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A Wine Country Tour to Understand the Process of Winemaking

California's Napa Valley is one of the premium grape-growing and wine-producing regions in the United States, rivaling the best in France. In fact, it recently won another head-to-head tasting competition between French and American red wines. Napa is known for its more than 175 wineries that produce some of the finest cabernet, chardonnay, pinot noir, zinfandel, and merlot. VOA's Chen Xiaohong and Zhang Songlin produced our story on this famous and beautiful part of northern California. It is narrated by Elaine Lu.

Our wine country tour starts with Bouchaine Winery, where Remi Cohen manages this 40-hectare vineyard. "Welcome to Bouchaine Vineyards, located in the south of Napa valley, one of the regions that's known as Carneros,” Cohen said. “Carneros is the first sub-appellation of the Napa valley, one hundred acres of land here, 45 of which are planted to chardonnay grapes."

Chardonnay grapes grown in the vineyard are much smaller in size than those sold in the grocery stores, and much more intense in flavor. The growth of the grapes is strictly controlled to ensure vines receive the right amount of water in the right soil.

Cohen said, "With the drip irrigation, we can put a known amount of water on the vines. We know exactly how much water we are putting on the vine on a given day."

Nord Estate Winery is a family-owned business. Julie manages the winery with her father and two sisters. By marrying into the Nord family, the three women's husbands also married the winery.

Grape picking starts at the crack of dawn. Latinos are the main workforce in the vineyard. They are busy -- they are paid by the amount they pick.

The Robert Craig Winery sits on a hill overlooking the valley, a location conducive to growing grapes. Robert Craig said, "The land is so steep, that you have tremendous drainage. Any water, rain, just runs right off. We also have real good drainage in the soils. That's the most critical factor."

Selecting the optimal time to harvest grapes is another crucial part of winemaking. At Robert Craig's lab, the countdown to harvest is well underway. Wine makers are closely monitoring the degrees Brix, a measurement that indicates the percentage of sugar in the grapes. As grapes mature, the sugar increases, acidity decreases, and flavors become more intense. Tasting the first batch of wine from this meticulous process is a great joy, says Lynn Craig. "It's bright and fresh, and clean, and it's really yummy."

Spring Mountain Vineyard began in the 1870s, and is known for its distinctive red wines. The century-old cellar has been expanded and furnished with modern ventilation equipment. Jack Cole is the chief winemaker at Spring Mountain. He has previously worked in several other prestigious wineries in the Napa Valley. Cole said, "I think the most important thing is having good palate, good senses. It's like a surgeon having a steady hand. It's a good thing to have, but most importantly you have to care a great deal. Put the time and effort in to make sure everything is perfect."

After the grapes are harvested, the process of winemaking starts with crushing and pressing. Grape juice is then sent to a huge tank for the next step of fermentation, a process that requires between 10 days and a month or more.

Sugar is converted to alcohol. How dry or sweet a wine turns out depends on how much sugar is converted. It is an intentional decision on the part of the winemaker. It's an art -- Jack Cole says that is true of the entire process. “It's a very creative environment,” he said. “I am involved in making decisions that determine the quality and the style of the wine, from the very planting of the grapes, to the choosing of the corks that go in the bottle."

Barrel aging is the last step before the wine is bottled for market. Spring Mountain Winery purchases many of its oak barrels from France, each coasting $900.

Wineries have been in this sunny and picturesque valley area since the 1800s. The rich heritage of this wine country continues to be savored in many glasses of wine enjoyed in the United States and around the world.