Winemaking. Life. The Dirt. Alison Crowe is a Winemaker Based in Napa.

Home Grown: Wine Country Folks Share Local Holiday Gift Faves

gifts I know a lot of winemakers (takes one to know one, I guess).  I also know a lot of non wine biz folks which is one of the best parts about living in Napa Valley’s largest city.    Winemakers or not, what we all have in common is that we live in “Wine Country.” We also are particularly enthusiastic about the wonderful food, crafts and gifts grown, produced and designed right here in Napa and Sonoma Counties.

Below are some of our favorite locally-made holiday gift ideas from friends and neighbors we know and love. The good news is that you don’t have to live in wine country to enjoy their wares. Happy gift-giving, one and all, wherever you may call home!

(Important note:  NO freebies, samples or anything of value was received from any of the below businesses- these are my real favorite local gift picks so this is not paid content)


Steve Sando getting a look in on some of his famous beans.

Steve Sando getting a look in on some of his famous beans.

Heirloom Beans (and other goodies) From Rancho Gordo New World Specialty Foods

Beans? Yes, beans. If you’ve only ever eaten dessicated supermarket beans of questionable shelf life, prepare your taste buds for a treat. I’ve been a loyal customer of Steve Sando’s Rancho Gordo ever since we moved to Napa and his beans never fail to remind me of home, be that Napa or where I grew up in Santa Barbara County. My grandma always seemed to have a pot of pinto beans simmering on the stove and today they are still a key wintertime comfort food at our house.  Steve is a true American bean pioneer. His personal search for awesome dried beans (and more) lead him years ago to try growing his own and then to supporting small-volume Northern California and US farmers. Perhaps his most intriguing work is with the Rancho Gordo Xoxoc Project, a partnership with small Mexican farmers, which fosters the production of their indigenous foods like heirloom corn, prickly pears and of course, ancient varieties of beans. From beans to hand-made tortillas to spices and the odd vintage movie poster or three, Rancho Gordo is a wine country institution with global reach.


Olive and Poppy- I love the rings and bracelet made from pieces of wine barrels.

Olive and Poppy- I love the rings and bracelets made from oak barrels.

Jewelry and Thoughtful, Creative Gifts From Olive and Poppy

Several of my friends recommended I check out the super-cute creations of this dynamic Napa duo. I was immediately smitten with this cute-as-a-button wine barrel ring (see picture left). And since my next homesteading fantasy is to have a couple of beehives on our property down by the creek, I’ve found myself lusting after their honeycomb ring. Necklaces, scarves, tea towels, earrings….even cuff links for the man on your list. A lovingly-designed collection of well-curated pieces.


Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Napa's Oro Puro Vineyards is a rare handmade treat.

Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc from Napa’s Oro Puro Vineyards is a rare handmade treat.

Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc From Oro Puro Vineyards

Making true late-harvest botrytized white wine is a difficult feat in perfect-climate California. Most vintages, however, Deb and Jonathan Goldman manage to make it happen in their Sauvignon Blanc vineyard off of Silverado Trail just north of Napa. I love serving this wine with desserts, of course, but it is also amazing with cheese or dribbled on a summertime fresh salad of melons and mint. Order directly from co-owner Deb Freed Goldman for the goods. You’ll be so happy you did.


Candles from NapaScents make great hostess gifts.

Candles from NapaScents make great hostess gifts.

Soy candles from Napa Scents

Looking for something small but luxurious (and good for you and your home)?  These delightfully scented soy-based candles by local writer, blogger and personal fitness coach (yes, this mom does it all) Kristin Ranuio are a special treat. Soy wax, cotton wick, lovely array of scents, lots of sizes and even my favorite, the travel tin.

Free delivery for local orders over $50. Email:, phone 707-299-0524.



Panettone, Truffles, Cheese etc., from Cheesemonger Doralice Handal

Doralice Handal knows how to throw down a cheese platter, as well as how to source hard-to-find Perigord truffles and exotic panettone flavors.

Doralice Handal knows how to throw down a cheese platter, as well as how to source hard-to-find Perigord truffles and exotic panettone flavors.

Call on Cheesemonger Extraordinaire Doralice Handal to help you find your favorite holiday goodies over the phone or email. She’s my go-to source for vintage chocolates, rare European vinegar, crazy-big panettone, black or white truffles (not the chocolate kind) and of course, cheese. You’re sure to find a cheese to please….ask Doralice for something to go with the aforementioned Oro Puro. Last day to place orders for delivery the week of Dec 15 is on December 12. Keep her info handy year-round….she’s one of our top secret sources for all things delish in Wine Country!  Instagram:  labodeguera



Wine Barrel Furniture and Home Goods from Buddha Barrels

I need about five of these Buddha Barrel spice racks in my kitchen....

I need about five of these Buddha Barrel spice racks in my kitchen….

I have so many favorite things on our friend Gwendolyn Larson’s online storefront it’s hard to focus. The pet bed! The pot rack! The magnetic spice rack! You can tell I’m excited about these hand-made home goods. This is the real wine-country wine barrel deal, folks. No mangy whiskey half-barrels mass-produced into things you can find in shopping malls. Buddha Barrels sources fine wine-soaked oak barrels from our neighboring wineries and lovingly realizes their functional and attractive designs right here in Napa.



Napa Valley Give Guide and Oakland Warehouse Fire Victim’s Fund

Tis the season to help those in need. We were so saddened by the recent warehouse fire tragedy in Oakland that I wanted to mention this new victim’s fund here. Funds go to pay medical and funeral expenses of survivors and victims. In addition, the Napa Valley Give Guide is your one-stop shop for giving. Choose your charity (Big Brothers Big Sisters?  Friends of the Napa River?  Sunrise Horse Rescue?) and make it happen for our community.


Enjoy this season of giving, my best holiday wishes to you and yours!


Alison Crowe is an award-winning winemaker, author and blogger.

Her wine: (among other projects)

Her book: The Winemaker’s Answer Book

Her contact info: @alisoncrowewine

All pictures above used with permission

















The Most Important Decision a Winemaker Will Ever Make (the answer might surprise you)

024From the number of times I’ve been asked the below questions while pouring for the public, you’d think they’d be the most important things I pay attention to when I make wine.

-“How many months of barrel age?”

-“Is this Chardonnay ML complete?”

-“Is this 100% Pinot?”

-“What’s the blend here?”


The problem is that the above, which get so much of the focus of sommeliers, wine critics and the public alike, are all a lot less important than one little thing:  when the grapes were picked.


As the rain pours down here in Napa (the second…or is it the third storm this October?) this is what is on the top of my mind regarding the end of Harvest 2016, and regarding quality winemaking in general.  I heard tales of some of our Napa Cab buyers wanting to hang their grapes not just through the first little rain we had at the beginning of October, but through the subsequent, much more significant event that brought almost an inch and a half mid-month.

You see, most Cabernet (and other loose-bunched varieties like Merlot) can generally ride out a little rain (say, less than 0.5 inch) with no problems, as long as it warms up afterwards.  Let your clusters sit out through more precipitation than that, however, and the berries can take up too much water, become diluted, breed rot and generally become tasteless mush.

As grapes ripen, sugar levels increase, puckery tannins lose their harshness, and green notes (hopefully) go away.  Naturally-present compounds like amino acids and other nutrients critical for yeast growth and healthy fermentations can start to decline while desirable “mature” flavor components are generally on the rise.

“Hangtime” doesn’t necessarily mean ripening time, however.  Time on the vine, in the face of cold weather or a canopy that’s shutting down with late-season senescence, doesn’t equate to real metabolic change within the grapevine or the grapes.   With a blind devotion to a certain amount of “hang time” in heat or dry weather, you’re only making raisins, not healthy grapes for delicious wine.  After two rainstorms, you’re toast, and definitely not of the tasty medium-plus barrelhead variety.

Choosing the perfect moment to pick is perhaps more of an art than a science.  We can use numbers (Brix, acidity, even phenolic data) as guidelines but the decision itself is a balance of a multitude of factors.  Sometimes nature gets in the way (2008 heat spike anyone?) or the wineries just get so plugged up there are no empty tanks (remember 2005?).  This year, the right call was to bring in your grapes before that second rainstorm.

I realize that the pick date is much, much harder for anyone else besides the winemaker and grower to put into proper context.  Each vintage, from AVA to AVA and often vineyard to vineyard, has its nuances.  In a sea of wines, it’s understandably difficult for consumers and the media to recognize the importance of picking Cabernet in Oakville on October 6 rather than October 16 2016.  Memorizing “18 months in French Oak” from a wine fact sheet is definitely an easier factoid to hold onto.

The importance of the pick date is one of the reasons I always say that once the grapes are picked, the path to wine is already laid before you.  Once you’ve committed to picking your Grenache at 22.5  Brix you’d better be making a rose because it’s never going to lend much to a full-bodied GSM blend.  Even if you picked your Oakville Cab on October 12 at 24.7 Brix it’s still going to be a better wine than one getting whipped around on a shut-down canopy after an inch and a half of rain.

So no, it’s not the fancy oak barrel, it’s not the soupçon of Rousanne you co-fermented your Syrah with, it’s not that 3% of whole cluster Pinot Noir in your open-top tank, no matter what your marketing department wants you to put on the website.  It’s something much more personal and something that should be closer to your heart and soul:  your wine’s birthday.

Once you pick, the path to wine is already laid out before you, immutable, unchangeable and excitingly full of possibilities.  The wine is already telling you what it wants to be and needs to be.  Your job is to pay attention and let it have its voice.


Alison Crowe is an award-winning Winemaker, blogger and author and lives in Napa.  She holds an MBA as well as degrees in Viticulture and Enology and Spanish from UC Davis.








Girl and the Grape- 3 Years as a Blog, Many More as a Love Affair

Hug a Grape! I became curious about exactly how that grapefruit smell got into a glass of my parents' Chenin Blanc when I was 10.

Hug a Grape! I became curious about exactly how that grapefruit smell got into a glass of my parents’ Chenin Blanc when I was 10.

“You’re so lucky that you decided early on that you wanted to be a winemaker.”

I get that a lot, from friends who know me well in addition to strangers who always seem to be somewhat surprised to see a young woman pouring her wine across the tasting table.

I suppose I was lucky.  I entered UC Davis at least 85% sure that I wanted to be a winemaker but knew enough about agriculture (it’s not a glamorous life, friends) to know I should work a Harvest before I fully committed.  I squished my first grape at Monterey County’s Chalone Vineyard as a teenager and, sticky hands and bee stings and late nights not withstanding, fell in love forever.

Few know that my love affair with grapes and wine started even earlier than that.

Growing up in a little beach town just south of Santa Barbara, my folks and their friends were into the burgeoning Santa Ynez Valley wine scene.  My sister and I were exposed to most of the local tasting rooms and at weekend dinner parties we saw on the table and, most importantly, got to smell in the glass the produce of our neighbor wineries over the hill.

I’ll never forget my first real “wine” memory.  My best friend’s dad handed me his glass of Daniel Gehrs Chenin Blanc to smell and my first thought, beyond the visual beauty of the grassy-gold liquid shimmering in the glass was, “Wait- how did they get that grapefruit in there?”  I knew enough about wine to know Chenin Blanc was a kind of grape and I had no idea what kind of crazy magic could transform the juice of one fruit into something that smelled completely like another.

In my junior high chemistry class I was just beginning to understand that many plants have aroma compounds to attract pollinators and, as it happens, curious noses.  The roses, lavender and lemon verbena I loved so much in my herb garden smelled that way because they had volatile (i.e. smell-able) chemical compounds in the petals which wafted their way up to my nose, over the olfactory bulb and in turn triggered pleasurable sensations in my brain.  Sniff…..aaahhhh…..


So here’s to three years as a wine blog and many more years as the Girl and the Grape, connecting the sensory dots between plants and pleasure.  I love what I do, from the product to the places to the people.  Many thanks to all of you who have been loyal readers and welcome to those of you who are new here.  I’ll continue to write about “Winemaking, Life and ‘the Dirt'” and share a little about what makes wine and winemaking so fabulous, frustrating and at the end of the day, fascinating.   I guess I just can’t stop chasing that crazy magic.


Alison Crowe is a Napa-based winemaker (,, author and blogger.  She published The WineMaker’s Answer Book in 2007 and in 2014 won “Best New Wine Blog” at the Wine Blog Awards.  She and her husband, photographer and wine educator, Chris Purdy, live on a small piece of property just west of downtown where they take care of four (going on five) doves, one rabbit, one dog, two cats, and grow herbs, vegetables, hops and two little boys.








5 Things You Didn’t Know (or forgot) About Mentoring


“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” Winston Churchill

Tomorrow I’m honored to be a member of a panel discussion on wine making and mentoring as part of the Women of the Vine 2016 Symposium.  This sold-out gathering of wine industry professionals is an opportunity to learn from our peers and to share our experiences, very much like a traditional mentoring arrangement.  As I prepared for our conversation (which our moderator, Guy Stout of Glazer’s, insists will be a power-point free zone), I jotted down some thoughts. I realized that, especially in the wine business, and especially in my slightly unorthodox way of being a “Winemaker” (read: consulting winemaker developing multiple brands), my experience with mentoring others has been anything but traditional.

Here are some things that I realized I didn’t know- or had forgotten- about mentoring.

-It doesn’t have to be with someone “younger”

In the wine business, many people are coming at it as a second or even third career.  When I was a teenager just starting the UC Davis Viticulture & Enology program I was surprised (and in fact a little intimidated) to be on the lab bench next to forty-somethings who had already had success as chefs or teachers or financiers.  Today, I field calls, emails and Facebook messages from folks in their sixties as well as recent college graduates.  Mentoring happens in many age brackets.

-It doesn’t have to happen within your specific industry or area

I’m a winemaker so it’s natural to think about mentoring in term of developing an Enologist or training harvest interns.  In fact, the kind of mentoring I have done the most of is cross-disciplinary within the wine industry.  Perhaps it’s because I am also an author and got my MBA at UC Davis with a lot of non-wine folks, I am contacted by journalists, food industry folks, marketing professionals and social media mavens as well as aspiring winemakers.  They all have great questions and our conversations are rich and hopefully as satisfying for them as they are for me.

-It doesn’t have to happen on the job

One of my most rewarding mentoring experiences happens on the weekends.  A grad school friend of mine (who is in wine sales) and a neighbor (who, along with her husband are wine industry finance professionals) often meet on Saturday mornings to hike and walk in local parks and vineyards.  We talk about our personal lives, of course, but have made some valuable professional inroads in between the vineyard rows.  Just by doing something enjoyable (exercising out in nature) we’ve found another opportunity to grow together in our own co-mentoring group.

-It doesn’t have to be a lot of work

If you find interacting with others enjoyable, folding mentoring activities into your professional and personal life isn’t hard at all.  Respond to that unsolicited email, invite someone to have a phone conversation and volunteer for a cause you find appealing, whether it’s related to your industry or not.  Chances are, in a few months, you’ll naturally find you’ve positively impacted someone’s life.

-It works both ways

You don’t have to be someone’s boss to be a mentor, nor is mentoring a one way street.  Like my weekend workout group has proven to me, it’s practically assured you’ll learn plenty when someone seeks you out.  Working through issues and challenges with someone else in an empathetic way puts you “in someone else’s shoes” by default and again, by default, your own perspective is changed.  When I’m working with someone else I end up better defining my own personal and professional truths.  By listening to others you then learn to better listen to yourself.


Tips for mentoring.

-Ask them a lot of questions- oftentimes others are afraid to ask you.

-As an employer, find ways to offer leadership and growth possibilities to all employees.

-Be “findable” (LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram etc.) and people will seek you out.

-Help people uncover their intrinsic vs extrinsic motivators.  A healthy combination of both is the key to career happiness and sustainability.


Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and makes wine for Garnet Vineyards, Back From the Dead Red wines and Picket Fence Vineyards among others.  She is the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book, the winner of “Best New Wine Blog” in 2014 and lives in Napa, California.  @alisoncrowewine

2016 Northern California Budbreak Begins: Girl and The Grape’s First Look

No leaves or blooms in Carneros yet. Right now, the focus in the vineyards is on the gorgeous mustard.

No leaves or blooms in Carneros yet. Right now, the focus in the vineyards is on the gorgeous mustard.

It’s hard to believe I’m talking about Harvest 2016 already.  It makes sense, though, because every vintage is always just a certain number of months away from picking, no matter what time the year.  Indeed, every season of the year, and the weather conditions therein, ultimately decide the size and quality of grape crop we have and the kind of wine we will make.


I wasn’t the first one to bring up Harvest 2016; I had my head stuck in a bottling line, putting the cork in my first Garnet Vineyards Stanly Ranch single vineyard Pinot Noir when I fielded a call from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.  Their reporter told me he had just been talking to someone who had active budbreak showing at 25% in the Russian River.  He wanted to know what I was seeing in our vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, and Carneros.


As I stood outside Garnet Vineyards’ winery off of 8th St. East in Sonoma, sheltering from gusty bouts of a rare February drizzle, I laughed and said, “Not much.”  The only active green growth I’d been enjoying in my vineyards was this year’s ample, well-watered cover crops.    January’s rainfall and February’s recent three-week warm spell really got the mustard going and from Rutherford to Carneros, the Napa Valley has been one beautiful carpet of yellow and green lushness.


Stormy January skies have kept budbreak at bay- until this week's warm weather really got leafing underway.

Stormy January skies have kept budbreak at bay- until February’s warm weather starting to warm things up. Leaves should be well out in a couple of weeks.

Not that I haven’t heard rumors of the odd teeny leaf peeping out here and there.  One of my co-workers had just emailed around a fuzzy bud of Chardonnay (one of the earlier-ripening varieties) which looked like a pale green cotton ball about to unfurl into a tender leaf.   But 25%?  I wasn’t buying it last week and after touring through the Pinot Noir (always my first starter) in the Petaluma Gap and Carneros AVA’s this weekend I’m still not buying 25% in the active bud break/leafing stage. You can find a few pushing buds here and there in the very warmest areas, in pockets, but it’s not widespread…yet.


It’s about to get crazy, however, because we’ve got at least another week of mild weather with highs in the mid-70’s here in Napa coming up.  There’s no rain on the horizon for at least another ten days.  If the leaves get all warm and fuzzy and fat and happy and then a cold snap burns developing buds or a big rainstorm reduces flower fertility during an unseasonably early bloom, it could spell trouble for the 2016 grape crop. However, a colder January than we experienced in 2015 is keeping budbreak more on the normal side for most vineyards as far as I can tell.


Stanly Ranch in Carneros isn’t experiencing budbreak just yet but this warm weather will be sure to get things into full swing

Everyone is in agreement that California needs more water (especially our parched neighbors on the Central Coast) but as a “drought year” like 2015 showed us, it all depends on when we get it. I would welcome it after bud break and before bloom- and maybe with a little luck on our side we’ll have a “Miracle March” to help pull us away from drought conditions.  So far it seems, from our initial bud analysis, that crop yield is at least starting in a “normal” place.  What we end up taking off the vine, in quality as well as quantity, depends on how much frost we get during the next month and how much disruption storms bring during the bloom and set season.  We are in early days yet, everyone.  Cross your fingers for another nice Napa and Sonoma County harvest.


Alison Crowe is a Napa-based consulting winemaker (Vindie Wines, Back From the Dead Red Wine), author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book, and is at the helm of Garnet Vineyards and Picket Fence Vineyards. 




Ghoulishly Short 2015 Grape Harvest Explained









All over California, Harvest 2015 was a spooky one.  Rumors of Sauvignon Blanc mysteriously vanishing were rife.  Grapes were disappearing left and right.  Winemakers tried to blame the viticulturists for poor crop estimates.  Viticulturists tried to blame the weather.  This, however, is the real story behind what happened……


In days of yore the Harvest lore

Was all ‘bout tons redundant

Ample flows, wines white and rose

Cheered us with yields abundant


Alas, ’15, with yields obscene

Doth make me scratch my head

Could it be our Cab and PV

Were pillaged by zombies instead?


One harvest night in full moonlight

A zombie horde I spied

In lieu of brains & bloody remains

My precious tons they triedzombie-499924_1280


With bloody paws & dripping maws

They gobbled with wild delight,

And so instead the crazed undead

Left nary a berry in sight!


Oh what a pick and such a trick

This grape massacre unforeseen.

Though ‘tis delish and you I wish

A most Happy Halloween!


Zombies ate my grapes.  For real.  OK, maybe only in Paso…..

There indeed was a “perfect storm” of causes all over Coastal California:  long-term drought effects, extended bloom, poor set due to weather, sporadic frost damage, the odd freak summer rainstorm during bloom… but the great news is that what we have is looking great.  2015 is set to be a distinctive and delicious year.  Small berries, great color on the Bordeaux varietals, concentrated flavors and extremely fruity wines all are making me grateful that one bad trick has provided many treats this Harvest!









Alison Crowe is a Napa-based winemaker with projects that include Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards, and Back From the Dead Red.  She works with grapes from Napa, Russian River, Carneros and the Central Coast so saw a wide range of yields in 2005.  She is an award-winning blogger and winemaker and is the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book.


What do Winemakers do After Harvest? Step it up a Notch, of Course!

Looking for some post-Harvest Halloween fun - try the Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon!

Looking for some post-Harvest Halloween fun – try the Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon or 5K!

2015 was a record early Harvest in Northern California’s wine country.  As a result, those of us (read: Winemakers) who rarely get to enjoy the festivities of fall are casting about for ways to celebrate the season.

I know some of us are thrilled to actually be able to make our kids’ Halloween costumes rather than throw something together from Safeway the day of.  Many of we winemakers are mentioning classic fall food as the days get shorter; I’ve seen lots of recipes for pot roast, butternut squash ravioli and split pea soup on Pinterest lately.  A lot better than taco truck burritos on the crush pad, to be sure!

We’re all talking about dusting off the hobbies, getting out for a little fall-weather hiking and maybe some “staycation” wine country activities with our friends and families.  If it’s the kind of thing you like do (and it’s the kind of thing I’m getting back into doing), why not join me at the “Best Destination Race in the Pacific West”– the Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon/Hallowine 5K on Halloween morning?  It’s my first time doing this race, and, when I saw the invitation from Destination Races of course I had to say yes.  I’ve never done this course because, of course, I’m always super busy on Halloween- except for this historically early 2015 season!

I'm looking forward to running around vineyards and *NOT* working. Grapes? All in the barn, baby!

I’m looking forward to running around vineyards and *NOT* working. Grapes? All in the barn, baby!

Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon Details:

Website:  Click Here

When:  Saturday, October 31, 2015

Start Times: 1/2 Marathon: 7:30am PST.  The Hallowine 5k has 2 start waves, 8:45 and 8:50am PST

Fun Fall Extras: 

-Welcome receptions and pre-race dinner events

-Race Day expo

-Post-Race wine and food festival

                -costume contest, feed and beer, live band, awards, wine tasting ($35 extra fee

-Involved wineries include Truett Hurst, Coppola’s newest gig, Virginia Dare Winery, Kendall Jackson, Trione, Mazzocco and Trentadue Winery- what a lineup!

All info can be found here:

All in all this looks like a really fun wine country race.  I’m so lucky to live in Napa, where it seems like there’s a 5K, 10K or half marathon within a 25 mile radius almost every other weekend.  Now that I don’t have to grab a fright wig from the “Seasonal Sale” shelves at Safeway, I guess the only question is, what should I dress up as on race day?


You just ran a 1/2 Marathon, what are you going to do? Taste wine, of course!









Alison Crowe is a Napa-based consulting winemaker, blogger and author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book.  She is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards and Buccaneer Wines, among others.  She got back into running this summer and was invited to participate in the Healdsburg Wine Country Half Marathon event as a local blogger.  All Photos credit:  Destination Races.




10 Things About Harvest 2015 That No Winemaker Said, Ever

It takes a lot of good beer to make good wine. Harvest 2015 was no exception.

It takes a lot of good beer to make good wine. Harvest 2015 was no exception.

He who laughs last, laughs best, right?  Well, in this case it was our boss, Mother Nature who got in the last rib-ticklers as we finish a record early (and quite light) harvest here on the California Coast.  From Santa Barbara County to the shores of the Russian River, she served us up quite a mixed bag.  Though the dust is still settling (and the last tanks still just starting to ferment), there are some things we are sure of.  We know, for instance, that there are ten things about Harvest 2015 that no Winemaker said.  Ever.



To Wit:


-(To local taco truck driver)-“It’s a slow start this year- don’t even worry about putting us on your rounds until September 15.”


-(To Assistant Winemaker)- “We don’t need to work a Sunday shift to start pressing tanks out.  This Cabernet never gets ripe before the Chardonnay.”


-(To Grower Relations rep)- “I’m not interested in tasting anything unless it’s at least 25.0 Brix- I’ll come out and check on the Pinot in about two weeks.”


-(To Night Shift Supervisor)-“Go ahead and schedule tank 5A for a two-week extended maceration- we probably won’t need that tank for a while.”


Growers were stretched-literally- as they ranged across many acres to bring in just a few tons.

Growers were stretched-literally- as they ranged across many acres to bring in just a few tons.

-(To Farming Company Scheduler)-“Can I schedule in four Cabernet deliveries off of five separate blocks for tomorrow morning?  There should be plenty of tucks available and you’re not busy, right?”


-(To winery owner)- “My estimates indicate we’ll have more than enough tons for our reserve Pinot Noir program.”


-(To key regional distributor team)- “Sure, come on out for a vineyard tour  with your folks on October 1.  I won’t even be started picking Cabernet by and there’ll still be plenty of Pinot left on the vine for you to taste.”


-(To national sales reps)- “There’s no way we’ll be done pressing before Thanksgiving- I just can’t come out to the East Coast until early December.”


-(To Cellarmaster)- “Are you sure we don’t have a bigger tank?  I think these trucks are going to come in heavy.”


Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and makes Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards as well as the popular “Buccaneer” wines (in addition to other projects).  She lives in Napa but works with fruit from all over California’s coastal winegrowing regions.  She is the author of the WineMaker’s Answer Book and is always amused how each Harvest is something different!

Email:  @AlisonCroweWine


#InRealLife- How Facebook (and some vineyards) Turned me Back Into a Runner


“The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other…but to be with each other.”
Christopher McDougall, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Me and Sara- smiling after a 500 foot huff. Look at the view! Mt. Tam (and San Francisco- very tiny) in the background.

Me and Sara- smiling after a 500 foot huff. Look at the view! Mt. Tam (and San Francisco- very tiny) in the background.

Been Doon That Long Road

It’s been about ten years since I’ve been able to call myself “a runner.”  Back when I was working for Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, I did the casual 5 or 10 K’s and planned a couple of triathlons into my year.  I was never what you would call hard core.  I did, however, really enjoy regular solitary foggy mornings in my West Side Santa Cruz neighborhood and loved to put in some miles atop the windswept bluffs overlooking the  Pacific Ocean.  I had always been a solitary runner- I ran for myself and I ran only with myself.

Then marriage, grad school, a new full-time job based in Napa plus two pregnancies and four years of subsequent sleepless nights intervened.  Needless to say, being up  at 2 AM because your toddler can’t sleep is not conducive to early morning, pre-work jogs.


Time for “Me Time”….

About two and a half months ago our youngest, Bryce, began sleeping through the night on a more regular basis and I decided it was time to reclaim some of that vaunted “me time” they talk about.  I started setting out running clothes (and the all-important automatic coffee maker) the night before a few times a week, and if the little one didn’t keep us up, got up with an early alarm and got out the door.  Exploring our new neighborhood was nice (Chris and I moved to a new place in west Napa in March) and it did feel good to get some cool “early in the morning” time to myself before the world got crazy with Cheerios and work emails.  But I realized something was missing.

Digital Life to #InRealLife

Thinking that I was lacking a goal, I searched for a local road race.  I posted the details for one on Facebook, knowing that some of my friends-you know, the ones that have their lives so together they already do that kind of thing-would see it.  I had never before done a race with anyone else.  This time, however, I thought, if I had someone to meet me on race day I would be more committed to getting out of bed in the morning.

Neeraj and I- looking west towards Carneros, about 589 ft elevation. Happy runners!

Neeraj and I- looking west towards Carneros, about 589 ft elevation. Happy runners!

I was really happy when my friend Neeraj Singh, a fellow UC Davis MBA grad who lives in Walnut Creek but works up in Napa and Sonoma Counties a few days a week, contacted me about being interested in the race.  He had never done any road racing before but he and some buddies had the long-term goal of completing a half-marathon this spring.  This 5 K on September 13 in Napa would be his first step.  Knowing I had to commit for real if I had someone else to meet on race day, I realized I would have to do some more training than just schlepping around the block in the mornings.  Because I was already hiking around at Stanly Ranch in Carneros (part of which is open to the public as a portion of the San Francisco Bay Trail) checking on my Pinot Noir grapes, why not combine work with some working out?


“Team Awesome”

Fast forward four weeks or so and we’ve been having a blast.  We’ve roped in one of my neighbors, Sara Guzman, also a mom of two little boys but someone who’s got a lot more experience running than either Neeraj or I, and the invitation is still open….  We three went for our first “group run” on Saturday and as Neeraj and I carpooled to the start site we were laughing so hard about stupid stuff (don’t ask), our warm up huff of 500 feet, straight up, didn’t seem so tough.  For the first time I was willing to run with others.

After a scenic 50 minute elevation and interval-intensive course, we stood around stretching and talking politics, the wine business and working parenthood (Neeraj has yet to reach that Waterloo).  Team name?  Highland Huffers?  The Green Team (a nod to being “new” and to Neeraj’s volunteer experience with Auction Napa Valley and his “Napa Green” T-Shirt)….How about “Team Awesome”?  Over the top to be sure, but hey, we’ll take it.  We all admitted that we were just still figuring it all out-life the universe and everything.  And getting out early on a Saturday morning to kick up the dust together was pretty awesome.

We’re meeting again tomorrow, have swapped running books (from which I extracted the above quote) and the running bug is infecting the extended family; my husband and his brother are set to do a half marathon in early December.  Sara, Neeraj and I will high-five our way through our little 5 K on Sunday and then we all agree we’re looking for our next race.  We’re eyeing the Wine Country Half Marathon on Halloween in Healdsburg.

So I’ve gone from “couch to 5 K” in about three months and, with the help, encouragement and laughter of Sara and Neeraj (and the babysitting prowess of my husband) and can now once again call myself a runner.  And the goal isn’t necessarily to set a Personal Record or even cross a finish line.  It’s wanting again and again that mix of laughing so hard you’re crying and breathing so hard you’re gasping- and capturing the joy of beautiful places, in real life, and sharing it with others.

The rigors of a professional career, the stresses of Harvest and the insidious isolation of social media can all take their toll if we let them.  I still log solitary morning miles but have learned to appreciate the brother and sister-hood of others.  I’ll say it again because it bears repeating:

“The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other,… but to be with each other.”
Christopher McDougall, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Alison Crowe is an award winning Winemaker, author and blogger and laces up her running shoes in and around Napa.


Mother Nature Always Bats Last- Harvest 2015 Update

checking the grapesToday I had a great catch-up conversation with friend and colleague Craig Root, a 30-year winery tasting room and hospitality veteran.  Though not a winemaker or grower, Craig has “been there done that” in Sonoma and Napa Valleys for many years and of course has seen many harvests come and go.


He asked me how Harvest 2015 was going and I filled him on what I’ve been experiencing in Napa, Sonoma and on the Central Coast as I pull in grapes for Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards, my Buccaneer, Longhand projects and many others.  “Well,” he said.  “Mother Nature always bats last.”

Indeed she does.

Rodgers Creek Vineyard, high up on a cold ridge in the Petaluma Gap, Sonoma Coast appellation, always is the last Pinot Noir Garnet Vineyards picks- and is tracking perhaps 3-5 days earlier this year

Rodgers Creek Vineyard, high up on a cold ridge in the Petaluma Gap, Sonoma Coast appellation, always is the last Pinot Noir I pick.

Line drive?  Surprise pop fly?  Strike out?  Here’s what Mother Nature is swinging at us as Harvest 2015 really starts to get underway:

-Yields are down:  After three cosy and ample harvests (’12, ’13 and ’14) 2015 is a bit on the lean side tonnage-wise.  Many of us will admit that, as with the stock market, it was time for a correction. However- if you’re planning on getting 8 barrels-full of Rodgers Creek Pinot Noir and only come up with enough grapes for 5, that’s a little tough.

-Yields are unpredictable:  So far, North Coast Chardonnay seems to be in “average” yields and since I haven’t harvested Napa Cabernet yet can’t speak to these later-ripening varietals.  Sauvignon Blanc from Napa was about 20% down from predicted yield for me.  Pinot Noir seems to vary by vineyard and even by vineyard block.


Bins of Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir lined up ready to be fermented.

-Hurry up and wait:  It’s like bases loaded, a hit into McCovey Cove to end the first inning and then….crickets.   I’ve pulled in the “early bird” blocks like Block 17 Pinot Noir at Stanly Ranch (Napa Carneros) and Sauvingnon Blanc from Alexander Valley and now, like many of my colleagues, am waiting for the next wave of grapes to ripen.  It was an historically early harvest for most of us across the state, still and sparkling wine producers alike, and a heat spike last week got a lot of winemakers a little antsy.  We then had about a week of cool weather that slowed everything down again.  We’ve been enjoying a few warm days now but it’s slated to cool off again this weekend.  I’ve heard rumors of precipitation but it seems to be just that- rumors for those of us south of Eureka.

Chardonny, which I usually pick about halfway through the Pinot harvest, is later than expected this year.

Sauvignon Blanc is all picked- and yields are down about 20%.

-Lower Brixes with respect to other signs of ripeness:  Could 2015 be a “lower alcohol year” and shift some winery’s styles back into what some would call “Classic Old School” California?  Craig, and many of my best sources for wine industry stories, love to regale us young whippersnapper winemakers with tales of lower-alcohol Cabs from the 1970’s and 1980’s that tasted like a dream, aged beautifully and didn’t get you hammered after two glasses.  So far, I’m seeing that I don’t need to wait for something to get to 25 Brix to taste ripe.  Acids are dropping out quickly, seeds are browning well, and flavors are “popping” – all at moderate Brixes.

Who’s up next?  Pinch hitter?  Stay tuned…..After all, Willie McCovey was one of the best. But don’t ever forget that, like Craig says, Mother Nature always bats last.



Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and harvests from all over the North and Central Coasts for her winemaking projects and brands.  She lives in Napa.  @alisoncrowewine

Go Giants!