Sonoma County Grape Camp

A wine cask at Valdez Family Winery

Occasionally I can forget just how fortunate I am to have a job that involves traveling to and writing about the California Wine Country. When deadlines loom, my fact-checking phone calls go unreturned, or I’m spending a weekend poring over a stack of maps that need to be revised, I’m not necessarily inclined to agree with those who tell me I have the best job in the world. (Or, in the words of one rather blunt friend I met on a trip,  that I am “one lucky sack of shit.”)

Thus I got a serious attitude adjustment yesterday, when I came across the photos I took about six weeks ago, when the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission was kind enough to invite and host me at  their annual Sonoma County Grape Camp. During our two days at camp we met dozens of winemakers, grape growers, restaurateurs, and other folks who make Sonoma what it is, all while being wined and dined incessantly. It was really almost embarrassingly luxurious, as it seemed we couldn’t go for 15 minutes without being passed a plate of local food or being handed another glass of vino, usually while standing in a beautiful orchard, or a wine cave, or  the middle of a vineyard. One of my fellow campers, Lori Rackl, captured the essence of the experience in an article for the Chicago Sun-Times. I’m not going to try do a full recap here–it would take a week to write, and at any rate I’ll be using a lot of the information I gleaned on this trip in a book I’m updating right now–but here are just a very few of the highlights.

Our first night we got to know one another at a dinner under the stars in the gardens of the winery Quivira. Duskie Estes and John Stewart, the chefs at Zazu and Bovolo, two of my favorite restaurants in Sonoma, concocted some beautiful dishes, like a chickpea fettunta with white anchovies and a pork and duck cassoulet. It was stunning, and need I mention that they poured almost 30 different wines with dinner?


Dinner at Quivira

The next two mornings, we dragged ourselves out of bed before 7 am so we could be in the vineyards by 8 am, before the weather started heating up to over a hundred degrees. Despite having spent years traveling in the Wine Country, I had never had the chance to harvest grapes before, so I was happy to be equipped with pruning shears and gloves …

Tools for harvesting grapes

and have someone set me loose on the orderly rows of vines.

Those who actually do this for a living were kind enough not to mock our slow progress as they blazed past us using the (more dangerous) curved-blade knife that they prefer.

The pros at work

After visits to a few different wineries and a Top Chef-style cooking competition at Relish, a culinary school in Healdsburg

Jennifer Paull is a happy camper when our team wins the cooking competition

we went back to the hotel to fit in a quick disco nap. And, as if the day hadn’t been extravagant enough, we finished up with dinner at Robert Young Vineyards, where their wine cave was lit with hundreds of candles.

Dinner at Robert Young Vineyards

There was so much more that we saw and an experienced, but I think this final photo of two of us sampling a glass of pinot after an arduous (okay, not really) 45 minutes harvesting grapes. The time stamp on my camera informs me that it wasn’t quite 9 am.


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