Winemaker Profile: Alison Crowe, Garnet Vineyards [Part Two]

"A slight chill can focus aromas, tame the perception of alcohol and can make a red [wine] seem more refreshing, especially when the weather heats up." ~ Alison Crowe

Here's part two of a great conversation I had with the winemaker of Garnet Vineyards in Carneros. A Santa Barbara native and winemaking degree from UC Davis in her back-pocket she's lighting up the wine world. She is also the author of the Winemaker's Answer Book, which you can take a look at here. If you'd like to stay in touch with her many adventures, you can do so by following her via twitter.

In the photo above she is demonstrating the proper technique on how-to reinsert the bung back into the bunghole [oh-my]. If you didn't know, Alison has ventured into the world of wine-blogging, one she has dubbed the Girl and the Grape; you should check out when you have a chance. As an example; Alison queries in a recent blog post "so don't know your bung-hole from your wine thief?" so if that title has you puzzled grab the rest of the story here.

There were so many questions, I had to break up this conversation into two parts. I know I promised I'd have it ready to go by Monday, but life happened. That said, here is part-two and without any further ado here you go.
Cuvee Corner: Being a winemaker in your region is tough, but what are some of the benefits and/or challenges?

Alison Crowe: Benefit: Every day is casual Friday. Challenge: Everybody thinks you just drink wine all day.

CC: It has been said, "Writers about wine should, at least on occasion, be troublesome, irritating and critical.” ~ Andrew Jefford what are your thoughts?

AC: I’m in an unusual position because I'm both a winemaker and a wine writer. Sometimes I have to wear my brand-owner hat, but I will tell you I am always wearing my journalist hat, which perhaps makes me a little more curious, skeptical and some would say outspoken than many of my winemaking colleagues.

I believe continually challenging our assumptions is essential, and I love writing about what’s happening in and what’s changing in the wine business. On the winemaking side, I believe in science and data, but the first truth to which we must answer when making wine is that pleasure is the truth of our senses.

CC: It has been said, "No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land" ` Helen Keller how would you describe yourself?

AC: I’m curious, generous and skeptical workaholic hedonist who believes in the power of human relationships and in first giving others the benefit of the doubt. I love people. Winemaking begins with people.

CC: It has been said,” The greatest wines are not forced, pushed or exaggerated,” [Italian Winemaker Bernabei]. And he went on to say “They maintain their sense of place" what your thoughts?

AC: I always believe that you have to respect the fruit. I've been writing this in articles, and it’s in my book: Sometimes all you have to do is get out of the way.

CC: Has the profile of Pinot Noir in California changed in the past 10 years?

AC: “California Pinot Noir” is a big category and since Sideways has expanded greatly in volume. See my answers to “unbalanced fruit bombs” for more insight- There are indeed more bottles of what I would call “value” California Pinots out there, say $7.00/bottle and under, built mainly on mass plantings of Central Valley Pinot Noir.

But most Pinot-lovers aren't drinking these wines and are sticking to their tried and true Sonoma, Santa Barbara and Monterey Pinot Noirs. Have these wines changed? I think in exciting new ways. I love how the popularity of the varietal has prompted it to keep being planted in abundance in cool climate areas like the Petaluma Gap, Sonoma Coast, and the Russian River.

We keep loving our Pinot and keep nurturing it, and as our vineyards mature we learn more about how best to grow it and make it. I love the variety in style and approaches I see in Pinot Noirs, and I think as a varietal class, it does indeed offer so much for the curiosity seeker. Few other varietals lend themselves to such different clones, yeast regimens, fermentation schemes, oak and aging approaches.

Try finding that same scale of sheer variety in something like Napa Cabernet; that is a very narrowly-proscribed winemaking recipe viz a viz ripeness levels, maceration, barrels, etc. I make Pinot Noir, and when I go to a big Pinot Noir tasting, I'm as excited to try new things as any wine country tourist because my colleagues are always doing new things.

CC: Do you think some California Pinot Noir gets tagged with an unfair reputation for producing unbalanced, fruit bombs?

If wines are indeed unbalanced fruit bombs then it’s fair to call them that, and there are undoubtedly some out there, just like there are unbalanced fruit bombs in just about all varietals and categories. It seems to be a style some winemakers aspire to.

Pinot is a grape that is typically planted in the cooler areas of California, it’s odd to me to even put “unbalanced fruit bomb” and Pinot in the same sentence. Compared to Cabernet, Zinfandel or even “red blends,” Pinot Noir still remains the safest playground for those seeking something with higher acid, less oak and less “fruit bomb” character.

The grape simply just won't go there as readily as other varietals, which is one of the reasons I love it. There is no denying, however, that the 'Sideways' frenzy prompted vast plantings of Pinot Noir in areas where it typically has not been grown, like the southern Central Valley. These grapes are showing up in under $7 bottles that perhaps are more like “red wines with Pinot Noir on the label for marketing purposes” than expressions of the varietal I would hold up for someone’s education on varietal typicity.

CC: If you were offered to work outside the comfy confines of domestic wine production, where would you go and why?

AC: I’m not sure how many of the struggling small farmers and brand owners I know would call the domestic wine business “comfy,” but I think I get your question… if I were offered a job in the fragrance industry in Europe, I would definitely be intrigued.

The world of perfume has been a lifelong love, and it’s actually through exploring herbs and flowers, and how they have scented aromatic compounds that perfumers try to capture in liquid form, much like a winemaker does, that actually steered me toward wine in the first place. I think I got into wine because I grew up in Santa Barbara’s wine country; had I grown up in Provence I may have become a perfume-maker.

Additionally, I think someone in the wine business, with a degree in winemaking, which essentially is an applied microbiology degree with a healthy dose of biochem, agriculture and some marketing thrown into the mix. The average winemaker would not necessarily find themselves too out of place in the world of distillation, brewing, cheese-making, the restaurant biz or small-scale farming. 

"Remember that winemaking is like glorified microbiological zoo-keeping. " AC

It’s taking a perishable natural product, shepherding it through a food processing plant (your winery) and turning it into something more lasting and enjoyable. Planning, logistics, managing people, and managing perishable agricultural products….You can see how many folks who are in the restaurant business make very successful crossover winemakers too.

And never forget how turned on we all are by the cool stories about who and what is behind the delicious and delightful jams, pasta, beers, bread and cheeses we all enjoy so much. Storytelling, communicating and sharing are an integral part of making our handicrafts live, which is why I also write articles about winemaking which was published in "The Winemaker’s Answer Book" in 2007. I also just launched a blog called Girl and the Grape. Wines and words are my way of communicating my passion with the world!Wines and words are my way of communicating my passion with the world!

CC: When it comes to Pinot Noir, where do you derive your inspiration in the winemaking process?

AC: Foremost from the vineyards and then secondly purely from hedonism. I am all for pleasure. First, you have to channel the vineyard and respect the fruit. You have to let the fruit tell you what it can or can't do, you can't force it. But once the lots have been aging separately for at least eight months, you can start to blend based solely on the pleasure principle. I have my favorite barrels and oak types, but I don't have “rules” as to what does or doesn't go with something else, like “Francois Freres can never be blended with a Tonnellerie Quintessence barrel,” for example. I am merely trying to make the most delicious bottle of wine possible. I do a lot of trial and error and blind tasting, and I continually surprise myself. It’s great to let your experience be your guide, but it’s important to keep challenging your assumptions.

CC: If there was just one wine type/style left to drink in the world what would it be and why?

AC: Sparkling wines. I find endless interest, and food pairing versatility, in a cold glass of tart, refreshing bubbly.

CC: Of all the many grapes in the world which do you think is the least understood or respected?

White Zinfandel. Just kidding, that’s a trick answer. There’s no such grape variety as White Zinfandel, though it’s often a question new visitors to wine country or wine newbie’s ask. “So where’s the White Zin grown?” It starts out as red Zinfandel grapes and gets slightly squished to make the familiar pink stuff.

But even though so many of us would never touch White Zin, you have to respect its place in winemaking history; starting in the 1970’s, it helped set the stage for today’s rosé revolution and single-handedly introduced millions of people to wine drinking for the first time.

Many of those folks have branched out and began to drink wines they never would've thought of touching decades ago. It all happened before I was born and certainly, before I was legal to drink but, like Robert Mondavi’s pioneering of marketing California wines in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the White Zin explosion helped get us where we are today.

CC: It’s has been said, it takes a lot good beer, to make great wine, thoughts?

AC: Beer or sparkling wine, it all has bubbles, so it all counts! Many of us choose a martini, or gin and tonic but I think the key is that it be refreshing, not too sweet, and yes, effervescence does help. Basically, after we've had our hands in red wine vats all day, and its hot outside, do I really want a big glass of red? I don't think so- bring on the Domaine Carneros!

Thanks again Alison it was great chatting with you here, thanks for making the time. I hope everyone has enjoyed this series; I have another winemaker interview in the pipeline, one which I just completed, so I hope you check it out next week. Until the next time folks, remember life is short, make the most of it, sip long and prosper cheers!


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