Crush Camps: Getting Your Hands Into the California Wine Country

Give yourself a couple of days in the tasting rooms of the California Wine Country and a certain antsiness might set in. You may find yourself looking longingly at the rows of grapevines or craning your neck to check out a winery's equipment. If you're starting to fantasize about the winemaking life, you're in luck.

A few local wineries offer short, hands-on winemaking programs, called "crush camps," usually during harvest in September and October. You'll see the inner workings of harvest and even blend your own bottle of wine. Here are some top options for camps, from short stints to multi-day immersions. As for a camp crush -- well, you never know.

Crush This! 
Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma Valley tears through a three-hour participatory crash course. Staff members show how to assess grapes' ripeness, how to punch down fermenting juice, and how to blend wine. You'll create your own zinfandel blend to cork and bring home.

Harvest Adventure
This one-day camp is hosted by St. Sup ry Winery in Napa Valley. There's an overview of the winemaking process; a stint of picking; and a blending tutorial during which you'll prepare your own bottle of cabernet sauvignon. If you like, you can go barefoot and do some old-school grape stomping in a barrel.

Camp Schramsberg
Is your theme song "Tiny Bubbles"? The three-day autumn sessions at Napa Valley's Schramsberg Vineyards focus on making sparkling wines. Campers pick grapes in the vineyards and follow them to the crusher; winemakers teach traditional production steps such as riddling. This year, Schramsberg introduced a spring session which highlights the blending process. Rather than picking grapes, campers learn how to prune the vines. Both camps also include a discussion of food and wine pairing held at the Culinary Institute of America -- and as a dramatic finish, the art of opening a bottle of bubbly by slicing off its top with a sabre.

Sonoma County Grape Camp
Several vineyards in the Russian River and Alexander valleys participate in this three-day harvest immersion, giving this option a particularly broad scope. Campers pick grapes, taste freshly pressed grape juice, and learn about blending. You'll also squeeze in a cheesemaking tour and a wine - and food-pairing workshop led by John Ash, the chef of a top local restaurant. (photo, top)

Judd's Hill MicroCrush
Want to kick things up a notch? Contact Judd's Hill MicroCrush, a family-run custom winemaking business that's just outside of the town of Napa. You can sign on to customize an entire barrel of wine (288 bottles) or more. How involved you get in the process is up to you, but the winemakers can help you choose grapes, decide on blends and filtration, pick a barrel type, and name your creation.

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