I was flying home on a plane last February. I had just had a great visit with two amazing friends in D.C. and my family in Ohio. At the time I was unemployed and feeling a little lost. I had looked forward to this trip for two months and now it was over. To keep the feeling of dread looming in my stomach from growing to debilitating proportions, I decided to zone out on some in flight entertainment. I turned on the movie Wonder. Big mistake. Not because the movie wasn’t wonderfully touching, it was. But because I couldn’t get through more than 15 minutes without crying like a baby and, coincidentally, drawing strange glances from the actual baby sitting next to me.
Next, I watched the movie Paris Can Wait. It’s a gorgeous scenic tour of French countryside and, more importantly, food and wine. By the end of the movie we were landing and my heart was on fire. This kind of stuff really revs me up. So, it occurred to my brilliant self that maybe I should stop ignoring my love of food and wine and embrace it. I decided to start studying for my first level Sommelier.
It’s funny how life works. About five years ago I went to a wine class at the hotel I was working at and made friends with the wine rep. I had left the class excited and inspired. Not only did I love talking about wine, the wine rep had offered me a job! Now, me being human, I spent about two months very excited about this idea (a friend even gave me the Sommelier Prep Book), then promptly came up with all kinds of excuses why it wasn’t a good idea. I made more money at the hotel, it would take time away from acting and writing, I didn’t want to have to build up a clientele. And while all these things were true, I didn’t delve any deeper to find a solution that could work for me.
So, five years later, life came back around and invited me, once again, to pursue this Sommelier thing. This time I was unemployed with too much time on my hands so I actually listened. Not only did I find it a great joy to learn about wine, I passed my test with flying colors.
Life wasn’t done with me yet, though. I had always said it was a bucket list item of mine to foot stomp grapes. Mostly because I had seen it in movies and it looked glamorous. But also because I liked learning about wine. Shortly after I started working at my new job as a part time server/part time Sommelier, I was serving Chad Melville of Melville Winery. I couldn’t resist throwing it in there that I was studying wine. We started a nice discussion and I asked if he still foot stomped grapes or if that was out of date. He said they foot stomp every grape, I mentioned that was a longtime dream of mine, and he invited me up to Santa Rita hills to do it for myself!
Don’t ever throw out a “nice gesture” if you don’t mean it to me because my type A personality will DEFINITELY follow through. I was ecstatic when I reached out and he not only kept his promise, but invited me to come up and spend the night in the winery’s guest room! I had visions of a fun getaway full of grape stomping out in the field on a sunny afternoon, wearing a sundress, my hair flowing in the wind. This, of course, would be followed by wine tasting debauchery all through Santa Ynez Valley.
That’s when I asked if I could bring a friend, because obviously I’d need someone to taste wine with me, and he said it probably wouldn’t be best because I’d be working, like 4am-2pm working.
While not what I had expected, I quickly realized that this was even BETTER. I would really get to be hands on in the wine making process. I told him I was down and soon I was on my way.
My two and a half hour drive up to Lompoc, CA in Santa Rita Hills started off stressful due to L.A. traffic. After I was assured that it was OK that I wasn’t able to make my 9:30am arrival I tried to relax and enjoy the ride. As soon as I got past Santa Barbara into the heart of wine country all of my cares melted away. It is so peaceful up there. I finally pulled into Melville Winery and hurried into the unknown.
I was welcomed warmly by Chad Melville and quickly put right to work. I was to stomp on Syrah grapes. The first thing Chad had me do was try one of the grapes. I had always read that the species of Vitis vinifera grapes were good for wine making, while Vitis lambrusca were the kinds that were good for eating, but I was amazed at how great these grapes tasted! It was also interesting to examine the juice in the center, then chew on the skin and seeds. I was really liking the complexity of these grapes!
It was finally time to stomp. I was a little disappointed when Chad handed me boots but figured maybe it was a germ thing. I jumped into the first vat of grapes and started to stomp. I was left alone for some minutes and felt such a sense of gratitude. I had thought this up in my head, let it go, and trusted God and the universe to do the rest. I wasn’t agonizing over it for hours a day like acting or writing. I wasn’t grasping, I just let it be. I marveled at the natural order of life, and the synchronicity that brought this possibility to me. I fell into a soothing, meditative state making sure I squished every inch of grape.
Soon I was on the second vat and Chad asked me if I was ready to stomp barefoot. Uh, of course! This is what I was here for. So I slipped off the boots and my socks, did an acrobatic split like maneuver into the third container across the row and jumped in. Annnnndd immediately out. I had NO IDEA how cold these grapes would be. They are picked in the very early morning when it’s not too hot and then stored at 40 degrees. This makes perfect sense from a wine making perspective, it just did not match up to the movie images in my head of Greek wine festivals and ladies joyfully lifting up their dresses to stomp grapes in the hot sun.
I put mind over matter and in minutes my feet were numb and I was happily stomping around in the grapes. I then got to stomp some more grapes on top of a container that goes into a basket press. I’d read about these but actually seeing it work was so cool. Basically, the “basket” or metal vat with holes holds the grapes and the machine puts pressure on them, then releases very slowly and gently. This process goes on for about 12 hours and by the end all the juice has gently been pushed out resulting in what looks like a compact cake of wine skins.
Next I got to punch down the grapes with a metal tool. This is to make sure the yeast is mixing throughout the whole container to ensure total fermentation. I had memorized the equation yeast + sugar = ethanol (alcohol), Carbon Dioxide, and heat, but to actually FEEL the heat coming off the fermenting grapes as I punched them down was crazy! They were at close to 80 degrees, which is another reason they have to start off so cold, so they don’t ferment too fast and spoil.
I was then released from my work duties and got to taste some delicious Melville pinot noir and chardonnay. Then, I was on my own. I’ve actually never been out of town by myself before and it had at first seemed a bit daunting, but I actually loved it! I ate at an amazing spot in Buelleton, Industrial Eats, then did a wine tasting next store at Alma Rosa winery. I really loved their 2015 chardonnay. I then headed to Solvang and found Dascomb Cellers tasting room which had a great wine and cheese pairing. Here I was told about The Wandering Dog wine bar where I could do a blind tasting to practice for my level 2 Certified exam. I went over there and had a blast guessing some and utterly failing at others.
Marveling at how surrendering and following the flow of life had lead me to such a great evening, I started to drive back at 8:30 because I had to get up at 5:30am the next day (that was them letting me sleep in) for more work. But on my way I passed The Hitching Post, featured in the movie Sideways.
Since I was having my own personal Sideways type adventure, and YOLO, I had to stop. I had so much fun eating mussels, drinking pinot noir, and talking to strangers at the bar. If you’ve never traveled alone I recommend it. There is something refreshing about having new conversations that have nothing to do with complaining about life problems. I left feeling happy and ready for another work day.
I’m getting wordy to I’ll just mention a couple highlights from my second day.
- Seeing the vineyards, fresh chardonnay grapes, and witnessing firsthand how the sun affects them.
- Seeing how a bladder press works (the faster version of a basket press that fills with air to quickly press grapes. It’s efficient but not as gentle, usually the reserve grapes are treated with the basket press.)
- Stomping my grapes one more time (though by this time there was way more liquid so I was up to my ankles in 40 degree juice and my feet REALLY went numb. There was a hot water soak afterwards.)
- Getting to gas all the grapes with Carbon Dioxide to prevent molding or spoilage, and smelling the actual smell of fermentation which I will now never forget.
As I drove home through the beautiful hills of Santa Ynez back toward L.A. I felt so lucky to have had this experience and thankful for the new friends I had made at Melville Winery. It truly was one of the best experiences of my life.
If you’ve had bucket list dreams come true in a synchronistic way, please share! I’d love to hear your stories!
P.S. And if you’ve made it this far, you must really like me, so I will share an article update. The editor from Spirituality and Health FINALLY wrote back and said he was just behind, so my article is still alive! Thank you for all the well wishes!