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The Secret Ingredient in Every Harvest: Beer

When your hands are stained red, a cold one is all you want at the end of the day
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Sep 12, 2012 11:00am ET

It's half-past September and do you know what California winemakers are drinking?


No, it's not a joke. There's an old saying, in fact: "It takes a lot of beer to make wine."

Harvest is moving into high gear and, at least in California, beer becomes the drink of choice.

"I can't imagine digging out a fermentor at the end of a long day and reaching for a glass of red wine afterward," said winemaker Erik Miller of Kokomo Winery in Sonoma County. Fellow Dry Creek winemaker Clay Mauritson raised a glass of suds in agreement, "The further we get into harvest and the more tanks that are fermenting, the more you want a cold beer."

In Napa, Duckhorn winemaker Bill Nancarrow put it this way, "Tasting grapes and fermenting fruit juice all day sets your palate up for a couple of 'cleansing ales' at the end of the day."

It makes sense when you think about it. After the indulgence of Thanksgiving weekend, the last thing you want to eat is turkey, right? After a series of decadent meals earlier this summer, all I wanted to eat the first night off was a bowl of Cheerios. Many chefs late at night crave something simple like eggs or sneak off for a Big Mac or Burrito Supreme.

And let's be clear, winemakers aren't guzzling beers all day at harvest any more than they're knocking back hearty glasses of wine at work the rest of the year. Some winemaking teams head out to a local pub after work while others keep the refrigerator stocked, or even a keg on ice. "A cold beer seems to be the right moral builder for the crew after a long day," Miller said.

Every cellar seems to have its favorite. Nancarrow said Duckhorn's "unofficial beer sponsor is Pabst Blue Ribbon." Miller said two Northern California brews—Lagunitas IPA and Bear Republic's Racer 5—are the Kokomo house favorites, while Mauritson's crew likes Lost Coast Great White, among others.

Over at Kosta Browne, Dan Kosta said that in the old days he and partner Michael Browne preferred Coors Light, but his young crew now prefers something heartier. "Nowadays, Death and Taxes is currently on tap," Kosta said of a regionally popular black beer produced by Moonlight Brewing. "And there's some vodka in the freezer for the real tough days!"

"Beer," Donald Patz of Patz & Hall winery said, "can be a refreshing and renewing beverage after a long, hot, thirsty day of winemaking. And an Advil."

Michael Coats
Sonoma —  September 19, 2012 12:11pm ET
Tim, Great stuff. But some context. The use of the phrase "it takes a lot of beer to make great wine" came from the merry pranksters of winemaking in the early 80's known as the Sonoma Valley Wine Patrol headed by Gundlach Bundschu winemaker at the time Lance Cutler.
The same zany group who hijacked the Napa Wine Train and Richard Branson's tour bus. Both escapades legendary for the unfettered promotion of Sonoma wines.
Kerry Winslow
San Francisco, California, USA —  September 19, 2012 1:07pm ET
Fun Read Tim!
The truth is out, after seeing it in person myself, many a winemaker enjoy the hoppy goodness of a refreshing ale after a long day.
As for the top choice of suds? I think you need to mention the great brews from Russian River Brewing! Especially Pliny the Elder, one of the iconic IPA's in the world, the Sine Qua Non of beer!
Plus RRVB does some fantastic beers that are aged in used wine barrels, Chard and Pinot wood.
We are lucky to be in the land of Beer and Wine!

David Rapoport
CA —  September 19, 2012 2:54pm ET
FYI RRBC *Makes* a beer for exactly this sentiment/purpose, with the name "It takes a lot of good beer, to make great wine", shortened as "Great Beer/Great Wine"
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento , CA —  September 19, 2012 4:15pm ET
I run a 100 case per year home winery and am dependent upon volunteer labor during crush. I bribe my volunteers with Pacificos, Fat Tires and the iconic Sierra Nevada Pale ale! Keeps everyone happy!
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  September 19, 2012 4:38pm ET
So true and maybe not just for wine harvest.... BTW Andrew, I'm a big fan of Sierra Nevada and can be easily bribed.
John Sgarlata
Wauwatosa,Wisconsin —  September 19, 2012 6:00pm ET
I've always rated projects to how much beer it takes to complete them! (sometimes wine!). There are some great craft brews out there,but after 35 years at MillerCoors as an electrician,it's always MILLER TIME!

ps,we were actually allowed to drink our products on lunch and breaks the first 8 years that I worked there.
Ryan Pease
Paso Robles, CA —  September 20, 2012 11:50pm ET
Pabst, Kona Brewing, Firestone, Sierra Nevada, some of the many beers consumed so far. Harvest is impossible without beer. More craft beer needs to be canned for winemakers. Glass is not our friend during harvest.
Stuart Hinton
Colorado —  September 23, 2012 11:48am ET
Crazy Mountain Brewery makes a great can of Mountain Livin Pale Ale just down the road from Vail Colorado that is selling in California right now!!!
Robert Lapolla
san diego, CA USA —  September 24, 2012 12:29am ET
Tim: i love merlot. I loved the video by the guys at Gundlach Bundschu . i voted for it and it won. i was thrilled!!! i ran to the store to buy the Gundlach Bundschu merlot but before i did i checked wine spectator - no one at WS has rated Gundlach Bundschu merlot since 2005 and it only got 86 points. i was crushed. i didnt buy it. can you rate the 06, 07, 08 and 09 Gundlach Bundschu merlot????
Gundlach Bundschu Winery
Sonoma, CA —  October 2, 2012 5:55pm ET
Thanks Michael for giving GB credit for stating a universal truth!

And thank you Bob for the support for our video and merlot in general. There have been no reviews on our merlot - or any of our wines - in the WS for many years because we haven't been sending them (or any other media) samples to review. Allow me to briefly explain why. In the last several years, we have dedicated our time and resources to major overhaul of our vineyard and cellar practices. In 2008 Keith Emerson joined as our winemaker and took this effort to the next level. 2009 was his first full vintage with us, and marks an exciting leap forward. Today, we believe we are making the best Gun Bun wines in recent memory and are aiming even higher. We have begun submitting our wines for review again, and hope you will see them rated in WS soon, but until then we hope you'll buy a bottle and see for yourself why we are so excited about this merlot, and all our wines. Would love to hear your feedback when you do.
Susan Sueiro, Gundlach Bundschu Winery
susans at gunbun dot com

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