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August 2013 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Finding Space for Still Red Wines

Schramsberg owners convert abandoned auto dealership into efficient red wine production facility

 
by Paul Franson
 
 
Many of the wineries built today start with a clean slate, a talented architect and a pile of money. It may not be as glamorous, but finding a new use for a prosaic existing building can also result in a facility ideal for making fine wine.

The Davies family did just that when they turned an abandoned car dealership in St. Helena, Calif., into a production facility for their red wines. They had previous experience with another fixer-upper, Jacob Schram’s historic but dilapidated Schramsberg winery, which dated to 1862 and was located on Diamond Mountain near Calistoga in Napa Valley.

An American legend
When Jack and Jamie Davies bought the old Schram estate in 1965 and planted grapes for their proposed sparkling wine, they didn’t know that the land was among America’s top locations for growing Cabernet Sauvignon. They wanted to make bubbly, so they planted the traditional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay cultivars used in Champagne.

Even though the area might be considered too warm for those grapes, their Schramsberg bubbly set the standard for domestic sparkling wine, and the brand remains one of the highest rated producers in the United States. Such fortune resulted partly because they picked the grapes underripe for sparkling wine, and because the elevated site is cooler than other parts of northern Napa Valley.

Over time, however, the family realized that the Schram estate was better suited for Bordeaux varieties, and that coastal parts of Sonoma and Marin counties, Anderson Valley in Mendocino County and the Carneros region were better places to grow grapes for sparkling wines.

The Davies family started sourcing fruit from these cooler sites and now gets grapes from 120 plots as small as a half-acre. They started replanting the hillside Diamond Mountain property with Bordeaux varieties in 1994 and later launched the J. Davies red wine label.

They now have 40 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and 5 acres of other Bordeaux varieties: Malbec, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

In 1996, Jack and Jamie Davies’ son Hugh, who is now CEO and president of Schramsberg, returned to the family winery after working at Möet & Chandon in Epernay, France, Petaluma Winery in South Australia and Mumm Napa Valley.

Davies previously served as Schramsberg winemaker and general manager, and he is still very involved in the winemaking process. Sean Thompson joined Davies as the red wine winemaker in 2006, though he also assists with sparkling wine. Thompson formerly worked at Staglin, Rutherford Hill and Beringer.

In 1996 the Davies family made a little red wine, and they continued to do so until 2000. But they didn’t release the wine commercially and sold most of the grapes.

By vintage 2001 they felt retail ready, and in 2005 they released 500 cases of the 2001 J. Davies Cabernet Sauvignon, named in honor of Jack Davies, who died in 1998.

An elegant, restrained wine of moderate alcohol (by Napa standards), the wine was initially considered out of the mainstream among Napa Valley red wines. Over time, critics’ and consumers’ tastes have caught up, and now the J. Davies wines are considered among Napa’s upper tier.

Unfortunately, Thompson had no room in the historic winery to produce red wine, so he made it at the nearby Frank Family Vineyards. As the wine gained increasing acceptance, Davies and Thompson felt the need to build their own red wine production facility.

Building a winery for red wines
It’s very difficult to get permission to build wineries in hillside areas of Napa County, and it’s not clear that there would have been an appropriate site at the Schramsberg property anyway. However, a local car dealership in St. Helena went bankrupt, and the family bought the building to construct a winery in mid-2012, rushing to ready it for harvest last year.

Being in the limits of St. Helena reduced legal issues, for the small city welcomed a working winery—and the taxes it would contribute—even though no visitor center is currently included.

Converting a car dealership into a winery has a different set of challenges than the usual project for building a showcase winery. The company also had to be prudent in spending.

The bonus is that the building was there, and it was on a large lot allowing plenty of room for expansion. It also was metal construction and never used to make wine, so there was no worry about TCA cellar taint.

They quickly divided the large space in two, turning the front half into the barrel chai and the back into the fermentation and working area. They also removed the large windows formerly facing busy California Highway 29. The whole place, inside and out, looks rather industrial and foreboding at present, but they plan to spruce things up over time.

Builders added 12-inch-thick foam insulation to the ceiling and 6 inches to the walls, then installed a big G+D Chiller refrigeration system to cool the building during St. Helena’s hot summer days and to chill tanks. They chose a Ray Pak Hi Delta hot water boiler for heat and adjusting tank temperature and an Atlas Copco compressor for compressed air.

They also had to slope the floor for drainage, a big job, but being in the city reduces wastewater issues. They also added a fire-suppression system and an automatic system to evacuate CO2 if it reaches excessive levels.

One problem the team encountered was that Pacific Gas & Electric, the local utility, was tearing up Highway 29 to install utilities, and they couldn’t install high-power electric lines to the facility. The winery had to operate on a leased generator for five months including the busy harvest.

A complex winemaking process
The winemaking process at Davies is demanding. “Our intent is to make a modern Cabernet Sauvignon that while rich and flavorful shows polish and is approachable,” Davies says. Alcohol levels are around 14.5%.

Harvest crews typically do 35 pickings of the Cabernet Sauvignon alone, plus the other varieties over four to six weeks. Fortunately, they’re used to this complexity as they take about 10 weeks to pick grapes from the 120 sites used for sparkling wine.

The grapes are sorted with a P&L sorting table, then destemmed using a P&L E2 destemmer with no crushing, but Davies says they are looking at alternatives; much of their equipment including the large fermentation tanks were formerly used to make the wine at Frank Family.

The press, however, is new. It’s a modern Diemme Vintage 23 basket press. It’s one of a number of upgrades to the label’s winemaking process.

Davies says the winemaking staff is looking at a mechanical sorter, probably a Pellenc optical sorter, to speed the process while improving it and reducing labor. “We intend to fine-tune it; in a year we’ll do better, and in two years even more so,” he says.

He added that what goes into fermentation now is vastly different than it was a decade ago, which is one reason for today’s more approachable wines.

All of the lots are fermented separately—many in Transtore tanks, others in small open-top fermentors (even some Cabernet) and T-bins. They process perhaps 50 lots including different barrel and press fractions and taste that many for blending (again a familiar process after blending sparkling wine from 120 lots).

With half the typical yeast addition, they ferment in 10 to 12 days, usually without extended maceration. They employ some cold soaking pre-fermentation, which helps balance out production because of limited tank space, Thompson says.

They have to do two turns in the tanks now and are looking forward to replacing them with more smaller tanks. They’re also looking into concrete fermentors, though not necessarily “eggs.”

The $80 J. Davies Cabernet is aged in 80%-85% new French oak.

The two years before 2012 were challenging, Davies notes. “We could only get some of the Cabernet to 22° (Brix). In 2012 and 2009, we could put twice as much wine in the bottle. We sold off more bulk wine than our accountants wanted.”

Because of 2012’s bountiful harvest, last year’s production was about 7,500 cases, 25% above the expected 6,000-6,500 cases even with added bulk wine sold.

The winery also makes a second label from its estate vineyard, jd Cabernet, which sells for $50 at the winery. It plans to offer non-estate Cabs under the Davies Vineyard label, too.

Adding Pinot Noir
Davies had made Pinot Noir from some of its Diamond Mountain fruit before replanting, but he got serious about Pinot by releasing the first Pinot under the Davies Vineyard label in 2009 (J. Davies is reserved for estate Cabernet).

These grapes come primarily from two sites in Anderson Valley: Londer Vineyard near cool Philo and Ferrington Vineyards near warmer Booneville, and from the remote Nobles Vineyard on the Sonoma Coast only two ridges from the cold Pacific Ocean in the proposed West Sonoma Coast AVA. The winery sells each as a vineyard designate for $50.

It is looking at wines from Carneros and Sonoma Coast, too.

Last year, the winery got more than twice the expected Pinot tonnage due to the strong vintage.

The wine is made in a Burgundian style—not as a dark, would-be Cabernet. Delicate and light red even after a long maceration, it probably reflects the family’s long experience with making fine sparkling wines from Pinot.

Future plans
Long term, Davies expects to attach an “L” to the rear of the St. Helena building, adding a courtyard and visitor center.

“We now have 10,000 square feet. We expect to have 25,000 when we’re done,” Davies says. That will allow the winery to expand production, and he intends to turn the whole existing building into a barrel chai, moving other operations to the expansion.

The winery also will landscape the property, which is now barebones, possibly adding some grapevines for ambience. Eventually the entrance will be relocated to quieter Grayson Street to the south. The city and CalTrans plan a traffic light at Grayson’s intersection with Highway 29, primarily because St. Helena High School lies across Grayson, and it’s a busy route to a park, homes and other nearby sites.

A developer plans to build an ambitious hotel, retail and restaurant complex called Vineland Station next to the winery, which also borders Cindy Pawlcyn’s Wood Grill and Wine Bar.

Davies also plans to continue upgrading the winemaking equipment and process. Chances are you won’t be able to recognize the old car dealership in a few years.


 

 
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