Conversation with Napa Winemaker Alison Crowe

There is something of an aura of mystery and glamour surrounding wine and winemaking. While there are the collectible bottles that fetch as much as a diamond ring or car, most of the wine produced by hardworking grape growers and winemakers is made to be enjoyed. 

People make wine,” stresses Alison Crowe, director of winemaking with Plata Wine Partners. “It’s a lot of physical labor, you can get grape juice in your hair … But it puts you in some really beautiful places in the world.”

Among those beautiful places Crowe currently may get juice in her hair is Napa, Calif., where she works with premium wine grapes from vineyards up and down the coast. Plata Wine Partners’ winemaking, design and packaging teams provide wine to retailers, wineries, restaurants and startup brands—even bottles wine under Major League Baseball team names

As the winemaker for Garnet Vineyards, Crowe produces cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from vineyards in the coastal regions of Carneros, Monterey and the Sonoma Coast. The small group of partners sources fruit from carefully selected blocks and has control over every aspect of winemaking, from planting the vines to bottling the wine. As the winemaker with Picket Fence Vineyards, her grapes come from the Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley. 

How did she get into the wine business? Growing up right in wine country—Santa Barbara, Calif.—wine and winemaking were all around her, including at the dinner table. “My parents encouraged us to think of wine and how it was made,” says Crowe. “I smelled a glass of wine—Sauvignon Blanc—and it smelled like grapefruit,” she says. “I was so enthralled that something that came from a different fruit could bring out that aroma and wanted to delve into that magic. Because I knew of the [UC] Davis program I knew that it was something I could do.”  

So she studied science and earned her degree from the UC Davis Viticulture & Enology program. “I didn’t want to work behind a lab bench—I wanted to do something that combined science and humanities wrapped together,” she says. During “crush time,” she worked at Chalone Vineyard and fell in love with winemaking, but notes, “Farming is hard work—it’s not a romantic thing.” During this internship, which her parents jokingly called “wine camp,” Crowe was in a very isolated place in the middle of nowhere. “Once a week we came off the mountain—it was really intense but really amazing, a lot of hard work,” she says. 

In addition to Chalone, she worked at Curtis Winery, she made wine at Bonny Doon Vineyard for four and a half years, and consulted during the 2005 harvest with Michel Rolland at Bodegas Salentein in Mendoza, Argentina.

“Right after I got married in 2005, my husband and I had the opportunity to work a harvest in Mendoza,” says Crowe. Through this career milestone she made lifelong friends and learned so much, she notes. “I found locals lived and breathed that connection with family, food and wine.”

She brought some of this approach and philosophy back with her, but it must be adapted. Crowe crafts the wines to be a reflection of the places where the grapes are grown. “You can’t apply to Malbec in Sonoma county the same things—can’t say ‘it’s worked there’ and growing conditions are different,” says Crowe. “There is no winemaking recipe—you have to feel it out as you go with each unique place.” 

Since she has been in the winemaking business since 1995, her process and style have evolved over the years. Her Chardonnay has gotten a little rounder and richer, for example. “I try to respect what the vineyards are giving me.” For the Picket Fence Russian River Chardonnay, “I make Chardonnay that I personally enjoy drinking—roundness and creamy, not over-oaked with refreshing acidity… and is respectful of the cooler appellation. People tell me it’s a crowd pleaser in the sweet spot that everyone likes.”

You might be surprised to learn that a winemaker uses math in his or her trade. “I actually use algebra almost every day on the job—if I want to make 600 cases of Rosé or Pinot Noir and I have 5 tons coming from here … We use a lot of math.” People would also be surprised by how much office time it takes, she notes. “We have to do so much planning, she says. “Every winemaker I know has customized Excel programs to help track. There are a lot of government regulations around alcohol—monthly reporting, legal hurdles such as tightly controlled labeling.”

And what about being a female winemaker? “I think that women in the wine business face many of the same challenges as any business,” she notes. If you have “Proved that you’re willing to get in tank … If you can wrap that all up together you’re going to be fine.” She explains that the difficulty women have breaking into upper management was part of the reason she went back to Davis (2007) to get an MBA.

Most winemakers are often into cooking, Crowe point out, saying she likes to cook and makes her own sour dough and her husband makes beer and cheese. “Living in Napa we are so blessed to be around so many great things—supplies, people, etc.”

She has published a book on winemaking and her Girl and the Grape blog offers a window into a winemaker’s life from what is happening in the field to wine myths, food pairings and more. 

She feels it’s easy to make a good bottle of wine, but a big part of the mix is getting the word out so people can get a taste and know your wine. She was in Minnesota last summer to share her wines at a few events and coming up you can get a taste of some of her Garnet Vineyards wine at the Minnesota Monthly Food and Wine Experience March 4 and 5 at Target Field. 

“Somebody can drink a wine and experience a sunny California day like I did in the vineyard expression of the place,” says Crowe.

Mary Subialka is the editor of Real Food and Drinks magazines, covering the flavorful world of food, wine, and spirits. She rarely meets a chicken she doesn’t like, and hopes that her son, who used to eat beets and Indian food as a preschooler, will one day again think of real food as more than something you need to eat before dessert and be inspired by his younger brother, who is now into trying new foods.