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

About to Get Crushed! Staring down the 2013 Tsunami

2013 ain't no day at the beach- there's a tsunami of grapes out there!

2013 ain’t no day at the beach- there’s a tsunami of grapes out there!

2013 will most likely be remembered, by those who pick grapes and make wine as the year we almost drowned.  Yes, quality is looking great, sure, I like the aromas on the first Stanly Ranch Pinot ferments but who has time for critic-baiting niceties when you’re staring down the throat of the beast, and the grape tsunami of 2013 is about to eat you and your cowering crush crew for breakfast?

This is the deal:  just about everything, especially in Napa and Sonoma Counties is ripening at once.  I’ve never seen such narrow brix spreads between such disparate varietals as Alexander Valley Merlot, Carneros Chardonnay and Russian River Pinot Noir in recent memory.  Garnet Vineyards makes wine in a little shared “garagiste” winery space off the square in Sonoma and, though we just make Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, our colleagues (a new definition for “co-fermenters”?) make many different “flavors”- Dry Creek Zin, Sonoma Sauvignon Blanc, Alexander Valley Cab…..and we are all in amazement at how quickly this harvest will thunder to completion.

Though the actual start of harvest for Garnet Vineyards was only a week ahead of normal (first week in September, rather than the second), the grapes that follow on our Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are ripening a good two weeks ahead of normal.

Great quality- problem is it's all getting ripe at once!  Tidal wave!!!

Great quality- problem is it’s all getting ripe at once! Tidal wave!!!

That means that my friends’ Alexander Valley Merlot is going to want to be picked right when the tanks are full of Russian River Pinot Noir fermentations…so it’s a good thing I press out warm (Pinot Noir doesn’t benefit from extended maceration like Cabernet does)and have the barrels ready to go to clear the fermentation tanks for what’s coming next. 2013 will certainly be one of the most condensed, fast and furious harvest I’ve ever experienced.

I grew up in Santa Barbara and worked for years at Santa Cruz’s Bonny Doon Vineyard where the interns and the winemaking team would sometimes make a dash to Cowell’s or to any number of our favorite surf spots  for a little dip. One of the first lessons of surfing is when you see a big wave forming and you want to get the next one, the last thing you do is retreat back to the shore.  It’s sure to crunch you up and roll you under the kelp like a load of dirty laundry.  You have to face the wave, power over it and pop safely over to the other side, to await your next set.    Though I don’t think a lot of surfing breaks will happen for anyone this year, here’s hoping we can take on the challenge and tame this tidal wave of grapes.  Take a deep breath.  It’s guaranteed to be a wild ride!


The first wave- Stanly Ranch Pinot into the hopper at Garnet Vineyards

The first wave- Stanly Ranch Pinot into the hopper at Garnet Vineyards










All photos copyright Alison Crowe and Chris Purdy Photography,

Under the Gun: Wineries Scramble to Prep for Earlier, Faster 2013


Garnet 2012 Pinot Noir, safely in the bottle

Garnet 2012 Pinot Noir, safely in the bottle

At Garnet Vineyards I have the luxury of knowing my 2012 vintage will be safely in the bottle by the end of this week, before the first grape even thinks about hitting the crush pad.   However, many of my wine-making buddies across the state aren’t looking forward to such a relaxing prospect over their Labor Day weekend.  Some are frantically getting wines out of barrel, making last-minute blends and getting wines into the bottle in a final attempt to clear the decks before the 2013 tons start flying.  And, it appears, some are still lingering in a “normal year” mindset even though it’s starting to look like 2013 might be earlier, faster and more condensed than usual.

In Napa, Sonoma and the Central Coast, grape trucks for still wine are already on the road as early-ripening varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio follow hard on the heels of an action-packed early sparkling harvest about a week ahead of schedule.  Rumors of Napa Cabs at higher-than-normal brixes for this date are already making winery managers nervous about crush-pad traffic jams as multiple varietals try to get in the door at once.


Jillian Johnson of Laffort USA wine supply company

“ It’s definitely caught us a little by surprise,” says Laffort’s Jillian Johnson, who provides both bottling and finished wine supplies to wineries statewide and so is in a good position to observe what winemakers are working on as the weeks (days?) to harvest tick down.

“People are still bottling and I’m still getting orders for fining wines,”  Johnson reports (fining is an optional pre-bottling step, like bentonite fining of excess protein in white wines).    She says, “It seems like the mind-set hasn’t even shifted yet to harvest.  It’s because people are still dealing with so much wine from 2012.  They really do have to bottle to make room for the incoming wine.”

Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir is tracking 7days earlier than average

Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir is tracking 7days earlier than average

At Garnet Vineyards, we are definitely seeing our first Carneros Pinot, Stanly Ranch, tracking 7 days earlier than average. It’s still nowhere near the “4 weeks early!!” level that some winemakers were talking about after a few warm weeks this spring, but without a doubt 2013 will be remembered as an earlier year.  Even the recent monsoonal pattern hasn’t really dampened ripening, as temperatures have achieved low to mid-80’s (F) consistently, which is perfect sugar-accumulating weather.  The gentle, mild growing season in 2013 has meant that the vine’s vascular structures are in tip-top shape, basically paving a sugar superhighway to ripeness.  Flavors are also developing earlier than I would expect as well, which is great news and means that the critical sensory elements will be there to match the incoming sugar and the gently falling acid.  So far (knock on lots of wood!) it looks like the stars are getting in alignment for another delicious year.

However….we have a long way to go before we can all heave a sigh of relief and put a cork in 2013.  Chardonnay and Cabernet might be right on top of each other, and not many people I’ve talked to are thinking they’ll be crushing much into November.

Prepping hoses in the cellar at Garnet Vineyards

Prepping hoses in the cellar at Garnet Vineyards

This all points to a fast and condensed harvest, one that stresses out both people and equipment as we work longer hours to pick, crush and barrel down all the incoming fruit in a shorter time period.  And there’s no denying a generous (but super-high quality) 2012 has left many of us pushing the envelope on getting that vintages’ blends into the bottle and out of the winery.

There’s no doubt about it, it’s high time to muster the crews, roll out the barrels and get our collective harvest hats on.  Like Jillian says,  “Look around on the roads, there are harvest trucks out there, it’s time to figure out your orders!”  It’s time to batten down the hatches and get ready for another roller coaster ride, one that looks to be particularly tasty, fast and exciting! is the blog of Alison Crowe


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Super-Early 2013 Harvest? Hold those horses….


Barrels and bins getting ready for Harvest 2013 at Garnet Vineyards, Sonoma

Barrels and bins getting ready for Harvest 2013 at Garnet Vineyards, Sonoma

Ah, it’s that time of year again….when we dust off the picking bins, spiff up the barrels, train the cellar interns how to use the winery barbecue (oh wait, I mean the presses) and generally work ourselves into a lather talking about the impending harvest and whether or not we’ll get Labor Day off.  The last couple of weeks in Napa and Sonoma, all the dither seems to be about Harvest 2013 being super early.  I’m just not seeing it, folks.

Though a couple of brief heat waves in late spring followed by earlier-than-normal north coast wildfires hinted at a hot, dry (and therefore early) growing season, the recent cool weather has really modulated grapevine ripening.  About a month ago gossip at the Napa Farmer’s Market and around town was all about the first picking being three to four weeks earlier than normal state-wide.

Granted, the first grapes for sparkling wine have already been picked in Napa Valley and friends of mine who crush grapes from the hot California interior have started to bring in the very first Pinot Gris and other early-ripening whites.    The same sources, however, report that Lodi really hasn’t started to heat up (so to speak) on its picking activity and my bubbly-making buddies in Sonoma admit that they are still taking a relaxed attitude toward scheduling grapes and that the first headline-grabbing (done on purpose one wonders?) photo-op picks were only about a week earlier than normal.

Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir is tracking only 5-7days earlier than average

Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir is tracking only 5-7days earlier than average

This all tallies with what I’m seeing around Garnet Vineyard’s neck of the woods in the Sonoma Coast, Carneros and Monterey County appellations.  Looking at my historical brixes, Stanly Ranch Pinot Noir in Carneros is set to be picked the first week of September and my Sonoma Coast Rodgers Creek Pinot noir, which at its high elevation always ripens a little more slowly, are tracking about 5 days earlier than last year.  Since 2012 was a slightly later than average harvest, I’m betting 2013 will track about 5-7 days earlier than average.  Not super-early, and just about right.

Rodgers Creek Vineyard, high up on a cold ridge in the Petaluma Gap, Sonoma Coast appellation, always is the last Pinot Noir Garnet Vineyards picks- and is tracking perhaps 3-5 days earlier this year

Rodgers Creek Vineyard, high up on a cold ridge in the Petaluma Gap, Sonoma Coast appellation, always is the last Pinot Noir Garnet Vineyards picks- and is tracking perhaps 3-5 days earlier this year

Yields are mixed, with some areas looking like an average to slightly average-plus crop size, while some areas are looking like weaker-than-average.  Sometimes higher tons per acre can delay a ripening date while less crop can ripen earlier, but I’m estimating those effects will be felt in just two to three days on either side, not weeks.  In Napa and Sonoma we are looking at a very moderate and seasonal weather pattern for the next 10 days, which means perfect grape-ripening conditions with no heat spikes on the horizon to speed things up.

Kona the Vineyard Dog is still making Labor Day plans- though we'll stick close to home and keep the cell phone on!

Ali and Kona are making Labor Day Weekend plans…but are staying close to home with the cell phone on!

So I’m still making plans for a relaxing Labor Day weekend.  Put a few bottles of bubbly on ice, get out the cooler and fire up that barbecue (the interns can always use more practice, right?).   We might even pack up the car, the dog, the kids and head out of town….we just won’t go very far.







Copyright 2013 Alison Crowe

Pinot and Guacamole- A Laid-Back Pairing From the Central Coast

Alison Crowe is a Central Coast Native

Alison Crowe is a Central Coast Native

Hailing from California’s Central Coast has its advantages, one of which is whenever I go visit friends and family back home in Carpinteria, a sleepy beach town near Santa Barbara, I always am sent back north to Napa with a box full of buttery avocados.

Avocado orchards on Carpinteria's coastline as seen from Santa Claus Beach

Avocado orchards on Carpinteria’s coastline as seen from Santa Claus Beach

The same conditions that make the Central Coast so fabulous for Pinot Noir production, namely the cool ocean influence, mild winters and warm days also mean that avocados thrive on the fog-draped slopes and canyons near the sea.  

Avocados have a reputation for being a difficult food and wine match, supposedly because of the “green” notes that can sometimes appear; think artichokes or asparagus, two other notoriously troublesome wine partners. 

Carpinteria's finest:  A perfectly-pitted Haas avocado.

Carpinteria’s finest: A perfectly-pitted Hass avocado.

I, however, take what is perhaps a very Central Coastian “laid back” approach. First of all I always make sure I have a perfectly ripe avocado.  Give it a gentle squeeze (no fingertips here, try to use the palms of your hands to avoid bruising).  If it is uniformly and softly yielding, it’s a good bet it’ll be much lighter on the “green” components sometimes exhibited by  hard and mealy supermarket hand-grenades.  

Secondly, I take a cue from the rest of the meal.  If I’m making a scallop and avocado ceviche with lime and cilantro, a chilled, acidic Albariño or even a lightly-oaked Chardonnay can work.  If the meal is a little bit more robust, like a grilled Santa Maria-style tri-tip topped with buttery avocado slices, I will always reach for a fruity Pinot Noir like my 2011 Garnet Monterey Pinot.   I love the smokiness of the meat with the Pinot Noir and find the acidity of the wine is enough of a match for the fat in the silky avocados. 

2011 Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir's silkiness and acidity is a nice foil for buttery avocado dishes

2011 Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir’s silkiness and acidity is a nice foil for buttery avocado dishes

 Carpinteria is home to the world famous Avocado Festival and many of our best friends are long-time local avocado ranchers. My parents’ home is ringed by many decades-old trees and my grandparents also raise quite a few of the nubbly green fruits just south of us in Ventura County.

The Foley-Claffey Family, third-generation avocado farmers in Carpinteria

The Foley-Claffey Family, third-generation avocado farmers in Carpinteria

We always make sure to eat our fill while we are visiting (B.L.A.T. anyone?) but continue to enjoy the increasingly softer fruit in our kitchen in Napa.  When the last ones get very ripe and we know they won’t last another day, we make a batch of guacamole and pop a glass of Garnet Monterey Pinot to remember our vacation and savor the flavors of California’s Central coast.      

Alison’s Central Coast Guacamole

3 Hass avocados

1 lime, juiced

1 lemon, juiced

1 tsp freshly ground black pepper

1 tsp freshly ground sea salt


With a sturdy, large chef’s knife, cut avocados lengthwise around the pit, take between your two hands and twist gently to separate the halves.  Cradling the half with the pit still in it in a kitchen towel (for protection) in your hand, give the pit a smart whack with the blade of the knife, embedding the blade firmly in the pit.  Give the knife a twist and remove the pit.  Scoop out flesh with a spoon into a bowl.  Add remaining ingredients and mash roughly (or finely, your preference) with a fork or whisk.  Serve immediately.  If you need to store it any length of time before serving, sprinkle surface with lemon juice and press plastic wrap down onto the surface of the guacamole to avoid browning.  It never lasts that long at our house!

I often will just keep my guacamole simple (and citrusy!) but to further enhance the flavor profile or better match it to the rest of your menu, feel free to add the following as well:

1 tablespoon finely chopped cilantro

½ tsp ground cumin

1 small tomato, seeded and chopped

½ tsp ground cayenne pepper

Feel free to jazz up my basic guacamole with salsa, more limes and even hot sauce!

Feel free to jazz up my basic guacamole with salsa, more limes and even hot sauce!

Winemaking Begins With People

Winemaking Begins With People

checking the grapes

You can’t “make wine by the numbers,” it takes a skilled person to assess ripeness


The old saw goes, “Great wines begin in the vineyard.”  I beg to differ.  “Don Blackburn, one of California’s best crafters of Pinot Noir, used to have a sign posted on his office door that read, “Winemaking Begins With People.” His point was that no matter how expensive the barrel, talented the winemaker or mind-bogglingly stellar the fruit, all could be ruined by one too short tank wash cycle or one lab tech who didn’t bother to re-check that weird VA (volatile acidity). He also meant that great wines are a team effort, made great by many small acts, expertly done. Only people can do that.”


I wrote those words in an article in Wine Business Monthly back in 2006, and they still resonate for me today.  When I’m walking through the vine rows at Stanly Ranch in Carneros, impressed at how great of a suckering job the crew did on the Pinot Noir it’s a reminder of the hard work it took to get such a job done.

Assistant Winemaker, Barbara Ignatowski

Assistant Winemaker, Barbara Ignatowski

When I unscrew a bottle of Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir I am humbled that even though I may have the title “Winemaker” and get a lot of the credit in the public eye, it took a group effort to get the wine in that bottle, from the cellar intern pressure washing the floors to Garnet’s Assistant Winemaker Barbara making sure that the screw-capper was working just right.


Especially when I pour at events and get to chat face to face with people enjoying my wines, “Winemaking Begins With People” takes center stage and remains one of the best parts of being in the wine business.

Serenity Pics 002

Pumping over estate Pinot Noir at Byington Winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where I worked with Don Blackburn

Though I last worked with Don as a cellar intern in 1998 learning how to make estate-grown Pinot Noir, I find myself remembering his famous office-door quote all the time and am so glad we remained good friends as I advanced in my own career.


Don is unfortunately no longer with us; we lost him far too early at age 54, in 2009, after a yearlong battle with cancer.

Actually, let me rephrase that.


Don Blackburn

As long as winemaking continues being a team sport, and one where competitors even cheer each other on from the sidelines, Don Blackburn and his truism “Winemaking Begins With People” will indeed still be with us.




Un-Bunged! How to Properly Broach a Barrel

Winemaking 101:  How to Properly Un-Bung a Barrel


Ali in the stacks- ready to show you how to un-bung like a pro next time you’re at a barrel tasting



Worried you won’t know the proper protocol next time someone invites you barrel tasting? Applying for your first harvest job in the cellar and want to exhibit perfectly turned barrel-care etiquette? Don’t know your  bung-hole from your wine thief?  I’m here to help.  Here’s how to expertly broach a barrel.  Simplicity, swiftness (in the case of harvest intern barrel sampling work orders) and cleanliness (always!) are the rules of the game.




First step:  Gently rock the bung back and forth to dislodge.  Don’t just pull straight up.  Especially if there’s a vacuum, which is a good thing when the wine is aging, this will take a couple of tries.




Pull it out and place it wet end up on the barrel- very important!.  This keeps the portion that touches the wine clean.  The tops of barrels can be amazingly dusty and dirty.



Insert your barrel thief (yes, it really is called that!) into the bunghole (yes, it’s really called that too) with your finger out.  This way the wine floats up into the barrel thief’s tube for sampling.



Put your finger over the barrel thief to create a vacuum and trap a sample of wine.







Take it over to your glass and release your finger, letting the wine flow into your glass.



Take an appreciative swirl and sniff! Spit into a bucket or the drain (If you are a cellar intern, be sure that bottles are labeled appropriately, that you’ve siphoned out the requisite volume, and that caps are replaced tightly on the samples.  If you are a winery visitor, be sure your hip flask is unlabeled, you’ve siphoned out the requisite volume and the cap is replaced tightly before putting said flask into your hip pocket…….)





Replace the bung in the barrel and give it a good twist.









Now bang it with your fist so the bung is tight in there- a good seal is imperative for good aging!  Sometimes barrels can off-gas slightly during aging (carbon dioxide is often naturally produced during the process) so we don’t want any bungs popping off!    Once bunged up again tightly, hose off any wine drops that have dripped onto the top of the barrel.





Thanks for taking our un-bunging  tutorial.  May your glasses always be full, your pours generous and your bungs easy to remove!



photo credit:  Barbara Ignatowski, Garnet Vineyards Assistant Winemaker



Wine Myths: Always Serve Reds at Room Temperature….one more wine myth to kick to the curb this summer

back deck instagramIn the haze of summer heat, reds are much more refreshing with a slight chill

Though especially welcome in summertime, and especially tasty with regards to Pinot Noir, I break this “rule” year round and with many varietals to boot.  In the depths of December you can still find me putting a slight chill on many reds, from a sassy Beaujolais Nouveau with at Thanksgiving up to some big and burly Syrah’s on Valentine’s Day.   I just like my reds served a little cool and find that I prefer around 50-58 F or so, far below “room temperature”.

Summertime, however, is when I’m most likely to put a red on ice.  “Room temp” in our 1898 Victorian house in Napa doesn’t mean 68F like it does in November and as ambient temperatures rise, my tolerance for the more volatile components in red wines

Sunny Napa

Summertime heat! When the temp in Napa goes up, we chill the wine down.

(i.e. alcohol, aldehydes, and volatile acidity) goes down. I find it hard to appreciate a red wine when it’s so warm even its modest 13.80% alcohol hits me like a ton of grapes.

Solution?  Use a tabletop wine cooler, an ice bucket, one of those new stick-it-in-the-bottle gadgets like the corkcicle™ or just simply stick the bottle in the fridge for 30 minutes.  A slight chill can focus aroma, tame the perception of alcohol and can make a red seem more refreshing, especially when the weather heats up.

Vineyard Dogs- 5 Reasons to Love ’em!



Five Reasons Winemakers Love Their Vineyard Dogs

Ali Kona Vineyards

Alison and Kona at Stanly Ranch, Carneros
One of the key vineyards sources for Garnet wines

In wine country, we love our vineyard dogs.  They have their special beds in the warmest corners of the cellar, they get to ride shotgun through the vine rows and they receive endless appreciative pats from winery crew and visitors alike.  Heck, they even have their own boutiques,   dog parks and celebrity rags.  However, lest the vineyard dog becomes too “citified” (after all, once Fido has been to Gay Paree, how ya gonna keep him down on the farm?), allow me to submit some of the real reasons the vineyard dog has snuggled its way into our collective grape-growing and winemaking hearts.


1.  A Trusty Sidekick in the Viticultural Wild West

Vyd Dog

Spotted in a Napa parking lot

“Git a gun or git a dog, honey!” wasn’t something I expected to hear from the grizzled grape grower I pulled up to meet on a Mendocino back road five harvests ago. His stories about marauding bears and bands of increasingly aggressive marijuana growers near his Mendocino vineyards seemed perfectly designed to pull the leg of a young winemaker from Napa buying organic grapes for the first time.  When his tales were later corroborated by friends and colleagues however, I became glad I had my trusty Kona with me.  Her keen bead on our surroundings during that harvest’s vineyard visits kept my attention on the vines and kept me from feeling the need to bring along a trusty hunting rifle. Be it bears or banditos, I know many of us are glad for the extra company (and sensitive ears, eyes and noses) of our alert vineyard dogs when we’re out and about in the “back 40.”


 2.  Something to Talk About Other Than Wine

UCD opening and Kona Vynd 048

Kona enjoying the shade

It’s no secret that it takes a lot of good beer (and I would argue, good bubbles) to make good wine.  When winemakers get together or relax after work, don’t be surprised to see us with brewskies and bubbly (or perhaps a martini) in hand and not a big glass of red.  Just like a well-crafted cocktail, the latest “guess what Rover did” story can be a great conversation topic, a palate-cleanser of sorts, in a gaggle of winemakers who don’t want to talk shop all  night.  Dogs also provide much-needed common ground in what can sometimes be awkward mixed-company settings (read: winemaker dinners, VIP tours, etc.).  When a winemaker has to connect to a visitor or a crowd but doesn’t want to get all wine-geeky and blind them with the proverbial science sometimes asking about everyone’s pets, and relating a few favorite vineyard dog tales, can be a wonderful icebreaker.  After all, who doesn’t love a good dog story?


3.  They Remind us to Take Care of Them (and of Ourselves too) 

When I’m up late driving back from far-flung vineyards or answering grape-scheduling emails, the last thing I want to do is get up early the next morning and exercise.  Thankfully, there’s someone else snuffling in my ear on those dark mornings, gently reminding me that she wants to go for a walk and that I should really come too.  Because I have to think of keeping Kona hydrated on long car trips I find I stop and drink more water myself.  At the end of the day, when she crosses her paws and lays her head down with that long tired-sounding snort, I remember that I too could use a quick breather and take a moment to reach down and scratch her behind the ears.  Having a dog around is just good for your health, especially during the busy harvest season when self-care tends to take a back seat.  Science has proven it, but it’s something winemakers have known all along.

UCD opening and Kona Vynd 011

“I’m driving this time!”-Kona

4.  A Pick-me-Up Perspective on the Everyday

Believe it or not, when you visit hundreds of vineyard blocks over the years, walk through dozens of barrel rooms and participate in each year’s cycle of blending sessions it can all get a little repetitive.  Really.  Well, Fido has a cure for that too; there’s nothing like seeing your workday through the eyes of your dog.  Wasps in the picking bins?  “Fun to chase!  Fun to chase!” Washing down the crush pad for the umpteenth time? “Hey silly human, squirt me with that hose, will ya?”  Bungs popping out of barrels in the white cellar during barrel fermentation?  “Whoo hoo, let me fetch ‘em! “  Seeing the look of excitement in Kona’s eyes whenever I gesture for her to jump up into the front seat as we head out on a vineyard visit makes me smile, and appreciate what I get to do for a living, every time.

5.  Unconditional Love in Spite of Harvest

Hey, who else will love you when you’re stinky, sticky and haven’t showered in three days?  Even if they’re only licking the Chardonnay juice off your cheek, their unconditional love and companionship (but perhaps just not the slobbery tongue action) go a long way towards soothing the wounds, physical or mental, of a long day on the job.



This blog entry would not have been possible without Kim Kuenlen and her wonderful NorCal Aussie Rescue organization.   We adopted our Kona in 2005.  As she approaches 14, she still acts like a crazy pup.