Recently, I attended Dry Creek Passport in Sonoma County, California. Passport is a weekend-long event at which 50-plus vineyards open their tasting rooms to hoards of thirsty Zinfandel drinkers. I was in attendance on a press pass, and the folks who were running the public relations for the weekend will, no doubt, be happy that I thought enough of the wine to write about it.
By all accounts, Dry Creek Valley is producing some world-class wines. Of course, not every bottle made in the Valley is world-class. But some are. Phil Hearst at Truett Hearst makes a very fine Pinot Noir and an extremely delicious Zinfandel Rose. Unti Vineyards is producing a stellar Grenache. Just about everything available to the wine club members of Michel Schlumberger will knock your socks off, and anyone can join the club. Debra Mathy of Dutcher Crossing has cultivated relationships with the finest grape growers in the Valley, and the proof of their skill (and the skill of her winemaker, Kerry Damskey) is in every bottle. But the best bottle of wine I had from Dry Creek Valley, by far, is one that is unavailable to just about everyone.
The PR machine behind Passport won't be too thrilled about this fact, I guess. But still, they should be happy I met Paul Bernier, the man who made that bottle of wine in his tool shed.
I met Paul at Dutcher Crossing Winery. He was tucked in a corner of the tasting tent, pouring Zinfandel. The wine was made from the grapes he grew in the summer of 2007. Paul is not a wine snob or a sophisticated viticulturist (and there are plenty of both crawling around Sonoma). Paul is a grape farmer and he looks the part, which is to say, rough, grizzled, and slightly awkward when tucked into a corner of a wine-tasting tent. So, immediately, I liked him.
Within 30 seconds we were fully engaged in a discussion about how immigration legislation will affect the industry. (Paul's view is that it won't. "The immigration issue is a thorny problem and I am just sorry that it has become politicized by people with other agendas." Paul pays his pickers $20 to $25 an hour. "The wages we pay gets the job done," he told me. "They're here and they want to work.") Even on dirty subjects, Paul thinks like a farmerâwith his feet firmly planted in the ground.
The wine Paul was pouring, although made from his grapes, was crafted by the Dutcher Crossing team. When I asked if they were doing a good job with his grapes, he told me he thought they were, but that I should be the judge. Paul's job is growing grapes, not judging wine. Then he invited me to see his vineyards at 7:00 the next morning. Of course, I took him up on it.
I met him at his house, where he planted five acres of grapes 20 years ago. In addition, he farms 30 acres with grapes ranging in age from one to 100 years. They are pruned in a style called head training, which makes it impossible to harvest the grapes by machine. They need to be picked by hand. This is one of the keys in the relationship between the vines and a farmer like Paul. Just by means of harvest, he is already so much closer to the plants than many of his tractor-picking contemporaries. He actually needs to touch the vines, and he does, almost every day. We stood on one of his planted hillsides as the sun finished rising, and he described his pruning techniques. He pointed out the fresh buds, then laid his hand, over-sized from decades of labor, on an old, gnarled branch of the vine as if laying a hand on the shoulder of an old friend. This man loves these plants. When I asked him about the physical difficulty of his chosen profession, he smiled with the innocence of a child. "Heh, this isn't hard. This is fun."
He took me to see another one of his planted hillsides, the Bernier-Sibary vineyard, about a quarter mile down the road from his house. And this is when things started to get really interesting. Over the course of our conversation, Paul debunked several modern wine myths. And although I encouraged this with the questions I asked him, I got the feeling that he wanted these facts to be known.