Harvesting Napa Valley
I stand at the top of a hill at Quintessa Estate in Napa Valley, where 165 acres of vines swoop down toward the foot of the Vaca Mountains on one side and the Mayacamas on the other. The Napa River cuts between. Behind me are huge old oaks dripping in Spanish moss. Caleb Mosley, Quintessa’s vineyard master, was out early this morning harvesting grapes from the rows directly in front of us, which always ripen first, because of their sun exposure and elevation and because the soil has a layer of rich alluvial sediment washed here by an ancient flood. The Napa Valley is a hugely varied universe of soils—volcanic in the west, marine sedimentary in the east, patched with clay near the river. The southern valley is open to the cool coastal air, while the north is dry and hot. There are hundreds of variables involved in growing wine grapes. Right now, on the last day of August and in the middle of a string of hot days, in the fourth year of a drought, the most important question is when to harvest the fruit.
Mosley, young and handsome in dusty boots, picks a deep purple grape for each of us. The skin pops in my mouth and sweet juice spreads over my tongue. “You feel that snap?” he asks. “We want the grape to have more of a pillowy texture. That’s when winemakers get really excited.”
When I was a kid, my dad founded an organic seed company in New Mexico, and I grew up visiting the nearby farm where the seeds were grown. I played in the dirt and caught frogs by the river. When I thought of wine, I didn’t think of any of that—I thought of tasting rooms and food pairings—but standing here, I realize that this too is a farm. The next stage is chemistry, but right now, all that matters is the fruit.
John Williams, winemaker and owner of Frog’s Leap, a vineyard several miles down the road, tells me that we need to think from the plant’s point of view. “So much of what we see and celebrate is above the ground, but the vine probably celebrates more what’s below. What’s a grapevine thinking about in the vineyard? How to get 96 points from Parker? Probably not. It’s thinking, ‘How do I get my babies ripe so birds will eat them and drop the seeds somewhere else? When do I come out in spring? How many buds do I set for the next year?’ The way it makes those decisions is by measuring the temperature and moisture content in the soils and the fertility and mycorrhizal fungi and the angle of the sun and the phases of the moon and tug of the planets and when the birds come through the vineyard and the insects and when the acorns fall off the tree. Everything in its environment is a clue.”
Williams and I are on the porch of the farmhouse, where bunches of purple onions and garlic hang from the eaves. The foreground is Edenic: Peaches, quince, and pomegranates dot the trees, and the bushes are laden with raspberries and jewel-bright peppers. Williams tells me that biodiversity increases resilience. In addition to wine, Frog’s Leap also sells its produce to restaurants, and the farm permits Williams to do something very unusual in the wine business: Instead of relying on contract labor to tend the hundreds of acres of dry-farmed vines, all his employees work full-time and are trained in everything, rotating through the crops as the seasons change. The crew is the human part of this ecosystem. “I was walking in the vineyard with my son the other night,” Williams recalls, “and he showed me a little vine spur that had been tied back to the main trellis.” The younger Williams was impressed that a worker knew the vine needed another branch, and that he took the time to tie it back so it wouldn’t get hit by a tractor. “He’s never going to do that unless he knows he’s coming back,” Williams says.
Upstream, at the foot of the mountains and in a swath of soil filled with glassy black obsidian, is a vineyard that was planted when the hillsides around it were still prune orchards and cow pasture. Gene Kirkham, Casa Nuestra’s owner, sprayed pesticides once when he first bought the place in the late ’70s, because that’s what everyone did. He remembers walking the rows listening to the bugs and bees and birds, but after the spray, all he heard was quiet; everything that wasn’t a grapevine had died or left. He has been growing organically ever since. There are solar panels in the vineyard and a flock of sheep that heads into the vines after harvest to weed and fertilize—though to the animals it will just seem like snack time.
Not all the vineyards I visit have livestock, but all the winemakers I talk to tell me about the other creatures who share their land: Bats eat mosquitos, owls hunt rats, bees pollinate the other plants and trees.
There is a lot of storytelling in wine. There’s the story of the place, the soil, the season. There’s the story of the family who owns the winery. There’s the way we talk about wine itself: Over the course of the week I’m in Napa, winemakers describe notes of everything from raspberry and white peach to road tar. A sommelier introduces one glass as “nervy,” and another as “stern, almost mean—in a good way.”
Some of the growing practices have an element of storytelling to them, too. Raymond Vineyards, which sits in the flat basin of the valley floor, is certified not just organic but biodynamic. This involves, among other things, certain “preparations” of compost made with digestive herbs like yarrow, chamomile, and stinging nettle. This compost is buried between the equinoxes in a hollow cow horn and later turned into a tea to be misted over the vines. Caleb Mosley at Quintessa says, “I know this sounds kind of nutty, but you can think of it as a way of capturing the forces and senses of the winter or summer season and passing on that power to the vines when they need it.” However the elixir strikes you, compost is unquestionably good for the soil. As John Williams at Frog’s Leap says, “It made sense to me that a living soil was more likely to produce a wine of place.”
One afternoon, on my way to Cade Estate Winery, I turn up a windy road that takes me through oak trees brittle with drought. When California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom was mayor of San Francisco, he spent a lot of time trying to convince contractors to build more efficient buildings. Cade, which the politician co-founded in 2005 with partners John Conover and Gordon Getty, is Newsom walking his talk. The design of the winery and caves is modern and sleek. The building, 1,800 feet up Howell Mountain, high above the fog line and overlooking the valley, is constructed from recycled glass and steel and a concrete made from fly-ash, a coal mining byproduct. The caves, full of clean barrels ready to be filled with Cabernet, are built into the mountain, providing natural insulation. The tables around the property are made from a World War II submarine, a demolished bridge in Montana, and mahogany trees felled by the Indonesian tsunami.
After my tour, I stand on a terrace with a glass of textured Reserve Cabernet and look out over the manzanita and oak trees in the foreground and the green and brown stripe of vineyards in the valley below. At a local restaurant, a native St. Helena server said to me, “You see all the fancy tasting rooms and world-class wines, but when it comes down to it, we’re all just farmers.”
I take the last sip of my Cabernet and try to taste not just the cassis and mulberry but the soil—riolite, alluvium, tufa, and clay—and the sun and rain that touched the vines as the buds broke, became grapes, and ripened in one summer’s particular sun.