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Deep Culture Travel:

Backroads of the California Wine Country

A journey through California's wine valleys is a passage through the history of people and wine, beginning with Spanish padres who planted grapes for sacramental wines in the 1700s. The Gold Rush of the mid-1800s brought immigrants from around the world, and particularly from Italy, France and Germany. The newcomers discovered verdant valleys just inland of the coast and valleys with the look and the climate of wine-producing regions in southern Europe. They settled here, planted their vineyards and their food crops, and founded towns.

The fathers of the wine industry--Jacob Schram, Georges Latour, Francis Korbel and Agoston Harazsthy, among others--could not have imagined that a century after they planted vineyards in the New World, California wineries would be tourist attractions and millions of wine lovers would prize the wines as highly as the gold that was discovered here in 1848.

It was not until the 1970s, when premium California wines began to compete with the best of the French, that the wine country took on a certain mystique. The first to promote Napa wines as part of a gracious, enviable lifestyle, Robert Mondavi--often called the "father of modern California wine"--built a spectacular winery building designed to welcome visitors for wine tasting and educational tours, a concept that is now embraced by hundreds of wineries throughout the state and the country.

In 1976, in a blind tasting conducted by French wine judges in Paris, two Napa Valley wines emerged as superior to the French, and that made all the difference.

Although the Napa Valley was for some decades considered to be the "Wine Country," recent years have seen several wine regions emerge. Each has a different human history, and a unique combination of soil, terrain and climate that determines the character of its wines. The actual growing environment is called the terroir, and the goal of the growers is to find the perfect terroir for every variety of grape, where it can mature into the best manifestation of its flavor, color and complexity.

Every wine has a soul, a temperament born of its birthplace. From the misty northern appellations of Mendocino County to the hot, dry flatlands of Paso Robles, in the wilds of the Santa Cruz Mountains and along the placid Russian River, each of the California wine regions has a spirit and a look of its own.

Off-Season Exploring

My favorite time of year to explore the California wine country is off-season, late winter through early spring. The vines are bare, the air is moist and fresh, and I am nearly alone at backroads wineries. I love to see the migrating and over-wintering birds and ducks in their striking colors and poses against the dramatic backdrop of trees and vineyards stripped of their foliage.

By mid-February or so, bright yellow mustard and other cover crops erupt between the rows, and vineyard workers are seen carefully hand-pruning the vines down to a few fruiting canes and spurs. Budbreak occurs in April, when new green leaves unfold like Japanese fans and sleeping buds awaken. At their most fragile, the buds are protected from spring frost by whirling wind machines, smoke pots and overhead water sprinkling.

June sees the flowering of tiny, delicate grape flowers, soon to develop into clusters. Vineyard workers again move through the rows to tie the fast-growing vines to trellises that support the heavy fruit to come.

Gaudy orange California poppies, red clover, and purple lupine are knee-high in mid-summer when the vines are full with leaves and ripening fruit. This is when I seek out far-flung wineries with the shadiest picnic sites, and I generally head north to where daytime temperatures are cooled by ocean breezes.

Bringing in the Grapes

The harvest begins in some appellations in August, and by September, the picking and the crush is on. Winemakers sample the ripening grapes and the winery labs analyze the aroma, taste, sugar and acidity, waiting for the exact day when the fruit is ready. When the signal is given, picking crews flood into the vineyards at the break of dawn, while the fruit is still cool. Using sharp, curved, hand-sized blades, they cut the bunches and drop them into tubs, which when filled, are hoisted overhead and walked to the gondolas--large open bins on wheels--between the rows. Tractors pull the gondolas to the waiting trucks, and the fruit is rushed to the crushing floors at the wineries. At harvest time, you may well find yourself driving along behind a truck carrying gondolas heaped-up with grapes, their rich scent flooding your nose.

Within one or two hours of leaving the vines, the grapes are at the winery being de-stemmed in the crusher, then pressed and piped into holding and fermentation tanks. Cellar workers are moving fast, receiving grapes from sunup to sundown, crushing, stemming, pressing, pumping over, and tank and barrel fermenting.

Although you will not find yourself alone in the wine country during the crush, it is a heady time for a winery tour and for annual celebrations.

Through the fall months, harvest festivals are held throughout the wine valleys. I often wonder how the winemakers find the time to take part in these events, yet, in tee-shirts and cowboy hats splattered red, in boots muddy from the fields and wet from the slosh on the winery floor, the winemakers and their crews turn out to celebrate each year's harvest with as much joy and anticipation as do we wide-eyed wine lovers who come for the food, the drink and the merrymaking of the Bacchanals.

As Galileo said, "Wine is light, held together by water."
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