It’s harvest in Napa. The smell of fermenting grapes fills the air. Pickers comb the yellowed rows of vines, culling glistening clusters before fall rains or early frost damage them. Wine makers work feverishly to crush the fruit at the apex of its ripeness, insuring a stellar vintage. Fruit flies buzz excitedly, caught up in the frenzy of the crush.
“It feels like we’ve been doing an ultra-marathon,” says Nicki Pruss, the red-cheeked winemaker at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, one of the most famous houses in Napa. “I sometimes don’t know what day of the week it is.”
During the harvest, Pruss serves as chief “grape herder,” coordinating the picking and tasting the fruit before it enters the stainless steel maw of the crushing machine. Amid the noise and haste, she recites her mantra “balance, elegance, restraint” allowing her to decide which juice from the vineyard blocks will go into the winery’s signature blends.
“Each block is like a color on a painter’s palette,” she says. “Each block is a slightly different expression of cabernet. Some have bigger, more structural components. The soils, climate and grapes all make a difference in the blend. We are trying to become in tune with this place.”
Stag’s Leap occupies one of the choicest sites in the Napa Valley, an oenophile’s Eden of some 400 wineries located 50 miles northeast of San Francisco. Thirty miles in length, it ranges from five miles wide near the city of Napa to one mile near the town of Calistoga. Internationally known as one of the world’s greatest wine regions, the valley contains the richest concentration of wineries, fine dining and wine touring facilities in North America.
After leading wine tours for The Writer’s Workshop to France and Italy, I wanted to see how North America’s greatest wine region stacks up against the best of the Old World. I’d passed through the valley before, but didn’t have the time to fully explore it till a three-day trip last fall. What is special and unique about the place? Why do so many people fall under its spell? How does it differ from the great wine regions of Europe? These were some of the questions I sought to answer during my visit.
I was here on assignment for Alaska Airlines Magazine to write about Napa as a wine touring destination. In the course of the writing assignment, I interviewed Nicki Pruss of Stag’s Leap, Chris Howell of Cain Five, Antinori’s chief enologist, Renzo Cotarella, and visited with Karen Trippe at the Conn Creek Barrel Blending Experience. The assignment required research and interviewing skills, as well as structuring the story in terms of a quest, some of the techniques I discuss in my writing classes as well as trying to put into words what makes a wine like Stag’s Leap Cask 23 so superlative. The story will be coming out in the February or March issue. Please let me know what you think!