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

Archives: Harvest 2016

The Most Important Decision a Winemaker Will Ever Make (the answer might surprise you)

024From the number of times I’ve been asked the below questions while pouring for the public, you’d think they’d be the most important things I pay attention to when I make wine.

-“How many months of barrel age?”

-“Is this Chardonnay ML complete?”

-“Is this 100% Pinot?”

-“What’s the blend here?”


The problem is that the above, which get so much of the focus of sommeliers, wine critics and the public alike, are all a lot less important than one little thing:  when the grapes were picked.


As the rain pours down here in Napa (the second…or is it the third storm this October?) this is what is on the top of my mind regarding the end of Harvest 2016, and regarding quality winemaking in general.  I heard tales of some of our Napa Cab buyers wanting to hang their grapes not just through the first little rain we had at the beginning of October, but through the subsequent, much more significant event that brought almost an inch and a half mid-month.

You see, most Cabernet (and other loose-bunched varieties like Merlot) can generally ride out a little rain (say, less than 0.5 inch) with no problems, as long as it warms up afterwards.  Let your clusters sit out through more precipitation than that, however, and the berries can take up too much water, become diluted, breed rot and generally become tasteless mush.

As grapes ripen, sugar levels increase, puckery tannins lose their harshness, and green notes (hopefully) go away.  Naturally-present compounds like amino acids and other nutrients critical for yeast growth and healthy fermentations can start to decline while desirable “mature” flavor components are generally on the rise.

“Hangtime” doesn’t necessarily mean ripening time, however.  Time on the vine, in the face of cold weather or a canopy that’s shutting down with late-season senescence, doesn’t equate to real metabolic change within the grapevine or the grapes.   With a blind devotion to a certain amount of “hang time” in heat or dry weather, you’re only making raisins, not healthy grapes for delicious wine.  After two rainstorms, you’re toast, and definitely not of the tasty medium-plus barrelhead variety.

Choosing the perfect moment to pick is perhaps more of an art than a science.  We can use numbers (Brix, acidity, even phenolic data) as guidelines but the decision itself is a balance of a multitude of factors.  Sometimes nature gets in the way (2008 heat spike anyone?) or the wineries just get so plugged up there are no empty tanks (remember 2005?).  This year, the right call was to bring in your grapes before that second rainstorm.

I realize that the pick date is much, much harder for anyone else besides the winemaker and grower to put into proper context.  Each vintage, from AVA to AVA and often vineyard to vineyard, has its nuances.  In a sea of wines, it’s understandably difficult for consumers and the media to recognize the importance of picking Cabernet in Oakville on October 6 rather than October 16 2016.  Memorizing “18 months in French Oak” from a wine fact sheet is definitely an easier factoid to hold onto.

The importance of the pick date is one of the reasons I always say that once the grapes are picked, the path to wine is already laid before you.  Once you’ve committed to picking your Grenache at 22.5  Brix you’d better be making a rose because it’s never going to lend much to a full-bodied GSM blend.  Even if you picked your Oakville Cab on October 12 at 24.7 Brix it’s still going to be a better wine than one getting whipped around on a shut-down canopy after an inch and a half of rain.

So no, it’s not the fancy oak barrel, it’s not the soupçon of Rousanne you co-fermented your Syrah with, it’s not that 3% of whole cluster Pinot Noir in your open-top tank, no matter what your marketing department wants you to put on the website.  It’s something much more personal and something that should be closer to your heart and soul:  your wine’s birthday.

Once you pick, the path to wine is already laid out before you, immutable, unchangeable and excitingly full of possibilities.  The wine is already telling you what it wants to be and needs to be.  Your job is to pay attention and let it have its voice.


Alison Crowe is an award-winning Winemaker, blogger and author and lives in Napa.  She holds an MBA as well as degrees in Viticulture and Enology and Spanish from UC Davis.








2016 Northern California Budbreak Begins: Girl and The Grape’s First Look

No leaves or blooms in Carneros yet. Right now, the focus in the vineyards is on the gorgeous mustard.

No leaves or blooms in Carneros yet. Right now, the focus in the vineyards is on the gorgeous mustard.

It’s hard to believe I’m talking about Harvest 2016 already.  It makes sense, though, because every vintage is always just a certain number of months away from picking, no matter what time the year.  Indeed, every season of the year, and the weather conditions therein, ultimately decide the size and quality of grape crop we have and the kind of wine we will make.


I wasn’t the first one to bring up Harvest 2016; I had my head stuck in a bottling line, putting the cork in my first Garnet Vineyards Stanly Ranch single vineyard Pinot Noir when I fielded a call from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.  Their reporter told me he had just been talking to someone who had active budbreak showing at 25% in the Russian River.  He wanted to know what I was seeing in our vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, and Carneros.


As I stood outside Garnet Vineyards’ winery off of 8th St. East in Sonoma, sheltering from gusty bouts of a rare February drizzle, I laughed and said, “Not much.”  The only active green growth I’d been enjoying in my vineyards was this year’s ample, well-watered cover crops.    January’s rainfall and February’s recent three-week warm spell really got the mustard going and from Rutherford to Carneros, the Napa Valley has been one beautiful carpet of yellow and green lushness.


Stormy January skies have kept budbreak at bay- until this week's warm weather really got leafing underway.

Stormy January skies have kept budbreak at bay- until February’s warm weather starting to warm things up. Leaves should be well out in a couple of weeks.

Not that I haven’t heard rumors of the odd teeny leaf peeping out here and there.  One of my co-workers had just emailed around a fuzzy bud of Chardonnay (one of the earlier-ripening varieties) which looked like a pale green cotton ball about to unfurl into a tender leaf.   But 25%?  I wasn’t buying it last week and after touring through the Pinot Noir (always my first starter) in the Petaluma Gap and Carneros AVA’s this weekend I’m still not buying 25% in the active bud break/leafing stage. You can find a few pushing buds here and there in the very warmest areas, in pockets, but it’s not widespread…yet.


It’s about to get crazy, however, because we’ve got at least another week of mild weather with highs in the mid-70’s here in Napa coming up.  There’s no rain on the horizon for at least another ten days.  If the leaves get all warm and fuzzy and fat and happy and then a cold snap burns developing buds or a big rainstorm reduces flower fertility during an unseasonably early bloom, it could spell trouble for the 2016 grape crop. However, a colder January than we experienced in 2015 is keeping budbreak more on the normal side for most vineyards as far as I can tell.


Stanly Ranch in Carneros isn’t experiencing budbreak just yet but this warm weather will be sure to get things into full swing

Everyone is in agreement that California needs more water (especially our parched neighbors on the Central Coast) but as a “drought year” like 2015 showed us, it all depends on when we get it. I would welcome it after bud break and before bloom- and maybe with a little luck on our side we’ll have a “Miracle March” to help pull us away from drought conditions.  So far it seems, from our initial bud analysis, that crop yield is at least starting in a “normal” place.  What we end up taking off the vine, in quality as well as quantity, depends on how much frost we get during the next month and how much disruption storms bring during the bloom and set season.  We are in early days yet, everyone.  Cross your fingers for another nice Napa and Sonoma County harvest.


Alison Crowe is a Napa-based consulting winemaker (Vindie Wines, Back From the Dead Red Wine), author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book, and is at the helm of Garnet Vineyards and Picket Fence Vineyards.