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

Archives: Wine Myths

Really? 3 Surprising Things About Pinot Noir

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Pinot Noir Isn’t Always “The Heartbreak Grape”

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

 

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

One of these things is not like the other….

Pinot Noir has a Large Extended Family

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

 

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

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

Pinot Noir is the Most Versatile Food Wine

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

 

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

 

Copyright Alison Crowe 2014

 

“The No Hangover Wine”? An Irresponsible Message in the Bottle

I helped found WineMaker Magazine in 1998 and still write the "Wine Wizard" colmn

I helped found WineMaker Magazine in 1998 and still write the “Wine Wizard” column

Some of you know that in addition to being a winemaker, I also dabble in writing on the side.  I published The Winemaker’s Answer Book in 2007, pen the occasional piece for trade magazines and in 1998 helped found WineMaker Magazine, the first “for home winemakers” magazine,  as the “Wine Wizard” Q&A columnist.  Readers from all over the nation write to me with their fermentation foibles and crushing conundrums and I do my best to help them troubleshoot their wine making difficulties, sort of like the Dear Abby of Wine.  It’s a fun gig  that keeps me grounded and serves to remind me of the joy of discovery, creation and creativity.  Usually the questions are in the realm of, “Dear Wine Wizard, the pH of my Vidal Blanc came in at 2.75 post-pressing, what do I do now?”  Occasionally there are questions that cross-pollinate into the world of the consumer and bring up an issue that is appropriate to a wider audience.  This is one of them.

I cover the "red wine headach" and sulfite issue in The WineMaker's Answer Book

I cover the “red wine headache” and sulfur dioxide in The Wine Maker’s Answer Book

 

 

Dear Wine Wiz,

 

I recently had a friend post an article on Facebook about how “natural” wines don’t get you drunk like regular wine and even don’t cause hangovers (“The No Hangover Wine” by Jordan Salcito from the news/opinion website The Daily Beast).  Is this true?

 

Thanks!

 

Lindsay McKenna

Los Gatos, CA

 

Dear Lindsay,

 

I just read the article you refer to, which seems to claim that “natural wine” (an ill- defined term which in the article seems to mean “minimal sulfites added except at bottling” or  “wine made from grapes, yeast and little else”-which, as an aside, defines almost all wine) doesn’t cause hangovers.  The definition of “natural wine” (and the merits- or demerits as the case may be) is fodder for further articles because of the confusion (and lack of scientific, objective facts) surrounding the issue.  But in our remaining column space, let me get down to the proverbial brass tacks and answer your question- is it possible that there are wines out there (however they are defined) that because they lack certain components or weren’t “manipulated” (again, no good definition) don’t affect you as much as others and don’t cause hangovers?  Note that these are table wines with “normal” alcohol levels, i.e. generally over 12.5% alcohol and not specifically low-alcohol wines.

 

I forwarded the article to Dr. Linda Bisson at the Department of Viticulture & Enology at UC Davis.   She replied:  “I looked at this article and have to say I think it is irresponsible to suggest that you can drink as much “natural” wine as you want and never get a hangover – the real hangovers are based completely on level of ethanol consumed, innate metabolic rates and dehydration of tissues – it has nothing to do with other components in the beverage.”

 

The Wine Wizard tries to answer your most pressing (ahem!) winemaking questions

As The Wine Wizard I try to answer your most pressing (ahem!) winemaking questions (believe it or not, this image pre-dates the Harry Potter movies)

I have to admit I agree with Dr. Bisson.  Even if a wine has less sulfur dioxide (or less tannin, less oak….but wait, what are barrels made out of?), it still contains plenty of alcohol, which is what causes intoxication, dehydration and hangovers.  I would hate for someone to read the Daily Beast article and get the impression that just by choosing certain brands over others they could blissfully ignore the fact that ethyl alcohol, whether lab-distilled so it contains no compounds other than carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (is that “pure” enough for you?) or delivered in an aqueous solution of Domain Jean-Louis Chave (one of the “natural wines” cited in the article), will still get you drunk, plastered, blistered, pissed, blotto or whatever you choose to call it.  It’s like suggesting that because you drive a Volvo (a vehicle marketed as one of the “safest” on the road) you can blithely tear up the road at 90 miles an hour on a rainy night while texting your BFF.  Heaven forbid you also attempt to do so after having had a few glasses of so-called “natural” wine.

 

That is the end of my Wine Wizard response, and before everyone starts talking about all those suspicious sulfites and other “added ingredients” in wines that really cause the hangovers and wine headaches, I want to write that we will tackle the “red wine headache” and “natural wines” in another blog post.  As the comment by “winethinker” in Mr. Salcito’s comment chain states, “The facts do get in the way of a good story”.  Sorry Mr. Salcito, the real story is as follows:  Sulfites are not the culprit of “wine malaise”, there is less than 0.1% of the population with a true “sulfite allergy” and these people lack the digestive enzyme sulfite dehydrogenase and also know to stay away from things like beer, dried fruits, cheese, deli meats and a host of other foods, all of which can contain sulfur dioxide.  There is also no such thing as a sulfur-dioxide free wine because yeast naturally produce 10 ppm or more sulfur dioxide as part of the fermentation process.  Indeed our own bodies are awash with sulfites.   Dr. Andrew Waterhouse, a colleague of Dr. Bisson, explains, “Most studies of sulfites overlook the fact that we produce almost a gram of sulfites in our cells every day.  Thus a few milligrams from a glass of wine, etc, is hardly going to overload our natural systems for breaking down the sulfite.” White wines actually tend to be fermented and bottled with more sulfites than red wines.

 

Dr. Bisson believes that biogenic amines are largely the culprit and states, “Histamines are the main cause of headaches in people susceptible to such headaches, not SO2.”  Ironically, biogenic amines and histamines are much more likely to be elevated in wines that are not inoculated and which have inadequate sulfur dioxide, two hallmarks of many self-proclaimed “natural wines”.  Dr. Waterhouse also posits that, “It is possible that the flavonoids (epicatechin) in red wine can cause vasorelaxation, and blood  vessel relaxation is surely related to headaches.”

Hmmm- possibly one more reason to avoid over-oaked, over-extracted overly-tannic red wines.  On that note, time to go pop open a bottle of Pinot Noir…..

 

 

Read Tom Wark’s brilliant response to “The No Hangover Wine” article here:  “Natural Wine Cures Cancer!”

Check out the Wine Wizard and all the rest of my fabulous wine-writing colleagues at WineMaker Magazine:  www.winemakermag.com

www.garnetvineyards.com  @GarnetVineyards www.facebook.com/GarnetVineyards

 

Copyright Alison Crowe

 

 

 

Winemaker Confession: I Don’t Wash my Grapes (but neither does anyone else I know)

Sorting Syrah

Hands-on. Grapes the world over go from picking bin to fermenting bin with no washing step involved.

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?”

checking the grapes

Many winemakers feel the naturally-present yeast and bacteria cells from the vineyard are critical to their winemaking

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.

Malbec in Argentina, hangin' in the breeze, collecting natural vineyard microbial flora

Malbec in Argentina, hangin’ in the breeze, collecting natural vineyard microbial flora

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.

Bryce Smilie

Baby Bryce, bathed once a week, happy to be part of the “Great Unwashed”.

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!

Wine Myths: Always Serve Reds at Room Temperature….one more wine myth to kick to the curb this summer

back deck instagramIn the haze of summer heat, reds are much more refreshing with a slight chill

Though especially welcome in summertime, and especially tasty with regards to Pinot Noir, I break this “rule” year round and with many varietals to boot.  In the depths of December you can still find me putting a slight chill on many reds, from a sassy Beaujolais Nouveau with at Thanksgiving up to some big and burly Syrah’s on Valentine’s Day.   I just like my reds served a little cool and find that I prefer around 50-58 F or so, far below “room temperature”.

Summertime, however, is when I’m most likely to put a red on ice.  “Room temp” in our 1898 Victorian house in Napa doesn’t mean 68F like it does in November and as ambient temperatures rise, my tolerance for the more volatile components in red wines

Sunny Napa

Summertime heat! When the temp in Napa goes up, we chill the wine down.

(i.e. alcohol, aldehydes, and volatile acidity) goes down. I find it hard to appreciate a red wine when it’s so warm even its modest 13.80% alcohol hits me like a ton of grapes.

Solution?  Use a tabletop wine cooler, an ice bucket, one of those new stick-it-in-the-bottle gadgets like the corkcicle™ or just simply stick the bottle in the fridge for 30 minutes.  A slight chill can focus aroma, tame the perception of alcohol and can make a red seem more refreshing, especially when the weather heats up.