Pinot Noir has quite a reputation. Often known as the “Heartbreak Grape” and lovingly discussed, dissected and degustated (is that even a word?) by rabid Pinotphiles, Pinot Noir was being talked about in the wine world well before the movie Sideways thrust it onto an international stage. Ten years after Miles and friends brought the joys of Pinot to a wider audience , the tidal wave of Pinot Noir shows no signs of slowing down and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I grew up in Santa Barbara County, spent my first harvest making estate-grown Pinot Noir at the unique Chalone Vineyard and now make Pinot Noir at Garnet Vineyards. As a dyed-in-the-wool (or in the hair, during harvest) Pinot freak, I wanted to share with you some quirky factoids and some common misconceptions about my favorite grape.
Pinot Noir Isn’t Always “The Heartbreak Grape”
Is Pinot Noir called “The Heartbreak Grape” because it’s so tough to make or because it’s so tough to shell out the ducats for that first growth Burgundy? Seriously, the “tough to deal with” label has been stuck to Pinot Noir throughout the years perhaps because it’s generally a thin-skinned, tightly-clustered varietal which means it’s susceptible to rot and fungus. Given that Pinot Noir does best in cool, moist climates (like the Russian River, Carneros, Monterey County and Garnet Vineyard’s Rodgers Creek Vineyard in the Petaluma Gap), it’s logical to see how, especially in wet years, Pinot Noir can get a reputation for being sensitive. The flip side of this dismal-sounding coin is that Pinot Noir is an early-ripening variety, which means that it tends to get picked before late-season storms can rain on the tasty wine parade. The good news is that not every clone is the same and some have looser, less rot-prone clusters. Even though both 2007 and 2011 were relatively wet years, I found that Garnet’s vineyards pulled through just fine and were happily fermenting away when things were getting ugly out there. Fortunately I also tend to find that Pinot Noir (unlike some red grapes) behaves very well in the cellar and benefits from minimalist winemaking. No heartbreak there. Like Rafael Nadal’s relaxed but devastatingly effective two-handed backhand (OK, I’ve been watching the French Open), Pinot doesn’t like to be muscled around with theatrics but to be played through with authoritative restraint. Though Pinot Noir does take a little extra care and feeding in the vineyard, in the winery I find it responds very well to a classic “hands off” regimen of time-honored simplicity: destem, ferment, press, and age. Game, set, match.
Pinot Noir has a Large Extended Family
Ever heard of Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier or Pinot Grigio? The definitive study has yet to be done on who exactly gave rise to who and when, but what is certain is that the Pinot genome is very mutable and very mutatable. Pinot Noir, with its long (some say over 2,000 years) history in production and suspected gene transposition properties, can spontaneously create different clones and even “offspring” that are deemed different enough to be classified as different varieties entirely. Though mutations tend to take years to happen, discover and classify, there are over one hundred different clones of Pinot Noir identified in the winemaking world today. Myself, I like the blending complexity that the different clones planted in different soils and vineyards offer me. It’s pretty cool to be able to create a wine like our Sonoma Coast Pinot from the minerality of Rodgers Creek Vineyard’s 777 clone and balance that with some sweet fruits from Russian River’s Pommard clone. Are these genetic shenanigans a good thing or a bad thing….? If you like variety and a little unpredictability in your life, it’s great and couldn’t be more fun. I think Pinot drinkers (and Pinot winemakers), who tend to be a curious, quirky bunch anyway, would agree!
Pinot Noir is the Most Versatile Food Wine
There, I said it. Some would say it’s bubbles, some would say it’s the darling-of-the moment, dry rosé, but I plant my food-friendly flag permanently in the world of Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir can be made in so many styles (hey, even Champagne and pink wine!), from light and fruity to dense, dark and brooding. Salmon is an obvious fish pairing but give blackened catfish, mussels or halibut a try too. And Yes of course it goes with poultry, cheese, pork, roast veggies and many Asian-influenced dishes. Try a higher acid-lower alcohol cuvee to cut through something spicy and fatty like smoked duck tacos. Heck, I even challenge you to pair a robust Petaluma Gap Pinot Noir (like our Rodgers Creek single vineyard designate), whose uncharacteristically thick skins yields a higher tannin profile, with a steak and see what I mean. Chewy, rich Pinot to stand up to beef? Yup. Pinot: It’s what’s for dinner.
Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and loves all things Pinot. Check out the Garnet website at www.garnetvineyards.com and keep up with her on Facebook, facebook.com/GarnetVineyards and on Twitter, @GarnetVineyards.
Copyright Alison Crowe 2014
What does a vineyard smell like? If you’re fortunate enough to be around vineyards in the middle of Spring, you might find out if you can catch the vines when they’re in the midst of that fleeting week or two called “Bloom.” This is when the developing grape clusters actually flower, get fertilized and begin their true journey to become this harvest’s grape crop.
Some express surprise that grapes actually flower. It’s not perhaps the most glamorous part of the wine year, and certainly never seems to get much attention in the media. Indeed, it is probably one of the quietest times of the growing season. The pruning crews are long gone and the tractors have done most of their post-winter tilling. The danger of frost season is largely over. Harvest is still many long months away and winemakers have their heads buried deep in their barrel stacks and their bottling lines. Attention is focused elsewhere.
In the meantime, screens of vine leaves obscure the drama quietly unfolding underneath. Push aside a saucer-sized leaf and you’ll reveal a thumb’s length of yellow-green nubs, each crowned with a tuft of cream-colored threads. Carefully wave away the drowsing bumblebee and bury your nose in the soft texture of the developing grape cluster. Inhale. Until the grapes are crushed and fermentation begins, this is the only time you’ll be able to immerse yourself in the scent of a grape.
So what does a vineyard smell like? Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir, at 10:01 in the morning on May 1, 2014 smelled like the skin of a sun-warmed D’Anjou pear, the flesh of a fuji apple and a slice of a barely-ripe honeydew melon.
The aroma of a blooming grape cluster is sweet without being cloying and like the scent of violets, is ephemeral and doesn’t satiate. It’s impossible to stop sniffing because the aroma of Bloom, like the time of the year itself, is subtle, beautiful and fleeting.
Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and is fascinated by the world of scent and loves how aromas stir our memories and touch our souls.
Like this blog? Nominate me for “Best Winery Blog” in the 2014 Wine Blog Awards!
Copyright Alison Crowe 2014
It was with a little nervous trepidation that I stepped up to the bar at Fish Story to tap my first keg of wine. I had invited 25 co-workers and close friends to help me tap Garnet Vineyard’s first ever Pinot Noir in a keg, which also happens to be my first ever wine in the keg.
About a month or so ago, I was contemplating the wine kegging process and learned a lot about how the actual kegging process workd. Now that we’ve since put the wine in the kegs themselves, my questions have turned to other quarters.
How would a wine-serving process and premise so very different from the traditional bottle deliver? Would the nose, color, taste or texture of my precious Pinot Noir be different? Most importantly, would it be good? Heck- would it be great? I had to draw a glass, in this private moment before everyone showed up, to see for myself.
Happily, I can report, I tapped a keg and I liked it! Now I wasn’t really too worried, knowing that Free Flow Wines (the company that kegged up the wine for me) and Gwen Larson’s team at Fish Story were all experienced veterans in this wildly-growing world of wine-on-tap. The Lark Creek Restaurant Group, of which Fish Story is a member, was an early adopter of the wine on tap movement and Free Flow has become the go-to partner for quality-conscious winemakers getting their wine into kegs.
I was the inexperienced one this time, and I’m glad to report (all my kegger invitees back me up, here) that the wine tasted great. My Assistant Winemaker, Barbara and I had delivered the wine to Free Flow’s south-Napa winery/kegging facility about a month prior and had watched with fascination as their precision-engineered machine (custom made in Germany- by a beer company!) cleaned, sanitized and then filled rows of gleaming silver kegs with our Pinot Noir.
Doing wine in a keg is an interesting decision for a winery to make. I had heard about the much “greener” aspect of the technology and anecdotally from hearing about the process understood how a layer of inert argon gas can protect flavors of the wine. Naturally I was extremely excited to guarantee that what arrived in a restaurant customer’s glass was the very best I could offer and wasn’t the oxidized dregs of a half-open bottle from yesterday. Who wants to subject the wine-drinking public to that- yuck! But what about the cost savings? Isn’t it cheaper for wineries to do wine in kegs?
Believe it or not, it actually costs me slightly more to package my wine in a keg, due to the state of the art technology, the additional cost of the keg-retrieval service and other things. I don’t have to buy corks, capsules and labels of course but start to finish its essentially a wash. So why do it? What are some of the benefits of doing wine in a keg? Read on kind Garnet-fans and I think you’ll agree with me why it’s worth showing up for the party:
- Guaranteed freshest wine from the 1st glass to last!
- No oxidation, no corkage, no spoilage
- Every glass of wine gets to you just as I intended it to taste
- It’s the “green” choice – massive reduction in carbon footprint compared to bottles
- Reusable kegs can be used for over 30 years
- No waste to the landfill – Each reusable steel keg saves over 2,340 lbs of trash from the landfill over its lifetime
So how did it taste? Pretty darn great. From what I can tell, one of the coolest benefits of wine-in-a-keg is no bottle shock. I know, I know, it’s anecdotal at this point( and what is bottle shock anyway? -more on that in future blog posts, I promise) but as I typically wait at least three months after I bottle a wine to let it “settle down” and “get over itself” I was thrilled that, a month after kegging, the wine tasted exactly as I wanted it to.
Judging by how low we tapped that keg for #Wine Wednesday, I think it tasted exactly as everyone else wanted it to as well! Gwen and her team were flinging cute full and half-sized carafes left and right (she does 750 ml, 375 ml and glass-sized pours) as we dove into the sliders and sushi, snapping pictures and catching up. It was a fun time to hoist a glass of wine-on-tap 2012 Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir….and to get ready for our next keg run!
Please visit our friends at Fish Story in downtown Napa! Say hi to Chef Scott and Beverage Director Gwen Larson, whose staff gave us a keggin’ good time.
copyright Alison Crowe 2014
Just like TV’s favorite good guy/bad guy Walter White, there’s a lot of positive and negative about the season we call “bud break.” On one hand, it’s an exciting and exhilarating time when our vines wake up and the buds start pushing out the shoots which will turn into this Harvest’s grapes.
There are gorgeous sights to be had out in the field: stands of poppies, rows of mustard, velvety cover crops and of course, the stars of the show, our developing grape canopy and clusters.
On the other hand, there are some potentially not-so-beautiful experiences to be had: frost, continued drought, or even maybe crop-damaging hail. It’s a stressful time where we worry about how cold those nights will get or how much (or how little!) rainfall will manifest as the days creep by into late spring when warmer night temperatures take away a lot of the worry.
Though we’d like to see more storms and rain during this early growing season (we need it!), the main concern is frost, especially given the 2014 bud break which is tracking a week or two ahead of average.
What that means is that there are potentially two weeks’ more of nights where we could experience frost and subsequent damage to the emerging buds, resulting in stunted green growth and lost crop. Based on bud counts, shoot counts and just because I don’t think Mother Nature can hand us three bumper crops in a row, 2014 isn’t shaping up to be a big harvest season to begin with. Adding insult to injury, we are still in water-challenged conditions in California, which means that there could be little (and in some areas, no) access to extra water for frost protection (using sprinklers in cold conditions counter-intuitively can prevent buds from freezing).
So far, the Napa and Sonoma frost forecast into next week looks pretty good and continued cloud cover and rainy weather will keep nighttime temperatures above freezing. As we clear up into next week, however, those clear night skies mean colder temperatures could set in even as we get sunnier and warmer days. Cue the AMC (and the wind machines), grab some popcorn and a glass of Pinot Noir and be prepared for some “Breaking Bad”-style Jekyll and Hyde behavior. It’s always exciting to be in the vineyard in the springtime but we could be in for some cold criminal action!
Alison Crowe is the winemaker at Garnet Vineyards and is keeping tabs on vineyards in Carneros, Russian River, Sonoma Coast and Monterey appelations. Follow her on Twitter @GarnetVineyards or on facebook.com/GarnetVineyards for the latest on the developing season!
Usually a winemaker is accustomed to being interviewed by a writer (my chosen term for journalists, bloggers, etc.- see more on that debate via Tom Wark) in person or over the phone. They ask questions, you think about your responses and then answer, and then you email photos and a bio. Sometimes (and sometimes not) an article with your quotes (sometimes edited, sometimes not) appears, and it gets published in print and/or online. In my experience, email interviews are rare because most writers I’ve talked with want to get a sense of immediacy in a piece and email gives the interviewee “too much time to think” and the results often end up sounding too scripted.
It’s rare to be able to participate in what seems to be a new and pioneering way of talking to wine folks and I was thrilled to take part in a “Wine Text Interview” at wineconsumer.com. Lead by Creative Director Sean Piper, the interview via text I did yesterday was fast paced, unscripted (typos by me and all) and spontaneous.
We had arranged the time just the day before and I didn’t know exactly where in my day I would be at 1:30 when Sean texted me. If I had a break in the rain I was going to go check out how some of our Carneros and Sonoma Coast vineyards were faring in the recent heavy rain (no cover crop + lots of sudden rain = possibly erosion issues) and then head over to the winery to check on how our 2013 Pinots in barrel were doing. Sean didn’t give me any idea as to what he would ask or what we would chat about; I kind of liked it that way.
I was just diving into the stacks at 1:30 and was able to send him some “action shots” of my tasting set-up when he asked the first question about where I was and what I was doing. From there I was asked stock questions like to describe what I do at Garnet, which wines we make and their price points, etc. Then there were some very unexpected questions which made me think. One, “Share a picture of a bottle of your wine in the hands of a consumer or someone who helps you at the winery” threw me for a loop as I scrambled to grab a bottle of our 2012 Rodgers Creek Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, which we had just bottled yesterday, and snap a picture of Miguel and I.
You can see the entire interview here. It was a fun experience. The “Wine Text Interview” retains the immediacy and spontaneity of a verbal interview and combines it with images and immediate share-ability. It’s a little hard to get a full screen view on the Facebook platform, so you have to click on Sean’s link on wineconsumer.com to read the whole story, but it’s a fun little narrative.
I think he’s the only one doing this format, and I look forward to more “Wine Text Interviews” from Sean and the Wineconsumer.com team. I encourage my winemaking colleagues to participate in the game!
Alison Crowe is the Winemaker at Garnet Vineyards. www.garnetvineyards.com @GarnetVineyards
copyright Alison Crowe 2013
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!
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:
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.
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.
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 trywineontap.com. 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!
Interested in carrying Garnet wines in a keg? Adventurous retailers, email me here: firstname.lastname@example.org and come on down to my kegger!
Alison Crowe is the winemaker at www.garnetvineyards.com and can also be followed @GarnetVineyards as well as www.facebook.com/garnetvineyards
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 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 girlandthegrape.com 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 girlandthegrape.com. 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!
-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.
-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!*)
-I spill it, sorry fellow winemakers. We pick ’em and we squish ’em. That’s non-interventionist, water-conserving all-natural winemaking.
-I share my most important winemaking truism, and pay loving tribute to one of my Pinot Noir mentors, the late, great winemaker Don Blackburn.
-I humbly submit tips and techniques for surviving a large public wine tasting event as I prepared for the Napa Valley Film Festival 2013.
I wish you and yours a Happy New Year!
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.
There were plenty of these:
And of course these:
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.
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
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.
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?
Los Gatos, CA
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.”
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: www.winemakermag.com
Copyright Alison Crowe
Camera….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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Enjoy the 2013 Napa Valley Film Festival! Passes still available for a fabulous weekend!
Here’s the 411:
Napa Valley Film Fest Website: www.nvff.org
Event Hashtag: #NVFF13
Event Twitter Handle: @NapaFilmFest
Garnet’s Website: www.garnetvineyards.com
Garnet’s Twitter Handle: @GarnetVineyards
Women of the Vine: www.womenofthevine.com