Visiting St. Supery: Day 1, Part 1

“Here’s your 4:30 am wake up call!” says an impossibly cheerful voice, rousing me from a melatonin-induced sleep.

In the darkness of my hotel room I quickly dress … and think of the pickers who have been cutting Semillon grapes from their vines since 2am.

I am in the Napa Valley this weekend to  take part in the St. Supery experience … relishing the opportunity to visit the winery and have conversations with the key executives, winemakers, and have a “behind the scenes look” at what goes on in a winery first hand.

Emma J. Swain, CEO, picks me up promptly at 5:15 am with the winery’s mascot, her dog GG, in the back seat. We are quick to arrive at the Butter Cream Bakery, which has just opened, to buy assorted donuts for the team working at Rutherford – where the winery is based – and at Dollarhide, where we will soon arrive.

The donut shop is fairly busy at this hour – curious who these donut seekers in the early morning may be. We leave with four pink, rectangular boxes and I wait in the warmth of the car as Emma leaves two boxes near the grape weighing station at the St. Supery winery in Rutherford.

The scenery en route to Dollarhide is beautiful, even in the darkness …. I have never traveled this route in all my many visits to the Napa Valley. Mr. Dollarhide was an actual person who lived in the 1840s and made a fortune capturing wild horses and selling them to gold miners. He married a daughter of Mr. Pople (both the local roads have their names on them) and bought a ranch, named it Dollarhide, and became a cattle rancher.

The ranch is gorgeous …of course, it is too dark to really see anything clearly just yet. The workers cheer when they see the donuts and GG is happy to be out of he car and running freely.

Josh Anestey, VP Vineyard Operations, greats me with a hearty handshake. Like his workers, he’s been up since 2am supervising the cutting of grapes – though often harvest starts at 10pm.

We begin with a walk through the Semillon vineyards, all of them boasting large, luscious grapes that are tantalizing – too gorgeous to resist. They are perfect looking bunches almost like an 18th century still life painting you’d see in a museum.

As we walk through the vineyard (snacking all the way of course( I learn that Josh is a firm believer in sustainable farming and has worked diligently to achieve green certification (both Napa Green and California Sustainable) on every acre of St. Supery’s properties, including the seven lakes. He joined the St. Supery Estate in May 199 after earning a Master’s degree in Agronomy and an undergraduate degree in Agricultural Systems and Environment from the University of California at Davis.

“Now here’s the Sauvignon Blanc,” Josh says, taking us to another vineyard. I taste a grape. In contrast to the fat, rich, luscious Semillon, the Sauvignon Blanc has something of a “sweet tart” taste. The acids seem more tart and focused. Tasted side by side, it would be impossible to mistake the grapes.

In the vineyard, I see a tank that is used for two purposes. First, when there is a danger of frost (when the temperature goes down to about 34 degrees) water is dripped onto the vines via an automated mechanical process to form a protective shell that shields it from the frost.

Then of course the tank is used to irrigate the vines in summer.

The workers – mostly young Hispanic men – are fast cutters and get paid by the ton. They seem a content lot … I watch as a trio drive away, their work finished, low-riding car stereo blaring a popular song as the man in the back texts away on his smartphone.

The morning light shines over the Dollarhide vineyard, exposing its magic and mystery. It had still served as a cattle ranch when Robert Skalli, proprieter, and his family first bought it in 1982.
From what I can gather, the Skalli family had a successful pasta and wine business in their native Algeria and later moved to France. Robert’s father Francis (a gorgeous man to judge from the picture of him in the St. Supery tasting room) fell in love with a wild mountainous area on the remote west coast of the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, which became the Skalli family estate of Terra Vecchia. At the same time he set up a French wine domestic and import business, Les Chais du Sud (Cellars of the South on the Mediterranean Languedoc coast.

Robert joined the family business in 1974, and after having visited the Napa Valley for  many years, decided to invest. He found Dollarhide – saw its possibilities – and began planting after its purchase in 1982. Seven years later, the Skalli family established St. Supery Estate Vineyards.

After our walking tour, Emma, GG, and I jump into Josh’s battered up truck to tour the vineyards in higher elevations, where the red grapes including Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and some red varieties they are experimenting with.

At each parcel, we jump out of the truck and sample the delicious looking grapes while Josh gives me a lesson in Ampelographic descriptions of grape leaves, the process of identifying a grape variety from its leaves (so one can identify the varietal before the grape ripens). The materials were designed by Lucie Morton, a specialist in the field.

Josh is a fun teacher. I did not understand why the Cabernet Sauvignon leaf is described as a “Monkey Face” until Josh playfully turns it upside down against his face.

I found this exercise, and the grape tasting, quite interesting – especially that in contrast to the juicy, ripe Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are small, very tightly structured. This is exactly the flavor profile that the team is looking for in the grape, though picking will not happen for a few more weeks.

With the door handle of the truck (and my blackberry!) sticky with juice, we identify grape leaves, and set off to the St. Supery winery to follow the trail of the just picked grapes.

To be continued.

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