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My First Press

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I recently reconnected with an old San Francisco friend (who shall be known as Earthwind from this point forth), who relocated to Napa last year. His parents and grandparents both grew up in Napa, and his paternal grandfather was one of the city’s first planners. Earthwind’s father, Bruce, also happens to be a home winemaker, and I was fortunate enough to join the family for the pressing of the grapes this past weekend!

photo 3

Time to get our hands dirty!

Pressing is only one small part of making wine; the process where juice is extracted from grapes. This can be done with the aid of a mechanical wine press, by hand, or even by feet in the old days. Today most wineries send the grapes through a crusher/destemmer, which removes the individual grape berries from the stems and breaks the skins, releasing some juice, prior to being pressed. Bruce had filled six industrial garbage cans (which he refers to a primary fermentation vessels) with crushed Merlot grapes, grown in a small vineyard between Oak Knoll District and Stag’s Leap District. This amount of grapes produces about 1 ¼ barrel, or 36 cases of Dundee’s Cellar Merlot, named after Earthwind’s childhood dog.

This is a standard basket press.

This is a standard basket press.

Bruce uses a basket press to hand-press the grapes. You fill the basket up to the top with the grapes, using your fists to press down as you go to make more room. The basket is set on top of a metal plate with a spout, lined up to pour into a rubber container. On top of the basket is a crank, which is supported by wooden blocks. As you crank and the grapes get pressed, the juice drips off into the container. You then transfer the juice into another bucket with a strainer over it to catch any extra skins or stems. Then it is finally transferred to the barrel with a funnel where it goes through the aging process.

Filling the basket with grapes.

Filling the basket with grapes.

Pressing down the grapes to make room for more.

Pressing down the grapes to make room for more.

Transferring the juice to the barrel.

Transferring the juice to the barrel.

Meanwhile, the pressed grapes need to be emptied from the basket and disposed of (or, you can make grappa). The basket is built to split in half, with bindings on the outside, so that you can just remove the bindings and take out the “grape cake.”  All the skin residue needs to be removed before putting in the next batch of grapes, and you repeat the cycle until all of the grapes are pressed. After the whole process is done, you wash and scrub all of the containers and basket pieces to decontaminate them from any wine residue so they can be used again next year.

The grape cake!

The grape cake!

More grape cake pieces.

More grape cake pieces.

The hand cranking itself is pretty labor-intensive, and requires several people: one or two to hold the basket in place (carefully so you don’t get pinched), and another one or two to pull the crank back and forth until it clicks. I first tried cranking on my own, which was a bit of a core workout! The next couple times I did it was with a partner, which is much easier and faster.

My first try at pressing

My first try at pressing with Earthwind’s brother

Also on hand were Earthwind’s brother, his brother’s girlfriend, a 6’11” coworker, and a neighbor from across the street. We all tasted the juice as it poured out of the basket, and it was pretty good! I noted some flavors of raspberry on the nose, and red plum on the palate. I can’t wait to taste the final 2013 vintage after it’s bottled in a year, and I’ll gladly go back to help with the final process.

Tasting the juice

Tasting the juice

The company was great, and I had so much fun learning about pressing and getting my hands red. My “payment” for the day’s work was a taco lunch and two bottles of the 2012 Dundee’s Cellar. I’ll gladly work for food and wine any day.

The Other Hawkes

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It’s widely agreed that last night’s Super Bowl was perhaps the most boring football event in history. I was rooting for the Denver Broncos because the Seahawks beat out the San Francisco 49ers a couple weeks ago, but in all honesty I didn’t give a damn who won by the end of the first quarter – and it was pretty clear what the outcome was going to be by the end of the third. So congrats to all my Seahawks-loving friends, but today I would like to tell you about another kind of Hawkes.

In the last month a few different people have mentioned this not-so-new winery to me called Hawkes. Eventually, and after much anticipation, I decided to check out their Sonoma tasting room last week (their winery and other tasting room is in Alexander Valley), and I was thoroughly impressed!

I showed up on a Tuesday afternoon, and lucky for me I was the only visitor during my 2-hour stay. Douglas, the tasting room manager and all-round awesome guy, walked me through the tasting and poured me samples of their exclusive 2012 Home Chardonnay, 2009 Alexander Valley Merlot, and 2009 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon – as well as some tastes from the Barrel of their future cabs.


I looooved the Chardonnay. The wine is aged sur lie for about three months in Hungarian oak barrels (my favorite kind of oak). There is a good minerality and a certain brightness to this wine, which is somewhat unconventional for Chardonnay but is becoming more preferred by winemakers and consumers. They produce only 560 cases and sell it for a mere $20, so it’s no wonder they reserve it for club members only to purchase – it’s a good thing I know two members!

Next was the Merlot, another great wine and a perfect example of how to make excellent Merlot. As some of you may know, Merlot sales plummeted after being bashed by Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways. But it wasn’t entirely the movie’s fault. In the late 1990’s and early 2000’s everyone thought Merlot was going to be the next big-selling red wine because of it’s approachable flavor. So thousands of acres were planted, and unfortunately not in the best locations. In order to produce a complex Merlot, it needs to be grown in good, deep soil with the right amount of sun exposure and timely irrigation. The hillsides and bench lands of Napa Valley and Sonoma are ideal for growing and making great Merlot; such is the case with Hawkes 2009 Merlot from Alexander Valley. The vines are grown on their Red Winery Vineyard, originally planted in 1973. The soil is made of up various types, and the section where the Merlot grows is mostly clay. These conditions make the Merlot vines work a little harder, and thus produce an excellent wine with bright cherry fruit and undertones of baking spice. It was my only purchase of the visit, and I plan to hold onto the bottle for quite some time.

fruit fly trap

After I spent a little too much time savoring the Merlot and helping Douglas concoct a fruit fly trap, we moved onto the Cabernet collection. The first I tasted was the 2009 Alexander Valley Cab, a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon made from fruit of all three of the Hawkes estates: Pyramid, Stone and Red Winery. Aromas of dark plums and dust are followed by a slightly sweet palate of blackberries. This wine certainly has aging potential, but is also ready to drink right now. Douglas graciously poured me some Cabernet samples from their three barrels – one for each estate. The Pyramid was probably my favorite of the three, but each of them were quite unique and showed a lot of potential for future bottling.


I have to say, while the wine at Hawkes really stood out, it was my experience with Douglas that really made the visit memorable. His excitement about the wines, combined with his generosity, sense of humor, and general musings on life in the wine industry made him the perfect host. Plus, the convenient location of the tasting room (right off Sonoma Plaza, just next to Girl and the Fig), make the visit all the more seamless. Douglas even drew a little map for me, outlining all the best tasting rooms in the plaza. But because I spent way more time than I planned at Hawkes (no regrets), I will have to reserve his suggestions for another day. Until then, Go Hawkes!

Polenta Casserole

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Tonight I made one of my favorite meals: Polenta Casserole. It’s so easy to make, very healthy, vegetarian, and makes four servings so it’s great for family dinner or leftovers. Here is what you need:

available at TJ's and most health food stores

  • 1 TB of Olive Oil (or Olive Oil spray)
  • “polenta log”
  • one large eggplant
  • one zucchini
  • one yellow squash
  • one head of kale
  • two large fresh tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 cups Tomato Sauce
  • 1/2 cup reduced fat crumbled feta cheese (or 4 oz goat cheese if you’re a Lactard)
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 2 tsp Italian seasoning
  • S&P to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Start by drizzling the olive oil on the bottom of a 9 x 13 glass baking dish, dispersing it evenly. Slice the polenta into 1/2 inch discs and layer them on the bottom of the dish. You should be able to do one layer, but you can cut pieces to fit in the corners.

Layer 1

Slice the rest of the vegetables into 1/2 inch thick discs, and layer them on top of the polenta. I usually do eggplant first to create a hearty bottom layer, then the squash, zucchini and fresh tomatoes.

Evenly spread the tomato sauce over the top layer. You can use store-bought tomato sauce with some light flavoring (tomato-basil, roasted garlic, or marinara work well), or you can just use the plain canned tomato sauce – whichever is in your pantry! Top the tomato sauce with the kale (ripped into medium size pieces) and cheese, and sprinkle seasonings on top.

final product

Place the dish in the top shelf of the oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the feta starts to brown. Remove from the oven and let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

Napa Valley Merlot

Not to self-promote my company’s brand, but this dish pairs perfectly with the JAQK Cellars 2007 Bone Dance Merlot. Bone Dance is 75% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Syrah, and 1% Cabernet Franc (a wine must be 75% of one varietal in order to call it that varietal). It reflects the qualities of a French Bordeaux, but incorporates the dark cherry and earthy flavors of Napa Valley grapes. It pairs well with the polenta casserole because it compliments the acid in the tomato sauce. Bone Dance also has a great value at only $25 a bottle if you buy directly from the winery, or you can also find a store near you that sells it.


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