I escaped the vineyards and winery and spent the last two days visiting retail and restaurant accounts in Sacramento, the capital of California. It's a beautiful city with wonderful old neighborhoods and, for some reason, it reminds me of New Orleans. Like the Big Easy, Sacramento is a port town, but it's 80 miles inland from San Francisco, on the California delta and the Sacramento River.
One of the key aspects to enjoying a bottle of wine derives from the overall dining experience, particularly the food it is paired with. Great food transforms wine, and winemakers make every effort to put their wines into the best restaurants. Sacramento has a tradition of great old restaurants that have been around from the days when wearing a six-shooter on the hip was de rigueur, along with numerous more recent restaurants that also have world-class kitchens. On Wednesday night downtown at Ella's, I had one of the best pieces of chicken I've ever had. The breast was prepared sous vide, then seared skin side down and finished in the wood-fired oven to melt-in-your-mouth perfection. Last night, I had a great plate of gnocchi with shredded braised short ribs in Bolognese sauce that the chef at L's Wine Lounge and Urban Kitchen improvised for me. I love this job!
I left Sacramento late last night and got home early this morning. The nocturnal business of night picking makes unusual schedules and night travel a little easier at this time of year. But maybe it's just that the habits of the vampires on our nighttime picking crew are rubbing off on me? I wouldn't trade places though—transforming into a bat and flying looks fun, but turning to dust in the sunlight seems so painful?
After the rains a couple of weeks ago, the hills of Santa Barbara County are green. For those who consider themselves students of terroir, a great lesson is visible. Without the sustained rains, which probably won't come until December and January, the early grass is starting to fade in places. On the more exposed south-facing slopes that are warmer, and where the soils are shallower and better drained, the new grass is already withering.
Although grapevines have deeper roots than grass, you see a similar pattern in the vineyards during the growing season, with lower vigor on the shallower soils on the upper parts of slopes and more vigor on the deeper soils at the bottom of slopes. Similarly, on the south- and east-facing slopes, because of the thermal effects of slope direction, you see influences on vine growth, vigor and ripening as well.
These components of terroir—that is soil, slope and direction of slope—are concepts that have been observed from ancient times. Along with their own advice, viticultural treatises by the Romans Cato and Pliny the Elder both mention the advice of Mago the Carthaginian. In his writings, Mago offered viticultural guidance on planting grapevines in North Africa more than 2,000 years ago. Mago said that in hot regions, such as Numidia [modern Algeria and Tunisia] and Egypt, grapevines should be planted on north-facing slopes, where they would be more productive and make higher-quality wine than if planted facing the warmer south exposure. The importance of observing and tailoring viticultural practices to the terroir is hardly new!
But as tomorrow is Halloween, that brings me back to the few vampires we hired to work this year on the harvest crew. As everyone knows, economic conditions have increased the availability of nighttime workers in the job marketplace, especially of the sun-intolerant type. In these modern times, there are a lot more vampires hunting for employment opportunities (and their problems are compounded by their seriously out-of-date job skills).
But it is important to promote cultural and workplace diversity, and that includes the culture of the mortality deprived. Their work attire is perhaps a bit odd, but they are remarkably strong and very fast workers.
Harvest photos are a problem (so don't ask). I have been taking some pictures of our night picking, but have refrained from posting them because it's somewhat strange to see grape clippers and buckets of grapes moving around in the air by themselves.
It's also very disturbing for the other employees when we stop for a meal, but we have resolved this with segregated, soundproof dining areas. Happy Halloween!
Marcus Marquez — Sacramento, Ca — October 30, 2009 11:19pm ET
Peter Cargasacchi — Sta. Rita Hills — November 1, 2009 1:30am ET
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