After getting some tips from the staff at Beaulieu ?Vineyard, the winemaking team at Crew Wine Co. in Zamora, Calif., developed their own system for barrel ?fermentation.
The wines of Napa Valley are enjoyed by celebrities and billionaires and served at the world’s best restaurants. But few wineries can boast about their wines having graced the tables of Winston Churchill, Gen. Douglas MacArthur or Queen Elizabeth II.
Such is the unique place of Beaulieu Vineyard, or BV, in the history of Napa and American wine. The winery, one of the oldest in Napa Valley, operated through Prohibition and has endured through a few corporate takeovers and mergers.
While the winery has been an enduring presence in the heart of Napa Valley, about eight years ago the winemakers there decided they needed to modernize their approach to keep pace with winemaking technology and changing tastes. With better equipment and a focused approach, they aimed to improve BV’s Georges de Latour reserve wine while maintaining its legacy.
The Georges de Latour, which the winery sells for $125, has represented BV’s best wines since its inaugural vintage of 1936. To preserve that tradition, the winery invested $3.7 million to build a modern winery at the main Rutherford complex.
Need to modernize, alter style
Joel Aiken joined BV in 1982 as a winemaker. After about 25 years on the job he helped plan the reserve winery but left his full-time role in 2009 to establish his own brand, Aiken Wines. He stayed on through the 2010 vintage as a consultant.
Aiken said the idea for a reserve or small-lot winery first arose in the mid-1990s, but an ownership change scuttled those early plans. About a decade later, he revised the idea of updating the winemaking for Georges de Latour. Aiken said he wanted the equipment to express the prized fruit flavors of the wine while softening the tannins so consumers could enjoy it sooner. “Thirty years ago we’d bottle up Georges de Latour and tell people, ‘Don’t drink it for 10 years,’” Aiken said.
Top management gave the green light (Diageo came to own the winery after the Guinness and Grand Metropolitan merger in 1997), and Aiken and Jeffrey Stambor began experimenting. Stambor, the current director of winemaking, originally joined BV as a viticulturist in 1989.
“I think it was great timing because there were so many techniques that had changed,” Aiken said, referring to temperature management, extended maceration and fermenting red wine in barrel.
Steps toward a reserve winery
In 2005, Stambor said the winery first started experimenting with small-batch winemaking and set up a line for sorting and processing fruit received in Macro Bins. He said they used 1,600-gallon, open-top stainless steel tanks, into which gently processed, hand-sorted fruit was dumped directly.
Cellar staff managed the fermentations with a pneumatic punch-down device on a rail above the tanks. The wine received some extended maceration before it was pressed in a small basket press.
That first vintage was a pilot program of around 100 tons to help the winemaking team get an idea of how they’d want to set up a small reserve winery. Stambor said they learned it was possible to treat grapes with too light of a touch. “When you put fruit through a must pump and hundreds of feet of must line, you get a certain amount of skin breakage that accelerates the extraction process,” he said. “But if you remove the must pump and all that must line, and the skins never see a pump, you’re still trying to be very gentle, but it’s almost to a fault.”
The staff at BV followed that first year with more tinkering and experimentation in 2006 and 2007, gaining a good idea of what exactly they wanted in a small-lot system. “For the 2008 vintage we took some of the lessons from the first small-lot setup and designed this standalone facility,” Stambor said.
It was a fortuitous decision to move ahead at the time. A year later the recession had begun, and Stambor and Aiken admit it would have been hard to get a new winery funded. Yet if they had started earlier, they may not have installed exactly the equipment they eventually wanted and needed.
Gentle, meticulous processing
The Georges de Latour Private Reserve Winery is housed in a former barrel warehouse. The building located on the edge of BV’s winemaking complex has a modest, nondescript exterior that belies the top-of-the-line winemaking equipment it houses. Assistant winemaker Elizabeth DeLouise-Grant handles day-to-day operations at the winery. She joined BV in 1999.
The winery project included changing the floor grades and eliminating trench drains as well as installing a new “state-of-the-art” HVAC system. Stambor said the system offers floating dew points and whole-building air exchange. The winery also is equipped with an Airocide UV air-purifying system for microbial control.
Grapes are brought on trucks to the front of the building, where two sorting lines are set up during the harvest. Stambor said the winery is equipped to handle grapes collected in Macro Bins as well as lug boxes. Grapes are dumped from bins onto a short shaker table, and the fruit is sorted by hand before getting destemmed with a Bucher Vaslin Delta EI. Grapes then move through a Le Trieur shaker table that leads to a longer, 12-foot sorting line before getting “popped” by a crusher. The box line is similar except for a cleated, elevated belt leading to the destemmer.
Depending on the quality of the fruit, Stambor said they might dose with up to 50ppm sulfur dioxide. He said he does not add any oak or enzymes.
Processed grapes are collected into bins that are then dumped with a forklift into the concrete and oak tanks. Grapes meant for barrel fermentation are not crushed but drop directly into barrels after traveling along the final sorting line.
There are four fermentation channels within the winery: stainless steel, French oak vats, French oak barrels and concrete. Most of the grapes are destined for one of the 20 stainless steel tanks custom designed by the Paul Mueller Co. The tanks have a capacity of about 7 tons, making them the smallest of all of BV’s primary fermentors and storage tanks.
Since installing the new, smaller tanks, Stambor said he’s been able to pick more selectively. “We found differences in the blocks but weren’t able to keep them separate until we had the capabilities here,” he said. Being able to pick just certain areas of vineyards also enables Stambor to conduct a more uniform harvest.
Control is at the heart of the reserve winery. A central computer system designed by Calmetrics in Sacramento, Calif., controls each of the stainless steel tanks. The system operates pumps mounted near the bottom of each tank that runs pump overs. The winemaking staff can set the desired pump-over length and duration for each stage of fermentation.
Stambor said pump overs are a key way to manage temperature during fermentation. “If you move the juice frequently enough, you flatten out those variations in juice temperature so you get a much more consistent temperature by increasing the frequency of the pump over, but you have to balance that with the level of extraction,” he said.
Following cold soak, when there isn’t much juice in the tank, Stambor said he likes to move about one-third of a total tank volume per day. As fermentation begins and the tank warms up, Stambor said he may move two to three tank volumes per day—and during active fermentation he’ll run two tank volumes per day with a pump-over cycle every three to four hours. “If you do it too frequently, I think you’re getting away from the goal of temperature modification and ideal extraction,” he said.
Aiken said the idea was to create warmer, gentler fermentations. The modern tanks could be heated, and the control system helps facilitate more pump overs of shorter duration. Prior to installing the new system he said the winery could only run one or two long pump overs per day on large, 40-ton tanks. The new tanks allowed for more and quicker pump overs. The automated system meant an army of cellar workers didn’t have to run from tank to tank setting up pump overs all day. “It’s extravagant, but we felt that the results were huge because it’s very gentle and very complete,” he said.
A cycle can be set for each tank every day and left to run automatically. Stambor and the winemaking staff can adjust the cycle as needed based on what they’re tasting. An added benefit is that each tank’s self-contained pump-over system means a harried cellar worker can’t accidently send the juice from one tank to another. “It truly does eliminate pump-over error,” Stambor said.
The system can be monitored remotely—and cycles can even be adjusted—although Stambor said he doesn’t tend to make any changes when he’s not at the winery. He noted the system is rather sensitive and will issue alarms quite often for relatively minor temperature changes. “We’re working on that really, on the alarm thing,” he said.
Stambor said for the majority of lots he’ll inoculate with FX10, F15 and some mixed inoculations. He will add some MicroEssentials nutrients as well as diammonium phosphate as needed.
An added luxury in the reserve winery is simply time. Stambor said each lot is left in its dedicated tank for as long as the winemakers deem necessary. “In here we don’t have to turn any of the tanks. The fruit that comes in here is destined for that tank as long as we want it to be,” Stambor said.
Each steel tank is insulated and fitted with a 2-inch pipe that runs between the tank and the layer of insulation. A centrifugal pump is located beneath the tank and is fed from a valve opening that is covered with a screen on the rear, interior wall of the tank. The tanks’ bottom valve is also screened for draining. The 2-inch pump-over pipe leads to sprinklers that are installed at the tank tops at the start of each harvest. Stambor said the sprinklers provide a gentle wetting and are used during extended maceration as well. Burgstahler Machine Works in St. Helena, Calif., designed and built the pump-over piping and irrigators.
The winery is equipped with five Taransaud French oak vats, which are also connected to the same control system. Stambor said the plan is to buy one new oak vat every five years, and he installed the first “renewal” vat in 2012. So far, the winery only has the one concrete tank by Nomblot. Stambor said fermentation in that tank is managed just by running a hose up to the top.
Stambor said he’s considering a punch-down system but wants to make sure it’s safe for those working in the cellar. He said he has run some trials with a forklift attachment but is still evaluating the best fit for the winery. “We’re just trying to figure out how best to do that,” he said. “I don’t have to be able to punch the entire surface. If I can punch a big enough spot in the middle it will cave in on itself, which would be fine.”
Managing all those barrels
“What really separates the production here is the barrel fermentation,” Stambor said. Just under half of the entire reserve winery’s production is fermented in barrels, which means each vintage Stambor and his team manage about 600 mini-lot fermentations.
Cellar staffers knock the heads out and place the barrels beneath the destemmer. Once a barrel is filled, the workers bang the head back on and place a barrel in OxO racks. Originally designed for stirring Chardonnay lees, Stambor said the racks are an ideal fit for managing the small cap of fermenting must inside a barrel.
The crew at BV even went so far as to modify the rollers on the racks so that they can be driven by a power drill rather than by hand. The barrel racks are spread out in the rear of the winery behind the wood vats, concrete tank and press. Workers can access the bottom two to three barrels on foot but use a scissor lift to reach the top rows. The winery uses several French coopers including Marchive, Marsannay, Francois Freres, Seguin Moreau and Gamba. The smaller fermentations don’t produce much heat, so the cellar needs to be heated during harvest.
One of the tricks to managing bar rel fermentation, Stambor said, is to not spin the barrels too fast; the unexpected discovery came from placing a Plexiglas barrel head on a few barrels. “We found out that early on in the fermentation, if you spun the barrel too fast essentially what happened is the must inside the barrel never moved. The barrel just kind of spun around it, and you so you didn’t get any of the mixing you thought you were getting,” Stambor said.
He said he’s found Petit Verdot is particularly well suited to the method and typically accounts for the largest share of barrels. The early exposure to oak seems to really moderate the perception of tannin—“not the quantity of it, but the perception,” he said. “The wood character, because you get it into contact with a barrel so quickly, the integration is much more seamless.…I’ve never tasted barrel-fermented Cabernet that’s tasted over-oaked.”
Once fermentation is done, Stambor said workers pop the heads back off and use a special forklift dumper to empty the barrels directly into the winery’s Bucher Vaslin JBL basket press. He said he generally uses all of the free run and a good portion of the press wine for Georges de Latour. After pressing with the basket press, the pomace often is unloaded and then taken out to the winery’s huge bladder presses for use in some of BV’s other programs.
The reserve wines are not fined, but Stambor said he does run them through cross-flow and membrane filters from Pall Corp. “I just don’t believe the reward is worth the risk,” he said of bottling unfiltered. Georges de Latour is bottled by a Bertolaso filler and corker and labeled with a machine from P.E. USA Inc. Bottles are sourced from Changyu Glass Co. with Rich Xiberta corks and Ramondin capsules.
Maintaining a legacy
A former storage room in the main winery has been redone into a small museum with a few pieces of old winemaking equipment, ledgers noting grape delivery, photos and the framed menus of dinners for heads of state. Stambor takes some time to discuss the privilege of working with some of the great names like André Tchelistcheff that have been associated with the estate as well as continuing the legacy of the Georges de Latour brand.
He acknowledges, “Wines are so different today than they were 20 years ago,” but that’s driven by more than just consumer tastes or a critic’s palate. In the early 1990s, Stambor said tannin perception was largely affected through acidity. Grapes with a higher acidity could be perceived as having better tannin structure.
Today, with advances in viticulture and winemaking, it’s possible to achieve a little bit more ripeness yet still integrate the tannin structure for a more balanced wine that also has good texture.
The stainless steel tank wines exhibit the fruit and terroir
of the vineyards but come with tight-wound tannins that need extra aging, Aiken said. Blending that wine with barrel-fermented lots results in a multi-layered wine that is more approachable in its youth yet has enough structure to age in the cellar. “That really helps to tame some of those tannins and add layers of complexity,” he said.
Napa Valley winemaking was changing in the late 1990s and early 2000s. At the time, Aiken said, he wanted Georges de Latour to earn high marks from reviewers but also be the best wine possible. Now he thinks that has been achieved. “I’ve been tasting those wines from those first vintages in the reserve winery, and they just have everything we were looking for,” Aiken said.
With a modern winery and newfound critical acclaim for the latest Georges de Latour wines, Stambor said he’s looking to continue the wine’s legacy. “I’m pretty happy with what the present and the future hold for us,” he said.