September 1998

Farmer’s Back

Sri Rama Farmer

Rumors of the Happy Farmer’s disappearance have been exaggerated.  It is true that the HF has been somewhat less visible during the past twelve months.  A wee bit of winery withdrawal was necessary to provide the space and time for him to pursue the Doc Ornish heart rehabilitation program.  The program seems to be working.  Not withstanding dire predictions of doom, the farmer is still walking around; and there are other signs of life.  He has lost 15 pounds.  He now weighs what he always said he weighed.  His total cholesterol has dropped 100 points to something around 150.  He has become a vegetarian with vegan sympathies.  He has taken up hatha yoga and meditation, and he has been on thirty-three days of Buddhist retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh.  When he isn’t levitating or going to the doctor, he has been back in the winery and vineyard.

A Full House!  Two New Releases

For all of our readers who wondered if they had fallen off our mailing list, there is a much more simple explanation:  truly, we haven’t published a new Journal since last May – the longest hiatus in our “occasional” publication in the last fourteen years.  So you haven’t missed anything, and we are on pins and needles wondering if we still have any customers after so long a silence?!  The communication gap is only partly a result of industrial-grade procrastination.  There was also another minor detail:  we were substantially out of bottled wine to sell.  With the Happy Farmer in “sick bay”, wine was accumulating in the cellar and not making it into the bottle.  For several months, we have beavering away in the cellar, and now we are caught up, and have ample stocks of the full product line:  993), Cabernet Franc (1995), Tinto (1994), Chardonnay (1996), Dorado (1988), Chenin Blanc (1996), Jahannisberg Riesling (1996).  Check out the back page for a complete price list.

What Makes Casa Chenin Blanc So Good?

 If you tried a Chenin Blanc from another winery but you didn’t like it, you should try again.  Almost all North American producers of Chenin Blanc have relegated that variety to low-end “picnic” wine.  To make wine like that, start with fruit from the hot central valley where Chenin Blanc grows in deep soil under irrigation, yielding 10 to 15 tons to the acre.  This fruit can often be purchased for $200 per ton.  Pick the fruit at low sugar content, before it becomes fully mature.  This will maximize the tonnage and keep the alcohol low.  Arrest the fermentation after a few days to reduce the alcohol further and to leave the sweetness of unfermented grape juice in the wine.  Voila!  A “light”, which is to say, neutral wine for distracted businessmen to order by the glass when they’re lunching alone with no one to impress.  Fruit received in September is out the door in October.  The profit margin on this deal is quite favorable.

By contrast, at the Casa we dry farm our Chenin Blanc.  Our yield is typically 3 to 4 tons per acre, and the average price of Napa Valley fruit is about $1500 per ton.  We allow the fruit to become fully ripe – 23 degrees brix.  We ferment the wine completely dry, until all the sugar in the grape juice is converted to alcohol.  To maximize the most subtle and delicate nuances of flavor and aroma we ferment at low temperatures (55 degrees more or less).  Fermentation in this way frequently lasts sixty days.  A portion of the juice is fermented in small oak barrels to add another dimension of flavor.  We minimize handling of the wine to eliminate oxidation.  In short, we make the wine with every care (and expense) of Chardonnay, which will typically retail for up to four times the price.  For those who know, Casa Chenin Blanc (fast becoming the last remaining Napa Valley Chenin Blanc) is the greatest value going.  It is intensely flavored, well structured, and scented like apples and lemons.  It is a “big” wine.  If you can resist the impulse to drink it immediately, it is the most long lived of any white table wine.  Our first Casa vintage (now 18 years old) continues to astonish.  I’m told that special visitors to Vouvray (the most famous French producer of Chenin Blanc) are celebrated with vintages forty years in the bottle.

Casa Blanca Dry Chenin Blanc

 If a person knows anything at all about Casa Nuestra wine, she will probably know about Tinto.  Next to the Tinto, the Casa seems best known for Cabernet Franc.  Committed wine connesetti may also know about Johannisberg Riesling and Dorado – the former because it has become a hard to find variety and the latter because it is one-of-a-kind.  Of course, it is assumed that Casa Nuestra makes Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.  After all, what winery doesn’t?  Isn’t it strange that the original Casa signature wine, dry Chenin Blanc, is the least well known?  For many years, the Casa made only Chenin Blanc, and our Chenin vintages have frequently been cited as the very best of their kind.  Remember when our Chenin Blanc was served by the White House?  Did Ronald Reagan really know his wine or was he just fishing for the Latino vote?  Chenin Blanc has never overcome the misconception that it is a “cheap” wine – often confused with “Chablis”, which is not a varietal designation at all but rather a district in France.  In the days when California wine was mostly consumed under freeway overpasses, red wine was “Burgundy,” whit wine was “Chablis”, and anything with bubbles in it (no matter how produced) was “Champagne”.  In an overhyped market of slogans and sound bites, few buyers understand that Chenin Blanc is the noble grape of the Loire Valley in France, the enchanting region of storybook castles.  History tells that Chenin Blanc was the favorite wine of Eleanore of Acquitane and the famed musketeers of Dumas – never out-classed by white Burgundy (what we call Chardonnay).

Goodbye Styrofoam

I first met Peter when he tried to drive his fully depreciated flatbed truck up our driveway with a load of recycled bottles.  Near the top of the driveway, he abandoned hope and backed down to the Silverado Trail.  Peter is the creator of a recycle operation called Encore, specializing in selling recycled bottles to the wine industry.  When we met, some twenty years ago, Peter’s business looked a lot like Casa Nuestra, a one-person company with ambitious hopes to do something authentic and planet-friendly.  Because Casa Nuestra does not have a forklift, we had plenty of time to get to know one another as we unloaded several hundred cases by hand.  Over the years (Casa still does not own a forklift), we have unloaded many thousands of cases in the same way.  Peter graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1967, at the height of the cultural revolution.  In college, he did guitar/vocals with a Hot Nuts band!  As from the lowly acorn doth spring the mighty oak, so Peter’s business, Encore, has flowered into a latter day industrial success story, engendering hope that going green can be commercially successful.  Encore’s most recent contribution is as notable as it is unheralded:  the creation of a wine shipping carton which is entirely recyclable and which is made entirely of recycled fibers.  NO STYROFOAM!  It may not be the Manhattan project, but it is no small thing, and it comes just in time, as the mail order wine business has gone from a drop to an ocean.  Encore’s shipping carton may be the most important environmental contribution in the wine industry since Encore began recycling bottles twenty years ago.

Chardonnay is Back

It has been distressing to disappoint the Chardonnay people for so long.  For over a year the Casa has been trying to stretch the available library stores of ’91 and ’92 Chardonnay, rationing them out a bottle or two at a time.  At last, the shortage is over.  The a996 Chardonnay is here.  It took a little longer than expected, but the wine is better for it.  For those who like to know, the wine (100% Napa Valley Chardonnay) was entirely fermented in American oak barrels without malolactic fermentation.  It is full-bodied, highly aromatic, and rich in fruit and oak flavors.

Buy Dorado Now

Dorado is our late harvest Chenin Blanc.  Arising out of the unusual conditions in 1988, which brought the “noble rot,” this Sauterne style dessert wine is richly flavored, aromatic, and beautifully colored.  Like port or sherry, this is a type of wine, which will age forever.  If you were seeking a gift for a newborn with the idea of keeping it for her 21st birthday, this would be an excellent choice.

Wines of this kind typically cost $30 or more for a 375ml bottle.  At $15 per bottle, this is an outstanding value.  In fact, its price today is less than its release price adjusted for inflation!  That should appeal to your accountant.  There is another reason for this special promotion:  On a recent BATF (Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms) inspection, the inspector discovered that our Dorado bottles (which are imported from France) express their volume as “.375 l” instead of “375 ml”.  Because of this labeling violation, we have been given 12 months to “use up” the remaining inventory.  Whatever is left over at the end of that period, I will have to relabel.  Aren’t you pleased to see how your taxes are invested?  It’s a pity I don’t traffic in AK-45’s.  It would be a lot easier.

Social Insecurity

Mail List Alert

We are trudging through a change in computer operating system, which is the anxiety equivalent of moving your principle residence, a death in the family, menopause, or a divorce.  This is the fourth time we have been through this exercise since the computer arrived at the Casa in 1982:  from CPM, to MS-DOS, to Windows, and now to Mac.  Each time, the change seems to be more difficult, as computers become more and more complicated without becoming any more useful – another example of the dark side of capitalism.  One wonders whether we might not have been dollars ahead if we had stayed with pencils.  Inevitably, some of our mailing list names are going to fall victim to this changeover.  Please help us out by using your free return postage to notify us of “corruptions” in your address information; and by all means, send us your cyberspace numbers if you have any.  If you receive more than one copy of your Journal, do a good deed and pass it on to one of your wine-drinking friends or toss it onto the pile of Home Journals in the doctor’s waiting room.  You never know.  Of course, if you didn’t get this mailing at all, please let us know.  Remember, the Journal is free and worth every penny!

Ever Popular Sample Case

Our sample case is a popular way to try all the different Casa wines at big savings.  Each sample case contains:  two bottles of Chenin Blanc, two bottles of Chardonnay, one bottle of Riesling, one bottle of Dorado, two bottles of Tinto, two bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, and two bottles of Cabernet Franc.  This is a great gift because you don’t need to know the lucky person’s taste in wine.  The selection is balanced between red and white, dry and sweet.  She is bound to find what she likes in this package.  Perhaps it is the season, but it seems that this sample case is particularly popular as a wedding present, and it is major job satisfaction for the HF to pack a box for such a celebration.  $140 plus delivery and CA sales tax, if applicable.

Glossary of Wine Names

Cabernet Franc is less familiar in North America than Cabernet Sauvignon.  It is the red wine of the St. Emillion region in Bordeaux.  It is softer than Cab Sauvignon and more complex than Merlot, with intense flavors of red berries.  Cabernet Sauvignon:  The signature red wine of the Napa Valley, a genetic hybrid of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc.  Chardonnay, the white wine of Burgundy, has become this country’s white wine of choice.  It is sometimes called the white wine for people who prefer red wine.  Dorado:  Our late harvest Chenin Blanc is a sweet aperitif wine.  Like the great Sauternes, Dorado is a gift of the “botrytis” or “noble rot” which concentrates the sweetness and adds a unique nut-like flavor of its own.  Dry Chenin Blanc is a specialty of the house.  The Casa still makes Chenin Blanc in the grand style, dry, highly structured, with delicate and complex flavors of fruit and oak.  It is delicious as young wine, with a potential cellar life of decades.  Johannisberg Riesling:  An exotic spicy wine made in the traditional German off-dry style.  A welcome change from dry white wine.  Tinto:  Our most popular wine, Tinto is an authentic Napa Valley field mix, a wine recipe planted in the ground over 50 years ago by an Italian who brought his folk knowledge with him.  An entirely enchanting and unique red wine.  Quixote is a shameless copy of the ultra chic, first growth wines of Bordeaux:  a blend of Cab Franc, Merlot, and Sauvignon.  Sold out at the present time.

A Slice of Harvest

The crew is expected at first light, so I set my alarm for 5:30.   Most uncharacteristic! But I must leave time for meditation and oatmeal.  One cannot be entirely certain when the next meal will be.  I have anticipated the alarm, and it is still dark so I use my flashlight.  I’ve left my clothes in the kitchen, so I won’t have to wake Cody.

The cats are always so glad when I’m up at this hour.  They think I’m becoming more like a cat all the time.  I draw open the shades in the front room and light the candles above the fireplace.  I will “sit” facing the rising sun.  The darkness outside the window is turning to gray, and I notice that son Martin (who arrived home from college last night for a brief visit) is asleep on the couch.  Last night he asked me to wake him up to join in the crush, but I let him sleep. 

 We are harvesting some Merlot today, the first day of the Casa Nuestra vintage.  We plan to pick the vines, which grow on the slope of the northwest corner of the vineyard.  There is very little soil in this area.  The vines are growing on top of a rock ledge, so the yield is always very light and the grapes ripen earlier than the rest.  We sell most of the Merlot crop to Burgess Cellars, but it is impractical for Burgess to receive this small lot of precocious Merlot.  Rather than waste the fruit, we pick it for Casa Nuestra.  It is a small job, and it is usually the first winemaking of the vintage.  It’s good to start with something easy, a chance to work out the predictable glitches in our quaint systems.

Our Lamborghini crawler tractor pulls a small trailer carrying two half-ton bins through the vineyard rows.  It looks like there are about 2 tons of grapes on “the hill” – or four bins.  We have three tractors:  a 25hp Massey Furgeson wheel tractor, a 1950’s Ford 9n, and the Lamborghini.  The average age of the three tractors is 27 years.  The Lambo is the tractor of choice for this job because of the slope and because the turns are really tight.It is a small job, so we are working with a small crew.  Rigoberto Nava and his father Francisco work here full time.  Today, to help with harvest, they have brought with them Imelda (a sister), Yolanda (a sister-in-law), Jesus (a cousin) and Rito (a friend).  All of these people have worked here many times over many years.  We couldn’t do it without them.  They cut the grapes from the vine with small crescent-shaped knives.  They pick into plastic lug boxes called “picking pans”.  When the pan is full (weighing between forty and fifty pounds), he or she will dump the pan into a bin on the trailer.  Picking grapes is a highly skilled occupation.  Rigo is world class.  If grape picking were an Olympic event, Rigo would be a contender.  In any harvest crew, you can count him as two.

When the first trailer is full, Francisco brings up a second trailer with the Ford, so that the crew can keep on picking while Francisco, Rigo and I begin crushing the first load at the winery.  My job is to lift the bins off the trailer and dump them CAREFULLY into the crusher-stemmer.  I use the front-end loader on the Massey.  It is a rather hairy chested affair since the loader is operating at the very limit of its lifting capacity.  If I don’t pay attention, my back wheels come off the ground – a thrill I don’t need.  We used to pick into trailers (called gondolas) holding three to four tons.  We moved the fruit with pitchforks from the gondola to the crusher-stemmer.  Using smaller bins and the front-end loader we save a lot of man energy, and it is kinder to the fruit, which improves the wine.  I can’t prove it, but I think the wine is maximized when the interval from the vine to the tank is short.  I remember how my Dad wouldn’t let me pick the corn until the cook water was already boiling.  This is possible when the vines are only a few yards away from the winery.

    We take the first trailer to the winery at about 9:30.  The day is clear and bright, and the morning chill, which is the harbinger of fall, has yielded to a comfortable temperature.  It is a great day for picking grapes.  It’s hard to believe that we have ever picked in pouring rain or in 110 degree heat.  I shed layers down to my t-shirt.  Because we are making red wine, we don’t have to press the fruit this morning (as we would do if we were making white wine).  We will press the fruit only after it has fermented into wine, in about two weeks.  Today, all we need do is process the fruit through the stemmer-crusher which will remove the stems and break the skins of the grapes.  The juice, the pulp, the skins, the seeds – everything but the stems – is pumped into the receiving tank.  The “must”, as it is called, will be inoculated with yeast and the fermentation will begin.

    I ease the first bin up and over the hopper of the crusher-stemmer.  Very slowly I tip the bin forward, and I hear the fruit tumble in.  I can’t see what I’m doing very well, so Rigo is directing me from in front.  I make a mental note to hang a mirror in the oak tree behind the crusher.  That would help a lot, and the squirrels would be amused.  As the machine begins to receive the fruit, Rigo turns on the pump, and I see a column of red must pass through the opaque 2” hose running to a temperature-controlled stainless steel tank inside the winery building.  I signal Rigo to follow the line into the tank, just to make sure.   I remember the time when, after crushing grapes for some time in front of the winery, I wandered inside to find that the hose from the crusher had never been coupled to the receiving tank.  The vintage was going down the center drain in the winery floor.  I hate it when that happens.


Sales Room Closed

    Some of you know that we have welcomed visitors to the winery for several years on weekends.  In recent years, our friend, John Alleman, has been in charge of this function.  John became dangerously ill last November; and although he has now recovered completely, he has decided to retire from the Casa.  After much consideration, we have decided not to reopen our sales room – at least for the time being.  The “hospitality” business in the Napa Valley has become a monster; and although we have always tried to remain focused on wine and not “party”, we do not wish to contribute to the touristification of our community.  We never wished to be an attraction in a theme park, and there is something inherently suspect about dispensing glasses of wine to weekenders in automobiles.  It seems that the only original innovation left to be done in the Napa Valley is to close a sales room.  Of course, if you wish to avoid the delivery costs by picking up your goods at the winery, we encourage you to do so, but please arrange a time in advance.  Thanks.

Sales Tax Increased to 7.75%

    Napa County voters recently approved an increase in the sales tax.  The money is earmarked for flood control measures – something which is in the foreground of peoples’ minds after the floods of recent years.  The Casa lies along the Napa River and has experienced major flooding at times. So it would seem that we have much to gain from this initiative.  Still, I’m not so sure.  I believe the flooding is the direct result of intense development throughout the valley.  The real environmental cost of that development is not borne by developers.  Those who have profited from the development should bear the cost, but instead those costs are passed over to the taxpayers by the most regressive of all taxes, the sales tax.