Quail and Chardonnay on a Napa Valley Hillside
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Quail and Chardonnay on a Napa Valley Hillside

The impromptu feast capped a day of pruning vines

My wife and I were recently invited to dinner at the home of a friend who had arranged for a local chef to cook for a small group of guests. The chef was very talented — we knew her from the several years she had cooked at Chez Panisse in Berkeley — and the dinner featured superb food, along with a succession of great wines.

The main course was a brilliantly executed dish of perfectly done spit-roasted Wolfe Ranch quail. It was delicious, of course, but soon after it was served, one of the guests asked me almost as an aside if I’d ever tasted better quail. I thought for a minute and reflected back to an alfresco lunch, 45 years ago, sitting on the ground on the side of a Napa Valley hillside vineyard. But that’s too long a story to recount, I thought to myself. "No," I said, "I haven’t. Not ever."

To be truthful, though, I had.

Barbara and I moved to the Napa Valley in early January 1972. I had accepted a job at Mayacamas Winery as the assistant winemaker, and this was the start of my new life. I was eager to learn, and the job soon proved to be all that I had hoped for. Winter is the rainy season in Northern California, and during my first week it came down every day. Because of the weather we were limited to indoor work — wine racking, barrel topping, cooperage repair, maintenance of the bottling line, and the near-constant cleaning that is a staple of winemaking. I loved all of it.

Week two, though, began a second and more demanding part of my wine education: farming. This chapter of my career began when we drove to the vineyards and I was taught to prune. Before making that trip, though, I had to invest in some outdoor equipment — a pair of Felco pruning shears, a folding Buck pocket knife, the familiar red Swiss Army Knife with several tools, a Stanley stainless-steel coffee thermos, a pocket watch, and a pair of insulated, waterproof work boots. Properly equipped, I was now ready to take the steps that were to change my life.

We began pruning at Mayacamas with the chardonnay vineyard called The Terrace. Planted in the early 1940s, this 8-acre section of vines was the prized parcel for the famed Mayacamas chardonnay. The combination of high elevation, southern exposure, gravely-volcanic soil, and old Shot-Wente selection vine stock made it the principal source of grapes for what was generally thought to be one of the best examples of chardonnay produced in California.

The pruning crew grew to three people when I joined — the vineyard manager, Mike Clancy, who worked alongside me watching and critiquing, and an old friend of his named Tom Fogarty, who would leave his full-time logging job in Oregon every winter, return to his former home in the Napa Valley, and prune grapevines at Mayacamas. He liked the outdoor work, and pruning was far more dependable as a source of income in January than cutting down trees in the Pacific Northwest.

Both Tom and Mike had been pruning vines for years, and they were great teachers. I’ve heard people say that pruning is the best job in the wine business, and after only a few days at it, I understood why. It was cold and damp outside, but the weather was subject to wide swings, and we took frequent coffee breaks to stay warm. What started out as a day of seemingly unbearable cold could quickly develop into a beautiful one, with a limitless blue sky overhead. The work is almost Zen-like, as it involves one person working alone, carrying out a single agricultural operation, but one that changes with every vine. Moreover, the work is crucial to the wine that will be made the following autumn. The unity with nature is invigorating, and a competent pruner looks at a freshly-shorn vine almost like a completed painting.

Pruning requires constant attention to each vine. Most of the last season’s growth is removed, while the vine is shaped to carry the fruit for the upcoming year. At the same time, the clusters must be positioned to ripen properly, and be accessible to the harvesters. Most importantly, the pruner must plan for shoot positions that will support the crop in two years, as fruit clusters develop only on two-year-old wood. It’s difficult work and takes time to learn, but within a week or two I was pruning most vines without a negative comment from either of my instructors. It was great work, and it was about to get better.

A little before noon one day I heard several gunshots. I looked in the direction of the noise and saw Tom, walking up the hill carrying a shotgun. When he got closer to me I could make out that he had a string of quail tossed over his shoulder. "I hope you’re hungry," he said when he reached me. "We’re going to have quail for lunch."

We had pruned enough vines by then that there was work to be done tying the new canes to the wires. This was the specialty of an elderly single woman named Edna Bryant who had retired to a small home on the ranch. She paid off her annual rent to the owners by doing vineyard work during pruning season. Edna would tie the newly pruned canes to the wires, following behind us, tying canes as we pruned them. She’d been doing it for years so she was very good at it. She also knew from her experience what was going to follow when she saw the quail, and she immediately began collecting vine cuttings to build a fire. Mike went off to the nearby woods to cut a few oak branches for spits to roast the quail, while Tom left for the creek at the bottom of the hill to clean the birds.

What should I do, I asked? "Take the truck down to the winery and get us a bottle of chardonnay," were Tom’s instructions. I did just that, and returned 20 minutes later with not one but two bottles of chilled 1970 Mayacamas chardonnay. Edna’s vine cutting fire had burned down to the coals by then, and Tom returned with a dozen freshly plucked and gutted quail. We rigged a wooden support for the two spits, and began roasting the birds over the impromptu grill. The coals were red hot and the birds were small so they were thoroughly cooked in 10 minutes or less.

Almost as if he had planned on a meal like this, Tom brought out a large bag with napkins and paper plates, and handed each of us a paper cup. I opened the wine using the corkscrew on my Swiss Army Knife, poured everyone a glass, and, using our fingers, we each removed a quail from the spit. Sitting down on the ground in the middle of the vineyards, we all tore hungrily at the delicious birds, and eagerly sipped our wine. What a delicious wine and food pairing, I thought. This may well be the best lunch I’ve ever had.

When our meal was finished, the birds were all eaten and the wine bottles were empty. Tom — ever environmentally friendly — cleaned up the trash and put it on the fire with the remaining wood to burn. We went back to work, replete from our nourishing and creative break. That was really the best quail I’ve ever eaten — and, fittingly enough, a glass of chardonnay had never more enhanced the meal for me.

Bruce and Barbara Neyers are the founders of Neyers Vineyards. Follow Bruce's adventures in wine and food, past and present, here.

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