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

Archives: Wine Savoir Faire

Holiday Bubbles? Let Purpose, not Price or Pedigree, be Your Guide

Bubbly is everywhere in wine country during the festive post-Harvest and holiday seasons.  For maximum satisfaction, choose yours based on how you'll use it rather than price or pedigree.

Bubbly is everywhere in wine country during the festive post-Harvest and holiday seasons. For maximum satisfaction, choose yours based on how you’ll use it rather than price or pedigree.

The old saying is that it takes a lot of good beer to make good wine.  For my part, the bubbles I want at the end of the day on the crush pad are in a glass of sparkling wine, not beer.  Add the holiday season to already festive post-harvest celebrations and it’s no surprise that a lot of sparkling gets consumed in wine country between October and January.


But how to select which bubbles to serve when?  Do you go on price?  Familiar chateau or famous pedigree?  Do you pick up a case of whatever’s on sale this week and hope it’s good? Rather than employ any of the above strategies I always think first about how I’m going to be using the wine.

We’re going to be drinking it, obviously, but will I be pouring a float of brandy on top of the flutes for a Champagne cocktail?  Will I be serving it on its own with blinis, caviar and lemon or was I hoping to find a sparkler to pair with a creamy seafood dish? These very different situations can and should be served by very different wines.  Below are three examples (all available at BevMo stores this holiday season) of how grape type, fermentation process and length of aging can really change how a wine behaves in the glass and with food. By first analyzing how you need the sparkling wine* or Champagne to perform, you’ll be able to select the appropriate wine for the job.




AmbalVeuve Ambal Brut Blanc de Blancs NV, $13.95

The wine:  This is a relatively unknown “Cremant de Bourgogne” which means sparkling wine from Burgundy.  The wines from Champagne get all the thunder but there are many wonderful sparklers made in just about every region in France.  This wine is really charming and shows zesty aromas of pear skin, honey, citrus peel and a lively mousse on the palate.  It clocks in at 1.1 g/L sugar so carries enough for roundness though doesn’t finish overly sweet.  The Ugni Blanc and Chardonnay blend plus 9 months aging in the bottle (methode traditionelle**) give it more complexity than most cavas or domestic sparklers in this price range.

Use it for:  Don’t hesitate to use this as your go-to “cocktail wine” this holiday season.  Keep a case on hand (one bottle always chilling in the fridge, obviously) to offer to visitors and to reward yourself with a weeknight glass.  Use this as a base for all your “bubbly +” needs like sparkling wine cocktails, mimosas and other recipes. However, it’s not “big” enough to stand up to rich appetizers or creamy, savory main dishes.  Though I usually don’t serve sparkling wines with dessert (I don’t like syrupy bubblies), this wine, with its balance of sub-threshold sugar and acidity, could be a nice refresher for light-hearted treats like a passed holiday cookie plate. Additionally, its zesty citrus notes would do really well with fresh, vibrant flavors like chiles, cilantro, lime.  Chips and salsa, anyone?

Other great choices:  Michelle Sparkling Brut, USA $11.99


ToquesToques et Clochers Cremant de Limoux NV, $19.95

The Wine:  Another “methode traditionelle” non-Champagne discovery, the “Toques et Clochers” Cremant de Limoux is a real treat and a great value.  Aromas of honeysuckle blossom and lemon sugar cookie lead the way backed up by lovely notes of fresh-baked baguette.  Flavors of lemon curd and citrus peel are balanced perfectly with yeasty, creamy flavors.  The 24 months that this wine aged in the bottle makes for a fatter mouthfeel, a longer finish and a bigger mouthful of wine.   If you are looking for a sparkling wine that tastes more like a traditional Champagne and not a fruity cava or Prosecco, this is a great choice.

Use it for:  This wine’s balance of citrus fruit and fresh-baked brioche character make it quite a chameleon.  It can stand up to cheese, olives and charcuterie but would also do well with the above-mentioned caviar on blinis garnished with lemon or cracked dungeness crab with garlic and citrus. It would make a fine standard “Champagne Cocktail” with Cognac and Angostura bitters but I wouldn’t use it where more vibrant, fruity flavors were needed as in a “Champagne sorbet” recipe (I would use the Ambal, above).  This is the perfect pick-me-up to leave chilling in an ice bucket for Santa, by the way.

Other great choices:  Roederer Estate Brut, Anderson Valley USA $23.99


JP labelJoseph Perrier Brut, NV, $48.99

The Wine:  A true Champagne made from 35% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 30% Pinot Meunier.   Flinty, stony aromas of wet concrete, ripe pear, muted ozone and fresh wild mushrooms open up this higher acid, lower sugar wine that is begging to be served with food. The three years aged in the bottle create a rich mouthfeel with flavors of toasted brioche, fresh butter and apple peel.  The finish is long and savory.

Use it for:  This wine has enough acid, complexity and weight in the mouth to be able to go with poultry and fish dishes, like scallops finished with tarragon and a light cream sauce.  It could be served on its own to open a party but I would be sure to offer cheese gougeres, wild mushrooms on toasted baguette rounds or something similarly rich to offer a counterpoint to the body as well as the acidity of this savory wine.

Other great choices:  Domaine Carneros Late Disgorged 2008 Brut Cuvee, USA $48.00


As you can see, neither price point or pedigree alone can dictate how and when a sparkling wine can best be enjoyed. Just because it’s not from Champagne doesn’t mean it can’t be impressive and it’s much more important to pay attention to style and your intended purpose rather than price point alone.  Sparkling wines and Champagnes are some of my favorite beverages because they are naturally celebratory and literally have a life of their own.  From cavas to Champagnes to California sparkling wines and French cremants, the world of sparkling wine is complex, delicious and just begging to be discovered.




*Only sparkling wine that comes from the Champagne region can be called “Champagne”.  I use the generic term “sparkling wine” as a catchall for bubbly vino that comes from other places.

** “Methode traditionelle” is the traditional manner in which Champagne and many other sparkling wines are produced, the key part of which is aging the wine in the bottle.   EU rules stipulate that areas outside of Champagne must use the words “methode traditionelle”  to describe the process rather than the “methode Champenoise” used to describe Champagne, even though they are essentially the same protocol.  Length of aging in the bottle may differ

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, 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 loves to drink sparkling wine.

contact:  Twitter:  @alisoncrowewine  LinkedIn:  Alison Crowe 


The above featured French sparkling wines were among a selection tasted on 11/20/14 at a “Wines of France” tasting hosted by BevMo!  and are currently available at their stores.  Many of the domestic wines also mentioned can be found at BevMo as well as at other retailers nationwide and directly from the wineries.

Copyright Alison Crowe 2014




Wine Blog Awards: Four Reasons Why You Should Care- and Vote


No, it’s not navel-gazing. The Wine Blog Awards promote diversity, creativity in the world of wine media. Vote now, polls close June 19 at midnight!

When I was a Viticulture & Enology student at UC Davis, I noticed what I’ll call a slightly unholy alliance between the place and a well-known winemaking AVA just about an hour to the north west of campus (hint:  it starts with an “N” and ends with an “apa”.)    All my fellow students seemed to want to work there.  All the wineries we got tasting samples from were based there.  And all of the free copies of the major national wine publications in the student lounge seemed only to profile wine from there.  And so my appreciation of the wine roads, and of wine communications media, less traveled began (maybe that’s why I stayed at Bonny Doon for so long?).

Like diversity?  Like democracy?  Like the weird, the wacky, the informative, the brilliant and creative? Heck, just like to waste some quality time bopping around online?   Then make sure your voice is heard in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards*.  Voting closes Thursday, June 19 at midnight.  Here are four reasons why you should care, and why you should vote:

The Wine Blog Awards……

-Encourage consumer choice in wine writing and review beyond the “Big 5”  publications

Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Food & Wine, Decanter, and Wine & Spirits have long dominated the arena of wine review, wine commentary and wine edutainment.  They are polished publications, each with their own angle, and each with a stable of talented writers and creatives.  They also each have stables of advertisers and marketers and as such must be recognized as the commercial concerns they are.   The Wine Blog Awards help break open this hegemony by encouraging new writers and communicators coming from many different places in the wine world to share their experiences.

-Encourage diversity in the world of wine media

Though the Wine Blog Award winners have historically been mostly male, this year provides the most gender, ethnically and nationality-mixed slate of finalists in all nine categories I’ve seen since the Wine Blog Awards’ inception in 2007.   This is a much better record than the largely white, male and middle aged editors and writers at most major wine publications.  Perhaps more importantly, it more accurately reflects the real world of wine consumers and the wine industry.

2013-11-29 13.30.21

Travel the world, laugh and learn with the 2014 Wine Blog Award finalists

-Provide a curated list of “who to follow” in the crowded wine media space


The Internet is a crowded and noisy place.  The Wine Blog Awards, and especially the larger list of finalists in all nine categories, really provide a nice one-stop-shop of likely folks to follow.  Whether you enjoy the lip-smacking snarkasm of  The Hosemaster of Wine,  love the gorgeous drawings at Hawk Wakawaka Wine Reviews or want to experience wine country when you’re not on vacation by visiting Lynmar Estate’s wine blog, there’s something for just about everyone.  Be sure to check out a list of historical award winners here to even further expand your wine education, commentary and experience universe.

-Provide recognition for those making strides in writing, photography and video in the wino-sphere.

We don’t have any James Beard Awards, Pulitzers or even 100 Point scores.  Heck, wine bloggers (especially those focusing on wine reviews) don’t really get much recognition beyond the occasional invitation from a wine region to come and cover them or a shout out on social media. Everyone pretty much has a day job and does it, especially at the start, for the love of wine and community.   Though don’t get me wrong, some of the Wine Blog Award finalists and winners are of course PR/Marketing products of their respective wineries, they should absolutely be applauded for what they’re doing. Rewarding “Excellence in New Media” is, after all, what the Wine Blog Awards are about.

I am thrilled when wineries (and other businesses, like see the power of investing in their storytelling and opening new avenues of communication.  I love it when a wine lover like Bill Eyer at Cuvee Corner starts up a page about their passion and as a result creates a larger community with their family, friends and the social media wine world.  Only by putting ourselves out there can we discover, and help others uncover, the “wine road less traveled” and break open a window into the wild, wacky and wonderful world that is wine.

*Disclosure: is a finalist in the “Best New Wine Blog” category in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards.  Voting is open until Thursday, June 19 at midnight so vote now!


Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards, makes wine from the North and Central Coasts and (gasp!) lives in downtown Napa with her husband and two small boys.  Come hang out for more of “Winemaking, Life and the Dirt,” the musings of a winemaker, unfined and unfiltered,  at

Don’t See Stars (the wrong way): 5 Tips for Wine Tasting at the 2013 Napa Valley Film Festival


Big LogoCamera….and ACTION!  This weekend Garnet Vineyards (moi, Winemaker Alison Crowe and Assistant Winemaker Barbara Ignatowski) will be pouring our new 2012 releases at the 2013 Napa Valley Film Festival at the Sunday Wine Pavillion in downtown Napa and we hope to see many of you there.  As Barb and I load up the Garnetmobile with our tasty treats and pack up our “wine tasting event” kit (napkins, pourers, literature, etc.), I wanted to pass on a little wine-tasting wisdom I’ve gleaned from doing public pouring events over the years.  I think we all know the basics- use the dump bucket, drink water, etc., but here are a few more ways to make sure you get the most out of your walk-around wine tasting event.  Hope to see you at the Napa Valley Film Festival this weekend!

Dress for comfort.

I know, I know.  It’s tempting to bust out the Jimmy Choos and Louboutins for potentially star-studded events like the Napa Valley Film Festival, but honey, we’re not in Hollywood anymore.  Trust me, wine country casual really does mean something (read Mr. Wark’s instructive last paragraph here) and since we tend to have grass, damp caves and even (gasp!) gravel as flooring surfaces, best prepare for a little “rough shoot,” as it were.

Vintage Italian heels?  Hmmm, maybe they should stay at home for a walk-around wine tasting.

Vintage Italian heels? Hmmm, maybe they should stay at home for a walk-around wine tasting.

It’s a lesson I’m trying to remember as I pack for an upcoming trip to Provence.  Spike heels: no (bye bye to my vintage Italian pumps…).  Wedge heels: yes.  Boots: heck yes.  It’s November in Napa, so bring a wrap for daytime and a coat and possibly scarf for nighttime and you’ll be much happier.  You’ll be doing a lot of walking around and standing at the outdoor Wine Pavilion where I’ll be pouring Sunday 2:30-5:00 PM near Copia and Oxbow Market in downtown Napa.  Think less Cannes, more caveaux.

Boots are always at home in Napa wineries, and Napa wine tastings!

Boots are always at home in Napa wineries, and Napa wine tastings!


Practice good tasting bar etiquette

The below applies pretty much anytime you’re tasting wine, whether it be at a “big tent” event like the Napa Valley Film Festival or at a winery’s tasting room on Highway 29.  As vintners, we love to share our wine with the public but there are so many things I see over and over again that I wish I didn’t.  Here are some quickie do’s and don’ts that will help you help us help you:

-If you just want an extra-teeny pour, tell me so, or just say, “That’s fine” or “Thank you” and I’ll stop pouring. Don’t lift your glass up abruptly to tell me I’ve poured you enough. I’m not sure where this tic started, but I see it over and over again with inexperienced tasters, who probably saw someone else do it and thought it was the “done” thing.   Thrusting one’s glass up to “clink” with the bottle is abrupt and rude….believe it or not I’ve also seen a broken glass or two result from such behavior.

-Do be kind to your fellow tasters.  I know it may look like a rugby scrum, but please try to form a line as much as you can, and wait patiently.  It is acceptable to bring two glasses to “get one for a friend” while your friend is out getting food for you (even though you might risk looking like a double fisted drinker) but asking for refill after refill is not the way to ingratiate yourself to a winery or to your wine tasting compatriots.

-Oh yes, and about that line.  It’s good form to taste through the offerings but to do so with a mind to the people behind you.  Please don’t stand there talking to the cute salesboy (or girl) for ever once it’s your turn up at the front.   If a winery is pouring more than three wines and there’s a big line, it’s considered polite to choose your favorite two or three to try, rather than go methodically through the whole lineup.  The person behind you will undoubtedly nominate you for “best supporting actor” if you step aside to enjoy your last pour away from the tasting bar so others can take your place.

-Keep the perfume in check. Some of you know that my secret hobby is collecting perfume.  In fact, on my upcoming trip to Provence, one of the highlights will be a perfume factory tour and personalized perfume blending session in Grasse.  Whenever I’m at work, however, it’s sans perfume for this winemaker.  And it should be for you too.  Don’t worry about the scent of your shampoo or soap, but please don’t pile on the after-shave or the eau de parfum.  Your fellow tasters will thank you.

-Practice safe travelling.  You all know about designating a driver, taking a cab or making sure your hotel has a shuttle.  There are a lot of options in the Valley, so take advantage of them.

Use an app like Delectable to help you take tasting notes

Use an app like Delectable to help you take tasting notes

Come Prepared

To get the most out of a multi-winery tasting event, it pays to come armed with info.  Check out the event website (for the NVFF, see page 117 of the official Napa Valley Film Fest program for a guide to the event’s multi-city Wine Pavilions).  Get the lay of the land, research who will be there and which are the top wineries you’re hoping to taste.  By marking your own personal highlights, you’ll be sure to budget your time and taste buds wisely.  Try to taste from small producers, lesser-known wineries or brands that might actually have the Winemaker or owner pouring.  You’ll learn so much more and get a real feel for the winery that way, instead just walking away with an ounce of something you can buy at every chain restaurant in Ohio.  It also pays to arrive at the start of the event to walk once through the venue, scope it out, and then hit your top wineries before things get crazy.  Bring something to take notes with, be it an app like Delectable or old fashioned pen and paper.  I just know from my own experience, even after having tasted moderately, it’s tough to remember all your favorites after a whirlwind evening of tasting, nibbling, and “hello dahling!” cheek-kissing.

Spit (at least most of the time)

There’s a reason we place dump buckets at every table and tasting station.  No one ever expects anyone at a wine tasting to swallow.  Don’t worry, the winemaker won’t be offended.  I promise.  Also, drink water, be sure to nibble around if nibblies are offered (they should be at events worth their salt) and all else fails, channel Peter Mayle a la “A Year in Provence” and take a teaspoon of   olive oil, neat, to “coat the stomach” before lots of imbibing.  But it’s okay to swallow a sip or three of your favorites.  Just to experience the length of the finish.  Or at least that’s what you will tell your friends.

Wilfreds Ali Pen ShotTalk to me- and share!

This is not the best time or place to get into a debate about the merits of clone 667 vs. 777 for Pinot Noir, but I do want to know a bit about you.  Are you from out of town?  A film buff?  Was there something you enjoyed at the show last night?  I love to learn about people who love wine.  If you came to this tasting, or to taste Garnet wines for a specific purpose, say you’re industry or trade, or have just gotten into Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs, let me know.  That way I’ll make sure the few minutes we have together, before your friend gets back with that amuse bouche and tells you about the Colin Farrell sighting she just had, are well-spent.  Share your experience with others.  The #NVFF crowd is having fun on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Foodspotting….so many places to share your experiences.  Event hashtag #NVFF13 will help you stay connected, as will @GarnetVineyards and @NapaFilmFest.

Garnet Vineyards is proudly hosting a table at More Magazine and Women of the Vine’s  New Power Lunch , a “Celebration of Women Making a Difference” on Saturday at the Film Festival.  Get Tix Here!


Enjoy the 2013 Napa Valley Film Festival!  Passes still available for a fabulous weekend!


Here’s the 411:


Napa Valley Film Fest Website:

Event Hashtag: #NVFF13

Event Twitter Handle:  @NapaFilmFest

Garnet’s Website:

Garnet’s Twitter Handle:  @GarnetVineyards


Women of the Vine: