You’re a what?” That’s a question I was asked a lot in Napa and Sonoma. The other was, “Does it have anything to do with dogs?”
Sadly not. WWOOF stands for Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms. The idea is that volunteers help out on the land, learn about farming and support the organic movement. In return, the host family provides food and accomodation.
I looked for a vineyard in California and found Random Ridge Winery. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Imagine getting up every morning and walking out to this:
My main task was suckering. The vines were very lively after a warm winter, so trunk after trunk, row after row, I gently brushed off the unwanted buds and cut off the extra shoots at the bottom. It was a bit like Bonsai on a ten acre scale.
Random Ridge doesn’t use herbicides. It’s all down to tilling and mowing and using rock phosphate instead. All the wine is bottled without using fining agents too. On this part of the trip, I’ve tasted about fifty different wines. When it’s organic, you can tell the difference. I like to believe it’s because the vines get a lot of care and attention. That’s why after the first week, I was excited to see this:
Clusters were forming on the Sangiovese. It emphasised the fact that everything I did would affect the way the vines grew the following year.
Not surprisingly, I also enjoyed driving the truck around. This was another job at the vineyard – going up and down the rows so that we could clear away the dead wood. I’d almost got away with it until I heard, “Stop feathering the clutch.”
As for the winemaking itself, I’ve learned that there are so many variables that can affect the way it tastes – from the rocks beneath the vine roots to the way the grapes are picked. Do you use wood barrels, if so, are they toasted? Is it Californian oak or French? Is it fermented in a stainless steel tank instead, or a giant concrete egg? Do you use a cork, silicone or screw top? I will never sip wine in the same way again. I’ve also made friends for life.