San Francisco 1999: After arriving at the airport, I made my way up the coast towards Santa Rosa, where we had a two-day briefing session by the agency who placed us in California. We stayed in the Flamingo Hotel for the weekend (quite upmarket in comparison to the rest of our stay…). That Monday morning Bruce Cakebread, winemaker of Cakebread Cellars, came to pick us up. It was myself, Pablo and Paz from Chilli, Carl from Austria and Chris from New Zealand.
As we drove through the Napa Valley, I realized how similar the terrior is to what we have here in Stellenbosch. The total size of the county is 2,042 km²; of which 1,952 km² are land and 89 km² (4.38%) are water. Napa is warmer in the summer than Sonoma County to the west or Santa Barbara County, a wine-producing county in southern California. Thus, the Napa wineries favor varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, while Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are more the specialty of Sonoma and Santa Barbara wineries. We arrived on the farm and booked into what was called “the yellow house”, our new home for a few months. We started with our training session right away, i.e. security/safety/forklift licence etc. Like all Americans, they place a lot of emphasis on safety. Whilst safety was their main concern, mine was to ensure that I work as many hours as possible. (Spending quality time in transit at the remaining 6 airports on my 7-stop around-the-world ticket, was not my ideal way of travelling the world)
There were two shifts to choose from: night or day. For night shift, three guys were needed: 2 permanent Americans and one volunteer (one of us). All wine grapes and cultivars ripen at different stages during the harvesting season. When the first grapes (Sauvignon blanc) comes into the white wine cellar, the “night shift” works together with the “day shift”, but when the Chardonnay (white) grapes starts ripening, the first Pinot Noir (red) grapes from Sonoma will also be ready. At that point the night shift moves over to the red wine cellar and takes charge of the winery (newly built just before we arrived). The Pinot Noir will be followed by the Merlot and the latest to ripen is the Cabernet’s.
So, to make sure I had the best deal around, I did what any traveller would’ve done: I asked the locals. When they told me that night shift was the only one with unlimited working hours, I made my choice ($$$$$). Subsequently, when the winemaker asked for a night shift volunteer, I was the only one to humbly raise my hand. (I didn’t share the unlimited working-hour knowledge with my co-workers.)
Next time we will be looking at the red wine varietals, the making of the wines and how little sleep one can really survive on, in more detail.