The Grapes of Kath
When Kathy Hennig took a few viticulture classes at UC Davis, she was hoping to learn enough about wine to work in a tasting room once she retires. She dreamed of pouring delicious wines and leaning on the counter chatting with fellow wine enthusiasts. What she ended up with was a quarter-acre vineyard that she fondly refers to as the “back 40” and a hands-in-the-dirt education that went way beyond what she learned in those classes.
The leap from the tasting room to actually growing grapes and making wine came last year when a friend bought a farm in the tiny town of Fulton, located just off Highway 101 on the way to Guerneville. The property had some duplexes and a house on one little cul-de-sac. Behind one of the houses was what Hennig called a “country backyard.”
“It’s more than you want to mow if you’re a renter,” said Hennig, “So she was going to have to hire a gardener or landscaper to go out there and deal with it.” Not wanting that added expense, her friend suggested that Hennig plant grapes.
“I want to be a winemaker, not a farmer’” Hennig told her friend. “I’ve grown up in apartments all my life and she said ‘well, you need grapes to make wine.’ And suddenly we were out there with a backhoe tearing up the back 40.”
In March 2015, after some online research and buying a book on Amazon, Hennig and some friends planted mostly Pinot grapes and a row of Chardonnay, varietals that thrive in the Russian River area. Putting her procurement expertise to good use, Hennig hedged her bets and bought some rootstock online and some from local nurseries.
“Of course, the stuff I bought on mail order all died,” she said. “I had to rip it out and replant with more expensive professional rootstock.”
Despite the setback, last year Hennig’s vineyard yielded success in the form of two bunches of grapes. That may seem like a tiny victory, but grape production generally takes three years from the time of planting.
“Last year I got two bunches of grapes and ate them immediately,” she said. “They tasted good and that got me excited. I thought if I don’t screw it up, this might be good wine.”
That desire to get it right lead Hennig to another learning experience when she decided to take a practice run at the actual winemaking process and had a truckload of grapes delivered to her Oakland home. Late one night, after removing the stems and skins from about a hundred pounds of grapes, Hennig had more waste materials than her plumbing could handle, so she decided to take her vat out to the street to rinse it and let the organic matter flow into the storm drain.
What she didn’t realize was that a neighbor had been watching her hosing down the vat that seemed to be filled with a red liquid. Next thing that she knew, she was opening her door two Oakland police officers. The grape-juice-splattered shirt she was wearing did nothing to quell their suspicions.
Hennig invited them in, explained what she was up to and the officers walked through her house. Luckily, the whole place smelled of grapes and they left “just shaking their heads.” And Hennig came to another realization…
“It reminded me that I really need to get an official place to do this,” said Hennig. “This was just for 100 to 200 pounds of grapes. I’m going to have at least a ton and a half (when she harvests next year).”
Along with the proper place, she knows that she’ll need additional help and equipment when it comes time to harvest those grapes. She has enlisted friends and may hire workers to help, people who’ve done this work before and want to pick up a little extra money. She also has spent at least one weekend shopping for what she calls a “baby” tractor with oomph, even checking under their hoods.
“I’m looking at how fast the vines are growing and I’m not going to be able to take these grapes out of here a bucket at a time,” said Hennig. “We’re going to have to get serious because my back’s not going to keep up with this.”
Through the strenuous work of planting, pulling weeds, caring for the vines and eventual wine making, Hennig also has gained a new appreciation for the people who grow things for a living, who put food on the table and wine in the glasses.
“It’s amazing how much work it is,” she said. “I have such an appreciation now for farming and food on my plate. I’m much more aware, like not letting vegetables go bad in the vegetable drawer. I had no idea. I never even had a lawn until I was an adult here in the Bay Area.”
And the hands-on physical labor of tending to a vineyard is very different from her day job at UCSF.
“What’s nice is that it’s a very tangible thing. I’m hot. I’m tired. I’ve been out here and I look down and say ‘look at what I just did.’ The compost bin is full and I’m tired.” She said. “It’s a nice hobby. It keeps me humble.”
Another humbling thought…That ton and a half of grapes she harvests next year could yield 24 to 26 cases of wine and where do you properly store that much wine? She can’t store it in the barn on the vineyard property because it’s too hot. Some will go in her basement and her friend the property owner has a basement in the Castro in San Francisco. Of course, she’ll share some with the many friends who have helped her along the way.
And perhaps she’ll take a moment to relax on her deck, open a bottle and contemplate her future as wine grower and maker.
“I thought, ‘Wouldn’t that be fun to work for a winery in the tasting room?’” said Hennig, Purchasing Manager for Supply Chain Management at UC San Francisco.
Carol J. Tady
UC Berkeley/UC San Francisco