After a weeklong immersion in Napa, I am finally getting a grip on wine. I visited 10 vineyards and pretty much each one had wisdom to share and some of it soaked in... along with the wine. Ok, I'm no expert by any stretch, but I have had a few ah-ha moments, a few times where I said "Duh, I had no idea what that meant!" Maybe they are notes that help you too.
If you see this on a bottle, it's wine that's made from grapes on the property. You'd be surprised at how many vineyards buy grapes from elsewhere.
You will hear this a lot. An American Viticultural Area is a grape growing region that determines an official appellation for wine. The US has 252 AVAs in 33 states. In order to classify your wine as a particular kind -- like Cabernet Sauvignons -- the wine must contain at least 85% of that grape from the AVA. Napa has 16 AVAs.
This department of the US Treasury -- the Tax and Trade Bureau (formerly the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms or ATF) -- governs some aspects of the wine business. They determine the AVAs and also approve wine labels.
Napa is known for Cabernet Sauvignons. But we tried a great Pinot Noir from a vineyard in the hills. The Pinot grapes need the chill of the mountain air. Cab Franc is also popular, especially in blends.
Sauvignon Blanc was the most popular white among the vineyards we visited. While not a white, we also tried a number of rosé wines made with the Cabernet grapes.
Generally speaking, I am not a fan of California Chardonnay. But perhaps I was drinking the wrong ones. The cliche oakey ones are not for me, but Napa makes some pretty good ones that are not too buttery. I think I may have bought a few to try. But to be honest, I have no idea how to pick a good California Chardonnay without help. I may stick to the French ones, which are all good. Ok mostly good.
Most of the oak used in Napa Valley (where we went) is French oak. Sometimes it is toasted to varying degrees. Rarely you will hear of a vintner who uses American oak. Most of the folks we met look down on American oak. Oak barrels are used for 1 to 2 seasons and then are considered neutralized. Sometimes neutralized oak barrels are used for rosé but more often discarded (I did not ask how, but now I am wondering what becomes of all that oak!)
Honestly, I don't know how anyone can find wine in a wine shop (although I do know some wine shop owners who I will have to ask) because most of the wine from the vineyards we visited sell 95% or more of their wine direct to consumer through vineyard visits and wine clubs.
When you drive around Napa you realize it's host to a giant mono crop. Just grapes. Some roses dot the end of vineyard rows. No corn, no wheat, just grapes. So then you wonder... with all that sun and very little rain, how do the plants stay alive? Most vineyards water only in emergencies. They rely on the plants to grow their roots deep into the soil -- 7 feet or more -- to find water. And laws govern how much of your property you are allowed to farm (because of the water). Now you can only farm 30% of your land. But most vineyards are grandfathered in so they farm more than that.
How many grapes?
It takes about 3 pounds of grapes to make a bottle of wine, give or take. An acre of grapes yields about 150 to 200 cases of wine. And, yes, a case is 12 bottles.
The later in the season you pick the grapes, the higher the alcohol content and sugar.
This process for growing grapes follows the patterns of the seasons, the moon and stars. Think of this as the implementation of the Farmers' Almanac. If you want to get rid of mice, bring in owls. Songbirds eating your grapes, cue the birds of prey. One vineyard buried a cow horn full of manure to lure the moon's rays. That sounds a little hokey to me, but owls I understand.
There's more. So much more. Thank goodness I wrote it all down because I am already forgetting some of the details. Vacations are like that though. Once you get back to reality, the vacation feeling fades away. That's when you know it's time to plan another one. As for Napa, I already have a list of where to go next time!
xoxo Farm Girl