When winemaker Jeff Brinkman started working in 2006 for Rhys Vineyards in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, the wines were being made in owner Kevin Harvey’s garage in Portola Valley, Calif. The next year, production was moved to some rented space, then later to a large warehouse. The warehouse had plenty of room, but there were drawbacks, chiefly a lack of proper insulation. Clearly, a purpose-built winery was in order.
Harvey, a software entrepreneur and one of the founders of Benchmark Capital, certainly had the financial resources. His successes in the tech world allowed him to spare no expense when it came to building a 30,000-square-foot winery tunneled into a hillside along Skyline Boulevard, the road that follows the ridgeline of the coastal hills south of San Francisco. Production moved into the new winery for the 2010 harvest.
Brinkman spent nearly three years working with Peterson Architects to get everything just right. The cave, built by Nordby Wine Caves, is essentially three tunnels with some connecting corridors. Brinkman wanted a natural flow from one area to the next, and he wanted enough space so that his small crew wouldn’t be required to move things around constantly. He describes it as a “micro-winery gone haywire.”
Building a winery in a cave—especially in a seismically active area—obviously isn’t cheap. But Rhys owner Harvey declined to say how much it all cost. “Hah,” he replied when asked about the price tag. “No. That’s embarrassing.” He added: “The vineyards are a necessity. The winery is a luxury.”
Rhys produces about 5,000 cases of Pinot Noir (the variety for which the winery is best known), Chardonnay and Syrah, all from estate vineyards, most of which are in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Grapes, which are handpicked at night into 500-pound MacroBins, are delivered to the cave entrance, to an area known as the bin cave. The area can be curtained off, and the temperature cooled to 40ºF to chill the fruit. (Even though the winery is underground, the ventilation system has cooling capability.)
From the bin cave, the tunnel leads to the crush pad, where the fruit goes onto a sorting table by P&L Specialties with a vibratory hopper. The sorting table feeds a P&L inclined conveyor, which leads to the Armbruster Rotovib destemmer (no crusher). From there, the destemmed fruit drops directly into the tanks. About half the red grapes aren’t destemmed; the whole clusters go from the conveyor directly into tanks. Chardonnay is fed from the conveyor into a Willmes Sigma 4 press, and then moved by gravity into 60-gallon barrels for fermentation.
The fermentation room has 120 custom-built 1-ton stainless tanks by Ideaz Services and Product Lines Unlimited as well as 10 1-ton Tonnellerie Rousseau oak tanks. The Rhys philosophy is to make site-driven wines, so it was important to have a lot of small tanks. In principle, Brinkman says, each tank handles one block from the vineyard.
The stainless tanks are arranged in six-tank “pods” with hot and cold glycol systems and a catwalk connecting the tanks. After a five- to seven-day cold soak, the tank temperature is turned up to about 75º to start the red fermentations. (The oak tanks are moved outside to warm them up.) No cultured yeasts are used. All Pinot Noir punch downs are done by foot from the catwalk; the winery’s lone pump is used to pump over fermenting Syrah. Punch downs in the oak tanks are also done by foot, from a catwalk that runs alongside the tanks.
From the fermentation room, the wine is pressed with a Carlsen 2.25-ton basket press, racked to 300-gallon tanks and moved to the barrel room, where all the cooperage is from François Frères and four-year air-dried, medium toast plus, very tight grain, 228-liter Burgundy-shaped barrels. Western Square made the stainless two-barrel 4-inch and 7-inch racks. Chardonnay barrels are kept in an area that can be separated off and heated. The wines are racked once for blending and then the night before bottling, when they are racked to custom-built tanks that can be pressurized with nitrogen. These are stainless pressurizable tanks: two at 2,100 gallons and one each at 240 gallons, 500 gallons, 750 gallons and 1,100 gallons. Ideaz Services made the large tanks; Product Lines Unlimited made the smaller tanks. There is no fining or filtering for reds or whites. From the pressurized tanks, the wines are pushed to the AWS/Prospero bottling line, which can bottle two cases per minute using a GAI 1205 Monoblock and GAI 6020 PS labeler.
Rhys chose antique green bottles in the Burgundy Classique style from Demptos Glass, single-origin 2-inch USS corks from Scott Laboratories, pressure-sensitive labels with eggshell felt paper from Tapp Technologies and black capsules 120micron by 62mm by 30mm from Rivercap.
The winery has 30 hose stations that have water, compressed air and nitrogen. “I didn’t want to be able to go more than 50 feet without a hose station,” Brinkman says. Water comes from a well and is treated with reverse osmosis and ozone.
Because conduits and plumbing are in the walls and under the floor of the cave, Brinkman says, “You’ve only got one shot” at getting things right. So he had to plan ahead for any expansion. (The winery can handle production of 10,000 cases, about double the current figure.) For example, the builders put glycol lines in the room now used for bottling, so it could eventually house about 30 fermentation tanks.
The machinery for mechanical systems like HVAC and the nitrogen generator are all above the cave. “I didn’t want the noise,” Brinkman says.
When the owner is a software entrepreneur, you don’t have to buy software off the shelf. Harvey was the lead developer for Lotus Approach, a database program, so he customized it for the winery. Brinkman says they’re continually tweaking it. He describes being on the phone with Harvey and telling him that it would be great to have a column in the database that tracks changes in malic acid. Harvey, he says, made the change on the spot.
And there are other signs of technology in the cave. There are two touchpads, one between the crush pad and tank room and one in the bottling room, that track temperature and humidity in the cave and display schematics of all the winery’s mechanical systems. Workers also use a winery iPad outfitted with a waterproof sleeve to upload fe rmentation data.
In the lab, there’s a Foss WineScan, which allows Rhys to forgo having a lab tech. The machine allows instant, real-time analysis of the chemistry of the juice, the fermenting must and the dry wine, and the information drops easily into the winery’s database, Brinkman says. Microbial analysis, which is conducted by ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, Calif., is the only analysis that isn’t performed in-house.
Having so much technology increases efficiency, allowing Rhys to function with only three full-time workers to handle production, the wine club, shipping and what little hospitality the winery conducts. But, in a bit of a paradox, having all the bells and whistles also allows Brinkman not to do much to the wines.
“The more technology we seem to use, the less wine work we do,” Brinkman says.
He’s not tempted to do things prophylactically because he can track data and trends so closely. “You can keep your hands off it,” he says.
That’s all in keeping with the Rhys philosophy of focusing on the vineyards. Harvey became interested in wine about 20 years ago. He was particularly fascinated with the earthiness and minerality of Burgundy and started looking for these traits in New World wines. Inspired by Pinots from Santa Cruz Mountains wineries such as Mount Eden and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, Harvey planted a small vineyard on his own property and found the characteristics he was looking for in his own backyard. “This caused me to hatch the vision of Rhys,” he says.
In 2001, he started buying parcels that he thought were interesting geologically in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He now has six such vineyard properties as well as one in the Anderson Valley, where Brinkman used to work.
Rather than filling the Rhys vineyards with Dijon and other newer clones, Harvey and Brinkman are concentrating on heritage selections and cuttings from “suitcase clones” brought to California by unnamed vintners. About 16 such selections were planted at Rhys’ Alpine Vineyard and, after seeing how they performed, Harvey and Brinkman decided to concentrate on eight. Many of the vines for new plantings are propagated from this mother block.
At the winery, most of the wines are made in pretty much the same fashion. The only variables in the reds, for example, are the percentage of new oak used for aging and how much of the fruit is destemmed.
“We didn’t want the signature to be of our winemaking,” Harvey says. He likens Rhys wines to “staring into a glass of vineyard.”