The Speed of Life at Alquimista Cellars
Follow along with us on our adventures!
The day began a little differently than most days of harvest do:We weighed out for tare the two ¾-ton fermentors and loaded them into the back of my bullet-riddled pickup truck, evacuated the air from the vessels with carbon dioxide snow, and strapped the lids down tight. Once again pointing the nose of said truck easterly, we headed up to one of the highest vineyards on Sonoma Mountain, the storied van der Kamp Vineyard for a first-light pick of whole-cluster, carbonic maceration Pinot Meunier.
A little background to this vineyard may be required for those who haven’t heard of the history and specialness of vdK, both the vineyard and the people who have in past times and those who do now live on this storied site. It has been the meeting ground for millennia of native American peoples and remains so to this day with a sweat lodge and gatherings still taking place. The current stewards of this spiritual site, vignerons Martin and son Ulysses van der Kamp and their family, have only been tending to this land for a fraction of its inhabitance, though the family now has 3 generations of history firmly rooted in the fertile volcanic soils of this ancient meeting place. It is hard to describe the history, the specialness of this home to those who so well honor the past while building a better future for not just the wine lovers of the world (the wine can be on your dinner table for many tomorrows to come), but for the world in general. You see, the van der Kamp Vineyard does not just grow grapes, it grows memories that can be carried forth by those whose lives are touched by the gentleness and profundity of this land and the people who inhabit it. Suffice it to say I will chronicle just one example of transformation. You will have to see this site for yourself to gather a more true picture of just how special this vineyard is.
My wife and I arrived at the vineyard while the sun was just a rumor in the eastern sky. The air smelled of pungent earth and ripe fruit, soon to be mingled with wafts of sweat of what would be our picking team: the van der Kamp family and their co-inhabitants and workers of the vineyard (now also 3 generations deep), my family and a few select friends of ours. One eager young lad, Jesus, joined us from Jessies Grove vineyard and winery in the Mokelumne River AVA. He was one of two toilers named Jesus, the other being one of the multiple-generation families who also live on the site and tend both the grapes and the gardens, animals and orchards that provide the inhabitants of this place with sustainable sustenance. The mosquitoes and other assorted flying insects were also there, fellow inhabitants of the land, rising up from the nearby spring seep to greet us. Mara and I sprayed on a repellant, happy to coexist with these inmates but not wanting to tempt them to our discomfort.
We all started picking in unison as first light allowed us to extinguish our headlamps. The sky gave off a spectacular show of majesty as it began to fill the sky, with pink and ochre colors spreading across the flanks of the old volcano crater. There was appreciative talk about how beautiful the sunrise was as we steadily clipped our way across the rows of perfectly-ripened Meunier grapes. Then Malia van der Kamp, youngest of the van der Kamp siblings (vineyard manager Ulysses being the oldest) and shoulderer of many 45-lb. lug boxes overhead to lift into the truck-bound fermentors (yes, she is macha), said to look at what was overhead – not just the first light of day, but a huge phalanx of dragonflies overhead, diving and careening across the woodsy-perfumed air just above us. As were we, they were also gatherers of the land, harvesting their crop of the afore-mentioned insects, displaying a simple act of nature and sustainability.
Dixie van der Kamp, matriarch of the family, was impressed not only by the sight of morning light glinting off the wings of the dragonflies before the light touched us, but by the symbolism of these acrobatic, beautiful creatures. She related that dragonflies represent transformation, and that this was a harbinger of a special thing to come: sunlight into grapes and grapes into wine. The speech of the land was literally in our hands as we placed the whole cluster gently into the vessels that would make the transformation complete. We picked, the dragonflies danced and glinted, and I, too was transformed. Another day of harvest, and I am a richer man for having been there, on the top of Sonoma Mountain, harvesting with the van der Kamp family and friends.
In Vino Veritas,
Greg La Follette
OK, it is harvest time for Alquimista Cellars.Life is pretty busy with early rising to either pick grapes, often in the middle of the night, or to commence the daily 7 AM punchdown routine. And then there are all the other things of harvest, such as processing fruit, pressing off fermentors (yes, the vessels that hold fermentations are fermentors with an “o” – a fermenter is a yeast), the endless job of sanitation (it is said that winemaking is 85% sanitation, i.e. boredom, 10% interesting challenges and 5% sheer terror) and managing wayward fermentations. We are all working a gazillion hours a day and getting little sleep. This is the time of year when a famous winemaker has said that everyone “goes into asshole mode”. Thank you for that quote, Michael S.
Well, there are some winery folk that seem to not be in that mode. I’m talking about the international interns, 3 of which populate our home right now. These hard-working young people come to California to do so much of the hard work in our wineries for very little pay and a lot of sweat expended. The interns living with us work for DeLoach, a scant 3 miles from our home and a winery with which I have a rich and lovely history. These guys, all in their mid-20s, work from 7 AM to 8, 9, or 10 PM (and sometimes later) and come home tired but upbeat. Early on during harvest, we would open multiple bottles of wine together (sometimes more than a dozen at a time) and discuss the merits and winemaking techniques of these bottles and the frequently unusual varietals within them. Right now we all get home and pretty much eat, sleep, rise, work, repeat. But we still open a bottle of wine or two to consume with the dinner provided by my wife Mara, and often more than a bottle or two of beer. Good beer. It is said that it takes a lot of beer to make good wine, and our home certainly lives that!
I cannot say enough about these guys. They provide Mara and myself with their youth and enthusiasm. They come from Bordeaux, Mendoza and Galicia but all have one mindset: learn all they can about the best winemaking techniques. We now have a household with several languages and traditions but with the binding love of wine. And Mara gets to cook her heart out with delicious dinners, excepting when she is in the winery with me punching down and processing fruit until late. On those evenings, we take advantage of the local pizzerias and Chinese take-out restaurants. No one complains as we all love pizza – I vowed that when I moved back into civilization from being out at Flowers on the coast for 6 years, I would have pizza at least once a week. So we try to make our interns lives a little more delicious.
We have Sunday night family dinner every week, excepting that there are Sundays when we are working until way too late. We try to keep this open, and on those nights I usually bbq and we have a bit of a celebration of life, and of family and friends. Our intern from last year and our adopted 3rd son, Jackson, comes over and somehow conjures up several interesting wines to go with the standard fare. Of course we bbq on French oak wine barrel wood.
Our interns are tired, as are we right now. But they don’t go into a-hole mode and always seem appreciative of our efforts to keep them fed (and the coffee carafe filled). They enrich our already rich lives and we are lucky to have them under our roof. Just another reason why I am the luckiest man I know.
I hope your lives are filled with good food, wine and conversation. Thank you for your love of wine and for support of hose-draggers such as me and our interns. Your love and interest in wine means that we get to do more of what we love to do, even when we are bone-tired and rise-eat-work-eat-sleep-repeat. It is quality eating, quality work, sound sleep and a lovely life. As long as harvest lasts only a few more weeks….
<br. In Vino Veritas, Greg La Follette
A Vineyard Full of Age and Youth
I always say that I’m the luckiest man I know. How lucky? Let me elucidate…
Yesterday morning at 3 AM I pointed the nose of my bullet-riddled pickup truck, loaded with 4 empty half-ton bins, towards the Mokolumne River AVA (American Viticultural Appellation) of west Lodi. The goal was to pick 1.5 tons from one of the oldest Zinfandel vineyards on the planet at Jessie’s Grove Winery’s “Royal Tee” Vineyard. Planted in 1888, the vineyard is, as were many vineyards planted in those days, a scattering of varietals other than Zin. There are also Carignane and Mission grapes as well as the almost-extinct table grapes Flame Tokay and Black Prince. Flame Tokay was so important to the Lodi region in days gone by that the local high school sports teams are still known as the “Flames”.
Arriving just before a ragged sunrise in this ancient vineyard, I was met by a team of sommeliers from Canada and around the US, eager to pick and sort grapes from these venerable vines. The juxtaposition of this mix of passionate, young wine professionals and these veteran vinous brethren gave me pause to reflect just how lucky I was to be in this vineyard, on this day, with this combination of young and old. As Alexandré Dumas once said two hundred years ago, a vineyard such as this “should be approached bare-headed and kneeling”. To be able to pick from this vineyard is an honor and a privilege not afforded to many. To do so with a crop of our future industry professionals was not lost to me as an opportunity to have my feet firmly in the soil of the past and my eyes on what will be tomorrow. I was once again smitten by my own profession, reviewing how fortunate of a life I have had and continue to live to this very day.
The enthusiasm of our somm picking team, mixed with the piscadores of the Jessie’s Grove vineyard and winery team, was palpable and infectious. The owner of the vineyard, Greg Burns, and the Lodi Winegrape Commission team of Dr. Stephanie Bolton, Randy Caparoso and Stuart Spencer were there to share in the moment. And so I carried away with me not only a couple of tons of fruit from some of the oldest vines on the planet and their shared dirt on my boots, I brought back to my winery a renewed vow to make the best wine I could from this day of toil that represents not only a year of growing or even a lifetime of vine growth but a new generation that appropriately has respect and awe for something very, very old. And I’m not just talking about me, kids!
So how lucky am I? How many people get to do what I just did? Now you can believe that, for many, many more reasons than this but today because of this, I am indeed the luckiest man I know.
Many thanks to Greg Burns of Jessie’s Grove, the Lodi Winegrape Commission, and to the sommeliers of the pick and to all of the somms out there who help bring the stories of wine to the tables of America. With Much Gratitude, Greg La Follette Alquimista Cellars