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Crush your own at wine camp

Welcome to crush camp, the dirt-under-the-fingernails experience for the wine lover who wants to be there for the birth of the bottle.

By Michelle Locke, Associated Press Writer

September 27, 2006

“Standing on the sunny crush pad of the Schramsberg winery, Lon McEachern was in vinophile heaven.

“He’d raised a glass of bubbly to the start of the 2006 harvest and now was sipping fresh-pressed juice gleaned from tubs of glistening green grapes he helped pick in the post-dawn chill.

“‘Fabulous,’ he said with a high-wattage grin.

“Welcome to crush camp, the dirt-under-the-fingernails experience for the wine lover who wants to be there for the birth of the bottle.

“‘It’s really eye-opening,’ said McEachern, one of more than two dozen people who recently took part in the annual harvest camp run by Schramsberg, a Napa Valley producer of premium sparkling wines.

“Camp Schramsberg goes back nine years. It was started by winery co-founder Jamie Davies aimed at food industry leaders, but now has been broadened to include consumers.

“It is one of a number of behind-the-scenes programs offered in wine country that vary from the luxe Napa Valley Reserve, a year-round club with a six-figure initiation fee, to a first-come, first-served chance to jump in a tub and stomp a few grapes gratis at the Grgich Hills winery during harvest weekends.

“For wineries, the programs are a chance to build customer relations. For participants, it’s a chance to see the inner workings of harvest.

“‘It’s the excitement of being out in the vineyards and actually doing the work that makes crush camp so much fun,’ said Wayne Ryan, national education manager for Diageo Chateau & Estate Wines, which runs a four-winery crush camp that includes crushing and blending at the scenic Sterling and Beaulieu vineyards.

“‘This isn’t a seminar about viticulture. It’s everybody gets a picking box and a knife,’ he said.

“Typically, campers also spend time with a winemaker and learn what happens to the grapes after they get picked.

“At Schramsberg, campers learn how to ‘riddle’ the bottles (turning them to loosen sediment) and make up their own ‘dosage,’ a blend added during finishing, for a bottle they’ll take home with them. They also get lessons on knocking the cork out of the bottle with a saber, an Old-World tradition.

“The program is run in concert with the Culinary Institute of America’s California division and half the fee for the three-day event ($995 this fall) is a tax-deductible donation for institute scholarships.

“Harvest camps draw all kinds, said Michaela Rodeno, chief executive of the St. Supery winery, which runs one-day camps that start with picking and end with blending.

“‘They seem to be very mixed groups of people who do it. All ages, sizes, shapes. Basically they do it for fun,’ she said.

“Haute or humble, wine camps offer an insiders’ view that few other industries do.

“For McEachern, that happened on a recent morning as he and fellow campers pulled on orange picking gloves. First, Schramsberg winemaker Craig Roemer gave a detailed history of the vines they were looking at, where the rootstock had come from, how it had been pruned and why.

“Then, after mock-sternly warning campers that their bins should contain grapes, ‘not weeds, rocks or pruning shears,’ he set them to work.

“Later, they followed the fruit to the Schramsberg winery at the tip of the Napa Valley where the grapes, with many more picked by professional crews, went into the press in a tumble of pearly greens.

“It was a moment that McEachern, a poker analyst who does color commentary for the World Series of Poker on ESPN, had been looking forward to for months.

“‘We don’t study wine, we just have a love of food and a love of wine,’ he said. “‘We’re learning so much today.’”

To read more about Camp Schramsberg 2007, please visit http://www.schramsberg.com/camp_2007.html.

September 27, 2006
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Crush your own at wine camp