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Travel: I Love Wine Camp

4 minute read
Joel Stein/Napa Valley

I am standing in a Napa Valley, Calif. field early on a Friday morning with 24 yuppies who paid $875 to pick grapes. A dozen Mexican day laborers, who have been working since 4 a.m. filling buckets for $2 each, pause to let us take over their jobs. “They think, Gringos loco,” explains our camp counselor, Wayne Ryan.

Crush Camp, where laypeople get to be part of wine country’s fall harvest, is the most sophisticated addition yet to the pantheon of self-improvement weekends for the BlackBerry set. It joins BMW Performance Driving School, Rock ‘n’ Roll Fantasy Camp and the original wish-fulfillment adventure, the one in which Cal Ripken puts on a convincing face and tells you that you’ve got a pretty good swing. Only instead of bond traders, Crush Camp is packed with people who take private yoga classes and won this trip at a benefit auction for the Junior League. If you want to talk wine, being with these people is the price you have to pay.

Diageo, the world’s biggest liquor company, created Crush Camp two years ago and clearly doesn’t care if the camp makes money. That became obvious not when I added up my two days of hotel stay, shuttle rides between vineyards and awesome catered meals but when I opened a second bottle of 1994 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon over dinner. Diageo must figure there’s no more valuable marketing tool than a guy at a dinner party boring other guests with stories about how he might have picked the very Merlot grapes they’re drinking. Then again, Diageo doesn’t have to be at that dinner party.

The big box of Band-Aids in our welcome gift bag made us feel tough, but a lot more drinking than working goes on at Crush Camp. We stopped picking grapes after about an hour and raked grapes from bins into a crusher only long enough to pose for pictures. It took all of 10 minutes for us to take turns punching down a cap of skins into a small batch of Malbec with our hands, during which three of my campmates somehow refrained from making an I Love Lucy joke.

While we were drinking, we walked around the wineries and slowed up their production. At Provenance Vineyard, we tasted the same wine from different barrels and learned that French oak really does taste different from American oak (it’s less oaky). I got winemaker Tom Rinaldi to let me taste Petit Verdot, a blending grape used in tiny quantities for its dark color. It tastes a lot like wine.

We used refractometers to test the sugar content of grapes at Sterling before we picked them. At Acacia, we tasted every wine grape I’ve ever heard of. Then the head winemaker showed us their alternative pest-control system: a falconer. Besides learning that falcons scare starlings away from grapes by swooping down at 200 m.p.h., we learned that falconers are just about as geeky as you might have thought. At Beaulieu Vineyard, we used pipettes, beakers and a calculator to make our own blend of red wine, which was then bottled with storeworthy labels featuring our names. They were like our lanyards.

For our last night, Food Network host Joey Altman cooked and then drank so much with us that he got out his guitar and led a sing-along of Brown Eyed Girl. Then we hugged, traded e-mails and promised to stay in touch. And much as I think s’mores are better than they really are, I’ve already bought some Diageo wine. But not nearly enough to make up for all that Georges de Latour Cabernet I drank.

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