Days of Wine and Whiskers
The beauty of northern California’s wine country is rivaled only by the beauty of its cats, and for ailurophiles who can’t imagine a cat-free existence for even a day, this area is the place to visit. From Corky, “The World’s Biggest Winery Cat” of Martz Vineyard, to CFO (Chief Feline Officer) Merl of Turnbull Wine Cellars, cats “manage” many of the wine country’s operations greeting visitors, chasing mice, choosing wine or just adding their special touch of elegance to the tasting room.
By Linda Formichelli and W. Eric Martin
The cat banner outside Martz Vineyards proclaims the domain of Corky, “The World’s Biggest Winery Cat.” This brown tabby Maine coon rides motorcycles and presides over two German shepherds and several goats. Animals are indeed an important part of life at Martz Vineyards. The winery grounds resemble a wildlife refuge of sorts. Goats and their kids frolic; hummingbirds buzz; and dogs mill about under the supreme but indulgent rule of twenty-three pound Corky.
Inside Corky’s winery, run by Larry and Linda Martz (“His Grapeness” and “The Goatessa,” respectively), the ambiance is even more eclectic. You can purchase juices, goat milk soaps, and wine jellies. You can buy chocolates filled with cabernet and handmade soaps wrapped in chintz and ribbon. And, of course, you can taste and buy wine. Martz produces chardonnay, merlot, cabernet, zinfandel, a hybrid wine called Symphony, developed by the University of California, Davis.
Corky came to Martz’s from a local vet in 1986, four years before they started the winery. “We just wanted somebody to help us get rid of the rodents,” says Larry Martz. But they got more than they expected. Not only does Corky catch mice and moles (occasionally letting one loose inside the winery to test the rodent-chasing skills of dogs Mercedes and Chelsea), he also acts as host in the tasting room. “A lot of times he’ll lay on the bar and talk to people,” says Martz. One of Corky’s favorite spots, though, is lounging atop the Martz’s collection of antique corkscrews some of which have handles shaped like cats.
Turnbull Wine Cellars
“To live nine lives, drink red wine” are the words of wisdom offered by Turnbull Wine Cellars’ red-and-white mascot Merl (short for merlot). Born and raised in the Napa Valley, Merl’s job in the wine industry came naturally. He started out at Turnbull during the harvest of 1993 catching mice for room and board, but was soon promoted to hospitality staff and CFO (Chief Feline Officer).
Hospitality manager Dan Zurliene compliments Merl on his friendly service. “He likes to jump up on the counter for hugs and kisses,”notes Zurliene, and is quite the draw for repeat customers. People come back every year and ask to see Merl. He loves everybody.” Accommodating to all, Merl even lets kids tug his fur. On rare occasions, Merl has lapses in decorum, but they’ve only involved chewing on guests’ gold necklaces and purse straps, and pushing co- workers out of their chairs with his paws.
Follow the kitty Walk of Fame (Merl’s paw prints in the concrete sidewalk outside) to the tasting room to enjoy the Turnbull specialty, cabernet sauvignon, and other wines, such as Merlot (of course) and sangiovese, all produced by winemaker Jon Engelskirger.
In the tasting room, you may see Merl relaxing in his favorite box, where he can keep a close eye on the rest of the staff. On break from meeting and greeting visitors, literary Merl re-reads his favorites, “That Cat Who Came For Christmas” and “The Cat In The Hat.”
Prager Winery and Port Works
Wine mavens Corky and Use lead visitors down the stone walkway to the tasting room at Prager Winery and Port Works. But once there, Corky loses interest in his duty as host. While visitors sample and compare the tempting port wines, a trademark of this small winery, Corky entertains himself by climbing over barrels of port stored in the next room. Use, the ever-gracious hostess, remains with the visitors and seeks out a warm lap to lie in. Both of these feline mascots can be found lounging in the tasting room during off hours their favorite spot is a stool with a flowered fabric seat (perpetually covered with cat hair).
Jim Prager started Prager Winery and Port Works in 1979 after working twenty-six years as an insurance broker. A wine enthusiast who thought wine would be cheaper to make than to buy (an idea his son John now at), Jim Prager decided to make port, a niche market no one else was into. Prager started out bottling about seven hundred cases per year, and is now producing four thousand cases annually. His son John serves as Prager’s vice president of operations; John’s two brothers, Jeff and Pete, also work at the winery full time. Even though the business has grown over the years, Prager Winery and Port Works remains old-fashioned. During a tour, John Prager points to the cobwebs in one window corner and laughingly declares it Prager’s “original Web site.”
Kitty co-host Corky and Use are cousins from a long line of winery cats that began almost ten years ago when John Prager trapped a wild cat and her litter. The Pragers domesticated the kittens and adopted Silky, who they named for her beautiful long hair. Whenever Silky had a litter, they found homes for the kittens through the winery. They kept Corky, and Orange Morris look-alike, because of his excellent mousing ability, a talent he displayed even as a kitten. Silky later adopted Use and her sister, who were abandoned by their own mother under the Pragers’ house. Use’s sibling crossed rainbow bridge, but Use remains at the winery, working in the tasting room and warming visitors’ laps. “That cats give a lot of love and are very therapeutic,” says John Prager. “The hang out with the visitors.”
David Arthur Vineyards
The drive to David Arthur Vineyards in St. Helena ends after several miles of steep winding road. But the trip is worth it to experience the vineyard’s stunning summer-scape foliage and the shy deer picking their way up the hilland to meet Pepper, Oscar and White Snow, David Arthur’s three feline co-owners. When they’re not busy greeting guests found taking catnip breaks in
their own personal catnip patch. The mascots also revel in the attention of twelve-year-old Laura Long, who acts as winery secretary after school’s out.
White Snow and Pepper, both eight-year-old males, can thank a herd of buffalo for their pleasant winery life. “My brother owned a company called Buffalo Beer,” explains human proprietor David Long, “and my father raised buffalo in Santa Cruz so they could take pictures of them for marketing purposes.” Once when Long went to get alfalfa for the buffalo in Vallejo, he found two sickly, abandoned kittens under a haystack.
After receiving plenty of loving care, both cats recovered fully and now are thriving in their winery environment. Oscar, a shy three-year-old male tabby, joined his fellow feline wine enthusiasts when the Longs adopted him from a nursery that was closing.
This kitty paradise known as David Arthur Vineyards was started by David Long and his wife Joy in 1985. They produce a terrific chardonnay, but Pepper, Oscar and White Snow are especially proud of a red proprietary blend the Longs call Mertagioa fanciful name for Long’s own blend of cabernet, Cabernet franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot and sangiovese.
If you can tear yourself away from the frisky trio, David Long will lead you down a dusty drive to see the barrels of wine and the blending tanks. There are no bottles or corks at this wine tasting session. “We’re not for the masses,” says Long. “We’re for people who are looking for that special little wine. They come all the way up here to taste wine, and we give it to them straight from the barrel so they get the whole wine-tasting experience. ” And they enjoy a cat-enhanced experience of equal pleasure.
St. Clement Vineyards
At St. Clement Vineyards in St. Helena, male tabby Max presides over a Victorian hospitality center (converted from a private residence built in 1878) perched on a grapevine-lined hill. As part of the winery’s hospitality staff, Max loves to greet and receive pats from all visitors mostly because he hopes to take his catnap break in a visitor’s lap.
Max first came to St. Clement through the “We Care” program for homeless
pets. “When we first got him, he was in a cage,” says Jennifer Lamb,
St. Clement’s public relations manager, and was quite shy around humans.
“He must have had a really bad start in life.” But Max quickly adjusted,
and has become part of the staff and family at St. Clement says Lamb.
“He will scoot inside the door as soon as it’s open and head right
upstairs to the office to land on the widest lap he can find. He occasionally
parks in a sunny spot on the love seat in the tasting room and always
seems to find a soft spot in someone’s hearts.”
Be sure to enjoy St. Clement’s three specialty cabernets in the sunny
tasting room. The winery, which produces seventeen thousand cases
per year, was founded in 1878 and was the eighth winery in the area
to be registered. But you may have to sneak away from Max to enjoy
this charming facilityhe hates to give up a warm lap. “Max’s feet
haven’t touched the floor in three days,” says Doug Beck of St. Clement’s
hospitality staff. “People come in and sit on the chesterfield sofa,
and Max immediately bounces into their laps. He gets passed around
from lap to lap all day.”
What are cats doing at a wine class? Observe Tyrone and Hum Dinger,
who are furry fixtures at Goosecross Cellars’ popular Saturday morning
“Wine Basics” class. “Tyrone likes to greet visitors when they’re
having a wine class.” Says Patt Gorsuch, the wife of founder Reynolds
Gorsuch. “And they both talk to the participants there. The people
love it.” When he’s not studying grape varieties, Tyrone will accompany
you on by-appointment-only tours of the winery. “He likes to stand
on the posts and get attention,” says Gorsuch.
These half-Siamese, ring-tailed look-alikes came to Goosecross in
1986 from a local vet. When we first got them, we called them the
Space Cadets’ because they just raced around. We wanted to decide
what names would be appropriate for them before we named them,” recalls
Gorsuch. “We decided on Tyrone because he struts around Dan acts macho,
and Hum Dinger because, well, he’s playing with only fifty-one cards.”
The Gorsuches started making chardonnay in 1985 by custom-crushing
the grapes. In 1988 they built a small winery (known as a micro-boutique
winery) nestled in the heart of wine country. Son, Geoff, expanded
the wine list to include Cabernet, Merlot and a late-harvest and other
wines (made from grapes that are allowed to stay longer on the vine
for a sweeter wine) that sells out even before it’s released.
If you want to learn more about late-harvest and other wines, be sure
to start your trip at Goosecrosss to get a lesson from Professors
Tyrone and Hum Dinger. These purry PhDs will get you started on your
degree in Wine 101.
Guenoc Estate Vineyards and Winery
Both cats and cat lovers abound at Guenoc Estate Vineyards and Winery.
As Orville Magoon explains, when his family first started the winery
they had a problem with mice in the houses. In fact, during his courtship
of wife-to-be Karen, mouse traps continually snapped shut while they
were eating dinnernot the way he wanted to impress his date. “Now
we have a cat in every house, and the mice are gone and people love
the cats!” Magoon says.
Cats can indeed be found throughout the twenty-three thousand acres
that make up the Guenoc and Langtry Estate. The estate is nestled
in Guenoc Valley and encompasses property formerly owned by British
actress Lillie Langtry, who purchased the land in 1888 and began producing
wine there three years later. Langtry subsequently sold the property
in 1906 and, when wine production ceased during Prohibition, the estate
fell into disrepair. The Magoons acquired the land in 1963, and over
the next ten years they restored the Langtry House, rebuilt the Gebhard
Hunting Lodge (named after Freddie Gebhard, one of Langtry’s many
lovers), cleared out the hayfields and replanted the vineyards. Stay
the night at Langtry House and you’ll find a wealth of cats to keep
you company, including the sleek black-and-white Orlando, the shy,
long-legged Mikesch, and Molokai, who lives in the John Mackay apartment
with the two chefs. And be sure to look for Edward. “Mrs. Langtry
always had an Edward in her life,” says Magoon, so there’s always
a feline Edward at Langtry House.
The more you look around the Guenoc estate, the more cat items you’ll
find: crackers shaped like kitties; mugs that will make you meow;
and songs by the opera-singing Karen Melander-Magoon, including “The
Naughty Puss” and “Meow.” (“Meow! Meow! Meow! is the way I talk, but
I always purr when I drink Guenoc.”)
Even if you only visit the tasting room, you’ll still find felines.
Keep an eye out for Lap Top, named for his incredible lap-sitting
skills, and C.Z., whose talent is rolling over (when he feels like
it). And with all those felines lending a paw at the winery, it’s
no wonder Guenoc has twice won the “Best Red Wine In The World” award
at the International Wine Competition for their Langtry Meritage Red.
As Orville Magoon explains, “It takes cats to make a good wine.”
Reprinted with permission of Cats magazine, copyright June 1998. Linda
Formichelli and W. Eric Martin. Formichelli has written for Redbook,
Family Circle, and Details, among other publications. Martin has written
for P.O.V. and Games and has published fiction. They have two cats,
Rupert and Ivanovich.
Wine Country Visitor
Napa Valley Conference
and Visitors Bureau
Guenoc Estate Vineyards and Winery
21000 Butts Canyon Road
Middletown, CA 95461
wine tasting from 11am to 5pm
David Arthur Vineyards
1521 Sage Canyon Road
St. Helena, CA 94574
1119 State Lane
Yountville, CA 94574
free “Wine Basics” class every Saturday at 11am
Turnbull Wine Cellars
8210 St. Helena Highway
(800) TURNBUL (887-6285)
wine tasting by appointment from 10am to 4:30pm
20799 Highway 128
Yorkville, CA 95494
wine tasing from 10am to 5pm
Prager Winery and Port works
1281 Lewelling Lane
St. Helena, CA 94574
St. Clement Vineyards
2867 St. Helena Highway North
St. Helena, CA 94574
wine tasting from 10am to 4pm
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