Ballet in the Sonoma Valley vineyards

William M. Dowd photos and video

SANTA ROSA, CA -- The harvest on the five Russian River Valley ranches supplying grapes to the winemakers at Sonoma-Cutrer wrapped up several weeks early this year, a testament to a good growing season.

But it also was a testament to good old-fashioned manpower.

Under the watchful eye of Javier Torres (right), the senior vineyard manager his colleagues refer to as "The Marlboro Man" because of his attire, 12-man crews made their way through the grape fields, wielding nothing more than a curved cutting knife and a lot of plastic boxes to take down an astounding one ton of grapes every 15 minutes.

"They're really amazing to watch," David Perata, Sonoma-Cutrer general manager, told me during a final-day harvest tour of the 1,100-acre complex. "They make it look effortless, but it's quite a skill to be able to work that fast that long, and without damaging the fruit.

"They work in 12-man teams -- eight to do the cutting, one to drive the tractor and three or so to handle the collection baskets, take care of any other tasks that need doing. Some of them have worked together for quite a while, so they make it a smooth operation."

It is difficult to envision the precision and speed the harvest workers use to get the delicate little chardonnay grapes from vine to the washing and sorting station. This video gives a taste of that speed:

This is the last year the scene at Sonoma-Cutrer will be seen only by employees and invited guests. The company, which is owned by beverage industry giant Brown-Forman of Louisville, KY, is targeting a spring 2009 opening for visitors.

At that point, visitors will get to see the actual work depending on what season it is -- pruning, planting, harvesting, trimming back the vines at the end of the season ... whatever is going on is at the six vineyards is what tourists will see as they are taken through the complex on special motorized carts. They'll also be treated to a tasting of current wines.

Sonoma-Cutrer, which had been a "white house" until producing a pinot noir harvest four years ago, is best known for wines created under winemaker Terry Adams (right), such as its Russian River Ranches cuvée crafted from several estate vineyards, and its Les Pierres and the Cutrer chardonnays.

They're a bit different than a lot of other Sonoma County appelation wines, since the various ranches into which the complex is divided provide a variety of soils virtually side by side. The Cutrer vineyard, located about a dozen miles from the Pacific Ocean, is planted on what once was an ocean floor.

At one time before grapes became the money crop, it was a hops operation. The triple-towered hop kiln barn seen below is what remains of that era.

Sonoma County Tourism Bureau
Sonoma County Wine Country
Russian River Chamber of Commerce
Dowd's Guide

Vegas dining very cool this time of year

Now that the heat of summer is quickly becoming a memory, destinations such as Las Vegas become more appealing than ever. I know they do to me.

Years ago, when I made my first visit to Sodom in the Desert, I wasn't prepared for the overwhelming summer heat even long after sundown. I recall a colleague and I walking out of our hotel lobby, being hit in the face with a blast of heat, doing a quick about-face and going right back inside to spend the remainder of the evening in the air-conditioned comfort of the casino.

I've learned a lot since then about when to visit Vegas, and find fall is absolutely the best. What makes this particular fall even more appealing is a new collection of restaurants.

Yes, as if Vegas didn't have enough restaurants, The Shoppes at The Palazzo -- the resort city's newest destination luxury retail center, located on the The Strip adjacent to The Grand Canal Shoppes opposite Wynn Las Vegas -- is home to more than a dozen in a sprawling complex that just opened this summer.

It includes more than a dozen restaurants, including CUT by Wolfgang Puck, Table 10 by Emeril Lagasse, Restaurant Charlie by Charlie Trotter and Carnevino by Mario Batali.

But, beyond the celebrity chef spots I'd suggest trying SUSHISAMBA (seen above), especially if you have a craving for a Japanese/Brazilian/Peruvian menu. And, let's face it, who doesn't?

The intriguingly-named SUSHISAMBA is the newest and largest of seven units in a small chain. It boasts 16-foot ceilings, swirling sculptural "ribbons," and a Mondrian-inspired glass facade meant to evoke the spirit and energy of Brazil's famous Carnaval. The menu ranges from classic Japanese tempura to Brazilian churrasco and feijoada and Peruvian anticuchos.

While that may sound like an odd combination to some people, the Japanese influence in South America -- particularly Peru (think controversial former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori) -- has long been large and influential, so a blending of the cuisines is a logical outgrowth.

Among retail shops in the complex are Barneys New York, Diane von Furstenberg, Chloé, Christian Louboutin, Michael Kors, Fendi, Jimmy Choo, Van Cleef & Arpels and Piaget.

The Shoppes at The Palazzo is owned and operated by General Growth Properties Inc., the second largest U.S.-based publicly traded real estate investment trust (REIT) and largest retail developer and owner in Las Vegas.
• Las Vegas Dining Guide
• Dowd's Guides

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