City Slickers in the Vineyard – Harvesting at Noble Ridge Vineyard and Winery
So, are you dreaming of owning a vineyard? Not so fast. It is a romantic notion to own a vineyard, but the reality is that working a vineyard is farming and often lacks the glamour that you would otherwise expect. Owning a vineyard is demanding physically and emotionally, not to mention the financial risk it entails. They say that the way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large one. So if you wish you owned a vineyard and do not want the burdens of ownership, why not help at a vineyard during harvest? Many of the wineries would welcome an extra pair of hands and the experience can be organic and rewarding.
This season we attended a harvest work day and lunch at Noble Ridge Vineyard and Winery with a group of other city slickers like ourselves and spent a memorable day in their picturesque vineyard and winery. I love a good story and Noble Ridge has one.The vineyard is situated in Okanagan Falls in the south Okanagan overlooking beautiful Vaseux lake. The proprietors, Jim and Leslie D’Andreas are a Calgary couple, he a lawyer, she a health care professional. When their kids were small they took them out of school and kindergarden and left on a three months sabbatical to Europe. Who ever heard of lawyers taking sabbaticals? I am a lawyer and I was impressed. While travelling in Europe they visited wineries in France and Italy (D’Andreas sounds Italian in heritage) and it seems that Jim had made up his mind that he wanted this life, living and working on a vineyard. At first Leslie, the “numbers” person in the team, was reluctant. They have been travelling to this area in the south Okanagan for several years with their restauranteurs friends and she thought they could continue to do just that, visit wineries during the summer. In time though she was persuaded and in 2001 they purchased their first piece of land with 3.5 of the acres under vine. They first settled in a trailer on the property and together with their children started to plant grapes on the remainder of the land. By 2003 they had their first vintage of pinot noir and meritage. Over time they purchased and planted additional land and now own 22 acres in their beautiful and successful winery and vineyard operation.
The name of the winery was inspired by the features of the land, the Noble grape variety they planted and by the concept of “be noble”. The prominent feature of the land is an east-west ridge dividing the vineyard and providing a southern and northern exposures for the vines. The southern slopes with greater sun exposure are planted with cabernet sauvignon and merlot varieties originally planted in the mid 80’s. The cooler northern slopes with fewer sun hours are planted with whites. Vitis vinifera is the latin name for the “wine bearing” vine from which the worlds best wines are made. Vitis vinifera, translated into “Noble Grapes” is the variety the D’Andreas planted. All their wines are made from grapes grown on the property tended to by their team.
The D’Andreas days in a trailer on the land are far behind them. They have since built a gorgeous architecturally designed home (I have only seen it from the outside but I could tell) with a spectacular view of Vaseux lake. Adjacent to their home is the beautiful store where you can purchase the wines and linger on the covered patio with wine and cheese, gaze at the rolling vineyards and dream about owning your own some day. Sweet dreams.
So we were excited about our day in the vineyard at Noble Ridge. We arrived at the winery at 10:30 am and joined the vineyard crew who assembled at a picnic table and were enjoying their morning coffee. A long table was being set inside the winery for the upcoming lunch, with crisp white linen and grapevine branches in gorgeous fall colours. Clusters of grapes from the vineyard were arranged along the table with a sign near each cluster, identifying the variety. Soon thereafter we were asked to take a pair of grape shears, protective gloves and clear safety glasses, our “harvesting tools” for the day. We gathered around in the yard as Leslie D’Andreas greeted us and explained about the winery and what we may expect for the day. Leslie is beautiful, personable, friendly and approachable and it was fun to hear her tell their story and how the winery came to be. We were then divided into smaller groups, with a vineyard worker dedicated to each group to help us with the harvest. We were to pick grapes in the next couple of hours. After harvest we would be taken to the winery and meet Phil Soo, Noble Ridge winemaker, who would explain to us what happens to the grapes once they are picked and a little about the wine making process in the winery. Following that we would be called to have a catered lunch at the long table in the winery. I can live like that. No problem.
I was checking out the other city slickers in our urban group. You could tell that none of us has worked in a vineyard before. City shoes, heeled boots, jewelry, stylish clothes (mea calpa, I am including myself in the observation). City slickers are people who live in the city and do not understand what life outside the city is like. However, we did pay to attend this work/lunch day so we all wanted to be here. Let’s see how we do in the vineyard. So, gloves went on, Camera on the shoulder, grape shears in hand and protective eyewear in the pocket (will wear them if I need them). Vineyard crew told us that we may get acidic squirts in our eyes from picking grapes. I even swapped my stylish city boots with a pair of running shoes, which to me is the ultimate sacrifice, but I was game for the adventure.
We walked up the hill through the rows of vines as the vineyard manager Benoit Gauthier (from Quebec) explained about the soil, the exposure and the grapes. We soon arrived at the rows of merlot grapes that we were to pick today. The grapes will be part of a meritage this year. The grape clusters were hanging on the vine ready for picking. Our group leader brought an orange wheel barrel into which the grapes we pick would go. She explained that all we want in the wheel barrel are the grapes, no leaves or peripheral debris should go in there. We were only to pick ripe looking and healthy clusters, leaving the less than ripened bunches behind. Leslie told us not to rush through the picking. She said that quality mattered more than quantity. Many wineries pay the pickers by the weight of their picking and that causes pickers to rush through the process and often pick grapes that may not be ready and ripe. At Noble Ridge apparently they pay their crew by the hour so they are not under pressure to deliver weight and can go through the harvesting more carefully. Got it. Careful picking of the perfect clusters, no leaves. We found a row to call our own and soon we were all busy with our sheers, cutting, tasting, dropping them into the wheel barrel. Did I mention tasting? These grapes were so incredibly delicious that I think we must have eaten as much as we picked. I always thought that wine grapes are quite acidic and do not taste as sweet. Well, these were incredibly flavourful and it was fun to hold a cluster in front of you and pull the individual grapes off with your teeth, juice occasionally dribbling along the side of you cheek. Ohhh, that was good.
The hour or two went so fast. Between picking grapes, posing for pictures, photographing the going on and chatting with the crew the time just flew. Somehow I believe that we did harvest about half a ton between all of us (thirty something in the group), plus the professional crew). I could be wrong with the numbers though, half a ton sounds like a lot of grapes. The wheel barrels were emptied into a large harvest bin as they were filled and eventually the bin was taken down to the crush pad. Before we knew it we were called to lay down our tools and make our way to the crush pad for an informative talk with Phil Soo the wine maker. Some of us had to be dragged away from the vineyard kicking and screaming and I think a few stayed behind. It was so much fun, felt so natural, organic and right. I always knew that I am a country gal in city clothes.
Phil Soo met us at the crush pad (minus the 6 diehards that stayed back among the rows of vines). “Before issuing a pick order” he explained “my job is to taste the grapes and there are a few things we look for that have to match the criteria and quality they are looking for at Noble Ridge for their wine program”. Beside the sweetness he looks at the seeds. The more brown they are the more mature the grapes are and the better it is for the fermentations process. In red wines they do a maceration program meaning the wine is fermented with the skin and seeds and these impart their flavour into the wines. Green seeds give greeny, bitter, bell peppery nose in the wine that they do not want. He also looks for tannins in the grapes. He separates the seeds and chews on the skins themselves looking for the level of tannins, flavours and colours released from the skins. “When all these things come together along with chemical analysis for sugar, pH and TA that’s when then I issue a pick order” says Soo. The merlot grapes we picked would be processed that night.
When the grapes get on the crush pad they will weigh them to report fruit weights to government authorities (required for VQA wines) and then put them in crusher destemmer that breaks the skin and remove the stems. The grapes are crushed to release the juice and expose it to alcoholic fermentation and the stems are removed because they have the green notes that they don’t want in the wine. The mass of juice, grapes, seeds and skin go into cold soak for 3-4 days. Then they inoculate the juice with commercial strain of yeast (natural yeast is hard to control and can ruin the wine) and begin the process of fermentation (converting the sugar into alcohol). Fermentation produces heat that can go up to 45℃. Temperature control is a major aspect of wine making and there is an elaborate system of cooling mechanisms around the fermentation tanks to control the levels of temperature. Heat can boil off all the flavours they work so hard to preserve. When the alcoholic fermentation is complete the mass of grapes is poured into a press where the pulp, seeds and skins are separated from the wine and juice. On a busy day the crush pad is surrounded with the bins like the ones we put our grapes into and the place is very busy with processing the yield.
Moving on inside the winery a pinot noir was fermenting in a tank and we got to watch Josh the cellar master pump over wine from the bottom over the grapes cap floating on top of the wine in the tanks. Pumping over keep the grapes mixed in the wine so more flavour is extracted from the skins. Benoit had some chardonnay juice/wine ready for us to taste. It was in the middle of fermentation, cloudy, a little bubbly and sweet, it has CO2 and some yeast still suspended in it, therefore the bubbly and cloudy. This was fermentation in action. Tomorrow the same juice/wine will be different, with fermentation continuing and more sugar consumed by the yeast. Fascinating. Fermentation takes place in different variation of age of the oak barrels, some brand new from last year going up to 7 years, each imparting different flavours into the wine. “It allows us to let the wine sit in different aged barrel and to fine tune how long the wine should sit in new barrels or older barrels” says Soo, “We taste each and every barrel to see what each barrel brings into the wine making. Jim, Leslie, Soo, Benoit and Josh all sit down and taste from each barrel to get these decisions made”. They also have a King’s Ransom program says Phil Soo: “if we find something unique in the vineyard developing really nice we will pick and process the lot separately, and sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not. First King’s Ransom was 2006, 2009 was the next one and 2012 there is definitely something in there but I won’t say any more until we do another tasting in November. Last year was a very good growing season and it affects what we find this year“.
This was a glimpse into the harvest and fermentation activities, the busiest season in the winery.
From there we proceeded back down the hill and into the winery where the long table was now set for lunch with white table cloth, printed menus, glistening stemware and white linen napkins. A red truck was parked in the yard with long tables beside it covered with gorgeous appetizers. A tall chef was placing bites of appetizers on individual serving spoons and plating a first course salad on large rectangular white plates. This was Chef Darin Patterson from Bogner’s restaurant of Penticton. But first things first. I had to go back to the car to take off the running shoes, get back into my city boots and wrap my long shawl around my shoulders. I am myself again.
Back at the winery we were served a glass of chilled bubbly that I believe was their 2009 vintage sparkling wine named “The One” . This is a French champagne style sparkling wine (meaning it was fermented in the bottle) made from estate grown pinot noir and chardonnay with small bubbles and a refreshing palate. It was released on the winery’s 10th anniversary and was crisp and sophisticated in the glass. The conditions in this growing area apparently are similar to the growing conditions in the Champagne region of France and the champagne style wine was elegant and understated, just like champagne style wines should be.
Together with a glass of the sparking wine the appetizers were passed around perched on long spoons set on large platters. If this is what dinner is going to be like we are in good hands. If my memory serves me right (I should have taken notes) we had cucumber chopped into fine dice with dill, salt and a little vinegar. Fresh, crisp and oh-so-delish. There were also heirloom tomatoes, greenish and sweet, also diced fine and tossed with a little salt and a piece of fresh mozzarella. Everything had a “just picked” flavour and if I am not mistaken, everything was just picked that morning by the chef in his own organic garden. I asked a few questions but they were busy and I did not want to distract them from their job. Note to self: book a dinner at Bogner’s real soon.
Soon we were called to the table and dinner was served. In this case food was made to match the wine and the first wine was a 2010 chardonnay. The chardonnay grapes were hand picked, pressed in whole clusters, cool fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged for 14 months in French and American oak barrels. The wine was full bodied with noticeable oak and caramel notes. Lovely apple and pears came through on the nose and the palate. I was intrigued even before I tasted it with the food.
First course to be paired with the chardonnay was goat cheese mousse with hazelnut pesto, dried Roma tomatoes and Bull’s Blood Beet Meringue. Chef Patterson was there to explain what was on the plate, all the while savouring the aromas from a glass of the chardonnay he was holding. The mousse was made with fresh cream and goat cheese folded into it. I was light as a cloud and the hazelnut pesto added a nice crunch against it. The hazelnut pesto was made with hazelnuts he picked himself locally. The tomatoes were picked by his sous chef a couple of days earlier and roasted with lots of garlic yielding a sweet caramelized- garlic essence. The beet meringue, a gorgeous pink pastel, besides looking so pretty, was crispy and off sweet, to balance out the flavours. It was made by reducing beets down to their juice and whipping it with dehydrated egg whites. Never heard of this culinary trick. A few wedges of steamed beets picked that morning added substance and rounded up the dish nicely. Chef placed a couple of whole pinkish beet meringue pillows on each plate and crushed other meringues and sprinkled the pink pastel “dust” over the plate. A few greens garnished the plate. “The dressing on the greens were simply green tomatoes that we smashed and salted, no oil whatsoever” says Chef Patterson. The whole plate had a sophisticated, artistic look and as we eat with our eyes first the first course was a treat to both the eye and the palate. “We prepared the dish with this wine in mind” said chef Patterson, “we tried to compare the mouth feel of the wine to what’s on the plate. Lot’s of good creamy flavours to go with the wine.”
The main course was paired with a 2006 Meritage Reserve, a wine that won Gold at the 2010 New World International Wine Competition. and silver nedal in the San Francisco International Wine Competition. The Meritage Reserve is a blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon and aged in oak barrels. It is a dry wine with good structure, understate buttery aroma and a palate of blackberry and dark fruit suspended in a deep coloured wine. “2006 was a good year showing a lot of promise and the year we started the King’s Ransom program” says Leslie D’Andreas, “this Meritage Reserve is from the same year. The tannin structure we are talking about, it is just starting to soften, , there is still a lot of time with this wine“. The wine we drank was opened three hours earlier and decanted to allow more surface area to soften the wine. “We treat the wine with respect and love. What we are tasting now is not exactly what you would taste if you just pulled the cork off the bottle. This wine, the 2006, is showing great promise” says Chef Patterson.
The wine was paired with a Morocan Chicken Tagine with local flavours of dried plum, fennel, beet tops and fried chick peas. The tagine, an Arabic stew, refers to foods cooked in a specific dish: a round, low sided earthenware pot covered with a cone shaped lid. As the food cooks all the moisture remains trapped within the lid and drips back onto the cooking foods. The tagine in front of us contained fresh fennel, dried plums and raisins, salted lemon and orange peel and a spice mixture made out of more than 30 spices. I detected cumin, coriander and caraway among them. The chicken seemed a little dry, perhaps it could have benefited from more sauce, but it was flavourful and the wine certainly helped. The beet greens and chopped up red beet stems added a lovely flavour and colour element. “good rich food to go with the good rich wine” said Chef Patterson.
Dessert was paired with 2008 Pinot Noir. Aged 15 months in oak barrels this Pinot has a nice tannin structure that, like the meritage, benefited from being uncorked and decanted three hours earlier. It had an intense colour not common to Pinot wines. “There is a whole range of pinots” says Leslie, “there is no right or wrong. it’s a function of the rock, the trellis system and the love and care that our team puts into it. We are very proud of our pinot”. This lovely pinot had plum, cherry and red currant flavours and a little peppery on the nose. Vanilla lavender were also suspended in the background, making it a good pairing with desserts.
To go with the Pinot we were served dessert, a course I always have room for somehow. It consisted of a Fall chocolate Sundae, Ginger Poached Pear, chocolate and Zucchini Brownie, Lavender Ice Cream and Plum Coulis. “Anything I can fit zucchini in this season pretty well it goes in. There are 2 kg of zucchini in that cake” says Chef Patterson. The details now have faded in to culinary distant memory. I do remember though that the combination on the plate was beautiful with distinct flavours that melded together. There wan’t a crumb left.
And so came to an end a lovely day in the vineyard at Noble Ridge Vineyard and winery. We listened to inspiring stories, “worked for our supper” harvesting merlot grapes in their vineyard and had great food and wonderful wines carefully selected and beautifully presented. We can go home dreaming about living and working on a vineyard like the D’Andreas someday. At least we will have to taste the meritage into which “our” grapes were destined. Should be ready around 2015. We are better (and wiser) for the experience.