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What did I know about wine before September 17? Well, mostly that I liked it.

Something about white wine, specifically chardonnay, has always seemed sophisticated, lady like. It’s a go-to drink when in polite company or when attempting to make a good impression at a business dinner. Despite the fact that I’ve gone wine tasting in Napa, Sonoma, Long Island and the Finger Lakes, I’m still a neophyte. In fact, a simple question—what’s my favorite varietal—caused me to pause and shamefully ask, What’s that? Worse, I was with a wine pro who was stunned and very nicely went into a discussion explaining that varietals are simply wines made from a certain wine grape. Duh. I vowed never to let such a faux pas happen again.

Alas, when the opportunity came up for me to attend the Sonoma County Grape Camp, I was game. When would I ever get the chance to mingle with wine enthusiasts, rookies like me and budding vintners? Three days in Sonoma County, during the heart of harvest, learning from growers, vintners, sommeliers and chefs would surely put me in a new epicurean class. It did that and much more.

RELATED: 10 Napa wineries you need to visit

The opening dinner to kick off Grape Camp was at Ferrari-Canaro Winery & Vineyards in Healdsburg. The roughly two dozen of us wandered through marvelous gardens before entering the palatial winery for dinner. Much like at summer camp, at dinner we went around the room and us introduced ourselves and explained why we came. The reasons were as varied as the crowd—a mix of boomers, thirtysomethings and a few seniors. We came from all over the country and one couple as far as from Mexico City. One couple was on their honeymoon, another, farmers looking to get into wine, one pair of sisters wanted fun quality time together, another couple gave their partner wine camp for a birthday present. Mostly, everyone sought a deeper knowledge of wine.

Day 1

The best way to learn about wine is to start at the beginning. We headed to Sangiacomo Family Vineyards to harvest grapes. I don’t think any of us had picked grapes before. We put our gloves on, our sharp tools for snipping and prepared to get a little dirty. I got a big bin and headed down a row of vines. The sun was strong, even though it was early morning. It was quiet. I gingerly picked at first and then chopped with a rhythm. I was focused on one thing—grapes. Nothing else mattered. I got lost in a quiet peace. It was the best I’d felt in quite some time. I filled one bin, and then another, and half of another. I felt a sense of accomplishment. I walked away thinking, “I must start a garden.”

Young Woman Collecting Ripe White Grapes during the Harvesting

We didn’t just pick the grapes. We also processed the fruit at Schug Carneros Estate Winery. We learned about the process of de-stemming clusters, punching down and fermentation and topped it off with a treat—a tasting. I was imaging that months down the road, the very grapes we had plucked earlier might taste something like this.

For sure, we worked up quite an appetite. No worries, Ram’s Gate Winery in Carneros taught us how to pair chardonnay with delicacies like smoked Hamachi tartare, watermelon radish, spiced aioli, lime and yucca, grilled late summer corn with crème fraiche, sumac, roasted cauliflower with capers, tahini, lemon, baby beets and pistachio vinaigrette and shaved pecorino. We also paired pinot noir with smoked Spanish octopus salad with fennel, frisée, Ram’s Gate Pepper Romesco, braised short ribs, Ram’s Gate heirloom tomato ragout, potatas bravas, lobster mushrooms with thyme and crispy garlic chips and fresh focaccia. We Finished it all off with duck fat shortbread cookies, smoked brown sugar caramel and beignets and lemon curd with cinnamon sugar.

Next, it was off to the Benzinger Family Winery in Sonoma Valley for an educational and interactive seminar, Wine 101. We got an in-depth introduction to wine, grape growing, winemaking and tips on tasting during the seminar moderated by experienced sommeliers. We toured the vineyard, tasted three different wines and learned about the many varietals of grapes grown locally. We tasted Benzinger wines too.

Our absolutely fab day ended with dinner at the Beltane Ranch in Glen Ellen, which not only has a vineyard, but a B&B, a ranch house built in 1892 that still has much of the original architecture and antiques. It’s hard to say what folks liked most, the flowers everywhere, the vast vegetable garden or Paisley the brown and white cow? Beltane is homey, comfortable and when the sun set amongst all the landscaping it was hard not to ooh and ahh. The food was too much, wood-fired green goddess flatbread, goat cheese, garden greens, pickled green tomatoes, salmon filet, chimichurri, cast iron baby peppers, cherry tomato, farro salad, duck leg confit, sautéed lacinato kale and snap peas, buttered rice, tahini, with a last course of vanilla bean panna cotta with raspberries, whipped cream and sea salt.

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Day 2

More morning picking. This time at Balletto Vineyards in the Russian River Valley. We felt like pros until a real crew showed us how it’s supposed to be done. We were amazed when they came in, got in position and chopped speedily down the rows. Again, we followed our grapes to production and had a tasting.

It was time for more schooling. Our industry leaders included Giovanni Balisteri, a winemaker for Russian River Vineyards, Julie Martinelli of Martinelli Winery and Vineyards and Rod Berglund, the winemaker for Joseph Swan Vineyards. We had three chardonnays and three pinot noirs. We were slowly becoming experts.

But there was more fun to be had—our own version of Top Chef. Our challenge was to pair local wines with dishes created impromptu, utilizing homegrown ingredients. Chefs Duskie Estes and John Stewart of ZAZU Kitchen + Farm invited us to their home. Davis Family Vineyards’ Guy Davis helped with the festivities. Breaking up into teams and having to be creative on the clock was beyond fun. We learned much about cooking and wine amidst the friendly competition.

By the time we had our western themed closing dinner at the Dutton Ranch, we were fully sated, yet found room for corn-fennel soup, with crème fraiche, toasted lemon, shrimp, succotash, and much more, paired with wines from Dutton Estate Winery, Dutton-Goldfield, and Rodney Strong Vineyards. We closed much like we started, going around the campfire of sorts. But this time, there was a lot of passion, like a church revival. There’s something spiritual about the soil and the sun. We learned the basics and beyond of wine, developed a healthy respect for the growers and vintners, as we heard their stories of sacrifice, hard work, maintaining family legacies and especially their commitment to sustainability. Yes, I’ll hold the stem of my glass correctly, sniff my glass and gently roll, not violently shake my wine before drinking. I understand that such wonderful taste is a long process and not to be taken for granted. Also, the barrel wine is stored in matters, as well as how long its kept there. You have to recognize when a grape is ready for picking and when to just wait. Patience is key in the vineyard. Without question, there’s new appreciation for the good stuff in my glass, knowing from whence it came. And to top it all off, we made friends and learned much about ourselves.

Grape Camp happens in Sonoma County, California. To attend a wine camp near you, visit Wine Camp on the North Fork of Long Island; Wine Camp in the Virginia wine country and the Texas Wine & Grape Growers Association’s Wine Camp.

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Tagged: California

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Sheryl Nance-Nash

Sheryl Nance-Nash

Sheryl is a writer and editor, specializing in travel, personal finance, business and career topics. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Money,,,, Upscale Magazine, Essence, Black Enterprise and others.

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