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    Categories: Eat & Drink

Taste the Terroir

Utahns get a down-and-dirty education in wine.

Photos by Dax Williamson

My back hurts. My hands hurt. It’s hot.

I’ve been stooped over, punching at the dry dirt with a spade so my partner can coddle the baby grapevine from its pot and nestle it in the hole I’ve dug. We push soil over it and pack it hard with the heels of our boots. Then both of us move several feet down the row to the next marker to do it again. Then again.

Midmorning, we hear a shout—oh, sweet  sound—from the dirt road. All over the vineyard, workers drop their spades and gather for a mid-morning refresher of chilled rosé and glazed doughnuts. A perfect pairing.

Manual labor is new to most of us. We’re softies, with hands accustomed to pouring wine, serving plates, chopping vegetables or, in my case, tapping a keyboard. But for this week, we’re migrant field workers, laboring with the regular team that plants and prunes the vineyards at Saracina Winery in Mendocino County. Francis Fecteau, owner of Libation, Inc., a Utah wine broker, has recruited us city slickers for the workforce.

Like most vineyards, Saracina contracts with the same workers year after year; we work alongside the pros, making up (I hope) in enthusiasm for what we lack in experience and calluses. Fecteau appropriately calls our involvement “Wine Camp.”

Twice a year, Fecteau invites Utah restaurant sommeliers, chefs, servers and owners to accompany him on a working trip to California wineries. While there, the Utahns dig, plant, prune and taste, talk to winemakers and grape growers, tour the vineyards and get a first hand and hands-on experience of what it takes to put wine in a bottle. Fecteau believes “Better farming makes better wine.”

“Punching down the cap” at Selby

Many of the wineries involved practice organic, biodynamic or sustainable practices. His reason for hosting the trip is equally simple:  The more you know about something, the better you can sell it. That, of course, is good for the wineries, the restaurants and him. I think it’s also good for Utah.

“Many people in the hospitality business develop a purely academic understanding of wine,” says Fecteau. “I want them to see how it goes from the dirt to the bottle. I want them to understand the passion behind it.”

Our team comes from all aspects of the hospitality business and all types and sizes of restaurants. Ty Richchouyrod, Food and Beverage Director for Grand America’s restaurants; Scott Gardner, bar expert and co-owner of Water Witch; Billy Sotelo, chef at La Caille; Jodie Rogers, Food and Beverage Director at Deer Valley Resort and Briar and Melissa Handly, owners of HSL and Handle, are working in the fields and many also work in the kitchen, too, preparing meals for the campers and hosts. (Fecteau arranges everything—lodging and meals—for the trip except the transportation.) 

“Anyone we send out there comes back with a better understanding of wine and what goes into it. And with stories,” says Fred Moesinger, chef-owner of Caffe Molise and BTG, who himself has been to camp several times. “There’s plenty of good wine—what ends up selling it is the servers. Wine Camp energizes them and gets them excited about wine.”     

Most of the wineries Fecteau and his campers visit are small, family-owned operations (obviously, Wagner Family of Wine, an umbrella that covers Caymus, Conundrum, Mer Soleil, etc., is an exception) but they all benefit from the personal promotion Fecteau provides. Soter, Donkey & Goat, Flying Goat and Colter Creek, for example, are all small wineries, meaning they produce fewer than 20,000 gallons of wine annually and enjoy a reduced mark-up in Utah DABC stores. Fecteau also promotes his portfolio with wine dinners and tastings at Utah restaurants, and this year featured small wineries at the Taste of the Wasatch event at Solitude.

Saracina, the winery where we are digging holes, is owned by John Fetzer, eldest son of Barney Fetzer, a pioneer of organic winemaking in California. After Barney died, John ran Fetzer for two decades. Then he and his 10 siblings sold the name and property to industry giant Brown Forman. John moved a little further north and founded Saracina; he and his brother Danny, who owns the adjoining property and makes wine under the name Jeriko, continued with their father’s commitment to organic farming and for awhile pushed it further into biodynamics, a European approach to growing that falls somewhere between organic and voodoo.

“Francis is one of the best wine educators I know and I’ve been in the business for 50 years,” Fetzer says. Working in Saracina’s fields is the central experience of Wine Camp.

Terroir is winemaking’s most treasured term. But it’s an abstraction to most wine drinkers, who can rattle off its definition (“how a particular region’s climate, soils and aspect [terrain] affect the taste of wine”) without ever getting any terroir under their fingernails.

“I think wine camp is the most valuable wine experience Utahns can get.”

— Ty Richchouyrod

So Fecteau’s Wine Camp is about more than swirling, swishing and spitting. On the four-day tour, the group caravans through Napa and Mendocino counties, working in different ways at different wineries. The first day, after meeting for breakfast at Dean & Deluca in Napa, we hightail it to Joseph Phelps, divide into groups and, under the supervision of an expert, try blending varietals and vintages to make our own red wine: cabernet sauvignon for the backbone, cabernet franc for a base, merlot for lush fruit and petit verdot for rich color.

At Selby, we take turns wielding a tool that looks like the first-cousin to a coat rack to punch down the thick cap of grape skins and stems that forms on top of a bubbling vat of fermenting wine. Carole Shelton, co-developer of the Aroma Wheel, a device that helps newbies correlate wine tastes and vocabulary, and world-famous as the “yeast whisperer,” lectures us about how different yeast strains produce subtle flavors in the wine. A rare conversation with vine geneticist Carole Meredith informs us about varietal origins.

Aging wines in Saracina’s cave

Everywhere, we taste wine, comparing vintages, vineyards and blends—learning about the wine in the glass from the person who made it. 

“In a lot of states, I can go into wine stores, serve tastings and talk about my wines directly with customers,” winemaker Shelton points out. “I can’t do that in Utah and I’ve found, too, that for the most part, state-run stores don’t have personable or even knowledgeable sales people.” So Fecteau brings the people to Shelton. “Francis has been amazing,” says Shelton. “Utah is our second- or third-largest market in the country because of his personal approach and his enthusiasm. We sell lots of wines in the Utah market simply because Francis got excited about them.”

Fetzer agrees. “We have nearly saturated the Utah market with our Atrea [brand]. So many servers and somms have visited here with Francis, Utah is now our number two or three market.”

Wine Camp is a true working trip, not the wine-drinking vacation some might expect. Days start at 8 a.m. and last until midnight, requiring stamina, focus and all your attention. Tasting sounds like fun, until you’ve tasted, swished, spit and argued the characteristics of 34 wines or so in an afternoon.

Francis Fecteau (left) and John Fetzer

“Your acceptance of this invitation constitutes a waiver of your right to sue me or any participating wineries.” If that doesn’t sound like the most welcoming invitation you’ve ever received, consider that Fecteau has been burned in the past by rowdy young guests who see the trip as a drinking party. “Spit early and spit often” is Fecteau’s—not advice—but command. “These people have invited you into their businesses and their homes. Behave appropriately,” he warns in no uncertain terms. Step out of line and you are on your way back to Utah. This is business.

Utah’s fine food scene is relatively young and many in the business are newbies when it comes to wine.

“In a control state like Utah,” says Moesinger, “it can be difficult to educate staff. But you want them to be able to communicate effectively and sell the products you have. It’s very challenging to get that education in this state.”

Learning to plant a grapevine

“Francis is very successful at educating people about wine,” says Mike Gioa of Wagner Family Wines, who worked with Fecteau for three years. “And there are lots of hoops to jump through in Utah—Francis facilitates the jumps.”

“Many [restaurant workers] have never experienced wine country,” says Richchouyrod. “I think Wine Camp is the most valuable wine experience Utahns can get. And you can’t get this experience from the usual wine country trip. Francis brings you into the organization to meet the people and see all the steps of winemaking.” Perhaps, most importantly, “Wine Camp shows you the love of people for their wine. It gives the wine a narrative and stories make things memorable.”

Carole Meredith at Lagier-Meredith vineyards on Mt. Veeder

That’s the point, Fecteau says, “I want to make sure that the wine buyers and everyday consumers we work with love the wines that we carry. With each bottle, I want them to share that patch of earth, that row of vines and the story that makes that sipping memorable.” In the end, the point of Wine Camp is building relationships, with the land, with the vine, with the process and the people of winemaking, to stop thinking of wine as something that lives in a cellar or on a shelf and instead as something that comes out of the earth alive and keeps on living through your experience.

Mary Brown Malouf :Mary Brown Malouf is the Executive Editor of Salt Lake magazine and Utah's expert on local food and dining. She does not, however, know how to make a decent cup of coffee.