Or, How Grapes From a World-Famous Vineyard Ended Up In My Garage
When I tell people my husband and I are garage winemakers, the first thing they say is, “So you have a vineyard?” Well, no. We do live in Napa, but our backyard is tiny. There wasn’t even room for the hammock I scavenged from a free pile on the street, my eyes bigger than my backyard. You could say we also scavenge grapes, buying the best of what we can find. Some years we don’t even buy Napa grapes because they cost too much. But sometimes, like when we started buying Fay vineyard grapes from Stags Leap, the scavenging pays off.
My husband, Richard, and I, with four friends, make between 40 and 60 cases of wine every fall. That’s a drop compared to a very small winery which may produce 5000 to 10,000 cases, but about all we can manage in our garage where we have to fit three half-barrels, two kegs, and countless glass carboys among the sleeping bags, old toys, and Halloween costumes. We always make a red, sometimes two varietals, and usually a rosé. We don’t make white wine because we can’t control the temperature of the garage well and keep it cool enough.
It started with Richard and me, just the two of us and a dismal, second crop cabernet in 2005. We had a lot to learn. Luckily, living in Napa, we are surrounded by real (read: paid) winemakers who are generous with extra wine, advice, equipment, and sometimes even grapes. Paul across the street worked at a large, well-known winery and took the scientific approach he learned studying enology at UC Davis. He taught us to clean and sterilize everything meticulously. One October Paul called early on a Saturday morning. “My boss wants me to make wine with the grapes in the little vineyard by the tasting room parking lot,” he said. “I don’t have time to deal with that, but it’s good cab if you want it. Just get over here and take it before 8 am so they don’t see you.” We surreptitiously stripped the vineyard by 7:30 and made a truly memorable, tasty cabernet sauvignon.
Another professional winemaker, Steve, a friend who made wine with us for years was more of an artiste in his winemaking. Or full of it, I can’t decide. “No goddamn Pope Valley merlot!” he liked to shout. He later moved to Oregon which fits his vibe better than stuffy Napa. Over the years we have made zinfandel and petit sirah from Mendocino, syrah from the Sierra Foothills, grenache and sangiovese from Auburn, and pinot noir from Napa and Petaluma Gap, with Steve’s approval, of course. From the beginning our only goals have been to spend time with friends and make wine we could enjoy drinking and not want to throw out, and except for the first year we have exceeded those goals.
And then in 2012 we met Mary Jane Fay of the legendary Fay Vineyard. This is the vineyard that inspired Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ founder Warren Winiarski to start making wine, leading to their cabernet sauvignon winning The Paris Wine Tasting of 1976. It was a blind tasting in which mostly French wine experts ranked several American wines better than French wines. Sacrilege at the time.
A mutual friend introduced us. She knew that Mary Jane, then in her mid 80s, wanted to sell some grapes from the part of the vineyard she reserved for family, from which they made beautiful wines: merlot, zinfandel, and barbera, often in field blends. It had become too much work to produce, and too much wine to drink. And there we were, home winemakers up for scavenging small amounts of delicious grapes.
Mary Jane was the most elegant and scrappy woman I have had the honor to meet. She lived in a house that she, her husband, and sons built in the 1970s. And I don’t mean they had the house built. I mean they literally made each brick out of adobe, a mixture of mud and straw. You can see kids’ handprints on sloppy bricks and adult handprints on neater bricks all over the house. One of her sons described to me spending every weekend as a child carving mud out the hillside behind the house where they lived in town, endlessly making and drying adobe bricks for some future property they didn’t yet own. When they bought the place in Stags Leap, now part of Stags Leap District AVA between Napa and Yountville, more bricks had to be made and all of them had to be moved nine miles north in the family station wagon. The adobe house was featured in Sunset magazine. It is a wonder, and her view was spectacular, across the wide vineyard to the craggy Stags Leap palisades soaring to the east. Rumor was she hand weeded the vineyard.
Mary Jane’s grapes usually ripened soon after Labor Day. Once the family had picked what they needed, we came in to pick the remaining rows. Most years we made barbera, wine with medium body, high acidity, and bright cherry flavor. Best of all, barbera loves food. With a half-ton of grapes, we make 30 to 35 cases of wine, depending on the grape and the year. Picking is hot, sticky, dusty work. And every year when we pick, I say a silent thank you to the professional vineyard workers who pick nonstop from August through November. As they say, it takes a lot of sweat and cold beer to make good wine.
We would weigh the picking bins full of fruit, about 40 pounds each, on an ancient scale next to Mary Jane’s wine cellar, also handmade from adobe. She always poured an amazing Fay family wine out of the cellar for us in paper cups. We would sit on her back patio marveling at the rocky Stags Leap ridge under the shade of her walnut trees. I loved it when she pulled out a short homemade table and a little hammer and showed me how to crack the walnuts so they didn’t fall apart. “Here,” she would say “tap, tap, turn, tap, tap, tap,” and two perfect walnut halves would emerge from the shell. Then she would remind us to pick and take home huge purple figs from her bursting tree. We did have to hurry home to the garage to crush and stem the grapes before they got too warm in the September sun. Those mornings at Mary Jane’s made us glad we don’t own a vineyard.
Sanna Delmonico, MS, RDN, is an associate professor at our California campus, where she teaches food safety and nutrition. She previously led programming for the CIA’s Healthy Kids Collaborative and the CIA-Harvard Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives Conference, and worked on other health and wellness initiatives for the CIA, bridging the worlds of nutrition and culinary arts. Sanna started her career as a pediatric dietitian and published a food and nutrition newsletter for parents, called Tiny Tummies. She is the chair-elect for the Food & Culinary Professionals Dietetic Practice Group, a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, and recently authored an online nutrition course for chefs for the American Culinary Federation. She develops recipes and writes about food and nutrition for publications including IDEA Fitness Journal. Sanna lives with her husband in Napa.