By Nathaniel Bauer Wine and spirits columnist Published Aug 13, 2009 at 4:25 PM

Thinking about going to Napa Valley this year for the harvest? Not unless you planned your trip months ago. This week's column covers the most popular tourist season, and the most hectic for wineries, known as the "crush." We'll discuss the pros and cons of braving the masses from September through October in Napa Valley.

Harvest is the most important time of year for any winemaker. It is the time when each winery crosses its fingers in the hopes that the time, energy, skill, mother-nature, the wine gods -- what have you -- will all be worth it and yield incredible fruit.

Tension is high, the hours are long, timing is everything, extra help is hired and all hands are on deck. But it will all be worth it once those first glorious, perfectly ripe grapes are pressed and the winemaking begins.

The appeal to be a part of this incredible process has been the driving force in Napa Valley's tourist business for decades. Throngs of wine lovers descend upon the Valley to be a part of the festivities. There are parties, festivals, charity events and special events at the wineries -- all to celebrate the culmination of another growing season and the beginning of another vintage of famous Napa Valley wine.

Are you the type of wine lover that would want to join in the bacchanalian experience?

Why the "crush" is THE time to be in Napa

A substantial portion of the 5 million or so annual visitors to Napa Valley that visit during the harvest raise their glasses in salutation to the crush. Only during harvest can you experience the real essence of the Valley. The woody smell is in the air, the excitement is palpable. Up the entire 30-mile corridor, everyone can't wait to see what the new vintage holds.

There is so much to do, one can hardly fit in all the fun. Many wineries have special events in the tasting rooms offering visitors specials, food pairings, auctions, etc. Resumed last year after more than a decade of retirement is the annual Harvest Stomp, where visitors can clink wine glasses with famous winemakers and learn about the recent growing season.

Perhaps one of the coolest things to do is arrange to actually work the harvest. Many wineries, including Schramsberg, Grgich Hills, Ravenswood, Napa Valley Reserve, St. Supery and others, have packages where visitors put on jeans, work boots, are handed a pruning shears or knife and set to harvest the grapes.

After your day(s) of dirty work in the field, winemakers will spend one-on-one time explaining the process and everything that comes next. Camp Schramsberg at the Schramsberg Winery is one of the best and is about to commence its 10th year of campers.

For you real hardcore enthusiasts, this is one heck of a way to spend vacation.

If you like meeting lots of people, all with the same passion, the Crush is the time to visit for you. There are more events going on than you could possibly keep up with, let alone have the time to squeeze in all the winery tours. Between the Andretti Winery Lobster Fest, River Fest, live music of all kinds and more culinary classes, features and specials than you can shake a stick at, there is no shortage of things to do.

If you are planning a trip to Napa during harvest, here are a few things you should know:

  • Plan your vacation AT LEAST nine months ahead of time.
  • Arrange for lodging, transportation and tours as soon as you know you are going.
  • Make dinner reservations as far ahead in advance as possible.
  • Make sure you either rent a limo or have a designated driver, as drinking wine is even more the focus during harvest.
  • Arrange as many of your tours and plans during the week as possible-Saturday is exponentially busier.
  • It's very helpful to know someone in the business if you are planning a trip during harvest-they may be able to get you behind the scenes in certain cases.
  • Be prepared to meet tons of wine enthusiasts all there to feel the yearly magic.

Why you should avoid Napa during harvest like the plague

Just as many people will tell you that you would be out of your ever-loving mind to travel to Napa during the crush. Typically, this other half of the coin prefer the quiet, relaxed version of wine tasting vacations. They can take their time traveling from location to location. They can perhaps garner a little more quality interaction with the staff at the wineries. They aren't so much about the party and festivities associated with wine-but rather enjoy the quiet leisure that wine can bring.

Also, there are those that ask themselves why they would intentionally subject themselves to Highway 29, which is the eighth most congested non-commuter roadway in the country. Nothing like spending the majority of your vacation stuck in traffic.

Sure, there might be lots of things to do, but what fun is there in having to vie for attention when you want a taste of wine? Instead of being the only two or four people on a guided tour, you are elbow to elbow with a whole gaggle of people including that idiot from (wherever) who won't stop asking questions so he can sound smart.

Prices are at a premium for everything from gas to food to well, wine. The wine train has been heralded as the worst booze ride in America. Limousines cost more than $100 per hour.

Unless you know someone in the business, the chances of speaking personally with a winemaker or owner are slim to none -- sure they appreciate and welcome all the visitors, but they have their livelihood fresh from the ground and aren't about to stop for a second to talk to ANOTHER fanatic.

People get even more carried away in the festival aspect of harvest and are more likely to over drink resulting in a densely-packed population of belligerent vacationing vinophiles.

One of the nice things about such a world-renowned growing region like Napa being so close for those in the U.S. is that it's convenient to book a long weekend without much notice and have a great time. Traveling to Napa during the crush means actually having to make all the arrangements further out than you would for a trip to an exotic local on the other side of the world.

Planning a vacation during any other time of the year is pretty straightforward. Here are some tips to remember:

  • It's still a good idea to avoid the weekends.
  • Reservations for famous eateries (Auberge du Soliel, Mustards, French Laundry, etc.) still take months of advance notice.
  • It's much easier to find lodging in and around Napa-there are some beautiful hotels and bed and breakfasts.
  • It's still very important to arrange transportation or have a designated driver. Navigating up and down Spring Mountain under the influence is no good for anyone.
  • During the off-season, it's much easier to arrange tours, especially at the smaller boutique wineries.

I would love to hear about your trips to Napa either during the harvest or not and what you liked about them

On which side of the fence do you sit? Do you feel the passion and camaraderie of the crush -- or -- do you say "I will take that wonderful Valley any other time of year."

Use the Talkback feature to let me know.

Nathaniel Bauer Wine and spirits columnist
Nathaniel Bauer has spent the last 10 years as a wine buyer for some of Milwaukee’s finest restaurants. Two standouts include a six-year tenure with Bartolotta’s that culminated at Bacchus as a manager and sommelier, followed by two years as the General Manager and certified sommelier at Dream Dance. Finally late in ‘08 he hung up his wine key to start a family. Even though he is now the Marketing Director for a local software company, Big Bang LLC, wine keeps calling his name. The steady chant that kept him in the restaurant business for more than a decade, even after his several attempts to ignore its call, keeps him up to date on current vintages and producers around the globe. Bauer still visits many Milwaukee establishments, both retail and restaurant, to stay a part of the fantastic wine community in this city. Now, after more than a decade in the wine and restaurant market, he is glad to have no direct affiliations and looks forward to offering an experienced and impartial opinion on how local wine purveyors can be even more successful.