Today I had a great catch-up conversation with friend and colleague Craig Root, a 30-year winery tasting room and hospitality veteran. Though not a winemaker or grower, Craig has “been there done that” in Sonoma and Napa Valleys for many years and of course has seen many harvests come and go.
He asked me how Harvest 2015 was going and I filled him on what I’ve been experiencing in Napa, Sonoma and on the Central Coast as I pull in grapes for Garnet Vineyards, Picket Fence Vineyards, my Buccaneer, Longhand projects and many others. “Well,” he said. “Mother Nature always bats last.”
Indeed she does.
Line drive? Surprise pop fly? Strike out? Here’s what Mother Nature is swinging at us as Harvest 2015 really starts to get underway:
-Yields are down: After three cosy and ample harvests (’12, ’13 and ’14) 2015 is a bit on the lean side tonnage-wise. Many of us will admit that, as with the stock market, it was time for a correction. However- if you’re planning on getting 8 barrels-full of Rodgers Creek Pinot Noir and only come up with enough grapes for 5, that’s a little tough.
-Yields are unpredictable: So far, North Coast Chardonnay seems to be in “average” yields and since I haven’t harvested Napa Cabernet yet can’t speak to these later-ripening varietals. Sauvignon Blanc from Napa was about 20% down from predicted yield for me. Pinot Noir seems to vary by vineyard and even by vineyard block.
-Hurry up and wait: It’s like bases loaded, a hit into McCovey Cove to end the first inning and then….crickets. I’ve pulled in the “early bird” blocks like Block 17 Pinot Noir at Stanly Ranch (Napa Carneros) and Sauvingnon Blanc from Alexander Valley and now, like many of my colleagues, am waiting for the next wave of grapes to ripen. It was an historically early harvest for most of us across the state, still and sparkling wine producers alike, and a heat spike last week got a lot of winemakers a little antsy. We then had about a week of cool weather that slowed everything down again. We’ve been enjoying a few warm days now but it’s slated to cool off again this weekend. I’ve heard rumors of precipitation but it seems to be just that- rumors for those of us south of Eureka.
-Lower Brixes with respect to other signs of ripeness: Could 2015 be a “lower alcohol year” and shift some winery’s styles back into what some would call “Classic Old School” California? Craig, and many of my best sources for wine industry stories, love to regale us young whippersnapper winemakers with tales of lower-alcohol Cabs from the 1970’s and 1980’s that tasted like a dream, aged beautifully and didn’t get you hammered after two glasses. So far, I’m seeing that I don’t need to wait for something to get to 25 Brix to taste ripe. Acids are dropping out quickly, seeds are browning well, and flavors are “popping” – all at moderate Brixes.
Who’s up next? Pinch hitter? Stay tuned…..After all, Willie McCovey was one of the best. But don’t ever forget that, like Craig says, Mother Nature always bats last.
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and harvests from all over the North and Central Coasts for her winemaking projects and brands. She lives in Napa. email@example.com @alisoncrowewine
Harvest happens- and so do earthquakes.
An historically early 2015 harvest is what is rocking the winemaking world in Napa right now. A year ago, however, the early morning rumblings weren’t the sound of grape trucks heading from the field to the winery.
At 3:20 in the morning, after 15 seconds of shaking at 6.0 magnitude, most of Napa County was without power. Barrels toppled from metal racks, bottles launched off shelves and even stainless steel tanks full of wine lurched from their concrete pedestals. Heavy stonework showered down onto cellar floors, old stonework facades unpeeled onto crush pads and wineglasses mingled with reagent bottles and measuring cylinders in slippery shards on laboratory floors.
Luckily, most wineries quickly cleaned up the mess and got on with the business of prepping for the Harvest to come. Most lucky indeed was the fact that most of us- winemakers,lab staff, cellar hands and vineyard crew-were largely home in bed when the quake hit.
“It could’ve been so much worse” is always tiresome to hear. Tell that to my neighbors down the street who were red tagged, or the owners of Sala Salon, Vintner’s Collective or Napkins restaurant, who had their businesses (among many others) badly impacted by the quake. The semi-morbid reality is however, had Harvest 2014 been as early as this year, many more of us would’ve been in harm’s way.
In late August 2014 only a handful of wineries were in such full Harvest swing as to be working a night shift. The sparkling wine harvest typically starts at least two-three weeks earlier than other wineries because they seek grapes at lower sugars and higher acids for their Champagne-like fizzy wines. I knew that my buddies at Mumm and Domaine Chandon had been picking for about a week or so but most of us who do Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Carneros or Sauvignon Blanc from Napa (typically the earliest grapes to get going) hadn’t scheduled our picks yet. We were still prepping tanks, cleaning barrels and letting our crews get some precious sleep before the 12 hour days and the midnight pumpover shifts started.
It was chilling, in the early morning hours of August 24, 2014, to drive around to the local wineries where I make my wine (one practically over the epicenter) and to realize how lucky we were that the quake happened in the dead of night and that Harvest 2014 wasn’t earlier than it was. All of our wineries had been shut up tight, and amazingly, the damage report was only three broken barrels, broken bottles in the store room and some random drops of wine which had slopped over a full tank top onto the cellar floor. Later that day I dropped by a friend’s winery in Carneros and was distressed to witness both his shellshocked face and the terrible state of his barrel room. Had Harvest 2014 started earlier, there would’ve been much more new wine in barrel and the possibility of much higher property loss.
This is not to say that we “got off easy” from the Quake, nor that it was a complete disaster. The damage was very uneven, varying from winery to winery and neighborhood to neighborhood. My old Victorian house in downtown Napa, one of the hardest-hit areas, got off lightly with cracked plaster and broken wine glasses while three houses in our neighborhood came off their foundations and practically came down.
I was relieved when I heard later in the day that the night crew up at Mumm (still a small number because of how early Harvest started) all got out safely when the shaking hit. Facebook feeds, text messages and emails helped keep us in touch as the days wore into weeks as we cleaned up, took stock and moved forward towards recovery.
According to what I’ve heard and read lately, it’s been quite a recovery. The #NapaStrong Comeback video, created six days after the quake by Evan Kilkus, told the Bay Area and the world that we were open for business while local vintner’s groups and wineries communicated the same “Come Visit Napa” message they do every harvest. A recovering national economy has no doubt helped, but from what I understand most businesses are back on their feet and wineries welcomed record numbers of guests in the last year.
One of the best things to come out of the earthquake was the amazing sense of community, togetherness and sharing we felt then and still feel today. Neighbors dropped everything to help neighbors, benefit concerts and dinners were hastily arranged, and the Napa Valley Vintners started a community assistance fund with $10 Million in seed money. On Monday, August 24 2015, Napa is planning an anniversary event of remembrance and togetherness-“Napa Strong 6.0/365”- at Veterans Park from 3:20 PM-6:00 PM. Music, speakers and disaster preparedness booths and presentations will be featured, all in view of many of the damaged buildings on Main Street still swathed in scaffolding.
Those of us in the full swing of the early 2015 Harvest will read about it in the paper on Tuesday and continue to be glad we weren’t crushing-yet- a year ago.
Comeback Video by Evan Kilkus, produced 6 days after the quake.
Appreciation of History and Heritage”
My husband and I are lucky enough to have just bought a little piece of Napa acreage and are currently selling our downtown 1898 Victorian. Though our new “dream home” is a little boy’s heaven of redwood trees bordered by a creek with tadpoles, many people dream of having a Napa Valley hideaway that might include vineyards, historic features or a shed for making a little homemade Cabernet Sauvignon. Though we’re not real estate professionals (and we recommend you hire one of those too by the way) we still thought we should pass on some of the layperson’s tips and knowledge we picked up along the way buying our first and now second Napa home. Interest rates are at historic lows and though prices are definitely on the rise in Napa, it’s still a great time to get into the market.
Most real estate searches, especially if you live in the area, start out online. Sites like Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow are good places to start as most realtors are listing their properties there. Sotheby’s and Coldwell are two of the major firms with a lots of local listings. Surprisingly, I didn’t find the online search portal of the Napa Valley Register (our local newspaper) very helpful or easy to navigate…..but most realtors market their properties correctly and get them onto a multitude of websites like these listed by Bankrate.com as being the best online home search sites.
Get on a bike
When Chris and I bought our Victorian in downtown Napa in 2006, we were already renters in the area. We knew that we wanted whatever we bought to be within walking distance of the corner of First and Main streets- the nexus of the developing Oxbow district and the very heart of downtown. So from that point we drew a 1 mile radius and got on our bikes. After finding two open houses we took shelter from a freak rainfall on the porch of a third- and fell in love with the porch, the hardwood floors, high ceilings and the neighborhood. Biking through neighborhoods rather than driving allows you to go at a slower pace and to get a better sense of the area and people around your new potential home. Don’t wear earbuds and you’ll get an idea of how many birds are chirping in the trees…and if your potential neighbors have a loud, barky dog. As the years have gone by and downtown Napa has burgeoned into the culinary, wine and community-focused center it is today, we recommend this approach to shoppers looking to live within walking distance of this amazing place.
Get in a hot air balloon
It’s hard for anyone, even locals, to get the lay of the land around Napa from street level. When I took Chris for a hot air balloon ride for his 40th birthday last year, we realized we’d found a whole new way of assessing an area. Getting up in the air and leaving the limitations of roads, parks and yes, private property lines, gives you an unbeatable perspective on how near- or very far- certain features are. We never would’ve guessed that our new property, which with the trees and creek feels miles away from anywhere, is actually almost as close to downtown as our old place. Of course I suppose you could also try Google Earth, but it’s nowhere nearly as fun. No matter your method, getting “above it all” is an entirely new way to gain valuable perspective.
Get a Newspaper
You’re going to laugh that we actually found our new place from a newspaper ad. Chris and I have been keeping our ears and eyes open for places on the outskirts of town with some property (so our two and four year old could have ample “free range” space to run around). In the meantime, my sister has been toying with an idea of buying a place in Napa with two units- one for her to rent out and one for her to come up for the weekends from San Francisco. We were together one weekend and bought a Sunday issue of the Register, which contains a special real estate section. We were just scanning the listings when a photo of tall redwoods and wide-open spaces grabbed both of us. We immediately were intrigued by the rest of the listing and even though, at a 2 bedroom/2 bath it was smaller than I was looking for, we went to the open house anyway….and ended up closing escrow on it yesterday. Had I been searching online I might have missed this one because I was only searching for three bedrooms and above. Which brings me to my last tip…….
Get outside the “brackets”
Though the online search results for a given area code can seem huge, in Napa it often pays to search both above and below your price and bed/bath combo brackets. Sometimes larger bedroom/bath houses than you think you can afford have been on the market for a long time and have dropped in price. Or you could find a smaller square footage house that you could easily add on to with the money you’d save on the purchase price. Similarly, there are a surprising number of houses in Napa with “in-law units” and even sheds or shops that will not count as bedrooms or taxable square footage but that would count as valuable useable lifestyle and/or living space for you. We found our new paradise by being willing to look outside of our ideal search brackets, and being willing to plan on putting on a new master suite.
Get it? Got it? Great- and good luck!
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. She is selling the downtown Napa Victorian where this blog got its start- contact Jocelyne Monello at 707-224-8281 for a showing! The advice above is based on Alison’s personal experience and in no way is meant to replace the advice of a professional agent or real estate lawyer.
I won’t say who danced on the tables at the Ciatti party or who closed down the bar at the Sheraton last night. As they say, what happens at the Unified Symposium, the largest annual gathering of the wine industry in the western hemisphere, stays at Unified.
Except your feedback. We need it to learn which were the best sessions, to address any challenges that attendees may have had and most importantly to keep improving this very special and business-critical annual gathering.
I’m on the Unified Symposium Program Committee and we are tasked each year with choosing the topics, the panels and the speakers who will address our industry . It’s a fiddly challenge because we’re peering into our crystal balls in June trying to figure out what the hot topics will be come January of the following year. The themes and panel ideas have to be vetted, speakers, especially those coming from other countries, have to be invited early and of course the suppliers, the venue and all of the logistics have to be worked out. It’s a year long process.
If you attended the Unified Symposium this year I ask that you please give us your feedback for the sessions you attended as well as the overall conference. It’s only through your conversation with us, the organizers, that we can keep making this gathering of our peers the wonderful annual educational venue, trade show and yes, party, that it is.
Please fill out the survey here:
Now go back to dancing on those tables.
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. She is a member of the Unified Symposium Program Committee which helps choose the Symposium’s speakers and panels each year.
Yes, a 6.0-6.1 earthquake thrust many of us all out of bed this morning. Yes, a few of our barrels are all higgledy-piggledy in cellars north, south east and west of the brick-and-mortar #bummersauce that is downtown Napa right now. There is, however, a lot of good news in and around the Valley so keep you upper lips stiff because many wineries and Napa businesses will be open this week.
I took a tour of my wineries and vineyards today and was pleasantly surprised by the non-drama of it all. For Garnet Vineyards not a drop spilled and for my other consulting projects things are looking good. Tanks standing, barrel stacks (miraculously) standing- it’s all hard to believe and somehow still seems so surreal. I am grateful we were so lucky. There are many who weren’t. Historical building facades are down, bottles and wine glasses in downtown businesses are broken on the floor and most seriously, some families are injured and their loved ones are still recovering.
Our 1898 Victorian house downtown is largely undamaged, our family is safe and I am grateful for all of the goodwill pouring in from all angles- we will be sure to do our best to pass it on to our neighbors here in Napa who are putting their houses, and in some cases their businesses and lives, back together. This cool weather week gave the winemakers a little break in the ripening season, time to re-coup, regroup and make sure 2014 will be the awesome vintage it was meant to be. Keep calm and carry on, Napa!
Keep up with me at @alisoncrowewine and email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to get in t0uch. Love to all.
It only takes a few seconds. Voting is only open until June 19 so do it before you crack open the Sunday vino and forget…..
Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards @GarnetVineyards facebook.com/GarnetVineyards
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
Usually a winemaker is accustomed to being interviewed by a writer (my chosen term for journalists, bloggers, etc.- see more on that debate via Tom Wark) in person or over the phone. They ask questions, you think about your responses and then answer, and then you email photos and a bio. Sometimes (and sometimes not) an article with your quotes (sometimes edited, sometimes not) appears, and it gets published in print and/or online. In my experience, email interviews are rare because most writers I’ve talked with want to get a sense of immediacy in a piece and email gives the interviewee “too much time to think” and the results often end up sounding too scripted.
It’s rare to be able to participate in what seems to be a new and pioneering way of talking to wine folks and I was thrilled to take part in a “Wine Text Interview” at wineconsumer.com. Lead by Creative Director Sean Piper, the interview via text I did yesterday was fast paced, unscripted (typos by me and all) and spontaneous.
We had arranged the time just the day before and I didn’t know exactly where in my day I would be at 1:30 when Sean texted me. If I had a break in the rain I was going to go check out how some of our Carneros and Sonoma Coast vineyards were faring in the recent heavy rain (no cover crop + lots of sudden rain = possibly erosion issues) and then head over to the winery to check on how our 2013 Pinots in barrel were doing. Sean didn’t give me any idea as to what he would ask or what we would chat about; I kind of liked it that way.
I was just diving into the stacks at 1:30 and was able to send him some “action shots” of my tasting set-up when he asked the first question about where I was and what I was doing. From there I was asked stock questions like to describe what I do at Garnet, which wines we make and their price points, etc. Then there were some very unexpected questions which made me think. One, “Share a picture of a bottle of your wine in the hands of a consumer or someone who helps you at the winery” threw me for a loop as I scrambled to grab a bottle of our 2012 Rodgers Creek Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, which we had just bottled yesterday, and snap a picture of Miguel and I.
You can see the entire interview here. It was a fun experience. The “Wine Text Interview” retains the immediacy and spontaneity of a verbal interview and combines it with images and immediate share-ability. It’s a little hard to get a full screen view on the Facebook platform, so you have to click on Sean’s link on wineconsumer.com to read the whole story, but it’s a fun little narrative.
I think he’s the only one doing this format, and I look forward to more “Wine Text Interviews” from Sean and the Wineconsumer.com team. I encourage my winemaking colleagues to participate in the game!
Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards. www.garnetvineyards.com @GarnetVineyards
copyright Alison Crowe 2013
Well, it’s almost January. The stockings are down, the wrapping paper has been recycled and thank goodness that last stale bit of fruit cake has long been tossed out. That means it’s time to break out the local bubbly (with a big plug for the Domaine Carneros wine club!) and have a nice think back on my first year as an official “Wine Blog” (or something like that).
Many of you know that I’m a winemaker but also like to write. I published The WineMaker’s Answer Book in 2007, write the long-standing “Wine Wizard” column for WineMaker Magazine and pen the occasional column for trade publications. Basically, I just like to share about the wild and wacky but ever-fascinating world of winemaking, from a practitioner’s point of view.
I started Girl and the Grape as a way for folks to peek under the hood a little bit, to see what I was up to and what I was thinking about during the wine making year. The last thing I wanted to do was start another yawn-inducing “pretty winery picture” blog, indifferently updated once a quarter by the Marketing Intern. Because I don’t have one of those (or even a “Marketing Department” per se) what you get at girlandthegrape.com is unfined and unfiltered, sometimes about current winemaking issues, sometimes about my vineyard dog Kona, but always about real things that real winemakers (or at least this real winemaker) think about. The tagline “Winemaking, Life, the Dirt” pretty much sums it up.
So according to those techno-geeky bloggy things like Google Analytics, as well as, more importantly, feedback from my winemaker friends and the bartenders at Oxbow, below are the five most popular blog posts from girlandthegrape.com. Since I only started the blog in June, I’ve been so excited to welcome the hundreds (and then thousands) of visits and social media shares over the last six months.
Cheers to you all- I have so enjoyed sharing “Winemaking, life and the dirt” with you this year from the vineyards and look forward to a wonderful 2014!
-I dismantle, with the help of two professors from UC Davis, a questionable article which erroneously asserts that so-called “natural wine” can’t get you drunk.
-A shout-out to my own Australian Shepherd Kona, as well as as a tribute to all great vineyard dogs out there. (*warm fuzzies alert!*)
-I spill it, sorry fellow winemakers. We pick ’em and we squish ’em. That’s non-interventionist, water-conserving all-natural winemaking.
-I share my most important winemaking truism, and pay loving tribute to one of my Pinot Noir mentors, the late, great winemaker Don Blackburn.
-I humbly submit tips and techniques for surviving a large public wine tasting event as I prepared for the Napa Valley Film Festival 2013.
I wish you and yours a Happy New Year!
This last week there was a major internet flap when mom and blogger Claire Gross posted a blog on Babble.com that she bathed her three-month-old son Charlie maybe once every week or so. “Yep, total confession time,” Claire writes. ” I really don’t bathe my baby.” This blog post prompted an online firestorm of negativity wherein parents around the globe heaped on criticism upon criticism, accusing her of neglecting her child at worst and losing valuable maternal bonding time at best. In further media interviews after the story went viral Ms. Gross has revealed her pediatrician advised her that her second child’s delicate skin was drying out too much due to daily bathing so she scaled it down a notch and found a happy balance that worked for them.
So yes, total confession time. I really don’t wash my grapes. And well, neither does any winemaker I know or have worked with in the decade and a half I’ve been making wine. This sometimes comes as a surprise to a public accustomed to salad spinners, special vegetable-washing soap and double and triple-washed and cellophane-bagged spinach in the supermarket. On numerous occasions giving winery tours, I’ll grab a handful of grapes from the picking bins as my group of visitors watches the grapes poised over the destemmer. I’ll pop a delicious Pinot Noir berry in my mouth and offer the cluster around, only to hear, “Oh…..don’t you wash them first?”
Nope. We don’t.
Nowhere in my winemaking education, formal or on-the-job, across the state of California and over two continents, was I shown that washing grapes before fermentation was necessary.
The reality is that “No human pathogen can survive in wine,” as one of my favorite UC Davis professors, Dr. Linda Bisson used to tell us in the first-year winemaking class. Because of the high acidity (low pH) and high alcohol levels in a typical wine, no bacteria or virus that could infect a person (like a cold or flu bug, or even worse) can survive in that environment. This is part of the reason why, for the ancient Romans, Greeks and many other societies, wine was used to help treat wounds and was considered a medicine. Even though wine microbes like Lactobacilli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae are happy in that kind of harsh environment, bugs that live in the human body are not.
Winemakers also know what was sprayed (or in most cases, not sprayed, as grapes are a low-input crop compared to others) in the vineyard during the growing year. In fact, residual fungicides or other chemicals disrupt a healthy fermentation, which is why winegrape growers are more limited than other fruit and vegetable growers in what they may use in a vineyard and why we ask our growers (or do it ourselves, if we are the grower) to provide meticulous records of anything applied.
Are there sometimes mites, dust and bugs from the vineyard? Sure. Once I even spent an hour rescuing a dozen little green frogs from a bin of grapes as they went across the sorting table (no idea how they got there, must have been hanging out on the vine for some reason). But most importantly, there are also valuable indigenous yeast and bacteria cells that can help contribute to a healthy and more interesting fermentation and eventually, wine. From Bordeaux to Burgundy, Modesto to Mendocino, grapes get picked, come into the winery, get crushed and become wine, without a grape-washing step involved*.
I really never gave it much thought before, but I suppose we could add grape-washing to our litany of winemaking steps. Some might welcome it as a way to make squeaky-clean wine that they could market as “Triple Washed!” Some would no doubt decry it as yet one more unnatural and non-traditional winemaking “intervention”. It would undoubtedly be a waste of precious water and depending on residual levels, might dilute the wine. Every day we are learning more and more about the microbial world within and around us and its valuable contribution to our health and well-being. Why wash off microbes that might be beneficial in fermentation, or at least benign? The dust that comes in on the grapes settles down to the bottom of the fermenter and gets racked off and left behind anyway.
To side with Claire Gross, I really don’t bathe my baby much either (Bryce is now almost eight months old). He has dry skin and as per his pediatrician we find a once-a-week dunk works just fine for us, thanks very much. So here’s to the great unwashed! Winemaking, like parenting, is an ancient, and yes sometimes dirty, art.
*If someone does wash their grapes first, contact me! I’d be curious to do a follow-up blog post!
Alison loves answering questions about the weird in wine and published the WineMaker’s Answer Book in 2007. Interact with us at Garnetvineyards.com @GarnetVineyards and on Facebook!