Sonoma County Grape Camp

Grape Camp participants (credit: Darren Miller Photography)
Grape Camp participants (credit: Darren Miller Photography)

by Jeff Hoyt

It’s early morning and I’m hunched over in a cold Sonoma Valley vineyard wielding razor-sharp shears picking thousands of grapes while trying not to cut off my fingers. I am reminded of the protesting words Billy Crystal’s character Mitch Robbins in “City Slickers” yells as he is getting dragged behind a cow: “I’m on vacation!!!!”

At least I didn’t have to harvest grapes at night like many of the real vineyard workers when the cold makes the fruit easier to move. And after picking, most real crews don’t get to refresh with 2005 J Vineyards & Winery Vintage Brut. I am spending my vacation at Sonoma County Grape Camp, which gives wine aficionados and rookies alike a few days of hands-on experience in the wine world from grape picking and stomping to wine pairing and blending.

Despite the physical labor, this annual early-fall gathering is also a great way to learn about wine and enjoy time in Sonoma, which often plays second fiddle to its wine-producing neighbor Napa Valley. One problem with visiting wine country around the world is having to choose between driving and tasting. We two dozen Grape Campers are bussed (or is that buzzed?) from our hotel to vineyards, wineries, kitchens, wine caves and charming towns for sightseeing, shopping, and of course, the opportunity to sample more than 100 wines.

Participants in the 2012 Grape Camp stayed at the quaint Applewood Inn, just outside of Guerneville (don’t miss the Armstrong Redwoods) and a short drive from the picturesque Sonoma Coast. Between talks and tastes with winemakers, we supped in a wine cave at the Thomas George Winery, harvested more than 1,000 pounds of grapes at Windsor Oaks Vineyards and Hanna Winery & Vineyards, toured the winemaking facilities at J Vineyards and Winery where we met founder Judy Jordan, prepared a wine-pairing lunch at Relish Culinary Adventures in Healdsburg and made new friends. After competing in grape stomping at the palatial Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Alexander Valley, we dined on the grounds watching the moon shine over the Mayacamas Mountains, wild turkeys run through the vineyards and bats fly through the sky. (If you’re planning a trip to the area during warm weather, contact the winery about using the swimming pools.) Other beautiful scenery was enjoyed at a wood-fired pizza lunch in the garden of Lambert Bridge Winery and at a creekside talk at Quivira Vineyards and Winery where we learned about biodynamic winemaking.

At DeLoach Vineyards, after giving a blending seminar, proprietor Jean-Charles Boisset put us to the test; not only did we have to mix Pinot Noirs to form a new blend, we also had to name our new creation, design the label and cork the one-of-a-kind bottle. Your correspondent is proud to report that his team won the blending contest, but I’m not quite ready to go into the wine business yet. The more I learned about the difficult industry, the more I appreciated the final result. Amid changing tastes and economies, how do winemakers know that the product they stored for years will emerge from the barrel at a high enough quality to pay off?

But attending Grape Camp will pay off, although space for the 2013 edition, scheduled for September 23-25, is limited. For those of you allergic to wine snobs, rest assured that campers are not throwing around high-falutin’ descriptors like “cigar box.” One of my most memorable moments was when Jean-Charles Boisset explained that the O.F.S. which appears on DeLoach labels did not really stand for “Our Finest Selection” as was stated, but rather “Out-F***ing-Standing”. That description can also be applied to Sonoma County Grape Camp.

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Related Content:
Sonoma County 72-hr Travel Guide
Sonoma County Winery Organizations
Wine of the Week Reviews
Winery Profiles

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