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

Gettin’ Ready For my First Kegger (as a winemaker)

So I’m about to go to my first kegger.  As a winemaker, I mean.  Scratch that- I mean as a winemaker putting their own wine into a keg, Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir to be exact!


Garnet Vineyards Pinot Noir is coming soon to a keg near you…so I went to Free Flow Wines in Napa to find out how it’s done!

I love the concept:  cost-effective, eco-friendly and flavor-saving.  But of course, as a winemaker, I had a lot of questions about exactly how the process works.  Would I have to prep the wine differently? Where there any unique risks or quality control points I’d have to worry about that would be different than a normal bottling run?  How would the kegs actually get to the restaurants, how would they be dispensed and then what happens to the empty kegs?

Luckily I knew I could count on my friend Jordan Kivelstadt, Founder and CEO of Free Flow Wines, for a little elucidation.

I used to share my “garage winery” space in Sonoma for Garnet Vineyards with Jordon, Rob and their team back when they were a little start-up just a few years ago.  In a short time, they outgrew the space and since then have expanded into a new facility in south Napa by the infamous “Crusher Man” statue by the intersection of Hwy 29 and 121.

Yesterday I met up with Jordan, Rob, Heather and the gang for a little tour of Free Flow Wines’ new keg-straveganza.  From a winemaking point of view, here’s how it works:

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?

At my winery, I fill up a 525 gallon (that’s around 220 cases of wine) stainless steel “porta-tank” with tasty bottle-ready 2012 Garnet Vineyards Monterey Pinot Noir and forklift it onto a flatbed.  Flatbed truck then trucks on over to Free Flow Wines’ facility just over the county line, and Rob and his  crew position it near their custom-built “kegging line” and hooking up a sanitary hose fitting to the tank.

Evidently, they had this thing custom built by a German beer-kegging specialist (but we won’t hold that against them- the beer part, not the German part!).   Each stainless steel keg that will be filled (one porta-tank will fill around 100 5.16 gallon kegs) automatically goes through a three-step cleaning and sanitizing process which heats the metal up hot enough to kill any bad yeast or bacteria that might be hanging around.  What’s cool (literally) is that each keg then gets zapped back to room temp by a custom-made cooling collar….because I don’t want cooked wine (and neither do you).  Then the kegs are filled under inert nitrogen counter-pressure (to exclude oxygen), are labeled with a custom paper collar and marked with a “born on” date and time sticker (for batch QC and tracking purposes).  The filled kegs then get stacked on a pallet and forklifted into Free Flow’s bonded warehouse, waiting for a distributor to request one for a restaurant or other outlet (love the three-tier system, eh?).

Free Flow then ships it to the distributor and I invoice the distributor for the wine.  At that point, Garnet Vineyards no longer has to worry about the keg because Free Flow works with an independent contractor partner for rounding up all the kegs around the country, separating them from the beer kegs (I don’t want any Lagunitas in my wine, than you very much) and herding them back into the barn at Free Flow in Napa, where they await being cleaned, sanitized and re-filled.

A pallet of Free Flow kegs.  They take care of the transport of kegs across the country.

A pallet of Free Flow kegs. They take care of the transport of kegs across the country.

Note that the pool of Free Flow kegs is communal, i.e. that my wine may be going into a keg that once held somebody else’s wine….at first I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but then I was walked step by step through their cleaning, sanitizing and monitoring process.  I won’t bore you with the ATP swabs, luminometers, batch testing and German engineering details, but I got talked down off my ledge once I understood that nothing from anyone else’s wine was ever going to touch my wine.  Awesome!

How is kegging wine different from the normal wine bottling process?  From a QC point of view, I’m pretty excited that they can completely steam-sanitize the line, and it’s a smaller, simpler line with fewer moving parts and hence, fewer possible entrance points for airborne contaminants. Additionally, in a 5.16 gallon keg there is actually a really low oxygen-to-wine ratio (far less than in a 750 ml bottle) and so therefore wine in a keg will have less chance of oxidation than a standard format.  Since there is no cork (Garnet does twist-off anyway), there is no chance of cork-taint spoilage from that source. The wine will be put into the keg “enjoyment ready” i.e. not needing any further aging, which is one point of difference I see with traditional “bottled” wine.  However, since the average American consumes a wine within 72 hours of purchase and everyone buying a $11 glass of Garnet at a restaurant expects it to be from the current release that would be in the marketplace anyway, this is a non-issue.

I can clearly see the benefit of kegged wine from a winemaking quality point of view but how does it perform in a restaurant?  I’ve heard that servers and bar-backs love it because they’re not opening bottles all the time (or throwing half-empty bottles out).  I gotta believe that the customers like it because they know they’re getting a “fresh” glass every time and not something that’s been open for a week (yuk!).  Inert gas (a combo of nitrogen and carbon dioxide) pushes the wine out, preventing any oxygen from reaching the wine which means that it gets into your glass in the same shape that I intended it to.

Schematic of the Garnet custom tap handle

Schematic of the Garnet custom tap handle

However, the one weak point I can see is “end user education”.  Though a wine’s high acid and alcohol content (relative to beer and soda) means it will actually perform better than those drinks in a keg-hose-dispenser set up behind the bar, some of the quality of the experience will depend on how clean (or not!) the establishment keeps the set-up.  Because wine can oxidize into vinegar and some other less-than-tasty aromas, restaurants, cruise ships and establishments serving kegged wine will need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions in keg line maintenance.  To that end, Free Flow has launched a website called  There, all involved parties can learn what best practices are, how to get wine-specific (no beer!) parts and how to make it work its best.  I think sales reps will also have to learn some new tricks but hey, we all have to go with the flow, right?  And you can believe me, I will still be doing some spot checking on the road!  All in all, I am super-excited to give Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir from a keg a whirl!!!


So…… grab yourself a red solo cup, stay tuned for roll-out (we’re still finishing making the custom tap handle so it’ll be a couple of months) and be sure you RSVP to the invite for my first Garnet Vineyards kegger!


Happy Kegs, Happy Wines, Happy Winemaker!

Happy Kegs, Happy Wines, Happy Winemaker!

Interested in carrying Garnet wines in a keg?  Adventurous retailers, email me here: and come on down to my kegger!

Alison Crowe is the winemaker at and can also be followed @GarnetVineyards as well as


Girl and The Grape: Top Blog Posts of 2013

Girl and the Grape hoists a glass of bubbles to all those who have visited and shared in  my first year of existence!  Happy 2014 everyone!

Girl and the Grape hoists a glass of bubbles to all those who have visited and shared in my first year of existence! Happy 2014 everyone!

Well, it’s almost January.  The stockings are down, the wrapping paper has been recycled and thank goodness that last stale bit of fruit cake has long been tossed out.  That means it’s time to break out the local bubbly (with a big plug for the Domaine Carneros wine club!) and have a nice think back on my first year as an official “Wine Blog” (or something  like that).

Many of you know that I’m a winemaker but also like to write.  I published The WineMaker’s Answer Book in 2007, write the long-standing “Wine Wizard” column for WineMaker Magazine and pen the occasional column for trade publications.  Basically, I just like to share about the wild and wacky but ever-fascinating world of winemaking, from a practitioner’s point of view.

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

I published a handy winemaking Q&A book in 2007

I started Girl and the Grape as a way for folks to peek under the hood a little bit, to see what I was up to and what I was thinking about during the wine making year.  The last thing I wanted to do was start another yawn-inducing “pretty winery picture” blog, indifferently updated once a quarter by the Marketing Intern.  Because I don’t have one of those (or even a “Marketing Department” per se) what you get at is unfined and unfiltered, sometimes about current winemaking issues, sometimes about my vineyard dog Kona, but always about real things that real winemakers (or at least this real winemaker) think about.  The tagline “Winemaking, Life, the Dirt”  pretty much sums it up.

So according to those techno-geeky bloggy things like Google Analytics, as well as, more importantly, feedback from my winemaker friends and the bartenders at Oxbow, below are the five most popular blog posts from  Since I only started the blog in June, I’ve been so excited to welcome the hundreds (and then thousands) of visits and social media shares over the last six months.

Cheers to you all- I have so enjoyed sharing “Winemaking, life and the dirt” with you this year from the vineyards and look forward to a wonderful 2014!


1.  No Hangover Wine

-I dismantle, with the help of two professors from UC Davis, a questionable article which erroneously asserts that so-called “natural wine” can’t get you drunk.

2.  Vineyard Dogs

-A shout-out to my own Australian Shepherd Kona, as well as as a tribute to all great vineyard dogs out there.  (*warm fuzzies alert!*)

3.  Winemaker Confession:  I Don’t Wash My Grapes

-I spill it, sorry fellow winemakers.  We pick ’em and we squish ’em.  That’s non-interventionist, water-conserving all-natural winemaking.

4.  Winemaking Begins With People

-I share my most important winemaking truism,  and pay loving tribute to one of my Pinot Noir mentors, the late, great winemaker Don Blackburn.

5.  How Not to See Stars (the wrong way)

-I humbly submit tips and techniques for surviving a large public wine tasting event as I prepared for the Napa Valley Film Festival 2013.

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I wish you and yours a Happy New Year!










French Tradeshow Pioneers New Winemaking Tool: Human Interaction

I had the great fortune to attend the 2013 SITEVI agricultural trade show in France the last week of November.  It is a long-established olive, vine, wine and fruit and vegetable trade show that happens every other year in Montpellier and is attended by thousands of agricultural professionals from Europe and all over the world.


For three days, industry members gathered to gander at the latest vine-growing and grape-squishing equipment, attend panel discussions and collect bags full of brochures and product information.

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Big Tractors!!

There were plenty of these:











And these:

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Swish Euro-style Trucks!!










And of course these:

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Wine Bottles!!













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Macarons and Champagne- what a great way to entice visitors to stay and chat a while!

But the most innovative tool I witnessed, one actively being promoted at every venue and exhibit floor over the entire week,  was person-to-person interaction.   Each vendor had high top tables, cushy poufs or chat-inducing seating grouped in their booths.  Everywhere I looked, professionals were enjoying snacks and beverages together, whether at 10:00 in the morning (espresso) or four o’clock in the afternoon (Champagne). There were no mobile devices in sight.  People were actually talking to each other (gasp!).


The exposition “floor” itself was spread out over several adjacent buildings rather than being packed into one big hall.  This allowed for a bit of separation between the agricultural sectors, but a perhaps unintended, though extremely important, side-benefit was the lowered decibel level.  Unlike at some trade shows I’ve attended, where all the vendors are packed into one big echo chamber, at SITEVI we could actually hear each other talk.


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The “International Business Club”- where you could get a wifi signal, check your email, and network with delegates from other countries.

And talking, really talking (the look-into-my eyes-not-your-smartphone kind of conversation) seems to be a critical part of living, working and conducting business in France.  No business is done unless you’ve shared a meal (or at least a macron or three) with each other.  No where do you see iPads, laptops or mobile phones interrupting an interpersonal transaction.   SITEVI set up a special room called the International Business Club where delegates from other countries could find someone who spoke their language, get an internet connection (for the few times we had to check in), and to meet each other.  People kiss each other on the cheek here (in Provence, they do it three times), after all. The French understand that indeed, “Winemaking Begins With People”.


Happily, two of the SITEVI organizers whom I met are going to be joining us in Sacramento for the 2014 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium next month. I am on the Program Committee and am excited to introduce them, and some of what I learned in France, to my fellow organizers.   Thank you, SITEVI, for a wonderful experience chez vous- I’m lobbying for more cocktail tables and an increase in the macaron budget!


Photo Credit:  Alison Crowe 2013




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

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

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

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

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

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



Dear Wine Wiz,


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




Lindsay McKenna

Los Gatos, CA


Dear Lindsay,


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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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



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

Check out the Wine Wizard and all the rest of my fabulous wine-writing colleagues at WineMaker Magazine:  @GarnetVineyards


Copyright Alison Crowe




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


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

Dress for comfort.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Practice good tasting bar etiquette

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

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

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

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

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

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

Use an app like Delectable to help you take tasting notes

Use an app like Delectable to help you take tasting notes

Come Prepared

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

Spit (at least most of the time)

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

Wilfreds Ali Pen ShotTalk to me- and share!

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

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


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


Here’s the 411:


Napa Valley Film Fest Website:

Event Hashtag: #NVFF13

Event Twitter Handle:  @NapaFilmFest

Garnet’s Website:

Garnet’s Twitter Handle:  @GarnetVineyards


Women of the Vine:



Harvest 2013: Tricks and Treats


Grapevines turn red and gold in the late October sunlight, signalling an end to an early but high-quality Harvest 2013.

Grapevines turn red and gold in the late October sunlight, signalling an end to an early but high-quality Harvest 2013. Photo: Chris Purdy Photography

It’s been nice to see the vine rows turning fall colors in the golden sunlight, knowing that another Harvest has just about come and gone.  There are fewer grape trucks pelting down the highways, more folks at the gym on a Saturday morning and the Halloween decorations are in full force up and down our street in Napa.  Even though there are still plenty of active fermentations in the cellars (and some pumpover night shifts still happening), this year I’m guessing there will be a few more mommies and daddies out there with their little trick or treaters enjoying the early end to Harvest 2013.

It was a year that threw us a few tricks but luckily, left us with a lot of treats.   Colors and flavors are amazing, we had near-perfect weather during picking in the Garnet Vineyards of Napa, Sonoma and Monterey counties and though it was a little fast and furious, I’ve got very few complaints (and winemakers are a hard-to-please bunch).  Here’s my lineup of some “trick-and-treat” highlights, and what it might mean for how the wines of 2013 will continue to develop.

Harvest Tricks

Harvest was fast:  This is a good thing if you’re the harvest widow(er), but not necessarily great if extended maceration or other drawn-out tank gymnastics are important for your wine style. This year, the pace of grape ripening and picking meant you had to get tanks fermented and pressed, and empty for the next load of grapes, in a timely manner.  Winemakers who rely on weeks of extended macerations (typically a Cabernet Sauvignon tactic) for their wine style signature probably did a lot less of it this year.  At Garnet Vineyards we make only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, neither of which needs a long time in tank, so we were in and out of our tanks on a relatively typical 9-10 day schedule.  It did mean that a couple of blocks hung out a few days longer than necessary and some lots were fermented in white picking bins because tanks were full, but the latter just provided more opportunities to do more “open top punch down” ferments for added diversity.  However, because the cellar crew did such a great job at picking up the pace on pressing and barreling down, we were able to get everything through.Tombstonebigc

Crop size was healthy:  Who would’ve thought that after the sizeable 2012 harvest Mother Nature would have the reserves to serve up another healthy helping of grapey goodness?  Though not all areas of the state reported above-average yields, many areas did.  The vines, however, were showing signs of stress as the season progressed, possibly due to low potassium levels and depleted soils after producing two bountiful harvests.  Two healthy, high-quality harvests seem like a good thing, though, given that there is talk of a global wine shortage, and that American wine consumption keeps rising.

Harvest Treats

Harvest was early:  Early budbreak and a warm, dry spring in much of California was our first sign that Harvest would be a little early this year.  In early July a brief heat spike in Northern California looked like it might turn up the pace of ripening even more, piling up mid-October’s Rodgers Creek Pinot Noir right on top of September-ripening Stanly Ranch Carneros Pinot Noir.  Two weekends of cool weather in late September, however, slowed things down and let everything’s pick windows widen just enough to walk it all through the winery.  Pinot Noir is a thin-skinned grape and late October rains can wreak havoc on quality, so wrapping up a harvest season a couple of weeks earlier than usual, and being able to forget about the weather forecast, was definitely a treat.

Fermentations are healthy:  Primary alcoholic fermentation, where the yeast eat the grape sugars and turn them into ethanol and carbon dioxide, went off pretty much without a hitch.  This is a good indication that, possible vine depletion aside, the grapes still grew all the micronutrients the yeast needed for a healthy, complete fermentation.  Malolactic fermentations, where naturally-present bacteria transform the grape’s malic acid to a softer, rounder lactic acid, are off to a great start.  It’s possible that a warm, dry growing season lessened the amount and diversity of the usual inoculum of spoilage organisms on the grapes, allowing the “good guy” microbes in the cellar to do their job with less competition and less drama.

Stanly Ranch, Carneros. photo: Chris Purdy Photography

Musts were balanced:  I don’t “pick by the numbers” but if I did, Harvest 2013 would be one for the record books.  When everything was “ripe” by flavor and tannin development, which is what I let be my guide regardless of sugar or acid levels, pH, total acidity and micronutrient levels seemed to be right where you would want them.  2013 was a year for minimalist Pinot Noir winemaking, where Mother Nature gave us ripe, flavorful and deliciously balanced produce right from the start.

Quality so far, is wonderful:  This is the best Halloween harvest treat of all- a cellar full of happy wines, and wines I’m very happy with.  Yesterday I did a vertical tasting of one of my Carneros Pinot Noirs with a well-respected Master of Wine who is a long-time colleague.  He evaluated the 2010 and 2011, of which he preferred the latter.  But it was when he got to the 2012 (still in barrel, will be bottled in a few months) that his eyes really lit up.  Then he tasted the 2013 which was still going through ML fermentation and had only been in barrel for 8 weeks…..and in his gentlemanly and unassuming way suggested that California had just produced two stellar back to back harvests.  It’s just one man’s opinion on one vertical of one wine….but I have to admit I agree completely!

Happy Halloween and Happy (end of) Harvest!

Ben Prest


Copyright Alison Crowe 2013. Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and makes wines from estate-grown fruit in Sonoma, Napa and Monterey Counties.  Join her on Facebook and Twitter and at






Harvest 2013: “It’s Happening in Soledad!”

Harvest 2013:  “It’s Happening in Soledad!”


old billboard

“It’s Happening in Soledad!” The old billboard always made me wonder what exactly was happening there. Alien abductions? The Spanish Inquisition?
(photo source: Wikipedia)

For years, whenever I drove South on Hwy 101 in Monterey County and saw a certain superannuated billboard just north of the sleepy farm town of Soledad, California, an imaginary film clip would play in my head.  I pictured a couple, perhaps a Python-esque Eric Idle and Michael Palin,* dressed up as American tourists:

“Oh look, Marge!   It’s happening in Soledad!”

“Gee, Jim, that’s swell!”

Those of you who are frequent Highway 101 travelers know that the city of Soledad recently curtailed such roadway reveries when they replaced said billboard with a revamped model.

To wit:  The old one must have been designed circa 1972 in an era of disco balls and feathered hair and proudly declaimed, in Brady Bunch colors and font, that “It’s Happening in Soledad!”  Rainbow arrows like the stacked soles of my rubber flip flops pointed in a cheery chevron to a cartoon of the Soledad Mission and the Pinnacles National Monument.  As a UC Davis winemaking student driving between college and my Santa Barbara County hometown of Carpinteria, and later, as an intern at the famed Chalone Winery at the feet of the Pinnacles themselves, I have to admit, I was intrigued.  What exactly was happening in Soledad?   The plague?  A convention of 70’s hot-tub salesmen?  Alien abductions?   The Spanish Inquisition?

We’ll never know.  Well, at least, we’ll just no longer be as curious, which is the real loss.  The funky, cheeky graphic has been replaced with an altogether too-conventional and too Chamber of Commerce-approved sign whose tagline, “Gateway to the Pinnacles” makes it amply clear that camping, hiking and succulent-watching are all that the city elders think is happening in their burg.  But as I’m sure Jim and Marge would agree, plague-laden hot tub salesmen getting abducted by aliens just sounds so much more fun.

The new Soledad sign.  Nowhere near as happenin! (photo source

The new Soledad sign. Nowhere near as happenin!
(photo source KION 46)

But seriously, it IS happening in Soledad.  Harvest, I mean, and in and around Soledad.  The Monterey County Pinot Noir crop is poppin’ and we’re pulling in blocks from our estate vineyards up and down the Salinas Valley, the rolling eastern hills to the Santa Lucia Highlands.   This is indeed the time of year when thoughts of the Pinnacles are far from my mind as we bring in great-looking fruit from Arroyo Loma Vineyard, Alta Loma vineyard and others.  We’ve got only a few more days to go before the entire Monterey crop is in….and then Harvest 2013 for Garnet Vineyards will be in the barn!

Garnet Vineyards' Alta Loma Vineyard nestled up on the Santa Lucia benchlands.

Garnet Vineyards’ Alta Loma Vineyard tucked into the Santa Lucia benchlands.

But as long as the billboard is standing, “improved” graphics not withstanding, it will always still be “happening” in Soledad……….

Are YOU a fan of the old Soledad billboard?  Come on, you know you are!  Check out these T-Shirts  I found online!  The holiday gift-giving season approacheth….






*Forgive me, I saw Spamalot at the Napa Valley Opera House this last weekend.


Copyright Alison Crowe 2013.  Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards- check us out at, Twitter @GarnetVineyards and Facebook!

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

Sorting Syrah

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

This last week there was a major internet flap when mom and blogger Claire Gross posted a blog on that she bathed her three-month-old son Charlie maybe once every week or so.  “Yep, total confession time,” Claire writes.   ” I really don’t bathe my baby.”  This blog post prompted an online firestorm of negativity wherein parents around the globe heaped on criticism upon criticism, accusing her of neglecting her child at worst and losing valuable maternal  bonding time at best. In further media interviews after the story went viral Ms. Gross has revealed her pediatrician advised her that her second child’s delicate skin was drying out too much due to daily bathing so she scaled it down a notch and found a happy balance that worked for them.

So yes, total confession time.  I really don’t wash my grapes.  And well, neither does any winemaker I know or have worked with in the decade and a half I’ve been making wine.   This sometimes comes as a surprise to a public accustomed to salad spinners, special vegetable-washing soap and double and triple-washed and cellophane-bagged spinach in the supermarket.  On numerous occasions giving winery tours, I’ll grab a handful of grapes from the picking bins as my group of visitors watches the grapes poised over the destemmer.  I’ll pop a delicious Pinot Noir berry in my mouth and offer the cluster around, only to hear, “Oh…..don’t you wash them first?”

checking the grapes

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

Nope.  We don’t.


Nowhere in my winemaking education, formal or on-the-job, across the state of California and over two continents, was I shown that washing grapes before fermentation was necessary.

The reality is that “No human pathogen can survive in wine,” as one of my favorite UC Davis professors, Dr. Linda Bisson used to tell us in the first-year winemaking class.  Because of the high acidity (low pH) and high alcohol levels in a typical wine, no bacteria or virus that could infect a person (like a cold or flu bug, or even worse) can survive in that environment.  This is part of the reason why, for the ancient Romans, Greeks and many other societies, wine was used to help treat wounds and was considered a medicine.  Even though wine microbes like Lactobacilli and Saccharomyces cerevisiae are happy in that kind of harsh environment, bugs that live in the human body are not.

Winemakers also know what was sprayed (or in most cases, not sprayed, as grapes are a low-input crop compared to others) in the vineyard during the growing year.  In fact, residual fungicides or other chemicals disrupt a healthy fermentation, which is why winegrape growers are more limited than other fruit and vegetable growers in what they may use in a vineyard and why we ask our growers (or do it ourselves, if we are the grower) to provide meticulous records of anything applied.

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

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

Are there sometimes mites, dust and bugs from the vineyard?  Sure.  Once I even spent an hour rescuing a dozen little green frogs from a bin of grapes as they went across the sorting table (no idea how they got there, must have been hanging out on the vine for some reason).  But most importantly, there are also valuable indigenous yeast and bacteria cells that can help contribute to a healthy and more interesting fermentation and eventually, wine. From Bordeaux to Burgundy, Modesto to Mendocino, grapes get picked, come into the winery, get crushed and become wine, without a grape-washing step involved*.

I really never gave it much thought before, but I suppose we could add grape-washing to our litany of winemaking steps.  Some might welcome it as a way to make squeaky-clean wine that they could market as “Triple Washed!”  Some would no doubt decry it as yet one more unnatural and non-traditional winemaking “intervention”.   It would undoubtedly be a waste of precious water and depending on residual levels, might dilute the wine.  Every day we are learning more and more about the microbial world within and around us and its valuable contribution to our health and well-being.  Why wash off microbes that might be beneficial in fermentation, or at least benign?  The dust that comes in on the grapes settles down to the bottom of the fermenter and gets racked off and left behind anyway.

Bryce Smilie

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

To side with Claire Gross, I really don’t bathe my baby much either (Bryce is now almost eight months old).  He has dry skin and as per his pediatrician we find a once-a-week dunk works just fine for us, thanks very much. So here’s to the great unwashed!  Winemaking, like parenting, is an ancient, and yes sometimes dirty, art.


*If someone does wash their grapes first, contact me!  I’d be curious to do a follow-up blog post!












Alison loves answering questions about the weird in wine and published the WineMaker’s Answer Book in 2007.  Interact with us at @GarnetVineyards and on Facebook!

Harvest 2013: “Slownoma Coast” Finish Line in Sight



Pinot Noir and Chardonnay together at Rodger's Creek Vineyard

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay together at Rodger’s Creek Vineyard

Well, the Turrentine blog states that the North Coast Chardonnay and Pinot Noir harvest is about 50% complete.  From the window of my Subaru flashing by on River Road or from walking through my company’s Sonoma Coast vineyards (we sell some of our fruit to other wineries in addition to growing all of Garnet’s fruit), I would put it closer to 75% complete.

Even the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay crop, which I picked last week after anxiously waiting for it to ripen, is finally in the cellar.  Good thing, too because the little bit of moisture we saw Monday night in Napa and Sonoma Counties probably spells the end of active Chardonnay ripening time before botrytis takes over.  If you didn’t have your Chardonnay picked before, now’s the time to get it in the barn.  That is the double-edged sword of growing delicate thin-skinned grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in extreme cool and late-ripening climates like the” Slownoma Coast”;  you need to wait long enough for perfect ripeness but not so long so that the fruit melts off the vine.

Whole cluster Chardonnay going into the press!

Whole cluster Chardonnay going into the press!

The end of a crazy Sonoma Coast harvest for Garnet which atypically began two weeks earlier than expected but now has modulated due to two cool spells, is in sight.   Now we start really focusing on our Monterey County Vineyards near the Santa Lucia Highlands, where the Pinot is just about perfect and the Chardonnay is actively being pressed.   I still, however, have one block of Pinot Noir out at Rodger’s Creek vineyard in the Petaluma Gap area still hanging, waiting until it tastes just right.


The Last Holdout:  Rodgers Creek Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, is always the last Pinot Noir I pick

The Last Holdout: Rodgers Creek Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, is always among the last Pinot Noir I pick

This site is high above Stage Gulch Road on the eastern edge of the Petaluma Gap appellation and experiences extremely low yields and screamingly high winds.  Both factors, along with it being clone 777, imbue this Pinot Noir literally with a thicker skin, enabling it to hang tough long after my last Russian River Pinot Noir has been picked.  Rodgers Creek Vineyard is always the last Pinot Noir I pick in the North Coast and for me it is one of those “wow” vineyards.  The list of clients who share its Pinot crop with me is prestigious and score-grabbing.    A large portion of the Garnet Sonoma Coast blend is from Rodgers Creek, but I always set aside a few precious barrels of my favorite blocks for a vineyard designate bottling (selecting special cuvees: a topic for another blog entry, as is the definition of “Sonoma Coast”). 

So the end of another Garnet Vineyards harvest is in sight, at least on the Sonoma Coast.  The Monterey Pinot and Chard crop should all be picked within the next two weeks and I’m looking forward to not scanning the weather reports so much.  Making Pinot Noir and Chardonnay means harvest is hectic but usually quite short.  First day of harvest was September 3 on Stanly Ranch in Carneros.  The last day for Garnet is set to be just exactly a month later on the Sonoma Coast and just two weeks later down in Monterey.   Now…..what to do with it all?…..



Prep the barrels- we're pressing all these fermentations and now no longer have grapes, but wine!

Prep the barrels- we’re pressing all these fermentations and now no longer have grapes, but wine!







Copyright Alison Crowe 2013



Harvest 2013: O Chardonnay Where Art Thou?

Bins of Stanly Ranch Pinot, waiting to begin fermenting

Bins of hand-picked Stanly Ranch Pinot from Carneros, waiting for their turn to become wine!


Here at Garnet Vineyards the Pinot Noir on the North Coast has been coming in just one block after another. The tsunami of grapes that I saw coming two weeks ago has already hit and residual waves are gently lapping at the winery as we walk ripening blocks of Pinot through the tanks one by one. The stellar cellar crew (say that five times fast) is getting into the groove of crushing first thing, monitoring Brix levels (we measure the juice sugar levels to keep tabs on the health of each fermentation) in the morning, and pumping over and punching down twice a day to make sure the cap (floating grape skins) is getting mixed up with the juice to extract color and tannin.

Checking the sugar levels with a hydrometer- a gently decrease in solution density  (sugar concentration) means the fermentation isn't progressing too quickly!

Using eighteenth century “technology” to check the sugar levels of my fermenting Pinot Noir must.  By floating a hydrometer (weighted glass tube with a density scale on it) in the wine, we check to make sure the fermentation is ticking along  nice and slowly.

Mother Nature has smiled on us this week and hasn’t served up any more heat spikes (knock on French Oak) like that little one we had ten days ago.  The mild weather we’ve been experiencing in Sonoma lately has meant that the Pinot clusters at Rodger’s Creek and Diamond Vineyards are being left to ripen literally in their own sweet time.  We also are just about to get started pulling in Pinot Noir from our Alta Loma Vineyard in Monterey County; the Pinot harvest there should progress at a comfortable pace.

So who’s now on my “watch list” this week?  Our Sonoma Coast Chardonnay vineyards, of course!  It is supposedly an “early ripening” varietal, but this year the Chardonnay seems to be ripening even later than in 2012, which was a bit of a late year for Chardonnay to begin with.  To find out what’s up, I placed a call to my friend and colleague Pete Opatz, Winemaker/Owner of Route 128 Winery and all-around grape expert at Silverado Premium Properties in Napa.  Pete says, “Typically you start getting into the Chardonnay about halfway through the Pinot harvest.”

Chardonny, which I usually pick about halfway through the Pinot harvest, is later than expected this year.

The Sonoma Coast Chardonnay isn’t ripening as quickly as one would expect in this “earlier” 2013 harvest- perhaps due to low potassium levels in the soil, a residual effect of last year’s healthy-sized crop?


Gorgeous day at Diamond Vineyards in Carneros- there’s plenty of time for 2013 Chardonnay to ripen up in the sun!

This year’s two week delay from normal is, “…probably due to a boomerang reaction to last year’s heavier crops, lower Potassium levels in soils, and a small heat spike we had in June, which caused leaf lamina damage in Chardonnay,” Pete says.  The quality of the grapes shouldn’t be affected, which is good news. There is a tiny cool-down phase in the weather predicted for this weekend, though I’m not worried about any appreciable amount of precipitation.  However, if it’s not windy enough to dry things out again, we’ll start having to watch for botrytis….but let’s not allow the paranoid scenarios of “what if” to make us spiral into a worrisome Harvest depression.  It’s a gorgeous day today and we just have to  wait for those acid levels to come down and flavor and sugar levels come up….let’s all remember it’s still just the middle of September.  Patience!