Archives: Harvest 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.
Ahhh, Harvest is upon us! I’ve got a wine-buyer buddy who’s traveling to Bordeaux to “help with harvest, the hard work and all” (as he put it) and I received a letter from a gal who was off to Italy for her first internship. They both asked me the same questions: What do I wear, what should I bring and what things can make or break it on the crush pad?
Before I wrote both of them essentially the same email, I thought I’d just write one and post it here, since there are probably others about to find themselves in the same situation. Additionally, because I’m not a fashion expert, I consulted someone who is, designer and tastemaker Heidi Merrick of the eponymous LA-based fashion brand. Hopefully between my practical experience and her global savoir-faire (she also happens to be a childhood school chum), we’ll steer you in the right direction. The below applies to harvest work in general but has a unique European flavor. Please be advised that I’m not paid or compensated by any of the below-mentioned brands and only name names when I think they’d be honestly helpful. Whether you’re an enology student or a salesperson, journalist or ‘influencer’ willing to get your hands dirty, there are definitely some things to consider in the land of gear, clothing and sartorial etiquette.
That’s great that you’re going to go work a harvest in XXX! I’m really excited for you. Each winery and each harvest job is different but here’s a list of things you may want to consider. Be sure to contact your employer before you go to get an idea about possible dress codes and to ask if they supply uniforms. Especially in Europe and South America, it’s not unusual for wineries to supply overalls or shirts and caps and trousers for both men and women. Regardless of whether part or all of your wardrobe is provided, you may want to not bring your entire “kit” the first day but wait and see what the other workers are wearing and what your duties will be. If it’s a mix of vineyard and winery or just cellar and lab (especially if inside most of the day) your needs may be different. Many wineries will let you have a locker or a cubby. If you can’t lock things up in a car or locker, do not bring valuables to work.
Before I get to any particular items of clothing, be aware that harvest is hands-on messy work and that you will get wet, sticky, dirty and stained (not to mention tired). As such, it’s best to plan a wardrobe around movement-conscious items that will dry easily and which you don’t mind destroying. Many Americans think “jeans” when they think of hearty outdoor pursuits but in Europe you might want to aim for pieces with a bit more professional flair, even if they are basics. Designer Heidi Merrick says, “A great way to feel well dressed is to have well fitted classics that you know look good on you and start there. The term ‘cute pair of jeans’ should only apply to teenagers and toddlers. If you’re getting dressed for working in the adult world your jeans are never a cute choice.” I concur, adding that jeans are no fun while you’re cold and wet hosing out bins on the crush pad.
You can do fine with “work brands” with a little athletic stretch like Dickies or Carhart and brands with structured yet movement-conscious pieces from REI, Prana and Kuhl (love the gussets). Leggings are a no-no (see cultural sensitivity, below) as are most “athleisure” items like off-the-shoulder yoga tops, sweat pants and hoodies, especially in Europe where such a clothing category is frowned upon in the workplace (and many would argue, anywhere). If the cost of kitting yourself out seems daunting, try looking on Ebay for trusted brands in your size that you can “inherit” from someone who’s used them once already. They’ll be broken in and won’t break your heart or the bank if they get torn or stained.
What to wear and bring:
-Appropriate footwear is key- This is where it all starts. Your footwear is your foundation. You’re going to want high-top (above the ankle, below the knee) waterproof boots that you won’t mind spending hours in. Think waterproof paddock boots from equestrian brand Ariat, work boots by Australia’s Redback or the classic “Blunnies” pull-on boots from Blundstone. In the U.S., Muck Boots, rubberized, insulated and foot-friendly, are increasingly popular. What is the one thing these all have in common besides being waterproof, comfortable and pull-on (OK, besides being an investment)? None of these boots have laces. The importance of this may be lost on anyone who hasn’t ever worked a crush, but get enough lees, pomace and grape sludge splashed at your feet and the typical American high-top lace-up padded hiking boots will a) absorb about 9 liters of moisture (that’s a case of wine) and with enough time b) turn into a stinking mass of jelly. No bueno. I recommend trying boots on in person, using the socks you’re planning on, and not ordering online, especially right before you go. You want to be sure of your footing, so to speak.
-Pack dark, easy-dry, movement-friendly bottoms that aren’t “athleisure”. See intro paragraph. Bonus points for belts (not made of leather, see “wristwatch”, below).
-Go for light-weight, long-sleeved tops- I can’t tell you how surprised I was after my first harvest at Chalone Vineyard that every night I’d come back to the “intern house” (we were staying in a 100-year old frame cottage that had a propensity for attracting bats) I’d find a new bruise or big scratch on my arms. Running hose line around tanks in tight quarters and barrel work in dim cellars are full-body contact sports. Guys and girls are both well-served by structured long-sleeve T’s with collars or button downs in synthetic fabrics. Light layers are the way to go. Europeans tend to dress more conservatively and more formally (even while working harvest) and it’s always well-done to avoid wearing loud patterns or clothing with large commercial logos.
-Pack a vest or light layer- Bring something heavier if you’ll be on night shift or spending a lot of time in a cold cellar. There’s a reason the “black fleece vest” is standard winemaker uniform in the Napa Valley and elsewhere. It’s a versatile, stain-free and multi-weather garment. The only negative I can pin on fleece vests is that they are terrible collectors of dog hair so there might be a reason the quilted ‘puffer’ has attained equal popularity. You may be issued top and bottom rain gear if you’re going to be doing seriously wet tasks like washing tanks or sanitizing the presses but it’s best to ask before you go since these specialist togs can be expensive and are bulky to pack.
-Rely on socks that aren’t cotton. Comfort when wet is key. Dark-colored light-weight wool or synthetic blends are best. Because I’ve mentioned dark colors so many times, colorful socks are a favorite winemaker way to get creative with the wardrobe (speaking for myself and a few others I know). Some of my Spanish and French friends are well known for their awesome socks and you can’t go wrong following their example.
-Always have a full change of clothes on hand- including all socks and undergarments. On the day you get fully drenched by water or wine you’ll be grateful that you had something dry to change into at 3 in the morning. Keep in your car or locker.
-A Wide brimmed hat might be nice- especially one w/ a strap/drawstring can be great for the vineyard or hot crush pad, while a baseball or driver’s cap is tighter-fitting and will help keep the grape goo out of your hair.
What not to wear or bring:
-Never wear jewelry that can fall off and get lost- Some wineries, especially those that are certified to ISO/HAACP standards have no-jewelry policies and even may have you wear hair (and beard) nets.
-Don’t Wear Open toed shoes- Ouch.
-No Wristwatches with leather bands- Like cloth -based hiking boots, when leather bands meet the moist, yeasty and sugary environment of a winery at harvest, the fermentative results ’round your wrist aren’t pretty and smell abominable. Metal mesh or nylon webbing is the best choice.
-Don’t Wear Scarves– they can get tangled in moving machinery, snag on valves as you’re passing by and in a dynamic environment are dangerous. They look “winemaker cool” but should be avoided in the workplace; save them for company events and your days off.
-Don’t Bring Valuables – This should be self explanatory. Especially in companies with a lot of employees and visitors, it’s amazing how easily items can walk away. Hopefully you’ll be provided a locker but if not, keep things in your vehicle or room.
-Don’t pack clothing items you value -(see clothes “that you don’t mind destroying” above). The crush pad is not the place to wear Grandpa’s Fair Isle sweater, no matter how much you love it, how warm it is and how much he used to wear it fishing. If you care about it, don’t wear it because chances are it’ll get snagged on machinery, stained by exploding ball valves or bleached because you left it on a barrel and someone spilled ProxyCarb on it.
-Avoid clothing that might cause a “wardrobe malfunction”- Sorry to get a little graphic here, but for the ladies this might mean tops that gape too much when you bend at the waist and for the boyos, this includes trousers that don’t cover enough of the backside when you bend over. Cellar work is very active work and you don’t want your clothing choices to slow you (or your co-workers) down.
Supplies to consider having in your harvest kit:
-Small tube of sunscreen
-Lip balm (especially if you’ll be spending a lot of time outside)
-Sunglasses that won’t fall off your face (like if you’re leaning over an outside vat). Stuff falls into tanks all.the.time. Don’t be that guy or gal.
-A small-sized Maglite flashlight with head strap holster or a headlamp (useful for dark cellars and getting up at night to chase the errant bat out of your room). The straps help keep your light from ending up in aforementioned tanks.
-A small multi-tool that can tucked into a pocket and clipped to your belt. I’ve seen cellar masters (understandably) frown upon interns and visitors whipping out tools so while these are great for opening yeast bags or paring the odd cluster off the vine, be sure to ask before you get all MacGyver on that hose fitting.
-Notebook and a pen. Go analog so you don’t have to take notes on your iPhone and look like you’re Snapchatting. Bonus: travel memories that you’ll smile at 15 years later.
-Watch with a stopwatch and timer function (because sometimes you’ll have to time things like the number of minutes on a tank wash cycle). And because cellphone.
-A refillable water bottle
Some thoughts about fashion and cultural harmony: In many European (and South American) countries, the wine industry is even more traditional in cultural practices than the US. Being considerate of others is always the done thing. You’ll be sure to follow fashion as well as etiquette if you stick to Heidi’s advice when she posits, ” I love to say less is more, about skin- not clothes. This is obvious with hemlines but I’d include neck and sleeves.” I find the basics of etiquette always apply; etiquette is, after all, about respect for yourself but most importantly, for others.
A word about cellphones: Be wary of bringing your cellphone if it can’t be secured during the day in your car or locker. I say this not because it’ll get lifted by a sketchy co-worker but because it’ll likely get dropped into a dripping press pan of Sauvignon Blanc- by you. Before you even carry a cellphone with you or bring it to the winery, please check with the winery’s cellphone and social media policy. It is not respectful, or safe frankly, to be carrying around a mobile and to be constantly checking it all day. It’ll be tempting to document your experience on social media but most employers frown on personal use during work time and may indeed have a social media policy which prohibits employees and visitors from posting or tagging them online. If you’re a paid (or freely invited) influencer, the onus is still on you to wield your phone with respect for your coworkers, the harvest and (hopefully) yourself. You’ll get on much better with your cellar-mates if you are paying attention to the task at hand rather than snapping endless selfies.
You may also be invited to attend some public-facing or corporate functions or an end-of-Harvest fete so pack a couple of pieces that can serve multiple purposes like well-cut black slacks with a little structure (you can wear them in the cellar too in a pinch) and a blouse or shirt in an easy fabric that can dress up or down. Heidi’s advice is as follows: “Going monochromatic with your look, makes it’s very hard not to look good. A solid silhouette with any one item tailored is beautiful. Sometimes, when I travel I pack just one color, makes the dressing seamless.” Aside from sporting a simple but well-fitting ensemble, these are also the times when you might want to bust out that scarf and earrings I prohibited earlier…..and enjoy!
Well, you really got me thinking……brings back fond memories of my own overseas harvest trips. I hope this collection of thoughts helps you have a successful and more comfortable experience. What an exciting adventure you have in front of you. Get in touch when you get back and let me know how it went.
All the Best,
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Napa-based Plata Wine Partners and has been making wine since she was a Sophomore at UC Davis, at her first internship at Chalone Vineyard. Bees, snakes, soggy jeans, smelly leather wristwatch bands and jellied shoelaces- she’s been through it so you don’t have to…..p.s. hot links to Heidi’s wares are pieces in Alison’s own closet and are winemaker-tested. Which items are critical for a successful harvest? Let her know what you can’t live without (or wish that you had):
Twitter and Instagram: @alisoncrowewine