Behind the Scenes with Family Winery Teams, Vineyard Managers & Grape Stomp Planners
Murphys, CA – On Saturday, October 5th over 5000 people will attend the 26th Annual Calaveras Grape Stomp at Murphys Community Park where 120 teams from near and far will compete in the grape stomp competition. This annual event produced by the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance and local volunteers, has grown to be California’s Oldest and Largest Grape Stomp Competition. The event takes place from 9:00-5:00 and includes Live Entertainment, Costume Contest, Kids Activities, a Gold Rush Street Faire with over 100 vendors as well as Silent and Live Auctions supporting community organizations and providing high school scholarships. Visitors to Calaveras Wine Country can find information about Harvest and Grape Stomp Weekend Celebrations at the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance website here: https://www.calaveraswines.org/grapestomp-wine-weekend
Calaveras County is now home to over 50 vineyard sites and 32 tasting rooms stretching between historic downtown Murphys to vineyard properties throughout Calaveras County. Winemaking in Calaveras County began in the early years of the Gold Rush, with the first 1,000 vines of Mission Grapes planted at the lower Calaveras River in 1851. Visitors to the Calaveras wine region won’t find corporate wineries but instead those that are small, family-owned and operated. The largest winery property in Calaveras County is Ironstone Vineyards, owned by the Kautz family, and includes a heritage museum, wine caves and amphitheater. Local wine industry legends include the late Bardon Stevenot, Chuck Hovey and Dr. Ian Renner.
As the town is abuzz preparing for this community event, vineyard managers and winemaking families are busy tending to the grape harvest. Get behind the scenes with some of the Sierra Foothills shining stars in this harvest spotlight piece.
Kate Boyle MacDonald – Owner, Grape Grower & Winemaker, Boyle MacDonald Wines, Murphys and Napa Valley, CA
Kate has the great fortune to own and farm vineyards in the Sierra Foothills and Napa Valley wine regions. While farming is probably the most challenging part of the job, the personal control over the fruit makes it worth the work. She prepares for harvest by racking all of the previous vintage’s wines out of barrel, homogenizing lots and creating blends, then racking back to barrel, a.k.a. “putting the wines to bed”. Next she orders all fermentation needs, sanitizes all of the equipment, and stocks the fridge with beer in anticipation of the fruit’s arrival.
Perhaps the hardest part of preparing for harvest is netting the Napa vineyard. The tight spacing of vines and steep grade is such that no machinery can go into the rows. Everything is done by hand. If you’ve ever tried to work with nets in any capacity, you can imagine that they get caught on every single possible thing available. It’s a necessary evil as the trees surrounding the vineyard are home to birds that are capable of wiping out the entire crop.
Along with her husband Craig, their two teenage children, and a few friends, Kate harvests the fruit well before sunrise, as she wants the fruit as cold as possible when it arrives at the winery. All of the Napa fruit is trailered to Ayrael Vieux Winery just outside of Murphys where Kate, Craig and Ayrael Vieux owners Bob and Linda (and sometimes the reluctant MacDonald children) process the fruit. Kate shares,“I personally tend to every stage of the winemaking process, from farming to harvest to fermentation to bottling. Harvest is the most grueling, exhausting, exciting and satisfying part of winemaking. A year’s worth of farming finally comes to fruition…literally!”
Kate is anxious for harvest to start, but the incredible rains and later bud break this year are making her wait a few extra weeks before she gets her hands sticky. The Sangiovese Bianco, a unique white wine made from red Sangiovese grapes grown at Ayrael Vieux Winery, Douglas Flat area of Calaveras County, will likely be the first juice to hit the winery. “September and October are the absolute best times to visit the winery. It’s 2+ straight months of aromatherapy, you can’t beat the fermentation smells and sweet flavors, and we love to share it with everyone” says Kate.
Rob and Sheri Hendriks – Owners, Winegrowers & Vintners, Aloria Vineyards, Calaveras County, Ca.
Rob and Sheri are smack dab in the beautiful rhythm of Harvest 2019. Each day, the couple along with their vineyard pup Tannin, pile into their wagon and truck and head out to the vineyard ready for whatever comes their way: punching down wines, fixing tractor tires, taking samples to measure brix, calling wineries to schedule their grape pick-ups, crushing, washing, feeding the crew, a quick meet with Vineyard Manager Stephen Collum, bottling (yes, that happened too!), scrubbing again, bringing wine and supplies to the Tasting Room in downtown Murphys, repairing the bin dumper, planning events, you name it, and not without counting their blessings, or ending the day with a moment of gratitude and a glass of wine!
While their backgrounds do not include working and managing a vineyard and winery, their hearts were planted in that dream all along. With their love of wine from small family owned or boutique wineries, they can’t recall a time when they bought a bottle of wine from the market. Getting to know the workings of the wineries they visited while breaking from the rush of Silicon Valley, was their respite and joy. They grew up in the time the Santa Clara Valley, known as, “The Valley of Heart’s Delight”, had its metamorphosis to innovation and technology. Sheri was a free-spirited, curious kid who walked creeks in the once small Town of Los Altos, Ca. There, she picked wild blackberries, and tomatoes from the yard just like today at their home in Murphys. There, she felt connected to the earth, just like she does now. Rob on the other hand, never stops thinking about how to improve production in all areas, and with better technology. Rob and his father both held patents: a wireless chip and specialized farm equipment respectively. The engineering gene Rob inherited, fostered his ability to be the one who can fix literally anything, including Sheri’s nerves when they are running thin when times get tough.
One thing is for sure, they are over-the-moon excited about the future. This year, Aloria Vineyards became a Certified California Sustainable Vineyard, and the winery is in the pipes. The practices they undertake for wine growing and creating a sustainable enterprise, are never frivolous. All ideas are thought through with these questions in mind: Is it necessary? Can we fix what is broken? Is this taking away from what is good? Is it going to benefit only us, or our community as well? Will paying a bit more for an experience we want to have for our wine family align with our values? Will people smile when they drink this wine?
The vineyard is a place you must see for yourself. “Above the Rush, in Vineyards of Gold” is the motto. Meet Sheri and Rob there, and you’ll get the metaphor. The 120 acre property was simply magical and loved at first sight. Canterbury Vineyards (1996), formerly owned by the late Dr. Ian Renner of Renner Wines, was a well-known and well-established site with 52 acres of planted grapes that needed some TLC. Upon purchasing the vineyard, there were over 20 acres of Syrah. Grafting was first on the agenda starting with delicious food loving varietals Barbera in 2018, then Albariño in 2019. In Spring 2020, they will graft Char Bono and Toro Tempranillo to complete the vineyard’s 10 varietals: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Malbec, Barbera, Albariño, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Wineries from Bell Cellars in Yountville, and beyond still purchase the fruit to this day. Tyler Grace, of beautiful Grace Patriot Winery in Placerville, says “These Syrah grapes are the finest you’ll find anywhere, and are the secret weapon in our wines.” The walls of ribbons at their winery prove it! Aloria’s vineyard and their wines as well, are now under the right team’s wings, with everyone working with high integrity and a spotless program. They are anxious to share the evolution with wine lovers everywhere.
Kevin Locke, Owner & Vintner – Locke Vineyards, Murphys CA
Kevin Locke has been growing wine grapes in Calaveras County since 1995 on his first estate vineyard in Mountain Ranch and expanding in 1999 to the current Murphys estate, which is home to “The Barn” a tasting room and farmhouse shop at Locke Vineyards. Both of Locke’s estate vineyards sit at roughly 2,000 foot elevation with the oldest vines of Zinfandel on the Mountain Ranch estate. The Murphys estate has been established for 20 years and home to Cabernet Sauvignon, Viognier, Petite Sirah, and Petite Verdot.
“Once veraison occurs, harvest preparations amps up at our vineyards. We manage the canopy based on the conditions of the season, balance the fruit load on the vine and maintaining sustainable, integrated pest management practices,” says Locke. He’s learned that it takes patience and hard work throughout the year to pick exceptional fruit come harvest time.
Putting your feet on the ground as harvest nears is the most crucial part of Locke’s days at this time of year. He walks the rows to keep a watchful eye on the fruit. He also combines art with science, leveraging his keen sense of taste in addition to lab work to determine when his fruit is at its peak for picking.
Locke expects to first pick his estate Viognier, weather dependent, beginning the week of September 16th. He’ll use the same tried and true methods when he does. “Sometimes it’s not the easiest way to do it,” says Locke, “but I’ve learned that being selective with the fruit provides the optimum development and characteristics for our wines.” Once harvest comes to a close the Locke family and crew enjoys a celebration harvest dinner with oven pizzas and wine on the patio at The Barn together.
Steve Millier, Winemaker & Owner – Milliare Winery and Black Sheep Winery, Murphys CA
Steve Millier and his wife Liz started Milliare Winery in 1983 and is now the oldest family-owned winery in Murphys, CA producing distinctive Zinfandels since the beginning. In 1989, Steve became founding Winemaker and Vice President for Ironstone Vineyards and in 1990 opened Milliare Winery tasting room in an old Flying A gas station on Main Street in Murphys, CA. Today, Milliaire Winery has expanded and occupies over an 8,000 square foot winery with a dedicated barrel room and modern crush pad facility. Black Sheep Winery arrived in Murphys with the 1984 harvest as Steve partnered with a grower in Amador County to make a different style of Zinfandel.
Steve knows the science and art of winemaking and grape growing from the ground up. After over 40 harvests, Steve is still exploring, learning and, most importantly, having fun in the winery. He is part alchemist, part artist and part farmer.
Harvest 2019 Spotlight: Steve and his harvest crew are having a great time his week. “The crush time is exciting, exhausting and amazing all at once,” shares Steve. The Milliaire team has already crushed their Old Vine Zinfandels, and most of the white varietals. As of this writing, the crew is still waiting to bring in Alicante Bouschet, Gewurztraminer and Malbec. The weather has been pretty amazing, and Steve is extremely pleased with the quality so far. As soon as the team finishes harvest, they will start bottling the Nouveau style, Christmas Cuvee White Zin. This first of the 2019 vintage is a real fan favorite at Milliare Winery and will release Thanksgiving weekend.
About the Calaveras Winegrape Alliance:
Established in 1989, The Calaveras Winegrape Alliance (CWA) is a non-profit organization, dedicated to increasing the awareness of all wines produced in Calaveras County and/or produced from Calaveras grapes. We represent Calaveras County families – making some of the most exciting wines in California’s historic Sierra Foothills region. The Calaveras Grape Stomp Competition was started by local winery owners and grape growers who wanted to create a fun event to celebrate the harvest season and also give back to their local communities. The event takes place in the Gold Rush town of Murphys, CA in Calaveras County, now home to 32 tasting rooms and over 50 vineyards. “The Calaveras Winegrape Alliance is honored to host the 26th Annual Grape Stomp Competition as our local community and visitors from throughout the state come together for an incredible Harvest Celebration. We invite guests to learn why this historical wine region has been an integral part of the California wine industry since 1851”, explains Sandra Hess, Executive Director. “We encourage visitors to plan a long weekend in Calaveras Wine Country and to stop by the newly opened Wine Information Center at 202 Main Street in Murphys to pick up tasting room maps and tasting passes”.