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

Archives: The Winemaking Life

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!


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  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: and come on down to my kegger!

Alison Crowe is the winemaker at and can also be followed @GarnetVineyards as well as


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.


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.

UCD opening and Kona Vynd 011

“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.