2:19pm | September 26, 2014
Harvest time….wine is much more than just grapes, soil and weather.
Harvest at Chiarello Family Vineyards is around the corner and absolutely one of my favorite times of year. The winemaking process is as much a mental activity as it is physical. I’ve often thought of the winemaking process as a series of decisions, from where and how to plant your vines, to how long to age your wine in barrel, up to the final decisions about whether to fine and filter your wine before bottling. Vintners make different decisions every step of the way, which explains why no two wines are alike. The Napa Valley wines I like best have some essence of the winemakers in them, some hint of their character and spark.
Wine critics like to talk about terroir—meaning all the physical elements that characterize a vineyard, from sun, soil and slope to the way the wind comes up in the evening. They say the best wines are those that express the uniqueness of their terroir. But I think that definition misses something. With due respect for the critics, I’ve come to believe that wine is much more than just grapes, soil and weather.
When I moved to the Napa Valley three decades ago, I didn’t realize I had made a decision that would change my life. I had been looking for a good place to settle, but I didn’t know that this picturesque wine valley would become the home I never wanted to leave.
I’ve grown up with wine—my parents are southern Italian, from Calabria—but suddenly I was meeting the real people who make it. I was cooking for them (and sometimes with them), sharing wine with them, hearing their stories, feeding their children. Napa was unveiling itself to me in a human and personal way. The more time I spent with vintners and growers, the better I understood and appreciated the wines they made.
I drink Schramsberg sparkling wine, I always picture the late Jack and Jamie Davies. I remember the stories they told me about struggling to restore the rundown property, and how hard they worked to create an audience for fine American sparkling wine. I remember hearing how Jack and Jamie led the fight to keep a highway from running right through the valley. And I remember Jamie’s funny stories about taking all her employees to the White House so they could see where Schramsberg wines are poured. When I taste their wine, all these memories come rushing back.
When others drink Napa Valley wine, I want them to taste more than just the fruit, oak and tannin. I hope they will taste the history and the effort in every glass from the likes of Mondavi, Trefethen and Duckhorn and such winemaking stars as Larry Turley and more recently Thomas Brown.
For me, it’s not about the pH balance or the wines’ ratings and scores. What moves me are the stories about risk-taking, about winemaking philosophy, about career highs and lows. I’ve often thought of the winemaking process as a series of decisions, from where and how to plant your grapes, to how long to age your wine in barrel, up to the final decisions about whether to fine and filter your wine before bottling.
Vintners make different decisions every step of the way, which explains why no two wines are alike. Napa Valley is indisputably wine country, but Napa’s appeal goes beyond wine for me. Its physical beauty, architectural richness, multicultural heritage, and the local passion for good food, art and music are among the other reasons why I’ll never leave. Today, Napa Valley is an international symbol of wine quality and of respect for the good life. But that image didn’t just happen: many strong-willed people, dedicated and hardworking people consciously created it. When you know such stories, every glass of Napa wine conveys more richness, complexity and pleasure.
I was brought up in a family that believed in sharing stories as a way of holding on to heritage and memory. I hope that when you learn about the stories of these early Napa Valley vintners’, you will share their stories and help keep their legacy alive. Salute.
To read more about Michael Chiarello’s stories, click here to purchase Napa Valley Stories written by Michael Chiarello with Janet Fletcher.
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