March 2013 Issue of
Wines & Vines
Old Winemaking in New Facilities
Ken Brown makes Pinot Noir at ultra-modern custom-crush site in Santa Barbara County
In the course of more than three decades of distinguished winemaking in California’s Santa Barbara County, Ken Brown washed his share of barrels and pulled his share of hoses. These days, he mostly writes work orders, never shovels out a tank and still makes outstanding, sought-after wine. He is not complaining.
Brown played a major role in developing two iconic Santa Barbara wineries, Zaca Mesa and Byron, building them from the ground up into major brands. Now he makes a modest 2,500 cases of ultra-premium wines (mostly Pinot Noir) under his own label, but he does it in a facility that is anything but modest: The gleaming, ultra-modern Terravant Wine Center in Buellton, Calif. Brown not only became the star tenant when he moved in for Terravant’s first crush in 2008, he also put his years of expertise to work advising the owners on some of the design elements.
Terravant general manager Randy Pace says that by off-loading the manual labor, Brown’s new home “lets him concentrate on being a winemaker.” Brown seems to agree. This latest incarnation is working well enough that Brown is increasing his production, since his growing wine club threatens to swallow the allocation for retail and on-premise sales.
The custom-crush facility bridges two worlds of winemaking. It is home to about 30 alternating proprietors (APs)—mostly small-batch, artisan operations that do their fermentations in bins and their aging in barrels. At the same time, it pumps out much larger volumes of wine for custom-crush/private-label brands, working in tank-sized lots, sometimes incorporating purchased bulk wine and making use of the forest of stainless steel that dominates the main building. Terravant bottles around 350,000 cases of wine per year; for the 2012 crush, AP labels were responsible for about 1,000 of the 4,200 tons processed.
Ken Brown straddles both worlds, making his own wines in small-batch mode and consulting with several of the larger, private-label endeavors. Terravant’s full-time, year-round staff of about 100 can handle most anything a winemaker might want, the exceptions being that Terravant doesn’t pick your grapes or sell your wine. Terravant charges its APs by the case, with the price depending on the volume to be processed and the details of the winemaking protocols requested by the clients.
The winery consists of two connected buildings, each about 30,000 square feet—one primarily for fermentation and tank-
aging, the other for barrel storage and bottling. Case goods are stored off-site in a Terravant-owned facility in Santa Maria, Calif., unless clients make their own arrangements. Terravant also sports a tapas and wine bar with a stunning view of the shiny maze of tanks and pipes and catwalks on the winery floor below. The bar features a large number of wines by the glass made on-site and by other Santa Barbara producers.
The working facility starts with a sophisticated, flexible reception setup able to handle small loads headed for bins—Brown’s biggest lot is about 5 tons, and most are much smaller—or truckloads of grapes headed for tank. The initial setup, customized by P&L Specialties, includes a sorting table and conveyor feeding into a Diemme destemmer/crusher, the pace controlled by a single foot pedal. For 2012, Terravant tried an alternative reception wrinkle, adapting Pellenc Selectiv’ head-harvest equipment normally employed in the field for destemming at the winery, and it got rave reviews from several customers for pulling out just berries and juice without enlisting a multi-person sorting table.
Bin-scale fermentations like Brown’s get pallet-jacked to one of four temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms, including one chilled down for cold soaks. For larger batches, Terravant makes maximum use of its floor-space footprint by building its tank farm up, not out. Many of the tanks are comparatively tall and slender—not ideal for fermentation because of the aspect ratio, but terrific, says Brown, for settling and fining. There are also several rows of double-decker tanks from JVNW Inc. featuring a top-level fermentor with a good width-to-height ratio for red fermentations, which then feed into a mobile Diemme press, which sends clean wine into a lower-level tank for aging. Free run and press wine can be separated in the process.
The tank area floor features one of Brown’s design suggestions: a relative handful of Zurn drains, each in its own gentle swail, instead of hundreds of feet of trench drains. Brown says the systems clog much less often and are much less prone to breakage from the movement of heavy equipment.
All of Brown’s wines—several Pinots, a Syrah and a small bit of Chardonnay—end up in barrel for aging. While the wines bide their time, Brown and the other APs have access to a well-equipped lab featuring automated, batch-process alcohol, enzyme and flow-rate analyzers. Volumes of wine, large or small, that need tweaking can go through on-site “sweet spot” tasting and de-alcoholization, membrane separation and tartrate stabilization through STARS electrodialysis. For VA removal, a mobile unit from Winesecrets sets up shop at the facility once per year.
The bottling line is a sophisticated Bertolaso monoblock, and Terravant is especially proud of its ability to control pickup of dissolved oxygen during bottling. Pace even claims that on some runs, DO is reduced at bottling.
Ken Brown started the Byron label in 1984, sold it to the Robert Mondavi family in 1990 and stayed on as winemaker until 2005. He started the Ken Brown label in 2003, moved from Byron to a shared warehouse facility in Lompoc in 2005, and then to Terravant in 2008, drawn both by the thought of shedding a lot of muscle work and by some of the options the new facility offered for high-end Pinot production.
Although Brown appreciates the precise control of certain winemaking variables that Terravant provides—temperature and humidity control, precision pressing and bulletproof bottling among them—most of his methods could have been employed in a rural barn 100 years ago. Despite all of Terravant’s sophisticated tools for MOG removal, Brown is a firm believer in field sorting using a mobile sorting table. “I’ll make sure it’s as perfect as can be in the vineyard,” he says, “because that’s the best place to get it. If you&r squo;ve got a lot of stuff coming into the winery, it’s impossible, forget it.”
The vineyard remains the one place where Brown is still very hands-on, briefing crews and supervisors each picking morning about exactly how the harvest should go, what to keep and what to drop. This attention to detail makes perfect sense, since Brown has access to many of Santa Barbara’s prime Pinot vineyards— Cargasacchi, Garey, Rancho La Viña, Clos Pepe—and to Santa Barbara’s first modern commercial vineyard, Nielson, planted in 1964, for his Chardonnay.
Once his fruit gets to Terravant, is gets another round of cleanup and then goes through whole-berry destemming, not really crushing. Bins get hit with SO2 and dry ice and head into the cold room for two to four days of cold soak at 45º-50ºF, then into a warmer room for fermentation, at about 70º-75ºF. The fermentation rooms, though smallish, also have good CO2 evacuation.
Even with all this automated, computerized control, Brown notes that you have to watch what’s going on. A roomful of fermenting bins sends off a lot of heat, which means worrying about where the sensors are placed. In the first year of operation, the sensors were too high up, making the room seem cooler than it was. “There’s always a learning curve,” Brown says.
While the Nielson Chardonnay relies on natural yeast fermentation, for his Pinots (many of them vineyard designates), Brown uses standard commercial yeast strains for inoculation—RC212, D 254, Assmanshausen and so on. And the reason is to preserve the signature of the vineyard. Natural fermentations roll the dice, he says, welcoming critters that can add near-threshold elements of things like VA; the result may be more complex, but less true to the vineyard. Brown thinks natural fermentations might be a good idea for improving relatively simple batches of Pinot Noir, but he wants his Cargasacchi to taste like Cargasacchi.
Brown has Terravant’s lab do YAN analysis on incoming grapes and add nutrients if necessary; he isn’t much of an enzyme guy, though he occasionally adds some Opti-RED for rounder body. He tries to have the fermentation temperature max out at 85ºF to avoid a yeast die-off toward the end, leaving the wine less than fully dry. When the cap on a bin starts to get soupy, it heads for one of the Diemme basket presses. Brown thinks extended maceration might be a fine idea for some grapes, but not for Pinot Noir, which is in no need of further tannin accumulation.
All the reds and the Chardonnay get malolactic bacteria inoculations (again to make sure that transformation happens clean and quick). The choice of a malo starter depends on the wine chemistry, with Santa Barbara often having unusually high acidity and low pH. Reds get settled for about 24 hours after pressing, fed into a tank not sparged beforehand in order to pick up a last gulp of air, and then go to barrel.
Brown splits a barrel storage room with Gray Hartley and Frank Ostini of the Hitching Post Winery; Brown says they all share an obsession with cleanliness. Indeed, I’d be happy to eat off this barrel room floor (especially if Ostini cooked up some tri-tip). When we walked in, Brown spied a silicon barrel bung lying on the floor, made a beeline for it, calculated the trajectory that could have landed it there, and hopped up to a second-tier barrel to put it back where it belonged. No work orders needed. Brown’s oak is all French, sourced from multiple coopers. The rule of thumb is 30%-40% new oak, designed to add underlying complexity but not overpower the vineyard-signature fruit.
Wines that need it may get fined before bottling, using egg white on Pinot Noir and milk or casein on the Chardonnay. Filtration is rare, with Brown preferring to have fining agents and gravity do any needed cleanup.
For packaging his finished wines, Brown relies on relationships built up over many years in the business. His bottles come from Global Package, corks from ACI, capsules from Ramondin. He describes the initial Ken Brown label as a placeholder—one some of his customers got attached to; the new label was designed and printed by the WS Packaging Group in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
With a small production, Brown only aims at California distribution through Wine Warehouse, though he has a couple direct relationships with restaurants and wine shops out of state. Much of the Wine Warehouse distribution is to restaurants.
Brown currently has a problem a lot of other wineries would like to have: an excess of direct-to-consumer sales, with wine club and tasting room sales somewhere above 70% of production. (As the highest profile AP at Terravant, Brown has a small suite of office space and an on-site tasting room.) Open houses and release celebrations offer other opportunities for direct sales. He’s wary, however, of having the DTC component, profitable as it is, displace the wholesale business, since “there is a point of no return where you lose visibility.” He has gradually increased production from 2,000 to 2,500 cases.
It’s true that Ken Brown has now become a small-production fish in a very large custom-crush pond, but there seems little chance that he and his wines will become invisible.
Tim Patterson is the author of “Home Winemaking for Dummies.” He writes about wine and makes his own in Berkeley, Calif. Years of experience as a journalist, combined with a contrarian streak, make him interested in getting to the bottom of wine stories, casting a critical eye on conventional wisdom in the process.
CURRENT MONTH'S FEATURES INDEX »