September 15, 2012

Report from Napa Valley: Cakebread Cellars' American Harvest Workshop

I'm just back from an eye-opening trip to the Cakebread Cellars American Harvest Workshop in the Napa Valley, where the visionary Cakebread wine-making family has been holding annual confabs for chefs, purveyors, selected loyal customers and a few members of the press for 26 years now.

Artichoke in Dolores Cakebread's garden.

The idea of the workshop is to show invitees the intricacies of wine making, introduce talented chefs from across the country to some of Napa's top purveyors, and give them a chance to both taste and cook with those products. It's also an opportunity for rarefied feasting, fun and superior imbibing, though on our first day Culinary Director and Workshop Manager Brian Streeter warned us that the schedule he devised wasn't for sissies: our days began  as early as 6:30 a.m. and were packed with tours and tastings, as well as team-building civilian-pro cooking sessions.

Among the things we learned: that the valley's high-quality wine production across a wide range of grape varieties owes a lot to its rich array of soil types. Even though it's only about five miles long and an eighth of the size of the Bordeaux wine-producing region, Napa is home to 33 different soil "series," which account for about half of all the the types of soil found in the world.

Tortilla making for our Mexican breakfast in the vineyard.

Director Vineyard Operations Toby Halkovich

After a beautiful Mexican breakfast served in the vineyard, Viticulturist and Cakebread Director of Vineyard Operations Toby Halkovich described his job to us. The level of high-tech detail that viticulturists now have at their fingertips boggles the mind, at least it did mine.  Halkovich explained how seven weather stations plus various probes and meters on Cakebread's 500 acres keep track of dozens of indicators in its many micro-climates, from minute shifts in temperature and humidity to changes in soil moisture, root activity, gas exchanges, photosynthesis and water conductivity in the plants. He can call up the changing, detailed picture painted by these indicators on his iPhone or iPad, all of which help determine decisions on leaf pruning, irrigation patterns and harvesting. Then there are soil enhancers from fish emulsion and brewed, microbe-rich compost "teas" to what Halkovich called "bugs in a jug," which consume nutrients added to the soil and dissipate them evenly via their decomposing bodies.

Forni-Brown tomatoes in all their glory.

Some of my favorite parts of the Workshop were visits with purveyors. Forni-Brown Gardens in Calistoga produces 50 varieties of the best tomatoes I've ever tried, as well as microgreens for restaurants including The French Laundry. The organic gardeners try to keep up with chef Thomas Keller's admonition, "smaller, smaller!" Among the varieties they grow are micro daikon, arugula, cilantro, chives, red mustard, upland cress, basil cinnamon (the latter of which Forni-Brown partner Barney Welsh says "on lobster will knock your socks off"). When I asked Welsh what the secret to the garden's other-worldly tomatoes is, his answer: partner Lynn Brown "is obsessed with every detail" involved in growing them. It also helps to possess the kind of patience only few are blessed with, essential when it comes to growing those labor-intensive microgreens. Forni-Brown mostly supply restaurants but is open to the public for a plant sale once a year.

Cilantro microgreens

I'll be posting more pictures and reports and blogging more about purveyors and chefs who attended the American Harvest Workshop, so stay tuned!

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