I will admit that when La Crema first suggested that I should come visit them in February, I was a bit hesitant: I mean, I don't know much about growing grapes, but I knew enough to know that there likely wouldn't be anything interesting on the vines to photograph. "Won't it just be rows and rows of nothing?" I asked Aimee on the phone.
"Not exactly," she responded. "I promise there'll be something to photograph."
She was right.
I mentioned before the weather was perfect, and yes, as the image above illustrates the scenery is gorgeous, especially with the wild chamomile in bloom everywhere ...
... but you know what else was in bloom? What is apparently planted between the rows of grapes as ground cover to help fix the nitrogen in the soil, so that the earth is rich enough for the grapevines when they begin to bud?
Go ahead, guess.
Aimee's cardigan, above, is a big clue ...
The mustard was everywhere. The hills and fields were carpeted with it, and under the bright, blue sky, the flowers were a shocking, vibrant yellow. I was leaning out of the car window with my camera as we sped by, and practically climbing over Aimee to get a shot as she drove down the road.
"You know, I could pull over," she said, finally.
"Oh yes, please!"
And so, she did.
"That was incredible," I signed, finally climbing back into the car. Aimee laughed.
"I told you there'd be something to photograph," she said, and we raced off to make our 4 o'clock meeting.
Elizabeth Grant-Douglas is the chief winemaker at La Crema Winery -- which means she's pretty much the CEO of the wine-making operation. She's therefore a pretty busy woman, so it was really quite an honour that I got to meet her - and I was a little nervous about doing so.
I needn't have been: Elizabeth is warm and incredibly down-to-earth, and she grabbed my outstretched hand firmly. "Welcome," she said, smiling. "Are you ready for a tour? Let's take a quick one, and then, since it's the end of the day, we'll have a glass of wine."
Sounded like a great plan to me.
Aimee and I followed Elizabeth outside and across the parking lot, into the vineyard. She explained that the vines had recently been pruned, and told us a little bit about the growth cycle of grapes. I particularly loved her description of pinot noir grapes: "Pinot Noir is a fussy diva: the climate has to be just right, she needs to be handled delicately, and has to be crushed in a certain very soft manner, or the wine gets really bitter," she said. "She just knows what she likes, you can't treat her any other way."
I think pinot noir and I might be soul sisters.
After Elizabeth showed us the crates where the harvested grapes are placed, the conveyor belts where they're sorted, and the giant vats where the fermenting process begins, we went indoors. There, she showed us the room where the winemakers taste the wines-in-progress ("Up to 50 each day," explained Elizabeth) and the lab (which rivals any chemistry lab anywhere). "The techs in the lab give me all the information I need," Elizabeth said. "They allow me to see any changes or anomalies on a microscopic level, before it affects the taste."
After the tour, we returned to Elizabeth's office, where she described what harvesting season is like. She had charts on her whiteboard, describing the contents of each tank in the winery. The whiteboard, she said, allows her to make changes more rapidly than data entry on a computer, and during harvest time, speed is key.
The logistics, chemistry and details in making wine were starting to overwhelm me.
"This job is huge," I said.
Elizabeth smiled. "It is. But it's pretty great. And the rewards are worth it. Speaking of which ... shall we have a glass?"
Elizabeth left the room and returned with a bottle of pinot noir and three glasses. And as we sat back with our glasses and continued our conversations, I realized what it is about wine that I love so much:
It's the communion.
Think about it: there are very few drinks that engender connection and rapport like wine. Sure, people get together and drink beer, and even do so for the purpose of connecting, but the subtext of beer is somewhat bawdy: you drink beer in icehouses. At sports games. Beer is loud, and somewhat unruly. Others liquors have different subtexts as well -- whiskies feel like wheeling & dealing, rums and vodkas and gins like drunken revelry ...
... but not wine. Wine is about gatherings, and friends, and family. It's about toasting successes: promotions and marriages and new babies. It's about holidays and huge meals together, and watching quiet sunsets with loved ones. There's a reason that the history of wine spans thousands of years, I think.
Wine is about celebrating each other.
Finally, it was time to go -- Elizabeth had to pick up her young son from daycare, and Aimee and I had to meet some of her colleagues for dinner. We said our goodbyes, and I thanked Elizabeth profusely for her generosity.
As we walked to the car, the sun was low in the sky -- the golden hour. I couldn't resist taking a few more photos before we left.
After spending all day learning about, tasting, and viewing the process of winemaking, I have such a renewed appreciation for the culture of wine, and I hope that I've managed to convey some of that appreciation to all of you, as well.
And naturally, profuse thanks to La Crema for such an amazing experience and an amazing education.
This post and my trip to Sonoma are kindly sponsored by the awesome folks at La Crema Wines, as part of their new Make Your Moment campaign. La Crema celebrates the deliberate decision to create something fantastic, and invites everyone everywhere to create meaningful moments each day (something that I'm obviously very fond of doing). Over the next few months, I'll be sharing some of my favourite ways to inject awesome, joy-filled moments to your life, so I hope you'll read along.