Traffic stretches along Highway 29 and 121 as long as the vineyards can be seen. Winemakers are working in the fields before most of the valley thinks of waking up. Nearby hotels are booked for weeks and even months in advance. The streets of Sonoma and St. Helena are cluttered with a variety of accents and languages that have all come for one thing: to experience harvest in the valleys of Napa and Sonoma.
“California’s wine country will change you,” Shannon Igleheart of South Carolina said. “It changed me. To sip and savor a product of those valleys that had been in the works for me for years all while stomping on the very soil that produced my wine was a magic moment.”
Depending on the type of wine and rainfalls, harvest can start as early as late July. As severe as the drought in California is right now, the harvest is high.
In a July 2014 article, Andrew Adams of Winesandvines.com said in regards to harvest, “[Growers] are happy to report though that grape quality is comparable to 2012 and 2013, and yields are expected to be slightly above average if not as big as in 2013.”
This abundant harvest could be in part to utilizing the dry farming method that is especially useful for weather conditions in California.
“The dry-farming method has long been practiced successfully in Mediterranean climates with a long dry season like California’s—basically, dry farmers forgo the extra fertilizer, water, and other inputs that maximize yields,” Slate.com’s Eric Houltas said in a June 2014 article. “Advocates say its water starvation diet produces sweeter and more flavorful tomatoes, apples, and other fruit. Some of the best wines ever produced in Napa Valley were dry farmed.”
So take a breath everyone, the wine is just fine.
While most people will flock to well-known wineries that have elegant tasting rooms, folks that know better will make their way down Highway 29 until they reach V. Sattui. First established in San Francisco in 1885, V. Sattui has been a St. Helena staple since 1976. During the winery’s weekend BBQ’s, crowds and smoke can be seen scattered throughout the sprawling lawns. Besides wine, it is best known for its stellar picnic atmosphere. Guests can order everything from sandwiches to a variety of cheese and salami that reaches into the hundreds.
That’s all before you even reach the tasting room. It is not only impressive in scale, but also has “more tasting bars than any other in the valley,” according to V. Sattui’s website. This is the time to linger as the only place to purchase this award-winning organic wine is on-site or online. And since tastings start at $15, that is not hard to do.
Any trip to Napa Valley should include a trip to Grgich Hills. Local legend Mike Grgich is best known for being the winemaker behind Chateau Montelena’s victory in the Judgement of Paris. Competing in a blind tasting along with other California wineries against Parisian wines, Grgich’s Chardonnay won overall. This competition opened up the eyes of the world to what was happening in the vineyards of California. Paris was no longer the champion of wine.
Upon entering the tasting room of Grgich Hills, the history of Mike Grgich floats along the walls and is still an exciting topic of conversation among guests and sommeliers alike. And even when guests are not talking about Grgich’s beautiful past, conversations among strangers are easy to flow in this intimate tasting room and passion for the wine is easily felt.
“You can feel the excitement in the tasting room during harvest and crush because everyone knows that it is only the beginning of the process,” former Concierge of Silverado Country Club Donna Pruitt said. “This is the moment that you wait all year for.”
Even though there are no places to picnic, guests might be lucky enough to taste organic grapes straight from the vine. During harvest, Grgich Hills offers daily grape stomping for wine tasting guests and little kiddos are welcome too (just hold the wine!)
And for those that think that the valleys are only for wine, they would be fools to miss out on the cuisine of wine country.
Driving down Sonoma Highway, it would be easy to pass by the Boon Fly Cafe with its small driveway and simple wooden sign hanging on the side of the red barn-like building, but that would be a mistake. As part of the Carneros Inn, the Boon Fly Cafe is quintessential wine country.
With porch swings and complimentary coffee and water outside as guests wait, nothing escapes the cafe when it comes to the ultimate guest experience. Even on a busy Sunday, the manager can be seen saving seats at the bar for customers waiting outside. Chances are that the staff will remember your name too. But the Boon Fly is not just a place for people that are visiting.
“This is where the locals go,” manager Hadley Larson said.
In between guests of the Carneros Inn and people stopping by as they drive through, there are familiar faces that find their seat next to their favorite bartenders. And the regulars know what they like and with good reason, as it probably includes the Zesty Bloody Bacon Mary and World Famous Boon Fly Donuts.
Wine country is not just a place, but an experience. Everywhere in the valley, there are people that are working day and night to bring their deepest love to the new and old guests that continue to spill into hills and vineyards every harvest. It is a world that has captured the world over, and remains something that can continue to captivate even those that visit often.
“Wine to me is passion,” legendary winemaker Robert Mondavi said in his autobiography Harvests of Joy. “It’s family and friends. It’s warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It’s culture. It’s the essence of civilization and the art of living.”