A taste of commercial winemaking

My first wine tasting was a hit. I enjoyed every moment of it, and grinning from ear to ear as my colleague drove out of the gates. Our next stop was the actual Robert Mondavi Winery.

We’d seen the family and their current estate, Continuum, and now we were about to visit the infamous winery they sold to a multi-national corporation. The buyers retained the name because—well—Robert Mondavi was an established name in the wine market. And so my colleague, the ever-enthusiastic guide, drove us to the one winery that rules them all.

The first thing that threw myself at me was the sheer number of people outside the winery. In stark contrast, Continuum had been empty except for our host. Here, however, I saw hundreds of people; men in shorts and women in tank tops, fanning themselves with brochures, some even clutching their hat in one hand and gesturing to their partners in the other. It was like a carnival where people congregated to stare at inanimate objects on display.

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At the reception, there were groups of 15 members each, with each group led by a white-clad guide bouncing with excitement as they explained the estate’s massive layout. Tours ran every 15 minutes, and prices started from $45.

We stuck our badges on our clothes and lumbered behind our guide, a young man who spoke of wine and the art of winemaking as it’s been in his bloodline for ages. It was believable, but I wondered if he made it up to keep the engagement alive. He first led us into a room full of maps of Italy, France, and most of California. In fleeting moments, he explained the world’s popular wine regions and the varied temperatures that defined their wines.

We then strolled down paved walkways through the vines. Our willing host answered questions, and explained the role of roses in wine making. Winemakers planted rose bushes amidst vines to help identify illnesses in the grapes. When the roses in infected areas begin to die, winemakers know something’s amiss. It was a hot day, and although most of rest of the tourists “ooh”ed and “aah”ed, I drifted. It was a glorious sight, however, and I wanted to stay there looking around in silence.

But our guide ushered us to our next stop at the winery—the actual wine cellar. He had been building up our excitement, and we were about to get our treat. At Continuum, harvest hadn’t begun yet and so they had no activity in the cellars. At the Robert Mondavi Estate, though, machines were grinding, grapes were drying, and people were chatting away in every corner. A hum of enthusiastic activity clung to the air, and blended with the waft of fresh whole grapes and fermenting crushed ones, like an additional slice of pie over a thanksgiving dinner.

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Further down the cellars, we walked through rows of red wine barrels with stained markers and white wine barrels with peachy tones. Telling us how each barrel comes from artisan manufacturers and remains untouched throughout the storing process, our host injected an air of grandeur that was only too obvious. At such a large scale, I knew, the Robert Mondavi Winery was a commercial producer.

We saw barrels upon barrels ready to unwrap, stock, and store for another 18 months. The difference between Continuum and Robert Mondavi was striking. While this estate had cellars capable of storing over a thousand barrels, Continuum paid more meticulous attention to the few hundreds they produce.

While I’d been musing, our guide showed us into another room. A long table stood in the middle with 15 places and three glasses in each spot. It was time to taste some of the Robert Mondavi makes. We each had a booklet in front of us with details of the wines we’d taste and the recipe for the cookie we’d nibble on. Along was a membership opportunity with pricing details and benefits—a classic sales move for any corporate, I remembered.

The tasting experience was noisier this time. Some of my fellow tourists gulped their wine and looked around for the next, while some followed each rule in the book; looking, smelling, swirling, smelling again, sipping, lip smacking, and so on.

The first was a white, and as I let it trickle down my throat I realised for the first time that I liked the flavour of the wine. It came as a surprise because I hadn’t expected to like white wines so much. Curious, I drank some more, and I enjoyed it even more. Smiling to myself, I awaited my next sample. Perhaps this tasting wouldn’t be such a dousing experience.

The second—a red—was less satisfying, but a third red made up for it. At the end of it all, though, the white still seemed the winner. Surprising us all, our host announced a bonus tasting of a Moscato. He told us to either drink up or pour down the rest of our white wine (I drank, of course), and then started filling each person’s glass with Moscato.

I hadn’t expected that.

Later, I questioned the guide if reusing the same glass for another wine would affect the taste of the second wine. To me it seemed like it would. To my my utter amazement, the guide shook his head. He claimed that using one glass to drink two wines would be the same as drinking each wine in separate glasses—and here I was thinking I should rinse my mouth in between changing wines! Although doubtful of his expertise, I decided to let it go. The day was warm and the wine was fine, and I figured I shouldn’t complain.

Our final stop—as in any commercial museum or exhibition—was the gift shop, where we could get stamped reminders of our visit to the winery. Taking only photographic memories, we drove away from the once-glorious, now-still-glorious-but-more-salesy, Robert Mondavi Winery—also known as RMW for easy corporate brand recall.

A tasting I went

When someone says California, the first thing that pops into my head is “Wine Country”. And accompanied by the phrase is the image of sun-kissed grapes, maturing with time, ripening with patience. As I breathe in the smell of those grapes my mind wanders to pulpy glasses half-filled with blood-red liquid and tiny bubbles along the edges. I imagine the light refracting through the liquid, the redness reflecting on a white table-cloth. And I heave a sigh, coming back to reality.

For a long time, I only fantasised about wines and wineries. And then I travelled to San Francisco for work. As soon as I knew the news, I asked my colleague about wine tasting tours. Lucky for me, my colleague had a friend whose family owned the renowned Robert Mondavi winery—before it was sold to a multinational beverage corporation. After the sale, however, the Robert Mondavi family bought another estate and now run it by the name of Continuum. My colleague arranged a tasting and a tour for my friend and me. Swelling with joy, I realised my fantasies could perhaps become reality.

Continuum 1One not-so-fine Saturday, we drove down to see the romance that’s Napa. It was the hottest day of the Californian summer. The government had issued heat wave warnings, and although tropical creatures, my friend and I had to brace ourselves with sunscreen and wet tissues. While my colleague drove, I stared out at the looming wineries, bunches of grapes enticing me all the way.

When we came to a halt at the top of a hill, under the scorching sun we saw grape vines extending in every direction. Juicy fruit hung on hinges waiting. Our host welcomed us with open arms—he’d come in to work on a Saturday just so we could get a whiff of their wine. We admired the vines while he explained the expanse of the estate. The Mondavi family owned all the hills our eye could see. That’s where they grew the flagship wine, while a little further down, he explained, is where they grew grapes for the sister wine, Novicium.

Continuum 3

As if the sight wasn’t impressive already, our host made his narrative extra descriptive triggering awe and jealousy at the same time. He drove us through the vines, explaining the different types of grapes that grew on either side. While Cabernet extended on our right, more rare varietals took up the rest of the estate. Here and there amidst grapes we saw spice plants emitting flavours for the grapes to absorb. That’s how, we learnt, that natural spiciness comes into wine. We rode past Franc and Blanc, and far in the distance we caught sight of handsome olives hanging from their branches. Continuum Estate not only produces one of the elitist wines, but they also produce some of the highest quality—and much sought after—olive oil. After the outside tour, we went within the building where the actual magic would happen. We saw massive barrels awaiting harvested grapes.

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Before moving further, our host directed us to the wooden plank that stood bearing a bottle and three glasses. As we approached the plank I saw Novicium, the sister wine. Unlike the flagship wine, this one is made from younger grapes and so bears tender flavours as compared to the bigger bolder one. Our host poured us each a generous amount and explained to us how we should smell, swirl, and sip the wine. A smile spread across my lips and as class creeped through my spine, I swirled and sipped. A mild sweet and peppery flavour touched my tongue and I held it in place trying to discern more. I couldn’t much. Rotating it in my mouth for a while, I let the juice dribble down my throat. The fruitiness with its complementary acidity refreshed me from within, making me feel oh so fancy.

According to our host, harvest this year would begin early thanks to the warm summer and the breeze that blew uphill. Nodding my head as if understood weather and its miracles, I put my head into a barrel and saw an intense hollow with a fan above. There were both oak and metal barrels, gleaming in the glory of newness. All around me were signs of grandeur and selectiveness—Continuum isn’t just any winery. Continuum is a luxury brand that ensures every drop of their wine is deserving of its price. Such was the care, and such was the process every grape went through.

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“Let’s break bread,” our host announced leading us to a round table set amidst fresh wine barrels. On the polished wooden table were two glasses for each of us, along with a pitcher of cold water. In the centre was a platter of three cheeses, a basket of bread, a bowl of olives, and another of almonds. Right by the bread stood a green-labelled heavy bottle of olive oil.

We set our Novicium samples on the table. When I took my seat, I saw on my plate, a card welcoming me and my friends to the estate. It was a thoughtful gesture by the management to print out our names and the details of our tasting. And knowing that they went to all that trouble on a Saturday made me glow with gratitude. Before my elation could evaporate, our host brought out a bottle of the esteemed Continuum—the fanciest wine I’d ever see or be in the same room as in my lifetime. For the next 20 minutes, we ate and while we ate we drank our wines. I dipped my bread in the freshest of olive oil and sipped my wine with the creamiest of cheeses. It was my first experience with goat cheese which became an instant favourite.

I left the table a satisfied wine enthusiast. I’d realised some of my wildest fantasies in a single day, in a classy way, surrounded by friends I appreciate spending time with. At the end of it all, having thanked our host multiple times for his willingness, we drove downhill.

My heart, however, soared.