Topel Vineyards

On time flight out of Milwaukee, lands a few minutes early, luggage popped out on the carousel in the first three minutes, car rental was ready….I hardly knew what to do with myself. The immediate need was to get to Hopland, California for my first interview and a rare Sunday one at that. But this is harvest and harvest means there is no day of the week only the siren song of the fruit in the vineyard calling the winemaker to come and get it. This was another day of the siren for Mark & Donnis Topel of Topel Wines.

The Syrah grapes were in emergency need of harvesting and the crew were in full force crush mode. It was impressive to me that Mark was willing to take time out of the scramble to be interviewed and offer a simple (but exceptionally tasty) tasting.

Even in a rush, these folks living in Hopland, California extended full hospitality to me during my visit. They even allowed me to take a picture of their crew of full time employees for our Facebook page. You feel Mark’s pride in his crew and you see it in his face.

Mark makes a tasty, full bodied and very serious Cabernet Sauvignon that sells for the less than serious price range of $36 or so. Then there was the Pinot Noir….excellent as well. One of the more interesting Pinot’s I’ve tasted in a while. But this would be a weekend of new Pinot’s for me. Eye opening Pinot’s.

Mark doesn’t mince words….he’s hard working man (what winemaker isn’t?), strong with opinions, good sense of humor and very smart. The wine shows all the above.

Topel main tasting room on the square in downtown Healdsburg. This one is worth a visit. Great wine. Very serious.

Goldeneye/Migration Winery

The thing about wine, as most winery folk might tell you, is the more you learn about wine, the more you’ll want to learn about more. Or something like that.

What I’ve learned on this trip is simply worth it’s weight in gold. Or worth it’s weight in Goldeneye. But to the point, Anderson Valley should never, never be overlooked. Visit Napa, yes. Visit Sonoma, yes. Visit Santa Barbara County, yes. But make sure you visit Anderson Valley. No, I’m not a pitchman for the AV chamber of commerce…the fact is, I am here in the valley….it’s way out…a little bit of a drive, but not really….maybe three hours from San Francisco. But looks at it this way, it’s less than an hour away from the town of Mendocino.

My point is this. Wine. Lots of beautiful wineries open for anyone (21 and over, of course) to visit, taste, talk and learn. Learn about Anderson Valley. To me, a gem with wild mountains and giant redwoods covering the landscape. It gets dark at night….real dark….like can’t see your hand in front of your face dark. Which makes it that much easier to hang out at the Booneville Hotel or one of many B&B’s in Mendocino county to sip your golden finds of the day. It’s peace away from the maddening crowds. You get very personal attention and best of all, and you’ll make new discoveries.

On to the job at hand. My first day of work for Goldeneye and Migration.

Goldeneye Winery-October 3rd, 2011. Day one.

Rain. October rain. Rain that makes winemakers shudder. Harvest is already late for the 2011 season. Many folks are picking two or three weeks later than normal (whatever normal is!) Some may be picking too early. Mother Nature can be a cruel mother.

The morning after talking with the folks at Topel, I headed across the mountains from Ukiah to the town of Philo. Philo is a town of just over a thousand folks. Tiny, homey and a place with many people in common, farmers. Something people forget about is that in the wine biz, most winemakers are farmers or were farmers or studied farming or farmed something else before growing grapes. Or they made beer. As I was often reminded in this valley, ask the question to an average person “Where does your food come from?”. Answer: the grocery store. Nope. A farm. It started on a farm. Vegetable=dirt. Cow=grass. Fish=water.

I met pistachio growers while on this trip, what a treat that was! I didn’t know a damn thing about where my favorite snack comes from. I found out that when they harvest these tasty little nuts that they never even hit the ground. Amazing!

But if you look close you find apple orchards and Christmas tree farms too.

Farmers. Just like vineyard owners, managers, winemakers.

Wine comes from the earth, the French call it ‘terroir’ (pronounced tare-wah).

But I digress.

The rain was heavy from Monday through mid Wednesday. Goldeneye winemaker Zach Rasmuson led the crew while Migration winemaker Neil Bernardi did time here and at an office in Sonoma (meaning you could really find his desk in the vineyard) We had plenty to do at the winery under Zach and Neil’s direction but I was told just before my trip that rain would usually shut down a winery harvest operation. That puts the ever famous ‘cellar rats’ in stand-by mode. Hard to pay folks for doing nothing. They do come up with ideas to keep busy, to their credit. Always something needing cleaning. There’s always something to do.

Vineyard manager Nate Miller has had the picking crew working nights. Heat and sun can hamper a pick and with a few heavy duty portable lights moving in the vineyard, the process moves as quickly as it would during the day. This way the fruit hits the winery early and ready to go.

After morning crew stretch led by Zach, we all had our our assignments and headed to the work.

I worked with Darren Delmore and experienced the beauty of an air controlled automatic punch unit. Although many tanks were done by hand (in by the experienced hands of Darren, Casey Larkin and Jose Luis Mendoza) this device made things go faster with less physical energy tiring out the worker. Amazing.

From there I headed over to the sorting table. Freshly picked Syrah grapes passed from the huge bin to a conveyor to be hand sorted. This means we dumped bad or wilted grapes and got rid of leaves, sticks and bugs.

Even though the rain kept up all day, the place was a beehive of activity. Giant white bins being emptied, then washed and stacked. Barrels moved and readied for filling with Chardonnay. Constant samples being taken by Lisa Perez Mendoza for testing. Constant movement.

From that point I spent the next couple hours with Bo Felton who is assistant to Zach. Giant stainless steel tanks of Chardonnay were drained into wood barrels for ageing. Then more Chardonnay grapes were delivered by semi… this point the operation went into full clockwork mode. Hot and cold running fork lifts emptied the truck of its golden grapes. These grapes went directly to the press. The bins, once again cleaned and stacked. Before I knew it, the truck headed on its way to get another load. Clockwork.

I finished around 6pm while Casey and Bo stayed until things were done. 11pm.

Dinner was simple in Booneville at the Buckhorn.

October 3rd, 2011. Day two.

With an 8 o’clock start it was easy to get to the winery on time. The kind folks at Goldeneye put me up in their private guest cottage (surrounded by vineyards) called the Apple Dryer, which is on the same property as the Goldeneye tasting room. Without a doubt the most romantic home base I’ve ever had. Sadly, I traveled solo.

Goldeneye winery is just a couple of miles down the road past the town of Philo. Philo is a small town on the main route 128 headed west toward Mendocino and Ft. Bragg. The trip from the winery winds through a deep and dark redwood forest and ends up on the coast south of Mendocino. This part of the California coast is rugged with monster size boulders stabbing up from the ocean.

The morning began, once again with Zach leading the crew in stretching. Considering the amount of physical labor done in a winery this just makes good sense. Like a runner stretching, this readies the crew for the long day ahead.

Again we started with punch downs. In a attempt to be helpful I asked Jose Luis to set me up to do a manual punch down. First challenge, getting up on the tank (5×5 opening) and crossing the top on a 1x2x6 plank. Happy it held my weight. But unlike punching the cap in barrels at Alpha Omega a couple of years ago, this task was a bit harder. Much harder. The cap was a bit more stubborn and fresh. By the time Casey and Jose Luis finished four tanks, I was completing one.

After working with Bo filling more barrels with Chardonnay I headed out for a vineyard tour with vineyard Manager Nate Miller.

Nate is a fifth generation Californian. He takes his huge pickup truck over property that he knows like the back of his hand. This is when I get to see the vineyards in a totally different way. Nate talks extensively about night harvesting and prepping the vines before picking by removing the cover leaves to expose the fruit. They use small clippers designed to easily cut the vine, thus making fast work of each block.

The Anderson Valley vineyards are Confluence, The Narrows, Gowan Creek and Split Rail. If you catch the night pick video on our Facebook page you’ll see the Gowan Creek property.

It’s interesting to note that the vineyard where my accommodations are situated, (Confluence) are near a block that, from the air, is shaped like a ducks head. Goldeneye and Migration as you may have guessed are owned by the well know Duckhorn family of wines. I’ve interviewed the winemakers within this group including Bill Nancarrow of Duckhorn itself and David Marchesi of Paraduxx.

While giving me the lay of the land near the tasting room I was also introduced to four Peking ducks which are sort of mascots/family members of the winery. Appropriately enough they are names Zach, Zak, Zac and Zack, tho’ I can’t verify the spelling of each.

After this in depth tour we lunched at a Philo staple, Libby’s. After meeting a local couple who are in the business of growing pistachios, we headed back to the winery where I got back to the task of learning to be a cellar rat.

To take a moment to comment on becoming a cellar rat, the fact is it would take pages to describe accurately the efforts these hard workers put forth to create our favorite drink. They carry different levels of responsibility passed on from the winemaker or assistant winemaker. Their duties include expert operation of a forklift and pallet jack, cleaning in places most folks would never consider crawling into, mixing specific measurements of water and yeast to be added to barrels or tanks, punch downs both manual and assisted, crush, stacking, more cleaning…you get the idea. Without these crazy folks, our glasses would be empty and our hearts would be sad. A toast to the fine cellar rats of Goldneye.

Working with Bo, we readied barrels for more Chardonnay but you could feel things were slowing down. Most of the work was of the ‘busy’ variety as much of the crop has not been picked due to the crazy weather at harvest. After spray washing the innerds of the smaller bladder press, Bo took me inside of the cramped quarters of the larger press. To say it was claustrophobic would hardly be the truth.. Half of the cylindar are covered in small slits while the other side is the deflated bladder. You may have guessed that these guys spend a lot of time crawling around inside this and the smaller one spraying and cleaning.

Clean may be the most important word to understand in a winery. Bacteria can grow at the snap of a finger. It is said it takes 6-8 gallons to make a bottle wine. It may seem like a lot but the main thing to remember is wine is an agricultural product and like any food that comes from a farm, the environment must be kept clean to ensure our safety.

Since no newly picked fruit was ready to be crushed, I ended my day at 4:30.

I took a drive in the rain up to Mendocino (as mentioned earlier) to check out the coast line. Since the weather had been so bad it was hard to see as much as I would have liked. As I headed west out of Philo, the road entered about 20 miles of dense redwoods. Day turned to night and the road became a snake. It was beautiful. Then came the coast, the angry coast. The waves pounded the giant boulders that dotted the shoreline along the Pacific Ocean. Wind had also been a nuisance in the process of this rotten weather and the coastline reflected wind in angry giant waves. A very enjoyable drive which included a trip back through the redwoods in the dark….many, many deer on the side of the road.

The Apple Dryer Cottage

Peaceful, quiet, dark and likely the most romantic place I’ve ever stayed. The Apple Dryer Cottage is on the Goldeneye tasting room property just outside of Philo, California. Literally, you cannot see your had in front of your face at night. Surrounded on three sides by Goldeneye vineyard, the property is an old apple drier building with the cottage sitting on the second floor. All windows gaze over the vineyards. If you were a writer, you’d write here. If you were an artist, you’d paint here. Musician, you’d compose here. But best of all, to be here with someone special…..there is nothing more to be said. So for four days, this was my home.

October 5th, 2011. Day three.

Today I was able to sleep in as I was to meet Migration winemaker Neil Bernardi in the city of Santa Rosa, just south of Healdsburg. Duckhorn Wine Company operates a satellite office here just near the airport. A far contrast to the romance of a winery, this office offers a place near the Sonoma county vineyards that Migration and Goldeneye lease. From this point Neil and his co-workers have the ability to monitor the vineyards on a regular basis easily. Neil still spends a good amount of time at the winery and likely more in the vineyard.

We visited several vineyards leased by Goldeneye/Migration including Dutton Ranch where much of their fruit comes from. A big surprise to me was the many apple orchards plus a few Christmas tree farms in the area. But once again it’s important to remember that this is an agricultural area. Farmers. Grapes, apples, pine trees and more.

After lunch and a visit to the Russian River itself, Neil headed back to his office to get caught up but first setting up a couple of tastings for me in the area.

I visited Lynmar wines in Sebastapol. This was an excellent visit enjoying fantastic Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and garden grown heirloom tomatoes.

By this time I had imbibed a fair amount and decided to head into the town of Healdsburg to ‘walk it off’. With an attempt to visit our friends at Hauck Cellars (closed today) I made it to Stephan & Walker to pick up a bottle of their excellent Cabernet Sauvignon. As the day wore on I finished my stroll with a stop for dinner at Willie’s Seafood & Raw Bar just off the square. The heirloom tomato salad was simply out of this world featuring both large and small tomatoes topped with a balsamic basil dressing. I finished with an ice tea, crabcakes and a smile. A perfect dinner. From there, headed ‘home’, back to Anderson Valley in 90 minutes.

The drive up valley pays it all off.

October 6th, 2011. Day four.

After being away I was ready to dive in to work back at Goldeneye. With that the group finished morning stretches and we headed in to punch downs. The rain had finally started to lay off so the days ahead would be at full force to make up for lost time. Tons of fruit still hang on the vines waiting for just a little more sun to get the brix up to a temperature suitable for picking. Bo and I headed to the cellar to top off the newest project for Goldeneye: sparkling wine. Bo took the time to explain in detail the process that they are all new to. With some help from the folks at Schramsburg this could be a great opportunity for the Duckhorn wines. This company has never shied away from taking chances as evidenced by Paraduxx in Napa as well as Goldeneye and Migration.

The basket press was busy crushing Syrah grapes while you could feel the oncoming tonnage of grapes just waiting to turn to juice. We filled more barrels with Chardonnay and it was time for lunch. The winery treats its crew to lunch during harvest thus keeping the wheels in motion as well as adding to the comradery.

From there I cleaned up and headed up valley to visit some of the ‘locals’ to try to learn more about this great Anderson Valley.

My first stop was recommended by Zach, Roederer Wines. To my surprise Roeder made mostly sparkling wine and they were quite good. They also made still wines featuring Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. With a gift purchase of Brut I was on my way up the road.

A quick visit to Handley Cellars showed an excellent Zinfandel. The tasting room was just like anything you’d find in Napa or Sonoma featuring friendly folks pouring tasty wines.

Husch Vineyards came next, billed as the oldest tasting room in the valley. A great area to picnic but the tasting room was small and uncomfortable. Very good wines with a large selection. Good visit.

I attempted to stop at Navarro Winery but it was simply too crowded. Considering I was in Anderson Valley on a Thursday afternoon that was a surprise. This could have been a typical Napa tasting room with folks competing to belly up to the bar. Turned around and headed to the neighbors, Standish.

This whole afternoon adventure was discovery after discovery. When visiting the young man at the tasting room I made a comment about the Standish name and discovered a declaration on the wall in regard to Miles Standish.

I made it back to Goldeneye to do my final interview at the winery. Zach had been so incredibly busy all week that this was likely my only chance to get him on ‘tape’. This guy is great to talk to…and a talented leader, simply put. Humor, concern and an optimistic attitude makes for easy, hard work. As Nate says, it’s good to go home dirty.

I took another drive up the coast to Mendocino and enjoyed dinner at the bar of the Little River Inn. The view was more like a painting….rocks with wash from the sea crashing high and splaying water everywhere. I figured a whale could show up any minute.

A brief stop in Ft. Bragg to shoot video of the ocean, then back to the Apple Dryer for my final night in Anderson Valley.

October 7th, 2011.

Leaving the Apple Dryer is like leaving the home you’ve loved for years. I’ve never been in such a noiseless and peaceful place in my life. A big thank you to Neil Bernardi (Migration winemaker), Zach Rasmuson (Goldeneye winemaker) and Paula Viehmann (Goldeneye tasting room supervisor) for making my visit very special.

Started the day by completing my time in the cellar at 5am with vineyard manger Nate Miller. Nate welcomed me into the vineyard to shoot still photos and video of the nighttime harvest. The pick was on the Gowan Creek property which is just behind the winery. As I approached the property you could see a strange unearthly white glow in the sky. Here I tried to follow the lightening fast crew as they picked the grapes with such speed and intensity I could barely keep up. They are a machine, finely tuned with a mission to complete the task at hand in a safe and efficient way.

After a brief nap (it was, after all 6am) I stopped over at the Goldeneye tasting room for my 10:30 sampling. As it was a slow start to the day I was entertained by Goldeneye hospitality person Cindi Lee who filled me in on her experiences with the Anderson Valley and the winery. In fact, Cindi served at surrogate mother to the ‘four Zachs’. Watch the video on our website, you’ll see.

With a sadness in my heart, I headed south and away from the wonderful Anderson Valley, back to Napa. If I’ve learned anything about this experience I would say a visit to Anderson Valley is a must. To learn about and appreciate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay this area tells the story at it’s best. It was nice to be around peace and quiet but still with the scents of harvest and all its flurry in the air. So it’s back to Napa…but first…

I made a quick stop at Ducther Crossing winery to say hi to Danny Glover, the winemaker I had met back in 2009. Unfortunately the staff did not know who he was and it was obvious he had left some time ago. None the less, I picked up a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and headed to Napa.

Found my was up Sage Canyon Road home of Chappellet and Volker Eisle, to meet with Carissa Mondavi of Continuum Estate. Continuum shares part of the driveway with Chappellet but really the long drive is to the estate. One of those times you are happy to pass few people traveling toward you….there are not too many places to hide on these roads.

Carissa was delightful. Sincere and friendly, she exemplified the concept of Napa hospitality. We set up outside and enjoyed the complex taste of the estate wine. Carissa is Tim Mondavi’s daughter but to be sure she has her grandfathers eyes. To say that it was a unique experience to talk to her about Robert Mondavi would be a great understatement. With a tour of the mountain top vineyards and many photos to publish, I headed back down to the city with a promise to meet up with her again next trip.

After dinner at my favorite pizza stop in downtown Napa, I headed home to the hotel to catch up on sleep. Saturday is my day off and with luck, it will be just that.

Saturday, October 8th, 2011.

Meeting up with my niece Jeanette I had scheduled a get together with our friend Amy Aiken of Meander Wine at the site of her new shared tasting room and winery. Palisades will be the name with partner wines including Aiken, RareCat, Conspire, Amici and of course Meander.

Previous to that we made a quick stop at Chateau Montelena out of curiosity as I had never visited the winery before. It was over crowded and would have been a wait to taste. So we left to get in another quick stop before meeting Amy. Lava Vine is on Silverado Trail just near the Calistoga turn off. Small and friendly but also very crowed, we talked with people waiting to taste….had a taste…purchased and headed to Palisades.

Lunch/early dinner at Cindy’s Back Street Kitchen in St. Helena (after a second unsuccessful try at the Rutherford Grill) and then back to drop Jeanette off to head to SF.

Sunday, October 9th, 2011. Final day.

A good day to sleep late…and I did.

A little bit of sightseeing before catching lunch (finally!) at the Rutherford Grill. For those of you that have read my past blogs you already know just how magic is can be sitting at the bar at this place. You never know who’ll you meet.

The final interview of this trip is to be, oddly enough, in Oakland. Who’d have thunk there would be a winery in downtown Oakland. Keep reading…

One stop at the Velo Vino tasting room home to Clif Family wines. We met owners Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford back in June at an Auction Napa Valley dinner. Gary & Kit are known for their world famous Clif Bar products and have created an exceptional Napa Valley wine business as well. After a friendly chat with the tasting room ladies and a purchase or two (or three), I pointed my car south and headed back to the big city.

Having never been to Oakland (imagine that!) I was strange to think just how close to Napa it really was by car. Just over 45 minutes in ‘normal’ traffic. But of course this was not the case as everyone was on their way back from wine country after the weekend.

I made it to Dashe Cellars right on time…and yes, here it was, a winery on the outskirts of downtown Oakland. Cellar, crush, tasting and all the trimmings right here and in a nice space.

Michael Dashe has quite a pedigree having spent time in France and well as Napa. The fact is if you taste his wines you’d know he is right on the money, and at a great price.

Many of you may remember my talking up the great, long gone, Sonoma winery Belvedere. This winery comes closest that I’ve ever found. Excellent wine with a deep selection of varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. Michael tells me there are around 28 wineries in the Oakland area….urban wineries…I’ve learned something new.

After an excellent crab cake slider dinner at the Marriott south of SF airport, I head off to catch the redeye home.

Each trip is more fantastic than the last. Thank you California wine country. See you again.

rf 10/21/11

Written by Ray Fister

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