There’s something magical and perhaps slightly moribund about the end of the Harvest season in wine country. One or two forgotten grape clusters still cling, with mummified grip, to the dessicated vines and the yellow and brown leaves crunch underfoot on the vineyard floor as they slowly rot into next year’s compost. Wintry winds whistle around the corners of wineries and we look up at the grey stones and lichen-encrusted oak trees and wonder if they don’t have their own ghost stories to tell. Below is a true “Wine Country” ghost story as told to me by my friend John Corcoran who lives just over the county line in Sonoma. John is a well-traveled and well known figure in the wine business who graciously accepted my invitation to re-tell a personal ghostly encounter here on my wine blog. Who doesn’t love a good ghost story? It’s especially intriguing when it happened to someone you know.
John’s Burgundian Ghost Story: “In 1981 I was living in an apartment in the attic of the wine merchant Labouré-Roi in Nuits-Saint-Georges. It was a dark, cold rainy fall night, just after harvest. The wind was making the doors and windows shake and the floorboards creak. I heard a clink, clink, clink sound on the long stairway leading up to my bedroom. Suddenly the door shook like the door in Disney’s Haunted Mansion. I jumped up and opened the door and was greeted by a chill. A chill that made me shudder. I turned around to see the faint image of a man in chains walk across the room and disappear through the wall.
The next morning, I shared my story with the gérant. Jean Louis shrugged and told me that I had just seen the resident ghost. A French resistance fighter who the Gestapo had captured and kept captive in the cellar of the winery towards the end of WW II. The man had tried to escape before, so he was chained to the wall. He managed over several days to work himself free and headed up the back staircase to the attic. The wall that he seemed to walk through was, at the time, a door to the attached inn.The inn had served as housing for Gestapo officers occupying the region, which had been a center of the French Resistance. He walked in on a group having a late dinner. He was shot and killed on the same date that 36 years later he walked through my bedroom. An act that he repeated on the anniversary of his escape attempt and death.
Yes, history has a way of repeating itself, even the history of a courageous man who gave his life for the chance of freedom. A history kept alive each year in early October, in an old chateau in the middle of a small French wine town.”
Stay tuned for a more local edition of Real Haunted Wine Country: a Grass Valley Tasting Room Ghost
Many thanks to John Corcoran of Balance Beam Partners.
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. When she has time, she plays tennis, cooks for friends and family, writes the occasional wine article and loves to hear the odd ghost story.
In addition to making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for Garnet Vineyards, I consult for a wide array of wineries and brands around the state of California. Every Harvest I crush quite a few tons for my clients and work out of a number of wineries from Napa to Sonoma to the Central Coast. You could say I get around. What that means is, aside from seeing some beautiful scenery and getting to work with a lot of wonderful people, I get a pretty good view of what happens across the state during Harvest.
You’ve probably already heard the chatter: “Early.” “Fast.” “High Quality” (the latter the standard rote from all of the regional vintners’ associations.) However, you may not have heard all that I did as I traveled, worked and shared the occasional beer with my grape-growing and winemaking colleagues during this fast and furious crush season. Below are some lesser-known bits of winemaking insight and what they might mean for the developing wines of Harvest 2014.
Harvest wasn’t early everywhere or for every varietal
In the North Coast, where I live and where my operations are based, Chardonnay was actually quite late. I got into the bulk of my Russian River Chardonnay only after I started pulling in Alexander Valley Cab, which in ten years of working with my current slate of vineyards has never happened. On the Central Coast last week I had friends that were still waiting for some Zins and Carignane to ripen, which is odd for their relatively warm Paso Robles climate. Here in Napa, one of my Oak Knoll Cabernet vineyards which is typically among the first to come in was one of my last this year, as I waited longer than anticipated for the flavors to really “pop”.
The consequences of this atypical ripening pattern were largely twofold. First, wineries had a bit of a tough time pressing finished red fermentations while pressing incoming whites. Unless you have multiple presses (or want rose wine) you have to carefully clean red skins from the press before loading in white grapes. This, coupled with cellars already crowded with wine from the bountiful 2012 and 2013 vintages made for tight quarters, long hours and frazzled nerves. So far from what I’ve seen, wineries pulled off miracles but it makes me wonder if all winemakers got their fruit processed exactly when they desired. Secondly, the flip-flopped ripening order made 2014 a year where, especially, you had to be in the vineyard early and often to determine the perfect “pick window”. This Harvest’s ideal moment for picking any given block was unpredictable and it’s likely that winemakers who just relied on Brix reports (and didn’t even visit the vineyard until sugars hit 25.0) missed it.
2014 could be the perfect “low alcohol” year for some reds
Looking for “lower alcohol” red wines that might clock in at 13.0% rather than more typical levels above 14.50% alcohol? 2014 might be a year to watch from your favorite producers, especially those who make Pinot Noir as well as Napa and Alexander Valley Merlots. These varietals came in from my vineyards up north and on the Central Coast at record early dates and most had reached full flavor and tannin maturity at brixes well under 25.0. Pyrazines (a dreaded “bell pepper” aroma indicative of unripe Cabernet and Merlot) even disappeared early, further indicating a high-quality, lower-brix pick date. I attribute all this to the warm, largely frost-free growing season we had on the North and Central Coasts as well as some propitious late winter rains that helped keep soil profiles relatively full except in the driest spots. Stanly Ranch Carneros Pinot Noir at 23.8 Brix on August 28th? Flavors were there, the balance was there, and tannins were ripe so I ignored the calendar and picked it. Based on what I just tasted in barrel yesterday, another year from now I know I’ll still be glad that I did.
Mid-October rains are not worrying winemakers (for once)
A major mid-October rainstorm in Northern California would normally be call for alarm during any typical Harvest season. Instead of worrying winemakers in what would usually be the height of the picking panic, the high probability of a few wet days this week is being welcomed by almost everyone I know. Unlike most years, just about every grape is in the barn, happily fermenting away, or just scooting in before tonight’s predicted raindrops are slated to start falling. Like “noble rot” dessert wines, those which get their concentrated sugars and distinctive, luscious flavors from indigenous vineyard molds? This extra moisture will surely encourage the growth of Botrytis cinerea and wines from producers like Napa’s Oro Puro and Foley Johnson should be especially fabulous from the 2014 season.
So believe the hype. Harvest 2014 was early (mostly). It was also fast, unless you’re still hanging your Semillon waiting for Botrytis to cover your clusters with a fuzzy grey blanket. And yes, you can believe the vintners’ associations too. I don’t know how we got off so easily, but statewide, Mother Nature blessed us with a flavorful, colorful, high quality Harvest- for a third time in a row. Now let’s just hope she comes through with a really wet winter.
Copyright Alison Crowe 2014.
News choppers no longer disturb the early morning quiet and in their place dozens of colorful hot air balloons soar silently above our back deck. The coffee is on, the kids are still asleep and the paper is on the front stoop . Must be a normal Sunday morning in downtown Napa.
Except the neighbor’s electricity is still off, a new rash of red tags has invaded the area and I just noticed a an empty space on the kitchen wall. One of my framed vintage citrus crate labels must have been swept up in the shards of glass and china that covered the kitchen floor this time last week. I guess I just didn’t see it had fallen until now. Trivial and minor compared to what some people are missing.
In last week’s 6.1 earthquake we lost a lot of glassware, dishes and mirrors. We have neighbors who lost a whole lot more.
Especially now that the news crews are gone, it’s important to keep attention on the plight of those worse off than many of us are. Though some think of Napa as a posh playground for the privileged, it takes a lot of regular folks to keep it working, and many of them live right here downtown in the area hardest-hit by the quake. As in so many disasters, it is the least who can afford it that are suffering the most.
Below is a list of ways you can help, even if you don’t live in the area.
-Over 95% of Napa Valley businesses, restaurants and wineries are open. Downtown Napa is passable, functional and open for business with any damaged buildings marked off. Your dollars help support the dishwashers, servers, cellar workers and tasting room staff that keep our world-famous wineries and restaurants going. Over 95% of businesses in Napa are open. Here is a list of places still closed- check back frequently!
-Coordination for volunteer labor is being done by the Volunteer Center of Napa, which is operating out of Grace Community Church at 3765 Solano Avenue, Napa CA. Call the center at 707-252-6222.
-Show support for your favorite Napa winery by buying a bottle- or three!
Besides shopping downtown, you can always buy products from local businesses online.
-Matthiasson Family “Quake Cuvee” Blend. All after-tax profits from sales of this special blend will be going to the above relief fund. Jill and Steve suffered particularly hard losses in wine inventory, as well as damage to their house, which was red-tagged by the city.
-Napa Valley #PressOn T-Shirt. Wear your hashtag on your sleeve and profits will go to the Community Disaster Relief Fund.
There are many ways to contribute funds that will stay local and will go directly to the community’s needs. Additionally, there are some business and individual-specific initiatives that could use your help.
-Napa Chapter of the Red Cross. According to the City, donations made to the local chapter will be kept here.
-Napa County Landmarks, donate here. Many of our historical buildings suffered significant damage and it will take love- and money- to rebuild and retrofit.
-Napa County Humane Society, donate here. Many people have lost pets due to the quake and the Humane Society can use funds for sheltering and feeding recovered pets.
-13-year old Nicholas Dillon was almost killed when his family’s fireplace collapsed on his back, shattering his pelvis. Contribute to his medical care fund at Bank of America: Nicholas Dillon: savings account 1641-0344-2511.
-Jason Moore of Modus Operandi started a “Go Fund Me” site to help feed and support the many Napa Valley volunteers who have been working around the clock to remove broken barrels and debris from area businesses. You can see some cool pictures and video taken by one of my favorite winemaking professors, Dr. Carole Meredith, at the Lagier Meredith Vineyards Facebook page. I encourage you to give them a “like”!
-Sala Salon’s “Go Fund Me” site: Sala Salon, Napa’s Aveda hair and spa boutique, suffered catastrophic water damage after the quake and is closed. They even imported a fully functional mobile salon from Hollywood in an attempt to stay in business and the city inexplicably red-tagged it so that is shut down too. With bills to pay and employees to support, they are asking for a short term “loan” to help ends meet until insurance kicks in. Once they are back on their feet, all monies raised will be funneled into the Napa Valley Community Disaster Relief Fund. Click here to help them stay afloat and meanwhile, sign the online petition to remove the red tag from the “Sala Annex” trailer so they can keep serving the community.
Thanks for your help. A lot of people are without jobs and without homes and your assistance will help get them back on their feet. #DrinkNapa and stay #NapaStrong, everyone!
Alison Crowe is a winemaker and author who lives in old downtown Napa with her family. email@example.com @alisoncrowewine
I am not affiliated with any of the above organizations and don’t endorse one charity over another. Like you, I hope that donations made are appropriately allocated.
Copyright Alison Crowe 2014
It’s Not Any Other Day in Napa
Driving North from the intersection of Hwy 29 and Silverado Trail, from my office towards my house in the old Downtown, you’d think it was any normal Monday afternoon in Napa. Joggers and mountain bikers fresh from completing their Skyline to Kennedy Park loop trail, flatbeds with grape bins rumbling down the highway, car dealerships with colorful banners flying- all signs of a sunny late-August day in Napa. However, as I approach downtown I can see the yellow caution tape and “Roads Closed” signs at Suscol and First and knots of kids on bikes crossing the now three-sided intersection. Schools are all closed, helicopters slice through the sky and driving by slowly it’s possible to see ugly swathes of plywood slapped across the front of cute Victorian cottages. Stacks of dusty bricks slouch into the street and “Do Not Cross” tape festoons the block like party decorations with a bad sense of humor. It’s definitely not a normal day here in Wine Country.
Damage not Uniform-Many Unscathed
From all reports, however, damage is hit-or-miss. Thankfully, there was nobody out and about downtown and even more importantly, nobody working in the tight barrel stacks when it all came crashing down. For every winemaker I’ve heard from with barrels on their sides there are five that are reporting little to no damage. I am happy to report I was one of the lucky ones. I consult for a number of different brands in addition to being the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and between my many tanks, barrels and bottles at three wineries and one warehouse within 10 miles of the epicenter, I lost about 50 bottles of sample wine. I can’t believe it. I also can’t believe my heartache for friends and colleagues who are suffering injuries and losses.
I anticipate tomorrow we will know a lot more about the true extent of the losses and now that we’ve all had a chance to clean up the broken glass in our homes and hug our kids (my two are OK), we’re checking winery building integrity, checking in with neighbors and seeing who needs help.
Need Help/Want to Help?
There is a post-earthquake clean-up and help forum here:
There is a Napa Valley Earthquake 2014 page on Facebook where people can list things they need or find help.
The city of Napa has a rundown of current red-tag buildings as well as community resources here.
The Napa Valley Vintners has been updating reports from their website, with current local industry stats as well as resources for vintners.
Phil Burton of Barrel Builders is offering a handy barrel-lifting tool for vintners struggling to right upended stacks. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 707-953-9516
Support Local Businesses- Many Are Open
Many are suggesting that one of the best ways to help us all recover from this terrible event is to go buy a bottle of wine from your favorite local winery. If you buy direct from someone’s website, more of the margin goes directly back to them. I would also add that though the pictures of the damage being reported in the media are very real, Downtown Napa is not a destruction zone. Plenty of hotels, restaurants and businesses are open just like usual and tasting rooms are welcoming visitors throughout the valley. Oxbow Public Market, just steps from the most devastated areas, is serving food and wine to hungry folks just like normal.
Back to Normal, Slowly
I hear the Wine Train will be running tomorrow. Friends that have finished up their sparkling wine pressing are opening their cellar doors to help neighbors who may need some spare crush pad space. I’m still reliving the violent shaking every time I close my eyes but I know the chance of aftershocks lessens every hour. I’ve got grapes scheduled to come in Friday. It’s Harvest after all. I think we’re getting back to normal here in Napa. Slowly.
Reach me: @alisoncrowewine email@example.com
Slideshow of Downtown damage by photographer Chris Purdy here.
copyright Alison Crowe 2014
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.
Ever throw a casual cocktail party where you tell friends to just “drop on by anytime” after dinner and to “feel free to bring some people along”? Ideally, a steady stream of pleasant company trickles through, keeping you entertained until you wave a fond “goodnight” to the last guests. Your homemade canapés paired perfectly with the Champagne, all stemware made it safely back to the kitchen and a satisfyingly genteel time was had by all.
For better or worse, the Harvest 2014 Party in California is shaping up to be less Martha Stewart and more Holly Golightly. Everyone will show up early, the Sauvignon Blanc is going to invite the entire neighborhood and the Cab and Syrah (now that’s an interesting couple) are going to be barging into the foyer just as the Pinot Noir is attempting to leave. I took a quick drive around my north coast vineyards yesterday and after tasting through early-pickers like Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc and Carneros Pinot Noir as well as latecomers like Napa Cab, all I can say is that Harvest 2014 is going to be one heck of a rager.
Here’s the 411 on Harvest 2014:
-It’s Early: After walking through vineyards yesterday and looking through my Brix reports, I confirmed what I was guessing: I am tracking a good week or two ahead of 2013, and two to three weeks earlier than average. This is my tenth harvest working with my current slate of vineyards from Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast and this year will be my earliest pick ever. Last year I started picking Sauvignon Blanc on September 2. This year it will be August 20.
-It Ain’t Small: OK, maybe statewide it won’t be as big as 2013 but it won’t be wimpy either. Depending on where you get your grapes be prepared for some healthy crops even though there seem to be hens and chicks and some pockets of mediocre set. Different than last year: big berries in some vineyards. Clear the decks.
-It’s Gonna be Fast: A picture-perfect growing season and water at just the right times (late winter rains for the North Coast at least) have set up vascular systems and tissues into ideal ripening and sugar-accumulation mode. Red varietals, like Oak Knoll Cabernet at our Red Hen vineyard for example, are already showing significant seed browning, berry softening and pyrazine reduction. This means 2014 could be a banner year for those making lower-alcohol red wines but it will also mean the reds will be hard on the heels of the whites. This is one gathering that’s going to have plenty of gate crashers, and they’re all going to be looking for some space to party.
-It’s Gonna be Awesome: Luckily, even though it’s going to be early, fast, and sizeable, Harvest 2014 is shaping up to be a party to remember. Quality across all AVA’s I’ve tasted is looking to be just as great as 2013 and possibly even better. Lest you turn into a nervous host, remember that sometimes the most insane parties are the ones that get talked about for years afterwards. So what if a little Riedel gets broken and you end up ordering pizza at 3:00 AM (no one will care it’s not Tra Vigne)? Knock on lots of Tronçais, Mother Nature will not only continue to smile indulgently upon us but will leave us the keys to the guest cottage and conveniently get out of town for the weekend. Everybody in the pool….now where did I put those canapés?
“I’ll never get used to anything. Anybody that does, they might as well be dead.” -Holly Golightly, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
Copyright 2014 Alison Crowe
The other day I got an email from a reader who was about to embark on her first harvest as a winemaking intern. She wondered if I had any tips or advice for her. She had a good pair of boots but what else would she need? What should she be worried about or watch out for?
I had my own list but in order to really “get the goods” decided to do a little crowd-sourcing for this gal who was interested enough to contact me. I pointed the Bat-Signal into the Facebook universe and in return received a quickly-growing thread of “advice to an intern” from fellow winemakers.
Do we have advice for her? Do we ever. The wine industry has a grand tradition of taking the up-and-coming generation under our wings and besides getting them wet and tired, perhaps teaching them a few things along the way. It was hard to whittle the list down to 10 in order to keep this post manageable and I can see this one being the first of many.
One of my best Pinot Noir mentors, the late great Don Blackburn, had a sign on his office door that read “Winemaking Begins With People.” It’s a mantra that rings as true for me today as the day I first read it while walking into a job interview. He was a tough taskmaster and required prompt start times, spotless buckets and shining pruning shears from the intern team (yes, I got the job) but we had a great time and learned a lot too.
Without further ado, here are 10 bits of “advice to an intern,” direct from Winemakers who’ve been there:
Glenn Alexander, Sanglier Cellars:
“Get the best, most comfortable pair of waterproof boots you can afford.”
Tom Collins, UC Davis Department of Viticulture & Enology:
“Always have a change of clothing in your car because cold and wet is a hard way to drive home.”
Brooke Langelius, St. Supery:
“Bring lots of food for backup on long days!”
Marty Johnson, Eaton Hill Winery and Ruby Magdalena Vineyards:
“Beer. Bring lots and lots of beer for sharing with everyone after cleanup. We all know it takes a lot of good beer to make wine.”
“Don’t make outside plans during Harvest that you can’t get out of.”
Amy J. Butler, Ranchero Cellars:
“Ask questions! The sorting table is a good place to entrap your Winemaker into teaching you stuff.”
Elizabeth Vianna, Chimney Rock Winery:
“Get to know the cellar crew. They can be some of the best teachers.”
Chris Kajani, Saintsbury Winery:
“Be early. And preferably not hung over.”
Cynthia Cosco, Passaggio Wines:
“Learn lots…have fun…make connections….safety first!”
Domenica Totty, Beaulieu Vineyard:
“Have fun and make as many connections as you can – other interns, winemakers, anyone working harvest.
And, it’s ok to show up with a hangover… But you’d better be on time & work your butt off in spite of it!”
Alison Crowe is a winemaker based in Napa, California and fondly remembers her first harvests as an intern at Chalone Vineyard and Byington Winery & Vineyard. She makes wine at Garnet Vineyards and can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter: @alisoncrowewine . She wishes the best of luck to all the new harvest interns out there- it’s a wild ride but welcome aboard!
The Scene: A craggy-faced farmer straight out of Central Casting scratches his grizzled beard. A scattering of clouds scuds across the horizon but down on the vineyard floor all is mid-afternoon heat. No birdsong. The leaves barely rustle in the rumored breeze of a Carneros afternoon. “It’s quiet out there. Too quiet.”
Cue the Spaghetti Western “wah-wah-wah” music because though the vineyards have been seemingly taking a siesta, they’re about to open up with all guns blazing. With no frost to worry us this spring and a nice warm growing season with no heat spikes and no rain events (so far), Harvest 2014 is coiled and ready to strike.
Bunches are sizing up, red grapes have just about gone 100% through veraison and the crop size is looking healthy. I don’t expect the giant crop we had in 2013 but it’s not going to be a pipsqueak either. That means wineries (mine included) are scrambling to empty barrels, to create master blends and to bottle when possible in order to clear the decks.
Harvest 2014 will also be earlier than average and perhaps a few days earlier than 2013. Looking at my first Brix (sugar) readings from certain blocks over the weekend, I was surprised to see one block of Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir in Carneros come in at 19.0. In classic Carneros fashion, while Stanly Ranch is indeed cooled by stiff breezes and is moderated by the influence of the San Pablo Bay, it still gets quite a lot of Napa Valley heat. Additionally, Pinot Noir is an earlier-ripening red grape so it’s no surprise that Stanly is my bellwether “harvest indicator” vineyard. Last year I started picking Stanly Pinot for Garnet Vineyards on September 3 and this year it looks like it might start on Labor Day weekend.
Like many winemakers I’ve had my eye on this tropical weather pattern we’ve experienced in Northern California over the last week and am keeping my eyes peeled for mildew potential. So far so good; the canopies have been opened up nicely, enough breeze has been blowing to keep things dry and I like what I’m seeing.
We still have a few weeks. Go ahead, take that last day off before the grapes start flying. Do the farmer’s market, catch up on those last projects around the house. Enjoy the quiet of the vineyards on a summer morning while the 85 F weather sets up those sugars for a runaway gallop to the finish line. Don’t worry about the eerie silence. It’s about to get real loud real quick.
Alison Crowe lives in Napa and makes wine for Garnet Vineyards and other wineries and projects.
Copyright Alison Crowe 2014
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
Growing 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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