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

Alison Crowe’s GirlandtheGrape.com is “Best New Wine Blog”: Wine Blog Awards 2014

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Alison Crowe accepts the award for “Best New Wine Blog” in Santa Ynez Valley at the Wine Blogger’s Conference. 7/2/14

Girl and the Grape was thrilled to be voted “Best New Wine Blog” at the 2014 Wine Blog Awards this weekend in Buellton, CA at the 2014 Wine Bloggers Conference.

Given the excellence of the competition, being chosen for the award was an honor.  Accepting it in my home “stomping grounds” in Santa Barbara county, with many friends and colleagues in the audience, made it even more special.

I would like to give a big “Thank You” to the judges, the Conference organizers and to all the bloggers and wine writers who make this conference, and the wine blogosphere, a dynamic and exciting place to be. As a winemaker and a wine writer, I am indebted to Wilfred Wong and Randall Grahm, two wine professionals who also wield their pens with aplomb. I have had the privilege of working alongside both of these industry legends and have appreciated not only their friendship over the years but the lesson that winemaking and wine writing can go hand in hand. Grazie, gentlemen.

Girlandthegrape.com started as an idea I tossed about with friends on Facebook over a year ago and has now taken on a life of its own. I submit a hearty “Thank You” to Mike Meisner of Club Veritas who helped get me started on WordPress, to my many readers, and of course to my friends and family who have supported me throughout this journey. GirlandtheGrape.com would not be possible without my co-workers and colleagues in the California wine business who work so hard to grow grapes and make wine; this is not just my story but theirs too.

 

Alison Crowe is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards and other brands and lives in downtown Napa. Twitter: @alisoncrowewine

 

 

 

 

Scents of Place: Terroir Grows Beyond Grapes in Santa Barbara County

 

jasmineGrowing up in the sleepy little surf town of Carpinteria, just south of Santa Barbara , my first step on the path to becoming a winemaker had little to do with grapes, wine or my proximity to the now-famous “Sideways Country.”  It began with gardens.  I planted my first herb garden when I was about 11 years old because I was fascinated by the natural aromas that plants had:  how they got in there, how they developed and why they smelled so wonderful to my curious nose.

As I got older, I began smelling not just the lavender and jasmine in my mother’s seaside flower beds but also the glasses of Santa Barbara County wines my parents passed around the table while dining al fresco with friends.   As I learned about chemistry in high school I began to understand that some of the same exact components that create delicate aromas in a flower  or citrus zest can also be naturally present in grape skins.  When carefully tended by a skilled winemaker, these same perfumes can be captured and transferred from grapes into the finished wine.

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Photo: Frank Crowe

This weekend in Santa Barbara County, in Buellton to be exact, hundreds of wine bloggers will descend upon this quiet corner of the Central Coast and for three days will taste, tweet and network during the annual Wine Bloggers Conference.  Though wine will no doubt steal the aromatic show, via thousands of nose-in-glass selfies and group pictures with bottles, I would like to invite my fellow conference attendees to stop and smell something other than the Pinot.

The Central Coast has an amazing array of natural aromas to enjoy that, like its wines, are truly an expression of its “sense of place.”  Below are some of my favorites from growing up in Santa Barbara County.  From the hillside chaparral and the eucalyptus stands to the hedges of jasmine downtown or the salty-tar tang of the seaside, here is a collection of sensory souvenirs that can be just as intoxicating as the region’s fine wines.

 

orange blossom

Citrus Blossoms

Oranges and lemons have long been grown in Santa Barbara County and citrus groves dot the hillsides up and down the coast along Highway 101.  If you can (safely) pull over on a back country lane or at a winery rancho, be sure to bury your nose in some of these zesty and unforgettable blossoms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eucalptus

Eucalyptus Groves

Not native to the Central Coast, eucalyptus trees were imported in the 1800’s primarily as windbreaks and as a source of wood.  They quickly took root and their minty herbal smell, whether wafting through the wind or released from leaves crushed underfoot, is a Santa Barbara county scent signature.

 

 

 

Beer

Hops and Malted Barley

Our home-grown beer isn’t as world-famous as our wine, but Firestone-Walker Brewing Company and Carpinteria’s own Island Brewing Company are starting to change that.  Interestingly, the Wine Bloggers Conference home base, the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott, is just steps away from the Firestone-Walker Brewery so this is one Santa Barbara scent that, depending upon the time of day and the batch brewing at the moment, my fellow bloggers should be able to enjoy.

 

 

 

 

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Oak Wood Fired BBQ

Dating back to the simple culinary days of the Spanish Californios and the Mexican rancheros, Central Coast (sometimes called “Santa Maria Style”) BBQ is unique in the United States. No sticky-sweet barbecue sauce is allowed.  The only fuel employed is local coastal live oak.  Salt, and sometimes pepper and garlic powder are the only seasonings.  Sound boring?  Smell for yourself.

 

Rincon

Photo: Frank Crowe

Salty, Tarry Fog

Author Rex Pickett probably had booze rather than geography in mind when he came up with the book and movie title “Sideways,” but I’ve got my own more local explanation. Santa Barbara County’s coastline is unique in that it runs in an east-west direction as opposed to the traditional north-south orientation like the rest of the state.  This “sideways” effect creates east-west valleys that reach from the ocean into the warm interior, enabling cooling fogs to roll into the vineyards during the evenings.  Fortunately, for winemakers and wine lovers, this helps create ideal conditions for producing great Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and other fog-loving varietals.  Watch your step though;  The beaches of the Central Coast sometimes harbor bits of tar, products of a naturally occurring petroleum seepage just offshore.  If you’re at a winery close enough to the ocean sometimes this fog brings a little bit of a salty, tarry tang to the air with it….but I recommend actually getting to the beach if you can.  Luckily Gaviota State Beach is just a few miles down Highway 101 south of Buellton.

 

 

Though she lives in Napa today, Alison Crowe is a Napa-based consulting winemaker and a native of Santa Barbara County.  She is excited to attend her first Wine Bloggers Conference this weekend as a Wine Blog Awards finalist for “Best New Wine Blog” and to meet up with old friends and new.

 

Copyright Alison Crowe 2014

Garnet Vineyards:  @GarnetVineyards  www.garnetvineyards.com 

 

Harvest 2014: What Winemakers are Really Worrying About

Wildfires? Drought? Fraudulently labeled loads of grapes? Winemakers have a lot to worry about going into this harvest season. We’ll be picking, crushing and pressing in a historical water shortage on top of two big back to back harvests, trying to fit it all into the cellar. In addition, it looks like the crop will be about two weeks earlier than average. That being said, let’s talk about the serious stuff. Below are the things winemakers are really worrying about going into Harvest 2014.

A winery can be like a mini-United Nations during harvest.  Sometimes negotiations are in order.

A winery can be like a mini-United Nations during harvest. Sometimes negotiations are in order.

Argentina. Chile. France:
No, it’s not the quarterfinals of the World Cup. These are the countries of origins of your winemaking interns for this harvest. Though the wine industry has a long and storied tradition of importing viticulture and enology students to help sample the vineyards and clean the barrels, it’s also part of the deal to house them, feed them and throw down a few yellow cards once in a while. Whether the interns will get along, if the Argentinians and Chileans will come to blows over the finer points of emapanada-making (no one from Mendoza would ever fry an empanada, gracias very much) or whether the French will scoff at the great coffee vs. yerba mate debate are all valid intern-management concerns. Thank goodness that by the time they all have to bunk together at the vineyard house the World Cup will be over.

 

 

Forget about the grapes- bringing in all the equipment before the grapes are ripe is the tough part.

Forget about the grapes- bringing in all the equipment before the grapes are ripe is the tough part.

Blunnies, Foss and Bucher:
I’ve got a winemaking buddy that is desperately trying to order a pair of special-width Blundstone work boots before the grapes start flying. The lab staff is worrying whether the Foss service rep will come by, the neighboring “garage winery” is tracking the international shipping container carrying a spare (and important!) Bucher press bladder and really hoping there won’t be a port strike holding up our barrel deliveries. We know where the grapes are. They won’t move until we say so. This time of year it’s all about making sure all the other stuff we need to make the wine, especially stuff that comes from overseas, gets to us on time.

 

Taqueria:  The Ultimate Harvest Food Group

Taqueria: The Ultimate Harvest Food Group

Luna, Esperanza, Texanita:
No, these are not new wine brands targeting Hispanic millennials but in fact are your primary source of sustenance. We all are checking whether our favorite mission-critical wine country taquerias and taco truck are a) still in business, b) still going to be opening up at 5:00 AM for breakfast service 7 days a week starting September 1 and c) are going to be permanently stationed in our parking lot due to high demand from the cellar crew. The taco truck’s tinny “La Cucaracha” horn might irk the first tasting room visitors rolling up during mid-morning break…but don’t give their raised eyebrows and sniffs of scorn a second thought.  Heck, invite them over.  How else will they ever learn that a super-grande breakfast burrito with extra chorizo  is indeed wine country cuisine at its finest?

 

 

It takes a lot of good beer to make good wine!

It takes a lot of good beer to make good wine!

Arrogant Bastard, Pliny and Rasputin:
When it’s 11:00 at night and everyone’s been going strong since 7:00 AM, we’re all crush pad philosophers. And one thing we never have to debate is that it takes a lot of good beer to make good wine. We all have our favorites. The 2012 crush crew in our Garnet Vineyards cellar pined for Pliny. Another buddy a few doors down our the 8th st. winery complex in Sonoma practically went through pallets of Pabst. When I was making estate Pinot Noir up in the Santa Cruz Mountains at Byington Winery we traded cases of our wine for the house-made beer of a swanky Los Gatos restaurant down the hill. Whether it’s the pony keg in the lab fridge or the bottles stashed in the break room, if it’s Harvest then there must be beer.

 

What are you thinking about as Harvest 2014 approaches? Leave me a comment!

 

Alison Crowe has slogged in cellars from Napa and Sonoma to Argentina and Santa Barbara.

This blog is a finalist for “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards.  Gracias to my fellow honorees!

 

 

Vintage Shrubs: A Winemaker’s DIY Summer Sipper

Shrubs are vinegar and fruit syrups that, when mixed with sparkling water, create an interesting- and historical- drink option for summer sipping.

Shrubs are vinegar and fruit syrups that, when mixed with sparkling water, create an interesting- and historical- drink option for summer sipping.

As I prepared to host a casual backyard barbecue at our place in Napa a few weeks ago, I realized I was tired of my go-to non-alcoholic drinks.  Sparkling water.  Yawn.  Sparkling water with juice and a twist.  Double yawn.

And then I  remembered a conversation I’d had with Matt Kettmann of the Santa Barbara Independent and now new Central Coast Wine Guy (not his official title) for Wine Enthusiast.  We had met for lunch at Finch & Fork in downtown Santa Barbara a couple of months ago when I was home for vacation.  Refreshingly, rather than the usual winemaker-wine writer shop talk (“How’s harvest looking?” “This wine has 30% new oak.”) we found ourselves chatting about home winemaking, Santa Barbara’s exploding tasting room scene and….shrubs.

No, these shrubs are not the kind you prune or the kind you bring The Knights who say “Ni!” but the kind you drink. Stemming from the Arabic word sharāb, which means “to drink,” shrubs have their origin in the Middle Ages as an herbal medicinal beverage and then emerged into seventeenth century Europe as a concentrated syrup made of vinegar, water and sugar.  As a lover of food and drink history I have long enjoyed researching recipes from such sources as Jane Austen’s family “receipt book” and Victorian housekeeping manuals. Over the years I’ve come across recipes for sundry shrubs and “cordials” in these antique cookery books.  The concept is easy to understand from an historical householder’s point of view. Submerging ripe summer fruit in a solution of vinegar and sugar helped preserve part of an abundant (and quickly-spoiling) harvest while creating a tart, fruit-flavored liquid as the fruit macerated in vinegar over time.  In an era before commercial sodas and prepared cocktails, mixing 1-2 oz. of this “drinking vinegar” with about a cup of cold or sparkling water (which was increasingly available in the eighteenth century) created a refreshing, flavorful drink.

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Mint makes the perfect aromatic garnish for iced fruit shrubs.

Today, shrubs are enjoying a renaissance in trendy restaurants and bars (especially, it seems, in produce-rich wine country) but you don’t have to travel to someone else’s watering hole to enjoy these handcrafted sippers.  I started experimenting with shrubs in my kitchen because I was looking for interesting (but low-calorie, natural and non-alcoholic) beverages to enjoy with my family and guests.   What I’ve found is that making a fresh fruit shrub is cheap, easy and delicious.  They can be thrown together from ingredients and with equipment you probably already have on hand.

Below is a “Pick-a-Fruit” shrub recipe that I’ve developed based on historical techniques to utilize whatever fruit you can rustle up at the farmer’s market or in your backyard.  Call it the “Choose-Your-Own Adventure” of DIY beverage-making.  I started with wine-based vinegar (naturally) but don’t be afraid to branch out into other interesting vinegars (I even experimented with a banana vinegar sold by Rancho Gordo!).   Beware of balsamic vinegars and their ilk since they will mask the pure fruit flavor and of course can be quite expensive.  Use organic produce if possible and don’t be afraid to tweak the amounts given. The key thing is for the fruit to be completely submerged in the vinegar during the week’s maceration time.

Fresh strawberries and red wine vinegar are a delightful combination.

Fresh strawberries and red wine vinegar are a delightful combination.

The level of sweetness is up to you.  Some of the old recipes call for a 1:1 ratio of fruit, vinegar and sugar but as I prefer my drinks drier (my friends know I prefer “ultra-brut” sparkling wine and bone-dry Chardonnay) don’t be afraid to add more sugar if that’s to your taste.  Grab some herbs from your garden or window box to garnish the finished product, serve with cute straws over ice and there you have it!  Shrubs are the perfect potable project for lazy summer weekends and will reward your senses (and your sense of DIY accomplishment) all season long.

 

 

 

Girl and the Grape’s Vintage “Pick-A-Fruit Shrub” Recipe

A “drinking vinegar” syrup to dilute with water or sparkling water for flavorful summer sipping. This versatile recipe is inspired by many I’ve read in Victorian and Georgian cookery books, including Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management and Jane Austen’s family’s recipe collection.

Yield:  Makes about 1/2 cup of concentrated syrup, which will provide 4-6 drinks depending on desired strength.

Note:  This recipe can be easily doubled, but the 8 oz jar size allows you to experiment with multiple flavors in small batches

 

Equipment:

-8 oz glass canning jar with screw-on lid

-Fine mesh strainer

-1-cup liquid measuring cup (with pour spout)

 

Wildcrafted blackberries from the creeks in our vineyards lend their rich color and flavor to summer drinks.

Wildcrafted blackberries from the creeks in our vineyards lend their rich color and flavor to summer drinks.

Choose your vinegar (about ¾ cup, or enough to cover fruit):

-Champagne vinegar

-White wine vinegar

-Red wine vinegar

(Note- strong, sweet or otherwise flavored vinegars are quite potent and do not let the fruit flavors shine through.  Other “lighter” vinegars like rice wine vinegar, white balsamic vinegars or even apple cider vinegars can also be used.  I experimented with Steve Sando’s Rancho Gordo Banana vinegar to great success.  I would not use anything too robust like Balsamic, however.)

Shrubs can be diluted to taste.  I prefer a less-sweet drink with more sparkling water.

Shrubs can be diluted to taste. I prefer a less-sweet drink with more sparkling water.

Choose your sweetener:

-1/4 cup sugar

-1/4 cup sugar and 2 tbs honey

-1/3 C agave nectar

Note:  Agave nectar is not “period” but since it’s so popular right now I wanted to include alternatives

Choose your fruit: 

½ C of any of the below fresh fruit:

-Strawberries (washed, hulled and sliced)

-Apricots (washed, pitted and sliced)

-Plums (washed, pitted and sliced)

-Blueberries (washed and slightly crushed)

-Blackberries (washed and slightly crushed)

 

Suggested flavor combinations: 

-Strawberries:  red wine vinegar

-Apricots:  Champagne vinegar

-Plums:  White wine vinegar

-Blueberries:  ½ red wine and ½ Champagne vinegar

-Blackberries:  ½ red wine and 1/2 white wine vinegar

Pick herbs and flowers from your garden to garnish your glasses.

Pick herbs and flowers from your garden to garnish your glasses.

In-glass accents:

When serving, try cucumber slices, mint sprigs, basil sprigs, lavender stalks or citrus peel as garnishes for extra aroma, flavor and visual appeal.

Method:

Cover the prepared fruit and sweetener with your vinegar of choice.  Shake well to combine and dissolve any sugar crystals.  Shake twice a day for two weeks, keeping jar in a dark, cool place.  Strain contents into measuring cup, gently pressing down on fruit to extract liquid.  Pour into clean jar and label with contents and date.

To Serve: 

Combine 1-2 oz of the shrub syrup with about 1 C cold still or sparkling water, to taste.  It is also historically accurate to include a 1/2 oz of rum or an ounce of red or white wine.  Garnish as desired.  Cucumber and mint are two of my favorites.

 

Fresh apricots waiting to be washed and sliced.

Fresh apricots waiting to be washed and sliced.

 

Alison Crowe is a Winemaker and lives in an old Victorian house in downtown Napa with her husband and two small boys.   Twitter:  @alisoncrowewine  girlandthegrape.com is a finalist for “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blogger Awards! 

 

 

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

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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.

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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 Wine.com) 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:  Girlandthegrape.com 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 www.facebook.com/GarnetVineyards.

Girlandthegrape.com Finalist for Wine Blog Awards 2014-“Best New Wine Blog”!! Vote now!

Vote for AliDo you like winemaking, life and the dirt straight from a real winemaker?

 

If so, give girlandthegrape.com a big ol’ “Yes ma’am!” for “Best New Wine Blog” at the annual vote-fest at the Wine Blog Awards!

 

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

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

 

Bloom: The secret scent of vineyards

Pinot in bloom- Stanly Ranch, Carneros

Pinot in bloom- Stanly Ranch, Carneros

What does a vineyard smell like?  If you’re fortunate enough to be around vineyards in the middle of Spring, you might find out if you can catch the vines when they’re in the midst of  that fleeting week or two called “Bloom.”  This is when the developing grape clusters actually flower, get fertilized and begin their true journey to become this harvest’s grape crop.

 

Tiny flower

One tiny flower has started to appear on this soon-to-be grape cluster

 

 

Some express surprise that grapes actually flower.  It’s not perhaps the most glamorous part of the wine year, and certainly never seems to get much attention in the media.  Indeed, it is probably one of the quietest times of the growing season.  The pruning crews are long gone and the tractors have done most of their post-winter tilling.  The danger of frost season is largely over.  Harvest is still many long months away and winemakers have their heads buried deep in their barrel stacks and their bottling lines.   Attention is focused elsewhere.

 

In the meantime, screens of vine leaves obscure the drama quietly unfolding underneath. Push aside a saucer-sized leaf and you’ll reveal a thumb’s length of yellow-green nubs, each crowned with a tuft of cream-colored threads.  Carefully wave away the drowsing bumblebee and bury your nose in the soft texture of the developing grape cluster.  Inhale.  Until the grapes are crushed and fermentation begins, this is the only time you’ll be able to immerse yourself in the scent of a grape.

bloom

Flower petals look like tiny cream-colored threads atop what will eventually become each individual grape berry.

 

So what does a vineyard smell like?  Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir, at 10:01 in the morning on May 1, 2014 smelled like the skin of a sun-warmed D’Anjou pear, the flesh of a fuji apple and a slice of a barely-ripe honeydew melon.

The aroma of a blooming grape cluster is sweet without being cloying and like the scent of violets, is ephemeral and doesn’t satiate. It’s impossible to stop sniffing because the aroma of Bloom, like the time of the year itself, is subtle, beautiful and fleeting.

 

 

 

 

Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and is fascinated by the world of scent and loves how aromas stir our memories and touch our souls.

Facebook:  www.Facebook.com/GarnetVineyards    Twitter:  @GarnetVineyards

Like this blog?  Nominate me for “Best Winery Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards!

Copyright Alison Crowe 2014

 

 

Pinot Kegger: I Tapped a Keg and I Liked It

 

Garnet's first keg of 2012 Monterey Pinot was tapped yesterday at Fish Story in Napa!

Garnet’s first keg of 2012 Monterey Pinot was tapped yesterday at Fish Story in Napa! (Photo Ken Waggoner, alawine.com)

It was with a little nervous trepidation that I stepped up to the bar at Fish Story to tap my first keg of wine.  I had invited 25 co-workers and close friends to help me tap Garnet Vineyard’s first ever Pinot Noir in a keg, which also happens to be my first ever wine in the keg.

 

About a month or so ago, I was contemplating the wine kegging process and learned a lot about how the actual kegging process workd.  Now that we’ve since put the wine in the kegs themselves, my questions have turned to other quarters.

 

 

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?

How would a wine-serving process and premise so very different from the traditional bottle deliver?  Would the nose, color, taste or texture of my precious Pinot Noir be different?  Most importantly, would it be good?  Heck- would it be great?  I had to draw a glass, in this private moment before everyone showed up, to see for myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happily, I can report, I tapped a keg and I liked it!  Now I wasn’t really too worried, knowing that Free Flow Wines (the company that kegged up the wine for me) and Gwen Larson’s team at Fish Story were all experienced veterans in this wildly-growing world of wine-on-tap. Fish StoryThe Lark Creek Restaurant Group, of which Fish Story is a member, was an early adopter of the wine on tap movement and Free Flow has become the go-to partner for quality-conscious winemakers getting their wine into kegs.

 

 

 

 

freeflowkegs

We “kegged up” 2012 Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir at Free Flow Wines in Napa about a month ago. photo: www.freeflowwines.com

I was the inexperienced one this time, and I’m glad to report (all my kegger invitees back me up, here) that the wine tasted great.  My Assistant Winemaker, Barbara and I had delivered the wine to Free Flow’s south-Napa winery/kegging facility about a month prior and had watched with fascination as their precision-engineered machine (custom made in Germany- by a beer company!) cleaned, sanitized and then filled rows of gleaming silver kegs with our Pinot Noir.

 

 

Doing wine in a keg is an interesting decision for a winery to make.  I had heard about the much “greener” aspect of the technology and anecdotally from hearing about the process understood how a layer of inert argon gas can protect flavors of the wine.  Naturally I was extremely excited to guarantee that what arrived in a restaurant customer’s glass was the very best I could offer and wasn’t the oxidized dregs of a half-open bottle from yesterday.  Who wants to subject the wine-drinking public to that- yuck!  But what about the cost savings?  Isn’t it cheaper for wineries to do wine in kegs?

 

Believe it or not, it actually costs me slightly more to package my wine in a keg, due to the state of the art technology, the additional cost of the keg-retrieval service and other things.  I don’t have to buy corks, capsules and labels of course but start to finish its essentially a wash.  So why do it?  What are some kegtopof the benefits of doing wine in a keg?  Read on kind Garnet-fans and I think you’ll agree with me why it’s worth showing up for the party:

  • Guaranteed freshest wine from the 1st glass to last!
  • No oxidation, no corkage, no spoilage
  • Every glass of wine gets to you just as I intended it to taste
  • It’s the “green” choice  – massive reduction in carbon footprint compared to bottles
  • Reusable kegs can be used for over 30 years
  • No waste to the landfill – Each reusable steel keg saves over 2,340 lbs of trash from the landfill over its lifetime

 

The Cru

Here’s to a Pinot Kegger! Left to Right: Ann Davis, Grace Hoffman, Tristan Fairbanks, Mark Buckley, Ken Waggoner, Alison Crowe, Thea Dwelle, Tim McDonald

So how did it taste?  Pretty darn great.  From what I can tell, one of the coolest benefits of wine-in-a-keg is no bottle shock.  I know, I know, it’s anecdotal at this point( and what is bottle shock anyway? -more on that in future blog posts, I promise) but as I typically wait at least three months after I bottle a wine to let it “settle down” and “get over itself” I was thrilled that, a month after kegging, the wine tasted exactly as I wanted it to.

 

Judging by how low we tapped that keg for #Wine Wednesday, I think it tasted exactly as everyone else wanted it to as well!   Gwen and her team were flinging cute full and half-sized carafes left and right (she does 750 ml, 375 ml and glass-sized pours) as we dove into the sliders and sushi, snapping pictures and catching up.  It was a fun time to hoist a glass of wine-on-tap 2012 Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir….and to get ready for our next keg run!

 

Red Solo Cup liked it too!

Red Solo Cup liked it too!

 

 

Please visit our friends at Fish Story in downtown Napa!  Say hi to Chef Scott and Beverage Director Gwen Larson, whose staff gave us a keggin’ good time.

Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards.  Find her on www.facebook.com/GarnetVineyards, on Instagram and on Twitter @GarnetVineyards.

copyright Alison Crowe 2014

 

Breaking Bud: The Bad Side of a Nice Season

Arrrgh!  The joys (the mustard!) and the heartbreak (the frost danger!) of the "Budbreak" season

Arrrgh! The joys (the mustard!) and the heartbreak (the frost danger!) of the “Budbreak” season

Just like TV’s favorite good guy/bad guy Walter White, there’s a lot of positive and negative about the season we call “bud break.”  On one hand, it’s an exciting and exhilarating time when our vines wake up and the buds start pushing out the shoots which will turn into this Harvest’s grapes.

Poppies!

Poppies!

 

                 There are gorgeous sights to be had out in the field:  stands of poppies, rows of mustard, velvety cover crops and of course, the stars of the show, our developing grape canopy and clusters. 

On the other hand, there are some potentially not-so-beautiful experiences to be had:  frost, continued drought, or even maybe crop-damaging hail.  It’s a stressful time where we worry about how cold those nights will get or how much (or how little!) rainfall will manifest as the days creep by into late spring when warmer night temperatures take away a lot of the worry.

Though we’d like to see more storms and rain during this early growing season (we need it!), the main concern is frost, especially given the 2014  bud break which is tracking a week or two ahead of average. 

Cloudy skies have kept killing frost at bay...for now.

Cloudy skies have kept killing frost at bay…for now.

What that means is that there are potentially two weeks’ more of nights where we could experience frost and subsequent damage to the emerging buds, resulting in stunted green growth and lost crop.  Based on bud counts, shoot counts and just because I don’t think Mother Nature can hand us three bumper crops in a row, 2014 isn’t shaping up to be a big harvest season to begin with.  Adding insult to injury, we are still in water-challenged conditions in California, which means that there could be little (and in some areas, no) access to extra water for frost protection (using sprinklers in cold conditions counter-intuitively can prevent buds from freezing). 

The weather forecast is looking great- let's let it hang!

Next week’s weather should look like this- pretty for taking vineyard pictures but clear skies mean more frost potential.

   So far, the Napa and Sonoma frost forecast into next week looks pretty good and continued cloud cover and rainy weather will keep nighttime temperatures above freezing.  As we clear up into next week, however, those clear night skies mean colder temperatures could set in even as we get sunnier and warmer days.  Cue the AMC (and the wind machines), grab some popcorn and a glass of Pinot Noir and be prepared for some “Breaking Bad”-style Jekyll and Hyde behavior.  It’s always exciting to be in the vineyard in the springtime but we could be in for some cold criminal action! 

Grab a glass of Pinot, it could be a wild frost season!

Grab a glass of Pinot, it could be a wild frost season!

Alison Crowe is the winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and is keeping tabs on vineyards in Carneros, Russian River, Sonoma Coast and Monterey appelations.  Follow her on Twitter @GarnetVineyards or on facebook.com/GarnetVineyards for the latest on the developing season!