News choppers no longer disturb the early morning quiet and in their place dozens of colorful hot air balloons soar silently above our back deck. The coffee is on, the kids are still asleep and the paper is on the front stoop . Must be a normal Sunday morning in downtown Napa.
Except the neighbor’s electricity is still off, a new rash of red tags has invaded the area and I just noticed a an empty space on the kitchen wall. One of my framed vintage citrus crate labels must have been swept up in the shards of glass and china that covered the kitchen floor this time last week. I guess I just didn’t see it had fallen until now.
In last week’s 6.1 earthquake we lost a lot of glassware, dishes and mirrors. We have neighbors who lost a whole lot more.
Especially now that the news crews are gone, it’s important to keep attention on the plight of those worse off than we are. Though many think of Napa as a posh playground for the privileged, it takes a lot of regular folks to keep it working, and many of them live right downtown in the area hardest-hit by the quake. As in so many disasters, it is the least who can afford it that are suffering the most.
Below is a list of ways you can help, even if you don’t live in the area.
-Over 95% of Napa Valley businesses, restaurants and wineries are open. Downtown Napa is passable, functional and open for business with any damaged buildings marked off. Your dollars help support the dishwashers, servers, cellar workers and tasting room staff that keep our world-famous wineries and restaurants going. Over 95% of businesses in Napa are open. Here is a list of places still closed- check back frequently!
-Coordination for volunteer labor is being done by the Volunteer Center of Napa, which is operating out of Grace Community Church at 3765 Solano Avenue, Napa CA. Call the center at 707-252-6222.
-Show support for your favorite Napa winery by buying a bottle- or three!
Besides shopping downtown, you can always buy products from local businesses online.
-Matthiasson Family “Quake Cuvee” Blend. All after-tax profits from sales of this special blend will be going to the above relief fund. Jill and Steve suffered particularly hard losses in wine inventory, as well as damage to their house, which was red-tagged by the city.
-Napa Valley #PressOn T-Shirt. Wear your hashtag on your sleeve and profits will go to the Community Disaster Relief Fund.
There are many ways to contribute funds that will stay local and will go directly to the community’s needs. Additionally, there are some business and individual-specific initiatives that could use your help.
-Napa Chapter of the Red Cross. According to the City, donations made to the local chapter will be kept here.
-Napa County Landmarks, donate here. Many of our historical buildings suffered significant damage and it will take love- and money- to rebuild and retrofit.
-Napa County Humane Society, donate here. Many people have lost pets due to the quake and the Humane Society can use funds for sheltering and feeding recovered pets.
-13-year old Nicholas Dillon was almost killed when his family’s fireplace collapsed on his back, shattering his pelvis. Contribute to his medical care fund at Bank of America: Nicholas Dillon: savings account 1641-0344-2511.
-Jason Moore of Modus Operandi started a “Go Fund Me” site to help feed and support the many Napa Valley volunteers who have been working around the clock to remove broken barrels and debris from area businesses. You can see some cool pictures and video taken by one of my favorite winemaking professors, Dr. Carole Meredith, at the Lagier Meredith Vineyards Facebook page. I encourage you to give them a “like”!
-Sala Salon’s “Go Fund Me” site: Sala Salon, Napa’s Aveda hair and spa boutique, suffered catastrophic water damage after the quake and is closed. They even imported a fully functional mobile salon from Hollywood in an attempt to stay in business and the city inexplicably red-tagged it so that is shut down too. With bills to pay and employees to support, they are asking for a short term “loan” to help ends meet until insurance kicks in. Once they are back on their feet, all monies raised will be funneled into the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund. Click here to help them stay afloat and meanwhile, sign the online petition to remove the red tag from the “Sala Annex” trailer so they can keep serving the community.
Thanks for your help. A lot of people are without jobs and without homes and your assistance will help get them back on their feet. #DrinkNapa and stay #NapaStrong, everyone!
Alison Crowe is a winemaker and author who lives in old downtown Napa with her family. firstname.lastname@example.org @alisoncrowewine
Copyright Alison Crowe 2014
It’s Not Any Other Day in Napa
Driving North from the intersection of Hwy 29 and Silverado Trail, from my office towards my house in the old Downtown, you’d think it was any normal Monday afternoon in Napa. Joggers and mountain bikers fresh from completing their Skyline to Kennedy Park loop trail, flatbeds with grape bins rumbling down the highway, car dealerships with colorful banners flying- all signs of a sunny late-August day in Napa. However, as I approach downtown I can see the yellow caution tape and “Roads Closed” signs at Suscol and First and knots of kids on bikes crossing the now three-sided intersection. Schools are all closed, helicopters slice through the sky and driving by slowly it’s possible to see ugly swathes of plywood slapped across the front of cute Victorian cottages. Stacks of dusty bricks slouch into the street and “Do Not Cross” tape festoons the block like party decorations with a bad sense of humor. It’s definitely not a normal day here in Wine Country.
Damage not Uniform-Many Unscathed
From all reports, however, damage is hit-or-miss. Thankfully, there was nobody out and about downtown and even more importantly, nobody working in the tight barrel stacks when it all came crashing down. For every winemaker I’ve heard from with barrels on their sides there are five that are reporting little to no damage. I am happy to report I was one of the lucky ones. I consult for a number of different brands in addition to being the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and between my many tanks, barrels and bottles at three wineries and one warehouse within 10 miles of the epicenter, I lost about 50 bottles of sample wine. I can’t believe it. I also can’t believe my heartache for friends and colleagues who are suffering injuries and losses.
I anticipate tomorrow we will know a lot more about the true extent of the losses and now that we’ve all had a chance to clean up the broken glass in our homes and hug our kids (my two are OK), we’re checking winery building integrity, checking in with neighbors and seeing who needs help.
Need Help/Want to Help?
There is a post-earthquake clean-up and help forum here:
There is a Napa Valley Earthquake 2014 page on Facebook where people can list things they need or find help.
The city of Napa has a rundown of current red-tag buildings as well as community resources here.
The Napa Valley Vintners has been updating reports from their website, with current local industry stats as well as resources for vintners.
Phil Burton of Barrel Builders is offering a handy barrel-lifting tool for vintners struggling to right upended stacks. Email email@example.com or call him at 707-953-9516
Support Local Businesses- Many Are Open
Many are suggesting that one of the best ways to help us all recover from this terrible event is to go buy a bottle of wine from your favorite local winery. If you buy direct from someone’s website, more of the margin goes directly back to them. I would also add that though the pictures of the damage being reported in the media are very real, Downtown Napa is not a destruction zone. Plenty of hotels, restaurants and businesses are open just like usual and tasting rooms are welcoming visitors throughout the valley. Oxbow Public Market, just steps from the most devastated areas, is serving food and wine to hungry folks just like normal.
Back to Normal, Slowly
I hear the Wine Train will be running tomorrow. Friends that have finished up their sparkling wine pressing are opening their cellar doors to help neighbors who may need some spare crush pad space. I’m still reliving the violent shaking every time I close my eyes but I know the chance of aftershocks lessens every hour. I’ve got grapes scheduled to come in Friday. It’s Harvest after all. I think we’re getting back to normal here in Napa. Slowly.
Reach me: @alisoncrowewine firstname.lastname@example.org
Slideshow of Downtown damage by photographer Chris Purdy here.
copyright Alison Crowe 2014
Yes, a 6.0-6.1 earthquake thrust many of us all out of bed this morning. Yes, a few of our barrels are all higgledy-piggledy in cellars north, south east and west of the brick-and-mortar #bummersauce that is downtown Napa right now. There is, however, a lot of good news in and around the Valley so keep you upper lips stiff because many wineries and Napa businesses will be open this week.
I took a tour of my wineries and vineyards today and was pleasantly surprised by the non-drama of it all. For Garnet Vineyards not a drop spilled and for my other consulting projects things are looking good. Tanks standing, barrel stacks (miraculously) standing- it’s all hard to believe and somehow still seems so surreal. I am grateful we were so lucky. There are many who weren’t. Historical building facades are down, bottles and wine glasses in downtown businesses are broken on the floor and most seriously, some families are injured and their loved ones are still recovering.
Our 1898 Victorian house downtown is largely undamaged, our family is safe and I am grateful for all of the goodwill pouring in from all angles- we will be sure to do our best to pass it on to our neighbors here in Napa who are putting their houses, and in some cases their businesses and lives, back together. This cool weather week gave the winemakers a little break in the ripening season, time to re-coup, regroup and make sure 2014 will be the awesome vintage it was meant to be. Keep calm and carry on, Napa!
Keep up with me at @alisoncrowewine and email me at email@example.com if you want to get in t0uch. Love to all.
Ever throw a casual cocktail party where you tell friends to just “drop on by anytime” after dinner and to “feel free to bring some people along”? Ideally, a steady stream of pleasant company trickles through, keeping you entertained until you wave a fond “goodnight” to the last guests. Your homemade canapés paired perfectly with the Champagne, all stemware made it safely back to the kitchen and a satisfyingly genteel time was had by all.
For better or worse, the Harvest 2014 Party in California is shaping up to be less Martha Stewart and more Holly Golightly. Everyone will show up early, the Sauvignon Blanc is going to invite the entire neighborhood and the Cab and Syrah (now that’s an interesting couple) are going to be barging into the foyer just as the Pinot Noir is attempting to leave. I took a quick drive around my north coast vineyards yesterday and after tasting through early-pickers like Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Carneros Pinot Noir as well as latecomers like Napa Cab, all I can say is that Harvest 2014 is going to be one heck of a rager.
Here’s the 411 on Harvest 2014:
-It’s Early: After walking through vineyards yesterday and looking through my Brix reports, I confirmed what I was guessing: I am tracking a good week or two ahead of 2013, and two to three weeks earlier than average. This is my tenth harvest working with my current slate of vineyards from Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast and this year will be my earliest pick ever. Last year I started picking Sauvignon Blanc on September 2. This year it will be August 20.
-It Ain’t Small: OK, maybe statewide it won’t be as big as 2013 but it won’t be wimpy either. Depending on where you get your grapes be prepared for some healthy crops even though there seem to be hens and chicks and some pockets of mediocre set. Different than last year: big berries in some vineyards. Clear the decks.
-It’s Gonna be Fast: A picture-perfect growing season and water at just the right times (late winter rains for the North Coast at least) have set up vascular systems and tissues into ideal ripening and sugar-accumulation mode. Red varietals, like Oak Knoll Cabernet at our Red Hen vineyard for example, are already showing significant seed browning, berry softening and pyrazine reduction. This means 2014 could be a banner year for those making lower-alcohol red wines but it will also mean the reds will be hard on the heels of the whites. This is one gathering that’s going to have plenty of gate crashers, and they’re all going to be looking for some space to party.
-It’s Gonna be Awesome: Luckily, even though it’s going to be early, fast, and sizeable, Harvest 2014 is shaping up to be a party to remember. Quality across all AVA’s I’ve tasted is looking to be just as great as 2013 and possibly even better. Lest you turn into a nervous host, remember that sometimes the most insane parties are the ones that get talked about for years afterwards. So what if a little Riedel gets broken and you end up ordering pizza at 3:00 AM (no one will care it’s not Tra Vigne)? Knock on lots of Tronçais, Mother Nature will not only continue to smile indulgently upon us but will leave us the keys to the guest cottage and conveniently get out of town for the weekend. Everybody in the pool….now where did I put those canapés?
“I’ll never get used to anything. Anybody that does, they might as well be dead.” -Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Copyright 2014 Alison Crowe
The other day I got an email from a reader who was about to embark on her first harvest as a winemaking intern. She wondered if I had any tips or advice for her. She had a good pair of boots but what else would she need? What should she be worried about or watch out for?
I had my own list but in order to really “get the goods” decided to do a little crowd-sourcing for this gal who was interested enough to contact me. I pointed the Bat-Signal into the Facebook universe and in return received a quickly-growing thread of “advice to an intern” from fellow winemakers.
Do we have advice for her? Do we ever. The wine industry has a grand tradition of taking the up-and-coming generation under our wings and besides getting them wet and tired, perhaps teaching them a few things along the way. It was hard to whittle the list down to 10 in order to keep this post manageable and I can see this one being the first of many.
One of my best Pinot Noir mentors, the late great Don Blackburn, had a sign on his office door that read “Winemaking Begins With People.” It’s a mantra that rings as true for me today as the day I first read it while walking into a job interview. He was a tough taskmaster and required prompt start times, spotless buckets and shining pruning shears from the intern team (yes, I got the job) but we had a great time and learned a lot too.
Without further ado, here are 10 bits of “advice to an intern,” direct from Winemakers who’ve been there:
Glenn Alexander, Sanglier Cellars:
“Get the best, most comfortable pair of waterproof boots you can afford.”
Tom Collins, UC Davis Department of Viticulture & Enology:
“Always have a change of clothing in your car because cold and wet is a hard way to drive home.”
Brooke Langelius, St. Supery:
“Bring lots of food for backup on long days!”
Marty Johnson, Eaton Hill Winery and Ruby Magdalena Vineyards:
“Beer. Bring lots and lots of beer for sharing with everyone after cleanup. We all know it takes a lot of good beer to make wine.”
“Don’t make outside plans during Harvest that you can’t get out of.”
Amy J. Butler, Ranchero Cellars:
“Ask questions! The sorting table is a good place to entrap your Winemaker into teaching you stuff.”
Elizabeth Vianna, Chimney Rock Winery:
“Get to know the cellar crew. They can be some of the best teachers.”
Chris Kajani, Saintsbury Winery:
“Be early. And preferably not hung over.”
Cynthia Cosco, Passaggio Wines:
“Learn lots…have fun…make connections….safety first!”
Domenica Totty, Beaulieu Vineyard:
“Have fun and make as many connections as you can – other interns, winemakers, anyone working harvest.
And, it’s ok to show up with a hangover… But you’d better be on time & work your butt off in spite of it!”
Alison Crowe is a winemaker based in Napa, California and fondly remembers her first harvests as an intern at Chalone Vineyard and Byington Winery & Vineyard. She makes wine at Garnet Vineyards and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @alisoncrowewine . She wishes the best of luck to all the new harvest interns out there- it’s a wild ride but welcome aboard!
The Scene: A craggy-faced farmer straight out of Central Casting scratches his grizzled beard. A scattering of clouds scuds across the horizon but down on the vineyard floor all is mid-afternoon heat. No birdsong. The leaves barely rustle in the rumored breeze of a Carneros afternoon. “It’s quiet out there. Too quiet.”
Cue the Spaghetti Western “wah-wah-wah” music because though the vineyards have been seemingly taking a siesta, they’re about to open up with all guns blazing. With no frost to worry us this spring and a nice warm growing season with no heat spikes and no rain events (so far), Harvest 2014 is coiled and ready to strike.
Bunches are sizing up, red grapes have just about gone 100% through veraison and the crop size is looking healthy. I don’t expect the giant crop we had in 2013 but it’s not going to be a pipsqueak either. That means wineries (mine included) are scrambling to empty barrels, to create master blends and to bottle when possible in order to clear the decks.
Harvest 2014 will also be earlier than average and perhaps a few days earlier than 2013. Looking at my first Brix (sugar) readings from certain blocks over the weekend, I was surprised to see one block of Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir in Carneros come in at 19.0. In classic Carneros fashion, while Stanly Ranch is indeed cooled by stiff breezes and is moderated by the influence of the San Pablo Bay, it still gets quite a lot of Napa Valley heat. Additionally, Pinot Noir is an earlier-ripening red grape so it’s no surprise that Stanly is my bellwether “harvest indicator” vineyard. Last year I started picking Stanly Pinot for Garnet Vineyards on September 3 and this year it looks like it might start on Labor Day weekend.
Like many winemakers I’ve had my eye on this tropical weather pattern we’ve experienced in Northern California over the last week and am keeping my eyes peeled for mildew potential. So far so good; the canopies have been opened up nicely, enough breeze has been blowing to keep things dry and I like what I’m seeing.
We still have a few weeks. Go ahead, take that last day off before the grapes start flying. Do the farmer’s market, catch up on those last projects around the house. Enjoy the quiet of the vineyards on a summer morning while the 85 F weather sets up those sugars for a runaway gallop to the finish line. Don’t worry about the eerie silence. It’s about to get real loud real quick.
Alison Crowe lives in Napa and makes wine for Garnet Vineyards and other wineries and projects.
Copyright Alison Crowe 2014
Girl and the Grape was thrilled to be voted “Best New Wine Blog” at the 2014 Wine Blog Awards this weekend in Buellton, CA at the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference.
Given the excellence of the competition, being chosen for the award was an honor. Accepting it in my home “stomping grounds” in Santa Barbara county, with many friends and colleagues in the audience, made it even more special.
I would like to give a big “Thank You” to the judges, the Conference organizers and to all the bloggers and wine writers who make this conference, and the wine blogosphere, a dynamic and exciting place to be. As a winemaker and a wine writer, I am indebted to Wilfred Wong and Randall Grahm, two wine professionals who also wield their pens with aplomb. I have had the privilege of working alongside both of these industry legends and have appreciated not only their friendship over the years but the lesson that winemaking and wine writing can go hand in hand. Grazie, gentlemen.
Girlandthegrape.com started as an idea I tossed about with friends on Facebook over a year ago and has now taken on a life of its own. I submit a hearty “Thank You” to Mike Meisner of Club Veritas who helped get me started on WordPress, to my many readers, and of course to my friends and family who have supported me throughout this journey. GirlandtheGrape.com would not be possible without my co-workers and colleagues in the California wine business who work so hard to grow grapes and make wine; this is not just my story but theirs too.
Alison Crowe is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards and other brands and lives in downtown Napa. Twitter: @alisoncrowewine
Growing up in the sleepy little surf town of Carpinteria, just south of Santa Barbara , my first step on the path to becoming a winemaker had little to do with grapes, wine or my proximity to the now-famous “Sideways Country.” It began with gardens. I planted my first herb garden when I was about 11 years old because I was fascinated by the natural aromas that plants had: how they got in there, how they developed and why they smelled so wonderful to my curious nose.
As I got older, I began smelling not just the lavender and jasmine in my mother’s seaside flower beds but also the glasses of Santa Barbara County wines my parents passed around the table while dining al fresco with friends. As I learned about chemistry in high school I began to understand that some of the same exact components that create delicate aromas in a flower or citrus zest can also be naturally present in grape skins. When carefully tended by a skilled winemaker, these same perfumes can be captured and transferred from grapes into the finished wine.
This weekend in Santa Barbara County, in Buellton to be exact, hundreds of wine bloggers will descend upon this quiet corner of the Central Coast and for three days will taste, tweet and network during the annual Wine Bloggers Conference. Though wine will no doubt steal the aromatic show, via thousands of nose-in-glass selfies and group pictures with bottles, I would like to invite my fellow conference attendees to stop and smell something other than the Pinot.
The Central Coast has an amazing array of natural aromas to enjoy that, like its wines, are truly an expression of its “sense of place.” Below are some of my favorites from growing up in Santa Barbara County. From the hillside chaparral and the eucalyptus stands to the hedges of jasmine downtown or the salty-tar tang of the seaside, here is a collection of sensory souvenirs that can be just as intoxicating as the region’s fine wines.
Oranges and lemons have long been grown in Santa Barbara County and citrus groves dot the hillsides up and down the coast along Highway 101. If you can (safely) pull over on a back country lane or at a winery rancho, be sure to bury your nose in some of these zesty and unforgettable blossoms.
Not native to the Central Coast, eucalyptus trees were imported in the 1800′s primarily as windbreaks and as a source of wood. They quickly took root and their minty herbal smell, whether wafting through the wind or released from leaves crushed underfoot, is a Santa Barbara county scent signature.
Hops and Malted Barley
Our home-grown beer isn’t as world-famous as our wine, but Firestone-Walker Brewing Company and Carpinteria’s own Island Brewing Company are starting to change that. Interestingly, the Wine Bloggers Conference home base, the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott, is just steps away from the Firestone-Walker Brewery so this is one Santa Barbara scent that, depending upon the time of day and the batch brewing at the moment, my fellow bloggers should be able to enjoy.
Oak Wood Fired BBQ
Dating back to the simple culinary days of the Spanish Californios and the Mexican rancheros, Central Coast (sometimes called “Santa Maria Style”) BBQ is unique in the United States. No sticky-sweet barbecue sauce is allowed. The only fuel employed is local coastal live oak. Salt, and sometimes pepper and garlic powder are the only seasonings. Sound boring? Smell for yourself.
Salty, Tarry Fog
Author Rex Pickett probably had booze rather than geography in mind when he came up with the book and movie title “Sideways,” but I’ve got my own more local explanation. Santa Barbara County’s coastline is unique in that it runs in an east-west direction as opposed to the traditional north-south orientation like the rest of the state. This “sideways” effect creates east-west valleys that reach from the ocean into the warm interior, enabling cooling fogs to roll into the vineyards during the evenings. Fortunately, for winemakers and wine lovers, this helps create ideal conditions for producing great Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and other fog-loving varietals. Watch your step though; The beaches of the Central Coast sometimes harbor bits of tar, products of a naturally occurring petroleum seepage just offshore. If you’re at a winery close enough to the ocean sometimes this fog brings a little bit of a salty, tarry tang to the air with it….but I recommend actually getting to the beach if you can. Luckily Gaviota State Beach is just a few miles down Highway 101 south of Buellton.
Though she lives in Napa today, Alison Crowe is a Napa-based consulting winemaker and a native of Santa Barbara County. She is excited to attend her first Wine Bloggers Conference this weekend as a Wine Blog Awards finalist for “Best New Wine Blog” and to meet up with old friends and new.
Copyright Alison Crowe 2014
Wildfires? Drought? Fraudulently labeled loads of grapes? Winemakers have a lot to worry about going into this harvest season. We’ll be picking, crushing and pressing in a historical water shortage on top of two big back to back harvests, trying to fit it all into the cellar. In addition, it looks like the crop will be about two weeks earlier than average. That being said, let’s talk about the serious stuff. Below are the things winemakers are really worrying about going into Harvest 2014.
Argentina. Chile. France:
No, it’s not the quarterfinals of the World Cup. These are the countries of origins of your winemaking interns for this harvest. Though the wine industry has a long and storied tradition of importing viticulture and enology students to help sample the vineyards and clean the barrels, it’s also part of the deal to house them, feed them and throw down a few yellow cards once in a while. Whether the interns will get along, if the Argentinians and Chileans will come to blows over the finer points of emapanada-making (no one from Mendoza would ever fry an empanada, gracias very much) or whether the French will scoff at the great coffee vs. yerba mate debate are all valid intern-management concerns. Thank goodness that by the time they all have to bunk together at the vineyard house the World Cup will be over.
Blunnies, Foss and Bucher:
I’ve got a winemaking buddy that is desperately trying to order a pair of special-width Blundstone work boots before the grapes start flying. The lab staff is worrying whether the Foss service rep will come by, the neighboring “garage winery” is tracking the international shipping container carrying a spare (and important!) Bucher press bladder and really hoping there won’t be a port strike holding up our barrel deliveries. We know where the grapes are. They won’t move until we say so. This time of year it’s all about making sure all the other stuff we need to make the wine, especially stuff that comes from overseas, gets to us on time.
Luna, Esperanza, Texanita:
No, these are not new wine brands targeting Hispanic millennials but in fact are your primary source of sustenance. We all are checking whether our favorite mission-critical wine country taquerias and taco truck are a) still in business, b) still going to be opening up at 5:00 AM for breakfast service 7 days a week starting September 1 and c) are going to be permanently stationed in our parking lot due to high demand from the cellar crew. The taco truck’s tinny “La Cucaracha” horn might irk the first tasting room visitors rolling up during mid-morning break…but don’t give their raised eyebrows and sniffs of scorn a second thought. Heck, invite them over. How else will they ever learn that a super-grande breakfast burrito with extra chorizo is indeed wine country cuisine at its finest?
Arrogant Bastard, Pliny and Rasputin:
When it’s 11:00 at night and everyone’s been going strong since 7:00 AM, we’re all crush pad philosophers. And one thing we never have to debate is that it takes a lot of good beer to make good wine. We all have our favorites. The 2012 crush crew in our Garnet Vineyards cellar pined for Pliny. Another buddy a few doors down our the 8th st. winery complex in Sonoma practically went through pallets of Pabst. When I was making estate Pinot Noir up in the Santa Cruz Mountains at Byington Winery we traded cases of our wine for the house-made beer of a swanky Los Gatos restaurant down the hill. Whether it’s the pony keg in the lab fridge or the bottles stashed in the break room, if it’s Harvest then there must be beer.
What are you thinking about as Harvest 2014 approaches? Leave me a comment!
Alison Crowe has slogged in cellars from Napa and Sonoma to Argentina and Santa Barbara.
This blog is a finalist for “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards. Gracias to my fellow honorees!
As I prepared to host a casual backyard barbecue at our place in Napa a few weeks ago, I realized I was tired of my go-to non-alcoholic drinks. Sparkling water. Yawn. Sparkling water with juice and a twist. Double yawn.
And then I remembered a conversation I’d had with Matt Kettmann of the Santa Barbara Independent and now new Central Coast Wine Guy (not his official title) for Wine Enthusiast. We had met for lunch at Finch & Fork in downtown Santa Barbara a couple of months ago when I was home for vacation. Refreshingly, rather than the usual winemaker-wine writer shop talk (“How’s harvest looking?” “This wine has 30% new oak.”) we found ourselves chatting about home winemaking, Santa Barbara’s exploding tasting room scene and….shrubs.
No, these shrubs are not the kind you prune or the kind you bring The Knights who say “Ni!” but the kind you drink. Stemming from the Arabic word sharāb, which means “to drink,” shrubs have their origin in the Middle Ages as an herbal medicinal beverage and then emerged into seventeenth century Europe as a concentrated syrup made of vinegar, water and sugar. As a lover of food and drink history I have long enjoyed researching recipes from such sources as Jane Austen’s family “receipt book” and Victorian housekeeping manuals. Over the years I’ve come across recipes for sundry shrubs and “cordials” in these antique cookery books. The concept is easy to understand from an historical householder’s point of view. Submerging ripe summer fruit in a solution of vinegar and sugar helped preserve part of an abundant (and quickly-spoiling) harvest while creating a tart, fruit-flavored liquid as the fruit macerated in vinegar over time. In an era before commercial sodas and prepared cocktails, mixing 1-2 oz. of this “drinking vinegar” with about a cup of cold or sparkling water (which was increasingly available in the eighteenth century) created a refreshing, flavorful drink.
Today, shrubs are enjoying a renaissance in trendy restaurants and bars (especially, it seems, in produce-rich wine country) but you don’t have to travel to someone else’s watering hole to enjoy these handcrafted sippers. I started experimenting with shrubs in my kitchen because I was looking for interesting (but low-calorie, natural and non-alcoholic) beverages to enjoy with my family and guests. What I’ve found is that making a fresh fruit shrub is cheap, easy and delicious. They can be thrown together from ingredients and with equipment you probably already have on hand.
Below is a “Pick-a-Fruit” shrub recipe that I’ve developed based on historical techniques to utilize whatever fruit you can rustle up at the farmer’s market or in your backyard. Call it the “Choose-Your-Own Adventure” of DIY beverage-making. I started with wine-based vinegar (naturally) but don’t be afraid to branch out into other interesting vinegars (I even experimented with a banana vinegar sold by Rancho Gordo!). Beware of balsamic vinegars and their ilk since they will mask the pure fruit flavor and of course can be quite expensive. Use organic produce if possible and don’t be afraid to tweak the amounts given. The key thing is for the fruit to be completely submerged in the vinegar during the week’s maceration time.
The level of sweetness is up to you. Some of the old recipes call for a 1:1 ratio of fruit, vinegar and sugar but as I prefer my drinks drier (my friends know I prefer “ultra-brut” sparkling wine and bone-dry Chardonnay) don’t be afraid to add more sugar if that’s to your taste. Grab some herbs from your garden or window box to garnish the finished product, serve with cute straws over ice and there you have it! Shrubs are the perfect potable project for lazy summer weekends and will reward your senses (and your sense of DIY accomplishment) all season long.
Girl and the Grape’s Vintage “Pick-A-Fruit Shrub” Recipe
A “drinking vinegar” syrup to dilute with water or sparkling water for flavorful summer sipping. This versatile recipe is inspired by many I’ve read in Victorian and Georgian cookery books, including Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management and Jane Austen’s family’s recipe collection.
Yield: Makes about 1/2 cup of concentrated syrup, which will provide 4-6 drinks depending on desired strength.
Note: This recipe can be easily doubled, but the 8 oz jar size allows you to experiment with multiple flavors in small batches
-8 oz glass canning jar with screw-on lid
-Fine mesh strainer
-1-cup liquid measuring cup (with pour spout)
Choose your vinegar (about ¾ cup, or enough to cover fruit):
-White wine vinegar
-Red wine vinegar
(Note- strong, sweet or otherwise flavored vinegars are quite potent and do not let the fruit flavors shine through. Other “lighter” vinegars like rice wine vinegar, white balsamic vinegars or even apple cider vinegars can also be used. I experimented with Steve Sando’s Rancho Gordo Banana vinegar to great success. I would not use anything too robust like Balsamic, however.)
Choose your sweetener:
-1/4 cup sugar
-1/4 cup sugar and 2 tbs honey
-1/3 C agave nectar
Note: Agave nectar is not “period” but since it’s so popular right now I wanted to include alternatives
Choose your fruit:
½ C of any of the below fresh fruit:
-Strawberries (washed, hulled and sliced)
-Apricots (washed, pitted and sliced)
-Plums (washed, pitted and sliced)
-Blueberries (washed and slightly crushed)
-Blackberries (washed and slightly crushed)
Suggested flavor combinations:
-Strawberries: red wine vinegar
-Apricots: Champagne vinegar
-Plums: White wine vinegar
-Blueberries: ½ red wine and ½ Champagne vinegar
-Blackberries: ½ red wine and 1/2 white wine vinegar
When serving, try cucumber slices, mint sprigs, basil sprigs, lavender stalks or citrus peel as garnishes for extra aroma, flavor and visual appeal.
Cover the prepared fruit and sweetener with your vinegar of choice. Shake well to combine and dissolve any sugar crystals. Shake twice a day for two weeks, keeping jar in a dark, cool place. Strain contents into measuring cup, gently pressing down on fruit to extract liquid. Pour into clean jar and label with contents and date.
Combine 1-2 oz of the shrub syrup with about 1 C cold still or sparkling water, to taste. It is also historically accurate to include a 1/2 oz of rum or an ounce of red or white wine. Garnish as desired. Cucumber and mint are two of my favorites.
Alison Crowe is a Winemaker and lives in an old Victorian house in downtown Napa with her husband and two small boys. Twitter: @alisoncrowewine girlandthegrape.com is a finalist for “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blogger Awards!