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

Archives: The Grapegrowing Year

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.

Instagram/Twitter:  @alisoncrowewine

The Winemaker’s Take: Mild 2018 Harvest Promises Old School Elegance

 

Velvety-soft Napa Cabernet berries ripening slowly in the mild October sun.

Velvety-soft Napa Cabernet berries ripening slowly in the mild October sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

It's what makes a Subaru a Subaru....cooperage gets a lift.

It’s what makes a Subaru a Subaru….cooperage gets a lift.

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.

Huey enjoyed walking the Carneros Hills scouting out the last Pinots.

Huey enjoyed walking the Carneros Hills scouting out the last Pinots.

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.

Falling acorns are a sign of the impending Cabernet Harvest.

Falling acorns are a sign of the impending Cabernet Harvest.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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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

Wet Feet? What the recent rains mean for North Coast vineyards

 

Chardonnay vines in Carneros after about 2 inches of rain. They drained out pretty quickly the next day.

Chardonnay vines in Carneros after about 2 inches of rain. They drained out pretty quickly the next day.

Friends and colleagues around the world have seen pictures of a very wet wine country in the media and many have contacted me wondering what the impact of all of these storms will be on grapevines.

Here’s what I posted on Facebook on Tuesday, January 11th after the first big storm (about 4.5 inches in 72 hours at our house in Napa) rolled through the area:

“Question: What do the recent rains mean for Napa and Sonoma grapes? I’ve seen pictures of flooded vineyards on the news and online.

Answer: Grapevines can tolerate flooding/”wet feet” for around 20 days. In fact, the French once used vineyard flooding to control the Phylloxera root pest. The recent Napa/Sonoma rains were acute (and did produce some “clickable” photos) but short lived. The few affected Napa valley floor vineyards I’ve seen this morning are draining out. Like everywhere else, the ground is saturated so you can bet everyone is going to be keeping an eye on trees, slopes and vineyard architecture (posts, trellises) to make sure we don’t have negative effects due to erosion and downed trees. I’m thrilled our vineyard reservoirs are full and that water tables are getting replenished- it bodes very well for the 2017 harvest.”

 

We are now facing another series of storm cells lined up off the Pacific Coast.  It started with yesterday’s (Wednesday, 1/18/17) wet and windy day and isn’t supposed to stop coming until this coming Monday.  The forecast is for around five inches to find its way into Napa and Sonoma Counties in as many days.

I predict that, once again, the news folks will be out snapping photos and shooting videos for their nightly newscasts.  Once again, we’ll be sharing our soggy vineyard pictures on Instagram and reacting with the Facebook “Wow!” button when we see the Conn Dam spillway back in action.

For water-starved Northern Californians, I have to admit it’s been pretty fun to be able to finally see creeks rise and reservoirs get full-to-bursting, even though of course we don’t want anyone to get hurt or suffer serious property damage.  The truth is, there will always be the low-lying areas (like poor Guerneville on the Russian River) that get waterlogged for a period of time.  We will always have those corners of our vineyards that get “wet feet” and dry out later than everywhere else.

Even if pruning has to be delayed a little bit in some places, there is still time to get the work done before bud-break in early March.  After years of drought and parched vines struggling under super-dry conditions, I’m happy to see this season’s turn-around. Because these acute periods of rain so far have been followed by at least a few days to dry out (we have at least six sunny days forecast starting Tuesday), many of us in the wine business have been saying, “Hey, we’ll take it!”  I’ll even take a few vineyard blocks with wet feet because, after all, that’s what’s “normal” for this time of year in Northern California.  For once, in an industry that increasingly values the rare and extreme, normal feels pretty good.

Alison Crowe is an award-winning winemaker, blogger and author who lives in the Napa Valley.

Her book:

The Winemaker’s Answer Book

Her wines:

www.garnetvineyards.com

www.picketfencevineyards.com

ancrowe@hotmail.com

 

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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.

winter5

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. 

@alisoncrowewine

 

 

“A Short Crop Gets Shorter” and Rainy Day June Blues

Garnet Oak 300 dpiWell, I should be excited that coastal California, from Santa Barbara to the Sonoma Coast, saw a little rain overnight.  We need every drop we can get, right?  Yes, that is, unless you’re a late-blooming Cabernet Sauvignon vine struggling to fertilize those last flowers and “set” a healthy number of berries.  Yes, unless you’re a developing cluster of Pinot Noir, just starting to size up and don’t want rot and fungus-enabling moisture to endanger this year’s crop.  And yes, unless you’re a winemaker who remembers 2007 and 2011 harvests when early Fall storms rained on tons of late-ripening Cabernet still out in the field.

There are certain times of the year when rain is welcome to growers and winemakers.  Wintertime is great.  The fruit is all picked and no fragile blooms are trying to fight for their existence.  Even a short storm (as long as it gets warm and breezy immediately afterward) during October is OK.  The Pinot will be mostly picked and the Cab, with its thicker-skinned berries and looser clusters, can hang through one rainstorm without many problems.

I just hope that last night’s excitement isn’t the beginning of a pattern, or a pre-saging of things to come.  Sorry to sound pessimistic, but it’s the “farmer girl” side of me that recalls an old adage:  “A short crop gets shorter.”  What that means is that, this time of year, growers and wineries are trying to estimate their Harvest vineyard yields by counting the number of clusters on any given vine.  The problem is that cluster counts have nothing to do with how each berry in that cluster will “size up” as it goes from being a hard green BB to a full, soft purple grape.  It has nothing to do with how well that cluster, especially if it’s still full of flowers, will “set” and how many berries will be lost to shatter.   Unfortunately, weather events like last night’s rain, can negatively affect both bloom, set and grape sizing.  It’s not an early Harvest anymore, which means that with every passing day, the danger of late-Fall rains damaging the last fruit on the vine (in Napa, that’s usually Cabernet)  increases.

I know, I know.  There’s still a long ways to go before now and the end of Harvest, which for me tends to be around the first week in November or so.  We could have a perfect ripening season, great weather during Harvest and still end up with an “average” sized crop.  Yes, there indeed is a long way to go before all the grapes are safely in the barn and it could all work out perfectly.  However, I’m no weather forecaster but I am hearing rumblings of an El Niño winter.

Remember how last week I said I had my rot and botrytis radar on? I just turned the dial up to “High Alert”.

Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and Winemaker for Picket Fence Vineyards, Garnet Vineyards and others.  She sources from vineyards all over California for her clients’ projects and lives in Napa with her family.  Girl and the Grape won “Best New Wine Blog” in 2014.  Reach her at LinkedIn, @alisoncrowewine ,ancrowe@hotmail.com

 

 

 

3 Surprising Things About Harvest 2015

 

Shoots are well out but a cool spring has put the brakes on what could've been a record early harvest.

Shoots are well out but a cool spring has put the brakes on what could’ve been a record early harvest.

1- It’s not early (anymore)

Back in April, after a historically warm winter in California, we winemakers were gearing up for an early start to the harvest season. Budbreak happened around the state at record early times; a full week earlier than 2014 which was in itself 2-3 weeks earlier than normal. Oh well, we said. That means it’ll finish faster and maybe we’ll get to dress up and have some beers on Halloween. Beers aside, one of the true benefits to an earlier-than-normal harvest is the reduced risk of November rain falling on any crop still on the vine.

Fast forward two months and it looks like, just about statewide, we’ve been flung back to “normal”. Two of the coldest spring months we’ve had in many years have really put the brakes on the ripening. For me that means I’ll be starting to pull off the first of our Carneros Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir around September 10 or so, instead of August 18 like last year. It also means that I may have to worry about late fall rains . While I’m not going to get all pessimistic and predict another 2007 or 1989 (though I was still in Junior High back then), I would be lying if I told you I didn’t have my rot and botrytis radar on.

Some AVA's saw enough rain to have ponds almost full while some are experiencing severe water shortages.

Some AVA’s saw enough rain to have ponds almost full while some are experiencing severe water shortages.

2-Some areas won’t be so affected by the drought (this year)

The warmer, drier winter that accelerated an early bloom this year had a silver lining. Because we didn’t have many frost events, especially in the North Coast, those wineries using irrigation pond water for emergency frost protection didn’t have to get the sprinklers out. As a result, going into the (presumably) hotter summer and fall growing season, many folks in the North Coast have ponds over 80% full. The cooler, damper spring we’ve been having has additionally kept some areas of the state a little greener as we roll towards June.

Some areas of the state like Paso Robles however, have been so dry for so long that we’re starting to wonder if not just the quantity, but the quality of any water used for irrigation might have impacts on the fruit and on the vine.  Higher salt levels can translate to higher levels of potassium in the grapes which in turn can cause higher pH’s (lower acidity).  That can have a real impact on fermentation dynamics and eventual wine quality so those of us in really dry areas will be keeping an eye on juice and wine chemistries early on.  Unless we get a really wet winter, even those of us who skated through this year will start to be really affected.  If we don’t see appreciable rain in late 2015/early 2016, I predict a much lighter crop for Harvest 2016.

 

Small and large berries mingle on the same cluster, making it difficult to uniformly predict ripeness.

Small and large berries mingle on the same cluster, making it difficult to uniformly predict ripeness.

3- It’s going to be hard(er) to find the right pick date

If the weather is warm and clear during the bloom-to-set period of grape ripening, when the flowers get fertilized and turn into developing grape berries, it usually lasts two or maybe three weeks.  Because of the cold, drizzly weather many of us have been experiencing this spring, this critical period has been elongated and interrupted.  Little delicate flowers have a harder time getting consistently fertilized when it’s windy, cold or rainy.  This means many of us are still seeing blooming flowers and set berries on the same shoot as well as many “hen and chick” clusters where bigger berries are interspersed with tiny little hard BB’s.  This in turn means that, as the grapes approach ripeness, some clusters on the same vine and even berries within the same cluster may be more or less ripe when compared to their neighbors.  That means winemakers have to be super-vigilant when choosing pick dates.  They will have to really make sure their vineyard brix sample size is big enough to be significant and they will have to rely on multiple cluster rather than berry-only samples.  Forget about just skipping down a few vine rows popping random berries to taste for development; 2015 will be a season where it will pay to sample early, widely and often.

Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and Winemaker for Picket Fence Vineyards, Garnet Vineyards and others.  She sources from vineyards all over California for her clients’ projects.  Girl and the Grape won “Best New Wine Blog” in 2014.  @alisoncrowewine  ancrowe@hotmail.com

 

 

The Sky is Falling? Wine Country Wants More of This Wet Stuff

wet feet

Who’s afraid of wet feet? Grapevines are resilient plants and can handle standing water for weeks at a time. The recent rains in Northern California have had a positive effect on local reservoirs and water tables.

 

For the last couple of weeks I’ve had a lot of friends express their concern about the recent Northern California storms.  Alarmed about images they’ve seen on the news of vineyards up to their elbows in water, they query, “On top of the earthquake, now you’ve got to deal with flooded vineyards?  Can’t you guys in Napa ever catch a break?”

 

 

What they don’t know is that this December rain is just the break- the break in the historical drought- that we’ve been looking for.

This Harvest many of us were in a state of quiet panic.  One more dry winter and ponds and reservoirs wouldn’t have enough water for frost protection during bud break.  There would be precious little natural water in the ground for the vines to sip and many would go thirsty as the heat of summer parched developing leaves and clusters.  In a Harvest heat spike, crop-saving water wouldn’t be available from wells or vineyard ponds to prevent grapes from turning to raisins on the vine.  In short, without rain this winter we would be facing  a very dire situation.  Winter 2015 would be make or break.

It looks like (fingers crossed), in the short term at least, we are getting just what we need.  Many areas in Northern California are close to average rainfall totals for this time of year and it’s only December.  The overall picture of the drought Statewide is improving, especially in areas north of Santa Barbara County.  Recent reports show the likelihood of the next three months being nice and wet.

We're keeping an eye on rushing creeks and on erosion-prone slopes but so far everything is holding out- and holding on- well.

We’re keeping an eye on rushing creeks and on erosion-prone slopes but so far everything is holding out- and holding on- well.

We are not, however, out of this historic drought yet.  If we don’t get enough water frozen into our Sierra Nevada snowpack “reservoir”,  it’s possible that a wet 2015 will simply kick the can down the road and we’ll be quietly panicking again come the 2015 Harvest season. These storms need to deposit quite a bit of snow in the Sierra as well as significant precipitation in Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties to make me feel better about my vineyards on the Central Coast.

In the meantime, don’t worry about my little grapes getting wet up in Napa. As fellow Nap-kin Dan Berger recently explained, vines can survive “wet feet”, even for an extended period of time.  Sure, the rain has caused and is causing small amounts of localized flooding and the odd new grapevine replant or two will end up in a culvert. We’re continuing to watch pockets of erosion-prone slopes and are taking care not to run the tractors into the mud bogs.

Wet vines?  John Deere up to his axles in mud?  So much water in our ponds that the reservoirs spill over? All of my wine making and grape growing buddies and I, North and South, near and far, have just two words on our minds and on the tips of our tongues:  “Bring it”.

 

 

Alison Crowe is an award-winning winemaker, author and blogger living in Napa, CA.  She is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards among other consulting projects and is the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book.  Started in 2013, www.girlandthegrape.com won “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards.  When she has time, she plays tennis, cooks for friends and family, writes the occasional wine article and does a daily rain dance.

contact:  ancrowe@hotmail.com  Twitter:  @alisoncrowewine  LinkedIn:  Alison Crowe 

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.

Bloom: The secret scent of vineyards

Pinot in bloom- Stanly Ranch, Carneros

Pinot in bloom- Stanly Ranch, Carneros

What does a vineyard smell like?  If you’re fortunate enough to be around vineyards in the middle of Spring, you might find out if you can catch the vines when they’re in the midst of  that fleeting week or two called “Bloom.”  This is when the developing grape clusters actually flower, get fertilized and begin their true journey to become this harvest’s grape crop.

 

Tiny flower

One tiny flower has started to appear on this soon-to-be grape cluster

 

 

Some express surprise that grapes actually flower.  It’s not perhaps the most glamorous part of the wine year, and certainly never seems to get much attention in the media.  Indeed, it is probably one of the quietest times of the growing season.  The pruning crews are long gone and the tractors have done most of their post-winter tilling.  The danger of frost season is largely over.  Harvest is still many long months away and winemakers have their heads buried deep in their barrel stacks and their bottling lines.   Attention is focused elsewhere.

 

In the meantime, screens of vine leaves obscure the drama quietly unfolding underneath. Push aside a saucer-sized leaf and you’ll reveal a thumb’s length of yellow-green nubs, each crowned with a tuft of cream-colored threads.  Carefully wave away the drowsing bumblebee and bury your nose in the soft texture of the developing grape cluster.  Inhale.  Until the grapes are crushed and fermentation begins, this is the only time you’ll be able to immerse yourself in the scent of a grape.

bloom

Flower petals look like tiny cream-colored threads atop what will eventually become each individual grape berry.

 

So what does a vineyard smell like?  Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir, at 10:01 in the morning on May 1, 2014 smelled like the skin of a sun-warmed D’Anjou pear, the flesh of a fuji apple and a slice of a barely-ripe honeydew melon.

The aroma of a blooming grape cluster is sweet without being cloying and like the scent of violets, is ephemeral and doesn’t satiate. It’s impossible to stop sniffing because the aroma of Bloom, like the time of the year itself, is subtle, beautiful and fleeting.

 

 

 

 

Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and is fascinated by the world of scent and loves how aromas stir our memories and touch our souls.

Facebook:  www.Facebook.com/GarnetVineyards    Twitter:  @GarnetVineyards

Like this blog?  Nominate me for “Best Winery Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards!

Copyright Alison Crowe 2014

 

 

Breaking Bud: The Bad Side of a Nice Season

Arrrgh!  The joys (the mustard!) and the heartbreak (the frost danger!) of the "Budbreak" season

Arrrgh! The joys (the mustard!) and the heartbreak (the frost danger!) of the “Budbreak” season

Just like TV’s favorite good guy/bad guy Walter White, there’s a lot of positive and negative about the season we call “bud break.”  On one hand, it’s an exciting and exhilarating time when our vines wake up and the buds start pushing out the shoots which will turn into this Harvest’s grapes.

Poppies!

Poppies!

 

                 There are gorgeous sights to be had out in the field:  stands of poppies, rows of mustard, velvety cover crops and of course, the stars of the show, our developing grape canopy and clusters. 

On the other hand, there are some potentially not-so-beautiful experiences to be had:  frost, continued drought, or even maybe crop-damaging hail.  It’s a stressful time where we worry about how cold those nights will get or how much (or how little!) rainfall will manifest as the days creep by into late spring when warmer night temperatures take away a lot of the worry.

Though we’d like to see more storms and rain during this early growing season (we need it!), the main concern is frost, especially given the 2014  bud break which is tracking a week or two ahead of average. 

Cloudy skies have kept killing frost at bay...for now.

Cloudy skies have kept killing frost at bay…for now.

What that means is that there are potentially two weeks’ more of nights where we could experience frost and subsequent damage to the emerging buds, resulting in stunted green growth and lost crop.  Based on bud counts, shoot counts and just because I don’t think Mother Nature can hand us three bumper crops in a row, 2014 isn’t shaping up to be a big harvest season to begin with.  Adding insult to injury, we are still in water-challenged conditions in California, which means that there could be little (and in some areas, no) access to extra water for frost protection (using sprinklers in cold conditions counter-intuitively can prevent buds from freezing). 

The weather forecast is looking great- let's let it hang!

Next week’s weather should look like this- pretty for taking vineyard pictures but clear skies mean more frost potential.

   So far, the Napa and Sonoma frost forecast into next week looks pretty good and continued cloud cover and rainy weather will keep nighttime temperatures above freezing.  As we clear up into next week, however, those clear night skies mean colder temperatures could set in even as we get sunnier and warmer days.  Cue the AMC (and the wind machines), grab some popcorn and a glass of Pinot Noir and be prepared for some “Breaking Bad”-style Jekyll and Hyde behavior.  It’s always exciting to be in the vineyard in the springtime but we could be in for some cold criminal action! 

Grab a glass of Pinot, it could be a wild frost season!

Grab a glass of Pinot, it could be a wild frost season!

Alison Crowe is the winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and is keeping tabs on vineyards in Carneros, Russian River, Sonoma Coast and Monterey appelations.  Follow her on Twitter @GarnetVineyards or on facebook.com/GarnetVineyards for the latest on the developing season!