Sometimes girlandthegrape.com isn’t only about wine and winemaking. Sometimes it’s about living (and yes, eating) in “Wine Country”. Wherever you live and eat, and whether for environmental, ethical or health reasons many of us are asking more questions about how food gets to our table. It’s not yawn-inducing hipster foodie fetishism; it’s about how the choices we make every day affect our bodies, our communities and our world.
For the last couple of years I’ve been searching for a better way to get quality food on my family’s table.
I wasn’t about to pay the outrageous prices charged at Napa’s boutique charcuterie shops ($13.00/lb for pork chops?) or at the farmer’s market ($9 for a dozen eggs, are you kidding me?).
So we started growing our own tomatoes and I found a regular source of backyard-raised eggs on Craigslist.com (I literally slip $5 under the door mat for a dozen). We look for organic or hormone-free chicken and pork as well as grass-fed beef at the supermarket. Yes, we find ourselves spending a little more on meat but overall we consume less quantity and more quality (luckily the kids love tofu).
The 4-H Meat Solution- as local and humane as you can get
For the last two summers, however, I’ve been stocking up our freezer (and those of friends and family) with what I believe to be the ultimate source of humanely raised, amazing-quality, farm-to-table meat: your friendly neighborhood 4-H club.
For those not in the know, 4-H is national youth-development and mentoring organization with over 6 million members. Kids can participate in a wide array of activities and projects in areas including business, science, health, agriculture and handcrafts. In rural/urban Napa County where I live, many 4-H members choose to raise animals as pets or for market as part of their annual project. Rabbits, chickens, goats, hogs and even dairy cows and horses are shown off every summer at the Napa Town & Country Fair and competition for “Grand Champion”and showmanship ribbons are fierce.
To Market, to Market……
I know, it sounds a little weird and involved. Certainly, buying an animal from a live auction is an experience in and of itself and does take a little practice to get used to. Luckily, I had done 4-H as a kid myself and had raised lambs for market so knew a bit about “how to do it”. And this year, since I couldn’t be at the auction for the whole day, I had a friend (a mom whose daughter was at the fair showing rabbits and goats) kindly volunteer to do the final bidding for me.
After the bidding was done, we were excited to have purchased Bessy, a pure-bred Duroc hog, from Alexa Butts, an 18 year old Napa 4-H member who has raised hogs for auction for the last three years. Yes, paying $5.00-$8.00 a pound for an entire animal that can weigh over 200 pounds is a big upfront investment. If you get together friends and family, however, you can form your own kind of “buying club” and make it affordable for everyone.
It’s About More Than The Meat…..
One of the best parts about buying an animal directly from a 4-H member is that you can get to know who raised your animal as well as how. Alexa told me all about her experience in 4-H this year. She bought two pigs (one a Duroc, Bessy, and the other a “Cross”) from a specific breeder, after much research. “Durocs,” she says, “are considered one of the tastier market hogs.” She described some of the work involved. “You have to feed them, bathe them (on occasion), clean their pen and most importantly practice showmanship,” which prepares you and your animal for final judging in the ring.
As Fair-season approached, she switched up the composition of their feeding routine and even included “an apple a day and the occasional sugar cube as a sweet treat.” She admits that as auction time draws near “It is hard to say goodbye.” The last two years she has gotten a henna tattoo at the fair with her initials and those of her pigs (this year it was “B&B” for Buddy and Bessy). “It is my small way of saying goodbye and as the tattoo fades so does my sadness, because by the time it is gone I know I need to let go.”
In addition to getting some very tasty meat, by supporting 4-H animals you’re directly supporting their owners. “I will be attending Purdue University in the fall studying Animal Science, Pre-Veterinary,” Alexa says, and the money she earns buying, raising and finally auctioning her 4-H animals will help her along the way. The long hours caring for animals, the research and the hard work involved provide their own lessons. “Overall, 4-H has taught me responsibility and respect for where our food comes from, and the care that goes into producing it.”
Eating meat, not to mention eating meat that you’ve actually met, isn’t for everybody. Animals raised for food consume a large percentage of the world’s resources and yes, we should all be eating a lot more plants. Animal or vegetable, however, there’s something very special about closing the circle between what’s on your plate, where it came from and what it took to get it there. Teaching my two young sons about where our food comes from, whether from a row-crop farmer in the Salinas Valley, our own garden or literally from “a girl next door”, is a valuable lesson in and of itself. Thanks, Alexa, for all your hard work and thank you, Napa 4-H!
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and Winemaker for Picket Fence Vineyards, Garnet Vineyards and others. She sources from vineyards all over California for her clients’ projects and lives in Napa with her family and is an alumna of the Carpinteria Valley 4-H Club. Girl and the Grape won “Best New Wine Blog” in 2014. Reach her at LinkedIn, @alisoncrowewine ,email@example.com.
Well, I should be excited that coastal California, from Santa Barbara to the Sonoma Coast, saw a little rain overnight. We need every drop we can get, right? Yes, that is, unless you’re a late-blooming Cabernet Sauvignon vine struggling to fertilize those last flowers and “set” a healthy number of berries. Yes, unless you’re a developing cluster of Pinot Noir, just starting to size up and don’t want rot and fungus-enabling moisture to endanger this year’s crop. And yes, unless you’re a winemaker who remembers 2007 and 2011 harvests when early Fall storms rained on tons of late-ripening Cabernet still out in the field.
There are certain times of the year when rain is welcome to growers and winemakers. Wintertime is great. The fruit is all picked and no fragile blooms are trying to fight for their existence. Even a short storm (as long as it gets warm and breezy immediately afterward) during October is OK. The Pinot will be mostly picked and the Cab, with its thicker-skinned berries and looser clusters, can hang through one rainstorm without many problems.
I just hope that last night’s excitement isn’t the beginning of a pattern, or a pre-saging of things to come. Sorry to sound pessimistic, but it’s the “farmer girl” side of me that recalls an old adage: “A short crop gets shorter.” What that means is that, this time of year, growers and wineries are trying to estimate their Harvest vineyard yields by counting the number of clusters on any given vine. The problem is that cluster counts have nothing to do with how each berry in that cluster will “size up” as it goes from being a hard green BB to a full, soft purple grape. It has nothing to do with how well that cluster, especially if it’s still full of flowers, will “set” and how many berries will be lost to shatter. Unfortunately, weather events like last night’s rain, can negatively affect both bloom, set and grape sizing. It’s not an early Harvest anymore, which means that with every passing day, the danger of late-Fall rains damaging the last fruit on the vine (in Napa, that’s usually Cabernet) increases.
I know, I know. There’s still a long ways to go before now and the end of Harvest, which for me tends to be around the first week in November or so. We could have a perfect ripening season, great weather during Harvest and still end up with an “average” sized crop. Yes, there indeed is a long way to go before all the grapes are safely in the barn and it could all work out perfectly. However, I’m no weather forecaster but I am hearing rumblings of an El Niño winter.
Remember how last week I said I had my rot and botrytis radar on? I just turned the dial up to “High Alert”.
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and Winemaker for Picket Fence Vineyards, Garnet Vineyards and others. She sources from vineyards all over California for her clients’ projects and lives in Napa with her family. Girl and the Grape won “Best New Wine Blog” in 2014. Reach her at LinkedIn, @alisoncrowewine ,firstname.lastname@example.org
1- It’s not early (anymore)
Back in April, after a historically warm winter in California, we winemakers were gearing up for an early start to the harvest season. Budbreak happened around the state at record early times; a full week earlier than 2014 which was in itself 2-3 weeks earlier than normal. Oh well, we said. That means it’ll finish faster and maybe we’ll get to dress up and have some beers on Halloween. Beers aside, one of the true benefits to an earlier-than-normal harvest is the reduced risk of November rain falling on any crop still on the vine.
Fast forward two months and it looks like, just about statewide, we’ve been flung back to “normal”. Two of the coldest spring months we’ve had in many years have really put the brakes on the ripening. For me that means I’ll be starting to pull off the first of our Carneros Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir around September 10 or so, instead of August 18 like last year. It also means that I may have to worry about late fall rains . While I’m not going to get all pessimistic and predict another 2007 or 1989 (though I was still in Junior High back then), I would be lying if I told you I didn’t have my rot and botrytis radar on.
2-Some areas won’t be so affected by the drought (this year)
The warmer, drier winter that accelerated an early bloom this year had a silver lining. Because we didn’t have many frost events, especially in the North Coast, those wineries using irrigation pond water for emergency frost protection didn’t have to get the sprinklers out. As a result, going into the (presumably) hotter summer and fall growing season, many folks in the North Coast have ponds over 80% full. The cooler, damper spring we’ve been having has additionally kept some areas of the state a little greener as we roll towards June.
Some areas of the state like Paso Robles however, have been so dry for so long that we’re starting to wonder if not just the quantity, but the quality of any water used for irrigation might have impacts on the fruit and on the vine. Higher salt levels can translate to higher levels of potassium in the grapes which in turn can cause higher pH’s (lower acidity). That can have a real impact on fermentation dynamics and eventual wine quality so those of us in really dry areas will be keeping an eye on juice and wine chemistries early on. Unless we get a really wet winter, even those of us who skated through this year will start to be really affected. If we don’t see appreciable rain in late 2015/early 2016, I predict a much lighter crop for Harvest 2016.
3- It’s going to be hard(er) to find the right pick date
If the weather is warm and clear during the bloom-to-set period of grape ripening, when the flowers get fertilized and turn into developing grape berries, it usually lasts two or maybe three weeks. Because of the cold, drizzly weather many of us have been experiencing this spring, this critical period has been elongated and interrupted. Little delicate flowers have a harder time getting consistently fertilized when it’s windy, cold or rainy. This means many of us are still seeing blooming flowers and set berries on the same shoot as well as many “hen and chick” clusters where bigger berries are interspersed with tiny little hard BB’s. This in turn means that, as the grapes approach ripeness, some clusters on the same vine and even berries within the same cluster may be more or less ripe when compared to their neighbors. That means winemakers have to be super-vigilant when choosing pick dates. They will have to really make sure their vineyard brix sample size is big enough to be significant and they will have to rely on multiple cluster rather than berry-only samples. Forget about just skipping down a few vine rows popping random berries to taste for development; 2015 will be a season where it will pay to sample early, widely and often.
Alison Crowe is the Director of Winemaking for Plata Wine Partners and Winemaker for Picket Fence Vineyards, Garnet Vineyards and others. She sources from vineyards all over California for her clients’ projects. Girl and the Grape won “Best New Wine Blog” in 2014. @alisoncrowewine email@example.com
My husband and I are lucky enough to have just bought a little piece of Napa acreage and are currently selling our downtown 1898 Victorian. Though our new “dream home” is a little boy’s heaven of redwood trees bordered by a creek with tadpoles, many people dream of having a Napa Valley hideaway that might include vineyards, historic features or a shed for making a little homemade Cabernet Sauvignon. Though we’re not real estate professionals (and we recommend you hire one of those too by the way) we still thought we should pass on some of the layperson’s tips and knowledge we picked up along the way buying our first and now second Napa home. Interest rates are at historic lows and though prices are definitely on the rise in Napa, it’s still a great time to get into the market.
Most real estate searches, especially if you live in the area, start out online. Sites like Realtor.com, Trulia and Zillow are good places to start as most realtors are listing their properties there. Sotheby’s and Coldwell are two of the major firms with a lots of local listings. Surprisingly, I didn’t find the online search portal of the Napa Valley Register (our local newspaper) very helpful or easy to navigate…..but most realtors market their properties correctly and get them onto a multitude of websites like these listed by Bankrate.com as being the best online home search sites.
Get on a bike
When Chris and I bought our Victorian in downtown Napa in 2006, we were already renters in the area. We knew that we wanted whatever we bought to be within walking distance of the corner of First and Main streets- the nexus of the developing Oxbow district and the very heart of downtown. So from that point we drew a 1 mile radius and got on our bikes. After finding two open houses we took shelter from a freak rainfall on the porch of a third- and fell in love with the porch, the hardwood floors, high ceilings and the neighborhood. Biking through neighborhoods rather than driving allows you to go at a slower pace and to get a better sense of the area and people around your new potential home. Don’t wear earbuds and you’ll get an idea of how many birds are chirping in the trees…and if your potential neighbors have a loud, barky dog. As the years have gone by and downtown Napa has burgeoned into the culinary, wine and community-focused center it is today, we recommend this approach to shoppers looking to live within walking distance of this amazing place.
Get in a hot air balloon
It’s hard for anyone, even locals, to get the lay of the land around Napa from street level. When I took Chris for a hot air balloon ride for his 40th birthday last year, we realized we’d found a whole new way of assessing an area. Getting up in the air and leaving the limitations of roads, parks and yes, private property lines, gives you an unbeatable perspective on how near- or very far- certain features are. We never would’ve guessed that our new property, which with the trees and creek feels miles away from anywhere, is actually almost as close to downtown as our old place. Of course I suppose you could also try Google Earth, but it’s nowhere nearly as fun. No matter your method, getting “above it all” is an entirely new way to gain valuable perspective.
Get a Newspaper
You’re going to laugh that we actually found our new place from a newspaper ad. Chris and I have been keeping our ears and eyes open for places on the outskirts of town with some property (so our two and four year old could have ample “free range” space to run around). In the meantime, my sister has been toying with an idea of buying a place in Napa with two units- one for her to rent out and one for her to come up for the weekends from San Francisco. We were together one weekend and bought a Sunday issue of the Register, which contains a special real estate section. We were just scanning the listings when a photo of tall redwoods and wide-open spaces grabbed both of us. We immediately were intrigued by the rest of the listing and even though, at a 2 bedroom/2 bath it was smaller than I was looking for, we went to the open house anyway….and ended up closing escrow on it yesterday. Had I been searching online I might have missed this one because I was only searching for three bedrooms and above. Which brings me to my last tip…….
Get outside the “brackets”
Though the online search results for a given area code can seem huge, in Napa it often pays to search both above and below your price and bed/bath combo brackets. Sometimes larger bedroom/bath houses than you think you can afford have been on the market for a long time and have dropped in price. Or you could find a smaller square footage house that you could easily add on to with the money you’d save on the purchase price. Similarly, there are a surprising number of houses in Napa with “in-law units” and even sheds or shops that will not count as bedrooms or taxable square footage but that would count as valuable useable lifestyle and/or living space for you. We found our new paradise by being willing to look outside of our ideal search brackets, and being willing to plan on putting on a new master suite.
Get it? Got it? Great- and good luck!
Alison Crowe is an award-winning winemaker, author and blogger living in Napa, CA. She is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards among other consulting projects and is the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book. Girlandthegrape.com won “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards. She is selling the downtown Napa Victorian where this blog got its start- contact Jocelyne Monello at 707-224-8281 for a showing! The advice above is based on Alison’s personal experience and in no way is meant to replace the advice of a professional agent or real estate lawyer.
I won’t say who danced on the tables at the Ciatti party or who closed down the bar at the Sheraton last night. As they say, what happens at the Unified Symposium, the largest annual gathering of the wine industry in the western hemisphere, stays at Unified.
Except your feedback. We need it to learn which were the best sessions, to address any challenges that attendees may have had and most importantly to keep improving this very special and business-critical annual gathering.
I’m on the Unified Symposium Program Committee and we are tasked each year with choosing the topics, the panels and the speakers who will address our industry . It’s a fiddly challenge because we’re peering into our crystal balls in June trying to figure out what the hot topics will be come January of the following year. The themes and panel ideas have to be vetted, speakers, especially those coming from other countries, have to be invited early and of course the suppliers, the venue and all of the logistics have to be worked out. It’s a year long process.
If you attended the Unified Symposium this year I ask that you please give us your feedback for the sessions you attended as well as the overall conference. It’s only through your conversation with us, the organizers, that we can keep making this gathering of our peers the wonderful annual educational venue, trade show and yes, party, that it is.
Please fill out the survey here:
Now go back to dancing on those tables.
Alison Crowe is an award-winning winemaker, author and blogger living in Napa, CA. She is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards among other consulting projects and is the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book. Girlandthegrape.com won “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards. She is a member of the Unified Symposium Program Committee which helps choose the Symposium’s speakers and panels each year.
Hi Everyone! I’m Kona the Vineyard Dog and my human is Alison Crowe, a winemaker and the person who usually posts about “winemaking, life, the dirt” at GirlandtheGrape.com. Last time she wrote about some winemaker New Year’s Resolutions. Silly winemakers. It’s my turn now! Here are my Vineyard Dog’s New Year’s Resolutions for 2015:
-I will take up Frenchie on his offer to do lunch at his pad at Raymond. We winery dogs don’t get together nearly enough.
-I will not worry the sheep.
-I resolve to mentor a younger generation. Even though she’s 6 and has mad bung-chasing skills, I believe Chimney Rock’s Raven can learn from my grape tasting abilities.
-Star Thistles. Nuff said.
-I will only allow my Winemaker to patronize establishments that have water bowls outside (and might even dispense treats). Vintage Sweet Shoppe, Fratti Gelato, Gott’s Roadside in St. Helena.
-So many vineyard ponds, so little time- this spring I will sample them all!
-I will refrain from chewing bungs. (Doink! There goes another one!)
-I will donate a case of my Winemaker’s best to NorCal Ausssie Rescue.
-I will finally learn how to work that kobby thing between the two seats.
Kona the Vineyard Dog, at 15, has had a long run and is still a crazy girl. Chris and I rescued her at age 8 from NorCal Aussie Rescue and she has kept me company on the road, in the field and around the house. God bless the Vineyard Dogs!
Alison Crowe is an award-winning winemaker, author and blogger living in Napa, CA. She is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards among other consulting projects and is the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book. Girlandthegrape.com won “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards. When she has time, she plays tennis, cooks for friends and family, writes the occasional wine article and loves her vineyard dog.
Are you a Winemaker or know someone who is? Is your local vintner wavering between between French or Hungarian oak, biodynamic or “natural” wine, ml or non-ML complete Viognier, Blue Bottle or Ritual Roasters and are otherwise in resolute need of some New Year’s resolutions to resolve? Girl and the Grape is here to help. Read on, friends of self-development, personal goal achievement and guilty wine app-downloading and peruse what will undoubtedly become the Top Winemaker Resolutions of 2015:
-I will not write inane back label copy.
-I will not let my marketing department write inane back label copy.
-I will refrain from swirling my latte.
-I will swallow my initial self-disgust at writing a tasting note that calls out “nuances of brioche”….because that’s exactly what it is.
-I will not get pissy when a wine blogger calls my” nuances of brioche” their “nuances of toast.”
-I will learn to love my distributors, wholesalers and sales reps.
-I will send my distributors, wholesalers and sales reps daily emoji stickers of smiley faces.
-I will not fire the intern for replacing the breakroom Blue Bottle whole bean with Starbucks from Safeway.
-I will fire the intern for replacing the breakroom four pack of Pliny with a six pack of Sam Adams.
-I will not take 3 star Delectable reviews personally.
-I will Instagram more pictures of the vineyard dog.
-I will refrain from three-burrito days and remember that taco trucks now come in other flavors.
-I will cultivate my “Happy Winemaker Face” when asked (again) when is it that I add the raspberry flavor to my wine.
-I will refrain from posting too many pictures of my new barrels on Facebook.
-I will install one more raptor box up by the wellhouse on top of block 15 and stop the vineyard sheep herd from chewing on the irrigation lines.
-I will finally get that last damn gopher.
-I will drink less coffee.
-I will drink more Champagne.
Got more? What are your Winemaker Resolutions for 2015?
Alison Crowe is an award-winning winemaker, author and blogger living in Napa, CA. She is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards among other consulting projects and is the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book. Girlandthegrape.com won “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards. When she has time, she plays tennis, cooks for friends and family, writes the occasional wine article and cultivates a healthy sense of humility and humor.
I will copyright my intellectual property: Alison Crowe 2015
Peace in the Midst of Holiday Madness: A conversation with Napa Bartender and Spiritual Counselor Kate Messmer
Wine and spirituality have been connected for millennia. From ancient Dionysian revels to the Friday night blessing of the kiddush cup or the secular “Auld Lang Syne” toasts as we relax and celebrate the New Year, wine has long held a central part in our rituals and spiritual practices. This is perhaps why I wasn’t so surprised to learn that my favorite bartender, Kate Messmer of the Oxbow Cheese & Wine Merchant in Napa, is also a practicing spiritual counselor. According to her website, peaceofkate.com, Kate’s “life’s passion is to help people find peace within themselves.”
Chatting her up over a glass of Champagne (their Schramsberg Blanc des Blancs is my other go-to) while the market was in full holiday bustle, I was curious what kind of insight she had as to how we can find peace and balance in our lives this crazy time of year. Kate, as always, was generous in sharing some observations- as well as a new wine recommendation- with me.
How do you define, and find, “balance” during the holidays?
There is so much that needs to be accomplished during this time of year, so it is important to take it one day at a time. If you feel like you might be able to squeeze in a party or event, then you might want to think long and hard before committing to it. If you say yes, but in the end realize that it isn’t feasible, then it is completely okay to be honest with yourself and bow out.
Why do you think the holidays are both a source or joy and stress, and what are some suggestions for how people can cope?
For me the joy and the stress of the season are intertwined. I love seeing my friends and family, but with that can come a lot of drama. I do my best to check in with myself and listen to what I want to do during the holidays. It is a form of self-care to speak up and create a compromise, so everyone feels like they are being acknowledged.
Do you find that being a bartender helps you in your work as a therapist, or vice versa?
I think the two complement one another beautifully. I get a lot of practice refining the art of listening!
There are so many wines we can choose these days- Which are the wines and beverages are you excited about right now?
I can’t get enough of J Gregory Wines by Mark Jessup. I especially love his Petite Sirah… it has delicious dark fruit aromatics with an elegant finish. It is bold without being overdone.
Not everyone likes to pair wine with celebrations. Can you recommend a festive non-alcoholic drink for those avoiding alcohol this time of year?
I am a vodka soda kind of girl so when I want to go non-alcoholic, I enjoy soda water with a splash of organic lemonade. This drink is tasty and make me feel as though I am having a cocktail.
As 2014 winds down and you put away the holiday gifts, take a moment to think about how to achieve balance and peace in your. It can mean different things at different times. For instance, I am finding peace today by going through old cupboards and organizing things to recycle, give away or donate. I could be fulfilling a dozen social obligations instead, and going through boxes is hard work, but it’s a form of self care that I need to engage in right now. Sometimes it feels good to say “No” and talking to Kate helped make me feel justified in doing what I needed to do to find a sort of mental peace after the madness of Christmas. Cleaning, organizing, donating…of course as well as contemplating which bubbly to serve this coming week as we ring in the new year of 2015. Here’s to wine and wellness in 2015. Peace be with you…..
Alison Crowe is an award-winning winemaker, author and blogger living in Napa, CA. She is the Winemaker for Garnet Vineyards among other consulting projects and is the author of The Winemaker’s Answer Book. Girlandthegrape.com won “Best New Wine Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards. When she has time, she plays tennis, cooks for friends and family, writes the occasional wine article and enjoys organizing things.
For the last couple of weeks I’ve had a lot of friends express their concern about the recent Northern California storms. Alarmed about images they’ve seen on the news of vineyards up to their elbows in water, they query, “On top of the earthquake, now you’ve got to deal with flooded vineyards? Can’t you guys in Napa ever catch a break?”
What they don’t know is that this December rain is just the break- the break in the historical drought- that we’ve been looking for.
This Harvest many of us were in a state of quiet panic. One more dry winter and ponds and reservoirs wouldn’t have enough water for frost protection during bud break. There would be precious little natural water in the ground for the vines to sip and many would go thirsty as the heat of summer parched developing leaves and clusters. In a Harvest heat spike, crop-saving water wouldn’t be available from wells or vineyard ponds to prevent grapes from turning to raisins on the vine. In short, without rain this winter we would be facing a very dire situation. Winter 2015 would be make or break.
It looks like (fingers crossed), in the short term at least, we are getting just what we need. Many areas in Northern California are close to average rainfall totals for this time of year and it’s only December. The overall picture of the drought Statewide is improving, especially in areas north of Santa Barbara County. Recent reports show the likelihood of the next three months being nice and wet.
We are not, however, out of this historic drought yet. If we don’t get enough water frozen into our Sierra Nevada snowpack “reservoir”, it’s possible that a wet 2015 will simply kick the can down the road and we’ll be quietly panicking again come the 2015 Harvest season. These storms need to deposit quite a bit of snow in the Sierra as well as significant precipitation in Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties to make me feel better about my vineyards on the Central Coast.
In the meantime, don’t worry about my little grapes getting wet up in Napa. As fellow Nap-kin Dan Berger recently explained, vines can survive “wet feet”, even for an extended period of time. Sure, the rain has caused and is causing small amounts of localized flooding and the odd new grapevine replant or two will end up in a culvert. We’re continuing to watch pockets of erosion-prone slopes and are taking care not to run the tractors into the mud bogs.
Wet vines? John Deere up to his axles in mud? So much water in our ponds that the reservoirs spill over? All of my wine making and grape growing buddies and I, North and South, near and far, have just two words on our minds and on the tips of our tongues: “Bring it”.
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, www.girlandthegrape.com 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 does a daily rain dance.
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.
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
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
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, www.girlandthegrape.com 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.
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