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Cain Winery: Letting the Land Speak

Editor’s Note: This past fall I had the pleasure of participating in the grape harvest in the Napa Valley, one of the most appealing wine regions anywhere. Rather than simply wine touring, I sought to get a deeper understanding of the process of winemaking by participating in the harvest, shadowing Warren Winiarski of Arcadia Vineyard, Michael Silacci of Opus One and Chris Howell of Cain Vineyard and Winery to learn the secrets of making exceptional wine.  It was a fascinating and enlightening experience, learning how they sampled the fruit, made the critical decision to pick, brought in the fruit and carefully crushed and fermented it. In addition, I dined at wonderful restaurants, stayed in lovely hotels and met some fascinating characters. The following stories feature the highlights of the Napa Harvest—the insights, surprises and lessons learned along the way.
Nicholas O’Connell, MFA, Ph.D. is a freelance writer and founder of The Writer’s Workshop. He will teach a Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Tuscany (May 20-26).


It’s all about the terroir. Cain Winery and Vineyard is located in the hills high above the Napa Valley. The 542-acre property contours around an open, east-facing bowl, following the twists and turns of the Spring Mountain District. It ranges from 1,400 to 2,100 feet, revealing many distinct microclimates and soil profiles. It’s home to browsing deer, soaring hawks, wild turkeys, and iconoclastic winemakers like Chris Howell.
A graduate of the University of Chicago and the University of Washington, Howell is thoughtful, articulate, and devoted to expressing the terroir of the vineyard in his wines. Cain makes three Cabernet blends, each from unique vineyard sources and with a distinctive approach: Cain Cuvée, a smooth bistro wine; Cain Concept, a silky, age-worthy wine sourced from other Napa vineyards; Cain Five, the signature blend from the vineyard’s best lots.
I’ve written about him before regarding food, wine and travel in Napa and Sonoma. But now I’m looking for a more in-depth story. I’m not so much interested in wine scores or tasting notes, but in the process by which they are achieved. I’m looking for a full immersion in the wine making experience. I want to learn about it from the inside out. I’m hoping that understanding the process will lead to a fuller appreciation of the final product.
When I arrive at the winery at 5:30 a.m., Chris is waiting for me. We get into his white Ford Explorer and head down the steep, curving roads through Cain Vineyards. We park and get ready for the pick. I don a red safety vest, gloves, headlamp, and join the workers for the picking.
After discussing where to pick, Chris directs the crew. I hop up into the back of a pickup truck and head down the road. The other vineyard workers speak Spanish, only a little of it can I understand. When we arrive at the vineyard site, one of the man hands me a plastic picking bin. We begin working the rows, picking the grapes.
I start picking, using the clippers to cut the clusters. I try to move quickly and efficiently but I’m much slower than the others. I fill up my first bin and hand it to the man driving the tractor with a tote behind it. My knees and neck ache from bending down to pick the grapes, but I keep going.
The men work quickly, joking and laughing, as they harvest the fruit. I try to keep up with them, disappearing into the work, testing the resistance of the grape stem for plucking or clipping, inhaling the fruity perfume of the grapes, and keeping the spider webs and straw out of my bin.
After we finish picking the block, Chris asks me to help to analyze the flavors of the next block. Like at Opus One, we picking randomly through the grapes, looking for the peak of flavor. I follow him as he tastes through the block, which varies according to the elevation and the exposure.
“You don’t want the process of winemaking to overwhelm the vineyard,” he says. “People will ask, ‘What’s the brix?’ but there are no set guidelines. Each wine has to have its own identity and that’s derived primarily from the vineyard. Our job is to get to know it and allow that expression to come through. For us, you could pick too soon and not express the vineyard. Or you could pick too late and the fruit would taste like overripe. The more we impose on the process, the less the individual vineyard will come through.”
We keep going, walking and tasting, making sure that the essence of the vineyard will come through in the finished wine.


Note: The preceding story is an excerpt from the forthcoming Crush: An Apprenticeship in the Wine Trade by Nicholas O’Connell, M.F.A, Ph.D. He is the author of four books and contributes to  Newsweek, Gourmet, Saveur, Outside, GO, National Geographic Adventure, Condé Nast Traveler, Food & Wine, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Sierra, and many other places. He is the founder of the online and Seattle-based writing program,

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