Napa Valley's Dark Underbelly

Three months now since I moved to Napa Valley. Where does the time go! An alarming amount of it seems to have been spent spraying Wine Away on red wine spilled on my white carpet and then blotting it up with paper towels. Any landlord who rents an apartment with white carpeting to a wine professional is placing their property in grave danger.

A lot of time has also been spent learning more and more about wine. Opportunities to do so here have far exceeded my greatest expectations, and my knowledge has been growing exponentially.

My tasting group's blind tastings continue to be the source of an incredible amount of knowledge. Where else would I be learning about ten white Burgundies one week, including the subtle differences between Puligny-Montrachet, Chassagne-Montrachet and Meursault, and then exploring ten Oregon Pinot Noirs in depth the following week -- with small grower Champagnes coming up next?

This month I also had the opportunity to attend Forum Vinum featuring wines from 85 French wineries. The highlight of the event for me was a seminar in which I tasted twelve rosés from Provence – not the kind of learning experience I was likely to stumble upon where I used to live.

One of the more practical things I've learned is that here in The Valley there are ears everywhere. When at any given time you could unwittingly be sitting next to a winemaker or winery owner you quickly learn to replace the phrase, "God, this wine is horrible," with the more prudent and diplomatic "I'm afraid it doesn't quite suit my palate."

Other things I've learned? One, that on Howell Mountain when the grapes are getting ripe some vineyards have someone on bear patrol all night in an effort to stop the creatures from consuming tons of pricey grapes. Two, that it's common practice for California winemakers to blend up to 25% Syrah into Pinot Noir to give it a darker color though it's seldom mentioned on the label. And three, that it's legal to blend up to 5% of wine from a different vintage in with the wine from the current release.

I've also learned that sometimes the winemaker's tasting notes you read were actually written by someone in sales and marketing. For me that was the near equivalent of hearing there's no such thing as Santa Claus. A glimpse of the ugly corporate underbelly of more Napa Valley wineries than you might suspect.

One of the nicer things I've found out is that it's easier to make friends here than in any other place I've ever lived. Think of it. You have one major thing in common with just about everyone you meet – an absolute passion for wine.

In the vineyards the grapes are now the size of baby peas. Next month I'm taking my first certification course and exam. Big changes are on the horizon for both the grapes and for me. I can hardly wait to see what the next month brings.

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For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.