Wine Barrels

Pam Starr is the winemaker and co-owner of Crocker & Starr Winery in St. Helena.  She is one of Napa Valley’s leading winemakers and a founding member of an informal group of women in Napa Valley’s wine industry—the Wine Entre Femme–who recently forged links with women winemakers in Bordeaux.  The following excerpt is from her narrative in Tasting the Good Life: Wine Tourism in the Napa Valley.

Blending is one of the hardest and most difficult yet rewarding aspects of being a wine maker.  You don’t just pick the fruit, put it in a tank, make one big ole’ pot of wine, and stick it in a barrel.  It’s complicated.  Five rows of vines that ripen at the same time become one piece of the final wine.  When I have six pieces of cabernet that all come from the old vine block, I look for the most powerful piece – the piece that has exactly the dark, broody, black fruit, black wine taste I am seeking.  Then I’ll add other components.  Maybe one piece brings the wine more into the front of your mouth; another piece attacks the sides of your mouth.  Wine also is changed by the barrel it’s placed in.  Ultimately you want the final wine to have a beginning, a middle, and an end that’s pretty seamless and that leaves you with a response of pure enjoyment but also draws you back to taste it again. Your palette should respond and then clear itself, so that you’ll be able to pick something else out: espresso or chocolate or maybe the mineral character of wet rock.  Blending is about trying to find all those components and create an orb of flavors.  I love sharing wine with people and having them walk away saying, “Look what I get to take home with me.”  I love that.  It’s my passion.

Miles: Let me show you how this is done. First thing, hold the glass up and examine the wine against the light. You’re looking for color and clarity. Just, get a sense of it. OK? Uhh, thick? Thin? Watery? Syrupy? OK? Alright. Now, tip it. What you’re doing here is check­ing for color density as it thins out towards the rim. Uhh, that’s gonna tell you how old it is, among other things. It’s usually more important with reds. OK? Now, stick your nose in it. Don’t be shy, really get your nose in there. Mmm . . . a little citrus . . . maybe some strawberry . . . [smacks lips] . . . pass
ion fruit . . . [puts hand up to ear] . . . and, oh, there’s just like the faintest soupçon of like asparagus and just a flutter of a, like a, nutty Edam cheese . . .

Jack: Wow. Strawberries, yeah! Strawberries. Not the cheese . . .

Sideways, 2004

As the popularity of the film “Sideways” suggests, wine has become a central component of a sophisticated lifestyle for a growing number of Americans. It is intertwined with the way they dine and entertain, how they travel, and even how they enjoy a quiet evening at home. Yet Americans still lag far behind Western Europeans and the citizens of many other countries in the degree to which they integrate wine into their lives…..

When visitors approach a tasting counter, they are usually invited to look at the list of wines being poured and briefly told about the types of tastings available. Once they reach a decision, he begins pouring a flight of wines—typically one-ounce servings of four to six wines.

Most tastings begin with some of the winery’s whites, move to the reds, and often end with a dessert wine or port. As the server pours each wine, he announces the vintage and varietal: “This is a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.” Most servers will then describe the wine’s characteristics in terms very similar to the winemaker’s tasting notes which are usually printed on the wine list placed in front of each customer.

Different Cabernet Sauvignons, the valley’s dominant wine, have been described as possessing the “distinctive flavors of chocolate, berry and mineral,” as having a “noticeable mintiness,” as being “a lush, fruit-forward wine with balance from beginning to end,” and as having “intense black fruit flavors, grip to its tannins and a long finish of concentrated fruit.” If the wine is a blend, the server will usually describe the different varietals used to create it: “This 2001 Arcturus is a blend of 62 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 21 percent Merlot, 15 percent Cabernet Franc, and 2 percent Petit Verdot.”

Good servers gear their conversation and the amount of wine talk they engage in to the interest level of their customers. Many today will mention some of the foods that a wine complements. “This is our salad and sushi wine,” a server at Raymond Winery told our tasting group. “It’s one of the few we make that doesn’t see the inside of an oak barrel.”

The best servers are adept at mak­ing wine tasting enjoyable and wine making understandable, using analogies and metaphors such as “a winemaker selecting barrels is like a chef selecting herbs” and “an oak barrel adds flavor to the wine, like a cinnamon stick adds flavor to your hot chocolate.” They can also answer such questions as “How many bottles of wine does a vine produce?” (four to six) or “How many grapes are in a glass of wine?” (about a half pound per five-ounce glass)….

We (Sharon and George) had studied tourism in other places, particularly Barbados.  When we inherited a family ranch property in the Napa Valley, it seemed like a great opportunity — both to study tourism in such an iconic place and to get to know the valley and some of its resdients much better.  We had seen the growth in the number of wineries over the years and in the number of tourists who visited. We  wanted to understand more about the tourists experiences and the impact their tourism has on the valley.  We will eventually retire in Napa.  It’s a very special place; and we always seem to enjoy spending time there.

Tasting the Good Life: Wine Tourism in the Napa Valley is now available for pre-order at IUPress.

For more information about tourism in the Napa Valley, visit http://napavalley.com/ .

Five million visitors a year travel to California’s Napa Valley to experience the good life: to taste fine wines, eat fine food, and immerse themselves in other sophisticated pleasures while surrounded by bucolic beauty. Tourism is the world’s largest employer, and tourists today want to experience the world through all five senses. Tasting the Good Life tells the story of Napa tourism through the words of the tourists who visit and the men and women who provide the products and services they rely on. The stories of 17 people from winemaker to vineyard manager, from celebrity chef to waiting staff, from hot air balloonist to masseuse provide extraordinary insight into this new form of tourism and its impact on an iconic American place.