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Category Archives: Winery News

American Dream

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We have a new face on the blog! Lynn Pedone will be working in the vineyard, with Dave Vella and his crew, as she pursues her studies in Viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College. A little background on Lynn: she’s a recent East Coast transplant, has lived all over the world growing up in a military family and has previously worked in the world of business and finance. She’s now hoping to settle into her “last career stop until retirement” in the wine industry and is looking forward to the opportunity to learn more about vineyard maintenance with Dave.  Lynn will be writing a weekly blog post about her experiences working in the Chateau Montelena vineyards.  Read her latest post below:

Placido Garcia Hernandez, Montelena’s vineyard foreman, tells the quintessential story of the American dream.  I sat down with this integral member of the Chateau Montelena team to learn more about his life and work in the vineyards.  Placido, whose birthday is on July 4th, came to California from Mexico in 1961.  As a teenager, he worked hard picking tomatoes, melons, pears and peaches in the fields and orchards of Sacramento, eventually working his way west to his first grape harvest in the Napa Valley.  He has been with Chateau Montelena for 37 years, since 1974.  When I asked Placido what the best thing is about working at Montelena, he replied without even thinking about it – “every day.”  Every day he is happy to be here, and thanks God he still has the energy to work.  He explained that Montelena is a very special place, a “nice place to work,” where there is good communication and support, and where it feels like family.  Most of all, Placido told me, Montelena is what enabled him to realize his American dream: that of buying a home and sending his children to school.  He is proud that he has been able to share his dream with his wife Maria and their family of four girls (including a set of twins) and a boy, all grown now with children of their own – his six grandchildren.  He is also very proud of the fact that he has been a part of the many changes that have taken place here since he started.  He told me how different Montelena looked back then (fewer vines) and also how different Calistoga was – he can remember when you could buy a pitcher of “cerveza” for one dollar!  I was curious to get his take on the Paris tasting and what happened in 1976; Placido remembers that it was a “big deal” – but not just for Chateau Montelena.  That event put Napa on the virtual world wine map, and everyone who made wine in the Napa Valley was forever inspired to strive to make the best wine they possibly could.  Placido admits he doesn’t really know much about making wine or even describing wine – he “can only say if it’s good” – but he does know about grapes and vines.  I’ve admired his expertise and have been fortunate to have his guidance and support this summer.   It would be hard to imagine Chateau Montelena without Placido!

Placido in the Vineyard

Hard Labor at the Chateau

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About 3 times a year we open up the bottling line to pour our liquid treasures into glass bottles. During these times, our production crew graciously offers other staffers the opportunity to share in the experience. This year I, along with a few other brave (and gullible) souls, offered to help. It’s now two days after my “experience.” I would have posted the day I worked it, but I didn’t want to get blood on my keyboard, the result of my hands being chaffed from moving a thousand cardboard boxes. Also, my muscles didn’t respond to what my brain was telling them to do, so who knows what I would have been typing. Loading bottles from the assembly line was not only physically challenging, it was stressful. I didn’t want to be the weak link on that chain. (I did contemplate downing a few sips, but the bottles would’ve stacked up and crashed to the floor; not very helpful of me).

In short, while I’ve always had the utmost respect for those working in production, that has now increased exponentially. These guys are not only experts in making wine, working complex machinery, and troubleshooting all that can happen, they are physically far more fit than I. When you crack open a 2010 Chardonnay in about 11 months when it’s released, remember that lots of blood, sweat and tears went into it…but not literally. Pinking only happened in the movie Bottle Shock.

Strolling Through the Vineyards

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One of the best things about summer is enjoying the sunshine and outdoors.  This is especially true when you work at a beautiful winery in gorgeous Calistoga.  The extreme heat has spared us so far this August, so I’ve been loving taking time to get outside for a lunchtime walk in the vineyard.  I take photos of what might be going on in our vineyard, see some friendly faces and get a little Vitamin D and exercise all at the same time.  Last week, I took some photos of veraison, which is occurring right now in our Estate Vineyard, as the grapes turn from green to purple and we inch nearer towards harvest.  I also stopped by the bottling line to see our crew bottling the 2010 Chardonnay (to be released next year!).  It’s a beautiful time of year – if you make it to the Napa Valley anytime soon, be sure to stop by and see for yourself and check out the new, special Chardonnay tasting offers as we celebrate the 35th anniversary of the 1976 Paris Tasting.  In the meantime, enjoy these photos of our current happenings:

Jorge & Eddie on Bottling Day

Veraison

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We have a new face on the blog! Lynn Pedone will be working in the vineyard, with Dave Vella and his crew, as she pursues her studies in Viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College. A little background on Lynn: she’s a recent East Coast transplant, has lived all over the world growing up in a military family and has previously worked in the world of business and finance. She’s now hoping to settle into her “last career stop until retirement” in the wine industry and is looking forward to the opportunity to learn more about vineyard maintenance with Dave.  Lynn will be writing a weekly blog post about her experiences working in the Chateau Montelena vineyards.  Read her latest post below:

Today, Montelena’s vineyard signaled the first sign of veraison – every year, one of the most important events in the vineyard that starts the countdown to harvest.  Exactly what triggers this remarkable event isn’t fully known, but it may have something to do with seed maturity.  Veraison means, literally, the “change of color of the grape berries” – basically, the onset of berry ripening.  During this period, the vine switches its resources to ripening the fruit, and leaf and cane growth subside.  The berries soften, seeds turn from green to brown, acids decline and sugars accumulate and fruity aromas develop.  Not coincidentally, this is nature’s way of making the fruit appealing to animals!  This morning’s assignment was leaf pulling in the fruit zone – to increase air circulation around the berries and give them more sun exposure.  It was during this exercise that I pulled away leaves on one cluster to reveal, for the first time, purple berries.  I ooh’d and aah’d with delight, and had to run back to my car to get my camera, afraid if I went back later and tried to find that exact bunch, I wouldn’t be able to find it.  The vineyard crew carried on, unphased – though I think they were somewhat amused at my enthusiasm for something they have all seen already many times.  The result of that effort is the photo, below, which I think you’ll agree is a thing of beauty!

 

Cellar Reconstruction Progress

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An earlier post by Nyk mentioned the complete reconstruction of our cellar, only its third incarnation since the winery’s 1882 beginnings. It’s a project symbolic of our continuing commitment to world-class winemaking.  Beautiful new catwalks and a recently completed floor give the 6,600 square foot interior a sleek appearance.  There are a lot of additional finishes to complete before the fermentation tanks are installed, and everything is on schedule. We thought you might like to see how things are coming along.

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My Garden; Amazing Yields…and Zucchini for all!

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In our second year of planting a vegetable garden here at the Chateau, we’re finding just how productive a squash plant can be.  Every year, the Barrett family is generous to offer some land to any staff who wants to grow a garden.  Last year, Gil, our Cellarmaster, and I set off to grow some tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, melons, and peppers.  We did not see ideal warmth through much of the summer.  Melons were few – and horrible. Cucumbers – barely a couple fruited.  Peppers – just average.  Squash?  More than we could eat!

So this year, with optimisim of a nice, warm summer, we planted over a dozen varieties of tomatoes, 10 different types of squash, pumpkins, cucumbers of 6 varieties, peppers, and a number of beans.  Also wild strawberries.  So far, we’re off to a good year. Cucumbers are coming in fast and furious, tomatoes are starting to show lots of promise, peppers and pumpkins show vigorous growth; and the ever dependable squash: zucchini, scallop, crooknecks, sunburst, etc…are growing like weeds.

I’m finding new ways to cook the stuff. I’ve given so much away to friends (who may not be if I keep pushing this on them as often as they’re growing).  It makes me wonder, with just how fast and full these plants grow, why aren’t more homes doing this? For the cost of some squash I’ve seen, as easy as it is to grow, cut and eat, we can reduce the hunger issues while encouraging healthy eating (provided they don’t only make fried zucchini fingers with Ranch dressing). I mean, two plants per household is ALL they need…trust me.  Doesn’t take much space, soil has to be ok, sunlight is essential, but we all have that to some degree at home or nearby…

The beauty is, you don’t even really need to have a green thumb, and you can look like a veteran gardener with this stuff.  So do yourself a favor; go buy a plant or two at your neighborhood store for a couple bucks; it’ll yield ten-fold what you paid for them in the end, and you will feel good about yourself…

Montelena’s Happy Vineyard Crew

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We have a new face on the blog! Lynn Pedone will be working in the vineyard, with Dave Vella and his crew, as she pursues her studies in Viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College. A little background on Lynn: she’s a recent East Coast transplant, has lived all over the world growing up in a military family and has previously worked in the world of business and finance. She’s now hoping to settle into her “last career stop until retirement” in the wine industry and is looking forward to the opportunity to learn more about vineyard maintenance with Dave.  Lynn will be writing a weekly blog post about her experiences working in the Chateau Montelena vineyards.  Read her latest post below:

My co-workers – the people who make up the great, hard-working vineyard crew at Chateau Montelena – really help to make my time in the vineyard enjoyable. They are also good, patient teachers, and a lot of the fun for me has been practicing my Spanish. We carry on conversations as we work, and somehow I know about their lives and they know something about mine. Last week I was partnered with Jose for the morning and he showed me a very efficient way to do leafing in the fruit zone.  Clusters are getting big now, and it’s important to allow appropriate sun exposure and adequate ventilation around the berries.  Jose demonstrated how to lift the canopy with one hand, kind of like looking under the hood of a car, and using the other hand to “comb” through and pull off leaves, working fast but taking care not to accidentally pull off a cluster of grapes.  With experience it is possible to work quickly and avoid the fruit, but the key of course is to end up allowing enough sun exposure on the clusters but not so much you risk sunburn.  I told Jose he was “muy rapido” but that I was “lento(a)” – slow.  Somehow he made me feel that I was still doing a good job.  Today, I was part of a small team tasked with dropping fruit from some young vines.  Even knowing why this has to be done (keeping vine yields low to produce grapes with more flavor and intensity) still doesn’t make it any easier to snip off a perfectly beautiful cluster and throw it in a pile where it will shrivel and die in a matter of hours!  Depending on the size of the shoot, I was told to leave two, one, or no cluster.  The heat was back with us today, and the work was hard.  But I continue to be impressed and amazed that my coworkers are always smiling, singing, and happy.  Amidst their laughter and chatter, I can sometimes pick out a word or two or a phrase I understand.  Most of all, listening to them passes the time and makes me smile, and I am grateful for this experience.

Can One Overindulge On Vacation?

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The answer is yes.  I just got back from the beautiful state of Montana.  After driving 6 hours from Billings to BigFork, I understand why they call it “Big Sky.”  One can’t appreciate what that means till they look over the horizon of thousands of acres of wheat fields, rolling green hills, or glacier covered mountains on the Continental Divide.  The sky really looks bigger!

Anyways, to my point.  I was traveling with some of my closest friends, one of which has an extensive wine collection, primarily French, with a smattering of Italian and Australian; but all top shelf brand names. He’s collected for years; and like many of us, looking for the right occasion to open them up.  Well, he felt this was the right occasion, as we all got together and stayed at a beautiful home on Flathead Lake.

Among the four adult drinkers in 8 days, we averaged 3 bottles a night.  We drank some of the best Europe and Australia has to offer: Romanee Conti, 1996, La Tache, 1999, Chateau Margaux 1982, Gaja 1990, Sassicaia, 1996, Grange 1996, Hill of Grace 1994.  I could go on, but it would sound like I’m bragging. Well, I am a bit! You don’t often get an opportunity like this very often, if ever.  Every day was a new experience, a new terroir explored.  By the end of the trip, we were in true bliss.  It’s nice to drink like royalty, even if it’s for a week.

Back to reality, as vacation is done.  The next day, I swore I would not drink for at least a week.  Phone rings; here comes friends from out of town to stay for the night.  Being from out of town, coming to Napa, of course they want to go wine tasting and drink at night.  So, out comes some bottles from my collection. Far from my friend’s cellar; more dominated by Napa Valley.  Was I ready to have a glass?  I thought not…but I was. And after all we drank the week before, I was happy to drink some local wine and realize how good our wines are…and at a fraction of the cost!

My Favorite Vineyard Day

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We have a new face on the blog! Lynn Pedone will be working in the vineyard, with Dave Vella and his crew, as she pursues her studies in Viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College. A little background on Lynn: she’s a recent East Coast transplant, has lived all over the world growing up in a military family and has previously worked in the world of business and finance. She’s now hoping to settle into her “last career stop until retirement” in the wine industry and is looking forward to the opportunity to learn more about vineyard maintenance with Dave.  Lynn will be writing a weekly blog post about her experiences working in the Chateau Montelena vineyards.  Read her latest post below:

One day last week I spent my morning at Chateau Montelena working on some Petite Syrah vines.  The Montelena Estate vineyards are exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon and old Zinfandel; the Petite Syrah vines are experimental (maybe the winemakers will try them in some new blend?).   Arriving at the vineyard at 5:50 a.m., I learned that the rest of the crew was working offsite.  I wondered what I would be doing, since that meant I would be working alone.  Did they actually trust me to work on my own in the estate vineyard with no supervision?  Beto asked if I would like to work on the four rows of young Petite Syrah vines that needed a little “tidying up” – vines creeping out into the row middles needed to be tucked into the catch wires and trimmed above the top wire.  Sure!  I said, happy to have any opportunity to use my pruning shears.  I love pruning and cutting and trimming and snipping – as someone who has never really worked in a garden of any kind before, I had no idea how empowering it is to “discipline” a vine….maybe it’s because I can’t seem to establish the same control over my two obstinate Pugs.  At this stage, when the vineyard seems to be growing like crazy, the vines are like unruly children.  Fortunately, and unlike my dogs, they respond well to just about anything you do to them!   It was a glorious day in Calistoga – very warm, but not too hot – with a soft breeze and a postcard-blue sky.  As I was talking to the vines in the peaceful silence and listening to the birds chirping, Mr. Barrett rode by on his little motor scooter, and it made me happy to see him out and about.  After a bit Dave Vella, the Vineyard Manager, stopped by to ask how things were going for me.  In addition to what I was already doing, Dave suggested I start “dropping” berry clusters – in effect, pruning to leave just one cluster per shoot.  When vines are young, this allows them to put their energy and resources into producing berries with more concentrated flavors.  Montelena purposely keeps their vine yields low because smaller crop yields produce wines with more intensity and complexity.  I was excited about this new task, until I started trying to decide which clusters would live and which would die. The problem, I discovered, was that by and large, all of them were beautiful and soon I realized I was spending far too much time trying to pick and choose and that it probably was not an effective use of my time.  Where there were clear and obvious choices, I snipped off the “lesser” bunches, but I have to say that I did not enjoy murdering those little clusters that will never grow up to become fine Chateau Montelena wine!  All in all, though, a perfect day.  Next week I plan to focus on my co-workers – the people who make up the great, hard-working vineyard crew at Montelena.  See you then.


Summer Vineyard Activities

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We have a new face on the blog! Lynn Pedone will be working in the vineyard, with Dave Vella and his crew, as she pursues her studies in Viticulture at Santa Rosa Junior College. A little background on Lynn: she’s a recent East Coast transplant, has lived all over the world growing up in a military family and has previously worked in the world of business and finance. She’s now hoping to settle into her “last career stop until retirement” in the wine industry and is looking forward to the opportunity to learn more about vineyard maintenance with Dave.  Lynn will be writing a weekly blog post about her experiences working in the Chateau Montelena vineyards.  Read her latest post below:

Hope everyone had a good 4th of July.  At Chateau Montelena, the vineyard has really been flourishing – the warm, sunny weather has given the vines everything they need to grow, and grow rapidly!  It is very exciting to see the berry clusters taking shape and increasing in size; “peppercorn” diameter now (about 4 mm), they are actually beginning to look like bunches of grapes.  “Berry set” occurred in June and this month wineries can begin cluster counts to determine their crop projection for the year.  Because everything is growing like crazy at this time, it’s also necessary to keep up a busy pace of tucking vines up into the catch wires as well as continue with suckering – removing unwanted shoots we don’t want and the vines don’t need.  Extra shoots “rob” the vines of the vigor and productivity that has to go into growing, ripening and maturing the fruit, so this is a very important task.  We have also started some shoot “thinning” to eliminate crowding and allow the leaves – i.e. the little solar panels of the vines – full sun exposure and again, to give the vines the opportunity to focus their energy into fruit production instead of green (vegetative) growth.  We did have a day of real rain last week; happy for the cooler temperatures, we started work as usual at 6 a.m. under a light drizzle but within an hour the skies opened up to a full blown deluge.  I had my rain gear on and wanted to continue but Placido, the crew supervisor, wisely summoned us out of the vineyard and told us to go home – no sense jeopardizing anyone’s health or safety.  The sun and high temperatures have returned, and we are back at it – yesterday was spent doing more vine tucking and suckering.  These things grow like weeds!

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About Our Authors

George Blanckensee

An expert event planner and an avid basketball and sports fan, George can tell you about all the best off-the-beaten path eateries.

Kali Clark

A Napa Valley native, Kali returned to the area after a stint on the East Coast and can be found documenting the latest happenings at the Chateau. When not behind the camera, she likes to experiment in the kitchen, travel, and enjoy the outdoors