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Joined at the Hip

October 2012
 
by Tim Patterson
 
 
The Santa Barbara wine country has a few certified faux-Chateaux, but most of it is a little more homey and folksy than the North Coast norm. A few miles west of the beaten track, so close to the sea that even cool-climate grapes don’t grow there, a cluster of spartan wineries and tasting rooms known as the Lompoc Wine Ghetto serve up the nectar of the gods with all the glamour of a self-storage facility. Meander a few more miles through the nondescript warehouse district and you’ll find the home of Ampelos Cellars and Dragonette Cellars, two highly regarded boutique producers of Pinot Noir and a whole lot more.

The rented 10,000-square-foot space has cement floors, ultra-high ceilings and barrels stacked five high. There is no air conditioning or humidity control, because the location hardly ever warms up or dries out. There are no hospitality centers, no wine history museums, no trendy café, no picnic area and no vineyards in sight—but there is a great view of the Lompoc municipal sewage treatment plant. The two resident wine labels plus several small custom-crush projects amount to around 8,000 cases, most of it selling out quickly at more than $30 per bottle.

Welcome to modern California artisan winemaking.

Learning to share
Although Ampelos and Dragonette both began to form as winemaking ventures at about the same time, roughly a decade ago, Ampelos is the senior tenant in their shared space.

In 2001 Peter and Rebecca Work cashed out of the human resources company they helped start, and in 2002 they turned to planting a vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills AVA, where they had purchased former cattle-grazing land in 1999. Their first commercial wines were made in 2003 in a Wine Ghetto facility shared with Presidio Vineyard, and they soon realized they needed to move. Long-time Santa Barbara County winemaker Ken Brown approached them about sharing a space, and they moved into their part of it in 2005.

The cellar space is part of a larger building owned by Conception Tile, a custom decorative stone design and fabrication firm, and owner Randy Phillips needed a tenant. The space Brown and the Works took over covered 10,000 square feet and was “just a shell,” Peter Work says. Brown’s expertise was essential to outfitting the place, and the Works’ son Don (already a local winemaker) also pitched in, with Phillips arranging for structural things like drains.

Two years later, Ken Brown decided he had cleaned enough barrels during his three decades of winemaking. Peter remembers him saying one day, “I’ve never been this old before,”and Brown moved his operation to the new Terravant custom-crush facility in Buellton, Calif. Work bought Brown’s share of the equipment and went looking for a co-tenant, and around the same time Dragonette was searching for a new home.

Brothers John and Steve Dragonette and close friend Brandon Sparks-Gillis plotted an entry into winemaking for several years, learned parts of the trade from local wineries, tested the concept with garage-style production in 2003-04, got bonded in 2004 and made their first commercial vintage in 2005. Their initial production site was within the Central Coast Wine Services facility in Santa Maria, Calif.; from there they moved to space at Demetria Estate in Los Olivos, Calif., and onto their current cohabitation with Ampelos in 2008.

Roughly two-thirds of the space belongs to Ampelos and one-third to Dragonette, with the common crush and press area having alternating proprietor status. Both labels focus on Pinot Noir and Rhone reds, with Dragonette featuring Sauvignon Blanc as its white entry and Ampelos bottling Viognier. Both also do some amount of custom-crush work; among other projects, Ampelos is the home to Hollywood actor Kurt Russell’s line of GoGi Wines (about 150 cases in total), while Dragonette produces nearly 1,000 cases of Liquid Farm Chardonnay. Both emphasize minimal-intervention winemaking with lots of natural yeast fermentations, very little filtration and so on.

The major difference between the two operations is probably that Ampelos has to worry about the estate vineyards that are the core of its production, while Dragonette has to worry about a dozen vineyards it buys from and does not entirely control.

Once the grapes arrive, the two teams seem to work well together, sharing major pieces of equipment—a Diemme destemmer-crusher, a press from Europress, tanks from Transtore and Santa Rosa Stainless Steel—and dancing around each other’s schedules at crush time. Dragonette’s Sparks-Gillis observes, “We’re morning people. We do early picking by lamplight, and Peter and Rebecca pick later in the morning, which makes for a good rhythm. We get to the winery and start processing at
8 a.m.; Peter picks later and is still sorting in the vineyard.”

This out-of-the-way spot has a lot going for it as a winemaking facility—reasonable cost, a cooperative landlord, a wine-friendly city government, natural temperature control—but it’s hardly a magnet for wine lovers. Both labels tried putting up a table outside the winery door to taste and sell wines on weekends but eventually gave it up. Ampelos opted instead for a tasting room in one of the boxes in the nearby wine ghetto; Dragonette chose to show the flag in the more heavily tourist-trafficked Los Olivos, where a couple dozen wineries hold forth daily. The two brands may be joined at the hip in production, but they go their separate ways for sales and distribution.

Winemaking process
The crush area at the Ampelos/Dragonette facility is tiny (a few hundred square feet), made compact to focus all the messy parts of grape and wine processing in one place. Designing the space this way meant no one had to retrofit the whole facility with drains and sloping floors and such; it also helps that both operations do essentially all of their sorting in the field rather than tables on the non-existent crush pad.

The Ampelos estate vineyard a few miles away is 25 acres planted to about 40,000 vines—mostly various clones of Pinot Noir plus some Syrah and Grenache. The vineyard received both organic and Biodynamic certification in 2009. At harvest time, one crew makes a first pass to cut off unripe or rotted clusters, then a second pass picks into small bins, which are brought to a custom-built mobile sorting table on wheels, where the good fruit is separated from the chaff.

With all of its vineyard sources somewhere under the sustainable umbrella, Dragonette doesn’t have the mobile rig, but it does extensive sorting in the field at every transfer point—from vines to small bins to larger bins. Almost all the time this means that fruit for both wineries comes to their shared cellar and goes straight to the destemmer. In exceptional cases such as the 2010 Syrah that came full of shot berries, sorting equipment from friendly neighbor wineries gets pressed into service.

The crushing capability of the Diemme destemmer-crusher doesn’t get much use at the winery, but the destemming function earns its pay. None of Dragonette’s red fruit gets crushed; it’s merely destemmed, with whole berries going into the fermentors. Ampelos crushes only the purchased Syrah that goes into its rosé, letting it macerate before being fully pressed, and all the juice is fermented (not the saignée method.) All the whites are whole-cluster pressed, as are the Grenache and Mourvèdre for Dragonette’s rosé, which picks up its color simply from a long, slow press cycle.

Nearly all the reds go through some form of cold soak. The winery has a cold box: a repurposed 50-foot-long freight-shipping container that holds exactly nine three-high stacks of fermenting bins, minus a couple to make room for the air conditioning. The cold box can get down to 26ºF at harvest time, and 24 hours inside gets any batch of fruit quite cold. John Dragonette notes that during the harvest season in Lompoc, ambient temperature is already likely to be well below 60ºF, and with the predominant natural fermentations starting slowly anyway, cold soaks are almost a freebie.

Reds for both wineries mainly get done with punchdowns in bins from Macro Plastics. Temperature control largely takes care of itself, with the cool winery conditions restraining heat and the sunny parking lot just outside the door available to warm things up. The facility’s stainless vessels (some Custom Metalcraft Transtores and some standard Santa Rosa Stainless Steel tanks) are equipped with glycol jacketing, though the winery does not yet have a glycol system. If one of the Transtores needs cooling, it goes into the cold box. Dragonette’s whites are mainly barrel-fermented, so they rarely need chilling.

Both producers rely primarily on native yeast fermentations rather than inoculations. Dragonette inoculates with yeast only when the team decides it has to, which isn’t often. Just in case, they keep around a stash of some non-aromatic fallback yeasts—EC1118, RC212, Assmanhausen, R2, etc. Sparks-Gillis says that he learned as a baker years ago about the superior flavors to be gained from just letting nature take its course. After several years of inoculation, Work tried a few native ferments in 2009, half his lots in 2010, and went all natural in 2011, with nary a stuck batch. The Ampelos Viognier and rosé are inoculated.

Malolactic fermentation, too, mainly gets done by virtue of resident microbes. Ampelos prevents malolactic in its Viognier through a combination of temperature control and lysozyme. Dragonette stops the malolactic for its Sauvignon Blanc but lets it go for the barrel-fermented Chardonnay as well as the Chardonnays it does for the Liquid Farm label. Since Liquid Farm emphasizes a less-ripe, Chablis-esque style, converting the malic acid is important for taking off the acidic edge. Sparks-Gillis found it amusing that when a new Liquid Farm release was previewed recently for a press delegation, they all guessed (incorrectly) that the wine had never undergone malo. (See “To Co-Ferment or Not Co-Ferment” on page 52.)

Ampelos follows pretty standard protocols on the use of sulfur dioxide, starting with 50 parts per million at the crusher, perhaps a bit more for trouble lots. Grapes may get a mild sulfur mist before they head into the cold box, and perhaps an ozonated water spray at the destemmer, since some lots are likely to need water dilution anyway. The Dragonette team describes its sulfur strategy as “minimalist,” or only when needed. While both wineries skip a lot of the interventions standard in the industry—passing on commercial yeasts for the most part, making little or no use of enzymes—and Ampelos is applying for Biodynamic winemaking certification, neither preaches doctrinaire “natural” winemaking.

Ampelos started out with a manual basket press, and that was fine for the first couple of years. In the new facility, with the Europress available, Work figured he would still use the basket for special lots. It hasn’t been touched since.

Finishing and packaging
All the reds for both brands and some of Dragonette’s whites end up aging in small barrels. Both use a range of coopers and almost entirely French oak. Ampelos does have a bit of American oak in the form of hybrid barrels—American staves with French heads—and some Mueller stainless steel barrels as well. For both, the various red wines and blends get between one-third and half new wood. Since the representatives from Tonnellerie Boutes knew the Works were interested in Biodynamics, they arranged for some barrels made from oak cut on a descending moon in 2010. Ampelos has one experimental wine that is still in barrel from 2009; Dragonette left one Syrah lot in wood for 34 months.

Just as not much crushing gets done at the crusher, there’s not much fining or filtration at the end of the line. Both brands do bentonite fining for their white wines. Dragonette cold stabilizes its white and pink wines in the cold box; Ampelos has begun handling the chore with Claristar, a mannoprotein product that disrupts tartrate crystal formation. When either winery needs filtration for a particular lot, it can either use the equipment at a friendly winery or, as Dragonette has done, bring in a mobile filtration unit from Paso Robles, Calif.-based Electrotec Services.

While all this processing is going on, barrel sanitation is handled by a combination of a McClain ozone generator and a Hotsy pressure washer with a Gamajet barrel cleaner. The facility has a basic in-house lab setup for routine testing. For more complex juice panels, YAN analysis and the like, both use Vanalytics, and Dragonette uses Vinquiry as well.

Work, who has a bit of an IT background, is particularly proud of a set of interlocked spreadsheets that automate the zillions of little calculations that go into winemaking— how the addition of some acidulated water affects the pH of a wine, and what that translates into grams of sulfur dioxide to add at some point.

Both use the mobile bottling line services provided by Castoro Bottling in Paso Robles. Dragonette gets its bottles from Demptos, Encore and Trilogy; Dragonette is looking for a new source of recycled glass now that Wine Bottle Renew is no longer in business. Both go for cork-finished packaging, with Ampelos using DIAM stoppers and Dragonette choosing M A Silva. Dragonette hand-waxes all of its bottles, except for its rosé, which has no capsule at all; Ampelos is moving its entire line to a “naked” non-capsuled finish.

The Ampelos labels are each built around a character from the Greek alphabet that corresponds (at least to the winery folk) with the character of the wine, by way of the meaning of the character in math and physics notation. The Syrache (Syrah-Grenache), for example, gets a Sigma (∑) for the sum of its parts; the Lambda (?) Pinot Noir connotes the wine’s magnitude. Through a string of connections, the Works once got a roomful of brainiacs at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara to debate the best character to represent for a particular wine they were drinking. Peter and Rebecca’s wedding took place on a Greek island where they eventually also bought a small tourist hotel and named it Ampelos, Greek for the vine. The hotel name replaced the original winery label name, Worx, which ran into some copyright complications.

Dragonette’s label concepts aren’t quite so complicated, and they involve no classical Greek alphabet. They do, however, prominently feature a vintage alchemy symbol for the “elixir of life,” or “drinkable gold.”

Moving product
Peter Work recalls that when he and Rebecca started making wine, the marketing plan consisted of putting exactly 33 cases into the backseat of their pickup truck, driving toward somewhere in Los Angeles and making the rounds till they sold the wine. Drive home, refill the truck and repeat the cycle. “After a while,” he says, “not only did that get really boring, but we realized it was not a scalable model.”

Ampelos’ main Southern California distribution goes through Wine Warehouse, and a lot of that goes into restaurants. They have at least a sliver of distribution in 15 states—five of them through Winebow, including 150 cases or so per year into the New York/New Jersey market. Like most small producers, the folks at Ampelos think distributors are a necessary evil, critical for broader distribution but usually more focused on larger accounts and often needing in-person prodding.

Beyond California, Ampelos has its second-biggest market in no state at all, but in the Works’ native Denmark. They have traveled there frequently, know every wine distributor and writer in the country and sell a decent amount of wine there. Because of the brand’s visibility in Denmark—and the winery’s proximity to Solvang, a Danish theme park of a town—they get, not surprisingly, a lot of Danish tourists. This draw is a mixed blessing, since the visitors often mistakenly assume that they are the first Danes ever to drop by, and they rarely buy much wine. Dragonette sells through three brokers: Bradford for the Central Coast, Sandy Garber for Southern California and the Burke Wine Brokerage for the Bay Area.

For both labels, direct-to-consumer sales are vital. For Dragonette, sales through the tasting room, wine club and website account for about 70% of sales. Ampelos is at about 40% DTC and growing, with another good chunk of their custom-crush and private label business pre-sold. Both wineries do a series of release parties and other events each year. Ampelos uses Wineweb software for its website, newsletter and point-of-sale tracking. Dragonette’s website was created by the Vin Agency in a way that lets them do their own maintenance and updates. Both handle regulatory and shipping compliance in-house.

In the end, neither winery has difficulty selling its wines. Neither had much trouble during the 2008-09 recession; both have good and growing reputations with wine drinkers and the trade, and neither is distracted by grandiose plans to sell 100,000 cases of wine.

Not a bad deal for a couple of relative newbies occupying half of a ceramic tile warehouse across the street from a municipal sewage plant in a place where grapes don’t grow.

 
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