Winemaking. Life. The Dirt. Alison Crowe is a Winemaker Based in Napa.

Archives: Harvest 2014

Three Surprising Things About Harvest 2014 and What it Means for Wine Quality

At Garnet Vineyards we celebrated a record early Harvest by toasting Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir in late August.

At Garnet Vineyards we celebrated a record early Harvest by toasting Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir in late August. (Winemaker Alison Crowe- that’s me- on the left, Assistant Winemaker Barbara on the right)

In addition to making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for Garnet Vineyards, I consult for a wide array of wineries and brands around the state of California. Every Harvest I crush quite a few tons for my clients and work out of a number of wineries from Napa to Sonoma to the Central Coast. You could say I get around. What that means is, aside from seeing some beautiful scenery and getting to work with a lot of wonderful people, I get a pretty good view of what happens across the state during Harvest.

You’ve probably already heard the chatter: “Early.” “Fast.” “High Quality” (the latter the standard rote from all of the regional vintners’ associations.) However, you may not have heard all that I did as I traveled, worked and shared the occasional beer with my grape-growing and winemaking colleagues during this fast and furious crush season. Below are some lesser-known bits of winemaking insight and what they might mean for the developing wines of Harvest 2014.

Russian River Chardonnay remained tight and firm and was about two weeks later than normal.

Russian River Chardonnay remained tight and firm and was about two weeks later than normal.

Harvest wasn’t early everywhere or for every varietal

In the North Coast, where I live and where my operations are based, Chardonnay was actually quite late. I got into the bulk of my Russian River Chardonnay only after I started pulling in Alexander Valley Cab, which in ten years of working with my current slate of vineyards has never happened. On the Central Coast last week I had friends that were still waiting for some Zins and Carignane to ripen, which is odd for their relatively warm Paso Robles climate. Here in Napa, one of my Oak Knoll Cabernet vineyards which is typically among the first to come in was one of my last this year, as I waited longer than anticipated for the flavors to really “pop”.

The consequences of this atypical ripening pattern were largely twofold. First, wineries had a bit of a tough time pressing finished red fermentations while pressing incoming whites. Unless you have multiple presses (or want rose wine) you have to carefully clean red skins from the press before loading in white grapes. This, coupled with cellars already crowded with wine from the bountiful 2012 and 2013 vintages made for tight quarters, long hours and frazzled nerves. So far from what I’ve seen, wineries pulled off miracles but it makes me wonder if all winemakers got their fruit processed exactly when they desired. Secondly, the flip-flopped ripening order made 2014 a year where, especially, you had to be in the vineyard early and often to determine the perfect “pick window”.  This Harvest’s ideal moment for picking any given block was unpredictable and it’s likely that winemakers who just relied on Brix reports (and didn’t even visit the vineyard until sugars hit 25.0)  missed it.

Color, flavor and tannins were in perfect balance two-three weeks earlier than normal, especially for Pinot Noir and Merlot.

Color, flavor and tannins were in perfect balance two-three weeks earlier than normal, especially for Pinot Noir and Merlot.

2014 could be the perfect “low alcohol” year for some reds

Looking for “lower alcohol” red wines that might clock in at 13.0% rather than more typical levels above 14.50% alcohol? 2014 might be a year to watch from your favorite producers, especially those who make Pinot Noir as well as Napa and Alexander Valley Merlots. These varietals came in from my vineyards up north and on the Central Coast at record early dates and most had reached full flavor and tannin maturity at brixes well under 25.0. Pyrazines (a dreaded “bell pepper” aroma indicative of unripe Cabernet and Merlot) even disappeared early, further indicating a high-quality, lower-brix pick date. I attribute all this to the warm, largely frost-free growing season we had on the North and Central Coasts as well as some propitious late winter rains that helped keep soil profiles relatively full except in the driest spots. Stanly Ranch Carneros Pinot Noir at 23.8 Brix on August 28th?  Flavors were there, the balance was there, and tannins were ripe so I ignored the calendar and picked it. Based on what I just tasted in barrel yesterday, another year from now I know I’ll still be glad that I did.

The grapes are off the vines.  Time to bring on the rain.

The grapes are off the vines. Time to bring on the rain.

Mid-October rains are not worrying winemakers (for once)

A major mid-October rainstorm in Northern California would normally be call for alarm during any typical Harvest season. Instead of worrying winemakers in what would usually be the height of the picking panic, the high probability of a few wet days this week is being welcomed by almost everyone I know. Unlike most years, just about every grape is in the barn, happily fermenting away, or just scooting in before tonight’s predicted raindrops are slated to start falling. Like “noble rot” dessert wines, those which get their concentrated sugars and distinctive, luscious flavors from indigenous vineyard molds? This extra moisture will surely encourage the growth of Botrytis cinerea and wines from producers like Napa’s Oro Puro and Foley Johnson should be especially fabulous from the 2014 season.

So believe the hype. Harvest 2014 was early (mostly). It was also fast, unless you’re still hanging your Semillon waiting for Botrytis to cover your clusters with a fuzzy grey blanket. And yes, you can believe the vintners’ associations too. I don’t know how we got off so easily, but statewide, Mother Nature blessed us with a flavorful, colorful, high quality Harvest- for a third time in a row.  Now let’s just hope she comes through with a really wet winter.

Alison Crowe is a winemaker based in Napa and can be reached at ancrowe@hotmail.com and at LinkedIn.

Copyright Alison Crowe 2014.

#NapaQuake Aftermath & Photos: damage mixed, how you can help

 

The Garnet Vineyards barrel stacks the morning after the 6.0 earthquake on 8/24/14.  No losses.  I am grateful and amazed.

The Garnet Vineyards barrel stacks the morning after the 6.0 earthquake on 8/24/14. No losses. I am grateful and amazed.

It’s Not Any Other Day in Napa

Driving North from the intersection of Hwy 29 and Silverado Trail, from my office towards my house in the old Downtown, you’d think it was any normal Monday afternoon in Napa.  Joggers and mountain bikers fresh from completing their Skyline to Kennedy Park loop trail, flatbeds with grape bins rumbling down the highway, car dealerships with colorful banners flying- all signs of a sunny late-August day in Napa.  However, as I approach downtown I can see the yellow caution tape and “Roads Closed” signs at Suscol and First and knots of kids on bikes crossing the now three-sided intersection.  Schools are all closed, helicopters slice through the sky and driving by slowly it’s possible to see ugly swathes of plywood slapped across the front of cute Victorian cottages.  Stacks of dusty bricks slouch into the street and “Do Not Cross” tape festoons the block like party decorations with a bad sense of humor.  It’s definitely not a normal day here in Wine Country.

Crying over spilt wine.  These broken sample bottles were the extent of my damage. I was lucky.

Crying over spilt wine. These broken sample bottles were the extent of my damage. I was lucky.

 Damage not Uniform-Many Unscathed

From all reports, however, damage is hit-or-miss.  Thankfully, there was nobody out and about downtown and even more importantly, nobody working in the tight barrel stacks when it all came crashing down.   For every winemaker I’ve heard from with barrels on their sides there are five that are reporting little to no damage.  I am happy to report I was one of the lucky ones.  I consult for a number of different brands in addition to being the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and between my many tanks, barrels and bottles at three wineries and one warehouse within 10 miles of the epicenter, I lost about 50 bottles of sample wine.  I can’t believe it.  I also can’t believe my heartache for friends and colleagues who are suffering injuries and losses.

I anticipate tomorrow we will know a lot more about the true extent of the losses and now that we’ve all had a chance to clean up the broken glass in our homes and hug our kids (my two are OK), we’re checking winery building integrity, checking in with neighbors and seeing who needs help.

 

Need Help/Want to Help? 

There is a post-earthquake clean-up and help forum here:

www.napaearthquake.com

There is a Napa Valley Earthquake 2014 page on Facebook where people can list things they need or find help.

The city of Napa has a rundown of current red-tag buildings as well as community resources here.

The Napa Valley Vintners has been updating reports from their website, with current local industry stats as well as resources for vintners.

Phil Burton of Barrel Builders is offering a handy barrel-lifting tool for vintners struggling to right upended stacks.  Email phil@barrelbuilders.com or call him at 707-953-9516

 

Support Local Businesses- Many Are Open

Many are suggesting that one of the best ways to help us all recover from this terrible event is to go buy a bottle of wine from your favorite local winery.  If you buy direct from someone’s website, more of the margin goes directly back to them.  I would also add that though the pictures of the damage being reported in the media are very real, Downtown Napa is not a destruction zone.  Plenty of hotels, restaurants and businesses are open just like usual and tasting rooms are welcoming visitors throughout the valley.  Oxbow Public Market, just steps from the most devastated areas, is serving food and wine to hungry folks just like normal.

 

Back to Normal, Slowly

I hear the Wine Train will be running tomorrow.   Friends that have finished up their sparkling wine pressing are opening their cellar doors to help neighbors who may need some spare crush pad space.  I’m still reliving the violent shaking every time I close my eyes but I know the chance of aftershocks lessens every hour.  I’ve got grapes scheduled to come in Friday.  It’s Harvest after all.  I think we’re getting back to normal here in Napa.  Slowly.

 

Reach me:  @alisoncrowewine  ancrowe@hotmail.com

Slideshow of Downtown damage by photographer Chris Purdy here.

 

copyright Alison Crowe 2014

 

 

Harvest 2014: There’s a party at your place and EVERYONE is coming

One hopes Harvest is like a genteel, civilized cocktail party......

One hopes Harvest is like an epicurean cocktail party……well-paced and genteel.

Ever throw a casual cocktail party where you tell friends to just “drop on by anytime” after dinner and to “feel free to bring some people along”?  Ideally, a steady stream of pleasant company trickles through, keeping you entertained until you wave a fond “goodnight” to the last guests.  Your homemade canapés paired perfectly with the Champagne, all stemware made it safely back to the kitchen  and a satisfyingly genteel time was had by all.

 

 

For better or worse, the Harvest 2014 Party in California is shaping up to be less Martha Stewart and more Holly Golightly.  Everyone will show up early, the Sauvignon Blanc is going to invite the entire neighborhood  and the Cab and Syrah (now that’s an interesting couple) are going to be barging into the foyer just as the Pinot Noir is attempting to leave.   I took a quick drive around my north coast vineyards yesterday and after tasting through early-pickers like Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Carneros Pinot Noir as well as latecomers like  Napa Cab, all I can say is that Harvest 2014 is going to be one heck of a rager.

Harvest 2014 is gonna be a rager....

For better or worse, I predict Harvest 2014 is gonna be more like a rager at your BFF’s apartment….

Here’s the 411 on Harvest 2014:

-It’s Early: After walking through vineyards yesterday and looking through my Brix reports, I confirmed what I was guessing:  I am tracking a good week or two ahead of 2013, and two to three weeks earlier than average.   This is my tenth harvest working with my current slate of  vineyards from Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast and this year will be my earliest pick ever.  Last year I started picking Sauvignon Blanc on September 2.  This year it will be August 20.

-It Ain’t Small: OK, maybe statewide it won’t be as big as 2013 but it won’t be wimpy either.  Depending on where you get your grapes be prepared for some healthy crops even though there seem to be hens and chicks and some pockets of mediocre set.  Different than last year:  big berries in some vineyards.  Clear the decks.

Brown seeds can be a sign of ripeness in certain vineyards.

Brown seeds can be a sign of ripeness in certain vineyards. Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc, almost ready to pick, about three weeks earlier than average.

-It’s Gonna be Fast:  A picture-perfect growing season and water at just the right times (late winter rains for the North Coast at least) have set up vascular systems and tissues into ideal ripening and sugar-accumulation mode.  Red varietals, like Oak Knoll Cabernet at our Red Hen vineyard for example, are already showing significant seed browning, berry softening and pyrazine reduction.  This means 2014 could be a banner year for those making lower-alcohol red wines but it will also mean the reds will be hard on the heels of the whites.  This is one gathering that’s going to have plenty of gate crashers, and they’re all going to be looking for some space to party.

-It’s Gonna be Awesome:  Luckily, even though it’s going to be early, fast, and sizeable, Harvest 2014 is shaping up to be a party to remember.  Quality across all AVA’s I’ve tasted is looking to be just as great as 2013 and possibly even better.  Lest you turn into a nervous host, remember that sometimes the most insane parties are the ones that get talked about for years afterwards.  So what if a little Riedel gets broken and you end up ordering pizza at 3:00 AM (no one will care it’s not Tra Vigne)?  Knock on lots of Tronçais, Mother Nature will not only continue to smile  indulgently upon us but will leave us the keys to the guest cottage and conveniently get out of town for the weekend.   Everybody in the pool….now where did I put those canapés?

 

 

“I’ll never get used to anything.  Anybody that does, they might as well be dead.”  -Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

 

 

Alison Crowe is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards and other client projects.  She can be reached at ancrowe@hotmail.com and @alisoncrowewine.    Party on, everyone.

Copyright 2014 Alison Crowe

Advice to an Intern: 10 things Winemakers want you to know

 

A winery during crush is a wet, cold, slippery and sometimes dangerous place.  Winemakers share their tips for getting through Harvest.

A winery during crush is a wet, cold, slippery and sometimes dangerous place. Winemakers share their tips for getting through Harvest.

The other day I got an email from a reader who was about to embark on her first harvest as a winemaking intern.  She wondered if I had any tips or advice for her.  She had a good pair of boots but what else would she need?  What should she be worried about or watch out for?

I had my own list but in order to really “get the goods” decided to do a little crowd-sourcing for this gal who was interested enough to contact me.  I pointed the Bat-Signal into the Facebook universe and in return received a quickly-growing thread of “advice to an intern” from fellow winemakers.

Do we have advice for her?  Do we ever.  The wine industry has a grand tradition of taking the up-and-coming generation under our wings and besides getting them wet and tired, perhaps teaching them a few things along the way.  It was hard to whittle the list down to 10 in order to keep this post manageable and I can see this one being the first of many.

One of my best Pinot Noir mentors, the late great Don Blackburn, had a sign on his office door that read “Winemaking Begins With People.”  It’s a mantra that rings as true for me today as the day I first read it while walking into a job interview.  He was a tough taskmaster and required prompt start times, spotless buckets and shining pruning shears from the intern team (yes, I got the job) but we had a great time and learned a lot too.

Without further ado, here are 10 bits of “advice to an intern,” direct from Winemakers who’ve been there:

Glenn Alexander, Sanglier Cellars

“Get the best, most comfortable pair of waterproof boots you can afford.”

 

Tom Collins, UC Davis Department of Viticulture & Enology

“Always have a change of clothing in your car because cold and wet is a hard way to drive home.”

 

Brooke Langelius, St. Supery:

“Bring lots of food for backup on long days!”

 

Marty Johnson, Eaton Hill Winery and Ruby Magdalena Vineyards:

“Beer.  Bring lots and lots of beer for sharing with everyone after cleanup.  We all know it takes a lot of good beer to make wine.”

 

Ed Kurtzman, August West Wines, Freeman Winery:

“Don’t make outside plans during Harvest that you can’t get out of.”

 

Amy J. Butler, Ranchero Cellars

“Ask questions!  The sorting table is a good place to entrap your Winemaker into teaching you stuff.”

 

Elizabeth Vianna, Chimney Rock Winery

“Get to know the cellar crew.  They can be some of the best teachers.”

 

Chris Kajani, Saintsbury Winery:

“Be early.  And preferably not hung over.”

 

Cynthia Cosco, Passaggio Wines

“Learn lots…have fun…make connections….safety first!”

 

Domenica Totty, Beaulieu Vineyard

“Have fun and make as many connections as you can – other interns, winemakers, anyone working harvest.
And, it’s ok to show up with a hangover… But you’d better be on time & work your butt off in spite of it!”

 

Alison Crowe is a winemaker based in Napa, California and fondly remembers her first harvests as an intern at Chalone Vineyard and Byington Winery & Vineyard.  She makes wine at Garnet Vineyards and can be reached at ancrowe@hotmail.com and on Twitter:  @alisoncrowewine .  She wishes the best of luck to all the new harvest interns out there- it’s a wild ride but welcome aboard!

 

 

 

Harvest 2014: It’s quiet out there. Too quiet.

Moisture-laden clouds have been haunting Northern California this past week, making tropical moisture and the potential for mildew a possible challenge for Harvest 2014.

Moisture-laden clouds have been haunting Northern California this past week, making tropical moisture and the potential for mildew a possible challenge for Harvest 2014.

The Scene:  A craggy-faced farmer straight out of Central Casting scratches his grizzled beard.  A scattering of clouds scuds across the horizon but down on the vineyard floor all is mid-afternoon heat.  No birdsong.  The leaves barely rustle in the rumored breeze of a Carneros afternoon.   “It’s quiet out there.  Too quiet.”

 

 

Cue the Spaghetti Western “wah-wah-wah” music because though the vineyards have been seemingly taking a siesta, they’re about to open up with all guns blazing.  With no frost to worry us this spring and a nice warm growing season with no heat spikes and no rain events (so far), Harvest 2014 is coiled and ready to strike.

 

Bunches are sizing up, red grapes have just about gone 100% through veraison and the crop size is looking healthy.  I don’t expect the giant crop we had in 2013 but it’s not going to be a pipsqueak either.  That means wineries (mine included) are scrambling to empty barrels, to create master blends and to bottle when possible in order to clear the decks.

 

Harvest 2014 will also be earlier than average and perhaps a few days earlier than 2013.   Looking at my first Brix (sugar) readings from certain blocks over the weekend, I was surprised to see one block of Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir in Carneros come in at 19.0.  In classic Carneros fashion, while Stanly Ranch is indeed cooled by stiff breezes and is moderated by the  influence of the San Pablo Bay, it still gets quite a lot of Napa Valley heat.  Additionally, Pinot Noir is an earlier-ripening red grape so it’s no surprise that Stanly is my bellwether “harvest indicator” vineyard.  Last year I started picking Stanly Pinot for Garnet Vineyards on September 3 and this year it looks like it might start on Labor Day weekend.

Like   many winemakers I’ve had my eye on this tropical weather pattern we’ve experienced in Northern California over the last week and am keeping my eyes peeled for mildew potential.  So far so good; the canopies have been opened up nicely, enough breeze has been blowing to keep things dry and I like what I’m seeing.

We still have a few weeks.  Go ahead, take that last day off before the grapes start flying.  Do the farmer’s market, catch up on those last projects around the house.  Enjoy the quiet of the vineyards on a summer morning while the 85 F weather sets up those sugars for a runaway gallop to the finish line.  Don’t worry about the eerie silence.  It’s about to get real loud real quick.

 

 

 

Alison Crowe lives in Napa and makes wine for Garnet Vineyards and other wineries and projects.

Twitter:  @alisoncrowewine

Copyright Alison Crowe 2014

Harvest 2014: What Winemakers are Really Worrying About

Wildfires? Drought? Fraudulently labeled loads of grapes? Winemakers have a lot to worry about going into this harvest season. We’ll be picking, crushing and pressing in a historical water shortage on top of two big back to back harvests, trying to fit it all into the cellar. In addition, it looks like the crop will be about two weeks earlier than average. That being said, let’s talk about the serious stuff. Below are the things winemakers are really worrying about going into Harvest 2014.

A winery can be like a mini-United Nations during harvest.  Sometimes negotiations are in order.

A winery can be like a mini-United Nations during harvest. Sometimes negotiations are in order.

Argentina. Chile. France:
No, it’s not the quarterfinals of the World Cup. These are the countries of origins of your winemaking interns for this harvest. Though the wine industry has a long and storied tradition of importing viticulture and enology students to help sample the vineyards and clean the barrels, it’s also part of the deal to house them, feed them and throw down a few yellow cards once in a while. Whether the interns will get along, if the Argentinians and Chileans will come to blows over the finer points of emapanada-making (no one from Mendoza would ever fry an empanada, gracias very much) or whether the French will scoff at the great coffee vs. yerba mate debate are all valid intern-management concerns. Thank goodness that by the time they all have to bunk together at the vineyard house the World Cup will be over.

 

 

Forget about the grapes- bringing in all the equipment before the grapes are ripe is the tough part.

Forget about the grapes- bringing in all the equipment before the grapes are ripe is the tough part.

Blunnies, Foss and Bucher:
I’ve got a winemaking buddy that is desperately trying to order a pair of special-width Blundstone work boots before the grapes start flying. The lab staff is worrying whether the Foss service rep will come by, the neighboring “garage winery” is tracking the international shipping container carrying a spare (and important!) Bucher press bladder and really hoping there won’t be a port strike holding up our barrel deliveries. We know where the grapes are. They won’t move until we say so. This time of year it’s all about making sure all the other stuff we need to make the wine, especially stuff that comes from overseas, gets to us on time.

 

Taqueria:  The Ultimate Harvest Food Group

Taqueria: The Ultimate Harvest Food Group

Luna, Esperanza, Texanita:
No, these are not new wine brands targeting Hispanic millennials but in fact are your primary source of sustenance. We all are checking whether our favorite mission-critical wine country taquerias and taco truck are a) still in business, b) still going to be opening up at 5:00 AM for breakfast service 7 days a week starting September 1 and c) are going to be permanently stationed in our parking lot due to high demand from the cellar crew. The taco truck’s tinny “La Cucaracha” horn might irk the first tasting room visitors rolling up during mid-morning break…but don’t give their raised eyebrows and sniffs of scorn a second thought.  Heck, invite them over.  How else will they ever learn that a super-grande breakfast burrito with extra chorizo  is indeed wine country cuisine at its finest?

 

 

It takes a lot of good beer to make good wine!

It takes a lot of good beer to make good wine!

Arrogant Bastard, Pliny and Rasputin:
When it’s 11:00 at night and everyone’s been going strong since 7:00 AM, we’re all crush pad philosophers. And one thing we never have to debate is that it takes a lot of good beer to make good wine. We all have our favorites. The 2012 crush crew in our Garnet Vineyards cellar pined for Pliny. Another buddy a few doors down our the 8th st. winery complex in Sonoma practically went through pallets of Pabst. When I was making estate Pinot Noir up in the Santa Cruz Mountains at Byington Winery we traded cases of our wine for the house-made beer of a swanky Los Gatos restaurant down the hill. Whether it’s the pony keg in the lab fridge or the bottles stashed in the break room, if it’s Harvest then there must be beer.

 

What are you thinking about as Harvest 2014 approaches? Leave me a comment!

 

Alison Crowe has slogged in cellars from Napa and Sonoma to Argentina and Santa Barbara.

This blog is a finalist for “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards.  Gracias to my fellow honorees!