Saturday, April 9, 2011

Private Barrel Tasting with James Hendon, Winemaker at Pear Valley

Ron and I met James Hendon, winemaker extraordinaire for Pear Valley Winery (photo credit Pear Valley 2009), a few weeks ago at my official central coast book launch party at Kevin Rankin's awesome Paso Wine Centre in Paso Robles.


James and his friends bought a dozen of my book/CD packages and invited us to come out for a winery tour and barrel tasting so, uh, naturally, we hooked that up ASAP!

James is brilliant, friendly and funny. Plus I also think he is pretty cute. (It's okay, Ron understands). The three of us had a wonderful time touring the winery, sampling his wines and tapping his vast knowledge of farming, fruit, fermentation and fun. It was like a wine lovers' play date on James' playground!

When we arrived at the winery, a helicopter was spraying the vines. I assumed it was sulfur, but James took us to look at the vines and explained that it was a copper ion solution. Copper? Sounds bizarre.

But because of the impending freezing temperatures, the newly popped buds must be protected from frost or the winery could lose an entire vintage. Ouch. Some of the tiny buds and leaves were already black or brown from the previous cold snap.

James said there are three ways to prevent this: 1) by using large fans to keep warm air circulating around the vines, 2) by continuously spraying water on the vines, or 3) by spraying copper to form a protective barrier, which was the Pear Valley choice.

Then we toured the "crush pad," where the ripe grape clusters are processed.

Check out this custom basket press that James had made by experts at Diemme in Italy.

The basket, lower part on the right, holds three tons of fermented grapes and each press takes several hours.


The compressor, separate apparatus on the left, is meticulously calculated to gently apply pressure to the macerated grapes with the upper form-fitting lid, and then release after it "senses" that the right amount of grape juice has been pressed off.

All of this happens very, very slowly. According to James, winemakers need to be patient and use time to their advantage. Rushing any part of the process can lead to mistakes or lower-quality wine.

About this time, James introduced us to his assistant winemaker, Jared Lee, as he was finishing a tour of his own and wrapping up the day.

Here are the two masters in front of the custom crusher and de-stemmer.

It was really sweet of James to introduce Ron and me to Jared by talking about my book!

As we left the crush pad, I noticed a wood-fire grill next to the processing equipment, and asked James if BBQ was part of the daily regimen.

He said, "Definitely. BBQ and beer. I always say, 'it takes a lot of beer to make wine!'" Indeed.

We got to talking about craft beer, and specifically Anderson Valley Brewing Company (age required to enter website), then all agreeing that Arrogant Bastard Ale was a fave. We shared our love for Xingu beer with James (he will L-O-V-E this beverage!) as he opened the fermentation room doors.

Wow! Fermentation barrels of many sizes!

The stainless barrels pictured here are the ones James uses most frequently.

They hold approximately five tons.


There are also 40-ton barrels that look like small apartment buildings!

Pear Valley grows 100 acres of grapes which yield 30,000 cases of wine each year.

This is evident when entering the barrel storage room which, James says, houses some 1,600 barrels of numerous vintages.

With clean wine glasses in hand, we followed James into the depths of his creations as they rested in multifarious oak barrels from Minnesota to Pennsylvania to Hungary to France.


James keeps the barrel room at a consistent temperature of 60˚F and a matching humidity of 74%.

The stainless kegs pictured in the lower left of the photo are filled with top-up wines of each varietal.

James led us down Aglianico Alley to sample the '09 first.

This is precisely when we started discussing the title for my next book, the sequel to "Cravings, Ravings & Misbehavings," because I said the fruit in the wine tasted like a craisin on my palate.

James suggested I title the next book "Craisins, Ravin's & Misbehavin's," and we all had a hearty laugh. Clever man.

Here is James with his glass thief, retrieving sumptuous samples of his 2009 Pear Valley Aglianico.

We continued on to the '09 Grenache which was delightfully fruity. James says that, due to the light color, he will add 2-5% of Syrah to the wine prior to bottling to give it a deeper, more attractive hue.

Next we sampled the 2009 Syrah. The tannins were a little "grippy," according to James. He will bottle this wine in July and then, to allow the tannins time to soften, lay it down for one year prior to releasing the wine in the tasting room.

As we tasted the 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon, James discussed some interesting legal issues with regard to winemaking. In California, grapes have a longer growing season with more sun and so they can produce very high sugar levels, or brix. In France, the opposite is true: the growing season is shorter with less heat and the fruit is typically much lower in natural sugar.

So, it is illegal in France to add water to the wine before bottling, but in California, it is illegal to add sugar!

James dipped into the 2009 port made with Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. We found it to be silky smooth with flavors of caramel, nutmeg, ginger and toasted bread. I said, "Hey, this is like my Fluffy Pumpkin Pie with Gingersnap Crust recipe in my book!" James agreed, with a wink.

We moved on to the 2010 port-style concoction made from Tempranillo grapes, and all three of us concurred that it was like drinking buttered toast with triple berry jam.

James ended our delicious tour and tasting with his 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. "It's a big cherry," he said. Definitely. Great tannins, smooth on the palate but chewy as well. He will bottle this in July or August of 2012.

Here's a photo of Ron and James in front of massive wine barrels.

When Ron went to take a picture of James and me, the batteries in our eight-year-old camera died.

Oh, the life of a budget-conscious blogger.

Anyway, we had a fantastic time with this amazing winemaker.

James, a UC-Davis graduate, is so gracious, charming and warm, and his wines match his energy exactly.

He is also a musician and a surfer, and I'm sure that the metaphors to these aspects of his life will apply mellifluously to his magical winemaking mastery!

Ron and I, with friends, will be heading to the Pear Valley tasting room soon.

Thank you to James and to adorable Pear Valley owners Tom and Kathleen!

All other photo credits BlipsWerx Productions 2011.

1 comment:

[syne] [doun] said...

Rumor has it that they are actually growing some charbono at Pear Valley...Was it mentioned?