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

"I believe in respecting the fruit and letting the vineyards speak their particular truths. Sometimes all I have to do is get out of the way." ~Alison Crowe

I love meeting and talking with winemakers, the movers, and shakers of the wine-world. They always have some of the most compelling tales to tell, but not all of them want to share those thoughts or stories with just anyone. But being in the public eye as they're, it is somewhat expected, so some spill-it-all while others keep some of the information a bit closer the vest. I want to thank Alison [grab her bio here] for taking a moment to talk with me via this Q&A interview, I really appreciate her candor and willingness to share her keen insights about the business of wine.

I was introduced to Alison Crowe, a few years ago while preparing for her appearance on #WineChat back when I was hosting the Twitter-based platform and even before that via lively conversations on her FB page, regarding wine-blogs. Since then, I've had the opportunity to meet Alison a couple of times in person, once at her office to taste wines and during the Wine Bloggers Conference in Santa Barbara, where we were both up for the same award. 

I've gotten to know her so much better over the course of the last few years and I always come from those conversations genuinely impressed. In the process, I've come to respect her abilities, passion and keen winemaking insights, even tho we don't agree on everything. She is also the author a great book everyone should grab a copy, "The Winemaker's Answer Book." She has fantastic energy and enthusiasm for the wine-biz, one you'll see in her answers below.

Frankly, I expect to see big things from her in the future, her passion for life reminds me of the quote from Paul Brandt who is quoted to have said, "Don't tell me the skies the limit when there are footprints on the moon.” Without any further ado, let's jump right into the conversation enjoy.

Cuvee Corner: Why is the term vegan-wine not on the label?

Alison Crowe: We don't put “vegan” on the label because we never saw it as a major selling point. We get asked the “vegan wine question” maybe once or twice a year, and since most wine made in the world is vegan anyway, we thought it would be a bit of a silly selling point.

Like, hey, buy our water, it’s wet and will quench your thirst! If we put “vegan wine” on the label, we would probably get called out by our colleagues, and rightly so. Because most wine is vegan already, labeling Garnet wines as “vegan” would smack of greenwashing to me or trying to distinguish ourselves from the pack undeservedly. But I'm happy to talk about it if people are curious.

CC: You take to social-media like a duck-to-water, but many folks wonder about the ROI, what are your thoughts?

AC: Like a duck, I just jumped in and got wet! I’ll be the first to admit that I am learning all the time and have to swim in these crazy waters every day to keep on top of all the changes and developments that happen in the social technology sphere. I encourage other winemakers to jump into the fray because it’s a fantastic way to directly touch your audience and the people who are out there enjoying your wines.

I've never known any other way to so quickly get directly in touch with folks; I've been able to develop relationships with customers, buyers, bloggers, suppliers and journalists that would've been difficult if not impossible to achieve otherwise. This is a relationship business, and if you're building relationships, you're creating ROI. Efficiently utilizing social media can be tough as a winemaker if you don't have the freedom to be yourself. I'm lucky because as a small independent winery, I do have that freedom, and am very thankful for it.

CC: Do you have any tips on how to manage the work/life equation?

AC: I have two small sons, a two and a half-year-old and a three-month-old and the work-life balance is something I’m figuring out every day. I couldn’t do what I do without my great Assistant Winemaker Barbara, a supportive and flexible husband, photographer and wine educator Chris Purdy, and our “support team” of preschool teachers, great daycare and our nanny, Emily. [This answer is now five years old] For all you aspiring super-parents out there, never be too proud to order a pre-cut up veggie tray for the party, do a boxed cake mix or heck, even buy the cupcakes.

Ask for help and accept it. Adjust your lifestyle standards as necessary to get by but hold on to what’s important to you. My husband works in winery hospitality and wine education, so we only get one day together every weekend as a family. That’s our day, and it’s precious to us; we used to get a lot done on the weekends, but we do more on weekday evenings when the kids are asleep so we can just play and hang out together on Sundays.

CC: What music if any plays on the crush pad during harvest?

AC: Los Straitjackets were playing yesterday in the cellar. I also am a huge classical music fan, something I picked up from my old boss the late, great Monterey County Pinot Noir pioneer Don Blackburn.

CC: Bucket List Question: If you could be traveling somewhere else right now, where would you be?

AC: Paris and Grasse (home to the agricultural side of France’s perfume industry-where all the roses and jasmine are grown), France.

CC: Why did you choose the stelvin closure [screw-caps] instead of cork?

AC: This will be a significant ongoing topic on my blog, Girl and the Grape, I’m sure. But let me briefly address why I use twist-offs (AKA screw-caps, etc.) for Garnet Monterey Pinot Noir ($14) Carneros Pinot ($20) and Sonoma Coast Chardonnay ($17). First of all, Garnet Carneros has always been in a screw cap.

Especially since I’ve been experienced using Stelvins since my days at Bonny Doon when Randall staged “The Death of the Cork” and so am very comfortable with the closure and know how it affects wine and aging wine. Stelvins and VinPerfect (which I’d like to do some trials on, they were recently developed by an MBA colleague of mine from UC Davis) closures are simply more consistent than corks and plastic cork-type closures. They let in a predictable amount of oxygen and of course, won't contribute to TCA “corked” defects, which is so much better for the wine and the wine-enjoyer!

They cost about the same as corks, so its’ not like they provide any cost savings. Rodger’s Creek, our single vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot which retails for $30 is bottled under cork; I make a few hundred cases of that, so I'm less worried about it going out to the mass market and having a significant rejection of cork quality.

Because I can do tight QC on that small number of corks (I make a combined ~17,000 cases of the other wines) and because, as a new limited SKU we didn't want to develop a custom screw-cap for that minimal number of cases, we went with cork there. If that SKU grows, we will go to screw cap there too.

As far as consumer and winery acceptance, it’s skyrocketing even though we are way behind the curve compared to Australia and New Zealand, where just about every wine is bottled under twist-off. In the US, 38% of wineries use screw caps on their wines, which is up from about 5% in 2004. For more on this issue, I can do no better than to point everyone to one of the very best pieces of wine journalism that really gets into the question: the chapter on corks and screwcaps in Jamie Goode’s The Science of Wine.

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 pure 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.

Okay, folks here's where part one ends, but please come back next Monday for the 2nd half of the interview, as it already hot-off-the-presses and ready to go, so you can readily count the next slice being served-up next Monday. This will be the next to last post until after I come back from Monterey. I'm sure I'll have boat-load of perspectives to share with you from the Santa Lucia Highlands and more than a few images. Once again big-time thanks to Alison for sharing her insights with the entire wine-community. Okay, folks that's all I have for now, please stand by, part two of this conversation is on deck.


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