It's seven in the morning, and if the latte that I grabbed on the way to the vineyard isn't doing the trick yet, I'm jolted wide awake when the Pellenc harvesting tractor kicks into gear. I'm standing right on top of it, holding on for dear life 10 feet above its hydraulically driven wheels, as the machine chews through grapes at a good clip, spits them into rotating augers at my feet, and leaves a row of Pinot Noir vines shuddering in its wake.
That's right: I said Pinot Noir, the delicate grape that every other winery, with mantra-like repetition, claims to lovingly handpick, gently de-stem with the greatest of care, and massage over a sorting table until only the most worthy berries make it into the bottle. Hop Kiln Winery is placing its bets on the machine. Unlike earlier harvesters, the state-of-the-art Pellenc whirls grapes away from their stems, adjusts for terrain, and is outfitted with cameras, pressure sensors, and computer programs. By early morning, twenty-something winemaker Chuck Mansfield and his skeleton crew have delivered tons of grapes onto the crushpad.
But how does the wine taste? While the iconic Russian River Valley winery on Westside Road remains a popular tourist destination, the future of Hop Kiln can be found at the HKG tasting room in Glen Ellen, next door to the Garden Court Cafe. Furnished with a small copper bar but enough tables for a wedding party, HKG offers estate bottlings paired with small bites prepared by Culinary Institute of America graduate Khambay Khamsyvoravong. Portions are generous on a recent visit, including Israeli couscous "mac and cheese" with the 2009 Bridge Selection Chardonnay ($28), with aromas of caramel and toasted pecan nut over cool, unfiltered apple cider; a bacon, blue cheese and fig slider with the 2009 Estate Pinot Noir ($38), a sure-fire pleaser with sweet potpourri of fresh raspberry and vanilla and a fine-grained finish; and a wedge of meatloaf on truffled mashed potatoes, with the more brooding, smoky 2009 Bridge Selection Pinot Noir ($38), dark fruit over rhubarb, and age-worthy tannins.
Leaving the tasting room, I had to give Mansfield another call, just to verify that these lovely wines, from 2009, were harvested by the same machine. Indeed, they were—but the wine and the food were made by a small group of young and talented humans. The proof, it seems, is in the Pinot.
HKG Estate, 13647 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen. Open Thursday, Saturday and Sunday noon to 6pm; Fridays to 9pm, featuring an expanded menu. Tasting fee $5, food pairing $22. 707.938.7622.