I did manage to get my Christmas cards out before the day of, but some years have been so busy a New Year’s card and letter goes out to family, friends and colleagues. By the end of December the presents are exchanged, the roast beasts consumed and perhaps the relatives are headed home; maybe the New Year’s cards and letters get enjoyed a little more because we finally have the time to sit down and read them.
Around this time of the year a lot of my wine clients and friends ask me how the vintage went and since I didn’t manage to see everyone over the holidays for the download, consider this my Happy New Year’s letter to you, minus the updates on the pets, vacations and kids (all were and are awesome by the way).
2019 was a Very Good Year (as they say) both in quality of the wine produced and the experiences I’ve had making wine from Santa Barbara to Napa and Sonoma….. and I’m looking forward to what the new decade will bring!
Below is a recap, in no particular order, of highlights of the 2019 growing year and what I’m thinking about as 2020 gets under way.
Northern Sonoma County- Floods and Fire: 2019 began in the vineyards with a lot of rain. My grandpa (who was an orange and avocado rancher in Ventura County) always used to say he wanted two inches of rain for Christmas, but we got way more than that in Sonoma and Napa counties in February. Sadly a few northern Sonoma County communities were negatively impacted but luckily vines in winter are dormant (no leaves yet) and don’t mind having ‘wet feet’ for a few days. Damage to our vineyards was limited to infrastructure- we even had a rocking chair lodge itself in the trellis wires! Even though it came too late for Christmas, Grandpa still got his wish as the winter rains set up the soils in our vineyards for solid moisture profiles and the canopies for healthy growth when bloom and set occurred in April and May.
Then we ended the vintage with the Kincade Fire roaring through the north-eastern corner of Sonoma County in late October. Fortunately the fires came at the very end of the harvest season and we had picked everything early enough so as not to be affected, but I did have to divert some of my Napa Valley Cab (Napa wasn’t affected by the fire) from my Healdsburg crushing location when the town was evacuated. Thanks to the friends (you know who you are) who generously opened their doors for the last of my 2019 grapes, I’ll be forever grateful!
First Sparkling Wine: Friends and family know that I have a thing for bubbles. I never hesitate to serve sparkling with each course (the right one goes with *everything*) and I love the history, process and of course the taste of Champagnes and sparkling wines. Therefore, it’s probably a surprise that it’s taken me this long to finally make my own. This year I selected a special Champagne clone of Pinot Noir and Clone 4 Chardonnay from two of our Monterey County vineyards to make a 50/50 base cuvee….. It’s still in “top secret development” stage so stay tuned for what the label will be and where it’ll be sold!
Exciting Evolution at Plata Wine Partners: Many of my readers and industry friends know me from my wine brands (like Garnet Vineyards or Picket Fence Vineyards) but any and all wines I’ve worked on in the last 15 years have been under the auspices of Plata Wine Partners LLC which I helped found in 2005. Plata essentially is the winemaking arm and sister company of Silverado Investment Management Company (whose bread and butter is selling grapes to wineries) and we collectively own and farm vineyards from the Central Coast up through Napa and Sonoma Counties. I get to craft wines from those amazing places including some of my very favorite spots like Los Alamos Vineyard in Santa Barbara County, Stanly Ranch in the Napa Carneros AVA and my newest fave, our True Oak Vineyard in Napa’s Oak Knoll region. At Plata I take in about 10% of Silverado’s grapes every year and turn them into bulk wine for other wineries as well as labeled case goods for retailers and restaurants.
As we look to a new decade and after almost 15 years of brand-building success, Plata’s President and CEO Doug Walker and founding VP Sales & Marketing Dennis Stroud are going to be enjoying well-deserved retirements. I anticipate a lot of impressive fly-fishing photos from both of them, in Colorado and California, respectively. I’m thrilled to be working with Plata’s new President and CEO Scott Smith, who comes to Plata from “just across the hallway”; Scott was Silverado’s CFO and so has been working alongside of Plata already for some time. Our newest member, VP Sales & Marketing Aaron Fein, joined us later in the year and has already revved up business for Plata with some exciting new brands and new retail buyers, so we’ll end the year having shipped over 300,000 cases of wine domestically. Many of you have heard me say in the past that “Winemaking Begins With People” and I’m thrilled to be entering into a new decade of business with these two (very fun and very smart) people at my side.
Getting on Board: After six fulfilling years working on the Unified Grape & Wine Symposium Program Committee (the largest grape and wine trade show in the western hemisphere), I decided to take a year off to try some new things. In 2019 I taught a joint UC Davis Viticulture & Enology/Graduate School of Management course about the business fundamentals of wine and became a member of the IQ (Innovation & Quality) Advisory Board and remained a member of the Wine Industry Financial Symposium Board. I’ve continued to serve on the board of the Carneros Wine Alliance (my soft spot for Carneros started when I was a college student at UC Davis) and look forward to helping celebrate the 35th anniversary of that group this year. Helping to disseminate the newest information and industry best practices has always been important to me and I look forward to an engaged and exciting 2020 as we tackle current issues and seek out new opportunities.
Average-Sized Harvest, Amazing Quality in 2019: The 2019 Harvest was the longest ever for me personally, but definitely not the biggest by any means. It started earlier than normal as we picked our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for sparkling mid-August and ended quite late because we didn’t get the typical October rains which tend to put a stop to north coast picking. Plus, the weather was so favorable that we got incredible hang time on the last of the Napa Valley Cab- what winemaker picks when quality keeps improving? Our Monterey and Santa Barbara vineyards produced outstanding Chardonnay and Pinot Noir this year and my Alexander Valley Cabernet is some of the darkest, densest and chewiest I’ve ever experienced.
Vineyard yields in 2019 weren’t big across the North and Central Coasts and we ended 2019 at an average size harvest. Though the industry entered 2019 in a slight oversupply situation from large 2017’s and 2018’s, I’m guessing the 2019-2020 oversupply situation (which isn’t across all areas and price points to begin with) will be short lived. Many winemakers I know aggressively cut back on intake for the 2019 Harvest with an eye to seeking marketplace alignment as soon as possible, and so opportunists rubbing their hands in glee may be disappointed and will only be able to create one or two-vintage offers at best.
So- Mother Nature, if you’re listening- next year all I want for Christmas in 2020 is a repeat of 2019….just minus the floods and fires, OK? Bottom line: After harvest 2019, this winemaker (and many others I know) is very, very happy.
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking of and a Partner with Plata Wine Partners, LLC. Plata has provided custom wine and case goods since 2005, sourcing its projects entirely from its own 100% sustainably-certified vineyards. Alison enjoys exploring fermentation in all its forms, cooking for family and friends, playing tennis and collecting vintage cookbooks and wine books.
Ahhh, Harvest is upon us! I’ve got a wine-buyer buddy who’s traveling to Bordeaux to “help with harvest, the hard work and all” (as he put it) and I received a letter from a gal who was off to Italy for her first internship. They both asked me the same questions: What do I wear, what should I bring and what things can make or break it on the crush pad?
Before I wrote both of them essentially the same email, I thought I’d just write one and post it here, since there are probably others about to find themselves in the same situation. Additionally, because I’m not a fashion expert, I consulted someone who is, designer and tastemaker Heidi Merrick of the eponymous LA-based fashion brand. Hopefully between my practical experience and her global savoir-faire (she also happens to be a childhood school chum), we’ll steer you in the right direction. The below applies to harvest work in general but has a unique European flavor. Please be advised that I’m not paid or compensated by any of the below-mentioned brands and only name names when I think they’d be honestly helpful. Whether you’re an enology student or a salesperson, journalist or ‘influencer’ willing to get your hands dirty, there are definitely some things to consider in the land of gear, clothing and sartorial etiquette.
That’s great that you’re going to go work a harvest in XXX! I’m really excited for you. Each winery and each harvest job is different but here’s a list of things you may want to consider. Be sure to contact your employer before you go to get an idea about possible dress codes and to ask if they supply uniforms. Especially in Europe and South America, it’s not unusual for wineries to supply overalls or shirts and caps and trousers for both men and women. Regardless of whether part or all of your wardrobe is provided, you may want to not bring your entire “kit” the first day but wait and see what the other workers are wearing and what your duties will be. If it’s a mix of vineyard and winery or just cellar and lab (especially if inside most of the day) your needs may be different. Many wineries will let you have a locker or a cubby. If you can’t lock things up in a car or locker, do not bring valuables to work.
Before I get to any particular items of clothing, be aware that harvest is hands-on messy work and that you will get wet, sticky, dirty and stained (not to mention tired). As such, it’s best to plan a wardrobe around movement-conscious items that will dry easily and which you don’t mind destroying. Many Americans think “jeans” when they think of hearty outdoor pursuits but in Europe you might want to aim for pieces with a bit more professional flair, even if they are basics. Designer Heidi Merrick says, “A great way to feel well dressed is to have well fitted classics that you know look good on you and start there. The term ‘cute pair of jeans’ should only apply to teenagers and toddlers. If you’re getting dressed for working in the adult world your jeans are never a cute choice.” I concur, adding that jeans are no fun while you’re cold and wet hosing out bins on the crush pad.
You can do fine with “work brands” with a little athletic stretch like Dickies or Carhart and brands with structured yet movement-conscious pieces from REI, Prana and Kuhl (love the gussets). Leggings are a no-no (see cultural sensitivity, below) as are most “athleisure” items like off-the-shoulder yoga tops, sweat pants and hoodies, especially in Europe where such a clothing category is frowned upon in the workplace (and many would argue, anywhere). If the cost of kitting yourself out seems daunting, try looking on Ebay for trusted brands in your size that you can “inherit” from someone who’s used them once already. They’ll be broken in and won’t break your heart or the bank if they get torn or stained.
What to wear and bring:
-Appropriate footwear is key- This is where it all starts. Your footwear is your foundation. You’re going to want high-top (above the ankle, below the knee) waterproof boots that you won’t mind spending hours in. Think waterproof paddock boots from equestrian brand Ariat, work boots by Australia’s Redback or the classic “Blunnies” pull-on boots from Blundstone. In the U.S., Muck Boots, rubberized, insulated and foot-friendly, are increasingly popular. What is the one thing these all have in common besides being waterproof, comfortable and pull-on (OK, besides being an investment)? None of these boots have laces. The importance of this may be lost on anyone who hasn’t ever worked a crush, but get enough lees, pomace and grape sludge splashed at your feet and the typical American high-top lace-up padded hiking boots will a) absorb about 9 liters of moisture (that’s a case of wine) and with enough time b) turn into a stinking mass of jelly. No bueno. I recommend trying boots on in person, using the socks you’re planning on, and not ordering online, especially right before you go. You want to be sure of your footing, so to speak.
-Pack dark, easy-dry, movement-friendly bottoms that aren’t “athleisure”. See intro paragraph. Bonus points for belts (not made of leather, see “wristwatch”, below).
-Go for light-weight, long-sleeved tops- I can’t tell you how surprised I was after my first harvest at Chalone Vineyard that every night I’d come back to the “intern house” (we were staying in a 100-year old frame cottage that had a propensity for attracting bats) I’d find a new bruise or big scratch on my arms. Running hose line around tanks in tight quarters and barrel work in dim cellars are full-body contact sports. Guys and girls are both well-served by structured long-sleeve T’s with collars or button downs in synthetic fabrics. Light layers are the way to go. Europeans tend to dress more conservatively and more formally (even while working harvest) and it’s always well-done to avoid wearing loud patterns or clothing with large commercial logos.
-Pack a vest or light layer- Bring something heavier if you’ll be on night shift or spending a lot of time in a cold cellar. There’s a reason the “black fleece vest” is standard winemaker uniform in the Napa Valley and elsewhere. It’s a versatile, stain-free and multi-weather garment. The only negative I can pin on fleece vests is that they are terrible collectors of dog hair so there might be a reason the quilted ‘puffer’ has attained equal popularity. You may be issued top and bottom rain gear if you’re going to be doing seriously wet tasks like washing tanks or sanitizing the presses but it’s best to ask before you go since these specialist togs can be expensive and are bulky to pack.
-Rely on socks that aren’t cotton. Comfort when wet is key. Dark-colored light-weight wool or synthetic blends are best. Because I’ve mentioned dark colors so many times, colorful socks are a favorite winemaker way to get creative with the wardrobe (speaking for myself and a few others I know). Some of my Spanish and French friends are well known for their awesome socks and you can’t go wrong following their example.
-Always have a full change of clothes on hand- including all socks and undergarments. On the day you get fully drenched by water or wine you’ll be grateful that you had something dry to change into at 3 in the morning. Keep in your car or locker.
-A Wide brimmed hat might be nice- especially one w/ a strap/drawstring can be great for the vineyard or hot crush pad, while a baseball or driver’s cap is tighter-fitting and will help keep the grape goo out of your hair.
What not to wear or bring:
-Never wear jewelry that can fall off and get lost- Some wineries, especially those that are certified to ISO/HAACP standards have no-jewelry policies and even may have you wear hair (and beard) nets.
-Don’t Wear Open toed shoes- Ouch.
-No Wristwatches with leather bands- Like cloth -based hiking boots, when leather bands meet the moist, yeasty and sugary environment of a winery at harvest, the fermentative results ’round your wrist aren’t pretty and smell abominable. Metal mesh or nylon webbing is the best choice.
-Don’t Wear Scarves– they can get tangled in moving machinery, snag on valves as you’re passing by and in a dynamic environment are dangerous. They look “winemaker cool” but should be avoided in the workplace; save them for company events and your days off.
-Don’t Bring Valuables – This should be self explanatory. Especially in companies with a lot of employees and visitors, it’s amazing how easily items can walk away. Hopefully you’ll be provided a locker but if not, keep things in your vehicle or room.
-Don’t pack clothing items you value -(see clothes “that you don’t mind destroying” above). The crush pad is not the place to wear Grandpa’s Fair Isle sweater, no matter how much you love it, how warm it is and how much he used to wear it fishing. If you care about it, don’t wear it because chances are it’ll get snagged on machinery, stained by exploding ball valves or bleached because you left it on a barrel and someone spilled ProxyCarb on it.
-Avoid clothing that might cause a “wardrobe malfunction”- Sorry to get a little graphic here, but for the ladies this might mean tops that gape too much when you bend at the waist and for the boyos, this includes trousers that don’t cover enough of the backside when you bend over. Cellar work is very active work and you don’t want your clothing choices to slow you (or your co-workers) down.
Supplies to consider having in your harvest kit:
-Small tube of sunscreen
-Lip balm (especially if you’ll be spending a lot of time outside)
-Sunglasses that won’t fall off your face (like if you’re leaning over an outside vat). Stuff falls into tanks all.the.time. Don’t be that guy or gal.
-A small-sized Maglite flashlight with head strap holster or a headlamp (useful for dark cellars and getting up at night to chase the errant bat out of your room). The straps help keep your light from ending up in aforementioned tanks.
-A small multi-tool that can tucked into a pocket and clipped to your belt. I’ve seen cellar masters (understandably) frown upon interns and visitors whipping out tools so while these are great for opening yeast bags or paring the odd cluster off the vine, be sure to ask before you get all MacGyver on that hose fitting.
-Notebook and a pen. Go analog so you don’t have to take notes on your iPhone and look like you’re Snapchatting. Bonus: travel memories that you’ll smile at 15 years later.
-Watch with a stopwatch and timer function (because sometimes you’ll have to time things like the number of minutes on a tank wash cycle). And because cellphone.
-A refillable water bottle
Some thoughts about fashion and cultural harmony: In many European (and South American) countries, the wine industry is even more traditional in cultural practices than the US. Being considerate of others is always the done thing. You’ll be sure to follow fashion as well as etiquette if you stick to Heidi’s advice when she posits, ” I love to say less is more, about skin- not clothes. This is obvious with hemlines but I’d include neck and sleeves.” I find the basics of etiquette always apply; etiquette is, after all, about respect for yourself but most importantly, for others.
A word about cellphones: Be wary of bringing your cellphone if it can’t be secured during the day in your car or locker. I say this not because it’ll get lifted by a sketchy co-worker but because it’ll likely get dropped into a dripping press pan of Sauvignon Blanc- by you. Before you even carry a cellphone with you or bring it to the winery, please check with the winery’s cellphone and social media policy. It is not respectful, or safe frankly, to be carrying around a mobile and to be constantly checking it all day. It’ll be tempting to document your experience on social media but most employers frown on personal use during work time and may indeed have a social media policy which prohibits employees and visitors from posting or tagging them online. If you’re a paid (or freely invited) influencer, the onus is still on you to wield your phone with respect for your coworkers, the harvest and (hopefully) yourself. You’ll get on much better with your cellar-mates if you are paying attention to the task at hand rather than snapping endless selfies.
You may also be invited to attend some public-facing or corporate functions or an end-of-Harvest fete so pack a couple of pieces that can serve multiple purposes like well-cut black slacks with a little structure (you can wear them in the cellar too in a pinch) and a blouse or shirt in an easy fabric that can dress up or down. Heidi’s advice is as follows: “Going monochromatic with your look, makes it’s very hard not to look good. A solid silhouette with any one item tailored is beautiful. Sometimes, when I travel I pack just one color, makes the dressing seamless.” Aside from sporting a simple but well-fitting ensemble, these are also the times when you might want to bust out that scarf and earrings I prohibited earlier…..and enjoy!
Well, you really got me thinking……brings back fond memories of my own overseas harvest trips. I hope this collection of thoughts helps you have a successful and more comfortable experience. What an exciting adventure you have in front of you. Get in touch when you get back and let me know how it went.
All the Best,
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Napa-based Plata Wine Partners and has been making wine since she was a Sophomore at UC Davis, at her first internship at Chalone Vineyard. Bees, snakes, soggy jeans, smelly leather wristwatch bands and jellied shoelaces- she’s been through it so you don’t have to…..p.s. hot links to Heidi’s wares are pieces in Alison’s own closet and are winemaker-tested. Which items are critical for a successful harvest? Let her know what you can’t live without (or wish that you had):
Twitter and Instagram: @alisoncrowewine
What started out as a fun way to get folks together for some wine and friendly competition in the summer of 2017 looks to be turning into a yearly occurrence. As we prep for the third annual Carneros Cornhole & Wine Tasting on August 10, 2019 at Etude Wines, proceeds of which benefit the Carneros and Schell-Vista Fire Departments, The Carneros Wine Alliance is taking its cornhole seriously. The AVA, which straddles the southern edges of both Napa and Sonoma Counties and is known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, is not the only one; I see cornhole boards popping up everywhere from coffee shops to country clubs and even now on major sports channels. The American Cornhole League Championship (yes, it’s that official) has a broadcast deal with ESPN and the ACL Commissioner Stacey Moore says the beanbag-tossing sport even has Olympic-level ambitions.
Whatever your ambitions, it’s now a fact that cornhole pairs well with wine, food, music and fun. This year, the Carneros Cornhole and Wine Tasting will be held on the lawns of Etude Wines, located on Cuttings Wharf road. Ticket prices include a walk-around wine tasting from Carneros Winery Alliance member wineries including Artesa, Calmére, Ca’ Momi, Cuvaison, Etude, Poseidon Vineyard, Schug, Saintsbury, Sangiacomo, Truchard, and Viansa, as well as small bites from popular Carneros eateries.
As we approach the second anniversary of the devastating 2017 Wine Country Fires, which ripped through the Carneros hills in the very first hours of the fire the night of October 8, it seems especially appropriate that the event’s proceeds will benefit the Carneros and Schellville Fire Departments. Though the Carneros area has largely recovered from the fires, it’s always a good idea to support the local fire teams which were among the first on the scene in 2017 and will continue to be vigilant as the surrounding hills dry out and turn golden as Harvest approaches.
I had the opportunity to chat with the Carneros Wine Alliance Vice-Chair, Nichole Peterson, to ask her more about this year’s event.
Q: How does 2019 (the third annual) differ from the past two Carneros Cornhole & Wine Tasting events?
A: This year we are thrilled to have the addition of Carneros-area fare from BoxCar Fried Chicken and Carneros Resort! This event has grown in the last three years and to have the partnerships with Hint water, along with our food vendors to support our local volunteer fire departments has been amazing to see. We are also excited to be able to add a raffle this year with our wineries graciously donating experiences for the participants to win.
Q: Do you have to come with a planned partner or will people be put into teams?
A: Once you check in you are able to either be placed on a team with your planned partner or you can be paired up should you wish.
Q: Any secret tips for winning at cornhole?
A: None that I am aware of aside from holding a glass of Carneros wine to balance you out as you toss!
Here are the details: Carneros Cornhole Tournament & Wine Tasting
What: Taste exceptional Carneros wines from Carneros Wine Alliance member wineries including Artesa, Calmére, Ca’ Momi, Cuvaison, Etude, Poseidon Vineyard, Schug, Saintsbury, Sangiacomo, Truchard, Viansa, and then compete against local winemakers in a Cornhole Tournament! All proceeds go to the Carneros & Schell-Vista Fire Districts.
When: Saturday, August 10 2019, 4-6 PM
Where: Etude Wines, 1250 Cuttings Wharf Road, Napa CA 94558
Tickets: $60, which includes participation in the cornhole tournament, wine tasting with our 12 wineries and small bites by BoxCar Fried Chicken & Biscuits and The Carneros Resort and Spa plus special guests Hint Water and California Olive Ranch. Buy tickets here, proceeds go to the Carneros and Schell-Vista Fire Departments.
ABOUT The CARNEROS WINE ALLIANCE:
The Carneros Wine Alliance is a non-profit association of wineries and grape-growers in the Carneros American Viticultural Area (AVA). Carneros is the bridge between two major wine regions, the Napa and Sonoma Valleys. A cool-climate appellation influenced by the waters of the San Francisco Bay, Carneros has long been known for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and sparkling wine production. The Carneros Wine Alliance is committed to promoting the distinction, diversity and above all, quality, of grapes and wines from Carneros. www.carneros.com
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners which produces Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards wines as well as bespoke and custom wines for retailers and restaurants and is happy to disclose that she’s a member of the Carneros Wine Alliance. @alisoncrowewine email@example.com
Some of you have heard me say before that no, wine doesn’t begin with grapes, it begins with people. And you can see some of your favorite industry peeps, and meet some new friends and colleagues, at the 2019 Unified Symposium, the Western Hemisphere’s largest grape and wine trade show, in Sacramento this week. What am I excited about, besides getting to see so many of my fabulous, vinous tribe?
Lunchtime Keynote- Listening to and Learning From….the Spirits Industry!(?)
Talk about something new, this year’s lunchtime keynote will not be yet another wine industry luminary but rather Master Distiller Lance Winters from St. George Spirits, one of the most successful artisan distilleries in the country if not the world. So why are we listening to a guy who makes booze and not wine? Among many other reasons, because Lance and his team have always been way out ahead of trends, consumer needs and customer desires when it comes to alcoholic beverages. St. George is also always spot on with their ingredient-sourcing, packaging and marketing not to mention overall product deliciousness. Listen and learn…..
Tuesday Jan 29, 11:30-1:30, Sheraton Grand Nave Ballroom, priced separately and includes plated lunch and wine
New Exhibit Hall Floor Tour-Marketing Focus
One of the cool “underground” experiences that Unified offers are themed exhibit-hall tours so you can get a curated edit in a short amount of time without having to wade through miles of booths. In addition to the regular winemaking and viticulture tours, this year they are also offering a Marketing Tour, focusing on the marketing, sales, and PR services available to the wine industry. As we all know (or should know) it’s harder to sell good wine than it is to make it and as consumers are increasingly in demand of transparency, authenticity and quality experiences, every successful brand needs a stable of marketing and sales professionals on their side.
Wednesday Jan 30, 3:00-4:00 PM, meet in Sacramento Convention Center Room 203
Have a great brand idea but don’t have the juice to fill it? Have some amazing wines in your cellar but are looking beyond your winery’s brands in order to move it to the right customer? Wednesday’s “Alternative Routes to the Retail Market” will focus on how to make private, control and custom projects work for you. Of a similar vein but applicable to almost any winery or brand, “Outsourcing Success Stories: Leveraging Custom Crush and Processing Services for Growth and Profitability” speaks to brand pivots, SKU re-alignments and strategic growth. Disclaimer- I’m the moderator (I bring over 10 years experience in custom winemaking) and my expert panelists and I will lead you through the legal and practical why’s and how’s while showing you the pitfalls to avoid in the custom crush world.
“Alternative Routes to the Retail Market” Wednesday Jan 30, 1:30-3:30, Hyatt Regency Ballroom C
Hey, it may not be sexy but compliance, QC and food safety are a critical part of what we’re all about in the wine industry. “Do not pass go, do not collect $200”…..you know the drill. The FSMA (FDA Food Safety Modernization Act) legal and practical update has become a critical annual informational download and this year’s panel, led by Paul Huckaba of Bronco Wine Company and including Charles Breen, who is perhaps the most experienced FSMA consultant in the country, should be required attendance for small and large winery leaders alike.
Wednesday Jan 30, 1:00-2:15, Sacramento Convention Center Room 204
Want to explore even more about this year’s program? Check out this video intro and interview with Dr. Nichola Hall and Dr. Tom Collins, the Program Committee Vice Chair and Chair, respectively.
It’s impossible to see or do it all at Unified but hopefully the above gives you a sneak peek into what I’m thinking about as I pack my bag and wrap up work at the winery this weekend. Grab a copy of the schedule, get ready to party and I’ll see you, and all my other favorite Winemaking people, in Sacramento in a couple of days!
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners, a supplier of coastal California AVA-driven wines. All of her wines are sourced from her company’s 100% sustainably-certified vineyards and clients include national brands, restaurants and retailers. Wines include Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards, Verada Wines and Buttercream Chardonnay and Back From the Dead Red. She has served on the Unified Symposium Program Committee since 2013.
A year ago today I was frantically driving around Napa’s Rutherford and Oakville back roads, dodging Police barricades and sneaking around road blocks to check on the last of my Napa Cabernet. 95% of my harvest was in the barn but I still had to get the last bit in as power outages and mandatory evacuations from the Tubbs, Atlas, Nunn’s and Partrick fires threw all plans into disarray. As a complete contrast, this year on October 9 I have yet to harvest a single Cabernet berry statewide.
And I’m not panicking. So far, 2018 is mirroring all the best parts about the 2010 vintage (cooler measured growing season, robust acidities, great freshness and fruit tone) with none of the bad bits (early frost burns, an early fall heat spike that caused raisining in the Pinot Noir). Though the cool weather in June meant an extended veraison and a subsequent extension of ripening, all my Napa and Sonoma County Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes are now harvested. I’m still combing through Monterey County for my Garnet Vineyards and Verada Pinots, but the moderate brixes, higher acidities and refined tannins are proving that even this late in the Pinot game, the grapes are not overripe and are coming in just to my taste- perfectly balanced.
What does all this mean for the coastal California 2018 Vintage writ large? If our annual Fall rains can hold off until all the fruit is picked this could be one of my very favorite vintages of all time and dare I predict, a darling-to-be of the cognoscenti. The 2018 wines, both early Pinots and later Cabs, will be fruity, brightly colored, approachable in youth but very age-worthy. Though I wasn’t around to witness them, I’ve heard the term “old school” bandied about by industry veterans, indicating that 2018 could hearken back to the moderately-boozy yet character-rich vintages from the 1980’s.
The acorns are ripe and falling off the trees, the Halloween decorations have started to come out around our west-Napa neighborhood and we’re all grateful to be here a year after the 2017 Wine Country Fires menaced our paradise. Maybe it’s no wonder I’m having some nostalgic Fall feelings in light of what we endured a year ago. As I walk our blocks from Napa to Sonoma to Paso Robles, rolling soft, round Cabernet berries between my fingers, the blues seem more brilliant, the leaves underfoot more vibrantly yellow. This year I suspect I’m not alone in embracing a comforting slide into what is turning out to be a stately and elegant “old school” Harvest.
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Napa-based Plata Wine Partners and sources her wines exclusively from her company’s own sustainably-farmed Napa, Sonoma and Central Coast vineyards. She makes Picket Fence Vineyards, Garnet Vineyards and Verada Wines, among other bespoke wine brands and projects. @alisoncrowewine
Harvest: Sunlit vines, sweeping vistas and artisans working around the clock picking and crushing grapes. Blending the final cuvée: the master Winemaker contemplates a sparkling array of nectar-filled glasses, carefully selecting the perfect blend. All highly Instagramable, all part of winery marketing campaigns and part of the public’s notion of how wine comes to be. What doesn’t get the “likes” and “shares” not because it’s not important but because it’s usually not talked about as much? Bottling.
I’m thinking about bottling a lot these days for a couple of reasons. One, I’m in the thick of the pre-Harvest bottling season where we package up our “early to bottle” wines (read: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir lots which need less than a year of aging) before the grapes start flying and two, I’m breaking in a new state-of-the-art custom bottling facility in Napa, Infinity Bottling. Being the first bottling client across the line isn’t without its challenges but it’s been truly exciting to watch all that shiny stainless steel come over from Italy, be assembled and breathed into life by an expert team of handlers. Disclosure: the President and GM, Jessica Tuteur, used to by our Operations Manager at Plata Wine Partners before she decided to open her own bottling facility and I’ve worked with most of her QC (Quality Control) and technical team at other wineries over the years.
See what I did there? In the preceding paragraph I threw out some technospeak, industrial-sounding terms and a couple of acronyms. Not exactly the stuff winery marketing campaigns are made of. Aside from Jordan Winery’s brilliant bottling line “Despacito” parody video, bottling is hardly glamorous enough to merit major content dollars.
That’s a pity because of the important part bottling plays in everyone’s final experience of that wine. Perhaps because I’ve spent an intensive last two weeks in a “Laverne & Shirley”-esque world of boxes, bottles and conveyor belts watching hundreds of bottles fly past my eyes, I’ve had a lot of time to think about bottling’s role in the winemaking and, eventually, in the wine-enjoying process.
Why is bottling so important?
-It’s the last time for the winemaker to touch the wine, to really get it right or get it horribly wrong.
–If you’re not bottling with the right crew at the right facility, it *can* go horribly wrong. From poor sanitation to a wrinkled label to a slightly out-of-round batch of bottles from the glass company, there are a million places a bottling run can go (literally) pear-shaped in an instant.
-It can be as tough, if not tougher, than Harvest. At Harvest there’s sometimes a rogueish devil-may-care attitude that prevails because of the chaos and time crush of the moment. In contrast, bottling is about a measured precision and about each machine, each packaging component (bottle, cork, capsule, label, box) working in concert within millimeters of spec. Throw in multiple packaging changes, different wine types and tight to-market timelines and you can get an idea of the pressure and stakes involved. Try to align all the moving parts of Harvest and sometimes, with a lick and a promise, you’ll get away with one less pumpover among hundreds or a few imperfect clusters making their way into a 5-ton fermentor. Fail to align all the moving parts at bottling and you’re courting disaster.
-It’s the winemaker’s last chance to say goodbye and Godspeed before launching their creation out into the world. One of my favorite parts about being a winemaker is the thought of my wines making someone’s day brighter or dinner better. Bottling may not be the most glamorous or photogenic part of the winemaking process but it’s a rite every wine must go through and one that is full of potential potholes and pitfalls. Getting it right is stressful and most winemakers cite bottling as their least favorite part of the whole process. It’s not always fun, it’s often maddening and bottling correctly certainly isn’t something we win big accolades from customers or critics for. Bottling is perhaps the most important but also most under the radar part of the winemaking process. So here’s to bottling (or kegging, or canning, these days). It’s a necessary step of the process and one that deserves a little bit more love, attention and kudos from the rest of the wider world.
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners, a luxury and ultra-premium custom wine company based in Napa, responsible for such brands as Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards, and Verada Wines among many others. Up until the brands were recently sold to Vintage Wine Estates, Plata was responsible for Layer Cake and Cherry Pie wines. @alisoncrowewine firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are some people you can’t help liking, who always seem to have a smile on their face and who leave you encouraged and uplifted at the end of every interaction. Such was the case with David Stevens, whom the wine industry has been mourning since we learned of his sudden and unexpected passing due to natural causes Tuesday April 10 2018. I was clicking around Facebook on Wednesday when I saw a post from Bob Foster, a friend who runs wine competitions, stating that David was gone. As the word got out and a shocked wine industry and extended wine community started to mourn on Facebook, I invited friends to leave a little tribute in the comments below my post with the promise I’d collect them into a blog as soon as I felt it was appropriate.
I first met David wine judging about ten years ago and have had the great pleasure to spend time with him around the judging table in San Diego, Napa and Sonoma over the years. Not only a great taster and wine judge, Dave was first an award-winning winemaker with the likes of Bouchaine and Domaine Carneros. Later in his career he started teaching part time at Napa Valley College and at UC Davis, leading the OIV Wine Marketing Program along with Christian Miller of Wine Opinions and Full Glass Research. Many of us know and remember David Stevens for his welcoming, supportive personality as well as his zany and infectious sense of humor. An avid baseball fan and lover of games, David leaves behind a wife and two daughters and many, many devastated friends and colleagues.
Undoubtedly, we all have lived a fuller life having known him. One of the best tributes we can give him, and one of the best ways to carry his spirit with us, is to try to be just a little bit like him. Where to start? Be curious, be kind, laugh at yourself, laugh more than a little at your friends and occasionally your industry. Be a giver, not a taker. Be a teacher, a mentor and always be looking for ways to connect people and ideas together in positive ways. Be a booster, a cheerleader, a colleague, and most importantly be a friend. Laugh a lot. We’ll be a stronger, more united, respectful and dare I say, lighthearted, wine industry because of it. #bedavidstevens
Here are some remembrances of David Stevens, a man who touched so many people in many parts of the wine industry:
Mike Dunne- Regardless of context – sitting on a panel at a wine competition, orchestrating a marketing seminar at UC Davis, joining a tasting of old dessert wines in Sacramento, rounding up people for a trek to some obscure Korean or Chinese restaurant in Pomona – David could be counted on for his levity, smarts, ability to listen and knack for sharing in a way helpful, upbeat and generous. And always, many hearty laughs.
Jim Lapsley- Dave was a stalwart in the OIV course and when I retired I was SO pleased that he and Christian Miller agreed to take it on. Dave had so much information that he passed on in a gently humorous way. We will miss David for the rest of our lives, but will remember him at odd moments and smile.
Lessly Wharton VanHoutan- My heart is broken. Dave had nothing but kind words and encouraged me. He kept me from losing my mind and soul. To the moon and back DS.
Paul Robert Blom- My last wine chat with David was during #mundusvini end of February. We lost a friend and sure source of information on any subject of viticulture and a praised member of the world wide judging ‘society’. R.I.P. David, you will be missed.
Linda F Bisson- Deeply saddened to hear this – will miss him, his smile, his positive outlook, his wit and wisdom.
David Graves- We were privileged to have him as a colleague in Carneros.
Greg Bjornstad- What a wonderful man! So sorry to learn of David’s passing. We were classmates and TA’s at Davis and colleagues in wine, recently having opportunity to collaborate on a project. Smart, funny, warm and curious. My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends that miss him already. Cheers, my friend…
Patricia Ann Howe- Ok- thinking of David’s best story. He told me about the time he dressed up as Bigfoot/Sasquatch and freaked out some folks. The kicker is that “sighting” made into a book of unexplained legitimate encounters. That is such a typical David stunt.
Mike Swan- We were set to go to Portugal in January. I cancelled my tickets yesterday. The most wonderful man I have ever met and was able to hug him goodby 3 weeks ago at our wine competition. Not shake hands, HUG!
Jeff Stewart- Sad news….. Great winemaker and better person.
Ann Noble- Dave leaves a void….How sad to lose someone so young.
Merrikay Locati- Omg, he will be so missed here in Walla Walla. He was so fun when he came to visit and help us make wine at Robison ranch. We are without words.
Melissa Bates- David was so full of life and laughter. He was loved by so many and he made sure you knew how much he enjoyed your friendship. My condolences to his family for their loss.
Christian Miller- This is awful, awful news. It’s a rare thing to find in one person a brilliant intellect, great wit and humor and an appreciation for what is sweet and humane. The world was undoubtedly a better place with Dave in it.
Laurie Walters Foster- One of the warmest, nicest special people on the wine judging circuit…will be so missed! Such a beautiful and talented soul….
Tim Hanni MW- I am so saddened to hear the news. I just spoke with David last week – he is the epitome of everything good about humanity and the wine business. I am grateful that I was able to call him my friend.
A memorial service for David Stevens will be held 11 am Saturday April 21st at St Mary’s Episcopal Church in Napa, 1917 Third St. Napa CA 94558.
Alison Crowe is Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners, which makes Garnet Vineyards and Picket Fence Vineyards wine among many other custom and bespoke wine projects. Sourced from her company’s 100% sustainably certified vineyards, she works with fruit from Napa, Sonoma, and the Central Coast. @alisoncrowewine email: email@example.com
4/6/18, Napa CA
An early April “Pineapple Express” is upon us, having rushed into the North Bay as of last night, providing a steady rain through today, Friday, into Saturday. I was tasting with a client yesterday and he asked, as we swirled our Pinot Noir glasses, “Isn’t this rain going to mess stuff up in the vineyards?”
My short answer was, “No, not really.”
The reality is that we’re still in need of precipitation in Northern California and, even though it might slow down work in the vineyard for a few days, we still need to replenish our water tables and top up ponds and reservoirs. I chatted up our Senior Viticulturist, Rich Schaefers, this morning on the way to the office and he agrees with me; we need the rain and since the new clusters haven’t begun bloom yet in Napa and Sonoma, we’re not in any danger of losing developing fruit that way.
This has turned out to be a very warm storm, so we’re not going to be bulking up the snow pack (and in fact, may be melting some), which increases flooding hazards for downstream Sierra foothill communities.
The real danger for Northern California vineyards, however, lies not with flooding (so far) but with the frost that comes when the warm storm front moves through and is replaced by clear, cold nights. Bud break started a few weeks ago and so tender young shoots and leaves are well pushed out and will continue to be vulnerable to frost damage until sometime in May when night time temperatures rise consistently above freezing.
So no, a few April showers aren’t going to worry me, because my “May Flowers” (grapevine bloom) aren’t on the horizon for another few weeks. Rain during bloom can be a big problem because raindrops can prevent causing a dramatic reduction in crop and uneven set.
So far so good. These cooler days have put a halt to what looked like a super-early budbreak last month, so in my estimation the start of HArvest 2018 is tracking more “normal”. I expect to start harvesting Pinot Noir for rose wine the last week in August. Harvest? Did I just say that? It’ll be here before we know it!
Alison Crowe is an award-winning winemaker living in Napa. She is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards, Verada Wines and Picket Fence Vineyards in addition to sundry other branded and bespoke wine projects. Alison is also the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book , enjoys tennis and horseback riding and loves the green grass Springtime rains bring. Special thanks to Senior Viticulturist Rich Schaefers for contributing his thoughts on this topic.
Thursday, 2/22/18- It was quite a sight for the morning commuters zipping along Hwy 121 between the towns of Sonoma and Napa Monday this week: curtains of icicles, in some cases reaching all the way to the vineyard floor, hanging from the grapevine trellises of Carneros. No, we didn’t have an overnight cloudburst that made our little corner of the world less Sonoma and more Saskatchewan. It was simply farmers doing what they do best, using a combination of science and smarts, to defend against the latest curve ball from Mother Nature.
The 2018 growing season is shaping up, so far at least, to be a dry and an early one. An historically-dry January and February coupled with some higher-than-average temperatures have lead to an early bud break. Bud break is when the nascent buds, which turn into the coming Harvest’s shoots, leaves and grape bunches, swell with life after winter’s dormancy and begin to spread their leaves in preparation for the upcoming season’s growth. In this case, however, the tender new buds were greeted with a sudden mid-Frebruary cold snap, putting them at risk of freezing in the early hours of the morning. If enough buds suffer cold enough temperatures for a long enough time, the upcoming Harvest yields and quality can be negatively impacted.
Hence the sheets of ice hanging from the trellis wires in Carneros on Monday morning.
There are a few things growers can do to try to mitigate freezing temperatures at night.
Prune late for frost protection: The first round of measures are passive, like pruning as late as you can, which naturally delays a vine’s bud break date a little. However, as pruning has to get done sometime before the weather warms up and as it takes a lot of time and labor to do, it isn’t a realistic solution for every vineyard block.
Mix up the air: For vines already pruned, anti-frost measures have to be a bit more assertive. Cold air sinks, so if you can keep the air in a vineyard moving, the warmer air above the vines will mix in with the coldest air sitting on the vineyard floor. This is why we see so many fans, which look like airplane propellers mounted on telephone poles, in vineyards and why many of us hear those powerful engines firing up on cold nights. Even one degree above freezing helps.
Turn on the sprinklers: If that layer of cold air is just too deep and running the fans doesn’t bring enough warm air into the fruit zone, turning on the sprinklers can be a next line of defense. By creating a thin layer of ice and, critically, by keeping that layer of ice wet, the temperature of the bud won’t get below 32 F. However, if you let the ice dry out and it starts to evaporate, you can actually exacerbate the freeze by the evaporative cooling effect of the water. Similarly, if temperatures get below 23-24 F, this ice shield simply doesn’t offer enough protection. For this reason sprinklers can only be used under very specific conditions. Luckily, any water used this way will sink back into the soil and eventually replenish the vineyard water table.
As you can see, frost protection is a delicate dance and is the biggest reason why growers lose so much sleep between February and May.
So where are the silver linings in all of these threats?
First of all, only a few AVA’s (American Viticultural Areas) and varieties are affected right now so it’s not like a frost-threatened budbreak is a widespread phenomenon. In our Napa and Sonoma vineyards, buds are largely limited to a few spots in Carneros and this cold weather will retard the emergence of other buds, protecting those from exposure.
Secondly, as a winemaker, I’d much rather have an early start to the season than a late ending. So what if I start pulling off my Pinot Noir for rose a couple of weeks earlier than in 2017? So far we seem to be right in line with 2015, and it just means you need to get the winery ready to go a little bit sooner. The real disaster for wine quality comes with a late bud break and a later start to the growing season. As grape ripening gets delayed and Harvest gets pushed further into September, October and in the case of Napa Cabernet, November, the chances for disastrous rains increase. Any grapes still on vine when the fall and winter rainy season begins in earnest are at risk for mold, rot, dilution and a complete loss of flavor and quality. I’ll gladly take an early Harvest over a late one.
Thirdly, thinking of 2017 in Napa and Sonoma Counties, the earlier we get all grapes in the barn, the less risk we have that Harvest will be interrupted by wildfires. Once the grass on the hillsides dries out, technically fires can happen any time but the highest probability occurs in October, after months of hot weather and before the first cold snap and real rains. Begin Harvest a few weeks early and there is a greater probability of having all your grapes safely tucked away in tanks and barrels.
Seeing all that ice in Carneros on Monday morning was dramatic and quite unusual. I’m glad we have these frost-protection options but I’m equally glad that it looks like we’ll be facing a slightly earlier Harvest in 2018 rather than a late one. As with anything to do with Mother Nature, however, stay tuned for how the growing season unfolds as we know the only certainty is change……
Alison Crowe is an award-winning winemaker living in Napa. She is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards, Verada Wines and Picket Fence Vineyards in addition to sundry other branded and bespoke wine projects. Alison is also the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book , enjoys tennis and horseback riding and above so many other things loves a good winter rainstorm.
My parents were just up here in Napa helping Chris and I prepare to evacuate during the October Wine Country Wildfires and now they are facing a similar situation at home. As the Thomas Fire creeps closer to Carpinteria, California, the idyllic little beach town where I grew up, my heart goes out to all my friends and family in the area.
There’s not much I can do from hundreds of miles away, besides post current fire maps on Facebook and try to be a communication bridge from afar. However, I can at least compile a list of lessons and “to do’s” I learned during the Wine Country Wildfires of October 2017.
If you have to evacuate soon, like in the next few hours:
-Make a list of “To Do’s” and “To Pack’s”. Stress makes for forgetful minds and writing it down will add to your sanity and calm.
-Know your escape routes and keep posted on if and when they might get pinched off. Have a backup escape plan (or two).
-Pre-arrange a rendezvous point out of the area post-evacuation in case you get separated on the drive away from your house (if you’re taking more than one vehicle). That way you’ll know immediately if everyone made it out OK.
-If you haven’t already, sign up for local alert systems like Nixle.
-Turn on local radio channels. We listened to Napa’s KVYN 99.3 a lot.
-Be wary of false or rumored information on social media. Do verbal or messaging check ins with people to confirm information.
-Find all your animals immediately. So many people got delayed chasing down scared cats or dogs.
-Evacuate little kids early if possible, as early as possible. It will be far less traumatic for them watching from Grandma’s than seeing your scared faces and listening to the stressful grownup conversations.
-“Fireproof” safes are not.
-If you don’t have time to pack a suitcase, grab your dirty laundry basket. At least it will be full of items you’ve recently worn (seasonal and will fit) and you can always visit a laundromat or wash clothes at a friend’s house. (thanks for the tip, Julie Schreiber!)
-If you choose to wear a mask or respirator (highly recommended) make sure it’s labeled “NIOSH-Approved” or marked “N95” or “P100”. Simple dust masks only trap large particles and the smaller smoke particles can still damage your lungs.
-Open your garage doors. In the event of a power outage, it’s difficult to open electric garage doors.
-Pack essentials….and only the essentials. Do the critical stuff first (passports, clothes, medicine, phones, chargers, batteries, food, water, pets and pet food) and then pack up some extra boxes later only if you have time (like your jewelry box, the wedding silver etc). This is where a prioritized “To Do” list is important.
-Be prepared for the power to go out at any time.
-Snap pictures of every room in your house and anything valuable in the yard or outbuildings for insurance purposes.
-Remember that vineyards, orchards and green space make great firebreaks.
– If you have well-irrigated fields, orchards, or vineyards, consider moving cars, boats or RV’s into the middle if you can’t evacuate all of your vehicles. This saved a lot of vehicles during the wine country fires.
-If it’s coming soon and there’s nothing you can do, turn on the irrigation. Green lawns and plants will help keep fire away from the house.
-If you have a pool and a pump, you’ve got a great source of water to irrigate your roof and property.
-Turn off your gas when you leave.
If you think you might have to evacuate in the next day or two:
-Prepare as early as possible.
-Pack an “immediate” go bag and keep it by your front door.
-Take out cash, preferably in smaller bills, and keep some in your cars and in your “go” bag.
-Fill all vehicle gas tanks.
-Park your vehicles with the nose pointed out.
-Put a flashlight in all vehicles in case you have to evacuate at night.
-Know how to open your garage doors in the absence of electricity. Normally there is a hand-pull mechanism. I’m constantly surprised at the number of times I heard that people had delays getting out because they couldn’t get their garage doors open.
-Sleep with shoes beside your bed in case you have to get out fast in the middle of the night.
-Keep a flashlight with fresh batteries by your bed.
-Save key electronic documents to the cloud in case you don’t have time to pack your computer.
-Move all woodpiles, wooden patio furniture or other moveable burnables away from the house.
-Be careful and watch for announcements- you may have to boil your water if power goes down and water treatment plants are not able to operate.
-Clean out your gutters
-Put sprinklers on your roof.
-If you have a pool, go and find a “Billy Pump” water pump like this if you don’t have one already. Get one soon; they’ll go fast at Home Depot and Wal Mart.
-Get out your earthquake/disaster kit, go through it, make sure your supplies are fresh and current. Shop for items you need to replace.
-If you have time, pack up some sentimental boxes of things you know you’d miss if your house burned down. We packed original artwork, kids art projects, antiques and other irreplaceable family heirlooms.
If you don’t think you have to evacuate but are dealing with severe smoke in the area:
-Be a good neighbor and open your home to evacuees. We did and John (see picture above) was a tremendous help during the two weeks of fires here in Napa.
-If you have the space, offer up your driveway or property for boat or RV storage for evacuees.
-Volunteer at the Red Cross, Salvation Army or shelter.
-Buy air filters and masks as early as you can; they will quickly run out at area stores. Have out of town friends bring them if they come to help, order them from Amazon if you can still get delivery to your house.
-Keep windows closed.
-Invest in a portable USB battery so you can charge your phone if the power goes out.
-You may think the fire won’t come your way; act like it will.
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners in Napa, California and grew up in Carpinteria, California. She is the winemaker for Garnet Vineyards and Picket Fence Vineyards in addition to other brands and projects. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter and Instagram: @alisoncrowewine