Wine Grapes Won't Wait: The Crush Is On In Napa Valley

Living in Napa Valley these past six months has brought with it an ever-changing array of challenges and rewards. This month, amidst a monumental heat wave -- temperatures soaring emphatically and relentlessly into the 90s and 100s -- the air conditioning in my car went out. In this land of high-cost-of-living-induced microbudgets I found myself faced with the choice of either cocooning myself in clean, cool air or being able to afford the next couple thousand dollars' worth of certification courses.

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The choice was clear. I rolled down my windows, rolled up my sleeves and found out that life here would never be quite the same in a most enchanting and captivating way.

Euphoria didn't set in immediately, though. Oh no. Definitely not. With the sun beating mercilessly down, I'd find myself stuck in a Crush Season traffic crunch behind an "ag" vehicle moving at earthworm speed holding up a mile's worth of traffic heavily laden with diesel-fume-spewing grape gondolas, grape juice tankers and oak barrel toting trucks.

Summoning my most strident mind-over-matter strategies, I tried to ignore the fact that my olfactory sensitivity – which I had been so assiduously cultivating -- was being caustically assaulted by noxious vapors on a bizarrely grand scale. Oxygen suddenly a scarce and precious commodity. Sinuses raging with pain. At times I felt like I was on the brink of losing consciousness from a combination of heat stroke and carbon monoxide poisoning. But then I found myself caught up in it. That wildly contagious sense of excitement that is The Crush in Napa Valley. And finally I just gave in and got on with it, becoming a part of the thrill of it all.

With temperatures skyrocketing, the grapevines have vehemently declared, "Hangtime be damned!, and the Valley has been abruptly jolted out of its leisurely summer somnolence, exploding into a frenzy of energy, activity and immediacy. The grapes have been ripening like crazy and the rush is on to get them off the vines, into the presses and on to the fermentation tanks -- wineries madly juggling schedules, labor and equipment to meet the demand.

Climate Zone I. Driving home late at night up Silverado Trail. Windows down, cool Carneros breeze blowing in, I saw a blaze of lights and a massive cloud of dust in the distance: nighttime machine harvesting in full swing out in the vineyards. Further up the road, the temperature steadily rising as I continued on into Climate Zone II, I spotted a famous winery's production area going full tilt, 11 at night, daylight bright with high intensity lights. Forklifts, hoses, workers. A wall of yellow plastic grape bins towering 10 feet high.

Continuing on into Climate Zone III, I drove through the North Valley's heat sheet at which point, if I'd had the option to, I would have definitely turned on my A/C -- though truth be told, it most likely would have been on the whole entire drive with my being only half aware of what had been going on outside.

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.

Then, rounding a bend, a 10-degree temperature drop as I encountered one of the Valley's famous microclimates. Which is when I fully realized the magic I'd been missing cooped up in my climate controlled car. And I thought...

This is living. This is Napa Valley. And this is The Crush!

Downshifting a bit, let's query an answer to this: Who gets the great grapes?

Though one might logically suppose it's either a buyer's or seller's market, as it turns out it's a little of both and perhaps more akin to a kind of courtship. A winemaker might taste grapes from this block of one vineyard and that block of the next in search of the fruit that will best suit the vision for a blend. But it's not just famous wineries and winemakers who are the superstars of this scene but also the legendary vineyards with names like To Kalon and Dalla Valle whose owners know their reputation rests not just on the quality of the grapes they produce but also on that of the wines into which they go. Which is definitely not always a matter of selling to the highest bidder. They, too, have to pick and choose.

Other new things I've learned? How about...

Wine Flippers: There are Real Estate Flippers and Stock Market Flippers who buy and sell quickly for a fast and easy profit. These people don't seem to get a bad name for themselves. In fact, if they succeed, they are often referred to as "smart" or "successful."

The term "Wine Flippers" on the other hand is often used in a highly derogatory, disapproving manner, carrying seriously negative connotations. Wine Flippers are people who get on elite winery mailing lists with the sole intention of buying highly allocated wines only to turn around and sell them at a higher price. 

Wineries, who charge whatever the market will bear and then some, do not like Wine Flippers, who do pretty much the same. Some people see this as hypocritical. I, who do not have the money just right now to either own a winery or buy highly allocated wines (or have the air conditioner in my car replaced for that matter) choose to remain neutral on the subject.

On the other hand, there are people who work for wineries and get highly-allocated wine as part of their job perks who then turn around and sell it for a profit. They are often referred to as "fired."

Interestingly enough, the area in which Real Estate Flippers made the most money last year (an average of $85,400 in profit per fast turnaround sale) was Napa Valley. Sleepy little "ag" place that it is.

Red Wine Blends: OK. So I'm going to come right out and say it. I like Merlot. In fact, I like Merlot a whole lot. There are many people who like Merlot a whole lot and probably don't even know it -- and it's not because they aren't drinking it but that they just aren't aware that they are.

To me it is so absolutely outrageously unfair that a short scene in a small-budget film turned millions against the lovely Merlot grape and its magnificent wines. If you ask me, the grapes would have been totally justified in suing for defamation of character -- and probably would have won. But, as it turns out, perhaps they're having the last laugh. On all of us.

If a wine is 75% or more Napa Valley Cabernet it's most likely going to say so on the label. If consumers don't want to hear the "M" word purely as a result of a completely unjustified prejudice that is both cruel and malicious, wineries and winemakers will continue to offer us the wine we truly love even though we maybe can't admit that we do. At least not in public. At least not for now.

"Would you pass me the Merl... uhm...uhh...uhr...I mean... the Red Wine Blend please?" Thank you. Thank you very much!"

The other day I was at a small production winery and spotted what I at first thought were wooden flooring samples sitting next to test tubes full of wood chips. And then it dawned on me. Though I had heard about some mass production wineries using oak chips and oak barrel staves as an economical alternative to $1000-a-piece 60 gallon French oak barrels it was another thing to come face to face with sales rep samples labeled "high toast," "mocha," "vanilla" and "spice." At a small production winery. Far be it from me to jump to any hasty hopefully entirely erroneous conclusions. But.

It's times like these I begin to think I'm learning far more from living here than I really wanted to know. There are times like these when I find myself having a sudden urge to click the heels of my imaginary ruby slippers together and chant, "There's no place like home, there's no place like home," in hopes of magically being transported back to my previous state of ignorance as bliss.

But then, as night begins to fall, a bright moon rises over the Mayacamas Mountains, bathing the Valley's vast vineyards in a late-summer twilight glow. Crickets are chirping, and I hear the baleful moan of the Wine Train as it wends its way home from yet another long day's run. The warm, moist air is thick with the sweet, headily voluptuous scent of grapes so ripe they seem just about ready to burst. And the magic that is Napa Valley envelops me and enraptures me. Once again.