One of my best friends (who has often contributed to and appears on this blog) is from Healdsburg, up in California wine country, where her dad is a winemaker. Naturally, I've been angling to visit during the famed harvest season for years now, but somehow schedules never aligned until this year, when we at last made it happen. And my gosh, people, harvest season is famous for a reason. It's an experience.
Harvest time is a deluge of activity: orchestrated frenzy is probably an apt description here. Trucks roll into the winery unloading bay, dump tons and tons of beautifully ripe, plump, super sweet wine grapes into the ready bins, and then the action starts--the long transformation from fruit to wine. And it's a long, long game. I admire so much how much dedication and care and imagination is needed to usher the sweet globes of fruit on the vine to a complex-tasting drink years down the road. It's definitely not an immediate gratification process. at. all.
Andréa's dad, Rob, is the winemaker at Jordan Winery, and he took us on a behind-the-scenes, start-to-finish tasting tour of the whole grape journey.* It was such an incredible opportunity to try a grape, then try the freshly crushed grape juice, then try the various grapes (to-be-whites and to-be-reds) at various stages of yeasting, and then try the wines at various stages of aging, in large barrels and in small. Usually all we wine drinkers get to taste is the finished product (and, grape juice), but the middle stages are so incredibly fascinating as well! My favorite discovery was the must stage, which is when the yeast gets added to the grape juice and starts working on it. It becomes this fizzy, bubbling, ever-so-slightly alcoholic liquid that I think someone should hurry up and bottle as is and make a fortune off of. It's like the best version of fizzy alcoholic grape juice ever. It's amazing how different the grape juice tastes from its final form, and how many stages it goes through to build the flavor we taste in the final wine. This requires so much long-term imagination that I'd never considered before, and really makes me appreciate all the more what thought goes into crafting a really good bottle of wine.
* This will be a somewhat unconventional blog post about a winery trip: no pictures of vines! or rolling hills! or statuesque winery fronts! or even really, glasses of wine! I hope you don't mind, but behind-the-scenes is where the artisanal action is.
Above: grapes arrive at the winery and get sorted on a conveyor belt on the way to the crusher.
Below, top to bottom: Inside the winery. Grape juice bubbling, right after yeast is added. One of the beautiful barrel rooms, with barrels older than me. Rob giving us some young wine to try, which still had malic acid in it and not yet much complex flavor. Trying some older wine from the barrel, which had developed a more complex flavor profile.
Jordan not only makes some wonderful wines, but the winery also makes olive oil, from olives grown on site! Their olive oil is so light and peppery, I couldn't help but bring some home with me as a souvenir of my Harvest season visit.
Of course, what to do with a big jug of beautiful olive oil but to make a Harvest-inspired cake!
Here is the product: my harvest grape & olive oil cake. I really wanted the olive oil and grapes to stand forefront, so the cake is a super-simple olive oil cake, with little else (just a dash of vanilla and flaked sea salt) to get in the way of the oil and fruits' natural aromas. Sometimes, less is most definitely more, especially when you start out with the best ingredients already. In addition to contributing to the taste, the olive oil makes the texture of the cake so perfect, too: springy yet moist, with a toothsome golden crust. The grapes on top burst with juice as you bite into a slice. And, one of the best parts is, unlike wine, this cake is instant gratification. ... if you can wait for the hour that it's in the oven! :)
A huge shout-out and thank you here to Andréa and her family, Rob & Karen, for having me out for a harvest weekend. I wish I could share this cake in person with y'all!
Read on for recipe....
Harvest Grape & Olive Oil Cake
adapted from Alice Medrich's Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts
makes two 4x8-inch loaves
3 cups (375 g) + 1 Tbspn all-purpose flour
2 tspn baking powder
2 cups (400 g) sugar
1/2 tspn flaked sea salt
1 cup (220 g) good quality extra virgin olive oil, plus some for brushing
1/2 tspn vanilla extract
5 large eggs, cold
1 cup (230 g) 2% milk
360 g destemmed Thomcord or other seedless, soft sweet grape.
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour two 4x8-inch loaf pans.
2. In a bowl, mix to combine 3 cups (375 g) flour and baking powder. Set aside.
3. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the sugar, salt, 1 cup (220 g) olive oil, and vanilla extract. Beat to combine well.
4. Add eggs to the oil mixture one at a time, beating well after each addition.
5. In three parts, add the flour mixture to the batter, alternating with milk. Mix well.
6. Divide the batter between the prepared pans.
7. Toss the grapes in 1 Tbspn flour to lightly coat. Then, place the grapes on top of the batter in the pans.
8. Bake the loaves in the oven for between 60 - 70 minutes*, until the edges have turned golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out cleanly. (Cake middle should be set, and turning golden.)
9. Remove from oven and let the cakes cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes. While the cakes are cooling, brush the exposed grapes with olive oil. After 15 minutes, turn out the cakes and let cool completely on wire racks.
* Note, if using a tall Pullman pan, as I did for one of these loaves, baking time will be on the longer side, between 70 - 75 minutes. Just make sure to keep an eye out.