For many, the I Love Lucy episode featuring a barefoot Lucille Ball stomping in a barrel of grapes provides a hilarious lesson in winemaking. Truth is, grape-stomping largely went out decades before Lucy's escapade, replaced by more efficient--and more hygienic--machines. But that doesn't mean adventurous travelers can't still dip their toes in a good, old-fashioned grape stomp.
Nowhere is that truer in the U.S. than in Sonoma and Napa Counties, the heart of California's $33 billion wine industry. Little more than an hour north of San Francisco, the region offers an array of harvest activities that let visitors observe from afar or experience winemaking up close and personal.
The trick is knowing where to go. During the height of the harvest, which runs from September through October, many wineries forbid visitors from venturing beyond their tasting rooms for fear they might interfere with serious work. After all, in little more than two months, grapes must be picked, crushed, and de-stemmed. Juices must be fermented, blended, and, finally, barreled. Still, by calling around, you can find wineries that offer fun harvest programs or will arrange private tours.
A great starting point is St. Supery Vineyards & Winery in Napa Valley. It has set itself up as a destination for wine education. Its free, hour-long tour is among the most comprehensive and takes visitors through the entire process. Starting with a trip outside to a demonstration vineyard, visitors can see the different varietals and taste grapes right off the vine. The winery has a balcony that overlooks the crush pad, where picked grapes are first brought for de-stemming and crushing before getting pumped into the cellar. It's best to come before noon, when most of the crushing takes place. "You can see and smell everything going on," says St. Supery CEO Michaela Rodena.
If that's not enough, for the first time, the winery is offering a one-day Harvest Adventure for $250 per person. Starting at 7:30 a.m., groups of up to 12 will do everything from picking grapes and stomping them with their feet to tasting juices as they ferment. A blending seminar in the early afternoon tops off the experience.
Over in nearby Sonoma, Bartholomew Park Winery is also a worthwhile harvest diversion. The small winery produces limited quantities of wines such as merlot and chardonnay. During the harvest, visitors can participate for free in the "punch-down" process at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. As red wine ferments, grape skins and pulp rise to the top of the tank, creating a "cap." That needs to be punched down with a special tool to mix with the juice. "It really gets the delts," says tasting-room manager Craig Brunsvik, who waives wine-tasting fees for participants. Be forewarned: The job is sticky, and the juice can attract bees.
Visitors don't get the same hands-on experience at Ravenswood Winery, just five minutes away. But you can get so close to the crush that juice may splash on you. What's more, observers can sample grapes as they are brought in for crushing, as well as sip fermenting juices. Neighboring Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery has a new facility that offers visitors various tours, including an hour-long "soil to bottle" excursion for $15 at 11 a.m. daily. It also has a viewing platform for those who want to watch the crush from a bit farther away.
If it's more of a Lucy-like adventure you're after, don't miss Sonoma's annual Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival from Sept. 27-29 (www.sonomavinfest.com). You can enjoy wine tastings and a parade. Best of all is a grape-stomp competition for kids and grownups. Teams of two will crush 25 pounds of grapes for three minutes. The team making the most juice wins. It may be messy, but it's sure to be a memorable experience for oenophiles and beginners alike. By Linda Himelstein