Some of you know that in addition to being a winemaker, I also dabble in writing on the side. I published The Winemaker’s Answer Book in 2007, pen the occasional piece for trade magazines and in 1998 helped found WineMaker Magazine, the first “for home winemakers” magazine, as the “Wine Wizard” Q&A columnist. Readers from all over the nation write to me with their fermentation foibles and crushing conundrums and I do my best to help them troubleshoot their wine making difficulties, sort of like the Dear Abby of Wine. It’s a fun gig that keeps me grounded and serves to remind me of the joy of discovery, creation and creativity. Usually the questions are in the realm of, “Dear Wine Wizard, the pH of my Vidal Blanc came in at 2.75 post-pressing, what do I do now?” Occasionally there are questions that cross-pollinate into the world of the consumer and bring up an issue that is appropriate to a wider audience. This is one of them.
Dear Wine Wiz,
I recently had a friend post an article on Facebook about how “natural” wines don’t get you drunk like regular wine and even don’t cause hangovers (“The No Hangover Wine” by Jordan Salcito from the news/opinion website The Daily Beast). Is this true?
Los Gatos, CA
I just read the article you refer to, which seems to claim that “natural wine” (an ill- defined term which in the article seems to mean “minimal sulfites added except at bottling” or “wine made from grapes, yeast and little else”-which, as an aside, defines almost all wine) doesn’t cause hangovers. The definition of “natural wine” (and the merits- or demerits as the case may be) is fodder for further articles because of the confusion (and lack of scientific, objective facts) surrounding the issue. But in our remaining column space, let me get down to the proverbial brass tacks and answer your question- is it possible that there are wines out there (however they are defined) that because they lack certain components or weren’t “manipulated” (again, no good definition) don’t affect you as much as others and don’t cause hangovers? Note that these are table wines with “normal” alcohol levels, i.e. generally over 12.5% alcohol and not specifically low-alcohol wines.
I forwarded the article to Dr. Linda Bisson at the Department of Viticulture & Enology at UC Davis. She replied: “I looked at this article and have to say I think it is irresponsible to suggest that you can drink as much “natural” wine as you want and never get a hangover – the real hangovers are based completely on level of ethanol consumed, innate metabolic rates and dehydration of tissues – it has nothing to do with other components in the beverage.”
I have to admit I agree with Dr. Bisson. Even if a wine has less sulfur dioxide (or less tannin, less oak….but wait, what are barrels made out of?), it still contains plenty of alcohol, which is what causes intoxication, dehydration and hangovers. I would hate for someone to read the Daily Beast article and get the impression that just by choosing certain brands over others they could blissfully ignore the fact that ethyl alcohol, whether lab-distilled so it contains no compounds other than carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (is that “pure” enough for you?) or delivered in an aqueous solution of Domain Jean-Louis Chave (one of the “natural wines” cited in the article), will still get you drunk, plastered, blistered, pissed, blotto or whatever you choose to call it. It’s like suggesting that because you drive a Volvo (a vehicle marketed as one of the “safest” on the road) you can blithely tear up the road at 90 miles an hour on a rainy night while texting your BFF. Heaven forbid you also attempt to do so after having had a few glasses of so-called “natural” wine.
That is the end of my Wine Wizard response, and before everyone starts talking about all those suspicious sulfites and other “added ingredients” in wines that really cause the hangovers and wine headaches, I want to write that we will tackle the “red wine headache” and “natural wines” in another blog post. As the comment by “winethinker” in Mr. Salcito’s comment chain states, “The facts do get in the way of a good story”. Sorry Mr. Salcito, the real story is as follows: Sulfites are not the culprit of “wine malaise”, there is less than 0.1% of the population with a true “sulfite allergy” and these people lack the digestive enzyme sulfite dehydrogenase and also know to stay away from things like beer, dried fruits, cheese, deli meats and a host of other foods, all of which can contain sulfur dioxide. There is also no such thing as a sulfur-dioxide free wine because yeast naturally produce 10 ppm or more sulfur dioxide as part of the fermentation process. Indeed our own bodies are awash with sulfites. Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, a colleague of Dr. Bisson, explains, “Most studies of sulfites overlook the fact that we produce almost a gram of sulfites in our cells every day. Thus a few milligrams from a glass of wine, etc, is hardly going to overload our natural systems for breaking down the sulfite.” White wines actually tend to be fermented and bottled with more sulfites than red wines.
Dr. Bisson believes that biogenic amines are largely the culprit and states, “Histamines are the main cause of headaches in people susceptible to such headaches, not SO2.” Ironically, biogenic amines and histamines are much more likely to be elevated in wines that are not inoculated and which have inadequate sulfur dioxide, two hallmarks of many self-proclaimed “natural wines”. Dr. Waterhouse also posits that, “It is possible that the flavonoids (epicatechin) in red wine can cause vasorelaxation, and blood vessel relaxation is surely related to headaches.”
Hmmm- possibly one more reason to avoid over-oaked, over-extracted overly-tannic red wines. On that note, time to go pop open a bottle of Pinot Noir…..
Read Tom Wark’s brilliant response to “The No Hangover Wine” article here: “Natural Wine Cures Cancer!”
Check out the Wine Wizard and all the rest of my fabulous wine-writing colleagues at WineMaker Magazine: www.winemakermag.com
Camera….and ACTION! This weekend Garnet Vineyards (moi, Winemaker Alison Crowe and Assistant Winemaker Barbara Ignatowski) will be pouring our new 2012 releases at the 2013 Napa Valley Film Festival at the Sunday Wine Pavillion in downtown Napa and we hope to see many of you there. As Barb and I load up the Garnetmobile with our tasty treats and pack up our “wine tasting event” kit (napkins, pourers, literature, etc.), I wanted to pass on a little wine-tasting wisdom I’ve gleaned from doing public pouring events over the years. I think we all know the basics- use the dump bucket, drink water, etc., but here are a few more ways to make sure you get the most out of your walk-around wine tasting event. Hope to see you at the Napa Valley Film Festival this weekend!
Dress for comfort.
I know, I know. It’s tempting to bust out the Jimmy Choos and Louboutins for potentially star-studded events like the Napa Valley Film Festival, but honey, we’re not in Hollywood anymore. Trust me, wine country casual really does mean something (read Mr. Wark’s instructive last paragraph here) and since we tend to have grass, damp caves and even (gasp!) gravel as flooring surfaces, best prepare for a little “rough shoot,” as it were.
It’s a lesson I’m trying to remember as I pack for an upcoming trip to Provence. Spike heels: no (bye bye to my vintage Italian pumps…). Wedge heels: yes. Boots: heck yes. It’s November in Napa, so bring a wrap for daytime and a coat and possibly scarf for nighttime and you’ll be much happier. You’ll be doing a lot of walking around and standing at the outdoor Wine Pavilion where I’ll be pouring Sunday 2:30-5:00 PM near Copia and Oxbow Market in downtown Napa. Think less Cannes, more caveaux.
Practice good tasting bar etiquette
The below applies pretty much anytime you’re tasting wine, whether it be at a “big tent” event like the Napa Valley Film Festival or at a winery’s tasting room on Highway 29. As vintners, we love to share our wine with the public but there are so many things I see over and over again that I wish I didn’t. Here are some quickie do’s and don’ts that will help you help us help you:
-If you just want an extra-teeny pour, tell me so, or just say, “That’s fine” or “Thank you” and I’ll stop pouring. Don’t lift your glass up abruptly to tell me I’ve poured you enough. I’m not sure where this tic started, but I see it over and over again with inexperienced tasters, who probably saw someone else do it and thought it was the “done” thing. Thrusting one’s glass up to “clink” with the bottle is abrupt and rude….believe it or not I’ve also seen a broken glass or two result from such behavior.
-Do be kind to your fellow tasters. I know it may look like a rugby scrum, but please try to form a line as much as you can, and wait patiently. It is acceptable to bring two glasses to “get one for a friend” while your friend is out getting food for you (even though you might risk looking like a double fisted drinker) but asking for refill after refill is not the way to ingratiate yourself to a winery or to your wine tasting compatriots.
-Oh yes, and about that line. It’s good form to taste through the offerings but to do so with a mind to the people behind you. Please don’t stand there talking to the cute salesboy (or girl) for ever once it’s your turn up at the front. If a winery is pouring more than three wines and there’s a big line, it’s considered polite to choose your favorite two or three to try, rather than go methodically through the whole lineup. The person behind you will undoubtedly nominate you for “best supporting actor” if you step aside to enjoy your last pour away from the tasting bar so others can take your place.
-Keep the perfume in check. Some of you know that my secret hobby is collecting perfume. In fact, on my upcoming trip to Provence, one of the highlights will be a perfume factory tour and personalized perfume blending session in Grasse. Whenever I’m at work, however, it’s sans perfume for this winemaker. And it should be for you too. Don’t worry about the scent of your shampoo or soap, but please don’t pile on the after-shave or the eau de parfum. Your fellow tasters will thank you.
-Practice safe travelling. You all know about designating a driver, taking a cab or making sure your hotel has a shuttle. There are a lot of options in the Valley, so take advantage of them.
To get the most out of a multi-winery tasting event, it pays to come armed with info. Check out the event website (for the NVFF, see page 117 of the official Napa Valley Film Fest program for a guide to the event’s multi-city Wine Pavilions). Get the lay of the land, research who will be there and which are the top wineries you’re hoping to taste. By marking your own personal highlights, you’ll be sure to budget your time and taste buds wisely. Try to taste from small producers, lesser-known wineries or brands that might actually have the Winemaker or owner pouring. You’ll learn so much more and get a real feel for the winery that way, instead just walking away with an ounce of something you can buy at every chain restaurant in Ohio. It also pays to arrive at the start of the event to walk once through the venue, scope it out, and then hit your top wineries before things get crazy. Bring something to take notes with, be it an app like Delectable or old fashioned pen and paper. I just know from my own experience, even after having tasted moderately, it’s tough to remember all your favorites after a whirlwind evening of tasting, nibbling, and “hello dahling!” cheek-kissing.
Spit (at least most of the time)
There’s a reason we place dump buckets at every table and tasting station. No one ever expects anyone at a wine tasting to swallow. Don’t worry, the winemaker won’t be offended. I promise. Also, drink water, be sure to nibble around if nibblies are offered (they should be at events worth their salt) and all else fails, channel Peter Mayle a la “A Year in Provence” and take a teaspoon of olive oil, neat, to “coat the stomach” before lots of imbibing. But it’s okay to swallow a sip or three of your favorites. Just to experience the length of the finish. Or at least that’s what you will tell your friends.
This is not the best time or place to get into a debate about the merits of clone 667 vs. 777 for Pinot Noir, but I do want to know a bit about you. Are you from out of town? A film buff? Was there something you enjoyed at the show last night? I love to learn about people who love wine. If you came to this tasting, or to taste Garnet wines for a specific purpose, say you’re industry or trade, or have just gotten into Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs, let me know. That way I’ll make sure the few minutes we have together, before your friend gets back with that amuse bouche and tells you about the Colin Farrell sighting she just had, are well-spent. Share your experience with others. The #NVFF crowd is having fun on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Foodspotting….so many places to share your experiences. Event hashtag #NVFF13 will help you stay connected, as will @GarnetVineyards and @NapaFilmFest.
Enjoy the 2013 Napa Valley Film Festival! Passes still available for a fabulous weekend!
Here’s the 411:
Napa Valley Film Fest Website: www.nvff.org
Event Hashtag: #NVFF13
Event Twitter Handle: @NapaFilmFest
Our Website: www.garnetvineyards.com
My Twitter Handle: @GarnetVineyards
Women of the Vine: www.womenofthevine.com
It’s been nice to see the vine rows turning fall colors in the golden sunlight, knowing that another Harvest has just about come and gone. There are fewer grape trucks pelting down the highways, more folks at the gym on a Saturday morning and the Halloween decorations are in full force up and down our street in Napa. Even though there are still plenty of active fermentations in the cellars (and some pumpover night shifts still happening), this year I’m guessing there will be a few more mommies and daddies out there with their little trick or treaters enjoying the early end to Harvest 2013.
It was a year that threw us a few tricks but luckily, left us with a lot of treats. Colors and flavors are amazing, we had near-perfect weather during picking in the Garnet Vineyards of Napa, Sonoma and Monterey counties and though it was a little fast and furious, I’ve got very few complaints (and winemakers are a hard-to-please bunch). Here’s my lineup of some “trick-and-treat” highlights, and what it might mean for how the wines of 2013 will continue to develop.
Harvest was fast: This is a good thing if you’re the harvest widow(er), but not necessarily great if extended maceration or other drawn-out tank gymnastics are important for your wine style. This year, the pace of grape ripening and picking meant you had to get tanks fermented and pressed, and empty for the next load of grapes, in a timely manner. Winemakers who rely on weeks of extended macerations (typically a Cabernet Sauvignon tactic) for their wine style signature probably did a lot less of it this year. At Garnet Vineyards we make only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, neither of which needs a long time in tank, so we were in and out of our tanks on a relatively typical 9-10 day schedule. It did mean that a couple of blocks hung out a few days longer than necessary and some lots were fermented in white picking bins because tanks were full, but the latter just provided more opportunities to do more “open top punch down” ferments for added diversity. However, because the cellar crew did such a great job at picking up the pace on pressing and barreling down, we were able to get everything through.
Crop size was healthy: Who would’ve thought that after the sizeable 2012 harvest Mother Nature would have the reserves to serve up another healthy helping of grapey goodness? Though not all areas of the state reported above-average yields, many areas did. The vines, however, were showing signs of stress as the season progressed, possibly due to low potassium levels and depleted soils after producing two bountiful harvests. Two healthy, high-quality harvests seem like a good thing, though, given that there is talk of a global wine shortage, and that American wine consumption keeps rising.
Harvest was early: Early budbreak and a warm, dry spring in much of California was our first sign that Harvest would be a little early this year. In early July a brief heat spike in Northern California looked like it might turn up the pace of ripening even more, piling up mid-October’s Rodgers Creek Pinot Noir right on top of September-ripening Stanly Ranch Carneros Pinot Noir. Two weekends of cool weather in late September, however, slowed things down and let everything’s pick windows widen just enough to walk it all through the winery. Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned grape and late October rains can wreak havoc on quality, so wrapping up a harvest season a couple of weeks earlier than usual, and being able to forget about the weather forecast, was definitely a treat.
Fermentations are healthy: Primary alcoholic fermentation, where the yeast eat the grape sugars and turn them into ethanol and carbon dioxide, went off pretty much without a hitch. This is a good indication that, possible vine depletion aside, the grapes still grew all the micronutrients the yeast needed for a healthy, complete fermentation. Malolactic fermentations, where naturally-present bacteria transform the grape’s malic acid to a softer, rounder lactic acid, are off to a great start. It’s possible that a warm, dry growing season lessened the amount and diversity of the usual inoculum of spoilage organisms on the grapes, allowing the “good guy” microbes in the cellar to do their job with less competition and less drama.
Musts were balanced: I don’t “pick by the numbers” but if I did, Harvest 2013 would be one for the record books. When everything was “ripe” by flavor and tannin development, which is what I let be my guide regardless of sugar or acid levels, pH, total acidity and micronutrient levels seemed to be right where you would want them. 2013 was a year for minimalist Pinot Noir winemaking, where Mother Nature gave us ripe, flavorful and deliciously balanced produce right from the start.
Quality so far, is wonderful: This is the best Halloween harvest treat of all- a cellar full of happy wines, and wines I’m very happy with. Yesterday I did a vertical tasting of one of my Carneros Pinot Noirs with a well-respected Master of Wine who is a long-time colleague. He evaluated the 2010 and 2011, of which he preferred the latter. But it was when he got to the 2012 (still in barrel, will be bottled in a few months) that his eyes really lit up. Then he tasted the 2013 which was still going through ML fermentation and had only been in barrel for 8 weeks…..and in his gentlemanly and unassuming way suggested that California had just produced two stellar back to back harvests. It’s just one man’s opinion on one vertical of one wine….but I have to admit I agree completely!
Happy Halloween and Happy (end of) Harvest!
Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and makes wines from estate-grown fruit in Sonoma, Napa and Monterey Counties. Join her on Facebook and Twitter and at www.garnetvineyards.com
Harvest 2013: “It’s Happening in Soledad!”
For years, whenever I drove South on Hwy 101 in Monterey County and saw a certain superannuated billboard just north of the sleepy farm town of Soledad, California, an imaginary film clip would play in my head. I pictured a couple, perhaps a Python-esque Eric Idle and Michael Palin,* dressed up as American tourists:
“Oh look, Marge! It’s happening in Soledad!”
“Gee, Jim, that’s swell!”
Those of you who are frequent Highway 101 travelers know that the city of Soledad recently curtailed such roadway reveries when they replaced said billboard with a revamped model.
To wit: The old one must have been designed circa 1972 in an era of disco balls and feathered hair and proudly declaimed, in Brady Bunch colors and font, that “It’s Happening in Soledad!” Rainbow arrows like the stacked soles of my rubber flip flops pointed in a cheery chevron to a cartoon of the Soledad Mission and the Pinnacles National Monument. As a UC Davis winemaking student driving between college and my Santa Barbara County hometown of Carpinteria, and later, as an intern at the famed Chalone Winery at the feet of the Pinnacles themselves, I have to admit, I was intrigued. What exactly was happening in Soledad? The plague? A convention of 70’s hot-tub salesmen? Alien abductions? The Spanish Inquisition?
We’ll never know. Well, at least, we’ll just no longer be as curious, which is the real loss. The funky, cheeky graphic has been replaced with an altogether too-conventional and too Chamber of Commerce-approved sign whose tagline, “Gateway to the Pinnacles” makes it amply clear that camping, hiking and succulent-watching are all that the city elders think is happening in their burg. But as I’m sure Jim and Marge would agree, plague-laden hot tub salesmen getting abducted by aliens just sounds so much more fun.
But seriously, it IS happening in Soledad. Harvest, I mean, and in and around Soledad. The Monterey County Pinot Noir crop is poppin’ and we’re pulling in blocks from our estate vineyards up and down the Salinas Valley, the rolling eastern hills to the Santa Lucia Highlands. This is indeed the time of year when thoughts of the Pinnacles are far from my mind as we bring in great-looking fruit from Arroyo Loma Vineyard, Alta Loma vineyard and others. We’ve got only a few more days to go before the entire Monterey crop is in….and then Harvest 2013 for Garnet Vineyards will be in the barn!
But as long as the billboard is standing, “improved” graphics not withstanding, it will always still be “happening” in Soledad……….
Are YOU a fan of the old Soledad billboard? Come on, you know you are! Check out these T-Shirts I found online! The holiday gift-giving season approacheth….
*Forgive me, I saw Spamalot at the Napa Valley Opera House this last weekend.
This last week there was a major internet flap when mom and blogger Claire Gross posted a blog on Babble.com that she bathed her three-month-old son Charlie maybe once every week or so. “Yep, total confession time,” Claire writes. ” I really don’t bathe my baby.” This blog post prompted an online firestorm of negativity wherein parents around the globe heaped on criticism upon criticism, accusing her of neglecting her child at worst and losing valuable maternal bonding time at best. In further media interviews after the story went viral Ms. Gross has revealed her pediatrician advised her that her second child’s delicate skin was drying out too much due to daily bathing so she scaled it down a notch and found a happy balance that worked for them.
So yes, total confession time. I really don’t wash my grapes. And well, neither does any winemaker I know or have worked with in the decade and a half I’ve been making wine. This sometimes comes as a surprise to a public accustomed to salad spinners, special vegetable-washing soap and double and triple-washed and cellophane-bagged spinach in the supermarket. On numerous occasions giving winery tours, I’ll grab a handful of grapes from the picking bins as my group of visitors watches the grapes poised over the destemmer. I’ll pop a delicious Pinot Noir berry in my mouth and offer the cluster around, only to hear, “Oh…..don’t you wash them first?”
Nope. We don’t.
Nowhere in my winemaking education, formal or on-the-job, across the state of California and over two continents, was I shown that washing grapes before fermentation was necessary.
The reality is that “No human pathogen can survive in wine,” as one of my favorite UC Davis professors, Dr. Linda Bisson used to tell us in the first-year winemaking class. Because of the high acidity (low pH) and high alcohol levels in a typical wine, no bacteria or virus that could infect a person (like a cold or flu bug, or even worse) can survive in that environment. This is part of the reason why, for the ancient Romans, Greeks and many other societies, wine was used to help treat wounds and was considered a medicine. Even though wine microbes like Lactobacilli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae are happy in that kind of harsh environment, bugs that live in the human body are not.
Winemakers also know what was sprayed (or in most cases, not sprayed, as grapes are a low-input crop compared to others) in the vineyard during the growing year. In fact, residual fungicides or other chemicals disrupt a healthy fermentation, which is why winegrape growers are more limited than other fruit and vegetable growers in what they may use in a vineyard and why we ask our growers (or do it ourselves, if we are the grower) to provide meticulous records of anything applied.
Are there sometimes mites, dust and bugs from the vineyard? Sure. Once I even spent an hour rescuing a dozen little green frogs from a bin of grapes as they went across the sorting table (no idea how they got there, must have been hanging out on the vine for some reason). But most importantly, there are also valuable indigenous yeast and bacteria cells that can help contribute to a healthy and more interesting fermentation and eventually, wine. From Bordeaux to Burgundy, Modesto to Mendocino, grapes get picked, come into the winery, get crushed and become wine, without a grape-washing step involved*.
I really never gave it much thought before, but I suppose we could add grape-washing to our litany of winemaking steps. Some might welcome it as a way to make squeaky-clean wine that they could market as “Triple Washed!” Some would no doubt decry it as yet one more unnatural and non-traditional winemaking “intervention”. It would undoubtedly be a waste of precious water and depending on residual levels, might dilute the wine. Every day we are learning more and more about the microbial world within and around us and its valuable contribution to our health and well-being. Why wash off microbes that might be beneficial in fermentation, or at least benign? The dust that comes in on the grapes settles down to the bottom of the fermenter and gets racked off and left behind anyway.
To side with Claire Gross, I really don’t bathe my baby much either (Bryce is now almost eight months old). He has dry skin and as per his pediatrician we find a once-a-week dunk works just fine for us, thanks very much. So here’s to the great unwashed! Winemaking, like parenting, is an ancient, and yes sometimes dirty, art.
*If someone does wash their grapes first, contact me! I’d be curious to do a follow-up blog post!
Alison loves answering questions about the weird in wine and published the WineMaker’s Answer Book in 2007. Interact with us at Garnetvineyards.com @GarnetVineyards and on Facebook!
Well, the Turrentine blog states that the North Coast Chardonnay and Pinot Noir harvest is about 50% complete. From the window of my Subaru flashing by on River Road or from walking through my company’s Sonoma Coast vineyards (we sell some of our fruit to other wineries in addition to growing all of Garnet’s fruit), I would put it closer to 75% complete.
Even the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay crop, which I picked last week after anxiously waiting for it to ripen, is finally in the cellar. Good thing, too because the little bit of moisture we saw Monday night in Napa and Sonoma Counties probably spells the end of active Chardonnay ripening time before botrytis takes over. If you didn’t have your Chardonnay picked before, now’s the time to get it in the barn. That is the double-edged sword of growing delicate thin-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in extreme cool and late-ripening climates like the” Slownoma Coast”; you need to wait long enough for perfect ripeness but not so long so that the fruit melts off the vine.
The end of a crazy Sonoma Coast harvest for Garnet which atypically began two weeks earlier than expected but now has modulated due to two cool spells, is in sight. Now we start really focusing on our Monterey County Vineyards near the Santa Lucia Highlands, where the Pinot is just about perfect and the Chardonnay is actively being pressed. I still, however, have one block of Pinot Noir out at Rodger’s Creek vineyard in the Petaluma Gap area still hanging, waiting until it tastes just right.
This site is high above Stage Gulch Road on the eastern edge of the Petaluma Gap appellation and experiences extremely low yields and screamingly high winds. Both factors, along with it being clone 777, imbue this Pinot Noir literally with a thicker skin, enabling it to hang tough long after my last Russian River Pinot Noir has been picked. Rodgers Creek Vineyard is always the last Pinot Noir I pick in the North Coast and for me it is one of those “wow” vineyards. The list of clients who share its Pinot crop with me is prestigious and score-grabbing. A large portion of the Garnet Sonoma Coast blend is from Rodgers Creek, but I always set aside a few precious barrels of my favorite blocks for a vineyard designate bottling (selecting special cuvees: a topic for another blog entry, as is the definition of “Sonoma Coast”).
So the end of another Garnet Vineyards harvest is in sight, at least on the Sonoma Coast. The Monterey Pinot and Chard crop should all be picked within the next two weeks and I’m looking forward to not scanning the weather reports so much. Making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay means harvest is hectic but usually quite short. First day of harvest was September 3 on Stanly Ranch in Carneros. The last day for Garnet is set to be just exactly a month later on the Sonoma Coast and just two weeks later down in Monterey. Now…..what to do with it all?…..
Garnet Vineyards produces estate-grown Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Sonoma Coast and Monterey appellations. www.garnetvineyards.com @GarnetVineyards www.facebook.com/GarnetVineyards
Copyright Alison Crowe 2013
Here at Garnet Vineyards the Pinot Noir on the North Coast has been coming in just one block after another. The tsunami of grapes that I saw coming two weeks ago has already hit and residual waves are gently lapping at the winery as we walk ripening blocks of Pinot through the tanks one by one. The stellar cellar crew (say that five times fast) is getting into the groove of crushing first thing, monitoring Brix levels (we measure the juice sugar levels to keep tabs on the health of each fermentation) in the morning, and pumping over and punching down twice a day to make sure the cap (floating grape skins) is getting mixed up with the juice to extract color and tannin.
Mother Nature has smiled on us this week and hasn’t served up any more heat spikes (knock on French Oak) like that little one we had ten days ago. The mild weather we’ve been experiencing in Sonoma lately has meant that the Pinot clusters at Rodger’s Creek and Diamond Vineyards are being left to ripen literally in their own sweet time. We also are just about to get started pulling in Pinot Noir from our Alta Loma Vineyard in Monterey County; the Pinot harvest there should progress at a comfortable pace.
So who’s now on my “watch list” this week? Our Sonoma Coast Chardonnay vineyards, of course! It is supposedly an “early ripening” varietal, but this year the Chardonnay seems to be ripening even later than in 2012, which was a bit of a late year for Chardonnay to begin with. To find out what’s up, I placed a call to my friend and colleague Pete Opatz, Winemaker/Owner of Route 128 Winery and all-around grape expert at Silverado Premium Properties in Napa. Pete says, “Typically you start getting into the Chardonnay about halfway through the Pinot harvest.”
This year’s two week delay from normal is, “…probably due to a boomerang reaction to last year’s heavier crops, lower Potassium levels in soils, and a small heat spike we had in June, which caused leaf lamina damage in Chardonnay,” Pete says. The quality of the grapes shouldn’t be affected, which is good news. There is a tiny cool-down phase in the weather predicted for this weekend, though I’m not worried about any appreciable amount of precipitation. However, if it’s not windy enough to dry things out again, we’ll start having to watch for botrytis….but let’s not allow the paranoid scenarios of “what if” to make us spiral into a worrisome Harvest depression. It’s a gorgeous day today and we just have to wait for those acid levels to come down and flavor and sugar levels come up….let’s all remember it’s still just the middle of September. Patience!
2013 will most likely be remembered, by those who pick grapes and make wine as the year we almost drowned. Yes, quality is looking great, sure, I like the aromas on the first Stanly Ranch Pinot ferments but who has time for critic-baiting niceties when you’re staring down the throat of the beast, and the grape tsunami of 2013 is about to eat you and your cowering crush crew for breakfast?
This is the deal: just about everything, especially in Napa and Sonoma Counties is ripening at once. I’ve never seen such narrow brix spreads between such disparate varietals as Alexander Valley Merlot, Carneros Chardonnay and Russian River Pinot Noir in recent memory. Garnet Vineyards makes wine in a little shared “garagiste” winery space off the square in Sonoma and, though we just make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, our colleagues (a new definition for “co-fermenters”?) make many different “flavors”- Dry Creek Zin, Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley Cab…..and we are all in amazement at how quickly this harvest will thunder to completion.
Though the actual start of harvest for Garnet Vineyards was only a week ahead of normal (first week in September, rather than the second), the grapes that follow on our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are ripening a good two weeks ahead of normal.
That means that my friends’ Alexander Valley Merlot is going to want to be picked right when the tanks are full of Russian River Pinot Noir fermentations…so it’s a good thing I press out warm (Pinot Noir doesn’t benefit from extended maceration like Cabernet does)and have the barrels ready to go to clear the fermentation tanks for what’s coming next. 2013 will certainly be one of the most condensed, fast and furious harvest I’ve ever experienced.
I grew up in Santa Barbara and worked for years at Santa Cruz’s Bonny Doon Vineyard where the interns and the winemaking team would sometimes make a dash to Cowell’s or to any number of our favorite surf spots for a little dip. One of the first lessons of surfing is when you see a big wave forming and you want to get the next one, the last thing you do is retreat back to the shore. It’s sure to crunch you up and roll you under the kelp like a load of dirty laundry. You have to face the wave, power over it and pop safely over to the other side, to await your next set. Though I don’t think a lot of surfing breaks will happen for anyone this year, here’s hoping we can take on the challenge and tame this tidal wave of grapes. Take a deep breath. It’s guaranteed to be a wild ride!
All photos copyright Alison Crowe and Chris Purdy Photography, purdypictures.com
At Garnet Vineyards I have the luxury of knowing my 2012 vintage will be safely in the bottle by the end of this week, before the first grape even thinks about hitting the crush pad. However, many of my wine-making buddies across the state aren’t looking forward to such a relaxing prospect over their Labor Day weekend. Some are frantically getting wines out of barrel, making last-minute blends and getting wines into the bottle in a final attempt to clear the decks before the 2013 tons start flying. And, it appears, some are still lingering in a “normal year” mindset even though it’s starting to look like 2013 might be earlier, faster and more condensed than usual.
In Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast, grape trucks for still wine are already on the road as early-ripening varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio follow hard on the heels of an action-packed early sparkling harvest about a week ahead of schedule. Rumors of Napa Cabs at higher-than-normal brixes for this date are already making winery managers nervous about crush-pad traffic jams as multiple varietals try to get in the door at once.
“ It’s definitely caught us a little by surprise,” says Laffort’s Jillian Johnson, who provides both bottling and finished wine supplies to wineries statewide and so is in a good position to observe what winemakers are working on as the weeks (days?) to harvest tick down.
“People are still bottling and I’m still getting orders for fining wines,” Johnson reports (fining is an optional pre-bottling step, like bentonite fining of excess protein in white wines). She says, “It seems like the mind-set hasn’t even shifted yet to harvest. It’s because people are still dealing with so much wine from 2012. They really do have to bottle to make room for the incoming wine.”
At Garnet Vineyards, we are definitely seeing our first Carneros Pinot, Stanly Ranch, tracking 7 days earlier than average. It’s still nowhere near the “4 weeks early!!” level that some winemakers were talking about after a few warm weeks this spring, but without a doubt 2013 will be remembered as an earlier year. Even the recent monsoonal pattern hasn’t really dampened ripening, as temperatures have achieved low to mid-80’s (F) consistently, which is perfect sugar-accumulating weather. The gentle, mild growing season in 2013 has meant that the vine’s vascular structures are in tip-top shape, basically paving a sugar superhighway to ripeness. Flavors are also developing earlier than I would expect as well, which is great news and means that the critical sensory elements will be there to match the incoming sugar and the gently falling acid. So far (knock on lots of wood!) it looks like the stars are getting in alignment for another delicious year.
However….we have a long way to go before we can all heave a sigh of relief and put a cork in 2013. Chardonnay and Cabernet might be right on top of each other, and not many people I’ve talked to are thinking they’ll be crushing much into November.
This all points to a fast and condensed harvest, one that stresses out both people and equipment as we work longer hours to pick, crush and barrel down all the incoming fruit in a shorter time period. And there’s no denying a generous (but super-high quality) 2012 has left many of us pushing the envelope on getting that vintages’ blends into the bottle and out of the winery.
There’s no doubt about it, it’s high time to muster the crews, roll out the barrels and get our collective harvest hats on. Like Jillian says, “Look around on the roads, there are harvest trucks out there, it’s time to figure out your orders!” It’s time to batten down the hatches and get ready for another roller coaster ride, one that looks to be particularly tasty, fast and exciting!
Girlandthegrape.com is the blog of Alison Crowe, the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards. Enter your email address in the upper left hand corner of this blog screen to get Harvest updates by email.
Ah, it’s that time of year again….when we dust off the picking bins, spiff up the barrels, train the cellar interns how to use the winery barbecue (oh wait, I mean the presses) and generally work ourselves into a lather talking about the impending harvest and whether or not we’ll get Labor Day off. The last couple of weeks in Napa and Sonoma, all the dither seems to be about Harvest 2013 being super early. I’m just not seeing it, folks.
Though a couple of brief heat waves in late spring followed by earlier-than-normal north coast wildfires hinted at a hot, dry (and therefore early) growing season, the recent cool weather has really modulated grapevine ripening. About a month ago gossip at the Napa Farmer’s Market and around town was all about the first picking being three to four weeks earlier than normal state-wide.
Granted, the first grapes for sparkling wine have already been picked in Napa Valley and friends of mine who crush grapes from the hot California interior have started to bring in the very first Pinot Gris and other early-ripening whites. The same sources, however, report that Lodi really hasn’t started to heat up (so to speak) on its picking activity and my bubbly-making buddies in Sonoma admit that they are still taking a relaxed attitude toward scheduling grapes and that the first headline-grabbing (done on purpose one wonders?) photo-op picks were only about a week earlier than normal.
This all tallies with what I’m seeing around Garnet Vineyard’s neck of the woods in the Sonoma Coast, Carneros and Monterey County appellations. Looking at my historical brixes, Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir in Carneros is set to be picked the first week of September and my Sonoma Coast Rodgers Creek Pinot noir, which at its high elevation always ripens a little more slowly, are tracking about 5 days earlier than last year. Since 2012 was a slightly later than average harvest, I’m betting 2013 will track about 5-7 days earlier than average. Not super-early, and just about right.
Yields are mixed, with some areas looking like an average to slightly average-plus crop size, while some areas are looking like weaker-than-average. Sometimes higher tons per acre can delay a ripening date while less crop can ripen earlier, but I’m estimating those effects will be felt in just two to three days on either side, not weeks. In Napa and Sonoma we are looking at a very moderate and seasonal weather pattern for the next 10 days, which means perfect grape-ripening conditions with no heat spikes on the horizon to speed things up.
So I’m still making plans for a relaxing Labor Day weekend. Put a few bottles of bubbly on ice, get out the cooler and fire up that barbecue (the interns can always use more practice, right?). We might even pack up the car, the dog, the kids and head out of town….we just won’t go very far.
Copyright 2013 Alison Crowe garnetvineyards.com