Monday, September 20, 2010

Ten, hut! Wine Boot Camp, a Wine Geek's Dream!

Swirling, sipping, eating, drinking... making new friends, learning new things... relishing the Sonoma County scenery, exploring stunning wineries... Just another fine weekend here in Wine Country!

Actually, this past weekend was, shall I say, slightly better than the average (that is if "slightly" is dripping with sarcasm). It was a stellar weekend. On Saturday, I had the great opportunity to attend Wine Boot Camp, thanks to the generosity of pal Siobhan who writes the fabu blog FOODFIXE (get on over there and subscribe, especially if you have a sweet tooth - Siobhan is a dessert-making queen... especially cheesecakes. Mmmm).

But about this Wine Boot Camp thing: amazing experience. Run by Barbara Drady (that's General Drady to you!) of Affairs of the Vine, it is one packed-to-the-rafters day of wine, wine, wine, food, food, food, and then more wine, wine, wine. Her description sums it up best:

"Wine Boot Camp® is a one-day reconnaissance mission working in the vineyard and the winery. Your day includes visits to two fantastic Sonoma County wineries. Experience and find out how to identify aromas in wine. Learn the secrets of food and wine pairing. Work in the vineyard and blend your own wine. Continental breakfast, gourmet lunch and dinner paired with spectacular wines all while you bask in the glories of beautiful Sonoma Wine Country."

First order of the day: the dozen of us "recruits" took an oath that, in part, had us vow to "learn as much we would like, and promise to not foist our new-found knowledge on those who don't care to hear it" (or something to that effect). Well... since I've already received my honorable discharge, I'm going to break that vow and foist a little bit of knowledge on you. If you don't want to hear it, go ahead and click on through. No questions asked.

So the troops set out for our 12-hour tour of duty, armed with field manuals, uniforms and survival kits, ready to tackle our mission. The wine drinking commenced at 0900 hours, and we never looked back!

Truth be told, I'm not sure I actually learned all that much. As you know, I've lived in Napa Valley for the better part of a decade, and am married to a wine guy. In fact, my husband has taught a very similar wine education course over the years, and I consider myself to be pretty up to speed in the wine department (an expert by no means, but an avid and enthusiastic imbiber!). That being said, it was still a thrill to participate in the Boot Camp and be able to hear the methods and modalities of everything from viticulture to enology from new perspectives. Getting the inside scoop straight from the sources is a wine geek's dream. If you're looking to learn more about wine, I can't speak highly enough of this experience. You WILL walk away with a great understanding of all elements of wine production, from the vine to the bottle.

We visited two vastly different wineries in the course of the day. The palatial Chalk Hill, and the funkier, down-to-earth Michel-Schlumberger. The one thing they do have in common is that they are both estate wineries, meaning that all of their wines are produced from vineyards on the winery property itself. After that, the comparisons pretty much stop. Chalk Hill is a vast, sprawling estate with hundreds of acres devoted not only to vineyards, but a culinary garden, an event pavilion staffed with their own in-house chef, an equestrian center, herds of livestock (including American Bison) and more (the tasting room is pictured above). The winery is famed for its white wines, namely Chardonnay, but also Sauvignon Blanc. They've recently started a red wine program, and if everything is as well-crafted as the Estate Red that I tried... their reds will turn heads soon enough as well. Our engaging and ever-informative host was Chalk Hill's Viticulturist, Mark Lingenfelder, one guy with an astounding amount of interesting information, lore and charm. We were also joined for lunch by Director of Winemaking Lisa Bishop Forbes.

Michel-Schlumberger on the other hand, is more modest in scale and quite a bit more rough around the edges - in a very good way (pictured above). If Chalk Hill is a manicured Grand Dame, Michel-Schlumberger is a fun, hippie uncle - but no less a looker. Snuggled into the lush hills of Wine Creek Canyon overlooking the Dry Creek Valley, Michel-Schlumberger's all-organic estate has commanding views of the surrounding area and a welcoming vibe that begs you to sit and stay for a while. Maybe give the resident pooch a scratch behind the ears, visit the chicken coop (stocked with stunning rare heirloom breeds) or wander through their vegetable-slash-Monarch Butterfly habitat garden. I've loved this gem of a place for many years, because incidentally, it was a 1995 Michel-Schlumberger cabernet that made me fall in love with wine. Retail Director Jim Morris was our affable guide as we tromped through the vineyards and sampled the wines; Winemaker Michael Brunson was also on hand to share a bit about his philosophy.

There is no way that I could ever begin to write about all that we did, ate, drank or accomplished that day - this post would wind up being a mini-novel. So, rather than completely bore you, I'll just let the photos from the day tell most of the story....

0900: Greetings and Sauvignon Blanc at Chalk Hill

0930: Vineyard tour with Mark Lingenfelder

We learned to identify a healthy grape cluster....

With a damaged grape cluster.

We heard time and time again throughout the day how odd the weather has been this season (it will go down as one of the most strange summers in recent memory), and how the wonky weather has affected the crop. In a summer where the high temperatures never got much above 70 degrees most days, a four-day heat wave suddenly appeared where the temps soared to more than 105 degrees. Not so good for the grapes. There was a lot of sunburn damage to the fruit, among other things. Mark armed us with tools and taught us how to carefully cut away the damaged clusters from the vines, dropping them to the ground. Alas, their fate this year is to be nothing more than compost.

1145 hours: Commenced aromatic workshop

If you've never done an aromatic wine workshop, find one. It's a stellar way to learn about the nuances of the aromas and flavors found in wine. You have samples of organic materials - everything from citrus fruits to chocolate, clove to cinnamon, to compare with what is in your glass. We blind tasted eight different varietals of wine:
  • 2009 Girard Sauvignon Blanc
  • 2009 Chateau St. Michelle Reisling
  • 2009 Windsor Chardonnay
  • 2008 Sonoma Coast Vineyards Gold Coast Hills Chardonnay
  • 2006 Canishan Family Cellars Sonoma Valley Pinot Noir
  • 2006 Grove Street Sonoma Merlot
  • 2007 VJB Sonoma Valley Dante Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2008 Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel
I correctly identified five of the eight varietals. Go me!

1300 hours: Lunch and wine pairing at Chalk Hill's Equestrian Center's Event Pavilion. All of the produce in the meal was grown in Chalk Hill's Culinary Garden. Even the lamb was raised by none other than Mark Lingenfelder himself. The only ingredient than came further than 20 miles away was the tiger shrimp in the gazpacho - it was a locavore's dream meal. Menu and wine pairings were as follows (and yes, the meal was as amazing at it looks and sounds)....

Course #1: Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho with black tiger shrimp, bell pepper and cucumber brunoise. (2008 Chalk Hill Chardonnay)

Course #2: Morocan Lamb "Tajine," chick peas and zucchini, panisses (2007 Chalk Hill Estate Red)

Dessert: Roasted Peach "Mille Feuilles" with lemon verbena creme Anglaise (2006 E.V.S. Botrytised Semillon)

Coffee service and Mignardises

Chalk Hill Estate Executive Chef Dider Ageorges

1430 hours: Convoy to Michel-Schlumberger. With full, full bellies we made our way to our second destination of the day... to drink more amazing wines and discover a different sort of beautiful. We were greeted by Jim Morris and Michael Brunson, of course with a crisp glass of Pinot Blanc to prime our palettes. From there, it was a hike off into the vineyards to sample the Michel-Schlumberger wines as we were standing in the vineyards where the grapes were grown.

Michel-Schlumberger is home to loads of critters. Raptor boxes dot the property with frequency (the birds naturally assist with gopher and mice control). There's also a couple of sheep (great lawnmowers), and the very cool chickens.

1630 hours: Blending workshop. We had barrel samples of five different varietals of wine (Merlot, Malbec, Syrah and two different Cabs), and were given the go-ahead to experiment with different blends until we found one to our liking. Once we came up with our own special blend, we got to bottle it up to take home.

My blend is 50% Cabernet, 25% Malbec and 25% Merlot. So yummy.

After the wine blending and before cocktail hour (really?), I had some time to wander Michel-Schlumberger's gardens. These are shots that I like of the flowers, fruits and veggies.


Figs; pepper


Variegated purple sage; a blossom of some sort!

The Monarch Waystation, with flowers to nourish the commuting butterflies.

This is a picture of the massive oak tree in front of the winery, beneath which we held our blending and tasting sessions. Magnificent, no?

The courtyard patio, where hor's d'oeuvres and sparkling wine (SCV Sea Fog Cuvee Blanc de Noirs, Sonoma Coast) were served before yet another stellar meal.

1845 hours: Food and Wine Pairing Dinner

Chef readying our second feast of the day. Menu and wine pairings were as follows...

Course #1: Sea Scallops alla Caprese - mixed heirloom tomatoes, sweet red onion, fresh basil, lemon and course sea salt (2009 Michel-Schlumberger La Bise Pinot Blanc, Dry Creek Valley)

Course #2: Peppercorn Encrusted Filet of Beef - red wine, balsamic vinegar, brandy and tomato sauce; roasted fingerling potatoes; sauteed baby beans and mushrooms (2006 Michel-Schlumberger La Source Syrah, Dry Creek Valley)

Dessert: Lemon Pudding Cakes with Fresh Blueberries (2002 Michel-Schlumberger Silk Purse Semillon, Dry Creek Valley)

2030 hours: Issuance of Discharge Orders

Phew! Long day, great day. Caloric day (I'm still repenting! It'll be a week of leafy greens and not much else for me!). I'd go back in a heartbeat though....

To all my fellow recruits (most of whom are pictured above) - great to meet you! Mission accomplished!

(To see all of the photos from the day - yes, there are even more! - please visit my Flickr site.)


  1. Such beautiful photography. Now I will have to find those to places and give them a visit.

  2. Thanks for the shout out, Mo! I'm glad you had such a stellar day.