Vacationing in wine country anywhere in the world means days of sampling wine and eating fine food. You always pick up a few pointers about winemaking and perhaps discover a new grape varietal. It’s no secret that Sonoma County ranks as one of the more beautiful grape growing areas in the country. More than picturesque, it’s also a well-respected, world-class winemaking region. The rolling hills are dotted with sumptuous places to stay, a wealth of restaurants, local craft shops, and historic sites.
It’s also home to Sonoma County Grape Camp, a three-day immersion program for intrepid oenophiles presented by the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. Yes, dear friends, you learn about making wine by doing all of the work, which includes picking grapes and blending wine.
Last fall I joined a group of 20 such souls who gathered at the bucolic Vintners Inn just outside Santa Rosa. Earlier in the day, I’d flown into San Francisco and rented a car to make the two-hour drive. Thanks to the time change, I arrived in time to do some laps in the small pool and soak in the hot tub before the opening reception. The layout of the inn is more like a compact campus than a hotel. My room was in one of three satellite buildings, a short walk from the main lobby, where we had breakfast each day. The room had a king-size bed, satellite TV, HD DVD player, wi-fi, and a large balcony.
I met my fellow campers that evening for dinner in the garden at Quivira Vineyards and Winery. Iron Chef contestant Duskie Estes and her husband, John Stewart, who co-own Zazu restaurant and farm, cooked our meal as we sampled a Top 40 hit parade of Sonoma County wines. The group consisted of a few who knew a lot about wine and others who were just beginning their journey. One couple owned a wine bar in Wisconsin, and they were there to learn more about the wine they sell. Then there was a retired woman from Sacramento who was enrolled in the camp for her third session (this was only the fourth!).
Early the next morning, we boarded a small bus and set off for Windsor Oaks Vineyards & Winery. We spent the next hour picking Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes. We used a hook to remove grape bunches from the vines and put them in a plastic carrier we pulled along with us. At each stage, we dropped grape bunches that looked pecked by birds or otherwise damaged. Luckily we started early, while the temperature was still moderate (about 70 degrees). I left with an enduring respect for those who devote long days and months to complete a harvest.
We left the fields for a tasting at the little-known but fast-rising Dutcher Crossing Winery, followed by lunch with the ingratiating culinary team at Michel-Schlumberger winery. Then our culinary expertise was challenged at Relish Culinary Adventures in Healdsburg. We spent the afternoon creating our own episode of Iron Chef. We were given herbs, condiments, fruit, and spices and asked to create dishes using local shrimp. Next we had to pair our dish with one of the preselected Sonoma County wines. That evening we traveled to Robert Young Estate Winery to dine at a long table crowded with bottles in an eerie yet intimate dining room.
On Wednesday we went to the microsize Valdez Family Winery, where owner Ulises Valdez instructed us on the fine art of sorting the grapes headed to the first crush. The grapes were set on one end of a conveyor belt, and, as the clusters rolled toward the crusher/de-stemmer, we picked out those that were damaged or stunted. We also removed debris brought in from the field. That afternoon we turned into real winemakers at DeLoach Vineyards. We split into teams and were given four “component” wines, each chosen because they were somewhat one-dimensional, exhibiting a particular characteristic such as fruit or tannin, to the exclusion of others. We blended them to make what we considered a better-balanced, more complex wine. My group’s blended Zinfandel won second place.
After the short but intense camp, everyone agreed that Grape Camp had given us the opportunity to visit places that we would never have known about otherwise, all accompanied by growers’ best wines and superb food. And each time I take a sip of wine now, I have a sympathy pain in my lower back.
How to Get There: Fly to San Francisco or Oakland. Rental car to Santa Rosa (about a two-hour drive).
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of D Magazine.