Winemaking. Life. The Dirt. Alison Crowe is a Winemaker Based in Napa.
A New Year’s Letter from Vintage 2019
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.