Harvest starts early in Santa Ynez Valley

Being lucky enough to be born and raised in the Sonoma wine country, it’s still hard for me to fathom another part of California growing grapes with a little less of the abundance of Sonoma and Napa.  And no I’m not talking about their red-headed step child, Paso Robles. But even further south, where the Pacific waters start to warm and the clad of beach bodies roam the streets.  Most know it as Santa Barbara, “The American Riviera.” To wine snobs, it’s known as the Santa Ynez Valley.

Being the amazing friend I am.  I made the easy decision to help out one of my best friends, Ryan, and drive him down the 101 to start harvest at Jonata Winery. The sister of Screaming Eagle Winery in Napa. Ryan decided to take a hiatus from traveling the globe working harvest in South Africa but mostly sight-seeing and partying anywhere and everywhere.  His connection to Jonata, is from another good friend of mine named Drew.  We’ve been friends since birth and now he’s the Assistant Wine Maker. Departing my house in Sonoma, Google maps told me the trip would take around six hours. Maybe it was the competitiveness in me, but I thought for sure we could make it in five hours driving slightly above the speed limit with limited swerving in and out of traffic.  That idea was instantly shut down when we hit traffic in San Francisco, a car drop in Pacifica and then soon discovering that every highway patrolman in California was patrolling the stretch of 101 from San Francisco to Santa Barbara.  So showing some maturity we opted for the speed limit and Pandora. And sure enough after the slow-paced, boring six-hour mark hit we pulled off on the Avenue of Flags exit and made our way over to the winery to meet up with Drew, Matt the winemaker and Natalie, a Kiwi who’s interning for the harvest.

As Ryan and I pulled up the driveway and wanted to get out to stretch our legs, Drew looks at us and says, “Okay, follow us. We need to sample some Pinot.”  Not even, Hey how’s it going?-How was the drive?-Do you need to use the bathroom? Drew, already in Harvest mode had no time for us to stop. The sun was dropping and samples were needed today. Now, for me being one who plays football for a living, I’m used to people coming to visit and watch me work while they’re on vacation. I was ready to return the experience with plenty of wine drinking and cheering following Drew and Ryan around the winery for a few days.  But instead, when Drew hit me with a voice of action, of course I jumped right into work mode and forgot the whole vacation idea.

With my dash blinking a warning of Low Fuel, I agreed to head out into the hills. I was pretty sure we had enough diesel in the tank to get out there and back. After another fifteen minutes of driving up and down hills, from streetlights to stop signs, two-lane roads to country roads, we finally made it to our vineyard destination where I was able to jump out and stretch my legs yet more importantly I proved myself as being half camel.

Pit stop for Pinot! We finally made it. Time to get samples. Santa Maria valley, the next mountain range west from Santa Ynez is also full of vines.  Mostly chardonnay on the valley floor and some pinot noir tucked away into pockets of the foot hills protected from weather. Several wineries call this place home.  None that we were going to stop at.

The 2012 Jonata gang heads up the hill to take samples. The nets protect the fruit from birds and other animals.

And sometimes from a foraging winemaker and his helpers. This is Matt, the head winemaker at Jonata.  Head down, always working.

My good friend Drew is the Assistant Winemaker of Jonata. After pulling pinot samples from different areas of the vine block it was time to head to the next spot.  Drew is pointing where we must drive.

Down into the valley, crossing several dry creeks, then up the other side of the valley. Next stop, the top of the mountain. Luckily I had my Chevy Duramax itching to get dirty and do some four-wheeling after a grueling long distance journey. I had so much fun off-road, I forgot to take a picture.

I knew the view was going to be amazing once we made it up the other side. But I didn’t think I was going to find a spot of Zen. Notice the vineyards in the distance.  That is where we started. It’s unbelievable to think vines could grow in such an arid place where the soil consists more of diatomaceous earth than actual nutrients.

The views were absolutely amazing from up top. You could also feel a slight ocean breeze rushing over the hills.

After gathering all samples needed, we made our way back down the hill.  Ryan and I became dusted out and blinded of the trail. Of course we then lost the others in their truck.  A calculated decision so we didn’t fall off a cliff, I stopped and waited for the dust to dissipate before traversing in my truck back down to the creek. When we reached the creek, we floored it across spraying rocks and sand everywhere trying to catch back up to the others who seemed to vanish into thin air.  When we made it back to the road the gate was locked, and the others were nowhere to be found.  No cell service, very little fuel, no lock code, not really having an idea where we are, and Ryan’s uncontrollable irritability was setting in. Pretty much a perfect mixture for the beginning of a horror story.

Luckily a text from Drew made it through to my phone and we decided it was best we meet back at the winery since they took the easy way down, staying on the road up top on the hill, a quicker route back to town.  As we set off my first goal was to find a gas station selling diesel.  Not as easy as you think. Next time your on the road check how many stations you pass before you see one offering the unrefined truck blood.  After finding a Shell station and paying almost five dollars a gallon, I wiped my forehead of sweat, we dispersed in search of the winery.

After meeting back up with Drew, he took us through Solvang and gave us a quick tour of his and Kiri’s awesome  house they recently purchased.  Afterwards, we headed to the Jonata Winery Ranch to find our living quarters and prepare dinner.

Grilled chicken, chorizo and steak. Hot peppers, rice, and tomatillos.  A mighty feast mixed with great vino was absolutely perfect for the first night at the cottage.

With our bellies full, it was time to relax by the fire and drink some more Jonata wine. I definitely fell in love with their Pinot Noir. Which at this point made no better way to stare up at the Milky Way than by a fire pit with wine in hand.

The dining table outside was picture perfect.  The fire pit above is just out of the frame to the right.  The hanging lights kept the mood light yet still the stars to shine bright. If I lived in this cottage, you would see me out here every night. This is a setting I’m going to miss and someday emulate when I build my dream home.

The next morning I went down to meet the two Great Pyrenees guarding the goats and sheep. The best watch dogs any animal could ask for. A little later I found out that they don’t even have names. Therefore, I take this time to name them Walter of Solvang and Barnstable the Great. (Now those are dog names.)

Not soon after we left the cottage and headed to the winery.  With everyone doing tasks and staying busy, I decided this was a perfect time to snap a couple of photos. This one is of the first harvest of Sauvignon Blanc.

My good friends Drew and Ryan are discussing different tasks for the day.  The list was long but when we completed it we were able to go home for the night. Maybe even drink some more wine.

Even though the winery itself seems very small in working space compared to larger wineries. Matt and Drew have put every square inch of space to use and have kept the whole place working efficient yet sometimes it might look like a disaster waiting to happen. I’m sure its just the way they like it.

Not only that day were we cleaning and preparing tanks, bringing in grapes to press, and re-racking barrels.  We also had the bottling line running The Hilt chardonnay, a second label to Jonata Winery.

The might of this small bladder press reminds me of the Little Engine That Could.  This press is slow, ran all day and never stopped. Needless to say it does its job well and gets the juice out of the grapes. A hefty task lifting bins all day. A perfect fit for Natalie.

A good vantage point to see the tanks is from the catwalk surrounding other tanks. Ryan was lucky enough to be given the task to sanitize the tanks and get them ready to fill.  The small hoses are for sanitizing.  The larger hoses are for freshly pressed grape juice.

Back at the ranch, I wanted to capture all the different life. This is Tyson the dog.  He runs the ranch and keeps everyone and everything in order. Without him, I’m pretty sure the whole ranch would be lost.

The pig pen is huge with rocks and wooden structures to climb and move.  The pigs seem pretty content here especially when they receive their daily muck of vegetables from the garden and the skins left over after the press.

Above the olive orchard is where you could find the ranch turkeys.  Big and ugly as ever, they’ll still responded to my horrible attempt at making a turkey call.

By mid day it can get a little toasty.  It’s nice to see the two guard dogs, Walter and Barnstable are now more worried about themselves than their livestock.

The chicken coop is massive with several different coops next to each other. There might be plenty of hens laying eggs every day and night.  But there is only one strutting Big Red.

The Cottage lies near the beginning of the property.  Most of the vineyards are in the hills behind and the farm part of the ranch surrounds the cottage. Lucky me, this is where I stayed during the visit.

The garden is amazing and massive.  Everything you see was grown from seed.  There are many crazy varietals of your normal vegetables.  Most things they let keep growing since it will feed the pigs. But the heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatillos, corn, peppers, and others goods are for the workers and whoever is living in the cottage since its only steps away.

After a late night excursion into the garden with the use of headlamps and grocery bags.  We came out with lots of amazing veggies.  Only if I could get my own garden to start producing like this one.

Just off the cottage is the olive orchard.  Several hundred trees are harvested each year to make olive oil which is bottled in-house as well. I can only wish that someday my olive trees will look this amazing. Catching a pattern?

Beyond the olive orchard is the beginning of the vines.  25 separate blocks with 13 different varietals being grown.  Endless opportunities to make amazing blends. I hope someday my vineyard….. just kidding.

By the time I made it up to this part of the ranch, the fog was starting to disperse but lingered just enough to make it feel as if I were all alone.  Very quiet and surreal, only to be broken by the distant calls of a red tailed hawk.

The view from the top of the ranch and by no means the end of the property. Look closely and you will find plenty of vines down the valley to the left. The house in view is known as “The Big House.” Much larger than the cottage but also a place to stay when you come and visit.

Down to the right from the big house brings you to the man-made reservoir. It is a perfect place to sleep under the stars or soak up the sun during a day off.

There are several cabins for over-nighters and an exceptionally large barbecue and fire pit as well. The reservoir is set up for only one reason; To have a good time.

The dock is perfect for jumping off of or casting a fishing line far out into the water.  Smallmouth bass and bluegills roam these waters.

The flowers along the water’s edge are very beautiful and do a great job enhancing the beauty of the Jonata ranch

On my way back to the cottage I had to stop where Drew and his better half, Kiri, married last year.  Such a perfect setting in the vineyards.  Very beautiful.

All in all, I’m very happy I was able to make this journey.  Not only to lend a hand to a few good friends, but come witness a little slice of Wine Country Heaven.  Thanks, Matt and Drew!



Europe Part 2: Tuscany, “The true birthplace of the Italian Renaissance”

Tuscany has been a place I’ve been dreaming about visiting since I was a little child. With my Italian blood lines coming from the Lucca Valley, my dreams of roaming the Etruscan countryside were soon to come to reality. I was finally on my way, on a plane descending over the Swiss Alps and into Florence.

Even though like most Americans, my family roots are intertwined from multiple countries of Europe.  I tend to gravitate towards my minimal percentage of Italian I received from my full-blooded mothers, mother.  And the rest of me, well again like most Americans, I’m a mutt. Or maybe it’s because I’m broad-shouldered, have brown hair, fail every time at growing a mustache, smell like garlic, and I love wine that I tend to hang on to my “Italian” heritage over any other.

As sad as I was to be departing Paris, I was evermore excited to have our plane touch down in Florence.  Then rush to cram ourselves onto the Shuttle-Bus that would take us to baggage claim, find our bags, meander our way to the airport exit, and then patiently wait for the Car Rental Shuttle to pick us up.  After setting a new record score, playing Tetris with our bags in the back of the shuttle, the excitement of renting a big van for all of us to tour the Italian countryside together in had set. Only to have the utter shock of disappointment of our reserved van being already rented and having to settle with a light charcoal colored rust bucket, sub-compact Fiat, with a 5-speed stick shift oddly placed into the dashboard next to the radio. Instantly missing my big American Chevy truck, I was about to cram into a car made only for circus clowns. With the height of the roof barely making it past my waist when standing next to it, I had to laugh. Which helped me remember that I’m in Italy and mostly everybody drives these little cars.  So I made a pact with myself to follow the golden Italian rule: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”  So I stopped being a baby, put a smile on my face and unlocked the door to this Gray Gorilla. After the bags were packed and my wife settled in her seat, my excitement had returned. I walked around the car for one last check to make sure we grabbed everything and then I climbed into the Silver Surfer only to notice right after the door closed that I’ll be the only on of the “Three Fat Guys” able to fit in this car. WE WERE CRAMPED. But it had to do, so I accepted this tight and compact challenge and our rented Silver Bullet of American Fury was off and already in third gear. As we left the airport following signs laid out by the rental car agent on how to get out of Florence and head towards Siena. I realized I never really paid attention to her giving directions, but more shaking my head in agreement while in my head I was thinking, “I’m here. I’m finally in Italy!”

Left turn, left turn, right turn, veer right at fork, third exit of round-about, under over-pass, over under-pass, trying to remember it’s now “Firenze”, not “Florence.” Somehow I made it to the highway, only stalling twice before the toll booth and of course, again when I was at it. I don’t know when my excitement had peaked and when it started heading down. But when we left the airport and I was driving my Silver Bullet of American Fury down the highway, my mind started going blank when trying to reads all of the Italian road signs.  I couldn’t help getting a little nervous and all I could think of was, “Where you at now Rosetta Stone!!” Lucky enough we found an area to pull over. We figured out the barely capable Tom-Tom we rented from Avis, found our destination, and set off into the sunset on the Raccordo Autostradale Siena-Firenze towards Castello di Casole.

Needless to say, my days using a standard transmission have been limited, leading to multiple stallings throughout the week, which kept my pregnant wife on the edge of her seat for most of the drives. But as we pulled into the driveway on the first night, both of us exhausted, the sun was setting, and I was in much need of some Italian Red Wine pronto!

Just in time. After unpacking the car and a glass of wine. I set up for this shot out by our infinity pool off the villa we rented.

A pizzeria in San Gimignano

I’m pretty sure I stopped in every shop that sold Cinghiale, Wild Boar.

Late lunch at Il Pino.  A tiny family run restaurant on the north side of San Gimignano. Great pasta dish.

Yes, that is snow.  And yes, this is Ike, Sandy, Megan, Camryn, and Daryn.

The westward view from Sant’Agostino de San Gimignano.

Megan wishing in the well. Piazza Della Cisterna, named for the underground cistern built in 1287

Windows on the Piazza.

Megs and Myself on top of Torre Grossa, Piazza Duomo in San Gimignano

Daryn being Daryn.

After a long, windy drive to Pisa.  They made me hold up Torre pendente di Pisa, The Leaning Tower of Pisa. Hooray for humor!

After finding parking in the walls of Lucca, we met up with Matthew from Schellville Grill in Sonoma.  Since he has a house outside Lucca, I thought he’d be best to take us around.

A spot for locals. Trattoria da Leo. Great food. Loud. Fun. What else could you ask for.

The top of San Michele in Lucca

The windows of Piazza dell’Anfiteatro of Lucca

Statue of Sallustio Bandini. Placed in Piazza dei Salimbeni. Bandini was the founder of the Library of Siena

Windows of Siena

Piazza del Campo, Siena.  No horse racing today.

Duomo di Siena, The Cathedral of Siena

The ceiling of the dome in the Duomo di Siena.

Pizza night back at the villa.

Just a little damage after five nights.

And yes. It was still freezing cold.

Last night in Italy. An olive tree and the North Star.

Traveling to Europe is an amazing experience when you go out on your own and not follow a guide.  The best part of this trip was having all of these experiences with my lovely wife and some of our closest friends.  Now that I have had the chance to experience Europe in the heart of winter, the next time I travel back here I won’t be bringing a jacket.

Europe Part 1: Paris, “La Ville-Lumière” (“The City of Light”)

My wife and several close friends decided to travel to Europe in February.  We spent a week in a Paris, France and another week in the Tuscan hills of Italy.  Unfortunately for us, Mother Nature decided to hand us one of the coldest February’s of the last 100 years while we were in Europe. In Paris, we still managed to get around just fine on the Metro, while shedding layers as we entered Cafe’s and Stores.

Walking to the Eiffel Tower.  One of my favorite stops, the carousel across the La Seine.  Lucky for me someone decided to ride when I wanted to take a picture.

In front of Napoleons’ tomb.

The spice table of Le Comptoir Colonial in Montmartre.

The Heart of Paris, Sacre-Coeur Basillica.  A very powerful church and the best view of the city.

The View.

Pablo Picasso’s Square – Le BateauLavoir, Monmartre

The lovely bread. Now all I need is my cappuccino.

There it is. Ahh!

The ceiling of Notre Dame de Paris

The Winged Victory of Samothrace – after the Greek Goddess Nike (Victory). Musee du Louvre.

The fruit stand of Hediard on Pl. de la Madeleine

My love, on the train heading to Versailles.

Catacombes de Paris. Very interesting.  6 million Parisians.

My good friend Jason. Frozen at midnight for 10 seconds.

Midnight Shot of the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Elysees

“La Dame de fer” ( The Iron Lady). The true light of Paris. Magnificent a night.

The next morning we woke up and continued our journey to Italy.

To be continued….