Solutions promised to every wine-making problem

The Wine Maker's Answer Book - Alison Crowe

By Robyn Lewis
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The Wine Maker's Answer Book by Alison Crowe

The Wine Maker's Answer Book by Alison Crowe [©Storey Publishing]

It's not every day you pick up a book for twenty-five bucks (that's Aussie dollars; $15 in the US) and find it as useful as this pocket-sized little number. Ostensibly written for the home (as in hobby) winemaker, there's plenty in here for the garagiste  - or 'shediste' in Australia - that is, the boutique-scale winemaker, even through to the professional.

It's a great book to read on the plane, too. Apart from fitting neatly in the handbag or hand luggage, neighbours glance at the title and are instantly intrigued or offer advice, such seems to be the interest in everything winemaking. "I'll swap seats with my husband, he makes wine, he can tell you all about it', one offered. He flicked through the book and gave it the thumbs up, adding "the smaller the scale, the harder it is to control - make a few barrels, not a bucketful".

The author Alison Crowe is a professional winemaker, trained at UC Davis's Department of Viticulture and Enology. A few vintages after graduating, she was asked to contribute to WineMaker, a new wine-making magazine; such was the response to her new Q&A column that she decided to go underground and publish her replies as the Wine Wizard, whilst keeping her day job in the Napa Valley.

Her bimonthly column grew in popularity and scope, and apart from many readers assuming that she was 'a gentleman of a certain age', Crowe has certainly had fun, and along the way accumulated a vast amount of practical knowledge, direct from the people who are having problems at the grapeface. There is nothing like a curly - or urgent - question to make you rethink your training and to explain it in practical terms, and Crowe certainly lives up to her wizardly appellation.

Though many of her readers make wine from grapes on a small scale, Crowe 'tries to answer on a level that is not'  - and in my humble opinion, succeeds. Experienced winemakers troubleshooting fermentations will find answers here, and it is also a guide for connoisseurs looking for an informational edge.

General interest in wine has never been higher in the USA, and now too in Australia. Winemakers are the new chefs, en route to celebrity status hitherto associated with rockstars. Home winemaking in the USA is a fast-growing pursuit, especially in regions distant from the traditional wine areas.

The Q&As start with the basics: is winemaking hard? what does yeast do? how does red wine making differ from white? In four pages Crowe described the universal winemaking steps, and short of providing  a recipe and photographs, it's one of the best introductory explanations I have seen. If you knew everything in this book you'd be well on your winemaking way. No, it's not difficult - that is, until something goes wrong, or as in the case of commercial wineries, everything starts to happen at once. The book is like a 24/7 hotline.

The following sections cover winemaking equipment, which grapes to use, wine chemistry 101, choosing your yeast, and fermentation through to aging, oaking, fining and filtering, then onto bottling. There's a chapter on smelly wines and other such problems, and another on evaluation and serving. Crowe also covers fruit, vegetable, mead and herb wines, and kit winemaking from grape concentrate. She describes many of these as strongly or strangely flavoured - let's hope the swede and camomile combo I once judged at a country show doesn't catch on. But mostly the book sticks to grape wines - even home sparkling and fortifieds are included.

Some of the best questions are at the back: 'can I make wine out of Sprite?' (answer: 'signs point to no', but Crowe patiently explains the reasons why it probably won't result in a drinkable beverage) and even 'if I made a coffee wine, would the caffeine survive the fermentation process?' (answer: probably, but the yeast might not have much to metabolise). However it's in between that the wealth of Crowe's knowledge and her willingness to share it lies, from wild yeast to malolactic fermentation and everything in between.

We live on a farm and have a hobby-sized vineyard, but like many small growers our wine is made under contract, by professionals with all the right equipment and expertise, resulting in an outstanding pinot noir. Perhaps I should not be surprised though that this handy little volume is regularly retrieved from my husband's side of the bed, full of sticky notes which suggest that his hobby is about to take on an entirely new dimension. If it does, he'll find most of the answers in here. 

It's even got a grape juice repellant cover.

 

The Wine Maker's Answer Book by Alison Crowe is published by Storey Publishing (USA, 2007), whose mission 'is to serve our customers by publishing practical information that encourages personal independence in harmony with the environment'. RRP is A$24.99

Subscribers and Members of VisitVineyards.com and WInepros Archive can purchase The Wine Maker's Answer Book at 12.5% discount from our book partners Seekbooks (postage extra).

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June 18th, 2009
 
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