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Program gives novices an intensive learning experience about the local beverage

Register Staff Writer

Moving to Napa Valley is a dream come true.

Living in Napa Valley and lacking the appropriate vino vocabulary is unfortunately not the perfect pairing.

But what is a girl from the artic supposed to do?

I admit it, going wine tasting at local wineries is probably my favorite pastime, but I usually don’t get much more out of it than a healthy buzz and purple teeth.

Unwilling to enroll in a lengthy viticulture studies at the college, my ideal approach to learning this new language includes less time and effort.

A wine boot camp sounded like the perfect Saturday activity for a Valley comer.

The pairing of wine education and boot camp gimmick is courtesy of Barbara Drady of Sebastopol. That is Major Drady to us recruits.

Drady is the co-founder of Affairs of the Vine, and together with Michelle Penson, she has run the wine education company for four years.

After several decades in the wine business, Drady still aims to “de-mystify that enticing liquid in our glasses.”

Sounds good to me.

Reporting for duty
When the alarm goes off Saturday morning at 7, the genius of the idea doesn’t strike me quite as hard. But I resist the temptation to blow it off and gear up for combat.

According to the Orders of the Day e-mailed to me by the Major, I am to assemble at forward command post (also known as St. Helena High School) at 0830 hours.

But not until I’ve gotten a proper start on the day.

At this point in the day, espresso is a given, and not knowing exactly what’s ahead of me, I figure I’d throw in a rich muffin to line the stomach.

When I arrive in St. Helena, a quick glance at the other 20-something recruits puts me at ease.

Any similarities to our military counterparts would be laughable. Except for Drady who dons cargo pants and a bright-red sweatshirt with bold
“major” imprint, the rest of us are sorry excuses.

But we’re here to learn about wine, not to battle the elements of our inner demons, so I guess it’s all in the attitude.

We’re given a run-through of the day ahead, including the information that we won’t be tasting any wines until 11 a.m. This creates a murmur among the ranks that’s only silenced by the major assuring us that if someone gets really desperate, she’ll pull a cork.

Before we set off in a convoy to the first winery, survival kits, uniforms and hats are also dispersed.

The group is split in two as we head for Honig Vineyard and Winery in Rutherford.

Around me I hear people telling they’ve been recruited from as far as Indiana and Colorado. A few seem handpicked by their friendly neighbor and part-time
major, Drady.

Although we differ in age and origin, we quickly bond in a shared sense of intimidation and anticipation for the 13-hour day ahead of us.

At the winery, Elaine Honig may not have gotten the outfit right (no combat boots, just a sun hat and fancy sunglasses), but she’s quick to lead us into the field.
As we get our first up-close and personal view of the vines, Elaine tells how sustainable farming is the key word in everything they do at the winery.

For a good half hour, Elaine brims with enthusiasm and pride about the ecological principles she and her husband Michael Honig apply to farming and wine-making. However fascinating, this is boot camp, and I want to see some action.

My call is answered as we’re introduced to Juan, who’s taking us sharpshooter hunting.

OK, so it may not be snipers we’re slated to take down, but little bugs trapped in sticky papers are still pretty exciting.

As we head for the battlefield, some of us are clearly more eager than the rest. A handful is soon fighting to spot the correct number of green-blue sharpshooters in the the myriad of dead insects.

“No, no. That’s a mosquito,” Juan keeps repeating. But we get better as we collect more of the traps.

Soon those of us on the frontline have been named “the bug people” by the main group that walk the vineyard with Elaine who willingly answers questions.

I can deal with that, and so can Lyne, a science editor from Boulder who’s gotten hooked on wine while vacationing in Italy.

She said she wanted to experience the wine industry from a different angle than what she’d gotten if she did the regular tasting-and-tour routine.

She’ll soon to prove very right in her assessment.

Training Intensifies
Outside the beautiful home of the Honigs, tables are set up, and in front of us we’re given a plethora of spices and fruits, chocolate and butterscotch.

Feeling a jolt of hunger, I’m tempted to taste the selection, but I resist and try to follow the lead of others to smell the various goodies.

The Major promises that no matter how we’ve felt about identifying aromas in the wine before this experience, by the end of the day we’ll get it.

Learning by doing seems to be the method as the two glasses in front of each of us are filled with wines and we’re not told what they are.

I look around me and catch the drift. I swirl and smell, swirl again and smell.
All I can think of is gas. I try to word it eloquently, hence I confidently proclaim “petroleum” to my table.
Adding that I smell a hint of window cleaner, the others don’t seem to think I’m sincere and continue their own sniffing.

Surprisingly I’m somewhat right as the major informs us that the wine has a distinct smell of cat litter, which I interpret as ammonia which again could be interpreted as a cleaning agent. I decide to go for it and guess (correctly) that the light yellowish-green liquid is a sauvignon blanc.

“Ooh, you’re good!” the guy next to me says, as he gives me official stamp of approval: The wine nod.

In a whirlwind speed, we’re given another four flights of wines.

“I told you this was boot camp,” the Major grins.

Unfortunately, it seems I did my finest work on the first wine. I’m unable to pick up much of anything, and subsequently get every single wine wrong.

But the day is still young and I’m rewarded by being served a wonderful lunch on the Honigs’ patio.

But there is no time to waste. The troops soon gathered again and the convoy is off.

And more action
At Flora Springs in St. Helena, we’re led past a wedding in progress. We’re obviously out of place so, with a new glass in hand, we hurry into the caves where Nat Komes talks about barrel aging and the difference in the origins of the oak.

Important information on winemaking notwithstanding, I can tell the group is ready for more action.

Again, the Major is right on target as she has scheduled a blending session under the guidance of owner John Komes.

Before we’re given the tools to do some damage, John lets us sample how wine is suppose to taste. We all ooh and aah over the winery’s Trilogy wine, and set out to match the velvety drops.

At my table, Lyne the scientist hooks up with Paul the pharmacist, and together they take a very scientific approach to the process. With razor-sharp measures, the two blend according to the formula we’re given.

Not so for the couple next to me. The two scientists across from us scowl at us as I join in an ambitious, free-hand approach to the art of blending wine.

Realizing we have run out of cabernet franc, as a blending agent, we rally for leftovers in the glasses around us.

Somehow the end result tastes splendid.

Maybe you just can’t go wrong with the wines offered by Flora Springs, or maybe the old adage that homemade always tastes best once again holds true.

Our wines are bottled and corked, and the Major has even prepared individual labels for us.

As we gather our bottles, I hear someone say that we have tasted 35 wines thus far. I believe them, and decide to steer away from the Flora springs tasting room, heading (almost) straight to Dean & Deluca’s for a triple latte instead.

The decision turned out to be a good one since our last stop is at Schweiger Vineyards on Spring Mountain Road, a very windy Spring Mountain Road, that is.

The brisk mountain breeze feels good as we take unsteady steps out of the van.

If President Fred Schweiger, an army veteran who greets us in his old uniform shirt, is disheartened by the look of the recruits at his point, he doesn’t let it show.

Again we’re led into the vineyard, where we apparently impress him by our knowledge of growing and harvesting grapes.

But the hillside vineyard is obviously a different game than what we saw at Honig, so more information is gathered.

Fred’s son Andrew takes us through a quick tour of the facilities.

For the first time in our schedule, we get an insight into the production part of winemaking.

“You can’t be in touch with the wine without touching the wine,” Andrew says.

The group couldn’t agree more, it seems.

In a proper wine boot camp you can’t be in touch with the wine without touching the food either.

In the cellar, the entire family joins us for a four-course dinner. Gathered around several tables, with the youngest Schweiger zigzagging around us on a three-wheeler, we discuss the day and sample the Schweiger wines.

“The best part for me is always to experience how the group bonds,” Major Drady says. “I see it from the moment they meet, how they passionately embrace each other. It’s the most rewarding thing.”

As for my reward? A week later, I went back to the battlefield, this time winetasting with three industry insiders.

“You say you get chocolate from this merlot? I think not! I believe it would be more correct to say cocoa, my friends.”

Three impressed wine nods followed.

Vivi Stenberg-Williams can be reached at 256-2216

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