Wine Tourism Goes Retro

A sign advertising grape stomping is shown near the entrance to the Grgich Hills winery in Rutherford, Calif., Monday, Sept. 15, 2008. AP Photo/Eric Risberg

Lucy did it. And you can, too - stomp grapes, that is. Wineries from Napa to New York are rolling out the barrel for those inclined to squish a little merlot between their toes.

"You get one person doing it and then everyone else is wanting to go along," says Ken Morris of the Grgich Hills Estate winery in the Napa Valley, where visitors can stomp daily during harvest.

The days when winemaking was done by the foot are long gone.

But even though they may have the latest in gleaming wine press technology parked at their crush pad, a number of wineries are also showcasing the retro charms of stomping in a development that builds on the recent trend of culinary tourism, said Karen Ross of the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

"Doing these kinds of features is very homey, authentic," she said.

With wine now being produced in all 50 states, opportunities to stomp grapes abound at harvest time - generally late August through October, depending on climate. There are fairs, festivals and team competitions as well as quieter experiences at individual wineries.

On a recent sunny afternoon in the Napa Valley, Beverly Miller of Akron, Ohio, was willing to bare her sole for a new experience, kicking off her shoes and stepping into the one-person barrel at Grgich Hills.

"Oh my gosh," she said as her feet slid into the purply-black zinfandel grapes. "I have never done this. This is fantastic."

Miller is one of the few people who don't remember the classic "I Love Lucy," episode in which the intrepid redhead has to make a grape escape after trying her hand, or rather, foot, at old-fashioned winemaking.

Still, "nine times out of 10 people say, 'Oh, it's just like Lucy,"' said Morris. "They all remember that episode."

Doing grape stomping right is "actually a relatively gentle way of managing the process of crush," said Kenneth C. Fugelsang, associate professor of enology and winemaster at California State University, Fresno, who has seen the skill practiced at port producers overseas. "The idea is not to macerate the grape, rather to gently break it open so the juices are expressed and you don't tear up the grape skins themselves."

"It's not Lucy out there in the grape vat. I've seen it done in Portugal during a harvest a few years ago. It's certainly not only a skill, but it takes quite a bit of endurance to get in there and start stomping around."

Lucy's escapades live on in DVDs and on the Internet. And for a clip of a more modern vintage, there's the much-viewed video of "Grape Lady Falls," showing a TV newswoman who took a very unfortunate tumble from a grape-stomping tub.

Grape stomps are offered in other parts of the country as well. The White Fences Vineyard in Irvington, Va., held one in August, and Grapevine, Texas, hosted one as part of its annual GrapeFest in September, as did the Cobblestone Farm Winery in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. In Santa Rosa, Calif., the Sonoma County Harvest Fair hosts a World Championship Grape Stomp Oct. 3-5.

A stomper stumper: Can your stomped juice be turned into wine? No, due to all sorts of regulations governing commercial wineries. Technically, the alcohol produced during fermentation should take care of any germs, but there is a slight possibility of contamination, Fugelsang said. Still, the skin and seeds usually get recycled as compost.

Stomping grapes is "kind of squishy. It kind of feels a little bit weird," said Morris.

Make that a lot weird. Stepping on a few pounds of burstingly ripe grapes is one part really organic pedicure, one part the kind of Halloween parties where you sit in the dark and trustingly plunge your hands into bowls of wet spaghetti.

But once stompers get used to the feeling "they just keep going and going," said Bob Rozzano of the Cobblestone Farm Winery in New York's Finger Lakes wine region. The winery, which has been running a grape-stomping festival for three years, bottles the juice visitors make and sends it home with them.

The bottles are clearly labeled that the juice inside isn't for drinking. On the front is a label dreamed up by Rozzano's wife Jennifer Clark - get ready to groan all you connoisseurs who've heard about the world-renowned French winery Chateau Lafite Rothschild - Chateau Les Feet.

At Grgich Hills, which has been coaxing visitors into the tub for well over a decade, winemaker Mike Grgich sees the experience as a spiritual one.

"There is more in the grapes and the wine than you can see. There is a spirit of the greatness which has been carried on for 7,000 years," said the 85-year-old Grgich.

"Every year in September I get itch in my feet and they tell me, you should go and stomp the grapes. And that's what I do every year and I feel so happy that day. It's a special day in my life."

If You Go ...

GRGICH HILLS ESTATE: 1829 St. Helena Highway, Rutherford, Calif., 800-532-3057. Stomping is included with a tasting fee. Offered daily through the end of harvest. Call to check on timing.
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