Grape Camp in Sonoma County

The opportunity came for me to experience Sonoma County, California wine country for the second time, and I had to accept. My very first visit to Sonoma county was over two years ago, and it did not disappoint.

I remember landing in San Francisco, I was completely floored by the hospitality and laid-back culture Californians exude. My limo ride would take an hour or two, so we let the champagne pour as we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. If I had only known that I was in the presence of the great wine & spirits expert Tim Mcnally, and his lovely wife Brenda Maitland the wine & food writer.

These folks were so authentic, some of the most modest and nurturing people I had met in years. In fact I attribute my interest in wine to them, they really allowed my curiosity to develop. Tim is host of the weekly three-hour The Wine and Spirits Show on WWWL 1350 AM in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, which has been on the air for over 12 years. He had just finished judging The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition when he and Linda entered the limo, and he took me under his wing and showed me the ropes.

I made good friends on my first trip to Sonoma as part of a special press group, we toured and saw lot of what the Dry Creek and The Russian River Valley had to offer. The Wine Road tours showcase over 186 Wineries including; West, Ironhorse, Moshin, Michel-Schlumberger, Jordan and more. However, my most recent trip to Sonoma was for “Grape Camp”! This was my chance to gather more information about how the unique environmental conditions in Sonoma County California create extreme stress on the vines, which makes for incredible wines.
outdoor vineyard dinner
Catarina Gardens in Sonoma, Carneros
An hour or so north of San Francisco is the Vintner Inn. This was my home for a week, and also the home base for Grape Camp 2015. The rooms at the inn are more than adequate, they offer wonderfully warm and spacious suites with a veranda or patio and most offered a fireplace.

My quarters were stocked with two lovely bottles of wine and a bag stuffed with goodies, and essentials for grape camp. Vintners Inn, much like most of Sonoma is committed to “Earth-friendly” and “Green Hotel” practices, and it’s refreshing to see sustainability hold such high-standards. When I saw fruit hanging from the trees over the patio from my down comforter laden king-sized bed, I knew I was in California.

There was coffee delivered fresh to the lobby in the morning, bocce ball, an on-call masseuse in the spa and the view of the huge California sky from the hot tub every evening. The inn is set in the middle of a perfectly manicured vineyard, with paths made for a morning walk or run. I found myself outside exploring while I was there, because the weather was absolutely perfect.

The Vintner Inn has their own restaurant and catering available on the property, but our first stop for food was Willi’s Wine Bar for dinner. Willi’s was a classic roadhouse/wine bar that features Sonoma County’s ultra-relaxed ambiance. Willi’s is a must for any wine lover visiting Santa Rosa, the well-trained staff are talented at pairing the wines perfectly with the chefs courses. If you ever find yourself in Sonoma California you have to go to Willi’s for the potstickers, they are the best I have ever tasted.

The next day was the welcome reception, and arrival of campers from all over Canada and the US. We were a group of forty campers ready to take on all of the sights and tastes that Sonoma has in store. Our first stop was Paradise Ridge Winery, and it was probably my personal favorite. The owner greeted us upon arrival, and welcomed us onto the property.

We heard the story of how his property has become a home to a dozen or so huge Burning Man sculptures. We were able to walk through his sculpture garden and take pictures with these massive pieces of welded steel artwork. ‘The Temple Of The Remembered’ that’s placed in the garden is a special place for me. Day two started with an awesome breakfast and a short trip to Munselle Vineyards in Alexander Valley. I found myself wearing boots and gloves and clipping grapes from the vine and into baskets.

We walked alongside a tractor that hauled our freshly snipped grapes to the “Crush Pad”; an area where they were washed and sorted by our own hands. Next we fed our grapes into a destemming machine. A destemmer is a contraption that takes the grapes on the vine in through a huge hopper, then spits grapes out of one end and stems out of the other. We learned that some winemakers like to leave a little bit of stem on the “berries” while others want it all gone. Turns out the stems add a bitterness to the wine that some winemakers like, and other do not.

We went into the cellar to learn about the different types of yeast used in the fermentation process, as well as the oak barrels that hold the wine as it ages. There are American Oak, French Oak and Hungarian Oak barrels being used by most winemakers. These barrels are often toasted in order to seal the barrels while also to providing a desired chemical reaction within the barrel. Some winemakers like their barrels to be toasted lightly, while others prefer a heavier toasting to the interior of their barrels.

Either way the flavors imparted through the process are a part of the final blend that we as wine lovers pour from our bottles and appreciate. Sonoma’s diverse topography is stunning and the best wines capture the essence of this unique geographical environment making every bottle an adventure of the palate.

To hear more about Sonoma County and Grape Camp as told by Eugene O. Smith, visit his website: www.eugeneosmith.com or subscribe to his periscope: @eugeneosmith

Written by: Eugene Smith 
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