During the harvest, Sonoma is a universe unto itself. The sweet aroma of grapes swirls in September's warm air. Under stars and into the early-morning light, grapes are picked -- one bucket at a time -- among the vines in the county's 60,000 acres of fields. People are exhausted but giddy, remembering anew why they've made a life around the sweet juice of this small fruit.
At tasting rooms around the county, visitors can listen in on discussions of the harvest. But to truly drink it all in, there's no beating the hands-on, right-in-the-middle-of-it-all immersion of Sonoma County Grape Camp. From harvesting in the fields to blending sessions in wineries and festive alfresco dinners, this annual three-day event put together by the grape growers themselves offers a unique chance to get behind the scenes in Sonoma at its most exciting time of year. Ready for a taste?
"We've talked about doing this for years." "We're not collectors; we're drinkers of wine." "I teach middle school students, so I drink wine." At Grape Camp's opening party, campers share the reasons they've come. A surprise dream trip from a spouse, a sisters-in-law getaway, a trip for longtime friends -- wine lovers become grape campers for all sorts of reasons. No matter where they've come from, though, they're all united by the desire to be in the middle of the action during this Sonoma harvest. By the time camp starts in earnest the following morning, it's clear that when you mix the camp spirit and an inexhaustible supply of wine, camaraderie comes quickly.
Days start early, with campers up with the dawn and out in the fields while the grapes still glisten with morning dew. Local grape growers give a candid look at the rewards and hardships of life among the vines and answer campers' questions with honesty and humor. Access to individual farmers is part of what makes grape camp special, since small growers are the beating heart of the wine industry here: Nearly half of all Sonoma County vineyards are less than 20 acres, and 85 percent of Sonoma wineries are family owned and operated.
Out in the Fields
Often, the harvest locations for Grape Camp aren't set until the night before. That's because growers have to be able to move fast when the grapes are at their peak. Once in the fields, buckets and clippers in hand, campers learn to spot the signs of perfectly ripe grapes: supple skins, clean brown seeds, and, on the tongue, sweet and tannic flavors. Soon, campers are immersed in the harvest, ducking under the vine rows in search of another pocket of grapes and finding the rhythm of the clip-drop, clip-drop of the hand harvest.
Tasting the Fruit of the Labor
Standing in a field and sipping wine made with grapes from that very spot is all in a day's work for a camper. For the full field-to-glass experience, campers sample just-off-the-vine grapes during each morning harvest and taste flavor differences between varietals. The work of the harvest is hard and many campers report a whole new appreciation for the labor that goes into every sip of finished wine.
Hands-On, Gloves Off
Campers shepherd the grapes they pick through the first steps in transforming the fresh fruit into world-class wine. The many steps of the crush come alive as campers get hands-on, sorting grapes as they head into the de-stemming machine, mixing vats of grapes in a punch-down during the initial fermentation, and helping with a whole-grape press.
Well Connected and Behind the Scenes
Appointment-only tasting rooms and experiences crafted just for Grape Camp make it an ultra-local, behind-the-scenes experience. Think dinner in a field ringed with fruit trees and grape vines, hidden miles from the main road. Or a barn--complete with yokes on the wall and barn cats lolling about--all laid out for a wine-education seminar. Campers get daily access to private tasting rooms and to growers who are usually too busy and too removed to chat with visitors. Authenticity reigns, since Grape Camp is run by the Sonoma County Winegrowers and is crafted by people who spend the rest of the year thinking mostly about grapes.
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Something New Every Year
Sonoma's 16 distinct wine-growing regions, or AVAs (American Viticulture Areas), are home to 450 wineries that are open to the public. Each field, winery, and wine has its own story, and Grape Camp changes its lineup each year to showcase Sonoma's incredible abundance. One year, campers are blending wines at a hilltop winery, the next, they're knee-deep in a grape stomp in the Russian River Valley. All Grape Camps showcase harvests, blending, wine education, and daily alfresco feasts.
Days of picking, tasting, and learning are crowned with festive evenings. One night, a 60-foot-long table welcomes campers into a barn illuminated by fairy lights. The next, dinner appears on elegant tables in the middle of a field. Each night, the bounty of California is on glorious display in every forkful and sip. Course-by-course wine pairings are standard, and different winemakers and grape growers join the nightly celebrations, sharing their stories and passions over unforgettable multicourse meals.
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A Lifelong Connection to Sonoma
Sonoma bewitches in quiet moments--as the evening fog rolling in from the coast gently frosts a wine glass, or in an early-morning glimpse of an owl returning after a night patrolling the fields. Spending time among the vines and exploring the different AVAs that make up Sonoma forge a connection to this place. Visit again and you'll find that it's suddenly natural to look out on a vineyard and see not just grapes but fields of love, labor, and the devotion of generations.
--By Christine Sarkis
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Read the original story: Love Wine? Sonoma's Grape Camp is Your Dream Vacation by Christine Sarkis, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.