It’s my second January and here at Talley and that means one thing. Well, two things. The Talley Family Program winter wine shipment comes out and with that comes the annual release of Mano Tinta (“Red Hand” in Spanish). Established in 2004 by Brian and Johnine Talley, this wine is the key fundraising effort for the Fund for Vineyard and Farm Workers to provide grants to organizations that assist San Luis Obispo County agricultural workers and their families. All of the grapes, materials and services used to make the Mano Tinta wines are donated by local growers and vintners and the Mano Tinta project is always looking to find new members of the wine community to get involved. To date nearly $300,000 has been raised for the fund with a goal of $1 million so this support can continue in perpetuity.
As a Tasting Room employee, all the fun of the Mano Tinta project begins with the Artist Label Contest held for each vintage. Setting up all the beautiful entries in our tasting room and watching our customers come in and vote for their favorite painting or art piece leads to many interesting discussions about the vineyard workers and the amazing work they do. The excitement continues when we find out which artist’s entry has won and then finally some months later we get to see the painting transformed into a label on the bottle. We also love to see the stunningly etched double magnum that is created for each winning label. My desk sits below the wall of the past Mano Tinta winners and their beauty and meaning continues to be a main focus of curiosity with all of our Talley customers both new and old. Speaking of which, you can come in to the tasting room and see the festive display of our current 2010 Mano Tinta label by Ethel “Tink” Landers and be sure to taste some while you’re here!
For the past several weeks, my co-worker Christina Bailey and I have been doing food and wine pairing research in order to come up with a sensory experience to offer Talley customers as a fun way to delve a little deeper into our wines, as well as to help them plan a nice meal at home featuring a Talley Vineyards or Bishop’s Peak wine. Looking back, I think of what a couple of rookies we were back then, with no clue of what a Pandora’s Box we’d opened of convoluted, contradictory information at every turn. Show me a website that says Pinot Noir pairs well with salmon and I’ll show you two that say the metallic taste in your mouth from such a pairing will make your teeth ache. Caesar salad; is it wine’s natural enemy? Or is the garlicky anchovy dressing a dream come true when paired with a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc? (For me, it’s the latter.) Also this news flash: NEVER pair chocolate with red wine. Am I the last to know?! Apparently you’re not to pair chocolate and red wine because the tannins in chocolate ruin the many nuances and complexities of the wine. Port or Muscato wine paired with dark chocolate is the possible exception but it’s one of the few cases where the wine is the sweeter item. So why did I love the milk chocolate Hershey’s kiss with our Estate Pinot Noir so much? I could pair a whole bag of them with a bottle and call it dinner. Is my knowing it’s ruining the wine even though they taste so delicious together to me, still a good enough reason not to do so? Is someone else tasting what I am when I pair these items and actually not enjoying it? And if so, whose right?
Don’t get me wrong, this is the most fun research I’ve ever had to do, as well as a fairly privileged dilemma to have on my plate. Given that, what started out as an exciting journey of putting together a menu quickly spiraled down a rabbit hole into a disorienting world of do’s and don’ts, rules and exceptions, and utter frustration when I myself loved a pairing one day and completely disagreed with myself the next. And then there was the trial tastings with various tasting room, winemaking, sales and production staff members. Not a consensus among them and their tastes when it came to the good, the bad and the ugly. This ironically, has been quite helpful, because I learned even more from the reasons behind their varied opinions. Also, the things you learn about your co-workers when asking them to try such pairings is priceless. Watching Christina struggle to nibble on a tomato (not her favorite food) and choke it down with our Cabernet Sauvignon was an exercise in hilarity. She is the epitome of professionalism in the name of research. And finding out there wasn’t a single food item on our list that our Tasting Room Manager was even willing to eat was even more amusing. In the end, we decided our best bet is to find a majority rules item within all the opinions that makes good pairing sense and not worry about the fact that you can’t please every palate.
After the many weeks of research I’ve put into this project, I should be qualified to hold entire weekend long seminars on the subject. And yet with all the knowledge I’ve absorbed, it seems to be falling back on the old adage “the more you know, the more you don’t.” Not only that, but every food and wine pairing “rule” based on a particular varietal can be discounted entirely given a particular winemaker’s take on that varietal. Until you pair a particular bottle with a particular food item, expect curve balls. For a person like myself, who spends a great deal of free time reading food and wine blogs just for fun, it’s been a most humbling experience trying to put together a fun, educated and eye-opening sensory experience to help people learn how to make smart choices when putting together a nice dinner party. Or helping our customers choose a winning food and wine combination when spending their hard-earned money dining out. But we’re getting there. I mean, it’s not rocket science…but it is science.
It’s my first Harvest here at Talley and I could not be more excited! I started as a part-time Tasting Associate in late November of 2012 and was just recently promoted to Tasting Room Assistant Manager and Event Coordinator. To say it’s been a whirlwind year for me adjusting to a new career and life here on the Central California Coast is an understatement. By now I’ve experienced every season and worked at every party and event here at Talley, waiting all the while with great anticipation for the biggest one of them all; Harvest. The exhilarating buzz of both the copious amounts of bees and staff activity around the winery and cellar right now is palpable. As I come and go from the Tasting Room each day, I find myself coming in a little early just to see what the production crew is up to as they fly past in forklifts to and from the crush pad, the fermenters and the many barrels being filled. It’s endlessly fascinating and the education I’m receiving just walking past the winery each day is priceless.
Working here at Talley also means I was lucky enough to be able to spend a day with our winemaker Eric Johnson, the Production Staff and Harvest Interns who were kind enough to show me the ins and outs of the Burgundian winemaking techniques that are practiced here at Talley. That means up and at ‘em at 4am to be here by 5am when the grapes arrive after being hand-harvested in the wee morning hours by our vineyard crews. I was then put to work in the very sticky business of grape sorting, the back-breaking task of punch downs and the clean-up process of all the equipment. I also learned about the relentless lab work of monitoring the fruit. Although I’d heard plenty of stories of what the harvest season entails from the production staff throughout the past year, it’s not until you spend a day in their rubber boots do you fully understand the truly exhaustive nature of Harvest. Sunburned faces, calloused hands and grape-splattered clothes are practically de rigueur. I was utmost impressed by the crew’s ability to complete these grueling, repetitive tasks while somehow maintaining their cool and sense of humor amidst the constant cyclone of yellow jackets surrounding their every move. Bee stings are an unfortunate part of the job and the staff think nothing of working right through the pain of the red, swollen stings, as well as a fuzzy Benadryl induced haze. Punch downs are their own form of a CrossFit workout and should be considered nothing less. That said, as arduous as breaking through some of the thick grape skin caps can be, once you do and the magenta foam comes burbling up as it releases the carbon dioxide, it’s also incredibly gratifying work. Not to mention you feel a part of the history and time-honored tradition of participating in the process of making handcrafted wine. Which is - to put it in layman’s terms - as legit as it gets. Then again I’ve only done one punch down and it took me about two hours to get through all the fermenters. Punch downs happen three times a day here. You do the math.
The next day, as I slept in until the luxurious hour of 8am with every muscle aching, I couldn’t help thinking that I’m pretty sure I don’t have what it takes to actually work a harvest. Our vineyard and harvest staff does this toil seven days a week for up to two months straight. Uff da! (as my Minnesota grandparents would say). The next time I’m sweating in the hot sun while setting up a couple of dozen tables and chairs for an event, I’ll count my blessings I have it so easy.
As Harvest continues throughout October, I find myself already looking forward to the future release of these 2013 Pinot Noir’s that I helped in some tiny aspect on their way to the bottle. It goes without saying that I’m already a big fan of Talley wines, but from now when I take a sip I’ll be thinking about how much I admire the effort and talent of the Talley staff who make it possible.