Archives: The Winemaking Life
Are you a Winemaker or know someone who is? Is your local vintner wavering between between French or Hungarian oak, biodynamic or “natural” wine, ml or non-ML complete Viognier, Blue Bottle or Ritual Roasters and are otherwise in resolute need of some New Year’s resolutions to resolve? Girl and the Grape is here to help. Read on, friends of self-development, personal goal achievement and guilty wine app-downloading and peruse what will undoubtedly become the Top Winemaker Resolutions of 2015:
-I will not write inane back label copy.
-I will not let my marketing department write inane back label copy.
-I will refrain from swirling my latte.
-I will swallow my initial self-disgust at writing a tasting note that calls out “nuances of brioche”….because that’s exactly what it is.
-I will not get pissy when a wine blogger calls my” nuances of brioche” their “nuances of toast.”
-I will learn to love my distributors, wholesalers and sales reps.
-I will send my distributors, wholesalers and sales reps daily emoji stickers of smiley faces.
-I will not fire the intern for replacing the breakroom Blue Bottle whole bean with Starbucks from Safeway.
-I will fire the intern for replacing the breakroom four pack of Pliny with a six pack of Sam Adams.
-I will not take 3 star Delectable reviews personally.
-I will Instagram more pictures of the vineyard dog.
-I will refrain from three-burrito days and remember that taco trucks now come in other flavors.
-I will cultivate my “Happy Winemaker Face” when asked (again) when is it that I add the raspberry flavor to my wine.
-I will refrain from posting too many pictures of my new barrels on Facebook.
-I will install one more raptor box up by the wellhouse on top of block 15 and stop the vineyard sheep herd from chewing on the irrigation lines.
-I will finally get that last damn gopher.
-I will drink less coffee.
-I will drink more Champagne.
Got more? What are your Winemaker Resolutions for 2015?
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. 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 cultivates a healthy sense of humility and humor.
I will copyright my intellectual property: Alison Crowe 2015
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 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.
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.”
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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!
Growing 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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
-8 oz glass canning jar with screw-on lid
-Fine mesh strainer
-1-cup liquid measuring cup (with pour spout)
Choose your vinegar (about ¾ cup, or enough to cover fruit):
-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.)
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
When serving, try cucumber slices, mint sprigs, basil sprigs, lavender stalks or citrus peel as garnishes for extra aroma, flavor and visual appeal.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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
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!
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:
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.
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.
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!
Interested in carrying Garnet wines in a keg? Adventurous retailers, email me here: email@example.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
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.
There were plenty of these:
And of course these:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.