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

Archives: The Winemaking Life

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!

 

 

 

Scents of Place: Terroir Grows Beyond Grapes in Santa Barbara County

 

jasmineGrowing up in the sleepy little surf town of Carpinteria, just south of Santa Barbara , my first step on the path to becoming a winemaker had little to do with grapes, wine or my proximity to the now-famous “Sideways Country.”  It began with gardens.  I planted my first herb garden when I was about 11 years old because I was fascinated by the natural aromas that plants had:  how they got in there, how they developed and why they smelled so wonderful to my curious nose.

As I got older, I began smelling not just the lavender and jasmine in my mother’s seaside flower beds but also the glasses of Santa Barbara County wines my parents passed around the table while dining al fresco with friends.   As I learned about chemistry in high school I began to understand that some of the same exact components that create delicate aromas in a flower  or citrus zest can also be naturally present in grape skins.  When carefully tended by a skilled winemaker, these same perfumes can be captured and transferred from grapes into the finished wine.

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Photo: Frank Crowe

This weekend in Santa Barbara County, in Buellton to be exact, hundreds of wine bloggers will descend upon this quiet corner of the Central Coast and for three days will taste, tweet and network during the annual Wine Bloggers Conference.  Though wine will no doubt steal the aromatic show, via thousands of nose-in-glass selfies and group pictures with bottles, I would like to invite my fellow conference attendees to stop and smell something other than the Pinot.

The Central Coast has an amazing array of natural aromas to enjoy that, like its wines, are truly an expression of its “sense of place.”  Below are some of my favorites from growing up in Santa Barbara County.  From the hillside chaparral and the eucalyptus stands to the hedges of jasmine downtown or the salty-tar tang of the seaside, here is a collection of sensory souvenirs that can be just as intoxicating as the region’s fine wines.

 

orange blossom

Citrus Blossoms

Oranges and lemons have long been grown in Santa Barbara County and citrus groves dot the hillsides up and down the coast along Highway 101.  If you can (safely) pull over on a back country lane or at a winery rancho, be sure to bury your nose in some of these zesty and unforgettable blossoms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eucalptus

Eucalyptus Groves

Not native to the Central Coast, eucalyptus trees were imported in the 1800′s primarily as windbreaks and as a source of wood.  They quickly took root and their minty herbal smell, whether wafting through the wind or released from leaves crushed underfoot, is a Santa Barbara county scent signature.

 

 

 

Beer

Hops and Malted Barley

Our home-grown beer isn’t as world-famous as our wine, but Firestone-Walker Brewing Company and Carpinteria’s own Island Brewing Company are starting to change that.  Interestingly, the Wine Bloggers Conference home base, the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott, is just steps away from the Firestone-Walker Brewery so this is one Santa Barbara scent that, depending upon the time of day and the batch brewing at the moment, my fellow bloggers should be able to enjoy.

 

 

 

 

fire-376575_1280

Oak Wood Fired BBQ

Dating back to the simple culinary days of the Spanish Californios and the Mexican rancheros, Central Coast (sometimes called “Santa Maria Style”) BBQ is unique in the United States. No sticky-sweet barbecue sauce is allowed.  The only fuel employed is local coastal live oak.  Salt, and sometimes pepper and garlic powder are the only seasonings.  Sound boring?  Smell for yourself.

 

Rincon

Photo: Frank Crowe

Salty, Tarry Fog

Author Rex Pickett probably had booze rather than geography in mind when he came up with the book and movie title “Sideways,” but I’ve got my own more local explanation. Santa Barbara County’s coastline is unique in that it runs in an east-west direction as opposed to the traditional north-south orientation like the rest of the state.  This “sideways” effect creates east-west valleys that reach from the ocean into the warm interior, enabling cooling fogs to roll into the vineyards during the evenings.  Fortunately, for winemakers and wine lovers, this helps create ideal conditions for producing great Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and other fog-loving varietals.  Watch your step though;  The beaches of the Central Coast sometimes harbor bits of tar, products of a naturally occurring petroleum seepage just offshore.  If you’re at a winery close enough to the ocean sometimes this fog brings a little bit of a salty, tarry tang to the air with it….but I recommend actually getting to the beach if you can.  Luckily Gaviota State Beach is just a few miles down Highway 101 south of Buellton.

 

 

Though she lives in Napa today, Alison Crowe is a Napa-based consulting winemaker and a native of Santa Barbara County.  She is excited to attend her first Wine Bloggers Conference this weekend as a Wine Blog Awards finalist for “Best New Wine Blog” and to meet up with old friends and new.

 

Copyright Alison Crowe 2014

Garnet Vineyards:  @GarnetVineyards  www.garnetvineyards.com 

 

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!

 

 

Vintage Shrubs: A Winemaker’s DIY Summer Sipper

Shrubs are vinegar and fruit syrups that, when mixed with sparkling water, create an interesting- and historical- drink option for summer sipping.

Shrubs are vinegar and fruit syrups that, when mixed with sparkling water, create an interesting- and historical- drink option for summer sipping.

As I prepared to host a casual backyard barbecue at our place in Napa a few weeks ago, I realized I was tired of my go-to non-alcoholic drinks.  Sparkling water.  Yawn.  Sparkling water with juice and a twist.  Double yawn.

And then I  remembered a conversation I’d had with Matt Kettmann of the Santa Barbara Independent and now new Central Coast Wine Guy (not his official title) for Wine Enthusiast.  We had met for lunch at Finch & Fork in downtown Santa Barbara a couple of months ago when I was home for vacation.  Refreshingly, rather than the usual winemaker-wine writer shop talk (“How’s harvest looking?” “This wine has 30% new oak.”) we found ourselves chatting about home winemaking, Santa Barbara’s exploding tasting room scene and….shrubs.

No, these shrubs are not the kind you prune or the kind you bring The Knights who say “Ni!” but the kind you drink. Stemming from the Arabic word sharāb, which means “to drink,” shrubs have their origin in the Middle Ages as an herbal medicinal beverage and then emerged into seventeenth century Europe as a concentrated syrup made of vinegar, water and sugar.  As a lover of food and drink history I have long enjoyed researching recipes from such sources as Jane Austen’s family “receipt book” and Victorian housekeeping manuals. Over the years I’ve come across recipes for sundry shrubs and “cordials” in these antique cookery books.  The concept is easy to understand from an historical householder’s point of view. Submerging ripe summer fruit in a solution of vinegar and sugar helped preserve part of an abundant (and quickly-spoiling) harvest while creating a tart, fruit-flavored liquid as the fruit macerated in vinegar over time.  In an era before commercial sodas and prepared cocktails, mixing 1-2 oz. of this “drinking vinegar” with about a cup of cold or sparkling water (which was increasingly available in the eighteenth century) created a refreshing, flavorful drink.

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Mint makes the perfect aromatic garnish for iced fruit shrubs.

Today, shrubs are enjoying a renaissance in trendy restaurants and bars (especially, it seems, in produce-rich wine country) but you don’t have to travel to someone else’s watering hole to enjoy these handcrafted sippers.  I started experimenting with shrubs in my kitchen because I was looking for interesting (but low-calorie, natural and non-alcoholic) beverages to enjoy with my family and guests.   What I’ve found is that making a fresh fruit shrub is cheap, easy and delicious.  They can be thrown together from ingredients and with equipment you probably already have on hand.

Below is a “Pick-a-Fruit” shrub recipe that I’ve developed based on historical techniques to utilize whatever fruit you can rustle up at the farmer’s market or in your backyard.  Call it the “Choose-Your-Own Adventure” of DIY beverage-making.  I started with wine-based vinegar (naturally) but don’t be afraid to branch out into other interesting vinegars (I even experimented with a banana vinegar sold by Rancho Gordo!).   Beware of balsamic vinegars and their ilk since they will mask the pure fruit flavor and of course can be quite expensive.  Use organic produce if possible and don’t be afraid to tweak the amounts given. The key thing is for the fruit to be completely submerged in the vinegar during the week’s maceration time.

Fresh strawberries and red wine vinegar are a delightful combination.

Fresh strawberries and red wine vinegar are a delightful combination.

The level of sweetness is up to you.  Some of the old recipes call for a 1:1 ratio of fruit, vinegar and sugar but as I prefer my drinks drier (my friends know I prefer “ultra-brut” sparkling wine and bone-dry Chardonnay) don’t be afraid to add more sugar if that’s to your taste.  Grab some herbs from your garden or window box to garnish the finished product, serve with cute straws over ice and there you have it!  Shrubs are the perfect potable project for lazy summer weekends and will reward your senses (and your sense of DIY accomplishment) all season long.

 

 

 

Girl and the Grape’s Vintage “Pick-A-Fruit Shrub” Recipe

A “drinking vinegar” syrup to dilute with water or sparkling water for flavorful summer sipping. This versatile recipe is inspired by many I’ve read in Victorian and Georgian cookery books, including Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management and Jane Austen’s family’s recipe collection.

Yield:  Makes about 1/2 cup of concentrated syrup, which will provide 4-6 drinks depending on desired strength.

Note:  This recipe can be easily doubled, but the 8 oz jar size allows you to experiment with multiple flavors in small batches

 

Equipment:

-8 oz glass canning jar with screw-on lid

-Fine mesh strainer

-1-cup liquid measuring cup (with pour spout)

 

Wildcrafted blackberries from the creeks in our vineyards lend their rich color and flavor to summer drinks.

Wildcrafted blackberries from the creeks in our vineyards lend their rich color and flavor to summer drinks.

Choose your vinegar (about ¾ cup, or enough to cover fruit):

-Champagne vinegar

-White wine vinegar

-Red wine vinegar

(Note- strong, sweet or otherwise flavored vinegars are quite potent and do not let the fruit flavors shine through.  Other “lighter” vinegars like rice wine vinegar, white balsamic vinegars or even apple cider vinegars can also be used.  I experimented with Steve Sando’s Rancho Gordo Banana vinegar to great success.  I would not use anything too robust like Balsamic, however.)

Shrubs can be diluted to taste.  I prefer a less-sweet drink with more sparkling water.

Shrubs can be diluted to taste. I prefer a less-sweet drink with more sparkling water.

Choose your sweetener:

-1/4 cup sugar

-1/4 cup sugar and 2 tbs honey

-1/3 C agave nectar

Note:  Agave nectar is not “period” but since it’s so popular right now I wanted to include alternatives

Choose your fruit: 

½ C of any of the below fresh fruit:

-Strawberries (washed, hulled and sliced)

-Apricots (washed, pitted and sliced)

-Plums (washed, pitted and sliced)

-Blueberries (washed and slightly crushed)

-Blackberries (washed and slightly crushed)

 

Suggested flavor combinations: 

-Strawberries:  red wine vinegar

-Apricots:  Champagne vinegar

-Plums:  White wine vinegar

-Blueberries:  ½ red wine and ½ Champagne vinegar

-Blackberries:  ½ red wine and 1/2 white wine vinegar

Pick herbs and flowers from your garden to garnish your glasses.

Pick herbs and flowers from your garden to garnish your glasses.

In-glass accents:

When serving, try cucumber slices, mint sprigs, basil sprigs, lavender stalks or citrus peel as garnishes for extra aroma, flavor and visual appeal.

Method:

Cover the prepared fruit and sweetener with your vinegar of choice.  Shake well to combine and dissolve any sugar crystals.  Shake twice a day for two weeks, keeping jar in a dark, cool place.  Strain contents into measuring cup, gently pressing down on fruit to extract liquid.  Pour into clean jar and label with contents and date.

To Serve: 

Combine 1-2 oz of the shrub syrup with about 1 C cold still or sparkling water, to taste.  It is also historically accurate to include a 1/2 oz of rum or an ounce of red or white wine.  Garnish as desired.  Cucumber and mint are two of my favorites.

 

Fresh apricots waiting to be washed and sliced.

Fresh apricots waiting to be washed and sliced.

 

Alison Crowe is a Winemaker and lives in an old Victorian house in downtown Napa with her husband and two small boys.   Twitter:  @alisoncrowewine  girlandthegrape.com is a finalist for “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blogger Awards! 

 

 

Really? 3 Surprising Things About Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir at Garnet Vineyards' Rodgers Creek in the Petaluma Gap.

Pinot Noir at Garnet Vineyards’ Rodgers Creek in the Petaluma Gap.

Pinot Noir has quite a reputation.  Often known as the “Heartbreak Grape” and lovingly discussed, dissected and degustated (is that even a word?) by rabid Pinotphiles, Pinot Noir was being talked about in the wine world well before the movie Sideways thrust it onto an international stage.  Ten years after Miles and friends brought the joys of Pinot to a wider audience , the tidal wave of Pinot Noir shows no signs of slowing down and I couldn’t be more thrilled.  I grew up in Santa Barbara County, spent my first harvest making estate-grown Pinot Noir at the unique  Chalone Vineyard and now make Pinot Noir at Garnet Vineyards.  As a dyed-in-the-wool (or in the hair, during harvest) Pinot freak, I wanted to share with you some quirky factoids and some common misconceptions about my favorite grape.

 

 

Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir in Carneros often bucks "heartbreak" reputation because its relatively open clusters tend to ripen early which means an earlier harvest before fall rains and rot have an effect.

Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir in Carneros often bucks “heartbreak” reputation because its relatively open clusters tend to ripen early which means an earlier harvest before fall rains and rot have an effect.

Pinot Noir Isn’t Always “The Heartbreak Grape”

Is Pinot Noir called “The Heartbreak Grape” because it’s so tough to make or because it’s so tough to shell out the ducats for that first growth Burgundy?  Seriously, the “tough to deal with” label has been stuck to Pinot Noir throughout the years perhaps because it’s generally a thin-skinned, tightly-clustered varietal which means it’s  susceptible to rot and fungus.  Given that Pinot Noir does best in cool, moist climates (like the Russian River, Carneros, Monterey County and Garnet Vineyard’s Rodgers Creek Vineyard in the Petaluma Gap), it’s logical to see how, especially in wet years, Pinot Noir can get a reputation for being sensitive.  The flip side of this dismal-sounding coin is that Pinot Noir is an early-ripening variety, which means that it tends to get picked before late-season storms can rain on the tasty wine parade. The good news is that not every clone is the same and some have looser, less rot-prone clusters.   Even though both 2007 and 2011 were relatively wet years, I found that Garnet’s vineyards pulled through just fine and were happily fermenting away when things were getting ugly out there.  Fortunately I also tend to find that Pinot Noir (unlike some red grapes) behaves very well in the cellar and benefits from minimalist winemaking.  No heartbreak there.  Like Rafael Nadal’s relaxed but devastatingly effective two-handed backhand (OK, I’ve been watching the French Open), Pinot doesn’t like to be muscled around with theatrics but to be played through with authoritative restraint.   Though Pinot Noir does take a little extra care and feeding in the vineyard, in the winery I find it responds very well to a classic “hands off” regimen of time-honored simplicity:  destem, ferment, press, and age.  Game, set, match.

 

One of these things is not like the other....

One of these things is not like the other….

Pinot Noir has a Large Extended Family

Ever heard of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier or Pinot Grigio?  The definitive study has yet to be done on who exactly gave rise to who and when, but what is certain is that the Pinot genome is very mutable and very mutatable.  Pinot Noir, with its long (some say over 2,000 years) history in production and suspected gene transposition properties, can spontaneously create different clones and even “offspring” that are deemed different enough to be classified as different varieties entirely.   Though mutations tend to take years to happen, discover and classify, there are over one hundred different clones of Pinot Noir identified in the winemaking world today.  Myself, I like the blending complexity that the different clones planted in different soils and vineyards offer me.  It’s pretty cool to be able to create a wine like our Sonoma Coast Pinot from the minerality of Rodgers Creek Vineyard’s 777 clone and balance that with some sweet fruits from Russian River’s Pommard clone.    Are these genetic shenanigans a good thing or a bad thing….?  If you like variety and a little unpredictability in your life, it’s great and couldn’t be more fun.  I think Pinot drinkers (and Pinot winemakers), who tend to be a curious, quirky bunch anyway, would agree!

 

Feel free to jazz up my basic guacamole with salsa, more limes and even hot sauce!

Pinot Noir, especially those that are fruit-forward and have some good acid, can even pair with rich and spicy Mexican food.

Pinot Noir is the Most Versatile Food Wine

There, I said it.  Some would say it’s bubbles, some would say it’s the darling-of-the moment, dry rosé, but I plant my food-friendly flag permanently in the world of Pinot Noir.  Pinot Noir can be made in so many styles (hey, even Champagne and pink wine!), from light and fruity to dense, dark and brooding.  Salmon is an obvious fish pairing but give blackened catfish, mussels or halibut a try too.  And Yes of course it goes with poultry,  cheese, pork, roast veggies and many Asian-influenced dishes. Try a higher acid-lower alcohol cuvee to cut through something spicy and fatty like smoked duck tacos.  Heck, I even challenge you to pair a robust Petaluma Gap Pinot Noir (like our Rodgers Creek single vineyard designate), whose uncharacteristically thick skins yields a higher tannin profile, with a steak and see what I mean.  Chewy, rich Pinot to stand up to beef?  Yup.   Pinot:  It’s what’s for dinner.

 

Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and loves all things Pinot.  Check out the Garnet website at www.garnetvineyards.com and keep up with her on Facebook, facebook.com/GarnetVineyards and on Twitter, @GarnetVineyards.

 

Copyright Alison Crowe 2014

 

Gettin’ Ready For my First Kegger (as a winemaker)

So I’m about to go to my first kegger.  As a winemaker, I mean.  Scratch that- I mean as a winemaker putting their own wine into a keg, Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir to be exact!

Ali

Garnet Vineyards Pinot Noir is coming soon to a keg near you…so I went to Free Flow Wines in Napa to find out how it’s done!

I love the concept:  cost-effective, eco-friendly and flavor-saving.  But of course, as a winemaker, I had a lot of questions about exactly how the process works.  Would I have to prep the wine differently? Where there any unique risks or quality control points I’d have to worry about that would be different than a normal bottling run?  How would the kegs actually get to the restaurants, how would they be dispensed and then what happens to the empty kegs?

Luckily I knew I could count on my friend Jordan Kivelstadt, Founder and CEO of Free Flow Wines, for a little elucidation.

I used to share my “garage winery” space in Sonoma for Garnet Vineyards with Jordon, Rob and their team back when they were a little start-up just a few years ago.  In a short time, they outgrew the space and since then have expanded into a new facility in south Napa by the infamous “Crusher Man” statue by the intersection of Hwy 29 and 121.

Yesterday I met up with Jordan, Rob, Heather and the gang for a little tour of Free Flow Wines’ new keg-straveganza.  From a winemaking point of view, here’s how it works:

Winemakers always have lots of questions- how would kegging wine be different from bottling wine?  And how would the end-user drinking experience be?

Winemakers always have lots of questions- how would kegging wine be different from bottling wine? And how would the end-user drinking experience be?

At my winery, I fill up a 525 gallon (that’s around 220 cases of wine) stainless steel “porta-tank” with tasty bottle-ready 2012 Garnet Vineyards Monterey Pinot Noir and forklift it onto a flatbed.  Flatbed truck then trucks on over to Free Flow Wines’ facility just over the county line, and Rob and his  crew position it near their custom-built “kegging line” and hooking up a sanitary hose fitting to the tank.

Evidently, they had this thing custom built by a German beer-kegging specialist (but we won’t hold that against them- the beer part, not the German part!).   Each stainless steel keg that will be filled (one porta-tank will fill around 100 5.16 gallon kegs) automatically goes through a three-step cleaning and sanitizing process which heats the metal up hot enough to kill any bad yeast or bacteria that might be hanging around.  What’s cool (literally) is that each keg then gets zapped back to room temp by a custom-made cooling collar….because I don’t want cooked wine (and neither do you).  Then the kegs are filled under inert nitrogen counter-pressure (to exclude oxygen), are labeled with a custom paper collar and marked with a “born on” date and time sticker (for batch QC and tracking purposes).  The filled kegs then get stacked on a pallet and forklifted into Free Flow’s bonded warehouse, waiting for a distributor to request one for a restaurant or other outlet (love the three-tier system, eh?).

Free Flow then ships it to the distributor and I invoice the distributor for the wine.  At that point, Garnet Vineyards no longer has to worry about the keg because Free Flow works with an independent contractor partner for rounding up all the kegs around the country, separating them from the beer kegs (I don’t want any Lagunitas in my wine, than you very much) and herding them back into the barn at Free Flow in Napa, where they await being cleaned, sanitized and re-filled.

A pallet of Free Flow kegs.  They take care of the transport of kegs across the country.

A pallet of Free Flow kegs. They take care of the transport of kegs across the country.

Note that the pool of Free Flow kegs is communal, i.e. that my wine may be going into a keg that once held somebody else’s wine….at first I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but then I was walked step by step through their cleaning, sanitizing and monitoring process.  I won’t bore you with the ATP swabs, luminometers, batch testing and German engineering details, but I got talked down off my ledge once I understood that nothing from anyone else’s wine was ever going to touch my wine.  Awesome!

How is kegging wine different from the normal wine bottling process?  From a QC point of view, I’m pretty excited that they can completely steam-sanitize the line, and it’s a smaller, simpler line with fewer moving parts and hence, fewer possible entrance points for airborne contaminants. Additionally, in a 5.16 gallon keg there is actually a really low oxygen-to-wine ratio (far less than in a 750 ml bottle) and so therefore wine in a keg will have less chance of oxidation than a standard format.  Since there is no cork (Garnet does twist-off anyway), there is no chance of cork-taint spoilage from that source. The wine will be put into the keg “enjoyment ready” i.e. not needing any further aging, which is one point of difference I see with traditional “bottled” wine.  However, since the average American consumes a wine within 72 hours of purchase and everyone buying a $11 glass of Garnet at a restaurant expects it to be from the current release that would be in the marketplace anyway, this is a non-issue.

I can clearly see the benefit of kegged wine from a winemaking quality point of view but how does it perform in a restaurant?  I’ve heard that servers and bar-backs love it because they’re not opening bottles all the time (or throwing half-empty bottles out).  I gotta believe that the customers like it because they know they’re getting a “fresh” glass every time and not something that’s been open for a week (yuk!).  Inert gas (a combo of nitrogen and carbon dioxide) pushes the wine out, preventing any oxygen from reaching the wine which means that it gets into your glass in the same shape that I intended it to.

Schematic of the Garnet custom tap handle

Schematic of the Garnet custom tap handle

However, the one weak point I can see is “end user education”.  Though a wine’s high acid and alcohol content (relative to beer and soda) means it will actually perform better than those drinks in a keg-hose-dispenser set up behind the bar, some of the quality of the experience will depend on how clean (or not!) the establishment keeps the set-up.  Because wine can oxidize into vinegar and some other less-than-tasty aromas, restaurants, cruise ships and establishments serving kegged wine will need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions in keg line maintenance.  To that end, Free Flow has launched a website called trywineontap.com.  There, all involved parties can learn what best practices are, how to get wine-specific (no beer!) parts and how to make it work its best.  I think sales reps will also have to learn some new tricks but hey, we all have to go with the flow, right?  And you can believe me, I will still be doing some spot checking on the road!  All in all, I am super-excited to give Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir from a keg a whirl!!!

 

So…… grab yourself a red solo cup, stay tuned for roll-out (we’re still finishing making the custom tap handle so it’ll be a couple of months) and be sure you RSVP to the invite for my first Garnet Vineyards kegger!

 

Happy Kegs, Happy Wines, Happy Winemaker!

Happy Kegs, Happy Wines, Happy Winemaker!

Interested in carrying Garnet wines in a keg?  Adventurous retailers, email me here:  info@garnetvineyards.com and come on down to my kegger!

Alison Crowe is the winemaker at www.garnetvineyards.com and can also be followed @GarnetVineyards as well as www.facebook.com/garnetvineyards

 

French Tradeshow Pioneers New Winemaking Tool: Human Interaction

I had the great fortune to attend the 2013 SITEVI agricultural trade show in France the last week of November.  It is a long-established olive, vine, wine and fruit and vegetable trade show that happens every other year in Montpellier and is attended by thousands of agricultural professionals from Europe and all over the world.

 

For three days, industry members gathered to gander at the latest vine-growing and grape-squishing equipment, attend panel discussions and collect bags full of brochures and product information.

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Big Tractors!!

There were plenty of these:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And these:

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Swish Euro-style Trucks!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And of course these:

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Wine Bottles!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Macarons and Champagne- what a great way to entice visitors to stay and chat a while!

But the most innovative tool I witnessed, one actively being promoted at every venue and exhibit floor over the entire week,  was person-to-person interaction.   Each vendor had high top tables, cushy poufs or chat-inducing seating grouped in their booths.  Everywhere I looked, professionals were enjoying snacks and beverages together, whether at 10:00 in the morning (espresso) or four o’clock in the afternoon (Champagne). There were no mobile devices in sight.  People were actually talking to each other (gasp!).

 

The exposition “floor” itself was spread out over several adjacent buildings rather than being packed into one big hall.  This allowed for a bit of separation between the agricultural sectors, but a perhaps unintended, though extremely important, side-benefit was the lowered decibel level.  Unlike at some trade shows I’ve attended, where all the vendors are packed into one big echo chamber, at SITEVI we could actually hear each other talk.

 

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The “International Business Club”- where you could get a wifi signal, check your email, and network with delegates from other countries.

And talking, really talking (the look-into-my eyes-not-your-smartphone kind of conversation) seems to be a critical part of living, working and conducting business in France.  No business is done unless you’ve shared a meal (or at least a macron or three) with each other.  No where do you see iPads, laptops or mobile phones interrupting an interpersonal transaction.   SITEVI set up a special room called the International Business Club where delegates from other countries could find someone who spoke their language, get an internet connection (for the few times we had to check in), and to meet each other.  People kiss each other on the cheek here (in Provence, they do it three times), after all. The French understand that indeed, “Winemaking Begins With People”.

 

Happily, two of the SITEVI organizers whom I met are going to be joining us in Sacramento for the 2014 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium next month. I am on the Program Committee and am excited to introduce them, and some of what I learned in France, to my fellow organizers.   Thank you, SITEVI, for a wonderful experience chez vous- I’m lobbying for more cocktail tables and an increase in the macaron budget!

 

Photo Credit:  Alison Crowe 2013

 

 

 

Winemaking Begins With People

Winemaking Begins With People

checking the grapes

You can’t “make wine by the numbers,” it takes a skilled person to assess ripeness

 

The old saw goes, “Great wines begin in the vineyard.”  I beg to differ.  “Don Blackburn, one of California’s best crafters of Pinot Noir, used to have a sign posted on his office door that read, “Winemaking Begins With People.” His point was that no matter how expensive the barrel, talented the winemaker or mind-bogglingly stellar the fruit, all could be ruined by one too short tank wash cycle or one lab tech who didn’t bother to re-check that weird VA (volatile acidity). He also meant that great wines are a team effort, made great by many small acts, expertly done. Only people can do that.”

 

I wrote those words in an article in Wine Business Monthly back in 2006, and they still resonate for me today.  When I’m walking through the vine rows at Stanly Ranch in Carneros, impressed at how great of a suckering job the crew did on the Pinot Noir it’s a reminder of the hard work it took to get such a job done.

Assistant Winemaker, Barbara Ignatowski

Assistant Winemaker, Barbara Ignatowski

When I unscrew a bottle of Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir I am humbled that even though I may have the title “Winemaker” and get a lot of the credit in the public eye, it took a group effort to get the wine in that bottle, from the cellar intern pressure washing the floors to Garnet’s Assistant Winemaker Barbara making sure that the screw-capper was working just right.

 

Especially when I pour at events and get to chat face to face with people enjoying my wines, “Winemaking Begins With People” takes center stage and remains one of the best parts of being in the wine business.

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Pumping over estate Pinot Noir at Byington Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where I worked with Don Blackburn

Though I last worked with Don as a cellar intern in 1998 learning how to make estate-grown Pinot Noir, I find myself remembering his famous office-door quote all the time and am so glad we remained good friends as I advanced in my own career.

 

Don is unfortunately no longer with us; we lost him far too early at age 54, in 2009, after a yearlong battle with cancer.

Actually, let me rephrase that.

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Don Blackburn

As long as winemaking continues being a team sport, and one where competitors even cheer each other on from the sidelines, Don Blackburn and his truism “Winemaking Begins With People” will indeed still be with us.

 

 

 

Vineyard Dogs- 5 Reasons to Love ‘em!

 

 

Five Reasons Winemakers Love Their Vineyard Dogs

Ali Kona Vineyards

Alison and Kona at Stanly Ranch, Carneros
One of the key vineyards sources for Garnet wines

In wine country, we love our vineyard dogs.  They have their special beds in the warmest corners of the cellar, they get to ride shotgun through the vine rows and they receive endless appreciative pats from winery crew and visitors alike.  Heck, they even have their own boutiques,   dog parks and celebrity rags.  However, lest the vineyard dog becomes too “citified” (after all, once Fido has been to Gay Paree, how ya gonna keep him down on the farm?), allow me to submit some of the real reasons the vineyard dog has snuggled its way into our collective grape-growing and winemaking hearts.

 

1.  A Trusty Sidekick in the Viticultural Wild West

Vyd Dog

Spotted in a Napa parking lot

“Git a gun or git a dog, honey!” wasn’t something I expected to hear from the grizzled grape grower I pulled up to meet on a Mendocino back road five harvests ago. His stories about marauding bears and bands of increasingly aggressive marijuana growers near his Mendocino vineyards seemed perfectly designed to pull the leg of a young winemaker from Napa buying organic grapes for the first time.  When his tales were later corroborated by friends and colleagues however, I became glad I had my trusty Kona with me.  Her keen bead on our surroundings during that harvest’s vineyard visits kept my attention on the vines and kept me from feeling the need to bring along a trusty hunting rifle. Be it bears or banditos, I know many of us are glad for the extra company (and sensitive ears, eyes and noses) of our alert vineyard dogs when we’re out and about in the “back 40.”

 

 2.  Something to Talk About Other Than Wine

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Kona enjoying the shade

It’s no secret that it takes a lot of good beer (and I would argue, good bubbles) to make good wine.  When winemakers get together or relax after work, don’t be surprised to see us with brewskies and bubbly (or perhaps a martini) in hand and not a big glass of red.  Just like a well-crafted cocktail, the latest “guess what Rover did” story can be a great conversation topic, a palate-cleanser of sorts, in a gaggle of winemakers who don’t want to talk shop all  night.  Dogs also provide much-needed common ground in what can sometimes be awkward mixed-company settings (read: winemaker dinners, VIP tours, etc.).  When a winemaker has to connect to a visitor or a crowd but doesn’t want to get all wine-geeky and blind them with the proverbial science sometimes asking about everyone’s pets, and relating a few favorite vineyard dog tales, can be a wonderful icebreaker.  After all, who doesn’t love a good dog story?

 

3.  They Remind us to Take Care of Them (and of Ourselves too) 

When I’m up late driving back from far-flung vineyards or answering grape-scheduling emails, the last thing I want to do is get up early the next morning and exercise.  Thankfully, there’s someone else snuffling in my ear on those dark mornings, gently reminding me that she wants to go for a walk and that I should really come too.  Because I have to think of keeping Kona hydrated on long car trips I find I stop and drink more water myself.  At the end of the day, when she crosses her paws and lays her head down with that long tired-sounding snort, I remember that I too could use a quick breather and take a moment to reach down and scratch her behind the ears.  Having a dog around is just good for your health, especially during the busy harvest season when self-care tends to take a back seat.  Science has proven it, but it’s something winemakers have known all along.

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“I’m driving this time!”-Kona

4.  A Pick-me-Up Perspective on the Everyday

Believe it or not, when you visit hundreds of vineyard blocks over the years, walk through dozens of barrel rooms and participate in each year’s cycle of blending sessions it can all get a little repetitive.  Really.  Well, Fido has a cure for that too; there’s nothing like seeing your workday through the eyes of your dog.  Wasps in the picking bins?  “Fun to chase!  Fun to chase!” Washing down the crush pad for the umpteenth time? “Hey silly human, squirt me with that hose, will ya?”  Bungs popping out of barrels in the white cellar during barrel fermentation?  “Whoo hoo, let me fetch ‘em! “  Seeing the look of excitement in Kona’s eyes whenever I gesture for her to jump up into the front seat as we head out on a vineyard visit makes me smile, and appreciate what I get to do for a living, every time.

5.  Unconditional Love in Spite of Harvest

Hey, who else will love you when you’re stinky, sticky and haven’t showered in three days?  Even if they’re only licking the Chardonnay juice off your cheek, their unconditional love and companionship (but perhaps just not the slobbery tongue action) go a long way towards soothing the wounds, physical or mental, of a long day on the job.

 

 

This blog entry would not have been possible without Kim Kuenlen and her wonderful NorCal Aussie Rescue organization.   We adopted our Kona in 2005.  As she approaches 14, she still acts like a crazy pup.