest is a delicate game with much at stake. If Tony picks his grapes too early, the wine will fail to achieve the taste complexities he desires. If he picks too late, overripe fruit may shrivel on the vine or fall prey to late Autumn rains that can dilute flavors. Ripeness is a moving target and both winemakers and vineyard managers anguish over the perfect moment to pull the trigger and pick. No other winemaking decision has as much impact in determining whether the ensuing wine will achieve greatness or slouch toward mediocrity.
Tony checks his fruit daily during harvest, spending mornings collecting samples from the vineyards whose grapes he purchases. This quest for ripeness sends him commuting through the region’s diverse landscapes; over the valley flats of centrally-located Oakville to the craggy eastern escarpments of Stag’s Leap; from the low, rolling Carneros hills in the south to the bulky mass of Mt. St. Helena bookending the north.
Driving a brand-new, hunter-green Ford Explorer that his boss, Mark Neal, gave him when he came aboard last month, Tony heads south on Route 29, the main thoroughfare of Napa Valley. From above, the valley looks like a long skinny ladder leaning leftward, narrowing at the top. Route 29 barrels up and down the west side while the lesser travelled, more picturesque Silverado Trail parallels it to the east. From the city of Napa at the southern end to the northernmost village of Calistoga, eleven cross streets form the rungs. Locals use these byways as escape routes from the traffic on 29. Even so, there’s always the threat of encountering the dreaded “Silverado Crawl,” when you find yourself in a no-passing zone behind a minivan full of tourists or a tractor trailer with a full load of grapes.
Tony’s eyes scan the valley, and he nods at the low-lying fog, nature’s nocturnal air conditioner. He’s glad to see the mist blanketing the ground because the best wine grapes are grown with an even balance of hot days and cool nights.
“We didn’t have that last year.”
As he drives, he explains one of his winemaking experiments back at the winery, which involves splitting a barrel of Chardonnay six ways and then added different types of yeast to each batch.
“Basically, winemaking is a lot of bucket chemistry.” He speaks quickly in the pre-dawn hour, surprising considering he doesn’t drink coffee.
“It all comes back to having the best vineyards. I remember some Merlot vines in Rutherford that were gone, totally written off by everyone. But they still produced great fruit. Great sites have a way of seeing through human error.”
Tony cuts east from Route 29 to the Silverado trail via Oak Knoll Road, one of the lowest cross routes, then turns south toward Napa. Passing the manicured green fairways of the Silverado Country Club, he takes a left up Atlas Peak Road, which climbs and twists to a terminus just shy of the 2,600-foot summit. Atop Atlas Peak the sun is shining, but a layer of fog midway prevents its rays from hitting the valley floor. Vineyards midway up the mountain normally ripen a couple weeks later than those in the warmer valley below because the fog belt’s cooler nighttime temperatures shut down the vines’ growth, extending the time it takes for their grapes to achieve maturity. The highest vineyards on Atlas Peak, above the fog, catch the morning’s first sun rays and the temperature warms up early. This inversion layer effect allows the topmost properties to ripen at the same rate as vineyards on the valley floor.
The road hairpins upward through creamy banks of fog cloaking the route. “I hope you don’t get carsick,” says Tony, as we drive past stonewall-flanked driveways leading to gated mansions.
The thing is, I do get motion sickness. And I’m not a morning person, either. The reason I ended up here in Napa Valley courting nausea at dawn is because I am a curious person who was both intrigued and annoyed by wine and its obsessive, cliquey subculture. Prior to meeting Tony, I thought wine country consisted of landed gentry contemplating glasses of Chardonnay while surveying their vineyard acreage from the comfortable vantage point of a wrap-around porch. Occasional weekend trips from my home in nearby Marin County - lodging at quaint bed & breakfasts and sipping wines at the myriad roadside tasting rooms - did little to alter the fantasy. At the same time, I found myself intimidated by cocktail party wine snobs who swirled their glasses and spoke of “legs,” “heavy toast,” “tannins,” and “cracked pepper flavors.” It seemed the more these people learned about wine, the more they excluded the rest of us from their knowledge. Maybe it was my competitiveness, maybe it was my shame, but I wanted to fight back. I wanted to learn as much as they knew, to crack the code and report back my findings for the benefit of all. I wanted to be able to shut up the wine snobs.
For this, I would need a tour guide. Someone in the know, someone respected by their peers for their talent and passion. To find such a Virgil for my wine country Odyssey, I canvassed every wine shop I could find between San Francisco and Marin, Sonoma, and Napa counties, quizzing salespeople and store owners about the most interesting wineries and winemakers they knew. I came up with an impressive list of characters, but many of them had arrived in the wine industry on a cushion of first-career success. There were former doctors, stockbrokers, dot-com lottery winners, urban refugees, and even a professional race car driver. But the story of someone who had already ‘made it’ did not excite me. I wanted someone on the inside, but someone who was still on his way up.
Deep on my list was Tony Biagi, who had a just left an assistant winemaker position at well-respected Duckhorn Vineyards to take charge of winemaking for Neal Family Vineyards, an unknown upstart. The owner of the winery, Mark Neal, also happened to operate a vineyard management company which farmed more than 2,000 acres worth of other peoples’ grapes. It sounded like a recipe for success: a guy known for great grapes hiring someone with the talent to turn them into great wine. The new winery would be blank canvas for Tony’s art. Over beers, and perhaps after sizing me up as a source of free labor, Tony agreed to let me follow him around with a notebook for a year. By watching his every activity and eavesdropping as best I could on all his conversations, I would come to understand how life at a small winery was, at its roots, a combination of bucket chemistry and not-so-gentlemanly farming.
Back on Atlas Peak, the roadside scenery prevails over the churning in my gut. In adjacent fields, ancient volcanic boulders lie scattered at random like marbles tossed by the gods. The fog thickens as Tony continues to climb Atlas Peak Road. He’s only been to this vineyard four times and hasn’t yet memorized the driveway’s location. The grey mist doesn’t make it any easier, so he slows the truck. Finally, he takes a tentative left and triggers the motion-sensitive wrought-iron gates of Second Chance vineyard.
At the end of the steep climbing driveway, stone walls to the right mark the upper boundary of a vineyard that slopes down to a small pond speckled with white geese. Piles of rock pulled from the fields are strewn nearby. The air smells fertile: of hay, dried Scotch Broom, and sage basted with dew. The birds are waking; dove and quail songs punctuate the morning peace. Although the sun will burn through in a couple of hours, it still has a ways to go. The air is bracing, maybe fifty degrees. Breath is visible and hands feel best jammed deep in one’s pockets.
The only concession Tony makes to the chill is a fleece pullover. Underneath, he wears a t-shirt, olive khaki shorts and a pair of well-worn Blundstone work boots. His dark hair is cut short and he looks more like a linebacker than a winemaker. It’s not surprising to find out he was a star wrestler in high school, recruited by the University of California at Davis. There he studied in the famous Enology and Viticulture department, the equivalent of Harvard for winemaking. Not bad for someone whose father was a narcotics cop and whose mother still works as a Safeway butcher.
Standing next to the stone wall, Tony points out the bowl shape of the vineyard, the way the borders gradually funnel downhill into the pond at the center. The vines ripen at different rates depending on their location in the vineyard, so Tony needs samples from the flanks of the vineyard as well as the belly. An aerial photograph would show the lowest parts of the vineyard, those closest to the groundwater, as darker greener than the vines in the “wings,” or upper reaches. Ironically, the less fertile wings of the vineyard often produce better fruit for wine. With less water finding its way into the root systems, hillside vines struggle more and produce smaller berries. The low water content results in higher sugar concentration and better flavors. The trick is to supply just enough moisture to keep the vines going, but not so much that the fruit has an easy time of it. In the vineyards as in life, that which does not kill you makes you stronger.
Drip irrigation, an Israeli invention originally developed to facilitate desert farming, hydrates the grapes. The system trickles precise amounts of water onto the soil above each vine’s root system. At this point in the growing season, vineyard crews irrigate once every two weeks or so. If it rains, the time between waterings extends even longer. This “tough love” approach produces fewer grapes, but the ones that survive will be more complex and flavorful. From the Second Chance vineyard, a total of ten and a half tons of grapes will be picked, less than two tons per acre, a relatively low yield.
Tony grabs a cluster from the vine, pulls off a grape, eats it, then plops the rest of the cluster into the baggie he’s holding. As he bites through the crisp skins, the berries squirt sweet, clear syrup. He crunches the seeds between his molars then spits out the brown splinters. The nutty taste is just what he’s been looking for. Green, bitter-tasting seeds would mean the grapes are not yet ripe. Before the spit-out seeds hit the ground, Tony is off again, moving quickly down the vineyard rows, pulling clusters as he walks like a hurried shopper grabbing cans off a grocery store shelf. He makes sure to select a good mix of individual grapes from the shoulders, middle, and tip of each “V” shaped cluster. By taste alone, he guesses they’ll be 21-22 degrees Brix (the percentage measure of sugar content), but he’ll have to wait to take a spectrometer reading back at the truck to be sure.
Moving up and down the rows, Tony points out grapes that have been hit by winter frost. Next to the robust blue-blackness of a healthy Cabernet grape, the frost sufferers are a weaker maroon. On the ground under the trellises, stray grapes litter the dust like rabbit droppings. Dead and dimpled, they raisin in the sun, victims of crop thinning, a process where a certain number of otherwise healthy grapes are sacrificed in order to strengthen the remaining grapes. Too many clusters on each vine means too much competition. Quality gets diluted across too many grapes. Crop thinning lowers the yield and produces better flavors, but it also reduces the amount of wine produced. It’s an agricultural and economic tight-wire act; the better quality wine produced from a low yield crop must sell at a high enough premium to counteract the loss in volume.
Because his boss is Mark Neal, Tony has many great vineyards to choose from. Before constructing the Neal Family Vineyards winery up on Howell Mountain, Mark made a name for himself taking over his father’s company, Jack Neal & Sons, and growing it into one of the largest vineyard management firms in the region. Handling grape farming for 2,400 acres of both large and small vineyards, Mark possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of where the best fruit in the valley can be found. Furthermore, the relationships he’s built over the years with the vineyard owners ensures him access to the most sought-after fruit.
Filling separate bags from the wings and the center of the vineyard, Tony continues moving from row end to row end. In the middle of one section, Tony stops suddenly. He looks down and frowns. Dark circles in the soil surround the vine stems, evidence of recent watering. Tony didn’t think these vines needed any watering, especially so close to harvest. He’s afraid the excess water will weaken the unctuous, ripe flavors he’s counting on from Second Chance. If the fruit is good enough, it may be bottled separately with a single vineyard designation on the label. Typically, these bottlings command higher premiums because they express what the French call “terroir,” the synergetic effect of sun, earth, soil, and water unique to each vineyard.
Tony makes a final sweep through the lower central part of the vineyard. Closer to the pond, the canopies are much larger, over five-feet high, and they sway like tentacles in the breeze. As he finishes up his rounds at Second Chance, Tony drops the full Baggies of grapes into his mobile winemaker’s office, a plastic Tupperware box full of beakers and instruments. Although he can tell by taste alone whether the grapes are ready, further laboratory testing will give him exact readings on sugar content as well as acid and pH levels.
Tony hops into the truck and heads back down to the valley. On the way, he points to a meadow where mist smokes up from a pond. A dozen quail skitter above the field grass, making him smile. In the off season, he hunts them with his father. A couple minutes later, he spots a rafter of wild turkey marching across a lawn. Stopping the truck in the middle of the road, he gobbles at the birds. They look up for a moment and continue feeding, oblivious to Tony’s serenade. Halfway down the mountain, Tony slows down again. “Ooooh,” he coos as another covey of quail takes wing in an adjacent field.
Cresting the edge of the high plateau offers a panoramic view of the entire Napa Valley, from the wide estuary of the San Pablo Bay that leads south into the San Francisco Bay on the far left to the narrow gorge-like features at the northern end to the right. Straight ahead the Mayacamas range rises quickly. Beyond those peaks are Sonoma County’s fertile, rolling hills followed by coastal headlands. Then, the Pacific.
Napa Valley is a pull-apart basin, not carved by glaciers or rivers, but a product of continental drift and tectonic separation. This violent upbringing created tremendous amounts of rocky, hillside terrain with perfect drainage for Cabernet grapes. Shifflett Ranch, in the western foothills of the Mayacamas is one such spot. Not only does Mark manage the vineyards, he also buys some of their grapes for Neal Family Vineyards.
The landscape starts out flat at the entrance bordering Route 29, then climbs sharply up the slopes of Mt. Veeder. Tony first checks the Chardonnay, down near the gates. The prevailing temperature in this area is a bit warm for Chardonnay and Tony acknowledges that the fruit is not the best quality. “Then again, we won’t charge monumental prices.” $20 is the price they’re considering. Because Chardonnay takes less time to age, it will provide quicker revenues to the winery while they wait to release their flagship Cabernet, which for $45 a bottle will be expensive but not ridiculous for Napa Valley.
On a steep section of graveled driveway, Tony stops the truck and calls Mark on the cell phone.
“You want Cabernet Franc?”
“It’s on our list this harvest,” Mark answers, his voice projecting loudly enough from the earpiece that anyone inside the truck can hear. “But we don’t need it if you don’t want it.” He’s trying to cut Tony in on some of the decision-making.
Cab Franc (as Tony calls it) is primarily used as a blending grape to soften up an overly tannic Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Although as much as 25% of a second varietal can be legally blended in, most wineries keep the percentage down in the low single-digits. Neal Family Vineyards is aiming for 100% pure Cabernet, the purest expression of the grape varietal Mark’s been farming for three decades.
Tony’s legs hang outside the truck, causing the “door ajar” indicator to beep annoyingly. Ding! Ding! Ding!
“Is that your brain working?” asks Mark.
Tony tells Mark that the vineyard crews need to make one more pass back at Atlas Peak. “They’ve got to knock off those Kool-Aid looking clusters, the ones that taste like root beer, from rows ten to thirty, down low.” Those grapes are overripe and Tony wants them off the vines.
“Okay,” agrees Mark, “and let me know if Wyckoff Vineyard’s watered, too.” In addition to giving his opinions on grape ripeness, Tony also helps Mark monitor his crews. Mark doesn’t trust many people, but he seems to trust Tony.
Tony hangs up and marches down a side hill through Cabernet Franc vines. Walking down the steep terrain, our progress deteriorates into a controlled stumble as the parched dirt gives way under our shoes. Tony points out a distant patch of scraggly vines stricken with Pierce’s Disease. The healthy green leaves have fallen off and only a few paper-thin brown wrinkles remain hanging from tendrils. Spread by flying insects called blue-green sharpshooters, the affliction impedes the transfer of water through the vine, much like clots can block up human arteries. Replanting is the only recourse for the vineyard owners.
Tony samples a grape from a healthy vine in front of him. “Okay, we can go home now,” he says, pretending to walk away. “That would be nice,” he laughs. “You can do that when you’re a consultant.”
He’s referring to consulting winemakers, hired guns who occupy the rarefied air atop the winemaking profession. In exchange for advising winery clients on critical aspects like harvest dates, fermentation, barrel selection, and blending, the best consultants earn six-figure fees per client, often working for as many as a half-dozen wineries at a time. They travel extensively, host wine tasting events, mingle with celebrities at charity auctions, and are treated like rock stars by wine collectors and writers. Only the best winemakers, after several years of consistent, top-notch performances, successfully make this transition.
Meanwhile, back in Tony’s real world, more vineyard blocks need sampling. He hops back in the truck and drives up a dirt road so steep he switches the gears into four-wheel drive.
“This is Cabernet country,” he announces with pride as we spiral upward around dust-covered vines. Peering out the truck’s window, Tony takes a drive-by visual sample of the hanging grapes. It’s tough getting good people to work these incredibly steep hillsides, he explains, but the grapes produced here are some of the valley’s best. “Rutherford is ‘King of Cabernet,’” he adds. Indeed, buying land here costs a king’s ransom, as much as $250,000 an acre. Such is the world in which Tony lives and works; a surreal realm where agriculture is treated like artwork, winemakers become celebrities, and the best wines attract cult-like followings.
Leaving Shifflett Ranch, Tony heads back north on Route 29 to the Oakville Grocery, where he pulls over for a drink. A purposefully rustic deli, wine store, and gift shop combination, the Grocery is a favorite stop for tourists who flock here for their fix of Napa Valley memorabilia, souvenirs, and tasty gourmet sandwiches like Black Forest ham and melted Brie on toasted sourdough. Inside, Tony nods to a guy with a baggy hanging out of his pants pocket, the telltale sign of a fellow grape sampler. They chat briefly about what they’re seeing in the vineyards and what they’re tasting.
Back in the truck again, Tony crosses the railroad tracks paralleling Route 29 and takes Bella Oaks Road to the Wyckoff vineyard. Again he heads down the vineyard rows, this time scuffing the ground to check soil moisture and evidence of watering. Heavy clumps of dirt give way under his feet as he walks. It shouldn’t be so wet.
“You want to tease ripeness out of the vines with quick bursts of water.”
He’ll ask Mark to cut back irrigation to make the vines work harder.
Back north on Route 29, turning left on Vallejo Street in St. Helena, Tony checks up on a well-located vineyard hit hard by Phylloxera, a louse that decimates vines by sucking nutrients out and injecting its waste back in. The owner of this potentially great vineyard is an eighty-year-old widow who hasn’t kept up maintenance over the years. Vineyards infested with Phylloxera can still produce good fruit for a couple years, but over time the quality diminishes and the vines die. Instead of waiting, Mark planted new vines next to the disease-damaged vines and tied them together. This way, the old vines serve as training wheels for the new vines. When the new vines grow to correct alignment and are strong enough to stand on their own, the old growth vines will be cut away.
Standing next to one of these vines-in-training, Tony pops off a grape and squeezes it open. The sticky juice oozing out onto his fingertips is clear. Both red and white grapes contain juice that is neutral in color. In the making of white wine, skins are removed before the fermentation process begins. With red wines, the skins remain in the tanks during fermentation. The alcohol produced acts as a solvent on the skin pigments, dissolving them into the wine to create the familiar burgundy color. The ever popular White Zinfandel is a white wine made from red grapes; the skins are removed immediately and the minimal bleeding of color from the skins gives leaves the wine pale pink.
At 9:00 a.m., fog still lingers and the moist air smells of woody vines. Barely visible in the western distance, a searchlight of sun beams down on a spot high atop the Mayacamas ridgeline. It’s here in the vineyards that Tony’s first vintage as head winemaker begins. Because great wine begins as a grape, Tony mingles with the fruit as early as possible to get acquainted with the vintage. He will get to know it even better over the next 18 to 24 months, the length of time it takes to shepherd Cabernet from grape to glass.
Although Tony has some preconceived winemaking strategies for the vintage, he knows to keep an open mind. He knows each vintage is unique, since each is the result of distinct growing seasons marked by unpredictable intervals of cold, hot, dry, and wet. He knows a myriad other obstacles lie in front of him: late grape deliveries, leaky barrels, spoiled wine, ornery bosses, cranky clients, pompous auction-goers, annoying tourists, enticing job offers, and the rigors of the road. But most importantly, he knows that adaptability and flexibility will the keys to his success. “The best winemakers don’t use the words ‘never’ or ‘always.’”
On a mid-September day, around 6:30 a.m, I make my way up Howell Mountain for my first visit to the Neal Family Vineyards winery. The early morning roads rumble with eighteen-wheel trucks on their way to the vineyards with empty half-ton bins on their flatbeds. There’s a nip to the air and the sky is battleship gray. Perfect weather for picking grapes. If heated up too much by the sun, freshly harvested fruit can ferment prematurely in the bins on the way to the winery, so cool air is welcome.
Howell Mountain is not the first place a visitor to Napa Valley wine country would visit. A good twenty minutes from St. Helena, up snaking roads with missing guardrails, the ride is intimidating. Angwin, the closest town, is heavily populated by Seventh Day Adventists who don’t drink. But Howell Mountain’s hillside vineyards are also famous for producing mighty Cabernets. The views from the top are some of the valley’s best. This is the place Mark Neal and his new $3 million winery call home.
The winery itself resembles a golden-brown contemporary barn, impressively proportioned at 7,500 square feet. Narrow, vertically-hung cedar planks compose the exterior and an imperfect matching of lumber grains adds an authentic feel to the otherwise sleek newness. A rambling, windowless ground floor houses the winery operations while a small second floor with two dormers contains offices. At the peak of the roof, a rectangular section banded with small windows allows sun into the offices via a cathedral ceiling. To the eye, the building looks finished, but cosmetic details remain like doorknobs, light fixtures, cabinetry, and wall paint. Bags of potting soil sit on the driveway, waiting to become a part of the landscaping details. Japanese Maple saplings flank the parking area. A dry, rock-bottomed stream will someday empty gurgling water into a man-made fish pond. Piles of hefty, lava-pocked Sonoma fieldstones line the driveway, soon to stacked and formed into picturesque stone walls. Adjacent to the rock piles is the winery’s only working bathroom, a Porto-potty.
Across the driveway from the winery entrance, new vines grow, each at a height of two to three feet. In a couple years, these vines will provide grapes for the Neal Family Vineyards’ own estate label wines. It the fruit turns out great, it will be bottled on its own. Otherwise it will be blended into the Napa Valley label along with grapes from other viticultural regions of the county like Atlas Peak, Rutherford, Mount Veeder, and Howell Mountain.
The inside of the winery comprises three main chambers. Through the front door in the middle is a tasting room leading into an open, central foyer. A thick stone archway spanning double glass doors guards the entrance to the caves, ten-foot-high concrete tubes projecting back into the hillside another 7,500 square feet. From inside the caves, the open front doors of the winery provide a spectacular arch-framed view to the green vineyards slopes beyond.
The right side of the building houses the storage room, an open expanse with thirty-foot ceilings for keeping empty barrels and full cases of wine. The left side contains the tank room, an L-shaped space lined with a dozen temperature-controlled thirteen-ton aluminum cylinders. Pipes made of lustrous copper and sparkling stainless steel snake along the walls. Above the tanks, a steel scaffold structure provides access to the top openings. Some of the tanks contain freshly crushed wine, still fermenting, while others remain. An empty crusher/destemmer sits in the middle of the cement floor, waiting for the day’s grapes, which could arrive at any time. During harvest, this is where the action happens.
Tony is already at work, moving tank to tank checking sugar levels for the grapes crushed a couple days earlier. Countering the crisp morning air, he wears a fleece vest over a short-sleeved plaid shirt. He hasn’t shaven today and his khaki shorts already show dirt smears and grape stains. Personal hygiene is something he can worry about after crush. But for the next couple weeks, it is Tony’s job to babysit the wine in this room. Kicking off fermentation smoothly makes the rest of the winemaking year easier. Many of the tasks, like monitoring tank temperatures and taking Brix readings don’t appear strenuous, but that’s part of the art; knowing exactly what’s happening in the tanks, predicting potential problems, and figuring out solutions ahead of time. In his head, Tony constantly works through scenarios he hopes he’ll never have to experience.
Methodically walking the periphery of the room, Tony quietly draws samples and records the Brix readings. The scuffing of his boots on the concrete floor as he shuffles between tanks echoes through the airy chamber. It’s peaceful solitude; a tranquil intermission before the frenzy of another crush load. In a couple days, the young wine inside these tanks will move on to the pressing and barreling stages, freeing up tank space for grapes still out in the vineyards.
Gove Celio, the winemaker for Liparita Cellars, walks in. He’s worked at his winery for nineteen years. His hair shows specks of gray. Tall and wiry with a quiet, gentle presence, his most distinguishable feature is a gray mustache. Gove approaches Tony, looks at the sky, and wonders aloud if it will rain.
Neal Family Vineyards is performing “custom crush” for Liparita this year, letting them process grapes and store wine here for a fee. It’s a win-win situation; Liparita doesn’t have its own crush equipment and the still-growing Neal winery has excess tank capacity, empty storage space, and a desperate need for short-term income. Gove stops by regularly during crush to sample his wines and take sugar readings, but it’s Tony who handles most of the cellar duties.
Together, they walk back into the winery to do a pumpover. Circulating the wine lets in oxygen which helps the yeast kick off fermentation. Pumpovers also release any bad odors trapped inside the tank that might later taint the wine. The tank they’re pumping over today is filled to eleven of its thirteen-ton capacity. Space is intentionally left open at the top to accommodate the carbon dioxide that is released when sugars convert to alcohol.
Grape seeds at the bottom of the tank come out first, followed by the wine and the cap of skins that forms above. As the must pours out the spigot, Gove shovels back the growing mountain of skins and seeds off the strainer so the juice flows easily through the screen. “Oh!” he exclaims. “That cap smells nice!”
After twenty minutes of pumping over, the seed flow diminishes, and all that pours out of the spigot is a clean purple flow. Taking a berry out of the strainer, Gove presses it between his fingers, watching the sticky red juice drip down his hand. The pigment from the grape skins has begun to color the wine. He scoops up some grapes into a two-liter opaque plastic pitcher and admires the frothy burgundy liquid within. “Good juice!”
This year’s harvest looks promising. Although the grapes were picked relatively early compared to recent vintages, the buds on the vines bloomed a month early in the Spring, leaving the growing season its usual length. Continuing to shovel skins and seeds off the strainer into plastic buckets, Gove takes in the crimson effluent. “The color’s great,” he purrs.
Back outside the winery, Tony skillfully maneuvers the forklift, nimbly zipping around the pad dropping, picking up, and stacking empty picking bins. Although Tony has the crusher/stemmer ready, the grapes are late. Apparently, the pickers never showed up at the vineyard. During harvest, when competition for picking crews heats up, no-shows are not uncommon. Most of the pickers are seasonal employees trying to maximize their income over the three-month harvest period. Many of them return to their families in Mexico and Central America in the off-season. Loyalty is a nice concept, but it falls easily by the wayside during crush when self-interest rears its ugly head. Although late picking wastes his time and makes his job more difficult, Tony shrugs it off as just another reality of the wine business. “Hey, we’re all scrappers and fighters.”
When the morning pumpovers are complete, a stillness returns to the winery. Outside the sky is flat gray, almost somber. Off to the side of the crush pad, Mia, a yellow Labrador with a solid, square-shaped head, munches on discarded grapes and assorted rocks. As she roots in the dust, making pig-like grunts and wagging her tail constantly, Niko, an older German Shephard, pads over to watch. Crush is not a period of constant activity. Instead there are bursts of action punctuated with periods of tense idleness. Tony knows the grapes are coming, he just doesn’t know when. He spies an empty picking bin and decides it needs moving. Hands pushing against the sides and calf muscles taut, he slides the chunky plastic container effortlessly across the concrete pad like a football lineman driving into a blocking sled.
Mark Neal, Tony’s boss and owner of the Neal winery, finally arrives a little past nine o’clock. He’s been up since five, driving the vineyards, checking on crews, making sure what needs to be picked gets picked. Vineyard managers are essentially farmers and Mark dresses the part in jeans and a green, short-sleeved, button-down shirt. His face is sunburnt, evidence that careful applications of Coppertone don’t happen much during harvest. The license plate on his truck, a burly evergreen Ford Expedition, reads “Pro Ag.” His boots are hikers, powdered with tan dust. He seems relaxed chatting with Tony, but Mark rarely exhibits extreme expressions from either side of the emotional spectrum. If he tends one way, it is toward a frown. Despite a proclivity toward uncensored bursts of opinions about the wine business or the world at large, his conversational tone is laid-back and deadpan. He’s comfortable with silence and deals pleasantries sparingly. He’s got too much work to do and doesn’t care about making friends. With the high-end wine business heavily dependent on relationships, gregarious Tony is the perfect counterbalance to Mark’s gruffness.
Talk turns to the weather and its affect on harvest. Any real threat of sustained rain, say a few consecutive days worth, will have Mark’s crews rushing to get the grapes off the vines before their flavors get watered down. For early warnings, Mark consults several meteorological services. Right now a storm is brewing down in Baja, Mexico, but Mark doesn’t think it’ll make it up to Napa. As long as the rain stays away, he and Tony will let winery’s remaining fruit hang in the vineyards and gradually accrue those bold, ripe characteristics for which Napa Valley Cabernet is known and for which wine enthusiasts pay good money.
The sun finally breaks through, warming the two men’s faces as they talk. On the concrete pad, Tony sets up a basket press. Barrel-shaped, stained crimson from years of use, the apparatus is wrapped by vertical wooden slats spaced just far enough apart to let juice ooze out while keeping the pressed grape skins inside. Only with very small batches of grapes, say a half-garbage pail full, will Tony use out the basket press. Turning the handles on the top in a clockwise fashion, he looks like a bus driver steering a Greyhound. The grapes press easily at first and the juice pours down into the receptacle bucket below.
When the handles no longer turn easily, Tony wedges a small block of wood in between the crank shaft and the wooden disk that pushes against the grapes. Gradually, he increases the size of the wood blocks to press the grapes further and further down. The trick is methodical, gentle extraction, so Tony crabwalks in a slow circle with his hands on the crank, facing inward. It seems all those post-rugby match “Dizzy Keg” races – where he and his UC-Davis teammates would chug a full beer, race to a keg, grab onto the rim, and spin around as fast as possible – have trained him well for handling a basket press. But today, instead of foam from a cheap, warm beer, it’s the froth from fermented grape juice dripping down his chin. He looks like a messy little kid who just gobbled down a jelly sandwich.
Once he’s finished pressing, he removes the top of the basket press, revealing a thick round cake of pressed grapes. He cleans out the press, sweeping the grape skins and seeds with a push broom into a drainage grate running the length of the concrete pad. The drain quickly clogs, so he gets down on his hands and knees, removes the grate, and plunges his hands in up to the elbows. Fishing around with his fingers, he looks up and announces, “This is the glamorous part of winemaking.”
Walking back into the winery, Tony makes his way back to the cave tunnels and tells Juan, a Hispanic worker, to stain barrels with leftover red wine. Tony likes the look purple-painted midsections on his barrels. He thinks it makes the caves and the barrels look classier, like in Burgundy, France. From a practical standpoint, the staining helps hide the inevitable messiness that occurs while topping off barrels or transferring wine back and forth between tanks and barrels during the racking process