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Spring Mountain’s Touch of Terroir Touches Participants

by Monty and Sara Preiser

You start by talking to people in the industry. You graduate from talking to more formal interviews. You begin to read articles, then go to books, and then to more specific articles on the Net. You learn the practicalities, and, when that is not enough, the science. And somewhere during the 17 or so years that you go through all the above you decide you know enough to write and teach about wine – activities that become more sophisticated over time and bring you some small level of notoriety.

But one cliché confirms why old adages are usually true – the more you learn, the more you need to know. This certainly applied to us recently as we attended the Spring Mountain (one of Napa county’s 14 sub-appellations) Touch of Terroir, a kind of harvest boot camp for up and coming sommeliers and retailers nationwide. Attending primarily as media, here we worked alongside talented young people from Miami Beach to Seattle, and San Diego to Boston.

Sponsored by almost all of the wineries on Spring Mountain, this event is first and foremost a brilliant marketing tool for these savvy vintners. Each year 35 or so people are wined, dined, hosted, and taught by the best vintners, growers, winemakers, vineyard managers, and businesspeople on Spring Mountain, which means some of the best in the entire world of wine.

Here were, among others, Fiona and Hal Barnett (owners, Barnett Vineyards); Suzanne Pride Bryan and Steve Pride (owners, Pride Mountain); Mike, Alexandra, and Liz Marston (owners, Marston Wines); Valli Farrell (PR Director, Spring Mountain Vineyards); Sheldon Richards (owner/winemaker, Paloma); Duane Hoff (owner, Fantesca); Wes Steffans (owner, Vineyard 7 & 8); Shawn Guilliams (owner, Guilliams); Michael Keenan (owner, Keenan); and Fred, Sally, and Diana Schweiger (Isdahl) (owners, Schweiger Wines), serving at dinners and lunches, greeting people, supplying homemade food, pouring wine, and generally doing whatever was needed.

Noted winemakers such as Chris Howell and Francois Bugue of Cain; Sam Baxter of Terra Valentine; Jac Cole of Spring Mountain; and Sally Johnson of Pride Mountain took some time off from harvest to teach and answer questions from the most complex to the most inane – and each one did it happily. Viticulturalists Ron Rosenbrand (Spring Mountain) and Ashley Anderson (Cain) were on hand to teach their specialty, even in the most inclement October weather Napa has seen in years. And Spring Mountain District spokesperson Tom Ferrell, co-chair Wendy Brooks from Pride, and Sheldon Richards (already mentioned, and also a co-chair) were always in the foreground being certain that all moved along well.

For us, it was a time of evolving from the academic to the pragmatic. Yes, we have seen hundreds of crush pads, and yes, we have seen many grapes hauled in and crushed. But we were never part of the team before (even if this time we were distracting team members whose presence was, we are sure, suffered for the greater good of the program by the hosts of whatever winery at which we interned). The rigorous curriculum included harvesting fruit, helping to sort, cleaning the hundreds of pounds of must from two story tall tanks, punching down the hard cap that forms over the wine as it ferments, learning to decide what yeast to use and how much, toting barges, lifting bales, yadda, yadda, yadda. A true experience, and one that will make our job as writers easier as it relates to our readers, yet make us more of a pain to those we interview, since dozens of avenues have opened up that will lead to new questions.

Were there any disappointments? Not for most, but perhaps only for us. After 48 hours of working closely and on a par with all these healthy twenty-somethings, and enjoying their company as much as we think they enjoyed ours, when it came to meeting at the late night bar downtown, guess who was left out. It wasn’t secret – they just never thought a couple of middle aged wine writers who live in Napa in the summer would be interested. Hey to all of you we met, when you read this you will know that next time WE will choose the place, and let’s see if YOU can keep up. It’s experience, you know.

Touch of Terroir grants scholarships from across the country into its program each year. Most attendees are, as we have said, retailers or sommeliers/wine buyers. Very few media are permitted, so we are very thankful to all on Spring Mountain who included us. Should you, our readers, know any younger people who are not familiar with Napa, buy or sell wine professionally, and like to learn, you might suggest they contact Sheldon Richards, this year’s co-chair, at Paloma (sheldon@palomavineyard.com). He can be sure they get to the right place.

That isn’t to say that the three days permitted only work. Receptions, dinners, top of the line wines being served at meals and at tastings, and the usual camaraderie of such get-togethers, made the time pass quickly. No one ever felt as if their efforts were not being put to good use. It reminded us of a favorite saying of Monty’s dad: “ ‘Work’ is only doing something when you would rather be doing something else.” How true that is. This was a program of love.

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.

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