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
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.