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2010 Harvest with Tallulah: A Journal
The fall Napa morning was still dark as we fumbled around for warm clothes, coffee (Sara only), and the car key (Monty’s job). We were running a bit late for not just our first actual dawn harvest, but a harvest involving grapes destined for our own brand new Chardonnay. Yes, we had finally succumbed to the temptation to make and sell fine wine, as so many had predicted would happen in the 15 years or so since our attention was focused primarily in the direction of the grape. Monty (but not Sara) had said “No. Never,” more times than we care to count, but here we were on our way to a vineyard in the western part of the Oak Knoll appellation to observe the harvest while trying to stay out of the way of (or annoying) the picking team.
When we arrived at the designated spot the first of the sun’s rays was just hovering over the Vaca Mountains in the east. There were six or seven cars strewn about, but no people. Did we have the wrong morning? The wrong place? Sara wanted to get out of the car and taste some fruit from the vines, but Monty (using better, though probably unnecessary, caution) thought it not such a good idea to be walking around in the sub-light on somebody else’s property, especially with no houses in sight. So we waited.
In a few minutes a car door from one we thought empty opened and a foot emerged. Then a hand. Then two hands. And then a whole person. We would have sworn no one had been in that vehicle when we drove in. But he must have been sleeping. And then - it really can’t be, we thought - out came another three dressed-for-the-harvest sleepers. Well, there was no stopping them now. From every car and truck came 3-4 people, all seemingly Latino, all obviously ready to pick grapes, and all just waiting for instructions. They certainly were not waiting for us. In fact, the situation was a bit like the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation when the Enterprise crew stealthily boarded the Borg ship and the Borg ignored the humans because they were insignificant. On this morning, the professionals knew we were to be of no help, and they went about their business as if we simply didn’t exist (and we don’t blame them).
After what seemed like a light year, we finally saw our friend, the winemaker for our Chardonnay, the former winemaker for Luna Vineyards, and the new owner of Tallulah wines walking down the lane with his dog, Dexter. “Hey, Mike,” we said, finally escaping from our car and the incongruous for the time and place Broadway music playing from the Sirius network. “What now?,” we asked, never wondering until much later how Mike got there without a vehicle in sight.
“Just watch what they do,” he said, as he then gave specific harvesting instructions to his vineyard manager, Robert Jordan, who would pass them on to the crew foreman in English, who would then translate what was to be accomplished to the Spanish speaking workers. Kind of like the old game of “fairy tap,” we thought, where one person whispers a phrase in another’s ear, the second person does the same, and so on and so on. By the time the last person hears the words, they are rarely the same. Was that going to be a problem here?
It definitely would not be. The plan for the morning had been put in place, and the initial instructions were given, by a man who knows his business. Mike Drash has a relatively long (for a guy still in his forties) and distinguished career as the winemaker for some of the best houses in California. He married his wife, Tracy, when they were both at Luna Vineyards, and she soon left to become one of the major administrative and educational people at Robert Mondavi, Franciscan, and other Constellation Brand properties. Between Mike and Tracy is a vast amount of technical, practical, and administrative wine knowledge.
It is a good thing, too, that they have such backgrounds, as last year they decided to purchase a not too well known winery called “Tallulah.” They just could not resist. And why not? Their two year old daughter was in fact named “Tallulah,” and the famed Tallulah Bankhead was a relative of Mike’s. Whether you believe in Karma, fate, or just dumb luck, this was a purchase crying out for the Drashes to comply. And they did.
More about Tallulah below, but now back to the exciting tale of the city mice in the country.
While the gathered team had picked fruit hundreds of times (indeed, they had spent most of the night at another job, hence, their sleeping a few hours in their cars and trucks just before beginning this one), the 2010 harvest has been different than almost any before it. The long cold weather and then a few sizzling hot days had produced great inconsistencies in the grape clusters. Some winemakers desired the entire cluster to be picked, nevertheless, while others wanted the useless fruit to be dropped (cut off and left on the ground) so the grapes would arrive in whole clusters at the crush pad.
So at the designated moment, each man chose a crate, lined up beside a row of fruit, unsheathed (or just took out) his knife, and went to work. We had heard about the incredible pace with which these veterans worked, but we were really unprepared to see them almost sliding down the rows into the field, much like they were on skates. Before we knew it, they were out of our sight, but no doubt within Mike’s view as he oversaw the collection of almost 7 TONS of grapes – 5 for Tallulah, and about 1.7 for the Preisers’ new wine, which as we write this awaits the Government’s approval of what we hope will be our new wine label.
You will hear more about our new project in future columns, but for now let’s keep the spotlight on Mike and Tallulah Wines, which will probably be one of the most attractive and sought after labels in Napa in a very short time. At present, most of the inventory is not Mike Drash “made-from-scratch,” but, depending on the vintage, he has been involved on various levels. You can be sure that all the wines meet his high standards, and the best way for you to sample them if you are outside of northern California is to join the new Tallulah wine club. We recommend you go on line for details, and, if anything you want to know is not there, call the winery [Our Favorite, and a Don’t Miss, is the 2008 $28 Como, a beautiful blend of Marsanne (53%), Chardonnay (37%), and Viognier (10%) that is bright and sophisticated]. Don’t tell Mike we told you, but we recommend you negotiate for some of this (or even the 2009 vintage) when you join the wine club.
We were also fortunate enough to sample what Mike has “cooking” in the barrels, and there are some masterpieces that are on our watch list (watch it go into bottle and buy it). More specifically, we sampled the 2009 harvest about a year after the grapes were picked. Mike will not determine until later (probably just about the publication time of this column as a matter of fact) which barrels might become stand alone wines, or how he will blend the various blocks of the same varietals. But we report with confidence that the Marsanne, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache, and Petite Sirah we enjoyed that day are superb.
If you wondered how our day at the harvest ended, we can tell you it was far from exciting. Everyone was beyond our view and it was eerily silent out in the field. Had you driven by you might have thought we were two scarecrows being sized up by a big animal (Dexter is a large chocolate Lab). So with nothing to do, and nothing to apparently offer in the way of help, we got back in the car, turned up the music, and drove off to find an omelet. But we left with the knowledge that we would see all that fruit again – it would just be imminently drinkable.
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.