October came to Napa Valley bringing with it heavy rain and one final frenzied rush to bring in the last of the grapes. Then, unexpectedly, rather abruptly, an almost eerie post-crush hush fell upon the vineyards. It was as though a curtain had fallen at the close of an epic stage play. The Valley fell silent and reflective. As did I.
Storm clouds cleared towards the end of the day, and the sun set on the vast sea of vineyards now turned autumnal shades of red and gold. There's a chill in the air, and slowly drifting fog banks punctuate the undulating topography of the foothills.
From budbreak through crush, I've been here one full vintage. Time to pause and wonder. What will the future bring? Will I stay here or will I move on?
Living the Wine Country Life is for a wine professional a holy pilgrimage, a dream come true. All that I have learned here, the certification that I have gotten, all the wines that I've tasted, all the people that I've met have given me a diversity of options for the future far beyond what I had imagined before I came here. And yet, would I recommend this to anyone else?
We do get asked, those of us who live and work here. Visitors tell us they have a background in something like marketing and are wondering where they might be able to get a job in Napa Valley. They are invariably taken aback when, "In a tasting room," is our honest, standard reply.
Do I think you should move here? My response is always heavily laden with a myriad of strongly-worded caveats, the chief one being that if I didn't come to Napa Valley with an all-consuming desire to take wine classes it would have been exceedingly difficult to find enough reasons to stay here, to tough it out through the realities of a much lower standard of living and a far lower level of job.
So, should you move here? Maybe. But just don't ask me when I'm cooking meals on my hotplate and washing dishes in my minibar-sized sink and have to dash off to the shower to rinse out the larger pans. Don't ask me when I'm homesick and missing my friends and don't have the money to go back and visit.
And especially don't ask me when I'm eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for one week straight, putting $5 worth of gas into my car at a time, trying to get through till my next microscopic Napa-Valley-sized paycheck covers little more than my gargantuan Napa-Valley-sized rent.
On the other hand, when my spirits are faltering and I'm having an oenological crisis of faith, my friend back home reminds me that I'm in a good place here. And I am. In a lot of different ways. Being at the epicenter of the wine business everyone I work with and socialize with is in some aspect of the wine trade. It's near-total immersion. And immersion has its benefits.
For example, I'm going to six major tastings this month – Champagne, Argentina, New Zealand, Portugal and Italy. But the reason I'm doing this is not to taste and enjoy the wines and to find a few favorites as I would if I were living elsewhere.
You see, someone from my tasting group and I have developed a strategy that if we hammer away at intensively tasting key varietals from key regions at an average of about ten wines a day for the next five years – aggressively interrogating the people who are pouring as to how we can distinguish it in a blind tasting from other abominably similar wines -- that we might have a hope in hell of passing the Master of Wine exam someday. The MW is the local equivalent of Mount Everest and it's not all that uncommon for people to be attempting the summit. "Because it's there."
Four out of the seven members of my tasting group are going after the MW – not the kind of ratio you're likely to find in even the most sophisticated group of hometown tasters. To that end, we've been doing intensives on topics like Mosel-Saar-Ruwer Rieslings and Northern Rhone Syrahs.
We share strategies for taking brutally difficult certification exams, detecting obscure wine faults, answering arcane essay questions. We keep each other posted on upcoming trade and consumer tasting events. We have a collective mission. We are comrades in arms.
True, the days are getting shorter everywhere, but to me perhaps even more so here. I'm finding that living in a valley the sun rises later and sinks down behind the mountains earlier than you could ever possibly want it or expect it to, and they roll up the streets by 9PM sharp. The days go by so fast.
So, too, did the 2007 vintage which much to my naive surprise lasted scarcely six months from budbreak through crush. I never knew before how brief a period of time one season spanned. There's a lot I never knew before moving here and quite possibly would never have learned if I hadn't lived here and experienced it firsthand. Has it all been worth it? OK, if pressed, I will answer with a very weary, fairly reluctant, but ultimately definite yes.
Night falls and I'm driving through St. Helena's majestic tree tunnel and down its misty small-town streets dimly illuminated by turn-of-the-century street lights. There's a different sort of magic here at this time of year. A poignant sort of magic that has me wondering. Will I at some point drive through that tree tunnel and emerge out the other side as an occasional visitor to a place where I once lived? Only time will tell. Only time and the magical mystical workings of Bacchus and the sorcerers of wine.